The Business End
Relegation. Promotion. The Playoffs. European Qualification. Yes, it's that time of the season again. Today on the blog Adam Hurrey aka Football Cliches takes us through the cliché minefield that is the business end of the season.
A consensus doesn't seem to have been reached on when the The Business End of the season begins. It is around mid-March, perhaps, when the early pacesetters and surprise packages have finally fallen away, that thoughts begin to turn to the campaign's climax. Title or promotion hopes - which would merely have been "dented" earlier in the season - are now susceptible to "hammer blows", leaving them "hanging by a thread" or (worse) "in tatters".
This is a time to get serious. The transfer silly seasons of August and January are distant memories, while the managerial sack race (less fun than it sounds) was settled months ago. For teams at the top and bottom of the league tables, every remaining game becomes "a cup final" - managers can declare any number of "cup finals" between then and the end of the season. Post-fascist Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio, ever the boundary-pusher, even claimed that this week's six-pointer with Aston Villa was his side's "Champions League final". For teams happily settled in the well-established region of mid-table mediocrity, though, matches in late April and May are characterised by their "end-of-season feel", generated mainly by players who are said to "already be on the beach".
Relegation is often encapsulated by what Danny Baker once described as a "tableau of despair", capturing several players in various stages of drop-zone grief. One lies prostrate, a second sits with his head in his hands, while another drops to his haunches with a pained grimace. Juninho famously led Middlesbrough's 1997 display of public football disappointment, one perhaps unrivalled until Saturday afternoon as Brentford's promotion-chasing rollercoaster was derailed in the space of 15 seconds.
Having one's fate mathematically sealed is not always so dramatic, though. The hopelessly adrift pair of Reading and QPR met last weekend in not so much a relegation dogfight as simply two stray dogs sniffing each other's business end. In any case, any tableau-of-despair regulations were cheerfully flouted at the final whistle by the oddly unconcerned Harry Redknapp and Jose Bosingwa.
Final-day permutations can be cruel. Desperate teams try and focus on doing their job, while relying on favours elsewhere. Surreal, incongruous cheers or silences from the sections of the crowd with wireless radios pressed against their ears (or whatever the 2013 equivalent may be) lead either to several proverbial kitchen sinks being deployed or games being reduced to processions between two relieved, secured teams in the early May sunshine.
Win, lose or draw, the final day is punctuated by opportunistic pitch invasions, involving semi-naked players being surrounded by fat kids in tracksuits who seem ecstatic at simply touching an on-duty professional footballer.
Brentford will (perhaps literally) have to "pick themselves up" for the final twist of the league season and the gift that keeps on giving - the playoffs. The playoff places offer more than a glimpse of hope to an extended season but those in contention should beware - it's an established part of the script that one team gets a 5-0, first-leg tonking in the semi-finals, rendering 47 games of shoestring-budget toil all but meaningless.
As for the finals at Wembley, no-one is quite sure why they consistently guarantee such drama compared to higher-profile showpieces - but, for every cagey FA Cup final in a muted atmosphere, there's a veritable ding-dong between two teams desperate for a higher echelon.
As events at Griffin Park demonstrated, the business end of the season is serious business.
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