Gareth Walker chooses his key hopes for the Championship in 2014…
It is that time when thoughts turn to fresh starts and wishes for the New Year.
It’s also a crucial period for the entire professional game in this country – and not least in the Championship, which faces the prospect of being split almost in two by the proposed new restructuring.
Below that, nobody seems to know where Championship One is heading after 2014. And what of the Northern Rail Cup?
Here are my own personal hopes for the forthcoming year.
1. That the new promotion and relegation system offers ambitious Championship clubs a realistic route to the top.
It has been confirmed that promotion and relegation will definitely return, but how it will operate is yet to be decided.
The two leagues of 12 into three of eight has attracted plenty of criticism, and it will continue to do so unless those outside the top tier are properly funded.
That is absolutely crucial to the success of any promotion and relegation system.
Few would argue that P&R could work under the current distribution of central funding. If those outside the elite are to have any chance of stepping up to the top flight then they must have a more equal share of the cake.
Similarly, more central funding in the second tier would help get away from the widely held view that relegation is always a total disaster for the clubs involved.
2. That the game’s new structure includes a suitable television deal for those outside the top flight.
One potential complication of the RFL’s proposal is how a television deal will work.
Will a company other than Sky get some slice of the pie as Premier Sports does now?
Will it be before or after the mid-season split?
What about Championship One clubs?
However it works out, it’s important that clubs outside the top-flight can get some form of regular television exposure.
3. That Super League clubs stop using the Championship for fitness tests.
Dual-registration and the partnership scheme will again be present in 2015, despite criticism from some quarters.
Dual-registration can work if used correctly in aiding the development of talented young players.
But it was never intended to provide one-off matches for Super League players returning from injury, as was the case with the likes of Lee Briers and Adrian Morley at Swinton this year.
The fact that Briers, Morley and others did not have anywhere else to test their fitness is undoubtedly an issue.
But it’s an issue for Super League clubs, who themselves voted to scrap their reserve teams.
They should not assume that Championship clubs can just be used as and when they choose. That practice should not be damaging the integrity of the competition at this level, especially with so much at stake in 2014.
4. That there is a clear vision for clubs currently in Championship One.
This crucial element of the sport’s restructuring appears to have been almost completely overlooked so far.
The fact that people are still talking only in terms of “two leagues of 12 into three of eight” ignores the fact that there are currently 37 professional clubs.
Those outside that top 24 will need a clear plan provided by strong leadership.
There was initially talk of regional leagues, but few clubs appear to support that.
One national league with a clear route to progress up the ladder appears the most sensible option.
5. That a new plan for a Championship Cup, formerly known as the Northern Rail Cup, is formulated as quickly as possible for 2015 onwards.
I’m still to speak to anyone outside the RFL who is happy with the loss of the Northern Rail Cup in 2014.
A shortfall in funding was a key factor, but it remains a great shame that one of only two knockout competitions run by the sport in this country is so precariously placed.
The RFL has thankfully confirmed that it will definitely return in 2015, and that Northern Rail could even sponsor it again as they are keen to remain in the sport.
The sooner its format is confirmed the better, because the competition means much to players and supporters alike.