The phrase ‘a marathon, not a sprint’ never rings truer than if you are a club in the English Championship.
The season is a slog of 46 games played over nine months, with the dream of Premier League football just one good campaign away but it is this, more than anything, what can make the second tier such a minefield.
With clubs spending beyond their means, chasing dreams of prawn sandwiches and untold riches in the promised land above, owners tend to be pretty unforgiving if results don’t go as expected.
So far this season, six sides have dispensed with their managers one way or another and the Christmas Turkey is still free-ranging it on the farm.
With that in mind, we take a look at five of the biggest winners of the Championship season so far, and three losers.
Winner: Alex Neil
When Alex Neil took over from Simon Grayson at Deepdale there was an air of trepidation about his appointment. The former Hamilton boss had done a wonderful job with Norwich before the struggles set in and his knowledge of the Championship was always going to stand him in good stead.
Even so, the way he has got the Lillywhites playing this season is a breath of fresh air. Their style has evolved from the direct mantra seen under Grayson but does not lack the pragmatism required to be successful in a division that quickly sorts out the wheat from the chaff.
Preston's league form??
1⃣ defeat in 13
8⃣ wins in that run
3⃣ wins in a row
9⃣ home games without defeat
3⃣1⃣ goals scored
Most goals scored in Championship?
Best goals difference in Championship?
Best home record in Championship?
2⃣nd in the league
— James Richards (@JRD3D4) November 9, 2019
An intelligent recruitment model has helped stack the team with depth plucked from the lower echelons of the EFL and this model has been successful in giving them plenty of options, as well as a group with the hunger needed to prove themselves.
If the club does get promoted, it will be a massive achievement given the riches and spending power of some of their second-tier rivals, many of whom could still be tempted to bring the talented Scotsman to their club if things do not work out with the current incumbent.
Winner: Matheus Pereira
Matheus Pereira has been a revelation for West Brom this season. The Brazilian is on loan from Portuguese side Sporting CP and has been one of the stars in a successful Baggies team.
Playing as an attacking midfielder who can also line-up on the right, Pereira’s ability to operate in the half-spaces has caused opposition defences all sorts of problems this season.
He has notched a team-high six assists during the campaign so far while also scoring three times in the Championship. His vision and ability to pick out a through ball sees him lead the team in key passes per 90 minutes (2.8) and is another reason why this 23-year-old talent will be a coveted asset this summer.
Boro have been woeful this season under the stewardship of Jonathan Woodgate. The former England and Real Madrid defender is well-liked but his football is certainly not winning many admirers.
Joint-lowest scorers in the division, sitting third from bottom and deep in the relegation mire, all while going nine games without a win. Steve Gibson is a patient chairman, but given what he has invested into his beloved club over the years, he may make a change sooner rather than later if things don’t improve.
They have registered the fourth-lowest number of shots on target per game (3.3) in the division and generally don’t look like scoring. The only positive is that they are relatively solid at the back having conceded no more than at least 13 other sides in the Championship but that will be scant consolation for those watching them every week.
Winner: Swansea City
Swansea have been, arguably, punching above their weight this season. Under head coach Steve Cooper, they have looked good in imposing their style of play on the opposition and currently sit just two points behind second-placed Preston.
Over the summer, they lost key players Ollie McBurnie and Daniel James to Sheffield United and Manchester United respectively but have coped remarkably well with those departures.
Their away form has been the real highlight of the 2019-20 campaign so far. Not once have they tasted defeat on the road and the man who has been hugely influential in that has been Newcastle-loanee Freddie Woodman.
The ‘keeper has been instrumental in helping them take 16 points from matches away from the Liberty Stadium, making an impressive 48 stops this season – the joint-third-highest in the division.
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Loser: Jack Butland
What has happened to Jack Butland? And Stoke for that matter. The Potters have been consistently rubbish ever since coming down from the Premier League and have blown their way through managers quicker than a toddler through Petits Filous.
No matter what they try, it fails, and with Nathan Jones’ departure, the job of lifting this team and a goalkeeper once touted as the next England great falls on Michael O’Neill.
He will need to lift the confidence of Butland, who has been unable to catch a cold this season, let alone a football. His struggles encapsulate and epitomise the wider problems at the club but the Northern Ireland manager has a wonderful record which could finally see the Potters’ fortunes turn.
Winner: Lee Bowyer
Lee Bowyer’s job at Charlton has been nothing short of miraculous. With an owner disinterested in running the club and a shoestring budget, the former midfielder has united the fanbase, brought the supporters back their team’s identity and shown a tactical awareness that would be lauded over if his surname was of a continental persuasion.
This is a man with the management world at his feet who is deeply loved by Addicks fans. Bowyer got Charlton promoted ahead of the likes of Portsmouth and Sunderland last season and has continued to improve them while both Luton and Barnsley, promoted ahead of Charlton, have really struggled with life in the second-tier.
His ability to develop young talent is second to none, and Charlton have seen a host of bright prospects get first-team minutes under the former Leeds midfielder, with many likely to move on to bigger things thanks to his tutelage. Joe Aribo, currently impressing at Rangers, is just one to have really come on since working with Bowyer but he certainly won’t be the last.
During his tenure, the 42-year-old has given 11 academy graduates their debuts, an impressive number that will continue to rise as long as he remains in charge at the Valley.
The loss of Frank Lampard to Chelsea was bad enough but the best loan players also left with him and while the Blues are thriving in the Premier League, the Rams have been labouring under Phillip Cocu.
They have struggled to create chances without Mason Mount running the midfield and recent off-field events have been a huge, unwanted distraction for the club. Sacking captain Richard Keogh for getting into a car with teammates who had been drinking, while allowing those driving the vehicle to carry on playing despite criminal convictions has not done the club’s PR team many favours.
On the pitch, they have not been able to produce enough attacking intent to win games and the recent loss to Nottingham Forest in the local derby has just highlighted how off the pace they currently are.
Only four sides have had fewer shots per game than Derby (11.3) and that is reflected in the fact they have only scored 18 times this season.
QPR must have been on most people’s ‘certain to go down’ lists in pre-season but, thanks to the midfield stylings of a certain Ebere Eze, they have managed to perform well above expectations.
The former Wycombe loanee has such a graceful way of playing it’s like watching a lava lamp with a football at its feet. His ability to drive past players and create chances defies physics. It is no surprise, therefore, that he leads the team with four assists and has also banged in six goals in 16 appearances from midfield.
Mark Warburton also deserves huge credit for keeping the Super Hoops competitive and the strike partnership of Jordan Hugill and Nakhi Wells has produced 15 goals so far, 57.7% of the team’s total. Given the pre-season expectations, QPR are a definite winner of the Championship season so far.