Ligue 1

More thrills than Premier League and a match for Ligue 1: Why the Championship is an underrated gem

More thrills than Premier League and a match for Ligue 1: Why the Championship is an underrated gem

From left: Leif Davis, Crysencio Summerville, Danny Rohl, Adam Armstrong and Jamie Vardy (Getty Images/The Independent)

Around Portman Road right now, there’s a reminder of what football is supposed to be for. Ipswich Town is a good-sized club with a proud history of trophies, enjoying an excitement they haven’t felt in two decades. There’s a chance, there’s hope. If they get even a draw at home to Huddersfield Town on Saturday afternoon, Ipswich will have won promotion to the top tier for the first time in 22 years. It’s made all the more exciting by some of the classic elements that come with days like this. Kieran McKenna’s team can’t afford to think about any of that. “You have to block that out and ignore it,” captain Sam Morsy told BBC this week after the 2-1 win over Coventry City. “It’s not our job to get excited. Our job is to come down, to relax and recover.”

Many others might feel they need the same by Saturday evening, and that’s just those watching on television. Ipswich’s game is one of seven that has something on the line, that make up over half the fixtures on the Championship’s final day of the season. Two of those fixtures see teams going at it while aiming for completely contrasting objectives, with relegation-threatened Plymouth Argyle and Birmingham City facing play-off-chasing Hull City and Norwich City, respectively. They in turn form 10 teams with something to play for on the day. It is, as is almost always the case, a lot more vitality than you would get in the Premier League.

Some in the top tier have even lamented that Arsenal’s title-race game against Bournemouth is on at the same time. The Premier League feels dependent on that match to keep excitement in the title race going. Many in the competition will still be making an exception this Saturday, and getting absorbed in the Championship.

It’s almost impossible not to if you’ve been watching any of it over the last few months or, really, the last few years. The chaotically congested nature of the division means there is always so much to play for up and down the table, with good teams crashing into each other for matches that rise into mayhem. The promotion race alone has seen eight matches featuring at least four goals each since the start of April. Five of those have involved both sides scoring at least twice, with perhaps the pick of the games being Leeds United’s 4-3 away win over Middlesbrough.

Crysencio Summerville celebrates scoring Leeds’ fourth goal against Middlesbrough (Getty Images)

During one of those games, a Championship executive who has worked on the continent enthused about how “this is what English football actually is”. Everyone can beat everyone, with most of those teams being from distinguished clubs that aren’t at the global size to be disconnected from fervent communities. There are some really strong sustainable outfits such as Millwall and Rotherham. It goes even further, since so many of these clubs are among the last remaining social hubs in their towns. There’s also no VAR. Many fans now openly express the view they’d prefer to stay in the second, as it is more fun to watch.

That kind of connection may go beyond England, or a simplistic argument over how it is “purer”. There is an argument that the Championship may now be Europe’s fifth major league, perhaps surpassing Ligue 1. This is no parochial view. It merely comes down to the numbers and the economics.

Such will be the millions watching on Saturday that it’s why Sky Sports is paying at least £935m to the EFL as a whole over the next five seasons. The French league has struggled to match that, having had to abandon an auction for domestic rights in this campaign. It can’t currently attract the Championship’s audience.

While Ligue 1 does pay more in wages overall, and has higher average attendance figures by around 4,000, such figures are inflated by four clubs. Olympique Marseille, Monaco and Lille all pay well, with Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain then distorting the entire division. Beyond that, though, a significant chunk of Championship clubs pay more than the average Ligue 1 team. The representatives of most players would rather get them into England’s second tier than France’s top tier, if it’s not going to be one of the top bracket of clubs.

That is certainly true of managers. A third of the Championship’s coaches are from abroad, which is unusual for a second tier. It has afforded an international dimension to the football, which has arguably made the Championship more tactically varied than many continental competitions beyond France. European coaching circles are raving about what Danny Rohl has been doing with Sheffield Wednesday.

Danny Rohl has worked wonders at Sheffield Wednesday (Getty Images)

A lot of this is about proximity to the Premier League, rather than being something apart from the Premier League. Virtually all of the brightest European coaches now see the Championship as a stepping stone to the glamorous league they all want to be in. It also helps its general attractiveness that 19 of the division’s clubs have been through the Premier League, too. These are big names. Leicester City’s title victory this season of course brought memories of 2015-16.

That points to how the same proximity to the Premier League has brought multiple issues. Leicester could well start next season with a points deduction over PSR breaches, having first been promoted from the Championship in 2013-14 after paying a £3.1m settlement to the EFL over an FFP dispute.

This touches on why the division can’t exactly be described as “pure”. It has all of the same issues as the Premier League, from ownership to disparity, if on a lower scale. It is part of the same pyramid, after all. The upward draft from the Premier League’s hyper wage inflation has had a greater effect on the Championship than any other league. That can be witnessed in all of the debate about the “new deal” and redistribution of money to the lower leagues. In trying to keep up, let alone actually go up, so many Championship clubs have massive losses and “insane” wage-to-revenue ratios. The latter hit a shocking 108% for the 2021-22 season, according to Deloitte. It is also why Premier League clubs have been resistant to the new deal, since they think lower-league clubs will just go out and spend it on wages. Much has inevitably been made of Nottingham Forest’s huge expenses on going up that season.

Such expenditure has fostered a growing issue with competitive balance, despite the unpredictability of so many games being lauded. Two of the three promoted teams in each of the last six seasons were clubs that had received parachute payments from getting relegated from the Premier League. It might well be the same this season, if either Leeds United or Southampton go up with Leicester City. There was for a long time a chance it could have been worse. At one point, it looked like all three relegated clubs might have directly replaced the three promoted clubs for the first time. There is still a slim chance that could happen.

It is why a common description within the game about the top eight or so clubs is of “Premier League 2”. That is why it shouldn’t be forgotten that much of the logic behind “Project Big Picture” in 2020 was that many of the clubs are relatively interchangeable in terms of their “Premier League identity”. Coventry City were once a staple of the top tier and now Brighton are.

Ipswich Town are on the verge of promotion under Kieran McKenna (Getty Images)

Another description of the Championship is “a brilliant division with insane economics and a skewed outcome”.

Even the Ipswich story has some complications. It is an investment fund in ORG that is behind majority owners Gamechanger 20 Ltd, and they are ultimately looking for a return. As much of 40% of Ipswich was sold to private equity group Bright Path Sports Partners just a few weeks ago. The latter represent an extreme in terms of capitalist interest in football. While such financial intentions may occasionally align with pure football aims – like running a team well to go up, as we see here – the motives are ultimately non-football. It’s not like there’s any deeper emotional affinity either. Businessman Brett Johnson has spoken in the past about how they bought Ipswich because it was a club that had a history of trophies and Premier League participation, with a strong local base, that was potentially only a couple of years from the most lucrative league in the world. The fact they were in the League One just meant it was at a much cheaper price, at £40m. Since ORG manages Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, it has led some in football investment circles to question whether pension money should be dependent on the results of football clubs.

Should Ipswich go up this weekend, of course, it will represent an incredible investment. That is also a description that can already be applied to McKenna. Whatever happens on Saturday, he has had an incredible season. Judging by how this season has gone, though, anything can happen on Saturday.

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