Players signed from abroad have always generated excitement. Nabbing a footballer from Spain, Italy or France brings an element of excitement, with the promise of flair, creativity and technical prowess whetting appetites, while going further abroad to South America conjures images of the Brazilian team decked out in bright yellow running rings around opponents or the sheer tactical sophistication of the Argentines.
As a result of this, the Championship often gets overlooked, despite the fact it’s watched in greater numbers and offers a superior level of quality to many other of Europe’s top divisions. No other second tier league anywhere on the planet comes even close to England’s offering, and even though there’s an argument that this is down to money alone there’s no disputing that the quality of football being played by teams at the top end wouldn’t leave them out of place in the Europa League or perhaps even the Champions League’s group stages.
So, this division should be a happy hunting ground for Premier League sides, yet it really isn’t being exploited. It’s disrespectful to suggest that the Championship must exist to be a finishing school for the elite clubs, but there should, perhaps, be a greater emphasis from those in the top tier on making use of talent right on their doorstep.
Michail Antonio, for example, has been a success at West Ham. The winger, celebrating his 27th birthday today, has been the Hammers’ standout performer this term and he was plucked from Nottingham Forest in 2015. Granted, the Irons have been poor this season, but Antonio hasn’t, with his nine league goals making him the Londoners’ top scorer, and that’s despite him having featured in no fewer than seven different positions, ranging from right back to centre-forward. He’s shown tactical flexibility, explosive power and the ability to cope with real pressure, and had he been, at the risk of coming over all Sean Dyche, been called Michele Antonito, he might well be on the shopping lists of the title-chasers while being talked about at length on podcasts and highlights shows.
Although there aren’t as many players as you may expect stepping up between the divisions, a few have made impacts in the Premier League. For example, Troy Deeney and Jamie Vardy have moved from the second to the first division with Watford and Leicester respectively, both achieving success – the latter especially – while Ryan Shawcross has carved out a fine Premier League career after coming up as part of Tony Pulis’ Stoke side. Signings, too, have been successful, if not plentiful, with Joe Gomez having made an impact at Liverpool, Demarai Gray at Leicester and recently Alfie Mawson with Swansea. It’s worth remembering that John Stones was taken from Barnsley by Everton at a young age and has since gone on to become the most expensive defender in the history of the beautiful game following his £47.5m transfer to Manchester City last year.
— EFL (@EFL) 27 March 2017
So, is there value in the division now? Certainly. As the above video shows, the calibre of footballer across all three divisions of the Football League is, arguably, greater than ever, while Championship sides boast a great quantity of senior international players for nations all across the planet. Chris Wood at Leeds has smashed in 24 Championship goals this term, and his mix of pace and sheer physicality hint that he could lead the line for a decent club in the Premier League, while Anthony Knockaert has been truly excellent for Brighton & Hove Albion, illustrating on a weekly basis that he’s a good enough complete package to make the leap. These two players might yet both miss out on promotion, and if they do a host of clubs should sniffing around, a state of affairs that’s likely to be similar at Fulham with Tom Cairney and teenage sensation Ryan Sessegnon. As well as this, a quick glance at England’s U-21s shows that a host of the next generation are plying their trade in the Championship, also.
There is value out there, then. While teams have had their fingers burned by the likes of Cameron Jerome and Dwight Gayle – two players whose level seems to be somewhere between the two leagues – there should be a greater clamour than ever this summer for Championship players. Antonio has shown this season that the void is not as great as fans often believe it is, while exotic doesn’t always mean exciting!