Seagulls take flight towards the Championship

The Football League’s newest stadium will see Championship football in its first season after Brighton & Hove Albion confirmed their promotion back to the second tier with a dramatic win over struggling Dagenham & Redbridge this week. Following that, on Saturday they beat Walsall to clinch the League One title with 4 games to go. It has been a remarkable season for the Seagulls, managed by former Chelsea and Tottenham star Gus Poyet, with a target of reaching 100 points by the end of the season. In particular it is their home that has been their key, going unbeaten at the Withdean Stadium for over a year.

Indeed, some outside observers may question why they are leaving – it may be an unglamorous athletics stadium, but Brighton have turned that into an advantage under Poyet. But take a look at the new Amex Community Stadium at nearby Falmer and you will see why – it is one of the most visually impressive of the new generation of stadia in the country.

The battle for the second automatic promotion spot behind Brighton is hotting up, though. The two leading contenders are two more former top flight sides, Huddersfield Town and Southampton. Nigel Adkins’ Saints would seemingly by the favourites, being on a hot run of form in the second half of the year having used their games in hand to devastating effect, but Lee Clark’s Terriers are not exactly out of form themselves, and it could run until the final weekend of the season.

The neutral may choose to support the Yorkshire underdogs, who have not had as much money to spend and have been as low as the fourth tier in the 10 years since they were relegated from what was then Division 1. But Southampton have seen major financial problems since their relegation from the Premier League in 2005, and it is good to see them back on the right track.

I am sure that Peterborough fans retain hope that they could yet snatch the final automatic spot, although after a stuttering run of late, Darren Ferguson’s men will probably have their eyes set more on upstaging either Southampton or Huddersfield in the play-offs. MK Dons will be looking to do the same after an impressive year under the Football League’s youngest manager, Karl Robinson, while after a bad run for Bournemouth, the last spot in the play-offs is currently held by little Rochdale, looking to pick up a extraordinary second consecutive promotion and their first ever season in the second tier.

It’s even closer at the bottom of League One, with several teams mired in a relegation dogfight that will almost certainly again run until the last day. Plymouth Argyle, bottom and 7 points away from safety, now seem doomed, not able to resurrect the form that took them to the brink of an unlikely escape from the relegation zone after their 10 point penalty for going into administration. Swindon Town, 2 points ahead of the Pilgrims, seem likely to follow but the other spots could be filled by any two of a number of clubs. Dagenham & Redbridge, Bristol Rovers and Walsall have all seen mini-revivals of late, but have not managed to escape the fight. However, they will be pleased by the sight of a new addition to the scrap, plummeting Notts County, whose terrible run has dropped them to 22nd. Martin Allen has replaced Paul Ince as manager in a bid to prevent a quick return to League Two, but it looks grim for the Magpies.

The race to replace them is also very tight, particularly the battle for the play-off places. Chesterfield are virtually confirmed in League One next year, needing only a point to secure promotion next time out, and Bury are edging closer too. But only a handful of points covers the rest of the top 10, led by Wycombe Wanderers in the final automatic promotion spot. Shrewsbury Town in 4th have been inconsistent but are now in-form, and have now closed to within a point of the Chairboys.

This weekend saw a gap develop between them and 5th-7th, currently Torquay United, Stevenage and Gillingham, three teams that perhaps have an eye on 3rd but are probably more concerned with maintaining a play-off place. Accrington Stanley, formidable at home recently, are only outside that zone on goal difference, while Port Vale and Rotherham United haven’t yet given up on trying to regain one of the spots that they held for so long.

The fight to stay in the Football League seems to be drawing to a close for Stockport County, who now seem destined for Conference football next year in place of promoted Crawley Town. Barnet, though, can still survive, having reeled in Burton Albion and the surprise package at the bottom this year, Northampton Town. Burton have a game in hand on the other two but when you’re struggling at the bottom, it is points on the board that counts at this stage of the season, and Barnet have more momentum. The Cobblers are the out of form team, though, as summed up on Saturday when they threw away a 2 goal lead against Wycombe to draw 2-2. They are yet to win a match under manager Gary Johnson.

So, with a cracking end to the season in store in the Championship, and plenty to be decided in Leagues One and Two, it just goes to prove that there’s still plenty of excitement outside the Premier League. Keep an eye on it…


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