Commentary

'The Hard Yards' delivers compelling stories from 'the toughest league' -- a more intriguing playground than the EPL

The Hard Yards: A Season in The Championship, Football's Toughest League by Nige Tassell  (Simon & Schuster)

When you emigrate and fall into soccer small talk with people you've just met, then it's only natural they'll want to know which team you support. My answer to that is always the same: Lincoln City. This inevitably leads to follow-up questions. Who? Where? What? Why? Once that's cleared up, then the next question will always be: "Yeah, but who's your team in the Premier League?"

The answer to that is: it will be Lincoln City, should they ever make it to the Premier League. That's not something likely to happen soon, but last season they were one playoff game away from England's second tier, The Championship. Veteran soccer writer Nige Tassell is not wrong to label it soccer's "toughest league" in the sub-title to his latest book, a month-by-month analysis of the 2020-21 season that took place mainly behind closed doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Where the Premier League is a morally dubious, cash-centric jamboree focussed on the same group of fast-spending fat cat clubs scrambling for the four lucrative Champions League spots, the Championship is a more intriguing playground that has one eye on the EPL's vast but filthy lucre, and another on the lower exit to League One -- the third tier of English soccer featuring teams like Shrewsbury Town, Burton Albion and Accrington Stanley, but also crawling with fallen former EPL teams like Portsmouth, Sunderland and Ipswich Town.

A less predictable league does not necessarily mean a level playing field, though. Queens Park Rangers coach Mark Warburton points out that sides coming down from the Premier League "have parachute payments that are multiples of our own squad budget. That's a fact. Is it a level playing field? No, it's not. But life's not a level playing field. You have to deal with it."

It might be worth offering a less stoical and more cogent criticism too. Teams still comfortable on EPL money often go straight back up at the first time of asking -- this was true last season, with Norwich being promoted as champions and Watford going up in second place. Only third-placed Brentford bucked the trend by returning to the top flight for the first time since 1947 (via the playoffs). On the downside, Sunderland's ongoing struggle to exit League One (ended in the playoffs last season by ... Lincoln City) is an example of how quickly catastrophic, headless financial planning can see you plummet from the top flight to relative obscurity.

If you can't call on parachute payments, what is the best financial strategy to succeed? That depends on if you're dead set on reaching the promised land of losing every week to Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, or if you just want your club to be an important part of the community. Luton Town's chief executive Gary Sweet says his club believes in a model "where you shouldn't have to rely on the generosity or the egotistical nature of an owner to constantly plough money into the business. We operate on something called an optimum loss model. You spend as little money as possible on players to achieve your ambitions, because the more money you spend on players, the more you ultimately have to charge your supporters. We don't want to rip them off. The opposite in fact. We want to give them value. But that gives us an absolute finite limit on what we spend on our players. It's a really simple model."

Sweet points out that besides the soccer club, "there's nothing else in Luton that connects that broad church of people, of characters, of backgrounds, of religions, of race. We are the glue of all that." The club's new stadium is being built even closer to the center of town than the current Kenilworth Road, because "you glue the hub, not the edge of the spindles." Contrast that with nearby Reading FC, who announced operating losses of of £43.5 million in the 12 months to June 2020, giving them an overall deficit of £138 million. "The problem is wages," soccer finance expert Kieran Maguire tells Tassell. "The average wages Reading are paying is about eighteen grand a week. If you spread that across the squad, immediately we find that the club is paying more than twice the amount in wages that it is generating in income."

For all that spending, Reading finished seventh -- seven points shy of a playoff position, and just five places and eight points above the more frugal Luton. This is not, however, a book about soccer finance, even though economics are crucial to the league's outcome. Tassell travels up and down the country in the depressing time of lockdown, watching games in empty stadiums and talking to players, coaches, locked-out fans, administrators and to backroom staff in, say, the laundry room at Birmingham. Or to Dan Sparks, the groundsman at Ashton Gate, the home of Bristol City, who describes how tough it is watching games and seeing your carefully cultivated playing surface take the strain, "sighing at the continuing vogue for knee-sliding celebrations that gouge scars into the turf." When a player scuffs up the penalty spot after a spot-kick has been given and the ref isn't looking, Sparks laments how "he really did a job on it. We knew it wouldn't recover in a week or two. We'd have to put grass seed down and it would be a full four weeks before it was fully grassed again. We were pulling our hair out sat in the stand."

Tassell has a real knack for prompting his subjects to say something interesting about the game. Watford and former Manchester United goalkeeper Ben Foster talks about how, after the game's over, soccer "is the last thing I think about, ever. The moment I leave the football arena, whether that's training or a match, not one thought about football passes through my brain for the rest of the day. Whether we win, lose or draw, as soon as I'm on that coach [bus] -- maybe even as soon as I'm in the shower -- I know that game's done. There's no point in wasting any emotional energy on worrying about this or that."

Foster worries about young players who, "the second they get off the pitch and are back in the dressing room, they check their Twitter and Instagram feeds to see what people are saying about them. They'll never meet these people in their lives, but the words they say permeate these players." Millwall's forward Jed Wallace, meanwhile, is honest in describing how the season in mostly empty arenas "felt a little bit boring. As a footballer, you thrive off the atmosphere of the crowd, so even winning goals late in the game haven't felt the same this season." Wallace also notes that the quality of play was worse because of the packed, Covid-dictated schedule: "This season, everyone's got a long throw. Because everyone's so tired, teams have been concentrating on set plays. There isn't the energy required to open teams up."

Voices like that make this book a really engaging read from September through to May, and which should prompt the reader to take a closer and much more regular look further down the English league pyramid. Just below the over-hyped, self-styled "greatest league in the world" is one of the hardest, but also most variable and intriguing flight of 24 soccer teams -- hovering between the extremes of six-time European champions Liverpool FC, and what in English soccer are commonly referred to as 'the likes of Lincoln City.'

1 comment about "'The Hard Yards' delivers compelling stories from 'the toughest league' -- a more intriguing playground than the EPL".
  1. R2 Dad, November 3, 2021 at 1:58 a.m.

    Sounds like a great read, thx for the review. I don't usually have an interest in those lower leagues but I must admit I've been checking the National League table since Deadpool+friends bought Wrexham. The're mid table, but there's an excitable teen on YouTube who tracks weekly progress and Wrexham is exactly one of those underdog teams we like to root for. Would love to visit Wales to watch them (and/or Swansea/Cardiff).

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