Football’s most fun competition ends this afternoon and it only ever does so with a bang. Even by its normal standards of drama, chaos, unpredictability and 552-game tension, this has been a particularly good season in the Championship.
If the Premier League is now so popular and glamorous that it belongs to the world, the Championship owns the nation’s hearts. It is brilliantly attended – better than Serie A; wholly national in reach, not mainly clustered around London and the north-west, and subject to none of the stratification of the top flight.
That unpredictable fluidity is what makes the Championship so appealing. At the start of the season it is difficult to predict who will challenge for promotion, but it is no easier halfway through either. Of this year’s play-off contenders, Bolton Wanderers were 20th in early February before going on the run – 33 points from 16 games – that might take them to the top flight. This is not an uncommon story.
That is the main difference between Premier League and Championship. While the top division’s predictability is rooted in its meritocracy – the best teams finish at the top, the league table never lies – the same is not necessarily true one tier below.
The Championship is too intense for that. The 46-game season, in addition to two cup competitions, makes for the most demanding physical examination in football. It is so tough that quality does not always have room to breathe. What the Championship demands, more than anything else, is cohesion and momentum.
One good run of results can take you away from the chasing pack and towards the money. Last year it was Reading, winning 20 out of 24 games between December and April to walk off with the title. In 2009-10 it was Blackpool, winning six of their last eight to reach the play-offs and from there the Premier League.
For most of the season, the Championship resembles a pushy, jostling pack with only the obviously good (this year, Cardiff) and the obviously bad (Bristol City) breaking away in either direction. For the rest, bunched in mid-table, it is a case of wait and see.
The fact that even sixth place, often just a tantalising few points beyond mid-table, can ultimately bring the reward of promotion, incentivises teams in the pack to gamble. So there is a brutal managerial turnover for sides looking for any advantage to push them upwards. This season, with the £5.5bn in Premier League TV deal money looming, the allure has been even greater.
Bolton replaced Owen Coyle with Dougie Freedman in October, and might be vindicated. Nottingham Forest, also on the fringe of the play-offs, sacked Sean O’Driscoll on Boxing Day, before Alex McLeish lasted only until 5 February. Blackburn Rovers, the highest spenders who may survive relegation by just one point, had Steve Kean leave in September, then sacked Henning Berg in December and Michael Appleton in March.
Blackburn should be safe but Wolverhampton Wanderers probably will not be, despite raising more than £22m from the sales of Matt Jarvis and Steven Fletcher last summer. As Leeds United and Manchester City have found in the past, the league is no respecter of reputations.
It is no surprise that it is so popular. Only the Premier League, the Bundesliga and La Liga are better attended. This season eight teams have averaged home crowds of more than 20,000, including struggling Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday and mid-table Leeds and Derby County. Leeds could finish safe by just one point this afternoon, or only six below the play-offs. That is the enduring thrill of the Championship.
Championship table: Who needs what
* TOP OF THE TABLE
P W D L F A Pts
Cardiff (C) 45 25 11 9 70 43 86
Hull 45 24 6 15 59 50 78
Watford 45 23 8 14 84 56 77
Brighton 45 18 18 9 67 43 72
C Palace 45 18 15 12 70 60 69
Bolton 45 18 13 14 67 59 67
N Forest 45 17 16 12 61 56 67
Leicester 45 18 11 16 68 46 65
* Promotion Hull will go up if they at least match Watford’s result.
* Play-offs Hull/Watford and Brighton have secured a place. Victories for Crystal Palace and Bolton should confirm their spots.
* BOTTOM OF THE TABLE
Blackburn 45 14 15 16 54 61 57
Hudd’field 45 15 12 18 51 71 57
Millwall 45 15 11 19 51 61 56
Sheff Wed 45 15 10 20 51 61 55
Peterboro’ 45 15 9 21 64 72 54
Barnsley 45 14 12 19 54 68 54
Wolves 45 14 9 22 55 67 51
Bristol C (R) 45 11 8 26 58 80 41
* Wolves must beat Brighton to have even a chance of staying up. Barnsley stay up if they win at Huddersfield; Peterborough and Sheffield Wednesday will avoid the drop with wins. Millwall and Huddersfield both need a point.