You have to feel some sympathy for Nige Tassell. It was a smart idea to chronicle a season in the Championship and tease out what gives it qualities, most of all genuine competitiveness and uncertainty of outcome, so conspicuously absent from the Premier League. So it was just his luck to cop 2020-21 when five of the top six places were occupied by the three teams relegated from the Premier League and two of the play-off losers, while two of the teams promoted from League One returned whence they came along with the victims of a six-point deduction. Potential guilty parties include the truncation of the season by a month, a speeding-up of the treadmill favouring the better-resourced, and what Tassell rightly terms the “inherent iniquity” of parachute payments.
He rattles through the season chronologically via a series of feature articles, four or five per month, each centred on a match and an individual. With 24 clubs to cover, some inevitably get more attention than others and Tassell rapidly spotted that Wycombe’s battle-against-the-odds first season at this level and Sheffield Wednesday’s travails would both supply strong storylines.
It is hugely readable, with a mass of engaging anecdote. Little captures the weirdness of football under lockdown better than the vignette of the Millwall fan who pays £180 to watch the match at Norwich through a hotel window, then discovers to his horror that the price does not include breakfast. Burnley fans will learn that their new signing Connor Roberts is not only an international class wing-back, but a teetotaller with a passion for carpentry.
As a narrator who is happy to let his interviewees speak for themselves rather than imposing patterns, Tassell is dependent upon their quality, and generally very well served. Perhaps the best is veteran Watford keeper Ben Foster’s articulate, thoughtful and self-aware reflection, and supporter viewpoints are unlikely ever to have more eloquent exponents than the poet Ian McMillan (Barnsley) or writer Daniel Gray (Middlesbrough).
But less familiar figures like Birmingham kitman Jon Pearce and Huddersfield’s head of recruitment Josh Marsh offer a great deal, while an outstanding interview with Rotherham’s head of medicine Stephen Gilpin catches both the pressures and the pleasures, some perhaps perverse, of this world: “The pressure never dwindles. It’s always on, but that’s what we love about it... If everything in football was calm and relaxed it wouldn’t be such an enjoyable environment to work in.”
At the same time the structure lends itself more to anecdote than analysis. Well told as they are, most of these stories are of football lives which happen in 2020-21 to have been in the Championship, rather than catching quite what it is that makes our second division so distinctive. Explaining that might have taken a stronger narrative voice with an analytical focus on themes including the insane economics of the Championship and the horrific attrition rate among managers – a different book, perhaps a more valuable one, but almost certainly a much less enjoyable read.