Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Relegation, relegation, relegation

As Newcastle's 'best fans in the country' will be counting to their cost, the high profile calamitous collapse through the trap door that was the Magpie's relegation brought the curtain down on one of the best English Premier League seasons in recent years. The title chase was a genuinely exciting two/three horse race for much of the season, extended perhaps by United's timely dip in form after being trounced 4-1 by Liverpool, while the bottom half of the table resembled chaotic turmoil until the very end, as gradually one by one teams hauled themselves away from the yawning chasm into the Championship.

While the gulf remains between the top four and the rest - painfully so for Villa, who saw a seven-point lead over Arsenal crumble to a ten-point deficit in just 13 games - the relegation of Newcastle and Middlesborough, plus close shaves for Blackburn and Sunderland, only goes to highlight the narrowing gap between the lower regions of Premiership football and the Championship. Middlesborough have flirted with relegation and promotion for over 10 years, while West Brom have also been classic bouncers between the divisions recently, and Birmingham sealed automatic promotion just a year after losing their Premiership status.

But a deeper look into the Championship explains why the two divisions are drawing nearer in quality. The top four teams have all been in the Premiership within the last three years. Between positions 6 and 20 there are eight clubs who enjoyed decent Premiership spells since the league's inception: QPR, Crystal Palace, Sheffield Wednesday, Ipswich and Coventry to name a few, not to mention Nottingham Forest. But most intriguingly, the three relegated teams from the Championship this season were all in the Premiership four years ago, and in Southampton and Charlton's cases, well established, if unspectacular, top level sides.

In all, 16 of last season's 24 Championship teams have graced the Premier League in its 18 years. Scattered around leagues One and Two are more examples of others - Swindon, Oldham, Leeds. Rarely are the Premiership's relegated teams all obvious candidates - consider examples of Leeds and West Ham, and Newcastle, being considered 'too good to go down'. With the competition as fierce as it is, that old adage just doesn't wash.

But if the likes of Hull City, Stoke and Burnley seem odd in the Premier League, it only reinforces the strength of the second tier of English football. Ex-Premiership sides don't get promoted by right anymore, as a short on form Reading discovered, despite missing out on automatic promotion on the last day. And, as Norwich, Southampton and Charlton can testify, it is quickly possible to struggle in the Championship even with years of Premiership experience. Ultimately, if you can't adapt quickly to the Championship, aspirations of a promotion chase can easily turn to fearful glances over your shoulder (something Derby can also sympathise with, after their indifferent Championship season).

And so it will be for Newcastle, Boro' and West Brom that relegation isn't just relocation, a change of scenery for a year (the Baggies are probably well aware of this anyway). Unless they take seriously the burgeoning strength of English football's most competitive league, and prepare in the right way for a long and difficult season, fighting for the right to harbour Premier League hopes rather than assuming they deserve them, the harsh reality of life in the Championship may just have a couple more major scalps to make.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Bournemouth in decent gig lineup shocker

Four and a half years I’ve lived in Bournemouth, and tonight’s gig is the biggest live music coup I can recall; certainly in terms of eye-catching and wave-making new bands. The Gander – a grotty, carpeted room that looks inside like a local football team’s decrepit clubhouse, sitting above a much trendier bar – welcomes four acts, and three are what you call in the indie scene ‘names’. More...