Four teams will battle for one place in the Premier League, which has never been more valuable.
The celebrations in Middlesbrough on Saturday told their own story. Its draw with Brighton was enough to secure a place in the Premier League, the Promised Land for teams in the second-tier Championship, and a guaranteed (and minimum) windfall of £170 million thanks to a bumper new TV broadcasting contract.
The success of Leicester City, promoted two seasons ago and this season’s surprise Premier League champion, has encouraged lesser clubs to believe that, with smart thinking, they can bridge the gap to the big boys. Whether that’s possible remains to be seen, but three of the teams below will face that very challenge next season.
Here is how each one is set for the promotion playoffs, which kick off this weekend, and the future beyond them:
Season summary: The northwest club won over neutrals last season with an all-British squad in the Premier League and an impressive coach, Sean Dyche, who fans have christened "Ginger Mourinho." Burnley was in the top three all season and last-minute goals against Brighton (2-2) and Boro (1-1) made a big difference in its run-in. The signings of Andre Gray and Joey Barton, who both made Team of the Season, also made an impact.
Top players: Andre Gray is an exciting prospect who has followed a Jamie Vardy-esque path from Luton to Brentford to Burnley. He was unfazed by the £9 million price tag and scored a league-best 23 goals. Goalkeeper Tom Heaton continued his strong form and should make England’s Euro 2016 squad.
Leicester potential: It has the striker and a popular coach, but solely staying up next season will be the target.
Season summary: A volatile season would be putting it kindly, as coach Aitor Karanka railed against big-name signings–he pointedly left out Stewart Downing and Jordan Rhodes, purchased for him at great expense, for the season-decider against Brighton–and even walked out on the squad back in March. The Spaniard returned and despite presiding over draws in the last four games, did enough to squeeze Boro over the line. Given its transfer expenses and wage bill, promotion had become an obligation, and so the celebration was tinged with relief.
Top players: Daniel Ayala has been a rock at the back while Gaston Ramirez, on loan from Southampton, added creativity in the final third. Whether either of them can do it in the Premier League remains to be seen.
Leicester potential: Karanka has promised to stay, and Boro chairman Steve Gibson is not afraid to spend big to get the players he wants. But he might need a large squad overhaul to stay out of the bottom three next season; its chances depend heavily on how well it recruits.
Brighton (third place)
Playoff opponent: Sheffield Wednesday (May 13, 2:45 p.m.; May 16, 2:45 p.m.)
Season summary: The early-season surprise pace-setters, Chris Hughton's Brighton slumped over the Christmas period but ended on a high and is unbeaten since February. Conceding a last-minute goal to Burnley and a draw to Derby in the last home game of the season cost it a top-two spot, but given that it finished six clear of fourth-placed Hull and 15 ahead of Sheffield Wednesday, it is the strongest team in the playoffs. Only one team has ever won more points than Brighton’s 89 and not gone up: Sunderland, with 90, in 1998.
Top players: January signing Anthony Knockaert has been an attacking threat since his arrival in England, while center back Lewis Dunk, 24, is rated at £10 million and tipped to be a future international player.
Leicester potential: The stadium and training-ground are Premier League quality and, like Bournemouth and Leicester, Brighton is a community club focused on the long-term. It is equipped to survive in the top-flight and who knows what it could achieve beyond that?
Hull City (fourth place)
Playoff opponent: Derby County (May 14, 7:30 a.m.; May 17, 2:45 p.m.)
Season summary: Steve Bruce’s side has been inconsistent for much of the season, despite staying in the top four since November. The side is experienced, having not changed dramatically from the one that was relegated from the Premier League on the final day last season. The last-day 5-1 win over Rotherham has increased confidence this week and Bruce is expected to stick with that winning side, which included nine full internationals and only two players under 25. He is hoping that experience will get Hull over the line.
Top players: The likes of Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore and Michael Dawson are experienced top-flight players while striker Abel Hernandez is on a hot streak of form. Young full-back Andrew Robertson is destined for bigger things whatever happens this month.
Leicester potential: Too much of a yo-yo club to ever ‘do a Leicester.’
Derby County (fifth place)
Playoff opponent: Hull City (May 14, 7:30 a.m.; May 17, 2:45 p.m.)
Season summary: A mid-season managerial change coincided with a new owner taking over. Derby was fifth when former Real Madrid assistant coach Paul Clement was shown the door–and it finished the season in fifth as well. So, did new boss Darren Wassall make any difference at all? That’s the million-dollar question for a team that lost the 2014 playoff final and missed out last season after a surprise collapse. This year it has stayed in the playoff places.
Top players: Will Hughes is a talented midfielder whose return to fitness has come at just the right time, while winger Tom Ince cost £4.75 million, which at the time was the club's priciest signing ever.
Leicester potential: With Harry Redknapp assisting Wassall as an advisor, who could resist the scenario that sees ‘Arry help the Rams to its former glory?
Sheffield Wednesday (sixth place)
Playoff opponent: Brighton (May 13, 2:45 p.m.; May 16, 2:45 p.m.)
Season summary: Wednesday gave notice that it might challenge this season with a 3-0 drubbing of Arsenal in the League Cup back in October. Since January, it has not dropped out of the top six, seeing off the challenge of Cardiff thanks to a defense that has produced 18 shutouts this season, including two against playoff opponent Brighton; those matches ended 0-0 home and away. Coach Carlos Carvalhal has defied the naysayers who predicted the former Premier League club would be too big for him.
Top players: Fernando Forestieri is its Italian striker who can just as easily create a goal out of nothing as dive to the ground and get booked (which happens quite often). On his day, he can be a match-winning player.
Leicester potential: With an Iberian coach that everyone has written off and a successful Thai businessman owner, Wednesday would be a popular addition to the top flight, but is unlikely to challenge anywhere near the top half.