Whether you love it or loathe it (and most of the fans, managers, and players involved for any length of time feel an equal amount of both emotions), the Championship is a remarkable league. More and more money is pouring into England’s second tier, with foreign billionaires wanting a piece of what the EPL promises to offer and seeing clubs in the championship as the best way of achieving it.
Add to that the clubs who have recently fallen through the Premiership trapdoor, as well as the players on Premiership wages who are determined to bounce back to avoid stagnation or worse, and you have a heady mix of desperation, ambition, and good old-fashioned blood, sweat, and tears.
It is little wonder that it is the third most-watched league in the world. It is also a notoriously difficult league to predict, with so many clubs being at a similar standard. It is one where many clubs, managers, and punters underestimate the difficulty of the competition—by putting faith in the team that so recently graced the EPL and not appreciating the difficulty of adapting to such a brutal, unrelenting fixture list.
However, with a quarter of the season left, there are now some interesting outside bets that could represent very good value when it comes to the final places come May.
So, despite the betting bonanza that is the world cup starting to heat up, it is worth looking closer to home to see who could make a late run for promotion by defying both expectation and the bookmakers’ odds. Wolves have been the stand-out team this season, and although they have started to falter somewhat as the finishing line approaches, it is hard not to expect Nuno’s Black Country side to win the league. Second place is not so clear-cut, with Cardiff repeatedly getting into a position of strength before surrendering it. Either way, there is little value in choosing Neil Warnock’s team.
There are two decisions to make. The first is whether someone else will be able to displace Cardiff and get automatic promotion. Realistically, Aston Villa is the best placed and most well-equipped side to do that. With a relatively benign half-dozen fixtures coming up, the crucial game will be when they face Cardiff at Villa Park on the 11th April. If they win that, then second place could be theirs for the taking. But once again, with odds of around 5/4, it is slim pickings for what is still an unlikely scenario.
The second decision is the one where the real value comes in. Who will win promotion via the play-offs? If we discount Villa, whose short-price just doesn’t give enough value for something that is far from certain, Fulham are perhaps the most in-form team at the moment. Though “automatic” is a push too far, they will go into the playoffs feeling their free-scoring play will be too much for anyone they face. You can pick up odds of 2 to 1, but (once again) you need to look further down the table to really squeeze any value out of the playoff situation.
Almost every year, there is a team that makes a late charge for the playoffs. That side has a huge advantage over those that have sat around in the top six all season; this is because they often belong to the in-form side of the league, and they end the season on a high, as opposed to settling for a playoff position after having missed out on automatic advancement.
Of those teams, Middlesbrough will be most people’s favourites to sneak into the top six. Since joining the Teesside outfit, Tony Pullis hasn’t pulled up as many trees as he, the board, or the fans at The Riverside would have hoped; and despite a good win against Leeds, they still have work to do to secure that 6th spot – and justify their odds.
Preston have been solid (though unspectacular) and are starting to drift, while Leeds fans will be hoping that new boss Paul Heckingbottom can spur on his side in the final two-and-a-half months of the season. However, one club that does catch the eye (and after scratching below the surface looks to be a much better bet than at first sight) is Ipswich. With odds as high as 200/1, the Suffolk outfit are way outsiders, but few managers know more about the championship and what is needed to get out of it than Mick McCarthy. They have become a hard side to break down, aided by the on loan signing of Tottenham’s centre back Carter-Vickers. And if Joe Garner and Martyn Waghorn can recreate their scoring form of the first weeks of the season, they could very well surprise a lot of people. They are currently in 13th place, but are only six points off 6th position (at the time of this writing).
Another factor that makes them a good option, at least for further scrutiny, is the fact that they play five of the seven teams ahead of them, after having just beaten Preston, a sixth. These are the teams they need to displace, so that string of 6-pointers means it is very much in their own hands. In a league that constantly throws up curveballs and surprises, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility for McCarthy to steer Ipswich, the longest incumbents in the league, into a playoff position—to Wembley and beyond.