The Championship – Where real football happens?

Is getting promoted to the Premier League a bad thing?  As commented earlier today by fellow contributor CG, it can lead to dark days ahead.

As the amount of money being spent on transfers and wages by the top 5-6 teams in the Premier League increases, a larger gap than ever is being created between them and the rest of the division.  If you support one of the top clubs, good for you.  Competition between this mini league of teams is still fierce and at this stage, it’s genuinely hard to say with any real conviction who will be Premier League champions come May 2012.

But, what about the rest of the Premier League?  Is it genuinely enjoyable to think of a top ten finish as a great season?  And merely avoiding relegation as a good season?  Are they happy knowing that without a new cash-rich owner, there’s very little chance of ever reaching the promised land of the Champions League and the gravy train that comes with it?  Sure, there might be the odd cup run that keeps the excitement going, but I still don’t think it’s enough for most fans.  We all crave success in the league.  It’s our bread and butter.

We want to see genuine competition between clubs, where any team has a chance of winning the league title. This is why I can’t wait for the new NPower Championship season.  Without question it offers a more level playing field, and throws up genuine shocks and surprises each season.  Yes, the huge parachute payments that clubs falling through the Premier League trapdoor receive do give them an advantage, however we’ve seen historically that this doesn’t necessarily help them on the pitch.  Clubs who have overspent trying to secure survival at the top level have had to come to terms very quickly with the huge loss in revenue that comes with being a Championship team.  You only have to look at the likes of Hull and Portsmouth last season who finished 11th & 16th respectively after relegation. Across the last four championship seasons, only three teams have been promoted at the first attempt following relegation (Newcastle & West Brom 09-10, and Birmingham City 08-09), proving that these teams are the exception not the rule.  This also highlights that the gap between the bottom half of the premiership and the championship isn’t as large as you might imagine.

What the Championship does so well, is give fans of the smaller clubs a realistic hope of promotion.  Look at Hull, Burnley, Blackpool and now Swansea.  The last four teams to be promoted to the premier league through the play off system.  All of them wouldn’t have been given a prayer by the bookies at the start of each season, but they have all defied the odds and won promotion.  Admittedly, none of them stayed in the Premier League for very long (we’ll see how Swansea get on this season) but as a wise man once said “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” and I’m sure that the play off memories will be remembered long after every Sunderland fan has forgotten how great it was to finish 10th in the premier league season after season.

Despite what many people think, the play offs are a great format and give most of the league something to play for.  If you support the team which finishes third and then get knocked  out in the semi finals, you are bound to feel aggrieved but I think it’s this very fact that the Championship offers this level playing field that makes it more exciting.  Imagine if the final two champions league places were allocated on a playoff system each season.  How much more exciting would the end of the premier league season be?

So what for the 2011-12 Championship season?  The bookies have West Ham and Leicester as the favourites to win the division at 7/2 and 4/1 respectively.  West Ham acquiring Kevin Nolan was a great bit of business but will they lose too many of their better players to mount a realistic challenge?  Will Sam Allardyce win over the fans?  Leicester are throwing around money likes it’s going out of fashion, spending £5m on Matt Mills from Reading, acquiring David Nugent from Portsmouth and they are also rumoured to be speaking with Owen Hargreaves about a pay as you play deal.   Both of these clubs should have good seasons but getting off to a good start is vital.

There have been a raft of managerial changes across the division, including Steve Mclaren’s return to English football with Nottingham Forest and Malkay Mackay taking over the reins at Cardiff after guiding a cash strapped Watford to mid table last season.  I would expect both of these clubs to be there or there-abouts.   The strength of the league is plain to see with Birmingham, Blackpool (despite CG’s reservations), Middlesbrough, Southampton, Reading and Leeds also having a clear eye on promotion.  Brighton are also a team worth keeping an eye on, as they have a good young manager in Gus Poyet and have made some excellent signings  – including pipping the favourites Leicester and West Ham to the signing of Craig Mackail-Smith.

The marketing for the Barclays Premier League will have you believe that there isn’t any other football worth watching next season.  I believe differently.  Check out the Championship next season and you won’t be disappointed.  Our prediction for the Championship season ahead?  That it won’t be predictable…