The race for promotion from the Championship is the most hotly contested in years. In seasons gone by, the likes of Newcastle United, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion have been able to escape the shackles of the chasing pack and race towards automatic promotion. In October, both Queens Park Rangers and Cardiff City threatened to do the same. Come January, and just five points separate the top five. Plenty of teams have thrown their names into the hat (for both promotion and relegation!) but who will be crying in joy and who will be crying in despair come May?
QPR have won just two games in seven and have seen their lead at the top of the Championship cut to just three points. However, Neil Warnock has done this all before and has instilled a great resolve in his Loftus Road side. The ‘Rs have conceded just 17 goals all season and are blessed with the most talented player in the Football League, Adel Taarabt. The former Spurs man unlocks defences at ease and it his form which could be decisive in taking QPR up. Warnock has also been able to bring in Premier League quality this January with the loan signing of Wayne Routledge and the free transfer of Pascal Chimbonda. QPR rightly remain the favourites to win the division outright.
Cardiff, on the other hand, have picked up just 12 points from the last 36 available and now, much to the consternation of the Bluebirds’ supporters, Swansea City, their arch-rivals, have moved two points ahead of them into second place. Cardiff, with the likes of Craig Bellamy, Jay Bothroyd, Michael Chopra, Aaron Ramsey and Jay Emmanuel Thomas (both brought in on loan from Arsenal this week) have the best attacking force in the division. Unfortunately, the South Wales side have kept just one clean sheet in the last 15 games and it is this defensive fragility which has heaped the pressure on manager Dave Jones in recent weeks.
Norwich City and Leeds United have been the beneficiaries of Cardiff’s slip in form and they now sit in fourth and fifth place respectively. These two clubs have an exceptionally large fan base for the Championship and regularly attract crowds of 25,000 plus. This provides them with a large source of revenue which other clubs simply do not have access too. Norwich have already been able to sign Leon Barnett permanently from West Bromwich Albion this January, while Leeds have signed Andy O’Brien from Bolton Wanderers. Such Premier League experience will be an invaluable asset in the second half of the season and one would not be surprised if either Norwich or Leeds returned to the Premier League next year.
But, right now, there are eight teams in the hunt for automatic promotion. In fact, the three form teams in the division can be found in sixth, seventh and eighth position. Watford are on a roll of six successive Championship wins; Reading have lost just once in ten Championship games; Nottingham Forest are unbeaten since October. Malky Mackay has done a terrific job at Watford on a very small budget and has found a potent strike pairing in Marvin Sordell and Danny Graham. The duo have already netted 30 goals between them this season. However, the Hornets have a small squad and will struggle if injuries strike. A Play-Off place, rather than automatic promotion, seems a more realistic target for the Vicarage Road side.
Reading, meanwhile, have an effective blend of youth and experience. Strikers Shane Long and Simon Church are amongst the most talented youngsters in the Championship and continue to build their reputation at this level. Long has successfully filled the void left by Kevin Doyle and has already weighed in with an impressive 11 goals this season. The Royals recent defensive rigidity is due much to the experience of veteran full backs Ian Harte and Andy Griffin. Harte, in particular, is enjoying something of a swansong and has also contributed a useful four goals so far this term. Reading do, however, perhaps lack the star quality which they possessed during their record-breaking 2005/06 Championship winning season. The likes of Stephen Hunt and Steve Sidwell held such obvious Premier League quality that the Berkshire club were able to storm to 106 points that season. For this reason, Brian McDermott will set his sights on a Play-Off place rather than automatic promotion, something they could well achieve.
Nottingham Forest, on the other hand, are more than capable of closing the gap on Championship leaders QPR, and could achieve automatic promotion this year. The Reds had occupied something of a false position for much of the 2010/11 season but are now beginning to replicate the form which took them to the Play-Off semi-finals last year. Forest have an exceptionally strong squad and can cope with the wear and tear of two Championship games a week when the season begins to reach its climax. Lewis McGugan, Dexter Blackstock, Marcus Tudgay, Robbie Earnshaw and Paul Anderson all contribute goals and are well supported by the likes of Chris Gunter and Wes Morgan in defence.
The fate of those teams at the bottom of the division seems perhaps slightly more predictable. Crystal Palace, Scunthorpe and Preston North End face a desperate struggle to hold onto their Championship status and currently occupy the bottom three positions. Palace have perhaps the best chance of escaping relegation. Although Dougie Freedman has no managerial experience, his squad does possess some star quality. Julian Speroni and Darren Ambrose are Premier League class, while Nathaniel Clyne and Wilfried Zaha are two exceptionally talented youngsters. Freedman has also successfully replaced James Vaughan (who has returned to parent club Everton) with Jermaine Easter, who scored 19 goals for MK Dons last season. Eagles’ fans should not despair quite yet.
The situation is most gloomy for Preston. The Lancashire club sit seven points adrift from safety and sacked Darren Ferguson, who won just 13 of his 49 games in charge at Deepdale, prior to the January transfer window. This triggered an exodus of players. Sir Alex Ferguson reacted to the sacking of his son by immediately taking back Ritchie de Laet and Joshua King to Old Trafford. Tony Pulis did likewise in recalling Michael Tonge and Danny Pugh. Caretaker manager David Unsworth then saw his squad stripped yet further when Cardiff swooped to capture Jon Parkin, the club’s top goal scorer, last week. In such circumstances it would be a monumental achievement if Preston survived. Sadly, there seems little hope for them.
It is lack of financial clout which threatens to doom Crystal Palace, Scunthorpe and Preston to the third tier of English football. All three sides are confronted with enormous financial difficulties, particularly compared to the three teams immediately above them, Middlesbrough, Ipswich and Sheffield United, who, presumably, will splash their cash to ensure they avoid relegation. Simply, money talks in the Championship. Last year, no one could compete with the payrolls of Newcastle or West Brom. This season, QPR, Cardiff, Norwich, Leeds and Nottingham Forest are all on a similar financial footing and are able to spend money this January. The ability of their respective money men to attract new players this month will go a long way to deciding who will achieve promotion this year. So far, QPR and Cardiff have been most proactive in the transfer market and are well set to push on in the second half of the season. However, both teams have proven inconsistent and could be ruffled if the chasing pack keeps picking up results. For the moment, there seems little to split the top eight teams in the division, making the 2010/11 season perhaps the most exciting Championship season ever.