Who’s this week’s hero, Johnny?
This week’s hero isn’t a person or a club, it is a division of 24 teams who play 46 games per season. Formerly known as the Second Division, due to it actually being the second division, when the Premier League felt it necessary to rebrand the First Division to market itself as a special and premium product, it messed up all of the terminology that had previously been perfectly logical and instructive. Gone was the established, sensical norm and in came a load of old bollocks that even now, all these years later, still makes talking about any division more awkward and counter-intuitive than it need be.
The second division was known from 1992 to 2004 as the Football League First Division, which it actually was (despite also being the second), meaning that when people referred to the first division, everyone had to question which league they were actually referring to. Now there is no first division but the third division is League One. Of course. And still you hear people pause, stumble or have to qualify which level they’re really talking about and all because of the toxic leakage from the Premier League. Indeed, use of the words ‘tier’ or ‘flight’ have become the only easy way to refer to which league you mean.
The truth is, this is the second division of the football pyramid and many feel it is the best league in English football. That’ll be the Championship, then.
What have they done to deserve this then?
Well just look at how things are.
In the Premier League the top eight are already pretty much the teams we’d have expected and the top two already so predictable that we are being asked to try and get excited about whether Leicester City might finish fifth or sixth – and many of us find that something of a mammoth task. But one division down, with seven games played, there are just four points between top and 10th and no-one has a bloody clue what is going to happen and who will end up in the top six positions. This is exactly how it should be. Nothing can be taken for granted: you can go from low to high, high to low and make a case for almost any club, no matter where they are in the league, to at least make it into the play-offs until about December.
Last season Norwich City, having previously finished 14th, won the title, and Sheffield United, having come 10th, went up in second place. Last season, 10th and 14th were Swansea and Preston and hey look, Swansea are currently second and Preston fifth. It really could happen again. Or it might not.
To illustrate the contrast, if this was to happen in the Premier League this season, West Ham United would finish as runners-up and Bournemouth would win the title. Aye, right. That shows you just what a gulf there is between the two competitions.
Money matters much less down here, although so many club owners don’t seem to realise this and continue to virtually bankrupt clubs by throwing money at promotion. But look at Cardiff, Huddersfield and Fulham right now: all went down with a huge parachute payment, and are currently 14th, 23rd and 11th. The money hasn’t worked for them yet. And it often doesn’t at all.
Look at Derby County who, if they didn’t break FFP rules (and there are those on Teesside who think they did), they at least stretched the spirit of the law to snapping point. But they still didn’t go up. That is the brilliance of the Champo. It can neutralise your millions and then waste them for you. It can take the pish out of the rich and honour the poorer. It won’t be second guessed, it won’t be bought by the highest bidder and it won’t be predictable, or at least not for long.
Significantly, a team can lose quite a lot of games in a season and still go up. In recent years Cardiff went up losing ten, as did Newcastle. Sheffield United and Brighton lost nine. This means that there is still hope for a side after a defeat and always hope for other sides having seen a side lose. It keeps everyone interested all of the time. It facilitates quick rises up the league and speedy drops down. If your side is currently in the bottom third, the play-offs and promotion is still possible. In the top flight, there is already little to play for except avoidance of relegation for a minimum of 14 teams from the day the first ball is kicked. Not so in the Championship.
Randomness and unpredictability contributes to the interest, volatility and democracy at the heart of the league. For many seasons, there simply isn’t a big gulf between many teams and the loss or return of a good player to or from injury can make a significant difference. It is also very long and physically attritional and there in great pleasure in that. There are also midweek games under floodlights almost every week of the season, and everyone loves a midweek floodlit game. They help connect the weekend bookends and in doing that sustain fans through the working week.
Spending big as a route out of the league has happened at times, but much less often than getting out by good coaching and collective spirit. This is football as it was intended to be: sport, not shopping.
For my book Can We Have Our Football Back? I interviewed someone who has worked in football for 40 years in several different capacities and he said this:
“The best league in England is the Championship. Absolutely no doubt about that. Ask anyone in football who isn’t a bloody fool and they’ll tell you the same. It’s the most competitive football. And it still looks like football, you get me? You don’t know who is going to win any game, or win the league at the start of every season. You just don’t. That’s how it should be….(we all say) oooh, the Premier League is where we all want to be. That’s what we say, but it’s shit. It’s all to do with money and f*ck all else. That’s the truth. Anyone who says different is a liar. If you want competitive, unpredictable, honest football, don’t watch the Premier f**king League, watch any other league instead.”
He is far from alone in thinking this. Indeed, many I’ve spoken to feel it is has never been more true than it is now.
Big old clubs like Leeds and Villa often get regular press attention when in the second tier but the majority of the rest rarely do. Championship discussion tends to happen in more informed, niche places. But there are always some great stories that this league throws up.
Right now, Charlton, having been promoted last year, are in the play-off places under the management of one-time ratter and fighter Lee Bowyer. Derby, hotly tipped to be in the mix at the end of the season, are 19th with just one win so far. Stoke are rock bottom and can’t buy a win. Alex Neil has got Preston punching above their weight. And are Forest finally going to make a proper push for promotion after a great win away at Swansea last weekend?
These are the sort of interesting topics discussed in dedicated press such as The Football League Paper and in the plethora of podcasts about the league. When reading or listening to these, there is a strong sense that they are talking about football played in the real world, in the local community, connected to the people in an important and powerful way that is both supportive and nourishing.
Actually, the degree to which the national tabloid press at least ignore the league unless it’s to ridicule Bielsa or complain that it’s full of foreign managers (it isn’t) is one of the league’s pleasures. Your mind is not dragged down to the lowest common denominator by traffic craving, URL-contriving websites. It feels like a totally different country, far away from the mile-wide, millimeter-deep shallow slurry written about a few top clubs that seems to be almost all of the press, all of the time.
Sadly when it comes to TV the league is behind a paywall which mean audiences are shrivelled. Top whack will likely be for a Leeds United game at around 400,000 viewers. A viewer being defined as someone who sees at least three consecutive minutes of the game! Last season Blackburn Rovers v Aston Villa got just 156,000 – many will get less than that. However, it is a huge live draw with 10.8 million attendances across the season. Given that self-evidently most people won’t watch it on paywall tele, this is proof that football is innately an attractive sporting event for so many people.
We love football and we will go and watch it regardless of television and its money. We always have. We always will. In a very real way, the Championship proves that football doesn’t need television; rather it is television that seems to think it needs football.
Anyone grumpy about it?
There are always some who are obsessed with only watching what they love to refer to as ‘elite’ football, even though every Premier League season produces countless tedious and far from elite in any way games. These people seem to think football is like shopping for designer clothes and they simply can’t face wearing something less overpriced and heavily marketed. For them top flight is always best because it is the ‘top’. But many feel very different indeed and are driven by different values and understandings.
The Premier League has turned itself into a shoddy game of Monopoly and really doesn’t want anything as real life as the Championship shining a brighter light than it can muster. Moreover, they really don’t want to be so badly thought of that fans of many clubs who should be seeking to get promotion into it, really would rather it didn’t happen. A measure of its dysfunction is that many only want the money it offers to secure the club’s future but are far happier watching football at a lower level. That is perhaps the greatest compliment to the second tier and the biggest insult to the Premier League and the horrible financial model it is based on. Everyone wants to win the league but going up has never had less appeal.
I have to also raise the issue of VAR. It isn’t present in the Championship of course and this is of great relief to many fans. Is the league any less engaging because of it? Of course not. We love football for all its human failings, as well as for its human achievements.
It must be said however that too many clubs in the Championship are gambling with their future in a bid to get promoted. The wages bills are far, far too high. Reading’s 2017/18 accounts showed that for every £100 the club earned, it spent £197 on wages! That wages are so high is insanity and obviously unsustainable and puts too many in danger of going out of business. This is all toxic leakage from the Premier League and its money-obsessed culture. Clubs, fans and players need to understand profoundly that survival is more important than anything else. Just being there is success. The rest of it is just a thin icing on that wholesome cake.
What the people say
These comments are very revealing. Fans know exactly why they love the league. They are not fooled by the Premier League propaganda and see the football they watch in the Championship as being engaging, competitive and entertaining. There is a warmth of appreciation that is largely absent from the top flight.
In 4 seasons of covering the Champ, 12 different teams have won promotion.
No season looks like the one before. Attack vs defence matches are minimal.
There’s no blueprint: different styles of play, different squad compositions, new star players/managers each yr.
— Not The Top 20 Pod (@NTT20Pod) September 19, 2019
‘In covering the Championship for @NTT20Pod we see how much fans enjoy being in the league, often to their own surprise. The hurt of PL relegation is forgotten when crowds are back watching their teams scoring goals and playing their part in genuinely end-to-end games. It’s also now the hotbed of some of the most exciting young talents in Europe. You only have to look at how the likes of Mason Mount and Emi Buendia have lit up the PL this season (to name two), and the majority of the England squad cut their teeth at Championship level. More will follow’ – George Elek.
‘Having the amazing opportunity to write about the Championship for @F365 and truly realising how many stories, angles, and tales there are to tell every weekend, nay, every day. It’s a cliche to say it’s the most entertaining division in the world, but it’s a cliche for a reason’ – Nathan Spafford.
Best league in the world’
‘Always affectionately described it as a “bonkers division”. Never a dull moment, you’ve got half the division each season laying claim to being a candidate for the top six. Ultra competitive, exciting and still manages to resonate with the everyday fan, no mean feat these days.’
‘It’s just so unpredictable. The football is nowhere near the PL but I love it to bits as it’s warts n all. Year of transition with Woody so quite happy to stay for another season until we’re ready.’
‘I think the unpredictable nature of the Championship is what makes it so exciting , With 10 games to play 10 teams or more can be in the running for promotion.’
A 46 game division which is the equivalent of climbing Everest straight after doing Tough Mudder. In other words, it's exhausting, exciting and bat-shit mental.
— Ben Murray (@rubym83) September 19, 2019
‘Wasn’t overly hurt at WBA’s relegation as it was coming over time. Got the buzz back as the game after game pace is relentless. A bad result can quickly be forgotten about. Do i want to go up? Money wise yes, enjoyment wise no.’
‘Saturday 3pm kick offs when Sky don’t get their noses involved.’
‘Each season there’s 15 clubs that will have some chance of getting promoted. It’s a competition with actual competition.’
‘As a Preston fan I love it, no game is given, you can win or lose any time, the football is great, the genuine competition makes me almost not want to get promoted.’
I’m clearly biased but the Championship Play-Offs (plus League One & Two) are the best thing to happen to domestic football in the last 30+ years. Drama, tension, delight & despair. Football at its rawest & finest.
— richard foster 🦅 (@rcfoster) September 19, 2019
‘Haven’t seen much of it in the past three seasons, due to broadcasting unavailability in my region. But it’s still the best league. Who doesn’t want a league that makes your predictions look foolish, where literally anything can happen. Plus, no bloody VAR!’
‘Dragged to countless Wolves matches 20-odd years ago by my dad, and I was always struck by how fans seemed to cheerily acknowledge the supposedly modest standard whilst simultaneously arguing that it was the toughest division to get out of, and I grew to agree with both views!’
‘First season back after 12 years away, didn’t really remember it back then as I was 11 but so far it’s been unreal. Knew it’d be good but not this good. Every game we’ve played in so far has been immense.’
‘As a Leeds fan I’m sick to death of it, hopefully this will be the last season we’re in it for a loooooong while.’
The league that the Prem claims to be – competitive and truly unpredictable, where any team really can beat any other. Vastly more fun to be in, rich in the humour the Prem totally lacks. Will have seriously mixed feelings if @SwansOfficial start is maintained…
— Huw Richards (@huwrichards3) September 19, 2019
‘As a Preston fan, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. After over a decade in the Champ, our years in L1 were awful: dreadful football in front of crap crowds. I love that we can bloody the nose of the “big” clubs and compete despite our modest resources now we’re back.’
‘It’s an FA Cup every week. Play at a 10k ground one week and a 30k ground the next.’
‘A weird one for me, it’s a case of the journey is better than the destination.’
‘The best thing about the division is that anybody can beat anybody every single game as sides are generally evenly matched. There’s no guarantee in this division, with higher league sides frequently losing to those at the lower end. The quality is normally pretty good too.’
Real answer: the team who are top of the table (Leeds) have failed to score in just one game. The team who are bottom of the table (Stoke) have also failed to score in just one game. The only undefeated side (West Brom) have no clean sheets. And that's the Championship.
— Steven Chicken (@StevenChicken) September 19, 2019
‘Leeds United. We’ve spent too long there, we shouldn’t be there, but the fact that we are still there is testament to the strength, quality and unpredictability of the Championship.’
‘My favourite league. Was quietly gutted when we went up via the play-offs last year.’
‘League is great fun, unpredictable, well supported & so much more enjoyable than the PL.’
‘I do think we’ll be back in it next season though. Like all properly entertaining leagues it’s very open, and often a lot kinder to teams promoted into it than those relegated into it.’
What does the future hold?
For years I’ve said that winning more games in a lower league is always more fun than hanging on in desperation to your Premier League status. I’ve also said that relegation to the lower leagues is a sort of liberating dash for freedom away from the oppressive, hope-crushing Premier League. There have always been a lot who felt exactly the same, who always enjoyed life outside of the top flight and that is why attendances have always been high. It might not have the profile that its noisy neighbour has, but any glance at the league and at the results reveals exactly why it is so loved and is felt by many to be a repository of a more humane and welcoming football culture.
There are issues of course. Almost all the clubs are sponsored by betting companies, dependent, like all of football and its media on gambling money, in lieu of better sources of income. And the Football League really does have to get its house in order. Some of its clubs have a desire to become a sort of PL2 and thus hoover in more cash.
This is a serious delusion and based on a misreading of where we are in history. The days of Big Money, though it may not seem like it yet, are not too far away from ending. We are on the cusp of a revolution which will strip away all the big money for TV rights. The last thing any club in the Football League should be thinking about is breaking away to try and imitate an unsustainable league which is about to be consigned to history. The future is a more fair, more even financial playing field. Just trying to hoover up more cash to pay players ever more and push up transfer fees is a fool’s paradise which will solve nothing, as greater income is merely soaked up by inflation. Less money and more sensible fiscal discipline is tomorrow’s coolest position to hold.
For all that the Premier League trumpets itself as the biggest and fattest pig on football’s Animal Farm, the Championship is already an incredibly popular league – even if it has a meaningless name. All that needs to happen is for the governing body to implement some responsible restrictions to stop asset strippers and other ne’er do well buying clubs, stop clubs betting the farm on getting promoted and stop them paying wages that are out of all proportion to their income. If club owners can’t or won’t act responsibly they must be legally forced to do so.
But even with all of these background problems ongoing, it remains a remarkable spectacle and one which gives its supporters a lot of pleasure and still upholds some of footballs timeless local and civic community values. It is the real premier league.