Mediocre First Division?

Manchester City would tell you that their championship has been very well earned. Their city neighbours on the floor above, who risk being outdone in the Manchester trophy count, would probably beg to differ. Two writers air their views

The First Division in 2000-01 was notable for the presence of two outstanding teams (Ful­ham and Blackburn), one that was just that bit better than the rest but not quite as good as the two above (Bolton) and then a whole host of similar teams (perm any three from about eight for the remaining play-off places).

Those who replaced the teams that went up were not of the same standard. Coventry have flattered to deceive, while Bradford City have just struggled. The only team to have shown any consistency over the season are Manchester City, and that is why they are champions. They are the only ones to have realised their potential on a regular basis. This season, no team has approached the stan­dard set by Fulham and Rovers the year before, and I would argue that City, despite their dominance, barely matched the level reached by Bolton.

As for the rest, any team that managed to win a few games in succession or avoid defeat for a number of weeks could get into the play-off places. There was little to choose between Preston, Burnley, Wolves, Norwich, Millwall and Birmingham. Because it was close, it does not necessarily follow that the football was sub­standard. But from my viewpoint (as a Pres­ton fan) the excitement of the promotion race masked a dearth of quality.

Star players have been few and far be­tween, and it would be hard to select 11 from the division who could survive as a team in the Premiership. The PFA Select team might just clinch the First Division title, but how many of them are genuine star names? Prosinecki and Benarbia, perhaps, but they are both 33. What has not been evident is the much heralded raising of standards as ta­lented home-grown players, squeezed out of the Premiership by foreign imports (so the theory goes) move into the First Division. Ma­ny of the youngsters offloaded by Prem­ier­ship clubs in the last couple of seasons, even those on the verge of the first team with Man­chester United, have largely failed to live up to their pedigree on a regular basis.

Virtually every team has beaten and been beaten by the others during the course of the season. With the notable exception of Stockport at one end, and Manchester City at the other (although, amazingly, City failed to beat County in either league game), around 16 of the remaining 22 teams have been no better than average middle of the table clubs. The result has been an exciting season by default, with teams constantly moving up and down the table.

The overall standard has not been helped by the rapid decline of recent Premiership clubs, particularly Nottingham Forest and She­f­­field Wednesday. Mediocrity is becoming the standard in the First Division, and who­ever is promoted this season will surely struggle. Fulham and Blackburn were so far a­­­head last year that their survival in the top division seemed a foregone conclusion to many, yet in fact it has been a fairly desperate battle. Those following them this season are nowhere near as good and their future looks bleak without major investment.

For those who fail in the play-offs, the short term future at least might actually be rosier than for the “lucky” winners. This season has been intriguing, and the race for the play-offs and second promotion spot went right to the last game. No one could complain about the level of entertainment. But for those of us whose teams have delighted and frustrated us on a weekly basis, a little more quality would not have gone amiss. Martin Atherton


These days it is generally ac­cepted in football that the fight to be first among equals adds value to a contest – if it wasn’t, the Cham­pions League would look very different. Tividale FC no doubt agree. On Easter Monday their clubhouse enjoyed an unusually brisk trade all through the afternoon, with a knock-on effect for the attendance at a routine west midlands League match. The reason? Wolves were on TV immediately be­forehand, playing Manchester City at a pack­ed Molineux. Most of the punters stayed ar­ound after the final whistle to keep an eye on West Brom’s result at an equally crowded Highfield Road, and the scene was repeated at dozens of small clubs right across the Black Country. They certainly don’t think a close-run First Division is bad for the game.

Having said that, the tightness of this year’s First Division is more illusion than fact. The teams only seemed particularly well matched because Manchester City – like Ful­ham and Sunderland before them – were head and shoulders above the rest. When they thrashed Ipswich so comprehensively in the Cup on January 27, a result which convinced many observers of their Premiership credentials, they were three points clear of second-placed Wolves and eight away from Crystal Palace, who occupied the last play-off berth. At the end of the season they were ten ahead of their nearest challengers West Brom and a whopping 24 clear of sixth-placed Norwich. Forty-one points from a possible 51 speaks for itself.

What explodes the myth is the performance of the supposedly less gifted teams. Back in January, the ten places below City were held by Wolves, Millwall, West Brom, Burn­ley, Palace, Norwich, Birmingham, Coventry, Preston and Gillingham. Three months later, only Gillingham have dropped out of the top 11. Mediocrity proven, you might say. Except that the gap between sec­ond and tenth has opened up from 13 points to 23, and that between third and sixth from three to 13. In the intervening period, West Brom have accumulated 38 points, with Bir­mingham and Wolves the only oth­ers to average more than two points a game.

If the division was mediocre, you would expect an evenly matched chasing pack, with no one able to claw their way into any sort of ascendancy. Instead, what we have seen is one excellent side, two very good ones and five or six who may or may not cut the mustard but are mostly in at least their se­cond season of serious contention. This year’s table actually looks very much like its 2001 counterpart. For the team way out in front, swap Man City for Fulham. The local rivals slugging it out for second spot are Wolves and West Brom, rather than Blackburn and Bol­ton. The chas­ing pack of five or six has more or less the same names in it.

How might this translate into Premiership terms? Looking at the FA Cup, there is some evidence that the top sides are technically equipped to live with the best. After the whitewash at Portman Road, City did enough at Newcastle to suggest that 11 men on the park might well have brought them a result. West Brom won at Sunderland, beat Leicester and lost narrowly to Fulham. Next season, we might expect the three promotees to per­form much the same as Fulham, Bolton and Blackburn this year. Good in patches, with any luck not bad en­ough to come back down, maybe a good run in one of the cups. Unspectacular, probably. Mediocre, no.

The final measure of mediocrity in foot­ball lies not in an abstraction of points totals and playing styles, but in how much people care. Before the last match of the sea­son, des­perate fans were literally begging office staff at The Hawthorns for tickets, and every Dig­ital-equipped pub and club in the west mid­lands was bracing itself for the biggest cliff­hanger since the days of Cullis and Buck- ingham. I can’t imagine too many fans in Burnley, Birmingham or Bermondsey have been put off by the thrill of the chase, either. Suggest to them it’s been a mediocre season and you might not like their answer. Steve Field

From WSC 184 June 2002. What was happening this month