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Premier League hopefuls

By Chris Bevan

Bristol CityStokeWatfordWest BromCharltonHullPlymouthBurnleyC PalaceIpswichWolves

The race for promotion to the promised land of the Premier League is hotting up.

Going into the final few weeks of the season, a clutch of Championship clubs hold hopes of going up automatically, with more still chasing a play-off spot.

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The finishing line is in sight - but which teams will falter as the pressure mounts?

And, for the three clubs that do make it, how will they fare in the top flight next season?

Eleven BBC journalists, who are fans of the clubs involved, gave their views on the promotion shake-up.

BRISTOL CITY

By Andy Sully

Bristol City boss Gary Johnson
Gary Johnson has guided the Robins to the top of the table

Will you go up? And how?
I would love to say yes but in my heart of hearts, I don't think we will. We will certainly be in the top six but our poor goal difference could cost us.

What will promotion mean?
The last time we were in the top flight was in 1980 so it would be massive for us.

What has got you into this position?
Credit has to go to the manager. Gary Johnson's man motivation is second to none and he has brought the squad's fitness and discipline up to levels not seen at Ashton Gate for many years.

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What is the key now?
Holding our nerve and avoiding injuries and red cards. We do not have as big a squad as some of our competitors. The worry for fans is where our goals are coming from.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
When City are at their best they play a superb, attractive passing game that is widely admired by both fans and opponents.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
We are playing with a squad that is 90% unchanged from our League One team. With the best will in the world, if we are to avoid Derby's fate, big changes will be needed. Off the field, things are already shaping up, with plans for a new stadium already at an advanced stage.

STOKE CITY

By Matt Braithwaite

Stoke City striker Ricardo Fuller
Ricardo Fuller has scored 14 goals for the Potters this season

Will you go up? And how?
I fear we have peaked too early, will miss out on an automatic promotion spot and lose in the play-offs to another team that has momentum.

What will promotion mean?
We have been out of the top flight for 23 seasons and counting - the longest continuous spell outside the top division in our history. Our Midlands rivals such as West Brom, Wolves, Leicester and Nottingham Forest have all spent at least one season in the Premier League - to join them in that club would enable us to look them in the eye.

What has got you into this position?
Chairman Peter Coates putting his hand in his pocket - but manager Tony Pulis has spent wisely, too.

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What is the key now?
Holding our nerve - and that includes Pulis. Going into the last game of last season, we needed a win at QPR for a chance of a play-off spot and he put out a very defensive side. He needs to be bold.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
Attritional. But we have got some players who can play a bit, given half a chance, such as Liam Lawrence, Richard Cresswell and Ricardo Fuller.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
On the pitch - no. We would need almost a completely new team if we were to survive. Off the pitch we have recently signed a deal to share players with new United States franchise Austin Aztex, so the club are clearly looking at exploiting foreign markets.

WATFORD

By Caroline Cheese

Watford boss Aidy Boothroyd
Watford boss Aidy Boothroyd admits he prefers efficiency over style

Will you go up? And how?
Yes, as champions.

What will promotion mean?
I have got mixed feelings to be honest. When push comes to shove, of course I want us to go up - if only for the money - but the prospect of another season of struggle like last time doesn't exactly fill me with excitement.

What has got you into this position?
We have one of the strongest squads in the division. Winger Tommy Smith has been our most consistent player, while Darius Henderson - who nearly left in the summer - has scored some crucial goals.

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What is the key now?
Finding some consistent home form would be nice. We have the best away record in the division but have won only twice in the Championship at Vicarage Road since October.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
Direct. Here is manager Aidy Boothroyd's philosophy: "Efficiency wins leagues and style wins cups. My opinion is that you start with efficiency and then you put style on top. If you start with style you end up in mid-table." Let's just say we haven't put a lot of style on top yet. A classic Watford goal would be a set-piece headed in majestically by big Danny Shittu.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
You cannot argue with the attitude of the players but the quality is lacking. Darius Henderson epitomises Watford. He's a very effective striker in the Championship but he managed three goals in the Premier League last time around - and one of those was a penalty. Off the pitch, the club has come a long way since the dark days following Gianluca Vialli's ill-starred reign. The club now owns the stadium and redevelopment is under way. Money, though, remains tight and Aidy will have to carry out some very shrewd wheeling and dealing if we are to avoid yo-yoing straight back down.

WEST BROM

By Jenny Limbrick

West Brom striker Kevin Phillips
Kevin Phillips has scored 19 goals for the Baggies this season

Will you go up? And how?
Our fate is in our own hands and really and truly we should win automatic promotion because we are, without doubt, the best footballing team in the division. That is taking nothing away from the rest of the challengers, who are all enjoying fantastic seasons, but if the Baggies do not go up they will only have themselves to blame.

What will promotion mean?
An enjoyable summer for one! We know all about the Premier League, having been promoted twice in recent years, and would love another crack. I think everyone would approach it with more confidence this time too because of our style of play, which seems more suited than some to the top flight.

What has got you into this position?
Goals, goals, goals. The striking trio of Kevin Phillips, Roman Bednar and Ishmael Miller have all been prolific but the attacking football manager Tony Mowbray preaches undoubtedly helps because it means the forwards get plenty of chances. One thing's for sure, after breaking up the squad last summer, Mowbray has rebuilt it impressively.

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What is the key now?
The players and fans holding their nerve and not getting distracted by the FA Cup. Sorting out our away form once and for all will also be crucial because the Cup run will leave us with a backlog of away matches at the end of the season.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
Open, attractive and expansive - it is no surprise Albion are the division's leading scorers and on course to score 100 goals for the second successive season. Watching Albion under Mowbray is a joy and the fans are lapping it up. It is the best football seen at The Hawthorns since Ron Atkinson's team of the late 1970s.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
I think most Albion fans would agree that it would be in goal, central defence and central midfield that Albion would need some surgery if they were to get promoted. Otherwise, they seem to have a decent armoury going forward and look like they would score goals in the Premier League - they would certainly compete this time. Off the pitch, the stadium and fanbase is there and The Hawthorns is set to undergo a bit of a facelift over the coming months too.

CHARLTON

By Phil Harlow

Charlton manager Alan Pardew
Alan Pardew has an impressive record of winning promotion

Will you go up? And how?
Automatic promotion is beyond us. I see us finishing fifth then winning the play-offs.

What will promotion mean?
It is absolutely crucial for the club. History shows that if you do not go straight back up at the first time of asking - with the parachute payment money in the bank - after relegation, it can take a long, long time.

What has got you into this position?
I've not been massively impressed by the standard of football - either from us or the division as a whole - this season. That said, manager Alan Pardew knows how to get a club promoted and has kept the show on the road when a few defeats could have derailed the whole campaign.

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What is the key now?
Consistency. If they can pick up points in the games that matter from here on in, a place in the top two is still well within reach.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
We are an honest, hard-working side that can produce good football at times.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
Just about but you only have to look at Derby to see what can happen if you do not get it right. There is absolutely no way the current squad could think about surviving with the big boys so serious investment would be needed.

HULL CITY

By Ian Farrow

Hull City manager Phil Brown
Phil Brown has brought in a team ethos at the KC Stadium

Will you go up? And how?
We still have a good chance of automatic promotion but, if I am realistic, we will end up in the play-offs. From there it is a bit of a lottery but we are a hard team to beat with a good away record. I therefore think we'll make the final - and then to dream...

What will promotion mean?
Promotion was the impossible dream only seven years ago when we were locked out of Boothferry Park and threatened with extinction. Now we have as good a chance as we have ever had in our history to reach the top flight and finally lose that tag of being the biggest city in Europe never to have had a top league football team. It means respect for the club but also it means a bigger spotlight on the city of Hull and some positive attention.

What has got you into this position?
It has been a steady ascent. The chairman and manager have lifted the club steadily into this position without getting too many people too excited too early and putting the pressure on. Manager Phil Brown has built a team that does not pin its hopes on just one or two players being in form - this is an archetypal team effort.

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What is the key now?
We just have to maintain our momentum. We are already in a play-off position so it is about staying focused. I think the experienced players in the squad, plus the manager and his assistants, will ensure that happens.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
Everyone works and covers for each other. Yet, that is not to say we do not have a certain flair - in games this season I have seen some of the best football I have witnessed in 40-odd years as a City supporter.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
Is any club really ready for the Premier League? Off the pitch it will be a whole new experience for Hull City, with the media attention, but I do not think there are many clubs around better run than Hull at the moment. There needs to be investment in players but I understand there is money so let's just get there and see what happens.

PLYMOUTH ARGYLE

By Gordon Sparks

Plymouth boss Paul Sturrock
Paul Sturrock succeeded Ian Holloway as Argyle boss in November 2007

Will you go up? And how?
Not sure yet but I have a feeling we can sneak into the play-offs.

What will promotion mean?
My father first took me to watch Argyle at the age of five and the club has been in my blood all my life. Plymouth have been in existence since 1886 without playing in the top flight and you can see how hard they have worked for it and how long we have waited. That should tell you what it means.

What has got you into this position?
The squad past and present this season - under Ian Holloway and now under Paul Sturrock - have performed brilliantly, especially the players who have been at the club throughout and had to cope with the manner in which the managerial change occurred.

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What is the key now?
The key now is consistency. We still have games to come against Bristol City, Watford and Wolves, which will all be tough, but it will be just as difficult playing the sides scrapping at the bottom.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
We play football on the ground, get the ball out wide, are easy on the eye and get results as well. Sturrock knows football is an entertainment industry.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
To be brutally honest, we would not survive. But let's get in the Premier League and get some play-off money on the way - then get our 32m for finishing last. Then, when we come back down to the Championship, we can use that money to get back in the top flight for a second time and have a chance of staying there.

BURNLEY

By Chris Ellison

Burnley boss Owen Coyle
Owen Coyle took charge of the Clarets on 22 November 2007

Will you go up? And how?
I do think we'll get into the play-offs. Whether we'd have the legs of some of the other teams in there to push on then and go up is probably a far tougher task. We're coming into form at the right time, though.

What will promotion mean?
It would be absolutely huge. I started to watch the club in 1988-89 in the Fourth Division. I'm 27 now so to come from there and back into the Premier League would be unbelievable for everyone and because of the money associated with it. We had tough times in the ITV Digital era when we narrowly avoided going into administration so, in terms of securing the future of the club, it would be massive.

What has got you into this position?
Firstly, while we were doing OK under Steve Cotterill, bringing Owen Coyle in as manager took us up a level. As for the players, Wade Elliott has been brilliant, definitely player of the year for us, and his number of assists have been fantastic. Also, a lot of fans were despondent when we sold Andy Gray but Ade Akinbiyi has stepped up and Andy Cole has come in on loan and his experience and first touch are so impressive.

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What is the key now?
The key for us is getting a consistent back four - injuries and suspensions have prevented us doing that of late and it's meant we've shipped a few dodgy goals. We've changed our keeper between Brian Jenson and Gabor Kiraly too and that doesn't help defenders so the sooner we get settled in defence the better.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
We like to keep the ball on the ground, use the wingers, get crosses in and work hard. A lot of teams in this division don't like playing passing teams and it's working well for us.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
No way, not a chance. Off the pitch the club has moved forward in the last four or five years and become more professional but we are a long way off a Premier League side. It would probably be one of those situations - similar to Watford and Derby - where you go up pretty much expecting to come straight back down but look to use the increased money wisely, learn from your season in the top flight and come back stronger for it a second time.

CRYSTAL PALACE

By Tony Matthews

Crystal Palace boss Neil Warnock
Neil Warnock took Palace on a 15-game unbeaten run this season

Will you go up? And how?
It is probably unlikely. If we do, it will have to be through the play-offs, although we might make a late run. Most Palace fans, however, think we are not good enough and we do not score enough goals.

What will promotion mean?
This is a question we debate a lot. I think the celebration would be the actual achievement of promotion day, which would be a day out at Wembley for us. Otherwise it would be what then manager Steve Coppell said when we went up in 1997 - looking ahead to 10 months of misery. When we look at Derby this season I can't imagine we'd do much better than them. A lot of us have a big distaste for the Premier League.

What has got you into this position?
The current Championship is the worst I have ever seen, there is not a decent team in it, which is just a side-effect of the Premiership. You can't get quality players and standards have fallen alarmingly, which is down to finances as much as anything else.

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What is the key now?
The biggest key is can you afford to buy what little quality is around? West Brom, Charlton and Watford might be able to do it if they go straight back but if you don't go straight back up you have a problem. Attracting quality players is hard - as boss Neil Warnock is finding.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
Pretty mixed actually. We played quite well for a while and have got some players who can pass the ball around well. We are not a big side but have a tendency to hoof it to James Scrowcroft.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
No! When we went up last time we did have some players who we thought could do some damage. There is not the kind of quality on the pitch now. The youngsters coming through are some way off. Some look good - like Victor Moses, Sean Scannell and John Bostock - but they are a long way off being what is required and we can't afford to buy anyone. Off the field we are struggling for money. The ground needs upgrading and we don't even own it.

IPSWICH TOWN

By Julie Tunney

Ipswich manager Jim Magilton
Jim Magilton will have money to spend on his squad this summer

Will you go up? And how?
I am not going to make any bold predictions. Town should go up because, from a purist's point of view, they are arguably the best footballing side in the Championship - but that counts for little. There is a real chance for a side outside the current top two to snatch automatic promotion and I can also see the final play-off place going to a latecomer on the last day of the campaign. Not being in at least the play-offs would be a massive disappointment.

What will promotion mean?
I am so lucky to have supported a club that was in England's top flight for my formative years, was a founding member of the Premier League in 1992 and had another bash at it after winning the play-off final in 2000 but it would still be added to this Tractor Girl's ever-growing list of 'happiest days of my life' if Ipswich were promoted. However, I would support them even if they played in the Bury St Edmunds and District Football League, which, I would like to add before anyone writes in, is a good, little league for that level of football.

What has got you into this position?
Manager Jim Magilton loves the club as much as the fans. He had little money to begin with and, although there will always be the odd grumble about tactics, the starting XI and who Ipswich should sign, the majority of fans will give him time. The completion of the takeover by billionaire Marcus Evans in December freed up transfer funds but it was the original squad who had already set up a promotion-chasing campaign. Of the January acquisitions, Macedonian midfielder Velice Sumulikoski really stands out.

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What is the key now?
Maintaining the near-perfect home record but repeating that form away from Portman Road, possibly signing a striker on loan and instilling a bigger belief and team spirit into the side.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
'How the game should be played' is how we purists describe it. A ball-to-feet, passing side - although the players put in a long ball occasionally just to surprise the opposition.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
Not quite but Ipswich can be - and not only because of new backer Evans. Town proved big money is not necessarily the key when going from the 2000 play-off final triumph to Uefa Cup qualification the next season. Indeed, it was only when the club really started to splash out that relegation followed, although competing in Europe with too small a squad was probably the main reason for the drop. However, I do think investment is needed this time but Magilton will have no interference from Evans, who will provide the funds while staying in the background. The fanbase is there as well.

WOLVES

By Steve Marshall

Wolves winger Michael Kightly
Michael Kightly has had an injury-hit campaign for Wolves

Will you go up? And how?
I can't see it. I just don't think the team is good enough. We have not scored enough goals and are one of lowest scorers in the Championship. We have not shown any consistency since we were third in the table in December or any form since.

What will promotion mean?
It would be a major surprise and a very pleasant one as well. When we won promotion in 2003 in Cardiff it was the best day of my football-supporting life. Wolves fans rode the crest of a wave in a difficult Premier League season after that. We had memorable moments like the win over Manchester United and coming from three down to beat Leicester.

What has got you into this position?
A strong defence. We have one of the best defensive records in the division, which is why we are where we are. Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy has done a fantastic job and has been our outstanding player all season. He has kept us in games we haven't deserved to be in.

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What is the key now?
Finding someone to stick ball in the net. We may have that now in Sylvain Ebanks-Blake but more importantly we need a faith healer to work on Michael Kightly and get him back fit! He is integral to our hopes and with him out it will be very difficult to go up.

How would you describe your team's style of play?
Last season was all that Wolves fans wanted it to be, with open, attractive, exciting football. This season we have been dour, pragmatic and too defensive-minded. It has not been exciting at all.

Is your club ready for the Premier League on and off the pitch?
Off the pitch, certainly. The stadium and training ground are in place and, with owner Steve Morgan at the helm, there is money to throw at it. On it we need a lot of work and only a handful of players would make the step up - most of them in goal, although we can't play two keepers! We would need major surgery and would come straight back down by a distance with the current squad.




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