Roger Titford reports on a year in the Championship in which may not have been vintage, but was notable for Blackpool providing the headlines
The Championship alternates between “strong” and “weak” years depending on which clubs have just been relegated from the Premier League. Next season we can look forward to a weak, and therefore more open, contest with two financial basket cases (Hull and Portsmouth) and Burnley coming down.
This season two of the relegated sides – West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United – met on the opening day and drew 1-1 which indicated very little at the time. A week later a new-look Reading side travelled to a chastened St James’ with some hope. I made a considerable effort while on holiday to watch the dawning of a new era on TV. Unfortunately for me it was Newcastle’s new era.
Once a big club like this gets half a dozen good results under their belt at the start of the season they are halfway home. The desire to hold onto a winning position quickly kicks in. Unusually for the Toon they had, apart from one broken jawbone on the training ground, a crisis-free and unexciting season in a strong, competent, “we really shouldn’t be here” sort of way. Unbeaten at home, four defeats all season and 102 points pretty much tells its own story. Burnley’s lamentable away record in the Premier League is the other side of the same coin.
WBA went straight back up too as runners-up. They played noticeably good football but looked fragile at times, never more so than when losing 3-1 at home to Nottingham Forest, who briefly barged into the automatic promotion places. While Newcastle looked cast-iron certainties there was a sleek reassurance about Albion.
Forest went on some extraordinary runs, un- beaten in 13 away games, culminating in the triumph at The Hawthorns, then losing the next seven away while racking up 12 successive home wins. Billy Davies, in his churlish way, has managed to transform a bottom-six side into top-six material, albeit with the aid of a budget bigger than most.
Forest were joined in the play-offs by three other sides all destined to start as favourites in next season’s Battle for 20th Place in the Premier League should they succeed. Leicester rode the momentum from League One promotion predictably well. Cardiff are getting steadily better on the pitch and apparently steadily poorer off it. Defeat in the play-off final could be a real “game-changer”, as business folk are wont to say.
But Blackpool were the big heart-warming story that overshadowed the lack of drama and excitement elsewhere at the top of the division. Ian Holloway had them playing decent-ish football on a horrible home pitch, led from the middle by an old-fashioned Scottish midfield maestro in Charlie Adam and watched by the second smallest crowds in the division.
It was not just a triumph for quirkiness, for the romance of the restoration of a fallen name and for the optimism of those who believe in the (near) mythical “late run”. It was also another triumph for the strength of English football’s four-division structure. It’s taken the Tangerines less than a decade to travel from bottom to top and it’s a path becoming well worn. Wigan, Fulham, Hull and Burnley have recently travelled that way. It’s a strong argument to keep the promotion/relegation flow between the divisions as open as it is now rather than embrace some Premier League 2 closed shop.
Parachute money (newly increased next season) is an increasingly controversial topic and it clearly did not harm Newcastle or WBA. But Middlesbrough and Sheffield Utd (who have their own unique form of it called Tevez money) were dogs that surprisingly did not bark in this promotion race. Reading took the view that parachute money was good only for one season and basically sold their team and, at one stage, looked very like following Southampton, Charlton and others one more step down. Palace took a hit of a different kind from their administrator and lost chairman, manager and best player but held their nerve and status on the last day to send down a decaying Sheffield Wednesday, amid scenes of 1970s-style violence.
Random financial events, like new wealthy owners at QPR and Ipswich or sudden impoverishment at Watford, threaten to play havoc with footballing outcomes but often matter less than you might expect. There’s still a place or two in the division (but fewer than a decade ago) for the better-run, smaller clubs like Doncaster and Scunthorpe to survive, prosper and dream of “doing a Blackpool”, while next year there will be a dozen challengers hoping to become “the new Stoke”. But the Championship this season was not a vintage one in terms of quality or excitement.
From WSC 281 July 2010