EFL Championship Spring Grades – Part 2
We’re now two-thirds of the way through the Championship season and the promotion and relegation races couldn’t be tighter. How is each side faring with just over 30 games played?
Here are our verdicts on each Championship team so far as the season reaches crunch time…
Part 2 looks at Norwich City to Wigan Athletic…
Reasons to be cheerful: Norwich’s fitness levels look far sharper than many of their nearest rivals – with their uncanny knack of scoring late goals likely to make all the difference in ensuring they avoid the lottery of the play-offs. They certainly have the stamina to stay the distance – now it’s just a question as to whether they have the mental resilience to seal the deal.
Reasons to be fearful: Unlike previous Championship campaigns where one or two sides have tended to dominate from start to finish, this season has no outstanding class act. That means it’ll be a war of attrition for any side to get over the line, and Norwich – like Leeds – have shown signs of wobbling when presented with the opportunity to pull away. Can Daniel Farke’s side hold their nerve?
Reasons to be cheerful: It’s been another turbulent season at the City Ground with Forest ensuring yet another campaign ends with a new manager at the helm. On the pitch however, the Tricky Trees continue to bubble under the radar in the race for the play-offs. One side nearly always makes a late charge, and if Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane can wring more consistency out of a more than capable Championship squad, Forest could sneak home.
Reasons to be fearful: Forest are coupon-busters for a reason – winning games they really shouldn’t before losing home bankers. If they miss out on the play-offs, it’ll be mostly self-inflicted, with other sides around them looking a better bet to string a run of wins together in the final reckoning.
Preston North End
Reasons to be cheerful: A season that started with a whimper could still end with an unlikely tilt at the play-offs in a sign to all other Championship sides that patience is a virtue. It’s easy to forget now that at the end of September, the Lilywhites were marooned at the bottom of the table with five points from 10 games. Sometimes it’s better to keep the faith.
Reasons to be fearful: Preston deserve huge credit for turning their season around and consolidating comfortably in mid-table. The jury remains out, however, on whether mid-table is their realistic ceiling at Championship level given the financial advantages enjoyed by many of their rivals. Can Neil get much more from a squad that continues to punch above its weight?
Reasons to be cheerful: QPR were heavily fancied for the drop by many onlookers this summer – a theory reinforced by Steve McClaren’s horrendous start to life at the club, with the ex-England manager losing his first four league games. However, the Rs showed plenty of character to rally to mid-table from that point onwards and should have time on their side to grind out the few wins they need to hit the 50-point mark without looking over their shoulder.
Reasons to be fearful: The Rs have probably left themselves enough wriggle room to avert any last-day drama this season but they are currently doing their level best to make life interesting, having recently suffered seven defeats in a row. One team in the Championship always traditionally sleepwalks into danger in the spring. McClaren needs a scrappy win soon to avoid falling into that trap.
Reasons to be cheerful: A little touch of class goes a long way at the bottom of the table, and in Nélson Oliveira, the Royals may have the secret weapon they need to pull away from danger. While patchy results mean they remain firmly in the relegation dogfight, Reading have looked a far tougher nut to crack in recent weeks under new manager José Gomes.
Reasons to be fearful: Reading’s away form is actually better than many of their relegation rivals, but they have still registered only one win on the road all season – and that was back in mid-September. In a league of fine margins, the Royals’ survival hopes may rest on finding a winning formula away from the Madejski.
Reasons to be cheerful: What this side lacks in talent, they more than make up for in spirit. The Millers bombed out of this league on just 23 points in their last Championship campaign, so whatever happens from this point onwards, the Millers have easily surpassed that low bar. They are the one side down there with nothing to lose when nerves start to creep in during the final weeks of the season.
Reasons to be fearful: It’s draws that are currently killing the Millers’ survival prospects. Paul Warne’s side has drawn 14 of their 34 games – seven of those at the New York Stadium. While any point is useful in their predicament, a lack of cutting edge in grinding out wins could ultimately prove costly.
Reasons to be cheerful: The stars might just align for the Blades to pace themselves perfectly for automatic promotion if they can negotiate a tricky March fixture list without losing too much ground. Their final five games all look favourable, so if they are still in and around the automatic places by mid-April, the Blades should be in pole position to capitalise if Leeds and Norwich stumble.
Reasons to be fearful: Late lapses in concentration could cost Chris Wilder’s side dear if they find themselves falling agonisingly short of automatic promotion in May. Late home defeats to Leeds, West Brom and an incredible collapse against Aston Villa will be results they may well come to regret if it’s a case of ‘so near yet so far’ for the Blades this summer.
Reasons to be cheerful: It’s been another underwhelming campaign at Hillsborough, but the Owls might finally have found themselves the right man to help get back on track after several near-misses in the play-offs just a few seasons ago. Steve Bruce is a manager who consistently splits opinion, but he’s a reliable pair of hands at this level and should help bring the Owls the organisation they need to be pushing higher up the table.
Reasons to be fearful: They might have a Championship expert at the helm, but could the challenge of reviving Wednesday’s fortunes be a bridge too far even for Bruce? He struggled to bring any level of consistency to a talented Aston Villa squad and the rebuild job with Wednesday this summer will be an even harder task for a manager more accustomed to fine-tuning rather than overhauling squads at this level.
Reasons to be cheerful: Slipping out of reach of the play-offs might be the best thing that could have happened to a Stoke side that has badly underperformed against expectations this season. This is a club that needs some breathing space to rediscover their identity and evolve their recruitment strategy. New boss Nathan Jones now needs to be given the time to stamp his authority on the club. His methods took time to bear fruit at Luton – but a slow start shouldn’t count against him.
Reasons to be fearful: It’s been a bumpy start to life in the Potteries for Nathan Jones, with just the one win to his name so far. If results continue to drift without any noticeable upturn in performances, will the Stoke board once again get cold feet? For the sake of stability, Stoke need to hold firm until the summer.
Reasons to be cheerful: Swansea’s decision to take a risk on Graham Potter last summer looks to have paid dividends, with the former Östersunds man arguably extracting every last drop from a Swans side thin on numbers and rebuilding for the future. The play-offs look too much of an ask this season, but there are green shoots of recovery in South Wales after a few seasons of decline.
Reasons to be fearful: Off-field drama continues to throw into doubt the Swans’ prospects of being able to mount a realistic tilt at promotion in 2019/20. They badly need to hang on to key man Oli McBurnie this summer, with Potter’s side missing his cutting edge in recent games with the Scotsman missing due to illness.
Reasons to be cheerful: There’s a nagging sense there’s still much more to come from this Baggies side – if Darren Moore can help them find that extra gear. West Brom remain just beneath the pacesetters without having looked fully convincing all season. They still look like the squad in the promotion shake-up with the right blend to kick on heading into the final straight – but have they already left it too late?
Reasons to be fearful: Darren Moore deserves immense credit for reinvigorating the Baggies on their return to this level. That’s easier said than done – just look at Sunderland. However, his relative inexperience may still count against him as the season races towards the finish, with some Baggies fans questioning his line-ups and tactics at key moments in games.
Reasons to be cheerful: Survival should always be the priority for any club coming up from League One, and the Latics look as if they have just enough to tread water above the relegation fray. They remain light up top, but a midfield with individuals who can demonstrate occasional flashes of brilliance should help them edge out the victories they need to retain their Championship status.
Reasons to be fearful: It’s been more of a baptism of fire than many might have expected for Paul Cook in his first season at this level. If he manages to keep Wigan up, he may need a rethink this summer to inject some fresh momentum into a Latics side in danger of becoming a yo-yo club between the Championship and League One.
How do you rate your side’s season so far?