Derby, Brighton – Why is the Championship so unpredictable?

Every year, football league pundits on Sky Sports, the BBC and other media outlets peddle the same tired old cliches.

They endlessly praise the Championship due to its drama, passion, excitement – and of course, ‘unpredictability’. Ian Holloway, as Sky Sports glamorous (perhaps that’s not the right word for Mr Holloway but anyway) new pundit for the Championship and Leagues 1 and 2, has been the latest exponent of this over-used phrase. As usual with pundits analysis of the famed topsy-turvy nature of the English second tier, he stopped short of offering an actual explanation for it. I’m going to attempt what he and others have not – a few reasons.

Perhaps one or two examples are necessary to confirm the league’s nature. Brighton and Derby are the obvious two teams that spring to mind. The former finished last season in 21st, after a miserable year in which they found hitting the back of the net almost impossible; they are now already five points clear at the top of the table and looking ominously potent.

Derby on the other hand have gone the other way; arguably the most complete team in the league for 18 months, with only that unfortunate defeat to QPR last May to interrupt their form, they were playing glorious football in the early part of the season and were deservedly top.

What happened next is hard to fathom. A terrible run of form lead to them not only dropping out of the race for automatic promotion, but also, on a truly miserable last day of the season, dropping out of the playoff places.

Looking at the reasons behind this phenomenon, one of them is somewhat obvious. Money plays a large part in keeping many teams in the league on level pegging, with large crowds and the money from television deals extending reasonably fairly throughout the entire league. For instance, this means that most clubs in the league can afford to buy players from clubs from the top divisions in many European countries – Brentford’s summer signings list includes players from FC Twente, Red Bull Salzburg and Schalke, while Charlton, Reading, Derby and Middlesbrough have all been able to add both homegrown and foreign signings of real quality to boost their squads.

Gone are the days when the Championship was a strictly British affair; the new signings and foreign imports mean sides who previously would not have been able to challenge for the playoff positions in the second tier, such as perhaps Watford and Hull with their wealthy foreign owners, are now able to compete at the very highest level. This also means there is more likelihood of a club being able to make a season-saving signing in January, which could help explain the fluctuations in form from one half of the season to the next that we sometimes see.

However, there are still harsh economic realities of football for second tier teams, and they also play their part. When a side makes it to the playoffs but fail to go up, such as Brentford and Ipswich last year, they regularly have their best players picked off by sides higher up the food chain.

The example of Andre Gray, now at Burnley after a £9million move from Brentford, springs to mind. For this reason, some of the best teams from one season will already be at a serious disadvantage when going into the next; could this have been a factor behind several clubs dropping down from the Premier League to the Championship and then sinking further into the mire of League One? It means that sides who finish in a strong position in the Championship one season are by no means assured of taking that next step the following year.

Simple mathematics is also involved. The relentless, constant 6-in, 6-out nature of the league from campaign to campaign ensures that the most dominant, and also the weakest, teams from one season invariably are discarded before the following year.

With the teams coming down from the Premier League and up from League One added to the melting pot, it all adds up to a league that so many fans up and down the country just can’t stop watching.