Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Back In The Top Flight And It Feels So Good

People often marvel at, mock or criticize the vast number of sports I keep at least a cursory tab on, and I find that this is generally not because there are so many of them but because some of them are not on this continent. I have a feeling that my near obsession with the Geelong Cats and Aussie Rules Football may have tipped the balance to be just too much in most people's respects. But, really, truly, the reason all of this non-American sports fandom started can by traced all the way to the summer of 2001, when a co-counselor of mine at Fairview Lake YMCA Camp turned me on to a soccer team on the southern coast of England called Southampton FC.

See, English soccer had long been something of a distant white whale that I had wanted to have a vested interest in, but somehow couldn't find the right option with which to do it. There were the obvious choices in Manchester United or Liverpool or Arsenal, but in a sport that is heavily monopolized by a few clubs at the top of the table, it seemed somewhat hokey -- and frankly, too easy -- to pick a team that was always in the title hunt and that for an American seemed to demonstrate little actual interest or dedication because everyone knows Manchester United is good. So, when I was turned on to the Saints I was satisfied that I had picked a team which, while not destined for perennial contender status, was still a mainstay in the top flight of English soccer -- Southampton had been in the top level longer than any other club in the FA -- and was at least moderately successful -- Saints reached the FA Cup Final before losing to Arsenal 1-nil in 2003, the second full season I followed the team.

In many regards, it seemed I had picked just the team I was looking for. One that was capable of winning championships, but not so regularly that the struggle and achievement was lost on a fan base bored with success. Opportunities to actually watch the team were rare, but the magic of the internet enabled me the ability to follow the team from afar, and follow it I did. As a quid pro quo for my dedication to Southampton, Scott, the counselor who had introduced me to the team, decided he would follow the New York Mets, and as it stands one decade later, I'm not sure who, exactly, got the worst of that trade. When Scott informed me last year that his young son was now the proud owner of a Mets cap, I sent him my deepest sympathies. Southampton, meanwhile, might have embarked on quite possibly the darkest decade in the club's history just two years after I jumped on board.

Massive injuries and a virtual revolving door of changing managers resulted in the team tumbling during the 2004-05 season, ultimately dropping them so far that they were relegated from the Premier League to England's second tier, the Championship, at the end of the campaign, ending 27 years in England's top level. Southampton flirted with promotion in 2007, falling to Derby County on a missed penalty kick by Inigo Idiakez, but the general trend was a downward spiral and colossal financial mismanagement, which combined to result in a sell off of talent that could almost alone be its own top level starting XI. James Beattie, Peter Crouch, Antti Niemi, Gareth Bale, Kenwyne Jones, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all have been sold off to top tier clubs in the years since, while Southampton was relegated a second time in 2009 to the third tier of English football for the first time in half a century and placed in Administration. Things were so desperate that the club actually asked employees to work for free as a gesture of good will.

Essentially this was as bad as it could get for a team I had just started following eight years earlier, making me wonder if I had just sentenced myself to a lifetime of soccer misery. That first season in the third tier the franchise steadied its financial footing and a turnaround started to emerge. A return to the Premier League seemed years and years away, but the club did get a measure of vindication by winning the Football League Trophy in 2010, its first title of any sort since the 1976 FA Cup. While I was excited about the hardware, I was more excited by the fact that despite starting with a mandated -10-point penalty in the standings, Southampton was just seven points out of the promotion playoffs at season's end.

This was a sign that not only could the club possibly turn its fortunes around, but perhaps a meteoric rise up the FA football pyramid was in the offing. Sure enough, Southampton ended the 2010-11 League One season with promotion back to the second tier setting the team's fans abuzz and filling the club with enough confidence that it announced it would publicly target 2014 as a realistic goal for finally being promoted back to the Premier League.

Maybe the club's administrators though too little of the team?

Successive promotion is often an unlikely and difficult achievement and I, no expert on English football, had long assumed the Saints would experience a spell of several years in the second tier before finally gaining promotion, but lo and behold in the 2011-12 season Southampton got off to the best start in the club's history with four straight wins and never left the top two spots in the table, meaning all the team needed was a win against dismal Coventry City on the final day of the season to secure a remarkable return to the Premier League. By now I, technology and U.S.'s demand for English soccer had grown to the point that I was no longer forced to follow the team via internet reports or play-by-play gamecasts. I got to watch the Saints take their shot on live TV thanks to Fox Soccer Plus (and $15 a month) and so I was in my chair in my room watching Saturday morning when Southampton took the pitch. Four goals later, Southampton FC was back in the top flight.

I was obviously overjoyed, much like the crowd storming the field at Southampton's home pitch of St. Mary's, but the one disappointment in finally being rewarded after a decade of dedication to a team I've never seen in person that plays its games across an ocean, was that no one else around me would actually care. Imagine my surprise then when not one, not two, but three different strangers approached me to congratulate me on the Saints' remarkable ascension, as I sat in my Southampton jersey (despite my face in that picture, trust me I was happy) at brunch later that morning. One, a fellow fan, yelled to me from across the crowd, "We're back where we belong!"

Such was one of the joys of experiencing those unique, long-term achievements through a stretch of dismal, discouraging periods that really has no equivalent in American sports. To be fair, I am not particularly a fan of the relegation system as it unfairly punishes teams that simply have a run of bad luck. But the fact of the matter is no AFL team can makes its way through the ranks and reach the level that will bring the New York Giants or the New England Patriots to its home building. Likewise, the Chattanooga Lookouts will never get the chance to host the New York Yankees. Southampton, however, once again, will be bringing Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City into St. Mary's next season.

It's an unfamiliar and unique kind of happiness for an American, but it's put me in a damn good mood for most of the past four days, so much so that it almost distracted me from the fact that the Mets have inexcusably lost the first two games against the woeful Houston Astros, and that the Devils put together a dominating performance to steal Game 2 of their second-round playoff series with Philadelphia.

Ok, that part's not true. How could I possibly get distracted from a game-winner in which David Clarkson doesn't just score, but hops on top of the net afterward?

Suffice it to say, it's been a pretty positive few days in my world -- at least as far as sports are concerned. With any luck my mood won't be changing any time soon. As far as soccer is concerned, it may just stay up until Southampton's first Premier League fixture this August.

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