Richard Keys may tell you it's the Premier League, and those darned hipsters will say the Bundesliga, but Richard Edwards has a string of good reasons the Football League is king. FourFourTwo's 2014 list of the Top 50 Players in the Championship, League One and League Two is out now - more details here...
1) Nothing average about these attendances
Go to watch a match in the French or Spanish second tier and it’s possible you’ll be joining one man and his chien (or perro) on the terraces. Head to most grounds across the Championship, League One and League Two and there’ll barely be room to swing a cat. Astonishingly, six clubs in the second tier of English football boast average crowds of over 20,000. Brighton top that list, ahead of Leeds United, Derby County, Leicester City and Nottingham Forest. The stands are slightly less chocka in League One, but five clubs still average crowds of over 10,000. In League Two, meanwhile, Pompey’s average is 15,215, while fellow seaside dwellers Plymouth average well over 7,000. The stands are less well populated at far-flung Accrington and Morecambe but Football League fans take a bow – your bums are still filling a ridiculous number of seats.
2) Young, gifted and English
As a young and English footballer, breaking into the Premier League has never been so tough. In the Football League, though, fresh domestic talent is flourishing. Derby County’s precocious Will Hughes, Danny Ings of Burnley, Leicester’s Liam Moore and Nottingham Forest’s Jamaal Lascelles are just four players shining in the Championship promotion race. Further down the league, Brentford’s Everton loanee Adam Forshaw has been a smash hit at Griffin Park this season, while League Two hitmen Scott Hogan of Rochdale and Sam Winnall of Scunthorpe are two of the hottest young properties in the English game.
3) Tomorrow’s stars - today!
There are no shortage of loan rangers across the Championship, League One and League Two, so if you want to watch the stars of tomorrow today, then you’re in luck. Chelsea striker Patrick Bamford has been banging them in for fun at Derby this season after a similarly prolific spell at MK Dons. He'll return to Chelsea this summer with his reputation firmly enhanced. The same can be said of Tottenham’s Tom Carroll, who has spent the season on loan at promotion-chasing QPR, and Manchester United pair Michael Keane (currently at Blackburn) and Nick Powell (at Wigan).
4) Local clubs for local people
It’s a common whine that the cossetted stars of the Premier League have little or no affiliation with the club that pays their eye-watering wages. It’s hard to level the same accusation at the Football League, with clubs like Coventry doing a passable impression of Celtic’s famous Lisbon Lions and recruiting heavily from the local area. Colchester chairman Robbie Cowling, meanwhile, told a recent fans forum of his ambition to have “a world-class academy and the whole of the squad to be homegrown by 2025”. Crewe are also maintaining a reputation that's almost second to none when it comes to producing talent capable of challenging for a first-team place at Gresty Road.
5) David vs Goliath (pssst…David still wins)
The chances of any team winning the Premier League without an über-rich foreign owner are as remote as Mario Balotelli landing on the moon (although wouldn't that be good?). In the Football League, though, dreams can still come true. Burnley were 16/1 to gain promotion from the Championship at the start of the season (and 50/1 to win the title) but now find themselves a gnat’s breath away from the Promised Land. Leyton Orient were also long shots (10/1) to get promoted to the Championship for the first time since the sepia-tinted days of 1969, but could still re-write history after a memorable campaign under the estimable Russell Slade. Loaded they’re not, but both are busy proving that money is no barrier for dreaming big. And there’s not a minted Russian in sight.
6) Swings and roundabouts
Fair enough, Manchester United and Liverpool enjoyed something of a role reversal in the Premier League this season, but that’s pretty out of character for a league that has become little more than a rather large pot split between three teams since 2004. The Football League, though, is a very different beast – and it has bared its teeth once again this season. Take Northampton as an example. Last season the Cobblers were 90 minutes from promotion to League One via the play-offs; now with six matches remaining, they’re in danger of dropping out of the league altogether. The same could be said of Derby, who until this season had regressed to little more than a middling Championship side. Then they controversially sack Nigel Clough, brought in the previously lampooned Steve McClaren and bosh…the rest is history. Talking of Clough, he has worked wonders at Sheffield United, transforming them from relegation candidates to FA Cup semi-finalists. Okay, Leicester and Wolves have waltzed towards promotion from the Championship and League One but they’re the exceptions rather than the rule – even then it's taken the Foxes 10 seasons to return to the top flight, while Wolves dropped two divisions in as many seasons. Predictability isn’t a watchword in the Football League.
7) Football fairy tales
Last summer James Beattie found himself in the unaccustomed position of cleaning the toilets at Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground. Just weeks before he'd dipped into his own pockets to pay the club’s tax bill. After the club failed to win any of their first 12 matches, he could have been forgiven for picking up the phone and asking HMRC for a refund. To add insult to injury, Stanley were fined £20k in January for Beattie not having the requisite qualifications as manager. Hardly a dream start to your managerial career then, but with Beattie’s men now almost certainly safe from relegation, the former Southampton, Everton and England striker has emerged as one of the brightest young managers in the Football League. His toilet-cleaning days might soon be over.
8) The land of the second coming
If you want a new lease of life as a manager then the Football League is the place for you. McClaren’s Derby have been a revelation this season, while Phil Brown is gradually rebuilding his reputation at promotion-chasing Southend. Even more unlikely is the return of the motor-mouth John Gregory at Crawley Town. Before losing their last four matches, Gregory’s boys were an outside bet for a late play-off run. After over six years out of the English game, he, like Brown and McClaren, is relishing the chance to remind people that he still has something to offer.
9) You don’t have to be crazy to work here...
But it certainly helps. Leeds United are the prime example of the craziness that exists below the well-oiled Premier League machine. The former champions and European Cup finalists’ year has gone from the ridiculous to the downright potty as their season’s merciful conclusion approaches. “Both on and off the pitch, it’s just a joke when I think about it,” said boss Brian McDermott, who has suffered more than his fair share of indignities in recent months. Sacked once, then reinstated, McDermott is understandably and admirably refusing to walk away from a truly ungodly mess. The unpaid players, meanwhile, no longer have to wonder if the takeover by Massimo Cellino will ever happen. Whatever transpires is unlikely to be dull.
10) Taking a stand...well, kind of...
Championship clubs voluntarily signed up to UEFA’s financial fair play regulations in April 2012 – a move which drew widespread praise two years ago. It has now induced widespread panic as a growing number of clubs realise they’ve got no chance of adhering to the requirements. It has, though, had an impact, with spending down hugely this season and last. Whether reported challenges are successful remains to be seen but, hey, fair play to those who are sticking to the rules.
The Top 50 Players in the Football League - as voted by the fans - features in the May 2014 issue of FourFourTwo.