THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Huw Richards sums up the Championship season whilst asking of whether being at the top of the division correlates with playing better football

Do you want your team to play in the Premier League? Well, yes, me too. But this year’s Championship season shows that achieving what we’re told is the Holy Grail – or at least the answer to a £60 million question – can have unwanted side-effects. When your team is newly risen from the lower orders you have certain expectations. Better grounds, bigger crowds and classier football. No doubt about the first two, but hope of number three went largely ungratified.

There seemed instead to be an inverse relationship between aesthetic appeal and recent Premier League membership. I’m unquestionably biased but a broad consensus held that the best football in the Championship was played by Swansea and Doncaster, newly promoted and so distanced from the top level that they share the achievement of rising 61 places in six seasons.

Compare and contrast Birmingham City. They were strong, resilient, well organised and went back to the Premier League at the first attempt. But in spite of Kevin Phillips, their success was founded on stopping rather than scoring goals, the rumbling discontent of their fans a reflection of football about as appealing as the products that made Dave Sullivan his millions. Reading apart, recent refugees from the top flight gave the impression that parachute payments need to be supplemented by an Arts Council grant to rekindle creativity lost amid the fear and insecurity of the top flight’s lower reaches.

There are still worse fates than dullness. The relegation zone was populated by formerly solid Premier League citizens. Charlton, so recently a model for the middle-sized club, continue to pay horribly for the crazy few months that followed Alan Curbishley’s departure in 2006, while Norwich contrived to be relegated despite being among the best supported teams in the division. Southampton’s nickname has never seemed more appropriate. Supporting them must feel like martyrdom, their decline a case-history in  mismanagement highlighted by serial coaching changes.

At the top end, early patterns proved enduring. At the end of September Wolves led Birmingham in the promotion places, Burnley, Preston, Sheffield United and Reading occupied the play-offs and Cardiff were seventh – exactly how it finished.

Pessimism ingrained by experience, Wolves fans were pleasantly surprised. Michael Kightly’s creativity and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake’s power and persistence gave them an unmatched cutting edge, even if Mick McCarthy’s Premier League record hardly encourages optimism for next year.

While Wolves deserved their title, Burnley were the Championship team of the year, the contenders nobody saw coming. Sheffield United’s power might have made them next season’s Stoke City, and homegrown defender Kyle Naughton was the Championship’s rookie of the year, but United were undone by Burnley’s more cultured and precise football in a play-off final that compensated for the devastating disappointment at Turf Moor when a superb League Cup run fell minutes short of the final. Result of the year was Preston’s 6-0 hammering of play-off rivals Cardiff, presaging the extraordinary implosion with which the previously impressive Bluebirds said goodbye to Ninian Park.

The promotion and play-off race was essentially between those seven. Swansea, eighth, charmed many. We wouldn’t swap Roberto Martinez for anyone, and on-loan midfielder Jordi Gómez was the sort of player we’ve not had since the early 1980s, but chronic aversion to London opponents meant we were always just off the pace. Doncaster’s achievement was arguably still greater since early struggles challenged their faith in both Sean O’Driscoll and his footballing principles. Loyalty was rewarded by mid-table security. Bristol City won only once against other top-half teams; QPR’s gilded ownership won no friends with their pricing policies or changes of manager; and Crystal Palace never really got going.

Despite their history, crowds 50 per cent below anyone else stamp Blackpool the last “small” club in this division. WSC’s pre-season predictors reckoned their relegation the surest thing this side of Leeds going up and Stoke down, but they too defied expectation. Fidelity to footballing principle survived the contentious mid-season departure of Simon Grayson. Whether it can also survive the appointment of Ian Holloway, like José Mourinho an interesting manager of dull teams, is less certain.

Some management changes worked. Brendan Rogers’s thoughtful coaching and Tommy Smith’s goals rescued Watford from what looked a terminal post-play-off hangover while Paul Jewell completed the trashing of his reputation early enough for Derby to bring in Nigel Clough. Billy Davies may never quite haunt Derby as Clough senior did, but he started well by keeping Forest up. That Coventry’s Keiron Westwood was reckoned the best keeper in the division not only relieved an otherwise nondescript season at the Ricoh, but reflected a Championship year in which good things generally came from below rather than above.

From WSC 269 July 2009

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