As spring approaches, it is the most exciting time of the year in football. While the Premier League offers plenty of story lines, the battle for promotion in England’s second division is equally compelling and worth keeping an eye on. With no Premier League action until next weekend, take the chance to learn what you need to know about the Championship’s main candidates for promotion… Starting at the top of the table, Newcastle have made relatively easy work of the Championship in their...
Starting at the top of the table, Newcastle have made relatively easy work of the Championship in their return to England’s second tier after six years in the Premier League. As the league’s highest spenders with arguably the most talented and deep squad, Newcastle supporters expect nothing less than a return to the top flight. With a comfortable seven-point cushion in the automatic promotion positions, a return to Premier League football is an increasingly safe bet.
Newcastle’s success this campaign has been in large part a byproduct of two new attacking signings from Premier League clubs. Dwight Gayle’s 21 goals makes him the Championship’s second leading scorer, and Matt Richie’s nine goals and seven assists have contributed to the league’s highest scoring.
Gayle joined the Magpies from Premier League side Crystal Palace, where he struggled to find consistent playing time over his three seasons with the club. His move to Tyneside has revitalised his career, as he has been able to find form while seeing consistent valuable minutes.
Richie’s situation is similar, as he was magnificent in helping Bournemouth secure promotion, but lacked the same production in his one season with them in the Premier League. If Newcastle go up, which looks very likely at this point, it will be interesting to see if Gayle and Richie can produce in the top flight, where they have struggled to do so in the past.
With three promotion playoff appearances in the past five seasons with nothing to show for it, Brighton will be looking to finally get over the hump and experience top flight football for the first time since the early 80’s.
Only one point off of Newcastle at the top with a six-point gap above third place with only one month left in the campaign, Brighton supporters are hopeful that this is their year.
With a balanced attack led by the experienced Glenn Murray’s 18 goals, Brighton have put together an impressive season, highlighted by 14 home wins, the most in the division. Anthony Knockaert’s 13 goals and seven assists have him in Team of the Year discussions, while Sam Baldock and Tomer Hemed have both scored double-digit goals, with 11 and 10 respectively.
While scoring has come easy for the Seagulls, their most impressive performances have been at the back, as keeper David Stockdale leads the league in clean sheets, with 18 in his 37 appearances, a truly impressive rate. With only 33 goals allowed all season, if Brighton do finally secure promotion, their defence will be what they rely on to survive in the Premier League, as it has carried them this season.
This season’s surprise package comes in the form of Huddersfield Town, who find themselves only six points behind Brighton for automatic promotion with a game in hand. German-American manager David Wagner has brought out the best on his players, as the team has over-achieved by most people’s evaluation, and find themselves in a favourable position in the final stretch of the campaign.
The best thing you can say about Huddersfield is that they know how to get results. With a goal differential of only +4 (compared to the 30+ of Newcastle and Brighton), Huddersfield do not do anything flashy and often struggle to find scoring, but they have managed to make a legitimate case for promotion with truly impressive team performances week after week.
The contrast between the Terriers and the teams around them in the table is remarkable. Most promotion candidates have a striker pushing 20 goals or have an impressively resolute defence, but Huddersfield do not really have either. Top scorer Elias Kachunga has just 10 goals, Nakhi Wells has bagged nine, and 12 other players have scored four or fewer.
Australian Aaron Mooy has been at the heart of all of Huddersfield’s success. The central midfielder has anchored the side and shielded the backline all season, and will undoubtedly be in the discussion for Team of the Year.
They will not scare anyone on paper, but the top two should be careful, as Huddersfield Town are continuing to prove they have what it takes.
Currently in fourth place, Leeds will be looking to secure promotion to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2003. One of the most prestigious clubs in the second tier, Leeds fans believe this season is when they will finally break through back into the top flight after almost 15 years in the lower divisions.
Two players have led Leeds’ resurgence this season, the first being league-leading scorer Chris Wood. With 24 goals in the campaign, highlighted by last weekend’s brace vs second placed Brighton, the Kiwi has proven his goalscoring prowess, as his timely goals throughout the season have been invaluable to his side's success.
The second notably influential player in Leeds’ season is their 26-year-old Swedish center back Pontus Jansson, currently on loan from Italian side Torino. His impressive defensive play has earned him December’s Player of the Month award, and his knack for goal scoring, most notably his last-minute winner vs. Blackburn, has made him a fan favorite.
Leeds are a team that is well equipped for the promotion playoffs, and is the favorite for the third promotion spot in many people’s eyes. As long as Chris Wood keeps scoring, they will be hard to beat, but their one-dimensional attack could also prove to be their downfall - others will have to step up to share the offensive burden if they want to secure promotion.
Sitting in fifth place in the table are Reading, who offer a narrative similar to that of Huddersfield. It may not be pretty, but they know how to pick up points constantly. The parallels between Reading and Huddersfield are remarkable; with a very unimpressive goal differential of +2, a top scorer, Yann Kermorgant, with only 10 goals, and a relatively porous defence, it is really a wonder that the Royals find themselves in the position they’re in.
With 15 wins by a single goal, Reading’s margin for error has been very small, but they have found themselves in the mix to return to the Premier League after four seasons in the Championship.
With 49 goals against, Reading defence ranks only 13th best in the league, and 10 teams have scored more goals. What has brought the Royals success is collective team performances, and an ability to see out close games and grind out results, something that plagues many teams in similar circumstances.
If Reading are able to hold their top six spot and find themselves in the playoffs for promotion, similarly to Huddersfield, they will not be overly intimidating statistically, but their proven ability to get results regardless establishes them as a real threat. With a relatively easy set of fixtures for the final month of the season, Reading supporters will be optimistic about their side’s chances.
Clinging to the last playoff spot is Sheffield Wednesday, who are craving their first ever Premier League campaign after bouncing around the lower divisions for decades. Wednesday supporters will be nervous, as their form is slipping a bit with only one win in their last six matches, including losses to fellow playoff place holders Reading and Leeds.
Wednesday has put together an impressive campaign behind a balanced attack Fernando Forestieri, Steven Fletcher, and new signing Jordan Rhodes from Middlesbrough. They have relied on their defence this season, which has only allowed 39 goals, anchored by Tom Lees, alongside the versatile Sam Hutchinson.
Similar to reading, Wednesday have a manageable final stretch to the season, but their recent form makes them many people’s favourite to drop out of the top six.
If they are able to make the playoffs, they will feel good about their chances with a stout defence and multiple capable scorers, but they will need to re-establish some good form if they want to have a chance in the playoffs come May.
The first team outside the top six, and the last one with a clear shot at making at the playoffs is Fulham, who have surprised many with their almost entirely revamped squad after last season’s 20th place finish.
It is surprising that Fulham find themselves outside of the playoff places, as their goal differential of +19 is third best in the Championship - only behind league leaders Newcastle and Brighton.
Their possession-based style led by manager Slavisa Jokanovic has drawn praise as being some of the best football played in the division, but their visually-pleasing style of play has not produced consistent results.
Looking to return to the Premier League after three seasons in the second tier, Fulham boast a balanced arsenal of attacking options, spearheaded by Tom Cairney, whose nine goals and nine assists have seen him labelled one of the Championship’s best players. Cairney is surrounded in central midfield by former Celtic player Stefan Johansen and fellow Scot Kevin McDonald, who have all had outstanding seasons and laid the basis for Fulham’s success.
There are two main reasons Fulham do not find themselves in the top six. First, their defence has been unreliable. Lacking an established partnership or consistency on the flanks, the Cottagers have struggled to defend well on a consistent basis. The second reason is their poor home form. With a mediocre record of 8-7-5 at Craven Cottage, the Whites have let attainable, valuable points slip at home against several bottom-half sides.
Fulham’s form as of late has been exceptional, unbeaten in their last eight before last weekend’s home loss to Wolves. Sitting only one point behind sixth place Sheffield Wednesday, as Fulham trend upward, if they find some consistency at the back and get results at home, they have a very good chance to find themselves in the playoffs for promotion.