To do so much as glance at the Football League Championship table can often be a most disorientating experience. At a glance, should be a considerable amount of orthodoxy in this division. On the one hand, the Championship swallows up the lion’s share of the relatively meagre amount of television money that the Football League can muster from its negotiations with Sky Sports and the BBC, whilst the bigger clubs in the division manage to make considerably more in terms of gate money and other commercial revenue than many of their smaller rivals. On the other, meanwhile, the lavish parachute payments that should, in theory at least, comfort the landing of those that fall into the division from the Premier League to an extent which makes automatic promotion straight back, if not a certainty, then at least a distinct possibiity.
In this particular division of the English league system, though, and perhaps more than any other, logic can seem to fly out of the window in a matter of seconds. We shouldn’t, perhaps, be too surprised by what is going on at the top of the table. Watford lead a group of six who are within three points of each other and, whilst the appearance of Bournemouth in second place might raise a few eyebrows, the identity of the other four clubs in the automatic promotion and play-off places – Middlesbrough, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Derby County and Norwich City – isn’t anything too extraordinary, even if we take into account the fact that Wolves were only promoted from League One at the end of last season. Five of the current top six have at least tasted the Premier League before.
It is at the other end of the table that everything starts to become a little muddier. Of the division’s bottom seven clubs, only Brighton & Hove Albion haven’t experienced at least one season in the rarefied altitude of the Premier League before, and they made the Championship’s play-offs for the last two consecutive seasons prior to this one, without getting promotion. The other six clubs at the foot of the table, however, are clubs that will have been familiar names at some point or another, even to those amongst us that have limited their experience of the English football to its top division only over the last couple of decades or so. This sextuplet consists, of course, of Leeds United, Wigan Athletic, Fulham, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool.
The ongoing travails of Leeds United have made for much social media sniggering over the last few months or so. After the club’s peculiar take-over by Massimo Cellino at the start of this year, the club’s new owner, who arrived at Elland Road with tales of his previous eccentricities already common knowledge to supporters of the club, has spent much of the last ten months living, depending on your opinion of him, either very much up or down to the reputation which preceded him. Away from the pitch, controversy continues to shroud the tax affairs that concerned the import duty payable against his yacht, and the court case that may end up with the Football League forcing him to sell his shareholding in the club seems likely to rumble on and on, having been postponed last week after the judge that was due to oversee it had to stand down because of a conflict of interests.
For those who prefer their football without the rumblings of courtrooms and boardrooms, though, there has been little more succour for Leeds United supporters. The appointment of Dave Hockaday, previously of Football Conference club Forest Green Rovers, during the summer lasted for just six matches and his replacement, Darko Milanic, lasting just thirty-two days in the job himself before being sacked after a recent home defeat at the hands of Wolverhampton Wanderers and replaced by Neil Redfearn, who had himself become a semi-regular fixture in the Elland Road dug-out during his four spells as the club’s caretaker manager over the last two and a half years or so. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this lack of stability behind the scenes at the club has led to a run which has been the team go the seven matches since the twenty-seventh of September without a win. Redfearn’s first match in charge of the club – this time around, at least – ended in a three-one defeat away to Cardiff City at the weekend.
The two other former Premier League clubs in this six to be sitting just above the relegation places, Wigan Athletic and Fulham, played out an entertaining three-all draw at The DW Stadium on Saturday afternoon, a match that also featured two sendings off and which arguably ended with both teams feeling simultaneously relieved and aggrieved at the way that things turned out. When Shaun Maloney gave Wigan a three-twp lead with eight minutes of the match left the play, it might have felt for Wigan supporters as if a run that had seen the team draw four of its last five matches and which ended with last week’s surprising win at Derby County might have turned into something more upwardly mobile, but a penalty kick from Bryan Ruiz six minutes later took the wind a little from Wigan sails, even though Leeds’ capitulaton in South Wales lifted them up one place in the table.
That Ruiz should have scored two goals in this match wil be regarded by many as a vindication of the decision to terminate the occasionally bizarre managerial techniques of the club’s now-former manager, Felix Magath. The stories to emanate from the club’s training ground, from Magath’s decision to eschew the club doctor’s advice to resolve a slight injury to captain Brede Hangeland in favour of resting his player’s damaged leg on a large piece of cheese, to punishing training schedules which seemed more likely to either exhaust or injure players than do anything productive for them. The recently relegated club’s form under new manager Kit Symons has been patchy since then but, as convincing wins against Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic – as well as a home win against Norwich City – have confirmed, Fulham could be at the point of turning a corner in terms of rehabilitating themselves for life back in the Football League Championship, although the fact that the team has already conceded five goals on three occasions in the league this season – once since Magath’s departure – the key to ensuring a little stability on the pitch may be shoring up a porous defence.
Whereas the vagaries of the owner (who may yet not be very long for his position), a lengthy hangover from an extended stay in the Premier League and the bizarre practices of a hastily appointed manager may be toblme to some extent or another for the recent dificulties at Leeds, Wigan and Fulham respectively, however, the problems facing the three clubs that are currently filling the Championship’s relegation places feel rather more related to institutional matters within the club concerned. Birmingham City raised eyebrows nationally the weekend before last in shipping eight goals at home against Bournemouth and, whilst last weekend’s goalless draw at Wolves can, in this light, be seen as progress of a sort, there is likely considerable work still to be done on the pitch at St Andrews for a team that has won just once in the league since beating Brighton & Hove Albion in its first home league match of the season and, perhaps tellingly, recently lost consecutive league matches against fellow strugglers Bolton Wanderers and Fulham.
This form enough to do for manager Lee Clark, but to state that the club’s difficulties started and ended with Clark is to ignore the Carson Yeung-shaped shadow that continues to hang over the club. Yeung currently languishes in a Hong Kong jail after having been convicted of money laundering earlier this year, but the holding company that owns the club, Birmingham International Holdings Ltd, remains under the control of one director, Panos Pavlakis, whose partner is a relative of Yeung. The club remains in dire financial straits, as it has done for several years and, whilst the departire of Lee Clark was almost inevitable following the sheer weight of that home defeat by Bournemouth a couple of weeks ago, new manager Gary Rowett surely faces an uphill struggle if he is to keep the club above the drop zone by the end of the season. Still, last weekend’s point at Molineux was a start, at least.
One place below them, meanwhile, Bolton Wanderers remain technically solvent thanks only to the munificence of one man – supporter-cum-owner Eddie Davies. When eleven consecutive years in the Premier League ended in May 2012, the club’s supporters might have expected that there would be a back-up plan beyond “perpetual Premier League television money” to ensure the club’s ongoing financial health, but the announcement of a total debt of almost £164m at the end of last year would seem to indicate that if such a plan ever did exist, it it was flawed to the point of uselessness. Of course, if money is exremely tight, then financial prudence in the transfer marketplace becomes of critical importance, but Bolton Wanderers has given the distinct impression of being rudderless since its relegation from the Premier League, a state of affairs that has been reflected in the transfer market, where money seems to have been frittered away with the sort of abandon that is frankly unbecoming for a club whose total debt runs to nine digits.
As at several of the other clubs at the wrong end of the Championship table, Bolton Wanderers’ chairman, Phil Gartside, remains firmly in his position while the team’s manager has already paid the price for a poor start to the season with his job. Dougie Freedman was replaced by the former Celtic manager Neil Lennon last month, and a couple of wins has offered a chink of light to the club’s supporters, but defeat at Norwich City on Halloween – you can insert your own jokes there – left the club in the relegation places. Meanwhile, Gartside is reported to be in Thailand, discussing a possble takeover of the club. As with any takeover of a football club that is deeply in debt, the key question may well turn out to be that of what happens to the money that it owes. Gartside has always played down the size of the club’s indebtedness because so much of it – around £150m – is owed to Davies, but what happens to that money in the event of the club being sold? Would Davies be forced to cut his losses and run, writing off a huge amount of money, or would the new owners be prepared to pa this sort of money down or refinance it, with no apparent coherent plan in place that seems likely to get the club back to the Premier League at present? Neil Lennon remains “unconcerned” by such talk of new owners, but Bolton supporters have been fretting over the management of their club for some time, now.
Still rooted to the bottom of the Football League Championship, however, are the division’s current standard-bearers for basket-casery, Blackpool, a club for whom, with just six points from their first fifteen league matches and just one league win all season, relegation at the end of this season already has a distinct whiff of inevitability about it. The story of the club’s summer has already been a well-worn one, of twenty-eight players on one year contracts leaving the club in June, leaving beleagured manager José Riga with just eight players – and no goalkeepers – just a few days before the start of the new season. Those particular holes were plugged, but this season has been as dismal for the Seasiders as that chaotic summer may have hinted. Riga lasted, somehow, until the end of last month before being replaced by Lee Clark, but at this club more than any other in the division it feels as if merely replacing the manager is unlikely to make much difference to the club’s current plight. Blackpool, a club to whom we will return over the next couple of weeks or so, are already seven points adrift of the dotted line that marks safety – of sorts – and a routine home defeat at the hands of mid-table Ipswich Town at the weekend revealed few signs of an immediate bounce in the team’s fortunes upon the arrival of a new manager.
Hunting for issues in common at the clubs which currently inhabit the nether regions of the Championship isn’t easy, but what we can say with a degree of certainty is that, whilst five of the bottom seven cubs in the division have already replaced their manager – Leeds United more than once, of course – none of those actually running these clubs seem to have fallen on their swords over the positions in which their clubs find themselves at present. There seems little danger of Blackpool’s Karl Oyston, Phil Gartside or any of the rest of them holding themselves to account for their clubs’ precarious positions, especially when there is somebody more expedient who can act as a fall guy on their behalf. Four of these seven will be saved come the end of this season. It feels, however, that for those four survival may well come about as a result of even greater incompetence on the part of those who fail to survive the count. Such is the basket-casry of the Football League Championship.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.