***In this series of blogs, the OptaJoke team will be taking a look at the teams in contention for promotion throughout the Football League. With the final quarter of the season still to play, the top teams in all three divisions are separated by very few points and it will make for an interesting end to the campaign for Championship, League One and League Two sides. Today, Steven Toplis examines the race for promotion from the Championship to the Premier League.***
With the international break over, focus turns back to domestic competition. In the Championship the big prize up for grabs is promotion to the Premier League and the estimated £90 million pounds in riches that comes with it. There’s just eight games left for those teams chasing a place in the top flight – eight cup finals if you’ll forgive the cliché.
The Championship is notorious for being a fiercely contested, tight league. A good run of form can see you go from near relegation-fodder to contenders for the top six while a cluster of poor results means you can sink down the table like a stone. This year is no different, with at least 10 clubs well in with a shout of the top six and even automatic promotion. Today we’ll be taking a look at those top 10 clubs, examining their seasons so far and their promotion credentials, beginning with the leaders…..
QUEENS PARK RANGERS
CURRENT POSITION – 1st, 76 points
MANAGER – Neil Warnock
LAST SEASON – 13th
PROMOTION ODDS – 1/50 (Bet 365) 1/100 (SkyBet)
FORM (LAST 5) – WWLWW
Sitting pretty at the top of the table, nine points clear of 2nd and ten points clear of 3rd, Queens Park Rangers are the standout team in the Championship this season. After mid-table obscurity last year, the Hoops recruited the experienced Neil Warnock as manager and reaped the rewards. Warnock brought in proven Championship players in goalkeeper Paddy Kenny, Tommy Smith, Shaun Derry, Rob Hulse, Wayne Routledge plus the mercurial talent that is Adel Taarabt from Tottenham Hotspur. They’ve been top for most of the season and never been below 2nd place – they’ve only occupied that spot twice this campaign. In the last few weeks their consistent form has seen them open up that ten point gap from the chasing pack and it looks as if they will be playing Premier League football next season – Warnock to add a seventh promotion to his CV.
KEY PLAYER – Adel Taarabt
Recently voted the Football League Player of the Season, Moroccan midfielder Adel Taarabt has been the standout player in the Championship this campaign. The tricky playmaker has spearheaded the attack at QPR, putting in a host of impressive displays as the Hoops surge toward promotion. He had a spell on loan with the club during the 09/10 campaign but has improved dramatically this term, scoring 15 goals and creating many more. Manager Neil Warnock made Taarabt captain following injuries to Martin Rowlands and Fitz Hall and whilst he may sometimes be difficult, moody and can go missing in some matches, when Taarabt is on form he is a handful for any opponent.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Sheffield United (H) Scunthorpe United (A) Barnsley (A)
CURRENT POSITION – 2nd, 67 points
MANAGER – Paul Lambert
LAST SEASON – 1st (in League One)
PROMOTION ODDS – 6/5 (Bet365) 5/8 (SkyBet)
FORM (LAST 5) – WDWWD
Currently occupying the second automatic promotion spot, Norwich City have had an impressive 18 months since Paul Lambert took over as manager after they made a stuttering start to the 09/10 season in League One. Lambert has turned the club’s fortunes around and thanks to the goals of Grant Holt they comfortably won the League One title and with it promotion to the second tier last season. They’ve carried on their impressive form in a higher league and with virtually the same set of players. Holt has continuted to score goals at this level ably supported by the likes of Wes Hoolahan, Andrew Crofts plus the signings of Andrew Surman from Wolves and midfielder Henri Lansbury, on loan from Arsenal. A great season so far for the Carrow Road outfit which has exceeded the expectations of many but they’ve crucial fixtures coming up against promotion rivals Swansea City and Nottingham Forest which could determine whether they can remain in 2nd spot or not and secure back-to-back promotions.
KEY PLAYER – Grant Holt
The powerful frontman joined the Canaries in the summer of 2009 following their relegation to League One. The £400,000 fee paid to Shrewsbury Town looks to be great business – Holt has scored 40 goals in 75 appearances. The 29 year old has been a pivotal part of their success since Paul Lambert joined the club and made him captain. Strong, good in the air and capable of finding the net with ease, Holt has proved a real handful for Championship defences this season and it will be his goals that could fire Norwich into the Premier League. Nominated for Football League Player of the Year before losing out to Adel Taarabt.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Scunthorpe United (H) Swansea City (H) Watford (A)
CURRENT POSITION – 3rd, 66 points
MANAGER – Brendan Rodgers
LAST SEASON – 7th
PROMOTION ODDS – 6/5 (Bet365) 5/4 (SkyBet)
FORM (LAST 5) – WLDLW
Last season the Swans, managed by Paolo Sousa, missed out on the playoffs by one point after only drawing their final game of the season – Blackpool nipped in to steal 6th place. This year they’re hoping to improve and after Sousa left to take the Leicester City job, former Watford and Reading manager Brendan Rodgers took charge at the Liberty Stadium. Rodgers had much to prove following his stints with the Hornets and Royals but he is doing a fine job so far. Under Sousa Swansea played some of the most attractive football in the league but struggled to find the net, Rodgers has kept that passing ethos in place but added the goals – most coming from Scott Sinclair. The pacy winger joined Swansea for half a million pounds from Chelsea and this season has already hit 21 goals, 16 of them in the league. Their fluid 4-3-3 formation means Swansea can dominate possession in matches, their 3-2 victory against Nottingham Forest two weeks ago a prime example of this. Nathan Dyer is another lightning quick wide-man crucial to the Swans, alongside the likes of Stephen Dobbie, Joe Allen, Darren Pratley and Craig Beattie. They, like many other top 6 sides have had a few stutters in recent weeks, but they’ll be looking to cement a place in the play-offs at least and possibly an automatic spot.
KEY PLAYER – Scott Sinclair
Scott Sinclair has been the star man for Swansea City this term. Brendan Rodgers signed the winger from former employers Chelsea for £500,000 during the summer and he hasn’t disappointed. 16 league goals from the wing and consistently impressive performances have seen the Swans into the play-off positions. Sinclair has pace to burn, can beat players with skill and is proving he has an eye for goal. At 21 years of age he is a potential England player in the making and could help Swansea host Premier League football for the first time in their history.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Preston North End (A) Norwich City (H) Hull City (H)
CURRENT POSITION – 4th, 63 points
MANAGER – Dave Jones
LAST SEASON – 4th
PROMOTION ODDS – 7/4 (Bet365) 5/2 (SkyBet)
FORM (LAST 5) – WLLDD
The second Welsh team in the top 6 one place below great rivals Swansea, Cardiff came very close to securing promotion last season. Having finished 4th they made the play-off final, where they lost a 3-2 thriller against Blackpool at Wembley. Manager Dave Jones is an experienced campaigner at this level and has guided Cardiff again into the top 6. Prolific frontmen Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd have continuted to net frequently and they’ve been supported by Craig Bellamy, one of the most high profile acquisitions in the league this season. The winger joined his hometown club on loan from Manchester City with the hope of securing them Premier League football for the first time. His form as well as that of Peter Whittingham, Seyi Olofinjana and Chris Burke has seen Cardiff remain one of the strongest teams in the division. The disappointment of last season could spur them on to greater things this term.
KEY PLAYER – Peter Whittingham
Subject to speculation over his future following Cardiff’s play-off final defeat at the end of last season, Peter Whittingham remained with the Bluebirds for another attempt at promotion. The left winger has been one of the most consistent performers in the Championship for the past few seasons and is a fans favourite. He may have only netted 5 times this season compared to 20 last but he is still a vital part of the Cardiff team with his free-kick and penalty taking ability. Regarded as one of the best players currently outside the Premier League he could play a big part in seeing Cardiff stake a claim for a place in the top flight.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Derby County (H) Doncaster Rovers (A) Sheffield United (A)
CURRENT POSITION – 5th, 61 points
MANAGER – Simon Grayson
LAST SEASON – 2nd (in League One)
PROMOTION ODDS – 4/1 (Bet365) 7/2 (SkyBet)
FORM (LAST 5) – LWWDL
Like Norwich City, Leeds United find themselves gunning for back-to-back promotions and a return to the Premier League. The Whites finished runners up to Norwich in League One last season to finally return to the Championship three years after relegation. Simon Grayson returned to the club with whom he started his playing career as manager in 2008, overseeing their promotion last year and rise up the second tier this season. Despite losing prolific striker Jermaine Beckford to Everton in the summer, Luciano Becchio has hit 17 goals, Max Gradel has scored 14 from the left wing and Robert Snodgrass has impressed as part of a dangerous front three. Behind them Jonathan Howson, Neil Kilkenny, Alex Bruce and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel have helped form a strong spine to a team which has won 16 out of 38 league games and kept well in touch with the promotion places throughout the campaign. Organised and difficult to beat, Leeds are a tough opponent and going to Elland Road will be a far from easy trip. Their next game is a crucial live televised match at home to Nottingham Forest.
KEY PLAYER – Luciano Becchio
Argentine forward Luciano Becchio has stepped up his game considerably since Jermaine Beckford departed Elland Road. He partnered Beckford in League One but has led the line in the Championship, netting 17 goals to be the club’s top scorer. His impressive form saw him offered a new three-and-a-half year deal in December and Becchio has stated his love of playing for Leeds United. The focal point of manager Simon Grayson’s preferred three-man attack, Becchio has scored a wide range of goals throughout the campaign and is a handful for defenders. Expect him to pass the 20 goal mark soon and be a pivotal part of another Leeds promotion push.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Nottingham Forest (H) Millwall (A) Derby County (A)
CURRENT POSITION – 6th, 60 points
MANAGER – Billy Davies
LAST SEASON – 3rd
PROMOTION ODDS – 7/2 (Bet365) 5/2 (SkyBet)
FORM (LAST 5) – DLLDL
After going 2nd in January, Nottingham Forest have embarked on a poor run of form which has seen them win 1 in 10 and drop down to 6th – occupying the final play-off spot but looking nervously over their shoulders at the chasing pack. Despite the lack of wins recently, promotion rivals also dropping points has meant Forest are still well in with a shot of automatic promotion with 8 games remaining. Last year Billy Davies guided the club to 3rd in the table where they lost an epic play-off semi-final in heartbreaking circumstances to Blackpool and that experience will spur the team on to avoid something similar this campaign. Forest are one of the best footballing sides in the division when on form and they hold the record for consecutive wins this year – 6 – shared only with Watford. They’ve still got to go to Leeds and Norwich plus host Burnley and Leicester so their destiny could be in their hands. This is the fifth time in six seasons manager Davies has a chance of taking a team into the Championship playoffs so if anyone can guide Forest to promotion, Billy Davies can.
KEY PLAYER – Lewis McGugan
Top scorer this season with 11 goals – many of them spectacular long range efforts – attacking midfielder Lewis McGugan is enjoying his best season in a Forest shirt. Technically strong with good passing ability and capable of smashing the ball home from outside the box, Billy Davies has began to help him fulfill his potential after criticism over McGugan’s attitude and weight. With no strikers at the City Ground consistently banging the goals in, the midfielders will need to chip in and McGugan can do that. The product of the Forest academy could offer that vital creative spark during the final run of games.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Leeds United (A) Reading (H) Burnley (A)
CURRENT POSITION – 7th, 57 points
MANAGER – Brian McDermott
LAST SEASON – 9th
PROMOTION ODDS – 5/1 (Bet365) 6/1 (SkyBet)
FORM (LAST 5) – WDWWW
Reading have surged into contention for the top 6 thanks to a recent run of 4 wins from 5 matches. They currently sit 7th, 3 points off 6th place with a game in hand. Brian McDermott has done a fine job since taking over at the Madejski in January 2010, steadying the club since the Brendan Rodgers reign, finishing 9th last season and on course to better that this time around. Reading dropped out of the Premier League in 2008 and this is the first season without their parachute payments so they will be wanting to return to the top flight as soon as possible. McDermott’s team are playing good passing football and up front Shane Long has found his goalscoring touch as has Noel Hunt. In defence the experienced Ian Harte has rediscovered some of his best form while Jobi McAnuff, Jimmy Kebe and Brian Howard are experienced players at this level. Reading will fancy themselves to get into that top 6 with the game in hand and they do travel to Nottingham Forest in a few weeks time for what will be a crucial game for both sides.
KEY PLAYER – Shane Long
The Republic of Ireland international has stepped up to become one of Reading’s main goal threats. At 5 ft. 11 ins. tall he is strong in the air and a good finisher. Long has been with the Royals since their Premier League days but was an understudy to the likes of Dave Kitson, Leroy Lita and Ireland team-mate Kevin Doyle. Since their departures he’s gone on to make 150 appearances for the club and is their top scorer this season with 18 league goals.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Portsmouth (H) Preston (H) Nottingham Forest (A)
CURRENT POSITION – 8th, 57 points
MANAGER – Eddie Howe
LAST SEASON – 18th (in the Premier League)
FORM (LAST 5) – WWLDL
PROMOTION ODDS – 8/1 (Bet365) 6/1 (SkyBet)
Currently performing best of the teams relegated from the Premier League last season, Burnley are in touch with the playoffs and like Reading, have a game in hand on those above them with 57 points. Brian Laws left the club in January with the Clarets sat in mid-table and the club appointed the up-and-coming Eddie Howe who did a superb job taking Bournemouth into League One last season in testing circumstances. Howe, at just 32 years of age is the youngest manager working in the Championship and since taking over he has pushed them up the table to their current position. Many of the side survive from Owen Coyle’s promotion season two years ago so they have the experience to get out of the division, led by the inspirational Graham Alexander. A good footballing team, Burnley don’t lose many at Turf Moor and they could be the ones who sneak into the playoffs. They face tough away trips to top-half teams in the form of Leicester City and Nottingham Forest which could be crucial to where they end up come May.
KEY PLAYER – Jay Rodriguez
Winger/striker Jay Rodriguez has played 34 league games for Burnley this term, scoring 11 goals and earning his first cap for the England Under-21’s. He was a regular in the Championship promotion season of 2008/09 but injuries kept him out of the side in the Premier League and he dropped back down to the second tier for a loan spell with Barnsley. This season he’s back playing for his hometown club with some stand-out performances and is the Clarets’ top scorer. A quick runner with the ball at his feet, Rodriguez also possess a trick or two to beat opponents and can shoot from distance. He is definitely one to watch.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Ipswich Town (H) Leicester City (A) Nottingham Forest (A)
CURRENT POSITION – 9th, 56 points
MANAGER – Malky Mackay
LAST SEASON – 16th
PROMOTION ODDS – 25/1 (Bet365 & SkyBet)
FORM (LAST 5) – WDWWL
Watford began the season amongst the favourites to be relegated to League One but they could find themselves in with a chance of exiting the division at the other end. Former player and reserve team coach Malky Mackay took the managerial post permanently in the summer of 2009 and on a tight budget guided the Hornets to 16th last season. With one of the youngest squads in the league Mackay has continued their progress this term and they are a dangerous proposition. Up until January they were closer to the top 6 but with loanees Jordan Mutch and Andrew Taylor returning to parent clubs Birmingham and Middlesbrough respectively, an already small squad was stretched further and results tailed off. With 1 defeat in their last 5 they are finding form again and thanks to the goals of Danny Graham they remain in touch with the play-off positions. Talented youngsters such as Marvin Sordell and Will Buckley are supported by the experienced Martin Taylor and captain John Eustace. This season they’ve also had some impressive away results including a 3-2 win at Norwich in the first game of the campaign, beating Millwall 6-1 at the Den and winning 3-1 against QPR at Loftus Road.
KEY PLAYER – Danny Graham
Danny Graham is having his best season in a Watford shirt, netting 22 goals in 36 league appearances. Top scorer last season too with 14, the former Middlesbrough and Carlisle forward has become indispensible to boss Malky Mackay. Currently top scorer in the Championship, the hard working, strong frontman holds the ball up well and has developed an eye for goal. He will be crucial to Watford’s chances of making the play-offs at the end of the campaign.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Coventry City (A) Hull City (H) Norwich City (H)
POSITION – 10th, 56 points
MANAGER – Nigel Pearson
LAST SEASON – 19th (in the Premier League)
PROMOTION ODDS – 14/1 (Bet365) 12/1 (SkyBet)
FORM (LAST 5) – LWLWD
Last season Hull City were enjoying Premier League football, however the Tigers ended the campaign 19th and returned to Championship action in 2010/11. With a new term came a new manager in the form of Nigel Pearson, who guided Leicester City to the playoffs last season. The season started slowly under the new boss who was banned from buying new players initially by his own board as the club was reportedly in £30 million of debt and needed to reduce the wage bill. However in January Pearson was allowed to spend and brought firepower up front in the form of Aaron McClean from Peterborough United and Matty Fryatt from former club Leicester for a combined total of £2.2 million. The two have linked up well – Fryatt in particular netting 7 goals from 14 appearances. Like many of Nigel Pearson’s teams, Hull are well organised, disciplined and hard to beat. Recently they ended Nottingham Forest’s 36-match unbeaten home record so have proven they can more than match any side in the division. With away games against Watford, Swansea City and QPR on the horizon, they’ll need to be at their best to try to close the gap on the top 6.
KEY PLAYER – Matty Fryatt
Matty Fryatt teamed up again with Nigel Pearson in January, joining Hull from Leicester City for £1.2 million – the two helping them reach last year’s playoffs. Fryatt was their top scorer and has begun to perform to his best under Pearson, bagging a hat-trick in a 5-1 win at Scunthorpe in February. Fryatt’s pace makes him a handful for defenders and he has the ability to hold the ball up well and bring team-mates into play. With Hull chasing the playoffs his goals and partnership with Aaron McClean could have a big part to play in deciding where the Tigers finish come May.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Millwall (H) Watford (A) Swansea City (H)
TEAM TO WATCH – LEICESTER CITY
CURRENT POSITION – 11th, 55 points
MANAGER – Sven-Goran Eriksson
LAST SEASON – 5th
PROMOTION ODDS – 12/1 (Bet365) 6/1 (SkyBet)
FORM (LAST 5) – DLLWL
5 points off the top 6 with 8 games remaining, Leicester City are outsiders for promotion but the bookies fancy them, SkyBet offering 6/1 on the Foxes to take a place amongst England’s elite in 2011/12. The arrival of Sven-Goran Eriksson plus some good players has meant Leicester cannot be wrote off just yet. It’s been a season of two halves for last year’s playoff semi-finalists. After Nigel Pearson left to take the Hull City job, Paolo Sousa became manager but he was sacked after just 1 win in 9 league games, including a 6-1 thrashing at Portsmouth. The club then surprised everyone by appointing former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager in early October. He took them from the relegation zone up to 7th in January, but recent indifferent form has seen them drop back down to 11th. Eriksson brought in the experienced frontman Darius Vassell, Ricardo, the former Portugal goalkeeper and a proven goalscorer in Yakubu on loan from Everton. Loanee Kyle Naughton has impressed at full-back chipping in with some spectacular goals and the likes of Andy King, Richie Wellens and Paul Gallagher make up a strong side at this level. Usually there is a team who put together a late run of form to squeeze into the playoffs and with Sven in charge, Leicester could well do that.
KEY PLAYER – Andy King
A fans’ favourite at the Walkers Stadium, Welsh international Andy King has developed into one of the best midfielders in the Championship over the last two season. He played a big part in Leicester reaching the playoffs last year and he’s continued his good form into this campaign, top scoring with 14 goals. Good with both feet and an accurate passer, King causes problems from an attacking midfield berth with well-timed runs and an ability to find the net. This season he has scored some superb goals, including two delicate lobbed efforts against Sheffield United and Barnsley.
NEXT THREE FIXTURES – Middlesbrough (A) Burnley (H) Crystal Palace (H)
So there we have it, the 11 teams who can realistically harbour aspirations of Premier League football next season. Year upon year the Championship is an open league with a great number of sides chasing promotion and likewise staving off relegation at the other end. For the 11 teams mentioned above I can offer you one piece of encouragement……
……at this stage of the season last year Blackpool were 9th with 51 points, four points away from Cardiff in 6th who had two games in hand. In their last 8 games Ian Holloway’s men won 6, drew 1 and lost 1. They pipped Swansea to the final playoff place by a point on the final day of the season and the rest is history…..