There isn’t a league anywhere in the world quite like the Championship. From its incredible attendances and passionate fanbases to its excellent standard of football and wonderful competitiveness, it is a league made so exciting by its quite remarkable unpredictability.
In recent years increasingly greater levels of attention have been given to this fascinating division, as fans and pundits from all over the UK and beyond are starting to fully appreciate and recognise not only the quality, but also the amazing stories that can be found within the English second tier.
It seems that in the Championship, nothing is ever certain, which only adds to the appeal of following it as a neutral supporter, but at the same time enhances the tension of being a fan of one of the 24 sides that compete in it. Where some clubs tend to float between the top flight and the second division, there are others who seem almost locked in, often challenging for a spot in the play offs or even reaching the final at Wembley, but ultimately failing to escape one of the most difficult and uncertain leagues around.
In July 2020, we saw one of English football’s most iconic sides finally return to the Premier League after a 16-year absence. For fans of Leeds United, this period has felt like a lifetime, as on so many occasions their beloved club has looked destined for promotion but never quite made it, although it seems that the longer supporters have to wait to see their side reach the top flight, it only makes the celebrations even more special when the wait is finally over.
For many fanbases, the yearning to witness seeing their team amongst the three reach the Premier League continues. It is perhaps the optimism that the start of each season provides that makes life in the Championship so gripping but often so disheartening for both fans and players alike. For supporters of Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday, two of England’s grandest clubs, it has now been two decades since their sides competed in the top flight, while for Bristol City, it has been double the amount of time.
Possibly the most staggering case of all is that of Preston North End, who haven’t played in the first division since 1961, meaning generations upon generations of fans have grown up supporting one of the country’s most historic sides yet have never seen them compete in its highest division.
While many have failed to break back into the Premier League, others who have achieved the dream promotion often struggle and return to the second tier after a fleeting stay. This can become something of a cycle; one that supporters of Norwich, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion amongst many others have become all too familiar with, as they have watched their sides regularly bounce up and down between the top two divisions.
With the dynamic of the league changing with every season as six teams leave and another six join, it is never easy to predict how the table will look in May, although if one thing is guaranteed in the Championship, it is that every year, fans are able to dream. The possibility of a trip to Wembley at the end of the season is something that allows fans from across the country to remain optimistic, and on so many occasions we have seen sides enjoy a timely upturn in form towards the end of the season to propel themselves into the play offs.
Securing one of the play off spots means that fans have an enticing two-legged tie to look forward to, where we tend to witness some of the most dramatic and unpredictable football of the entire season. In 2019 we witnessed a truly incredible semi final between Leeds and Derby, as the Rams went into the second leg a goal down and produced a stunning performance to win 4-2 on the night and book their place at Wembley for the final.
It was a night that no one in the travelling section will ever forget, and a game that all Derby supporters will look back on and remember exactly where they were watching from in years to come, much in the same way that Crystal Palace fans will be able to recall where they were when Wilfried Zaha scored a sublime brace away at fierce rivals Brighton to send his side into the final.
For Blackpool fans, the very mention of the play offs will bring back memories of an exhilarating 6-4 aggregate win against Forest in the semi final before an equally dramatic 3-2 victory to seal promotion against Cardiff at Wembley – a moment that supporters will always treasure. A similar feeling of pride fills Bristol City fans when they look back on a memorable night against Crystal Palace where their side scored twice in extra time under the lights at Ashton Gate to book their place in the final, leaving supporters dreaming of reaching the promised land of the top flight.
It is incredible to think of all of the drama and excitement that the play offs have provided over time, and one particular game from 2013 stands out as possibly the most captivating and emotional of all. With the tie between Watford and Leicester level at 3-3 on aggregate heading into the fifth minute of injury time, the Foxes won a penalty and look destined to reach the final with what would surely be the final kick of the game as Anthony Knockaert placed the ball down on the penalty spot.
In football however, and particularly in the Championship, it seems that nothing is ever guaranteed, and Knockaert was denied not just once but twice by Manuel Almunia, before the ball was cleared and suddenly Watford had a chance to break. Throughout the following 20 seconds we witnessed something truly sensational, as the Hornets charged forward in a superb move, with a great cross to the far post headed down into the path of Troy Deeney, who lashed the ball into the back of the net, sparking euphoric celebrations amongst the home supporters.
It was a moment that captures everything we love about the game, and is one that Watford supporters will never tire of watching back, as they were taken from the verge of heartbreak to complete jubilation in a matter of seconds. The flood of emotions would not end here however, as supporters of yellow and black were only left wondering of what might have been after the final whistle was blown at Wembley.
In what has become widely considered “football’s richest game”, due to the financial benefits that come with the prestige of reaching the Premier League, the contrast of emotions between supporters at full time in the play off final each year could not be greater. Whilst the wait for promotion ends for one set of supporters, it is only extended by another season for the other half of the stadium, as they hope that this is not the closest they will come to returning to the top flight or reaching it for the very first time.
While the Championship remains impossible to predict and full of surprises, one thing is always guaranteed – it will continue to provide fans with unbelievable moments every season, through the brilliantly entertaining football and continual drama that makes it a league unlike any other.
“The play off final embodies what football is all about.” – Ian Holloway
“As a football supporter you shouldn’t do it because you want the good times – you should be there through thick and thin for your team. Trust me, there is no better place to be than Wembley when your team has just won. It will stay with you for the rest of your life.” – Ian Holloway