Sunday 21 October 2018

Championship owners gambling big on Premier League jackpot

Newcastle United players celebrate winning the Championship last season Photo: Getty
Newcastle United players celebrate winning the Championship last season Photo: Getty

Colin Young

Promotion to the Premier League is now worth an estimated £250m (€282m) each to the three successful Championship clubs. Every season, the stakes get higher.

That is why Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson took the extraordinary step, by his standards, of sacking Garry Monk just six months into an unconvincing reign as his manager. The Teesside businessman, who spent more than £40m after relegation from the top flight last season, could see an immediate return slipping from his club's grasp as players struggled to embrace Monk's change of style.

Gibson had tried to hire Tony Pulis on two previous occasions and, concerned the 59-year-old might take the Swansea or Wales job following his sacking from West Brom, he sacked Monk two days before Christmas and convinced Pulis to move to England's North East on St Stephen's Day. And he has told Pulis he must win promotion.

Middlesbrough sit on the fringe of the play-offs, losing ground after losing Pulis's first game in charge against Steve Bruce's Aston Villa, who had just gone a month without a win, but then quickly playing catch-up with a dramatic 3-2 victory at Preston two days later.

Pulis won promotion 10 years ago with Stoke and has been in the Premier League ever since. Two games into his return and he does not see much change. Pulis is already recognising the signs of struggle ahead in the second tier.

"It is 10 years since I was in the Championship," he said. "And the one thing I remember is that you have got to turn up for every game. I can't remember an easy game when we got promoted at Stoke.

"The most important thing is to find a team that is really balanced and can do things on and off the ball which will enable us to win games and get up the table. That does not come over a week, ten days, it takes a bit of time. With the money Steve has spent at the club so far this year it would be really disrespectful if I was banging down the door asking for more players and more money."

Former Ireland international Keith Andrews, who gained promotion with Wolves in 2003, has added his expertise to Sky's Championship coverage and says the division's unpredictability is its most redeeming feature.

"It has always been a difficult league but year on year the quality gets better," he said. "There is some snobbery towards the Championship from some Premier League managers, but there are some very good players in the league. Some teams are not performing to their maximum levels, but you would have to be clinically insane to bet on the Championship games because they are just so unpredictable. If you take your foot off the gas, even for periods in a game, you can be behind.

"At the start of the season, I thought Villa and Boro would fight it out for automatic promotion and the three unknown quantities with potential to challenge for the top six were Leeds, Wolves and Norwich because they had three new managers with no experience of the Championship and it is different to any league in the world.

"I certainly didn't expect to see Wolves taking the division by storm, and even in early November I half-questioned whether they could cope with the rough and tumble, but I have been very impressed with the team and how the manager conducts himself. They have been sensational and a joy to watch.

"Derby are knocking on the door; I have always liked the way they play and Gary Rowett has added a level of pragmatism which has been taken on quickly, and I don't think anyone saw Cardiff, Sheffield United and Bristol City achieving what they have - they have been magnificent.

"If their owners can find a few shekels to invest in January they might stay in contention but I still wouldn't want to predict the two who will go up with Wolves."

Gibson's uncharacteristically harsh treatment of Monk is a reflection of his fear that Middlesbrough will not make an immediate return to the Premier League after their timid surrender of their membership last season. It took Gibson four managers and seven years to get there last time and he knows they threw it away with Aitor Karanka's negative approach last season. That was why he vowed to 'blitz' the Championship this season.

With more than 20 years' experience of football, Gibson knew this was a risky and outlandish claim. With those stakes rising among the Championship teams, owners are increasingly prepared to risk huge sums to succeed. Wolves are the perfect example of a club influenced by foreign finances which are shaping their ability to compete.

Wolves' Chinese owners took over the club from Steve Morgan two years ago and they have worked closely with so-called super-agent Jorge Mendes, who has used his substantial global contacts to shape the team's season and their squad. As well as the presence of Nuno Espirito Santo, a Mendes client who guided Porto to second in the Portuguese league last season, the Midlands club recruited heavily from Portugal and Spain. They have won 19, drawn four and lost just three this season and are 12 points clear at the top. The proximity of the Premier League is likely to determine the future of a large number of the current Wolves squad in the next two transfer windows.

Such riches are arguably well deserved for a club which has endured its fair share of adversity while the riches of the Premier League have swirled above them. They had two bankruptcies in the '80s, followed by three consecutive relegations to the old fourth division. They twice tasted Premier League football for a total of four years, and for the past two seasons, the priority has been avoiding relegation from the Championship.

Wolves' dominance has already boxed off one of the automatic places to an extent that even Newcastle, for all their investment, experience and manager Rafa Benitez, could not match last season. The Geordies needed a last-day victory to wrest the title from Brighton and had to see off an unexpected challenge from Huddersfield Town, who managed the double over Benitez's side.

For Huddersfield last season, read Cardiff, Sheffield United and Bristol City this. Although the Welsh side have the significant presence and experience of Neil Warnock in their dug-out, compared to rookie managers Chris Wilder and Lee Johnson, all three sides have defied expectations, and the substantial finances of their bigger rivals, to sustain challenges which have kept them in the top six until the turn of the year.

Much closer to the monetary clout of Wolves, and their history, are Leeds, Derby and Aston Villa who, like Middlesbrough, have realistic ambitions to return to the top division. Villa, who finished 13th in their first season out of the top flight since the 1980s, have the added bonus of manager Steve Bruce, who has won four promotions to the Premier League.

Pulis is the 10th manager Gibson has hired since the Premier League started in 1992/93. That is half the number of managers Nottingham Forest have employed in their pursuit of a return to the top flight in the same period. And it is now 19 years since Forest were in the Premier League. Bruce is Villa's 13th manager since Ron Atkinson led them into the Premier League.

"Instability does not work," argues Andrews. "A manager needs a couple of transfer windows to work properly, and if you look at Villa and Middlesbrough, they have too many players and it is going to take a couple of years. Bruce has had his problems there but are you seriously telling me there is a better manager than Steve Bruce to deal with the size of the club, fans' expectations and players' egos? I don't think there is.

"It is too easy for clubs to go on a bad run, the agents come in saying, 'my man can do this and that and sign that player', and the owners feel the need to change it. I'm guilty of speculating on a manager when teams have a bad run, and I would try to encourage owners not to be too trigger-happy, but I doubt it is going to change."

Getting out of the second tier can prove difficult, as many so-called giants of the English game have discovered. Like Villa, Forest were European champions in the '80s but the club have only spent three seasons in the Premier League since its inception. Other clubs once synonymous with the top flight and European football have been away for longer than you might think - Sheffield Wednesday 18 years, Ipswich Town 17 and Leeds 14. For some the wait has been longer. Brentford haven't seen the first division for 71 years, and Bristol City (40 years) and Preston North End (57) have also never experienced the Premier League.

And then there is the added danger of leaving the Championship via the wrong exit, which is a prospect Sunderland are facing this season. It is 30 years since the Wearside club played in the third tier for the first and only time in their history but it is a fate Chris Coleman is struggling to avoid after replacing seasoned Football League manager Simon Grayson in November. Bottom of the table, as they were when the former Wales boss took over, Sunderland have won just three of their last nine games. Coleman insists he has the resources and the reputation to rescue the sinking ship.

History shows recovery is possible. Southampton, Bournemouth, Burnley, Huddersfield, Swansea, Stoke, Wolves, Leeds, Sheffield United, Wednesday, Bolton, Millwall, Norwich and Birmingham have done time in the third tier, some in the fourth. But Sunderland are in danger of disappearing from the football map altogether, with their finances in a perilous state and their American owner Ellis Short apparently showing little interest in the club.

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