It always strikes me as a contradiction that while the Championship Play-Off final is considered a fixture that shimmers with excitement and one that has the richest prize in world football, the Championship season itself is talked down.
It is as though people consider it a slog almost not worth bothering with unless you have the right investment, manager and personnel from the off.
The consensus is that the teams that have gone down will come straight back up, Premier League parachute payments give relegated clubs a huge advantage. Those with sizable fan-bases deserve to be in the top flight, and lesser lights in unfashionable parts of the country will struggle.
Fact is, those myths are debunked year after year.
Sure, Newcastle United bounced straight back to the Premier League last term as second-tier champions at the first time of asking, but that was by no means the norm.
Of the last 30 teams to be relegated, only 11 have been promoted the following year – with just three as league winners.
Unfashionable teams such as Bournemouth, Wigan and Reading – who had no history as top flight clubs – have upset the supposed natural order. Big spending and high profile managers isn’t always enough.
Newcastle might have been the short-priced favourites to win the division 12 months ago – and they duly obliged at 15/8 – but in the previous decade not one market principle has landed the odds, with double figure-priced winners in every season from 2010/11 to 2015/16.
Prior to the Magpies stealing success on the final day of the campaign in 2017, the last favourite to win the championship was Manchester City in the 2001/2 term.
Substance Required for Technique
It doesn’t matter what division you talk about, big investments from owners always catch the eye, and the Championship is no different.
This summer, Middlesbrough are the club that have dug deepest into their pockets in attempt to jump straight back into the top flight.
A net deficit of around £25million has seen the arrival, amongst others, of three strikers in Britt Assombalonga (30 goals in 65 Championship games for Nottingham Forest), Martin Braithwaite (35 goals in 136 Ligue Un games for Toulouse) and Ashley Fletcher (who failed to score in 16 – mostly substitute – appearances in the Premier League for West Ham last term).
It is no given that Assombalonga will stay fit, as he suffered a serious knee injury a couple of years ago and was troubled by a nagging Achilles problem last season.
Braithwaite is more of a second striker and could find the Championship tough to get used to, while Fletcher, at 21, is still untapped potential. Gary Monk is a good manager, but it could take time for Boro, the favourites to win the title at 7/1, to gel.
The same can be said of Wolves, who host the Teessiders at a sold-out Molineux this weekend.
Nuno Espírito Santo, aided and abetted by super-agent Jorge Mendes, has brought in some real talent, with Ruben Neves and Jota having played Champions League football for Porto last campaign.
Again, though, there is no guarantee of success, and for punters the value has surely gone given the price plunge on Wolves from 20/1 to 12/1 over the last two months.
Hull City have sold half a dozen of their best players, while Sunderland seem to be relying on loan signings to get them back up – Simon Grayson might want to ask where the £24million gained from the sale of Jordan Pickford has gone.
Norwich and Derby have lost key personnel, Reading could easily suffer a hangover from their play-off loss in May.
Fulham, who arguably finished the Championship season as the most in-form team, and Sheffield Wednesday have both strengthened their squads, the most likely team to gain promotion could be the one led by a man who has been there and done it four times previously as a manager.
Nothing Hooky about Villa’s New Order
Steve Bruce has never won the Championship whilst in the dugout – although he did win it as a player with Norwich back in 1986 – but the former Manchester United captain has been runner-up twice and has also won the play-off final on two occasions – one apiece with both Birmingham and Hull City. His know-how in this division will be invaluable as he tries to guide Aston Villa back to the top flight.
This will be his first full season in charge at Villa Park and although he was expected to do much better when he came in last term, there were signs that he could get the most of his squad with two purples patches in the campaign, especially when Villa won seven of eight matches from February to late April. Coming up against the better teams in the division over the last half a dozen games scuppered their chances of a late play-off berth that, in truth, was never really on.
The acquisitions of John Terry, Glenn Whelan and Ahmed El Mohammadi look sound.
All three players base their game on workrate or physicality – there are no tricky wingers from Portugal here.
Defensively, Villa should be sound, while up from if Jonathan Kodjia can return from injury (reportedly in early September) and repeat his 19 league goals of last season and another striker can step up to the plate – hopefully Scott Hogan, who has shown signs of his old Brentford form in pre-season with two well taken goals against Duisburg – then a title challenge is a real possibility – especially if Bruce can get the best out of Jack Grealish and Henri Lansbury.
Villa are 8/1 to win the title, 17/20 for a top six finish and 6/4 to be the top Midlands team – all of which are worth backing.
Backing Bruce’s boys to obtain 81 points or more at 9/5 also looks a value punt, as I expect those in the Holte End to be celebrating promotion – hopefully as champions – come May.