The Football League: The REAL Showcase This Season
It seems the Olympics have many left many people disenchanted with football. The sight of so many unusual and different sports, often performed by supremely dedicated amateurs who have waited four years for their shot at glory, understandably has some punters feeling rather short changed by our overpaid, spoilt, primadonna Premier League footballers. Why put up with John Terry, Ashley Cole or Ashley Young when you could have Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy or Mo Farah?
But this is why lower league football can save the day. It’s time to fall in love again, although with the slightly less polished model compared to the Premier League. Although it regularly attracts more fans per annum than many of the major continental leagues, the Football League often gets overshadowed by its bigger brother. You only have to look at the so-called “richest game in the world”, the Championship play-off final, in order to see how important promotion to the Premier League is to most teams. Leagues One and Two are littered with clubs which did not make the transition back to lower league football so gracefully, as fans of Bradford, Swindon, Notts County, Sheffield United, and now Portsmouth can testify.
As a passionate fan and devotee of lower league football, I often can’t see why people would prefer to watch Premier League football instead. Sure the skill levels and the fitness are higher, but where is the passion on the pitch? No doubt the fans love their team, but the lack of home-grown players has long been a cause for concern for supporters and league organisers alike, with stringent new rules coming into place to ensure not every first team place is taken by an expensive (yet already fully developed) foreign talent. Although non-British players are in residence at every Football League club, their presence often simply gives the youngsters and old pros a great opportunity to learn and develop from a footballing education different to the one they encountered.
And there are doubtlessly some great players, teams, and coaches outside of the top tier. Even without the addition of former Premier League winners Blackburn, along with fellow relegationees Bolton and Wolves, the Championship still boasts teams such as Leeds, Birmingham City and Blackpool, as well as hungry young sides like Huddersfield and Charlton, desperate for their shot at the big time. Leagues One and Two are even harder to predict – who can pick a winner out of these two maelstroms of unpredictability? Granted, the Premier League has got more and more unreliable recently, but you could still confidently pick a winner for many games. Not so in the Football League, where the stories change week by week, and the gulf between teams shrinks dramatically, making for a much better spectacle.
This is often also down to the players. Successful teams are usually a mixture of hungry young talent and older, more experienced heads, with experience higher up the league ladder. Huddersfield, Charlton, Crawley and Shrewsbury all used this to great effect last season, including blooding several starlets from Premier League teams who otherwise would be left stagnating in youth or reserve team games.
And as breeding pools for the Premier League teams to dip into for a young talent, the leagues are also certainly not without their success stories. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin (Southampton), Joe Hart (Shrewsbury), Ashley Young (Watford) and Theo Walcott (Southampton again) show how lower-league talent can blossom. Even David Beckham learnt his trade on loan at Preston, gaining valuable match experience. And Manchester United did not spend so many hours and pounds on 18 year old Nick Powell from Crewe earlier this summer for frivolous reasons – Fergie obviously saw something very special in the latest graduate from Dario Gradi’s youth development hall of fame.
There is an ongoing campaign that encourages Premier League fans when their teams have a weekend off due to internationals to travel to their local Football League or non-league team in order to get a taste of the less glamorous life. Man Utd fans travel to Altrincham or Bury, Chelsea fans to Brentford, Aston Villa fans to Walsall. It is an experience we should all cherish, and I urge everyone out there to fully embrace the brilliance and wonders of the Football League this season. You will not be disappointed.