• Image about Sunderland
Ryan Graber

In English soccer, the matches aren’t always just about wins and losses. Sometimes, they’re a matter of survival.


Sunderland, England, is reveling in an outrageously unseasonable springlike day. Brilliant rays of sunlight, thin and steeply angled as they are, have temporarily checked the dank winter gloom that tarps this northern English city.

But meteorological mercy is only framing the delight. The real celebration and figurative sunshine is all about the town’s beloved soccer team, which has just come shining through. It’s a “massive” win, as they say over here.

So, just beyond the Stadium of Light, home to Sunderland’s dear Black Cats, pubs like the Howard Arms, the Fort, and the Albion are roiling in pint-infused joy. They are reliving two critical goals, waxing ecstatic over the 2–0 victory, and toasting the 11 men of the moment. To hear the fans, you’d think their Black Cats had just kept Sunderland from falling dead away into the North Sea.

And, in a sense, that’s exactly what they did.

For now, at least, the Black Cats have secured the city’s prized place among the giants of English soccer (or football, as it’s known here). But this wasn’t a match in some riveting championship chase. In fact, it was just the opposite. The victory, for which one struggling team clubbed another bottom-barrel bunch, will go far in preserving Sunderland’s stake in the venerable English Premier League (EPL), arguably the best and richest league in global soccer. It was a triumph in what’s known as a relegation battle, a clash of two teams that are fl ailing near the basement of the standings.

The gravity of these encounters cannot be underestimated, because every year, the bottom EPL teams are relegated, or moved down a division, while top clubs from lower-wattage levels are promoted giddily into their places. England has 92 top professional soccer teams, 20 in the EPL and 72 split among three lower tiers in the Football League. Theoretically, a club could climb from the fourth division into the Premiership in three seasons by claiming promotion places -- fairy-tale stuff indeed. But there’s a far less dreamy side to this zero-sum process. For every team that moves up, some sad sack must fall. That team is awarded a virtual third-class ticket on the train to nowhere.

By the second half of a season, a big percentage of EPL drama is focused on desperate efforts to dodge the scourge of relegation. To be dropped means more than losing luster and fame; it spells financial crisis and at least one season without marquee matches against England’s glamour teams. It typically means dismantling the roster and waving bye-bye to any player with serious skills.

Essentially, the relegation battle is always an absolute must-win, with stark black-and- white ramifications: The victor secures a reprieve and breathing room, while the loser quickens its march toward lower-tier gloom and doom.