We have missed the pageantry badly this last three years. The classic imagery: a small boy’s little face creasing in a flood of tears; an obese, topless man convulsing in triumph.
Survival Sunday is back.
Effectively for the first time since 2011. There was a makeshift Survival Sunday in 2012, but the draw at Stoke which condemned Bolton was rather overshadowed by the last-gasp drama at the top of the table. This year, survival is all we have. Which means tomorrow is the day when we will see How Much It Means. Essentially, it is a day dedicated to exploring How Much It Means.
In order to ground the discussion in a little reality, we will hear, at regular intervals, how many tens of millions are at stake here.
But it is the sociologists who will guide the investigation. Men like Sky Sports’ Geoff Shreeves will steer us towards a deeper understanding of How Much It Means in his own direct way by making the enquiry of various footballers and managers, before and after the day’s action: How much does it mean?
If that gambit fails to elicit definitively How Much It Means, Shreeves won’t be afraid to fire off more probing posers: How relieved? How disappointed? How devastated?
A few years ago, as they began to measure How Much It Means in the hope another Survival Sunday was around the corner, one intrepid reporter did manage to nail the definitive measure, when Norwich chief executive David McNally told him: “I would prefer death to relegation.” From that day on, this has more or less been accepted as the default position.
However, closer inspection of Premier League sentiment might note a certain softening in emotional involvement in the ‘survival scrap’ among some groups of supporters.
Certain fans may even cast an envious glance at the uncertainty and joy and drama and season-long sense of vitality on offer in the Sky Bet Championship and had a rethink on just How Much It Means to preserve an existence where the only ambition beyond survival is the futility of mid-table.
Of course, Sky have both horses backed in this particular existential crisis, so it is not the end of the world for them either way.
But it is telling, for instance, that we have not seen the re-emergence of the Sky Sports News Hopeometer this time round.
In 2011, the Hopeometer calibrated the ebb and flow in ‘belief’ among the likely Survival Sunday protagonists, presumably to a maximum hope level of Unbelievable Belief.
But hope might not be the correct terminology to use when you are dealing with football fans who recently unveiled the banner pleading: “We don’t demand that we win, only that we try.” Hope is long since obsolete among the Geordies, officially discontinued as a matter of club policy.
Nor is hope the prevailing emotion at Hull City, where they appear to be a little more conflicted.
They have an owner that injected a little cash alright, as he eyed the promised land of mid-table mediocrity, but with a small price: a 5% interest rate and, as some fans put it, “the vandalism of their heritage”.
This is Hull fanzine Amber Nectar’s version of hope in advance of Survival Sunday: “Hull Tigers v MK Dons next season. Try to imagine that without wanting to vomit.”
Others, such as Sam Allardyce, might argue that hope has no place in the lower reaches of the Premier League. Because it will eventually cost you dear if you do ever find yourself in that mid-table futility, where there is nothing left to hope for.
So this year, we might see a renewed focus on the imagery, rather than the words, when it comes to explaining How Much It Means. Which is why Dick Advocaat’s tears in midweek, after he “guided Sunderland to safety”, were a godsend.
They could show the tears and then they could tell us: “That’s how much it means.”
Tomorrow’s managers, incidentally, are taking different approaches to the Survival Sunday build-up. Steve Bruce, perhaps sensing he too would enjoy a more vital existence towards the top of the Championship, seems a little ambivalent.
“Is there one final twist?” he asks in Sky’s Survival Sunday promo, with the air of a detached observer with no real control over the outcome, which might well be what he has become, judging by his team’s recent Premier League displays.
John Carver, on the other hand, didn’t become the best coach in the Premier League without gaining a firmer grasp of what’s needed at times like this.
John told us he gave the lads last Sunday and Monday off to “clear their heads.” To ensure there was more room for the anxiety he had planned for Tuesday.
On Tuesday, John assembled the players with all the staff St James’ Park whose jobs might be at risk if Newcastle are relegated.
The work of a man no longer sure his players know How Much It Means.
Respect should underpin all rivalry
“The vibe” of triumphalism from the Limerick dressing room in 1996 might have spurred Ger Loughnane and Clare to an All-Ireland in 1997. Indeed, a fair bit of bad blood might have been spilled between the counties in those years.
But as Anthony Daly put it beautifully in yesterday’s Championship Guide, the people involved long ago realised that the only differences between Clare and Limerick were “little idiosyncrasies, those unique emblems, which distinguish us all as our own separate little tribe in the wider hurling family.”
That won’t stop them kicking off another furious family feud tomorrow, or indeed this evening. As Daly says, “we wouldn’t want it any other way’. But a certain respect should underpin the rivalry.
Discussion of sledging in football seems to be the hot topic of the day, which invariably means the problem is being exaggerated out of all proportion.
Certainly this fresh onus and expectation on referees to solve this supposed outbreak of verbals seems fanciful and unfair. The onus should all be on the mouthers.
If even a handful of players are involved in the kind of obscene goading that’s been discussed this week, they might do well to hit that fast-forward button to a more reflective time in their lives when they too will realise how easily county borders melt away.
With that realisation processed, it would be a shame to have said the kind of things nobody can take back.