Most Americans, when they think of English soccer, naturally think of the Premier League. It’s rather hard to miss in the culture, and it is a tremendous league filled with world-class players on every club. The atmosphere is great, the stadiums not that big, and the TV coverage ubiquitous.
But there are several reasons why I prefer watching other leagues. And I don’t mean the Bundesliga in Germany, la Liga in Spain, or Serie A in Italy.
I’m talking about the Championship, essentially the AAA of English soccer.
First, let me remind you that the English football “pyramid” of leagues is connected by a system of promotion and relegation. Clubs go up and down through the leagues by winning and losing, which in itself makes English soccer appealing than American sports. It’s an actual merit-based system!
But here is the thing: Once in the Premier League, there’s nowhere “up” to go. Sure, the top four go to the Champions League, and one or two others go to Europe’s NIT, the Europa League. This is what people mean when they talk about getting into Europe.
Otherwise, the Premier League championship is, essentially, a private club of four big-money, big-city clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. Liverpool is sort of in there, but they haven’t won the league since 1990. For Tottenham, the other “big six” club, it’s been since 1963!
In fact, in the whole Premier League era, 1993 to the present, exactly six clubs have ever won the title: Those big four plus Leicester City and Blackburn Rovers. And the last two won it once each. The other 22 seasons have been shared by four clubs — and Man City has only won it twice in that time.
(As an aside, since 1993, thanks largely to a salary cap, here is how many champions the “big four” North American leagues have seen: NFL 12, NHL 14, NBA 10, and MLB 13. So our system does have something to offer.)
What is So Great About the Championship?
Every year the two best Championship teams literally vanish, promoted to the Premier League. A third club goes up through the playoff system — another benefit of the lower leagues that the Premier League lacks.
If you take away three of the top six teams every year, who really knows who’s gonna win it the next year? Also, every year you get three new clubs dropping down from the Premier League, and sometimes this is a club you haven’t seen there in years. Right now Sunderland and Aston Villa are down there, and last year Newcastle was. These are big clubs.
So, total number of clubs to win the Championship since 1993: 19!
At the bottom of the table, the Championship also loses and gains three clubs each year. Often this is a longtime member fighting their way back in, like Bolton this year or Wolverhampton recently. And sometimes it’s a genuine fairy-tale story, like Burton Albion with their 6,000-seat stadium.
You also, more so in the Championship than in the Premier League, get to see derbies come and go, and there is something thrilling to me about seeing a derby that hasn’t been happening of late. Liverpool plays Everton every year, but this year Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday hooked up for the first time in six years. That kind of built-up excitement can make for some real drama — and in 2017 it certainly did.
Finally, there are 24 clubs down there, most of which I had never heard of before a few years ago. Like most Americans, I started out watching the World Cup, and then the Premier League, and then MLS … but I expanded. I wrote a book about English soccer, after all. I am also allergic to hype and media overkill, and my “chosen” club Fulham got relegated, so off I went into the world of the Championship.
By exploring the second tier of English soccer, I have managed to visit the brewery capital of England in Burton, the medieval city of Norwich for their heated derby, the fabulous city of Bristol, the Victorian seaside town of Brighton before they went up, and the amazing city, stadium and fans at Newcastle United when they were down.
Coming up on my next trip, I will catch a London Derby between Millwall and Queens Park Rangers and another between Middlesbrough and Sunderland — two local games that probably won’t have more than a couple dozen non-Brits in attendance.
And that is a final reason to follow the Championship: it gets you out beyond the lines that most Americans don’t cross, into a proper English footballing experience, to meet fans who will genuinely appreciate that you’ve showed up at all, much less learned something about their club, explored their town, and maybe learned one or two of their songs.
In fact, that whole idea — drawing your attention downward from the top of the Premier League — is one of the main things this whole project is all about.