Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Preview

The match kicks off at 5:00pm on Saturday afternoon and the talking heads will be indulging in their usual breathless hyperbole from 4:00pm on Sky Sports 1. As I pointed out before last season’s game, there’s a 90% chance of the winners finishing in the bottom half of the Premier League next season and about an even chance they’ll be relegated – which exactly what happened to Norwich this season.

Anyway, I digress.

This will be the first ‘fourth v sixth’ final since 2009/10 (when Blackpool beat Cardiff) and only the second game featuring what we might call the ‘outsiders’ in the last decade.

Interestingly, the lower placed team at the end of the regular season has won four of the last ten finals -which might be good news for Hull fans but is counterbalanced by the fact the Tigers finished fourth. Although the Curse of Fourth was broken by QPR a couple of seasons ago, it’s still arguably the worst place to finish in the Championship if you’re seeking play off glory.

Before I launch into the team previews, it’s worth remembering that both finalists have failed to score in seven of the last ten finals, with six of those ten games producing under 2.5 goals. As we’ve got the second and fifth best defences in the Championship facing each other on Saturday, it wouldn’t surprise me if this is a low scoring game.

Hull City

Last ten away games: 4-1-5 (10-11)

Play off record (second tier only): winners 2008

Three of the last five Championship play off winners have been clubs that have been relegated at the end of the previous season, so that’s another reason to believe that Hull be involved in a battle to avoid relegation from the Premier League this time next year.

Hull have been a yo-yo club over the last decade: dangerously close to relegation from the Championship nine years ago, they’ve spent the last eight seasons either being in the race for promotion from the Championship or being not quite good enough to last more than two seasons in the Premier League.

My thinking about The Curse of Fourth had to change after QPR beat Derby a couple of seasons ago. Hull are one of the best fourth placed sides over the last decade: only Middlesbrough (last season) and Preston in 2005/06 are probably better and this season’s Hull team are performing at a better level than the team that won automatic promotion in a dramatic finale in May 2013.

Best comparison: West Ham, 2011/12. The Hammers had been relegated from the Premier League in May 2011, but were top of the table in February 2012 (at about the same time Portsmouth went into administration & Neil Warnock was appointed manager of Leeds) and then fell away after a sequence of seven draws in ten games. Hull last lead the division in February but dropped out of the automatic promotion places for good after they failed to win any of their next five games and almost blew their place in the final last week:

Strength: during the regular season, Hull were fantastic at the KC Stadium but that perception changed dramatically in the game you’ve just watched the highlights of.

Weakness: Fulham lost fewer away games than Hull in 2015/16 and for a team that’s one game away from the Premier League, losing at two of the three clubs that will be playing in League One in August is far from encouraging. The big problem for the Tigers was scoring on the road – although they scored three times against Derby in the first leg of the play offs, Hull haven’t scored more than twice in an away league game since they beat Sunderland 3-0 in a Boxing Day game in 2014. This season they lost every away game in the Championship they failed to score in.

Player to watch: Abel Hernandez. The Uruguayan is the definition of a striker who hasn’t been able to cut it at the very top but is lethal at second tier level. He was disappointing in Serie A for Palermo and didn’t do much in the Premier League in 2014/15: 21 goals this season is testament to his talent. He also has one big advantage over his Hull counterpart, but I’ll come to that in a minute.

Sheffield Wednesday

Away form: 3-4-3 (10-10)

Play off record (second tier only): début

Here’s how Wednesday clinched their place in the final – it’s a bit long if you’re a neutral, but at least it’s got some commentary with it.

The only other team to have jumped from 13th to a play off final in the last decade was the Burnley team of 2008/09 and although Wednesday were never outside the top ten from mid October, they were never better than fifth in the table for the rest of the season. That was their best finishing position in the second tier for 25 years, but it’s fair to say that this season’s Wednesday team is both not as good as the Ipswich side that finished sixth and lost to Norwich in last season’s semi finals and under Carlos Carvalhal they’ve clearly over achieved this season.

Best comparison: Nottingham Forest 2010/11. Forest earned a point more and had a slightly inferior goal difference that this season’s Wednesday side but were knocked out of the play offs by eventual winners Swansea and have had one top ten finish since.

Strength: home defence. Which is going to be irrelevant on Saturday evening.

Weakness: away form. Including the play off semi final draw at Brighton, Wednesday have still only won three of their last ten away games in the Championship, the last victory coming at Huddersfield at the start of April, also last time they kept an away clean sheet. They only beat two teams in the top half of the table and failed to beat any of the relegated sides away from home and only picked up one point from six against MK Dons.

Player to watch: Fernando Forestieri. There must be something in the water in Sheffield as the Argentinian striker has scored 15 goals this season, which is more than twice his previous best (at Watford two seasons ago) and one third of his total goals in a ten year career. However, there’s a problem: he’s not scored on the road since the start of April (Abel Hernandez has scored four in Hull’s last ten aways) and having seen him play in person this season, if you can isolate him he’ll lose interest very quickly.

Verdict: Wednesday need to stop Hull from scoring to have any chance of winning promotion back to the Premier League, but they’ve not kept an away clean sheet since April and with all due respect, Huddersfield aren’t the best team in the Championship. Hull have ‘been there and done that’, have recent Premier League experience and know what it’s like to both win and lose at Wembley: so it’s Hull for me. 

Hull 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday. Mohammed Diame’s 72nd minute goal means that the Tigers will back in the Premier League next season. I’ll be back at the start of July for the first of the previews for the 2016/17 season.

Update: Barnsley are back, 3-1 winners over Millwall in the League One final.

Play Off Round Up

It looks very much like a Hull v Sheffield Wednesday final after both semi finals were apparently decided on the basis of long term form.

Wednesday go into tonight’s second leg at Brighton (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm kickoff) with a two goal lead, which mean the hosts have to win beat Sheffield Wednesday by three clear goals to go to Wembley – which they’ve managed once in 102 years. Furthermore, Wednesday have only lost by three goals once during the entire season.

The other semi final already looks beyond the reach of Derby. Hull City only lost once at home this season and conceded just under half a goal per game at the KC Stadium, so it would be extremely unlikely that the Rams will recover from that deficit. The game is being shown tomorrow night on Sky Sports 2, 7:45pm kick off.

As for who joins from League 1, it’ll probably be one of two clubs who aren’t exactly strangers to the Championship…

Update: Sheffield Wednesday are the first team through to the play off final after a 1-1 draw against Brighton at the Amex.

Hull will meet Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley after Derby almost pulled off a dramatic comeback at the KC Stadium this evening. Trailing by three goals, the Rams scored twice but a third eluded them.

The preview will be posted next Friday.


Sky Bet Championship Play Off Preview

It’s that time of year again.

I’ve already seen a couple of daft articles about ‘how to win the play offs’ as if it was some kind of mystery that Sherlock Holmes might have found impossible. The simplest way to win any football match is to score more goals than the opposition.

Anyway, since the second tier was rebranded as the Championship before the 2004/05 season, six of the 11 play off winners finished in third place after the end of the regular season, which indicates that it’s Brighton who may have a slight advantage. The curse of fourth was broken by QPR two years ago, but it’s five seasons since a sixth placed team won promotion to the Premier League at Wembley – and Blackpool were relegated to League Two on Sunday. From that point of view, Sheffield Wednesday fans may be the most likely to find themselves wishing what might have been at the end of the month.

In this season’s post season line up, we have two of the most improved teams in 2015/16 (Brighton and Wednesday), but looking at the four teams records against each other I think there’s a very strong possibility of low scoring games culminating in extra time and even penalties all the way through this competition.

So here’s the guide to this season’s runners and riders:

Brighton & Hove Albion

Last 10 Games: 7-3-0

2015/16 record against other play off teams: 1-5-0

Play off record (second tier only): Beaten finalists 1991, beaten semi finalists 2013 & 2014.

Last third place play off winner: Norwich 2014/15.

Unrecognisable from the team that struggled last season, but with the benefit of hindsight that’s because the right man for the job didn’t arrive until Chris Hughton took over from Sami Hyppia in December 2014 – Brighton have reached the play offs in three of the five seasons since they were promoted. The Seagulls are top of the 10 Game form table and have only lost one of their last ten away games and drew 0-0 at Sheffield Wednesday in November: recent performances have been better than their overall record this season, but Brighton will be missing Lewis Dunk and Dale Stephens due to suspensions for what can only be described as stupid acts of indiscipline. That factor alone could scupper their chances of reaching the top tier of English football for the first time for 34 years.

Derby County

Last 10: 5-3-2

2015/16 record against other play off teams: 2-4-0

Last 5th placed play off winner: Crystal Palace 2012/13

Play off record (second tier only): losing finalists 1992, 1994, 2014. Losing semi finalists: 2005.

Actually reached the play offs this season after the calamity of 2014/15 where a home defeat against Reading meant they dropped out of the top six altogether after leading the table as late as the end of February. Despite a dodgy start and a poor run of form at the start of 2016 that ultimately cost Paul Clement his job, the Rams haven’t been out of the play off places since October and although they’re performing at a slightly better level than in 2015/16 and beat Hull twice this season, they’ve only kept one clean sheet in their last ten away games.

Oh and their post season record is appalling.

Hull City

Last 10: 5-2-3

2015/16 record against other play off teams: 0-3-3

Last fourth place play off winner: QPR 2013/14

Play off record (second tier only): Winners 2008

As I mentioned above, the curse of fourth was broken by QPR in 2014, but the fact remains that Rangers have been the only fourth placed team that has won promotion since the start of the century – Bristol City finished fourth when Hull beat them eight years ago. That doesn’t look as if it’s going to change: the Tigers failed to beat any of the other three clubs that are involved in the play offs in 2015/16 and are playing at about the same level that saw them finish as runners up in 2013. This season there were three teams better than they were: their only home defeat this season was against Derby but they lost half of their last ten aways and that’s why they’re not already on the beach.

Sheffield Wednesday

Last 10: 5-3-2

2015/16 record against other play off teams: 0-6-0

Last sixth place play off winner: Blackpool 2009/10

Play off record (second tier only): debut.

Even though they’ve only lost once at home since the start of September, Wednesday’s inability to beat any of the other teams in the top seven is one of the reasons why they were never any higher than fifth during the regular season, even though this is their best league position since 1990/91. Another reason is their away form: three wins in their last ten games and no victory on the road since the start of April.

For that reason, I can’t help thinking that Wednesday might have a better chance of promotion next season, but might also be the most likely of the four teams qualifiers to suffer the obligatory hangover if they aren’t promoted.

Shefield Wednesday v Brighton (tomorrow, Sky Sports 1, kick off 7:45pm)

Four of the last six games in the league have ended all square but the Seagulls have only won two the last ten and have never won at Hillsborough. They don’t necessarily need to win tomorrow, but Wednesday do.

Derby v Hull (Saturday, Sky Sports 1, kick off 12:30pm)

Although Derby won both games this season, over the last ten league games between them there’s only been one draw and Hull have won all but one of the rest.

Verdict: of the four qualifiers, Hull have had the most success in the play offs and the most recent experience in the Premier League, so the club understand exactly what’s at stake here. Derby should be motivated by their defeat in the 2014 play off final and fit the profile of a team that finished outside the top six last season and have earned a second bite of the cherry. However, Brighton have been on a nomadic journey over the last 20 years and it may end in an emotional triumph at Wembley. A word of caution though: I’m awful at predicting the play offs.

All being well, there’ll be an update sometime on Sunday evening.

Newcastle, Norwich relegated from the Premier League

Following Sunderland’s 3-0 win over Everton this evening, both Newcastle United and Norwich City will be playing in the Sky Bet Championship next season.

Norwich lasted one season in the Premier League after beating Middlesbrough in last season’s play off final, whilst Newcastle won the Championship by eleven points in 2009/10.

For the record, Newcastle and Burton Albion have never met in any competition…

Burnley are the Champions, Middlesbrough runners up.

Burnley had a stroll to the title in South London as they beat Charlton 3-0, whilst Middlesbrough were promoted after drawing 1-1 with Brighton, who had Dale Stephens sent off after a horrific tackle on Gaston Ramirez.

Play Offs (all to be televised on Sky Sports, channels TBA)

Friday 13th May: Sheffield Wednesday v Brighton (7:45pm)

Saturday 14th May: Derby v Hull (12:30pm)

Monday 16th May: Brighton v Sheffield Wednesday (7:45pm)

Tuesday 17th May: Hull v Derby (7:45pm)

Update: Burton Albion will be playing in the Sky Bet Championship next season. The Brewers drew 0-0 at Doncaster Rovers, who were relegated to League Two and finished the game with nine men due to an injury crisis after they used all their substitutes.

I’d expect comparisons between Burton and Yeovil to start almost immediately.