Stability in the Championship – is it really the key?

The word stability in football is a deeply ambiguous term. It can be used to describe any number of teams (apart from Blackpool) in myriad different ways. Stability is a term barked by chairmen, managers and players alike, sometimes as a plea for time, and sometimes as a positive, for instance when a bad run of results has been ended and ‘stability’ is said to be restored. The line between amelioration and peroration is wafer thin when it comes to stability in football. No more so is this cry for stability felt than in the Championship.

For years it has been an unwritten rule of Championship football that stability is the key, that it holds some metaphysical power that is used as the catalyst to ignite the search for Premier League football. This, in recent years however, might have diluted in truth. Is the search for stability all its cracked up to be? Perhaps, somewhat paradoxically, the Championship has morphed into a league where stability itself is a poisoned chalice, where stability is just a short step away from stagnation. Some clubs seems to be stuck in a cycle of perpetual ‘transitional seasons’, a realm of purgatory truncated by the odd possible playoff battle, where fans firmly believe that next season, next season surely, will be the push for promotion that all this build up has been leading up to. Recently, there has been a rise in teams taking risks, and being rewarded for it, whilst those who strive for stability are looking increasing stuck in a mire of mediocrity.

In terms of teams who took a tactical tweak in order to try and strive for success, Derby are the most pertinent example. Last season’s sacking of Nigel Clough was greeted with general disbelief by the footballing world, as it was widely believed he was doing the best he could with a squad of young, but talented players. It was largely reminiscent of when Nicola Cortese relieved Nigel Adkins of his job at Southampton, in that the original furore surrounding the dismissal of the incumbent manager was largely forgotten when the new manager started to produce some outstanding results. Steve McLaren turned Derby from a mid table team to genuine promotion contenders in less than a season. His much heralded man management ability got the best out of his players, Chris Martin suddenly became a 20 goal a season striker, Craig Bryson excelled in central midfield and Richard Keogh became a colossal figure at the back. There’s even unconfirmed rumours that Conor Sammon scored at some point. His signings inspired as well, bringing Patrick Bamford in on loan gave them an extra dimension up front, and Geroge Thorne, despite his recent injury, is just one good season away from having a statue erected of him in Derby city centre. This gamble taken from Derby meant they were one Bobby Zamora mis-cued clearance away from the Premier League, and there’s no reason they can’t reproduce the form of last season on August the 9th. They are the epitome of a team who took a risk to break free of the shackles of supposed stability.   

Other examples of this include Watford and Middlesbrough. The Watford experiment is well heralded in the Football League, but the Pozzo’s takeover has certainly injected a previously lacking sense of optimism into Vicarage Road. Whilst the disappointment over last season’s slightly abject mid-table finish is still palpable, optimism remains over the new owners. Hoards of loan signings are no longer being brought in for the sake of it, but to really improve the team in key areas, and the partnership of Deeney and the returning Vydra should produce impressive results. Giuseppe Sannino will have to find a way to incorporate them both into the team, and with the return of the highly rated Almen Abdi, it is believed the 5-3-2 formation will be sacrificed for classic wingers. This new regime has already offered fans reasons to be optimistic, and by breaking from the conventional mould they have transformed themselves into real contenders. Middlesborough also have taken a calculated risk, with the relatively unknown Karanka taking over from the hands of Tony Mowbray, who’s long spell in charge stagnated more with every season. The new managers calculated passing style may take a while to implement with great success, but his relationship with Mourinho is certainly a positive, as it gives promising youngsters such as Omeruo the chance to join on loan from Chelsea. Middlesborough’s first non-British manager could well prove a break from stability that pays off.

This is in stark contrast with certain teams in the division, who’s goal of stability is, if anything, holding them back. No more so is this evident than with Birmingham City. Last season they were seconds away from League One, before Paul Caddis saved them at the Reebok. In Lee Clark, they have a manager who increasing numbers of fans believe is out of his depth. He has recently stated that ‘lessons have been learnt’, and that the new season will bring ‘continuity’. Is continuity really what Birmingham need though? Continuity of what? Fighting relegation with an underachieving team? This doesn’t seem like the sort of goal fans will be thrilled about. They have managed to release the main culprits on the pitch, with Zigic and Ambrose perfectly fitting the mould of ‘under performing and overpaid’. Their replacements in the close season have largely been brought in from the lower leagues as Clark searches for his much desired ‘continuity’. This overhaul of the team is at least a start, but after the turmoil of the Carson Yeung era, perhaps it might have been better for them to have a season in League One. There are examples of teams going down, and after a year rebuilding and restructuring, returning stronger. Norwich, Southampton and Leicester all took the plunge in recent years, and managed to regroup to a point where they ended up in the Premier League. Wolves last season regrouped, and now have returned a much stronger unit. This is not to say relegation is the solution, but it is the sort of break from the constant search for stability that some teams need, shock treatment to bring about some actual, positive change. Other clubs in the league are beginning to take on this stagnant feel, due partly to the constant strive for stability, such as Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday, when in reality it feels like promotion is still only a speak on the horizon for these sleeping giants each season.

The Championship is, of course, polarised in terms of finances and resources, but that is another issue. Teams are increasingly having to take financial and structural risks like never before in order to reach the Premier League. It will be interesting this season to how the teams who are claiming to have seemingly reached some sort of stability do push on, such as Nottingham Forest and Blackburn. Both these clubs have had their fair share of issues in the last few seasons, and now both are at a settled starting point for the new season. But will it be enough? Only time will tell. In Pearce, Forest fans finally have a manager who they can put their full faith in, due to him being a club legend, but his record in management is patchy at best. Perhaps he can do what Mark Hughes has done at Stoke, and prove his doubters wrongs. It is a bold and risky appointment, but it shows that Forest are trying to take risks in order to gain momentum. Blackburn seemingly have the squad to compete, and Gary Bowyer has bought the stability they so craved after relegation. But is he the man to get them out of the division? The battle to get out of the Championship is becoming tougher than ever, and increasingly those whose goal is simply stability find mid-table mediocrity awaiting in May. This risk can come in many different ways, a change in manager, a change in playing style, an injection of money for transfers, an overhaul of the team etc, but for some teams this is necessary. For some, this may be good enough, for others, the need to push on is palpable. The never ending ‘transitional seasons’ are becoming a rite of passage for some teams, and perhaps, it is time to take a risk, as it could produce results.

By Andrew Devereux – Ipswich Town fan – @Devereuxxx

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