No glory in battle of have-nots

THE original Survival Sunday was an anti-nuclear concert in 1978, organised by Peter, Paul and Mary; the folk trio who wrote Puff the Magic Dragon.

Much has changed since Sky hijacked the brand a few years ago. For starters, all participants in the now annual event are subject to random drug testing.

But while some of the magic may be gone, the huff and puff remains resolutely in place.

Tomorrow Ian, Alex, Mick, Roberto and Steve organise the most ambitious staging yet of the spectacle. For two of the five, the nuclear prospect of relegation will become a reality.

At four grounds, fans will curse a network connection then press a radio to their ear and worry; at home they will split their TV screen in three, or wince at every yelp from Paul Merson or Charlie Nicholas. In the end, it will all, inevitably, end in a child’s tears. And probably those of an obese, topless man.

But Sky, in their audacity, are selling hope, taking their cue from Jimmy Magee’s reaction to Irish progress at Italia 90: “They said it was the group of death. In the end it was very much the group of survival, particularly for those who survived.”

Sky Sports News has been carrying a Hope-o-meter to measure the belief levels of fans of the five survivalists. None, so far, have registered the elusive Unbelievable Belief. Things are too far gone for that.

The truth is, no matter how well Sky sells this freak show, we know, and they know, in their hearts and souls and pockets, that the only hope on offer tomorrow is a reprieve.

Over the last decade in the Premier League, six of the sides whose prayers were heard on Survival Sunday ran out of favours 12 months later and bowed to the inevitable. And only Bolton and Fulham have used a final hour pardon as any kind of impetus to make something of themselves.

But perennial struggles, with an occasional odyssey to mid-table, and eventually a tumble through the trapdoor, became the inevitable cycle for all but a handful of Premier League clubs since the rest of the turkeys voted for Christmas 19 years ago.

The deal agreed by the likes of Oldham, Bradford, Wimbledon, Coventry, Ipswich and both Sheffield clubs to divvy up the new Sky money among a select elite — shafting the Football League — was as short-sighted as Mr Magoo in charge of an Irish bank. Worse, the briefly rich didn’t insist the loot be divided equally between those temporarily inside the golden circle, instead allowing half the TV spoils be awarded in prize money and match fees.

Puff had stepped into Dragon’s Den. Quickly, the chasm between rich and richer widened until only a sugar daddy could get you back in if you had missed, or fallen out of, the boat.

Soon, the seven visionaries were going places all right. And most would only return briefly. The price of relegation had become so high that you could only budget for an attempt to avoid it, not for success.

It seems inconceivable now but the four clubs that followed Manchester United home in that first Premier League campaign were Aston Villa, Blackburn, Norwich and QPR. Finally back in the fold next year, the latter pair now only have more Survival Sundays to look forward to.

So with five baldies fighting over three cans of spray-on hair with rain expected, what is really at stake tomorrow but professional pride?

Looking at the players and manager already driven to drink this week, you wonder how much of that is on display either. The real survivalists will jump ships anyway — think of Herman Hreidarsson with five relegations in five attempts with five different clubs.

But remember that first Premier League season again and the words of Brian Clough, whose club didn’t survive it.

Clough later described Nottingham Forest’s relegation as “a shame that will probably never let go, complete and utter desolation — a feeling of emptiness, of personal let down and failure and a persistent, nagging question; how had it all come to this?”

But if Cloughie had known how the game would go; with no European Cups, no title tilts, no glory on the table for clubs like Forest; would relegation have hurt so much? Cloughie wasn’t just a survivor.

Villas-Boas’ relaxed style a real positive from Europa final

BRENDAN COURTNEY, Gok Wan, Paul Galvin; can you hear me, Paul Galvin? Your boys will take one hell of a beating!

Forget relaxed-fabric print jumpers and batwing capes, I’m calling the summer trend; a captain’s armband pulled low on the sleeve of a tailored suit. A poor UEFA Cup final quickly became all about charismatic Porto gaffer Andres Villas-Boas and the blue and white armband marked ‘Treinador’.

And as the game’s hottest prospect strode the Lansdowne Road touchline, it was impossible not to imagine an angel and demon on either shoulder. On the left, Mourinho encouraging devilment, on his right Bobby Robson, talking in riddles, but talking sense at the same time.

Both managers have heavily influenced the 33-year-old. The last time Porto reached a UEFA Cup final, Andres spent the semi furiously texting the banned (surprise, surprise) Mourinho’s thoughts to the bench. And for a remarkable insight into Villas-Boas’ work under Jose as Chelsea’s Head of Opposition Observation, read the leaked scouting report of Newcastle from 2005 ( Three words among the detail suggest this fella knows what he’s at; “Boumsong mainly exploit”.

Bad Boas was the man who supposedly saw Anders Frisk enter the Barca dressing room in 2005 and started a fight in the return. But judging by his humble words on Wednesday, it is Uncle Bob’s shoulder currently holding sway. The game could do with that remaining the case.

Bring it home Drico

I suppose if the Queen can feign interest convincingly while Lar tells her about Tipp’s underage structures, the least I can do is mention the egg-chasing.

Much like you were obliged to wish Jedward, even if they have devoted their lives to one of the less pure forms of the arts, it’s only right to extend the same tolerance to our representatives from the East this afternoon. Bring it home, Drico. Perhaps if we win it enough times, we’ll earn the right to cancel it.

Whisper it, though, it’s on days like today that you can’t help glance a little enviously at the financial structures of a sport that allows a modest market town like Northampton, through shrewd recruitment and tight budgeting, provide a team to compete at a European level.

If any of tomorrow’s survivalists could harbour similar ambitions, that whole charade would be less meaningless.

Judge & Jury

THE ACCUSED: The GAA National Fixtures Planning Committee

THE RAP: The famine and a feast approach to launching the championships is a PR disaster.

EVIDENCE: A million matches jousting for attention tomorrow. Inevitable result, the annual Bemoan the State of Gaelic Football Festival.

EXPERT WITNESS: No, we’ve never heard anyone at a Sky Sports production meeting say “Why don’t we start them off with Wigan-Stoke in case they get too excited?”

PROSECUTION WITNESS: Martin McHugh made sense on BBC: “Take the Armagh-Down Ulster game to headquarters with, say, Laois v Offaly and have a big double-bill championship Sunday in Dublin to get things going.”

NEXT ON THE STAND: Antrim manager Liam Bradley: “If I had paid in to watch that I wouldn’t go to it, plain and simple, because it was brutal.”

VERDICT: Guilty as charged. The low-key, almost apologetic start to the championship is self-defeating. Send the champions out first — Cork should have played last Sunday.


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