2014/15 Sky Bet Championship Play Off Final Preview

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!

General Facts

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.

Update: Norwich were promoted to the Premier League following a 2-0 win over Middlesbrough his afternoon. The Canaries scored twice in the first 15 minutes and as I mentioned above, Boro were unable to come back.

In other news…Leeds hired Uwe Roesler…Derby have fired Steve McClaren…Preston will be back in the Championship after thrashing Swindon 4-0…and I’ll be back next month with the first day fixtures for next season and any other housekeeping.

Title, Playoff Places On The Line

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.

Cherries On The Brink – For All The Right Reasons

I’m really surprised that the old ‘unpredictable’ cliches weren’t rolled out on the Football League Show on Saturday night, although the presence of Alan Curbishley clearly intimidated Steve Claridge. After five hours of action, Watford were promoted to the Premier League after beating Brighton but before arriving back at Vicarage Road and I’ve no idea how to describe what happened at Fulham other than a disaster for Middlesbrough and an unexpected bonus for Bournemouth. It made me wonder if this weekend’s blanket coverage of the last games of the season could be a massive anti-climax.

If Bournemouth beat Bolton tonight (7:45pm kick off, SS1), then the Cherries superior goal difference means that Middlesbrough would have to win by a hatful of goals against Brighton on Saturday to stand any chance of promotion. Eddie Howe’s side haven’t lost in the league at Dean Court since mid January whilst Wanderers have only won two of their last ten aways in the same period. So everything seems set up for Bournemouth to take a giant step towards a promotion that would have seemed inconceivable a few seasons ago.

At least it looks that way. However…Wanderers have only lost two of their last five trips to Dorset and the Cherries haven’t beaten Bolton since April 1991. Bournemouth’s long home unbeaten run is nine games, which means a home reverse is very much on the course; the reaction following Sheffield Wednesday‘s late equaliser on the South Coast a couple of weeks ago indicated to me then that a remarkable season is actually on the brink of imploding due to the intense pressure on the Bournemouth squad.

Once again, long term trends support a most unlikely promotion. The main one is being top at close of play Boxing Day and that’s where Bournemouth were; it’s remarkable how similar the table looked after 23 games. All of the teams remaining in the playoff hunt were in the top six and three of the current bottom four were in the relegation spots.

So all things being considered, this is arguably the biggest game in Bournemouth’s history. I’m going to make an exception tonight and watch MNF with my customary post-weeked Chinese takeaway.

I’ll be back with an update later and – how about this – a post tomorrow!

Update: unless something truly bizarre happens at the weekend, Bournemouth will be promoted regardless of other results.

Squeaky Bum Time…

Not for the first time, a fantastic (but probably unintentional) piece of scheduling has provided us with three dramatic games over the next couple of days and a Monday night game that could be absolutely vital for Bournemouth‘s chances of automatic promotion.

The big change last weekend was Watford taking over at the top after beating Birmingham City. Bournemouth’s draw with Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough winning at Norwich give the Hornets a slim advantage that might not last long. The top four are still in with a chance of automatic promotion but the next four are all in competition for the last playoff place. At the bottom, the situation changed dramatically this morning when the Football League confirmed that Rotherham had been deducted three points for using an unregistered player in a recent game. The Millers now have a one point advantage over Millwall with a match in hand, but the punishment has also thrown Wigan an unexpected lifeline.

Here are the games that I think will matter tomorrow:

Brighton v Watford (tomorrow, 12:15pm, Sky Sports 1)

Albion haven’t won at home since the start of march, haven’t scored a goal at the Amex since the middle of last month and haven’t beaten Watford at home for over a decade. I know we’re not even at the end of April, but this is the type of calamitous performance that normally indicates a struggle to stay up during the following season. I think it’s fair to say Chris Hughton has done enough to save the Seagulls for now. On the other hand, Watford are on an eight game unbeaten run away from home, have a superb record against the current bottom six both at home and away (10-1-0) which includes not conceding an away goal against anyof those teams. However, it’s about this time of the season that really weird results happen and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if Brighton win.

Millwall v Derby

An odd one. Before Rotherham’s points deduction the bookies didn’t think either Millwall would stay up or Derby would go up, which means that this game might be totally irrelevant in a few weeks time. Needless to say, both sides need a win but the Rams have only won three of their last ten road trips and have only won once in their five league games at Millwall in the last decade. The Lions have won two of their last three games at the New Den, but that doesn’t look as if it’s going to be enough to save them. My contrarian instincts predict a draw, which could be no use for either side.

Rotherham v Norwich

Whoever was responsible for the mistake that allowed Farrend Dawson to play in the 1-0 win against Brighton on Easter Monday must be feeling the heat today. If the Millers end up back in League One for what is basically an admin error, it’ll be an albatross round their necks forever. That victory was the only thing keeping United away from the bottom three and having already lost at home to bournemouth, Watford and Middlesbrough at the New York Stadium this season without scoring, the first league meeting between these two clubs since January 2004 could easily get away from Rotherham, who haven’t beaten the Canaries since August 1981. Once again though, Norwich have a ten game unbeaten away streak to maintain and after what happened against Middlesbrough last week that’s a potential banana skin. Wild guess: Rotherham win, making the points deduction irrelevant.

If there’s anything to update, it’ll be on Sunday as I’m on Uncle duty tomorrow. However, I’ll be back early next week with a rare Monday night football preview that could feature one of the most unlikely promotions ever.

Game of the Week: Norwich v Middlesbrough

I really don’t want to start yet another post with a discussion about how tight things are at the top so at the risk of annoying Derby fans,  even though the rams beat Blackpool 4-0 during the week, results elsewhere meant last season’s defeated playoff finalists won’t be going up automatically.

This evening there’s a huge game at Carrow Road (Sky Sports 1, 7;45 kick off), notably because it’s the last game this season between the current top six. Norwich are undefeated against their immediate rivals at home, whilst Middlesbrough have been pretty ropey on their travels against the same teams; three defeats in four games with their only goal coming at Derby last month.

The Canaries also seem to have the advantage of playing two of the strugglers in their games following this one but don’t let that fool you. Four of Norwich’s nine defeats in the Championship have been against teams in the bottom half of the table, including a brace against Reading. City travel to Rotherham next weekend in a game that could also be significant for the Millers, but I’d be worried if I was a Canaries fan. A five game unbeaten streak and only one defeat in fifteen indicates another loss is coming soon.

Boro have been goalshy generally on the road this season, failing to score in nine outings this season and only picking up three points in those games. As I mentioned earlier, their away form against the other promotion candidates has been poor but their recent performances on the road also haven’t been much to write home about. Five defeats in the last six (including at Reading and Forest) doesn’t augur well for this evening, especially as Boro have only won once in the league at Carrow Road since November 1997, although they have drawn half of their last ten trips to Norfolk.

Verdict: I can’t see middlesbrough winning this one, but with both Bournemouth and Watford not playing until tomorrow afternoon, a draw would be a potential disaster for both teams if they want to win automatic promotion.

Tuesday night’s game at the New Den was eventful wasn’t it! More red cards than goals and a rare home win for the Milwall. That result means that the only significant game at the bottom is Wigan v Brighton. If the Latics lose, that’s it; they’ve only lost two of their five meetings with the Seagulls in Lancashire since the sides met for the first time in October 1987 but as mentioned earlier this week, Wigan have been terrible at home. It doesn’t help that the only aspect of Brighton’s performance that’s recognisable from last season is their stingy away defence – they’ve only conceded three fewer goals than Bournemouth on their travels.

As for the FA Cup, I simply can’t see Reading stopping Arsenal. Without wanting to dust off the old cliches one more time, although it’s about time a second tier team won the competition again, Reading simply don’t fit the profile. Southampton, Sunderland and West Ham were all amongst the better second tier sides during the seasons they won the FA Cup in the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s, which isn’t something that The Royals can claim this season; just one win in their last ten and on course for their worst league position since they were promoted from the third tier in 2002 isn’t exactly the stuff cup winners are made of. Their 1927 counterparts had won the old Third Division South during the previous season and – apart from knocking out Manchester United in the third round – didn’t have a particularly tough set of games. This season’s Royals have had a similar run; Arsenal are the first team they’ve met from a higher division and Reading have never beaten the gunners in any competition.

There may not be any updates on Saturday if there’s anything to report, as I’m attending a very significant game…