The Championship: The Story So Far

Even though it’s mathematically incorrect, this weekend’s games mark the point at which all clubs have played at least a quarter of their games.

Regular readers will know that I think that it’s the period between now and Boxing Day that’s the most vital for those clubs either chasing promotion or trying to avoid relegation, so let’s take a look at how the rest of the season might progress.

The Contenders

At the moment any of the clubs currently in the top ten could theoretically win promotion even though only Cardiff City, Sheffield United and Wolves are currently earning an average of two points or more per game. I can’t see any of them sustaining that pace over the winter but that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds, simply because only Wolves are on target to at least equal the points totals won by Brighton and Newcastle last season.

Unlike last season, the chasing pack looks much more competitive and that seems to be down to last season’s unsuccessful playoff finalists suffering a collective hangover – although Fulham (my pre-season pick for promotion) still have time to turn that round. Bristol City and Preston improved almost beyond reognition whilst Aston Villa, Ipswich and Norwich are better than they were in 2016/17. Leeds‘ recent run of poor form indicates that despite a bright start, they’re currently no better than they were last season which could mean another potential playoff disappointment.

In Danger

Bolton and Burton were predicted to struggle this season and so it won’t come as much of a surprise that the bookies have written The Trotters off completely – over the past few posts I’ve written more than once that Bolton are currently far worse than Rotherham were last season. Nigel Clough has apparently decided to borrow the keys to the bus from Jose Mourinho and although I try not to let my personal feelings show in these posts, Burton’s brand of anti-football deserves to fail.

The rest of the season seems to be about who is going to accompany Bolton down to League One. The surprise teams at the wrong end of the table this season are Reading and Sunderland: I didn’t think either of them would do particularly well this season, but I didn’t think they’d be this bad either. Last season’s bad defending has finally caught up with the Royals and – as we mentioned last week – the Black Cats seem to be in one of those tailspins following relegation from the Premier League that has happened to Norwich, Southampton and Wolves over the past decade.

Birmingham were another club that I felt would struggle before the campaign started and the recent appointment of Steve Cotterill as manager following the departure of Harry Redknapp seems like a gamble, although if the owners require a gaffer who can get them out of League One they’ve made a good choice. The other team that have struggled so far is Brentford, although the bookies still seem to think Barnsley will be in the mix for relegation even though the Tykes aren’t significantly worse than they were last season.

Back to the present now: there are three candidates for game of the week, I couldn’t pick one as they’ll all have an impact at either end of the table.

Bristol City v Leeds

The Robins have only lost one of their last ten games – a meaningless 1-0 defeat by Birmingham City in the last match of 2016/17 – and haven’t conceded more than one goal at Ashton Gate since April. Leeds have lost half of their last ten aways and haven’t won on the road since the end of August. Since the turn of the century Leeds have won three of their five trips to Ashton Gate in Championship games but their last win in Bristol was in September 2012.

Wolves v Preston

Wolves’ only home defeat this season was against Cardiff in mid-August: at this point last season they’d already lost twice at Molineux and were about to be beaten by Leeds, so it’s fair to say their home form has improved. Preston have only lost one away game so far and are unbeaten in their last four aways – but arguably should have won at Fulham on Saturday after taking a two goal lead at Craven Cottage after less than half an hour. The last six meetings between the sides in Wolverhampton have been evenly distributed, but Wolves have only lost four of the last ten encounters in the Black Country.

Sheffield United v Reading

An impressive start at Bramall Lane has seen four clean sheets in six games since promotion and it’s fair to say that the Blades like to have their home games wrapped up by half time. Reading’s win at Leeds last weekend was unexpected: the Royals still haven’t won at the Mad House since August and had lost three of their previous five road trips. There’s another possible upset here: Reading have won five of their last visits to Bramall Lane for League games although it’s been nine years since they last came away with all the points.

Televised games: Millwall v Birmingham City (tomorrow evening, 5:30pm kickoff, Sky Sports Football), Ipswich v Norwich (Sunday lunchtime, noon kick off, Sky Sports Football/Sky Sports Main Event). The former always reminds me of a vital game at St Andrews in the old Second Division towards the end of the 1971/72 which Birmingham won to ruin Millwall’s promotion chances: it was the first time I can remember a second tier game getting a lot of attention on BBC radio and could well be one of the reasons that I’m writing this post over 45 years later. The Old Farm Derby is always worth watching.

There won’t be a post next Friday, but the next scheduled post after that will be on Friday 3rd November even though that’s just a week before the next round of international dates. Don’t forget that there are four Championship clubs in action in the League Cup next week – although none of those games will be televised.

GOTW: Preston v Sunderland

Well that was an action packed week – more than the usual amount of video content in this post as there was a lot to cover!

Last week’s game of the week lived up to expectations:

But then Leeds imploded on Tuesday evening – they were 2-0 down at Cardiff City before Liam Cooper was sent off. You’ve got to wonder if that was a game too far for the Yorkshire club.

Cardiff’s victory means that they’re two points clear of Sheffield United going into this weekend’s games, although both Leeds and Wolves could overtake the Bluebirds if Cardiff lose at home to Derby.

At the wrong end of the table, Bolton are now four points adrift of Sunderland, who are two points behind three clubs on eight points. As I mentioned last week, Bolton are currently worse than Rotherham were last season and are now as short as 1/4 for relegation.

Preston v Sunderland

Just over 80 years ago, the clubs met in the FA Cup Final:

Tomorrow’s game is under slightly different circumstances: Preston are currently fifth in the table and their transformation under former Norwich City boss Alex Neil is one of the stories that hasn’t been given credit so far. The Lillywhites have lost once this season and have only lost once at Deepdale since Boxing Day 2016. Add four clean sheets in five home games this season into the mix and it’s clear that Preston are currently in the top six on merit.

Sunderland – with former Preston boss Simon Grayson at the helm – have been awful so far. They’ve not won since the middle of last month and haven’t managed a victory in a league game at the Stadium of Light since beating Watford in the Premier League just before last Christmas. The main problem is defence: almost half of the 19 goals they’ve conceded so far this season have been scored in either the first or the last fifteen minutes of the game and they’ve already blown leads at Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday. Grayson’s already used 23 different players in league games with George Honeyman and James Vaughan as the only ever presents, which highlights another issue: Honeyman was promoted from the under 23 side and last season Vaughan was playing in League One for Bury. If the Black Cats continue their poor run, it’s not exactly difficult to see what the problem is.

Head to head: first meeting at Deepdale in a league game since October 2006, which Preston won 4-1. The Lillywhites have won half of the last ten league games between the clubs in Lancashire, Sunderland’s last win at Preston came in August 2003. Both teams have scored in eight of the last ten meetings with an average of 3.4 goals per game: considering how bad Sunderland’s defence is at the moment, that might be worth a punt!

The other game to monitor is at the Pirelli Stadium in Burton, where Wolves are the visitors. The 2-0 loss at Sheffield United on Tuesday was Wolves’ first defeat in five games but they’re still only three points behind Cardiff. After a poor start Burton seemed to have turned the corner recently, but a comprehensive 4-0 home defeat by Aston Villa (who finally seem to have got the hang of this) earlier this week underlined The Brewers’ defensive fragility.

Televised games: QPR v Fulham (Friday, Sky Sports Football, 7:45pm kick off) is the usual lazy planning, Reading v Norwich (Saturday, Sky Sports Football 5:30pm kick off) would have looked good on paper before the season started but if Sheffield Wednesday v Leeds (Sunday, Sky Sports Main Event, 12:15pm kick off) is as entertaining as last week’s Steel City Derby was then we’re in for a treat…

No scheduled post next weekend, so all being well I’ll be back in a fortnight with a general look at the first quarter of the season.

GOTW: Leeds v Ipswich

Two big stories last weekend: all teams have now lost at least once and in case you missed it, Harry Redknapp was sacked by Birmingham City.

I’m fairly sure that if the Blues had been relegated at the end of last season he’d have walked away regardless, so to some extent his departure was predictable even without the expensive spending spree that resulted in six consecutive defeats.

Anway, here’s how Leeds United lost their unbeaten record at the New Den:

Earlier this week, five Championship clubs qualified for last sixteen of the League Cup: all were drawn against Premier League opposition, but only Bristol City were drawn at home. The most dramatic game came at Turf Moor, where Leeds drew 2-2 with Burnley and then won a penalty shoot out.

The next round takes place in about a month’s time and I’ll preview the games in the post for Friday 20th October.

This weekend any of the top seven teams could go top and only Bolton Wanderers cannot escape the bottom three.

Leeds United v Ipswich Town

The key question in this game is how Leeds will respond to losing their unbeaten record and having to play to penalties in the League Cup on Tuesday evening. The current leaders have not lost consecutive games since April but managed that particular feat five times last season and so Ipswich might fancy their chances, although they’d be well advised to keep an eye on both Kemar Roofe and Pierre-Michel Lasogga, who between seem to have replaced Chris Wood.

The problem for the Tractor Boys is that they’ve only won three of their last ten road trips and have only won at Elland Road twice in their last ten attempts over the last decade. The recent wins at Barnsley and Millwall were their first consecutive away wins since the end of 2015, which indicates to me that this is an important game for Mick McCarthy’s team: if they can earn at least a point at Leeds, then they should taken seriously as promotion candidates.

Bolton Wanderers v Brentford

I know it’s not even the end of September, but if Bolton don’t start picking up points soon they’re toast. The Trotters are currently performing at a lower level than they were when relegated two seasons ago and at a considerably worse level than Rotherham did last season. Brentford haven’t won an away game in the competition since March: if you’re looking for a reason why they’ve regressed so badly, they’ve only won six aways over the last calendar year.

Sunderland v Cardiff City

Since relegation, The Black Cats have managed one goal from open play – the other was a consolation penalty – and one point at the Stadium Of Light. There are already mutterings from the faithful about Simon Grayson’s ability to ‘do the job’ (whatever that means this season), but I’d say that’s more to do with the mess he’s inherited rather than his ability to manage at this level. Cardiff’s recent mini wobble – two points from the last nine – hints that their fast start may be a thing of the past, but the Bluebirds have only lost three of their last ten aways.

Wolves v Barnsley

I’m still not completely sure what to make of Wolves. They’ve only lost twice since April – but only once this season – but ten of their 17 points so far have been earned against teams that are currently in the bottom half of the table. That’s not good news for Barnsley who are currently only three points outside the relegation zone and have been poor away from Oakwell for some time: four points from their last ten matches.

Televised games: Aston Villa v Nottingham Forest (tomorrow, Sky Sports Main Event 5:30pm) is a bog standard middle of the table clash between two  Midlands clubs that won the European Cup years ago and is yet another chance to watch Villa. However, on Sunday it’s the first Sheffield Derby (Sky Sports Football or Sky Sports Main Event, 1:15pm kick off) at Hillsborough for just over five and a half years and I think that’s required viewing.

I’ll be back next Friday, but there’s a midweek programme next week and Cardiff City v Leeds United is being shown on Sky Sports Football next Tuesday evening (7:45pm kick off). So if you’re not at a game (I will be), then that match should be worth watching.

 

New Sky Deal: Is It Worth It?

The timing of Tuesday’s announcement of the new EFL TV deal with Sky Sports was interesting: all three EFL divisions had almost full midweek programmes and it was almost exactly three months since the Financial Times published this:

‘Premier League football suffered the biggest drop in viewing on Sky TV for at least seven years, raising questions over the popularity of live sports as well as the sustainability of a lucrative source of funding for English clubs.’

If Premier League coverage has reached saturation point – and it appears it has – it’s now clear why Sky Sports rebranded their sports channels during the summer and are looking for a new revenue stream.

That’s us.

So what are we getting in just under two years then? With one major exception – which I’ll come to in a moment – it’s not much more than you’re currently getting with a Sky Sports subscription. They already broadcast games from the EFL, the League Cup and the EFL Trophy.

The first difference is that Sky Sports will be broadcasting ‘sixteen Championship games on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings’: to put that into context, this season there are five midweek programmes of at least ten games each (it’s not clear yet if Boxing Day will be part of the new deal), in which case the new deal means Sky Sports will be broadcasting just under a quarter of those games.

Clearly that’s more than now, but the issue here is which games on which evenings. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the ‘juicy’ games will be scheduled for broadcast against the Champions League games on BT Sport, which implies that Sky Sports might -at the very least – try to influence the EFL fixture computer. On the other hand, Sky Sports poor record of selecting live games in the Championship might continue: from tomorrow until the end of the month, five games are being televised: we going to be watching eighteenth placed Aston Villa twice, four clubs that are in currently the bottom half of the division and two derbies, only one of which (The Steel City Derby on 24th September) will feature teams currently in the top ten. And all of those teams have played in the Premier League at some point over the last two decades, which makes the match selection process look even lazier, doesn’t it!

As for the League Cup and the EFL Trophy, Championship sides don’t perform well in the former and aren’t even involved in the latter.

However, the unique selling point of this deal is being able to stream Championship games that aren’t (a) on a Saturday and (b) aren’t being televised by Sky via individual club websites. For my club for the duration of this season, that’s currently £110 a year and £12.50 a month: as there won’t be any league games between the end of May and the beginning of August, ten months at £12.50 will cost £15 more than an annual subscription. It’s important to remember that’s what it costs at the moment: it’ll be different in August 2019 anyway and may cost considerably more by then.

Once again, Sky Sports’ bottom line is profit, not necessarily what’s in the best interest of ordinary fans. This is where we come to another issue.

I’m happy to admit that how I watch – or should I say consume – football is a reflection of my age. I’m a season ticket holder at my local club and on average attend at least one or two away games a season. Having grown up with extremely limited options – BBC Radio, the weekly highlights programme on ITV and BBC, Ceefax – I like the idea I can get goal flashes on my mobile phone, but if I’m not at the game then as long as I know what the score is I don’t particularly care.

I have a Sky Sports subscription but I watch just as much Super League and NFL as I do Premier League: I always try to watch Championship and League One games because that’s why this blog and Buzzin’ League One football exist. If there’s a decent midweek game from the Championship on Sky Sports in a couple of years time, I’ll probably watch it if I can find the time.

But I’m not paying any more for that and I suspect I may not be alone.

A very brief look at this weekend’s action now. If I’d been writing a normal post, the game of the week would have been Cardiff City v Sheffield Wednesday, with Millwall v Leeds United and Birmingham City v Preston not far behind. Cardiff lost their unbeaten record earlier this week when they lost 3-0 at Deepdale, but it’s been over a decade since Wednesday won in the Welsh capital.

Don’t forget that next week there are several games in the League Cup featuring Championship teams: if anything dramatic happens I’ll update this post. Otherwise it’s business as usual next Friday, so enjoy the weekend.

 

 

GOTW: Norwich v Birmingham

We’ve reached September and if you’re a fan of any of the Championship clubs that are still in the League Cup, you’ve got seven games to look forward to this month.

By the time October starts, we’ll be almost a quarter of the way through the season and we’ll also have a much better idea of how it will pan out. I caught some flak early last season for claiming that Huddersfield’s start to the season was unsustainable (it was, but they still won promotion) and so I’d expect nothing less if I say the same thing about Cardiff’s start this season.

The last game of the week finished more or less as I’d expected. Cardiff had almost twice as many shots as QPR (17 to 8) and just under half of those were on target compared to just one for Rangers:

Cardiff now lead by three points – they’ll probably still be top this weekend even if they lose at Fulham – but I’d still say that Leeds are currently their biggest rivals. At the bottom there’s only three points between Millwall and Bolton but Brentford and Norwich remain the surprise strugglers. Which leads me nicely on to…

Norwich City v Birmingham City

A different type of GOTW this weekend: two clubs who haven’t really got going yet.

Remember when Sami Hyypia was appointed manager of Brighton a few seasons ago? Following two consecutive playoff finishes under Gus Poyet and Oscar Garcia, they spent the entire 2014/15 season in the bottom half of the table and were 23rd when the Finn was sacked at the end of 2014. Remember what I wrote about Norwich in July? The Canaries currently have the worst defensive record in the Championship and might be the latest victims of The Curse of the Trendy Foreign Manager.

Birmingham City – who were a ridiculous 6/1 to win promotion at the start of July – have won just three of their last ten games in the Championship and haven’t scored more than one goal on the road since they won at Wolves in February. No wonder the Blues have to drifted to 25/1 to go up: there’s an old expression about not being able to polish a turd which I’m assuming Harry Redknapp is familiar with.

Head to head: Norwich have won half of their last six games against the Blues at Carrow Road, Birmingham’s last win in Norfolk was in March 2002.

Also on the menu:

Leeds United v Burton Albion

Despite having kept four consecutive clean sheets (just over six hours of football) United haven’t won at Elland Road since April and haven’t scored at home this season. Their opponents have only won two of their last ten aways, one of those victories being ensured by a 96th minute winner by Jackson Irvine at Huddersfield: Burton lost 2-0 at Elland Road last season and I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar scoreline will be read out on Sports Report on Saturday.

Sunderland v Sheffield United

A patchy start for the Black Cats has quickly turned into a poor one following two defeats where they’ve failed to score; their single victory this season came at Norwich which – as I implied above – may not be much to brag about. The Blades might be fifth at the moment, but they’ve lost both of their away games so far without scoring – and remarkably, they’ve not scored in an away game at Sunderland since January 1998, although to be fair it’s 12 years since there’s been a competitive game between them.

Televised games: Derby County v Hull City (this evening, 7:45pm kick off, Sky Sports Football) and Sheffield Wednesday v Nottingham Forest (Saturday, 5:30pm, Sky Sports Main Event).

I’ll be back next Friday – I won’t be covering the midweek games this season due to a change in circumstances.