“A little year in hell”: when football giants drop down a division

“A little year in hell”: when football giants drop down a division

For a number of football clubs, their place in the game sits in a perpetual yoyo between success and failure, agony and ecstasy, promotion and relegation. But what happens to fans of the self-appointed big clubs when they find themselves dropping down a division for the first time in living memory? Football is littered with riches to rags stories – slumbering giants who sleepwalk off cliffs and into the depth of their domestic pyramid.

In October 2019, I travelled to Hamburg to see former European champions and German footballing superpower HSV during their first-ever season outside the Bundesliga. A gradual decline and years of near misses had preceded Hamburg’s relegation into the 2. Bundesliga. 

The drop in division brought despair but also new challenges, and Hamburg fans would find themselves travelling to German footballing outposts. Towns and cities that would have once been pit stops or detours en route to Munich, Dortmund and Leverkusen were now awkward away fixtures for the fallen giants. 

For years, Hamburg had prided themselves on their place at Germany’s top table; they were the last founding club of the Bundesliga to taste the heartbreak of relegation. The club even held a clock in the Volksparkstadion that counted how long they had been in the Bundesliga. Fifty-four years and 261 days. 

Opposing fans, notably cross-city rivals St Pauli and Werder Bremen, delighted as the “dinosaurs: of the Bundesliga faced their own extinction. For St Pauli, it meant that the Hamburg derby would become a league fixture – and their bitter rivalry would take centre stage the following season. The presence of HSV in 2. Bundesliga certainly brought attention to the league, and domestically at least put the derby back on the map.

But a club the size of HSV’s appeal isn’t limited to the city of Hamburg, or even Germany. It has a global following, and dropping out of the top flight would make following HSV a less straightforward pastime. American-based Hamburg fan Blake has found it difficult to follow the second tier in the US: “On match days, the Bundesliga has a multicast of all the big games. In 2. Bundesliga, ESPN+ show one game from the lower league. Luckily it’s often Hamburg, but not always.” 

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Hamburg themselves are clearly enough of a draw to warrant a modicum of international coverage, but for their overseas fans, the opportunities to watch live games are no longer limitless.

It’s easy to view a team’s demotion into the division below as a plunge into the abyss. But there was no feeling of entitlement or self-pity amongst the fans on that October day, as Hamburg thumped Stuttgart 6-2 in a top of the table clash. There was a lot to play for still, and an unforeseen pandemic on the horizon, but this was as good as it got for Hamburg; their end of season form trailed off and they finished outside the playoff spots. Their sojourn in the lower league continues.

HSV has enjoyed a long-standing friendship with Rangers that dates back to the 1970s. But they also share the experience of plying their trade outside the top flight. Rangers’ descent out of the big time came differently to HSV – not due to on-field issues but critical financial mismanagement. 

Off the back of their first SPL win in a decade, fortunes have changed for Rangers: just eight years ago, in 2013, they found themselves forced to start afresh in Division Three. Rangers fan Ross Kilvington summarises the feelings of the period as “the people versus Rangers football club”, with local town centres filling with welcoming parties for travelling Gers supporters. “It certainly helped boost the crowds at lower league grounds, having Rangers in town.”

Lee Newell, who writes for Rangers site From The Stands, recounts his experience of following the club to pastures new and remote: “Some of the away games were brutal. Elgin, East Stirlingshire. How the hell did we end up there?” What is clear is that Rangers fans, although stung by the decision to demote their club, continued to follow the team across the length and breadth of Scotland. 

In fact, Newell claims the desire of the fans to follow Rangers dwarfed even the curiosity of local fans hosting them. “You never really saw too many of them [home fans]. We packed out the places we went. I remember going to Stirling Albion and getting beaten. Silence. The place was full of Rangers. They were bottom at the time, and even their manager wasn’t in the dugout. It was his wedding day.”

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But how does it feel for a home fan when a fallen giant comes to play on your home patch? In 1973, Manchester United were relegated to the second tier, just six years after glory in the European Cup final. 

Author and lifelong Cardiff fan, Tim Hartley, recounts one of his first experiences at a football ground, describing it as local heroes against household names. This was long before the days of wall-to-wall football coverage, which we now regard as commonplace. “People forget how big a deal it was for Manchester United to visit. You only saw them on Match of the Day and never in the flesh.”

Preceded not only by their reputation on the pitch, United’s travelling support were also notorious for their behaviour, the mid-70s considered the nadir of football hooliganism. “Newspapers were full of stories of thuggery and hooliganism,” says Hartley. 

Thousands of Reds made the trip to Cardiff’s humble Ninian Park home, the ground creaking at the seams due to the pressure. Tim recalls: “Stewarding was weak. There were no checks and United fans were present in the Grange End, when away fans were usually allocated The Bob Bank.” 

Hartley, a young boy at the time, recalls his relief at being sat on the wobbly wooden seats of the grandstands as the fence that separated the crowds succumbed to the viscera and will of opposing fans to reach one another. Sporadic fighting began before kick-off and punctuated a first half where Cardiff conceded within five minutes, the warring casuals barely noticing. 

“Terrace culture had reached a new low,” as rival fans goaded one another with chants of “Munich 58” and “Aberfan”, referencing the tragedies of the Munich Air Disaster and the coal slip that killed a generation of school children in Aberfan, 20 miles north of the Welsh capital.

It was clear: the big boys coming to town had brought out the worst in a lot of people, and as Tim escaped fighting factions of fans on Sloper Road, the cry of “United are back” rung in home fans’ ears.

And Manchester United were indeed back, promoted as champions. In contrast, Cardiff were relegated. Their “little year in hell” was over. But what is the origin of this term? 

The city of Madrid is dominated by two footballing institutions, Real and Atletico. The former coined the phrase Galacticos to market themselves as a dream team of football royalty. The latter have managed to commodify the aura of the underdog.

When Atleti found themselves relegated to the Segunda in 2000, four years after winning the double, the marketing team dubbed it “A little year in hell”. By confronting the failure head-on, the club made a novelty of their year outside the top flight. 

Although the most successful club in Spain outside the Clasico duopoly, Atletico are no strangers to disappointment. Nicknamed El Pupas, meaning “The Cursed” – after the club’s 1974 European cup final loss to Bayern Munich – defeats are as relevant as victories to the history and identity of the club.

Due to the branding of “a little year in hell” and common-sense ticket prices, attendances at Vicente Calderon in the Segunda surpassed LaLiga numbers, with record season tickets sold. Atletico fan Nic believes “They got the messaging right. They understood that Atleti is so much more than winning and losing.”

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When Atleti didn’t bounce straight back to LaLiga, club legend Luis Aragones was brought back to manage the club, along with Diego Simeone’s future right-hand man, German Burgos. The match made in heaven bore fruit as Atleti clawed their way out of hell at the second attempt, the fans proclaiming, “We held your hand in hell and you lifted me to heaven.”

For many fans, the Segunda title is remembered as fondly as the LaLiga wins of 1996 or 2014. It symbolised a time of unity against adversity and strengthened the bond between club and fan, something that is a cornerstone of Atleti identity. Nic even laments that he’s slightly disappointed the club didn’t celebrate the Segunda title with more fanfare. “There was nothing official from the club, but we all went down to the Neptune anyway.”

A trip to the Fuente de Neptuno is a rite of passage for Atletico fans when celebrating a trophy win, and naturally, with songs of promotion fresh on their lips, they made the pilgrimage to the Madrid landmark in their hundreds. In attendance was Atleti’s favourite son, a young Fernando Torres. As a boyhood fan of the club himself, Torres clearly understood what success meant to the fans.

These clubs mean as much to their fans regardless of the league in which the game takes place. Though frustrating and painful, a drop in division doesn’t kill the love between a club and its supporters, and can even strengthen that bond. As time passes and the memory of their sabbatical in the lower league becomes hazy, fans bored of the same old routines often lament about their time outside the top tier – its challenges, its frustrations, its unfamiliar and exciting trips. 

Many of these sides have gone from strength-to-strength after promotion. It’s clear that a little year in hell doesn’t preclude fans from experiencing the ecstasy of footballing heaven in the future.

By Rhys Richards @RhysWRichards

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