Mike Roberts - Friday 22.05.15, 15:31pm
This season’s edition of The Biggest Game in the Entire History of the Universe ™ is here again and this season Middlesbrough and Norwich will compete for roughly a 50% chance of being relegated or a 90% chance of finishing in the bottom half of next season’s Premier League. That’s not me being sarcastic either: since the second tier became the Championship ten seasons ago, five playoff final winners have lasted just one season in the Premier League and only one team (West Ham in 2006) has won the final and gone on to finish in the top half of the Premier League at the end of the following season. Last season’s playoff finalists (QPR) will be rejoining the Championship in August.
Monday’s game is live on Sky Sports 1 (2:00pm) with the actual football starting at 3:00pm. If you’re interested in who is going to win the last promotion place from League One, I’ll make no apologies for making a shameless plug for my League One Playoff Final preview here; why not make a Sunday afternoon of it by watching Hull and Newcastle trying to avoid relegation to the Championship earlier in the afternoon? That was sarcasm by the way…
The Curse Of Fourth appear to have ended in dramatic fashion when QPR won last season’s final with a last gasp goal from Bobby Zamora, but that was the first time a fourth placed finisher had won the final since Charlton beat Sunderland on penalties in 1998 and Rangers lasted one season in the Premier League. Boro have spent five of the last six seasons outside the top ten in the Championship and as this is only their second playoff campaign then I think it’s fair to say this game is a rare opportunity to do something unique.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Boro have a good record against the other three playoff teams and although their convincing playoff win over Brentford went to form, don’t forget that Aitor Karanka’s side lost half of their last ten aways. That’s why probably they’re in the playoffs rather than on the beach after the open topped bus parade; Boro had the best defensive record in the Championship this season (21 clean sheets) and the defence first approach that’s worked for Karanka over the past couple of seasons could work in a one off game like this. On the other hand, Middlesbrough scored the fewest total goals amongst the sides in the top six (they were shut out twice by Bournemouth, Leeds and Reading), could find it hard to replace Patrick Bamford if they go up and could struggle to come from behind on Monday.
Key player: Grant Leadbitter. A goalscoring midfielder is what every Championship club needs and the 29 year old Mackem has almost doubled his previous best total this season. Has tons of experience in the Championship but has played at the highest level in the past and could do so again. Won’t need much motivation.
Looking back at the pre-season preview for the Canaries, it strikes me that I was pretty much on the mark. Norwich began well after being relegated but were knocked off top spot at the start of October and by the end of the following month had dropped into mid table, which is more or less what I predicted. What many of us didn’t see coming was the appointment of Alex Neil in January; that was the catalyst for a sustained promotion bid and although Norwich never regained top spot, Neil’s record at this level has been very impressive. The problem is that his record also unsustainable; but the immediate issue is whether Neil is a good enough manager to win one game and on current evidence the answer is yes.
There’s no doubt that the Canaries deserve to be one game away from an immediate return to the Premier League. They beat Watford and Ipswich twice during the regular season by aggregate scores of 6-0 and 3-0 respectively. Only Bournemouth lost fewer games this season and Norwich only failed to score in three league games at Carrow Road and four times on their travels. However, here’s where the big red warning sign starts flashing. The only team that stopped Norwich scoring in both league games was Middlesbrough, who were one of only two clubs to win both games against the Canaries (for the record, the other was Reading).
Key player: John Ruddy. The giant goalkeeper made 90 Premier League appearances over the three seasons the Canaries played in the top flight after promotion in 2011 and is still young enough to make an international comeback after a broken finger ruled him out of the England squad for Euro 2012. Ever present this season and helped to keep fourteen clean sheets in 2014/15 which included five in the ten games against the other clubs in the top six.
Head to head
Norwich have only won once in their last ten games against Middlesbrough in all competitions, a 1-0 win in October 2010 that was just after Gordon Strachan’s departure from the Riverside and was also on my list of games to keep an eye on that week. Boro have won five of the remaining nine matches but have been a couple of high scoring draws that might be worth recalling on Sunday. In May 1993 they shared six goals on Teeside and almost 12 years later it finished 4-4 at Carrow Road!
This is only the fourth time the teams finishing third and fourth have met in the playoff final over the last decade. The third place finisher has won two of the last three; the last time in 2008, when Hull beat Bristol City. All three of those games finished 1-0.
Since 2005, fourth placed finishers have gone 1-3 in finals and all of those games have been settled by no more than one goal.
Six of the last ten finals have featured less than two goals and in seven of them only one team has scored. So it won’t come as much of a surprise that 1-0 has been the most common score in the last ten seasons and even less of a surprise is that eight of the last ten finals have been won by a margin of one goal. Only Watford in 2006 and Swansea in 2011 have had a higher margin of victory, which implies next season’s final might be one sided…
This will be the first final without a team from London, the South East or Lancashire taking part since 2008.
If – as seems likely looking at the stats immediately above – we’re looking at a tight, low scoring game then the advantage is with Middlesbrough. That’s also the pattern in the recent games between the sides but as I mentioned earlier in this post, if Norwich take the lead then Boro may be forced out of their comfort zone and I’m not sure that coming from behind is their strength.
All being well I should be able to update after the game. If you’re interested in who might be coming up from the League One final, why not have a wander over to Buzzin’ League One Football to read the preview.
Mike Roberts - Friday 15.05.15, 13:33pm
Last weekend was an eventful one: Burnley and QPR will be rejoining the Championship after one season away after both were relegated from the Premier League. Rangers’ position may be precarious due to FFP rules, but I’ll cover that when necessary; the Clarets will have learned a lot from their experience and should be amongst next season’s favourites.
In the playoffs, two goals in five minutes before the interval at Portman Road meant that Ipswich and Norwich go into their second leg at Carrow Road all square (7:45pm, Sky Sports 1). Brentford came from behind against Middlesbrough and that game looked like a stalemate until substitute Fernando Amorbieta scored a very late winner. The return is tomorrow (Sky Sports 1, 12:15pm).
In the League One final, Preston will play Swindon. I’ll update this post as soon as the Old Farm derby is over tomorrow and there’ll be a full preview of the Sky Bet Championship playoff final next week.
Update: the Sky Bet Championship playoff final will be between Middlesbrough and Norwich, who won their second legs comfortably.
Mike Roberts - Friday 08.05.15, 14:44pm
Over the last few seasons, I’ve spent a fair amount of time musing about The Curse Of Fourth but then QPR earned a jammy victor over Derby a year ago and so this year it’ll have to be The Disadvantage Of Finishing Fourth. Unfortunately, my old laptop has finally given up the ghost and may have taken all my spreadsheets with it; as I also have a family birthday to attend this weekend, this preview is an overview. With any luck, I’ll be able to write a comprehensive preview for the final.
Last ten games: 4-4-2
Record against the other playoff teams: 1-1-4 (lost twice to Middesbrough, failed to score in both games)
Playoff record: losing semi finalists 1990/91, 1994/95, 2004/05, 2005/06 (third tier), losing finalists 1996/97, 2001/02, 2012/13 (third tier)
Doesn’t look good does it? You don’t qualify for the playoffs by being an average team but it’s pretty clear to me that those four defeats in six games against their immediate rivals indicate that the Bees aren’t good enough to go any further this season. How they react to any potential disappointment will be crucial, especially as Mark Warburton will be leaving as soon as the season is over. Getting this far might be the high point in this particuar era at Griffin Park; the Bees are the first team to reach the Championship playoffs after having won promotion from League One at the end of the previous season since Bristol City in 2008 and that didn’t end well for the Robins.
Last ten games: 5-2-3
Record against the other playoff teams: 2-1-3 (lost twice to Norwich, failed to score in either game)
Playoff record: losing semi finalists 1986/87, 1996/97, 1997/98, 1998/99, 2003/04, 2004/05 (all second tier)
The signs of a revival in the fortunes of the Tractor Boys started when Mick McCarthy took over the reigns at Portman Road in November 2012 and the incremental improvement – including a very good defensive record at home – has resulted in their first playoff spot for a decade, but the sad truth is that Ipswich have been victimised by their near neighbours recently. Their playoff history is disastrous and sixth placed teams do not have a good record in the Championship playoffs. Last winners: Blackpool in 2010. Even if Town don’t go up, I doubt they’ll be playing in League One in five years time.
Last ten games: 6-1-3
Record against the other playoff teams: 5-0-1 (beat Brentford by an aggregate score of 5-0)
Playoff record: losing semi finalists 1990/91 (second tier)
In form, good record against the other three teams but although there’s no longer a full blown Curse of Fourth, it’s fair to say that over the last decade fourth placed teams have not done well. One win – last season – and three losses in four finals in that period does not bode well. That being said, Boro had the best defensive record in the Championship in 2014/15 based on a very tight record at the Riverside (only Sheffield Wednesday scored more than twice) and my initial doubts about Aitor Karanka’s suitability for the job have long since disappeared. So basically in a good position to return to the Premier League after six seasons in the second tier, just as long as Karanka doesn’t send Dimitrios Konstantinopoulous up for a corner…
Last ten games: 6-3-1
Record against the other playoff teams: 3-0-3 – only one side scored in all of those games, which the punters amongst you might want to take note of.
Playoff record: none.
Arguably the in form team of the quartet, but their form against the other three teams is either boom or bust and they have no previous form in the post season. Not only that they somehow managed to lose twice against an unremarkable Reading side this season, but the Canaries failed to beat Rotherham and also lost both games against Middlesbrough without scoring. Alex Neil has been an excellent appointment but he may have to finish the job next season. Third placed clubs have reached the final in eight of the last ten seasons, but have only won half of those finals. The last triumph in the Championship playoffs by a third placed team was West Ham, who’d also been relegated from the Premier League at the end of theprevious season.
Verdict: Norwich are the favourites to reach the final at the very least, but over the last decade newly relegated teams are three times more likely to lose in the semis as they are to win the whole thing. That leaves the door open for Middlesbrough, who ultimately lost out on automatic promotion after that mad game at Fulham but who weren’t that far off the pace of either Bournemouth or Watford. Ipswich are an intriguing prospect and could be amongst the pacesetters in the autumn; Brentford are a genuine wild card, but both of them face an uphill battle in the semi finals.
Mike Roberts - Friday 01.05.15, 16:13pm
So who’s ready for the last day of the regular season?
At the top:
Either Watford or Bournemouth will win the title. Middlesbrough could theoretically be promoted, but there’d be a very serious enquiry if that was the case. Ipswich, Derby, Brentford and Wolves will have to divide two playoff places between them, with a very real possibility of a Norwich/Ipswich playoff semi final.
Bookie’s verdict: The Hornets are short priced to win the title; but they can’t split Norwich or Boro to win the playoffs. Surprisingly, Wolves are the rank outsiders.
At the bottom:
Just the sound of apathy and broken dreams combined with tumbleweed.
Where to watch it:
Sky Sports have two live games (Derby v Reading, SS1 and Blackburn v Ipswich on SS2), which means that in all likelihood the ex-pros on Sky Sports news will spend a couple of hours screaming and making daft noises every time something even moderately exciting happens between noon and 2pm. If for some reason you miss everything, the one thing the Football League Show will probably be remembered for are their time stamped montages and so you’ve got the choice of waiting until almost midnight to watch the highlights on BBC1 or recording/downloading/whatever.
What to watch out for:
Sheffield Wednesday have only won twice in their last ten league visits to Vicarage Road and haven’t won consecutive league games there since the mid 1980s; they won last season’s game…Bournemouth have only won two of their eleven away games against the teams in the current top half of the table in 2014/15 – remarkably, that includes their astonishing 8-0 win at Birmingham City in October. Stat of the entire season: the Cherries have only ever won four times at Charlton in the league, but the last two victories were forty years apart. The last success: April 1975.
Three of the four teams competing for the last couple of playoff places are at home: the odd men out are Ipswich, who haven’t beaten Blackburn at Ewood Park in the league since August 1991. Town’s victory at Watford last month has been their only win in their last half a dozen away games; I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago, but I think it’s a case of ‘there’s always next season’ for Ipswich.
It’s not that straightforward for the other three either. Between them, Derby and Wolves have failed to beat Millwall, Reading and Wigan at home this season, which goes some way to explain why both of them are having to go the long way round to reach the Premier League. Brentford drew with Millwall and beat Reading at Griffin Park, but with both the Bees and Wolves having to play teams that have already been relegated it’s hardly a walk in the park. For the record, Wigan have won four of their last five league games at Griffin Park, Reading have won four of their last five league games at Derby…and Millwall haven’t won at Wolves since August 1928.
Something you may have missed (I know I did):
Last week Blackpool became the first team to go an entire season without an away win in the second tier since Bradford City ‘achieved’ that feat in 1989/90. Their last away success was a 2-0 win at Wigan just over a year ago…
There will be an update as soon as the games finish, but you’ll have to wait until Sunday to find out if either Preston or MK Dons will be joining Bristol City in next season’s competition.
Update: Bournemouth won the Championship with a win at Charlton forty years after their last one; Watford drew with Sheffield Wednesday. Norwich/Ipswich and Middlesbrough/Brentford are the playoff games. Reading won their fifth game at Derby in the last six to send the Rams down to eighth place and emphasising once again that the defeated playoff finalists from previous seasons don’t have much of a chance to win promotion at the end of the following season.
I’ll be back on either Wednesday/Thursday with the playoff preview.
Mike Roberts - Tuesday 28.04.15, 18:28pm
In almost five years writing for this blog, I think this is about the first time I’ve ever written consecutive midweek posts.
Anway, tonight’s game in South Yorkshire is a bit ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’ but is basically a win or die scenario for Rotherham. If the Millers beat Reading then both Millwall and Wigan will be relegated and Rotherham will finish the season above the red line but with an asterisk and a footnote in their permanent record. Not for the first time either.
The Royals have lost three of their last five road trips and haven’t beaten tonight’s opponents outside Berkshire since September 2009; Rotherham have improved slightly over recent weeks; they’ve only conceded once in their last two homes, as opposed to shipping eight goals in their previous three outings at the NY Stadium.
Wild guess: Rotherham have only lost at home once to the other sides in the bottom ten, but Reading have drawn all of their aways against the teams currently below them. A tight game with a bit of late drama perhaps? Sky Sports will be hoping so. I’ll return with an update later.
Update: Rotherham are safe. A 2-1 win condemned both Wigan and Millwall to relegation but also means that the only drama on Saturday lunchtime is whether Bournemouth or Norwich win the Championship and which of the four teams from that have reached at least 70 points will ensure the last two play off spots.