The Ultimate Drop tells twelve stories that are by turns depressing and exhilarating. Its subject matter is, on the face of it, the trapdoor which opened up from Division Four (as was) in 1987, when automatic relegation to the non-league Conference was introduced. Since then, ten clubs have made the "ultimate drop". The book tells the story of the first nine: Lincoln, Newport, Darlington, Colchester, Halifax, Hereford, Doncaster, Scarborough and Chester (the omission is Barnet, the most recent sufferer). Alongside these lie the tales of three notable escapees: Burnley, Brighton and Carlisle.
However, the book is more than just a record of a particular sporting curiosity. It serves to reveal the familiar problems faced by fans of too many clubs (familiar, that is, to those who follow football outside the Premiership). In many cases - Burnley, Newport, Brighton, Doncaster and Carlisle being the most obvious - these clubs were not in trouble by chance. Systematic (and in Doncaster's case, criminal) mismanagement by those who ran these clubs at the time was far more responsible for their crises than any real failures on the pitch. Throughout the book the pattern is depressingly repetitive. It is full of shady characters who flit in and out of the pages, seemingly full of promises and cash but when it comes to it, empty-handed. The names change - Bill Archer at Brighton, Jerry Sherman at Newport, Ken Richardson at Doncaster - but they are essentially identical. But the photographs which re-occur throughout the book, capturing that moment just after the final game, with fans hanging their heads in sorrow, are not of these people. It is not people like Archer who face the Ultimate Drop.
It is not all gloom, however. Of the relegated teams, only Newport have fallen further than the Conference, thanks to the complete collapse of the club the following season. Even here, however, something has risen, with the "new" Newport County having climbed back up the non-league ladder from scratch. Lincoln, Darlington, Colchester and Halifax have all returned to the league, and escapees Burnley and Brighton are, as I write, leaders of Divisions One and Two respectively. As well as these successes the book makes clear in general terms that fans will now stick together to help each other, something particularly obvious in the stories of Doncaster and Brighton.
Each chapter is written by a fan or fans of the club in question, and objectivity isn't something you get from this book - but it is all the better for that. It reminds you that football is the fans' game, not the owners'. You really get a feeling for the joy of football alongside the despairing moments, and see how dramatic single events, or matches, can change the whole course of a club's history. The illustrations also make the book work a look, with photographs on almost every page.
I would definitely recommend this book, and not only if you are a fan of one of the clubs in question. It's a book about football, not about twelve particular clubs. There's only one complaint: it's not very long (159 pages) and at £12.99 it's expensive for what you actually get. But if you're happy with that price, and love your football, I would buy this book - it might make you angry in parts, but it won't make you feel any worse about the game. About some of the people who run the clubs, and the football authorities themselves - well, that's a different matter.
-- Thanks to Tim for the pictures (© www.timcolville.co.uk) and and Drew for the words --
-- The Chester chapter was written by Paul Grech, who is the articles editor on the Footie 51 web site --