On the basis of a look at the Championship table it would seem that Bournemouth and Derby look to be the favourites for automatic promotion but, as the saying goes, no one gets promoted for topping a table in February.
I have been covering the second tier for many seasons and the only certainty I have ever encountered is that, year on year, it has got harder and harder for teams to win promotion to the Land of the Golden Goose that is the Premier League. Put another way, the quality of the teams and the players in them has increased so much that the spread of sides capable of automatic promotion has steadily dropped further and further down the table to such an extent that in recent years any team from the top half has been capable of getting into the top two places.
Looking at the table as it stands Bournemouth are neck and neck with Derby, then you have Middlesbrough a point back in third place before in sixth and final play-off spot are Watford, 7 points from second. Wolves in seventh are only two points behind Watford, but the gap between eighth placed Norwich and Blackburn in ninth is 5 points, and that gap looks like the biggest to bridge so I think it may be safe to say that the three teams who will be Premier League clubs come May will be from the current top eight.
Bournemouth are doing incredibly well under Eddie Howe but I have my reservations. They are almost as dominant in the second tier as Leicester were last season but look at them now. Eddie Howe tried desperately hard to recruit Demarai Grey from Birmingham City but after increasing bids up to the final figure of £5 million no deal was done. But when you consider the Cherries are top scorers in the Championship with 59 they are doing pretty well, not that Grey wouldn’t have helped, he would. Are Bournemouth good enough to stay the distance? Let’s see how they are coping after Easter.
Derby County went so close last season and tremendous credit to Steve McLaren and the players that they have not succumbed to second-season syndrome. In fact, if anything, they are better than they were last campaign. Chris Martin has improved immeasurably as a front man and is nearing 20 goals for the campaign thus far. But McLaren, not resting on that particular laurel went out in the transfer window and brought in tremendous fire power in three loans signings; Jesse Lingard, Tom Ince and proven goals scorer Darren Bent to add to the experience of Stephen Warnock and Ryan Shotton.
I think that Derby could well pip Bournemouth to the title but I expect both teams to go up. I also think the Middlesbrough will go up and may even split the current top two. Aitor Karanka has settled down very nicely at the Riverside since his appointment to near universal exclamations of WHO?
Boro may not rain goals but they have one big key factor and one which may just earn promotion, their defence. Only Southampton have conceded less goals in the top two divisions, 17 in 23, to Boro’s 18 in 28. So, pro rata the Riverside club have the better record. I have seen the team a few times over the past 12 months and they are very organised and it is their coach’s organisation, not to mention Patrick Bamford, that could well see Middlesbrough hosting Premier League football come August.