As his team get ready for life in League One, even John Earls can see the attraction of a league as unpredicatable as The Championship
With a fortnight left, everything in this league was already settled – automatic promotion, the play-off entrants and relegation. But this didn’t tell the whole story of a frequently absurd season. Reading were so good, Brighton so bad and everyone else so inconsistent that the other 22 clubs should have been told: “Come back next season and do it properly this time.”
From week one – when Reading lost in one of their two defeats, to the otherwise tiresome Plymouth – the season resembled a marathon edition of The Wacky Races. As soon as teams looked likely to put a good run together, they collapsed like a clown’s car, with Muttley’s snigger almost audible. The fact that the key issues were resolved so early highlighted the mediocrity of most of the division. Wolves somehow finished seventh, despite seemingly drawing 1-1 every week and with “Hoddle facing sack” headlines a rare staple.
As for QPR in 20th, they were still outside bets for a play-off place when Ian Holloway was placed on gardening leave in February for applying for the manager’s job at Leicester. The consensus at QPR was that Holloway had long descended into a caricature, less the lovable eccentric and more like the forced zaniness of The Fast Show’s Colin Hunt. Significantly, not only did the footballing Titchmarsh fail to join Leicester, but the Filbert Street side suddenly started playing good football after such a narrow escape and look a reasonable bet to go up next season.
Nobody could begrudge Reading their success, as Steve Coppell marshalled a team expected to be mid-table nonentities into playing free-flowing football generally only seen at the end of a typically unlikely bad football film. As a Luton fan, Reading’s success was galling, not least as our 3-2 win over them in February showed we were capable of playing that well, too.
Pacesetters ourselves early on, we fell away from November when our new stadium deal collapsed. This has been annual event for us since the 1970s, but Mike Newell has been spectacularly grumpy ever since, a mood that transmitted itself to the players.
That Newell became so highly regarded after our fine start demonstrated that it was managers, not necessarily players, who flourished. I hate having to write this, but Aidy Boothroyd was excellent and proof of what can happen if a club take a gamble rather than bringing in the same tired Peter Reid-style jobsworths. Watford’s football may have been their usual niggling route-one gubbins, but Boothroyd instilled consistency and belief in an unpromising collection of misfits.
It was a shame that Leeds missed out, though, and not just because it meant Watford went up. Leeds were generally one of the most attractive sides, only hamstrung by rotten finishing that often looked like they were hitting row Z for a bet. But the lack of playing quality was highlighted by the choice of Phil Jagielka as player of the season. As iconic and industrious as an injury-free Bryan Robson most weeks, according to some Sheffield United fans on occasion Jagielka was as clueless as Boris Johnson in the Legends game against West Germany.
Speaking of star players, a word here about Theo Walcott. Of course he stood out at Southampton. Emile Heskey would have looked a decent player in that side. Walcott was terrifyingly speedy and played with an instinct that coaching has yet to batter out of him, but he was easily bullied out of games and can’t be compared to Owen or Rooney at that age. It’s more like taking the 17-year-old Jermaine Pennant.
The other two sides relegated were generally disappointing. Palace sneaked into the play-offs when no one was looking, rarely playing to their undoubted potential. Norwich spent most of the season playing as if still embarrassed at Delia’s “Let’s have yer” outburst, hoping nobody would notice them in mid-table, especially once the superb Dean Ashton left.
At least the unpredictability – even Millwall, who were in the bottom three all season, had some good results – meant talk of a rich/poor divide seeping in here has yet to come to fruition. Frankly, if next season is any repeat, if Roman Abramovich spent his money on a Championship side, there’s every chance they’d put in a mardy performance and lose 1-0 to Burnley.
From WSC 233 July 2006. What was happening this month