It may be one of the easiest leagues to slip into but the Championship is a bloody hard league to come out of. You get your runaway Champions and the teams that fight valiantly to steal away the second automatic promotion spot, but it’s the play-offs at the end of the season that add an extra dimension to a hard fought season.
In previous years we’ve seen Blackpool, Swansea, West Ham and Crystal Palace all prevail and take home the play off title, and then go onto achieve varying success in the top division. Whilst the latter three are still likely to be playing in the Premier League come the end of the season, it was Blackpool under Ian Holloway that added joie de vivre to the league before finally falling to the Championship after just one year in 2011.
So who are the runners and riders for this year;s Championship end of season joy ride to the top? Three of the four positions in the play offs are certainties and have been for the past month. Derby County, QPR and Wigan Athletic all want to be taking their fans to Wembley on the 24th May, but which team will be joining them?
The fourth position is still up for grabs and for once it seems like no team actually wants it. Currently, there are still six teams in with a chance of grabbing the final play off spot: Reading, Brighton and Hove Albion, Nottingham Forest, Ipswich Town, Blackburn Rovers and Bournemouth. Funnily enough, all six could feasibly have wrapped up the position by now, but with two games to go, let's have a look at their chances and where it’s gone wrong this season.
Played: 36 Position: 6th Points: 67
Still to play: Doncaster (A) Burnley (H)
It all could have been so easy for Reading, and if they win their next two games, then they are certain of the final play off spot. Injuries have seemingly thwarted them, however, and have pushed them into a fight for a play off spot that invariably should have been theirs from the beginning. They have a tough game against a battling Doncaster and play an already promoted Burnley on the final day. Both games seem winnable, but with Reading’s recent form, you never know.
Played: 36 Position: 7th Points: 66
Still to play: Yeovil (H) Nottm Forest (A)
This could be their time, just one point behind Reading and with two feasibly winnable games. Yeovil are already down and will surely only be playing for pride, whilst Nottingham Forest will be fighting tooth and nail for promotion too. Oscar Garcia has built on Gus Poyet’s foundations and has a team capable of doing well in the play offs. They’ve steadily climbed throughout the season, although two draws in their last two games have not helped their cause.
Played: 36 Position: 8th Points: 65
Still to play: Bournemouth (A) Brighton (H)
The Red half of Nottingham were the strong favourites for a play off positionm and could easily have challenged for the automatic promotion spots had they not started haemorrhaging points badly towards the end of Billy Davies’ reign, and for the following games afterwards too. They didn’t win a league game from the 11th of February to April 19th, which is quite staggering for a team still in the play off mix. They’ve finally managed to pick up their early season form, but could it all be too little too late?
Played: 36 Position: 9th Points: 65
Still to play: Burnley (A) Sheffield Wednesday (H)
I don’t think even the most die-hard Ipswich fan would have believed that they would be fighting for the play-offs this season, but they are. Ipswich could, like the rest of the play-off contenders, be much higher in the league but recent form - drawing with Bournemouth and losing away to Watford - has made the task harder than it should have been. Mick McCarthy has done a fantastic job, and by gum, I’d love to see him back in the Premier League.
Played: 36 Position: 10th Points: 64
Still to play: Charlton (A) Wigan (H)
'Inconsistency' is the by word for Blackburn’s season. They finally have the man who the fans wanted in charge, and the squad continues to improve, but they’ve been their own worst enemy throughout the season. There are so many turning points, including Grant Hanley’s sending off at Wigan when Rovers were in charge, conceding a late equaliser against Sheffield Wednesday, and failing to score against a weak Yeovil side. Every time the side has got close to the play-offs this season, they’ve lost. All that being said, they are the form side going into the run in, having gone 10 games unbeaten, although too many of them have been draws. The fans will hope for two victories and a late push to the upper echelons that a sixth place finish can afford them, but I think a draw in one of the final two games will thwart Rovers.
Played: 36 Position: 11th Points: 63
Still to play: Nottingham Forest (H) Millwall (A)
Finally it’s Bournemouth, the neutral’s favourites who have risen after a dismal start to the season. Eddie Howe has done a fantastic job, and could still win promotion for the Cherries in the same year as his previous club Burnley. They have two very winnable games and could damage Nottingham Forest’s promotion push in the run in. A draw is not good enough in either game, and recent games have gone against them. Just a month ago, they were sitting pretty, but it looks a tall order for the club now.
So that’s it, the runners and riders of another Championship year. If I were a betting man, I’d say it’s got to be Reading as it’s in their own hands, but don’t even think about writing off the other teams. Any one of them could easily be in the play-off spots, but sloppy results have cost them, and even if they get through, then they will have a strong Derby side in the semi-finals before either QPR or Wigan in the finals.
Whoever gets in may just be scrapping it, but in the last 10 years, three sides who have won the play-offs have finished sixth in the league, and no play off winners in that time period have finished fourth.