Nerves and relief from coast to coast for Premier League fans
For fans of teams near the top and bottom of the English Premier League, this Sunday's season finale promises to be an emotional roller coaster.
For the two Manchester teams seeking the league title, the Champions League chasers and the bottom feeders simply hoping to avoid oblivion, every goal – not just at their chosen match but others around the land – will cause spirits to soar like a bird or sink like a brick.
If I was to name this thrilling ride - and all the best roller coasters have names – I would call it Distortion, because of its ability to bend reality.
On Distortion, an Arsenal fan may find himself hugging a Fulham supporter; the London dandies of Queens Park Rangers will find sudden kinship with the industrial workers of Stoke; and a Bolton fan will cheer a sublime Sergio Aguero goal for Manchester City as passionately as any no-nonsense Kevin Davies header for the Wanderers.
On Distortion, hair will be raised, knuckles whitened, adrenalin pumped, hearts pounded and fingernails chewed. It will be exhausting, exhilarating, exasperating. It will be exactly as football should be.
Fans of middle-ranking teams, however, are not invited to the fairground.
No, it is worse than that. They ARE invited to the fairground but, like a child with an overprotective mother, under strict instructions that they can only go on the carousel.
To the sounds of their pals shrieking with fear and delight, they will spend 90 minutes going nowhere on a plastic horse: a mildly diverting activity at other times, perhaps, but not when you can see and hear what greater treats lie in store for the lucky few.
Fans of Swansea, Norwich, Wigan, Liverpool and Aston Villa are in for a carousel ride.
Yes, the first three may enjoy the party atmosphere caused by Premier League survival, but that is not a roller coaster.
The latter two, meanwhile, have no such consolation. Villa's final day will have all the party atmosphere of a wake with bad catering, while Liverpool can only celebrate that League Cup victory for so long.
Even those teams with bit parts in the crunch matches - Everton, Fulham, Sunderland and Stoke - have little to play for, besides the Schadenfreude of ruining another team's big day. Of course, by its very nature, any league must have a middle order. However, what grates with me about not-so-Super Sunday is that the players of those carousel teams - and, indeed, those already relegated at Blackburn and Wolves - will be allowed to coast.
They will deny it, of course. They will talk about pride, professionalism and putting on a show. They may even mention personal statistics, which are of far greater importance to most footballers than those other "P" words. As are win bonuses. However, we know from bitter experience that finale day football can be a tepid affair, with many players having "one foot on holiday".
While understandable to some extent - professional athletes are goal-orientated and see little point in risking injury for no obvious reward - it is something of a slap in the face to supporters who have not only paid the standard ticket price but would give their eye teeth to wear the club jersey, no matter how trifling the stakes.
So what to do?
Surely there must be a way to inject some sense of jeopardy into the middle order?
How about play-offs for every team in the league, with the top half fighting over a European spot and the bottom half to avoid relegation?
It would be certainly make for a compelling finale, albeit one which takes so long to set up that it gives a closed season of approximately 45 minutes.
Spot prizes for effort, perhaps?
It could be a bit like the man-of-the-match award, but with gifts awarded throughout the match.
"Nice run, Peter. Here, have a ride-on lawnmower."
No, that would not work.
They are too wealthy. It would have to be money-can't-buy prizes: "Nice run, Peter. Here, have Scotland."
Or perhaps, in this instance, the stick would be more effective than the carrot. All players suspected of slacking could be placed in a draw, with one name plucked from the hat and ordered to spend all of next season playing in the lower reaches of some terrible backwater: "You were not so great today, Peter. Here, have a Glasgow Rangers shirt."
No. Restorative justice. That is the key. Under-performing players must be forced to take their disappointed fans to the fair, where we'll go on the roller coaster. And they go on the carousel.
Enjoy Sunday. If you can.
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Published: May 10, 2012 04:00 AM