Friday, February 29, 2008

The Epicentre Of English Football

If there is one division that provides a snapshot of English football, it's League One. It is the league that shows all of the pitfalls of the modern game, but at the same time it has often provided a springboard to greater things. There are former Premier League clubs in there, playing as equals against teams that were playing Isthmian League football a little over ten years ago. It's a bewildering mixture of success and failure. Its clubs can go to the Premier League or the Conference in two short years, and it has provided FA Cup semi-finallists in the form of Wycombe Wanderers, Plymouth Argyle and Chesterfield. Indeed, it may yet provide an FA Cup semi-finallist in Bristol Rovers this year. It is, I think, the epicentre of the English game.

At one end of the spectrum you have Nottingham Forest and Leeds United. These are two clubs that considering themselves to be slumming it by playing in this division. Forest, for whom the memories of being twice European champions are getting more and more distant with each passing year, have been struggling to get out of League One for a couple of years now, and there is no guarantee that they will go up this season yet. Leeds' history is similarly glorious, but they look even less likely to go up than Forest. At the other end of the scale, you have Cheltenham Town and Yeovil Town. Both of these clubs were Conference clubs in the 1990s, but have hauled themselves out of the primoridial gloop of non-league football and are established clubs. Both are sitting just above the relegation places, but are more likely to avoid the drop this season than Forest and Leeds are to get promoted this season.

It is the transotory nature of League One that makes it compelling, but also exposes its member clubs to significant risk. It seems to me to be no coincidence that three of this year's biggest financial meltdowns (Luton, Swindon and Bournemouth) have all come in a division which is, to an extent, neither fish nor fowl. League Two and non-league clubs have to cut their cloth according to their circumstances. Premier League and Championship clubs can depend on significantly bigger pots of TV and sponsorship money. League One clubs, though, are stuck in the middle. Many of them carry huge wage budgets which they feel that they have to sustain in order to remain competitive in that division, but whether they are sustainable on the limited funds available to them is open to question.

Even in facilities, the range on offer is astonishing. The City Ground and Elland Road both hosted matches at Euro 96, whilst the likes of Brighton's Withdean Stadium offer amongst the worst facilities in the Football League. Some clubs, such as Swansea City, have moved into sparkling new stadia, whilst others, like Chesterfield still have terracing behind the goals.

A look at the league table confirms just how tight everything is. Brighton & Hove Albion are in eleventh place in the league, but if they win their games in hand they will be propelled into the play-off places, with a chance of Championship football next season. Their opponents tomorrow, Leyton Orient, were in League One in 1995 when the infamous "Club For A Fiver" documentary was recorded. This film (which is availaible, I think, on YouTube) documented their collapse into financial chaos, a collapse which it took them the best part of five years to recover from. Both of these clubs could be playing the likes of West Bromwich Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Derby County as equals next season, which is all part of the joy of this division. We'll be at The Withdean tomorrow - expect a write up on here on Sunday or Monday.


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