The Absolute State Of Things – The Championship, 2019/20
The times might well be a-changing in a broader sense, but the Championship retains the feel of a particularly messy episode of Jeux Sans Frontieres. This particular division has built its popularity on the very values that those who run its member clubs likely hate more than anything else. The pricking of hubris and ego, the strong seam of chaos that runs through everything, that feeling that just about anything might happen… these are amongst the reasons why the Championship is so popular, but for those who are invested in this forty-six match slog (whether financially or emotionally), it increasingly feels as though the season in this particular division can be a form of psychological torture.
For the owners of the clubs, the sweet, cloying scent of desperation is in the air. They’re so close to the Premier League and all the ivory back-scratchers they could ever hope for that they can taste it, but two automatic promotion places and a play-off is, for a division of twenty-four clubs, slim pickings, and those who’ve fallen through the trapdoor in recent years have more than demonstrated that even parachute payments don’t necessarily go as far as many believe they do. It’s all very well starting the season with tens of millions of pounds more in the bank. The real challenge is in spending that money wisely, and this has proved to be a considerably greater challenge than most relegated clubs have been able to meet, in recent years.
In tandem with this, we’re now firmly stuck in an era of “blue sky thinking.” Whether through the creative accounting of selling your own ground back to yourself in order to try to mask your financial incontinence – which may be a sly move but is also a one-off that doesn’t address the small matter of routinely leaking money on players left, right and centre – or through the near-open rebellion against the EFL’s new television contract and iFollow streaming service, the hint of anarchy was in the air last season, all of which would be terribly exciting were at it not for the strong likelihood that those leading this particular “revolution” are likely doing so entirely for their own good rather than for any broader benefit. That, however, seems to be the nature of the modern world.
The start of a new season, however, is a curious time. It’s the point at which we devote more time than could possibly be good for us on minutiae, on forensically examining each new signing as though any one individual might ultimately hold the lever controlling our dopamine levels for the next nine months. It’s possible that this can be the case. Using the examples of last year’s Championship, for example, it’s doubtful that Norwich City supporters would have enjoyed their season quite so much had Teemu Pukki not had such a blistering time of things in front of goal. On the whole, though, new signings are somewhat less likely than the overall health of a football club from top to bottom in terms of deciding who will finish where come next May.
None of the three clubs relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season did so in anything like a catastrophic condition. By common assent, Fulham’s chances of staying up last season were hamstrung by their lavish yet scattergun approach to the transfer market following promotion last year. This time around, their attacking quartet of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Anthony Knockaert, Ivan Cavaleiro and Tom Cairney looks like the most exciting in the division, but their defence looks as though it may continue to have the jelly-like consistency that it had last year. Cardiff City were not expected to tear the Premier League up last year, but retain the experience of Neil Warnock and have added to the spine of a team that may have floundered a little at a higher level but has plenty of experience in the peculiarities of this division. Much of Huddersfield Town’s summer has been overshadowed by the furore surrounding their kit launch stunt, but perhaps, considering the their form throughout the whole of last season, that’s a good thing.
Then there’s the tier of clubs for who the Premier League would ideally have thirty clubs in it. Leeds United will hog press attention and headlines, but manager Marcelo Bielsa has taken the calculated gamble of letting Pontus Jansson live out his childhood dreams of playing for Brentford and, despite bringing in a couple of decent signings – most notably Hélder Wander Sousa de Azevedo e Costa (that’s Helder Costa to you and I) – he already has a somewhat thin squad which looks as though it’s already down to its bare bones before a ball has even been kicked. They will lock horns again with Derby County, who replaced that guy with Phillip Cocu, fresh from a disastrous spell of less than 100 days in charge of Fenerbahçe last season, but had previously previously won the Eredivisie title in the Netherlands three times in five years with PSV.
Elsewhere in the division, there has been a surprising number of unexpected names arriving in coaching positions at Championship clubs over the course of the summer. Swansea City’s decision to appoint Steve Cooper after more than a year coaching at a youth level with both Liverpool and England may turn out to be either inspired or disastrous (perhaps more troubling for Swansea is the loss of two of their better young players, Daniel James to Manchester United and Oli McBurnie to Sheffield United), whilst Nottingham Forest replaced Martin O’Neill with Sabri Lamouchi, a man with neither playing or managerial experience in this country, and Jonathan Woodgate is the rookie at Middlesbrough, a club which has been boring its supporters to tears for the last couple of seasons. He promises more entertainment for Boro supporters, though this doesn’t feel like a particularly high bar when we consider that, despite finishing in seventh place in last year’s league table, they only scored forty-nine league goals last season.
Others with recent Premier League experience are unlikely to find this season much easier than last time around. Stoke City’s Nathan Jones needs to improve on the win record of just three in twenty-one games since his defection from Luton Town in January if he’s to stay in that particular job for very long, whilst at West Bromwich Albion Slaven Bilic slides into the shoes of previous caretaker James Shan, who steadied the ship at The Hawthorns throughout the closing weeks of last season with expectations of returning to the Premier League a little more tempered than they were this time last year. Both of these clubs now understand just how difficult this division can be difficult to bust out of in an upwardly direction.
Then of course, there are this year’s contenders to be The Championship Team That Comes From Nowhere. The Championship seems to have one almost every season – it was, of course, Sheffield United last season – and this season’s favourites seem to be Bristol City and Brentford, which most likely means that it won’t be either of them. Disregarding my facetiousness, though, both of these clubs could come good, having both improved somewhat on teams that occasionally sparkled last season. Blackburn Rovers weathered the storm of relegation into League One in 2017 quite healthily, bouncing straight back into the Championship and then consolidating last season while never looking in any serious danger of getting sucked into a relegation fight. Mid-table, but not so far short of doing better.
Elsewhere, Preston North End and Sheffield Wednesday, two grand old names of English football who have been treading water a little for the last few seasons, may also fancy their chances of a top six finish. Preston have a team with a reasonable amount of experience, and manager Alex Neil has now had a couple of years to bed in. Wednesday, however, had their summer disrupted by Steve Bruce’s shenanigans and start the new season with a caretaker, in the form of former captain Lee Bullen, in charge of the team. This is Bullen’s third spell as caretaker-manager at Hillsborough, and he’ll presumably be hoping that the club’s relative prevarication over choosing a replacement for Bruce will give him the opportunity to prove his chops.
And then, of course, there’s the flotsam and jetsam, the clubs for whom the first objective for the coming season is to keep their heads above water. None of the three promoted teams – Luton Town, Barnsley and Charlton Athletic – seem likely to tear the division up this time around, with Charlton probably the best-placed to end the season as the Championship’s Basketcase Of The Year thanks to the ongoing proclivities of owner Roland Duchatetlet, who these days simply doesn’t seem to like Charlton Athletic or indeed football very much any more. If he even did in the first place. If he continues with outbursts like this, we can probably expect the return of tennis balls to the pitch at The Valley by the time the clocks go back again.
Also falling into the category of clubs that could – and it’s only a “could” – end their season in something of a smoking crater are Wigan Athletic, Reading, Hull City and Queens Park Rangers, each of whom would likely consider a quiet season of mid-table anonymity to be an achievement, of sorts. Meanwhile, Birmingham City have lost Che Adams and Garry Monk but have gained the promising Dan Crowley and a new coach in Pep Clotet, whilst Millwall struggled for much of last season and haven’t done much over the last couple of months to suggest that this season will be a great deal easier than the last was. Still, at least they’re experienced in these Championship relegation fights, even if they haven’t always been successful in getting sucked down in recent years.
It usually feels, though, as though the Championship is pre-scripted to trip up people who write pre-season previews? After all, how else to explain how such a financially uneven division – consider two years ago, when Aston Villa’s wage budget was eleven times that of Burton Albion – be so unpredictable? It seems counter-intuitive, and to a point the final league table seldom seems to stray that far from pre-season predictions, but always far enough to embarrass some and retaining that feeling that in this division anyone can beat anyone else on their day. As the Premier League continues its descent towards being little more than a series of exhibition matches for a majority of its clubs, such a level of competition is definitely bracing, though it certainly FEELSs at times as though it’s more fun to watch as a passive observer than it is if you’ve got an emotional involvement to one of its member clubs.
Pinning A Tail On The Championship Donkey
Promotion: Leeds United (because they presumably have to again, one day), Fulham (admittedly, those attacking options do look quite delicious), and Cardiff City (you may not like him, but Neil Warnock is pretty good at this “getting promoted from the Championship” lark, and their squad looks the best-balanced in terms of ability and proven experience at this level, I reckon.)
Relegation: Charlton Athletic (maniac owner, manager whose success might prove to have been a one season wonder), Reading (annual financial losses of £21m on the last set of accounts show the scale of the financial issues facing the club, though they do seem a little more stable than they had been), Queens Park Rangers (this actually could have been any one from about six clubs, but don’t get angry, QPR fans, my predictions are famously terrible.)