A sentiment that is strongly considered to be accurate by a more than significant section of those involved on and off the pitch. The top tier of English football has long been hailed as the pinnacle of the world’s most popular sport and the definitive home to some of the most successful clubs, managers and players in the history of the game.
Interestingly, then, in a surprisingly dull Premier League season that has seen Manchester United effectively crowned as champions from as early as November and Queens Park Rangers and Reading dispatched seemingly from the outset, it has been left to the second division to provide the drama typically associated with the likes of United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
Epitomised by the breathless last day results that decided the fates of Watford and Hull City at the top and Peterborough and Barnsley at the bottom (and the battle for the final play-off spot between Leicester City, Nottingham Forest and Bolton Wanderers for good measure), the 2012-13 nPower Championship campaign was a staggering amalgam of the excitement, unpredictability and, most crucially, the great footballing entertainment that has largely been absent from the Premiership since the herculean feat of Sergio Agüero and Manchester City in the dying seconds of the 2011-12 season.
With Watford and Crystal Palace preparing to march down Wembley Way in the final stop on the road to deciding who will join Cardiff and Hull in wrestling with the Premier League elite in roughly 3 months’ time, now is the relevant time to take a reflective step back and pick out the 12 most prominent players have not only illuminated their respective team’s season, but also helped earmark the current Championship campaign as one of the most captivating second division years in English footballing history.
Craig Bellamy (Cardiff City)
Joining hometown club Cardiff City on a free transfer following a successful year-long stint at Liverpool, many questioned Craig Bellamy’s logic when the former Wales captain decided to walk away from the Premier League in favour of the Championship in August 2012. Bellamy’s reasoning, however, became abundantly clear over the next 12 months. Guiding Cardiff to the Championship crown and the resulting automatic promotion in a highly impressive campaign from the Bluebirds, Bellamy’s season has been the watershed moment of a somewhat troublesome career on and off the pitch, and his passion for the cause could be seen in his tears of joy following the home draw with Charlton in April – a result that secured Cardiff’s return to the top flight for the first time since 1962.
Curtis Davies (Birmingham City)
A reassuring rock at the heart of a surprisingly fragile Birmingham City defence, Curtis Davies has been the shining light in a particularly dark season for the Midlands club. Also influential in 2011-12 under former boss Chris Hughton, the centre-back’s consistently positive performances has seen the former Aston Villa and West Brom player take over the captain’s armband from Steven Caldwell and has even had an impact at the other end of the field, with Davies notching up 6 goals and scoring a decisive brace in the key victory over Barnsley at Oakwell in December. Despite staying put during a tumultuous January transfer window that resulted in the Blues’ reluctant sale of Jack Butland to Stoke City for a cut-price sum, Birmingham’s dwindling finances may yet see Davies move to the Premier League this summer, with Norwich and the newly promoted Hull known to be keen admirers.
Glenn Murray (Crystal Palace)
Not only did Glenn Murray’s 45th-minute penalty on the Championship’s final day push Darren Ferguson’s Peterborough United towards the relegation trap door, but his perfectly placed spot-kick lifted his goal tally to a remarkable 31 in 43 appearances (excluding play-offs) and confirmed his status as the division’s most prolific goalscorer. The Crystal Palace striker, signed for free from rivals Brighton & Hove Albion in summer 2011, has enjoyed a fruitful year at Selhurst Park, with winning goals in such games as the stunning victory over Cardiff City in September helping to propel the Eagles towards the higher echelons of the league. Such was Murray’s impact this season, he ended the campaign as one of the top scorers in Europe, closely behind the tallies of such players as Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
Billy Sharp (Nottingham Forest)
On loan from Southampton since the August transfer deadline, Nottingham Forest’s leading goalscorer Billy Sharp has had a somewhat mixed-bag of a debut season at the City Ground. Despite netting 11 times and scoring vital goals against Blackpool and Crystal Palace, Sharp and Forest ultimately tasted disappointment as a last minute defeat to Leicester City on the final day of the season meant that the Reds missed out on the coveted play-off places by a single point. Although this was a bitterly unfortunate ending to an otherwise encouraging season for Forest, the undeniable fact remains that the addition of Sharp, whose loan-spell could transform into a permanent position this summer following the rumoured Saints revamp by Mauricio Pochettino, and his goals (including his first for the club, an exemplary tight-angled finish against league leaders Cardiff in October) acted as a catalyst for Forest and helped transform the team from mid-table stutterers to genuine promotion contenders.
Matej Vydra (Watford)
Regardless of the heavy criticism thrown their way by Ian Holloway and others, Watford’s loan players from Udinese (Italy) and Granada (Spain) have been a joy to watch at Vicarage Road this season. Fast, slick and utterly devastating in front of goal, striker Matej Vydra may have had the most telling impact of all. Arriving in July 2012 as part of Gianfranco Zola’s mega-deal with the Serie A team, Vydra took no time in adjusting to English football, scoring the winner in a five-goal thriller away to Crystal Palace on the opening day of the season. The Czech Republic international, 20, has gone on to notch a further 19 goals on the way to securing a play-off place for the Hornets, and his continually powerful performances were rewarded with the prestigious Player of the Year title at the 2013 Football League Awards.
Sam Byram (Leeds United)
An underwhelming season that was dominated by back-room investment issues, the Chris Kirkland incident and the dismissal of manager Neil Warnock, the 2012-13 Championship campaign wasn’t quite what the Leeds United faithful had hoped for. However, talented young right-back Sam Byram provided encouragement for the Whites, emerging through the Academy ranks to claim a regular role in the first team and replace Warnock’s summer signing Lee Peltier as the first-choice right back. Playing every league game for Leeds this season, Byram’s addition to the starting XI produced a much-needed energy on the pitch, and his constant surging into the attacking third added another angle to the Leeds attack (see Byram’s astonishing short-range lob against Oxford United in the Capital One Cup). An incredibly exciting prospect for the future, Byram has even been linked with a £10million move to Manchester City, however new boss Brian McDermott will make it his top priority to make sure the youngster stays at Elland Road.