The current vogue for getting rid of managers in the Championship continued this week with another two positions becoming vacant: somewhat surprisingly considering his appointment in June and the feeling that Crystal Palace would have been skating on thin ice this season even if Jose Mourinho was in charge at Selhurst Park, George Burley was dismissed as Crystal Palace manager after the Eagles were beaten 3-0 at Millwall on New Years Day.
Roy Keane’s dismissal from Ipswich Town could not have been any less of a surprise. Aside from the Carling Cup run – which more or less coincided with their best form of the season – Ipswich have been terrible since mid October, losing ten of their last fourteen league games and dropping into the bottom six for the first time this season following a 1-0 home defeat by Nottingham Forest. The first leg of Carling Cup semi finals take place next week, but it would be a major upset if Ipswich managed to do anything other than lose to Arsenal on Wednesday, especially as they face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup on Sunday.
However, it’s not all been bad news for managers this week. Former Hull boss Phil Brown returned to management with Preston and although the approach from Turf Moor was turned down flat, Norwich’s Paul Lambert could be destined for greater things if the right opportunity arises.
If you’re struggling to keep up with the managerial changes, it’s not surprising. Since January 2010, 16 of the 24 clubs have changed their managers at least once and there are currently three open positions. Dave Jones (at Cardiff since May 2005) and Doncaster’s Shaun O’Driscoll (appointed in September 2006) have been in their positions the longest.
The stress of being at the bottom of the table is obviously getting to club mascots as well. Preston’s mascot – a duck, which is an odd choice for a club that has a lamb on their badge – was chucked out of the ground and subsequently arrested after allegedly attempting to distract Derby goalkeeper Stephen Bywater. This led to a protest by ‘Captain Blade’ of Sheffield United on Saturday which delayed the second half kick-off at Bramall Lane.
The first table of 2011 looks similar to the last one of 2010. QPR are five points ahead of Cardiff, Norwich and Swansea who are only separated by goal difference; Queens Park Rangers would have been even further ahead if Bristol City’s Stephen Caulker hadn’t scored a dramatic late equaliser at Loftus Road on Monday afternoon.
Interestingly, a mini league based on form over the holiday period indicates that there may be some changes in the top six over the coming months. Six teams were unbeaten but only Watford and Norwich are currently in playoff positions and the Hornets’ Danny Graham has overtaken Jay Bothroyd as top goalscorer: Nottingham Forest are now seventh but have two games in hand. At the bottom of the table, Tony Mowbray has definitely got Middlesbrough moving in the right direction but Millwall deserve an honourable mention for their efforts – the Lions were unbeaten in their four games and are currently three points outside the playoff spots. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Kenny Jackett hasn’t been nominated for the December manager of the month award.
The third round of the FA Cup takes place this weekend, but as it’s now over 30 years since a team from outside the top tier of English football won the competition, the description of the tournament as ‘a great leveller’ is no longer the case. As we mentioned in November, the draw wasn’t particularly kind to Championship sides: only seven teams have ties against teams from lower divisions and there’s a possibility that half the clubs in the Championship could be forced to ‘concentrate on the league’ when the third round has finished.
Having said that, there are some interesting games and a couple of possible upsets. Reading and Millwall probably won’t get promoted this season but are in no danger of relegation either, unlike both of their opponents this weekend. The Royals have not lost to WBA in any cup competition since 1948 and knocked the Baggies out if the cup last season: it’s only the second time that Millwall and Birmingham City have met in the FA Cup but the Lions have only lost twice in the last ten games between the sides in South London. There’s a similar type of game between Championship sides at the Ricoh Arena: despite their recent poor form – three defeats in their last four games – mid table Coventry face a managerless Crystal Palace that won’t need the distraction of a cup run.
The short trip to Brighton may not be one that Portsmouth will be looking forward to: the Seagulls have only lost once at the Withdean Stadium this season and Pompey haven’t won at Brighton since March 1986.
Arguably the most interesting tie involving a Championship side is Sheffield United v Aston Villa: both are involved in struggles at the wrong end of their respective divisions, having both lost four of their last six league games. The Blades have only won four of their twelve home games in all competitions this season and were lucky to earn a point at home to Doncaster on Monday while Villa are on an eight game streak without an away win.
Three of the five televised FA Cup games feature Championship sides, although there’s definitely an element of curiosity in the selections. Arsenal v Leeds (ITV, 12:45pm Saturday) provides an excuse to dust off the footage of the 1972 final, while Sunday’s coverage of Leicester v Manchester City (ESPN, 4:00pm) will probably refer to the fact that the two sides met in the 1969 final. ESPN are also showing Derby’s trip to Crawley on Monday night (8:00pm) although the network could be in for a disappointment if they’re expecting a giant killing.