The key to Premier League promotion? Find a style that works and stick to it
Back in September, it seemed as if a wearying and familiar pattern would repeat itself. Garry Monk didn't get off to a good start at Leeds, and with the team in the bottom three of the Championship before a 2-1 win over Blackburn, the vultures were circling. One vulture in particular: According to a number of reports, Monk was to be the latest manager sacked by notoriously impatient owner, Massimo Cellino.
Skip forward six months, and Monk is still in situ while Leeds are fourth and looking in good shape to end a 13-year spell away from the Premier League. The relative stability is paying off, and a look at the division's promotion contenders suggests that is a wider trend.
Since the start of the season, there have been 14 managerial departures in the Championship affecting 11 different clubs. None of the current top seven clubs have made a change in the dugout, and there's generally little reason to fire your manager if things are going well; it's instructive that no club that replaced its manager in a bid to ignite a promotion charge (such as Aston Villa, Derby County and Wolves) has made a significant revival.
In a division fraught with an increased sense of desperation and financial recklessness, it might be the time to reflect that lucidity is king. It certainly seems that way for the leading pack, who have used differing methods to set about their task.
A shining example of the slower, steadier approach is Brighton & Hove Albion, who sit in second place, a point behind leaders Newcastle. Brighton have stuck with manager Chris Hughton since December 2014 despite defeat in last season's playoffs. Brighton have put stock in a club-building approach since their promotion to the Championship in 2011, and with Tony Bloom serving as a shrewd chairman who has invested sensibly, they have a sustainable base that looks ready for promotion on and off the pitch. In winger Anthony Knockaert, they have the division's most exciting player of this campaign.
Brighton haven't played in the English top flight since its rebrand as the Premier League in 1992, nor have Huddersfield Town, who play in similar blue-and-white stripes and occupy a similar league position, too.
In third place, the Terriers are six points behind Brighton with a game in hand. Their rise has been arguably the most impressive in the division; the appointment of David Wagner in November 2015 transformed them from relegation contenders into the division's most dynamic team this season. Huddersfield finished 19th in Wagner's first season, but Jurgen Klopp's former assistant at Borussia Dortmund was given time and a summer transfer window to continue imposing his vision. The result is a team that (at its best) operates with an intensity befitting Wagner's former employers.
A community-centric approach has also underpinned the progress of both clubs: Huddersfield sold adult season tickets for £179 this season and were rewarded with an extraordinary level of engagement, with prices raised only slightly to £199 for next season regardless of their league. At a time when the resources available to clubs coming down from the Premier League are so abundant, the benefits of close engagement with supporters seem more important than ever.
If Brighton and Huddersfield have built their way to the top with genuine invention and innovation, there is greater familiarity in the names around them, and it's virtually certain that at least one of the division's traditional "sleeping giants" will return to the Premier League. Newcastle have never quite pulled clear enough from the pack to become promotion certainties under Rafa Benitez, but they remain superbly placed and are staples in the top flight.
For romantics, perhaps Sheffield Wednesday -- still based at the cavernous, 39,732-capacity Hillsborough -- and Premier League founder members such as Leeds are the most obvious draw for the run-in. With the benefit of significant investment by Sheffield Wednesday owner Dejphon Chansiri, manager Carlos Carvajal has created an attractive side laden with attacking talent; they occupy the final spot in the current top six, a point ahead of Fulham, and they'll need to banish last season's playoff final defeat to Hull from their minds should they enter get another chance.
It seems that Sheffield Wednesday has limitless potential if Carvajal can make effective use of his resources down the stretch. Meanwhile, Fulham's scope might be more limited, but since taking over a side that eventually finished 21st last season, Slavisa Jokanovic has created the most attractive passing side in the league.
With that comes a degree of inconsistency. Fulham won 3-1 at Newcastle last month and followed that result by taking a single point from home games with strugglers Blackburn and Wolves. But the perks of a third year of post-Premier League parachute payments have been enjoyed sensibly. Naturally, Fulham visit Hillsborough on the final day of the season; at the current rate, it will be a shootout for that final top-six spot.
Jaap Stam and Reading, currently in fifth place, are the final contender and perhaps the division's second surprise package. Like Fulham, Reading still receive parachute money this season (for the fourth and final year, having been relegated in 2013), but finished 19th and 17th in the previous two campaigns. Under Stam they've developed a methodical, possession-obsessed game that has had its critics; it's more akin at times to Louis van Gaal's Manchester United than any Pep Guardiola side. But although their domination of games can sometimes seem sterile, it has brought results, including a 2-0 away win at Sheffield Wednesday last time out.
Stam, who was appointed in preseason, is unapologetic about his team's style; earlier in the season, Reading lost 2-0 at Leeds despite having almost 80 percent of the ball. "Boring, boring Reading" was the cry from Leeds' home supporters, and with the teams due to face each other again on Saturday while sitting side by side in the table, he suggested this week that it still rankled.
"It's about supporting your team and not being hostile against people, because we're not kids anymore," Stam said when asked how Reading's fans might respond to that slight this time. Things get more serious over the next two months, even if the likelihood is that Reading and Leeds will be jostling for better positions within the playoff spots (Nos. 3-6) rather than fighting to be in the playoff. (The winner of that four-team playoff joins Nos. 1 and 2, and those three sides are promoted.)
Gut feeling says that the eventual composition of those who go up will be a mixture of familiar faces and new blood. It will be no consolation for the clubs that miss out, but as chaos unfolds beneath them, they might have shown that a little continuity can go a long way.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.