Image Description: Wade Elliot scoring in the 2009 Play-Off Final
Sunday 29th May is the biggest day in the football calendar. I cannot wait to see those two British teams walk out onto the hallowed Wembley turf. No, UEFA have not reconsidered their ludicrous decision to play the Champions League Final in Portugal, instead of England, where the two teams originate. I am, of course, talking about the Play-Off Final. Who needs Gareth Bale scoring overhead kicks when you can watch Dean Windass’ volley for Hull in the 2008 Play-Off Final?
It may seem odd to defend the Championship as the best league in the world; a title most often bestowed on the Premier League. The commercial success of the Premier League is unrivalled and with all-English Champions League Finals in two of the last three years, it is the most successful league on and off the field. Indeed, the appeal of the Play-Off Final is the chance to play in the promised land of the Premier League.
Yet, it is not the best league in the world. The Championship is the most unpredictable league in the world. Trust me, I have tried. For the last two seasons I have predicted how the Premier League and Championship table will finish. I have calculated the average difference between where I predicted a team to finish and where they actually ended up. In the Premier League over the two years the average difference in league position was 3.3 compared to 5.4 for the Championship. The average helps to offset some of my wilder predictions, such as Barnsley to finish 23rd when in reality they secured a play-off spot. It is a good job I am not a betting man.
The Championship is far more exciting. It is only very rarely that the title, automatic promotion, the play-off positions, and relegation have all been decided before the final day. That means almost guaranteed drama. This year was the dramatic relegation dogfight between Rotherham, Sheffield Wednesday and Derby. The latter two faced off in a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw that meant Derby stayed in the league.
The reputation of the Championship still has the image of the forty-six-game slog where the football is plagued by thuggish centre halves and long-ball tactics. It is a common misconception that any continental flair or talent is stamped out by a British boot. The Championship has, with the aid of money fed down from the Premier League, evolved.
It is a common misconception that any continental flair or talent is stamped out by a British boot.
All it takes is a look at the previous winners to see how foreign talent can prosper, especially when combined with British nous. Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves side were promoted with 99 points in 2018 and followed that up with back-to-back seventh placed finishes in the Premier League and a Europa league quarter final. Marco Bielsa’s Leeds team have entertained in the Premier League too after their promotion last season.
Bielsa’s Leeds team is an ideal case study of the beauty of the Championship. Leeds, as most other football fans will begrudgingly admit, are a massive football team. Their home ground, Elland Road, has a capacity of nearly 38,000. Yet, they had been out of the Premier League and even down to League One since 2004.
The appointment of Bielsa in 2018 was a cause for great optimism as a world-renowned coach with even Pep Guardiola acknowledging the influence the Argentine had on his own managerial career. Leeds were impressive for large swathes of the season and were top at the halfway stage. However, the forty-six games and Bielsa’s high-intensity style caught up with them. They ended the season not being able to hit their earlier season heights and only won three of their last eight games to ensure they finished in the play-offs.
This was where they faced Frank Lampard’s Derby County in a game whose tension was only added to by a spying scandal between the teams when they had met earlier in the season. Despite a comfortable 1-0 away win for Leeds in the first leg and having a 1-0 lead in the second leg, a second-half capitulation meant that Leeds were to compete in the Championship for another season.
It was only on the back of this experience of the difficulty of the Championship that Bielsa was able to mould his team for the following season and finally get Leeds promoted back to the Premier League as champions.
The Championship has been a home, and continues to be home, to a plethora of the biggest teams in England. Aston Villa and Newcastle have had stints in the Championship in recent years, and no Nottingham Forest fan will let you forget they have won the European Cup … twice. It has its own gravitas independent of the Premier League.
The Premier League seems to find a way to only make itself more and more sanitised, which has not been helped by the introduction of VAR. On the other hand, the Championship has found a balance between honest (which means that there can still be the odd bad tackle) football and cosmopolitan flair that can flourish when combined correctly.
The Championship is rough round the edges. However, it is pertinent to remember those wise words by Noel Gallagher that ‘true perfection has to be imperfect’; not that Manchester City or the Premier League would ever understand these days.
Image Credit: OutboardOlive56 via CC BY-SA 4.0