There are several ways to win a Championship. You can swashbuckle your way to the top playing good football and conquering all that come before you, nailing the title several weeks before the end of the season. You can push your head above the parapet at just the right time in a tight league. Or you can limp almost apologetically over the finishing line, taking the title despite rather than because of your form over recent weeks.
Below the Premiership, there have been examples of all of the above as the season reaches its conclusion. But while Wolves, Leicester, Brentford and Burton can all relax, there’s still plenty to play for at both ends of the table as we move into the final week of the Football League.
Since almost the start of the season, the title has been Wolves’ to lose, although they haven’t always made it easy for themelves. It took them until the very end of September to lose their first league game and despite a winless February, Mick McCarthy’s side have been worthy winners of the title. Steve Morgan may be bankrolling the club, but McCarthy’s been astute in the transfer market and has assembled a young, hungry squad.
It will be interesting to see how the likes of young talents like Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Michael Kightly adapt to the Premier League and McCarthy will need to add nous and experience given Jody Craddock is currently the only member of his squad with top flight experience. But despite having Reading and, surprisingly, Norwich as bogey teams this season, Wolves have been worthy winners of the Championship.
Behind them it’s been as much as case of who doesn’t want to go up as the chasing pack have regularly blown chances not just to get close to Wolves but to make that second promotion spot their own. Birmingham currently occupy second, as they have done for much of the season but their position owes as much to Reading’s inability to keep up the pressure on the top, and Sheffield United’s iffy form in the first half of the season.
All of the sides challenging for a playoff spot have both played some fantastic football as well as being frustratingly inconsistent. Financially, Birmingham probably have the most to lose if they don’t bounce back up immediately but a return to the Premier League is by no means guaranteed. The Blues play Reading on the last day of the season and this could well let in Sheffield United, although Reading have given themselves a hell of a chance after beating Norwich.
As for the rest of the playoffs, Cardiff should be fine but having experienced a chastening 3-0 at home to Ipswich on Saturday, there’s still an element of vulnerability around Ninian Park and it would be a huge shock if Preston sneaked in ahead of the Bluebirds. Don’t rule out Alan Irvine’s team though – they showed real grit to put Birmingham’s promotion party on ice by beating them 2-1 at the weekend.
Down the bottom…
Down the bottom of the Championship, it’s been a tale of the fallen with Charlton and Southampton already down with Norwich and Barnsley all scrapping for their lives. While Charlton’s problems can be pinpointed to their decision to dispense with Alan Curbishley, the Saints have been struggling financially for many years, mainly due to the debt taken on when they built their new home, St. Mary’s. Indeed, there’s serious doubts if they’ll even survive into next season. Both sides have been poor, although you suspect Charlton may be best equipped to bounce straight back up.
Norwich have been surprisingly poor throughout – neither Glenn Roeder nor Bryan Gunn has been able to drag them away from the relegation zone and their loss at Reading, while predictable, means their survival is now out of their hands and depends on Barnsley losing on the final day.
In one of those strange twists of fate, the bottom six all place each other on the final day of the season. Forest, you suspect, will be the happiest as they host Southampton at home, while Plymouth host Barnsley and Norwich head to Charlton. The Canaries will hoping they don’t repeat the final day of their last relegation battle in 2005 when they lost 6-0 to Fulham despite having a great opportunity to stay up.
Soccerlens prediction: Sheffield United to snatch the second promotion spot, Birmingham up through the play-offs, Norwich relegated.
The top two in League One have given hope to both the newly relegated and promoted. As Champions, Leicester have really made the league their own, bouncing back in spectacular fashion from their relegation to the third tier with just four losses all season. In Matty Fryatt, the Foxes unearthed a genuine goalscorer who hit 20 before Christmas, two successive hat-tricks and 31 goals all season. Keeping hold of the 23-year-old will be key to the Foxes chances back in the Championship.
Behind them Peterborough secured a second successive promotion with their trio of non-league starlets again one of the key reasons for their success. George Boyd, Aaron McLean and Craig Mackail-Smith each cost six figure sums when they were signed from Stevenage, Grays and Dagenham & Redbridge respectively and they’ve continued their form into this season. The Posh were always a cut above League Two last season and have proved to be too good for League One. How they’ll cope in the Championship is another matter but there’s enough to suggest survival won’t be beyond them.
Behind them, the playoffs aren’t exactly packed with sides that neutrals can warm to. Footballing pariahs MK Dons also looked as if they’d be chasing Peterborough hard for a second successive promotion after taking the League 2 title last season. Chelsea legend Roberto Di Matteo has the Dons playing some attractive, attacking football but they’ll win few supporters outside Milton Keynes for their push to the Championship.
Millwall will also be kicking themselves that they couldn’t take advantage of the Posh’s run-in nerves and their 4-2 loss at Bristol Rovers (surprising as the Lions have been decent on the road) effectively ended their automatic promotion hopes. They’ve been solidly near the top of the table for much of the season and Gary Alexander will fancy a shot at proving his goalscoring prowess in the league above.
Then you have Leeds who, on one hand, will be happy to be in the playoffs after their terrible start to the season (by their standards) yet, given their form of recent weeks, will feel that they should have been in the title mix. Most pundits (including yours truly) thought it would be between Leeds and Leicester for the title.
But since replacing Gary McAllister, Simon Grayson has quietly gone about the business of turning Leeds into a neat attacking unit. Fabian Delph has shown just why several Premiership clubs are tracing his progress, while, up-front, Beckford and Becchio have been as deadly as ever. Certainly, they’re in the best form of the playoff challengers and may just get that return to the Championship they’ve been craving for since relegation in 2007.
Behind Leeds, both Tranmere, completely with the moonwalking Bas Savage up front, and Scunthorpe have been going quietly and efficiently going about their business to set up a final day showdown with each other for the final play-off spot, which is really too close to call.
Down the bottom…
At the bottom of the league, Hereford – who built their promotion squad mainly on smart loan signings last season – have found League One a step too far and, despite a few glimmers of hope, have been doomed for a long time now. Cheltenham, with their financial problems (many players have been loaned out in favour of cheaper loans in, have also been as good as down for several weeks now but have given their fans something to cheer about with a late fightback, but it hasn’t been enough to save Martin Allen’s men from the drop.
So then to the final two relegation spot. While the Championship’s final day is a relegation shoot out, three of the relegation strugglers have to play the top teams, while Crewe taking on Leicester, Carlisle hosting Millwall and Northampton up against Leeds. Brighton, who seemed dead and burried until the unlikely figure of Lloyd Owusu rescued them, have an easier game against mid-table Stockport, while Hartlepool just need a point away to Bristol Rovers to be safe.
Soccerlens prediction: Scunthorpe to take final playoff spot, Leeds to go up via the playoffs, Crewe and Northampton relegated.
Of all the top five leagues, League Two has been the closest. Wycombe’s start to the season saw many predict the Chairboys would run away with the league but Peter Taylor’s side were gradually hauled in and after a couple of months of jostling, Brentford climbed to the top and just about managed to stay there.
The Bees play a physical yet surprisingly attractive game and, despite the closeness of the title race, were worthy winners of the league. In Andy Scott, the London side have a bright young manager and should make a decent fist of League One.
Behind them, nerves got the better of the remaining promotion challengers. Wycombe should have secured their place in League One but, in a manner typical of their season, could only stumble to a draw with struggling Port Vale. One place behind them, Exeter, this season’s surprise package, looked nervy against Morecambe and ended up drawing 2-2, meaning they have to win at Rotherham on Saturday to guarantee promotion. Wycombe just need a point against Notts County.
Meanwhile fourth placed Bury and Gillingham, in fifth, played out a goalless draw that did neither side any favours. Bury now have to win against Accrington and hope Exeter lose or draw, or there’s a three-goal swing between them and Wycombe. Nonetheless, they’ll fancy their chances given Accrington haven’t set the division alight, while Rotherham would be in the mix but for their points deduction.
Rochdale are secure in their playoff place having seen an indifferent run-in cost them the chance of automatic promotion, which would have seen them move out of the basement league for the first time in 35 years. The final place will, as in League One, go to the final game between Dagenham and Shrewsbury. A draw would be enough for the Daggers who’ve had an excellent second season in the league after coming close to relegation last season.
Down the bottom…
Speaking of relegation, the plaudits this season must really go to Bournemouth. While Rotherham quickly set about demolishing their 17 point deduction, the Cherries struggled, first under Kevin Bond, then Jimmy Quinn. Enter, aged just 31, Eddie Howe into the management hotseat.
Whatever the former player has said to inspire the dressing room, it’s worked miracles and, last month, Bournemouth climbed out of the bottom two for the first time in the season. Cherries legend Steve Fletcher netted the winner against fellow strugglers Grimsby to send Dean Court into raptures.
Not that it mattered for Grimsby, who can count themselves lucky that Luton’s 30 point penalty proved too much for the Hatters. Under Mike Newell, who replaced Alan Buckley, the Mariners have pulled out results when it mattered and that’s been just enough to keep them up.
As it turned out, their loss to Bournemouth probably won’t matter as Chester, broke and up for sale, need to overhaul a 19 goal deficit on the final day. While football’s a strange sport, the Seals can consider themselves relegated and they return to the Conference, which they won in 2004.
Soccerlens prediction: Bury and Wycombe to secure automatic promotion, Gillingham to go up via the playoffs.
The final day of the Conference season was somewhat of an anticlimax, with none of the promotion contenders doing anything to convince viewers that they deserve a place in the playoffs, while Burton limped to the title, a much chastened team from the one that built up a 19 point lead under Nigel Clough.
The Brewers went into the final day of the season needing just a point or, if they lost, to ensure there wasn’t a four goal swing to Cambridge United in second. While, in the league above, nobody expects Chester to hit double figures in the final game, it was entirely plausible that Burton could bottle it. They faced Torquay away, a strong side who needed a win to be sure of their own playoff place. Meanwhile, in-form Cambridge hosted mid-table Altrincham.
As it turned out, there was no last day drama. Torquay won 2-1, while Cambridge couldn’t find a way past Altrincham in a goalless draw. Burton’s celebrations could be seen as somewhat apologetic – had they not raced ahead with the Conference in the first part of the season, they may have struggled to cement a playoff place. Roy McFarland has said he wants to stay at Burton but his record does nothing to inspire and the board may decide the Brewers need a significant overhaul to compete in League Two.
As for the rest of the playoff places, any three from Histon, Torquay, Stevenage, Kidderminster, and Oxford (who could have been safely in the playoffs but for a points deduction) were in with a shout. Bar Torquay, all froze. Histon were the safest of the bunch, but still conspired to throw away a two-goal lead at Crawley, while the other three all lost, in Oxford’s case at home to the already-relegated Northwich.
Down the bottom…
What should have been an exciting final day at the top also meant it was a dull final day, with all four relegation places confirmed before the final game, unlike last season when seven teams were all battling for survival on the final day.
Lewes, who sacked their manager and discarded most of the title winning team on getting promotion last season, always looks a safe bet to head straight back to the Conference South and were relegated weeks ago, having spent most of the season struggling against relegation.
Northwich Victoria and Weymouth also spent much of the season on the crisis club list, with the Vics spending part of the season locked out of their ground after their old chairman indulged in a spot of petulant asset stripping, while Weymouth have been fielding a mixture of loanees and youth team players since February after their players went unpaid for two months.
Joining them in the bottom four were Woking, a team who, just a few years, had ambitions of a league spot, but have been sliding slowly backwards since then. Appointing rookie manager Kim Grant was always a risk and he was swiftly sacked after just seven games, to be replaced with Phil Gilchrist, who was also sacked as Woking remained stuck in a relegation battle. Although the Cards are in need of investment, they are in a better shape than their rest of the bottom four and can simply be classed as an example of how not to run a football club.
Soccerlens predictions: Cambridge and Torquay to contest the playoff final, with Cambridge returning to the league.