Reaching the promised land: 3 inspiring tales of Championship promotion

Over the years, the Championship has proven to be one of the most exciting, unpredictable and competitive leagues in the world. This season alone, we’ve had ‘spy-gate’, food-banks and players being attacked by rival fans. The most interesting stories however, have been the successful promotions of the 3 clubs returning to the Premier League: Norwich City, Sheffield United and Aston Villa. Interesting, not only because they were largely unexpected, but because of the stories surrounding their surprising successes.

At the start of the season, there wouldn’t have been many brave punters placing their cash on Norwich City and Sheffield United to finish in the automatic promotion places; or even reach the play-offs. Despite reaching the play-off final the year below, Aston Villa were not overly fancied either. So how did each of these sides upset the odds to secure promotion back to the Premier League? Here we delve into stories of good recruitment, home-town heroes and managers with the midas touch

Norwich City

2018/19 promotion odds: 7/1

Championship-winners Norwich produced a remarkable season, which saw them improve exponentially from the turgid and lacklustre 2017/18 campaign; where they finished second-lowest scorers in the championship, and finished 14th. In doing so, they have been exciting to watch, thrifty in the transfer market and most importantly, have allowed an exciting young coach to work his magic; when it would have been very tempting for the club’s hierarchy to pull the trigger the season before.

Attacking flair

In complete contrast to the toothless previous campaign, Norwich were the Championship’s great entertainers in 2018/19. During the course of the season, they racked up 93 goals: far more than the next best in the division (87 – West Brom), doing so in a style that has been aesthetically pleasing, yet ruthless. Teemu Puuki, signed from Brondby on a free transfer, was the spearhead for a quick, dynamic forward line and finished the Championship’s player of the season: scoring 29 goals and providing 9 assists. Other standout performers included Mario Vrancic, Emiliano Buendía, Marco Stiepermann and Onel Hernandez.

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Norwich fans were treated to incredible drama at Carrow Road throughout the season, with late goals aplenty and high-octane football that showcased a ‘you score, we score’ attitude, with Daniel Farke’s men backing themselves to outscore their opponents. On many occasions, their team displayed a never-say-die attitude that left opposition fans with an inability to feel comfortable, regardless of their lead. Arguably, the most vivid example of this came in the 3-3 home draw to Nottingham Forest that saw the Canaries come back from 3-0 down at 78 minutes, for them to draw 3-3; scoring goals in the 94th and 98th minutes through Onel Hernandez.

Interestingly, Norwich finished with only the 8th best defensive record in the division; a stat which can’t have been true for many previous winners of the Championship. Thankfully for Canaries fans, fortune certainly favoured the brave this season, and they will be hoping to replicate some of this exciting brand of football in the Premier League next season when they face better opposition.

Incredible recruitment

To put into context just how incredible the recruitment at Norwich was this season, they made a net transfer profit of over £28 million last summer. On paper at least, their business last summer looked like more of a concern than a reason for optimism. The club sold arguably, their two best players of the previous campaign: James Maddison and Jacob Murphy, for a combined figure of nearly £33 million. Maddison, who’s had a very impressive first season in the Premier League with Leicester City, was a huge loss as he had been directly involved in 45% of Norwich’s goals in the previous campaign. Trying to replace him was not going to be an easy task; especially as a very small percentage of the funds from his sale were available to Daniel Farke for reinvestment.

Teemu Puuki: the main who arrived on a free transfer from Brondby, to little excitement; ended up becoming the Championship player of the season and took over the role of talisman from Maddison. Finishing with 29 goals 10 assists, Peeku has to be the best signing made in the Championship in recent memory. Emiliano Buendía, who arrived for a paltry £1.35 million, also had an incredible season, finishing with 8 goals and 12 assists. Other notable acquisitions who had stellar campaigns include Moritz Leitner and Tim Krul (also a free signing).

Daniel Farke

It’s hard to imagine, considering Norwich’s incredible achievements this year, that Daniel Farke could have well been shown the exit door last season. Prior to the December fixture against Birmingham City, there were loud calls for him to be sacked. In opting against pressing the trigger, the Norwich board have been handsomely rewarded for sticking by Farke little more than a calendar year later. If ever there was an example of the profit that standing by a manager can deliver; this is it.

At first glance, Daniel Farke and Jurgen Klopp might not seem to share many of the same characteristics. Farke is an understated man, keen to downplay expectations where he can, and speaks in a soft tone. Klopp – well, he isn’t any of those things! On the face of it, the only thing they have in common is their German nationality. If you look a little deeper though, they have more in common than first meets the eye.

One of the keys to Farke’s success has been the way he has been able to unite almost everyone at the club, enabling everyone to pull in the same direction. Although done in a different manner, Farke appears to have the same ability as Klopp to draw the very best out of his players; improving players who may not have previously demonstrated the same level of quality. He’s also developed a great relationship with the fans: not only because of the success he’s brought, but also by the manner in which he conducts himself and represents the club; in a similar way to Klopp.

During his second season in charge, Farke has been able to mould the Norwich side to his philosophy; dominant in possession but with the ability to hurt teams on the counter attack when the opportunity presents itself. Sharing the same trait as Guardiola and Klopp, Farke is a stickler for principles – he is a firm believer that his style of play will reap the rewards and is not overly interested in adapting to the opposition’s threats, thereby negating his own team’s strengths.

It will be interesting to see if Farke is able to remain so steadfast in his principles, when his side come up against significantly more talented teams in the Premier League next season. Whatever happens, Farke has already shown enough in his short management career to suggest that he has a somewhat golden touch. The way he has been able to turn around Norwich City from Championship drifters, to champions, is the epitome of a feel-good football story.

Sheffield United

2018/19 promotion odds: 8/1

Sheffield United finished runners-up this season, only 2 seasons after sealing a long-awaited promotion from League 1. Many of the side that sealed that promotion have helped to lead the Blades out of the Championship at just the second time of asking. Their automatic promotion was not on the radar at the start of the season, but a combination of plucky transfers, home-grown passion and managerial nous delivered a return to the Premier League, following a 12-year hiatus.

Made of Steel

What was so impressive about their promotion run-in, was the way that they were able to maintain the pressure on Leeds after each round of games. In a similar fashion to the Premier League title race, it became a battle of will, as much as skill, towards the end of the season and Sheffield Uniteds’ mental fortitude shone through; a characteristic that has earmarked Chris Wilders’ time in charge. Although they never really looked like winning the league, the Blades never strayed too far away from the automatic promotion places, and as the season went on, their belief grew to the extent that they became a very hard team to beat. Only champions Norwich ended up losing fewer games than Sheffield United.

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In a complete contrast to Norwich City; Sheffield United’s promotion has been firmly built on their defensive steel (excuse the pun); boasting the league’s joint-best record. That said, they haven’t been shy in front of goal either, with only Norwich, West Brom and Aston Villa scoring more during the season. The Blades finished the season with the highest goal difference in the division; demonstrating that they fully deserved their promotion. Although possessing a mean defense, one of the highlights of United’s play under Wilder is the tenacity of their defensive players to drive forward and join in attacks. Between Enda Stevens, Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham alone, 10 goals were contributed from defense.

Good recruitment

In a similar fashion to Norwich, the Blades reinvested the money generated through player sales last summer very wisely. Through the sale of David Brooks to Bournemouth, Sheffield United were able to invest in a string of players who went on to have a significant impact on their promotion campaign. Incredibly, only John Egan who was signed from Championship rivals Brentford cost any substantial money (£4 million). David McGoldrick and Kean Bryan were signed on free transfers, with McGoldrick in particular proving to be a shrewd signing; weighing in with 15 goals.

Just as crucial to the clubs success story were the key loan signings of goalkeeper Dean Henderson, and midfielder Ollie Norwood. Between them, they made 89 Championship appearances and helped to sure up the spine of the side that ended up becoming the joint-best defense in the league.

Homegrown heroes

The real heart-warming element of the Sheffield United promotion story, is that the club has been lead to the promised land by a manager and captain who are both Blades fans. Under the guidance of Wilder, who played for his boyhood club over 100 times, Sheffield United have secured two promotions in 3 years. In securing promotion from the Championship, Wilder has now been promoted from each of the Football Leagues in England; quite some achievement. What’s more amazing, is the speed in which he has achieved this feat – 5 years.

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Wilder’s first Brammall-Lane promotion bought about a record 100 points from League One in his first full season in charge. That he made it look so easy, belies a fraught period for Sheffield United, with the club struggling badly to escape the third-tier. Indeed, prior to Wilders’ arrival the club limped to 11th in League One with an apparent lack of direction and an apathy starting to spread amongst fans. Wilder’s previous history with the Blades earned him goodwill; before he even started the job. Due to his exploits since taking over, he has earned himself legendary status.

As the other half in the hometown-boy-done-good story, Billy Sharp has captained the side for both of the promotions under Wilder. Having bagged 30 goals in the Blades’ league 1 promotion campaign, Sharp has proven his prowess in the league above; scoring 23 goals and finishing 5th in the race for the golden boot this season. Scoring for fun isn’t a new thing for Sharp; he’s scored over 200 in the Football League since 2000. Whilst he has always been a poacher extraordinaire, his experience and knowledge of the club, means he adds significant value off of the pitch as well as on it.

There are very few clubs who can count their manager and captain amongst their fan-base; and it must be re-assuring to Blades fans to know that at the very least, their team will be pulling in the same direction. Often, the biggest gripe amongst supporters is that their players don’t care, or that they are not giving 100%. When you mix the quality of the Sheffield United team with the work ethic exemplified by Sharp, it is a recipe for success. Chris Wilder has already demonstrated, in a very short space of time, that he is able to defy expectations and lead his teams to unexpected glory. It would take a brave person to bet against him pulling off Premier League survival next season.

Aston Villa

2018/19 promotion odds: 9/2

Of the three promoted sides this year, Villa would have been considered the most likely to go up at the start of the season. That said, they had a fairly turbulent summer last year with the departure of John Terry for wage reasons, along with warnings of swinging cuts and even a potential administration. That crises was adverted at the last minute; with the change of ownership bringing in new wealthy investors who between them, have an estimated worth of £9 billion. This extra financial muscle helped to keep talisman Jack Grealish at the club; arguably the most important bit of transfer business they didn’t do last summer.

Don’t look back in anger

The Villa fans have had a miserable few years, watching their side first slowly slide towards the Premier League trapdoor through a chronic lack of investment from an absent owner. This was then compounded by the heartbreak of a play-off final defeat the previous season to Fulham. At the end of last season, it would have been easy for Villa fans to be concerned about when they might next be in such a position to go up; particularly when Tony Xia’s financial issues came to light. After all, there are plenty of other big clubs in the Championship who have not seen top-flight action for a long, long time so Villa could have fallen into that trap.

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The smash Oasis hit has become something of an adopted folk anthem for the Villa Park faithful over the previous few years; a reflection of the clubs troubled recent past under the poor ownership of Randy Lerner. It started off as a satirical expression about the way the club had been allowed to drift into the doldrums, but thankfully after 3 years in the Championship, they no longer need to look back in anger.

Good Recruitment

Prior to last summers’ transfer window, Villa already had a Championship-contending squad with many players still at the club from their time in the Premier League. Unfortunately this squad was badly under-performing and there were players at the club, using up a decent chunk of the salary budget; but contributing little. As with Norwich and Sheffield United, Villa managed to bring in players last summer that had a big impact on their promotion push. This was helped by the sale of left-back Jordan Amavi who attracted a fee of £9 million from Marseille.

The signing of John McGinn from Hibernian for nearly £3 million turned out to be an inspired one, with the Scotsman recently voted signing of the season in a recent Villa fans’ poll. Villa fans will fondly remember his Wembley-winning goal against Derby as the highlight of an impressive first season in English football, in which he contributed 6 goals and 10 assists to Villa’s promotion.

Although, by Championship standards, Villa had a decent outlay in the summer on new players; their real success came in the loan market. Tammy Abraham, Tyrone Mings, Axel Tuanzebe and Anwar El Ghazi became key players during the back-end of the Championship season that included a 10-game winning streak; breaking a 109-year old record in the process. Villa’s successful reliance on the loan market, particularly from the Premier League could be interpreted as a sign of the growing disparity between the Premier League and the Championship. Regardless of this, Villa fans will be desperate to keep hold of these players who made such a difference to their side.

Homegrown heroes

In a carbon-copy of the situation at Sheffield United; Villa fans had the good fortune to know that their club is in safe hands, with boyhood fans in place as manager and captain.

When he lead Villa out at Wembley for the play-off final, Dean Smith described it as a ‘dream come true’. This certainly wasn’t the typical managerial cliche – he genuinely meant it. Unlike Chris Wilder at Sheffield United who had played for his club, Smith had never donned the Villa jersey, but he made no secret that he supported Villa whilst growing up. Whilst this didn’t guarantee success with Villa fans, it certainly helped when he was appointed as manager, instead of some of the other, bigger names that had been linked with the job.

Dean Smith had already demonstrated during his time at both Walsall and Brentford, that he was able to significantly improve the team from the state in which he found it. At Brentford in particular, he was able to instill an aesthetically pleasing brand of football with fairly limited resources – against the backdrop of losing his best players each summer; often to Championship rivals. Upon taking over the team, Villa had an air of confusion about their identity, their playing style and what they were trying to achieve under Steve Bruce.

Smith has made no secret about how he thinks football should be played, and much like Farke and Wilder, is not prepared to compromise on his principles. Upon taking the reigns at Villa Park, he promised the Villa faithful that he was going to ‘reinvigorate’ their attack; and he wasn’t kidding. The Villans scored 66 goals in the next 38 league games: an average of over 1.7 goals a game. Crucial to Smith’s playing ambitions were Tammy Abraham, who he managed to coax into scintillating goal-scoring form – finishing the leagues runner-up for the golden boot on 26 goals. Equally as important, was the form of playmaker Jack Grealish; arguably the best player in the Championship.

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Since his early days at Villa, Grealish has really knuckled down and worked hard on his game, showing greater levels of maturity and professionalism in each senior campaign he’s had. This was tested to the limit when he was despicably punched by a Birmingham ‘fan’ during their derby; and the way in which he reacted spoke volumes for his growing levels of maturity. He’s relished the increased level of responsibility afforded to him by Dean Smith, and as a result of narrowing his focus, has developed his game to a level that will be very welcome in the Premier League. The play-off success against Derby meant as much to Grealish as it did to the Villa fans. He really is, one of their own.

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