Game of the Evening: Hull v Wolves

Four clubs with two wins and three clubs with no points: Ipswich and Brentford are the teams that have begun the season in exactly the opposite way I thought they might, but as I mentioned last Friday it’s still early days.

Before I go any further, last Sunday saw a relatively serious outbreak of violence at the Riverside after the Middlesbrough/Sheffield United game after some of the visiting fans couldn’t cope with the idea of a refereeing decision going against them. There’s a difference between being Billy Big Bollocks in League One and an average side in the Championship and the gap has become bigger since Sheffield United have been away: it’s clear that some of their fans don’t seem to have understood that.

Saturday’s game of the week at Hillsborough finished all square. For those of you that like this sort of thing, it’s been 45 years since Wednesday wore the ‘Arsenal’ style kit.

On to this evening’s game of the week:

Hull City v Wolverhampton Wanderers

Both sides are unbeaten going into this game, but the hosts may be not be all they seem. The Tigers drew at Villa Park on the opening weekend and then battered Burton Albion last Saturday but didn’t lead at half time in either game and have now played two of the teams currently in the bottom four.

On the other hand, Wolves have already beaten Middlesbrough and Derby without conceding a goal and look a much tougher proposition. They only lost four of their last ten away games in 2016/17 and as I noted in the previews they were better on the road than at Molineux last season.

Head to head in the league at Hull: Wolves have only recorded two wins at Hull in the last ten meetings, the last victory coming in February 2006. Hull have won four of the last five games between them in Yorkshire.

Other games to keep an eye on this evening:

Barnsley v Nottingham Forest 

The Tykes were widely tipped to struggle this season and have lost both their games in the Championship and only beat Morecambe in the League Cup thanks to an injury time goal by Ryan Hedges after they’d blown a 3-1 lead. Forest have won both of their games so far, but I’m not getting carried away just yet.

Reading v Aston Villa

The signs of a playoff hangover are already apparent in Berkshire: a surprise defeat at QPR on opening day following by a home draw against a Fulham side that played almost the entire game with ten men. Villa have won precisely seven points from 30 in their last ten away games and failed to score in half of them. If that form continues, it’ll be sooner rather than later that the ‘they’re too good to go down’ conversation will begin.

Don’t forget, there’s no post this weekend. Next one is scheduled on the Friday before the Bank Holiday.

Game Of The Week: Sheffield Wednesday v QPR

Some surprising results in the league last weekend, but it’s always worth remembering that nobody can be promoted or relegated after one game.

The midweek performances in the League Cup weren’t bad: only Preston were knocked out. Derby have to travel to Grimsby again after their game was abandoned after torrential rain.

Which brings me on to this week’s game of the week:

Sheffield Wednesday v QPR

Not sure if Wednesday’s opening day defeat at Preston is anything to be worried about, but they’ve only won five of their last ten at Hillsborough and are currently in the bottom three – albeit only on alphabetical order.

This will be a test for Rangers – they’ve only won one of their last ten away games and have lost all five of their last away games, failing to score in three of them.

Head to head: Wednesday have won six of the last ten games between the clubs at Hillsborough. The last QPR win in Yorkshire was in November 2009; Sheffield Wednesday were relegated at the end of that campaign.

There’s one televised game this weekend: Middlesbrough v Sheffield United (5:30pm tomorrow, Sky Sports Football) is their first meeting on Teeside for almost seven years; you’ve got to go back almost 20 years for the last time the Blades won at Middlesbrough.

Back on Tuesday for a look at the first midweek games of the season, but there won’t be a post next weekend due a couple of birthday celebrations. Further ahead, two of my three brothers in law have 40ths before the end of the year but I’ll let you know in advance when those will have an impact on the posts.

2017/18: What To Expect In The Sky Bet Championship

A year ago I wrote that over the last decade only three of the clubs that won the Championship had been relegated from the Premier League at the end of the previous season: despite Newcastle’s triumph at the end of last season, that remains true.

The starting point this season is whether Hull, Middlesbrough or Sunderland can become the third consecutive ex-Premier League club to win the Sky Bet Championship.

Judging from the changes in the odds since the start of last month, Middlesbrough look the most likely of the new arrivals to do so. At the start of July Boro were second favourites for promotion behind Aston Villa, but the Teeside club are now joint favourites to win promotion and clear favourites to win the title: poaching Garry Monk from Leeds United and Britt Assombalonga from Nottingham Forest seems to have given them an edge over the Midlands outfit in the minds of the ante post punters and to some extent I’d agree with them. I’m far from sure about either Hull City or Sunderland: although the former club have recent experience in the Championship, Leonid Slutsky is a risk appointment. Simon Grayson is a safe pair of hands and should be able to stabilise the Mackem ship, but that’s about it.

A more likely destination for the title will be one of the clubs that finished in the top half of the competition but more likely than not failed in the playoffs. Sheffield Wednesday have been consistent over the past couple of seasons but need to improve in order to win the title and last season much was made of the fact that Fulham, Huddersfield and Reading all finished below sixteenth place at the end of 2015/16 but still reached the playoffs. In 2017/18 it’ll be interesting to see if Fulham and Reading are able to sustain the form that stood them in good stead: it should not be forgotten that only nine clubs conceded more goals than the Royals last season, which is nowhere near good enough for a team with Premier League aspirations.

Automatic promotion and the playoffs

Six of the last ten runners up in the Championship had played at least one season in the competition beforehand and all but one of those clubs (Watford) finished in the top half at the end of the previous season. This is where Aston Villa, Leeds United and Norwich City come into consideration although there are question marks about all of them; if you want further details, see the individual previews. It’s been five seasons since a team that was either relegated from the Premier League or promoted from League One has finished in second place at this level and with apologies to those clubs that fit that description, I don’t see any of them finishing second in 2017/18.

The playoffs are another matter entirely. With the benefit of hindsight, Huddersfield’s rise from nineteeth place to playoff winners should probably not have come as a surprise: half of the last ten successful finalists had finished in the bottom half of the table at the end of the previous season, even though the only team to finish lower than 19th was Hull who finished 21st in 2006/07. If that trend continues, Cardiff City and possibly Wolves could be worth watching. The playoffs may also be the best case scenario for Hull.

Relegation

Just over half of the 30 teams that were relegated over the last decade had finished in the bottom half of the Championship at the end of the previous season. It’s the clubs that finished in 17th place or below that are those in the biggest danger of the drop: Burton Albion, Nottingham Forest and QPR look the most likely – the Brewers being pre-season favourites – but both Ipswich Town and Birmingham City regressed significantly last season and the latter were the only team to score less than a goal per game that wasn’t relegated.

However, this is also where newly promoted clubs are also significantly represented, but surprisingly it’s the teams that have been promoted automatically that seem to have struggled, with two League One champions (Doncaster Rovers and Wigan Athletic) and one runner up (MK Dons) making immediate returns to the third tier in the last five seasons. The playoff winners have normally been fine, but it’s worth noting that the the Millwall team that lost to Barnsley in the 2016 League One playoff final performed at a better level than the team that beat Bradford City in May and the Lions – along with Bolton Wanderers – are currently the same price to go down as Rotherham United were last season.

Predictions

I got none of these right last season, so don’t expect miracles this time round. So for what it’s worth:

Fulham will win promotion

There will be at least three teams worse than Bristol City

Daenerys Targaryan will marry Jon Snow

Ian Holloway will not be manager of QPR on Christmas Day

2017/18 Preview Part IV

Here’s the last part of our club by club preview for the Sky Bet Championship season, which starts on Friday with two games, including the televised clash between Sunderland and Derby (Sky Sports Football and Sky Sports Main Event, 7:45pm GMT).

All odds were taken from the Oddschecker website on July 1st 2017: as part of the ‘What To Expect Post’ on Friday, I’ll be taking a look to see where the pre-season money has gone as well as the usual badly thought out predictions 🙂

QPR

Manager: Ian Holloway (November 2016), third season in the Championship

Last 10: 2-1-7

Promotion 12/1, relegation 7/2

It’s one of those scenarios that seems to happen at every level in British football almost every season: a previously successful manager returns to scene of earlier triumph and completely fails to recreate the glory days. Last season Rangers fell out of the top half of the table for good after ‘Ollie’ was appointed and Blackburn – who were relegated – finished with a better goal difference: QPR lost seven of their last eight games and with that in mind I’ll be surprised if Holloway isn’t working for Sky Sports again on Friday evenings before Christmas. There’s a good chance that Rangers will be involved in a relegation battle whether that happens or not.

Fun fact: last season QPR only won once at any of the clubs based north of Wolverhampton.

Reading

Manager: Jaap Staam (June 2016), fifth season in the Championship

Last 10: 6-2-2 (including playoffs; I’m counting the PO final as a draw)

Promotion 9/2, Relegation: 14/1

Over the last decade beaten playoff finalists have only won promotion at the end of the following seasons on three occasions, so I wouldn’t count on The Royals to add to that list even though their form at the Mad House was outstanding – only Brighton were better in 2016/17. Their defensive record on the road last season was horrible: only Rotherham conceded more on their travels and that indicates to me Reading are due a regression to their average performance since they won promotion. Eleventh it is then.

Fun fact: Reading lost nine of their 12 away games to the other sides who finished in the top half of the table. Only two of those defeats were by one goal.

Sheffield United

Manager: Chris Wilder. Promoted As Winners of League One, last season at this level was 2010/11

Last 10: 9-1-0 (League One)

Promotion 9/1, relegation 11/2

The Championship has become a lot tougher since the Blades last played in the competition more than half a decade ago and with Chris Wilder being untested at this level, those factors could combine to cause a nasty surprise for fans expecting a walk in the park. United will have momentum going for them at the start of the season, but it’s worth remembering they won only three of their ten games against the top six clubs in League One last season and only earned one point against Fleetwood Town.

Fun fact: Sheffield United have never finished in the top half of their new division in the seasons following their previous three divisional title wins.

Sheffield Wednesday

Manager: Carlos Carvalhal (June 2015), sixth season in the Championship

Last 10: 6-2-2 (including playoffs)

Promotion 7/2, relegation 40/1

Consecutive disappointments in the playoffs leave Wednesday at something of a crossroads coming into this season: it’s hard to see them recovering from a playoff hangover bought on by a penalty shoot out defeat in a local derby and it’s possible that they may even take a couple of steps backwards this season. One of the better sides in the division, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement for promotion: they went missing in March – one win in seven – and if they’re going to take the next step under Carvalhal, more away wins against the better sides should be a priority. With the benefit of hindsight, blowing a last minute lead at Fulham in November arguably cost them dearly.

Fun fact: the last time Sheffield Wednesday finished above Sheffield United in the second tier was at the end of the 1958/59 season.

Sunderland

Manager: Simon Grayson (June 2017), Relegated from the Premier League

Last 10: 1-1-8 (Premier League)

Promotion 11/2, relegation 14/1

Despite the eminently sensible decision to poach Simon Grayson from Preston, it’s hard to see Sunderland being anything other than this season’s Aston Villa: a former Premier League club that hasn’t played at this level for a while and will take at least a season to get used to the idea that they’re a big club that everyone wants to beat.

Fun fact: At the end of August 2006, Sunderland were in the bottom three of the Championship. They went on to win the title by two points.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo (May 2017), Fourth season in the Championship

Last 10: 5-1-4

Promotion 5/1, relegation 14/1

Molineux was not a happy place last season: Kenny Jackett shouldn’t have been sacked, Walter Zenga shouldn’t have been appointed and credit should be given to Paul Lambert for at least steadying the ship before he also got the boot. Apart from Rotherham, no other club lost more home games and only Wigan and Rotherham scored fewer goals in front of their own fans. Similar to Barnsley in that their away form was far better than their home form: the defence conceded two fewer goals away from home. If some of the gaudier pre-season predictions are to be fulfilled, turning Molineux into a fortress is vital, but mid table anonymity under yet another manager that’s untried in this country seems likely.

Fun fact: despite playing in three different divisions over the last decade, Wolves have only recorded two top half finishes in the Championship during that period.

2017/18 Preview Part III

Here’s the third part of our club by club guide to the 2017/18 Sky Bet Championship season.

The odds for promotion and relegation were sourced from Oddschecker.com on July 1st and will fluctuate as the season progresses.

Leeds United
  • Manager: Thomas Christiansen (June 2017), eighth season in the Championship
  • Last 10: 2-4-4
  • Promotion 11/2, relegation 14/1

Their highest league position for six years – based on one of the best home defensive records in the competition – wasn’t enough to see United qualify for the playoffs and both the failure to reach the playoffs and the long anticipated change at boardroom level seem to have led to Garry Monk moving to one of the club’s immediate rivals. His successor is untried in English football and by the time he gets used to the Championship it’s possible Leeds may have a lot of ground to make up to reach the playoffs.

Fun fact: Leeds finished seventh in the old Second Division at the end of the 1922/23 season but went on to win the title at the end of the following campaign.

Middlesbrough
  • Manager: Garry Monk (June 2017), relegated from the Premier League
  • Last 10: 1-3-7 (Premier League)
  • Promotion 9/4, relegation: 50/1

On paper, Monk’s appointment is a solid one for a team that had clearly lost its way under Aitor Karanka and hasn’t won an away game since last August; and the speed with which he left Leeds indicates that Steve Gibson clearly knows what he wants. The chairman’s hands off approach has worked with his managers in the past but the big question is whether Brett Assombalonga is going to justify such a large fee. He’s never played a full season at any club and hasn’t managed over 40 games since 2012/13.

Fun fact: the last time both Middlesbrough and Sunderland were both relegated from the Premier League, they finished in second and third place in the second tier at the end of the following season. Only Middlesbrough were promoted: Sunderland lost to Charlton on penalties in the playoff final.

Millwall
  • Manager: Neil Harris (March 2015), promoted from League One
  • Last 10: 6-2-2 (League One, including playoffs)
  • Promotion 33/1, relegation 5/4

Back after two seasons away, it’ll be interesting to see how the Lions respond to a promotion that looked unlikely for most of the season. The FA Cup run proved to both a distraction and inspiration, but their play off spot was only confirmed in the last game of the season and they seized the opportunity with both hands. Having written that, their away form in League One was average (they lost at two of the clubs that were eventually relegated) and they’ve only finished in the top half of the Championship once in the last decade. They proved last season that on their day they can beat anyone, but there’ll need to be quite a few of those days this season if Millwall want to stay out of a relegation dogfight.

Fun fact: Millwall’s last away win in the Championship was at Birmingham in February 2015.

Norwich City
  • Manager: Daniel Farke (May 2017), second season in the Championship
  • Last 10: 5-2-3
  • Promotion 7/2, relegation 40/1

To many neutrals, Alex Neil’s dismissal in March was harsh and seems to have been based on the idea that Norwich should have made more of their aim to win promotion back to the Premier League after an impressive start eventually came to nothing. Last season only Brighton and Reading won more points at home and nobody scored more goals in their home games than the Canaries; if you’re going to nitpick, their record against the teams that eventually finished above them wasn’t good enough, but with three of those sides missing this season and a couple of the others due to suffer playoff hangovers, Daniel Farke may find most of the spadework has been done for him, even though defensively they can be suspect.

Fun fact: last season only Brentford failed to score against Norwich in both league games

Nottingham Forest
  • Manager: Mark Warburton (March 2017), tenth season in the Championship
  • Last 10: 3-2-5
  • Promotion: 12/1, relegation: 11/2

Other than finally managing to sell the club in mid-May, Warburton’s appointment was arguably the best thing the Al-Hasawi family did since they took over at Forest. However, this is a far tougher job than either Brentford or Glasgow Rangers were and although now owner Evangelos Marinakis talks a good game, the Championship is not the Greek Super League. The club has been in decline for several seasons now and were one of the trio that faced relegation on the last day. I can only see this season going two ways: an improvement to mid-table levels or a total disaster from day one. Two away wins last season, the second worse defence in the section and the departure of Brett Assombalonga indicate the latter.

Fun fact: it’s been 19 seasons since Forest played in the Premier League, the longest time in the history of the club that it’s been outside the top tier.

Preston North End
  • Manager: Alex Neil (July 2017), Third season in the Championship
  • Last 10: 2-3-5
  • Promotion 12/1, relegation 5/1

Simon Grayson’s post-season departure for Sunderland made some sense, but I’ll be discussing that in the next post. Alex Neil’s appointment also makes sense in so far as he’s been successful at so-called unfashionable clubs: the former Norwich boss could provide the impetus that turns the Lillywhites from an average mid-table side into playoff challengers and he certainly won’t need motivating after his departure from Carrow Road. If that’s going to happen, North End really need to work on improving their away form against the top sides in the competition. In 2016/17 they lost seven of their ten matches at the clubs who eventually finished above them. That price for relegation looks far too short and should be avoided.

Fun fact: Despite have been founder members of the Football League, Preston have only finished eleventh in any division on four occasions – including twice in the last two seasons.