Saturday 8 August ~
One of football's most-watched leagues restarts this weekend. Last season, the Championship drew the fourth largest aggregate attendance, behind the Bundesliga, La Liga and the Premier League. This statistic is not quite as impressive as it first appears because it's not a measure of average crowds – on which basis the top leagues in Italy and France both outperform the Championship which contains four more clubs that any of the leagues it's measured against. Still, it's a reflection of the depth of interest in football in England.
Yet it's a league that most of its members don't want to be in. There are 15 former Premier League clubs in the division and all will have reasonable expectations of going up, even if means becoming cannon-fodder at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge in 2010. The three clubs relegated from the Premier League are usually favourites to go straight back. They was never going to be the case this year given that Newcastle are in disarray with little likelihood getting a new owner before transfer window closes.
In any case, the parachute payments that Newcastle, West Brom and Middlesbrough will receive for the next two years no longer provide an automatic advantage as there are a clutch of other clubs who are on a strong financial footing – for now at least. QPR can match Man City and Chelsea in terms of their owners' combined wealth and have been able to spend £3.5 million on an Argentine striker, Alejandro Faurlin. Then again, their board have shown no patience whatsoever with any of the five managers they have appointed in under two years, so the latest incumbent, Jim Magilton, is the bookies' favourite to be the division's first dismissal.
Magilton's previous employers, Ipswich Town, were plunged into a long financial crisis after their relegation from the Premier League in 2002. The club are now back among their big spenders with majority shareholder Marcus Evans funding the arrival of Roy Keane. The mysterious Evans, who never goes to matches, spent £44m in acquiring control of the club two years ago and expects to receive his money back within five years. Roy Keane took his players on army training course in July, claiming that he needed to lift some players out of their comfort zone – "lack of sleep, lack of food... it was good" – but he knows that he will have to have achieved promotion by the time his contract expires in 2011.
It's unlikely that anyone would have correctly forecast the three teams to go down last season but Charlton's demotion was the only real surprise, given that Norwich and Southampton had struggled the previous year. Of the ex-Premier League clubs, Coventry have been mired in mediocrity for several years, but Watford would seem the most in danger given that they toyed with the drop in 2008-09 then lost the manager who saved them, Brendan Rogers, now with Reading. Whatever happens, at some point during the season there will be demands for a Premier League 2 from those club owners fretting over the fact that they will be stuck where they are for at least another year.