It’s been a while. Five years, in fact. This season, with ten matches to play, there promises to be an actual title race in the Premier League.
But with Huddersfield and Fulham bottoming out, there will not be much of a relegation battle.
Where else to look for excitement? The answer is usually the Championship but this season’s campaign has been a classic, even before the ending is reached.
It has taken in a spy drama in the Leeds v Derby farrago, a maverick of the type Hollywood studios would consider too ridiculous to cast in Marcelo Bielsa, a dash of stardust with Martin O’Neill, Ashley Cole joining in the party with Frank Lampard, John Terry at Villa and a club on a life-support machine in Bolton.
And most of all, there has been some excellent football played. Brentford began the weekend in 16th, ten points off the play-offs with 13 matches to go, but Griffin Park hosts Neal Maupay, Sergi Canos and Said Benrahma, Middlesex’s equivalent of Liverpool’s attacking trident.
From Swansea’s Dan James to Blackburn’s Bradley Dack, just about every team has someone who can lift fans from their seats. The Championship is a crucible for cult heroes and stars of the future.
Just how football used to be, in fact.
This is the division where everyone can beat each other, and approach matches with that in mind, Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough excepting. There is no six-team elite against whom a draw is an optimum result.
On February 13, leaders Norwich lost 3-1 at Preston North End, a club run on a Lancastrian shoestring. Leeds’ current stutter includes losing at QPR on Tuesday, when Steve McClaren’s team had previously lost five matches in a row.
Those chasing promotion have all taken points from each other too, with Sheffield United losing to Derby, Leeds, West Brom and drawing with Norwich on their path to being in the shake-up for automatic promotion. And to stay in position, Chris Wilder’s Blades face South Yorkshire derbies with first Sheffield Wednesday and then Rotherham over their next two matches.
While some teams have deeper resources than others, the Championship, where most of the football is played that at quaint time of 3pm on a Saturday, is positively egalitarian compared to the rich man’s paradise of the Premier League.
That’s where a promoted club’s banking of £100m plus of TV money might move them into the Deloitte Football Rich List, but they will still be paupers compared to the established oligarch-funded names at the top.
Here, then, is the rub. Whomever of the pair of clubs who celebrate automatic promotion at the end of April and the victors of the play-offs in May is staring down the barrel of life in the Premier League.
Chat to fans of recently promoted clubs, even of those who have established themselves, like Bournemouth, and there is a yearning for the simple pleasures of the Football League, where hope springs eternal and there’s always next year. And there’s a high chance you might see your team win more often than lose.
The Premier League can and will enrich, but it can be purgatorial for those who reach the promised land. The aforementioned Huddersfield and Fulham are cases in point.
The West Yorkshire club’s presence in the top division was something of a miracle in itself, and staying up last year ought to register as an even greater magical realism. But it could not last, and this season has been sobering, where Huddersfield’s owner, Dean Hoyle, unprepared to mortgage the club’s future, made his decision at the cost of David Wagner, the manager who had made the miracle possible.
Fulham meanwhile shot for the moon and are crashing back down at terminal velocity, with Claudio Ranieri sacked after being unable to make anything of a squad constructed in chaotic style for well over £100m. The January additions of Ryan Babel and Lazar Markovic betrayed a blind panic that resulted in the Italian’s removal.
After four years away from the Premier League, returning to it has been a positive nightmare.
Cardiff have fought manfully for much of the season, only to suffer a pair of heavy defeats at the close of February. Wolves have done fine, and the adroit management of Nuno Espirito Santo has been a decent addition to the top division, but they have been aided by the wealth of their Chinese owners and having the contacts book of the world’s foremost agent in Jorge Mendes to hand.
Leeds fans may pine for the Premier League, the pangs of longing getting more intense as Bielsa’s team runs out of steam, but what would await them on their return after a decade and a half back?
Their previous arrivals in the top division under Don Revie in 1964 and Howard Wilkinson in 1990 were building blocks towards becoming one of the best teams in the country, and title wins in 1969 and 1992.
That is now an outcome far more unlikelier than Leicester’s 5000-1 triumph, an achievement that appears even more impossible as the years tick by.
Leeds back in the Premier League is an outcome that would be enjoyed by many, including clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea who were their rivals back in the old days, but barring a billionaire taking hold at Elland Road, they would be swimming against a tide that carried their former peers into the realm of transnational corporations.
Leeds, of course, were one of the elite at the turn of the millennium though it turned out they had been mixing with the elite with their credit cards maxed out, all fur coat and no knickers.
The world has changed completely since then. Beyond the top six and barring perhaps Everton, the rest of the Premier League exists to do not much more than survive.
Brighton spent last season and much of this campaign as a club praised for its forward planning, and Chris Hughton’s canny management. Their recent plunge down to the relegation battle has now brought recriminations against a summer transfer window in which players like Alireza Jahanbakhsh, bought for £17m, Yves Bissouma, who cost £15m, have not been able to make enough of an impact. As with Huddersfield, the recipe for survival last season has not been repeatable this time around.
Brighton spent five seasons trying to clamber up, but are now discovering the price of their eventual success.
As they and many have found out, the thrill of a successful Championship chase gives way to the cold realities of Premier League life.