by Kieran Mather
The Championship. Division 1. The Old Division Two. However you prefer to call it, the second tier in the English league pyramid has now become an extremely unforgiving test for teams.
Since the creation of the Premier League in 1992, no fewer than 8 (or 9 with the inclusion of Wimbledon/MK Dons) have fallen from the grace of the top flight and instead of consolidating have fell right through into the third tier of English football including Norwich City, who finished 3rd in the Premier League’s inaugural season. Other teams who have shared the fate of the East Anglian club have included three from Yorkshire – both Sheffield clubs and Leeds United – Nottingham Forest, Manchester City, Oldham Athletic, Southampton and recently Coventry City. Only three of these clubs have managed a return to the top flight since their time spent in the third tier (Man City, Norwich & recently Southampton) the rest have yet to claw their way back to the lofty heights they used to deem as normality.
So what makes the drop in divisions such a ruthless plight? A further seven clubs who’ve entered the “big time” have since witnessed such a demise (Swindon Town, Barnsley, Bradford, Leicester, Notts County, Charlton Athletic & Portsmouth) and until recently some of these clubs resided in League 2. Is it the mass exodus of players some clubs endure after relegation? Is it the reduction in club wage bills? Decrease in revenue and attendances?
An average Premier League team can expect to receive up to £45 million in television revenue whereas the average Championship team can receive up to £1 million. However, with Sky TV set to monopolise the lower league coverage in 2013 this figure could go up.
The Premier League does attempt to look after its members financially with “parachute payments” for relegated clubs that is now a reported £11.2 million pounds over a club’s first two seasons outside of the top flight, a sum of money which would be considered generous if a Premier League club wasn’t expected to spend that three times over in order to survive.
These alarming discrepancies can often lead to disastrous consequences. In 2001, following relegation, Bradford City succumbed to administration, a fate that has also befallen former Premier League clubs such as Southampton, Portsmouth, Crystal Palace, Leeds United, Leicester City and Wimbledon.
The Championship itself has now become an extremely competitive division. It is noticeable that all three relegated clubs who fell from the top perch last season could only achieve play off positions whilst Southampton, newly promoted from the third tier, secured a second successive automatic promotion mirroring Norwich’s fantastic achievement last time out.
Only one team that was relegated from the Premier League 12 months ago will return 53 weeks later through the play-off final, otherwise known as the richest game in football. For the other two it will be a case of stick or twist financially. With the last instalment of any parachute payment – and still retaining certain players on Premier League wages – they will have to either carry the strain for 12 months in the hope of a return or it will be time to sell on players to desperately recoup loses.
The sizeable investments from overseas that we’ve seen in the Premier League into clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United has been replicated in the lower leagues, something which has naturally generated a greater competition for promotion from the Football League. Crawley Town, Reading, Cardiff City, Queens Park Rangers and Leicester City to mention a few that have seen a level of success through these means.
Queens Park Rangers for example, it could be said, had a Premier League wage bill back in 2010/11 when they secured promotion as champions from the Championship, the expenditure of doing so a gamble that was ultimately vindicated.
Cardiff City meanwhile have backing from Malaysian investors who are determined to finally secure entry to the promised land after nine seasons in the Championship and three play off appearances in the last three consecutive seasons.
Although three teams come down from a league with a much higher standard of football, the competition for both automatic promotion spots and the 4 play off spots after them are contested more fiercely than ever. Brighton & Hove Albion produced a challenge for back-to-back promotion this season, both Hull City and Middlesborough were hot on the tails of the befallen Premier League clubs throughout whilst in five years alone the standard of the second tier has managed to relegate Sheffield Wednesday (twice) Norwich, Sheffield United, Leicester City, Charlton Athletic, Portsmouth & Coventry City.
Although two of these have secured a return to the second tier on the second attempt with one waiting for the play offs to see if they can bounce back immediately some clubs haven’t been so lucky. Luton Town are now a Blue Square Premier League side, Bradford City secured their football league status with only weeks to spare, while Swindon Town have recently secured their first promotion since their fall out of the Premier League which will ensure the club plays third tier football next season.
For other clubs though there haven’t been any signs of revival. Oldham Athletic have never mounted a challenge to return, Watford never flirted with the play offs since their relegation in 2007. Burnley haven’t looked like returning and neither have Crystal Palace.
It need not be all doom and gloom however. If the right blend of prudence and sensible planning is applied then a stint out of the Premier League limelight can actually serve a club well. The enforced offloading of prima donnas can bring a unity to a squad, the charge of a promotion campaign fosters a rediscovered collective will, whilst on a basic level winning more games than you lose reinvigorates the fanbase.
Look at West Ham who are arguably returning stronger and more vibrant than the defeated carcass that left.
It almost goes without saying however that whilst relegation does have a sliver of a silver lining the sooner Bolton, Wolves and Blackburn re-establish themselves where they now feel they belong the better.