But Championship should stay wide open
11 December ~ Repeatedly, we Championship supporters hear of the new Premier League TV deal that arrives with 2016-17. If reaching the Premier League used to be a “payday”, now it is a gold-plated pension. Next week, I’ll be at the Amex for a lunchtime kick-off with Brighton and Hove Albion. The fixture planners from the TV networks whose millions we’re chasing are sending Teessiders 300 miles south before sunrise, just as they moved the trawl to Ipswich to a Friday night. Woe betide anyone who wishes to be promoted merely for what Middlesbrough owner Steve Gibson would call "sporting glory”.
Boro’s campaign has been an almost a perfect copy of last year’s, only with forward creativity added to defensive parsimony. A month ago, I trudged from the KC Stadium after a 3-0 defeat to Hull City. The home side, it was clear, would now canter to the title, empowered by what we heard was their "Premier League squad". They had installed themselves in first place, with Aitor Karanka’s side drifting to fourth. Thoughts for many Boro fans turned to the play-offs, meaning a collective shudder of recollection at our limp Wembley surrender to Norwich City six months ago. Ahead of this weekend's game with Birmingham City, however, Hull are four points behind Boro – yet more proof that there has never been a division more prone to sudden reversals in fortune than the Championship.
Brum will turn up to frustrate. Everyone does and that’s fair enough – Under Karanka, Boro have often done the same, sometimes even at the Riverside. Such days are there for Stewart Downing – when unleashed, a class above – and Uruguayan striker Christian Stuani to unpick defences. Behind them in midfield the bizarrely hirsute Adam Clayton has been wonderful all season.
In a typical Championship fixture, both teams will usually sink or rise to a similar level. There is a sense that, liberated a touch from Karanka’s admittedly successful rigidity, Boro will hand out a hammering to a Riverside visitor soon. It could come tomorrow, and yet a 1-0 defeat is every bit as likely. Daniel Gray