The English Championship is one of the most unpredictable divisions in European football, and with some £160 million available to teams that manage to get promoted to the Premier League – and the threat of oblivion for those who fall through its trapdoor – it’s not hard to see why.
At the start of the campaign the Championship promotion odds generally reflect the fact that those teams with the biggest budgets tend to prevail, and that was certainly the case this season with Aston Villa, bankrolled by Chinese multi-millionaire Tony Xia, and Middlesbrough, with their fortune amassed from Premier League parachute payments, both made the 2/1 favourites for automatic promotion to the top flight.
But the campaign has not panned out as expected with those two sides in fourth and seventh respectively, and as the season draws to its conclusion it is only really Wolverhampton Wanderers who look assured of ascension.
With Championship odds of 100/30, it’s not a huge surprise for them to be in the handsome position of being eight points clear at the top with just four rounds of matches to play. They have splashed the cash, but most English football fans were unaware of just how talented the likes of Ruben Neves, Diego Jota and Willy Boly are; now, everybody knows, and the West Midlanders will be looking forward to strutting their stuff in the Premier League next term barring a meltdown of epic proportions.
Otherwise, the remaining questions at the top of the table – who will secure automatic promotion in second, and who will round out the top six? – still require further examination.
So here are the latest Championship promotion odds, and a guide to the runners and riders involved in one of the most exciting conclusions to a second-tier season in quite some time.
Second: Fulham (2/5 for Promotion)
Remaining fixtures: Brentford (h), Millwall (a), Sunderland (h), Birmingham (a).
Since the end of November, Fulham average 2.33 points per game; by far and away the best ratio in the division for that time period.
Manager Slavisa Jokanović has transformed the Cottagers’ fortunes after a sluggish start, and they are now playing some vibrant attacking football with young talents such as Ryan Sessegnon and Tom Cairney thriving under the Serbian’s free-spirited approach.
There are some who believe that securing promotion from the Championship is all about timing, specifically putting big results together at this crucial juncture of the campaign. So how about this from Fulham: they’ve won four on the spin without conceding a single goal!
Their Championship odds of 2/5 reflect their fine form and their one-point lead over third-placed Cardiff (albeit having played one more game).
The fly in the ointment is in their remaining fixtures: Brentford and Millwall very much have their hearts set on a play-off place, while Birmingham and Sunderland are battling relegation – the former side have really shown an improvement under Garry Monk.
But Fulham are the worthy favourites to join Wolves in securing automatic promotion, and if they can win their remaining home matches they will surely be home-and-hosed.
Third: Cardiff City (8/11)
Remaining fixtures: Norwich (a), Nottingham Forest (h), Derby (a), Hull (a), Reading (h)
Whilst Fulham are a worthy favourite, to some extent the fate of second place lies in Cardiff’s hands. They are one point behind the Cottagers, but with a game in hand – win that and they are in the box seat.
The Welsh side are the hunter now, rather than the hunted, after dropping out of the top two places following a run of three games without a win. They face a tough trip to Norwich this week – if Fulham beat Brentford they will be four points clear – and with other tough assignments on the road at Derby and Hull to come, you can see why the bookmakers are slightly more coy in their Championship promotion odds.
But the Bluebirds have a not-so-secret weapon in Neil Warnock, a manager with an outstanding record in getting his teams promoted from this division. With him at the helm, you write off Cardiff at your peril.
Fourth: Aston Villa (5/2)
Remaining fixtures: Leeds (h), Ipswich (a), Derby (h), Millwall (a)
It’s highly unlikely that the Villains, five points adrift of Fulham, can mount an assault on the top two, and so they may have to settle for the pant-shredding tension of the play-offs.
But like Cardiff, they have a manager in Steve Bruce who has experience of multiple promotions, and a man who has guided both Birmingham City and Hull City to play-off success.
The Midlanders also boast an experienced squad, too. John Terry has won Champions League and Premier League titles, and James Chester and Neil Taylor have played in a European Championship semi-final for Wales. Their nous in huge, one-off games could prove invaluable.
Fifth: Derby County (5/1)
Remaining fixtures: Burton (a), Middlesbrough (h), Cardiff (h), Aston Villa (a), Barnsley (h)
Their Championship odds for promotion of 5/1 reflect the fact they have six teams chasing them hard for a pay-off spot, and – as their fans are only too aware – this is a side that has a habit of blinking when the spotlight is on them.
In 2013/14 they lost in the play-off final to Warnock’s QPR, and the following season saw a remarkable collapse: top of the Championship table at the beginning of March, the Rams won just two of their last twelve games to fall outside of the top six.
In 2015/16, their hard work in finishing fifth in the league phase was undone instantly in the first leg of the play-off semi-finals, where they were turned over 0-3 by Hull.
Last season saw more of the same. They finished 13 points adrift of the play-off places, but only after embarking on a dire run from the beginning of February that saw their formline read W5 D6 L7.
There’s that old saying ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’, but Derby County rarely even get down the aisle!
Sixth: Millwall (10/1)
Remaining fixtures: Sheffield United (a), Fulham (h), Middlesbrough (a), Aston Villa (h)
The league’s surprise package this term has to be Millwall, who according to the Championship relegation odds at the start of the season were expected to struggle after gaining promotion from League One.
But as we’ve said, timing is everything in the race for promotion, and the Lions haven’t lost a single league outing since New Year’s Day.
To give an impression of their steeliness, Neil Harris’ side have won seven of their last eight away games, and nobody enjoys a trip to their New Den home.
Millwall’s remaining fixtures are all tough, and their play-off dream could yet unravel with a trio of teams within striking distance of three points, but the Lions have cofounded expectation already this season and they will have no fear heading into the business end.
The Chasing Pack
Middlesbrough’s performances ricochet from the exceptional to the bizarrely average, and while they have an experienced head in Tony Pulis guiding operations, the Boro’s away record (W7 D6 L8) is a concern should they make the play-offs. Despite having obvious match winners in Patrick Bamford and Adama Traore, their Championship promotion odds of 13/2 look a tad too short.
The Championship odds of 28/1 on Bristol City to secure promotion are fair given their lack of big match experience and a miserable run of form that correlates directly with their charge to the semi-finals of the EFL Cup. They’ve won just four of their last eighteen league matches, and their promotion quest has run out of steam.
Sheffield United (25/1), another promoted side for whom their Championship relegation odds were shorted than their promotion price, are just three points outside the top six. Chris Wilder has done an incredible job with the Blades, but again their away record (W7 D4 L10) is a worry when you consider the number of high profile matches they would have on the road in order to win the play-offs.
Written by Craig Simpkin
A sports journalist with a smorgasbord of experience writing for a variety of publications, Craig is a Leicester fan hoping that England can also achieve the impossible this summer.