The English Football League(EFL) Championship: highly competitive, much of a muchness, or of such a poor standard that it is merely rearing the next battery farmed, low quality fodder for next season’s Premier League?
Notwithstanding the enforced Covid-19 break the Championship season is roughly at the mid-April stage, a point where the league table has long ceased to mislead, with the stagger now having fully unwound. As the best three teams, Leeds United, Brentford, and West Bromwich Albion, battle over the two automatic promotion spots there are usually no guarantees that the odd team out will go on to play off glory, this season at what will be an empty Wembley Stadium. The lack of quality below Brentford may suggest otherwise, in a concertinaed table where even at this late stage the team in eleventh place, Blackburn Rovers, still harbour hopes of gate-crashing the top six, is though telling, as chances to establish a foothold in a playoff position is seemingly blown each week by a different club.
A classic example of this is Preston North End(PNE). At this point it should be noted that manager Alex Neil has done an outstanding job at Deepdale, something that was duly noted by West Brom in their pursuit of the Scotsman before Preston owner Trevor Hemmings applied a pair of golden handcuffs too comfortable for the 39-year old to refuse. I do though wonder if Neil has missed his chance to take a bigger club to football’s promised land, with links to the now vacant Bristol City role suggesting his stock has fallen back within the chasing pack.
In the Autumn Preston briefly reached the Championship’s summit through dogged, resolute defending, and an ability to grind out narrow victories. This approach might have stood the test of time if Preston had several players already with Premier League experience and/or those with a realistic chance of cutting the mustard in the top tier, but they simply do have not this luxury. Now in tenth place and fifteen league defeats later, Preston, by dint of fewer draws and more victories than their immediate rivals still have a slim chance of reaching the end of season lottery, but a disastrous run of form since hostilities resumed has seen their destiny transfer into the hands of others with only a marginally greater claim to a playoff berth. Had though Preston had the requisite quality in the squad from the get-go Neil’s pragmatic, horses for courses style of play that had momentarily propelled them to the top presumably would not have been adopted.
Is though the use of Preston a perfect example of the Championship’s mediocrity? Whilst there are parallels to be made between perhaps a dozen sides drilling down into the detail unearths some vastly different tales. Did Preston have little right to briefly top the Championship? Maybe, but as a reflection of early season freshness in the legs of Neil’s players coupled with a lack of suspensions and injuries in a modestly sized and skilled squad and the manager’s initial alchemic approach ensured Preston were well worth their lofty position before reality bit hard. Bankrolled beyond their means through Hemmings’ munificence but still insufficiently so to mount a credible long-term assault on the Championship’s promotion places, a lack of goals becomes more and more of a problem as the inevitable errors at the back creep in, as they do with any side. Without a totemic spearhead at the top end of the pitch with the nous of scoring goals at a higher level Preston have continually relied upon players likely to get 7-12 goals a season, but tying up significant money in the wages of the highly disappointing Scott Sinclair and David Nugent has prevented vital resources being used where needed the most.
The likelihood of another season of early promise but ultimate failure at Deepdale presents significant issues for the club. Trevor Hemmings is a very wealthy individual, but one wonders how long the 85-year old will want to underpin Preston in football’s no-man’s-land. Money pumped into the club is unlikely to return to the former owner of Blackpool Tower, but with a prospect of many of Preston’s better players leaving on frees at the end of their contracts or for lower fees as they enter the final year of deals, generating finance through player sales to fund their replacements will be difficult and result in Neil, should his head not in the meantime be turned elsewhere, once more scouring the lower and Irish leagues for polishable gems. There are not any Jordan Hugills within the Preston squad, a player on who West Ham United saw fit to spend the thick end of £10 million.
Where though there is the Preston scenario, one through geographic proximity I am particularly familiar with, there are the stories behind Millwall, Swansea, Blackburn, Bristol City, Derby, and Cardiff, teams all vying with PNE for the final playoff position. All but Millwall and Bristol City have relatively recent experience of the Premier League, with Blackburn’s fall from grace perhaps the most spectacular but representing a cautionary tale of foreign owners more in love with the idea of owning an English football club than initially wanting to do what it takes to keep its place at the top table. Indeed, it was rumoured that Blackburn’s owners the Venky family did not realise it was possible to be relegated from the Premier League…
Reputation below the Premier League counts though for very little. Swansea had a few highly effective seasons in the sun before slipping back to natural territory, albeit with American owners many fans of the Swans might at best call reluctant. As though with their Welsh rivals Cardiff City and indeed Blackburn, fans of clubs with no automatic right to expect a Premier League berth adopt a sense of entitlement commensurate or even beyond the countless millions of television money attendant with the top division. Although it is in theory expected that such vast amounts of wealth should equal its prudent stewardship and the recruitment of the most suitable players and managerial staff, it rarely works out that way for newly promoted sides more wide-eyed in wonder at mixing it with establish clubs far less prone to imposter syndrome. After five unbroken seasons in the Premier League Bournemouth perhaps buck this trend, but an inability to generate significant finance through ticket sales and persisting with a manager to whom the club refuses to say goodbye could see the South Coast side finally sip back into habitat still at least a division above its natural hunting ground.
Next season’s Championship promises to be tougher than ever for teams that can at the same time be considered playoff hopefuls but also relegation outsiders. With Norwich City and Aston Villa likely to return from whence they came the Championship immediately has two large clubs, albeit Villa being far more so than Norwich, with Premier League resources under their belts and the promise of parachute payments to come. Adding to the mix Bournemouth’s probable drop through the trapdoor, the likely loss of their better players will at least generate income to reinvest in the squad and offset a capacity of barely 11,000. It is with these clubs that Swansea, Millwall, Preston, Blackburn, Bristol City, and many others will have to compete for a top six position, and whoever among Brentford, Cardiff, Fulham, and Nottingham Forest that does not secure a shot at the big time.
I have pondered whether many Championship’s sides owners are too cautious to throw the cheque book at a full-on assault on promotion, concerned by adopting a risky financial strategy with no guarantee of success. As more and more sides tread water in English football’s second tier seemingly paralysed with fear of financial ruin from chasing what for most is an impossible dream, the Championship is increasingly resembling less the final frontier to untold wealth and worldwide exposure than a division few dare leave, up or down.