The so-called 'relegation battle', that joyous struggle for survival which permeates the entirety of Premiership coverage in the month of May (as X, Y or Z have already won the title and have begun showboating in earnest by that stage), can take on many different guises. At the core of this principle are the Shylock desires of Rupert Murdoch's posse over at Sky, who take it upon themselves to hype this inept display of piss-poor football to biblical proportions every season. Even the most cynical farts amongst us can see the reasoning behind this: the average fan can be seen to exhibit paltry levels of interest in televised football at the latter stages of the season, as final positions are augmented and the Premiership's finest turn their cavernous brains towards thoughts debauched escapades in Ayia Napa. Nevertheless, Sky tends to carry out its task with admirable gusto; deploying their three most potent weapons with Carlos the Jackal-like precision: Cinematic advertising, Booming voiceovers, and Jeff Stelling.
Like the explosively reliable formula of the Jerry Bruckheimer movie, the circumstances of the relegation battle can usually be typecast into two different scenarios. Firstly, and most common, is the classic multi-lateral duel: the four most ham-fisted competitors in the league (which by Sky TV's logic makes them the four most 'heroic') bludgeon each other in a disorganised whack fest, hilariously clambering upward in a desperate attempt to avoid being left wedged in the bowl when the Premier League flushes the annual crapper. However, we are occasionally treated to a more idealistic situation, where one team pulls on the collective bonnet of the 'underdog' and mounts a gallant quest for survival in the face of adversity. Last year was a case in point: West Bromwich Albion battled steadfastly against the odds and stayed up despite propping up the table at Christmas. Boss Bryan Robson proudly stared down the demons of history, rattling the sabre of defiance whilst mounted upon his trusty steed Kieran Richardson.
This year, however, Sky may be forced to call upon the services of Alistair Campbell. The lethargic venture that is 'Relegation Battle 2006' requires sexing up on a plateau only within the grasp of Downing Street's former Spin merchant. As Sunderland, Portsmouth, Birmingham and West Brom lace up their gloves for this season's bout of survival fisticuffs, it is clear that the primary discourse of their action is not pride, honour or gallantry. Rather, apathy has become festered within the mindsets of these teams and their players. Far from resembling cinematic tales of bravery like Bridge over the River Kwai and Zulu, the brewing competition between these sides is more akin to the dazed indifference of Half Baked.
If any of us harboured questions regarding Sunderland's suitability for top-flight football, 2006 has duly sealed those doubts inside a coffin of clarity and tossed them into the chasm of ineptitude, where they will rest forever alongside the Cameroonian one-piece kit and Jordan's singing career. Birmingham are languishing in a pit of mediocrity, as boardroom in-fighting, lack of on field leadership and hollow managerial direction scrap together the price of an economy ticket to the Coca-Cola championship. For Bryan Robson's West Brom, the heroism of last year has evaporated, leaving behind only a lacklustre residue which saturates the realism that, ultimately, the boys from the Hawthorns were always punching above their weight in this league. Portsmouth, once again under the precarious stewardship of 'Arry Redknapp, can claim to be the most romantic outfit in this particular love-quadrant. With Alexander Gaydamak's dubiously-acquired millions now spewing out of every orifice, this side boast the most potent arsenal of firepower to blast their way through the glass ceiling of the premiership basement in time to avoid being brushed off the shoe sole of England's top division. But the public are yet to be convinced that they will do so.
In spite of the natural stigmas of courageousness that one will inevitably find attached to the fight against relegation, the 2006 edition of ‘the survival instinct: a Sky Sports drama’ is unlikely to stir the passions or swell the interests of a footballing public with both eyes fixed squarely on the World Cup. Still, one can never underestimate the resourcefulness of the global media in attempting to capture our attentions. It is likely, however, that the screenplay for this year's relegation battle will bear greater resemblance to the pungent boredom of Phone Booth than the pant-wetting thrills of The Shining.