First among equals

An overview of the prevailing standards in the Football League, with Reading fan Roger Titford describing what he saw from the wrong end of the First Division

By general consensus it has been a bad year for the First Division. Its lack of quality has been characterised by “the widening of the gap”. At the time of writing it looks quite likely that all last year’s promoted teams will come back down and the three relegated teams will return to the Premiership. If it happens it will probably be a fluke never to be repeated but it comes at a very bad time for the image of the Football League.

The First Division, and the rest of the Nationwide League, has completely lost the battle for the media agenda. As a matter of policy, television and the national press now report every Premiership game, no matter how inconsequential, while the portrayal of vibrant, meaningful football on other stages is segregated or neglected. Yet there is no rule that says this should be so. No wonder those Everton and Spurs fans look so frightened in interviews about relegation, it’s the difference between the West End and rep theatre for them.

It’s nowhere near that bad, of course, but it may not be what they expect. The First Division no longer feels like a division of roughly comparable clubs playing each other. You might play Crewe in front of 6,500 in a flat, lower-division atmosphere, yet the next home game against Nottingham Forest, live on TV, with twice the crowd feels like a cup-tie. The division is like a party for 24 that does not gel.

Half the guests are fighting each other, with their wallets, to get out of the door into the bigger, better, brighter party next door. They feel they have got what it takes, off the field, to be in the Premiership; the all-seater stadium, the potential 20,000-plus crowds, the heritage of top division status – even if it’s 15 years ago or more – the benefit of being taken seriously on Sky Sports 2, everything but the blessed invite.

In contrast with the scrum at the Premiership door, most of the rest are slumped on the floor, just glad to be there and hoping to get their breath back before the relegation bouncers come to chuck three out.

Meanwhile there are only about four (say, Norwich, Charlton, Huddersfield and Portsmouth) who feel comfortable and at ease in these surroundings, no doubt chatting among themselves as to where the rest of the old Second Division gang have gone: Bolton, Bristol City, Leicester, Millwall, Blackburn, even those Seventies creatures like Blackpool, Hull, Cardiff and Preston.

Quite simply English football’s middle order, respectable clubs with a decent income who know their place, is disappearing. The new First Division is not the old Second Division by a new name. It’s the enforced co-habitation of Premiership aspirants and plucky challengers, or “greedy bastards” and “shit ground, no fans” brigades as they call each other. Sunderland’s average crowd is six times the size of Crewe’s. No other division has that kind of discrepancy.

A decade ago League football’s frontier was between the old Second and Third Divisions, the Full Members and Associate Members. Now the frontier is halfway down the First Division table. Broadly speaking, the table has reflected these divisions within the division and some of the fun for supporters and media alike is spotting the trespassers over the frontier. Charlton and, briefly, Stockport have broken loose from the shackles of their image to be greeted first with predictable cries of amazement, then by spurious concern that they might suffer a fate worse than Barnsley. Half of us still live on the hope of doing a Barnsley!

Manchester City, with their 28,000 fans, 50 players and five managers, have been a weird exception to the rule that resources are all. There is a minimum of team spirit and organisation required and the survival of Bury, who seem to have little else, is a message about getting the basics right.

There have been no utter, season-long duffers, although Stoke, Reading, Portsmouth, Huddersfield and Norwich have had some pretty sickly spells. Nor have the teams at the top displayed ironclad consistency. Anyone can beat anyone else on the day; Bury 2, Forest 0 and Reading 4, Sunderland 0 are a couple of scores that stick in the mind.

But there have also been some frighteningly one-sided matches in which the physique and skill of Van Hooijdonk or Brian Deane (even) look dispiriting classes apart from their markers. Aided by their golden parachute Premiership money (ten times and more the value of the prize for winning the Second Division) Forest, Sunderland and Middlesbrough have been the best teams by far. They have all played some good, but not outstanding, football. So too have Charlton and Ipswich, whose transformation from relegation candidates has been remarkable. By contrast, the more powerful style of Sheffield United and Birmingham has looked outdated.

Wolves do not look any nearer promotion, while QPR and Norwich have fallen to bits as far as Premiership return is concerned. Ray Harford must take some sort of award for simultaneously killing West Brom’s season by leaving and QPR’s by arriving.

Poor stewardship by managers and/or directors at Manchester City, Portsmouth, Reading and Stoke has left them in big trouble, while the poorer-resourced promoted teams – Bury, Stockport and Crewe – sur-vive. Bradford City have consolidated in the middle and taken a step up in crowds to 15,000 plus, something that Port Vale and Tranmere have spent several years failing to do. They may be about to take on the mantle of a typical, middle-order First Division club. But they may not get long to enjoy it if League reorganisation divides the world even more firmly into just the haves and have-nots.

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month