by Timothy S. Hamilton
Special to goalWA.net
Editor’s note: Hamilton now lives on Fox Island and designs soccer crest from his studio. He made the Evergreen Premier League logo.
I’ve been meaning to write an article with my views on the promotion/relegation (pro/rel) system for a while. It’s a hot topic in the US soccer community and bringing it up is a guaranteed way to start a fight. I had even written a draft of an article, but hadn’t taken the time to finish editing it. So why am I writing it now? On Sunday the 18th of May something happened that I had been dreading all year: one of my favorite teams got relegated. This is an experience most people involved in the pro/rel debate have never had and I thought I’d put words to the agony while it was still fresh.
First off, for anyone not familiar with pro/rel; it is a system whereby the top teams of lower divisions move up a division at the end of the season, and the bottom teams of high divisions drop down. In practice, there are as many variations to this system as there are leagues – and there are almost as many arguments for or against using this system in the US. I’m going to set aside all of those arguments, because far from the debates of finances, contracts, level of play, America vs. Europe – far from all that – is the emotional roller coaster the supporters experience. Here is my own roller coaster ride as an East Fife supporter.
For those who don’t know – which is everyone – East Fife is a team in Scotland. They were founded in 1903 and have a history which includes winning the Scottish Cup as a lower division team – the only to do so in 140 years – and three Scottish League Cups. Most of that history ended in the 40s. When I started supporting them ̶ 13 years ago ̶ East Fife sat firmly at the bottom of the 4th and lowest tier of the Scottish League.
Then on the 10th of May 2003 with virtually the last kick of the ball in the last game of season Kenny Deuchar ̶ who would later play for Real Salt Lake ̶ scored a goal. This was no ordinary goal; and our celebration was no ordinary celebration. This was a goal that every East Fife supporter will remember for years to come. That goal sealed East Fife’s second place finish in the division. You’d have thought we won the league by the looks of it. We felt like champions. We felt better than champions: we were going up! East Fife wasn’t a bottom division club anymore. Next season would see us playing at a higher level against better clubs and we – players and supporters alike – had earned the right to be there. It felt like we had conquered the world. We had gained promotion. It was Ecstasy. Pure Ecstasy.
The very next season saw East Fife struggling at the bottom of the third division. It all came down to the last game of the season. It was simple: we had to win; Arbroath had to lose. We won. Unfortunately so did Arbroath. The dream was over. We hadn’t been good enough. We had to go back down to the fourth division with our tails between our legs and our heads bowed. We were relegated. It was depressing, humiliating, and gut wrenching. We felt like failures. We felt defeated. The pain was made all the sharper by the memory of the ecstasy of promotion. Now we were left in agony. Pure agony.
A few years later, May 12, 2007, East Fife needed to overturn a 4-2 deficit in the new promotion playoff final. If we could beat Queens Park by two goals we would be out of the bottom league again. We had this. Queens Park was, after all, the team we had beaten in 2003 to gain promotion. It was destiny. The final score was 3-0. We lost. Queens Park went up, and we stayed in the bottom division. It was crushing. So much hope and excitement and expectation destroyed in 90 minutes. To come so close and fall short on the last hurdle was, well, agony. Pure agony.
The next season, East Fife cruised to their first league title in 60 years. East Fife were fourth division champions. In a way, the relaxed nature with which we destroyed all comers. to take the title couldn’t quite compare to Kenny Deuchar’s last second heroics in 2003, but we didn’t especially care – we were going up. That was better than just a title. We earned the right to play higher and even had a trophy this time to prove it. We felt like kings; like the sky was the limit. It was ecstasy. Pure ecstasy.
Last season East Fife found themselves in a playoff to keep their spot in the third division. Not only was their place in the division at stake, but the chance to play four games against fallen giants, the Rangers, as they made their way back to the summit of Scottish football. Once again, a win on the final day of the season was all we needed. This time we got it. After a miserable season in which we finished second from the bottom, we finally got the results we wanted so badly all year. The relief was unbelievable. So was the joy. It felt like winning a whole bottom division season in 90 minutes. We were safe – we were staying up. We’d get our chance to take on the Rangers – and we had earned it. Again Ecstasy. Pure Ecstasy.
Then came last Sunday the 18th of May. We only needed a draw in the playoff final to avoid relegation. With 17 minutes left the score was level at nil all. The game finished 2-0 and we had lost. Players and fans were crushed as Stirling Albion celebrated their promotion on our pitch. I will be in “mourning” for a few weeks before I fully get over it. We’ve already lost half our squad as players move on – most not wanting to play at a lower level. After 6 years in the third division we are a bottom division club again. And like promotion, sadly we had earned it.
That’s the best and worst part of the emotional roller coaster that comes with pro/rel – you get what you’ve earned. You rise and fall with your team. It’s an amazingly thrilling ride full of ups and downs. And as East Fife returns to the lowest of lows, would I be willing to trade the ecstasy of promotion to forever avoid the agony of relegation? Not on your life! C’Mon the Fife!