Promotion, relegation gives clubs hope

Nine miles later, we were back in Mayfair, and I had gained a new respect for the Victorians who had walked or rode horses from the suburbs into central London.

We had hoofed it from Leyton, home of League One Leyton Orient (that’s third division) back to Mayfair after a transit strike hobbled the Underground and paralyzed the bus system. It was literally quicker to walk than to sit in traffic, so walk we did.

Some might ask why we had put up with what turned out to be a twelve-hour day to see a brand of football that, charitably, might only be slightly better than MLS. To be fair, our companion on the day thought the Seattle Sounders were better following Orient’s 3-0 defeat.

Yet, even in a tiny stadium — Brisbane Road holds just over 9,000 — there was a palpable energy and excitement in the grounds that one wouldn’t ever associate with an American minor league team. The fans knew the game, knew their team, and were completely focused on the match at hand. No offense, but I cannot say the same of the fans of the Pawtucket Red Sox, many of whom seem to attend mainly for a night out or the food. Nothing wrong, there, of course, but it has a distinctly different feel.

Why not? As unlikely as it seems right now, 17th place Leyton Orient might well be a team we will see in the Premiership someday.

Promotion and relegation, a system which destroys cost certainty — and which I am convinced helps preserve the hegemony of the Big Six — also gives hope to the small clubs across England. I happen to think it is a false hope, as there is no chance that Orient could ever compete with the Stoke City’s of the world, let alone the Manchester clubs.

But it is hope. And it makes every match important, no matter the level.

The people behind us at the game, a house maybe 4,000 strong, didn’t seem to have that many illusions. They filed out with ten to play after it was clear Milton Keynes’ players weren’t going to suddenly suffer multiple heart attacks. And yet all game long they demonstrated that they knew their players, knew the game, knew the local referees — and knew what quality football looked like.

At times, League One football looks a bit more like a game of water polo. The ball is often in the air and one-touch is not really on display. Only one player — Dons’ captain Dean Lewington, a speedy left back — looked like he might have the touch and grace to succeed at a higher level; as he happens to be the son of former Fulham player and manager Ray Lewington.

But that didn’t detract from the sense that the game mattered – something that is often lacking at our own smaller sporting events. There were no halftime entertainments designed to keep restless kids in their seats, and no pandering. Quite simply, this was just a game of football on a holiday afternoon in East London.

Lower-division football used to be a no-man’s land, or, to be more honest, an exclusively male preserve that no one with any sense would want to attend. Fights were common, women were absent and it was hardly a family activity to say the least.

Things have changed slowly over the past several years, with a steep rise in ticket prices being one of the biggest factors. It costs about the same to see Orient struggle, $40 a head, as it does to see Fulham labor for a draw. This has been a source of dismay to many fans, and understandably so.

But the old days — when I went with my father to stand on the terraces in Dundee for less than $5 today — are long gone. In the interim came gangs, violence, and a realization that things had to change.

Today’s crowd was as peaceful as it could be. Before the games, both groups of fans met at the pub up the road — something that would have been unthinkable when I was a kid. At the end everyone dispersed quietly, back to their cars.

Or in our case, back to good old shoe leather. I admit, I was cursing my decision around Tottenham Court Road, but in the end, it was all worth it.

As much as it makes sense and money — which is ultimately the bottom line — getting rid of the promotion and relegation rules would change everything about a Boxing Day match in England’s lower leagues.

Of course, the Premier League big boys will still flex their muscles, but imagine if we adopted this process in America. Maybe some of those meaningless MLS matches would have more bite if there was another club itching their way to the top from a lower division.