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: 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.

 

Game of the Evening: Hull v Wolves

Four clubs with two wins and three clubs with no points: Ipswich and Brentford are the teams that have begun the season in exactly the opposite way I thought they might, but as I mentioned last Friday it’s still early days.

Before I go any further, last Sunday saw a relatively serious outbreak of violence at the Riverside after the Middlesbrough/Sheffield United game after some of the visiting fans couldn’t cope with the idea of a refereeing decision going against them. There’s a difference between being Billy Big Bollocks in League One and an average side in the Championship and the gap has become bigger since Sheffield United have been away: it’s clear that some of their fans don’t seem to have understood that.

Saturday’s game of the week at Hillsborough finished all square. For those of you that like this sort of thing, it’s been 45 years since Wednesday wore the ‘Arsenal’ style kit.

On to this evening’s game of the week:

Hull City v Wolverhampton Wanderers

Both sides are unbeaten going into this game, but the hosts may be not be all they seem. The Tigers drew at Villa Park on the opening weekend and then battered Burton Albion last Saturday but didn’t lead at half time in either game and have now played two of the teams currently in the bottom four.

On the other hand, Wolves have already beaten Middlesbrough and Derby without conceding a goal and look a much tougher proposition. They only lost four of their last ten away games in 2016/17 and as I noted in the previews they were better on the road than at Molineux last season.

Head to head in the league at Hull: Wolves have only recorded two wins at Hull in the last ten meetings, the last victory coming in February 2006. Hull have won four of the last five games between them in Yorkshire.

Other games to keep an eye on this evening:

Barnsley v Nottingham Forest 

The Tykes were widely tipped to struggle this season and have lost both their games in the Championship and only beat Morecambe in the League Cup thanks to an injury time goal by Ryan Hedges after they’d blown a 3-1 lead. Forest have won both of their games so far, but I’m not getting carried away just yet.

Reading v Aston Villa

The signs of a playoff hangover are already apparent in Berkshire: a surprise defeat at QPR on opening day following by a home draw against a Fulham side that played almost the entire game with ten men. Villa have won precisely seven points from 30 in their last ten away games and failed to score in half of them. If that form continues, it’ll be sooner rather than later that the ‘they’re too good to go down’ conversation will begin.

Don’t forget, there’s no post this weekend. Next one is scheduled on the Friday before the Bank Holiday.

2017/18: What To Expect In The Sky Bet Championship

A year ago I wrote that over the last decade only three of the clubs that won the Championship had been relegated from the Premier League at the end of the previous season: despite Newcastle’s triumph at the end of last season, that remains true.

The starting point this season is whether Hull, Middlesbrough or Sunderland can become the third consecutive ex-Premier League club to win the Sky Bet Championship.

Judging from the changes in the odds since the start of last month, Middlesbrough look the most likely of the new arrivals to do so. At the start of July Boro were second favourites for promotion behind Aston Villa, but the Teeside club are now joint favourites to win promotion and clear favourites to win the title: poaching Garry Monk from Leeds United and Britt Assombalonga from Nottingham Forest seems to have given them an edge over the Midlands outfit in the minds of the ante post punters and to some extent I’d agree with them. I’m far from sure about either Hull City or Sunderland: although the former club have recent experience in the Championship, Leonid Slutsky is a risk appointment. Simon Grayson is a safe pair of hands and should be able to stabilise the Mackem ship, but that’s about it.

A more likely destination for the title will be one of the clubs that finished in the top half of the competition but more likely than not failed in the playoffs. Sheffield Wednesday have been consistent over the past couple of seasons but need to improve in order to win the title and last season much was made of the fact that Fulham, Huddersfield and Reading all finished below sixteenth place at the end of 2015/16 but still reached the playoffs. In 2017/18 it’ll be interesting to see if Fulham and Reading are able to sustain the form that stood them in good stead: it should not be forgotten that only nine clubs conceded more goals than the Royals last season, which is nowhere near good enough for a team with Premier League aspirations.

Automatic promotion and the playoffs

Six of the last ten runners up in the Championship had played at least one season in the competition beforehand and all but one of those clubs (Watford) finished in the top half at the end of the previous season. This is where Aston Villa, Leeds United and Norwich City come into consideration although there are question marks about all of them; if you want further details, see the individual previews. It’s been five seasons since a team that was either relegated from the Premier League or promoted from League One has finished in second place at this level and with apologies to those clubs that fit that description, I don’t see any of them finishing second in 2017/18.

The playoffs are another matter entirely. With the benefit of hindsight, Huddersfield’s rise from nineteeth place to playoff winners should probably not have come as a surprise: half of the last ten successful finalists had finished in the bottom half of the table at the end of the previous season, even though the only team to finish lower than 19th was Hull who finished 21st in 2006/07. If that trend continues, Cardiff City and possibly Wolves could be worth watching. The playoffs may also be the best case scenario for Hull.

Relegation

Just over half of the 30 teams that were relegated over the last decade had finished in the bottom half of the Championship at the end of the previous season. It’s the clubs that finished in 17th place or below that are those in the biggest danger of the drop: Burton Albion, Nottingham Forest and QPR look the most likely – the Brewers being pre-season favourites – but both Ipswich Town and Birmingham City regressed significantly last season and the latter were the only team to score less than a goal per game that wasn’t relegated.

However, this is also where newly promoted clubs are also significantly represented, but surprisingly it’s the teams that have been promoted automatically that seem to have struggled, with two League One champions (Doncaster Rovers and Wigan Athletic) and one runner up (MK Dons) making immediate returns to the third tier in the last five seasons. The playoff winners have normally been fine, but it’s worth noting that the the Millwall team that lost to Barnsley in the 2016 League One playoff final performed at a better level than the team that beat Bradford City in May and the Lions – along with Bolton Wanderers – are currently the same price to go down as Rotherham United were last season.

Predictions

I got none of these right last season, so don’t expect miracles this time round. So for what it’s worth:

Fulham will win promotion

There will be at least three teams worse than Bristol City

Daenerys Targaryan will marry Jon Snow

Ian Holloway will not be manager of QPR on Christmas Day

2017/18 Preview Part II

Welcome the second part of our club by club preview of the forthcoming EFL Sky Bet Championship season.

The prices for the season long outcomes for the teams were taken from Oddschecker.com on July 1st and will fluctuate throughout the season.

Burton Albion

Manager: Nigel Clough (December 2015), second season in the Championship
Last 10: 4-2-4
Promotion 40/1, relegation 6/4F

Other than Huddersfield’s promotion, Burton’s survival was arguably the story of last season as both the Brewers’ ‘us against the world’ mentality and their level of organisation stood them in good stead against some of the bigger but more dysfunctional clubs last season. Nigel Clough’s managerial experience at this level was obvious, however, it’s not abundantly clear what to expect from them this time round: more of the same seems likely, which makes the odds for relegation a bit harsh.

Fun fact: although Burton only drew four home games last season, four of the six goals in those matches were scored by Brewers.

Cardiff City

Manager: Neil Warnock (October 2016), fourth season in the Championship
Last 10: 4-3-3
Promotion: 8/1, relegation: 8/1

I’ve no idea why Mr Tan thought Paul Trollope was the right man for the job and it wasn’t a huge surprise when the Bluebirds improved dramatically almost immediately after Warnock was appointed last October. I’ll say top half without troubling the playoffs and the bookies seem to agree.

Fun fact: the Bluebirds were one of only three clubs to win both games against Huddersfield last season.

Derby County

Manager: Gary Rowett (March 2017), 10th season in the Championship
Last 10: 4-3-3
Promotion: 4/1, relegation: 25/1

One of the better teams in the competition over the last few seasons, the Rams have never really been either consistent or good enough to be one of the best and that’s probably because of a tendency for poor decision making when it comes to managers. Last season was a mess, but the Rams clearly benefited from the idiocy of Birmingham’s new owners when it came to the availability of Gary Rowett. I thought Derby would go up last season but they didn’t: I don’t think they will this season, so they probably will.

Fun fact: Derby failed to win any of their away games against the teams that eventually finished above them.

Fulham

Manager: Slavisa Jokanovic (December 2015), fourth season in the Championship
Last 10: 6-2-2
Promotion: 3/1, relegation: 33/1

Had a tough run in that I thought would be too much for their attempt to win promotion via the playoffs, but if they’d won half the games they eventually drew the Cottagers might have been contending for automatic promotion. It’s normally hard to make a case for the beaten playoff semi finalists to go one better purely due to recent history: however, the division looks slightly more competitive this season and if they score as many goals as they did last during the last campaign, there’s no reason to think that the Cottagers won’t be challenging for promotion again.

Fun fact: Fulham spent most of last season outside the playoff places but finished with a better goal difference than Huddersfield.

Hull City

Manager: Leonid Slutsky (June 2017), relegated from the Premier League
Last 10: 3-1-6 (Premier League)
Promotion: 11/2, relegation: 12/1

A dreadful end to their stay in the Premier League finished with Marco Silva leaving for Watford and his replacement looks like a typically risky vanity appointment by a chairman who’s increasingly alienating the fans. I wouldn’t be surprised if this season is a bigger struggle than anyone’s expecting: the Tigers haven’t finished in the bottom half of the Championship for a decade but although that’s unlikely, I can’t see them returning to the Premier League this season either.

Fun fact: Hull have been either promoted or relegated in four of the last five seasons.

Ipswich Town

Manager: Mick McCarthy (November 2012), 16th season in the Championship
Last 10: 3-2-5
Promotion 20/1, relegation 10/3

There could be all kinds of changes at Portman Road by Christmas if the Tractor Boys aren’t competiting for the playoff places by Christmas. Ipswich were last season’s draw specialists, but that’s not the only reason that last season saw the lowest league position in the Mick McCarthy era. When you combine that with sixteen consecutive seasons marooned at this level, it’s entirely possible that the situation may come to a head quite quickly and If McCarthy does leave – and he had about six years at both Ireland and Wolves before departing – expect to see him a lot on Sky Sports’ TV coverage of the competition.

Fun fact: Between mid-February and mid-March, Town drew six consecutive games last season – and took the lead in four of those games.