Anyone's race: Top of the league

It has been a remarkable season at the top of the Championship, with five different leaders and 13 clubs having made it into the promotion places. And, with two weeks to go, it remains impossible to call. Glenn Moore reports

Sky Blue Sam, Harry the Hornet, Baggie Bird, Pottermus Hippo, Scrumpy the Robin. These are, respectively, the mascots at Coventry City, Watford, West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and Bristol City. They probably do a fine job, but a more appropriate motif for the Championship's various pacesetters this season would be Icarus. This season, every club who have taken flight towards the Premier League have melted in promotion's glare.

Coventry, the early leaders, plummeted towards the relegation zone. Watford built a nine-point lead by October, then fell from their perch. West Bromwich Albion took over. Widely regarded as the best team in the division, they would surely pull clear. A porous defence undermined them and the compliment, "the Arsenal of the Championship", began to sound like a criticism.

Next up were two unheralded contenders, Stoke City, and newly promoted Bristol City. Neither could establish the necessary consistency and, after taking turns at the top, both gave way to a revived Albion. The form team, however, are Hull City, currently second, and looking finally to discard the tag of being the biggest city in Europe never to have experienced top-flight football.

Welcome to the thrilling mediocrity of the Championship, the most absorbing and unpredictable competition in Britain. It is as if clubs do not want to be promoted, and looking at Derby's misery, who could blame them if that was the case?

It is not, of course. Merely being promoted brings in a guaranteed £60m in TV payments over three seasons without counting the increased revenue from merchandising, gate money and hospitality. Steve Lansdown, Bristol City's chairman, estimates promotion would be worth £40m next season alone.

That is one reason why teams are finding it difficult to stay at the summit. Such immense potential rewards bring concomitant pressures, especially at West Bromwich, where the parachute payments run out this summer, and Watford, who are halfway through their safety net.

Jay DeMerit, Watford's captain, said this week: "The pressure is inescapable. It is everywhere, from on the training field, to the fans and especially the media. It's a funny thing that 'P' word. It seems to make balls bounce the wrong way and makes you feel like you have two left feet as you gently pass the ball to the other team."

The American, writing on his blog at ESPN.com, added: "The Championship isn't the easiest league to play in. There's a game almost every four days and your body just hurts from all of the battles. The more I play in this league, the more I realise how much consistency plays a part in promotion. If teams can manage to keep players healthy on the physical side and stay together mentally, it makes it so much easier to get through the season unscathed."

That is a factor relegated teams often forget. There are eight more matches in the Championship than the Premier League, and if the skill level is not as high the physical commitment certainly is. Forty-six matches may not seem much to the likes of Chelsea, who with their domestic cup runs and European commitments will play at least 61 matches this season, but relegated clubs usually go out of the cups early and are unlikely to have been in Europe. They go from a 41-game season to a gruelling 49-plus one.

Nor does anyone in the Championship carry a squad like Chelsea's. A few serious injuries can wreck a club's season. Had Michael Kightly and, well though Wayne Hennessey has done, Matt Murray been fit all season Wolves would be contending for automatic promotion.

The solution, for a lot of clubs, is to borrow players, young starlets or out-of-favour veterans, from the Premier League. Stoke's manager Tony Pulis is the arch exponent. He currently has six on loan, four of whom started in Saturday's midweek win at Coventry which briefly put the Potters back on top. Then there is the 20-year-old Manchester United youngster Fraizer Campbell who has been a huge factor in Hull's rise. It is not just the 14 goals in 29 starts – he had a foot in all three goals in the midweek win at Oakwell that took Hull second. Crystal Palace are hoping Chelsea's Scott Sinclair, signed on loan earlier this month, makes a similar impact.

Small squads mean inconsistency is almost inevitable. One reason Reading ran away with the title two seasons ago is that eight of their players made more than 40 starts. More usually a key player is injured for six weeks, or a loanee goes back, and the team drops off the pace. DeMerit said Middlesbrough's mid-season recall of Adam Johnson, who had been highly influential, had knocked Watford.

As a result we have a league in which every club has lost at home, all except Ipswich three times; every club has won away at least three times. With three matches to go the top 13 clubs could all, mathematically, go up, the other 11 could go down. The gap between leaders West Bromwich and Leicester City, 21 places distant, in the relegation zone, is 26 points. That between Manchester United and Derby, a 19-place gap in the top flight, is 69. Bristol City, in fourth, have a goal difference of zero, two better than Leicester's. Counting from mid-September, when most leagues begin settling down, 13 clubs have spent a Sunday night in the play-off places, dreaming of the Promised Land.

Eventually this game of musical chairs will come to a stop and two clubs will say to themselves, "Crikey. We're in the Premier League. Now what?"

What indeed? Derby's fate has been a warning to all. Sunderland, last season's champions, should survive, but they have spent more than £40m. Birmingham City spent £20m, but even with the skills of the on-loan Argentine Mauro Zarate it will be touch-and-go for them.

So what chance the graduates from this topsy-turvy division? Can Albion or Watford end their yo-yoing? Can Stoke's "direct football", such a contrast to the heritage of Stanley Matthews and Tony Waddington, but popular as it succeeds, be any more fruitful than Watford's last year?

There is no shortage of optimism. Hull report record season-ticket sales exceeding 10,000, a figure Stoke are about to reach. Their director Phil Rawlins said: "I think we'd compete strongly. I'm confident that, if we went up, we'd stay up." At Ashton Gate Lansdown has promised he will give Gary Johnson £30m to keep Bristol City up.

Johnson said yesterday that he had given up trying to estimate how many points would be required to go up. The likelihood is it will be the least since 1996, when Derby did so with 79.

Johnson explained teams' inability to hold on to the leadership as being akin to the difference in being "the champion and the challenger. Do you fight harder as the champion or the challenger?" He added: "We're now the challengers."

With three rounds to go, that knock-out punch remains elusive, for him and everyone else.

Fighting for a seat at top table: Form guide to the nine teams still in the promotion battle

WEST BROMWICH ALBION (1st, 74pts, GD +30)

Manager: Tony Mowbray

Last in top flight: 2005-06

Form guide: (most recent result last) WDWDW

Key men: Kevin Phillips, Jonathan Greening

Remaining fixtures Norwich (a), Southampton (h), QPR (a)

HULL CITY (2nd, 72pts, GD +20)

Manager: Phil Brown

Last in top flight: Never

Form guide: WWWDW

Key men: Fraizer Campbell, Boaz Myhill

Fixtures: Sheffield Utd (a), Crystal Palace (h), Ipswich Town (a)

STOKE CITY (3rd, 72pts, GD +12)

Manager: Tony Pulis

Last in top flight: 1984-85

Form guide: DDDLW

Key men: Ricardo Fuller, Liam Lawrence

Fixtures: Bristol City (h), Colchester (a), Leicester (h)

BRISTOL CITY (4th, 71pts, GD 0)

Manager: Gary Johnson

Last in top flight: 1979-80

Form guide: LLWLD

Key men: Adriano Basso, Marvin Elliott

Fixtures Stoke City (a), Sheffield Utd (a),

Preston (h)

WATFORD (5th, 69pts, GD +9)

Manager: Aidy Boothroyd

Last in top flight: 2006-07

Form guide: DLWLD

Key men: Darius Henderson, Danny Shittu

Fixtures: Crystal Palace (h), Scunthorpe (h), Blackpool (a)

CRYSTAL PALACE (6th, 65pts, GD +10)

Manager: Neil Warnock

Last in top flight: 2004-05

Form Guide: WDDWW

Key men: Clinton Morrison, Mark Hudson

Fixtures: Watford (a), Hull (a), Burnley (h)

IPSWICH TOWN (7th, 64 pts, GD +8)

Manager: Jim Magilton

Last in top flight: 2001-02

Form guide: WDLDW

Key men: Jon Walters, Pablo Counago

Fixtures: Wolves (a), Preston (a), Hull (h)

WOLVERHAMPTON (8th, 62pts, GD +1)

Manager: Mick McCarthy

Last in top flight: 2003-04

Form Guide: WDWDL

Key men: Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, M Kightly

Fixtures: Ipswich (h), Cardiff (h), Coventry (a), Plymouth (h)

CARDIFF CITY (11th, 60 pts, GD +5)

Manager: Dave Jones

Last in top flight: 1961-62

Form Guide: WWDDW

Key men: Paul Parry, Roger Johnson

Fixtures: Scunthorpe (a), Wolves (a), Burnley (a), Barnsley (h)

Charlton (9th, 61pts, GD +6), Plymouth (10th, 60pts, GD +8), Sheffield United (12th, 60pts, GD +3) are also in the mix, but the odds are very much against them.

The Championship is exciting, but is it any good?

Yes...

*Three Championship clubs in the FA Cup semi-finals, mid-table Cardiff City in the final.

*Championship clubs won seven of 16 FA Cup ties with Premier League clubs.

*The relegated trio, Charlton, Sheffield United and Watford, are struggling to bounce back.

No...

*Four of the leading scorers, Kevin Phillips, James Beattie, Stern John and Kevin Lisbie, have been found wanting in the Premier League in recent seasons.

*Premier League clubs bought 46 players in the transfer window, but only four from the Championship: Andy Reid (Charlton to Sunderland, £4m), Marlon King (Watford to Wigan, £4m) and two youngsters to mould, Chris Gunter (Cardiff City to Tottenham) and Dan Gosling (Plymouth to Everton).

*Diomansy Kamara, Robbie Earnshaw, David Nugent and Michael Chopra scored 74 Championship goals last season between them. This season, in the Premier League, they have collectively scored just eight.

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