We are living in strange times as elite football passes the halfway point this season. Empty grounds, extortionate pay-per-view streaming, and socially distanced celebrations tearing the soul out of the beautiful game. So, think back, if you will, to simpler times and let us tell you why the Championship is the best league in the world.
What’s the name of the game?
Being on the frontier of modern football, the Premier League is always going to be open to criticism for trying to innovate the game both on and off the pitch. It is this innovation which has many a fan feeling like they, and their idea of what football should be, are being left behind.
Multimillion pound transfers, soulless stadiums, and disinterested club owners have disconnected supporters from their clubs. However, only one league down, the Championship feels much more grounded in reality and is far more connected to the fanbases who make the division so great.
From Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds allowing Aston Villa to score an equaliser after a controversial goal at the other end, to Manuel Almunia’s double penalty save and resulting Troy Deeney 97th minute winner, the second tier of English football is rarely short of drama and mayhem, something all too often lacking from England’s topflight.
READ MORE FOOTBALL OPINION: MICHAEL O’NEILL, STOKE CITY’S GREAT REDEEMER?
The Football Class Divide
No, this isn’t a political piece, I promise. This class divide refers to the gulf in skill between Premier League teams. For example, last season saw Manchester City thrash Watford 8-0 and literally everybody knew an outcome like this was coming far before a ball was kicked.
Yes, Aston Villa did manage a huge upset in their 7-2 demolition of Liverpool, but this result was anomalous and has occurred in the most open season of the Premier League since Leicester’s shock title grab in the 2015/16 season. The Premier League has become far too predictable to be enjoyable in recent years, though this has rarely been an issue just one division down.
Okay, the Prem has been unreal this season; a wide-open competition featuring several teams performing far better, and several far worse, than expected has made for superb viewing. This though is a rare occurrence and does not happen consistently enough to present steady entertainment, especially not when compared to the Championship.
From QPR upsetting promotion-chasing Cardiff 6-1, to Wigan beating Hull 8-0 in a relegation scrap, the Championship does not extend the formality of predictability and it certainly does not disappoint entertainment-wise.
This roll-of-the-dice style results in meteoric rises and treacherous falls and can certainly make for frustrating viewing, though it is rarely boring. You can lose 25% of your games and still make the playoffs, as Swansea did last season, or finish middle of the pack only to steamroll the league the following year.
Great examples of unpredictable form can be seen everywhere throughout each season, with Sheffield Wednesday finding themselves chasing promotion by Christmas of 2019, only to capitulate around Boxing Day before falling into the throes of a relegation scrap where they remain today.
Last year’s middle-of-the-pack Reading now fancy themselves reaching the playoffs, as promotion favourites Derby languish in the relegation zone. This league is anyone’s game, and each fixture is ripe for the taking by even the most unlikely of candidates. This makes the entertainment factor of the league greatly surpass the predictability of England’s topflight, and there is a lot to be said about the way in which the game is played too.
Substance Over Style
An argument against lower league football is that the lower you go the worse the quality gets, which, to a certain degree, is true, but the Championship serves as an outlier in this trend.
Rather than playing a traditional 4-4-2 formation as teams in leagues One and Two so often must, the Championship displays tactical innovation and strategic masterclasses not possible in lower league football due to even more finite resources.
These practices are crafted and honed in the Championship alongside managers who must truly be experts at their jobs as they cannot rely on the expensive signings or abundance of wealth prominent in the Premier League.
It doesn’t matter how many passes you can string together in an attack; when you’re losing 1-0 at home in a midtable clash you need to score to survive in this league, and it is by any means necessary. The old school pressing football and long balls ever-present in this league are a tried and tested method of scoring goals, so if it isn’t broken, why fix it?
This style of play will always have a place in my heart because it’s what I grew up watching and it’s what made me fall in love with football. The scrappy midtable games on a pitch more akin to a pigsty than a professional football pitch will always be a cherished memory to me, and watching the Championship is like watching nostalgia in real time.
The football seen in the second tier is so far removed from the stat-padding safe-in-possession play seen all too often in the Premier League, with the Championship feeling far more traditional in play than other leagues in England.
Managers can try their hand at Gegenpressing or that once-coveted “Barҫa style of play”, cheers to Andy Tate for that one, but ultimately disregarding this and resorting to hoofing it forwards to a massive striker with a massive head and hoping for the best is something both common place and refreshing as it serves as a reminder of the no nonsense football we often play ourselves. Can you imagine players like Troy Deeney and Andy Carroll breaking through the youth ranks in today’s game? Neither can I.
If you haven’t seen what I’m hinting at, here it is in plain text; the Championship is better because it retains the highest quality of football while still being more relatable and replicable than any other league in the EFL.
Crowds, Teams & Players
Crowds are usually a lot smaller in the Championship than they are in the Premier League, so when you have a sold-out fixture you really notice the attendance and resulting atmosphere. Full grounds usually signify the start of a season, a big derby, or your team storming the league. Lovely stuff.
I would also strongly argue that the Championship is full of clubs that are the perfect size for communities to form within each team’s fanbase, though my dreams of seeing ultras presenting pyro shows and tifos in the UK are still far-fetched.
I’m talking about how Stoke fans were able to make the game “unplayable” against West Brom by booing their every touch of the ball through communicating almost exclusively online. How Leeds seemed to have an unlimited number of smoke bombs for every goal they scored in their promotion season. How Crystal Palace somehow managed to sneak a drum into their stadium, and continue to do so, years before their promotion to the topflight.
These communities form through the tribalistic love for the surrogate religion that is football, following their club home and away through thick and thin. Most of the fanbases in the lower leagues don’t support their local team because they’re any good, they support local because of the importance that team has to their identity and to their community. You’ll never hear someone call a Wycombe Wanderers fan a “glory hunter”.
This league favours the unfancied and there isn’t really a “Big 6” like you would have in the Prem, rather 24 teams who don’t really care all too much for each other. A lot of kicking and shouting with very few hugs and handshakes, this league is Roy Keane’s wet dream.
There is also a point to be made about the teams occupying the Championship, teams like Blackburn, Forest, Wednesday and QPR, all of whom I associate to a classic era of the Premier League which I grew up watching.
A great aspect attributed to most championship teams is the diversity of their stadia. From QPR’s traditional stadium, a big square box surrounded by council houses, to Huddersfield Town’s sleek arched Kirklees Stadium, there is a lot of diversity across the league in grounds.
Some evoke football heritage and history, such as Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough, while others feel like a clad iron shed assembled on a windy carpark, the BET365 Stadium springs to mind.
The Championship is also a hive for unfancied and forgotten players who can perform away from the pressures of £100 million deals and ludicrous paycheques. Playing football for the love of the game is far more connected to real life and that is exactly what you’ll find here, a league where there is an immense satisfaction in signing a total unknown from the fringes of world football and said player becoming a fan favourite.
I doubt anyone has backed Teemu Pukki as top scorer for Norwich after he joined for free from Brondby, but what a player he’s been for the Canaries since his arrival.
And in what other league could the “Hundred Goals Club” be comprised of David Nugent, Ross McCormack, Billy Sharp, and Jordan Rhoades? Not to mention undeniable ballers like Adel Taraabt, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Matěj Vydra, George Elokobi, Matt Jarvis, Ricardo Vaz Tê, Wes Hoolahan, and Bobby Zamora who frequented the division.
I can think of no stat to better summarise the experience of the second tier of English football than Portsmouth’s Guy Whittingham scoring 42 goals in the 92/93 season in which Portsmouth failed to gain promotion. Like I said, football heritage.
For the Love of the
Money shouldn’t be the “be-all and end-all” in football, and in the Championship it really isn’t. A good example of this is the record transfer fees for a Championship player going to the PL versus a topflight player going down a division. The players in question are Nathan Aké and his £40 million move to Man City versus Benik Afobe from Wolves to Stoke for ~£12 million.
Scrimping and saving is the name of the game, so relying on youth to step up when players are in poor form or injured is key, whereas the Premier League approach to fixing an issue is just to throw money at a it and then sack your manager 18 months later, something known as the Chelsea model.
The Premier League is rife with an overabundance of money, allowing top teams to sign £50 million players just for them to sit on the bench, stagnating their careers. This is certainly not the case in the Championship, however, as the only “super subs” you’ll find here are the likes of Peter Crouch, Glenn Murray, or Adebayo Akinfenwa, players who are synonymous with coming on after the 70th minute to nick a scrappy goal and close out the game. All three players also have somewhat of a cult following, though I am unsure if this is just coincidence.
The Premier League is looking to be a classic competition this year, but you shouldn’t let that distract you from the great theatre constantly available just one league below. The Championship makes for excellent viewing and there are always more great games and goals to enjoy than anywhere else, so take a seat, sit back, and relax as you watch all the action from the best league in the world.