Malky Mackay Still Has Golden Touch

Having sacked Uwe Rosler following a disappointing 3-1 defeat at fellow strugglers Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic knew that they had to make the right call if they were to avert the possibility of relegation from the Championship. Off-the-field, questions remain about whether or not appointing Malky Mackay, who courted controversy after allegedly sending sexist, racist and homophobic text messages, was the right decision. On the field, however, the Latics hard earned point at the weekend against Middlesbrougha team highly fancied for success by Blue Square – would suggest that the Scot could be the right call.

Golden Touch
Mackay has extensive experience at Championship level having taken Cardiff City up from the division in to the Premier League two seasons ago and his golden touch seemed still to be in evidence when Shaun Maloney opened the scoring with a free kick. Having opted to make several changes to the side most recently put out by Rosler, Wigan looked more comfortable going forward and the likes of midfielder Chris McCann, who returned to the side after injury, created chances that could have won the game for the home side. As it was, the home fans at the DW were forced to settle for a point when Patrick Bamford equalised.

Light at the End of the Tunnel
Still with only one league win since August, Wigan’s position remains precarious and they need to convert more of their chances, but there are real positive signs for their fans. Taking a point from Middlesbrough, who are now unbeaten in five and are up in third place in the table, will give Mackay’s men real confidence. Next up for the Latics are Sheffield Wednesday, whose mean defence will take some real breaking down but, now just three points off Leeds United in 16th place, Wigan will be able to see light at the end of the tunnel and know just how much a vital win would be worth.

Blackpool & QPR lead the Championship and remain unbeaten

Ahead of another busy night of international football, now is a good time to assess how the new season has started as far as the Sky Bet Championship is concerned.

Five games in and Blackpool & QPR (both on 13 points) lead the way as the only two unbeaten sides in the Championship.  Both have drop points with four wins and a draw a piece, with Blackpool sitting at the top of the pile by a single goal difference.

It’s a great start for Blackpool under the guidance of Paul Ince and his goal scoring son, Tom Ince.  Blackpool done well to keep hold of their top scoring England Under-21 midfielder as there was allegedly interest from several Premier League teams including Liverpool & Everton.

QPR were tipped by many critics as favourites to bounce straight back to the Premier League though I wasn’t so sure.  Firstly, manager Harry Redknapp had to address the ill-discipline and lack of commitment from some players, which appeared to be causing rifts behind the scenes; and thought Redknapp is known for his man-management, he isn’t overly qualified at getting teams promoted from the Championship. That is one of the reasons why I still consider Reading to be in with a shout for automatic promotion.  Manager Nigel Adkins gained promotion with Southampton before being sacked during the season, along with former Reading manager Brian McDermott (now managing Leeds United) after both managers had achieved promotion in the 2011/12 season.

Furthermore, Reading have kept the majority of their squad together from their previous season in the Championship whereas QPR can still boast several ‘big star’ names that hitherto were household Premier League players.  The likes of Shaun Wright-Philips, Niko Kranjcar, Jermaine Jenas, Bobby Zamora, Richard Dunne, Joey Barton and current England squad goalkeeper Robert Green. That is a lot of egos to massage, and Harry Redknapp may find that if QPR begin to slip a few points that some of his overpaid stars may go missing or not play as a team.

Below the two automatic promotion positions, currently occupying the play-off places (3rd – 6th) are Burnley, Nottm Forest, Leicester (10 points) followed by Bournemouth (9 points). The top 10 places are made up by Watford, Wigan, Reading & Leeds United all currently on 8 points.

This campaign will be no different to any other Championship season and the three teams to eventually get promoted to the Premier League next May could realistically be any of the aforementioned current top 10 teams, something I could have predicted before the start of the season with, if I’m being honest, the exception of Bournemouth who have had a positive start to the season. So if you’re feeling lucky, click here to bet on football.

There’s a return to normal service after the international break next Saturday with no 11 ties including mouth-watering ties Burnley v Blackburn, Bolton v Leeds, Leicester v Wigan, QPR v Birmingham and Bournemouth v Blackpool.  I predict QPR will be clear leaders after the weekend but the season is going to be a very hard, long battle between several teams, all hungry for the bigger prize.

The Managerial Merry Go Round Continues

Entirely in keeping with this season’s trend in big stories breaking when I’ve been unable to cover them, a lot has happened over the last ten days. However, having seen a few games while I was in France, I’m happy to say that there’s not much difference between the bottom half of Ligue 1 and the top of the nPower Championship.

In case you missed them, here’s a quick recap of the recent managerial changes:

Blackburn Rovers: Henning Berg takes over at Ewood Park – although a novice in terms of managing in English football, Berg is an experienced manager in Norway’s Eliteserien although his last job (at Lillestrom) was far from successful. Seems to have been appointed on the basis that he knows the club and has some experience, but as I’ve mentioned in the past, the Championship isn’t kind to managers that don’t have experience in the competition.

Blackpool: vacant, although there are indications that an appointment is imminent.

Crystal Palace: in one of the more surprising managerial moves this season, Ian Holloway left Blackpool last week to take over at Selhurst Park. This is a clear indication that Palace want to be taken seriously as promotion candidates this season and I think it’s worth keeping an eye on them in the run in to Christmas. Holloway’s record at this level speaks for itself.

Ipswich Town: Mick McCarthy takes over at Portman Road. Although no stranger to management in the Championship, the former Wolves manager has got his work cut out for him at the bottom of the table. Got off to a good start at the weekend with a win at Birmingham, but how many times have we seen a short term improvement from a poor team just after a new manager has been appointed?

In one of those twists of fate, Holloway and McCarthy will face each other tonight in a game that is significant at both ends of the table. If Ipswich can earn at least a point at Selhurst Park they may be able to climb off the bottom of the table for the first time in four games, while a win for Palace could be rewarded by reaching first place if other results go their way. Although the hosts are favourites to pick up all three points, there’s enough evidence to indicate that Ollie’s new team won’t have it their own way: despite having not lost at home since the first day of the season, they’ve only beaten Ipswich twice in South London in the last ten league meetings. The win at St. Andrew’s last weekend was Ipswich’s first away success since August and featured only their fourth clean sheet in the league away from home since last Christmas.

Whether or not Palace reach the top of the table tomorrow will be determined by what happens at the Valley and the City Ground. One of the reasons Charlton are only just outside the bottom three is their appalling home form, but Cardiff City – tonight’s visitors to SE7 – are vulnerable on the road, having lost at Bolton and Nottingham Forest in their last two away games. They’ve also only won three of the last 20 league games against the Addicks since November 1962 so this game also looks anything but straightforward and could be one where expectations could be turned on their heads.

However, if history is anything to go by it won’t be plain sailing for Middlesbrough at Nottingham Forest either.  The last time Boro won there in the league was in March 1999 – the only victory they’ve managed on the banks of the Trent in their last sixteen visits – but having not lost on their travels since September, Tony Mowbray’s side look likely to earn at least a point against the hosts, who have only won one of their last five home games and were thumped by Millwall on Saturday. Forest have improved since last season, but are at more or less the level they were two seasons ago.

It’s a short week this week, with Boro and Sheffield Wednesday meeting on Friday night (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) and games on both Saturday and Sunday. Time permitting I’ll be back on either Friday afternoon or Saturday morning.

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Huddersfield Town Back In The Championship

Congratulations to Huddersfield Town on returning to the second tier of English football for the first time since the 2000/2001 season. The Terriers beat Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United on Saturday afternoon, albeit in penalty shootout that reached sudden death and was only resolved when United goalkeeper Steve Simonsen missed a penalty.

Having been knocked out of the playoffs in both of the last two seasons, the Terriers spent most of 2011/12  in and around the top six places in League 1, but with Charlton and both Sheffield clubs being the only realistic candidates for the automatic places it looked as if the best Huddersfield would have to hope for were the playoffs: after a home defeat by Sheffield United on Valentine’s Day, Lee Clark was sacked in a move that took a number of experts by surprise.

Simon Grayson – who will be familiar to regular readers from his tenure at Leeds United over the past couple of seasons – was appointed less than a week after Clark’s dismissal but it’s probably fair to say that even though Grayson guided the team to promotion, results over the last ten games weren’t that great. Losing at home to Milton Keynes Dons in the second leg of the playoff final and then failing to beat Sheffield United over 90 minutes may be an indication of things to come, especially if Jordan Rhodes moves from the West Yorkshire club either before next season starts or at Christmas.

It’s also worth pointing out that seven of the last ten third tier play off winners finished between 18th and 21st in their first season in the Championship, although only one club in the last two decades were relegated in the season immediately after they were promoted, which was the fate that befell Burnley in 1993/1994. At the moment the best outlook for Huddersfield is a bottom half finish, but it’s arguably more realistic that they may spend most of next season in the bottom six. We’ll see.

On the bright side for fans of Yorkshire clubs in the Championship, the number of local derbies has doubled – there’ll be a dozen next season. We don’t know when they’ll be yet though as the fixtures aren’t released until June 18th – if anything remarkable happens before then, I’ll post it here but for now I’m off to enjoy the good weather while it’s still here and before the Euros ruin everything 🙂

Doncaster Down: Reading Up

Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of ‘if, then, else’ which features the four crucial games on tonight’s programme. Once again, it’s hardly worth commenting on the various scenarios that have been better outlined elsewhere see the relevant Betfair football betting odds for the Championship scramble as I have a feeling very little will be resolved tonight.

However, one of the relegation spots has been settled and we already know one of the teams joining the Championship next season. It’s been a fairly poor couple of seasons for Doncaster Rovers and it wasn’t really a surprise that they were relegated after losing at home to Portsmouth on Saturday.

Charlton Athletic will replace Doncaster after three seasons of League 1 football: it looked obvious that they’d come up from day one and given the impact that recent promoted sides have had then it’d not come as much of a surprise to see the Addicks challenging for promotion next season. But that’s another discussion for another day, so in the meantime it’s a case of congratulations to Chris Powell and his staff.

Friday night’s title decider between Southampton and Reading finished with the Royals winning 3-1, with two goals coming from Adam Le Fondre. The bookies have cut the’ odds of the Berkshire side winning the title to 2/9: yet more proof that the team that usually wins the Championship is a team that’s played at least one season in the Championship – it also seems to help if you play in blue and white hoops.

So on to tonight’s games. Reading have a very good chance of promotion tonight when they entertain Nottingham Forest, but that depends on which Forest decide to turn up. If it’s the team that’s capable of winning at Blackpool & Birmingham then Reading might have to wait until the weekend to start celebrating: however, Forest aren’t mathematically safe from relegation yet and although they’ve only lost three of their last ten road games they’ve only won twice at Reading since Christmas 1930. This could be the type of game that is over by half time: I can’t imagine that Brian McDermott won’t remind his players about what happened at the end of last season.

Eighty miles down the M4, West Ham make their first trip to Bristol City for nearly twenty years for a game the Hammers have got to win if they want to avoid the playoffs. Or to look at another way, a game they’ve got to win if they want to avoid The Curse Of Fourth Place. It’s an important game for the hosts as well: although Derek McInnes’ side still has a four point advantage over Coventry at the bottom of the table, an eleventh home defeat this season could make Saturday’s game against Barnsley a must win game and this could be the last game this season the Ashton Gate outfit can afford to lose.

The games affecting the two sides that are still in immediate danger of being relegated are almost too close to call – until you dig a little bit deeper. Portsmouth arguably have the ‘easier’ game this evening when Crystal Palace visit Fratton Park: the visitors have nothing left to play for and have a poor record against their opponents but the main problem for Pompey is that their home form has almost completely deserted them. Although Michael Appleton’s side have only won three of their last ten home games, Palace haven’t won an away game since the end of 2011 and seem to be suffering from a case of ‘what ifs’ after they narrowly lost out in the semi finals of the Carling Cup.

Millwall secured their position in the Championship with a 2-1 win over Leicester on Saturday and if they’re determined to finish the season on a high note they could play the role of spoilers at the Ricoh Arena. Coventry have turned their stadium into a bit of a fortress recently but it’s worth pointing out that the Sky Blues have only won three of their last six games at home while Millwall have been formidable on the road recently – they’ve only lost three in the last ten – and won’t be pushovers. This is a must win for Coventry – a win might put them in a position to overtake Bristol City on Saturday – and anything less could be disastrous, especially if Portsmouth beat Crystal Palace.

As I said at the start of the post, I’d be surprised if anything dramatic happens at the bottom of the table tonight but I’d also be surprised if Reading don’t clinch promotion back to the Premier League. If there’s anything to report, I’ll add an update at around 10:00pm.

Update: a late goal from Mikele Leigertwood earned Reading automatic promotion. The relegation scrap moves on to Saturday.

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