It could be argued that The Championship is one of the most unpredictable leagues around, and with the promised land of the Premier League beckoning for the three teams who manage to climb their way out of it, the stakes have never been higher.
The Play-Off Final is now estimated to worth around £60million and has the title of being “the most valuable game in English football”. As the season draws towards its conclusion and with Newcastle and West Brom having already secured their passage back to the top flight, the spotlight turns to those competing for a place in the play-offs, these are the contenders.
Nottingham Forest – Currently 3rd. 75 points.
The quintessential ‘Jekyl and Hyde’ team this season. Forest have been in both scintillating form at home and woeful form in equal measure away from the City Ground. Their impressive home form consisting of a 17 game unbeaten run stretching back to the end of September 2009 has kept them in the play-off picture and they have now secured their place in the top six regardless of their final 2 results. Their exploits away from home however, have proved both frustrating and fruitless for the travelling Forest faithful, picking up only a singular point from their last ten away games.
Manager Billy Davies brought in a number of new players before the start of the season and there has been a balance about the squad which has seen them consistently pick up results throughout the season. The energetic Robert Earnshaw is leading in the goal scoring stakes so far with a haul of 14, closely followed by one of the summer arrivals Dexter Blackstock on 12. Credit should also go to individuals such as Wes Morgan, Paul Anderson and on-loan Polish playmaker Radoslaw Majewski, who’s performances since his arrival from Polonia Warszawa have added a touch of class to the solid spine of the team. Away from the headlines, a number of top class performances from goalkeeper Lee Camp have helped to preserve Forest’s lofty league position and have transformed the former Derby County and QPR shot-stopper into a popular player with the Forest faithful. Forest will be a tough opposition for any opposition going into the crucial play-off ties but their away form may dog their progress and they strive for a return to the top division of English football once again.
Cardiff City – Currently 4th. 73 points
Cardiff are flying high in 4th position, the Bluebirds league games have been anything but boring. The tone for the season was set on the opening day when they won 4-0 at home to Scunthorpe. Paul Jewell’s side have actually scored more goals away from home (36) than at the imaginatively titled Cardiff City Stadium (34), a statistic that could be key now that they have secured their place in the play-offs. Dave Jones has been somewhat restricted in terms of the transfer market due to the financial problems that the club have become embroiled in, prompting demonstrations from fans about the use for season ticket fees which had been earmarked for new signings. The lack of available funds meant that the January transfer window was fruitless for the City faithful. Although the situation is clearly far from ideal, this should serve to only emphasise the achievement of the existing squad of players this season.
Peter Whittingham and Michael Chopra have both been in fine goal-scoring form, contributing 19 and 16 league goals respectively. Cardiff born Joe Ledley has continued to fulfil the promise that saw him score the goal that sent Cardiff to their first FA Cup final since 1927 two seasons ago. Jay Bothroyd has also played a significant part contributing 9 goals and 13 assists over the season. There is no doubt that the squad is full of talent, and in the days of financial instability which is dominating the headlines of the footballing world, it is refreshing to see a team that have had their well documented problems maintaining a drive towards attaining promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history. If Swansea can maintain their current league position there is a real chance that there will be a Welsh team involved in the top tier of English football in 2010/11.
Leicester City – Currently 5th. 70 points.
Leicester City were promoted as champions of League One in 2008-09, the clubs first foray into the third tier of English Football in their colourful history. The Foxes have been one of the surprise packages of The Championship this season. Nigel Pearson’s side have rarely been outside the play-off picture since the season began and have continued to impress with a squad which is essentially the same one which saw them promoted 12 months ago. Funds have been far from free flowing this season at the midlands club, with attacking midfielder Paul Gallagher who joined from Blackburn Rovers for around £800,000 being the headline signing of the season. Gallagher has started to pay back this considerable sum with some impressive performances and notching 7 goals including a sublime free kick in the game against local rivals Nottingham Forest at The Walkers Stadium.
Leicester have all but secured their position in the play offs and have won their last three consecutive games; these wins ended a run of four straight league defeats which threatened to jeopardize their promotion hopes. With joint leading scorer Matty Fryatt out injured with a broken jaw sustained against Doncaster Rovers earlier in the season Pearson has moved to bolster his attacking options bringing in a couple of high profile loanees to as the season reaches its climax. James Vaughan (Everton) and Jay Spearing (Arsenal) have joined the Foxes squad and both announced their arrivals with a goal each against struggling Watford in a 4-1 win, the clubs last league game. Any goals they can provide will be of great support to another on loan striker Martyn Waghorn (Sunderland) who has proved he is capable of stepping up to the big stage since Fryatts injury. Notable mentions should also be made to goalkeeper Chris Weale and Swiss defender Bruno Berner, whos performances this season has been consistently energetic and assured. With the recent improvement in form and some impressive performances of late, Leicester will be looking to carry this form through to the play-offs in their quest to gain back-to-back promotions.
Swansea City – Currently 6th. 68 points.
In comparison with their play-off rivals and in fact most of the league, The Swans season has not been graced with an abundance of goals at either end of the field. They have only scored 40 league goals all season, the lowest total of any club in the league. More importantly, they have only conceded 35, a defensive record only bettered by newly crowned champions Newcastle. This approach may have produced an astonishing nine 0-0 draws but has also seen them grind out results and picking up important points throughout the season. They have only lost 10 matches during the course of the current league campaign, the lowest total of any of their play-off rivals.
After losing the services of manager Roberto Martinez to Wigan in June 2009, Paulo Souza was installed at the helm of The Liberty Stadium. Jason Scotland followed Martinez to The Latics, prompting Souza to bring in striker Craig Beattie for a club record £800,000 from West Bromwich Albion in August. The Scottish forwards impact has been limited only managing three goals in just 12 league appearances since his arrival at The Liberty Stadium. Midfielder Darren Pratley leads the scoring stakes with seven league goals, with on-loan Lee Trundle and Welsh defender Ashley Williams contributing five goals each in the campaign so far. This combined with the defensive strength provided by Dutch goalkeeper Dorus de Vries and the creative talents of for Andrea Orlandi, formerly of Catalan giants Barcelona. The play-offs of The Championship may be an ascent to relatively unknown territory for the Welsh side; the last time they played in the top flight of English football was 1983. Whilst the lack of goals may be worrying for fans, if they can continue to produce results that mirror their dogged approach this season they could find themselves competing in the Premier League for the first time in their 98 year history.
Blackpool – Currently 7th. 66 points.
The Tangerines are currently embarking on their third season in The Championship after being promoted through the League One play-offs in 2006-07. They currently sit 7th in the league after starting the current season with four consecutive draws, more recently their league form has been excellent with only one defeat, which came against Newcastle, in their last 7 games. During this latest spell they have also seen off potential play-off opponents Swansea city and Nottingham Forest in impressive style, a fact that will buoy Ian Holloway’s side as they strive for a top six finish. This fact made even more impressive considering the colourful manager has been in charge at the club for under a year, after he was appointed as the permanent replacement for Simon Grayson who left for Leeds last season.
The main transfer story of the season for the Seasiders was the arrival to Bloomfield Road of midfielder Charlie Adam, who moved to the club from Scottish champions Rangers for a club record fee of £500,000, almost doubling the previous record paid for Chris Malkin in 1996. Adam, who has is capped at international level for Scotland has found his feet in a squad which is somewhat smaller than some of Blackpool’s other championship opponents. He currently has an impressive 16 league goals in the campaign and is seven ahead of second highest scorer Blackpool legend Brett Ormerod who has tallied nine league goals in his first full season after joining for free in last season’s January transfer window. Holloway has made full use of a number of loan signings at the club this season, with highly rated Evertonian defender Seamus Coleman joining the club for a short spell alongside more permanent loanees Barry Bannan from Aston Villa and DJ Campbell who has scored seven league goals since joining on loan from fellow promotion candidates Leicester City. Regardless of how Blackpool finish the season it has been an improvement on their previous Championship finishes which saw them more concerened with matters at the foot of the table, and with club president Valeri Belokon pledging funds to improve the squad, the future is bright (and orange) for the Lancashire club.