Much has been written on these pages about the struggles of Championship basement boys like Peterborough, Plymouth and Crystal Palace, but what about those vying to replace them in English football’s second tier? With eight games to go in League One, Norwich look as good as promoted. They have an eleven-point cushion on the teams below them and have won five of their last six, the only blemish being a draw away at fourth-placed Swindon Town. Assuming the Canaries are certs for promotion, let us turn the spotlight on to the other teams in the running:
Leeds held an eight-point advantage over second-placed Charlton at the turn of the year, but a poor run of form since January has seen them slip back into the chasing pack. Now level on points with Millwall, Leeds have lost their last three games without scoring and have won just one of their last six. Their heroic cup run, the highlight of which was the memorable win at Old Trafford, has perhaps derailed their focus somewhat, whilst the continued speculation over the future of leading scorer Jermaine Beckford also cannot have helped. Beckford himself has scored just three goals since the end of January, and his poor form is symptomatic of a team who seem to have run out of ideas. Unless something changes dramatically, the season that promised to signal Leeds turning the corner looks like it will fizzle out completely.
VERDICT: Like an aeroplane with the petrol running out, Leeds look destined to crash. Prediction: Playoff Semi Finalists
Solid and well organised, Millwall are an unflashy team who are short on stars but long on experienced pros who know all about football at this level. Having made a solid start, Millwall sat seventh at New Year and have used that as a platform to launch a promotion push during the second half of the season. Millwall current sit atop the League One form table, having won five and drawn one of their last six games. Whilst players such as Alan Dunne, Neil Harris and Shaun Batt will win no contests for individual skill, they know their jobs in a well-drilled, organised unit and also have previous experience of promotion from this division. Now level on points with Leeds, they are gaining momentum at exactly the point their Yorkshire promotion rivals are losing it, and confidently defeated them at Elland Road last week. Whether their squad has the ability to cope with Championship football next season is another question, but at present the Lions’ season looks like ending in success.
VERDICT: Kenny Jackett was unseated at Swansea before he could lead them to the Championship. He won’t miss out again this time. Prediction: Runners Up
The term ‘surprise package’ could have been invented for Swindon this season. Relegation candidates last time, Swindon overhauled their squad in the summer, using the majority of the £1.9m received for Simon Cox to invest in quality players like Gordon Greer, Jonathan Douglas and Alan O’Brien, to add to existing mainstays Craig Easton, J.P. McGovern and Billy Paynter. Young stars Simon Ferry, Scott Cuthbert and, most notably, Charlie Austin have added a much-valued energy to the side, whilst Danny Wilson has also used the loan market wisely to bolster his squad with the likes of Alan Sheehan and Stephen Darby. This has made for a well-rounded squad who have been consistent throughout the season. They will probably miss out on the automatic places, but will be a threat in the playoffs.
VERDICT: Danny Wilson has done a superb job rebuilding Swindon. This year might be a bit too early for some of his young charges, however. Watch out for them in 2010/11. Prediction: Playoff Finalists
Sitting second at the end of 2009, Charlton have slipped slightly since the turn of the year and now look destined for the playoffs. Whilst their form is indifferent – they have won two, drawn two and lost two of their last six games – they nevertheless boast a dangerous combination of experience and youth that is capable of beating any team at this level. Players like Nicky Bailey, Leon McKenzie, Matthew Spring and Sam Sodje are accustomed to life at the top of this division and above, whilst the experience of Christian Dailly and Deon Burton will be valuable in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the playoffs. Their nous will be particularly important in making sure the precocious talents of Jonjo Shelvey, Thierry Racon and Scott Wagstaff do not crumble at the crucial moment. Manager Phil Parkinson has been promoted from this division before with Colchester, and, whilst his record since has been somewhat chequered, neither he nor his squad will be phased by the prospect of a playoff campaign. The loan additions of Championship players Gary Borrowdale, Kyle Reid and Akpo Sodje suggests Parkinson knows exactly what is needed to ensure the Addicks return to the Championship at the first attempt.
VERDICT: The last few seasons have been tough for Charlton fans, but this year they have enough in their squad to finally turn the corner. Prediction: Playoff Winners
The U’s started the season in memorable style, with a 7-1 trouncing of Norwich City. Unfortunately, the main consequence of this was the prompt defection of manager Paul Lambert to their vanquished East Anglian neighbours. Since then, however, Colchester have continued to impress and have looked comfortable playoff contenders all season. Whilst their stadium may be an odious, legolike construction in the middle of nowhere and manager Aidy Boothroyd’s direct brand of football is hardly expansive, it is certainly effective. Players like John-Joe O’Toole, Kayi Odejayi and David Prutton add quality to the spine of the team, whilst the loan capture of Franck Queudrue from Birmingham City is particularly eye catching, demonstrating they really mean business.
VERDICT: Should make the playoffs without too much difficulty, but Kevin Lisbie top-scoring on eleven goals suggests they lack the cutting edge to make the crucial difference. Prediction: Playoff Semi Finalists
Summer 2009 promised a brave new era for Town, following the takeover of the club by greetings card millionaire and lifelong Huddersfield Town fan Dean Hoyle. Having already invested a considerable sum of money during the previous year, the second half of 2008-09 had seen many of their aging squad replaced by young, hungry players like Anthony Pilkington, Lionel Ainsworth and Robbie Simpson. New manager Lee Clark promised an expansive, attacking style of play. With other notable members of the squad including talented goalkeeper Alex Smithies, the classy Danny Drinkwater, and record-breaker Jordan Rhodes, Town looked set to steamroller the division. Unfortunately, this has not quite happened. Like most teams containing many young players, Town have been frustratingly inconsistent this season and sit 18th in the form table, having taken just five points from their last six games. Whilst they still sit just three points off the playoff places, all the teams above them are in better form and, at this stage of the season, the momentum factor is critical. Like Swindon, their time may very well come next season.
VERDICT: A year too soon for Lee Clark’s young guns, despite flashes of brilliance. Prediction: Missing out on the playoffs this time
Bristol Rovers have continued to make good progress under Paul Trollope this season, but their lack of a star striker following the departure of Ricky Lambert has cost them a realistic chance of the playoffs. Lambert’s new club, Southampton, meanwhile, have found form during the second half of the season, but a combination of a ten-point penalty and inconsistency over the first part of the season means an eleven-point gap with nine games to go will simply prove too great an obstacle. I expect these two, along with the steadily improving Brighton & Hove Albion, to challenge strongly next season.