With only five football matches left of the regular 2014-15 Championship season in England, the identity of its winners and runners-up remain anyone’s guess.
This is in stark contrast to last year, which almost resembled a season-long victory parade for Leicester, who won the title with an impressive 102 points. Burnley cantered home behind them, a comfortable eight points superior to nearest challengers Derby. Only the battle for the sixth and final play-off place provoked any cause for excitement, as Brighton pipped Reading on the last day with a late winner at Nottingham Forest.
This time around, an awesome octet of teams each have a mathematical chance of nailing an automatic promotion place, from current leaders Bournemouth (77 points) all the way down to eighth-placed Ipswich (68). While the triumphant two are most likely to come from the current top four, who have opened a four-point gap down to stuttering Derby in fifth, the diffident conduct of table-toppers throughout the season illustrates that no team is more vulnerable than when they’re out in front.
Indeed, leadership of the division has changed hands an incredible twenty times; of the current top six, only sixth-placed Wolves have failed to sit atop the table at any stage. Add long-forgotten early season pacesetters Nottingham Forest, who twice held top spot, for a total of 38 days, and one would be forgiven for picturing the Championship trophy covered in butter, so difficult has it proved to hold on to pole position.
Yet Bournemouth will be hoping to do just that as they enter the home straight, having found their way to the top seven times, subsequently falling from their perch on no less than six. Their domination from mid-December until early February will prove to be the longest of any team’s lofty residence this season, totalling 59 days of their top-of-the-table tally, which has now hit three digits. Derby have amassed the second highest total, with 56 days of leadership divided over three spells. However, a recent seven game winless streak seems to have put paid to their hopes of ensnaring a top two position. While dyed-in-the-(Rams)-wool believers will still hope to claw back a five-point deficit to second place (76 points), realistically Steve McClaren’s team will be aiming to tie down a play-off spot, amidst fierce competition from the three teams around them: in-form Wolves (71 points); dangerous Brentford (70), and resilient Ipswich. (Whether fans can bear the possibility of the same heartache they experienced in last year’s Wembley final, remains to be seen.)
Norwich led the pack twice early in the season, until a prolonged spell of unremarkable form saw a change of manager, leading to an astonishing resurgence under the incoming Alex Neil, a relatively inexperienced (and unusually youthful) option to manage a club with such high expectations. What Neil lacks in management hours, however, he arguably makes up for in success, having taken his Hamilton side back to the top flight in Scotland last year, and then briefly to the summit in their first season there. Having found their way to second place after a run of ten wins in thirteen games, their relatively straightforward remaining fixtures may help to ensure that the Canaries return to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
Completing the top four are Watford (76 points) and Middlesbrough (75), who met on Easter Monday in a match that saw the latter defeated 0-2 and simultaneously deposed from first position. Indeed, these two teams, of all contestants, have proved to have the shakiest grasp on top spot, having both held it on four occasions, without ever managing to settle in and get comfortable. Middlesbrough’s tally of days at the top numbers only thirteen; Watford’s still fewer – just ten.
So, with only five match days remaining, what further drama might we expect? And who will emerge triumphant? It is certainly difficult to see beyond Bournemouth’s scintillating and successful brand of football – provided they continue to “play the game, not the occasion” and do not experience the kind of jitters one might forgive from a team who find themselves on the verge of gracing the top flight for the first time in their history. Their recent revival against Birmingham, in which they overturned a troubling two-goal deficit to prevail with consummate ease, suggests they may finally be ready to take the bull by the horns. Mirroring Norwich, the Cherries have an eminently winnable set of fixtures for the run-in, placing their destiny very much in their own hands.
Wolverhampton’s late season charge (four straight wins at this moment in time) may convince many that they are ready to storm the play-offs – providing they are not overhauled by another astonishing push from Brentford, this year’s surprise package. Despite the enduring class of Bakary Sako, and the goal impetus provided by new year signing Benik Afobe, perhaps Wolves still lack the all-round quality that would surely be needed to oust a Middlesbrough or a Derby over two legs; indeed, most would agree that the guile and experience of both sides is likely to stand them in good stead when the playing field is levelled and four teams begin anew in pursuit of that final promotion spot. Do not rule out Watford, however, whose three-pronged strikeforce has proved on many an occasion just as deadly as their defence has seemed suspect.
This pundit’s tip?
Bournemouth and Norwich, with Derby to make up for last year’s Wembley woes second time around.
May the best teams win!