The battle for promotion from the Championship reaches a crescendo this weekend with at least eight teams still dreaming of making it into the Premier League and two able to seal it right now. But how well prepared are any of the sides for what could lie ahead?
Last season Wolves, Cardiff and Fulham made it into the top flight but have subsequently endured vastly different experiences. Whilst Wolves are on target to become one of the best-performing promoted sides since Sunderland finished seventh in 2000, Fulham — widely regarded as the best footballing side in their promotion push — have spent big but failed to even compete.
Looking at the contenders to replace the Cottagers, who are the lambs to the slaughter? And who are the Wolves?
Here is your team-by-team guide to the contenders hoping to follow in the footsteps of Nuno Espirito Santo and avoid the misery suffered at Craven Cottage.
Norwich will win promotion today if they avoid defeat at home to Blackburn and have the look of a team, like Bournemouth, who have a settled way of playing, a good manager and a team ethic that could keep them in the Premier League if they invest well. They have shown a keen eye for recruitment, too — star striker Teemu Pukki was signed on a free. City rely heavily on him for goals — he’d need help in the top flight — but most of their midfielders have chipped in with seven or eight which is encouraging. Their style is pleasing to the eye and the club is well run and set up for Premier League football. Not quite a Wolves — majority shareholder Delia Smith is not known for spending millions — but they could survive.
United, who face relegated Ipswich, can go up this weekend if they better Leeds’ result at Aston Villa. The return of the Blades, such a famous old club, is welcome — especially as manager Chris Wilder, a Sheffield United fan, is such an inspiring character. He’s built a very good team on a solid defence, which is vital in the top flight, and on the goalscoring of terrace hero Billy Sharp and David McGoldrick. But are those two good enough to have the same impact in the top flight? It might not be easy. No lambs, the Blades fight too hard to be given that moniker, but it will be hard work.
Now, this is the toughest call. One of England’s greatest clubs, Leeds have been away for far too long. The current team has been their most consistent for years and they’ve managed to keep the manager — the legendary Marcelo Bielsa — for longer than most. But right now their form is dropping fast as they head to Villa Park. Defeat at Brentford left opposition fans singing ‘Leeds are falling apart again’ and it certainly feels that way. If they could win the play-offs then you can be sure that owner Andrea Radrizzani will pump money in, it’s a massive club. But can we trust them not to mess up? They are short of a top quality striker, too.
The Baggies, who face Rotherham today, have the advantage of extensive recent experience of the Premier League and that’s a big help. Defensively they are way short of what is required but that can be fixed in the summer if they can scrape through the play-offs. Up front, Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez are a powerful combination.
They may need to find a manager, though. James Shan has done a good job as caretaker but doesn’t have Premier League experience. You fear that, without significant recruitment, West Brom would leak an awful lot of goals in the top flight.
The team making a late burst is often the one to win the play-offs and, subsequently, to make a fast start in the Premier League too. Villa have won 11 in a row under talented manager Dean Smith, who is a Villa fan. It’s a good fit and he plays attractive football. Villa’s finances are a worry, though. Ironically, considering for years they have not spent enough, they are being watched closely by the Football League for financial fair play. But the real problem will be whether owners Tony Xia, Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris are willing to spend what it takes to thrive rather than just survive in the top flight. The club is big enough to be far higher.
Frank Lampard’s first season in management has been an interesting one and if he can take his team up through the play-offs he’ll have plenty of experience to lean back on.
Derby are capable of playing exciting football but they are young and concede goals through lack of concentration. Their star players have been Mason Mount and Harry Wilson, neither of whom they own, so that’s a concern.
And there’s a lack of quality up top, too.
It’s probably too early for this side. The Rams could be lambs in the top flight.
Appointing Tony Pulis was meant to be a guarantee of promotion but Boro have found it rather tougher than they expected and are only just recovering from a miserable run of six defeats in a row in March as they face Reading. It’s hard to see them finding the form to win the play-offs and their style of play remains difficult to watch.
There’s a real lack of goals in the side, with the exception of Britt Assombalonga — and no guarantees he would shine in the top flight, either.
Miracles happen but a 3-0 defeat at Forest on Monday told us a lot.
It would be a romantic story if Bristol City made it back to the top flight after so long but their end of season form has let them down and they need to beat Derby today.
On the plus side, young manager Lee Johnson is a breath of fresh air and has his team playing attractive football. City have one of the Championship’s best recruitment teams and there is genuine ambition there.
But it’s going to be tough to win promotion and even tougher to stay up. Frankie Fielding, Jamie Paterson, Bobby Reid and Famara Diedhiou look promising but they’d need to spend big to survive.