You have to, in some senses, wonder what they have to do in order to win any praise. With an extraordinarily close league table and three out of four of the places in the FA Cup semi-finals, you’d think that the media might just take the opportunity to reappraise the Championship, but no. On one of the very few occasions that The Guardian takes its eyes of the Usual Suspects, they hire someone to take a pop at it. The fact of the matter is that, in most matters, the media is very conservative. They don’t like the status quo being upset, and this year they’re starting the sledging early. At the top of the Premier League, everything is going on very much as normal. The Top Four are in the right place, Derby County are ripe to be laughed at by everyone else and everything is going on as per normal.
In the Championship, though, things aren’t going according to plan for the self-styled “bigger clubs”. The openness of the table this season has meant that clubs such as Southampton and Leicester City, who might quite conceivably have thought of themselves as being amongst the favourites for promotion before the start of the season, are instead in the middle of a thoroughly undignified battle against relegation. Meanwhile, the teams that have organised themselves properly have fought their way to the top of the table, and at this stage in the season it is churlish to suggest that they don’t deserve to be there. Stoke City and in particular Bristol City have done exceptionally well to still be in contention with seven or eight matches of the season left to play, but equally notable are the achievements of Plymouth Argyle and Hull City, both of whom sit in the play-off places. Neither of these clubs have ever played in the top division before.
It is a curious situation that the knives are already for these clubs when the evidence is that the clubs that get into the Premier League simply don’t get relegated straight back as a rite of passage. At the time of writing, Birmingham City and Sunderland are sitting just above the relegation places with every chance of staying up. To say that there is some sort of foregone conclusion about their going down is nonsense. Derby County are floundering at the bottom of the table because they have invested more or less none of the extra money that they got for being promoted on their team. It’s difficult to say whether this is a “good” decision or not. Their relegation is imminent, but they’re likely to be £40m better off for it, and their season in the sun has brought in investors from abroad. This being a good idea or not is dependent entirely on how the money is used. If it’s thrown away on players or making someone, somewhere rich, it will all have been a waste of time. If it’s spent sensibly, however, it could provide a springboard to a stable stay in Premier League in a couple of years time.
The suggestion has been put forward a couple of times that it is only a matter of time before a Championship club refuses to take promotion on account of the humiliation that a season in the Premier League. Ha! Fat chance! They don’t call the Championship play-off match “The £50m Match” for no reason, you know. You could argue that clubs are already refusing promotion. Derby could have had a go this season, but almost chose not to. The likelihood is that this will continue to happen. It will always be more difficult to get players year-long contracts, and newly-promoted clubs won’t want to take the gamble. They’ll settle for a year of humiliation and a nice big, fat pay cheque instead. It may yet be that West Bromwich Albion and Watford pull through and go up, with Charlton streaking back into the play-off places. On the other hand, we’ve seen in recent weeks that West Bromwich Albion are capable of imploding, whilst Watford’s six draws in a row hardly look like promotion form at this stage in the season. It’s not very often that three promoted teams all get relegated, but there would plenty of people betting on it if Stoke City, Bristol City and Plymouth Argyle were to go up. You never know, though.