After several cup upsets and impressive performances, talents and managers on show across the three divisions, it’s clear to see why the EFL is attracting more attention and merit. In this week’s EFL column, Ross Bramble pens a love letter to England’s lower leagues and explains why their rise will continue.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I love the EFL. In fact, for many years, the Championship has been my favourite division in world football and, for competitiveness in particular, I don’t think there’s a major European league that can match it. Ever since Sky adopted the EFL after losing their Champions League and Europa League rights, a whole new audience has been exposed to England’s three lower leagues, and the reviews are positive.
It was reported earlier in January that the Championship was the third most-watched league in Europe, beaten only by the Bundesliga and the Premier League. An aggregate 11 million fans flocked to see their teams last season – nearly 500,000 more than La Liga. League One even made it into the top 10, with 700,000 more fans turning out to see League One football than the Portuguese Primeira Liga.
Evidently, the Championship and the EFL are growing in stature. Much was made when two previous Champions League winners in Rafa Benitez and Roberto Di Matteo decided to ply their trade in the second tier of English football at the start of the 2016/17 season. The current season saw the additions of John Terry to Aston Villa and Ruben Neves at Wolverhampton; the Wolves even managed to tempt Nuno Espirito Santo away from more established projects in Europe and over to Molineux.
2017/18 has been a season of shocks in the FA and Carabao cups, too. Wolves knocked out Southampton and held Manchester City to a 0-0 draw, Bristol City scalped Watford, Stoke, Crystal Palace and Manchester United on their way to an incredible display against Pep’s City in the semi-finals. Plus, both Norwich and Doncaster pushed Arsenal close, and this was all in the League Cup alone. In the FA Cup, Peterborough slew Aston Villa, Wigan took Bournemouth to a replay, as Shrewsbury did West Ham, Coventry ended Mark Hughes’ Stoke career, Newport stunned Leeds and Nottingham Forest blew Arsenal out the water. And that’s not even all the shocks we’ve seen so far; the first three proper rounds featured their fair share of lower league shocks, too, like Notts County’s victory over Championship Brentford.
The EFL has been making a great deal of noise this season. The Premier League sides which have come up against them have often found themselves up against it, and many of their fans come away wondering if their team were poor or if the League One side that took them to the limit were just that damn good. The dynamics have changed; no longer is the EFL just a dumping ground for those without the talent to make it in the Premier League. No longer is it a dark and unexplored depth that no Premier League fan dare descend to. The lower leagues have always been stereotyped as a land where the ball flies through the air more regularly than it skims across the turf, where tackles come flying from all angles and the football is more about preservation than expression. But all that has changed.
Managers of national teams are taking up jobs at the foot of the Championship table. Former Premier League coaches are now plotting Championship promotions. Young, up-and-comers – both on the field and in the dugout – are turning away from the instantaneous demands of the Premier League and investing more time in the lower leagues. Gary Rowett, Chris Wilder, Slavisa Jokanovic, Nuno Epsirito, Paul Hurst, Ryan Sessegnon, David Brooks, Ruben Neves, Joe Wildsmith, Jodi Jones, and we’re barely scratching the surface. The stars are shining in the EFL and finally fans of the higher leagues are starting to notice them.
It’s an exciting feeling to see so many fans of bigger divisions tuning into the Championship and the EFL and discovering the ridiculousness of it all. The stories, the excitement, the nonsense, the competitiveness; the EFL has it all. And in 2017/18, as the divisions begin to flex their muscles in the Carabao and FA Cups, their dwells a feeling that this is only the beginning.
Follow Ross on Twitter – @rossbramble
Read all of Ross’ articles on the EFL here