Promotion to the Premier League is worth more than £160 million nowadays and clubs will fight tooth and nail all season to reach this veritable Promised Land. We are only a few weeks into the 2018/19 campaign, but a handful of leading contenders have already emerged. Some are bidding to yo-yo straight back up to the top flight, while others have spent big in the summer in order to battle for promotion. Here are the leading lights to look out for in this fascinating division:
The former northern powerhouse made a huge statement of intent this summer by recruiting one of the most admired coaches in world football. Marcelo Bielsa is a legend in the management community, and the likes of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino are almost evangelical when speaking about him. He has certainly made a blistering start to his Leeds career. First up they faced Stoke City, the pre-season favourites to win the Championship, and took them apart. It finished 3-1, but the winning margin could have been greater. Next up they went to Derby County and produced a scintillating display to win 4-1, giving Frank Lampard a brutal induction into the world of management. The club have not gone wild in the transfer market, although Patrick Bamford and Barry Douglas are sensible signings. It will be up to Bielsa to use his coaching nous to improve a group of players that struggled last season, and the bookmakers think he is up to the task. Leeds lead the way in the Sporting Index sports spread betting and deservedly so after lighting up the division early on.
These perennial promotion contenders always seem to be there or thereabouts in the Championship. They finished fifth last season, but lost out in a close playoff semi-final clash with Aston Villa. In Tony Pulis, they have a no nonsense manager who will make them extremely difficult to break down and ensure they battle for every loose ball. They have made a strong start to the season, with two wins and a draw from their opening three games. Yet it remains to be seen how Boro will fare over the course of the season after selling three of their best players in the summer transfer window.
Adama Traore went to Wolves in an £18 million deal, Burnley snapped up defensive lynchpin Ben Gibson for £15 million and Bamford went to Leeds. They have only reinvested a quarter of that cash, and that may leave them short of quality. Still, they have plenty of firepower in Britt Assombalonga, Martin Braithwaite, Jordan Hugill and Rudy Gestede, and Aden Flint and Paddy McNair have bolstered the defence, so they are likely to remain in the upper echelons of the table.
Bookmakers give Stoke a better chance of returning to the Premier League than fellow relegated clubs West Brom and Swansea. They did lose a few key players, like Xherdan Shaqiri and Jesé, but the Potters have done well to retain the bulk of their squad. The likes of Jack Butland, Ryan Shawcross, Bruno Martins Indi, Erik Pieters, Darren Fletcher, Joe Allen and Benik Afobe have been playing Premier League football to a high standard for many years. Bojan might just be the best player in the Championship, while they can call upon the likes of Saido Berahino, Mame Biram Diouf and Peter Crouch for added firepower. They have made some astute signings, bringing in Tom Ince, James McLean and Ashley Williams. On paper, this team looks far too good for the Championship, and it will be up to Gary Rowett to lead them to glory this season. They have made an inauspicious start, losing to Leeds and drawing with Brentford, but if they click into gear they will be dangerous.
Last season Wolves romped to the Championship title in style after investing heavily in Portuguese talent after a wealthy Chinese conglomerate took the club over. Greek shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis is now trying to replicate that success at Nottingham Forest. He bankrolled a £25 million summer spending spree and made Joao Carvalho his marquee signing his marquee signing.
The idea is that Carvalho follows in Ruben Neves’ footsteps and leads his team into the Premier League at the first time of asking. Just as important could be the signing of experienced centre-back Michael Dawson on a free transfer, while loanee Jack Colback should inject some steel into the midfield. Forest have made an unbeaten start to the campaign, with a win and two draws from three games, and they should be more than capable of challenging for promotion this season.
Beaten playoff finalists Aston Villa are very much in the mix once again after Nassef Sawiris rescued the club from the brink of financial turmoil. They did not spend much in the transfer market, and John Terry has now departed, but they retained the services of star man Jack Grealish in the summer and manager Steve Bruce has a fine record in this division. West Brom have also kept a number of Premier League players and they have made a decent start to life in the Championship. Swansea have won two out of two, despite losing a clutch of key stars. The promoted sides are likely to come from that group – Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Stoke, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, West Brom and Swansea – but Bristol City look like intriguing outsiders, and Derby might spring a few surprises. All in all, the division looks wide open and fascinating, so we should be in for a really gripping season.