Eight teams, and scarcely 10 points between them for months. While the Premiership title has long been an unchallenging two-horse race between Manchester United and Chelsea, the top of English league football’s second tier, the Championship, remains thrillingly, feverishly congested. The frantic, concertina’d eightsome are (alphabetically is safer, so regularly do the leaders change) Birmingham City, Derby County, Cardiff City, Preston North End, Southampton, Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. One or two others jostle close behind, eager to join a late convulsion for the line. Just three promotion places: automatic for the leading two; the next four play-off to be the one to join them.
Wolves at Sunderland on Saturday, for instance, play a match fraught with significance. The extended drama looks certain to run to the very last kick on 6 May when Preston play host to Birmingham on the same day the others ring down the curtain against supposedly lesser opposition. Derby, Albion and Southampton finish the season at home to relegation strugglers Leeds United, Barnsley and Southend United, while Wolves, Sunderland and Cardiff travel to Leicester, Luton and Ipswich.
There is a romantic olde-tyme resonance about these clubs ravenous to regain pre-eminence. Derby, Wolverhampton, West Brom and Preston are venerable, hallowed names, each founder members of the original Football League in 1888, with the latter not only inaugural champions but professional trailblazers of the 19th century. Victorian schoolboys readily tripped off the nicknames: the Rams, the Wolves, the Baggies, and, of course, double-barrelled ‘Proud Preston’. Sunderland joined them in 1890 when a Wearside shipyard owner signed up his notorious ‘Team of All Talents’ (mostly from Scotland). With Aston Villa the fabled second-city firsts, modest little Small Heath FC tremulously became, simply, Birmingham in 1905, only daring to add ‘City’ after the second world war in 1945. It was after the earlier world war, in 1920, that Cardiff and Southampton, comparative latecomers, were each elected to the by then well-populated League.
I’m going for the Rams, North End and the Bluebirds of Cardiff. I have always had a soft spot for Derby — ‘Stamps Has Scored! Stamps Has Scored!’ was Raymond Glendenning’s banshee shriek out of the wireless set in our faraway West Country kitchen, which announced County’s 1946 FA Cup final win, a siren which first alerted me, aged eight, to the possibilities of sporting drama; and, of course, 35 years ago I revelled in following dappy, bold young Brian Clough’s first grand Derby side: Durban, Hinton, O’Hare, McGovern, Mackay et al. It would be rather nice as well if Cardiff in May could be celebrating with something tangible, like promotion, the precise four-score anniversary of being the only ‘foreign’ team to take the FA Cup from Wembley and out of England in 1927. Talking of trouper Glendenning, that famed Cardiff victory over Arsenal 80 springtimes ago was the first ever Cup final to be described live by the BBC’s fledgling radio. Mind you, fair’s fair, and it would be good and just, too, if Preston went up this time: six times in the last seven years North End have finished above 12th, three times making the play-offs, only to fall at the last; and what a fitting birthday present for their irrepressible, imperishable eminence Sir Tom Finney, 85 this very Thursday.