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.

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.


Game of the Week: Middlesbrough v Brighton

After 540 games the situation at the top of the Sky Bet Championship is set for a classic final day ending. Burnley can seal the title with a win at Charlton, but all eyes will be on the Riverside, where Middlesbrough entertain Brighton. Both games will be televised simultaneously at 12:30pm tomorrow: Charlton/Burnley is on Sky Sports 2 and Middlesbrough/Brighton is on Sky Sports 1.

There’s been enough hype this week already without extending it to this game and that’s probably just as well, because there’s every chance that it could be an anti-climax. The advantage is clearly with Middlesbrough as two of the possible outcomes tomorrow favour them. They’ve gone eight games without a home defeat and have kept a staggering 15 clean sheets at the Riverside this season; not only that, Boro have won all four of their other encounters on Teeside with the other clubs in the top six without conceding a goal.

Although Brighton are the underdogs tomorrow, they arrive in the North East having won five of their last six away games; the Seagulls haven’t lost on the road since their surprising defeat at Cardiff in mid-February. The big difference here is that although Brighton haven’t lost at any of the clubs in the top six, all four away games at Burnley, Derby, Hull and Sheffield Wednesday have been drawn. That won’t be good enough tomorrow.

What to watch for: since the start of 2016, Boro have scored 15 goals in the Championship at the Riverside, but just under half of those have been scored from the 76th minute onwards. Uruguayan midfielder Gaston Ramirez has scored five of those goals, but only one of them has been in that time frame.

Brighton have also scored 15 goals in their away games since New Year’s Day with Tomer Hemed weighing in with four, including a brace at MK Dons at the start of March. The Seagulls are normally at their most effective in front of goal at the start of the second half, but will be without Lewis Dunk in defence after his red card against Derby on Monday:

Verdict: Middlesbrough will want to put last year’s disappointment in the play off final behind them. Brighton need to win to overtake Boro, which is something they’ve managed three times in their last 10 visits in the league, the last victory coming in April 2013. I’d not be at all surprised if this was all square with fifteen minutes left before Boro nick it.

Of course, there are still a number of other issues in the Premier League and League One that will determine who will be playing in the Championship next season. If you want to see the situation in League One, please visit our companion blog at Buzzin League One Football, although I’m guessing I won’t be spoiling anything when I congratulate Wigan for returning to the competition after one season away.

The Premier League doesn’t finish until next weekend, so we won’t know who’ll be relegated with Aston Villa yet. We’ll know the play off schedule by 2:30pm tomorrow, so I’ll get a preview written ASAP but I’ve got to inform you that my wife’s birthday is next weekend and I’ll be unable to write individual previews for next weekend’s games although I should be able to post updates if I don’t get too caught up in the Eurovision Song Contest party that we’ve been invited to…

One Eye On Next Season…

This week I’m going to look at the bottom of the table but from a slightly different perspective.

With two of the newly promoted teams featuring in the games that matter, it’s interesting to see the relative declines in the fortunes of their opponents this weekend – especially as there might be implications for next season.

With the exception of Bolton, Charlton and Wolves, Brentford and Blackburn are the clubs who played in the Championship last season that have gone backwards at a rate of knots and feature in the games highlighted below.

Blackburn v Bristol City

Blackburn: 17th with three games left, ninth at this point last season.

After consecutive top ten finishes, Rovers have returned to the form that saw them finish just four points away from relegation in 2012/13. They’ve lost half of their last ten games in the Championship at Ewood Park but haven’t lost at home to any of the teams below them this season.

Bristol City: 21st with three games left. Won League One this time last season.

City only need a point to reach safety and although their form has been frustratingly inconsistent recently – Tuesday evening’s performance against Derby summed up their entire season – that’s better than absolutely terrible, which they had been until Lee Johnson took over.

Head to head: only the third league meeting between the two since January 1992. The Robins haven’t won at Ewood Park since December 1990, the last draw between them in the league in Lancashire was on May 1st 1971.

Fulham v Nottingham Forest

Fulham: 19th with three games left. One place worse than last season.

Although it doesn’t seem like it, the Cottagers are actually a bit better than they were in 2014/15, primarily because they’ve lost fewer games and conceded fewer goals. However, they’ve let in 1.75 goals per game since they were relegated from the Premier League and have only kept two clean sheets at Craven Cottage this season.

Forest: 18th with three games left. Were tenth at the same stage last season.

No wins in their last six aways and only two goals over that period. This will be Forest’s third consecutive bottom half finish and at the rate they’ve regressed since August 2013 they’re heading for a relegation battle next season.

Head to head: just like the game immediately above, this is a comparatively rare game. How rare? The last Forest win at Fulham in the league was in January 1975, which was their second away victory in the old Division 2 under the newly appointed Brian Clough. The clubs have only met four times in the league in West London since and three of those games were drawn.

MK Dons v Brentford

MK Dons: 3rd in League One with three games left.

With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been interesting to have seen how MK Dons would have done in last season’s League One play offs, but with Preston losing to Colchester on the last day of 2014/15, the Dons won automatic promotion. All of last summer’s new arrivals have scored fewer goals than last season, but MK have scored 66 fewer and that’s one of the reasons why the bookies have taken them off the board for relegation.

Brentford: 13th with three games left. Were seventh at the same stage last season.

I called it last July, so Brentford’s regression from play offs to mid table isn’t a huge surprise but I bet they wish they’d kept Mark Warburton. It’s far too early to tell if Dean Smith is going to be a successful manager at this level, but I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt at the moment. Currently on a five game unbeaten run and have only lost once in eight league games at MK Dons.

This weekend’s televised games: Preston v Burnley (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) and Derby v Sheffield Wednesday (tomorrow, Sky Sports 2, 12:30pm). The Lillywhites would love to put one over their local rivals this evening, but six of the eleven Lancashire derbies this season have been away wins, including the reverse fixture at Turf Moor in December.

The game at Derby could very well turn out to be one of those end of season match ups that become play off semi finals a few weeks later, so although this game should be an indication of how the Rams will approach the post season, Wednesday need to avoid defeat to more or less guarantee themselves a place in the top six.

I’ll try to update this post at some point over the weekend, but it’s highly likely to be at some point on Sunday as I’ll be ‘helping’ a Manchester United fan watching tomorrow’s FA Cup semi final…

Update: MK Dons will return to League One after a 4-1 home defeat by Brentford. It’s all but inevitable that Wigan will be back in the Championship in August but that could be confirmed on Tuesday evening.

Race To The Bottom

It looks very much like we already know which teams are going to finish in the Top Five.

Cardiff lost in the last minute at Fulham, which meant that Sheffield Wednesday – who surprisingly lost 4-1 at Bristol City – maintained their five point cushion over the Bluebirds for the last play off place.  Of course, the situation could all change over the next four games.

Bolton finally departed the Championship after four seasons and it’s highly likely that Charlton and MK Dons will join them. Having written that, after last week’s results Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest have dropped into the bottom six. The Terriers were last in this position on Boxing Day but Forest were in the top half of the table as recently as the end of February.

As you might imagine having read the opening couple of paragraphs, this week’s focus is on the bottom of the table:

Charlton v Derby

I never seem to be able to mention this game without harking back to the 1946 FA Cup Final and thanks to British Pathe and our new look, here’s some vintage footage of the game, featuring a cameo appearance by the Queen, who had celebrated her 20th birthday the week before.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the Addicks had probably left it too late to save themselves and although they’ve only lost two of their last six games at the Valley, this game begins a brutal run in during which time Charlton have to host Derby, Brighton and Burnley. They’ve already beaten Middlesbrough, Hull and Sheffield Wednesday at home so Derby need to be wary, especially as they haven’t won on the road since the end of February. That being said, Derby have four of their last ten league games at Charlton – losing only three – and arguably don’t have as much to play for as the hosts.

Rotherham v Nottingham Forest

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve got a pet theory about some teams avoiding relegation because there are usually three sides worse than them. I mentioned it before the start of the season in the preview for Bolton and the way things are going at Forest it seems likely I’ll be dusting the theory off in August so I can apply it to the Tricky Trees.

Quite frankly, Forest are in free fall. They’ve lost nine of their last eleven games, failed to score in six of those defeats, have been as bad as Bolton over the last half dozen matches and only MK Dons have scored fewer goals this season. Forest are lucky that this season there are three teams worse than them but that may not be the case in 2016/17 – if they survive, as it’s still possible that Forest could go down.

Rotherham are currently unbeaten in eight and haven’t lost at home since the end of January. Here’s where history intervenes quite dramatically: although the Millers have only lost once at home to Forest in their last ten meetings in South Yorkshire, the last time Rotherham beat Nottingham Forest at home in the league was in September 1956. Additionally, the last six league games between the clubs at Rotherham have ended in draws, which is not particularly good news for Nottingham Forest.

Televised games this weekend: Hull v Wolves (tonight, Sky Sports 1, kick off 7:45pm), Bolton v Middlesbrough (tomorrow, Sky Sports 1, kick off 12:30pm). Some interest at the top in these matches but Hull need a win to maintain the pressure on the other teams competing for a play off spot and Bolton’s game looks like one of those Sky Sports choices that might have looked good on paper before the season began.

I’ll be back on Tuesday afternoon with a preview of the final midweek programme of the regular season. You’ve got no idea how pleased I am to be writing those words 🙂