The English Championship is to the Premier League what Puma is to adidas. Well regarded in its own right — at last count the third most-watched league in Europe — it will always exist in the shadow of its bigger brother, writes
Over 11,000,000 people clicked through the turnstiles to watch the Championship unfold in the 2016-17 season. That’s more than La Liga attracted in Spain. Or Italy’s Serie A, or Ligue 1 in France. Total revenues were calculated by Deloitte at £720m and the English Football League’s current TV deal equates to £90m a year, the bulk of it going to the second-tier clubs.
The Championship is awash with foreign players, managers and owners. 60% of Premier League clubs are in the hands of overseas investors, the figure for the Championship is 58%. It is ultra-competitive, clearly of an impressively high standard and yet it will always be a mere holding pen for those of vaulting ambition.
It’s TV revenue, big though it is, is just 3% of that enjoyed by the Premier League, it’s revenue just 16% of the top tier. Win the play-off final at Wembley in May and it’s worth at least £160m to a club. Stay up in the Premier League for just one season on arrival and that value could double. These are telephone numbers – with an international prefix attached.
A report in the Guardian last summer revealed the risks clubs are prepared to take for all that, with 19 of the 24 Championship clubs posting losses in the 16/17 season. Nottingham Forest weren’t one of them but only because the former owner waived a £40m credit to the club as part of the takeover that saw Greek shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis take the wheel.
This is the unforgiving world that Martin O’Neill has entered with his old club.
Forest’s appointment of O’Neill, and the club’s statement on Tuesday in which it harked back to the glory days of European Cup success when the Derry man was a player under Brian Clough, typified the manner in which so many Championship clubs are desperately striving to engineer a link between glory days of old and others to come.
Ten of the clubs in the Championship right now have won the league title in the top-tier at one point or another in their history. Twelve have claimed 37 FA Cups between them. Forest and Aston Villa can look back on days when they were the best sides in Europe and even Ipswich Town, bottom of the ladder right now, once claimed the Uefa Cup.
The Championship is at once a boulevard of broken dreams, a highway to redemption and a slippery slope with clubs as big as Sunderland careering out the wrong end of it and into the harsh, cold reality that is League One.
The unifying factor for so many of these outfits though is the conviction that they belong in more salubrious surrounds.
“We are, on paper, a Premier League club,” said Frank Lampard when he took over a Derby County side that has spent just seven seasons in the Premier League, the last of them in 2007/08. “The size, the infrastructure, but there are a lot of clubs challenging. There are a lot of clubs who have spent money to improve their squads.”
It’s a dangerous game they’re all playing.
Deloitte has warned that far too many clubs are splurging more cash than they have. Newcastle United recorded a £47m loss when it gambled on making an immediate return to the Premier League two years ago and the likes of Brighton and Huddersfield gambled on similar rolls of the dice in reaching the Promised Land.
For those who have tumbled down to the Championship, time is of the essence thanks to parachute payments that run dry after three seasons.
Kieran Maguire, a football finance expert, told the BBC late last year that Hull City’s estimated value was approximately £35-40m, that it would drop when the payments ended and plummet to £10-£15m if they slipped into League One.
“It is an expensive business,” Maguire explained at the time. “The Championship lost £392m in 2017 and the reason for that is because you’ve got many owners who see the attraction of the Premier League.”
Wolves spent Premier League money to crack the code and secure promotion last time around and Forest were fancied to follow that same path under Aitor Karanka.
Something in the region of £25m was spent on bringing players to the City Ground last summer, upping the ante on O’Neill at a club which has employed 11 different managers now since 2011. Four points off a play-off spot as the Irishman takes charge, it’s worth pointing out that they are only four points better off than Stoke City back in 15th place.
“If you look at the results after every game it’s very hard to say who’s at the top of the table and who’s at the bottom,” said Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa. “You would tell me the best are at the top and the worst are at the bottom but when a team at the top plays a team at the bottom, there’s not much difference. The leading teams are not that superior to the teams at the bottom.”
Who knows which way this pendulum will swing.