You need only look at the Premier League top scorer charts to see the evidence: two of the league’s top eight scorers this season have either emerged from or had recent spells in England’s second tier (Ivan Toney and Alexsandar Mitrovic).
Below them, players like Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins (9 goals) and Nottingham Forest’s Brennan Johnson (7 goals) also round off the list of top 20 goalscorers, demonstrating the fact there are some real gems to be found.
The relentless 46-game schedule in Championship football can be an ideal sharpening ground for some of the rough diamonds in England’s lower leagues, preparing them for the intensity that is Premier League football. And with relative bargains to be had price-wise one may wonder why more top flight clubs aren’t looking at the Championship as a place to recruit.
With that in mind, and the Championship heading towards the last stretch of its long season, let’s take a look at six of the best – a list of talents that you might expect to see in the Premier League next season, including a certain Swede raising eyebrows in the Midlands…
Viktor Gyokeres – Coventry City
One of the most talked about players in the Championship this season, the big Swede will surely be on the radar of several Premier League clubs this summer.
Gyokeres, 24, is a bit of a throwback in some ways, a traditional ‘classic’ style number nine for whom the penalty area is his office. He operates as a target man for Coventry City, an agile, strong forward who can score goals with left foot, right foot or head.
Gyokeres can score goals from outside the box but is a penalty area predator who thrives on good service from the wide areas. There are some stylistic similarities with Ivan Toney in terms of his physical capabilities and the 19 goals he has scored for the Sky Blues this season represent his best return for the club since joining. He also has seven assists.
A full Swedish international, the former IF Brommapojkarna graduate was described as ‘the best [striker] in the league’ by Huddersfield Town’s legendary manager Neil Warnock and it appears unlikely that Coventry will be able to keep him past this season.
Interested clubs: Everton, Fulham, Leeds United
Chuba Akpom – Middlesbrough
A player transformed under new Middlesbrough manager Michael Carrick, Chuba Akpom is the most prolific goalscorer in the Championship this season and has been in electric form.
Akpom is an Arsenal academy graduate who has always had talent. A storied career saw him leave London for Greece, with brief spells in Belgium and elsewhere. Back in England now though Akpom has really upped his game this season, hitting 23 goals in 30 Championship games to really showcase his ability in front of goal.
Ironically Akpom, 27, has been playing in a deeper position under Carrick, no longer confined to a number 9 role but used deeper for his ability to get on the ball, turn and run at defenders. Carrick’s fluid system allows Akpom the flexibility to also get in behind and he has thrived in this new position to enjoy the best spell of his career. He could help fire Middlesbrough back to the Premier League, or equally he could be the target of Prem clubs come the summer.
Interested clubs: Wolves, Leeds United
Iliman Ndiaye – Sheffield United
From non-league (part-time) football to the Premier League, Iliman Ndiaye could be set to complete an incredible climb up the mountain to the top of English football if his trajectory continues.
The former Sunday league player has progressed from Boreham Wood to Sheffield United to featuring in a World Cup for Senegal. The next step in this remarkable journey could be Premier League football, whether with our without his current club.
Ndiaye is an expert dribbler who has hit 11 goals and seven assists in 37 games this season.
An assist he registered last December against Huddersfield Town demonstrated all the 23-year-old’s qualities perfectly: expert first touch and close control to bring down a header with his back to goal and turn, supreme dribbling skills to wriggle his way around two defenders in a tight space and then a killer through ball for Billy Sharp to finish.
A really exciting player who gets fans off their seats, Ndiaye’s contract at Sheffield United runs out next summer. They will be desperate to keep him but financial circumstances at the club may dictate a sale if they are not promoted.
Interested clubs: Newcastle United, West Ham United, Everton
Joao Pedro – Watford
This could go down as cheating slightly so forgive me but in this humble writer’s opinion Joao Pedro has to go on any list of top talents in the Championship.
A simply wonderful talent, the Brazilian has already played Premier League football for Watford but was part of the team relegated to the Championship last year. Having said that, the level of his ability is so good and the ceiling so high that it would feel wrong not to include him.
With a similar profile in some aspects of his game to Spurs forward Richarlison, Joao Pedro is comfortable on the ball, a classy finisher, dynamic, quick-witted and surprisingly good in the air from set pieces. A Watford fan favourite, the 21-year-old has hit nine goals and two assists in 28 appearances – not spectacular but enough to show his promise in what is a turbulent club with constant managerial upheavals.
Former Watford manager Claudio Ranieri described Joao Pedro as ‘one of the best young players in the Premier League’ a year ago, so it seems almost crazy he is playing in the second tier. He has the class, ability and potential to play for a Champions League level club in the near future should his form and fitness continue.
Interested clubs: AC Milan, Newcastle United
Taylor Harwood-Bellis – Burnley
A 21-year-old Stockport-born defender on loan from Manchester City, Taylor Harwood-Bellis will probably end up in the Premier League one way or another next season after an excellent year at Burnley.
His loan club are well clear at the top of the Championship and his parent club are the reigning Premier League champions. The Vincent Kompany link between Burnley and City also means if Harwood-Bellis is loaned out again it could likely be back to Burnley for a year’s experience in English football’s top tier.
A strong central defender who graduated through City’s academy, Harwood-Bellis is also extremely impressive in possession. Of all Championship players who have played a minimum of 1500 league minutes, no player has registered more accurate forward passes than Harwood-Bellis, an indicator of his pro-active style when on the ball and ability to build play from the back. (Keep an eye on Nathan Wood at Swansea by the way whose stats come up well here.)
His contract runs out in 2024 but it seems Manchester City are keen to offer a new deal. Watching him play, you can see why.
Ben Brereton Diaz – Blackburn Rovers
It’s not often that you see a Chile international playing in the Championship, but this has been the case for Ben Brereton Diaz ever since the discovery via Football Manager that the Stoke-on-Trent-born forward has a Chilean mother.
The 23-year-old started his career at Manchester United but was released from both there and Stoke City before emerging at Nottingham Forest. There he was signed by Blackburn Rovers for roughly €8 million Euros in 2019 after a successful loan spell.
At Blackburn the striker has developed his all-round game from a number 9 to a more rounded forward, capable of not only scoring but creating and assisting in build-up play. He has scored 44 goals for Rovers, 13 this season, has a fantastic shot on him, can score off both feet, can hit free-kicks and has an all-action, energetic style of play.
Out of contract this summer, his manager – former Malmo FF boss Jon Dahl Tomasson – has admitted: “Everyone knows that there is a good chance the boy will be going, we know that.”
Where to is unknown as yet but if not the Premier League he could well end up plying his trade in a top league abroad.
Interested clubs: Villarreal, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur