Despite the attempts of UEFA and football confederations across the globe to liven things up with the new Nations League format, the international break still leaves many football fans feeling somewhat bereft.
Fear not, though, as arguably Europe’s most exciting league returns on Oct. 19. It may not have the glamor or wall-to-wall coverage of top-flight football, but the Championship is the place to be if you like goals, surprises, and a manic free-for-all.
Nearly impossible to forecast
Renowned as a fiercely competitive, unpredictable league, this season is reinforcing that notion. After 12 rounds of fixtures, five points separate Nottingham Forest in fifth place and Queens Park Rangers in 18th. Of last year’s relegated trio, only West Bromwich Albion are in the top 10, while Stoke City – most bookies’ favorites to win the title – are 14th. Last season’s League One runners-up Blackburn Rovers, who finished 27 league positions lower than Stoke last season, are one point outside the top six, while last term’s playoff final losers Aston Villa sit 15th.
With a marathon 46-game season – a major reason the Championship is considered something of a black hole for relegated top-flight teams – we are only a quarter of the way through the 2018-19 campaign. In the Premier League, it is often proclaimed that no firm conclusions should start being drawn until the New Year; in this league, that timeframe should be pushed until the start of spring.
True star quality
The Championship boasts an abundance of Premier League- and international-standard players, and with the league’s transfer spending having risen by more than 400 percent since 2013-14, that trend will only grow. For October’s round of national-team games, 20 second-tier players were called up for countries that took part in the 2018 World Cup, and that’s without including injury withdrawals. The likes of Villa midfielder Birkir Bjarnason, who scored a fine goal for Iceland against world champion France last Thursday, Norwich City’s Swiss defender Timm Klose, and Leeds United’s Polish midfielder Mateusz Klich were all summoned for UEFA Nations League action this month.
Meanwhile, a plethora of Premier League loanees are taking the division by storm. Newcastle United’s Dwight Gayle and Leicester City wonderkid Harvey Barnes have 13 goals and seven assists between them for high-flying West Brom; Derby County feature Chelsea pair Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori alongside Liverpool winger Harry Wilson; and league-leading Sheffield United boast Manchester United goalkeeper Dean Henderson and Brighton and Hove Albion midfielder Oliver Norwood as regular starters. Then there’s Jack Harrison at Leeds, Jack Colback at Forest, Yannick Bolasie and Tammy Abraham at Villa – the list goes on.
Coaching carousel just getting going
Even in the coaches’ dugout, there is star quality. The much-vaunted appointment of the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa has inspired Leeds, while Frank Lampard made headlines at Derby with a League Cup win at Old Trafford. Aside from those two big names, nine other current Championship bosses have previously managed in the Premier League.
Former England captain John Terry’s return to Villa as newly-appointed Dean Smith’s assistant will only increase that interest. Smith’s move from Brentford to Villa Park is the league’s first managerial change of the campaign but will likely kickstart something of a trend as chairmen get increasingly nervous as the season gets deeper. The question will soon start to surface for those teams underperforming: How long is too long to leave things unchanged?
Premier League stars of the future
Ignoring the Championship is to risk missing out on discovering the next wave of Premier League talent. Of the 11 players named to last season’s Championship Team of the Year, 10 are currently plying their trade in the big time. Only Leon Clarke remains in the division, and his Sheffield United are top of the league.
Increasingly, second-tier stars are proving comfortable in making the top-flight transition. Eyebrows were raised by the reported £25 million Leicester City shelled out for Norwich star James Maddison in the summer, but the 21-year-old has eight starts, three goals, two assists, and a first senior England call-up to show for his first two months in the Premier League. David Brooks, too, is shining for Bournemouth after a summer transfer from Clarke’s Blades and has missed just one game. The likes of Brentford winger Ollie Watkins and striker Neil Maupay, Blackburn star Bradley Dack, and Forest talent Ben Osborn will hope to be leading next year’s contingent.
Meanwhile, Mount, a relatively unknown quantity despite a scintillating spell at Dutch side Vitesse last season, has become that rare phenomenon of a lower-league player called up to the senior England squad after scoring five goals in 15 games for Derby so far. Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland, who has won nine caps since his debut in 2012, was also selected.
‘Premier League 2’ in all but name?
Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani this month called for the Championship to be remodeled into a ‘Premier League 2’ in a bid to become more sustainable and gain increased broadcast revenues. Not only would that likely isolate a select group of six to 10 of the teams with the biggest history and fan bases – think Leeds, Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, etc. – and thus eliminate much of the unpredictability and evenness that makes the Championship such a tremendous drama, but it is also rather unnecessary, given the division’s ever-rising appeal.
Increased availability of games on TV and online (and, therefore, greater revenue) is about to be welcomed through a new five-year, £600-million Football League domestic TV rights deal that begins next season, and such is the fanaticism of English lower-league support that attendances are unlikely to be dented. The Championship is overflowing with proud, historic, fiercely-supported clubs, and total attendance across last season’s 552 matches rose to more than 11.3 million at an average of over 20,000, despite Newcastle and their 51,000 weekly spectators being promoted prior to that campaign. UEFA officially recognizes it as the third-best-attended league in Europe, with more fans turning up to watch English second-tier football than do in Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, or France’s Ligue 1.
The Championship has changed, there’s no doubt about it. “It is very different (in 2018),” Stoke’s chief executive Tony Scholes said. “More than half the teams have attendances of more than 20,000 and the facilities have improved, which is maybe a legacy of the fact so many of the teams have been in the Premier League. There are more foreign owners compared to how it was and more foreign managers.” Although its quality, appeal, and outside recognition has broadened, the unpredictability, parity, and soul has remained.
Quite simply, it’s a must-watch.