At a time when some of the Premier League’s biggest names are dotted across the world, with Arsenal and Newcastle opting for warm-weather training camps in the Middle East while other players, often towing obscenely big graphite suitcases, have escaped for exotic destinations such as the Bahamas and the Maldives, the English Football League rolls on. Bernardo Silva, binoculars at the ready, has been spotting elephants and leopards on a Jeep safari in Sri Lanka and the Brentford head coach, Thomas Frank, is using the break to zigzag down ski slopes in Switzerland but for the Championship it is full steam ahead, the division ready to savour its moment in the sun.
Just because there is no top-flight football this weekend does not mean there is nothing worth watching. Far from it, given that for the next generation the Championship represents a Premier League waiting room of sorts. For many, the secret is already out. Brentford have seen several bids rejected for the exciting Nottingham Forest winger Brennan Johnson and the Blackburn striker Ben Brereton Díaz’s rise has equally not gone unnoticed (he scored again for Chile on Thursday and remains on international duty). The Bristol City forward Antoine Semenyo, the Hull City centre-back Jacob Greaves, the Huddersfield pair Sorba Thomas and Lewis O’Brien and Forest’s on-loan Middlesbrough full-back Djed Spence, released by Fulham in 2018, are among those who appear capable of playing at a higher level. Luke Southwood and Nathan Baxter are goalkeepers grasping their first taste of the second tier at Reading and Hull respectively, the latter on loan from Chelsea.
Millions of fans do not need convincing, with combined attendances in the second tier totalling more than 4.5m in 2021-22 – the biggest crowd, 29,832, coming at Middlesbrough v Forest on Boxing Day – but the Premier League is where almost all 24 Championship sides pine to be and, such is the division’s unpredictability, more than half will still fancy their chances of claiming one of the three promotion places. If anything typifies the erratic nature of it all, it was the confirmation this week that Hull’s new owner, Acun Ilicali, who revealed his £30m takeover was happening while live on television presenting a Turkish adaptation of The Voice, had sacked Grant McCann despite successive victories over Blackburn and Bournemouth, who are second and third respectively. The former Rangers striker Shota Arveladze, whose last job was in Uzbekistan with Pakhtakor Tashkent, is the new manager.
On Saturday Blackburn, this season’s surprise package under the wily Tony Mowbray, visit a creaking Kenilworth Road, home to Luton Town for the past 117 years. Mowbray is the definition of level-headed but even he let his guard down in midweek, punching the air after they edged out Boro, one of his former clubs. More than 1,000 away fans will clink through the turnstiles, via a portal nestled among terraced houses on Oak Road, making the pilgrimage up a steel stairwell that overlooks back gardens and washing lines before they get their first glimpse of the pitch. For Blackburn, it marks game 31 of a marathon season but others have it tougher, with Wigan and Cambridge of League One, and Hartlepool of League Two, in line to play at least 59 games owing to their progress in the FA Cup and EFL Trophy.
The Championship pacemakers are a yo-yoing and free-scoring Fulham who, given the ease with which they have dispatched opponents of late (they have scored 22 goals across their past four matches and recorded two 7-0 away wins in three months), could be forgiven for already thinking about how to ensure they are at least the 17th-best team in England next season. Aleksandar Mitrovic is Fulham’s ringleader (he has scored 30 goals in 31 games for club and country this season) but others, including Harry Wilson and the Lisbon-born teenager Fabio Carvalho, who has contributed eight of Fulham’s 73 goals from attacking midfield, have also flourished.
Carvalho, who joined Fulham from Balham amid interest from Chelsea and Manchester United eight years ago, is the kind of talent worth tuning in for and another example of a player who looks set to count the Championship as a key rung on the ladder to a fine career. Last season Ivan Toney and Michael Olise took their first steps in the division, excelling for Brentford and Reading respectively, and have since thrived in the top flight, the latter for Crystal Palace. Jarrod Bowen, who started his career at Hereford United, joined West Ham from Hull midway through the previous season, and Ollie Watkins and Eberechi Eze earned moves to Aston Villa and Palace a few months later.
All four midfielders in the last England squad – Conor Gallagher, Jude Bellingham, Emile Smith Rowe and Kalvin Phillips – played in the Championship within the past two years and 16 of the 19 players earned their stripes at EFL clubs, including Reece James, who starred on loan at Wigan from Chelsea. Gallagher made his league debut for Charlton in the Championship before joining Swansea and Smith Rowe spent the second half of the 2019-20 campaign at Huddersfield. Phillips had six seasons in the second tier with Leeds, playing a mix of positions and for a mixture of managers.
Those journeys provide obvious inspiration but for some expectations have had to be realigned and any thoughts of personal accolades put on the back burner. Surviving the season would represent success for a Derby team weighed down by a 21-point deduction and the threat of liquidation amid protracted takeover talks, while Reading are in the midst of a worrying tailspin that has left them teetering above the relegation zone and bottom club Barnsley, who have not won since November, looked doomed.
The race for the play-offs, as ever, looks most intriguing, with several teams, including Coventry and Sheffield United, armed with games in hand. Forest are the flavour of the month, though – four straight wins in January, including against Arsenal in the FA Cup, showcased their credentials under Steve Cooper, a young coach with a budding reputation. On Sunday his side visit struggling Cardiff, where the former Swansea manager is guaranteed a cold reception, despite his father, Keith, a former referee, being a Cardiff fan at heart. Forest represent formidable opponents and have lost only once on the road since August, when they were bottom of the pile. In the Championship it is wise to expect the unexpected.