Scratching Around in Division Two

by Dave Hearn

It feels like ages ago really, already. The day when people were standing around in car-parks and outside training complexes, when the bloke off Sky Sports News was pretending to be on the phone to the Wigan chairman whilst live on air. It’s only when the dust settles and they start prattling on about something else that you remember just how daft it all is. But sometimes you get sucked in. You get sucked in by the prospect of an announcement concerning the Tunisian international centre-half who pitched up at your local airport prior to undergoing a hastily-arranged medical.

Anyway, for those of us whose clubs reside outside the top-flight and ply their trade in the second-tier there wasn’t, QPR aside, much to concern us at all. The odd deal or five went through but seeing as our season had started almost a full four weeks before the transfer window ‘slammed shut’, as the bloke off Sky Sports News who pretends to be on the phone to the Wigan chairman whilst live on air likes to say, most of the business concerning our clubs had been done a long time previous.
Looking around the list of completed transfers shows you just how messy a division the second-tier is, with the majority of clubs shuffling a load of free transfers and long-term loan-deals around between themselves. There is the odd ‘stand out’ deal, such as the enigmatic Royston Drenthe joining Reading from Anzi Makhachkala or Matt Phillips joining a club in the same division, swapping Blackpool for QPR, instead of stepping up to the Premier League. Then there are the deals that Watford struck courtesy of the Pozzo family; it’ll be interesting to see how many of the players they’ve signed on free transfers from Italian side Udinese head back to the Italian outfit on a similar arrangement should The Hornets fail to win promotion this season. And Wigan Athletic signing Grant Holt for £2m is proof, if proof were needed, that Owen Coyle plans to stay loyal to style of football as played under former manager Roberto Martinez.

There are one or two other deals that look interesting; Jacob Butterfield is looking to get his career back on track by swapping Norwich City for Middlesbrough, for example, whilst the much-trumpeted Nick Powell joined Wigan on loan from Manchester United for a season. But the bulk of the deals completed by second-tier clubs are, generally speaking, much of a muchness, serving only to highlight how desperately competitive a league it is, how hard it is to find any kind of continuity or consistency. Teams know they can perform poorly for long-spells of the season and fly into the play-off places, or climb out of the bottom-three positions, by way of winning five or six games or shuffling a couple of loan-signings around at the fag-end of February.

From the outside looking in, it appears to be an exciting league where anything can happen, where any number of teams could rally to win promotion or collapse and slip into the third-tier almost unnoticed. When you’ve been in this league for a while, though, as Middlesbrough have, it becomes a relatively frustrating place, full of collective and individual inconsistencies on and off the pitch with most games being generally tight affairs decided by a ricochet here and a big lump getting his bonce on the end of something there. It’s basically the Premier League in slow motion, or at least that’s how it feels most of the time, and the sooner you’re out of it the better. For the majority of clubs, though, well they’ll all be there next summer, swapping similar players on similar deals, again, probably with a new manager in place, whilst the teams just down from the top-flight gamble the TV money in an effort to escape the madness that is the modern-day Division Two.