nPower Championship Play Off Final: Will The Hornets Sting The Eagles?

The old clichés about the ‘richest game in the world’ will abound on Monday afternoon when Crystal Palace and Watford face each other in the nPower Championship playoff final.

I’m going to start by looking at the game from a slightly different angle. It’s all very well for the media to chuck ridiculous numbers around, but it’s actually quite interesting to see exactly what the winners can expect next season. Six of the last ten playoff winners were relegated immediately, with their average finishing position being 16th. In that time frame, only West Ham (9th, 2006) finished in the top half of the Premier League.

The fate of the losing team is far simpler. I’ll be returning to my own set of well used phrases in the autumn when I start using the term ‘playoff hangover’ to describe Brighton, Leicester and Monday’s losers when they’ve lost to Yeovil or Bournemouth instead of Chelsea and Manchester United. Only six clubs in the last 20 seasons lost the playoff final and were promoted to the Premier League at the end of the following season and another three clubs reached the playoffs but lost in the third round. The good news for the playoff losers: only once in the last 20 seasons has the playoff runner up been relegated (Leeds in 2006)

Watford’s current team isn’t as good as the sides that won promotion in 1999 and 2006, both of which spent one season at the top level before finishing in last place. The current Crystal Palace side is roughly around the same level as the teams that were promoted via the playoffs in 1997 and 2004, but once again, both those squads were relegated after one season.

So who will join Cardiff and Hull in having to buy a new heat transfer machine for replica shirts next season? It’ll have to be another different angle here, as it’s an away game for both teams. As I mentioned in the semi final previews, neither of these teams have exactly been in form recently. Palace’s 2-0 win at the Amex a couple of weeks ago was only their second win in their last ten away games and although they’ve been better defensively of late, the last time the Eagles won consecutive away games was around the time the clocks went back. Watford have managed to win four of their last ten games away from Vicarage Road, but they lost five of the other six – it’s either boom or bust for the Hornets.

From a wider perspective, the Championship playoff final is normally a straightforward game. Sixteen of the last 20 games were settled in normal time and of the four that went into extra time, only half were decided by penalties – the last time that happened was in 2002, when Birmingham beat Norwich at the Millennium Stadium.

In the context of third v fifth finals, the stats are bit cloudier. There have been six games that fit the bill in the last two and the higher placed club has won three of the last five, but the interesting angle here is that these games usually feature a few goals. Here’s the rundown:

1996: Leicester 2-1 Crystal Palace (AET)

2003: Wolves 3-0 Sheffield United

2006: Watford 3-0 Leeds

2009: Burnley 1-0 Sheffield United

2011: Swansea 4-2 Reading

2012: West Ham 2-1 Blackpool

What’s interesting about that is that eight of these clubs are currently still in the Championship – only Swansea and West Ham are still in the Premier League and both the playoff finalists from a decade ago will be playing in League One in August.

Verdict: I’m expecting a cagey half an hour to begin with, but in the fifteen minutes before half time in their last ten away games, Watford have scored three times as many goals as Palace have – this is basically Troy Deeney time. Palace are vulnerable during this period – they’ve conceded five goals in that time frame, including two at Brighton and three at Ipswich. It’s also worth mentioning that in their last ten away games, Palace have only scored twice in the first half, whilst Watford scored seven times.

The fun should start after an hour – this is where Palace could make a breakthrough as Watford have defensive frailties. The Hornets conceded goals at Bristol City and Peterborough in this period, which doesn’t exactly bode well and The Eagles scored twice as many goals in the second half of their most recent away games as they did in the first period.

There’s been a goal in six of Watford’s last ten away games in the last quarter of an hour, but more worryingly for Palace this is another period where they’ve conceded goals. I’m expecting the decisive goal to come at this point in the game.

Verdict: Overall, it’s hard to separate these clubs, but one possibly decisive angle is that Watford were one of the most improved teams away from home last season. The Hornets won twice as many games as Crystal Palace did and their goal difference was the best in the Championship. To put Palace’s away form into some perspective, they averaged less than one goal on the road and Peterborough – who were relegated – had a better goal difference on the road. If this holds true on Monday, it’s possible that this game could a rout and Watford will have earned themselves a lot of money and at least one season in the Premier League.

I’ll be back early next week with some thoughts on the final, but my wife’s younger sister is getting married this weekend. Congratulations to both of them, but in a spectacularly poor show of timing, I’m not going to be able to watch the Champions League final and I’m also not expecting to see much – if any – of the last game of the season in the nPower Championship…



Plenty Of Potential Drama On The Last Day

The end of another season for most of the clubs in the nPower Championship – the last nine months seem to have flown by. With so many crucial games today, it’s hard to know where to start, so in case you’ve no idea what’s happening, here’s a recap.

Hull or Watford will be promoted as runners up to Cardiff City.

The last playoff place will be between Crystal Palace, Bolton, Nottingham Forest or Leicester. Brighton are in the playoffs regardless of what happens and unless something very peculiar happens at Selhurst Park or the Amex, the Seagulls will finish fourth and probably won’t be promoted.

At the bottom, Wolves will have to score a lot of goals and win to stand any chance of staying up. After that, whatever happens is anyone’s guess.

It’s almost impossible to chose the game of the week as there are so many candidates, so I’ll stick to those that will have an impact on the playoffs and relegation. Sky Sports will be showing Hull v Cardiff on Sky Sports 2 and Watford v Leeds will be on Sky Sports Interactive – both games kick off at 12:45pm. Brace yourselves for lots of ‘as it stands’ graphics and double box silliness, but regular readers won’t be too surprised that I’m looking elsewhere for the vital games.

Brighton v Wolves

On 11th May 1985 – the same day as the fire at Bradford City in which 56 fans lost their lives – Blackburn Rovers beat Wolves 3-0 at Ewood Park and the visitors were relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in their long and famous history. 26 years and 51 weeks later, Wolves are facing exactly the same predicament.

Even though there were no playoffs in 1984-85, Brighton would have qualified for them. They beat Sheffield United 1-0 on the same day to finish sixth, three points ahead of Leeds.

Looking back at what I’ve written about Wolves this season, I still find it hard to believe that this is the same team that – at the start of October – had won four games in a row. By Christmas the wheels had started coming off and the 3rd rd FA Cup defeat by Luton was the end of Stale Solbakken.

Wolves have a horrible record at Brighton historically and against the current top six this season. They’ve managed just one win in their last ten visits to Sussex (in September 2004), but they’ve lost every single away game against the current top nine teams this season. Brighton don’t need a miracle. Wolves do.

Crystal Palace v Peterborough

Cast your mind back to approximately 5:00pm on December 1st 2012. Crystal Palace had just beaten Brighton 3-0 to go top of the Championship. Peterborough had been beaten 4-1 at home by Blackpool and were bottom, which they had been for most of the season until then. Five months later and the scenario is this: one more unconvincing result for Palace and they’ll be in the Championship next season. One more outstanding effort from the Posh and so will they.

Posh haven’t won at Selhurst Park since April 1963 and have failed to score there in three of their last four league games. Although they’ve won at both Cardiff and Hull this season, their record against the top half of the table is 2-2-7 and they’ve failed to score in seven of those games.

Palace have only lost twice at home, but haven’t won any of their last four games in front of their own fans, despite having taken the lead in the games against Leeds and Leicester:  despite still being the leading goalscorer in the Championship, Glenn Murray hasn’t hit the net at Selhurst Park since the start of March. The 4-0 home defeat by Birmingham City at the end of March really seems to have upset Palace’s confidence and if they’re off form against Peterborough, the season could finish on a sour note. It’s worth remembering that a point isn’t really any good for either side.

Nottingham Forest v Leicester City

This game is exactly why the Football League is better than the Premier League. Last week’s League 1 game at Brentford – where the winner could win the title if Bournemouth didn’t win at Tranmere – was decided on a goal following a missed penalty, This week we have a local derby in the Championship that could decide the last playoff place but may be completely irrelevant if another team – in this case Bolton – wins their local derby.

The bad news for Leicester is that they’ve not won at the City Ground since January 1972 and they’ve drawn far too many games against the top sides this season – in fact, they’ve not won any away games against teams in the current top half of the table. I didn’t fancy their chances last Summer and their recent form has been mediocre at best: their last away win came at Bristol City in mid January.

Mind you, Forest’s home record against the teams immediately around them is nothing to write home about either: they’ve not beaten any of the teams they might face in the playoffs – but the one sensible thing that the Al-Hasawi’s have done this season was give Billy Davies his old job back. Watch out for Forest next season – especially if Billy Sharp decides to stay or they sign a proven goalscorer.

Here’s what I think will happen:

Watford will batter Leeds – the Hornets have scored in six of their last seven games at Vicarage Road and scored in the first half of four of those – and will finish second. Hull need to beat Cardiff, but I can’t see that happening, primarily due to Hull’s nervous end to the season but also because Malky Mackay won’t want the Champions finishing their campaign with a defeat. Bolton will score early and beat Blackpool, therefore securing the last playoff place because Nottingham Forest and Leicester will be involved an anti-climactic draw. Nigel Pearson won’t be in charge at the King Power Stadium at the beginning of next season.

Wolves will lose at Brighton and will go down, but will be favourites to win automatic promotion from League 1 next season. Although Peterborough will do their best at Crystal Palace, Barnsley will pinch a point at Huddersfield to send the Posh back to League One. As I pointed out at the start of this season, Posh have never spent three consecutive seasons in the second tier.

There’ll be an update as soon as the games have finished, including the dates and times for the playoff ties.

UPDATE: I’ve been a fan since the early 1970s and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything like what happened this afternoon.

The basics: Hull are up. Wolves and Peterborough are down. Leicester sneaked into the playoffs.

The reality: 18 minutes of first half injury time at Vicarage Road…Watford lose two ‘keepers to injury…Cardiff take the lead at Hull…at various points during the day Huddersfield, Millwall, Barnsley and Peterborough could have been relegated…Troy Deeney gets a red card…Hull miss a penalty, then Cardiff score a penalty about 90 seconds later…Steve Bruce chases the ref down the tunnel…Watford’s teenage debutant keeper makes a huge mistake…

I need a lie down. Back later.



nPower Championship Preview 26th/27th April 2013

Well, well, well. Two big games this weekend and Sky Sports are showing them both. I’ve mentioned their rather bizarre scheduling before but it’s funny how they manage to pick the big games at the end of the season – almost as if they can remind viewers that the only place to watch the football league playoffs is Sky Sports.

Anyway, enough moaning about Sky for this week. There’s a distinct possibility that by 5:00pm tomorrow afternoon the automatic promotion place will have been settled.

Only Hull, Watford, Brighton and Crystal Palace can still win automatic promotion, although it would take a very odd combination of results for the latter pair to do so. Still, this is the Championship and anything could happen.

At the bottom, it’s anyone’s guess who’s going to be joining Bristol City in League 1 next season, although my guess is it’ll go down to next weekend and that any two from Peterborough, Barnsley and Wolves will be going down – the Posh hold advantages over Wolves in terms of goal difference and goals scored.

As for game of the week, there are far too many games to chose from this weekend. Tonight we’ve got Watford’s trip to Leicester (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm): if the Hornets fail to win at the King Power Stadium tonight then Hull will only need a point at Barnsley tomorrow to win automatic promotion. If Watford lose, that’s it: Hull are up. The Foxes have only won two of their last six games at the King Power Stadium, but they seem to have rediscovered their shooting boots with five goals in the last two home games with Jeff Schlupp scoring three of them. The problem is that defensively Leicester aren’t that sound – two home clean sheets in the last ten is nothing special – and there’s a been at least one goal after 70 minutes in each of the last ten home games.

Watford have lost two of their last three aways but the good news for Hornets fans is that they’ve not lost three in a row on the road since Autumn 2011 and with wins at Hull, Palace and Brighton this season Watford have shown their ability: if Jeff Schlupp is the player that Watford defenders need to keep an eye on, then the same can be said for Troy Deeney and Matej Vydra. The bad news is that the Hertfordshire outfit have only won one of their last ten visits to Leicester and a draw is no good for them.

Even if Hull are promoted tonight, tomorrow’s games will still have an impact on the playoffs and relegation. Although we’re waving goodbye to Cardiff City for the foreseeable future, their opponents tomorrow are looking to consolidate a playoff place. Bolton have been worse than average on the road this season, but it’s their home form they need to reproduce at the City Of Cardiff stadium if they want a top six finish. Wanderers will also have the advantage of knowing precisely what to do tomorrow if Leicester win this evening.

It’s at the bottom where the drama will be over the next couple of weekends. First of all, spare a thought for Bristol City. Over the last ten seasons, nine of the clubs that eventually finished bottom earned fewer points over the whole season than the Robins already have with two games less. Despite losing their place in the Championship, City could still have a big impact on who goes down with them if they can beat Huddersfield at Ashton Gate.

The biggest game at the bottom of the table is between Peterborough and Sheffield Wednesday (Sky Sports 2, 5:20pm tomorrow). Despite having spent the entire season in the bottom four, the Posh can still save themselves from relegation: they’ve only lost five games in the latter half of the season. Wednesday have been consistently in the bottom third of the table since September, but have never really looked like candidates for the drop, but the competitive nature of the Championship this season means the Owls are not out of danger by any means.

Before I sign off for now, it’s the last game in League 1 tomorrow and with three clubs in with a chance of winning the division it couldn’t be any tighter. We already know the Bournemouth will be playing in the Championship next season, but it’s a fight between Doncaster Rovers and Brentford for the remaining automatic place.

There will be at least one update tomorrow and possibly even one later depending on how Watford do at Leicester, so please stay tuned!

Update: Watford won 2-1 at Leicester – Nathaniel Chalobah scored one of the goals of the season t0 give the Hornets a 2-0 lead – and so Hull have to beat Barnsley tomorrow afternoon to win automatic promotion.



nPower Championship Preview 16th April

I don’t write ‘op ed’ pieces that often for this blog (the last one was about the attack on Chris Kirkland last autumn), but after what happened at Wembley last Saturday evening I don’t think I’ve got any choice.

I’m not going to call all Millwall fans every name under the sun as I’m fairly sure that the majority of them are the same as the rest of us. Like a lot of other clubs, the Lions have ‘fans’ they could do without, but the general reaction of the media was predictable and – dare I say it – out of date. For example, cocaine is widely used amongst contemporary hooligans but that was reported as if it was some kind of new and unexpected development.

Whoever is in charge of Millwall’s investigation into what happened needs to come down like a ton of bricks on the idiots who ruined Saturday’s FA Cup semi final and I’m sure that the club authorities will hold a thorough investigation.

However, the FA shouldn’t escape any criticism either. Whoever decided that a 5:15pm kickoff and that tickets for the Millwall end should be on general sale was a good idea is clearly a bloody fool. Having experienced several Millwall visits to my local club, I’m convinced that the only way of reducing the tangible threat of trouble at high profile away games is to move the kickoff time back to the earliest possible moment and make sure that anyone who buys tickets can be identified and traced – no cash sales for example. I’ve seen an argument put forward that an early kickoff would have inconvenienced Wigan fans, but let’s face it: 10000 Wigan tickets were returned and sacrificing inconvenience for safety is a no brainer. If you were a Wigan fan, you would have gone to the game whenever it was or you’d have stayed at home.

Now back to events on the field of play. We might be saying farewell to a couple of familiar teams tonight.

At the top, the circumstances are beautifully set up for Cardiff City to return to the top tier of…errr…English football for the first time in over half a century. Hull and Watford are both away and the Bluebirds could be promoted if they don’t lose at home to Charlton.

At the bottom, if Bristol City lose at home to Birmingham, they’re relegated. There are a combination of results that could see the Robins go down even if they win, but if anything happens tonight that’s worth reporting I’ll update this post when I get back from the game I’m watching later.

Tonight there are three games with a direct impact on both issues:

Peterborough v Brighton

Posh were 3-0 up against Watford with 20 minutes left but their dodgy defence made it a hard earned three points on Saturday even though the Hornets played the last half an hour or so with ten men after Marco Cassetti was sent off. Peterborough earned a temporary reprieve, but let’s not forget that they’ve only lost once in the league at London Road since Christmas and during that period have picked up seven points from a possible nine against the current top six. That’s promotion form and I think Darren Ferguson is a possible candidate for Manager of the Season.

Brighton had a straightforward 2-0 win at the Riverside to maintain their push for a playoff place, but they need to be aware of the curse of fourth place in their remaining four games. The Seagulls haven’t won back to back away games since September but have only lost once at the teams in the current bottom six this season and should be able to nick a point at least.

Wolves v Hull

The hosts took the lead at Molineux after four minutes on Saturday, but then ten minutes of madness resulted in two Huddersfield goals plus a straight red for Jamie O’Hara. Wolves are now in big, big trouble: the two recent wins at Molineux came against sides that have been terrible for one reason or another (Bristol City and Middlesbrough) and provided a glimpse of a false dawn for Wolves fans. It’s worth pointing out – once again – that three home wins since December is an awful record. Wolves haven’t beaten any of the current sides in the playoff positions at Molineux this season

Hull did exactly what they needed to at Portman Road and Watford’s defeat at Peterborough means a six point gap for the Tigers with four games left to play. A very soft run in – the Tigers two games after this one are against Bristol City and Barnsley – should mean automatic promotion, which could be earned as early as this Friday. Steve Bruce’s outfit have only lost two of their nine games so far against the bottom six.

Tonight’s useful stats: Hull have won three of their last ten league games at Molineux, but Wolves have only won two of the last six meetings when they’ve had home advantage.

Blackburn v Huddersfield

On Saturday, Blackburn won at home for the first time since mid-February, but still dropped a place thanks to Huddersfield’s win at Wolves and are only above Peterborough on goal difference, having scored 12 fewer goals than Posh. Their home form hasn’t been that bad, but three draws in the last six at Ewood Park combined with five consecutive away defeats means Rovers are still scrapping for their Championship status. Blackburn’s only home win against another club in the bottom six was against Barnsley.

Huddersfield have the Championship’s worst goal difference, but although their defence has been better recently, they’re still conceding an average of two goals a game away from the Galpharm Stadium and have to face Jordan Rhodes tonight. Their current away from (last game first) is WLWLWL so this looks like a game they won’t win, but it’s one they mustn’t lose either. Wins at Barnsley and Wolves show that Town are capable of winning at Ewood Park.

Finally – for the moment at least – Brian McDermott returned to management with Leeds United after being the sack by Reading recently. Leeds – and Leicester – have both underachieved this season and McDermott’s appointment at Elland Road is a very, very shrewd move. He knows the Championship, but more importantly, he knows how to win the Championship. My guess is that Leeds will be among the favourites for promotion when the bookies price up the market in the summer.

Update: congratulations to Cardiff City on winning promotion to the Premier League following their goalless draw with Charlton earlier tonight. Commiserations to Bristol City, who will be playing in League One next season.



nPower Championship Preview 5th April 2013

I think we should just assume that every weekend until the end of the season is a big one. Tomorrow we’ve got four of the bottom six playing each other and the game of the week could have massive repercussions in the race for automatic promotion.

Before I start the preview, the other story that broke this week was Neil Warnock’s departure from Leeds United. Warnock made it clear a few weeks ago that he wouldn’t be back at Elland Road next season unless the club was promoted – which to be honest didn’t look likely – and presumably left on his own terms. Some interesting names have been linked with the job, but more of that when someone’s appointed.

At the bottom, we’ll begin alphabetically. Peterborough and Huddersfield appear to have lost form at the worst time of the season – reintroducing the idea that there always seems to be one club that ends up being relegated due to a spectacularly bad run of form late in the season.

Huddersfield have been very inconsistent this season – like most promoted teams, they began well – but this is the first time they’ve been in the bottom three since August. It’s obvious what the problem at the Galpharm Stadium has been recently, as the Terriers have failed to score in four of their last five home games and haven’t won as many home games as they ought to have done. Daniel Ward’s last minute winner against Middlesbrough just over a month ago was the last time they scored at home.

Peterborough haven’t been any higher than 21st in the table this season, but a five game unbeaten run on the road shows how well they’ve done to turn their disastrous early season form around. However, it’s exactly this type of game that should give us an indication of if it’s possible for Fergie junior’s team to pull of one of the classic escapes in Championship history. The Posh have a relatively good record at Huddersfield overall, but they’ve only won once in their last five trips to West Yorkshire.

30 miles to the south, tomorrow’s meeting between Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn is the first league meeting at Hillsborough since August 2000, but the visitors last won there in November 1994. In fact, since 1961, Rovers have only managed two other victories at the same venue – which is almost as poor as Wednesday’s record at their own ground this season.

Dave Jones’ side haven’t been out of the bottom half of the table since last Autumn and Wednesday’s form against the other strugglers has been patchy. Last week’s draw at Bristol City was three points lost rather than a point gained as the hosts forced a controversial injury time equaliser. On the other hand, Blackburn have performed reasonably well against the strugglers, but having not won in nine games, over the last few weeks they’ve plummeted down the table and into the bottom six.

In the only game between sides in the top six and bottom six, Crystal Palace have an earlier opportunity to put last week’s 4-0 home defeat by Birmingham behind them when they entertain Barnsley. A home defeat had to happen at some point – the Eagles hadn’t lost in the league at Selhurst Park since August – and although Palace also failed to score at home for the first time since mid January, they’ve done well against the strugglers this season.

Barnsley have only lost twice in their last six road trips but haven’t picked up maximum points away from Oakwell since winning at the Riverside early February and haven’t kept an away clean sheet since last October when a goal from Tomasz Cywka earned three points at the Valley. They’ve already lost at Hull, Watford and Brighton this season and have still got to travel to Cardiff and Nottingham Forest, which is a very tough run in for the Tykes.

The game of the day is live on Sky Sports 2 at 5:15pm. Whatever happens at Vicarage Road will have an impact on the final weeks of the season: if Cardiff win in Hertfordshire for the first time since 2009 then they’ll preserve their seven point lead over Hull even if the Tigers beat Middlesbrough. If both Watford and Hull win, Cardiff’s lead will be cut to four points.

Half of the last 10 games between these two at Vicarage Road have ended in draws, but the worrying aspect of this game for the Bluebirds is that since October 1970 they’ve only won game in the last twelve meetings. Cardiff have lost two of their last three road trips, but tend to bounce back after defeats – they haven’t lost consecutive games since October – and have yet to lose an away game against another top six side.

Watford have only lost one home game in their last six outings, but have struggled against the other promotion contenders at Vicarage Road this season – they beat Forest before Christmas, but lost to both Hull and Brighton earlier in 2012/13. Tuesday’s win at Hull was a big step in the right direction if the Hornets are to return to the Premier League for the first time since 2006, but beating Cardiff would be even more impressive and create an even more exciting end to the season than the one we’re expecting.

I’ll post an update as soon as I’m able, otherwise I’ll be back next week.

Watford and Cardiff finished goalless – the Bluebirds have a five point lead with six to play, but host Barnsley on Tuesday night in an important game for both teams.  Crystal Palace’s failure to win means they’re now six points behind Watford: the current top three have now earned enough points to reach the playoffs.