To those clubs whose natural environment is the lower half of England’s Premier League, the opening few weeks of this season must have come as an unwelcome surprise. The gulf between Premiership and Championship, it turns out, is not quite the yawning chasm most people thought it was, and there are signs that the present strain of predators will not be quite so easy to shake off as those that have gone before.
During the past decade, 14 of the 30 clubs promoted to the Premiership have survived just one season. Last year, all three promoted sides would have suffered an immediate return had it not been for Southampton’s collapse and West Bromwich Albion’s last-day heroics. Little wonder fans of clubs such as Portsmouth and Fulham spent the summer reciting the comforting mantra that “at least there are
three teams worse than us”. However, one of them, Wigan Athletic, briefly went second in the Premiership last week, while another, West Ham, are comfortably in the top half. Even Sunderland have been playing rather better than results have suggested, although that is as sure a sign of doom as there is.
West Brom would provide some kind of insurance, if only it were not for their potential to pluck out results such as last week’s victory over Arsenal. Impressions are skewed, naturally, by the failings of the top end (Chelsea excepted), and injuries and suspensions will, in time, take their toll, but it would seem that the bottom end is nowhere near as weak as it was assumed to be.
Wigan, in particular, have confounded expectations, and they approach this afternoon’s game with Aston Villa having taken more points from their last six games than anybody apart from Chelsea.
“We are riding the crest of a wave at the moment,” says the midfielder Graham Kavanagh, “but everybody’s waiting for the bubble to burst. The 40-point mark is still our aim. Somebody said that’s only eight wins away now. That doesn’t seem a lot, but it’s huge.”
Having waited nine years for another chance in the top flight after being sold by Middlesbrough, Kavanagh maintains that the difference between Championship and Premiership is as big as ever. “If you make any mistakes you are going to be punished,” he says. “Things are going our way because of the hard work we are putting in, but you notice at this level there’s much more composure on the ball and every team we play has a player who can pull a rabbit from a hat.”
Wigan suffered such a
rabbit-pulling in their first game, as Chelsea’s Hernan Crespo struck a remarkable injury-time winner from 30 yards, but the perceived need for such a conjurer is perhaps the biggest problem of a side looking to establish themselves. While the introduction of a gifted foreign star may add creativity, it can bring financial concerns. And if, as Niall Quinn said when Sunderland fell apart after two successful seasons in the Premiership, “they’re always rushing off to be with their yoga teachers”, it can also undermine morale.
That is a problem manager Paul Jewell appears determined should not undermine his Wigan side. “One of the papers said we haven’t got any names,” said Kavanagh, “and that’s one of the biggest compliments anybody can pay us because we’re a team, not individuals. That’s something the manager instils in us.”
Jewell, significantly, reprimanded the Senegalese forward Henri Camara for “a lack of respect” when he tried to return to the dressing room rather than sitting on the bench after being substituted in last week’s win over Newcastle.
It may be that team spirit, industry and organisation can carry a side only so far but, as Jewell has already proved with Bradford, that can be far enough to negotiate a gulf many dismiss as unbridgeable.