The Championship is, to some extent, one of the most important leagues in world football. If you can ascend through its ranks to the Premier League, you can pocket in excess of £100 million in various commercial riches.
Fall through its trapdoor, and years in the footballing wilderness can follow.
The second tier of English football always feels like it’s on the edge at the best of times, so you can only imagine what is going through the players’ minds as the 2017/18 campaign draws to a close on Sunday.
For those representing Cardiff City and Fulham, footballing Valhalla awaits: automatic promotion to the top flight, and all of the benefits that brings.
As for those battling it out for the play-off places just below them, well, for three of those teams it is simply prolonging the heartache.
Spare a thought for those at the other end of the table, too. Sunderland are already down; their second successive relegation and, perhaps, the most catastrophic happening in the club’s history. Will they be able to bounce back at the first attempt?
There are a few sides desperate to avoid the Black Cats in the third tier, with the four Bs – Bolton, Burton, Barnsley and Birmingham – and Reading all hoping to avert demotion to the third tier.
We’re all set for a fascinating conclusion to the campaign then, so what can punters expect on Sunday?
Tough at the Top
Cardiff are in the box seat, that’s for sure. Enjoying a one-point lead over Fulham in third, they host a rather bedraggled Reading outfit on Sunday. The Royals have taken one point from a possible twelve, and have failed to find the net in three of their last four. That does not bode well.
The Welsh side are as short as 2/11 to secure promotion, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Should Reading manage to sneak a draw in Wales, then the onus will fall to Fulham, who travel to Birmingham. The Cottagers will finish second if they beat the Blues and Cardiff fail to net all three points against Reading.
So there are chances for Slavisa Jokanovic’s side, but it is a distinct outside bet at best.
As for the play-off places, either Cardiff or Fulham will join Aston Villa and Middlesbrough; leaving Derby and Preston to battle it out for the fourth and final berth. A point for the Rams at home against Barnsley would be enough, and Gary Rowett’s side have just found another gear in the past few weeks – winning against Cardiff, gaining a point at Villa Park – to suggest they have enough to get the job done.
As far as the play-offs are concerned, Aston Villa look a decent proposition at 3/1 to earn a return to the top flight. They have a number of players who have plied their trade in the Premier League, and having an experienced campaigner like John Terry around certainly won’t hurt. Of all the sides in the mix, they arguably have the players to win a single game of football; crucial ahead of a prospective play-off final.
If you are a neutral, the situation at the bottom of the Championship table makes for fascinating viewing.
With Sunderland already down, there are still five teams that could suffer footballing disaster and face relegation to the third tier.
Of all those embroiled in the brown stuff, Bolton are in the most peril. They have to beat Nottingham Forest and then must hope other results go their way; it’s a horrendous position to be in.
A point would be enough for Burton Albion to survive by the skin of their teeth for the second successive campaign if Barnsley lose at Derby. If the Brewers can win at Preston then they will all but guarantee their safety.
If Barnsley lose in the East Midlands, they could well be in big trouble. A 2-0 win over Brentford last time out will offer encouragement, but will it be enough to gain a positive result against the promotion-chasing Rams?
Birmingham and Reading, both two points clear of the drop, are far from out of it either. They play Fulham and Cardiff respectively, so they are very much looking over their shoulders.
Punters seeking a spot of late-season value may just give Burton a look in the ‘to stay up’ market. The Brewers have won three on the spin and have avoided defeat in five of their last six; remember, a point may be enough to secure survival, and at odds of 10/3 they are surely worth a small flutter.