Monday 30th May marked the final game in the English domestic calendar – the Championship playoff final. Often dubbed “the 90 million match”, this year Swansea outshone Reading and joined Queens Park Rangers and Norwich as the Premier League new-boys. While The Premier League may be the most watched league in the world, the Championship isn’t as popular, and so for those wondering who exactly their favourite teams will be playing next season, here’s a quick summary of the lucky three.
Queens Park Rangers - There was, in fact, nothing lucky about QPR's rise to the Premier League. They ran out comfortable winners, and in truth the margin of 4 points probably isn't enough to represent the gulf in performances between QPR and the best-of-the-rest. In Paddy Kenny, QPR have the best goalkeeper the Championship saw last season, and in captain Adel Taarabt they have an inspirational attacking midfielder who not only has the full range of passing, but also pops up with a huge number of goals too (19 this season). The problem, as it always is with a smaller Premiership team housing an outstanding player, could be holding on to him. With numerous larger clubs struggling to create an attacking presence in midfield, it’s highly likely there will be bids for Taarabt this season. But QPR are by no means a one man team, and Iceland’s Heiðar Helguson and Scotland’s Jamie Mackie both provided a decent number of goals too.
One thing that has to be mentioned though, is that QPR have two things that neither of the other newly promoted teams have. Firstly, QPR have money. And more to the point, they have no small amount of it either. The club is owned by Formula 1 tycoons Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore, assumed to have a combined wealth of close to £2billion. They may not be Roman Abramovich, but you can expect a decent investment in the QPR squad over the summer to ensure that they stay put in the Premier League. Secondly, they have players with previous Premier League experience. Pascal Chimbonda, Danny Shittu and Peter Ramage are just three of a number of players that have played in the top flight before, and this experience will give the club a massive advantage over Norwich and Swansea.
After the furore and upcoming fine about the transfer of Alejandro Faurlin, QPR will hopefully have learned how to follow the proper protocol with any summer signings they make, and these could include some fairly big names. Robbie Keane, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Yakubu have all been mentioned in the same sentences as QPR recently, and whether you think them realistic or not, the club certainly have ambition. Of the three promotees, it has to be said that they are easily the best placed to follow through with this ambition too.
Norwich - Norwich became the first club in over a decade to achieve back to back promotions into the Premier League, and while this is a phenomenal achievement, many think that the Premier League may have come a season too soon for the Canaries. Manager Paul Lambert has already stated that the club can realistically manage no more than try to survive in such a competitive league.
Norwich do however have their stars. Captain and top goal-scorer Grant Holt has been in sensational form for the team, but still has a reputation of being a lower-league player, and like the vast majority of the squad has no previous Premier League experience. The outstandingly versatile Wes Hoolahan has played all over the park in recent season, and this year found the next 10 times. The incredibly fit Russell Martin played every single minute of every Norwich game this season, and both he and Hoolahan will have to continue their excellent lower league form if the club is to prosper in the Premier League.
Manager Paul Lambert has claimed that he aims to bring in as many as seven new signings in order to avoid the drop, and a deal has already been done to bring Everton’s striker James Vaughan to Norwich, at a cost of about £2.5 million – in my opinion an outstanding buy. However, with Vaughan already arriving, a very public courting of Millwall’s top scorer Steve Morison underway, and captain Grant Holt guaranteed a starting position, the future doesn’t look so bright for Norwich’s close-season star Simeon Jackson.
Many expect keeper Fraser Forster to rejoin Norwich after a season's absence away at Celtic, this time on a permanent deal. Another realistic target is Joe Ledley, who could fill the gap left by Henri Lansbury returning to Arsenal after his loan finishes. Liverpool's Dani Pacheco, a January 2011 loan signing for Norwich, has openly said that if he is not given the chances at Liverpool this season, Norwich will be his preferred destination, whether it be through a temporary or permanent deal.
Norwich barely escaped going into administration a couple of years ago, and even with the increased wealth of the Premier League, money is tight, so you can expect them to raid the lower leagues’ better players, rather than the top leagues’ mediocre. More specifically, the fellow Championship clubs which fell short in the playoffs (Reading, Cardiff and Nottingham Forest), and the three clubs demoted from the Premier League (Birmingham, Blackpool and West Ham) are likely to be the main sources of players for Norwich. One name being touted more than most to join the Canaries is Cardiff’s midfielder Peter Whittingham.
Swansea – Swansea did things the hard way, having to go through the nailbiting play-offs to reach the Premier League. Things didn’t look good when they had a player sent off within 2 minutes of the opening match, but the 10 men played the next 88 with huge commitment to see a 0-0 draw and ultimately win in the second leg. In the play-off final, a Scott Sinclair hat-trick helped them to a 4-2 win, in a pulsating match in which they suffered numerous nervous moments considering they led 3-0 after 40 minutes.
This said, it’s a refreshing change to be able to say that for once, the best team in the play-offs won and reached the Premier League. Swansea become the first Welsh team to reach England’s top flight and now we have the fantastic prospect of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and more visiting Wales for Premier League matches for the first time.
Swansea gained a lot of fans from their attacking style of play. After going 3-0 up in the play-off final, most teams would sit back after half time and play out the win, but it was said numerous times by the commentators that Swansea simply don’t know how to do that, and in the end this turned out to be a problem for them as they conceded two quick goals and the game suddenly looked loseable. Like Blackpool, it was their exciting, attacking style of play which got them promoted, but equally, and again like Blackpool, it will probably be the same thing that sees them demoted too.
I know many Chelsea fans who were livid when Scott Sinclair was allowed to leave the club, and his 27 goals this season for Swansea could be good evidence that they were right to be angry. Darren Pratley and Stephen Dobbie hauled in another 22 between them, and it’s clear that there is no shortage of goals from this team. A big problem however, may come in the loss of Fabio Borini, a youngster on loan from Chelsea. He only joined the team in March, but was instrumental in their late surge of good form, which saw them leapfrog Cardiff, Reading and Nottingham Forest and end up 3rd in the Championship. Playing just 10 games but scoring 6 goals should give you an idea of how effective he has been for them, and after seeing how much of a better team they have been with him since March, a priority transfer has to be a Borini replacement.
Thankfully, manager Brendan Rogers used to be a coach at Chelsea, and so it is highly likely we will see a couple of other promising youngsters join the Swans for their Premier League adventure. Permanent transfer targets supposedly include Sebastian Bassong and Danny Collins.
Overall – Overall, I’ll go out on a limb and say that as teams st
and at the moment, both Swansea and Norwich would head straight back straight down after a brief holiday in the Premier League. The Championship has produced some outstanding football this year, but the entertainment has come in the competition, and the gulf in class between it and the top flight is still enormous. My prediction doesn’t have to be so, of course. If Paul Lambert’s six other transfers to Norwich prove as shrewd as his tactics, and if Brendan Rogers can hold on to players such as Scott Sinclair, they could both cause upsets and knock out a couple of the Premier League’s longer-staying competitors.
I have faith that QPR are probably big enough to survive the drop. I would say that they are certainly better than their two promotees, as well as Blackburn, Wolves and perhaps Wigan as well. Add in the extra occasional points from big matches and home performances, and I can see them happily surviving the next season.
As always, the summer transfers will be fixating. There were a number of players who were demoted from the Premier League who are simply too good for the Championship (Adam, Vaughan, Bowyer, Larsson, Noble, Parker) and among others, these would all be exceptional transfers for our newly promoted three. As it stands, however, all we can do is welcome QPR, Norwich and Swansea to the Premier League, congratulate them on reaching it and wish them good luck. Because boy, they’re going to need it.
By David Astley