Championship: The Race for Promotion

The gulf in revenue between the Premier League and Championship is well known. For the team that is relegated in twentieth place from the top flight, they are currently given around £100 million in total, with a great chunk of this down to lucrative international television money. What the winners of the second division receive in payments dwarfs in comparison to this. Overall, including prize money, the total winnings equate to roughly £10 million. It is therefore not surprising that relegated teams are desperate to bounce back to the Premier League, with a notable drop in revenue even in receipt of parachute payments. Yet, this is easier said than done.

When analysing the statistics of the past seventeen seasons, it is clear to see why this is the case. In that time, only seven teams have bounced back to the Premier League through automatic promotion, with just four more going up through the play-offs. Newcastle of course count for two of these promotions, firstly in 2009-10 under Chris Hughton and then in 2016-17 under Rafa Benitez, and these were arguably some of the strongest sides the division has ever seen. And in the past five years, apart from Newcastle, only Burnley under the leadership of the talented Sean Dyche instantly bounced back as champions, and Fulham last season and Hull under Steve Bruce were the only other sides able to return to the Premier League straight away after navigating through the tricky play-offs.

A great part of this is down to what some call the ‘relegation hangover’. It would appear that bouncing back would be straightforward since relegated sides have the better teams on paper. Yet, it is difficult to play in a league where you are losing most of the time to then play in the Championship with an expectation to win consistently in trying to gain promotion. Also, the Premier League clubs then have the power to pick apart the relegated squads by buying the top players. In the season gone by, for example, all three relegated clubs suffered this fate and this trend continued.  Norwich sold defenders Jamal Lewis to Newcastle and Ben Godfrey to Everton; Watford sold midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure to Everton; and Bournemouth sold defender Nathan Ake to Manchester City, goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale to Sheffield United, and forward Callum Wilson to Newcastle.

More than anything, however, the Championship is a slog. In comparison to a shorter Premier League season, with very few mid week games, the second division is a gruelling 46 game test with matches coming thick and fast. This means the teams that do well are often not those with the best players but those with the best cohesion, and it makes the division unpredictable and exciting. Look at Stoke City, who following relegation in 2017-18 were tipped by many to bounce back as champions, yet they finished sixteenth with twenty-two draws in total, or Aston Villa, who under a combination Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Bruce spent lots of cash but finished thirteenth in the 2016-17 campaign, as the Italian was sacked after only one win in his twelve games in charge. And as mentioned previously, only four out of fifteen sides in the last five years have gained promotion straight after being relegated, reaffirming the idea that the Championship is a tough division to get out of.

Yet, this could be the season where we see more teams bounce back than usual. Looking at the current table, the three relegated sides from last year – Norwich, Watford and Bournemouth – are all in with a chance of promotion. Norwich are on top and hold, at the time of writing, a seven-point lead over the chasing pack. They endured a difficult Premier League campaign, finishing with 21 points and were nowhere near the safety mark. Yet, under the management of Daniel Farke, who previously lead the Canaries to the Championship title in the 2018-19 season, it is looking increasingly likely that they will make an immediate return to the top flight. Teemu Pukki, the top-scorer in the division in that initial title two years ago, has again done well, chipping in with seventeen goals this campaign. Playing behind him has been the Argentinian playmaker Emiliano Buendia, who has notched up nine goals and the same number of assists, and has attracted the interest of many Premier League clubs.

Norwich also recruited well in the summer. It was if they had planned for relegation, not throwing much money at staying in the Premier League as part of a long term strategy, and they brought in some solid players. These included Oliver Skipp on loan from Tottenham and Ben Gibson from Burnley, and a permanent deal for Jacob Sorensen from Danish club Esbjerg, and all have contributed massively to this promotion push. Whilst losing Godfrey was a blow, they also still managed to keep the core of the squad together and some of their best players. Tim Krul has kept eleven clean sheets in goal; Max Aarons is a very talented young full-back; and Todd Cantwell has provided support to Buendia and Pukki in attack. Sticking with Farke post-relegation looks as if it will be the right decision, provided that Norwich can continue the form they have shown up till now.

With regards to Watford and Bournemouth, Watford currently find themselves firmly in the play-off places in third, whilst Bournemouth are just outside them in seventh, level on points and goal difference with Cardiff in sixth. Despite looking less likely in securing promotion than Norwich, they both still have a decent chance of bouncing straight back to the Premier League. Both clubs have changed manager already this season in an attempt to hope that something can stick in their respective bids for promotion. Watford sold some key players in the summer: as previously mentioned, Doucoure was one, and they also lost Pereyra and Deulofeu to Udinese and Janmaat to ADO Den Haag.
The team has struggled for goals as a result of losing this creativity, with only Joao Pedro, Ismaila Sarr and Troy Deeney scoring more than five goals. They do however, hold the second best defensive record in the division, with twenty-three goals conceded in thirty-two games. This in turn has helped them to reach third place, and they only find themselves out of the automatic places on goal difference, meaning the opportunity is there for promotion. They will need to fix their away form though, having won only five out of sixteen games on the road, and the reason for their current position is dependence on wins at home.

And in the case of Bournemouth, they sit in seventh place, just outside the play-offs. Following a narrow win away at Stoke at the start of the year, they rose to third, just two points off the automatic places and with a game in hand. However, two wins in their last nine games has seen them find themselves in a battle just to reach the play-offs, and manager Jason Tindall was sacked in the process. Jonathan Woodgate is his replacement, and it remains to be seen if he is a safe pair of hands in management, having previously struggled at Middlesbrough. Yet, at least he joins with the club virtually in the play-off places rather than having to make up ground, and it will be interesting to see how he copes with this talented squad at a Championship level. Junior Stanislas and Dominic Solanke are the main threats for any side, and both have chipped in with ten goals each this campaign.

This squad also still possesses some Premier League quality players, with captain Steve Cook a part of the side that stayed in the top flight for five seasons; Jefferson Lerma is a talent in midfield; and winger David Brooks gives this side creativity. They will be looking to reverse this poor run of form and end the season on a high, with a strong finish hopefully carrying into the play-offs if they fail to close the gap on the automatic places.

The two main threats to these relegated sides are Brentford and Swansea. Brentford lost some key players in the summer, after falling just short last season, firstly on automatic promotion behind West Bromwich Albion and then in the play-offs to Fulham. Ollie Watkins to Aston Villa was a big loss, along with Said Benrahma to West Ham, breaking up the lethal front three of Watkins, Mbeumo and Benrahma. Yet, with that said, Brentford have found a capable replacement for Watkins. Ivan Toney, the top scorer last season in League One for Peterborough, has stepped up to the plate for the Bees this campaign despite playing in a tougher division.

Toney has scored a remarkable twenty-four goals already, including a hat-trick in a 7-2 demolition of bottom side Wycombe recently, and has also chipped in with nine assists. Toney has easily been the best player in the Championship this season, with  seven more goals than Pukki and the same number of assists as Buendia, who are integral parts of the side that are currently top of the table. Jensen and Mbeumo have also added fourteen assists between them, and so it is not surprising that Brentford are the top scorers in the division by far. They do not hold the best defensive record, averaging around one goal conceded per game, but with their firepower in attack they can outscore teams.

They have recently lost three on the bounce, but this side has too much quality to make you not expect them to recover and expect them to push the relegated Premier League sides for promotion to the very end. Swansea are also in the mix, who along with Brentford made the play-offs last season, and have looked a team in tune under Steve Cooper. They hold the best defensive record in the Championship, building under Cooper’s three-at-the-back system, with only nineteen goals conceded up till now and keeper Freddie Woodman has kept seventeen clean sheets. Andre Ayew and Jamal Lowe at the same time have bagged nine goals each, and although mid-table Blackburn have scored more goals in total than Swansea this season, the Swans are built more on a solid defence rather than a team like Brentford, and so this can be expected to happen. Expect them too to continue to challenge the relegated sides in the final few stages of the campaign based on this efficient system.

In summary, this season in the Championship up until now has gone against the general trends we have become accustomed to in recent years. In the last decade, normally one relegated side finishes in the top sixth, or occasionally it has been two. However, this season, with two thirds of the campaign done, two are looking extremely likely to finish in the top six, and one is tied on points for the final play-off place. There is of course the possibility that all three could be promoted if two can squeeze into the automatic places and two avoid having to play each other in the play-offs. At the moment, not just on current position but on current form, you would think that Norwich will be champions. Watford are pushing Brentford for second place, and anything can happen in the Championship, and even Bournemouth could push for the automatics if they find form. In any case, Watford and Bournemouth are good shouts for the play-offs.

What makes the Championship one of the best leagues in the world is its unpredictability. Unlike many of the top leagues which have an established hierarchy of clubs, anyone can beat anyone in this division. It is difficult to predict any outcome of the season as a result, but with fifteen games to go at least all three relegated sides have some chance of bouncing back straight away. It is also important that they throw everything at it given the potential ramifications. The best opportunity to bounce back is at the first attempt, since parachute payments eventually end for relegated clubs. Once that happens, clubs can very easily get dragged into a spiral of mediocrity in the Championship, or even drop down further into League One or League Two. Look at Bolton, Blackpool and Hull City in recent years and this shows what can happen. Norwich, Watford and Bournemouth fans will certainly not wish for that to happen to their respective clubs.