Harry Houdini was undoubtedly the greatest escape artist of all time, confounding New York at the turn of the century when he was padlocked into a packing case, which was bound with steel tape and dropped into the harbour off the Battery, and managed to extricate himself. In fact, so revered was Houdini in New York that when he died thousands turned out to see him buried one fine afternoon at 3.30pm. Then again at 5.30pm, 6.30pm, and half past seven.
I am joking, of course, but Everton FC were a little like that in the English First Division - now the Premier League - in the 1990s. Season after season, the Toffeemen mounted their escape bid from relegation, the most notable being in 1994 when they undid the final padlock nine minutes from time against Wimbledon at Goodison, sending Sheffield United down. As a result of this series of great escapes, Everton have spent more years in the top flight of English football than any other club.
It is 45 years since the Toffeemen slipped into the second tier, an era that has seen Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea all spend some time in the wilderness. Quite an achievement, and, as any Everton fan will tell you, those relegation dogfights live long in the memory. The pity is that this kind of last-minute escape act is likely to pass into folk memory. The vast sums invested from all over the world to buy into the English Premier League brand are not likely to be risked if the width of a goalpost or the whim of a referee could wipe millions off the value of the investment.
Be sure that right now schemes are being drawn up to ensure that no team in future will suffer the fate of West Ham, for instance, on Sunday May 11 2003, when after a remarkable run of results in the latter half of the season had seemed to assure their survival, a 2-2 draw at Birmingham on the last day of the season together with a win for rivals Bolton opened the trap door on the Hammers. My guess is that some sort of two-division Premier League will be devised so that franchises like West Ham, Manchester City, and Leeds United, who have flitted between the divisions over the years but maintain a strong fan base and international recognition, will have Premier League status preserved and thus be able to attract the investment guaranteeing their survival.
They would be joined, I guess, by teams like Nottingham Forest, Southampton, Cardiff, and Coventry to form two 14 or 15-team divisions in the Premier League. The rugby Super League in Britain has already adopted a system guaranteeing no relegation once a franchise has been awarded. Football will surely follow. The problem is that without relegation, there is no promotion, so a system will have to be devised to replace the excitement of the end-of- season promotion play offs.
Television in Britain too will need something to replace the last day of the season ritual. The switching of cameras between significant matches, the shots of supporters in the crowd holding portable radios to their ears seeking news from other grounds, and the climactic scenes of jubilation at one ground, and despair at another. All have become a staple of the football-on-TV diet. My favourite is the close-up of the despondent fan, swaddled in his club scarf, resting his head on his girlfriend's shoulder, unable to leave the stadium, long after the players and the rest of the fans have departed.
It is a drama on which I fear the curtain is about to fall. Martin.Kelner@yahoo.co.uk