This time last season Derby County, Cardiff City and Wigan Athletic were the bookmakers’ favourites to gain promotion from the Championship. Derby and Cardiff did not even make the play-offs while Wigan were relegated. Meanwhile, Bournemouth (best price 20-1) won the title ahead of Watford (18-1). Brentford, a 50-1 shot, made the play-offs.
The bookies, rarely wrong for long, have made Derby favourites again, but not with any great confidence. This is the division – which kicks off with Brighton hosting Nottingham Forest on Friday night – where the only certainty is nothing is certain. Which is why it is beginning to draw fans from the much less fluid Premier League.
The unpredictability is the consequence of several factors. It is a division with a high turnover of players and managers. The relegated teams have huge parachute payments to defray the cost of relegation. However, most still have to sell, some because they cannot afford players’ wages, others because players do not want to slum it in the lower flight. Meanwhile, promoted teams come up brimming with confidence, and find the financial gap relatively manageable.
The number of games – 46 plus cup competitions – tests squad depth and one injury – such as the one Derby’s Chris Martin suffered last season, can derail a team.
Further instability is caused by the capriciousness of owners who have turned the Championship into a managerial killing field. Of the 18 clubs who remain in the division from last season only five have the same manager, and in two cases (Wolves and Rotherham) the incumbent had credit in the bank having won promotion the previous season. Of the others only Mick McCarthy, of Ipswich, was in charge way back in January 2013.
The riches available in the Premier League have created a measure of desperation with teams scrambling to get promoted. Going up may involve a season of pain (see Burnley and QPR last season) but it does bring in a lot of cash, some of which is not spent on new players. The wealth and reflected glory of the Premier League has attracted a swathe of ambitious owners who figure the cheapest entry route is to buy a Championship side and get promoted. Most are new to English football, many new to the football business entirely. All are used to being successful in other walks of life and they can prove impatient when their new hobby/investment is slow to deliver.
Exacerbating this is distance. The Championship is becoming as global as the Premier League with owners based in, among other places, United States (Derby, Fulham), India (Blackburn) and Hong Kong (Birmingham).
This also applies to playing staff with managers looking abroad with greater frequency. QPR, Bristol City and Sheffield Wednesday have each shelled out £2m-plus fees for foreign players (Tjaronn Chery, Jonathan Kodjia and Marco Matias respectively).
There are talented Englishmen too, but not enough to justify the facetious suggestion of Richard Scudamore, Premier League chief executive, that England managers should copy Costa Rica and look beyond the top flight for players.
There is no obvious equivalent to Fran Kirby, who went from the FA Women’s Super League second division to scoring for England at the Women’s World Cup. Stewart Downing’s return to Middlesbrough, while a romantic gesture, probably means he has given up on England. Josh McEachran and Tom Ince were once tipped for honours, and are young enough to be touted again if they can rebuild their careers at Brentford and Derby. Benik Afobe has given up trying to break into Arsenal’s first team and could have an impact at Wolves.
But while Roy Hodgson is unlikely to be following the Championship too closely there are plenty of plot lines to interest the average fan. How many managers will Massimo Cellino get through at Leeds? Will Brentford’s analytical approach work? Will the Football League ever levy a Financial Fair Play fine on QPR? And will Paul Clement’s years understudying Carlo Ancelotti enable Derby to prove the bookies right this time? Answers available in May.
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