The SkyBet Championship is the strongest second-tier league in world football and in my opinion, it offers entertainment on a par with, if not better than, the Premier League and top-tier leagues across the world.
I realise that the latter is a bold statement. It could be said that my enthusiasm for the Championship stems from the cumulative effect of having to accept, season after season, that my beloved Ipswich Town will be spending yet another season as the longest-serving Championship club. 12 years and counting we’ve been there, dating back to when the league was still named Division 1. But regardless, these have actually been a thoroughly enjoyable 12 years, (albeit slightly frustrating at the same time).
And by ‘entertainment’, I don’t mean to compare the quality of football in the Championship with that of the Premier League; to do so would be to spark unnecessary debate with the Chelsea fan to my right and the two Spurs fans I live with every day. But what I do emphasize is the fact that there are more components to Championship football than many Premier League fans will realise: capricious results, passionate fans and tactical innovation to name just a few.
Saying that, Championship football is unpredictable. It has arguably become a bit of a cliché and has actually been challenged by the consistent results of Nottingham Forest, QPR, Blackpool and Leicester, who many punters currently back as a safe bet on their weekend accumulators. But who can say that they predicted Burnley to be sitting pretty at the top of the table after 12 games?
I’m not saying that the Premier League is too predictable, for the nature of this year’s season has so far blown that theory out of the water. When Championship fans turn up on match day, however, they do so without any preconception as to the final outcome. A couple of back to back wins can see a team climb from 19th to 9th, just as a team leading the pack ten games in can end up in a relegation fight 30 games later.
We could further credit the Championship by saying the reason for the fluctuating results in this season’s Premier League is partly down to the endeavours of two of last season’s promoted sides; Cardiff and Hull. Apologies, Palace fans. The Championship certainly teaches players to work hard and play honest football, which can pay dividends in the long run.
A great example of this are Swansea City, who have become the go-to example of how the game should be played since emerging from the humble roots of the Championship in 2011. They have not looked back since. In contrast, I find it thoroughly enjoyable to see a team like Bolton, who overstayed their welcome in the Premier League until 2012, now struggling to stay afloat in the Championship.
Matchday is every football fan’s highlight of the week. But if I was to give someone their first taste of English football, it would be at a Championship match. While I wouldn’t say no to 90 minutes in a padded leather seat at the Emirates, I would rather spend that time on my feet in the Bobby Robson Stand at Portman Road, where non-stop chanting and obscenities are the norm.
The great thing about a Championship game is that you are surrounded by highly-knowledgeable, passionate fans, who have followed their team up and down the Football League all their lives. They are quick to comment and brilliantly critical. Of course, honest and passionate fans exist in their thousands in the Premier League, but when comparing my Premier League and Championship match day experiences the latter comes out on top. And that’s not just for the price of the pies.
Once the fans of the 22 Championship clubs have accepted the fact that they will not be achieving automatic promotion to the Premier League, usually around Christmas time, the fun part starts; the race for the playoffs. This battle for 3rd-6th place in the table, in my opinion, generates far greater competition and passion than the race for 5th place in the Premier League, which to be honest is a bit of a damp squib in comparison. There is more at stake in the race for the playoffs. The glamour and financial benefits of the Premier League await the lucky team to go up. (And let’s be honest, there is a certain amount of luck involved).
At the start of the season, every team is aiming for automatic promotion to avoid the lottery of the playoffs at all costs. Come May, however, you would be crazy to not want to be involved. Even for a neutral observer, the playoffs are as exciting as an FA Cup final, with an atmosphere to match the final of the Champions League. But, as Crystal Palace have so far shown in the Premier League this season, sometimes the experience of getting there is better than actually being there.
Premier League fans may believe that tactical innovation is a phrase reserved for managers such as Pellegrini, Mourinho and Wenger, but, as a spectator in the Championship, you’d be unlucky to witness three successive games in which the manager didn’t shuffle the formation or style of play. The pace of the Premier League actually lessens the scope for these sorts of changes, yet the sufficient quality of Championship players combined with a slightly reduced game speed and wide range of teams, allows for managers to switch things around almost weekly to cater for the demands of each match, at a much lesser risk than would be the case in the Premier League.
It is also great to see Championship clubs embrace the domestic talent which they have coming through their respective academies. A promising 17-year old English striker from the academy will generate just as much excitement amongst Championship fans as a world-record signing would do in the Premier League, and often these home-grown talents go on to become some of the most successful players in the league. With so much talk about the importance of domestic talent in the media at the moment, we should look at the Championship as a positive example (except for perhaps, Watford).
For all I have said, it remains my dream to see Ipswich return to the top flight, even if for just one season. Come on you Blues!