It was a privilege to be at Elland Road for the play-off second leg between Leeds and Derby, not only because it was one of the most grippingly exciting Championship games of the season but because it was a throwback to a rawness and immediacy that is gradually disappearing from football at the top level.
Walking in to the ground late along with hundreds of others affected by an M62 closure in late afternoon, it was impossible not to be struck by the raucousness and sheer volume that could be created by 36,000 inside a boxy old stadium.
Even from outside the distinctive roar at kick-off could be discerned and when the home fans began chanting at the opposition it was easy to pick out the words they were using. This was the sound of football, faithfully represented in several films and television features from a few decades ago as black and white moved into colour.
Granted, it was an end-of-season climax with a lot at stake and it would be wrong to suggest the Premier League is incapable of creating passion and fervour but for the most part crowds in the top flight are more genteel and subdued. Waiting for a Premier League game to kick off, for instance, the impressionable youngster of today would be less likely to be struck by the intoxicating sensation of being part of a crowd that supporters of a certain age remember so well, than by the fact many seats only fill up five minutes before kick-off.
This is not exactly an exclusive: it has been pointed out before but Premier League atmospheres tend to be on the safe, sedate and sanitised side. When all-seat stadiums were being introduced post-Hillsborough, the unnecessary and alarming price rises that accompanied them were defended by risible comparisons with a theatre-going experience that cost broadly the same. Risible because most theatre-goers do not go week in week out, or follow the same play around the country. That battle was lost, inflated prices attracted a slightly older, more affluent breed of spectator, and you know the rest.
Many football crowds these days are about as noisy as theatre audiences. A TV film crew wishing to make a documentary capturing the sound of present-day football would be unwise to set up microphones outside Old Trafford, the Etihad or the Emirates, even though they regularly host crowds of up to twice the size of the one at Elland Road.
Photograph: Paul Greenwood/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock
Leeds lost to Derby, so Yorkshire’s only representatives in the top flight next season will be Sheffield United, who also happen to possess a famous old ground capable of generating genuine, old-fashioned atmosphere. Here is the rub, though. Will the Blades’ joy at gaining automatic promotion be tempered in six months or so by the reality of losing most weeks, struggling for survival at the foot of the division and generally wondering whether it was a good thing for their dreams to come true?
That may not happen. Teams as diverse as Wigan, Brighton, Bournemouth, Watford and Wolves have prospered in recent seasons after gaining a foothold in the Premier League and there is no reason why Sheffield United – or Norwich for that matter – should not do the same. Yet the record books show that most seasons one or more promoted teams go straight back down, with the team who come up through the play-offs usually the most vulnerable.
Fulham are the most recent example and, leaving the club’s financial situation aside, it is debatable whether many supporters will have found this past season enjoyable. Huddersfield came up through the play-offs the year before and, though they lasted a season longer than anyone expected – mainly due to Stoke, Swansea and West Brom performing abysmally at the same time – the campaign just completed was nothing less than an ordeal for all concerned.
Just about the only achievement Huddersfield could boast about in the end was not being relegated with a record-low number of points. That dubious Premier League honour still belongs to Derby, the same Derby who are now thrilled to be at Wembley fighting Aston Villa for the chance to do it all again.
This is not to suggest Frank Lampard’s side, should they make it, will perform as woefully in the top flight as Paul Jewell’s did in 2007‑08. But no one is expecting Derby or Villa to find Premier League life easy either, and one cannot help but marvel at the massive suspension of disbelief – sorry to use another theatrical term – necessary to allow such rampant optimism from fans at the play-off stage when the prize on offer is potentially so bleak.
In many ways the Championship is a healthier competition than the Premier League – some excellent teams, proper stadiums and no top-six ceiling to break through or Manchester City to outperform – but good luck telling a Leeds or a West Brom supporter that at the moment.
In play-off terms, Championship status amounts to failure, which is the way it has to be. For most promoted teams, if not their accountants, being in the Premier League will amount to failure, too, though this is not the time of year for rationality.
Three promoted sides will at least enjoy a blissful summer of Premier League status. If they are willing to ignore the fact that pain will most likely come later, so can we all.