It is often considered to be the most competitive league in Europe. It is seen as the division where with a bit of momentum, any of the 24 teams competing can get promoted. It is a League where teams can rise from relegation favourites in August to the promise land of the Premier League the following May. Think of teams who have dined at English football’s top table in the last few years, such as Watford, Burnley, Blackpool and Crystal Palace. All sides with minimal resources, punching above their weight. Yet it seems that as has appeared in the Premier League, there is a growing gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in the SkyBet Championship.
This was more than evident on the opening day of the season on Saturday, where the three clubs relegated from the Premier League (Reading, QPR and Wigan), and three teams who seem to have greater financial clout or who have the benefit of receiving quality players from abroad on the cheap (Nottingham Forest, Bolton and Watford), opened up their campaigns against clubs who don’t have such resources. Those teams were Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley, Huddersfield, Burnley and Birmingham City. The results? 13 out of 15 points for the privileged from those five games, 1 point for the paupers.
Paupers would be the wrong word, but it seems that when it comes to acquiring players there is a clear difference in the quality of players the two different ‘tiers’ can attract. At St. Andrews, Watford had 12 players in the match day squad signed in the summer from the other two clubs, Udinese and Granada, which are owned by the Italian Pozzo family who also own the Hornets, including a number of full internationals. On the other hand, Birmingham’s debut strike duo were plying their trade for Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Mansfield Town last season and the contrast is stark.
At the City Ground, Nottingham Forest in the summer signed the likes of Jamie Mackie, Jack Hobbs, Gonzala Jara and Eric Lichaj, who with all due respect are a level above who Huddersfield could attract, such as James Vaughan, Jonathan Hogg, Jon Stead and Adam Hamill. Result? 1-0 Forest. Bolton still have the spine of their squad from their Premier League days two years before, such as Adam Bogdan, Zat Knight, Keith Andrews, Chris Eagles, Chung-Yong Lee and David Wheater, earning Premier League wages. This is compared to Sean Dyche’s Burnley and their threadbare squad, barely recognisable from the Clarets who were relegated from the Premier League three years ago.
QPR, Reading and Wigan clearly benefit from the £15m given by the Premier League as part of the parachute payments. All three clubs have generally kept their key players, not having any financial pressure to sell. It is telling that comparing the last day of the 2012/13 Premier league season to the first day of the 2013/4 Championship season, five of QPR’s starting XI survived, with five for Wigan and seven for Reading. In comparison, QPR’s opponents, Sheffield Wednesday, could only pick up Jacques Maghoma from League 2 side Burton Albion and Jeremy Helan who couldn’t get any sight of the first team at Manchester City. Same goes for Barnsley, Wigan’s opponents, who signed Dale Jennings from Bayern Munich and John Cofie from Manchester United, all with a grand total of no senior appearances at both respective clubs, as well as frees from Bury, Oldham and Bristol City.
It seems that even with the existence of the Financial Fair Play in the Football League, some clubs have a distinct advantage over others. Even with the ‘acceptable deviation’ limit of £3m and the maximum shareholder equity investment of £5m for the 2013/14 season the gap between rich and poor is growing and growing. Those with money can spend seven figures on players with Premier League experience, while those scrimping have to make do with free agents from the leagues below. Maybe the unpredictability which once marked out the Championship as such an entertaining league is starting to erode.
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