And so we reach the final chapter. The league season might by general consensus be a marathon not a sprint, but this is no time for pacing yourself: what stands in front of the Championship’s promotion hopefuls is several weeks of full-throttle acceleration, a wild dash to breast the finishing tape.
“We’re going into the vital end of the season,” says Steve Cooper, the Swansea manager. “OK, there are still three points a game but it feels like there’s more on it than there has been in previous phases of the season. We’ve got to embrace the challenge. It’s all about grabbing the opportunity with both hands, making the most of it and trying not to have any regrets.”
A couple of teams made the most of the last phase of the season, and Swansea were not one of them. Instead it was Norwich who emerged from the pack with an irresistible surge, taking such a dominant position that the prospect of them faltering seems remote. With eight games remaining they have 83 points, as many as West Brom needed to win promotion last season, and across the past 20 years the average tally required to go up – to finish one point ahead of third place – is 83.8.
One statistic demonstrates how extraordinary Norwich’s recent form has been: on 12 February, Watford were seven points behind them, since when the Hornets have won nine out of 10 games. The run has transformed their own promotion chances, vaulting them from nine points behind Brentford to seven ahead, and from five behind Swansea to six ahead. But at the end of it they are further away from Norwich than they were at the start: the Canaries have also won nine of their last 10, but unlike the Hornets they drew the other.
Behind them both, Barnsley won nine out of 11 to rise from mid-table into the top six, and will compete with Reading, Bournemouth, Cardiff and any late breakers from the pack for the remaining play-off places. Barnsley are unexpected challengers, and have been helped by Valérien Ismaël’s willingness to take full advantage of this season’s five permitted substitutions. He says the rule “gives you the possibility to have more impact on the game and to decide what is going on”, and no team in the Football League have made more than their 152 substitutions (equally notably, only Accrington Stanley and Lincoln have used fewer than Swansea’s 88).
Norwich’s emergence has taken few by surprise but Watford had offered no hint of consistent excellence before mid-February, when the squad convened a meeting at which they aired and set aside their grievances while an injury to Troy Deeney forced a change of shape and emphasis. The result was instant improvement, and they are the only team with an even vague chance of overhauling the leaders.
“With the games they’ve got left, Norwich have got enough points to be in the top two,” says the former Watford striker Tommy Mooney, who has covered most of their games this season. “But the teams underneath will think that the championship’s not over. They’ve got a big lead but by the end of this weekend it could be down to just a few points, and that’s how quickly it can happen – because this weekend is renowned in the Championship for making or breaking a season.”
The international break has allowed those promotion-chasing sides whose form was faltering to take stock and prepare for one final heave. “I always say look forward, not back, and we’ll continue with that approach,” says Cooper, whose side have lost their past two games and have had only six shots on target across their past four. “We’re in great shape in terms of our atmosphere and our self-belief. There’s everything to play for, nothing to be afraid of, and we’ve got to be positive about how we go about it.”
A certain amount of fear is perhaps inevitable at Brentford given their experience last season, when they won eight games in a row to push themselves to the verge of promotion before losing their last two to miss out by two points. “It’s the same as the restart last season, when we had nine games to really make a go of it and gave everybody a real shock,” says Marcus Gayle, who started his career at Brentford and covers many of their games. “The rest of this season’s going to be down to experience and mentality. The players have had that tough experience of not going up, but they’ve learned from that and moved on.” They have also recruited the wildly prolific Ivan Toney, who is four away from registering the highest-scoring season in the second tier since Guy Whittingham in 1992-93, and has either scored or assisted 37 goals in 36 league appearances.
Brentford and Swansea will be encouraged by Watford’s relatively fiendish fixtures – the average current league position of the Hornets’ remaining opponents is 8.6, compared with 11.8 for Brentford and 13.3 for Swansea – and both play Xisco Muñoz’s side in the final fortnight. “It looks like first place is gone,” says Gayle, “but Watford have got to play a lot of really strong sides. They’ve got a really tough end to the season. We can’t afford to drop any more points, it’s now about building that winning mentality.”
There is surely every reason to be optimistic, because if the past two months have proved anything it is that over the next two months everything could still change. “There’s going to be to-ing and fro-ing, nip and tuck,” says Cooper. “You’ve just got to be on the right side of the vital moments.”