Cherries On The Brink – For All The Right Reasons

I’m really surprised that the old ‘unpredictable’ cliches weren’t rolled out on the Football League Show on Saturday night, although the presence of Alan Curbishley clearly intimidated Steve Claridge. After five hours of action, Watford were promoted to the Premier League after beating Brighton but before arriving back at Vicarage Road and I’ve no idea how to describe what happened at Fulham other than a disaster for Middlesbrough and an unexpected bonus for Bournemouth. It made me wonder if this weekend’s blanket coverage of the last games of the season could be a massive anti-climax.

If Bournemouth beat Bolton tonight (7:45pm kick off, SS1), then the Cherries superior goal difference means that Middlesbrough would have to win by a hatful of goals against Brighton on Saturday to stand any chance of promotion. Eddie Howe’s side haven’t lost in the league at Dean Court since mid January whilst Wanderers have only won two of their last ten aways in the same period. So everything seems set up for Bournemouth to take a giant step towards a promotion that would have seemed inconceivable a few seasons ago.

At least it looks that way. However…Wanderers have only lost two of their last five trips to Dorset and the Cherries haven’t beaten Bolton since April 1991. Bournemouth’s long home unbeaten run is nine games, which means a home reverse is very much on the course; the reaction following Sheffield Wednesday‘s late equaliser on the South Coast a couple of weeks ago indicated to me then that a remarkable season is actually on the brink of imploding due to the intense pressure on the Bournemouth squad.

Once again, long term trends support a most unlikely promotion. The main one is being top at close of play Boxing Day and that’s where Bournemouth were; it’s remarkable how similar the table looked after 23 games. All of the teams remaining in the playoff hunt were in the top six and three of the current bottom four were in the relegation spots.

So all things being considered, this is arguably the biggest game in Bournemouth’s history. I’m going to make an exception tonight and watch MNF with my customary post-weeked Chinese takeaway.

I’ll be back with an update later and – how about this – a post tomorrow!

Update: unless something truly bizarre happens at the weekend, Bournemouth will be promoted regardless of other results.

Squeaky Bum Time…

Not for the first time, a fantastic (but probably unintentional) piece of scheduling has provided us with three dramatic games over the next couple of days and a Monday night game that could be absolutely vital for Bournemouth‘s chances of automatic promotion.

The big change last weekend was Watford taking over at the top after beating Birmingham City. Bournemouth’s draw with Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough winning at Norwich give the Hornets a slim advantage that might not last long. The top four are still in with a chance of automatic promotion but the next four are all in competition for the last playoff place. At the bottom, the situation changed dramatically this morning when the Football League confirmed that Rotherham had been deducted three points for using an unregistered player in a recent game. The Millers now have a one point advantage over Millwall with a match in hand, but the punishment has also thrown Wigan an unexpected lifeline.

Here are the games that I think will matter tomorrow:

Brighton v Watford (tomorrow, 12:15pm, Sky Sports 1)

Albion haven’t won at home since the start of march, haven’t scored a goal at the Amex since the middle of last month and haven’t beaten Watford at home for over a decade. I know we’re not even at the end of April, but this is the type of calamitous performance that normally indicates a struggle to stay up during the following season. I think it’s fair to say Chris Hughton has done enough to save the Seagulls for now. On the other hand, Watford are on an eight game unbeaten run away from home, have a superb record against the current bottom six both at home and away (10-1-0) which includes not conceding an away goal against anyof those teams. However, it’s about this time of the season that really weird results happen and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if Brighton win.

Millwall v Derby

An odd one. Before Rotherham’s points deduction the bookies didn’t think either Millwall would stay up or Derby would go up, which means that this game might be totally irrelevant in a few weeks time. Needless to say, both sides need a win but the Rams have only won three of their last ten road trips and have only won once in their five league games at Millwall in the last decade. The Lions have won two of their last three games at the New Den, but that doesn’t look as if it’s going to be enough to save them. My contrarian instincts predict a draw, which could be no use for either side.

Rotherham v Norwich

Whoever was responsible for the mistake that allowed Farrend Dawson to play in the 1-0 win against Brighton on Easter Monday must be feeling the heat today. If the Millers end up back in League One for what is basically an admin error, it’ll be an albatross round their necks forever. That victory was the only thing keeping United away from the bottom three and having already lost at home to bournemouth, Watford and Middlesbrough at the New York Stadium this season without scoring, the first league meeting between these two clubs since January 2004 could easily get away from Rotherham, who haven’t beaten the Canaries since August 1981. Once again though, Norwich have a ten game unbeaten away streak to maintain and after what happened against Middlesbrough last week that’s a potential banana skin. Wild guess: Rotherham win, making the points deduction irrelevant.

If there’s anything to update, it’ll be on Sunday as I’m on Uncle duty tomorrow. However, I’ll be back early next week with a rare Monday night football preview that could feature one of the most unlikely promotions ever.

Game of the Week: Norwich v Middlesbrough

I really don’t want to start yet another post with a discussion about how tight things are at the top so at the risk of annoying Derby fans,  even though the rams beat Blackpool 4-0 during the week, results elsewhere meant last season’s defeated playoff finalists won’t be going up automatically.

This evening there’s a huge game at Carrow Road (Sky Sports 1, 7;45 kick off), notably because it’s the last game this season between the current top six. Norwich are undefeated against their immediate rivals at home, whilst Middlesbrough have been pretty ropey on their travels against the same teams; three defeats in four games with their only goal coming at Derby last month.

The Canaries also seem to have the advantage of playing two of the strugglers in their games following this one but don’t let that fool you. Four of Norwich’s nine defeats in the Championship have been against teams in the bottom half of the table, including a brace against Reading. City travel to Rotherham next weekend in a game that could also be significant for the Millers, but I’d be worried if I was a Canaries fan. A five game unbeaten streak and only one defeat in fifteen indicates another loss is coming soon.

Boro have been goalshy generally on the road this season, failing to score in nine outings this season and only picking up three points in those games. As I mentioned earlier, their away form against the other promotion candidates has been poor but their recent performances on the road also haven’t been much to write home about. Five defeats in the last six (including at Reading and Forest) doesn’t augur well for this evening, especially as Boro have only won once in the league at Carrow Road since November 1997, although they have drawn half of their last ten trips to Norfolk.

Verdict: I can’t see middlesbrough winning this one, but with both Bournemouth and Watford not playing until tomorrow afternoon, a draw would be a potential disaster for both teams if they want to win automatic promotion.

Tuesday night’s game at the New Den was eventful wasn’t it! More red cards than goals and a rare home win for the Milwall. That result means that the only significant game at the bottom is Wigan v Brighton. If the Latics lose, that’s it; they’ve only lost two of their five meetings with the Seagulls in Lancashire since the sides met for the first time in October 1987 but as mentioned earlier this week, Wigan have been terrible at home. It doesn’t help that the only aspect of Brighton’s performance that’s recognisable from last season is their stingy away defence – they’ve only conceded three fewer goals than Bournemouth on their travels.

As for the FA Cup, I simply can’t see Reading stopping Arsenal. Without wanting to dust off the old cliches one more time, although it’s about time a second tier team won the competition again, Reading simply don’t fit the profile. Southampton, Sunderland and West Ham were all amongst the better second tier sides during the seasons they won the FA Cup in the mid to late 1970s and early 1980s, which isn’t something that The Royals can claim this season; just one win in their last ten and on course for their worst league position since they were promoted from the third tier in 2002 isn’t exactly the stuff cup winners are made of. Their 1927 counterparts had won the old Third Division South during the previous season and – apart from knocking out Manchester United in the third round – didn’t have a particularly tough set of games. This season’s Royals have had a similar run; Arsenal are the first team they’ve met from a higher division and Reading have never beaten the gunners in any competition.

There may not be any updates on Saturday if there’s anything to report, as I’m attending a very significant game…

Game of the Evening: Millwall v Wigan

After last weekend, we’re still no clearer about who will be playing in the promised land next season, but I’m going to rule out any of the sides outside the top four for automatic promotion. Derby are six points off the pace with twelve points left to play for and the situation is similar for Ipswich, Brentford and Wolves.

Of course, things could change but I don’t think they will. For what it’s worth, I’ve still got Bournemouth winning the title by a point but Norwich and Watford are practically inseperable after that.

At the bottom, the situation took an unexpected turn yesterday morning when the Football League confirmed that Rotherham loanee Farrend Rawson should not have played against Brighton on Easter Monday. Rotherham are still seven points clear of Wigan and Millwall, but it remains to be seen what punishment the Millers will receive for what appears to be an administrative oversight. I doubt very much if there’ll be a points deduction, but stranger things have happened.

It’s with much rejoicing that this is the last midweek programme of the season. I don’t like them at all; for all the talk of a ‘winter break’, one of the other aspects that is often ignored is how European club sides play fewer games anyway. There are only usually one or two catch up midweek games a month in the top divisions and the only second tier competition comparable in volume to the Championship is Serie B, which has two fewer clubs, starts in August, finishes at the end of May and has a playoff final in the middle of June. Yet if anyone introduced the idea of reducing the championship to twenty or eighteen teams the clubs would be up in arms about the loss of revenue from six fewer games.

Anyway, the only game of any real consequence this evening is between Millwall and Wigan. Two years ago yesterday, they faced each other in an FA Cup semi final that Wigan won on their way to becoming the first club to win the FA Cup and be relegated in the same season. Next season these two may be facing each other in League One – if there’s a loser team tonight, they’re as good as down.

The Lions lost again at the weekend; since Christmas they’ve lost six of their ten home games and failed to score in half of them. At this stage last season they’d won three more points and had begun the eight game undefeated streak that saw them reach safety, but it looks incredibly unlikely that Millwall’ll repeat that feat this season. All of their remaining games after this one are against sides in the top half of the table. And in that classic indicator of a poor side, so far 26 different players have featured for Millwall this season and only veteran goalkeeper David Forde has been an ever present.

Wigan’s position is even more precarious. They’ve played one more game than Millwall and despite having only lost three of their ten away games since Christmas, their home form almost defies description. Their last home victory was at the end of August: since the start of December, the Latics have lost ten of their 12 games at the DW in the Championship and failed to score in eight of those contests. Then there are these rather bleak facts; in ten visits to Millwall since the early 1980s, Wigan have only ever won once. Leading scorer James McClean has almost twice as many yellow cards (11) than he has goals (6).

Unless there’s news about a possible promotion from League One later, I’ll be back on Friday. There’s a huge game at the top plus Reading attempt to reach the FA Cup Final for the first time.

Update: Bristol City have been promoted from League One after two seasons away. I’ll cover what happened at Millwall on Friday, but a home win and three red cards made it an eventful evening in Bermondsey…

Down and Out in Blackpool and Wigan

Well, it’s three weeks since the last post and the only thing that’s been settled is that Blackpool have been relegated. No suprise there; the Tangerines were 6/4 for the drop at the time I wrote their season preview in August. all that remains at the bottom is who will be joining them in League One next august. This might be where the remaining surprises are: even though Millwall and Wigan look doomed, none of the clubs from Reading onwards can’t afford to take their eyes off the ball over the next month.

As a matter of housekeeping, Gary Caldwell is Wigan’s new manager after Malky Mackay was sacked on Monday. In keeping with the policy of promoting former players with no managerial experience, Neil Harris is in temporary charge of Millwall, but I’ll be returning to the Lions later.

At the top, nothing appears to have changed but that’s not exactly true if you dig deeper. Any of the top eight could still go up, but the curse of losing the playoff final seems to have struck again. Derby had been top as February drew to a close but seven games without win seems to have condemned the Rams to the playoffs once again. For what it’s worth, I’ve got Bournemouth winning the title by a point and Norwich edging out Watford on goal difference for automatic promotion; the Hornets are the most improved team of those sides in the competition last season, but it’s worth emphasising how well both Brentford and Wolves have performed since promotion from League One last May.

So what’s on the menu this weekend? There are two games tonight: Bournemouth may be able to temporarily improve their lead at the top if they can win at Brighton (Sky Sports 1, 7:30pm for idle studio chatter, 7:45pm for the game) and having won their other five away games against the dirty half dozen at the bottom, Eddie Howe’s men are favourites to take all three points. A defeat for the Seagulls combined with a Wigan win at Fulham would make the bottom of the table even more interesting, but as usual there’s a catch. Brighton haven’t lost at home to the Cherries since September 1988 and Wigan haven’t won at Fulham since October 2006 – when both sides were in the Premier League.

Tomorrow there are two games that will have an impact on both ends of the table. Rotherham travel to Middlesbrough with a seven point cushion between them and Millwall but one away win since Christmas is nothing to write home about, as are the seven defeats in ten away games that the Merry Millers have suffered against the teams in the top half of the table. Conversely, Boro’s two home defeats have been to sides that probably should have done better this season, so they can be caught off guard under the right circumstances: Rotherham’s best chance of coming away with something is a draw as they’ve not won on Teeside since March 1965, when they won 5-3!

Game of the day is at the New Den, where Watford are the visitors. Millwall’s 2-1 win over Charlton last Friday was their first home win since October (!) but they’ve not won consecutive home matches in the same season since September 2013 and have won three points from 24 in home games against the current top ten, so their chances of staying up depend almost entirely on winning tomorrow. The main problem facing Neil Harris is that Watford have been pretty merciless against the strugglers this season, winning nine of their ten games against the current bottom six and losing only lost two of their ten visits to Bermondsey since February 1998; it’s all very well talking about belief, but it’s been clear for a few seasons that both talent and ability have been missing from Millwall and to some extent their current position has been inevitable for a while. If they are relegated, it may be a few seasons before Millwall are back in the Championship.

I’ll be back early next week for a look at the last midweek programme of the season.

Update: Bournemouth, Middlesbrough and Watford all won. Wigan and Millwall are still seven points adrift of Rotherham.