Michael Walker: Gruelling scramble begins for Championship clubs
Who walks through the door next May to the Premier League is of serious interest to at least a dozen clubs
Middlesbrough’s Robbie Keane and Jonathan Woodgate during a pre-season friendly against Hartlepool United at Victoria Park, Hartlepool. Photograph: Mark Fletcher via Getty Images
It is long, gruelling and unpredictable. It contains ambition, excitement, desperation and conniving. There are prizes, parachutes, sackings and sometimes points deductions. There are goals and mayhem, or at least the impression of both. It is regularly the third or fourth most-watched European league. England’s Championship is back.
Beginning last night (Friday) with Luton Town’s hosting of Middlesbrough – and Robbie Keane – the division with the door to the riches of the Premier League rolls out over four days. English football is so modest.
Who walks through that door next May is of serious interest to at least a dozen Championship clubs, which makes predicting the three that will do it daunting going on daft.
We do not need to look far for evidence to support this conclusion: last season. Then Stoke City were favourites and ended up 16th; Norwich City were tenth in the betting and finished up winners. To complicate matters further, when Stoke travelled to Norwich last October they won 1-0.
As Norwich’s colourful, bewildered manager Daniel Farke said: “It’s a ridiculous result.” Stoke had won via an own goal, having, as Farke noted, not had a shot on target.
“We’ve shown a different way of winning a game,” said Stoke manager Gary Rowett cryptically.
Some at Stoke obviously saw it for what it was, and Rowett made it to January before becoming one of nine mid-season managerial changes. As there were six new appointments before the season started, 12 Championship clubs changed their manager at least once.
Is this chaos all part of the appeal of the Championship? Not really. It is folly. If clubs’ planning is so short-term and haphazard how are fans to make sense of it? But this is all part of the pressure exerted by the Premier League.
Hence, since the end of last season nine clubs have new managers and one, Sheffield Wednesday, do not have a manager at all. Lee Bullen is the caretaker at Hillsborough following Steve Bruce’s departure. Wednesday look troubled and are the subject of financial rumours.
Birmingham City, docked nine points last season, are another club with a temporary manager. Pep Clotet stepped in when Garry Monk was ushered out. Birmingham appear about as stable as Wednesday, though whether stability in the dugout is the virtue we think it to be is questionable. Villa dismissed Bruce last October, and in May won the play-offs under Dean Smith. The change worked.
What can be said is that Norwich stood by Farke during a wobble, while the other club promoted automatically, Sheffield United, had Chris Wilder in place from 2016. In Championship management that’s longevity.
Dugout stability is not yet a trend but perhaps the way Norwich and Sheffield United went about gaining promotion – frugally – has become one. A month ago a club director remarked quietly on not only the absence of transfer spending in the division, but also of a small depression in player salaries.
It would be beyond rash in the context of English football to suggest economic common sense has taken a grip, but maybe the worrisome examples of Birmingham and Bolton last season, allied to the uplifting methods of Farke and Wilder, have brought about a recalibration.
Both Norwich and Sheffield United went up despite being in transfer profit last summer – Norwich via the sale of James Maddison to Leicester and United via David Brooks’ move to Bournemouth. Internally at Carrow Road and Bramall Lane there has been an emphasis on better coaching, smarter recruitment and fiscal caution. Success is not guaranteed, but the future of a club is not on the line.
There is something about the way Cardiff City have behaved this summer reminiscent of this approach. Until Wednesday, when they signed Robert Glatzel from Bundesliga 2 club Heidenheim, Cardiff’s main summer recruit was centre-half Aden Flint from Middlesbrough: £4 million.
Glatzel is a striker who scored 17 goals in 29 appearances last season. He is 25, 6ft 4in and fits a profile Neil Warnock knows and trusts. The fee is over £5 million, but Cardiff have parachute money to spend.
Those who have seen Will Vaulks at Rotherham say Warnock has been typically cute. He has also signed Gavin Whyte, a 23-year-old Belfast winger, from Oxford United. Whyte has pace and skill, and in a dominant team – and Cardiff should be on top in most games – he will have space.
Cardiff scored only 34 goals in the Premier League last season, but then they endured the Emiliano Sala tragedy. Sala was bought to score goals. The role has passed to Glatzel.
Putting dodgy refereeing decisions in the same paragraph as Sala is inappropriate, but they too were factors in the Bluebirds’ relegation. Warnock, money and coming so close to staying up are reasons to claim that Cardiff will go back up automatically. They are 10/1 to win it.
Fulham and Huddersfield Town have the same economic advantage as Cardiff – though Fulham made a mockery of money last season. They have retained the erratic Aleksandr Mitrovic.
Huddersfield have held onto Aaron Mooy, who is too good for this level. Both clubs should reach the play-offs at least.
Leeds United and Derby County did that in May. Derby have lost Frank Lampard to Chelsea, though Shay Given has stayed.
So has Marcelo Bielsa at Elland Road. This time 12 months ago it was entirely understandable to have been to two Leeds pre-season friendlies such was the excitement surrounding Bielsa. It has slowed somewhat. Theoretically Leeds should be better after a year of Bielsa but they too have financial question marks.
Bielsa’s team were the lowest scorers of the top five last season. There is an image of the Championship as a goal-fest but the statistics say the average per game, around 2.5, is frequently less than in the Premier League, where the figure is around 2.7.
Middlesbrough under Tony Pulis were partly responsible for this. Boro’s 49 goals was the lowest total of the top 15 clubs. Norwich scored 93.
Such meagre fare was in part why Pulis departed, and one of his coaches, Jonathan Woodgate, stepped up. Woodgate has brought in Robbie Keane and shot-shy Boro is Keane’s challenge.
Standing with Woodgate last Sunday after Boro’s 1-1 friendly draw with St Etienne, he said of Keane: “He’s settled in really well, and he has the same beliefs as me. That was really important for me, how he sees the game.
“I just want us to be high up the pitch and score goals, be braver in the way we play. Of course, Robbie brings that edge to it – he’s done it.”
If Keane has Boro singing, he and Woodgate will really have done something. Keane’s namesake Roy – and Martin O’Neill – can tell them how the Championship – gruelling, unpredictable and tantalising with its potential rewards – can also chew you up.