An oft quoted claim of recent months has been for the Championship’s status as the fifth richest League in Europe and if this isn’t necessarily reflected in the quality of the goods on offer, that Derby County can attract an average gate of more than 26,000, Hull City shell out £21 million in wages for 2010-11, and Leicester City approach £18 million in net transfer fee spend is evidence of significant trade.
Why, therefore, the under representation in the forthcoming European Championships in Poland and Ukraine which commence a week on Friday?
The 2010 World Cup wasn’t exactly awash with Football Leaguers. Most of the significant representation came from the Antipodeans of New Zealand. Tommy Smith performed memorably in the All Whites’ heroic 1-1 draw with Italy and regular Championship loanee Chris Wood contrived to miss by a whisker late on in the same game.
Rory Fallon and Chris Killen also featured in the Aotearoa campaign while Richard Garcia acquitted himself well in Australia’s opening mismatch against Germany and Pompey duo Nadir Belhadj and Hassan Yebda represented an Algerian line up that can also be proud of their efforts even if the 0-0 draw with England has gone down in history as a Capello horror show.
Robert Koren, newly released by West Bromwich Albion, did enough to attract Hull with a winning goal in Slovenia’s opener against the North Africans while those about to pass both he and England replacement keeper David James through the foyer of the Premier League included Newcastle’s Jonás Gutiérrez, somewhat crazily utilized as a full back by Diego Maradona, and Baggies utility man, Gonzalo Jara.
Two years on and the representation is even less numerous. If it were not for the Irish sextet of Sean St. Ledger, David Forde, Kevin Foley, Paul Green, Stephen Hunt and Kevin Doyle, the influence of the Football League on proceedings from Donetsk to Gdańsk would be negligible. Like Forde, outgoing Championship keeper Robert Green and Birmingham City kid Jack Butland can hardly be expected to feature for an England side where Joe Hart has a firm hold over the jersey.
There could be many reasons for this. Firstly, in a tournament that still (mercifully) contains only 16 teams, the average standard is higher, notwithstanding the absence of the Latin American contingent that performed so strongly in South Africa. I would maintain that the World Cup is harder to win overall – and Brazil 2014 looks just about as hazardous a tournament to negotiate as any in recent memory – but getting through the group stage tends to be easier than it does on the Euro stage – just look at England’s lame and undeserving progress to Round 2 twenty three months ago.
Second, if a player may be afforded more buck for his bang in the NPower League, the growing strength of a raft of European leagues below those considered to be the best is eye catching. Suddenly, Portuguese teams outside the traditional top three are creating waves while the Russian and Ukrainian top flights provide regular representation in the final stages of European competition and the Cypriots of APOEL made it to a Champions League quarter final a few weeks ago.
That a number of those competitions have a strong national bias is a third point. Indeed, incentives to seek one’s fortune elsewhere when considerable wealth is available on one’s doorstep has never been lower. Cesare Prandelli’s Italian 23 is packed full of Serie A stars, the Russian squad draws its stars mainly from the national club competition and even a country like Denmark wholly reliant in the past on exiles has drawn a decent proportion of its squad from its own clubs – the new kids on the block of Nordsjælland have three representatives.
So the overall footballing accomplishment of the NPower Championship and the tendency for wages and fees to be over inflated is perhaps exposed by the failure of the 16 managers to pay attention. It may be the fifth most expensive division in European football but is it really the fifth best?
Let’s take the case study of Blackburn Rovers and Sweden left back Martin Olsson; the one player likely to feature whom we have not mentioned thus far. A steal from Högaborgs BK as a teenager, Olsson has been one of the most consistent performers as the Lancastrians have imploded. Having chalked up more than 30 games in each of the past two seasons, he has been as solid as he could be while all fell apart around him and disturbing stories of players’ lack of commitment to the causes have spread.
Having signed a new five year deal in 2010, one might expect Olsson to take to the field against Ukraine in Kiev as a Rovers player but no sooner had relegation been confirmed than he was already being linked to Stoke City – it’s as if such a player couldn’t possibly be seen dead in the Championship.
But erstwhile internationals Carlton Cole and Nikola Žigić have hardly been dominant in lower league waters – the former’s goal against Blackpool and crass twitter tirades notwithstanding. Nor have those previously written off and who replaced them underperformed at the higher echelon – Ladies and Gentlemen, I refer you to Grant Holt, Nathan Dyer and Ashley Williams.
The Championship has a significant raft of foreigners and many of the best of these are drawn from outside this summer’s ‘eurozone’ – a number of Champions Reading’s most influential performers hail from nations not present at the Euros including Jimmy Kébé, Kaspars Gorkšs and Jem Karacan while a Wales side eagerly anticipating a competitive World Cup qualifying group can count on the inactive David Edwards, Andy King and Chris Gunter among others. Had their nations qualified, the League might have been more visible.
Finally, one player we profiled back in 2010 had just completed the season on the books of a Championship club and if he was to leave Portsmouth that Summer, he ended up having an outstanding World Cup, rebuilding his reputation and eventually becoming a regular with AC Milan – I would love it if Kevin Doyle turned out to be this year’s Kevin Prince Boateng.