Managerial Stability The Key To Championship Success

After last weekend’s games, QPR have a six point lead over Cardiff, but significantly the gap between the leaders and the last play off spot is now ten points. Queens Park Rangers have only conceded three goals in ten games – two of them against Derby – and Crystal Palace thought they’d pinched a point at Selhurst Park but once again a late goal gave the visitors three points. Although late goals certainly seem to be playing a part in Rangers’ impressive start, it may be just a matter of time before their luck runs out – but more of that later.

Reading dropped out of the playoff places after a draw at Preston; despite failing to win at Millwall, Burnley took their place. The rest of the top five won; Bristol City’s home defeat to Norwich dropped the Robins to the bottom of the table. The end of the Paolo Sousa ‘era’ at the Walkers Stadium seemed to work wonders for Leicester who beat Scunthorpe 3-1 to record their first league win since mid September.

Portsmouth’s recent run of good form continued although they had to come from behind at Middlesbrough: Liam Lawrence’s penalty two minutes from full time earned Pompey a valuable point but also increased the pressure on Middlesbrough‘s Gordon Strachan.

With no games this weekend due to the international break, it’s time to sit back and take a broader look at this season’s competition. The first thing that stands out is that QPR’s current form may be unsustainable in the long run:  not only are they on course to outperform Newcastle last season, but if they continue in the same vein in which they’ve begun the season, they will also have a better season than Reading did in 2005/06 when the Royals finished with a record 106 points.

Interestingly, although 58% of teams in the Championship this season have played in the Premiership within the last decade, both QPR and Cardiff are among the teams that have spent the longest outside the top tier. The approaches that the boards of these clubs have taken to change that situation have been similar, but have had different results.

In a manner reminiscent of another club from West London, for several seasons QPR’s board has been throwing money at the club – although the number of celebrities at Loftus Road went up, the results on the pitch have been mediocre. The decision to appoint Neil Warnock as manager may result in a big payday for QPR in May: despite – or maybe because – of his abrasive nature, he has maintained his inimitable managerial style and his recruitment policy seems to have turned QPR into something of a Championship All Star team.

Presumably the plan for Cardiff City was something similar. Although the Bluebirds are still suffering from the aftermath of catastrophic financial management over the last decade, the Welsh club seem to have become a model for success in the Championship.

Dave Jones is currently the longest serving manager in the division and – like Warnock – has experience at a higher level, the new stadium would not look out of place in the Premiership and although Cardiff have lost twice this season, their form has actually improved since last season. If QPR self destruct (which will inevitably be around the time Neil Warnock’s conspiracy theories reappear), Cardiff are in the ideal position to benefit.

Since the season began, the fortunes of other clubs have also emphasised importance of managerial stability in the Championship. Doncaster Rovers – along with Scunthorpe United – are the only sides in the Championship who have never played at the highest level in English football, yet Rovers’ rise from the Conference to an established Championship side has taken less than a decade and in many ways is similar to the situation at Cardiff.

After years of financial mismanagement, the club moved to a small but nonetheless impressive new ground; Sean O’Driscoll has been in charge since September 2006 and is currently the manager of arguably the best Doncaster Rovers side ever. It’s probably safe to say that ten years ago none of their fans thought that they would be supporting one of the best teams in Yorkshire; O’Driscoll will not be at the Keepmoat Stadium forever, but if he does leave this season he’ll be leaving the club in a better state than he found it.

Managerial stability – or the lack of it – can also explain what’s happening at the bottom of the table. In the last calendar year, both Bristol City and Leicester City have had three managers: although we’ll never know what Steve Coppell would have achieved at Ashton Gate, in view of the Robins current league position it’s entirely possible that he may have made a swift and accurate assessment of the playing staff before deciding to leave in a hurry.

Leicester’s problems seem to begin and end with Milan Mandaric – Paolo Sousa may talk a good game but was hardly impressive at either QPR or Swansea (both sides have improved without him) and it will be interesting to see if Sven-Goran Eriksson’s managerial talents are capable of surviving both a good old fashioned English relegation dogfight and continual interference from the Chairman.

To finish, here are a couple of facts to impress your mates in the pub:

There have been 2.69 goals per game in the Championship, the highest rate in the Football League and higher the Premiership.

If you want to watch a game with plenty of goals, it won’t come as a big surprise to learn that watching Leeds at home or Preston on their travels would be the best choices, although Norwich (at home) and Leicester (away) are good alternatives. Avoid Hull at the KC Stadium and any Sheffield United away game though.

QPR and Hull are the only teams not to have conceded a goal at home. Crystal Palace are the only team yet to score an away goal.

Of the nine players who have scored five goals or more this season, only two come from outside the British Isles – Davide Somma of Leeds (South Africa) and Heidar Helguson of QPR (Iceland).

Can anyone stop QPR?

The most recent games in the nPower Championship seem to have shed some light on how the rest of the season could pan out – QPR now have a four point lead and they’re the only undefeated team in the Championship. Their latest win was a 2-0 win over Leicester, although they left it late to ensure victory as John Mackie’s eighth goal of season came only four minutes from full time.

Queens Park Rangers were handed an advantage when Ipswich beat Cardiff 2-0 to move into second place; this was a case of history repeating itself as the last time the Bluebirds suffered consecutive defeats in the league was last March – when they lost to Ipswich and Leicester!

QPR’s main competitors will have to take advantage of any opportunities they get this weekend. Neil Warnock’s side are at home this weekend to Doncaster Rovers – who haven’t won at Loftus Road since February 1952 – and even if Rovers win QPR will still have a two point lead. If Millwall continue their impressive record at Cardiff City (the Lions haven’t lost in the Welsh capital in the last four league games) and Ipswich come away with nothing from their trip to Scunthorpe. Queens Park Rangers may go into next week’s games with an impressive lead.

It’s far too early to be talking about the playoffs, but it will be interesting to see if Norwich and Watford can maintain their early season form; the Canaries won at Preston courtesy of a Grant Holt goal but the biggest surprise last weekend came at the New Den when Watford thrashed Millwall 6-1.

At the foot of the table, Portsmouth are the only club without a win but could easily make up ground at the moment if they were to beat Leicester on Friday night (7:45pm Sky Sports 3): however a meagre total of two goals from seven games and a goal difference of -9 doesn’t look too promising. Neither does the fact that Leicester have won three of the last four league meetings at Fratton Park; the Foxes also beat Pompey in the Carling Cup on Tuesday night. Bristol City’s horrible start to the season continued with a 2-1 home defeat to Coventry City although the Robins can take heart from the fact that their away record is better than their home performances have been.

One of the intriguing games on Sunday afternoon is Crystal Palace’s trip to Derby which could be vital for the long term prospects of both clubs. Although the Rams picked up a point at Barnsley last weekend they haven’t won since their opening day victory at Leeds United; Palace haven’t won away from home since a 3-1 win at Watford at the end of March.

If you’re a betting man there are a few games that look as if they may the proverbial home bankers. Coventry haven’t lost at home this season and their opponents Preston have lost all three of their away games and are on a four game losing streak; Hull City haven’t picked up any points away from home this season and haven’t won at Norwich for 40 years.

Despite the high attrition rate in the first couple of rounds, four teams from the nPower Championship have reached the last sixteen of this season’s Carling Cup. Leicester, Ipswich, Burnley and Swansea will all be hoping for a favourable draw – the fourth round is due to take place at the end of October.

The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie’s Leeds United book review

The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie's Leeds United
The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie's Leeds United

Like many football mad schoolboys of my generation, I was spellbound by the Leeds United team of the early 1970’s; and though family members supported QPR and Chelsea, the lure of Leeds in their all-white kit, arrogance and flair was too much. I would play left-wing for my school gripping my cuffs and always with my socks rolled down; the commentary in my head acting out Eddie Gray’s every move.

In the first half of the 1970’s Leeds United were the best club team in England and one of the most prolific in Europe.  However, history doesn’t show they were quite as great as they actually were due to missing out on cups and titles on several occasions.

The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie’s Leeds United is a well researched book following the years in which Don Revie became Leeds United’s Player Manager in the early 1960’s and over the following decade built Leeds Untied into a European force in the world of football.  This was achieved by completely rebuilding the club and everything associated with it including changing the home strip from blue & gold in favour of the all-white strip of European Champions Real Madrid; and in the process helping to formulate a different tactical approach for other English club teams and managers to follow.

Unfortunately Don Revie’s Leeds was infamous for their hard-tackling and so-called ‘professional’ fouls.  Though this helped Leeds to rise from the second tier of English Football to become League Champions and one of the most prolific club sides of that generation, their style of football made them very unpopular, something that still dogs them to this day, hence the title of this book – The Unforgiven.

Leeds United fans Rob Bagchi & Paul Rogerson have written a brilliant book that is only slightly let down by its unbiased views.  Maybe Leeds were unfairly treated by referees and the Football League Association, and furthermore wrongly accused of not playing exciting football.  But the fact is Leeds were a dirty team that quite possibly under the management of cynical yet forward-thinking Don Revie would do anything possible to provoke their opponents and in doing so win what sometimes appeared to be a battle rather than a game.  This was admired by some but caused bitter disgust from most football fans, players and journalists alike.

The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie’s Leeds United was originally published in 2002 and gets a well deserved reprint with a new foreword, following the recent success of the film, The Damned United charting Don Revie’s successor Brian Clough’s 44 days in charge.

Reading this book the memories of my youth came flooding back.  The sock tassels, Mick Jones broken arm in the 1972 FA Cup against Arsenal, just how bad Gary Sprake really was, those cool Admiral tracksuits, Peter Lorimer’s thunderbolts and how Leeds managed to lose the 1973 FA Cup final to Second Division Sunderland.

The Unforgiven was a great read.

The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie’s Leeds United
by Rob Bagchi & Paul Rogerson published by Aurum Press priced £8.99

Unpredictable results in the nPower Championship leave QPR on top

Tuesday night’s games showed how unpredictable the nPower Championship can be. Ipswich hadn’t lost to QPR at Portman Road since February 2005 but two first half goals from John Mackie and a Heidar Helguson penalty 20 minutes from time mean that Queens Park Rangers take a three point lead into Saturday’s game…which just happens to be at Leicester City, who ended Cardiff City’s unbeaten record with a 2-1 win at the Walkers Stadium. The Bluebirds had led at half time, but an Andy King brace ensured both a much needed home win and a measure of revenge for last season’s play off defeat; the win also ended Cardiff’s record of four consecutive wins and three consecutive clean sheets.

In the battle of the rookie managers, last week’s prediction that beating Preston North End might be the sign of better things for Sheffield United was exposed for what it was as Gary Speed’s outfit were hammered 4-0 at home by Scunthorpe; former Notts County, QPR and Scunthorpe defender Ian Baraclough made his managerial debut following Nigel Adkins’ departure to Southampton. Not that far away, almost 7000 travelling Leeds fans must have been delighted that their team scored after three minutes at Oakwell – Leeds also scored the last goal of the game but in between five different Barnsley players to give the hosts their biggest win over their Yorkshire rivals for almost a quarter of a century.

Many of those Leeds United fans will be making the slightly longer journey to Doncaster Rovers on Friday night for the first game of the weekend which is live on Sky Sports 3 at 7:45pm. Not many of them will remember the last time their team lost to Doncaster in a league game (August 1951!) but they’ll be aware that Doncaster are one of the ten teams who haven’t lost at home yet.

Millwall also haven’t lost at home this season and they have an intriguing game at home to Watford on Saturday afternoon. The Lions earned a useful point in a goalless draw at Reading and currently occupy third place on goal difference; the Hornets are one of a number of clubs who are performing better on their travels than at home and a 2-0 win at Bristol City during the week showed that the Hertfordshire club should not be underestimated.

There are a number of contenders for game of the week – Swansea v Scunthorpe, Derby’s trip to Barnsley and the contest between former Premiership sides Middlesbrough and Reading at the Riverside should all be worth keeping an eye on, but Ipswich v Cardiff looks like the pick of the crop this week, although it could be a close game without many goals. Having both lost on Tuesday night it will be interesting to see how these clubs react to defeats: Ipswich have only lost once at home to Cardiff in the last ten meetings but they haven’t won consecutive home games in the Championship since last March.

The weekend programme finishes with another televised game when Hull City travel to Nottingham Forest (Sky Sports 2, ko 5:15) for the first time since the 1976/77 season, which is remarkable considering both clubs have experienced so many ups and downs over the past decade.

Looking forward to the resumption of next round of the Carling Cup next week, Championship sides are guaranteed two places in the last sixteen. Leicester City have to make the trip to Fratton Park twice in a week – next Tuesday in the cup and next Saturday in the league – to face a Portsmouth team that has yet to win a game over 90 minutes; Ipswich visit Millwall and Swansea have a tricky looking tie at Peterborough United. Finally Burnley entertain Bolton Wanderers in another Lancashire derby – if it’s half as entertaining as their dramatic come from behind win over Preston that featured a Chris Iwelumo hat-trick, then fans of the Clarets will be very happy indeed!

Carling Cup, Steve Coppell & Championship League round up

The rather indifferent form of nPower Championship league teams in the first round of the Carling Cup this week – eight teams knocked out and four teams needing extra time to conquer opposition from lower divisions – was overshadowed on Thursday with the news of the first managerial casualty of the season. Steve Coppell resigned from Bristol City in particular and from football management in general, with the club website quoting Coppell as saying that he ‘could not become passionate about the role and give the commitment the position it demands’.

If an opening day defeat and being beaten by lower league opposition in the Carling Cup represents some sort of benchmark then Mark Robbins (Barnsley) and Billy Davies (Nottingham Forest) should take note.

Bristol City immediately appointed Steve Coppell’s assistant Keith Millen as their new manager: the former Brentford and Watford defender finished his career at Bristol City and was caretaker manager at the club after Gary Johnson left with nine games to go last season.

The first weekend of the new season resulted in five away wins – including a 3-1 Ipswich Town win at Middlesbrough – and only one draw. QPR thumped Barnsley 4-0 and Crystal Palace were 3-0 up at half time at home to Leicester but had to hold on for the last six minutes after the visitors twice in the second half. Hull and Burnley both won – as did three of the four clubs I picked to struggle!

Nottingham Forest, QPR and Sheffield United were the biggest casualties in the first round of the Carling Cup and the draw for the second round features three all Championship games – which means that only nine sides from the division will feature in the third round. It’s been nine seasons since a team from outside the Premiership reached the final of the competition and at this stage it looks unlikely that any of the Championship sides will end that streak.

Looking forward to this weekend, there are three games between teams that started their seasons with wins. Watford take on Coventry City at Vicarage Road, Hull City travel to Millwall and arguably the game of the day on Saturday is Ipswich v Burnley – although eight of the last ten meetings between these two at Portman Road have finished in draws and Burnley haven’t won at Ipswich since January 1970. Sunday’s televised game is between Leeds and Nottingham Forest (ko 1:15pm on Sky Sports 1) could also be a cracker.

There could also be some very early clues about which teams could face an uphill struggle. Having lost at home to Watford, Norwich City travel to Glanford Park to play Scunthorpe United, who won at Reading last weekend and defeated Oldham in the Carling Cup during the week. To add to their woes, Bristol City will be without striker Nicky Maynard until November at the earliest and will not relish the journey to Doncaster Rovers – South Yorkshire has not been a happy hunting ground for the Robins in the past.