This weekend sees the final round of fixtures in what has been a truly thrilling season of Championship football. Though I don’t get to watch any of it here in New Zealand, following the table and listening to BBC’s 606 Football Phone-In is enough to know just how many ups and downs there have been. However, going into the final matches, the bottom five teams in the Championship are teams that have featured in the Premier League in the last eleven years.
Charlton and Southampton are already relegated to League One, and the final relegation place will go to either Norwich or Barnsley, with Nottingham Forest having just about secured their safety. It is amazing to see just how far these clubs have fallen, and indeed to see that Leicester City and Leeds United have also just spent a season in English football’s third tier, though both may soon return to the Championship. This should come as a heavy warning to fans of Newcastle United, because it just goes to show that no club is too good to go down.
Of all the serious relegation threatened clubs in the Premier League, Newcastle are (with respect to the other clubs) the only club that could be considered a big club, due to their massive fan base and established place in English football’s top flight rather than through any real success that, however distant, guarantees the likes of Nottingham Forest and Derby County such status.
But their fans know as well as anyone that just because they are a big club does not mean they will not go down. And it gives them no right to bounce straight back up again if they do. If Newcastle go down the quotes in newspaper articles across the country will go something like: “those fans deserve to support a Premier League club” and well they might, but that fact changes nothing. A club can be the best supported club in the world, but unless they do it on the pitch they will never be a big club.
But you really do have to fear for Newcastle United. When big teams go down, it is really hard to get back up again. Yes, there are parachute payments and all sorts, but take a look down Newcastle’s squad list and wage bill. Very few of their players will be willing to stay with them and play Championship football, and even if they could keep the squad together, they would have to take a massive wage reduction, because Championship clubs just cannot afford big-money wages (unless it’s QPR of course).
The divide between the Premier League and the Championship is not necessarily a big one, plenty of teams can come up and stay up and have done so for a few seasons, and some have even established themselves as more or less steady members of the top flight. But it’s a league that is still very different to the flash and glamour of the Premier League. In the Championship, teams like Stoke are much less of a minority. Yes, some teams do still play nice football, but there will be far more games in which you really have to graft and fight for a result, and on this season’s evidence, Newcastle just aren’t capable of doing that.
So Newcastle would need to rebuild their squad dramatically, both to combat what would be a crippling wage bill and to adjust to the style of football in the Championship. But the thing is, a new squad takes time to gel, and would more than likely be made up of cast offs from other teams, which necessarily means that it will probably not be fit to challenge for immediate re-promotion, unless of course they retain some cash to splash on big Championship players.
But even if they can sign a squad that on paper has the makings of a promotion chasing outfit, they still have to learn to play together, effectively as a team. And that can take weeks or even months, certainly longer than pre-season; and that is just no good when you are looking to bounce straight back up. The Championship is such a fiercely competitive league as this season has proven, with many teams who are good enough to win promotion. To be successful you cannot afford to start slowly, you’ve got to be right there all the way.
So the job of Alan Shearer and his squad at players is absolutely massive. Until now, there will have been many people in and around the club and its fans, that haven’t really come to terms with the enormity of their run-in. This could make or break Newcastle United Football Club. There is the very real possibility that if Newcastle are relegated they may not return to the Premier League for a very long time, they could even slip down further, as Leeds, Leicester, Charlton and Southampton have all done.
Of course, many Championship fans have been known to say “well I’d rather we stay in the Championship, the Premier League is boring anyway” so maybe it will be a blessing in disguise for Newcastle. But let’s face it, Newcastle fans have had enough drama in their lives in recent seasons, and anyone who says that is deluding themselves. Yes, the Premier League is a much less open league, but every supporter of every team in the land would love for their team to be the one to break that monopoly – as an Everton fan I know that better than most.
In English football, there is only one league in which every club wants to belong. No disrespect to the Championship or the other lower leagues, but if Newcastle are relegated, as well they might be, their fans will be absolutely devastated, and they will strut around the Championship for a season until they realise that they are just like every other club in that league: incredibly well supported, deserving of another chance at the big time that lies just beyond them, and harping back to the good old days. And after all, as the old saying goes: the bigger they are, the harder they fall.