This season's Championship has been a strange affair, says Tim Springett

The Championship, we are told, is the fifth richest football league in the world. That doesn’t alter the fact that it will always be the poor relation of the Premier League. The financial gulf between the two continues to grow and one could be forgiven for thinking that Derby’s abject experience this season served as a deterrent to many teams in the Championship to strive for promotion. It was a division that, in 2007-08, nobody seemed to want to win.

West Brom were worthy champions, being by some distance the best footballing side. They didn’t exactly run away with the title, only hitting top spot at a relatively late stage and amassing a relatively modest 81 points. Other statistics make even more interesting reading. Stoke were runners-up with 79 points – no team has ever gone up to the top flight automatically with a lower total since the second tier was expanded to 24 clubs in 1988. Meanwhile Leicester went down with 52 points – not only the highest ever haul for a relegated side, but also one point more than they had gained the previous season when they finished 19th.

Few people outside the Potteries would have considered Stoke to be serious promotion candidates. At a time when the quality of football on view in the Championship is undoubtedly improving, Tony Pulis’s direct approach should not have paid dividends, but it did – and how. Had other teams forgotten how to defend set pieces and did Pulis notice this and take advantage?

Bristol City and Hull preferred to keep the ball on the deck but it is still not easy to explain why they, as opposed to some other teams, played off for a place in the Premier League. In the Robins’ case, perhaps they simply maintained their winning habit of the previous season, while Hull seem to have woken up one day and thought: “No other team looks interested in going up, so why don’t we have a try?” Their late run of form led to promotion via Wembley, but even that came close to not being necessary.

At the bottom, the step up from League One proved too much for Scunthorpe, deprived of Billy Sharp, while Colchester never recovered from the loss of Chris Iwelumo and Jamie Cureton, whose goals had seen them sustain a challenge for the play-offs last season. Of the five teams who went into their final matches under threat of finishing 22nd, four – Leicester, Southampton, Coventry and Sheffield Wednesday – have amassed 38 Premier League seasons between them. All have had well documented financial problems since falling from the top flight and the road back is going to be long and difficult. Likewise it is noteworthy that, of the three clubs relegated to the Championship in 2007, only Watford sustained a promotion challenge – Charlton and Sheffield United missed the play-offs by some distance and may now have to face up to some serious belt-tightening.

Some Premier League managers – most notably Rafael Benítez – bemoan the fact that the Championship cannot accommodate their reserve sides. The next best thing is for Premier League clubs to loan players to Championship clubs who, subjected as they are to the absurdity of the transfer windows, are relying on the confusing rules regarding loans to bolster their prospects. Scott Sinclair continued to make an impact – this time for QPR and Crystal Palace – while Norwich benefited hugely from Ched Evans’s presence. A loan spell these days is rarely a precursor to a permanent transfer – more often it serves as a work-experience placement. It also indicates that the gulf between Championship and Premier League is more than just financial, when loanees unable to mount a serious challenge for first-team spots in the Premier League can shine so brightly one level down. Still, when players have the impact of Sinclair or Evans, or Christian Dailly at Southampton, we’re unlikely to hear the Championship clubs complain too loudly. Against that, however, Championship sides fared impressively in the domestic cups: the league provided three of the last four in the FA Cup, while Coventry were worthy winners against Manchester United in the League Cup.

West Brom, of course, lost the 2007 play-off final to Derby. A year on, it is a moot point who were the real winners and losers that day. This year’s play-off final was contested by a side that stayed up by one place in 2006-07 and one that spent that season in League One. Coventry v Nottingham Forest in next year’s play-off final, anyone?

From WSC 257 July 2008

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