Is The Carling Cup Irrelevant?

Amazingly, the ten sides left in this season’s competition actually represent an improvement on last season – even taking into consideration that both Crystal Palace and Southampton are both still a round behind in the competition due to having games postponed due to the riots at the start of the month. We pointed out last season that it’s been almost a decade since a Championship side reached the final and that record looks as if it may continue: the competition provides some early season excitement for clubs further down the league structure, but it could be argued that it’s a complete waste of time for nearly all the clubs in the Premier League and the Championship.

The biggest surprise in what used to be known as the League Cup this week was West Ham crashing out to Aldershot on Wednesday night. Junior Stanislas gave the Hammers the lead after 16 minutes but when Callum McNaughton was dismissed after half time, Aldershot’s Luke Guttridge equalised and Danny Hylton’s 89thminute winner gave the Surrey side a deserved win. It’s the third time this season that West Ham have conceded a vital goal in the last five minutes, a trend that ought to be worrying Sam Allardyce.

Last weekend Southampton continued their impressive start with a 1-0 win over Millwall and Derbyhad no trouble dealing with Doncaster but the biggest surprise was Peterborough’s 7-1 thrashing of Ipswich in the tea time game on Sky. Although Keith Andrews gave Ipswich an early lead, the game was effectively over at half time with Town having conceded four goals in ten minutes and having Lee Martin dismissed for a reckless challenge on Mark Little. Things went from bad to worse immediately after the re-start: Tommy Smith had only been on the field for two minutes before being giving away a penalty and being sent off for a foul on Lee Tomlin, who scored a hat-trick for Posh.

At the bottom of the table, Coventry and Watford played out a 0-0 draw but they still occupy two of the bottom three spots – Doncaster’s defeat means that they’re already two points from safety and they’ve not scored since the opening day defeat at Brighton.

It’s still far too early to discuss what could happen over the rest of the season but with a five point gap between the last play off place and the current leaders, by mid September we may have an idea of the shape of things to come and there are three games this weekend that could provide some pointers this weekend. Game of the week this weekend is Peterborough’s trip to Brighton, which is the only clash between teams in the top six. Posh lost 3-1 at the Withdean in League One last season and have only won one of their last six trips to Brighton in the league and it’ll be interesting to see how Craig Mackail-Smith does in his first game against his old club.

Burnley visit Pride Park in a game that has been tricky for the hosts over the years – Derby haven’t beaten the Clarets at home since January 2007 and lost this game last season – and although Eddie Howe’s side are one of the four teams yet to win a game this season, they’ve played one game less due to Birmingham’s European adventures.

The game with the biggest impact at both ends of the table is Middlesbrough v Coventry. Boro are undefeated while the Sky Blues have only won one of their last fifteen games in the Championship: they’ve also only won once in their last ten visits to Teeside.

 There’s only one televised game this weekend and once again armchair West Ham fans will have their Sunday lunches ruined again when the Hammers travel to Nottingham Forest for a league game for the first time since Boxing Day 2004 (Sky Sports 1, 1:15).Forest have a poor record at home to West Ham and having started the season with two draws at the City Ground it wouldn’t come as too much of a surprise if this game ended all square.

Finally this week, congratulations to Birmingham City who reached the group stages of the Europa League on Thursday with a 3-0 aggregate win over Nacional of Portugal. Although this post was published before the draw had been made, it’ll be fascinating to see how the Blues do in the competition and hopefully they’ll be able to fly the flag in Europe for all Championship teams.

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How Will Eddie Howe Do At Burnley?

It’s not even the end of January, but after the four cup replays this week only six nPower Championship clubs remain in the FA Cup: so take a bow Swansea, Watford, Coventry, Reading, Nottingham Forest and Burnley.

Burnley also made the news this week with the appointment of Eddie Howe as manager – the former Bournemouth boss has been ‘one to watch’ for a couple of seasons and seems to be following Sean O’Driscoll’s career – both played for and managed the Cherries before moving into management roles. Howe’s first game in charge will be at Scunthorpe (Sky Sports 2, 5:20pm): a win would re-ignite the Clarets hopes of a playoff spot and put the Iron in further trouble at the bottom of the table.

Looking at the rest of this week’s games, the top of the table is beginning to look tighter than it has done for some time. QPR’s lead is now down to three points and there are only four points between Watford and the automatic promotion spot.

Rangers’ third away goalless draw of season came at Turf Moor and their recent inability to score goals away from home must be worrying Neil Warnock – they’ve only scored two goals in their last five away games and that was against this weekend’s opponents. Although Rangers are at home to Coventry on Sunday (Sky Sports 1, 1pm), the Sky Blues have only lost once at Loftus Road in the last six meetings in the league. Even if Coventry win at Loftus Road, Swansea would have to win by 19 clear goals at Barnsley on Saturday to go top on goal difference.

As predicted, the Swans had a fairly straightforward 3-0 over Crystal Palace while Cardiff’s inability to win at Norwich was emphasised when Russell Martin cancelled out Jon Parkin’s debut goal for the Bluebirds with a last minute equaliser.

At the bottom, the situation is looking increasingly desperate for Preston, who are now six points away from safety. The Lillywhites were involved in a similar game to the one at Carrow Road – they salvaged a point at home against Leicester courtesy of an equaliser from Ian Hume. However, the bottom six clubs are only separated by nine points and it’s worth pointing out that Scunthorpe’s two games in hand could be crucial; Sheffield United still have to travel to Palace, Ipswich, Preston and Scunthorpe and aren’t exactly out of the woods yet.

There are two candidates for game of the week, each at different ends of the table. Middlesbrough’s 4-0 win at Ashton Gate was probably the biggest surprise last weekend and was something of a double whammy for Preston, who travel to the Riverside this weekend. North End haven’t won at Middlesbrough since November 1971 and have lost four of their six games against the current bottom six. On the other hand, Tony Mowbray’s side have only been beaten once by another club in the bottom six – and no-one would have predicted that Ipswich would have been struggling and both Gordon Strachan and Roy Keane would have been jobless after the Tractor Boys’ 3-1 win back in August.

At the top of the table only two points separate Cardiff from Watford and this game could be a cagey affair. Although the Hornets may have a psychological advantage after their 4-1 win over the Bluebirds at Vicarage Road just after Christmas, Watford haven’t drawn a league game in the Welsh capital since 1938 and have already beaten Norwich and QPR on their travels this season.

Quite a bit more activity in the transfer market this week: Adam Hammill (Wolves) and David Wheater (Bolton) moved up to the Premiership from Barnsley and Middlesbrough respectively. In what looks like a perfect move for all concerned Darren Purse joined Millwall from Sheffield Wednesday, but possibly the most significant move was a loan deal: after having already signed Jon Parkin from Preston, Cardiff borrowed Jay Emmanuel-Thomas from Arsenal – the clearest sign yet that Jay Bothroyd may be on his way to pastures new.

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Why Do Sky Sports Need to Continually Comment on the Quality of the Football League?

Having just watched another 90 minutes of entertaining play-off football between Leicester City and Cardiff City I find myself once again angered by the tone of the coverage from Sky Sports.

Why they feel the need to constantly remind us that the teams on show are not as good as the top Premier League ones is beyond me. Perhaps they believe that there are people out there who only started watching football in 1992; as if the existence of the other 72 professional clubs has a sole purpose to provide a structure of promotion and relegation that eventually leads to the Premiership.

This is not to say that fans of Football League clubs should have reason to resent Sky Sports. Their live coverage of the play-offs and league games is an excellent option for both fans and neutrals interested in the outcome of these games; just as live Premiership football gives us the opportunity to watch some of the best players in the world week-in week-out. Instead, the issue is the tone used by commentators and pundits when covering league football. How often does one hear a player described as ‘very effective at this level’?

Robert Earnshaw has perhaps been one of the most frequent victims of this label, one of a number of players who aren’t good enough for the Premiership. This is undoubtedly true, he has had opportunities in the top flight and not quite imposed himself, but the very culture that Sky Sports and the Premiership itself creates means that players like Earnshaw, and there are many of them, are frequently underappreciated for their excellence in the Football League because of their inability to shine at the highest level.

If you ask a fan of any club for which players like Robert Earnshaw, Gavin Mahon or Graham Kavanagh have played then you will hear glowing reports as to their consistence and quality. The journeyman footballer evokes images of hard working yet not particularly gifted players moving from club to club in the lower echelons of English football.

This is often not the case and one only has to look at a player like Nicky Forster to highlight the enduring quality of some players. At 36 years of age he has scored 40 goals in 98 games for Brighton, an outstanding achievement from a player who has averaged a goal every three games over a 15 year professional career. This feat has been achieved with a natural talent the like of which so many fans would die for, and there are very few, if any, professional footballers who are where they are as a result of hard work alone.

I recently heard a commentator on Sky Sports describe volleying as a ‘difficult technique to master’ after a player ballooned the ball into the stands from just inside the area. This may be the case for 15 year olds learning the game but for professional footballers earning in excess of £200,000 a year it is just patronising. If a Premiership footballer misses an easy chance then commentators are quick to criticise and the same should be true when one of the many quality players in the Football League does the same.

Indeed, this is all many of us would ask for, to be allowed to watch any televised game for what it is without the constant references to the Premiership. There are of course some outstanding matches played throughout the course of the Premiership season, yet there are also some terrible ones.

Give any avid football fan the choice between a dull, meaningless mid-table Premiership contest and an important, season-defining game in any one of the other professional leagues and they will choose the latter.

This is because we are fans of the game first and foremost, beyond any team or player loyalties, and it is the drama and excitement of it that keeps us watching.

Every so often, Sky could do with acknowledging this and showing us that they are football fans instead of Premiership fans.