Best question I’ve seen asked in the build-up to this new Championship season: “How many clubs would be in the Premier League if every one was ‘back where they belong’ ?”
It was posed on Twitter by an account called @FanExperienceCo.
I didn’t see the result – not that there could be one. Except that no pre-season exercise could be more effective at defining the degree of difficulty facing our own clubs here in Sheffield.
Both of them would assuredly be on the list. Pause here – it is a very long one.
Answers will vary. But I make it 39. The number who will feel the Premier League is “where they belong.”
Let’s start with the existing 20. And yet, ironically, there would be no great sense of entitlement for a lot of them. Not for Huddersfield Town or even Burnley, shock qualifiers for Europe.
Nor for Cardiff, near-miraculously promoted by Neil Warnock. Or for Fulham or Watford, smaller clubs by London area standards. Brighton have no history of it and Wolves have spent the greater part of their modern history outside the elite.
That’s around a third of the section over-achieving in Premier League terms and several of them would be dwarfed in support by many of those busting a gut to replace or join them. Nothing is more indicative of the imbalance in the game and demonstrate why clubs can topple financially while striving to fulfil the demands of huge fan bases.
Fortunately, those who run Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday, in their very different ways, are alive to this.
Ok, it’s hardly an ideal backdrop in either case. One has a potentially destructive power battle raging through the courts and the other has been becalmed by financial fair play protocol.
But essentially those in command would appear to be mindful of the dangers of overstretching. It is simply not worth being back in the top flight at all costs.
And so to those on the outside who will feel they “belong” there. Here’s my list, alphabetically: Aston Villa, Derby County, Ipswich Town, Leeds United, Middlesbrough, Norwich City, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion. And Sunderland, newly relegated to the third tier.
That’s 12 clubs. Add to those, clubs of a size, history or recent experience who will also feel they could or should be up there: Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Hull City, Reading, Swansea City, Wigan Athletic.
That’s another 7 clubs. Total (including the current Premier League) = 39.
In other words, there are about as many outside the Premier League whose fans will feel they should be in it as the actual status quo.
And that’s reckoning without unfancied clubs who are steadily building momentum – Millwall, Bristol City, Brentford. Realistically,
Sheffield United can also be placed in this section, albeit that their history denotes higher expectations.
It’s better to be a smaller or middle-range club growing than a heavyweight shrinking. Aston Villa, for instance, were brought close to their knees by financial excesses and they are still tottering despite a partial rescue.
That’s why I give the Blades (despite all the political problems) a genuine chance of at least matching last season’s push for the play-offs.
Same inspirational management team, same core group of players (many on the up in their careers) and some impressive signings – plus a large and appreciative audience.
Sheffield Wednesday? For me, a similar hope but in different circumstances. Here, high expectations have dropped and that could be helpful.
What is similar is a relatively stable core group in the dressing room (further pre-deadline departures permitting) .
We know they are good players and yet they have that to prove afresh after a wretched, injury-ravaged season in the wake of two promotion attempts. A mood of redemption among them can do no harm. If they feel they are fighting the odds, that’s potentially helpful also.
What’s the same for both clubs is the quality, depth and, in some cases, the desperation of the competition.
If 20 clubs are in the Premier League and another 18 (plus Sunderland) think they should be, the reality is that most are going to be disappointed. Fifteen of them, to be exact. We have to appreciate that stark reality when we set our hopes for what’s to come.
Being competitive is, I think, all you can seriously ask for at this stage. At either Hillsborough or Bramall Lane. Automatic promotion? It can happen when you least expect it. But neither the Owls nor the Blades would be among my top runners at this juncture and the bookies evidently agree.
Who would? Relegated Stoke City and West Brom have the clout to bounce back. Middlesbrough, under Tony Pulis, have to be fancied. So, too, Nottingham Forest, under ex Boro boss Aitor Karanka, who has strengthened massively under new ownership during the summer.
How about Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa?
For me, either a spectacular success or a complete failure, with very little in between.
Because “being in between” is not good enough for Leeds and tends to see managers over-hastily sacked. Besides, the mystique of managers, and a policy of depending on them above recruitment, can be overrated. We shall see.
It’s also a season of discovery for the Owls under Jos Luhukay, who has the chance to express his methods for the first time, whereas I think we know the approach to expect from Chris Wilder’s Blades.
Bottom line is this. Sorry to be boring. It’s a pushing-for-the-play-offs prediction in both cases. But sometimes boring is best when it comes to balancing reality with hopes and dreams.