Stewart Downing last week shocked the Premier League and Sunderland when he decided to return to his hometown club Middlesbrough in the Championship, rather than remain in among Europe’s elite.
Boro’s signing was no doubt sensational but it was driven by sentiment; highlighted by the fact that the midfielder took a significant pay cut to play back at The Riverside. However, the effects of the transfer both positive and negative will be far-reaching and could signal big changes on the English football landscape.
Purely financially, five-and-a-half million pounds is not a cheap bit of business for a club in the second tier, let alone one that has been out of the top flight for six years – one that is currently battling against the new Financial Fair Play rulings and one without the safety cushion of the Premier League’s hefty parachute payments.
However, Middlesbrough have come off the back of a successful season that saw them reach the Play-Off final – they took the entire gate receipts from their Wembley trip – and also secure glamour ties against Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal in the cup competitions; though, that still probably wouldn’t cover the transfer fee.
So if this is the kind of financial clout a long relegated club holds, what does this mean for the rest of the teams in the league?
Sheffield Wednesday have recently undergone a takeover and look ready to sanction some serious spending in the transfer window; while recently relegated Burnley, Hull and QPR carry the financial backing of rich owners and recent Premier League campaigns.
Plus, let’s not forget Fulham and Nottingham Forest who have both spent big in recent years. This means there are at least seven teams that can afford to spend big and offer huge wage packets to top players; a worrying sign for the other Championship clubs.
The second tier had long been far removed from the Premier League and the financial gulf between the two leagues was one often debated; it was also part of the reason the Financial Fair Play rules came into effect.
Now, we’re seeing a mirroring of the top division in the Championship with seven or eight teams having the ability to battle it out for the top six places and the big prizes on offer.
Transfers such as Downing’s, while it is refreshing to see an international footballer take the step down to help his beloved team, only serve to emphasise the fact that the gulf in class is stretching to the Championship.
How can teams like Rotherham compete with the big boys? They can only take the bargain bin cast-offs from the clubs above them and hope that they unearth a gem, unlocking an ability never tapped into by the player’s previous clubs and managers. It’s a worrying sign. When will the next club go bust trying to compete? When will we see another Portsmouth?
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The influx of big European talents – Middlesbrough have also signed Uruguay international, Christian Stuani from Racing Club De Espanyol – also helps to cause a top down trickling of genuine talent throughout the Championship and down into League One and League Two.
Flamboyant Boro midfielder Emmanuel Ledesma, his hand forced by the arrival of Downing and Stuani partnered with Lee Tomlin’s form last season, has moved to Rotherham in order to get regular football. He is an immense talent in this league, a real game changer.
So, it is very possible for a manager like Steve Evans to gain a gem, let them flourish and see his own team go from strength to strength. It’s just not going to happen all of the time.
Having players like Stewart Downing and Derby’s Tom Ince in the Championship can only be a positive for the actual strength of the competition, too. The league was often seen as being overly physical and too dissimilar to the style of play on show in Europe’s top divisions.
Now, however, it is closing that gap with players of real international quality.
Not only that, these players bring with them a wealth of experience that can only benefit the young players at both their own clubs and opposition clubs.
Jonathan Woodgate has also just signed a new deal at Boro and has been instrumental in bringing through youngsters like defender Ben Gibson; only just linked with a big money move to Everton.
Overall, deals such as Stewart Downing’s will benefit the quality of the player in the Championship in the long run. It gives the youngsters much more to aspire to and a lot more to learn from as they look to emulate the stars of the division.
Financially, only time will whether it’s financially positive or if it will spell the end of Financial Fair Play before it’s ever really begun.