Billy Sharp (Sheffield United)
At the age of 32, Sharp has always been known as a worker but not always a prolific goalscorer. His most fruitful seasons – 2005/06, 2006/07, 2015/16 and 2016/17 – had all come in the third tier. Sharp has never scored more than 15 times in a Championship season, and that was back in 2010/11.
So it is indeed surprising that the ‘fat lad from Sheffield’ has scored 11 Championship goals in just 1,400 minutes. The only four players to have scored more have taken at least five more shots than Sharp, who has become one of the best poachers in the Football League in the twilight of his career.
Given the travails in Sharp’s personal life and how he dealt with them – his newborn son tragically died in 2011 – it’s impossible not to be delighted for him. It’s not outside the realms of possibility that he could yet add to his two career Premier League appearances.
Neal Maupay (Brentford)
Brentford are suffering this season. Having finished in the top 10 of the Championship in each of the last four seasons, Thomas Frank is in danger of losing his job two months after replacing Dean Smith as manager. He has won one and lost eight of his 10 games in charge, and looks totally out of his depth.
Maupay’s form has been the ray of light amid stormy days. Brentford have a habit of clever striker recruitment, having made huge profit on Scott Hogan and Andre Gray. The same may be true of Maupay, with Huddersfield reportedly interested in bringing him to the Premier League in January.
Signed for £1.6m from Saint-Etienne, the former France U21 intermnational was used predominantly as substitute last season until the departure of Lasse Vibe. This season, given the chance to lead Brentford’s line, he has scored 13 times for a team struggling in the bottom half. If that wasn’t enough, only one player in the division has registered more assists. He’s happy drifting out wide, linking play with midfield and getting onto the final ball, potentially making him the complete Championship striker at the age of 22. It’s a bit scary.
Will Vaulks (Rotherham)
You have to admire Rotherham’s recruitment strategy. This is a club punching way above its weight in the Championship, whose record signing cost just over £500,000 in 2016. Over the two years since, the Millers have barely paid any money for a player, making do with loans and free transfers. And yet they still sit outside the bottom three.
Vaulks is the perfect example of their intelligent recruitment, He was signed from Falkirk in 2016, who he had joined after failing to make a single first-team appearance at Tranmere, and has been a virtual ever-present in Rotherham’s midfield since.
Like so many around him, there are few bells and whistles to Vaulks’s game. He is not a big name, merely a young man desperate to make the best of himself and in so doing keep Rotherham in the second tier. It’s no surprise that Derby and Norwich have been linked with January bids.
Emiliano Buendia (Norwich)
All hail Daniel Farke, and a transfer strategy that has taken Norwich to the upper reaches of the Championship. When Farke was told that he needed to sell star players again in the summer, there were no histrionics. The manager instead relied upon his well-tested methods of using his contacts in Europe to unearth some hidden gems.
Buendia is the perfect example of how Championship clubs can do things smarter. He was signed for just over £1m from La Liga side Getafe, ostensibly a replacement for the outgoing Josh Murphy. At 21, he has taken to Championship life with extraordinary ease given the concerns over workload and physicality – he’s only 5ft 7in. No Norwich player has created more chances, and nobody is missing the Murphy twins at Carrow Road.
Buendia is an Argentina U20 international, and Norwich’s problem is going to be keeping hold of their star should they fail to secure secure promotion. But then that’s what this club does now: buy low and smart, sell high and reinvest intelligently. The day Buendia arrived was certainly a good day, if you know your entry-level Spanish.
Pablo Hernandez (Leeds)
There has always been a spark in Hernandez, a sense that he could embark on a wonderful run of form if he feels physically and emotionally at his peak. And it’s not that he was poor last season, scoring seven times and assisting eight more in 41 Championship matches.
But in 2018/19 we have truly seen the best of him in England at the ripe old age of 33. Hernandez flattered to deceive at Swansea and did the same for large spells of his first 18 months at Elland Road. This season, he has kicked on and become the leader of Bielsaball. Seven assists – the most in the Championship – and seven goals put him only one below last season’s total before Christmas. What’s more, he’s achieved those numbers having missed seven games of the season through injury.
The manager is mightily impressed. “His style is something that wakens in the rival the desire to neutralise him, because he always intervenes and makes actions more fluid,” said Bielsea after Leeds’s 3-0 win at Norwich. “He gives solutions to actions that are very complicated and he puts his team-mates in better situations. He’s a real silent leader. I’ve only seen this a very few times during my career.”