All at stake as Championship gears up for its own World Cup | Championship

On the face of it, it is not the most mouthwatering Championship ding-dong but if anything sums up the increasingly dog-eat-dog nature of the division it is confirmation that the bottom club, Barnsley, this week refused to allow Mallik Wilks to extend his loan at Hull for the remainder of the season for fear of strengthening a relegation rival. Looking after number one is the priority with nine games remaining, even if they are clinging on to their second-tier status by a thread and so, at the end of the month, Wilks will return to Barnsley, ineligible to join their fight for survival.

That is not even the worst bit as far as Hull are concerned given their captain, Eric Lichaj, and vice-captain, Jackson Irvine, will play no part in the run-in after failing to agree short-term extensions. Hull were in freefall when the season was paused in March – they hover a place above the relegation zone after taking two points from the past available 33 – and, despite welcoming back a handful of players from injury, they resume in an arguably bigger pickle.

Saturday’s match at home to Charlton is seismic. Win for the first time since New Year’s Day and they earn some respite; lose and they are in the mire. But Charlton badly need a pick-me-up, too; Lee Bowyer rallied his squad after Lyle Taylor opted out of playing for fear of jeopardising a “life-changing move” and the club recently changed hands for the third time this season, though the takeover is yet to be approved by the English Football League.

That match is unlikely to be the most glamorous this weekend – third-placed Fulham’s meeting with fourth-placed Brentford at Craven Cottage, when the division’s leading goalscorers, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ollie Watkins, go head-to-head in one of the first of 108 games across 33 days will probably win that prize – but it is impossible to overlook the clutch of clubs desperate to avoid relegation to League One at a time when the gulf between the divisions is widening amid a global pandemic. As a result, the lockdown brought bickering and infighting as self-interest assumed centre stage. The Championship is a captivating competition but, a vehicle to the Premier League, it is built on quicksand – 107% of revenue was spent on wages last season.

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Last week mid-table Queens Park Rangers allowed Marc Pugh to depart because they could not afford for him to trigger a 12-month contract extension, and Gary Sweet, the Luton chief executive, has warned his club could face “financial oblivion” if Nathan Jones, reappointed as manager last month, fails to steer them clear of relegation. Dropping into the third tier would be catastrophic for Stoke, Huddersfield or Middlesbrough, all of whom had designs of competing at the other end of the table but are dangling precariously above the bottom three. The outlook looks particularly bleak for Jonathan Woodgate, whose Boro side have won one of their past 13 matches and are the division’s lowest scorers.

Leeds on the other hand appear to be crisis-free at the top of the table after racking up five wins (and five clean sheets) on the bounce following a winter wobble and boast the best defence. In Kalvin Phillips and Ben White, both of whom are on the radar of the England manager, Gareth Southgate, they possess two of the most exciting players outside the top flight, and the spine of the side is another year wiser.

The 2019 Championship play-off semi final between Leeds and Derby at Elland Road
Last year there were 36,326 fans, rather than cardboard cutouts, at Elland Road to watch the play-off semi final against Derby. Photograph: Alex Dodd/CameraSport/Getty Images

This time last season Leeds ran out of puff and, even though Marcelo Bielsa has been working his players hard during lockdown, the prolonged break could prove a blessing in disguise. Leeds supporters may be unable to attend stadiums to watch their team attempt to get over the line but more than 15,000 fan cutouts will have a seat at Elland Road as the drama unfolds.

At West Bromwich Albion, who sit a point behind Leeds, Slaven Bilic has been referring to the run-in as a “small World Cup” and, given his experience at major tournaments with Croatia, that bodes well. West Brom, too, are more than capable of going the distance, with Grady Diangana’s return a major boon for the division’s joint-highest scorers.

There is a good chance the top two could be out of sight within eight days of the restart but much hinges on a sometimes-erratic Fulham, who have the ammunition to make life interesting. Brentford, for whom Pontus Jansson is back fit, need to rediscover some rhythm to make sure of a top-six berth, while Nottingham Forest are fifth but have work to do having won one of their past six matches.

And then there is the Championship’s pièce de résistance: a tantalising play-off race encompassing at least nine teams stretching as far down as 13th-placed QPR. Preston are primed, Bristol City can go close after Benik Afobe’s return from injury and, across the Severn Bridge, Cardiff, who have been steady if not spectacular since Neil Harris took charge, are confident of mounting a challenge.

Meanwhile Millwall are free of expectation and have a kind run-in; a youthful Swansea side including the talented Conor Gallagher could yet click; it would be foolish to discount Derby, whose captain, Wayne Rooney, craves a fairytale finish; and Blackburn being overlooked for the initial round of televised matches suggests they are strangely unfancied. Predicting how the final table will look on 22 July is anyone’s guess.

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