Actually, wait, The Championship is shit.
The Championship – good, honest football. A league not adulterated by money or brands. A league with a level playing field. A league with humility. Except that it isn’t.
Perhaps you would expect me to say this, as my club (Torquay) have never been in the second tier and are unlikely to make it there any time soon with attendances of 2,500. But my objections aren’t out of bitterness – I don’t subscribe to the view that the Premier League was the worst thing to happen in the history of everything ever, which most small lower league club fans seem to hold.
Since 1992, attendances across all of the top 4 divisions have increased, and the wealth from the top has trickled down somewhat. The second tier, the Championship, has benefited the most from this. What it currently has is a stack of largely ex-Premier League clubs with considerable historical pedigree, sizeable modern stadia, and enough money to attract a bunch of very talented footballers.
The key has been the Football League’s marketing of the Championship as a more authentic brand of football, taking advantage of the lower league apathy and discontent towards the Premier League. This has been very effective – it’s now bigger and more successful than most of the top tier leagues in Europe.
The problem is no one seems to have stood back and questioned whether or not it is actually a more authentic brand of football, or indeed any different from the Premier League at all.
The success of many of the teams that have been promoted into the Premier League in recent years suggests that the gap between the bottom of the Premier League and the top of the Championship is minimal. Swansea and Norwich have done very well this season despite investing comparatively little into their team after their promotion. The difference is illusory – it’s all marketing hot air.
Further to this, it completely ignores the ultimate aim for every single club in the league: promotion into the Premier League. Promotion, and the money it brings, is the Holy Grail for these clubs. Even the smaller clubs like Barnsley and Peterborough will go into a season hoping they can string a run together to get into the play-offs and, following the examples of Blackpool and Hull, carry the momentum through that. Any team in the division is a promotion away from joining the league the Championship defines itself in opposition to.
The Championship’s credibility suffers from it not being the pinnacle of anything, even though that is effectively how they market it. I’ve always found it odd that it has called itself ‘the Championship’ since the rebranding exercise of 2004, a name that screams self-importance. Surely that’s at odds with the supposedly humble image it’s trying to create, in opposition to the wealth and arrogance of the Premier League (itself a generalisation that is only really referring to the top 5 or 6 teams).
In addition to this, while many of the clubs that make up the Championship might be considered small and ‘humble’ compared to the Premier League giants, they are mostly still going to be considered to be ‘big clubs’ when compared to the likes of Rochdale, Wycombe and Stevenage of League One. They certainly retain big club mentalities – that bastard cliché ‘sleeping giants’ is frequently uttered, a meaningless statement of self-importance.
Even within this, while there is a considerable element of matchday unpredictability in the Championship, there still remains a hierarchy of clubs. You are not going to put Leeds, with their 40,000-seater stadium and records of domestic and European success, on the same level as Doncaster, who were in the Conference 10 years ago and whose stadium seats 15,000. And bar the odd exception, it does usually pan out the way people expect, with the bigger, wealthier clubs towards the top and the smaller clubs towards the bottom. Any team can beat any other on its day but you can’t put that sort of shock on the same scale as, say, Wolves beating Manchester United.
Let’s not pretend that the Championship is some kind of communist dream league where all clubs are nice and equal and not all out for themselves. Capitalism rules in exactly the same way here as it does in the Premier League and every other professional league in England.
The issue of EPPP is a good example. There has to be a reason why it was voted through by a majority of the 72 Football League clubs. Yes, the pressure the Premier League put on the Football League probably helped, but it didn’t pass just because of that. Similar to the clubs that voted for the breakaway from the Football League to start with, there are some ambitious clubs who see their future in the Premier League and think that they could benefit from the plan.
A demonstration of this was seen in February. Ipswich fans visiting Brighton’s American Express Community Stadium (I particularly like the juxtaposition of ‘American Express’ and ‘Community’) had a banner protesting against EPPP confiscated by the stewards. And that’s Brighton, one of the smaller clubs in the Championship who have only been in the top flight for one brief period in the late 1970s. And I haven’t even mentioned Ken Bates…
The fear is that the clubs could take this a step further. There has been muttering in the recent past about the potential for the Championship to breakaway from the Football League and become Premier League Two. The Championship clubs already receive 80% of the Football League’s broadcasting revenues (12% to League One and 8% to League Two). But breaking away and joining forces with the Premier League, as Phil Gartside suggested in 2008 (two 18-team divisions was what was proposed), would give them a slice of a potentially much bigger pie, and the removal of promotion from and relegation to the Football League would safeguard their futures.
It goes without saying that such a move would be disastrous for the rest of the Football League. And while there may be no immediate prospect of this happening, there is growing self-interest and self-importance in the Championship. The Football League have done well to develop it into a successful division, but the teams are starting to believe the hype. I fear for the day where it reaches the tipping point. Because, like EPPP, there will be little the smaller clubs can do to stop it.
Relegated Premier League clubs have little to fear from the Championship. They won’t feel out of place.
Follow James on Twitter right hurr.