Pulse Check: the English Championship

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

By Will Guthrie

For over 25 years we’ve been treated to the explosive and glamorous English Premier League, with its international stars, mind-bogging amounts of money and exceptional coverage. But for the casual fan, something’s missing. It’s been said that, perhaps, it’s just a bit too predictable. Aside from the miracle that was Leicester City FC’s recent title win, it seems to outsiders that only a handful of clubs ever seem to be able win the league. While the football is fast-paced and some of the best you’ll see, there’s an element of drama lacking in a lot of title races. In stark contrast, the EFL Championship, just one rung below, is some of the best sporting drama you’ll ever see. It is literally the richest race in world football, with the teams who win promotion to the Premier League reportedly standing to make around £170 million. This season’s edition is proving to be just as lively as ever, with another grandstand finish on the cards.

With the top two finishers on the EFL table guaranteed automatic promotion, the real drama is in who will earn the final place. With any one of the four teams who finish from third to sixth entering a knockout style mini-tournament for that life-changing payday, the stakes are incredibly high. At the time of writing, two former Premier League regulars in Leeds Untied FC and West Bromwich Albion FC, are set to make returns. For West Brom, it’s been a short two-year spell in the Championship, and with only a few games remaining, promotion is almost a certainty, but Leeds is an entirely different story.

To provide some background, at one stage in the early noughties, Leeds were a top four club in the Premier League, playing in the Champions League Semi-Finals with talented names on their books such as Rio Ferdinand, Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, David Batty and Alan Smith. Their fall from grace was spectacular. As Sir Alex Ferguson said in his autobiography; “I sensed the club was built on sand. When I heard what kind of wages they were paying, my alarm bells rang.” The mismanagement that resulted in them plummeting to League One and enter administration was a shock to their massive fanbase considering they won the League in 1992, the year before the inaugural Premier League season. A slow and steady climb back up the divisions saw them in cruise control last season, destined to return to the pinnacle of English football, but for one of the all-time chokes.

A staggering collapse in form over the last handful of games, commencing when Manager Marcelo Bielsa ordered his team to literally stop and let the opposition score when 1-0 ahead, saw them secure just one point in 3 games against lowly opposition. Automatic promotion slipped out of reach and Leeds lost in the playoff to Derby County. Since the Covid-19 lockdown ended, Leeds appear to be more settled, winning when they should and marching to promotion. Some have speculated this has been helped by a lack of fans in the stadium, whose groans of frustration and anxiety seemed to infect the players last season. Leeds, currently top of the table, are on the cusp of winning promotion back into the top division, a feat that would be celebrated long and hard, whilst also making the next instalment of the Premier League incredibly entertaining.

Leeds players celebrate a goal on their way to the top of the table.

The interesting case in the mix is Brentford FC, who have come out of lockdown and continued a winning streak that has seen them take maximum points from their last 6 games. This is a smaller club, being run efficiently and who have put a great deal of effort into who they have recruited, a policy of only bringing in players of good character that has seen them become the Cinderella story of this promotion race. In addition to this, their community engagement has been exceptional, with players and staff judging a competition where school children write match reports on the latest games, being just one example.

More rainsoaked celebrations, this time among Brentford players.

The truly incredible part of all this is that the team currently in sixth position, Cardiff City FC, are 12 points behind Brentford on the table, yet both have an equal chance to win promotion. A common gripe, especially amongst Australians, is that there are no finals or playoffs, the season just ends and whoever is on top of the table, wins the competition. There’s not as much theatre as having to prove that, on the day, you truly are the best team. This is where the Championship is so special, that last place can be won by any of the four teams still alive for that spot. To prove you belong in the most glamourous league in world football, you have to go to Wembley Stadium and in front of 90,000 people, hold your nerve. Things are at boiling point and you’d suspect there’s still a twist or two left in this bizarre season yet.

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