In a dramatic end to the Championship season, outsiders AFC Bournemouth completed their fairy tale, taking the crown of Football League Champions, and earning, for the first time in the club’s history, a spot in the top flight of the English game. Come August, the Cherries, along with Watford, and one of four teams battling in the play-offs, will be playing Premier League football for nine months at least, but as the new boys prepare for life amongst some worldwide powerhouses, it remains to be seen who has the best chance of staving off relegation.
The south coast team have exceeded all expectations this season, this being only their fifth campaign in second tier football since their 1899 formation, and under Eddie Howe, fans have witnessed one of the most remarkable stories in recent years. Those who have remained loyal to the Dean Court club saw their team finish just two places above relegation from League Two just six years ago, and it is Howe who is credited with their impressive rise, despite a brief spell in which he left to manage Burnley.
Now, a new age has dawned and many are already tipping Bournemouth to stay up next year, with the focus of that optimism resting on Callum Wilson, who netted 22 goals this season, his first at Dean Court after a summer move from Coventry City. Wilson is one of the most highly rated players in the lower leagues, and will look to Rickie Lambert and Danny Ings as recent examples of prolific Championship strikers who can replicate that form in the top tier.
Of course, the club cannot rely on one forward, and there is no doubt Howe and the club will have to manage their transfer budget wisely and buy sensibly. Reports linking them to mercurial Monaco striker Dimitar Berbatov have already been denied by the club, with Howe stating he will looking to British talent to guide the club through their maiden Premier League year.
Away from the south coast, you turn to Watford, a club whose season began with three managerial changes in a five week span. Despite such turmoil, their form remained steady throughout most of the year, losing just four games in 2015, and if not for a devastatingly late Sheffield Wednesday goal on the last day of the season, it would be the Hornets who were celebrating the Championship title.
Ending a seven year stay in the second tier, Watford are preparing for their third Premier League stint, but will be looking to reverse their fortunes from the previous two efforts, having been relegated on each occasion. Yet, much like Bournemouth, optimism abounds, with Slavisa Jocanovic and Dean Austin providing a stable duo as manager and assistant.
Perhaps the key to their survival next season will be the form of club captain Troy Deeney, scorer of 21 league goals this campaign, and a perennial threat in for Championship defences. Along with Odion Ighalo and Matej Vydra (one of three loan players at Watford), Deeney has inspired the club throughout the year, and will look to thrive in his first top flight season.
On first look, Watford looks to be more prepared for the Premier League than their promotion counterparts, mainly due to the impressive depth their squad boasts. It is hard to miss reports that the club, owned by the Pozzo family, is over-reliant on the loan system, and whilst Vydra and fellow loanee Daniel Tozser have proven important at Vicarage Road this campaign, the team has a strong core, with Ikechi Anya and Juan Carlos Paredes standing out as potentially key contributors in their upcoming effort to survive.
With both Bournemouth and Watford assured of their status next season, the third and final spot rests on the play-offs, and it looks set to be a fierce battle.
Four still in the hunt
After having been denied automatic promotion late in the season, both Norwich and Middlesbrough entered the play-offs with something to prove, whilst Ipswich knew they must knock off their East Anglian rivals if they had a shot. A late Boro goal in the first leg of their semi-final looks set to keep Brentford at bay, whilst the second semi-final remains in the balance, yet whomever may triumph at Wembley has no reason to fear for their Premier League survival more than the automatically promoted pair, given the mixed form of play-off victors in recent years.
Whilst 2014 winners QPR have already been relegated back to the Championship, the trio of sides prior to QPR are all enjoying a stable Premier League base, with Swansea challenging for a second season of European football.