It has found itself increasingly marginalised by the all-conquering Premier League but, quietly, the Championship has become one of the most fascinating competitions in football.
Evidence points to a marked improvement in the standard, the attendances are the envy of most other domestic leagues, and its portfolio of storied clubs which have fallen on harder times has been sprinkled with the stardust of some genuine football A-listers.
Ahead of Reading and Derby raising the curtain on Friday, it feels apt to wonder if this is a golden era for the second tier. And if so, whether we should be paying a bit more attention.
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Blind loyalty isn’t the only reason why the Championship was the third most-attended league in the whole of Europe in 2016-17, after the Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga.
The 11.1m people who passed through the turnstiles in England’s second tier was more than in Spain’s La Liga (10.6m), Italy’s Serie A (8.4m), Ligue 1 in France (8m) and the top divisions of Holland and Portugal.
That enduring popularity is testament to the strong fanbases of some of the historically successful teams in the league, but they wouldn’t keep coming back if it wasn’t at least palatable to watch.
|Europe’s most attended leagues 2016-17|
|Premier League (England)||13.6m|
|La Liga (Spain)||10.6m|
|Serie A (Italy)||8.4m|
|Ligue 1 (France)||8.0m|
|2. Bundesliga (Germany)||6.7m|
|League One (England)||4.4m|
|Primeira Liga (Portugal)||3.6m|
Recent history suggests the level of football is on the rise.
Last season, for the first time in six years, all three teams that climbed out of the Championship and into the promised land of the Premier League succeeded in staying up.
It adds weight to the argument that the teams are better now and therefore better equipped to mix it with global behemoths such as Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Emphasising that point, six of the last nine promoted teams – not including those who went up in May – are still in the Premier League, while Leicester even won the title.
All the churn has deposited some of England’s most prestigious teams in the Championship.
In Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa there are two former European Cup winners – only one fewer than in the top flight.
Blackburn, Leeds and Derby, meanwhile, have all been champions of England in the last 50 years, while the likes of Middlesbrough, West Brom, Stoke and Swansea were Premier League stalwarts until recently.
Suddenly there is some intrigue in the dugout too, with high-profile managers increasingly willing to get their hands dirty in the second tier.
The arrival at Leeds of Marcelo Bielsa – the maverick credited with spawning the high-pressing game beloved of modern coaches, and a mentor to Pep Guardiola who has led the likes of his native Argentina, Lazio, Athletic Bilbao and Marseille – has generated the most intrigue.
The first foray into management of Frank Lampard, the member of England’s nominal golden generation with the most obvious potential to make the transition, is another compelling sub-plot.
On the pitch, there are household names in waiting, as England’s 2018 World Cup team bears out.
Seven of Gareth Southgate’s regular starting XI – Jordan Pickford, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier, Ashley Young, Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane – cut their teeth in the Championship.
Others in the squad – Jack Butland, Danny Rose, Gary Cahill, Fabian Delph, Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy – also rose to prominence via significant spells below the Premier League.
If that is any indication, it seems almost certain that some of the stars of this year’s second tier will be part of the next Three Lions World Cup squad in 2022.
Betting the house on lucrative promotion
For all of its virtues, all 24 clubs are desperate to escape the Championship – indeed, that is another reason why the season is so engrossing.
Promotion to the Premier League is worth a guaranteed £170m uplift in revenue for most teams and that figure rises to £280m if they can see out their first season in the top tier.
That is why the play-off final, which decides the last promotion place, is recognised as the most valuable one-off match anywhere in sport.
Such rewards have encouraged risk-taking and Championships clubs habitually punt their entire turnover on the hope of going up.
While collective revenue for the division leapt to a record £720m in 2016-17, the most recent season for which comprehensive data is available, 99 per cent of that went on wage costs.
Operating losses rose 14 per cent to £288m, pre-tax losses were up to £208m and net debt grew. It is a world away from the increasingly profitable Premier League; so near and yet so far.
Source : CityA.M.