‘Turn thy wheel’: An Ode to The Football League’s Final Day
By Zack Goldman
Every year, it seems the Football League’s final day is marked by the return of spring sunshine—and, coincidentally, along with it comes a fittingly resplendent kind of cacophony. Happiness and heartbreak, excitement and expletive, fate and faith all radiantly howled and yowled at once across the nation.
Contrasting emotions ring out against England’s mountains green, all because of our love of football—which, yes, we know is completely inane and insane, but is also that little bit more completely beautiful to us.
To some clubs, the final matchday holds no importance whatsoever. With virtually no bearing on finishing position, it’s hard to fathom why anyone would care; but, regardless of the result, that last day of the season is one that almost always seems to be remembered fondly by those fans for whom the day proceeds without profound meaning or cumbersome consequence. Perhaps that says a lot about what we don’t do often enough: enjoy the game (and, indeed, things in this life in general) without worrying.
And what is there really to worry about? It’s a big crowd, full of your team’s most loyal supporters—those who, whether bemused or intoxicated by the thought of guaranteed mediocrity, turn out in droves to watch a football match that is, from your perspective, just for fun.
It’s one last chance to see home. Or, alternatively, one last chance to go into battle with friends, marching on Shrewsbury or Scunthorpe or Stevenage, armed to the teeth with cheap lager, cheaper crisps, and the cheapest banter known to man.
It’s one last time to hear the grouse of discontent from over your shoulder until you actually get to enjoy your weekends in the summer. One last time to celebrate the thrill of a goal. One last opportunity to wear that raggedy, fraying-at-the-edges, stained-with-brown-sauce, smells-like-a-mixture-of-Bombardier-and-good-times scarf that your father once wore.
What does it really matter if you win?
Odds on, it probably doesn’t. But, to some, maybe even the team you’re playing or your most hated rival—it means a great deal indeed.
Whether it’s the chance to realize those promotion dreams that once seemed so faint or to stave off the harrowing specter of relegation and an uncertain future, a lot is at stake for some—and football’s unique code of honor ethics stipulates that we, too, must then care. Integrity and that.
Because everybody’s been there. We’ve all dreamt of greener pastures, whether it’s the glitz of the Premier League or going up to a division where they finally have proper tea huts.
We’ve also all been afraid to dream—biting our nails, refreshing the relevant scores on our phones, reciting the worst-case scenarios in our heads until they don’t seem so bad.
I once saw a young man reading The Inferno on the train to a match—and while it probably was just for university, I’d like to think it was the gentleman readying himself for the possibility of stepping down to another circle of hell (though, normally, we just call it League Two).
On the whole, the day contains tears and smiles in equal measure. For every club that realizes promotion, another must remain in their place. Those that escape relegation, by logical necessity, relegate another.
This weekend, those stories were everywhere. Brighton & Hove Albion fans may tell their grandchildren about Leo Ulloa’s stoppage time goal, which sent the Seagulls into the playoffs and their fans into dreamland, getting closer to a season in the top flight for the first time in over three decades. Reading supporters, by contrast, were eliminated from play-off contention by that very goal—and probably won’t sleep well tonight.
Bristol Rovers fans will relay the story of this Saturday to their grandchildren as well, but in a very different tone than Brighton supporters. Their beloved club was relegated out of the Football League for the first time in 94 years. Wycombe Wanderers, in their place, survived on goal difference—and a two-decade-long fairytale in The Football League continues against all odds yet again.
Doncaster, astoundingly promoted to the Championship on the final kick of last season, were relegated back to League One on the concluding boot of the ball this year.
Would Donny fans trade their remarkable promotion story to avoid experiencing the dramatic sting of relegation today? Would they rather have had two boring final games to put an end to consecutive seasons of mediocrity? Probably today. Maybe tomorrow. Eventually, though?
It’s that rush—whether positively- or negatively-charged—that forms football’s unique tapestry and, today, most of us are able to admire the richness of its weaving with remarkable clarity.
For others, emotions understandably—and rightfully—stand in the way of that. It’s never fun to lose, much less to get relegated; but, if we step back, even slightly, The Beautiful Game’s cyclical nature isn’t hard to see. More often than not, football is endowed with the paradoxical mutualism of growth and decay. To appreciate the good, you must have had the bad—and vice versa. It’s a story of regeneration that is apparent in the late spring we see all around us.
Reading will be in the Premier League again. Bristol Rovers will be back in the Football League. And, in time, these days will accrue a context and experience beyond sorrow for their fans. It’s the nature of football’s grand wheel—and all of us are guilty of being fixated by watching it turn, even when it turns against us.
If it spun fortunately for you today, suck the marrow out of the experience. Celebrate. Hug your friends and family. Don’t count calories.
And, if today the wheel wasn’t so good to you, take heart. The wheel keeps turning.
“Fortune, good night. Smile once more. Turn thy wheel” (William Shakespeare, King Lear, 2.2)
This article was written by AFR Contributing Editor, Zack Goldman. Expect to see hear more from him as we get closer to kick off in Rio.