There’s life In England’s lower leagues
This weekend Sheffield United and Huddersfield Town face off at Wembley Stadium for the right to grab the third promotion spot into England’s Championship, or second tier league.
Both Yorkshire teams are are former giants and – long, long ago – League champions, looking to recapture the glory of pre World War II days.
Having attended some League 1 matches earlier in the year, I was amazed at the lack of quality of the football on show. But recent indications are that the standard of the lower leagues is evening out.
Encouragingly for teams outside the top tier, for the first time in many years, all three of the sides promoted to the Premier League last season survived to fight another year at least. Swansea City and Norwich City did it comfortably, Queens Park Rangers somewhat more dramatically.
Southampton will be playing Premier League football next season after being in the same league as Huddersfield and Sheffield United just two seasons ago. Norwich achieved back-to-back promotions from League 1 to Premier League last year. Maybe, just maybe, the gap is closing a little.
Both Charlton Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday, who gained automatic promotion to the Championship as the top two, are already talking up their chances in next season’s Championship.
Both clubs were Premier League mainstays in the 1990s. Wednesday have won as many top tier titles as Chelsea but their last success was back before northern and southern Sydney were linked by a harbour bridge.
Until last week Huddersfield Town had won more titles than Manchester City, yet comparisons of playing standard between the two are nowadays unthinkable. However, we may only be one game and one season from seeing the two compete in the same league, and given recent history, who’s to say it can’t occur?
Any club from the lower leagues who dream of one day competing in the Premier League would be best served studying the history of three famous promotion runs. Watford, Swansea City and Wimbledon could be coined the kings of the “rapid rise”. All three also experienced the pain of a sharp decline after the initial glory but that’s another story.
In 1977, Watford were bottom of the English fourth Division, or what we now know as League 2. In 1983, they were top of the first Division, and ended the season as runners-up to the then-mighty Liverpool. It was a stunning rise, initiated by new chairman and lifelong fan Elton John and guided by future England manager Graham Taylor.
The following season they made the FA Cup Final, only to be beaten by Everton. Elton was not living his life like a candle in the wind in the 1980s. He even found time to come and get married in Sydney.
While Watford and their famous chairman were grabbing headlines, Swansea City were embarking on an even more audacious rise. While Watford took seven seasons to go from bottom to top, Swansea, managed by former Liverpool great John Toshack, did it in just four.
In 1978, they were promoted from the fourth Division and their meteoric rise was only stalled in 1980 when they stayed an extra season in the second Division. Three promotions in four seasons and they were in the top league, and as fate would have it their first ever game in Division One was against Leeds United, a mighty club about to experience a decline.
That first game was memorable for Swansea, as they thrashed Leeds 5-1 in front of the Match Of The Day cameras, with new signing Bob Latchford scoring a hat trick. Swansea beat Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham that season and ended up finishing in the top five
Their decline was like a stock market crash, the seeds of which were germinating just as another team began an amazing rise. Wimbledon, better known for tennis and Wombles, were promoted to the third Division in 1983.
They had only been a Football League club since 1978, yet by 1986, they were in the first Division, matching Swansea’s feat of three promotions in four seasons. They were bankrolled by the eccentric Sam Hammam, with first Dave Bassett and then Bobby Gould in charge of the team known as the “Crazy Gang.”
Wimbledon won the FA Cup in 1988, beating Liverpool 1-0 at Wembley, highlighted by captain Dave Beasant saving a penalty from John Aldridge. Beasant was a Wimbledon hero, who played right through the club’s rise from the fourth tier to a Wembley cup final.
For Sheffield United and Huddersfield, Saturday might just be a one-off game. But for either of them, for Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday, or any team with dreams and ambition, history points to the attainment of more lofty heights.
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