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CHAMPIONSHIP FOCUS: Who are the Top 7 players ready to grace the Premier League?

Regularly we see promising players in the Championship who are the talk of the town amongst Premier League clubs.

As the January transfer window begins to heat up, we thought it time to shine the spotlight on some of the second division stars who are destined for the top flight.


1. Sam Byram - Leeds United

Byram is perhaps the hottest property in the Championship right now.

After bursting onto the scene under Neil Warnock in the 2012/13 season, the full-back has become a mainstay of the Leeds first team ever since.

His form this season, and in particular throughout December, has attracted interest from a host of Premier League clubs, including Roberto Martinez's Everton, which is being talked about as his most likely destination.

22-year-old Byram's goals against Wolves and Nottingham Forest, as well as his pinpoint assist for Chris Wood's header vs Derby County, has led him to be named the PFA Fan's Player of the Month for December.

Leeds manager Steve Evans has praised Byram's attitude despite the ongoing transfer speculation, and a dip in form earlier in the season, and insists he will remain an integral part of the Whites line-up until he is no longer part of the Elland Road setup.

"Until Massimo Cellino phones me up and tells me that Sam is being sold, I'll continue to pick him," the Leeds boss said earlier this month of the Essex-born young gun who can also be deployed as a winger.

"I'm quite relaxed about the situation.

"The reason I'm picking him is nothing to do with his contract or anything else. It's down to his form.

"The reason he didn't play for a few weeks a while back was because I wasn't seeing the performances in training I needed to see from him.

"But he's worked his game up and he's a fantastic professional. I take a lot of interest in the Prozone stats and in two of the last three games he's covered more distance than any other player by a quite distance. His attitude's spot on and he's been big for us."

With time running out for Evans and Cellino to tie Byram down to a new contract, it will only be a matter of time before he makes the move to the UK's showcase competition.

2. Benik Afobe - Wolves

Afobe has been the only real shining light for Kenny Jackett's Wolves side so far this season.

Their lacklustre and somewhat inexperienced defence has undone most of the hard work the striker has produced.

Afobe's nine league goals is substantially more than both James Henry and David Edwards who are on five and four for the season respectively.

The 22 year-old's teammates have been heavily reliant on Afobe to provide them with firepower despite the lack of service at times provided to him.

At the time of me writing this, the Daily Mail state that Crystal Palace boss Alan Pardew is hoping to sign the former Arsenal youngster, while top flight cellar dwellers Aston Villa have also been credited with an interest this season.

But Wolves boss Jackett insists there has been no bids for the former England U21 international as of yet, telling the Derby Telegraph: "We've had no calls about Benik.

"If it is coming (the bid) nothing has happened yet. We want to try and improve and move on if we can."

If 11th-placed Wolves do not show any sign of a promotion push in the coming weeks, Afobe could be tempted to move on to test his ability at the highest level with a few Premier League clubs sniffing around.

Or could we see him move to Derby County for a club record of more than £6million and end up in the top flight next season by virtue of promotion with Paul Clement's second-placed Rams.

3. Lewis Cook - Leeds United

After Demarai Gray's £3.75million move to Leicester City this week, could midfielder Cook could be the next Championship young gun in line to follow?

According to some reports, 18-year-old is on the radar of Bournemouth, who are hoping to secure a £5m deal for the teenage sensation.

Cook is one of a handful of youngsters to make the step up from the Leeds United academy, along with Alex Mowatt, Byram and Kalvin Phillips, to be a key first-team player this season.

The England U19 international has made close to 60 league appearances in the past season-and-a-half, with Neil Redfearn nurturing his development before introducing him to the starting XI.

He has continued to be play a part throughout the current campaign, most recently under the guidance of Steve Evans, amidst the merry-go-round of managers under the ownership of Massimo Cellino.

York-native Cook has played pivotal roles in the win at Derby County and against Hull City, showcasing his ability to mix it with the very best team in England's second division.

To sell a player of such quality would be a detriment to United's attempt at retuning to the Premier League, according to words uttered by Redfearn to the Yorkshire Evening Post during his time in charge at Elland Road: "He's the best I've seen by a mile.

"If we're going to be successful and get to the Premier League, we've go to keep Lewis Cook. It's as simple as that."

Now it seems Bourenmouth are to step up their chase of the talented central midfielder but the question remains whether Cook's head will be turned by the improved wages that Eddie Howe's side will offer, or continue to lead the charge in West Yorkshire as the 13th-placed Whites strive to push for promotion playoff place.

4. Oliver Burke - Nottingham Forest

Burke is a highly regarded young winger who made his professional debut last season as a substitute away to Tottenham Hostpur in the Capital One Cup.

The 18-year-old has since had a brief stint out on loan with Bradford City before signing a new three-year deal with Forest in July 2015.

England-born Scotland U19 international Burke netted his first senior goal away to Cardiff City, and nearly scored the winner with a expertly controlled effort which smashed off the post in their 1-1 with Leeds United in December.

He has a bright future according to both Forest manager Dougie Freedman and Scotland youth coach Scot Gemmill.

Freedman has compared the 18-year-old to Wilfred Zaha, who the Scotsman managed at Crystal Palace. He told the Nottingham Post: "I had young Zaha come through the ranks at Palace, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Oliver can be just as good or even better than Wilfried.

"He has pace, he has power, he can take people on. If he keeps on concentrating and picks up the pieces in training he has a very bright future."

Gemmill said earlier this month: "Oliver Burke scored for Nottingham Forest during the week.

"My hope is obviously that as many of them get as many minutes playing for their first teams as they can over the next year."

With both club and national team coaches praising Burke, it is clear to see he has a huge future in football. If he receives a run of games in the Forest first team and shows what he is capable of, the Premier League will soon be in sight.

5. Zach Clough - Bolton

Zach Clough, similar to Benik Afobe's situation at Wolves, has been Bolton's plus point in a wholly miserable campaign.

With their financial situation in dire straits, Neil Lennon may be looking to offload some of their prized talent, meaning Clough could soon well be in demand.

In the summer of 2015, the Daily Star reported that Manchester United were scouting the 20-year-old forward, with the newspaper also saying that the he is regularly compared to Barcelona great Lionel Messi by his Trotters teammates.

Lennon admitted this week that several players will have to be sold in order to raise funds at the Macron Stadium and after Clough's return from injury in December, the former Celtic boss reiterated just how important the whizkid is to the Wanderers cause, indicating he would be loath to lose him.

As quoted in the Bolton News, he said: "He's a brilliant player and he will be frustrated at the amount of time he has missed. He gives us that bit of pace, creativity and hopefully goals."

It looks inevitable that Clough will depart Bolton sometime in the near future, but whether it will be Louis van Gaal's Red Devils or other interested clubs Watford and Everton, remains to be seen.

6. George Thorne - Derby County

Thorne has been plagued by injuries in recent years but this has not deterred Premier League clubs from sniffing around.

On Boxing Day, the Daily Mirror reported that four top flight clubs - Norwich City, Crystal Palace, Everton and Newcastle United - were all jockeying for position to offer the 23-year-old a pathway back to Premiership football.

This interest is a result of consistently impressive performances which has seen the ex-West Bromwich Albion midfielder be an integral member of Paul Clement's Rams side that is sitting second on the table, and confidently eyeing a promotion tilt.

If Thorne is able steer clear of the treatment room and continue on with his fine form, then Derby may receive a six-figure sum over the next few weeks.

His preferred destination will probably be Newcastle, as Steve McClaren coached Thorne at the Rams when they narrowly missed out on promotion in 2013/14.

Whether the former Portsmouth, Peterborough United and Watford loanee is offloaded by Derby this month is uncertain but we may still see him playing top flight football soon if the boys from Pride Park can successfully achieve that elusive promotion they have been chasing for so long.

7. Charlie Taylor - Leeds United

Charlie Taylor has made huge strides at Elland Road this season, which has him currently regarded as one of the best left-backs in the Championship.

His attacking endeavour combined with his defensive capabilities has not gone unnoticed. In fact, the Daily Star reported in September that Manchester United were indeed keeping tabs on him.

In November, Leeds boss Evans praised the fitness levels and work ethic in training of the 22-year-old. Speaking to Leeds United's official website after an injury, Evans commented: "Charlie is just incredibly fit. I don't think he's human!

"He came back into the fold 10 days ago and has done double sessions and single sessions. He's worked through the pain barrier. He's worked so hard and to see his recovery has been fantastic."

There is no doubt that Taylor has the ability to progress to the EPL, and if Leeds miss out on promotion this season, he may even be poached to a top flight team to continue his development at a higher level.

By Joe Baker

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