Australia's eyes on the astonishing four-way Championship title race

It's been a while since an Australian was a regular part of a Premier League lineup. Youngsters are plugging away in academies, it must be said, highlighted by Brighton & Hove Albion prospect Cameron Peupion, while Joe Gauci just made a record move to back up Emiliano Martínez at Aston Villa. And, obviously, there's Ange Postecoglou at Tottenham Hotspur.

But there's no week-in, week-out starters. It's a frequently bemoaned topic Down Under, not surprising given that memories of when Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, and Tim Cahill were some of the league's most notable in the mid-2000s run deep. Combine this with the ever-increasing cultural hegemony the English top flight holds around the globe, and it's inevitable that angst will come with a perceived lockout.

This season, however, Championship stars Cameron Burgess and Massimo Luongo are doing their best to change that with Ipswich Town. And with three matchdays remaining in the campaign, and Kieran McKenna's squad sitting atop the league heading into them, it would appear the Tractor Boys are in a strong position to earn promotion to the Premier League.

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Well, that's the theory. In reality, the two Socceroos are caught in four-way race for the two automatic promotion places that is increasingly threatening to descend into anarchy; a dash in which its belligerents have all looked, at times, unbackable certainties only to fall back to the pack and almost do their best to throw their chance away. And for those of us who aren't so emotionally invested that they need to cover their eyes, it's a wonderful watch.

If you're not familiar with the Championship, 24 clubs square off in an arduous 46-game, home-and-away season across 10 months, with the resulting top two sides gaining automatic promotion to the Premier League. The sides finishing third through sixth then enter a post-season playoff to determine the final team to go up. It's a cruel system; in the past 10 seasons, only four of the third-placed finishers have won promotion via the playoffs.

The rewards for promotion are obvious. Outside of winning a trophy, going up is one of the states closest to nirvana that anyone in football -- player, fan, coach, administrator, whoever -- can experience; the catharsis of recognition and reward for the work that has been undertaken to get there, and the (even fleeting) unbridled optimism that comes with a new journey on a new stage. And if spreadsheets are more your thing, it's incredibly lucrative, too, with tens of millions of pounds in increased revenues on offer to the clubs that reach the Premier League -- with hundreds of millions of pounds potentially to be had if they can stay there. There's a reason the playoff final at Wembley is often called "The richest game in football"; at a minimum any promoted team will make £170 million over the next three seasons (via broadcast revenues and parachute payments.)

At present, Ipswich (89 points), Leicester City (88), and Leeds United (87) are all engaged in a dogfight to avoid the playoffs and automatically punch their ticket back to this land of milk, honey, private equity, and petrodollars. After defeating Preston North End on Tuesday, Southampton now sit on 84 points, just four back of the automatic promotion places, with a game in hand and looking to crash the party. That spare fixture, fittingly, is against Leicester at the King Power Stadium next week -- with Enzo Maresca's Foxes holding the chance to either kill off one of their rival's hopes or, potentially more likely given what's being going on as of late, the Saints will inject even more tumult into this whole affair.

Southampton fell to a 97th-minute winner from Jeremy Sarmiento against Ipswich on Easter Monday, since when the wheels have threatened to come off the Tractor Boys. They suffered a derby defeat to Norwich City in their subsequent fixture before drawing with Watford and Middlesbrough -- where Socceroos Riley McGree, Tom Glover, and Sammy Silvera all ply their trade -- and Ipswich have picked up two of just nine points in their three games since the Southampton fixture.

Retiring from international duty, in part, to focus on helping Ipswich to secure promotion -- a life-changing event, both emotionally and fiscally, for any footballer -- Luongo has started 34 of 40 matches for Ipswich this season, helping to keep the side ticking over in possession from the base of midfield and leading them in interceptions. The midfielder spent years in the wilderness as he battled injury and form issues, but has experienced a career renaissance since arriving at Portman Road.

Burgess, meanwhile, has been a rock at the back of Ipswich's XI for 35 of the 36 matches for which he's been available. Unsurprisingly given his stature, he's been one of the most aerially dominant players in the league, but, perhaps belying this imposing frame, he's also impressed with his reading of the game. Nobody in the Ipswich team has blocked more shots than Burgess in 2023-24, and only Luongo has made more interceptions.

Trips to Hull and Coventry await Lungo, Burgess and their Ipswich teammates before they end their campaign at home against Huddersfield Town on May 4. Win out, and Ipswich will return to the Premier League for the first time since 2001-02 and have become just the fourth side to earn back-to-back promotions from League One to the Championship to the Premier League -- joining Southampton in 2012, Norwich in 2011, and Watford in 1999. It's certainly the most romantic of the four hopefuls on offer given that Leicester, Leeds, and Southampton were the three sides all relegated from the Premier League last season, as opposed to experiencing a two-decade wait.

Leicester, for their part, looked to be cruising straight back into the Premier League at the turn of the new year (as one would expect given that their wage bill dwarfs many of their rivals), winning 21 games and losing just three in the season's opening 26 weeks -- setting a pace that suggesting they were going to eclipse Reading's record points total of 106. Socceroos defender Harry Souttar, brought in last season by then-boss Brenden Rodgers but now frozen out by Maresca, would often magnanimously remark when questioned on his future during this period that his task of getting back into consideration was rather difficult because the team was "flying."

In their 16 fixtures since, however, the Foxes have lost as many games as they've won -- seven -- and suffered back-to-back defeats to Millwall and Plymouth Argyle in their past two fixtures. Alongside their game in hand against Southampton, they'll face West Bromwich Albion, Preston and Blackburn Rovers to end the season.

Disproportionately supported by Australians thanks to the legacy of players such as Viduka, Kewell and Patrick Kisnorbo, Leeds' midseason run of 15 games unbeaten now feels a long time ago. Daniel Farke's side has played three straight games without a win -- losing to Coventry City and Blackburn, and drawing with Sunderland. Sitting third and with their automatic promotion destiny therefore out of their hands, they will travel to face Middlesbrough and Queens Park Rangers in the coming fortnight before ending their season with a blockbuster against Southampton at Elland Road. By the time that visit from the Saints rolls around, the game could be a mini-playoff for the Premier League in and of itself, staged in Yorkshire rather than London.

Needing multiple clubs to slip up to sneak into an automatic promotion place, Southampton's path back to an immediate return to the Premier League looks to be the most difficult of the four contenders'. But with both Leicester and Leeds to come, they're set to have a gargantuan role to play either way.

Ultimately, Luongo and Burgess are just two of several Australians looking to earn their way into the biggest leagues across Europe -- with Jackson Irvine and Connor Metcalfe at Bundesliga hopefuls St. Pauli, and Alessandro Circati at Serie A aspirants Parma.

But in terms of the Premier League prize, all of Australia has its eyes on Ipswich.