Championship Clubs Go Back To Work

Where were we?

Oh yes – one club playing in the Europa League, two clubs without managers (although an official announcement from Nottingham Forest is expected over the weekend), three clubs in the top six that weren’t in the Championship this time last year and four clubs left in the Carling Cup with two guaranteed quarter final places.

There are some great looking games this weekend – starting with a game between two of the three teams from Yorkshire left in the top half of the football league when Leeds travel to Doncaster (SS1 19:45). Leeds won at the Keepmoat in the Carling Cup earlier this season but it’s not exactly been a happy hunting ground for United in the league over the years: they’ve managed only two wins at Doncaster (the last in April 1956) and their more recent away form is less than convincing – Leeds have won two of their last ten road trips.

There’s only been one game between any of the sides that have been in the top six this season, but that’s going to change on Saturday when there are a pair of them. There are some interesting comparisons between the two contenders for game of the week:  Hull’s trip to Brighton (kick off at 5:30pm) should be interesting – the Tigers haven’t won at Brighton since August 1965 and have failed to score in eight of their last ten trips to Sussex.

Southampton’s record at Derby County is almost as bad. The Saints have only won twice in their last 20 league outings at either the Baseball Ground or Pride Park and although Nigel Adkins’ side got off to a great start, there are signs their away form is beginning to fall away. Since winning 5-2 in Ipswich in mid August they’ve only picked up one point from the nine available on their travels.

Middlesbrough are ideally placed to take advantage of any slip up by the current leaders, but although Boro are the only undefeated team left in the Championship their recent record at the Riverside is puzzling. They’ve drawn four of their five games in front of their own fans this season and failed to score at all at home in the league in September – Marvin Emnes’ goal against Coventry on August Bank Holiday Weekend was the last time Boro hit the net at the Riverside! The hosts could exploit Millwall’s inability to score away from home – the Lions have scored one goal in their last four away trips – and although the visitors won the corresponding game last season, they’ve never had consecutive successes on Teeside.Co

There’s a six pointer at the other end of the table when Nottingham Forest travel to the Ricoh Arena but unlike the games at Brighton, Derby and Middlesbrough, this is a fixture that the away team has dominated over the years. If the rumours flying around on Friday lunchtime are to be believed – Steve Cotterill leaving Portsmouth to take over at the City Ground – then it may be a good time for Forest’s currentt squad to extend that run.

There are two other televised games this weekend: Barnsley’s trip to Portsmouth is live on Sky Sports 2 at 5:20pm on Saturday evening and Birmingham entertain Leicester City on BBC1 on Sunday lunchtime – then there’s a full midweek programme, the highlight of which is probably Southampton v West Ham on Tuesday night.

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More Goals Please!

Without sounding as if we want to disparage Doncaster Rovers or Dean Saunders, arguably it shouldn’t really have come as much of a surprise that Rovers won their first game with the former Welsh international in charge. Crystal Palace haven’t beaten Donny since a 5-1 victory at Belle View in August 1960 and the Eagles have only won two of their last 27 away games.

Still, it’s a morale boosting victory for Rovers: they’re one win away from escaping the bottom three and might fancy their chances at home to Hull tonight – the Tigers have failed to win any of their last five league trips to Doncaster.

The weekend got off to a cracking start when Brighton drew 3-3 with Leeds; the visitors scored twice within twenty five minutes but two goals from Craig Mackail-Smith and an Ashley Barnes penaltygave the Seagulls the leadwith less than ten minutes left. However, Ross MacCormick’s second goal of the game and eighth of the season meant the points were shared.

If anyone was expecting Friday night’s game to the curtain raiser on a goal packed weekend, they would have been disappointed as there were only fifteen goals in nine games and three of those came in Derby’s win over Millwall. However, two of them were significant: Jacob Butterfield’s strike for Barnsley was the first goal Birmingham City had conceded in the league at St Andrews this season and Brett Pitman’s header for Bristol City against Hull was the first goal the Robins had scored at Ashton Gate in all competitions since May.

Burnley v Southampton finished all square: the Clarets took the lead through Charlie Austin but French midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin equalised for Southampton ten minutes before full time and his goal meant that the Saints remain top of the table going into tonight’s games.

The Carling Cup draw on Saturday could have been worse: Championship clubs are guaranteed two quarter final places but we’ll be covering those games nearer the time.

There’s almost a full slate of games tonight and on Wednesday – Birmingham are excused due to their Europa League group game with Maribor in Slovenia on Thursday evening – and apart from Crystal Palace’s first visit to Brighton for almost six years there are a couple of intriguing games.

The bottom six clash between Millwall and Watford at Vicarage Road is something of a warning to clubs looking to sell strikers to the Premier League: having sold Steve Morison and Danny Graham respectively, the Lions and the Hornets are struggling to find the back of the net. Millwall have failed to score in their last three away games, while Watford have achieved that feat in three of their four home games this season. This is also a low scoring game traditionally – only two of the last ten league meetings between these two in Hertfordshire have featured more than 2.5 goals.

On Wednesday night, it’s the only midweek game this week between teams in the top six when Southampton travel to Cardiff. This is a potential pitfall for the Saints: they’ve not won in the Welsh capital since Christmas 1965, the Bluebirds have beaten them in their last six meetings and this is the first time that Nigel Adkins’ side has played any of the other teams in the top six.

We’ll be back on Friday with a review of the midweek games and a look at Saturday’s matches, but if you’re going to a game tonight rather than watching the Champions League then you should be proud of yourself!

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Sean O’Driscoll On ‘Gardening Leave’

On Friday morning Sean O’Driscoll became the first manager in the nPower Championship to lose his job ‘go on gardening leave’ in 2011/12: unfortunately there had been an air of inevitability about his departure move into ‘groundskeeping’. 

Despite having the apparent support of many pundits (most of whom probably couldn’t name half the teams in the Championship but heard somewhere that O’Driscoll was a ‘good young manager’), Doncaster Rovers’ recent record speaks for itself: already four points adrift at the bottom of the table, without a win since March and without a home win since the start of February. It’s probably fair to say that if any of the teams that were relegated had shown any signs of life towards the end of last season then Rovers would have started this season in League 1.

O’Driscoll’s departure means that Kenny Jackett of Millwall becomes the longest serving manager in the Championship, followed by Derby‘s Nigel Clough: without including the circumstances at Doncaster, exactly half of the teams in the competition have changed their mananger since last October. To be fair to Rovers, they acted swiftly – Dean Saunders left Wrexham to take over the vacant position at the Keepmoat Stadium.

Amongst the highlights of last weekend’s games, the old cliche of  how difficult it is to play against ten men was proven yet again. After five minutes at the City Ground, Nottingham Forest fans would have been delighted: a goal up following Frankie Fielding’s rather dubious dismissal for a collision in the penalty area with Ishmael Miller had given them the ideal start. Ninety minutes later and Derby had collected all three points.

Leeds United were the second club to benefit from having a player sent off. With the score level at 1-1, Patrick Kisnorbo was sent off having given away a penalty following a rugby tackle on Bristol City’sNicky Maynard who then missed the spot kick. It was a costly mistake: Ross McCormack’s late winner means that the Robins are now second bottom in the table.

Southampton and Middlesbrough leapfrogged Brighton, who suffered their first defeat of the season when Yuki Abe scored the only goal at the King Power stadium to earn Leicester all three points. It’s still fairly tight at the bottom: Reading’s first win of the season took them out of the bottom three to 14th and with only seven points between the relegation spots and the play off places there probably won’t be any further managerial changes this month!

The pursuit of the Carling Cup is now down to four teams: Burnley, Cardiff, Crystal Palace and Southampton will carry the Championship flag in the next round. The draw will be made on Sky’s ‘Soccer Saturday’ show tomorrow morning and in all likelihood the best we can hope for is one of those four teams will be drawn against Aldershot Town.

Back to the league and it’s another packed week that starts today when Leeds visit Brighton (Sky Sports 1. 7:45pm KO) and finishes on Sunday lunchtime when Cardiff entertain Leicester for the second time in less than a week. There’s a day’s rest on Monday before pretty much a full programme on Tuesday night.

Game of the week is Burnley v Southampton – the Clarets won the last meeting in the Championship in December 2008 but haven’t beaten the Saints in consecutive home games since the mid 1970s. The hosts have yet to win at Turf Moor in the league this season – their last home win came in April – and although Southampton have started extremely well, Eddie Howe’s side are rapidly gaining a reputation as home draw specialists and will have to cope with Rickie Lambert, who is currently joint top scorer with Ross McCormack. This isn’t a ‘must win’ for either team, but it’s exactly the kind of game that could test Southampton’s promotion credentials.

Finally this week – but probably for the only time this season – BBC2 will be showing a live Championship game on Saturday teatime that won’t be competing with a talent show. Watford v Nottingham Forest will be probably be overwhelmed by ‘Celebrity Masterchef’ but if you like laughing at people making fools of themselves, Steve McClaren could provide a hilarious alternative to ‘New You’ve Been Framed’…

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Only Forty Games To Go…

A busy week for most of the clubs in the Championship – there’ll be at least one game featuring teams from the competition until next Thursday – but for those of you dreaming of life in the Premier League next season or worried about the prospect of League One, be careful what you wish for.

A quick look back at the Championship table from a year ago shows that although QPR were top with the same amount of points as Brighton have this season, only one club from from the current top six were in the playoff positions last September: Cardiff City, who were eliminated in the playoff semi finals.

It’s a similar story at the bottom of the table – a year ago only one of the clubs that were eventually relegated featured in the bottom six (Preston) and only Bristol City find themselves in a similar position to the one they were in last season: the Robins eventually finished 15th.

Another indication that we’re still too early to make any sense of what’s happening is that there are six teams that are unbeaten away but have lost at least once at home. That group includes four teams in the top ten, including West Ham and -yes, you’ve guessed it – Cardiff City.

There were some significant results last weekend. Despite – or possibly because of – a fan protest against the current owners Coventry picked up their first win of the season when they beat Derby 2-0 having only won six of their last 20 games at the Ricoh Arena: Watford’s victory by the same score at the Madejski Stadium was a rarity as Reading hadn’t lost consecutive home games for almost two years.

This weekend, five of the top six and four of the bottom six are away from home and there are a couple of local derbies, although that’s probably the most understated way of describing them.

The action starts at 12:30 on Saturday lunchtime when Millwall travel ten miles or so across London to West Ham for a league game for the first time in six and a half years; the Lions have never won at the Boleyn Ground but even though the Hammers picked up their first home win of the season against Portsmouth last weekend, there was yet another late goal. Greg Halford’s 97th minute strike for Pompey didn’t make any difference to the outcome, but once again West Ham have shown that they have a tendency to switch off at the end of games if they think the job is done.

Half an hour later the game between Derby and Nottingham Forest kicks off at the City Ground and it’s almost a ‘must win’ for Steve McClaren as if results go against the Tricky Trees they could find themselves in the bottom three of the Championship for the first time since they narrowly avoided relegation in 2008/09. History appears to be on their side though: the Rams have only won once in their last ten trips along the A52 and although Forest are notoriously slow starters they generally perform well at the City Ground.

It’s hardly ‘game of the week’ material, but probably the most important match this weekend is when the bottom two clubs meet at the Madejski. Although Doncaster’s poor start was expected, the curse of the playoffs seems to have really affected Reading as they’ve only won one of their last five home games in the Championship.

Having said that, the last time Rovers won at Reading ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ was about to replace ‘Careless Whisper’ at Number 1 and the Yorkshire side have failed to score in half of their last ten visits to Berkshire. Once again, it’s far too early to tell but Doncaster might be in for the type of season Sheffield United in 2010/12.

Birmingham’s trip to Southampton and Ipswich v Coventry (Monday night, Sky Sports 1 at 7:45pm) complete the league programme for this weekend, but then we’re straight into the third round of the Carling Cup. With only one guaranteed place in the fourth round and five clubs facing Premier League opposition, it’s fair to say that the chances of a Championship club winning the trophy are slim at best. However with Leeds (Manchester United), Brighton (Liverpool) and Cardiff v Leicester all being showcased on Sky next week there’s a good chance to show the standard of Championship football to an audience that may not normally be interested.

Is The Carling Cup Irrelevant?

Amazingly, the ten sides left in this season’s competition actually represent an improvement on last season – even taking into consideration that both Crystal Palace and Southampton are both still a round behind in the competition due to having games postponed due to the riots at the start of the month. We pointed out last season that it’s been almost a decade since a Championship side reached the final and that record looks as if it may continue: the competition provides some early season excitement for clubs further down the league structure, but it could be argued that it’s a complete waste of time for nearly all the clubs in the Premier League and the Championship.

The biggest surprise in what used to be known as the League Cup this week was West Ham crashing out to Aldershot on Wednesday night. Junior Stanislas gave the Hammers the lead after 16 minutes but when Callum McNaughton was dismissed after half time, Aldershot’s Luke Guttridge equalised and Danny Hylton’s 89thminute winner gave the Surrey side a deserved win. It’s the third time this season that West Ham have conceded a vital goal in the last five minutes, a trend that ought to be worrying Sam Allardyce.

Last weekend Southampton continued their impressive start with a 1-0 win over Millwall and Derbyhad no trouble dealing with Doncaster but the biggest surprise was Peterborough’s 7-1 thrashing of Ipswich in the tea time game on Sky. Although Keith Andrews gave Ipswich an early lead, the game was effectively over at half time with Town having conceded four goals in ten minutes and having Lee Martin dismissed for a reckless challenge on Mark Little. Things went from bad to worse immediately after the re-start: Tommy Smith had only been on the field for two minutes before being giving away a penalty and being sent off for a foul on Lee Tomlin, who scored a hat-trick for Posh.

At the bottom of the table, Coventry and Watford played out a 0-0 draw but they still occupy two of the bottom three spots – Doncaster’s defeat means that they’re already two points from safety and they’ve not scored since the opening day defeat at Brighton.

It’s still far too early to discuss what could happen over the rest of the season but with a five point gap between the last play off place and the current leaders, by mid September we may have an idea of the shape of things to come and there are three games this weekend that could provide some pointers this weekend. Game of the week this weekend is Peterborough’s trip to Brighton, which is the only clash between teams in the top six. Posh lost 3-1 at the Withdean in League One last season and have only won one of their last six trips to Brighton in the league and it’ll be interesting to see how Craig Mackail-Smith does in his first game against his old club.

Burnley visit Pride Park in a game that has been tricky for the hosts over the years – Derby haven’t beaten the Clarets at home since January 2007 and lost this game last season – and although Eddie Howe’s side are one of the four teams yet to win a game this season, they’ve played one game less due to Birmingham’s European adventures.

The game with the biggest impact at both ends of the table is Middlesbrough v Coventry. Boro are undefeated while the Sky Blues have only won one of their last fifteen games in the Championship: they’ve also only won once in their last ten visits to Teeside.

 There’s only one televised game this weekend and once again armchair West Ham fans will have their Sunday lunches ruined again when the Hammers travel to Nottingham Forest for a league game for the first time since Boxing Day 2004 (Sky Sports 1, 1:15).Forest have a poor record at home to West Ham and having started the season with two draws at the City Ground it wouldn’t come as too much of a surprise if this game ended all square.

Finally this week, congratulations to Birmingham City who reached the group stages of the Europa League on Thursday with a 3-0 aggregate win over Nacional of Portugal. Although this post was published before the draw had been made, it’ll be fascinating to see how the Blues do in the competition and hopefully they’ll be able to fly the flag in Europe for all Championship teams.

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