For the purpose of our Football League reviews, we will be taking a look at the respective divisions in an overall sense rather than trying to make predictions or inspecting the clubs concerned too closely. If you are here looking for in-depth predictions made by the supporters of each of the seventy-two clubs of the Football League, we would recommend the venerable When Saturday Comes and its annual pre-season preview, which is available now from all good newsagents, or alternatively this collaborative project between two Football League blogs, The Seventy Two and The Two Unfortunates.
The promised land or football’s equivalent of purgatory or worse? One of the most fascinating things about the Championship in recent years is the extent to which it has come to mean all things to all people. At one end of the spectrum, it remains the fourth most-watched domestic league in Europe, living proof of the the fact that English football is far from being all about the Premier League. On the other, though, for those relegated from the Premier League it begins to loom large on the horizon as the realisation starts to sink in that relegation is a certainty or a possibility – an ogre, scaring supporters with the promise of empty seats, a summer clear-out of the players that were sensible enough to get relegation release clauses written into their contracts and, most worrying of all, no guarantee whatsoever of an automatic return.
The fall from grace for the clubs from the Premier League, at least, is now being more financially cushioned than ever. The new, improved parachute payments for clubs relegated from the top flight remain chicken feed in comparison with the money that Premier League clubs can expect to earn. A Premier League club will make a minimum of around £40m from one season in television money, and this amount is likely to increase in years to come as revenues from overseas rights sales continue to rise. The parachute payments amount to a total of £48m, to be paid over four years in the form of two payments of £16m, followed by two payments of £8m. By way of comparison, the clubs of the Championship make around £1m per season from their television rights deal, and the overall package has fallen in value by almost £70m from the start of the next contract, which kicks in next year.
As such, the three clubs relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season don’t find themselves staring into the abyss in quite the way that they might have been a couple of years ago, although two of the three possibly have financial issues that they have to deal with. It is anticipated, for example, that West Ham United’s debt will be pushed over the £100m mark as a result of their relegation and, whilst things aren’t quite as bad for Birmingham City as some headlines may have suggested a few weeks ago just yet, that their controlling shareholder, Carson Yeung, was arrested in Hong Kong last month and charged with five counts of money laundering can hardly regarded as a positive development for the club, whilst trading in Birmingham International Holdings, of which Birmingham City PLC is a subsidiary, was suspended from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on the company’s request at the end of last month.
The contrast between the pre-season atmosphere at these two clubs couldn’t be more striking. At West Ham United, the arrival of Sam Allardyce and a clear-out of much of last season’s dead wood seems to have led to a sense of cautious optimism, but at Birmingham City there was a small protest at their pre-season friendly match against Everton and there are some Birmingham City supporters who, wary of comparisons that have been drawn by some (with varying degrees of accuracy) to the most enduring financial basket-case of recent times, Portsmouth, may well be happy enough to end next season solvent and not having been relegated to League One. Such paranoia may be an exaggeration, but such a scenario is not competely out of the question when it would have seemed almost unthinkable, say, a year ago.
If the modern Premier League has become something of a stultifying environment in which every club has an allotted role and plays it to the fullest of their abilities (or lack thereof), the Championship has, in recent years, become fertile ground for clubs that we might not necessarily expect to challenge for or win promotion. The success of Swansea City and Norwich City last season is obvious, but in recent years Blackpool, Burnley, Hull City and others have all come from nowhere to sneak into the top division for a season, at least. This has a knock-on effect on clubs relegated into the Championship, and last season none of the clubs that had fallen into the league came particularly close to as much as a place in the play-offs. Bouncing straight back at the first attempt is far from guaranteed. This state of affairs, however, does give hope to others. Norwich City’s two successive promotions and Swansea City’s rise from the depths of League Two in 2003 to the Premier League will have given a little hope to clubs such as Brighton & Hove Albion and Southampton, who were both promoted from League One with some comfort at the end of last season and may harbour ambitions of equalling Norwich last season. Whether they can match such a singular achievement this season, though, is a different matter.
Much this season’s Championship, however, looks like much of a muchness this season, and this is likely to make for an entertaining division. The transfer market, Leicester City aside, has been reasonably quiet, as if a new reality has dawned on clubs at this level that attempting to spend their way into the Premier League carries risks at least as great as the sometimes transitory glories that a winning roll of the dice can bring. Leicester City are the exceptions to this particular rule, with the perhaps predictable effect that they tie with West Ham United as the current bookmaking favourites to go up. Beneath these two clubs, though, there is a clump of ten clubs that the bookmakers seem to be effectively unable to separate, and if we pause to consider the way that this league has played out over the last couple of seasons or so, this may well be the way that things end up.
If the teams are difficult to tell apart, then we have to look elsewhere for signs of what might make the difference between them. Which managers are capable, as, say, Paul Lambert managed with Norwich City last season, of dragging their teams’ confidence up that extra notch, a notch that could win that all important five or six points come next April or May. The arrival of Steve McClaren at Nottingham Forest is an interesting one, in that McClaren has all but rehabilitated his reputation after his dismal spell in charge of the England team in taking FC Twente to their first ever Eredivisie championship in the Netherlands. Wolfsburg proved a step too far for him, but Forest sit as the third favourites to get promotion – possibly a reflection on the shortcomings of Billy Davies, which cost Forest in the play-offs last season – but still it is difficult to see them being significantly stronger than the chasing pack. It all remains, however, all too close to call with much confidence.
The landscape of football is changing. Any European Super League would likely form another fault-line within each of the domestic leagues in Europe, and the irony is that, for that we complain about the way that our clubs are run (and, for the avoidance of doubt, we are right to complain about this), the lower ranking clubs of England are arguably better equipped, thanks to the volume of their support, to cope with it than some of their contemporaries on the continent. We already know that there is a market for football at this level, and if clubs can reign in their spending in the pursuit of indeterminate glory, then we might yet find ourselves in an environment in which there isn’t a perpetual cycle of debt and crisis. Those that have fallen into it from the Premier League and failed to get back up will already know that this is a competitive division that is plenty capable of causing considerable surprise, and that, for all the dominance of the biggest clubs, there is a substantial market out there for it. Arguably against all odds, the Championship has found an identity, and football’s equivalent of purgatory it isn’t. We should, if anything, be prouder of the strength of the game in depth in this country than it sometimes appears that we are.
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