Championship 2015/16 progress report: Boro and Bolton up and down
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | January 6, 2016
With Premier League TV revenues set to soar to new heights next term, earning promotion from the Championship this season is essential.
Boro in pole position
Competition is cut-throat with any team in the top half of the table after 25 matches still believing they are in with a chance of going up. Middlesbrough hold a four-point lead at the summit with a game in hand, and that is why Coral make them odds-on 1/2 favourite for the title and even shorter at 1/10 to be promoted.
Aitor Karanka’s Teesside team have the best defensive record in the division, conceding just a dozen goals in 24 outings. Carrying a varied threat ranging from summer signings David Nugent and Cristhian Stuani to familiar Boro faces Albert Adomah and Stewart Downing, the scoring burden has been shared.
Head coach Karanka believes he is in charge of the best Championship side this season, while downplaying their lead and current position. “We are the best team and we are top of the table, but it doesn’t mean anything because it’s January and we have another 22 games to go,” he said.
“We are in good condition. It’s a long way to go but we have to keep going. Playing this way, it’s difficult to get us.”
Rams need return on squad investment
Fellow pre-season promotion favourites Derby County and their expensively assembled roster sit second, having suffered the joint fewest Championship defeats alongside former leaders Brighton and Hove Albion with three.
Managerial novice Paul Clement continued to be backed by the Pride Park boardroom, with the Rams splashing further cash on winter window reinforcements in the form of Reading forward Nick Blackman, who has 13 in all competitions this term.
He will add to an attacking ensemble at Derby (7/2 title chances and 2/5 to go up) that also includes proven Championship performers Tom Ince and Chris Martin, plus Premier League calibre duo Darren Bent and Andreas Weimann.
County can also boast an all-star midfield which includes Jacob Butterfield, Jeff Hendrick and Bradley Johnson, who hit 15 goals in this division for Norwich City last term. With George Thorne back from injury, the absence of Rams academy graduate Will Hughes has hardly been noticed.
Brilliant Brighton back in picture
Occupying the play-off places after 25 games are the aforementioned Brighton, recent Premier League pair Burnley and Hull City, and Ipswich Town.
While it is no surprise to see sides bolstered by parachute payments following top-flight relegation featuring in the promotion picture, the terrific turnaround at the Amex masterminded by Chris Hughton and Mick McCarthy keeping the Tractor Boys punching above their weight are notable.
Hughton has been a real hit at Championship level. First getting Newcastle United back into the Premier League, he then did incredible work at Birmingham City to steer a side operating in dire financial straits into the play-offs.
That previous was proved to be no fluke, as he transformed the Seagulls during his first 12 months in charge. Looking like relegation fodder under Sami Hyypia last term, not only has Hughton brought Brighton away from danger, but Albion are now in with a realistic chance of promotion at 7/4.
Hull can be a hit
Steve Bruce, meanwhile, has also enjoyed plenty of success at this level too and already taken the Tigers up to the Premier League during his time on Humberside.
He will feel confident of earning a fourth promotion of his coaching career with Hull at evens, because the club have kept hold of key players such as Curtis Davies, Michael Dawson, Mohamed Diame, Ahmed Elmohamady, Abel Hernandez, Tom Huddlestone and David Meyler.
Retaining the spine of a team is clearly important, as Burnley’s still largely resembles that which Sean Dyche had at his disposal when he got them up the season before last.
Danny Ings and Jason Shackell are the only notable Turf Moor absences, though the former has been more than ably replaced by leading Championship marksman Andre Gray.
The Clarets continue to make their case for a top-flight return at 7/2, while Ipswich as 6/1 shots have a front three in Daryl Murphy, Brett Pitman and Freddie Sears that have 20 goals between them.
Top six outsiders
Sheffield Wednesday are looking upwards after their Capital One Cup exploits this autumn saw them stun Arsenal. Carlos Carvalhal has done a terrific job at Hillsborough thus far, so is 10/1 to take the Owls up and 5/4 to secure a top six finish.
Birmingham City (9/2 for the top six) also sit a couple of points shy of the play-offs but Blues boss Gary Rowett has lost prize asset and teenage talent Demarai Gray to Midlands rivals Leicester City.
It is Brentford, who are three points further back, that are reckoned more likely to go up as 12/1 promotion chances and 7/2 for the top six. Dean Smith has lost just twice since taking over the Bees from reluctant caretaker Lee Carsley, so a surge is still possible.
Cardiff City (9/2 for a top six finish), Reading and Wolverhampton Wanderers (both 13/2 in that market) complete the top half, though the former duo have cashed in on forwards Kenwyne Jones and the aforementioned Blackman. Wolves will be looking to new arrival Michal Zyro to produce.
Small margin for mid-table
There is relative mid-table comfort for Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and QPR. Will any of this fabulous foursome grace the Premier League again?
It’s not looking likely to be next season with too much ground to make up on the above, but nor are they in real relegation danger either. Forest are the most fortunate of three sides operating under a transfer embargo, with the other two mired in survival scrap.
Paul Lambert needs more from star striker Jordan Rhodes to fire Rovers further up the table, while across Lancashire a season of consolidation for 2015 League One play-off winners Preston North End looks on the cards under Simon Grayson.
It’s the bottom seven that should feel nervous about their survival prospects. Bolton Wanderers had been cut adrift, but a recent revival for Neil Lennon’s men, complete with cult heroes Shola Ameobi and Emile Heskey, mean they are just four points from safety. The Trotters are still firm odds-on 1/6 favourites for relegation, closely followed by Charlton Athletic (1/5).
Bristol City won League One at a canter last term, but like fellow promoted team MK Dons (6/4 to go down) they have struggled at Championship level. Steve Cotterill does appear to be fancied to keep the Robins up as it’s 5/2 on the Bristol boys dropping down.
Rotherham United (4/5) are rated more likely to go down. They are perennial strugglers, and have conceded the joint most goals with the Robins at 44 apiece.
Fulham could flounder at 7/1, as their defensive record is really poor and they have a transfer ban, while Huddersfield Town (10/1) should be looking nervously over their shoulders despite a seven-point cushion.