Leicester’s almost fairy-tale rise to the top of the Premier League this season aside, the upper reaches of the Premier League rarely throw up much of a shock. The Championship, often lauded as a league in which the cliché that “anyone can beat anyone else on their day” is most reliably true, has seen a relatively consistent group of ‘bigger clubs’ (Bournemouth and Brentford being the exceptions) finishing in the top six in the past few years. League One rarely gets mentioned in discussions about excitement – and considering that the division has been dominated by bigger teams dropping out of the Championship in recent years, that is perhaps not a surprise.
However, this year League One’s promotion race is shaping up to be one of the most exciting, and the most surprising, in recent times. Walsall, Gillingham, and newly promoted Burton Albion are defying pre-season expectations by occupying three of the top four positions in the table, and are doing so despite the presence of traditionally large clubs such as Wigan Athletic, Sheffield United, Blackpool and Millwall. Whilst Blackpool continue to look like a club in crisis, and Barnsley continue to languish in mid table after a similarly disappointing finish in 2014-15, Wigan and Sheffield United have both had good first halves of the season. Whilst Wigan sit in second, they are only one point ahead of Gillingham in third. The Latics also sit two points ahead of Walsall, having played a game more, making their position in the automatic promotion spots far from secure. Sheffield United, meanwhile, find themselves looking up at the three clubs that are currently performing above expectation from a lowly 8th position, four points outside the play-off spots.
All talk in pre-season was consumed by how many points Wigan would win the league title by, with grand statements of intent coming from the club: both in terms of actual statements from new 23-year old Chairman David Sharpe and in terms of transfer market activity, as the club signed a number of new players including the highly rated Will Grigg from Brentford and ex-Manchester United defender Reece James. Sheffield United were widely tipped to take the second promotion spot, after a thrilling but disappointing play-off semi-final defeat at the hands of Swindon Town and a change of management that saw Nigel Adkins take over the managerial reigns from Nigel Clough.
In stark contrast, Gillingham, Walsall and Burton did not feature heavily in the pre-season promotion discussions. Gillingham, admittedly, were touted as a potential dark horse for a play-off spot, having retained the core of a squad that had proven hard to beat last year. Burton’s success in capturing the League Two title in 2014-15 saw them mentioned as potential top half finishers, assuming momentum could be maintained and their free signing from Borussia Dortmund, Timmy Thiele, could hit the ground running. Walsall, having finished the 2014-15 season in a safe 14th position in League One, were similarly tipped for a top half finish at best, with the likelihood of them troubling the upper or lower reaches of the table seeming highly unlikely.
Fast-forward to early 2016, and Burton are sitting pretty at the top of the division, having won 20 of their 31 games. Five points below them, and having played a game more, sit Gillingham with 17 wins to their name. One point back lie Walsall, with their game in hand over Wigan. Win that and they would leapfrog the pre-season title favourites into second place.
However, the promotion race from League one is not simply about Burton, Wigan et al., and to pretend it was would incur the wrath of fans of Millwall, Coventry, Southend and Bradford, teams that at this stage of the season have realistic promotion or play-off ambitions. Millwall, despite continuing to battle against land sales around their ground which put the future of the club at risk, currently sit fifth, four points behind Walsall. Having dropped down from the Championship the year before, Millwall were tipped to be in the promotion mix-up come season’s end, and on current form seem to be well placed to secure at least a playoff spot. The same is true of Coventry, who almost bizarrely were tipped to finish below Burton and Bury after a shocker of a pre-season. The former Premier League club finally seem to be heading in the right direction, and with one of the best defensive records in the division, plus a game in hand over Millwall above them, the Sky Blues could further consolidate their position in the promotion picture with a win.
Two more teams battling it out for a place in the end of season promotion playoffs are Southend and Bradford, currently sitting either side of the underwhelming Sheffield United. Southend, tipped to struggle at the beginning of the season, are arguably defying expectations at least as much as Burton, Gillingham and Walsall, having only won promotion via the League Two playoffs last year. The Essex club boosted their chances of a second successive playoff campaign with their recent 3-1 win over league-leaders Burton, and they seem to be coming into form at the right time of the season. Bradford are, by contrast, sitting at roughly the level predicted in pre-season. They don’t concede many, but don’t score many either, and this was a large reason that they missed out on the playoffs last year. Then, they were outscored by Leyton Orient, who were relegated, and this year they have scored less than bottom club Colchester. If, in the final few games of the season, they can find a solution to their goal scoring woes, they can easily bridge the four point gap between themselves and Coventry, who currently occupy the last playoff spot.
With around 15 games left of the 2015-16 season, even unlikely late surges by teams as low as Rochdale (16th), Swindon (15th) and Bury (14th) cannot be totally disregarded, as they currently sit a maximum of 10 points outside the playoffs. In contrast, whilst the Championship’s top four are separated by just three points, the playoff picture is much less exciting, with Sheffield Wednesday and Derby the only two teams who look vulnerable to being caught by the chasing pack. Clearly, for this year at least, League One is up there with the most interesting leagues around. Long may it continue.
Featured image: All rights reserved by andrew crowther.