The best Championship teams ever is a funny category. They are, by definition, fleeting – off to the promised lands of Premier League riches. There can be no eras of dominance, and no expectation that their successes carry on in the top flight.
This season's Norwich City side – already hailed by some as the greatest the Championship has seen – are already in the top 20 of all 900-odd teams to play in the English second tier since three-point wins were introduced in 1981.
Today, FFT presents the top 10, which the Canaries will muscle into with a win over Barnsley on Saturday. Currently on 96 points, even a draw will leave them agonisingly short.
Any teams before 1988/89 played fewer than 46 matches in a campaign and so we adjusted their tallies accordingly, but, as it turns out, none of them would’ve made this countdown anyway. No, not even Luton in 1981/82. We offer our sincerest apologies to David Pleat.
10. Bolton Wanderers, 1996/97 - 98pts (+47 GD)
The Battle of Burnden Park showed Bolton’s fight and togetherness under Colin Todd, their 3-0 win over promotion rivals Wolves featuring a 22-man bundle which goalkeeper Gavin Ward ran the length of the pitch to join. And, in Burden’s final season, how else could Bolton sign off than by running away with the league?
John McGinlay plundered 24 league goals and Nathan Blake 20 as the Trotters reached 100 on the final day. They were on course for 100 points, too, until Tranmere equalised in the last minute. Asked if the liquid in his paper cup was champagne, Todd replied: “Of course it’s champagne. We’ve been drinking it for weeks.”
9. Portsmouth, 2002/03 - 98pts (+52)
IIIIIIIIIT’S the Mandaric & Redknapp Show, with all of your favourite stars! Paul Merson! Shaka Hislop! Linvoy Primus!
Harry Redknapp wasn’t taking any chances in 2002/03. Having persuaded several Premier League players to drop a division, he doubled down in January, snapping up a 33-year-old Tim Sherwood and a 20-year-old Yakubu. Meanwhile, much-maligned Svetoslav Todorov found his level; 26 league goals represented two-thirds of his tally in all competitions across eight-and-a-half years in England. What a team.
8. Wolverhampton Wanderers, 2017/18 - 99pts (+43)
Nuno’s Wolves were a destructive force and would have broken the 100-point barrier with a final-day draw at Sunderland, who were already guaranteed to finish bottom. Sunderland won 3-0.
It was a strange end to a Championship campaign that a rampant Wolves led uninterrupted since October. While Jorge Mendes’s impact can hardly be ignored – it helped bring the league-record signing of Ruben Neves, as well as Diogo Jota, Willy Boly and more – unsung heroes included Conor Coady, Barry Douglas and John Ruddy, who was exceptional in the difficult role of Carl Ikeme’s replacement.
7. Chelsea, 1988/89 - 99pts (+46)
Our countdown’s only '80s side finished 17 points clear, yet they took a while to settle: incredibly, Chelsea won none of their first six fixtures, drawing three and losing three, which means that for 87% of the season they averaged 2.4 points per game – more than any other team on here.
The freshly-relegated Blues were dominant and had quality all over the park, from Graham Roberts and Tony Dorigo at the back to Kerry Dixon up top. A young Graeme Le Saux made his debut on the final day.
6. Manchester City, 2001/02 - 99pts (+56)
The last of five consecutive seasons in which City were either promoted or relegated saw them top tier two with 99 points and 108 goals, putting them 10 points and 47 – forty-seven – goals ahead of West Bromwich Albion in second.
Keegan’s entertainers started as they meant to go on: an eight-game run in August and September brought 6-2, 5-2, 4-2, 3-0 and 3-0 wins, 4-0, 4-0 and 4-3 defeats, and no draws. All or nothing, you could say.
5. Fulham, 2000/01 - 101pts (+58)
Fulham booked their ticket for a first top-flight campaign since the 1960s with a thumping title win. Owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed and managed by Jean Tigana, they celebrated Christmas by moving 10 points clear of second (with a game in hand) and Easter by sealing promotion with five matches remaining.
Following promotion, Fulham spent like a club run by the owner of Harrods: £35m in transfer fees back then represented a huge sum in one summer. Unlike this season, it worked.
4. Leicester City, 2013/14 - 102pts (+40)
Inspired by their 2002/03 campaign, when the club won promotion despite going into administration (unpunished in those days), Leicester won promotion in 2013/14 despite – or due to – the Foxes breaking Financial Fair Play spending limits, losing £21m in a single season and paying a settlement of £3.1m just four years later. Fairytale stuff.
Nigel Pearson’s charges bossed the Championship, winning nine consecutive games (one of many club records broken), signing Riyad Mahrez in January and giving a 40-year-old Kevin Phillips his career send-off. The rest is history – a bit like that outstanding £18.1m...
3. Newcastle United, 2009/10 - 102pts (+55)
Newcastle’s 2008/09 squad may not have been too good to go down, but their 2009/10 vintage was too good not to go up. The Magpies went unbeaten at home for an immediate return to the Premier League.
Amid much rotation – Chris Hughton, caretaker until late October, used 33 players in league games alone – Andy Carroll became a star and Kevin Nolan matched his 17-goal haul from midfield, while Peter Lovenkrands and Shola Ameobi both posted double-figure tallies in the Championship themselves. And Newcastle pocketing £20m net in transfer fees meant there was an extra happy ending for the real hero of the piece: Mike Ashley.
2. Sunderland, 1998/99 - 105pts (+63)
Impressively, 1998/99’s League Cup semi-finalists found the time to post a thunderous new record points tally in the second tier. In the season that introduced English fans to Thomas Sorensen, who’d go on to play nearly 500 games on these shores, Sunderland lost only three matches and conceded an extremely stingy 28 goals in their 46 fixtures.
However, their real strength was an attack that offered manager Peter Reid a choice of Michael Bridges, Danny Dichio, wily old Niall Quinn and, of course, Kevin Phillips. The poacher averaged just under a goal per game en route to promotion and carried that into the Premier League, scoring 30 goals in 1999/2000 to become England’s only European Golden Boot winner in history.
1. Reading, 2005/06 - 106pts (+67)
The record-breaking Royals put together one hell of a squad in 2005/06. They popped the cork with corking signings from, uh, Cork, and before long Kevin Doyle and Shane Long were joined by countryman Stephen Hunt and club-record signing Leroy Lita.
With a canny manager in Steve Coppell and a squad boasting strength and depth from back to front, Reading took a flying dump on the Championship, losing just a single game after the opening day and scoring 99 goals in total. They put five past Millwall, Brighton, Derby and Cardiff – twice – while also keeping things tight, as Steve Sidwell and James Harper protected a reliable defence.
Reading earned themselves a first ever top-flight campaign, and did so in style. No wonder they still go on about it.
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