Eight managers, eight games... just one goal

It's simply pure coincidence that one of the most serious questions of the Championship season revolves around an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman.

Neil Warnock, Paul Lambert and Brendan Rodgers are the three managers who are within eight games of career, indeed life-changing experiences.

They are the biggest players in the most serious game of all. Promotion to the Premier League would bring them untold riches – even Warnock, who has done it before with Sheffield United, has never been able to boast that he earned his club a guaranteed �90m jackpot. It changes their history, it changes their club's history. A joke it is not.

The tale of the promotion race is down to what the players do on the pitch, but behind them are the men who are the driving force, the men who have chosen to take one of the most risky and uncertain of all career paths: football management, where the life span is up there with the mayfly, although even that is basically 24 hours spent in the pursuit of carnal pleasure.

For a winning manager, it's bliss; the anxiety in the dug-out is tempered by the adulation of the crowd, and the rewards that go with success.

But when things go wrong, it's the manager who is first out of the door – with a long waiting list of replacements ready to fill the dead man's boots. Roy Keane once sent a good luck message to a new manager with the words, 'Welcome to hell.'

So who's who at the business end of the Championship? Who's best equipped to see it through?

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Below Warnock, Lambert and Rodgers there are others with major claims: Cardiff's Dave Jones, Simon Grayson at Leeds, Billy Davies at Nottingham Forest, Brian McDermott at Reading and Eddie Howe at Burnley.

There are bright young things and there are those who are perhaps a little too old to wear the T-shirts that signify they have been there, seen it and done it.

Will it be the old boys club of Warnock and Jones, or will it be the new boys on the Championship block, like Lambert, Grayson, McDermott or Howe?

Warnock is in the driving seat: his Queens Park Rangers side are nine points clear of Norwich, 10 of third-place Swansea. The 62-year-old is the oldest of the leading men, although second in the whole of the division to Leicester's Sven-Goran Eriksson, who is a year his senior.

Born in Sheffield, Warnock has more clubs than Peter Stringfellow, but while he has found success in the lower divisions, he has managed promotion to the top flight just once, when he took the Blades there in 2006, as runners-up to Reading. Fiery doesn't begin to explain the Marmite man, who is loved or hated by football supporters, generally depending on whether he is manager of their club or not. He's fought with officialdom, players, even, literally, with a rival coach. He's been fined, suspended and pilloried.

Warnock is enjoying the most successful time of his managerial career. Few doubt he will be managing in the top flight next season – you just have to hope he's lost his lucky shorts by then.

Once you've descended the gap to second, you'll find Lambert in waiting, closely followed by Rodgers.

At 41, there are only half a dozen managers younger than the City boss. He's also one of only two Championship managers never to have been on the books of an English team as a player – the other is Eriksson.

Lambert has worked wonders since he arrived at Carrow Road, taking City to the League One title in his first, not quite full, season. He famously drops a few degrees in body temperature when he deals with the media, his enthusiasm for talking clearly cooling, and makes no bones about his admiration of his and City's former manager Martin O'Neill. Man management is a vital part of his job – not many around these parts can recall him ever criticising one of his own players. Woe betide those who do.

It's Lambert's first season at this level and he has drawn plaudits from every corner of the footballing world. He's doing it his way – a lot of what he learned and what he puts into practice is from Germany, where he spent a highly successful year as a player with Borussia Dortmund. He's innovative and inventive: destined for the big time.

Rodgers is having his third crack at Championship promotion, having left Watford after only seven months to take over at Reading, where he lasted just six months before leaving by mutual consent, telling after a string of poor results.

But it didn't damage his reputation and he took over at Swansea last summer. Since then it's been a story of success for Rodgers, who is another who eschews public damnation of his staff. He's softly spoken, with a hint of steel. Like Lambert, he doesn't waste money.

'The pressure is on the teams that have spent big money and have big expectations,' he said recently.

Rodgers should know: despite being in management for less than two and a half years, it's all been at this level. He knows his way around.

Ditto Dave Jones, who has been in management 16 years this month. A man who rarely smiles and whose disdain for the media is sometimes uncomfortable viewing for even those not in his direct line of fire, he has taken plenty of criticism in his career, and fired it all back.

He was manager of the Wolves team that lost to City in the First Division play-offs semi-finals of 2002. He took them up the following season, but they came straight back down – and by November, 2004 he was out of a job. Cardiff called, he answered – and the challenge began again. The closest he has got was losing last season's play-off final to Blackpool.

Jones has the look of a man who is tired of all the questions, determined not to be proven wrong in print – but if Cardiff don't go up this year, his time may have run out.

Perhaps the most vocal of the managers at the top end – even counting Warnock – is Billy Davies. Unpopular at Carrow Road after celebrating a win by then club Derby as if he'd won the Champions League, Davies is a little man with a hell of a bite.

Suffered consecutive Championship play-off defeats – one a final, one a semi-final – as manager at Preston, but then succeeded at Derby, although it soon turned sour and he left, some say after an outspoken tirade against his own directors.

Took Forest to last season's play-offs, but lost to Blackpool in the semi-finals.

Davies has been in the play-offs four times – and won only once. Is that a good record or not?

McDermott has been in charge at Reading – his first managerial job – for just 14 months, and he has surpassed expectations, as Howe is doing at Burnley. McDermott is another of those studious types, who talks softly, but sensibly. You probably won't see his name linked to every vacancy going, because he isn't on the A-list – and you get the feeling he quite likes it that way.

Howe is a little different, because of his success at Bournemouth, where had been a hugely popular player. He took over as caretaker when Jimmy Quinn was fired and although he suffered two defeats, the Dean Court directors clearly saw something they liked and bucked the trend by giving him the job on a permanent basis.

They were quickly rewarded: he saved the Cherries from relegation and then took them into League One – all while the club was under a transfer embargo. Trouble is, you can't keep the big boys away for long – and Howe was bang in the middle of a story that had Norwich fans up in arms.

Burnley wanted Lambert to take over from Brian Laws. City told them to get on their bikes, and Burnley turned to Howe, who, much to everyone's relief around these parts, agreed to move.

They couldn't get one bright young thing, so they went for another.

Eight games, eight managers, all with one intention: promotion. Will the old dogs, Warnock and Jones, beat off the young pretenders? Will the upstarts have their day? Will Davies' previous experience serve him well?

Or will Malky Mackay, Nigel Pearson and Sven-Goran Eriksson still have something to say?

It's all down to who can hold their nerve – and suddenly that makes the playing field a lot more level.