SSome football clubs exist in a perpetual yo-yo state between success and failure, promotion and relegation. But what happens to the fans of the biggest clubs when they leave a division for the first time in memory? Soccer has produced some rich-to-ragged stories of sleeping giants sleepwalking off the cliffs and into the depths of their domestic pyramid.
In October 2019, I traveled to Hamburg to see former European champion HSV during his first season outside of the Bundesliga. For years, Hamburg had prided itself on being the last founding club in the Bundesliga to experience relegation. The club even had a clock in the Volksparkstadion that counted how long they had been in the Bundesliga; It reached 54 years, 261 days, 36 minutes and two seconds.
But, after a gradual decline, they fell into the 2 Bundesliga. His descent brought new challenges. Hamburg fans found themselves traveling to football stands. Towns and cities that once would have been pit stops or detours on the way to Munich, Dortmund, or Leverkusen were now awkward places for fallen giants. Rival fans, particularly those of city rivals St Pauli and Werder Bremen, were delighted that the Bundesliga dinosaurs were facing their own extinction. For St Pauli, it meant that the Hamburg derby would become a league match and their bitter rivalry would take center stage.
HSV have won the Bundesliga six times and the European Cup once, developing a global following. Suddenly, their matches became more difficult for fans abroad to follow. American Hamburg fan Blake had a hard time watching the second division: “On match days the Bundesliga has a multicast of all the big games. In 2 Bundesliga, ESPN + shows a lower league game. Fortunately, it is often Hamburg, but not always.
HSV is now in its fourth consecutive season at the second tier. They have finished fourth for the past three seasons, narrowly missing the play-offs each time. It continues its passage through the 2 Bundesliga.
Hamburg has enjoyed a friendship with the Rangers dating back to the 1970s. Both clubs know what it’s like to leave the top flight. Just nine years ago, the Rangers had to start over at the third tier due to financial mismanagement. Rangers fan Ross Kilvington sums up the sentiments of the period as “the people against the Rangers football club.” Remember that the local city centers were filled with traveling followers. “It certainly helped build up the crowds in the lower league fields, having the Rangers in town.”
“Some of the away games were brutal,” says Rangers fan Lee Newell. Elgin, East Stirlingshire. How the hell did we end up there? “Although upset about the demotion of their club, Rangers fans continued to follow them across the country.” You never really saw too many local fans, “says Newell.” We packed up the places we went. I remember going to Stirling Albion and They beat me. Silence. The place was full of Rangers. They were last at the time, and even their manager wasn’t on the bench. It was their wedding day. “
But what does it feel like for a home fanatic when a fallen giant visits your floor? Lifetime Cardiff fan Tim hartley recalls when Manchester United were relegated to the second division and visited Ninian Park in 1974, just six years after winning the European Cup. The match between local heroes and familiar names was one of Hartley’s first experiences on a soccer field. This was long before the days of wall-to-wall football coverage, which made it all the more exciting. “People forget how important Manchester United’s visit was. You only saw them at the Match of the day and never in person. “
Preceded not only by his reputation on the field, United’s travel support was also famous. “The newspapers were full of stories of violence and vandalism,” says Hartley. Thousands of United fans made the trip to Ninian Park, the ground creaking under the pressure. “The stewardship was weak. There were no checks and United fans were present at the Grange End, when visiting fans were generally assigned the Bob Bank. “
Hartley, a boy at the time, recalls his relief at sitting on a wobbly wooden seat in the grandstand as the fence separating the crowd on the terraces succumbed and opposing fans caught up with each other. Sporadic fighting began before kick-off and continued through the first half. Cardiff conceded in five minutes, without the casuals at war noticing.
“Terrace culture had reached a new low,” says Hartley. Rival fans goaded each other with chants of “Munich 58” and “Aberfan,” referencing the tragedies of the Munich air disaster and the coal slide that killed a generation of schoolchildren 20 miles north of Cardiff. The greats who came to town brought out the worst in a lot of people and as Hartley escaped from fan factions on Sloper Road, the cry of “United are back” rang in the ears of local fans. Manchester United soon returned to the top flight, promoted as champion. On the contrary, Cardiff was relegated.
Even though Atlético de Madrid is one of the most successful clubs in the history of Spanish football, their relationship with Real means that they can present themselves as the losers. When Atleti was relegated to the second division in 2000, just four years after winning the double, its marketing team called it “a little year in hell.” Facing failure head-on, the club made a novelty of its year out of the top flight.
Atlético is no stranger to disappointment. They have the nickname The Pupas – which means “The Damned One” – after their devastating loss to Bayern Munich in the 1974 European Cup final. Defeats are as relevant as victories to the club’s history and identity. By the mark of “a little year in hell” and the prices of common sense, assists at Vicente Calderón went up when the club went down. “They got the message well,” says Atlético Nic fan. “They understood that Atleti is much more than winning and losing.”
When Atleti did not recover directly in La Liga, Luis Aragonés returned to direct the club and signed Germán Burgos, who would become Diego Simeone’s right-hand man. The newcomers paid off and Atleti came out of hell on the second try, the fans proclaiming: “We took you by the hand in hell and you took me to heaven.” The club responded with an ad in which Burgos came out of the sewers to the streets of Madrid.
Many fans remember winning the Segunda title as fondly as their La Liga triumphs in 1996 and 2014. It symbolized a moment of unity against adversity and strengthened the bond between the club and the fans, a cornerstone of Atleti’s identity. Nic was disappointed that the club didn’t hold the promotion with more fanfare. “There was nothing official from the club, but we all went down to the Neptune anyway.” A trip to the fountain is a rite of passage for Atlético fans when it comes to celebrating a trophy and they made a pilgrimage by the hundreds. A young Fernando Torres attended, who understood from the beginning what success means for Atleti fans.
Although frustrating, a relegation can strengthen the bond between the fans and their club. As time passes and the memory of their gap year in another league fades, bored fans of the same old routines begin to fondly remember their time off the top tier – its challenges, frustrations, and unknown and exciting journeys. A little year in hell doesn’t stop fans from experiencing heaven in the future.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism