Is the Premier League becoming a closed shop once again?
The past few years have probably been the easiest for promoted clubs to get up and stay up, with the likes of Stoke City, Southampton, Swansea City, Sunderland, West Brom and now Norwich establishing themselves as Premier League clubs. They're already at the point where they'd look out of place in the Championship, where it would be counted as serious mismanagement were they to suffer a fall from grace, and oddly their positions look far more entrenched than clubs in the past to have done the same.
In that period, we've seen Newcastle United get relegated, Middlesbrough bite the dust and struggle to return, Leeds United fail to rise, and former top-flight regulars Coventry City disintegrate.
The new TV deal, and some of the buys it has financed, shows that the notion of La Liga, as a whole, being somehow superior is nonsense. Norwich City managed to sign Ricky van Wolfswinkel, while Swansea City got Wilfried Bony, strikers that had been linked to far bigger clubs in the past two years. Juventus' Emanuele Giaccherini signed for Sunderland without too much hesitation, and newly-promoted Cardiff City were able to snap up Sevilla's Gary Medel without a second thought.
The decision to introduce playoffs into the Championship, although obviously clearly unfair, has been well worth the obvious ulterior motives it has satisfied. The league has become far more exciting, and the quality has vastly improved. The days of the likes of Derby County's embarrassing points haul, and Sunderland embarking on two Premier League campaigns whose combined points totals wouldn't have kept them up appear to be over. But now, the gap between the two leagues may be emerging once again.
While the parachute payments paid out to relegated clubs are now enormous, the Premier League booty is richer still, and it's not hard to imagine a cartel emerging even between as many clubs as it would take to keep the top-flight more or less a closed shop. On lesser money, the statistical likelihood of a few clubs suffering from mismanagement and a poor season always ensured a healthy rotation of clubs, but the extent of the disaster required for the likes of an Aston Villa to suffer relegation is getting increasingly large.
Of the three clubs promoted this year, all are favourites to go straight back down, and while only Hull City are presently in the bottom three, the performances of all three have suggested that they might struggle. Cardiff City potentially have the clout (and, more importantly, the manager) to keep them up, but it's hard to see who else might do it. Only Queens Park Rangers really have the resources needed to take the gamble, and even that's questionable after what will presumably be some gargantuan losses after last year's fiasco.
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Since the departure of Giovanni Trapattoni provides the subject with yet more relevance, and in honour of finding out Ikechi Anya is a boyhood Rangers fan, we'll include The Republic of Ireland in the following question: Are Scotland currently the most competent of the British nations?
It's a sobering thought, Euro '92 and a brief period in 1995 being the only times that could perhaps have been said since the late 1970s. And, bizarrely, it's all owed to Gordon Strachan, restoring his reputation since spending heavily on Scottish players at Middlesbrough and failing to make anything of it.
There's an element of the fact that Strachan is merely competent and that alone is a vast improvement on the clueless Craig Levein era, but Scotland are somewhat like France, a country and in particular a national team that remains so divided that just getting them to play at their own level is a fairly impressive achievement itself. There may even be reason for optimism looking forward to the next qualifying campaign, with Anya a perfect addition to the squad and starters Leigh Griffiths and Grant Hanley still young, with Jordan Rhodes and James Forrest also having room to improve and a healthy crop of promising youngsters around the 20 and 17-year-old levels.
Putting faith in youth is of course something England have had to rely on, with another dismal performance in Ukraine dictated by Roy Hodgson, by far the most quiet of underachieving managers of the national side, resulting in mud-slinging between himself and Gary Lineker in the press. But it's almost impossible to expect anything from them - they've been remarkably reliable at beating terrible teams, drawing with good ones, and losing to very good ones. Expectations have not been lower for a very long time.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland permitted Luxembourg to win their first international qualifier for some four decades, and Wales are set to offer Chris Coleman a new contract despite a woeful qualification campaign. It should probably be savoured, and doubtless once Scotland start playing games that actually matter again they'll rediscover their old selves, but this is a very strange turn of events.
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