Championship climax a real thriller

Play-off Race

Last night the climax to the Championship season certainly lived up to expectations… with those destined for the play-offs, those on for automatic promotion and those set for the drop to League One in a state of constant flux as the evening progressed.

West Brom, Brentford and Fulham were fighting out the second automatic spot behind Leeds; Nottingham Forest, Cardiff and Swansea were locked in a battle for two play-off places; while at the bottom Wigan, Barnsley, Charlton, Hull and Luton were all embroiled in a tense tussle to avoid relegation.

But on a night of many twists and turns, two Welsh protagonists emerged as the biggest winners, with a third doing an extremely professional job against relegation-threatened Hull City to book their play-off place.

A draw for the Bluebirds at home to the Tigers would have been enough to seal a play-off place but a 3-0 win did the job in style, condemning Hull to League One football next season.

Junior Hoilett, Sean Morrison and Danny Ward grabbed the Cardiff goals to book a play-off showdown with Fulham, whose 1-1 draw at Wigan was not enough to catapult them into automatic promotion to the Premier League. It was also not the win Wigan needed to pull off a miraculous survival act after being docked 12 points for going into administration. They joined Hull on the road to League One.

Barnsley’s shock 2-1 win at Brentford was enough to ensure their Championship survival but left the Bees destined for the play-offs after West Brom fought back for a 2-2 draw with Queen’s Park Rangers.

So that left the final play-off place up for grabs and the final relegation spot to be avoided.

Charlton were away to champions Leeds United, who celebrated their title with a 4-0 win at Elland Road, meaning only a Luton defeat would save the Addicks from the drop.

But Luton Town, six points adrift of Hull and Wigan when football returned after the lockdown… and four behind Charlton, grabbed a 3-2 win at home to Blackburn to pull off the survival story of the season after Welshman Nathan Jones’ return to the club following his departure from Stoke City in November last year.

Jones took over for his second spell at Luton in May, almost 18 months after originally leaving the club for the Bet365 Stadium, and while he couldn’t buy a win for the Potters his return to Kenilworth Road saw the Hatters put together an amazing run after the season’s resumption that saw only one defeat in the last nine games.

Draws with Preston, Leeds, Barnsley and QPR; plus wins against Swansea, Huddersfield, Hull and Blackburn being enough to shake off relegation worries and condemn Charlton to League One.

A stunning transformation for the Hatters which must have put a huge smile on Jones’ face following all his trials and tribulations at Stoke.

That left Nottingham Forest and Swansea fighting for the final play-off place, with the Swans needing a win themselves, Forest to lose and a swing of five goals to put them in the final play-off spot.

The Swans’ odds of 66/1 to secure promotion seemingly a bit stingy before kick-off began to look more appropriate when Stoke took the lead at the City Ground and Rhian Brewster fired Swansea ahead at Reading.

Could the miracle be on? It began to look that way when Reading had a man sent off before half-time but in a flash Swansea’s chances of that final play-off spot seemed dashed when the Royals levelled matters before the break.

Then when Forest drew level at 1-1 15 minutes into the second half at the City Ground it seemed they were on the cusp of a play-off showdown with Brentford, but in football it’s never over until the fat lady sings. And it was at the Liberty Stadium where she was eventually in full song as Stoke hit back with a vengeance to beat Forest 4-1 and two goals from Wayne Routledge and one from Liam Cullen saw Swansea secure the vital win they needed by the same margin.

An incredible turnaround for the Swans to usurp Forest for that play-off showdown with Brentford, which will have left any fans brave enough to have accepted those 66/1 odds with huge grins after the final whistle.

So it’s Brentford at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday (6.30pm) and the second leg at Griffin Park on Wednesday (7.45pm), while Fulham are at Cardiff City Stadium on Monday (7.45pm) with the return fixture on Thursday at Craven Cottage (7.45pm).

And it’s a much tighter market with the bookies now. Brentford are at 6/4 to make it to the Premier League, Fulham 5/2 and Cardiff and Swansea the outsiders at 9/2. But while the Swans are firm outsiders at 9/2 with most bookies, the Bluebirds are only at 9/2 with Betway, coming in at 4/1 with most other operators.

Momentum would seem to be with the two great South Wales rivals as both Brentford and Fulham spied opportunities for automatic promotion last night and saw it slip away, indeed a win for the Bees at Barnsley would have seen them promoted.

The Bluebirds have been one of the form teams since the resumption seeing off a host of rivals to cruise into fifth place, while Steve Cooper’s Swans are riding a crest of a wave going into the end-of-season showdown… anyone fancy a Swans-Bluebirds play-off final? Cardiff are 8/5 to beat Fulham on Monday, while the Swans are 11/5 to secure a win against Brentford on Sunday. If they could both do that they’d then only be one match away from a Wembley shoot-out, with a lead to hold onto in their second-leg fixtures.

What an end to the Championship season it would be to see them both come out at Wembley with promotion the prize for the winner!

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