Why aren't relegated sides bouncing straight back up from the Championship?
“The richest game in football”. The British media dreamt up as a way to sell the Championship play-off final to people. Leaving aside its real awkwardness as a piece of English, both grammatically and in terms of its content - surely it gives away all its money, leaving it destitute? Anyway, the point was that the difference between winning and losing this single game, financially, was, and still is, the biggest gulf in football. Not only the immediate Premier League money, an injection of TV rights money beyond the wildest dreams of Championship clubs, but also the promise of parachute payments for years after relegation, in theory keeping well-run relegated clubs right at the front of the queue to return to the top flight.
However. On the opening weekend of this Championship season, none of the teams relegated from the Premier League won (Fulham and Cardiff did rectify this in the second weekend, it should be noted.) One weekend might be easy to shrug off, but no relegated Premier League teams have been promoted straight away in either of the last two seasons to boot.
The last time there were two consecutive seasons where none of the relegated teams immediately bounced back into the big time? 2003/4 and 2004/5. 5 of the 6 teams relegated in those years are now back in the Premier League. The missing team? Leeds United, as it happens. The phenomena has never happened three times in a row in “the Premier League era”. So what’s going on? Is this just something that repeats itself roughly every ten years, or should we read great insights into money in football/the-strength-of-the-championship/the-state-of-the-english-game etc etc?
Well, first off. If we were going to say something about the English game - would this be a good or a bad thing? Surely it would, on the face of it, be a good thing. A more competitive league, with margins even tighter and challenges, presumably, that bit fiercer. Compelling, dizzying “tightness”. Players whose pace and power is so closely matched that it is only comparable to the way in which their no little skill is also very evenly distributed like their passing, which, while obviously not Premier League level, is actually very respectable. Ok, I’m running out of Championship cliches. Or maybe not...
Of course, there will still be players who are “clearly too good for this level” soon to move “to a bigger stage” or merely those who are “outstanding at this level” but who won’t quite “make the step up to the Premier League”, but they will be spread more even evenly across the league - a fine veneer of butter across the league’s very dense bread. Right, that is it for the Championship cliches.
Ok. That would probably be a good thing. But is that, actually, what’s happening?
A couple of points.
One. Villa were definitely a sleeping giant who had already been in the second tier too long. They were bound to return. To a lesser, but still real, extent, Cardiff are one of two big clubs in Wales and boast a stadium with a capacity of over 30,000. So their promotion is again not a huge surprise. Are there now more sleeping giants in the second tier than ever, displaced by the “false” riches - i.e. those not born of a club’s fan base and reach - of clubs such as Bounrmouth, Watford, Brighton and Burnley? Maybe. But to an extent there have always been big teams lurking. Leeds United alone have been there for well over a decade, Birmingham, Derby and Even Nottingham Forest are similarly consistent presences over recent times.
Perhaps more significant is the way in which, especially in recent seasons, clubs have “adapted to their environment and its rules” [cheated, a bit, allegedly, or not actually cheated but definitely bent the rules and worked around them in creative ways, ALLEGEDLY].
Watford, promoted in 2014-15, were perhaps the first club to successfully pull off a questionable ownership arrangement to achieve promotion. When Giampaolo Pozzo took over in June 2012, he immediately set about leveraging his connections with other clubs around Europe - notably the two he actually owned (Granada and Udinese). Again, he didn’t technically break any rules in loaning fourteen players from overseas for the season, in his first year in charge. The League did immediately make what he did a breach of the rules though, so there’s that. Pozzo did continue to “share resources” between his clubs, however, and eventually Watford were promoted. Now firmly established in the Premier League and FA Cup Finalists last year, there is a certain amount of resentment from fans of Pozzo’s former golden boys, Udinese, who now believe Pozzo favours the men from the gap. They chant, according to The Guardian, “Chi non salta Gino Pozzo è” – in English - “If you’re not jumping, you’re Gino Pozzo”.
Then you had Wolves and super agent Jorge Mendes, whose “reach” and “network” allowed them to get a bunch of very good players to a Championship club for not very much money - although that was available from Chinese investors if and when required.
Finally, you have the team that beat one of those relegatees who flopped on the opening weekend, Derby County. They were impressive in their 2-1 win over Huddersfield, having earlier in the day secured the signature of anti-Blade Runner Wayne Rooney who it seems will do anything to avoid retiring, including playing for Wayne Rooney’s Derby County, apparently. Derby, though not yet promoted, are possibly Kings of the new-age financial shenanigans in that they managed to sell their stadium to themselves, thus freeing up £80m of “income” on the balance sheet which they are free to use without violating FFP regulations. The Rooney deal was also worked out in conjunction with the other great leveller of the Championship - in the sense that everyone is in bed with them - the betting companies. In this case, Red32 will help finance that particular deal in exchange for Rooney wearing the shirt number 32. Don’t worry though, the man himself has said, “The number I wear is not a big deal.” And it’s not, not compared to the big “record-breaking sponsorship deal” that owner Mel Morris informs us the club have just signed with 32Red, anyway.