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: 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.

 

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 III

Here’s the third part of our club by club guide to the 2017/18 Sky Bet Championship season.

The odds for promotion and relegation were sourced from Oddschecker.com on July 1st and will fluctuate as the season progresses.

Leeds United
  • Manager: Thomas Christiansen (June 2017), eighth season in the Championship
  • Last 10: 2-4-4
  • Promotion 11/2, relegation 14/1

Their highest league position for six years – based on one of the best home defensive records in the competition – wasn’t enough to see United qualify for the playoffs and both the failure to reach the playoffs and the long anticipated change at boardroom level seem to have led to Garry Monk moving to one of the club’s immediate rivals. His successor is untried in English football and by the time he gets used to the Championship it’s possible Leeds may have a lot of ground to make up to reach the playoffs.

Fun fact: Leeds finished seventh in the old Second Division at the end of the 1922/23 season but went on to win the title at the end of the following campaign.

Middlesbrough
  • Manager: Garry Monk (June 2017), relegated from the Premier League
  • Last 10: 1-3-7 (Premier League)
  • Promotion 9/4, relegation: 50/1

On paper, Monk’s appointment is a solid one for a team that had clearly lost its way under Aitor Karanka and hasn’t won an away game since last August; and the speed with which he left Leeds indicates that Steve Gibson clearly knows what he wants. The chairman’s hands off approach has worked with his managers in the past but the big question is whether Brett Assombalonga is going to justify such a large fee. He’s never played a full season at any club and hasn’t managed over 40 games since 2012/13.

Fun fact: the last time both Middlesbrough and Sunderland were both relegated from the Premier League, they finished in second and third place in the second tier at the end of the following season. Only Middlesbrough were promoted: Sunderland lost to Charlton on penalties in the playoff final.

Millwall
  • Manager: Neil Harris (March 2015), promoted from League One
  • Last 10: 6-2-2 (League One, including playoffs)
  • Promotion 33/1, relegation 5/4

Back after two seasons away, it’ll be interesting to see how the Lions respond to a promotion that looked unlikely for most of the season. The FA Cup run proved to both a distraction and inspiration, but their play off spot was only confirmed in the last game of the season and they seized the opportunity with both hands. Having written that, their away form in League One was average (they lost at two of the clubs that were eventually relegated) and they’ve only finished in the top half of the Championship once in the last decade. They proved last season that on their day they can beat anyone, but there’ll need to be quite a few of those days this season if Millwall want to stay out of a relegation dogfight.

Fun fact: Millwall’s last away win in the Championship was at Birmingham in February 2015.

Norwich City
  • Manager: Daniel Farke (May 2017), second season in the Championship
  • Last 10: 5-2-3
  • Promotion 7/2, relegation 40/1

To many neutrals, Alex Neil’s dismissal in March was harsh and seems to have been based on the idea that Norwich should have made more of their aim to win promotion back to the Premier League after an impressive start eventually came to nothing. Last season only Brighton and Reading won more points at home and nobody scored more goals in their home games than the Canaries; if you’re going to nitpick, their record against the teams that eventually finished above them wasn’t good enough, but with three of those sides missing this season and a couple of the others due to suffer playoff hangovers, Daniel Farke may find most of the spadework has been done for him, even though defensively they can be suspect.

Fun fact: last season only Brentford failed to score against Norwich in both league games

Nottingham Forest
  • Manager: Mark Warburton (March 2017), tenth season in the Championship
  • Last 10: 3-2-5
  • Promotion: 12/1, relegation: 11/2

Other than finally managing to sell the club in mid-May, Warburton’s appointment was arguably the best thing the Al-Hasawi family did since they took over at Forest. However, this is a far tougher job than either Brentford or Glasgow Rangers were and although now owner Evangelos Marinakis talks a good game, the Championship is not the Greek Super League. The club has been in decline for several seasons now and were one of the trio that faced relegation on the last day. I can only see this season going two ways: an improvement to mid-table levels or a total disaster from day one. Two away wins last season, the second worse defence in the section and the departure of Brett Assombalonga indicate the latter.

Fun fact: it’s been 19 seasons since Forest played in the Premier League, the longest time in the history of the club that it’s been outside the top tier.

Preston North End
  • Manager: Alex Neil (July 2017), Third season in the Championship
  • Last 10: 2-3-5
  • Promotion 12/1, relegation 5/1

Simon Grayson’s post-season departure for Sunderland made some sense, but I’ll be discussing that in the next post. Alex Neil’s appointment also makes sense in so far as he’s been successful at so-called unfashionable clubs: the former Norwich boss could provide the impetus that turns the Lillywhites from an average mid-table side into playoff challengers and he certainly won’t need motivating after his departure from Carrow Road. If that’s going to happen, North End really need to work on improving their away form against the top sides in the competition. In 2016/17 they lost seven of their ten matches at the clubs who eventually finished above them. That price for relegation looks far too short and should be avoided.

Fun fact: Despite have been founder members of the Football League, Preston have only finished eleventh in any division on four occasions – including twice in the last two seasons.