15 February, 2008

Escape from the Real League

With another weekend of FA Cup action upon us, STT is taking another well deserved break from the weekly grind of Premier League fixtures. This seems like as good an opportunity as any therefore to take a look at the Championship race for promotion as it enters it’s final quarter of the season. With no single team running away with it this year, 2007-08 has been one of the most exciting in recent memory, with the two teams occupying the automatic promotion places having changed no fewer than 16 times already since day one back in August. While it’d be naïve to rule out anyone’s chances even at this advanced stage, Watford, Bristol City, Stoke and West Brom do seem to have pulled away a touch from the rest of the pack, leaving a four-horse race for that vital top 2 finish. Current leaders Watford however are only four points ahead of fourth placed West Brom, so with 14 games still left to play, anything can happen.

STT for one would like to wish those teams without any experience in the top flight since the shift in 1992 to the “Premier League,” all the best! These days it seems like the Championship is just littered with those who’ve already had their shot, and a cursory glance at the table reveals that more than half of the 24 sides populating the league this year have in fact graced the Prem in the last 15 seasons. It’s time someone else had a chance, so big up also to the likes of Burnley, Plymouth and Hull, let’s see some fresh faces next year eh…

Watford (1st, 58 points)

Last time in the Top Flight – 2007

Form (last 5 games) – LDWWW

Entertainment factor – 7

Relegation Prospects If Promoted – Pretty likely

Mascot(s) – Harry the Hornet and Harriet the Hornet

Despite selling star striker Marlon King during the January transfer window, Watford are still riding high at the top of the tree. They started the season very brightly and their intent to bounce straight back up into the Premier League was clear. Poor results during November and December saw their lead significantly reduced however, and the chasing pack led by West Brom eventually caught them up, with the Baggies eventually knocking them off the top spot in early January. The goals don’t seem to be flowing as freely as before, but a solid defence and decent away record could see them over the finishing line. As with previous forays into the top flight though, you just wonder about the amount of additional talent they will have to attract if they want to survive past next season.

Star players: Danny Shittu, Jay DeMerit, Nathan Ellington, Darius Henderson

Bristol City (2nd, 57 points)

Last time in the Top Flight – 1980

Form (last 5 games) – LWLWW

Entertainment factor – 6

Relegation Prospects If Promoted – Certain

Mascot – Scrumpy the Robin

An amazing effort from last season’s League One runners-up, I don’t think anyone expected them to be able to sustain their fine early form throughout the year. Now over the traditional Christmas road-bump, Bristol City are still hanging in there, but you have to wonder still if the squad is strong enough and experienced enough to last another couple of bruising months. The Robins have perhaps the hardest run-in of any of the promotion contenders, and with goals often hard to come by, it is going to take a truly Herculain effort to maintain this position in May when all the dust has settled. With their last appearance in what was then Division One almost 30 years ago though, surely they have to be the neutrals favourite.

Star players: Scott Murray, Michael McIndoe, Darren Byfield, Marvin Elliot

Stoke City (3rd, 56 points)

Last time in the Top Flight – 1984

Form (last 5 games) – WLWWW

Entertainment factor – 8

Relegation Prospects If Promoted – Almost certain

Mascot – Pottermus and Ms. Pottermus

Without doubt the in-form side in the division, scoring goals for fun through a variety of players and with an excellent defensive record that both the young centre-backs and ex-England Under-21s keeper must take a lot of pride in. Often criticized for being too ‘big’ and lumberingly one-dimensional, the Potters have this year answered a lot of nay-sayers by adding attacking flow and intricate passing on top of their heavy set-piece advantages. In Fuller they have a true match-winner, and backed with ex-Premier League talent such as Lawrence, Richard Creswell and Salif Diao, there have the makings of a team very much on the up. While pointed at for representing the ‘dark’ side of the Championship, Stoke’s size and competitiveness might just be enough to keep them afloat next year should they achieve promotion. Due to once again the long absence from the top flight, as well as their admirable FA Cup effort against Newcastle recently, Stoke are another outfit that many neutrals are currently rooting for.

Star players: Ricardo Fuller, Liam Lawrence, Steve Simonson, Ryan Shawcross

West Bromich Albion (4th, 55 points)

Last time in the Top Flight – 2006

Form (last 5 games) – WLWLD

Entertainment factor – 9

Relegation Prospects If Promoted – About 50/50

Mascot – Baggie Bird

The defining yo-yo team; almost always good enough to get promoted from the Championship but rarely good enough to produce anything but last-day survival in the Premier League at best. Essentially this exact same squad of players has been up and down more times than Tigger on crystal meth, and to be honest I think many are tiring of the same old routine. On paper they almost certainly have the strongest squad, built as previously mentioned on proven top flight talent, however after so many bites at the cherry that allusive key to advancing in the Prem is still out of their grasp. Parachute payments may have gone some way to keeping the likes of Gera and Kevin Phillips year after year, but by now perhaps the team lacks the potential for first-season-in-the-big-time freshness shown to great effect by the likes of Reading and Ipswich in recent memory. The common perception is that ‘West Brazil Albion’ are the only real footballing side in the league, while the rest just hoof the ball to a big guy up front, but that supposed guile obviously isn’t enough to survive with the big boys. Failure to get promoted this year would be somewhat disastrous, but going back to the drawing board might be the best option for the Baggies in the long-term.

Star players: Zoltan Gera, Carl Hoefkens, Robert Koren, Roman Bednar