A busy weekend in the FA Cup, with shocks and surprises aplenty, also housed another round of Championship fixtures. While there weren’t any major shocks, it certainly provided us with an insight into how the season could unravel.
Now that we’re entering the middle of November, the Championship table is beginning to take shape. Although anything could happen from now until May, here are the early pacesetters in the league, and those who could achieve promotion, either via the automatic places or the play-offs.
While any club in the top twelve are capable of achieving promotion, some are looking more likely than others. Here are my top five candidates:
The Rams have been knocking on the doors of promotion for a couple of seasons now, and after having been pretty unfortunate not to have won last season’s play-off final against Queens Park Rangers, this season looks to be the year in which they finally achieve what has eluded them for so long. Derby currently sit top of the Championship by a sole point, in what’s proving to be a season of real quality, with just eight points separating the top ten teams in the league.
County fans will be hoping that this is the season which finally sees them gain promotion back to the Premier League. With both young and experienced quality in their side, such as Will Hughes, Craig Bryson and Craig Martin, failure to move up a division would almost seem a disaster for the Rams, who have a hugely experienced manager in Steve McClaren at the iPro Stadium helm.
Derby swept aside fellow promotion rivals Wolverhampton on Saturday in a 5-0 victory, as they sent out a huge message for the rest of the season – that once a team whose aims are, like Derby’s, set in sight, nothing can stand in their way. It was Wolves’ biggest defeat of the season and Derby’s biggest win. Their fourth victory in the last six sees them take 32 points from 17 league fixtures. The defeat sees Wolves drop down to ninth, despite having only five points less than the Rams. Just one win would see them back within touching distance of the top, proving just how exciting the Championship run-up is expected to be, and helping it to live up to its reputation of being a real lottery.
Alongside Ipswich and Brentford, Bournemouth are picking up where they left off last season, when they almost made it in to the play-offs, having won their last nine of eleven fixtures, which has elevated them to second place. The Cherries have one of the best attacking forces in the league and, although they and fellow promotion rivals Middlesbrough played out a goalless draw over the weekend, Bournemouth are certainly expected to finish in the top six come May. What will be even more reassuring for Cherries fans is the team’s ability to keep clean sheets. For them to gain promotion would be one of the most incredible achievements in recent footballing history. There’s a long way to go, but when teams face the South Coast side, their philosophy tends to be ‘if you score four, we’ll score five’.
Praise can only be heaped on Mick McCarthy, as the Tractor Boys have quietly gone about their business. Following a 1-0 victory over Watford, they currently sit in fourth place. Neutrals and critics alike can only watch and be mightily impressed with the pure solidity and consistency of Ipswich, who are usually tipped to finish in mid-table each season, with no real thought for relegation or promotion. However, like Bournemouth, Ipswich are really defying expectations and if McCarthy managed to get them in to the play-offs then he would be a sure candidate for Manager of the Year.
When you look at Ipswich’s side, you wouldn’t consider any of their squad world-beaters or big names. However, reputation means very little when you are a solid side, consistently on the same page as one another – something you can’t beat, even with the best individual players in the league, if your overall squad isn’t solid enough.
McCarthy’s side haven’t scored an awful lot of goals this season, but just as importantly, they haven’t conceded a worrying amount either. Their victory over Watford was their fifth clean sheet so far this season. The only issue with Ipswich is their lack of strength in depth, and McCarthy will likely need to recruit some solid Championship players to fill in any gaps which may present themselves through injury or suspension. Star players like David McGoldrick, Daryl Murphy, Tyrone Mings and Christophe Berra will have done their careers no harm, no matter where Ipswich finish – although, if they disastrously get relegation then I take that statement back.
The two teams who I haven’t mentioned in Middlesbrough and Watford, who are both currently above Brentford in the table, aren’t forgotten. However, pre-season, Brentford were tipped to simply try and avoid relegation after their solid promotion from League One. However, Mark Warbuton has currently gone one better and managed to get the Bees in to the play-off spots. Of course, I’m not suggesting that they will remain there, as teams will be chopping and changing more frequently than Manchester United’s back four, but for Brentford to rack up 28 points in just 17 games will be a fantastic confidence boost for the team.
Like McCarthy’s Ipswich, Warbuton will know that he needs to add to his squad in order to keep his side challenging, but if the Bees manage to remain in, at the very least, the top ten till the year of the year, Brentford fans would have every right to dream of something hugely monumental. As a neutral, it is something that I would love to see happen.
Brentford also have plans in place for a new 20,000-seater stadium, after plans to build a new ground were accepted in June 2012, so this season will be the last season that they play their home games at Griffin Park; a site that will be turned into housing. As a result of this, even if Brentford don’t achieve the unthinkable, and instead solidify their position in the second tier, there’s a bright future ahead and the present is certainly an exciting time for Bees supporters.
The Lancashire club are still recovering from an eventful few years at Ewood Park, and this season appears to be the year where the storm finally seems to be calming.
The club are currently pursuing a genuine push for promotion back to the Premier League. The reason I picked Blackburn is that there isn’t as much of an expectancy as there is with Middlesbrough and Watford to gain promotion, as Rovers are considered to be one of the sleeping giants in the Championship – although Middlesbrough equally deserve that title. Blackburn’s much apprehended controversy in 2011 and 2012, when they were relegated from the top flight, is still fresh in some people’s minds, and with the quality of players and money spent over the last few seasons, notably on Jordan Rhodes, there are more eyes on Rovers’ progress than their rivals. With the majority of fans now in sync with the club, there’s certainly a feel-good factor around East Lancashire, but with that comes pressure.
If it’s any consolation, Watford and ‘Boro fans, I would argue that both sides have just as much, if not more, of a chance of clinching promotion.
Unmentioned Promotion Candidates