The Championship Lives Up & Down To The Hype
For the moment, it’s all fun and games. Last night in the EFL Championship brought the last day of the regular season, and the scramble was more desperate than ever. With financial storm clouds now gathering over the entire league, there was an extra edge to clubs seeking to get promotion or avoid relegation, but the drama that came with it may well turn out not to be the end of the story. The febrile atmosphere brought about by the pandemic and a sense of unhappiness at the slapdash way in which seasons were curtailed has led to a feeling of civil war being about to break out both amongst clubs and between the clubs and the EFL itself. Never has the possibility of court action after the end of the regular season felt more likely, as as scores of clubs finding themselves staring down the barrel of what feels increasingly like an existential crisis. This is, after all, the Championship.
At the top of the table, with Leeds United already confirmed as the champions of the division, all eyes turned to The Hawthorns and Griffin Park. At the end of last week, it looked as though West Bromwich Albion, who’d been in the top two in the division since last autumn, might have blown their chance of a return to the Premier League. Defeat at Huddersfield Town last Friday night – a result which, true to the counter-intuitive form of clubs in this division, led to the sacking of the Huddersfield manager Danny Cowley – gave third placed Brentford a huge opportunity. Win at struggling Stoke City and Brentford, who’ve been away from the top flight for 73 years, could go into the final round of fixtures in one of the automatic promotion places. They lost, 1-0. This is, after all, the Championship.
All, however, was not lost with this result. Last night, West Brom were at home against Queens Park Rangers whilst Brentford were at home against Barnsley. Albion could only labour to a 2-2 draw giving Brentford another opportunity. A victory would have made last night’s match the last to be played at Griffin Park before they move to a new stadium, but now there will be one more. Barnsley won by two goals to one, a sink of the nervousness that creeps into play when a £170m cheque is dangled within arms reach of a football club. Brentford will now go into the play-offs, but such moments can have a tendency to feel like “sliding doors” moments, especially when all matches are being played in such a weird environment. What might have happened had the grounds been full for these matches? What will the psychological affect be on Brentford’s players? We’ll find out in a couple of weeks.
Barnsley, meanwhile, have probably saved themselves with this win, and the drama at the bottom of the table eclipsed that at the top. It’s a statistic that has been quoted a lot over the last twelve hours or so, but it bears repeating as proof of the lunacy of which this division is capable. None of the teams that made up the bottom five places in the division ended up getting relegated, and Barnsley were amongst them. The teams to fall ended up being Hull City, whose form fell off a cliff in the closing stages of the season and who fell to a 3-0 defeat at Cardiff City, Charlton Athletic, who were beaten 4-0 at Leeds United, and Wigan Athletic, although whether we’ve heard the last of Wigan’s plight remains very much open to question.
Wigan held Fulham to a 1-1 last night. They should have been comfortably safe. Despite having lost a couple of games to end a remarkable run to haul themselves out of the relegation places, the points deduction incurred as a punishment for entering into administration left them needing at win last night in order to keep them up, and it’s worth asking the question of who, exactly, is being punished by this points deduction. The owners who bought the club, made their quick buck, and collapsed it (rumours of whether this was actually over a bet remain unconfirmed) have made their exit. They won’t be back, so those who’ve borne the brunt of their malfeasance would appear to be innocent victims. The players, the manager, the supporters and the club’s other staff.
It’s a wretched situation, exacerbated by the EFL’s ongoing inertia on this matter, and it would not be in the least hit surprising to see the points deduction being legally challenged. For now, though, we’re left with the staggering reality that not only can a football club be gamed in this way, but also that the only people who suffer as a result of it are the entirely blameless. It stinks, but that’s the nature of life in the EFL these days for you. And this is, after all, the Championship.
Indeed, all three of the relegated clubs have supporters that have been woefully let down by the game’s authorities. The supporters of both Hull City and Charlton Athletic have both been kicked from pillar to post in recent years by owners whose involvement in the game is entirely perplexing. The Allams continue to rule the roost at Hull, any lingering goodwill at their having been on charge of the club when it managed to get into the Premier League having completely evaporated with the team’s decline since then. Charlton supporters may have hoped that their years of misery were coming to an end with promotion from League One and the despised Roland Duchatelet finally selling the club. This year, however, saw a very public falling out between the new owners of the club, all of which led to a takeover of ESI the company which purchased it from him, last month. For all three of the relegated clubs, the loss of revenue that comes with relegation could be disastrous.
For the time being, though, the three relegated clubs have some degree of hope to cling onto. Wigan Athletic’s points deduction has proved controversial, but that’s nothing compared to what might happen should Sheffield Wednesday and/or Derby County find themselves receiving the same over the shenanigans relating to the sale of their grounds to their owners at what are alleged to be over-inflated values in order to balance their Financial Fair Play books. At the exact time of writing, we don’t know what the verdict is going to be in either case. Either club could end up being deducted enough points to be relegated themselves, and any of these three stories could yet end up in court. How this plays out with the EFL due to start its new season at the start of September (or thereabouts) is anybody’s guess, at present.
External factors weren’t required for all clubs finding a way to frustrate their supporters last night, though. A couple of weeks ago, Nottingham Forest were shoo-ins for a play-off place, but their form since fixtures resumed has been abysmal. Even so, though, the manner of their implosion at home against Stoke City last night was spectacular. Even losing the match wouldn’t have been a disaster had they managed to keep their goal difference in check, but they lost 4-1 while Swansea City won 4-1 at Reading to overcome a five goal difference and sneak into the final play-off spot. It’s been two decades since these former champions of Europe were a top division club, and they’ll have to wait at least another year before reclaiming that place again. “What might have been” doesn’t begin to describe it.
For every club with a fan base waking up to the dull, aching thud of disappointment this morning, though, there is another that probably can’t believe their luck. Under the slew of comment on Forest’s shortcomings last night – and, since social media loves nothing as much as schadenfreude, there was a lot – one achievement probably hasn’t received the attention that it should. When Nathan Jones left Luton Town for Stoke City in December 2018, it would have felt unimaginable that he would return to the club. Jones’ time with Stoke didn’t, of course, turn out as he might have hoped, and he lasted less than a year in the Potteries before being relieved of his duties there. Luton were on the way the promotion at the point of his departure and, even though they completed this in his absence, there was a mixed response to his return to Kenilworth Road at the end of May.
They’d been in the relegation places since December and at times had looked as though they were sliding from view. Last night, though, they completed something remarkable. A 3-2 win against Blackburn Rovers lifted them up to 18th place in the table, securing a second season of Championship football for the club. Sixteen points in the nine matches since his return was enough for them to scramble to safety, but even last night’s win needed more than a stroke of good luck. Two Blackburn own goals and a penalty kick have them a 3-1 lead before a Sam Gallagher goal with fifteen minutes to play set up a nervy ending to the match. In February, Luton were ten points adrift of safety. Should we be surprised at them pulling it off? Well, yes and no. This is, after all, the Championship.