The Championship is a mix of teams on the up, yo-yo clubs and fallen giants. But these days, there seem to be more and more teams who come into the fallen giants category.
As those teams on the up move on to attain Premier League status – Brighton and Hove Albion this season – the Football League is littered with sides who used to compete in the moneyed upper reaches of English football’s elite, the Premier League.
It’s not just the Championship, either. There are clubs who have played Premier League football in both League One and League Two, whilst every division has a club to have appeared in a major domestic final since the turn of the century. Only a select few clubs in the country are too big to fail.
That applies to the Championship’s relegation battle, too. Going into the final two games of the season, that is a battle still raging between two more fallen giants. One of whom will be a League One team next season.
Blackburn and Birmingham are the two in question, both of whom have won silverware this century, and both of whom are now staring down the barrel of relegation. The standard of fallen giant is so high in the Championship, in fact, that even if by some miracle, both sides do win their final games and both stay up, it’s likely to be at the expense of two-time European Champions Nottingham Forest.
Fittingly, this weekend sees Birmingham take on Huddersfield: a fallen giant could fall even lower at the hands of a club aiming for their very first promotion to the Premier League. The only saving grace, then, for new boss Harry Redknapp is surely the fact that the Terriers are already assured a play-off place. Their season would seem to be on a bit of a hiatus until the middle of May when the play-offs start.
But Sam Rourke, Editor-in-Chief of Football League World warns against such complacency. “The Play-Offs is all about momentum,” he says. “Finishing third or fourth in the Championship ultimately means you play your second leg at home, which can be a serious advantage.”
Huddersfield are a momentum team, too. The intense style they play under David Wagner is not an emotionless brand of football. They are a team that wears its heart on its sleeve, fighting for each other as much as against the opposition. No team in the Championship has drawn fewer games than they have, it seems their either win or they lose, and we’ve already seen they can fall into slumps when they do: a run of five without victory in November and early December did their promotion push no favours, but it was rectified by stunning form and only one defeat from then until March.
But they’re stuttering a little bit now, unable to string wins together. They’re in need of that spark they had a few months ago. Birmingham represent a chance to get a second win on the bounce, and get back into the groove. Attacking from the off as they have done all season.
That sounds less promising for Birmingham, then. Huddersfield’s need for play-off momentum coupled with their own downward trajectory looks like it could spell trouble. Certainly, the Blues’ run of only two victories since December 17th does. That’s why Redknapp was brought in, but it’s hard to reverse such form once the rot seems well and truly to have set in.
The same could be said for their relegation rivals Blackburn Rovers. They replaced Owen Coyle with Tony Mowbray in February, and since then they’ve only lost three times. Too many draws mean they’re still the most likely side to drop, but there are at least reasons to stay cheerful.
Mowbray’s first defeat in charge of Rovers came at the hands of league leaders Brighton. That precipitated a run of three defeats in a row – that’s all three defeats in the former Middlesbrough and Celtic boss’s time in charge. They seem to have recovered now, but the pressure is well and truly on.
“Hats off to Tony Mowbray, it’s been a valiant effort despite a very poor squad,” says Rourke, and it’s hard to disagree. He took over when all seemed lost, though you get the feeling that the club has been treading water for so long under owners Venky’s that relegation seems inevitable at some point.
They might yet get a reprieve, though. The last, final twist before this weekend’s fixtures comes in the shape of Blackburn’s opponents.
Last weekend Aston Villa beat their city rivals Birmingham, leaving them deep in the fine mess in which they find themselves. No one would ever suggest that a proud team like Aston Villa would want to lose a game to a team struggling in the Championship, but their season does seem to be over, bar the shouting. And there’ll be lots of it if the Villans lose on Saturday.
“Villa fans have been very vocal about this on Twitter this week,” says Rourke. “There seems to be a genuine divide. But Steve Bruce doesn’t strike me as the type of manager to let his team end the season on a whimper, so I wouldn’t expect an abject performance.”
There’s good news and bad news in that for Birmingham. Local rivals tend to hate each other, but there’s also excitement when it comes to playing each other. A spell in League One for Birmingham whilst Villa are languishing in the Championship might well dull some small part of the pain of being in the second tier for the Villans, but many will miss the derby.
That’s the good news. The bad news, then, is that survival will be earned on merit. And Birmingham haven’t won since February 24th. Ironically, the same day that Mowbray took charge of his first match as Blackburn boss, drawing with Burton Albion.
The Championship is filled with fallen giants, but when two teams are struggling as badly as Blackburn and Birmingham, you start to wonder if survival this season will only prolong the inevitable.