This Friday sees the start of another Championship season, and while its bigger, richer and more vulgar relation, the Premier League, will remain the focus of most attention when it begins, many will be rubbing their hands in glee at the start of the league that many of us crazies still insist on calling Division Two on the grounds that it is the second division.
The Premier League soap opera, with its sometimes-unpalatable mix of high talent and big money, playing in front of a blend of hardcore supporters and fair-weather fans, all breathing in the stench of corporate venality, sometimes seems more like going to a sponsored football-themed fairground attraction than just watching a game of football. It’s not hard to see its qualities, and it is entertaining, but oranges are not the only fruit.
Drop down a division, take a cut in the general quality of individual skill, but an increase in competitive excitement and soul, and there is much honest fun to be had. And that’s why it’s the fourth best supported league in Europe. Last season it attracted 9,703,004 fans at an average of 17,578 per game. This was up 2.8% on the previous season. A lot of people bloody love the Championship. Given the quality of the football is sometimes judged as worse than the Premier League, why do so many people watch it? And what are all the Premier League addicts missing out on?
Variety. There are 24 clubs and they vary from the big, such as Newcastle United and Aston Villa, to small old school community clubs like Burton Albion and Barnsley. Then there’s the once glorious old warhorses like Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest. Some have money, some don’t, but regardless, it’s impossible to be sure who will do well and who won’t. As an away fan, you get a lot of different experiences going to big old stadiums like Hillsborough, small modern stadiums and creaking little grounds. It’s a dinner with far more spices than the Premier League.
Unpredictability. While last season proved the Premier League could, at least once, throw up a surprise, the Championship does that every season. Predicting who will go up is next to impossible. The only thing harder is to know who is going to be relegated. Big clubs can get relegated, small clubs promoted. Out of the best 10 supported clubs last season, only one, Middlesbrough, went up. The league doesn’t seem to kow-tow to money or reputation or size of support and that makes it exciting.
Derbies. The league is stuffed with them, be they South or West Yorkshire, West midlands, East midlands, west London or East Anglia. No week goes by without at least one big local grudge match which both sets of fans really care about. There’s less of ‘come on, entertain us then’ in the Championship, and the proliferation of local derbies is one reason why.
Money. It’s easier to feel more connected to the players and to the game they play when you’re watching Rotherham or Barnsley or Burton Albion players because you know that they’re not earning £30 every minute of every day. And also, as the monied teams quite often don’t succeed, it feels more democratic and more just. Not perfect, no, but often much better. Plus you can get to see pampered ex-Premier League players getting kicked up into the air at places they couldn’t previously have found on a map. There’s some satisfaction in that.
Aggression. The rules of football are the same for every division, or are supposed to be, but we all know they’re not. For some reason, you can be a lot more aggressive in the Championship. Getting stuck in is tolerated. Tackling hasn’t been redefined as a human rights abuse. The football is often much more stew than stir-fry, it is treacle sponge and pink custard to the Premier League’s dragon fruit sorbet. And a lot of people love it for that.
Cost. By and large it’s significantly cheaper to go and see a Championship game than in the Premier League. There are exceptions (Brighton’s priciest season ticket last season was £5.00 more than Newcastle United) and tickets are in general still far too expensive, but there are plenty of clubs whose cheapest ticket last season was under £20. The most expensive ticket was £52 at Sheffield Wednesday; in the top flight it was £97 at Arsenal.
Managers. We’re all sick of the Pep Guardiola/Jose Mourinho roadshow already, so imagine how weary we’ll be of it by December? And can you really bear to watch another Arsene Wenger interview? We could probably write everything he’s going say over the next nine months, right now. While there’s always fun to be had, the managers are over-exposed and do get dull and repetitive. But drop down a division and you find some really interesting characters in charge. How brilliant it’ll be to see Rafa Benitez, shirt coming untucked, in the dugout at Millmoor, or having to explain a defeat to Wigan. But it doesn’t stop there. There are plenty of other slightly odd characters such as Mick McCarthy, Nigel Clough, Barclays Premier League’s Owen Coyle, Chris Hughton, Nigel Pearson, Jaap Stam (yes that one, now at Reading) Neil Warnock and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. It guarantees some touchline antics and hopefully a few swear words directed at unappreciative fans. And that’s before we get to Leeds whom, as I write, have appointed Gary Monk, but by the time Saturday rolls around, may well have replaced him with Miami Steve Van Zandt, the corpse of Lenny Bruce, or a tin of pilchards in tomato sauce. Leeds United are the gift that keeps on giving – a bigger soap opera than Pavarotti in a Persil factory.
Lack of self-regard. The Premier League loves itself like a pedigree cat. It sits there licking its own fur and feeling very pleased indeed, and it uses a litter tray of shredded cash for its toilet. It knows the eyes of the world are on it and it likes it that way. But there’s only so much of that sort of overbearing vanity we can stand. By contrast, the Championship is an endearing mutt with one floppy ear and a cheeky look in its eye, trotting past you on its way to get up to no good down at the allotments.
Real Football. It’s hard to take the Premier League seriously. It can be great fun, of course, in the same way the Beano can, but there’s something very superficial about it. Something at its core that is…I dunno…something phoney, something ill at ease, almost childish and unbelievable about it. There comes a time when you need something more nourishing, something which is connected to real life, to real values and disconnected from appalling greed and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Welcome to tier two.
The Championship is much more about soul over gold, much more about community over corporate, much more dirty rock ‘n’ roll over slickly overproduced R & B.