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Football: the best games are champion
August 3, 2011 | By:

If you want football like it used to be, a competition unskewed by the effects of foreign investment, follow the Championship not the Premiership, says Julie Welch

high50 Football fans

You don’t need a full stadium (or a Russian oligarch) for a great game. Photo by Matthew Wilkinson (Flickr)

You would have to be a newly-arrived Martian not to have noticed that football has returned, like a party guest you thought you’d got rid of staggering back through the front door waving a bottle of cheap cava and singing ‘Nessun Dorma’.

If that sounds disaffected, it’s because these days a musty smell of predictability wafts from a Premiership in which the outcome is likely to be decided by whichever sheikh, oligarch or financier has the bulgiest wallet.

There is, of course, an alternative, which is to follow the Championship. Here is football that is less polluted by foreign investment and more like the game we used to watch. There are fewer mercenaries; you can pronounce most of the names on the team sheet at first try. Any one of a dozen clubs can win the title.

The key to Championship lies in the finale to the season: the play-offs, when four sides not quite consistent or smart enough to gain automatic promotion to the Premiership compete for the last of the three places up for grabs. The excitement generated is all the evidence you need that the real fun to be gained from football these days is in what anyone born before 1960 still has trouble remembering not to call Division Two.

So who is going to earn automatic promotion to the Premiership this time round? Strongly suspected of ambition is Leicester City, managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson and newly bedecked with expensive signings such as defender Matt Mills, recruited from rivals Reading for £5.5 million.

Then there’s the freshly-relegated West Ham, who were not the worst team in the Premiership last season, only the most hapless. Their former manager, Avram Grant, a man who always looked as though his dog had just died, has been replaced by the hard-headed Sam Allardyce. They have also contrived, so far, to hang on to their three England internationals, Scott Parker, Robert Green and Carlton Cole, and have a great captain, Kevin Nolan.

Bearing that in mind, they’re better-placed to regroup than Blackpool, who after one exhilarating and ultimately heartbreaking season in the Premiership, have had to leave their best player behind: Charlie Adam has been snapped up by Liverpool.

Who could we see in the 2012 play-offs? Nottingham Forest, who have tried with erratic fervour to return to the top tier for too many seasons to mention, have hired Steve McClaren in the hope that he can add some managerial zing.  There is also bound to be one club that after lurking in mid-table most of the season suddenly discovers a near-supernatural streak of form at the expense of another club who, after being near the top all season, loses its wits at the start of April.

The bookies have already excluded obvious strugglers like Barnsley (odds on to finish last) but if past experience is anything to go by, the play-offs will probably feature supposed no-hopers Doncaster, a well-run side that plays attractive football but is so impoverished that its defence has more holes than the Royal & Ancient. After all, Swansea were promoted this year. Who ever would have predicted that? This isn’t the Premiership, remember. It’s the Championship, where anything could happen.