Luton, Middlesbrough, Coventry City and Sunderland are vying for play-off glory in the Championship and their players combine to make a bloody good team.
Coventry are well represented in this XI with four of their stand-out players making the cut, but the 4-3-2-2 split indicates how tight the second tier has been this season, with not much separating any of the play-off candidates.
As a neutral, I’m all on board for the incoming play-off #drama. It’s impossible to predict how it will pan out, but it is fair to say that this fantasy XI would do pretty well in the Premier League.
GK: Ben Wilson (Coventry City)
Coventry’s defensive solidity is a major factor behind their stellar season and Wilson – who made it into the league’s team of the year – has been superb between the sticks.
The 30-year-old has kept 20 clean sheets in 43 Championship outings this season and he’s only conceded 39 goals. Rotherham United’s Viktor Johansson is arguably more deserving of a spot in the team of the year (I’m not biased, honest) but you cannot fault Wilson’s performances as he has helped Mark Robins’ side rise through the division and into the top six.
And when you pick a team, you want to have goals throughout your side and Wilson scored a 95th-minute equaliser against Blackburn last month so he really is the complete package.
RB: Cody Drameh (Luton Town)
The Leeds United youngster is unfortunate not to have already broken through at Elland Road. But at Luton, he has been afforded the platform to show the Premier League strugglers what they are missing.
Drameh has proven to be the perfect replacement for James Bree – who made the regrettable decision to join Southampton in January – as he has slotted seamlessly into the third-best defence in the Championship.
Jamie Carragher’s infamous “no one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville” dig does not carry as much weight given the love-in full-backs receive nowadays. Drameh has benefitted from this as the all-action wide man is more than capable of doing his bit for the team in attack and defence.
CB: Tom Lockyer (Luton Town)
The Hatters have mastered the basics this season and this enabled Rob Edwards’ well-coached team to move clear of their rivals to finish third.
Their defence has been at the core of their success and if you ignore players from Burnley and Sheffield United (namely Anel Ahmedhodzic), Lockyer has arguably been the league’s best defender.
The Wales international has come of age as a Luton player in recent years and he has expertly marshalled Edwards’ backline in the absence of Sonny Bradley, who has only been used sparingly. His leadership qualities would certainly get the maximum out of his inexperienced centre-back partner…
CB: Callum Doyle (Coventry City)
While James McAtee and Tommy Doyle have shone on loan at Sheff Utd from Man City, Doyle (C) is another product of the Premier League club’s academy who has been in stunning form this term.
The ball-playing defender has blossomed alongside 36-year-old Kyle McFadzean, who is continuing to age like fine wine at Coventry.
The Championship can be a difficult honing ground for young defenders, but the 19-year-old has dealt with the division’s rigours better than most. Man City have one of the greatest ever Premier League teams at their disposal and that is backed up by an ever-growing list of soon-to-be first-team-ready youngsters. It makes you sick, really.
LB: Ryan Giles (Middlesbrough)
The Wolves man has established himself as one of the most dangerous attacking full-backs in the Championship and his lethal left foot has caused opponents no end of problems this season.
Giles is the joint-leading assister in the league this season (more on the player he’s level with later) with his tally of 11 and he is long overdue an opportunity to make his mark in the Premier League. Boro may well need a win under the arch in the play-off final to tempt him away from Wolves.
RM: Amad Diallo (Sunderland)
This was always going to be a defining season for Diallo, who needed to prove himself before strapping himself in for life under Erik ten Hag at Manchester United.
This is a test Diallo has passed with flying colours as he has consistently delivered for the Black Cats, who gatecrashed the top six on the final day of the season.
The play-offs are set up for the league’s best players to push their respective teams over the promotion line via a magical moment of quality and Diallo can deliver when it matters. You’d be foolish to bet against him adding to his 16-goal involvements as Sunderland seek Wembley glory.
CM: Gustavo Hamer (Coventry City)
The ex-Feyenoord man has been an inspired signing for the Sky Blues. The Championship has benefited from an influx of talent from the Eredivisie – with Millwall’s Zian Flemming impressing this term – and Hamer is perhaps the best of those imports.
The defensive midfielder has been a rock in Robins’ side this term, and he has even started to chip in going forward. Nine goals and ten assists is a remarkable return for a player who – whether Coventry get promoted or not – is a Premier League player in waiting.
CM: Hayden Hackney (Middlesbrough)
The 20-year-old has grasped his opportunity with both hands this term as he’s been one of the Championship’s major breakout stars.
The second tier is blessed with an abundance of excellent youthful talent and Hackney has placed his name alongside the best of them.
Dan Barlaser was one of the league’s in-form players during the first few months of this season. Boro nabbed him from Rotherham in January and it goes to show how well Hackney has been playing that the winter newcomer has so far barely been given a sniff of first-team action at the Riverside.
LM: Jack Clarke (Sunderland)
Djed Spence is a more recent example of a young player who joined a Big Six club too soon. His development has largely been halted this season following his switch to Tottenham, and Clarke was impacted in a similar way.
The ex-Leeds United starlet looked set to fade into insignificance but at Sunderland, he has reminded people why he was once valued at £10m.
The naturally gifted 11-assist winger is one of the most exciting talents in the Championship. Aged 22, there is plenty of time for the reported Brentford and Crystal Palace target to eventually realise his potential in the league above.
ST: Chuba Akpom (Middlesbrough)
The ex-Arsenal academy product looked likely to be remembered as a player who ultimately flopped after being lauded as a youngster. But it turns out Akpom was just waiting for Michael Carrick to manage him.
In the process of lifting Boro out of the relegation mire and into promotion contention, Carrick has also unearthed a clinical goalscorer.
28-goal Akpom has been operating as a number ten behind Cameron Archer since January and they have both been in freakish form. Combined, they have produced 48 goal involvements in 61 appearances for Boro this season.
While Carrick has improved most of Boro’s squad, Akpom is the manager’s major success story given where the Championship top scorer’s career is heading now compared to this time last year.
ST: Viktor Gyokeres (Coventry City)
Like Erling Haaland in the Premier League, Akpom is the runaway top scorer in the second tier. 21-goal Gyokeres is seven adrift of the Boro star’s tally. But just like Harry Kane in the top flight, this does not take away from how good the Coventry standout has been this season.
Gyokeres could have easily been a one-season wonder after his 17-goal haul in 2021/22, but he has kicked on this campaign for promotion-chasing Coventry.
The Sweden international – like most players in this team – is going to be a Premier League player and Coventry’s reported valuation of £25m tells you how highly-rated he is. On the evidence of the past two seasons, this price tag is justified.