ALMOST EVERY week, the Championship provides an enticing clash that commands the attention of the media, committed fans and neutrals. Last weekend, it was Leeds United v Sheffield United, a game that paired the second and third-placed teams in the division. When the Championship resumes on March 30, Middlesbrough play Norwich City and Sheffield United meet Bristol City.
The Premier rarely gives us a completely absorbing title race if we are totally honest about the competitive balance of the top division. This season, the battle for top spot has boiled down to Liverpool v Manchester City. It is more competitive than last season, true, but the climax will probably have a familiar look about it. More likely, the more interesting struggle will concern the Champions League placings.
Notwithstanding the financial habits of the Championship, a division where clubs pay-out more money in wages than they earn, there’s something exciting about a league where there is a degree of unpredictability about the composition of the promotion-chasing pack. This year, it happens to be Norwich City, Sheffield United, Leeds United, WBA, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Preston North End, Derby County, Bristol City, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest. That’s 11 clubs, almost half the division.
Parachute payments play a part in determining who can make a reasonable attempt for promotion and this season, Villa, Middlesbrough, Swansea, Stoke, West Brom, QPR and Hull are still receiving them. Swansea, Stoke and WBA, all relegated in 2017-18, are each receiving £ 41.6 million. Some say it is unfair, and it certainly creates an uneven playing field, but these cash bonuses don’t guarantee success as Sunderland found out.
The Championship is, arguably, one of the top 10 leagues in Europe in terms of quality and spectator appeal. Consider that the average attendance is 19,800 this season – that’s more than Scotland’s top division (16,000), the Dutch Eredivisie (18,000), Russia’s top flight (17,000) and Portugal’s Liga Nos (12,000).
In terms of benchmarking against the other main European leagues’ second tiers, the Championship holds up very well. Germany’s Bundesliga 2 averages 19,000 and includes clubs like Hamburg (av 50,000) and 1. FC Koln (49,000).
Spain’s La Liga 1/2/3, which has just one team that draws over 20,000 – Real Zaragoza, has an average of just 10,000, which underlines the gulf between clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona and the rest of Spanish football. Italy’s Serie B (7,000) and France’s Ligue 1 (6,500) are even further away from their top divisions.
The Championship is the gateway to Europe’s most lucrative league, the Premier, hence so many clubs have a wage-to-income ratio in excess of 100% – they effectively gamble on getting promoted to the Premier. This makes the division, which comprises some very big and historic names from English football’s heritage, very competitive.
Why is it so intense? For a start the field comprises teams that aspire to join the elite. Secondly, it’s 46 games, eight more than the Premier. And thirdly, the league has attracted foreign ownership with ambitious benefactors looking to catch the gravy train that is the Premier.
The 2018-19 Championship includes two former European Cup winners and 10 clubs that have won the league title and 12 that have played Premier League football over the past decade. At 50% this compares favourably to the other “big five” leagues – Bundesliga (50%), Serie B (47%), Ligue 2 (65%) and La Liga 1/2/3 (59%).
Clubs like Aston Villa, the Sheffield duo, West Bromwich Albion, Nottingham Forest and Derby County, are all potentially influential in the game. What’s more, these clubs are, arguably, “bigger” than Premier League members Bournemouth, Watford and Burnley – but not necessarily better run.
Is the Championship more popular today with neutrals? With the Premier League all-too-predictable and the industrial nature of top flight football creating multi-millionaire players, there is an argument that reality has been lost somewhere along the way. The Championship represents a more grounded landscape for the English game, one that has quality without some of the excess hubris.
Championship attendances are at a higher level today than the old first division back in the mid-1980s when the game went through an identity crisis. While the Premier continues to attract global audiences, the Championship is very much representative of the English game, largely played in the former heartland of football. Hence, it has a curious appeal to the nostalgists, purists and aesthetes. Furthermore, it does retain a little hint of the game’s rich romance.
The 2018-19 Championship race looks set to go to the wire, and just for the record, on the final day of the season (May 5), the big fixtures come to a conclusion with Derby v West Brom, Villa v Norwich and Stoke v Sheffield United. That should keep people on the edge of their seats…