It's that time of year again, where four teams compete in the lottery that is the Championship playoffs. I will come to those candidates shortly, but first I would like to congratulate and discuss the two teams who have already booked their places in the Premier League - Reading and Southampton.
Reading's recovery both from playoff heartache last year against Swansea, and from a pretty tepid start to this campaign has been remarkable, and huge credit must go to Brian McDermott.
At the end of August, Reading found themselves languishing in 20th place in the Championship, and looking like they may be destined for League One, not the Championship, A loss in early September to Watford meant they had lost four games on the spin, and even a repeat of last seasons playoff position looked a million miles away. However from around October onwards, the Royals kicked into gear, and never looked back, surging through the field to find themselves in the playoffs over the Christmas period. Their progress didn't stop there, and by March the automatic promotion places beckoned as they leapfrogged West Ham to claim second. Their position of champions hinged upon their trip to St Mary's, where a 3-1 victory over the Saints allowed them to seize hold of first place, before sealing their champions status with a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace.
I must admit, when Shane Long joined West Bromwich Albion last summer, I couldn't see Reading scoring the required goals to seal promotion this year. However some astute signings by McDermott, in Adam Le Fondre and Jason Roberts, worked wonders, and although their scoring record was better by four of the remaining five teams in the top six, fine defensive displays, despite the loss of Matt Mills to Leicester, ensured that only forty-one goals were conceded.
As for Southampton, well their physio-turned-manager, Nigel Adkins, must have some magic sponge at his disposal, to turn the Saints from a side struggling in League One, to a team capable of achieving back to back promotions, is quite incredible. They lasted the course superbly, sitting comfortably in the top two all season, and never really looking like slipping out, despite being pushed all the way by West Ham. Much is owed to the service of Rickie Lambert and his return of twenty seven goals, in my view he will go on to flourish at a higher level, much in the same way that Grant Holt and Danny Graham have this season.
Both sides are undoubtedly in for a tough season next year. The Premier League has gone through somewhat of a filter in recent years, leaving only five'poor' teams this season, with the possible addition of Aston Villa. Three of those will drop out, leaving only two sides who you would really consider in contention for the drop next year. Therefore next year will perhaps be the toughest season in recent years for the newly promoted sides, who will all struggle in my opinion. They have to hope that Swansea and or Norwich suffer from 'second season syndrome' because on the form they've each shown this season, I can't see them being in much trouble next year. I still can't see Reading scoring enough goals. Le Fondre and Roberts are not really cut out for the Premier League, and that is a league where goals are crucial. Goals are one thing Southampton do have, and will look to emulate Norwich's success, next year. I believe that if either of these two sides are to survive, it will likely be Southampton.
Before all that, there is the small matter of the playoffs, the adrenaline filled, highly charged, mouth-watering fixtures which fail to disappoint are back, with West Ham facing playoff regulars Cardiff, and Birmingham City facing Blackpool.
West Ham will be fuming that they have not secured automatic promotion this season, and Sam Allardyce's route-one football has not gone down well in East London. The Hammers brought in striker after striker with Maynard and Vaz Te bolstering their options, but they couldn't loosen Southamptons grip on the automicatic promotion places. They should be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs, however the disappointment at having to compete in them at all, may well have an effect. The pressure is really on the hammers and in particular Big Sam.
In Cardiff they face a very stern test, and a side that has hit form at just the right time to return to the top six. Cardiff enjoyed a Wembley appearance in Fabruary where they were edged out by Liverpool in the Carling Cup final. Being edged out at Wembley is becoming a common theme for Malky Mackay's men, having lost out to Blackpool 3-2 in the Playoff final two years ago. The Bluebirds continued failure at this stage of a season may stick in the players mind, and work against them this time around.
West Ham should make it to the Playoff Final, they have the better players, and are in essence a Premier League side, however over two legs, for some reason I fancy Cardiff to nick it. Players like Peter Whittingham and Kenny Miller can win any game, and so often it is the team that sneaks into the playoffs, that goes on to achiever promotion. If Cardiff do progress, then I fear for Sam Allardyce, as the sack will most definitely loom, if he fails restore the hammers Premier League status.
The second semi-final looks to be a real humdinger. Birmingham have done exceptionally well to even reach the playoffs considering the sheer number of games they've had to play this season, courtesy of their participation in the Europa League. They have quality in the likes of Marlon King and Nikola Zigic, and are a physically strong side.
Blackpool under Ian Holloway are always an exciting team to watch. Thomas Ince and Matt Phillips provide great pace and service to the mecurial Kevin Phillips, who is still banging in goals at the ripe old age of thirty eight. With the expansive nature of the tangerine army, comes severe defensive frailties, that haven't been rectified, and will surely have to be looked at in the summer, especially if Premier League football is in the offing.
I see goals in this tie, with the attacking talent on display. Blackpool definitely have previous when it comes to the playoffs, yet I have to go with Birmingham, as I cannot see Blackpool containing the likes of King and Redmond.
So I see a Cardiff v Birmingham final, and in that final, I fear yet more Wembley pain for the Welsh side and a swift return to the top-flight for Chris Hughton's men.
The beauty of the playoffs, for a neutral anyway, is it's unpredictability, so my predictions are not made with any real conviction. I look forward to five compelling fixtures, as the four sides battle it out for the Premier League, and the £90m bonus which come with it.
As always I welcome any thoughts and comments, so please feel free to voice your predictions and opinions.