The nPower Championship is certainly the most exciting league in the world. There will quite obviously be some opposition to that statement, but there are facts to back it up.
On their day, anyone can literally beat anyone. The side at the bottom of the table can go to the side at the top, win 2-0, yet not a lot of people would consider it as a surprise result, it is that competitive. Usually, until around April time, the middle of the table is so congested that two or three wins or losses could see you chasing the play-offs or automatic promotion or staring down the barrel of life in League One next season.
When it comes to the Premier League, ok, it may be the most star-studded and expensive division on Planet Earth, but 99% of the time, when Wigan travel to Chelsea or Aston Villa go to Manchester United, who wins? You know the score. The Championship is not like that at all.
But, the standard of the Championship is what I’d like to go into detail about here. Is it slipping or is it getting ever so stronger?
This season (2012/13), there was just thirteen points separating Barnsley in 21st place and Leicester City in 6th place in the final standings after forty-six games. Now, thirteen points is thirteen points, but if you consider that Barnsley, who had been fighting relegation for most of the season, had put together a run of just four straight wins, they could have found themselves on the cusp of the play-offs. Mad, isn’t it?
Try and do that in the Premiership. Be one above the bottom three and win four straight games. Will it take you into the top four and a chance of Champions League football the following term? Not a chance.
Cardiff City and Bristol City aside, the nPower Championship was unbelievably congested this season. Going into game 46, there was still an incredible seven sides that could have been mathematically relegated or escaped the drop. Blackburn Rovers, Huddersfield Town, Sheffield Wednesday, Millwall, Peterborough United, Barnsley and Wolverhampton Wanderers all started the day in the mix, with eventually Wolves and Peterborough dropping into League One. Meanwhile at the other end, Watford and Hull City were battling it out for second place and Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Bolton Wanderers and Leicester City all stood a chance of making the end of season play-offs. For so many places to be undecided on the last day of the season in one division is unusual to say the least, but is that due to the standard of the nPower Championship getting stronger or weaker?
Let’s take a look at the league table, for example. As stated, Hull City and Watford started game 46 both in with a chance of making the second spot, automatic promotion and a shot at the Premier League next season. You would think that being in the top three would mean that you hadn’t lost a lot of games. Wrong, as both teams ended the season having lost a whopping fifteen games each. Compare that with Brentford, third place in League One, who only lost nine and Gillingham and Port Vale who secured promotion from League Two, who lost nine and ten respectively, it is lucky for the Hornets and the Tigers that the rest of the division could not take advantage of their inability to win games.
Middlesbrough finished 16th in this season’s nPower Championship. Tony Mowbray’s men started the season in fantastic style, topping the table as early as September. Even as recent as January, the Teesiders remained in touch with the top six – so they should with the quality in their squad. But, a disastrous 2013 saw Boro slip down the table and end up in the bottom half. The crucial fact in backing up my point is that Middlesbrough lost a huge twenty-three games this season. For those of you who are good at maths, you will realise that that’s 50% of Boro’s games this season that ended in defeat. Now, you would think a team that lost half their games would go down with ease, right? Wrong. Mowbray’s men still finished comfortably in mid-table even with their appalling win/loss record in 2012/2013. Only one side suffered more defeats than Middlesbrough this season, that being bottom of the table Bristol City.
Sean O Driscoll’s men fell away in the last few months of the season, leaving everyone else to slug it out to try and avoid the drop. Wolves were all but down after defeat at home to Burnley in the penultimate game of the season, leaving the teams stated earlier in this article to fight amongst each other on the 4th May.
Peterborough scored sixty-six goals this season, five more than second-placed Hull City. 20th placed Millwall conceded the same amount of goals as 5th placed Crystal Palace, sixty-two. Even teams like Derby County who finished in 10th place still conceded over sixty goals this season. Is that due to attackers becoming more prolific or defenders getting worse? Is it getting easier to race up the scoring charts in the Championship, or are your clubs’ defenders’ surrendering before the ball has even started its journey to hitting the net?
Results such as Burnley’s 5-2 win over Peterborough United in September, Nottingham Forest’s 6-1 demolition of Huddersfield Town in February and Charlton Athletic’s 5-4 win over Cardiff City earlier in the season are becoming commonplace now; these sorts of score-lines in previous times would be considered an anomaly on the record, but now games full of goals are becoming the norm. Again, is this because the standard of teams in the nPower Championship are getting stronger and are able to break defences down more easily, or is it because teams are getting weaker and the opposition are able to exploit their opponents with more ease?
Personally, I believe that the standard of the nPower Championship is slightly weaker than in recent years. Teams such as Reading, Norwich City and QPR have left for pastures new in the Barclays Premier League, whilst the likes of Sheffield United have dropped into League One. These have been replaced by sides such as Huddersfield Town, Peterborough United and Blackburn Rovers, sides that are in turmoil, such as Blackburn, or teams that do not have the financial clout like the Posh to compete in the division.
I would imagine that this incredible season is just a one-off – no way will we ever see so many crucial positions in the table undecided going in to the last day of the season, let alone the last ten minutes of the campaign as this season showed. The likes of QPR and Reading are returning to the Championship next time round and up and coming teams such as Bournemouth will provide an unknown factor. The huge financial abilities of clubs like Leicester City and Nottingham Forest will also contribute towards what could be the most competitive Championship season in years.
One thing is for sure – England’s second tier is the best league in the world. Try and argue against it, I dare you.