What do I mean by 'rightful'? I guess I mean a blend of club stature, history and resources, while taking into account mistakes in its recent past that may have led to a downturn in fortunes. For instance, most people would argue that Leeds United are a Premier League team in terms of stature, but few would say they are currently playing in the wrong division thanks to the mismanagement of the club in the past decade or so. The Championship is almost certainly the 'right' division for them at the moment.
In seasons gone by you'd look down the table and think "Cripes! Sheffield Wednesday/Manchester City/Southampton - what are they doing in League One?" There'd perhaps be a few in every division that you'd think this about. Take the Premier League in 1999/00, for instance.
This season, which teams are not in their rightful division? Here's the meagre list I came up with, and their 'right' division in brackets:
- Reading (playing in Premier League, 'right' division would be Championship)
- Sheffield United (playing in League One, 'right' division would be Championship)
- Crawley Town (playing in League One, 'right' division would be League Two)
- Bradford City (playing in League Two, 'right' division would be League One)
- Dagenham (playing in League Two, 'right' division would be Conference)
- Accrington Stanley (playing in League Two, 'right' division would be Conference)
Of course, this is all incredibly subjective and there's no need to write to me in an indignant huff. I realise I've probably just offended about three-quarters of supporters reading this blog who think their team belong a division higher, and perhaps flattered the other quarter who can't believe their luck that they're even clinging on at their current level. This is just my opinion - I'm not stating it as fact. If you like, make your own list and see how many teams you think are in the 'wrong' division. I doubt it will be significantly longer than mine. The only one that narrowly missed my list were Rotherham who, with their new stadium, bigger crowds and resources are arguably a League One team in stature now.
So what's my point here? I guess I'm intrigued by this levelling out that we've seen in recent seasons. Perhaps it's to do with traditionally bigger clubs attracting investment in recent seasons, enabling them to realise their potential and haul themselves out of stagnation? Perhaps the increasing importance of fitness, diet and tactics in the game means that the teams that can afford the best training facilities, sports scientists, scouting networks, etc are increasingly showing up their more old-school, disorganised counterparts on the pitch?
But is this a good thing or a bad thing? At the start of the season I worried it would definitely be a bad thing. I even wrote a piece honing in on League One, stating that it looked to be the worst League One on paper in recent memory and that it would just be a bunch of ordinary teams scrapping it out for the right to be relegation certainties a level higher the following season.
But it's turned out to be the two divisions either side of League One that are astonishingly even across the board.
In the Championship, everybody from 24th to 8th (EIGHTH!) still needs to worry to differing degrees about relegation. Derby, Bolton and Middlesbrough are all on 54 points in 8th, 9th and 10th. They are seven points clear of relegation with all teams having between six and eight games left to play (so 18-24 points available for all). Obviously it's unlikely any of those three would go down, they just can't rule it out yet. Plenty to play for still.
While in League Two, even in seasons without a couple of administration-riddled basketcases adrift at the bottom, 50 points is usually ample for survival. Bottom club Aldershot are already on 44 points with another 15 to play for. And they're only four points off Dagenham in 17th. It's incredibly competitive at the bottom. Two from eight will go down and not one of those sides is completely rotten.
Has such a level playing field made for an exciting, nerve-jangling season for Football League supporters? Most would probably say it has. There's a cluster of around five teams safely ensconced in the middle of Leagues One and League Two with not much left to play for, but everyone else is still fighting for something. And everybody in the Championship still has plenty of reasons to see their next three points as potentially season-defining.
So while a small number of teams might put this season down as quite a boring one (Notts County, Oxford, Chesterfield) most will feel they've given fans plenty to be excited/petrified about. As a fan of two teams (Bournemouth and Wimbledon) I've had plenty to keep me on my toes at opposite ends of the divisions they play in. Come the end of the season I could yet be celebrating a promotion for one while still distraught at the relegation of the other. Or it could be another season of both in the same divisions next year. And I won't know either way for a while yet.
Next season could see a few more teams in the 'wrong' division. Sunderland perhaps? Yeovil? But it won't be many. And hopefully that continues to be as good/bad for excitement/utter terror as it has been this term. The football may not always be beautiful but the bigger picture is rarely dull.