Southampton Join Reading In The Premier League; Playoff Line Up Confirmed

Congratulations to Southampton for their promotion to the Premier League.

The Saints made fairly short work of Coventry City on Saturday lunchtime: after Billy Sharp and Jose Fonte had given them a two goal lead after 19 minutes at St. Mary’s, the situation looked beyond West Ham no matter how many goals they scored against Hull. Although Southampton were top of the table for the majority of the season, they had to settle for second place after losing at home to Reading in the middle of this month: the consolation for the runners up is that they return to the Premier League for the first time since the 2004/05 season.

Although Wilfried Zaha gave Crystal Palace the lead against Cardiff at Selhurst Park, goals from Peter Whittingham and Don Cowie earned Cardiff all three points against the Eagles and made the final gap between sixth and seventh place look larger than it was for most of the season. Middlesbrough lost at Watford due to a late goal from Troy Deeney and missed out on the playoffs: Boro fans may be disappointed now, but over the summer they should begin to appreciate that this season has seen a turning point for the club’s fortunes.

It seems a bit odd writing about the playoffs on the last day of April, but in some respects it’s actually good to get everything out of the way earlier than usual. This season’s tournament is very different to previous seasons: all of the clubs that were relegated from the Premier League last season are in with a chance of going straight back up but the last team that was promoted via the playoffs in the season following relegation was Leicester in 1996!

Although all four playoff contestants have taken part in the second tier playoffs in the last decade, Blackpool and Cardiff have the most recent experience, having played each other in the memorable final at the end of 2009/10. They’re supposed to be the outsiders this season which is a bit odd considering that clubs finishing in fifth and sixth place have produced two of the last three winners and half of the successful teams over the last 20 seasons. Having said that, Cardiff have qualified for the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and were losing finalists on one occasion.

This season it’s down to Birmingham to end The Curse Of Fourth Place, which dates back to the dramatic penalty shoot out between Charlton and Sunderland in May 1998: Charlton were the last team to be promoted from the Championship to the Premier League after having finished in fourth position. Since then, fourth place has produced six losing finalists in fourteen seasons including Cardiff (2010) and West Ham (2004) and Blues fans probably don’t need reminding that it took them three consecutive attempts at the playoffs at the turn of the century before they defeated Norwich in 2001.

West Ham are the favourites to go up by winning at Wembley, which seems to be based on the logic that third place has provided four of the last six playoff winners rather than any recent form. There hasn’t been a London club in the playoffs since Crystal Palace lost in the semi finals to Bristol City in 2008 and West Ham were the last side from the capital to win the tournament when they beat Preston in Cardiff seven years ago.

I’ll be back on Thursday with previews of both of this week’s semi finals, but there’ll also be a special post on Friday taking a look at the situation at the top of League 1: the last promotion place is between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday and will be decided one way or another on Saturday afternoon. Whatever happens, the Championship will definitely be welcoming back one of the big guns in South Yorkshire next season.



The Last Day Of The Season

Eight months have come and gone and by 2:30pm tomorrow afternoon the season will be over for 20 of the clubs in the nPower Championship. The only remaining issues are the last promotion place and the last play off place, but there may not be that much last day drama.

We’ll start with the last playoff place. Cardiff are two points ahead of Middlesbrough with a superior goal difference so it would appear that the Bluebirds appear to have the advantage: Cardiff also seem to have an advantage over Middlesbrough in as far as their record at Crystal Palace is better than Boro’s recent results at Watford. Selhurst Park has been a relatively happy hunting ground for Cardiff City over the last few games: three wins and a draw in their last five league games at Palace is a reasonable haul.

Another one of the reasons that Middlesbrough are at a disadvantage going into what might be their final game of the season is that their record at the Riverside this season. If Boro had won even half of the games they’d drawn at home they’d be in fourth place: their away form has also been substandard recently – the 1-0 victory at Derby was their first away success since the beginning of March – and they haven’t won at Watford in the league for twenty years.

Turning our attention to the scenario for the remaining automatic promotion place, the advantage is with Southampton, who haven’t been out of the top two spots for the entire season. The Saints don’t necessarily even have to win their game at St Mary’s against Coventry (BBC1, 12:30pm) to go up as West Ham would have to beat Hull (Sky Sports 2, 12:30pm) by more than two goals.

However, it’s fair to say that the fixture computer has been kinder to Southampton than West Ham. Coventry have won just three of their 20 league games at either St Mary’s or The Dell since 1985 and although the Sky Blues will not want to leave the Championship without putting up a fight, their away record against the top six this season has been awful: a very late injury time goal from Oliver Norwood earned a point at Cardiff last month but Coventry have lost the other four games and failed to score in three of them.

Although West Ham have spent the entire season in the top three, three wins in ten games isn’t exactly promotion form and the drop off in their home form since Christmas looks as if it’s cost them automatic promotion: over the course of the season, they’ve only won three of their eight games against other sides in the top ten at the Boleyn Ground. Hull haven’t won at West Ham since 1990 but although the Tigers have only lost twice away from home against the sides directly above them (2-1 at Southampton and 1-0 at Middlesbrough) they’ve not scored in either of their league games in London this season. Given that Hull have also conceded the fewest away goals in the Championship this season, it could be a very frustrating lunchtime in East London.

I’ll be looking at the playoffs at the start of next week, but the dates are worth mentioning:

First Legs:

6th v 3rd: Thursday May 3rd, kick off 7:45pm

5th v 4th: Friday May 4th, kick off 7:45pm

Second Legs:

3rd v 6th: Monday May 7th kick off 4:30pm

4th v 5th: Wednesday May 9th kick off 7:45pm


Saturday 19th May, 3pm at Wembley Stadium – the Champions League final takes place in Munich later that day, so it might be an idea to book the television in advance!



Can Bristol City Survive?

This weekend is a really good example of the competitive nature of the Championship: with two games left,  the title is still up for grabs, there’s one automatic promotion left, two relegation places to be decided and three clubs competing for the final playoff spot.

However by the time ‘El Clasico’ kicks off in Barcelona some of those issues could be resolved due to the outcome of just one game but I’ll come to that in a minute. Looking back at Tuesday’s games it looks like Southampton have sown up the other automatic place while West Ham have avoided the Curse Of Fourth Place (they can’t finish lower than third) but should be mindful that only seven teams that finished in third place have been promoted via the playoffs in the last 20 seasons.

The biggest issue at the top of the Championship this weekend is a combination of policing and TV scheduling. The game between Cardiff and Leeds is a 12:30pm kick off, which means that Middlesbrough will know exactly what sort of result they need against Southampton (tomorrow Sky Sports 2, 5:20pm) in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. However, if the Saints win at the Riverside, it doesn’t matter how West Ham do at Leicester (Monday, Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) as automatic promotion will have been settled.

At the bottom, things couldn’t be any simpler. If Bristol City beat Barnsley, then both Coventry and Portsmouth will be down regardless of how they do. The game between the Robins and the Tykes is automatically the most important game this weekend.

The similarities between the teams are worth mentioning. Apart from beginning with ‘B’ and wearing red shirts and white shorts, both clubs lost their best strikers to West Ham in the last transfer window and although they’ve been consistently poor away from home over the last couple of seasons, in 2011/12 their home form has collapsed to the same level you’d expect from teams struggling against relegation. If Bristol City survive this season, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise if they’re joined by Barnsley amongst the favourites to go down a year from now.

Bristol City’s recent performances have turned what looked like a hopeless situation a few weeks ago into one where they control their own fate: the problem is that it’s unclear whether this is the start of a medium term improvement or the end of desperate yet possibly successful attempt to avoid relegation. Five of City’s last nine defeats at Ashton Gate have been by one goal and despite having scored the same amount of goals as Coventry this season they’ve only failed to score twice in the last ten home games.

On the other hand, Barnsley’s away from has been atrocious for some time. Since drawing with Millwall in August they’ve only won three times on the road and have lost eight of their last ten aways: the game at the New Den at the beginning of the season was also the last time they kept a clean sheet away from Oakwell. Although the Tykes are safe, you have to wonder if that’s going to work in their favour tomorrow or not. They aren’t under any pressure but facing a side desperate for Championship survival backed by a partisan crowd isn’t exactly a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon – especially when you consider that Barnsley haven’t won at Bristol City since 1993.

Considering both clubs have had trouble scoring this season there could be a few goals tomorrow – there have been 36 goals in the last ten league meetings between these two at Ashton Gate with 14 of them coming in the last two.

I’ll be back tomorrow with an update, but it might not be until after the Middlesbrough/Southampton game.



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.



The End Is In Sight!

Although none of the major issues were settled over the Easter period, it’s fair to say that there were some surprises.

* Bristol City and Millwall won both of their games and in doing so gave themselves a much better chance of survival. Barring disaster Millwall are probably safe, but the Robins have some work to do before the end of the season. I’m not going to go through all the permutations but there’s a combination of results that could both of the bottom two clubs could be relegated as soon as this weekend, but once again I’d be surprised if that happened.

* Considering they’re both in contention for the playoff places, Brighton and Middlesbrough lost twice. Boro’s defeat at Hull was probably the end of their playoff hopes: they’re without a win in eight games since beating Barnsley at the start of March. Based on past performance criteria, only two play off spots need to be filled: Blackpool and Cardiff are the leading contenders but as only seven points separate Cardiff and Derby it’s still possible – but unlikely – that a surprise promotion contender could emerge.

However, tonight we have arguably the biggest game outside of the playoff final when the top two meet at St Mary’s (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) . If there’s a decisive result one way or the other, I’d be very surprised if the winner didn’t go on to win the nPower Championship this season.

Not surprisingly considering they’ve spent the entire season in either first or second place Southampton are the favourites. Nigel Adkins’ team is built around players that aren’t exactly household names that are either local products (Adam Lalana), had performed consistently in the lower half of the football league (Rickie Lambert & Billy Sharp) or were unsettled or unwanted elsewhere (Jose Fonte). The Saints have scored the most goals in the Championship this season and although Lambert & Sharp are the main strikers, there are goals throughout the team.

Reading overcame a sluggish start that always seems to plague the unsuccessful team in the previous season’s playoff final and haven’t been out of the top six since Valentine’s Day. Only six of the players that lost to Swansea in last season’s playoff final featured in Tuesday night’s win at Brighton and having turned down a move to Wolves, manager Brian McDermott is obviously committed to Reading reaching the Premier League under his direction, which has been driven defensively this season. The Royals have also been able to mine similar veins as tonight’s opponents: Adam Le Fondre arrived from Rotherham, Nigel Clough might be regretting letting Tomasz Cywka leave Derby on a free transfer and the new recruit that raised a few eyebrows when he dropped down a division to move to Berkshire was striker Jason Roberts.

Curiously, league meetings between the two have been relatively few and far between – there have been just two games at Southampton since 2005 – and the Royals haven’t won in Hampshire since March 1958. Southampton are unbeaten at home against the other clubs in the top six and although Reading have lost at both Blackpool and Cardiff this season, their recent 4-2 win at West Ham showed they’re capable of beating anyone at any venue.

On Saturday there are four intriguing games, three of which are ‘top v bottom’ clashes. As mentioned above, the game between Birmingham City and Bristol City is important to both teams for different reasons but the outcome of that game could also have impact on Doncaster and Portsmouth – and here’s why according to the BBC Sport website.

Although it’s not mathematically impossible yet, it doesn’t look as if Birmingham have much chance of automatic promotion so they need to finish as high as possible to ensure home advantage in the second leg of the playoffs and to avoid the dreaded fourth place. Bristol City’s hard earned consecutive wins over the Easter period have given them a four point advantage over Coventry City but with West Ham visiting Ashton Gate next Tuesday the West Country’s leading team aren’t safe from relegation yet. On paper this looks like a Birmingham win – the Blues have won three of their five home games against the current bottom six while they Robins have lost three of their five aways against the top six – but it’s worth remembering that Bristol City are one of only two sides to win at Southampton this season.

Portsmouth’s trip to Doncaster is their penultimate away game against their fellow strugglers – Michael Appleton’s side travel to Nottingham Forest on the last day of the season. The bad news for Pompey is that not only have they failed to score at Barnsley, Bristol City and Coventry this season but they’ve only scored three times in seven away games since February – two of which came at Southampton last weekend. Doncaster’s only home defeat to another side in the bottom six happened when a single goal from Nottingham Forest’s Chris Gunter in August and this looks like a low scoring game that could end unsatisfactorily for both sides.

The bottom six welcomes a new club this weekend: following Millwall’s mini revival during which the Lions looked as if they’d returned to last season’s form, Barnsley have replaced the South London club. The Tykes have been awful recently: one win in eleven games is hardly inspiring and in some respects Cardiff couldn’t have timed their visit to Oakwell any better: Barnsley have lost all five home games gainst the top six by an average of 2.6 goals and the visitors have only lost twice in their last ten away games. It’s far too early to start making predictions for next season, but Barnsley fit the profile of a team that could struggle next season.

The last game of the four is Blackpool‘s trip to Nottingham Forest, which is the first time these sides have met in the Midlands since the playoff semi final in May 2009 and could also be a tricky match for the hosts. Forest beat Reading back in November but have a poor record against the promotion chasers this season that includes four defeats at the City Ground. A win for Ian Holloway’s side would probably confirm a playoff spot for the Tangerines but if Forest can beat their visitors for the first time since March 1977 then they’ll probably be competing in the Championship next season.

Finally this week, I’d like to pay a belated tribute to Barry Kitchener, who died aged 65 at the end of March. A true one club player – 523 appearances for Millwall between 1966 and 1982 – ‘Kitch’ was one of the first players outside the old first division who I was aware of when I started following football four decades ago. He never played at the top level: I was always surprised that none of the bigger London clubs never made a move for him but it wasn’t due a lack of ability – his heart belonged to Millwall.