Ah, the Championship, the annual festival of the desperate. Its football might not please the connoisseur but it’s a compellingly competitive division where predicting the outcome of anything is harder than Duncan Ferguson and just as likely to disappoint.
Take the start of last season. The received wisdom was that the clubs relegated from the Premiership would dominate. Instead, they amazed us with their ineptitude, failing to add to the paltry tally of three teams that have bounced straight back over the course of the last six seasons.
Of the rest, it was widely accepted that Reading were going backwards and Watford were going down. Sheffield United, meanwhile, were clearly going for broke, and going broke appeared to be the most likely fate to befall them. Nevertheless, up they all went.
This year things are slightly different. The Premiership’s three most recent refugees – Birmingham City, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion – could all still win the mad dash for promotion, but with seven points separating the top seven teams, so could plenty of others.
Nerves are beginning to show. Of those top seven, only Preston North End were winners in a full programme of midweek fixtures. The free-spending duo of Derby County and Sunderland each needed a late goal to salvage a draw from a home game they were expected to win; Cardiff City shared four goals with a Southampton team who themselves are only three points from the play-offs; Birmingham, West Brom and Wolves all lost.
At the other end of the table, unpredictability also reigns. The fresh-faced arrivistes from League One are habitually discounted as relegation fodder, but over the last six years only Brighton have been forced to return to a life of smirking at Bristol City and visiting Vale Park. This season’s surprise package is Colchester United. Playing their first season at this level and surviving on attendances of just over 5000, they shrugged off the loss of their manager, many of their best players and their first four games to charge into a play-off spot before settling for the comfort of mid-table. The other new arrivals, Southend United and Barnsley, are hanging on grimly, just above the bottom three.
It’s a bottom three that includes QPR – a club whose boardroom shenanigans warrant an article of their own – and Leeds United, who are seemingly intent on proving that no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse, and whose captain wants to defect to the final member of the trio. That member is Luton Town, whose problems were not helped by responding to a haul of nine points from 14 games by selling their two best players.
In the latest in a series of crunch matches, this weekend sees Derby take on Cardiff while Birmingham’s trip to West Brom has the added spice of a West Midlands derby. At the bottom, Leeds visit Southend.
There are eight games to go; the climax to the season should be a real humdinger, whatever one of those is.