Sports are cruel. There, we said it. They play with our emotions, mess with our hearts, fill us with joy and smash it just as quickly. Every team has known what it's like to lose a big game, but how about a full season of losing? How about a decade? How about a lifetime?
There are unhappy fan bases all over soccer, but if your definition of pain is not winning every trophy, or getting knocked out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals, think again. You've not heard anything yet.
The ESPN FC Misery Index is a chance to shine a light on those teams that have endured far more than their fair share of sadness in the modern era, to let those fans tell their stories and explain why it has been so tough to be a fan.
Botafogo: Searching for the good vibes of 1958
"There are things that only happen to Botafogo."
It is a common phrase in Rio de Janeiro football, usually uttered by fans of the club. The depth of self-pity is revealing and, in a sense, understandable.
When older Botafogo fans speak of their club's golden age, it is not rose-tinted nostalgia. They really did grow up watching the legends. The Brazil teams that won the World Cup in 1958, '62 and '70, thereby establishing the country as football's spiritual home, were basically formed by the Santos team that included Pele, and Botafogo, which contributed great winger Garrincha, second in the pantheon of the Brazilian game, and epic left-back Nilton Santos, nicknamed the "encyclopaedia" because he knew it all. Didi and Gerson, the Selecao midfield pass masters, were Botafogo players, as were Mario Zagallo on the wing, Amarildo, who stepped in so well when Pele was injured in '62, and Jairzinho, who scored in every game in the magical 1970 campaign.
All of them are commemorated with banners in the stadium every time Botafogo play at home, but the contrast between the quality of the players on the banners and those on the field is unkind to those who currently wear the black-and-white stripes. Recent teams, even when they have been relatively successful, have rarely been more than workmanlike. Twice this century, Botafogo spent a season in the second division, and they go into this campaign with relegation a much higher possibility than the remote prospect of winning the title.
Meanwhile, making matters worse, local rivals Flamengo go from strength to strength. They are champions of Brazil and South America, boasting a squad with the kind of depth that is beyond the dreams of Botafogo and its faithful.
This chasm is fairly new. Botafogo's fans are a passionate, but relatively small, band of brothers and sisters. They cannot hope to match the immense size of Flamengo's national support base, which the club have learned to monetise. They are rich while Botafogo are deep in debt, and the latter's hopes are now pinned on a change of status.
Like all the traditional Brazilian teams, Botafogo are a social club with a president elected by the members. Attempts are in motion to turn the team into a business. Many see this as a panacea, but it raises an obvious question: Where will the money come from?
In the short term, Botafogo have boosted their international profile with the bold signing of veteran Japanese midfielder Keisuke Honda, who has instantly become a club hero. For those born into an expectation of greatness, mediocrity is even harder to stomach and the fans are yearning for Honda's left foot to conjure a spell and turn back the clock.
There's a popular book in Brazil called "Happy 1958, The Year That Never Should Have Ended." The country was booming, architecture was at its peak, bossa nova was taking hold and Brazil won their first World Cup with a team full of Botafogo players. If a time machine was available to take people back there, fans of Botafogo would be at the head of the queue. -- Tim Vickery
Cruz Azul: Failure so bad, it made the dictionary
There's only one club whose name has spawned it's own verb: Cruz Azul. And its meaning is not particularly flattering.
According to Diccionario Popular, cruzazulear is "to fail at anything, in any moment, when everything is in your favor and you think nothing can ruin it." An example: "You were doing so well in school and you Cruz Azul'd on the final exam."
Cruz Azul's penchant for screwing things up has even spread into popular culture. At Mexico games, wearing Cruz Azul shirts is frowned upon. If El Tri loses, photos of said fans often go viral on social media. (Mexico fans reportedly tried giving Cruz Azul shirts to rival supporters at the 2018 World Cup in a bid to pass the bad luck along. In a sense, it worked: Mexico beat Germany and South Korea to escape their group before losing to Brazil in the round of 16.)
The club is still considered one of Mexico's "big four," but La Maquina is without a league title since 1997. Since then, Cruz Azul has finished runners-up on six occasions and gone through 14 head coaches. The last title winner, Luis Fernando Tena, has also been employed by the club twice since winning the championship.
If there was one game to sum up Cruz Azul's misery, it would be the 2013 Clausura final second leg. La Maquina was 2-0 up on aggregate against city rival Club America in the 88th minute at Estadio Azteca. The drought appeared to be all but over: just don't concede twice. Cruz Azul did just that, with Aquivaldo Mosquera pulling one back and then America goalkeeper Moises Munoz leveling the score with a diving header that was deflected in by a Cruz Azul player on the last play of the game. America won on penalties.
"It didn't hurt as much [as previous final defeats] because it was more of the same thing. I came to accept it. But [the loss in 2018] is the one that really hurt," explained Oscar Nanco-Gonzalez, a lifelong fan who runs an English-language Cruz Azul Twitter account.
The most recent was another loss to Club America in the 2018 Apertura final. Cruz Azul had led the regular-season standings in 12 of the 17 rounds of games and finished top of the table, but a hard-fought first leg that ended 0-0 was ruined by a second-half capitulation in the return. The Mexico City establishments that had offered free beer if Cruz Azul lifted the trophy were spared from giving away a single drop.
Owned and run by a cement company, Cruz Azul plays its home games inside the huge Estadio Azteca, and attendances are dwindling; after three rounds of league games in 2020, Cruz Azul had the lowest average attendance: 13,583.
"Sometimes, I feel the players are just there to get the check," said Nanco-Gonzalez. "For a lot of us, it wouldn't be just a job. If I could play five minutes in an official Liga MX match, I would drop everything and do it for free just because I'd bust my ass working for that team no matter what."
After winning seven of their eight titles between 1969 and 1980, Cruz Azul's relevance as one of Mexico's great clubs is slipping away. -- Tom Marshall
Espanyol: Living in Barca's shadow
Espanyol call themselves the "marvellous minority," but most of the time, there's very little to marvel over. They have a hated rival, but their rivals can't even be bothered reciprocating. This is the football club that doesn't exist, or at least that's the way they're made to feel sometimes. FC Barcelona are "more than a club" according to their slogan; the city of Barcelona is more than a club given that Espanyol play there, too, just three miles from the Camp Nou, but nobody notices, let alone cares.
Barca cast a mighty shadow, and it's dark and miserable in there.
Espanyol's history goes back 119 years. A founding member of the league, only four teams have spent more seasons in primera, and in a cumulative table they would be seventh all-time, but they've never won it or really been close. Their neighbours, meanwhile, have won it 26 times, plus 30 Cups and five European Cups. Espanyol have won only four trophies in history (four Copa del Reys). Barcelona are 90 ahead. No one has more European titles than Barcelona; Espanyol got to two finals and lost them both. In 1988, they arrived in Leverkusen having won the UEFA Cup final first leg 3-0 and still didn't win, going down in a penalty shootout that defines them. Or so it goes.
It was late and the newspaper La Vanguardia had already printed front pages about Espanyol's victory, which had to be binned, but some got their hands on them. "Sometimes I look at that and I sigh," says writer Enric Gonzalez. He writes about Espanyol as having a faith born of failure. It is rooted in "the existential void of those who suspect, with good reason, that God abandoned them forever," he says. Ernesto Valverde, the former Barcelona and Espanyol manager, who was on the bench the night they lost the UEFA Cup, says: "There's a part of the character, influenced by Leverkusen, that says, 'We're going down this year.'"
The worst thing is that this year they might, too. They're dead last, with 18 points from 23 games and a goal difference of minus-21. Goodness knows they're miserable now.
"It can seem like the whole of Barcelona is Barca, but that feeling for Espanyol is very deep in some places," Valverde says. Yet the eclipse can feel total; it can feel deliberate too, or at least self-perpetuating. Few in positions of power or celebrity rush to identify themselves with Espanyol or take a seat in their directors' box instead of the one at the Camp Nou. In 2013, the city's famous Christopher Columbus monument was dressed in a Barcelona shirt, pointing out to sea; no one would ever have contemplated putting him in blue-and-white, and why would they? Espanyol felt left out, ignored, but it was nothing new. (Better yet, those responsible for putting the jersey on the statue paid the Barcelona city council for the ability to do it ahead of the derby.)
"Espanyol's fans feel trodden on; they are supporters who lived pushed aside by media, in the street ... they make us invisible," former coach Quique Sanchez Flores says.
Marcotti's ode to Manchester United's transfer failings
Gab Marcotti delivers a poetic reminder of Manchester United's recent transfer business.
Espanyol vs. Barcelona is not a rivalry like Atletico and Real Madrid, not least because it is not much of a rivalry at all, which is even worse. The last time Espanyol finished ahead of Barcelona was almost 80 years ago, and no one expects them to ever do so again; their budget is one-12 the size of their neighbours. At times in Barcelona, it can seem like no one at all supports Espanyol. Sarria, their spiritual home, is long gone. They spent over a decade at Montjuic, feeling like they're in exile. Now they have moved out of the city, prompting Gerard Pique to pointedly call them Espanyol de Cornella, not Barcelona. That stung, but at least there was some rivalry there, some attention. The rest of the year, there isn't.
"When I was very young at school, there were 40 kids and of those that really liked football, only one supported Espanyol: me," says Carlos Maranon. His father was one of the club's best players ever, he played in the youth system there, and he is now the editor of Cinemania magazine. He likens Espanyol to two literary figures brought to film. "There's something of Don Quixote about them," he says, "And then there's Asterix: this idea of a tiny force resisting."
Espanyol is not a small club. There are 30,000 members. They are preparing for the Europa League round of 32. That said, the joy was instantly removed when their manager (Pablo Machin), key centre-back (Mario Hermoso) and best centre-forward (Borja Iglesias) all left, leaving a relegation battle behind. Typical.
There is a kind of perverse pleasure in that status and this misery. On Dec. 27, Abelardo Fernandez arrived at the RCDE stadium on a mission to rescue them from relegation, their third manager of the 2019-20 season alone. "Maybe I'm a masochist," he said of joining Espanyol. He'll fit right in. -- Sid Lowe
Everton: The other team in Liverpool
There is nothing worse than supporting a football team that always fall short when it comes to winning, so imagine what it feels like to be an Everton fan. Not only has their club, one of the most historic names in English football, failed to win anything at all this century, but Evertonians have also had to endure their own team's demise coinciding with the rise of Liverpool, their annoyingly successful neighbours one mile to the east across Stanley Park.
Plenty of other English clubs have suffered trophy droughts as long, or longer, than Everton's, but none can claim to have been hit by the double whammy of being bad at the same as their biggest rivals becoming the best side in the world. Newcastle, Leeds United, Wolves and even Tottenham have had it tough over the years, either with ultra-successful neighbours or self-inflicted failures, but nothing compares to being an Evertonian.
Let's just take a brief history lesson to explain why Everton have had it worse than any other major club. It all started back in 1891, when, after a dispute involving the club president, Everton left their original home -- that's right, Anfield -- to move to Goodison Park. A year later, Liverpool moved into the vacant Anfield and claimed it as their own, meaning Everton created their biggest problem by handing Liverpool their home stadium, which has become synonymous with the Reds' success.
Until the late-1960s, Everton were the biggest and most successful club in Liverpool, winning seven league titles and three FA Cups by 1970. Liverpool had also won seven titles, but had only managed one FA Cup by that point. Liverpool pulled clear in the 1970s and '80s, winning eight more titles and four European Cups before Everton bounced back to win two titles of their own in 1985 and 1987. But the FA Cup triumph against Manchester United in 1995 was the last trophy won by Everton, and they are taunted mercilessly by Liverpool fans about their endless wait for silverware.
At the same time, Goodison Park has fallen into decline, with a series of proposed new stadiums failing to materialise. Another new ground, at Bramley-Moore Dock, is due to be built in time for the 2023-24 season, but Evertonians have learned to be sceptical when it comes to progress on and off the pitch.
With Liverpool set to win their first title since 1990 this season -- they have won two Champions Leagues, a UEFA Cup, three FA Cups and four League Cups since that last league win -- the future is looking worryingly red for Everton. They've not won at Anfield since 1999 and have failed to beat Liverpool at Goodison since October 2010. When the Liverpool Echo did its annual "Everpool" team at the end of 2019, for the first time ever, not one Everton player made it into the combined XI. As if it couldn't get any worse, Liverpool chose to play their youth team against them in the FA Cup third round due to fixture congestion ... and Liverpool won.
The arrival of Carlo Ancelotti has helped to lift Everton back into the top half of the Premier League, but for the most part, being an Evertonian is as miserable as it gets. -- Mark Ogden
Hamburg: Germany's dinosaurs fighting their personal ice age
There's a clock in the corner of Hamburg's Volksparkstadion that used to celebrate the amount of time the club had spent in the Bundesliga. And why not? They were the only team to have played in the division since its formation in 1963: even Bayern missed the first couple of seasons. But the more time went on and the closer the scrapes with relegation became, the clock became less a proud celebration and more a symbol of grim hubris. They survived the drop by winning the relegation playoff in 2015 and 2016, stayed up on the final day in 2017 before finally, in 2018, they were relegated for the first time.
That relegation was not a surprise. Hamburg had been a pretty miserable club to support for a few years, the relative glory days of European competition in the 2000s a distant memory as they slipped further toward the second tier. Their nickname, "Der Dino," was born as recognition of their longevity, but it became a negative description of their slow decline. When Hamburg eventually did get relegated, the despair continued: Last season they looked certain for a swift return, sitting in the top two (and automatic promotion) places all season until March, but went on an eight-game winless run and didn't even make the playoff, finishing fourth.
Hamburg's history was about more than just "longevity," too: They are six-time German champions, European Cup winners in 1983 and home to some of the greatest players the Bundesliga has ever seen, from Manny Kaltz and Kevin Keegan to Rafael van der Vaart and Heung-Min Son, which makes their fall now all the worse.
"I've supported HSV since the early 1980s and we had so many good times, but there have been more rough times," says Tim-Oliver Horn, head of the HSV Supporters' Club. "The 1990s felt like hibernation. The 2000s were very good with lots of European games, but also a few years we fought against relegation. In 2006 we were in the Champions League and almost relegated in the same season."
It's hard to look past relegation as the worst moment in their history, but a spell in 2009 -- ominously dubbed the "Bremen Weeks" -- runs it close. That season, Hamburg had reached the semifinals of both the DFB Pokal and the UEFA Cup, plus were firmly in the title race deep into April. But implausibly, they then faced Werder Bremen -- their greatest rivals driven at the time by a young Mesut Ozil -- four times in 18 days, in both semis and the league. "We lost the cup semifinal on penalties, lost the UEFA Cup semifinal on away goals and lost the league game 2-0," recalls Horn, despondently.
Things are looking up a little this season, as Hamburg are very much in the promotion hunt. But this is HSV, so you never know. The clock is still there, but it's now counting up from the year the club was formed, 1887. Perhaps a reset is what the whole club needed. -- Nick Miller
Malaga: From the brink of glory to the brink of extinction
It's April 2013. Malaga are 2-1 up at Borussia Dortmund. In the 90th minute of their Champions League quarterfinal second leg, Manuel Pellegrini's team -- boasting Isco, Joaquin and Julio Baptista -- are seconds away from the biggest result in the club's history.
Cut to February 2020. Malaga hover above the relegation zone in the Segunda Division. The club lurch from one crisis to another: absentee owners, players bought and sold without ever playing, a coach fired after exposing himself in a leaked video while wearing club kit. La Liga president Javier Tebas says the club need a €2m cash injection if they're to avoid being kicked out of the league.
How did it come to this? In truth, the rot had set in before Malaga's Champions League dreams were dashed by two Dortmund goals, one of them offside, in added time.
"It's been a roller coaster," said Christian Machowski, a season-ticket holder for 15 years. "Everybody says this is what being a Malaguista is all about: the suffering. But it's been an incredible journey. Nobody thought Malaga would ever qualify for the Champions League, never mind being a minute from the semifinal. Then the steady decline started."
The June 2010 takeover by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani of Qatar came with a sky-high ambition and promise. Malaga became Spain's biggest spenders and Pellegrini built a team that finished in the top four, but by the summer of 2012 there were already reports of unpaid players and VAT bills. Record €20m signing Santi Cazorla was hurriedly sold off to Arsenal in a cut-price deal and UEFA punished Malaga for breaching financial fair play rules. By the time they lost to Dortmund, the club knew it had been banned from European competitions the following season.
The most frustrating thing, Machowski argues, is that the idea of Malaga becoming a European powerhouse is not so far-fetched. "This is potentially a sleeping giant," he says. "What a great club to play for, what a great area for a top European footballer to move to, the Costa del Sol. The presentations of people like Ruud van Nistelrooy attracted 20,000 people on a midweek afternoon. It was dreamland."
Malaga were relegated from the Primera in 2018 and their failure to return at the first attempt was devastating. Last summer saw the Shinji Okazaki fiasco, in which he joined the club but was released before playing a game, unable to remain in Malaga's squad given that his wages put them beyond La Liga's forced salary cap. The club's sporting director, Jose Luis Caminero, left in October, and then the charismatic but outspoken coach, Victor Sanchez del Amo, was fired for that leaked video. He has claimed all along that he fell victim to an alleged blackmail plot and six people have since been arrested.
"The people put in charge of the club have been one disaster after another," says Machowski. "This is really a natural consequence of running a business badly. I don't think people are dreaming of the good times now. People would be very content with staying in Segunda."
Malaga's plight has a recent precedent to further upset their fans: In 2019, Reus were thrown out of the Spanish second division in midseason over unpaid debts, a fate that could yet hit Malaga. Their ambitions are now limited to avoiding bankruptcy. Everything else -- a takeover, a return to the top flight, that dream of Europe -- will have to wait. -- Alex Kirkland
Manchester United: Off-field wealth, on-pitch paucity
To paraphrase Alfred Lord Tennyson, "'Tis better to have won and lost than never to have won at all." That sentiment probably applies to Manchester United fans, many of whom, at least those who live far away from Old Trafford, were converted to the cause during the club's two golden eras: under Sir Matt Busby in the 1950s and 1960s and under Sir Alex Ferguson four decades later.
Except it works both ways. Fans of clubs who have never tasted success -- and certainly not the sort of overwhelming success United enjoyed -- aren't burdened by the weight of history and having to live up to a historic past that might never be regained.
For nearly 27 years, United had one manager: Sir Alex. Since his departure in May 2013, they've had four, plus an interim boss. In the six seasons before his retirement, they finished first four times and second twice: once on goal difference and once by a single point. Success was something that fans adapted to rather than living without. In the six seasons since, the average gap between them and the league winner has been nearly 22 points and, in case you're wondering, this year likely won't help that average: they're currently 38 points off the top with a third of the season left. What used to be a club consistently competing in the Champions League is now a side struggling to hold its own in England.
There are two factors that ratchet up the misery for United devotees, and they are intrinsically linked. United are owned by the Glazer family, who acquired the club in a leveraged buyout in 2005, which basically means they borrowed a load of money to buy a controlling share and then shifted the debt on to the club itself. Between interest, fees and dividends, the Glazer takeover has cost the club well over $1 billion in just 15 years.
That's not a finger in the eye; that's a poison-soaked stiletto in the eye. Some United fans, angry at both the takeover and the crass over-commercialization of the club, broke off to form their own team, FC United of Manchester, who now sit in the seventh tier of the English pyramid. Others engaged in protests in and around Old Trafford or hired planes with banners to fly over the ground. David Beckham even picked up a "green and gold" scarf, the symbol of the anti-Glazer movement.
Making United's plight on the pitch even starker is the club's rude financial health away from it.
The Glazers aren't going anywhere and neither is Man United's executive vice chairman, Ed Woodward, the man who is so often blamed for the club's recent futility, mainly because the departure of Sir Alex and chief executive David Gill coincided with his ascent to the top. Part of the reason he's still around is that he's good at delivering what the Glazers want: bottom-line profits. They proudly announced a record high annual revenue in 2019, and the Glazers saw the share value rise nearly 10 percent at the end of the year.
Man United have been a veritable cash cow, making more than $200 million in profits since Sir Alex retired -- evidence that you don't need to put out a good team in order to be a lucrative investment for your owner. And because they've also spent heavily on wages and transfer fees for much of that period (to the tune of nearly $850m), perhaps evidence that not everyone can simply buy their way out of a rut.
There's something doubly infuriating in knowing that even while you're suffering at your team's underachievement, the guys who own it and run it continue to cackle all the way to the bank. It's not that they don't necessarily care -- maybe they do, maybe they're fans too; they never speak, so we don't know -- it's just that you're left with the feeling that, however much it pains them to see United struggle on the pitch, when they put on their businessman hats, all that pain magically melts away.
There's one more thing, and the sort of thing that probably still keeps Sir Alex up at night. The two clubs that have dominated the Premier League over the past three years are the ones that he, like most United fans, probably dislike the most -- Manchester City and Liverpool -- not least because one is just across town and the other is only 35 miles away. Manchester City and Liverpool. Sir Alex once wrote off City as "the noisy neighbours." As for the latter, he devoted blood, sweat and tears to (in his own words) "knocking them off their f------ perch." (With 13 games remaining in the 2019-20 season, Liverpool have more than double Man United's points total. So much for perches.)
Sometimes you wonder if living through this nightmare would be more palatable if they had never tasted glory. -- Gab Marcotti
New England Revolution: Losing in Tom Brady's house
Eighteen Major League Soccer franchises have won either an MLS Cup, a Supporters' Shield or both. The New England Revolution are not among them.
Sure, they've reached MLS Cup five times, more than any club except the Los Angeles Galaxy, but they have no trophies to show for their efforts. In 24 seasons, the Revs have two titles: A U.S. Open Cup in 2007 and a 2008 trophy for winning the North American SuperLiga, a competition that no longer exists. (Meanwhile, the New England Patriots, a team with whom they share an owner, a stadium and a color scheme boast 17 playoff appearances and six Super Bowl wins this century. Guess where ownership focuses their efforts?)
On MLS's list of all-time goal differential, the Revolution sit at minus-100, better than only Chivas USA -- who were notoriously disbanded in 2014 for being atrocious -- and the Colorado Rapids, who still managed to win MLS Cup in 2009.
"We've had a lot of downtimes," Matt Zytka says over the phone, laughing the sad laugh of a die-hard fan resigned to his fate. He has watched a lot of losing, first when his parents brought him as a kid to games during the inaugural season in 1996, then later in his current position as president of the Midnight Riders fan group.
That isn't to say it has all been bad. You can't lose five MLS Cups if you don't reach five finals. The Revs made the playoffs for eight straight seasons from 2002 to '09, bolstered by a backbone of club legends like Steve Ralston, Michael Parkhurst, Taylor Twellman and Shalrie Joseph. Since then, however ... well, we present their MLS finishing place from 2010 to 2019: 13th (of 16), 17th (of 18), 16th (of 19), seventh (of 19), fifth (of 19), 11th (of 20), 14th (of 20), 15th (of 22), 16th (of 23) and 14th (of 24). It's an impressive level of incompetence in a league that prides itself on parity.
In 2019, the Revs snuck into the playoffs with an 11-11-12 record, then were emphatically outclassed by Atlanta United in the first round. This counted as success. "We were one and done in the playoffs but ended on a high note," Prairie Rose Clayton, a die-hard since the 2002 MLS Cup final, says. "The fact that we won the last home game of the season was enough."
But there might be hope. Last May, the Revolution jettisoned flailing head coach Brad Friedel and long-time ineffectual general manager Mike Burns in favor of Bruce Arena, who took over as manager, sporting director and chief curmudgeon. This offseason, they opened a new training facility and started signing players, finally filling their three designated player slots.
Of course, it wasn't perfect: One new signing had his contract voided after he couldn't get a visa. The Revolution's latest attempt at a revolution remains, perpetually, a work in progress. -- Noah Davis
Rangers: Starting from scratch in Scotland
There was a time when Rangers were Scotland's dominant force. Formed in 1872, it took them nearly two decades to win their first league title, but success would never be too far away. With 54 league titles, 33 Scottish Cups, 27 Scottish League Cups and seven seasons in which they won all three, victory was almost automatic. In the Old Firm derby against rivals Celtic (50 league titles), who were just four miles away, Rangers were Scotland's dominant force.
Little did Rangers supporters realise that 2011's league title would be their last for the foreseeable future.
In February of the 2011-12 season, the club were placed into administration over a $9m unpaid tax bill and, once the full scale of their debts (over $20m) was exposed, the club were forced into new ownership and placed in the fourth tier of Scottish Football. The club swapped holding companies and the previous company remains in liquidation with finalisation unlikely anytime soon.
"The club was ripped apart on the back of the financial meltdown it suffered in 2012 and there were times during the many, many humiliations that were inflicted upon the club and its supporters that it would have been easy to believe Rangers would never regain their former standing," says Andy Newport, the Press Association's Scotland football correspondent.
But their fans' passion never wavered. Even in the fourth tier, Rangers played in front of a sold-out Ibrox Stadium, their support constantly numbering in excess of 50,000 per game. "It's so intense, it's a religion," says Ronald de Boer, who played for Rangers from 2000 to '04. "It was heartbreaking to see them in the lower divisions. You know what it does for the fans, but even then, they were selling out Ibrox. That says so much about them."
The current regime was formed in 2015, under chairman Dave King, with the previous unfit-for-purpose members (constantly targets for the supporters' ire) voted off the board. King's appointment brought off-field stability to the club and they progressed back to the top flight, but they were still poorer neighbours to Celtic. Prior to Steven Gerrard taking charge as manager in August 2018, they lost to Celtic 5-0 as their fierce rivals wrapped up their seventh straight title. Rangers finished third, but Gerrard's introduction brought newfound optimism, and in December 2018, they beat Celtic 1-0, ending their rivals' 13-match unbeaten run in the Old Firm derby.
"For a lot of us, it was a great feeling, but this is Rangers," says Stevie Clifford, who runs the 4LadsHadaDream Rangers blog and podcast. "We're the biggest club in the country and we shouldn't be dwelling on one win. It didn't rid any demons for me, as that's our level."
Rangers are second in the Scottish Premiership with 14 games remaining and are in the Europa League knockouts, having defeated Porto in the group stages. Optimism is returning to Ibrox. "You can't look too far ahead in the future, but they'd have learnt a lot, the club's far more stable," De Boer says. "Hopefully they are looking upwards now, rather than downwards."
To really heal the wounds of the past eight years, the Rangers' supporters need silverware. "The ideal scenario is the stability continues and that chapter of our history is put to bed and we return to where we should be which is winning leagues on a regular basis and that becomes normality," Clifford says. "That's where our club should be." -- Tom Hamilton
Sunderland: A nightmare on Netflix
Just three seasons ago, following their relegation from the top flight, Sunderland invited Netflix in to film the story of the club's triumphant promotion back to the Premier League; instead the world watched on as Sunderland collapsed to back-to-back relegations. Imagine the inner workings of a failing marriage you're trying to save being played out to an audience interlacing schadenfreude, voyeurism and bloodthirsty intrigue.
Things did not improve, either. The following season, 2018-19, Sunderland lost the League One playoff final and frustration hit a boiling point in December when they plummeted to 15th in the third tier, their lowest-ever league position.
"We thought Netflix were filming us at our lowest point, but we were wrong!" says Rory Fallow of the Wise Men Say podcast. "The club is not sustainable in League One, we have to go up as soon as possible."
A brief history sees 11 managers in five years, back-to-back relegations from 2016 to '18, their dirty laundry aired for all to see, a player imprisoned and overpaid signings all under the umbrella of mismanagement. The optimism triggered by the change in ownership from Ellis Short (who was famously awful in the transfer window) to Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven back in May 2018 has disappeared, and the club is again up for sale. They are on a decent run -- six wins and three draws in their last 10 games from Dec. 27 to the start of February -- but still, those who have followed Sunderland closely know not to get too carried away.
"The fans have actually been remarkably loyal. They are the only club to spend a decade in the Premier League and have nothing to show for it other than just about avoiding relegation year after year," says Luke Edwards of the Telegraph, who has covered Sunderland for 18 years. "To then tumble out of the Championship and get stuck down in League One for not one, but two years, I don't think there has been a worse-run English club in a generation. They have wasted millions and, until recently, the fans had not protested or called for regime changes. The anger this season is the culmination of all the mistakes, faux pas and blunders stretching back 10 years or more."
Earlier this season, the Wise Men Say podcast and fan groups coordinated their strongest call yet for Donald to sell the club. "There was dignity in that," says Fallow. "But we knew we were better and bigger than this." Enough was enough, but amid the cacophony of management manoeuvering, Sunderland's fans are still hopeful the season will end with promotion.
Fallow says it best: "Hopefully the final season of the Netflix documentary will show us having a good season for a change." -- Tom Hamilton