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All season, it seems, the top three in the Championship - Ipswich, Wigan and Sunderland - have been locked in a triangular equilibrium, unable to break free from each other and unable also to pull away from the rest of the division. On Saturday afternoon though, the fixture list, as though bored by such shilly-shallying, has provided a scenario where a definitive move is all but assured.

Should Ipswich win away at fourth-placed Reading, a Sunderland victory at home to Sheffield United in fifth would lift the top three seven points clear of the rest, while a defeat for Mick McCarthy's side - assuming Wigan do beat Watford - would leave a six-point gap between second and third. Whatever Sunderland's result, defeat for Reading would make it very difficult for anybody other than the present top three to earn automatic promotion.

And yet, commanding as their position is, there must be concerns about whether any of the top three are actually that good.

Sunderland did beat Premiership Crystal Palace in the FA Cup two week ago, but this present side is barely a shadow of the Sunderland team that romped the division in 1998-99. It is bewildering that even though they have lost eight games already this season, it would take a serious slump for them not to make at least the play-offs.

There was a palpable sense with that Sunderland side of five seasons ago, as they beat every other side in the league at least once and racked up 105 points, that they were, as their fans gleefully sang, "in the wrong division". So too were the Fulham of 2000-01 (101 points), the Manchester City of 2001-02 (99) and the Portsmouth of 2002-03 (98). If they carry on at their present rate, Ipswich will manage only 92.

The division is close, which makes it enthralling, but it is also mediocre, which makes it depressing. Ipswich concede too many goals, Wigan's squad is too small and Sunderland struggle for consistency. Whoever goes up, for them next season will be a grim scrap to survive in the Premiership.

Wigan's chairman David Whelan, with his wealth from the JJB Sports retail chain, has indicated that he would invest significantly were the Latics to ascend - although with crowds rarely breaking 12,000 the long-term prospects are not good, but both Ipswich and Sunderland are still paying for their efforts to stay up last time round.

When Darren Currie joined Ipswich from Brighton last month, he was their first cash signing for three years; Sunderland have shed 16 players earning £20,000 a week or more since relegation in 2003. It is safe to assume neither of them will be breaking the bank in a gamble to stay up. So ambiguous are the rewards of promotion that going up, taking the Premiership dollar, going down and then building again has come to be viewed almost as a logical policy.

Certainly it is inconceivable in the modern age that a side could do what Nottingham Forest did in 1978 and follow promotion by winning the title the following season. That perhaps is the inevitable price of the quest for success in Europe, that the top clubs can no longer be expected to subsidise those lower down the leagues, but it does imbue the Championship with a certain world-weary pointlessness.

Whoever makes the break on Saturday afternoon, the real battle begins next season.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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