There’s something so refreshing about the four teams that make up the Championship play-offs this term. For one, there is no Norwich City, Watford or West Bromwich Albion in sight, as the usual suspects fell away from promotion contention.
Secondly, none of the four clubs involved have made it to this stage with parachute payments. Those payments from the Premier League create such an unfair playing field in the second tier, and yet this season, Burnley aside, they haven’t had the same impact.
Watford have jerked from manager to manager while Norwich City have completely lost their way, eventually finishing in the bottom half under David Wagner. Given the top two places were wrapped up fairly early on by Vincent Kompany’s Clarets and Sheffield United, it has allowed the feel-good stories of the Championship to rise into the play-off places.
- Everything you need to know about the play-offs
- Previous play-off form for the contenders
- England's consistently improving clubs
And there are four great underdog stories, all in their own right.
Luton Town’s rise through the EFL has been mind-boggling. Just ten years ago, they captured the public’s attention as the non-league side beat Premier League Norwich City at Carrow Road in the FA Cup. Now they have finished above the Canaries in the Championship and Rob Edwards has led them to a third place finish.
We’ve all seen the jokes online from Premier League followers about their stadium. But Kenilworth Road suits them down to the ground. They’ve improved under Rob Edwards since Nathan Jones left for Southampton (remember that!) and boast the second tightest defence in the entire division, only four goals worse off than runaway champions Burnley.
Sonny Bradley has been a major part of that, but will now leave at the end of the season, while Pelly Ruddock could become the first player to rise from the National League to the Premier League with one club. They have fought against the odds to get back here, but now they have made it, the Hatters can no longer play the underdog card. They spent £2m on Carlton Morris in the summer, who has been superb, and they have been the third best team in the league this season, as the table proves. It’s now up to them to get the job done in the play-offs.
Fourth placed Middlesbrough have been in the Premier League the most recently out of the quartet, having been relegated in 2016/17. They are favourites to win the play-offs despite finishing five points behind Luton, and that is down to Michael Carrick’s incredible turnaround at the Riverside.
Let's go! @Boro
When he took over, Chris Wilder had left them in 22nd place after 11 matches. Boro had been tipped for the title by many, but a disastrous start meant the grey clouds were starting to loom in the north east. However, Carrick has got this talented squad playing some fantastic football, and Chuba Akpom has won the Golden Boot with 28 goals. Cameron Archer is also on fire and Carrick’s side are the side to beat in this end of season tournament.
The true underdog story comes from the midlands. Coventry City didn’t have a pitch to play on at the start of the season, had to postpone three home matches and play a Carabao Cup tie in Burton. The Sky Blues sold their best defender Dom Hyam to rivals Blackburn Rovers to pay for a new pitch, and were still in the relegation zone having played 15 matches. There was real talk of a relegation battle for Coventry, yet Mark Robins has led them on a quite remarkable journey since then. With no backing at all - Coventry didn’t spend a single penny on transfers this term - they’ve climbed up the table, losing just one of their last 17 matches.
They’ve had huge injury issues too. Star attacking midfielder Callum O’Hare ruptured his ACL on Boxing Day, Kasey Palmer was ruled out for the rest of the season in March having torn his hamstring and Jamie Allen has also suffered two injuries late in the season. It left the Sky Blues, a squad that doesn’t have any wingers, with no attacking midfielders for the majority of the second half of the season. But Robins has adapted, and miraculously led them to a 5th place finish. Gustavo Hamer and Viktor Gyokeres are two of the outstanding players in the division, yet the odds are against them yet again, with Betfred pricing them as the 7/2 outsiders for promotion.
Then we come to Sunderland. The biggest club in the Championship, with the highest attendance, have given themselves a chance at an unlikely double promotion. Having come through the play-offs in League One last season, these players know what it takes to get the job done, but they’ve faced adversity of their own.
Star striker Ross Stewart only made 13 appearances in the league this season, scoring a remarkable ten goals before he had season-ending surgery on an Achilles injury. But Tony Mowbray, with the youngest squad in the second tier this term, has worked wonders and played incredible football to take the Black Cats into the play-offs.
That remarkable 3-0 win at Preston on the final day took them into the top six thanks to Millwall’s capitulation saw the very best of the Black Cats. The young stars stepped up, with Amad Diallo and Jack Clarke getting on the scoresheet. They’ve got the attacking talent to hurt any side in the division, but their lack of defensive depth could catch them out in the play-offs.
You can’t rule any side out this year though. With no parachute payments and no runaway third place team, the play-offs are impossible to call. Four underdogs stories, but only one of these dogs can cap off their own remarkable story at Wembley.