Does money talk loudest in the Championship? Csaba Abrahall
reviews the 2006-07 season in what should surely be called Division Two
Derby’s play-off victory averted the worst-case scenario, but the season was none the less a worrying one for the majority, as only West Brom’s failure to prevail at Wembley prevented all three of the sides relegated from the Premiership in 2006 securing an immediate return. With parachute payments set to rocket, Championship clubs without a recent top-flight history could be forgiven for questioning whether striving for success against such financially advantaged competitors is worth all the bother.
On the face of it, money did appear to be the decisive factor. Birmingham’s policy of buying up the division’s best talent for exorbitant fees (£10 million was spent on Cameron Jerome, Gary McSheffrey and Rowan Vine) paid off. After beginning the season apparently intent on replicating their “Premiership’s worst” records at Championship level, Sunderland’s transformation under Roy Keane came about only after the squad was expensively overhauled on August transfer-deadline day. The six players recruited included the presumably generously remunerated Dwight Yorke. While it is tempting to view Derby’s ascent from 20th place last season as an inspirational exception, they actually spent more than £5m during the season – more than anyone bar the top two – and their net expenditure was the highest in the division.
Yet to conclude that wealth inevitably brings success at this level may be to oversimplify matters. The Premiership’s 2005 evictees remain, with Crystal Palace’s and Norwich’s mundane campaigns firmly establishing them among the also-rans. Birmingham were able to buy big partly because they sold big – offloading Emile Heskey, Jermaine Pennant, David Dunn and Matthew Upson brought in £20m. Sunderland have shipped out £7m worth of players since relegation and made only three signings of £1m or more. The relegated sides do have cash to spare, but are not yet able to spend without considering the consequences.
Three of the top four had come down, but their superiority was hardly overwhelming. This was a competitive league with no outstanding team, and no side lost fewer than 11 games. Rarely can the adage that “anybody can beat anybody” have been more true – Birmingham contrived to lose to each of the bottom five, while Southend were relegated despite defeating five of the top seven.
Even so, the identity of the protagonists at either end of the table was clearly defined from an early stage. Only Sunderland, who were consistent rather than spectacular but whose climb up the table seemed inevitable once Keane was appointed, and Luton, whose form fell away amid Mike Newell’s increasingly incoherent ranting, made significant moves in either direction.
Colchester alone demonstrated that the unlikely remains possible. On attendances of 5,500, they sustained a genuine promotion challenge built on their form at Layer Road, where 15 visiting teams lost (even if, squeezed into the ramshackle away end, their fans may not have seen the goals that did it). The club have spent very little since 2001, instead relying on a unit of unheralded players, epitomised by Jamie Cureton. A year after being released by Swindon, he was the Championship’s leading scorer.
With Phil Parkinson – last summer’s must-have item for every ambitious club in need of a cheapish manager – having left for a disastrous spell at Hull, Colchester’s success was engineered by his erstwhile assistant, Geraint Williams. In a division packed with inexperienced managers, it was two of the complete novices – Williams and Keane – who masterminded the finest achievements. Given that neither Billy Davies nor Tony Mowbray are veterans, and older hands such as Peter Taylor and Dave Jones oversaw disappointing campaigns, one can only wonder at the thought processes that led to Sheffield United’s recent bewildering appointment of Bryan Robson.
It was West Brom’s decision to dispense with Robson that led to their metamorphosis into the division’s most attractive side, prompted by the craft of Jason Koumas. Ostracised by Robson, Koumas was immediately reinstated under Nigel Pearson and then Mowbray, and was widely perceived to be the league’s outstanding player. His influence was not quite enough to complete the full house of instant promotions. But if this near-miss bodes ill for the competitiveness of English football, there was comfort to be found at the bottom. Leeds’ relegation was welcomed by many for many reasons, but perhaps this latest milestone in their fascinating demise should be celebrated mostly as the clearest evidence yet that being in possession of large quantities of money is no guarantee against totally cocking things up.
From WSC 245 July 2007