POLISHING THE TRAP DOOR
RECAPS
EXTRA TIME
Friday, March 23, 2007
I wish I could get excited about who is going to win the EPL, but I really can't, despite the galaxy of soccer stars on show.

Okay, this is partly because my team - Ben Olsen's old club, Nottingham Forest - is not one of the big boys. But the title race in the old Division One just seemed a lot livelier than the closed shop we have now, which makes the fight for survival at the bottom end so much more interesting to me.

Apart from Blackburn's victory in 1994/95, only three teams have been champions of Rupert Murdoch's baby and it is very hard to see anyone other than Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United winning it in the foreseeable future.

I don't need to remind you the Super Bowl has had 10 different winners since the Premier League has been around, but if I may devalue American pro sports for a tad, they do suffer from lacking the excitement of promotion and especially relegation.

Ignorance may indeed be bliss and reaching the playoffs unexpectedly comes close to the elation of being promoted, but there really is nothing to match up to the tension of possible demotion.

This system is, in theory, wonderful because it allows cream to rise to the top on merit and lead balloons to crash to earth deservedly. It also means European fans, for the most part, do not have to worry about the dormant volcanoes that are franchise moves.

Relocating a team can instill more primal fear in a die-hard fan than any relegation ever could, because it can entail sudden death with no prospect of resurrection.

But once you experience the joy of "going up" or the cathartic grief of "going down", the invigorating pleasure at a resurgence following a fall, and the greatest feeling of them all, the all-out ecstasy of avoiding the drop in the last minute, you would surely realize American sport is missing something truly exciting.

Pictures of grown men who rarely show emotion in their daily lives, embracing fellow big kids with tears in their eyes having avoided the drop, or of them sitting frozen in their seats, shattered and inconsolable after falling through the trapdoor, stay long in the memory.

I say men, this sport is for everyone of course, but the main reason it is a multi-billion dollar concern is that males pay to rent a forum in which they can be wildly emotional for 90 minutes and nobody bats an eyelid.

Fans of clubs in trouble may dream of the sanctuary of the middle of the standings, but what can be more dull than having nothing concrete to play for once you are out of the cups?

Is the prison of mediocrity Newcastle find themselves in for the rest of the season worth longing for? "Playing for pride" must mean more to players than to fans, I have always thought.

No, gimme a relegation fight any day instead of mind-numbing safety. The survival instinct is more pressing than the killer one, and there is nothing more motivating in this sport than the dread of going down a division.

Even if you are cast down to the inferno, the fight will have been fun, the experience meaningful and hell is surely a more exciting place to be than purgatory. Plus the soccer gods give you a second chance come August.

Relegation is nothing to fear in reality. A forest fire creates a platform for fertile new growth, and in soccer just like in forestry, dead wood sometimes needs to be culled for the benefit of the overall environment.

And so, the possibility of soccer damnation confronts a number of our Yanks this season, particularly in England, where the bottom three teams in the Premier League at present all have American representation.

Despite their salaries, spare a thought for these guys, who since the early season optimism crumbled away, have been forced to think the unthinkable.

As the trap door is polished up for another end of season and begins to swing, the abyss opens up before them and I am glad. Bring on the fight, I say!

Borussia Mönchengladbach

With eight games to play, Kasey Keller and 'Gladbach have now reached what skydivers call "decision altitude" - it's time to pull the cord or meet your maker.

Half of those remaining games are against teams within six points of the Foals, so the North-Rhine Westphalians have perhaps not yet reached terminal velocity, but there is little optimism remaining that they will avoid a repeat of their 1999 relegation from the Bundesliga.

'Gladbach's home record would place them near the middle of the standings, but their dreadful away form has sent them free-falling - one win, two ties and 11 losses on the Autobahn so far.

While Keller's central defenders Bo Svensson, Steve Gohouri and Ze Antonio have afforded little protection from the 32 goals scored against the American this season, it is in attack where the team has really failed: 21 goals from 26 games is the Bundesliga's most meager tally.

Much of the blame is laid at the door of Jupp Heynckes, who resigned at the end of January after eight months in charge. Heynckes was a 'Gladbach legend, scoring 195 goals as a player and had coached them from 1979 to 1987.

A year ago, the Foals recalled their famous former player for another spell at the helm, but to no avail: the strict disciplinarian's methods found no favor at Borussia Park and Heynckes left his post after a run of 14 games without a win.

Charlton Athletic

Cory Gibbs is no stranger to relegation, having dropped divisions twice with St Pauli in Germany in recent years, but he surely never contemplated a hat trick of demotions when he signed forms at The Valley last summer.

No one ever expects to go down, of course, until it happens. The fact Gibbs has not contributed to Charlton's potential fall from grace having been injured all season will be of no consolation either - the Floridian has been itching to make a difference, having done so much to help ADO Den Haag escape a similar plight last season in Holland.

Both Gibbs and Charlton are into their third coach in less than a year, but with Alan Pardew, they seem to have found the right man to haul them out of the mire. There is a new found confidence afoot, and of the bottom three teams, Charlton seem to have the best chance of staying up.

Their run-in includes clashes with the three clubs immediately above them, including the April visit of Sheffield United, who lead them by four points at present.

If there is another reason for Gibbs to smile, it is that his club know more about staying alive than any in England.

After seven years' homelessness, the Addicks' triumphant return to The Valley in 1992 and their subsequent top flight consolidation under Alan Curbishley instilled a never-say-die attitude in everyone connected with Charlton Athletic. If the team does go down, the club will stay firmly united.

Fulham

Steady on, since when are the Cottagers headed for the drop? Well I take my cue from none other than coach Chris Coleman, who was the first to bring up the "R word" over a month ago. "If we keep defending like that," he said after losing four nothing to Tottenham, "I promise you there will be a relegation battle."

With 24 points left on the table, Fulham are only seven above the drop zone, so relegation is certainly possible. The West Londoners have not won for six games and have only been victorious once on their Premiership travels so far.

What should save them from the drop is not a moment of genius from Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra ghosting in unnoticed again at the far post to bag a goal or an impromptu Clint Dempsey shuffle on the wing - it is the fact there are six clubs below them with equally daunting dates.

Fulham will probably not go down because there seems to be an invisible magnet which draws them every season inexorably toward the lower half of the Premier League, but just above the danger zone.

TuS Koblenz

Twelfth place in the standings should normally entail a modicum of safety at this stage in the season, but the second Bundesliga has four berths in its ferry to the Underworld, which places Josh Grenier and friends only three spots above the trap door.

With seven points cushion and eight games to go, there is no cause for undue alarm, but two of those games are away at the top two teams.

Koblenz are generally considered to be playing above their station anyway, so relegation would come as no shock. Being promoted from the third tier Regionalliga Süd last year was the Rhinelanders' greatest achievement for around 30 years.

If Grenier needs any more motivation beyond being the leader in appearances this season, his club's Oberwerth home was constructed by the US Army at the end of World War I and originally called the Amerikaner Stadion.

Leeds United

If Jonathan Spector feels he has been caught amid a circus at West Ham this season, pity poor Eddie Lewis, who looks set for a fall even further than the Championship.

Leeds have gone from bad to worse following their inept showing in last season's Championship playoff final when Jay DeMerit's goal sent them on their way to a 3-0 defeat. Those miserable 90 minutes shot the Whites away from the Premier League on a fast track towards League One.

Lewis has soldiered away in 39 games this season, more than any other Leeds player, but his attacking instincts have been curtailed by being played at left back for most of the games since Dennis Wise grabbed the coaching reins.

Losing 4-1 at former club Preston must have been a particularly spooky Halloween feeling for the two-time US World Cup veteran, recently left out of Bob Bradley's roster.

While Elland Road's fans sit disconsolate, the former Chelsea pair of coach Wise and chairman Ken Bates are winning few friends in South Yorkshire.

Wise has been ordered from the dugout twice in two months, while the abrasive Bates - who once installed an electric fence at Stamford Bridge - is refusing to let his 75 years curb the verbal vitriol that made him infamous at Chelsea.

On the field, however, the fire has been lacking all season. A change of coach has failed to halt the slide. While salvation is perfectly possible with four points to catch up in seven games, four of which are at home, the immediate future looks bleak for the club who competed in the Champions League semifinal only six years ago.

With a goal difference of -25 (the worst in the division), every point will be vital. However, visits to playoff chasing Southampton, and on the final day of the season first place Derby County, look tall orders.

Manchester City

Relegation to the Championship would be a big disappointment for DaMarcus Beasley, who after a muffled start in England, has recently begun to show the form of his best PSV Eindhoven days.

A fall from grace for his club could well make the choice between staying and going irrelevant. Toiling away in the Championship or returning to the Eredivisie when his loan expires this summer? Not a tricky one.

After last weekend's win over Middlesbrough confounded the press hounds who had written them off for the season, the top team from the city of Manchester (Old Trafford is outside the city boundaries) have a six-point cushion, but the pressure is very much still on with five straight league losses preceding that win at the Riverside.

Coach Stuart Pearce, who displayed such raw passion and explosive emotion as a player, is wearing a face so long and pallid these days you would think there has been bereavement in the family every Saturday.

For the super loyal fans at Eastlands, relegation may indeed appear a fate worse than death.

Watford

The Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the Danish-descended Green Bay native has turned Brothers Grimm this season as Jay DeMerit's Hornets flew straight into survival quicksand as soon as they lost unluckily to Everton on opening day.

The double whammy of losing the imposing front man Marlon King to a season-long injury and the selling of prodigious Ashley Young to Aston Villa made relegation a likelihood as early as the turn of the year.

Given their scant resources, Watford by rights should be nowhere near the Premier League, which makes Aidy Boothroyd's achievement in his first season as a coach last time round all the more noteworthy.

Watford threw the bookmakers' prediction of relegation back in their face last season, but this time around the watchers seem to have got it right. The Hornets' buzzing around the high table may soon seem to have been an outrageous piece of cheek, though DeMerit would be the first to argue forcibly to the contrary.

But for the loss of two of their three best players (the other is England goalkeeper Ben Foster), the confounding of the so-called experts may well have continued unabated.

West Ham United

The rusty Hammers look set to swap their Premier League sleeve patches for Championship ones in May as the star-studded claret and blue ship drags one of America's top youngsters down with it.

Jonathan Spector was playing Champions League for Manchester United not so long ago and must wonder why his career has tilted in the wrong direction.

This is another reason why I love relegation - not because it can trip up such a talented and pleasant individual as Mr. Spector, but because it is overflowing with the chaos factor.

Nobody picked West Ham to go down last summer, and this YA 'expert' even opined to Spector privately that his team, with a bit of luck, could stake a claim for the last Champions League spot! How wrong I was, and how happy I am to have been so clueless - because sport needs unpredictability to keep it interesting.

Now If only the title race of the EPL were as random…

The Hammers can steal points directly off of Sheffield United and Wigan in their remaining games, but still have to play Chelsea, Arsenal and then Man United away on the final day.

Carlos Tevez may have finally remembered he is a world class player, but time is strongly against the Thames Irons.

Indeed, there is nothing as bittersweet as unexpected defeat and condemnation of a big club to a season in the sticks.

VfL Wolfsburg

Now what is it about YA teams beginning with "W" being in trouble ?

Wolfsburg sit only five points above the trap door with eight games left, but there are also five teams between them and the clubs in the relegation mire.

Kamani Hill's club have the tag of being an executive toy for Volkswagen with a shallow fan base from an ugly company town, which means the rest of Deutschland roots for their demise on a yearly basis. Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in others' misfortune, is a German word after all.

But to the chagrin of those wishing ill on them, the Wolves have established themselves as a mid-table Bundesliga team for the last 10 years, although last season they escaped relegation by only a point.

Wolfsburg have bagged eight points from their last five outings, and with only Werder Bremen of the top five left to face, the omens look good.

Coach Klaus Augenthaler seems to have mellowed since seemingly running Landon Donovan out of Bayer Leverkusen, and Hill, following in the footsteps of Chad Deering, Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna at the Volkswagen Arena, should look forward to another season at the top of the German pyramid.

But with 720 minutes left to play, it ain't over 'til it's over.
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