Coca-Cola Championship—Better than the Premiership?

James ButcherContributor IMay 16, 2008

This year, the Barclays Premier League finished the way it has done for four out of the last five seasons: a top four of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United.

Only Everton in 2004-05 have breached this monopoly, and Tottenham Hotspur are the only other team to have even sniffed fourth place, in 2005-06, which they probably would have got had it not been for THAT lasagne.

Indeed, the problem with the Premiership lies here: fourth place. I am here to find out whether Kevin Keegan was right in saying the Premier League is in danger of becoming the most boring and predictable league in the world.

Since the Premiership's inception in 1992-93, it has gradually established itself as the elite league in Europe and possibly the world.

Ever since Hillsborough and the Taylor Report of the early 1990s, teams have either massively renovated existing stadiums (Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle, West Ham, Spurs to name but a few), or they have built entirely new stadiums to meet the required regulation (Sunderland, Arsenal, Derby, Manchester City, Middlesbrough for example).

The introduction of all-seater stadiums has provided fans with better viewing, and better safety, albeit at the cost of infamous terrace atmospheres. This is the start of the Premiership's downfall.

The gradual increase in average attendance figures of the Premiership from 22,180 in 1992-93, to 33,884 in 2007-08 has clearly pumped vast amounts into teams playing in the Premier League.

In turn, teams have been able to pay more to bring the world's best players to the Premiership, which will bring in more fans and more money, and then more foreign players, and so forth. One great big virtuous circle.

The increased quality of the Premiership has led to TV companies, notably Sky in the UK, paying £100's of millions for the TV rights each year.

Foreign companies have also forked out vast amounts to beam the Premiership into TV sets across the globe, an audience which has again steadily increased as more and more people go digital across the world, and as more people can afford a TV (South East Asia and China, the next growing market).

The Premier League takes its cut of this money, but then pumps the rest back into the league, awarding it at the start of every season. In '07-'08, it was estimated a new Premiership team would receive over £30m in TV rights alone.

The Premier League also awards prize money based on finishing position. By the end of the 1990s, Man Utd had won all but two of the Premierships, raking in the money with huge attendance increases and more TV rights. They were often followed by Arsenal and Liverpool, who also took their share.

Chelsea, like Blackburn and Newcastle before them, managed to break this trio in 1998-99, but fell away again until Abramovich appeared.

Leeds went bankrupt trying to get into the big three, whilst Newcastle again flirted with the top between '01 and '03 before falling into consistent inconsistency.

By this stage, European football was the greatest club competition on the planet. Multi-national companies such as Sony PlayStation, Amstel, Mastercard, and Continental, to name but a few, all pumped money into the Champions League for a few hoardings at the game, and half-time adverts on TV.

The TV rights money further funded the lucky three or four in '01-'02 who could reach the Champions League properly. This created an elite league at the top of English Football consisting of Man Utd, Arsenal, and Liverpool, and only Chelsea once Abramovich had pumped the best part of £300-£400m into the team.

Everton only graced fourth place thanks to Liverpool's poor league form, and them focusing on winning the Champions League.

As a result, fans can predict the top four with ease next season; the order may not be the same, but my guess would be that in '08-'09, it will finish Man Utd, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal.

And again, these four will take the pickings of TV money, prize money, and European funding.

Not even the UEFA cup, which Everton and Spurs have qualified for consistently, can provide anywhere near the amount of money that the Champions League can; in the UK it is aired on ITV4 and Five, who, with all due respect, are not the best channels by a long stretch.

In '07-'08, Tottenham, Aston Villa, Man City, Newcastle, Sunderland, and West Ham all forked out up to and more than £30m on players. Just to try and get the elusive fourth spot held by Liverpool, who managed to spend £50m just to stay there.

And these are not the only teams to have spent millions in trying to get to the top four and failed, or even just to stay in the Premier League.

Leeds Utd had debts of over £100m when they were forced into administration. Vastly overspending crippled the team. Take the case of Seth Johnson. When signing from Derby for £6m, he and his agent went into contract negotiations where they would ask for £25k a week, but would accept £17k.

Leeds' opening offer was £35k per week.

Soon, Leeds fell out of the Premier League, selling players for less than half true value just to try and keep the club running for a few more weeks. They almost bounced back after two seasons in the Chamionship, but the following year were relegated to the third tier and Coca-Cola League One.

Leeds are not the only former big-timers to fall from grace with apparent ease:

Nottingham Forest: Premiership 1999, League One 2005. Bradford City: Premiership 2002, League Two 2007. Man City: Premiership 1996, League One 1998. QPR: Premiership 1996, League One 2001, Sheffield Wednesday: Premiership 2000, League One 2003. Wimbledon, and later MK Dons: Premiership 2000, League Two 2006. And now Leicester City will grace League One in '08-'09, after relegation from the Premiership in 2004.

This leads me on to the Championship, what I believe to be the most entertaining league in the world of football. In '07-'08, the difference between promotion and relegation was a meager 27 points. But this was not the only story of what was an unbelieveable Championship season.

Pre-season favourites Charlton and Sheffield United, who even spent £5.5m on James Beattie to try and spring back into the Premiership at the first attempt, were nowhere to be seen in the League.

Charlton started brightly but faded quickly, eventually finishing in 11th, whilst only a late revival under Kevin Blackwell saved the Blades from mid-table obscurity.

Likewise, Watford, who led convincingly after 15 games, finished sixth, just before losing deservedly 6-1 to Hull City on aggregate in the playoffs.

And these weren't the only teams who felt they underachieved. Wolves and Ipswich both missed the playoffs, whilst Norwich were relegation candidates until Glenn Roeder steered them to 17th.

But these weren't the only shocks of the league. The final day of the season saw a titanic battle to avoid relegation between four former Premiership teams: Leicester City, Southampton, Coventry City, and Sheff Wed.

What is so surprising about the two former teams is that both have new, 32,000+ all seater stadiums, vastly greater than what the Dell (15,000), and Filbert Street (21,500) could hold at the end of their existence.

One would think that higher attendances would provide these two clubs, and to a lesser extent, Coventry City, who also have a new 32,000 stadium, with a sound footing to work their way back into the big time.

However, these teams have again overspent, first on the stadiums, then on transfers and wages. They also didn't expect the arrival of the new breed of football team; the one that's run like a business.

The prime examples of these teams are the ones who finished second, third, and fourth this season.

Stoke City were rank outsiders for promotion before the season, but somehow managed to shock everyone.

The same goes for Hull City who, seen as mid-table finishers again after avoiding relegation the year before, somehow managed third place and a playoff final at Wembley.

Bristol City simply continued their form after promotion from League One in '06-'07, to get fourth place. And the reason for this is glaringly obvious: gradual growth.

Both Stoke and Hull have got new stadiums, capable of holding 25,000+, built in 1997 and 2003 respectively. Both teams occupied places in League One and League Two respectively up until 2001.

Gradual increases in budget have allowed both clubs to slowly increase their attendances, transfer budgets, and player quality, allowing them to slowly move up the leagues.

By not overspending or budgeting optimistically, they ensure they never run into financial difficulty, creating a stable club that will always bring an end product.

They are not the only teams in the Championship who have used this fiscal policy to great success to move from lower-league obscurity to second tier teams; Plymouth, having renovated Home Park, have moved from League Two to the Championship, as have Cardiff, whilst Burnley, Preston, and Barnsley have also survived.

Furthermore, teams with much smaller fan bases and notable history have managed to break into the second tier, with teams such as Colchester, Scunthorpe, and Southend all flirting, albeit unsuccessfully, with the Championship.

In the lower leagues, there is more evidence of 'smaller' teams gradually building to play successfully in the Championship in the near future.

Swansea City, having avoided relegation to the Conference in 2003, won League One convincingly in '07-'08, with the help of a new stadium and vastly improved attendances, from 4,000 in '01-'02 to 13,500 in '07-'08.

Carlisle, who were in the Conference in 2004, got to the League One playoffs this year, and would've been promoted automatically had they not gone six games winless at the end of the season.

Doncaster, another team from the Conference, now have a 15,000 seat stadium, and they finished third. Amazingly, Yeovil Town, historically non-league and FA Cup giant-killers, reached the League One playoffs in '06-'07 and survived again in '07-'08.

Finally, in League Two MK Dons, with the help of Paul Ince and chairman Pete Winkelman, have a new 30,000 seat stadium, and won the League in '07-'08.

Compare this to the likes of Coventry, Southampton, and Leicester, who, despite the Premiership parachute payments, find themselves overbudgeting and basing their accounts on the belief they WILL get promoted to the Premiership. 

They have fallen foul of the administrators, and have fallen from grace in a matter of years.

Next season in the Championship promises to be the same. Every team will be capable of beating each other. Any team could win the league. Any team could get relegated.

The Premier League would pay millions for the excitement of the Coca-Cola Championship.


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