The best players in the Championship - a rare celebration?
It sits up nicely. It’s waiting to be hit. So I hit it. It flies through the air and thuds satisfyingly against the crossbar before hurtling downwards. It lands just the right side of the line and bounces high up into the net. And I yell my lungs out. “YEBOOOOOOOOAAAAAAHHHH!”
It wasn’t just me. Hundreds of us did it. Thousands. On playing fields the length and breadth of the country, we saw our shots boom off the bar into the net and we roared the Ghanaian’s name. All because of Tony Yeboah’s two famous goals for Leeds United against Liverpool and Wimbledon. Only two, but they made such an impression.
It wasn’t just Yeboah either. A little while later, when we curled a ball into the top corner of the net from just outside the box, we’d cry Del Piero’s name. A few years on and we’d feel like Thierry Henry when we sidefooted into the bottom corner from the angle, perhaps after beating a man or six. It’s how I remember it anyway, and we were hardly going to shout “Ronnie Rosenthal!” every time we fired over when faced with an open goal.
So how many kids these days are screaming “PETEEEEEERRRR WHITTINGHAAAAAAAAAAAM!” as they lash the ball into the top corner?
Hang on… Whittingham? But he doesn’t play in the Premier League. Aren’t children far more likely to ape their true heroes – the ones they see on the television all week? An exaggerated dive brought about by a slight touch to the ankle, accompanied by a howl of “Suareeeez!” or a refusal to enter the field of play and a whisper of “Tevez…” Perhaps a simple slogan underneath the school team’s football shirt: “Why always me, sir?”
Is it really likely that the next generation produced by those Yeboah-worshipping Yorkshiremen are currently shuffling in from the wing because they want to be Robert Snodgrass? And if not, why not?
There were certainly some iconic players among the three teams promoted from the Championship in May. Who wouldn’t want their own playing style to evoke the magical skills of Adel Taarabt, the brute physicality of Grant Holt or the rapid wing play of Scott Sinclair? And those not blessed with Taarabt’s majesty, Holt’s ample frame or Sinclair’s sheer pace could draw strength from the success of slightly-built midfielders like Wes Hoolahan, Leon Britton and Joe Allen.
For those of us who focus on the Football League, all six of these talents have now gone. But they have been replaced by players of equal excellence. So hopefully there are schoolkids on the south coast who want to play like Adam Lallana or Rickie Lambert, for example.
It begs the question of whether the Football League could do more to raise the profile of its most marketable talents. The Football League’s current tagline – as featured in the top left of their website – is “Real Football, Real Fans”, but that seems a little smug and superior. Taking a slightly different tack, the intro sequence used for live Football League coverage provided by Sky Sports plays heavily on history and tradition with archive footage of players running out of a tunnel morphing into the modern-day equivalent. Similarly, the BBC’s much-maligned Football League Show (the failings of which are seemingly the one thing all supporters of Football League clubs can agree on) goes for the stereotypical bobble hat and rattle.
In fairness, this appears a common theme at present as media organisations desperately attempt to win over a demographic that has been switched off by “matchday experiences”. Even Match of the Day has gone all misty-eyed with its opening salvo involving past heroes appearing to play alongside current Premier League stars. And it is even more understandable that the Football League, less moneyed and less reliant on overseas television audiences, sees merit in playing heavily upon the glorious past of its most famous clubs and the traditional nature of their fanbases.
There is a wider question regarding the true appeal of players who, by definition, are not the best in the country. The concept of youngsters wanting to be like players who have been discarded from top clubs is not really viable. This is about the challenge presented by the elite in any one competition. In the Championship, this means having to combat the likes of Southampton striker Lambert. Blackpool knew the threat posed by the division’s leading scorer this weekend, yet they were unable to prevent a two-goal haul. The second of those rescued a point for Saints and made it a year unbeaten at St Mary’s.
Last season it was Taarabt that had to be countered. Many failed but a notable exception took place towards the end of the campaign when Derby County earned a commendable point at Loftus Road. It feels like the dim and distant past now, before a law was passed that the majority of media outlets had to feature his gurning mug staring out from their sports pull-outs and homepages, but Robbie Savage did a number on the Moroccan that day. Savage’s successors, the next spoilers to populate Championship midfields, continue in their quest to contain creative players like Lallana, Snodgrass and Whittingham this season.
Certainly, the lack of coverage afforded to the Football League, because of its lesser quality, results in very few people taking an interest in the competition as a whole rather than just their club. This, in turn, means that the perception of its best players is based on scant evidence, far less than can be gathered when judging Premier League players. A single poor performance lives longer in the memory. When using social media to praise, or merely mention, players widely regarded as the best the Championship has to offer, the response is so often that they failed to impress in one particular game against a certain team.
Of course, it isn’t necessarily in the interests of Championship clubs to trumpet their talent for the likes of Wigan and Blackburn to take a punt on in the January transfer window. So, in reality, those of us who concern ourselves with this sort of thing are left to enjoy the best players outside the Premier League for ourselves. The cream of the Football League never lasts long because it consists of players who are either bought by bigger clubs or promoted away with their own. This is where the true fascination with life at the top of the Championship, in particular, lies. The very brightest stars of all are different every season.
Take the most recent names in the annual PFA Team of the Year for the two highest divisions. Of the 2010/11 Premier League Team of the Year, only Edwin van der Sar – now retired – is missing from the same competition this season. In contrast, eight names from the Championship’s selection now play in the top flight leaving just three – Wes Morgan, Ian Harte and Andy King – who remain in the second tier at present. It is a similar story for the 2009/10 versions – only Cesc Fabregas has gone from the Premier League, while seven of the Championship team play in the division he departed in the summer. Just four are still Football League players.
On The Seventy Two, we are counting down to Christmas by celebrating the current crop with the 25 Best Players in the Championship series as selected by a public vote. This isn’t to say that these 25 are actually the best. That is too difficult to judge. It is instead an opportunity to acknowledge our players while we still can, because many of them will probably be playing in the Premier League next season whereby every decision they make will be blown out of all proportion for better or worse.
It is an ever-changing carousel. In such a tight division, the upper echelons of which are perennially up for grabs rather than reserved for a Big Four, Five or Six, there are thousands of supporters forever pondering the type of player needed to gain promotion. As new tactics, challenges, personalities and arenas present themselves, the answer to this puzzle forever changes too. And that’s why we love it.