Back To The Future With Bruce, McClaren and Warnock

Welcome to this week’s post, which I’ve been planning for two weeks and includes one of my rare forays into editorial opinion. First things first though: let’s have a big hand for Steve Bruce, Steve McClaren and Neil Warnock in particular.

This is both NSFW and a thing of profound beauty.

July 13th 2016, Aston Villa preview: ‘Questionable morale at the end of last season plus adjustments on and off the field mean that they’re more likely to be Fulham than Newcastle’

New boss: Steve Bruce. Immediate reaction: expect a very painful transitional period to a defence first mentality with lots of 1-0 wins.

July 21st 2016, Cardiff City preview: ‘but at for now the defence isn’t good enough and the Bluebirds failed to beat any of the teams in the top half of the Championship away from the City of Cardiff Stadium last season. Trollope – who hasn’t managed a team for almost six years – is untested at this level and could have something of a baptism of fire.’

New boss: Neil Warnock. Gut reaction: the Bluebirds will be a mid table team by the time I start writing about Championship teams in the FA Cup.

Same date, Derby County preview: ‘If Derby don’t go up this season, I’ll eat my hat. Although I probably ought to point out that my hat is a pork pie hat.’

New boss: Steve McClaren. Gut reaction: is that the best you could do?

It’s not even three months later and all three of the clubs mentioned above have now replaced the managers they began the season with. When I re-read those extracts the only one that really surprises me is Derby, but it’s easy being wise after the event: the other two are spot on. I’m just a modest blogger, albeit one that’s been posting on an almost weekly basis about the Championship for over six years – so if I could tell what was going to happen at Aston Villa and Cardiff this season, why couldn’t their multimillionaire Asian owners?

I think the answer may be partly because of the way the clubs perceive themselves. Of the 24 teams in the 2016/17 Championship, only ten haven’t played at least one season in the Premier League over the last decade. Of the fourteen clubs that have played in the top flight over that period, only three – Aston Villa, Newcastle and Wigan – have spent more than half of the last ten seasons in the top flight. That indicates to me that Villa are clearly out of their comfort zone – this season is only their eleventh outside the top flight since the end of World War II – and may have thought that all they need to do was turn up every week and they’d be promoted at a canter: the owner, the fans (who are probably the most deluded group in the Championship on social media), the former manager and the players have suddenly come to the uncomfortable realisation that the Championship doesn’t work like that. And yes, I am old enough (just) to remember when Villa were a third tier side in the early 1970s.

On the other hand, Cardiff have spent most of their time since the end of the Second World War in the second tier. That period also includes 18 seasons in the bottom half of the football league between 1985 and 2003, so the current performance may just be a natural regression to the mean. I started prepping this article before Neil Warnock was appointed manager and I think that’s a great short term decision although as you can see above it could work both ways.

At the other end of the scale, in the case of Brentford and Preston, The Beatles have come and gone since they were last in the top flight and you’d have to be at least 50 to remember when Huddersfield were a first division team – once again, I do. All three are currently doing better than Aston Villa.

Games of the Week:

Cardiff v Bristol City (this evening, SS1, 7:45pm)

A lot can change in a year: after 11 games last season, Cardiff were two points off the play offs and City were in the bottom four. Those positions are almost reversed for this game, largely due to changes of manager at both clubs but this match should give us some sort of indication of the impact Warnock has had in two weeks as Cardiff manager as well as Bristol City’s credentials as a possible playoff team.

The Robins haven’t won at Cardiff in a league game since December 2002 and have lost six of their last seven trips across the Severn Bridge, but this is Cardiff’s first home game this season against any of the current top six and City haven’t lost any of their games against teams currently in the bottom half of the table.

Norwich v Rotherham (Saturday 3pm, no TV coverage)

The Canaries should return to the top of the pile before Sunday’s Yorkshire derby between Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday (SS2, 2pm kick off). The Millers last won at Norwich three months before England won the 1966 World Cup although it’s only right for me to point out that four of the last six encounters in Norfolk have ended all square. It’s also right for me to point out that Norwich’s current run of four straight home wins is their best performance at this level for over a decade; if Rotherham lose their next four games, they’ll have equalled their own record for consecutive defeats, set in the mid 1950s.

That’s all for this week, I’ll be back at the start of next week with a look at the midweek games.

Assault On Kirkland Was Predictable

Unfortunately the major talking point last weekend was the attack on Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland at Hillsborough on Friday night. By contemporary standards, the wheels of justice were particularly quick in this case, but having already seen a Leeds away game in person this season I’d suggest that there is an element within their support that seems to be hell bent on invading the pitch after they score at away games and that the incident last weekend was almost inevitable. Whether or not the jailing has any affect on any other ‘supporters’ from any remains to be seen: to use a terrible old cliche, each club has their ‘hooligan element’ but there’s also a discussion to be had about the varying standards of stewardship around the Championship as well as the general behaviour of a section of Leeds’ following.

Looking at the action featuring people who should be on the pitch, Leicester took over at the top on goal difference after Cardiff lost at Nottingham Forest on Saturday. Any of the top seven could finish on top of the table when the final whistle goes tonight – not an unprecedented situation in the Championship, but it’s nights like these that often indicate which teams have a genuine chance of promotion.

However, if you’re thinking of putting your hand in your pocket and backing either Leicester or Cardiff for promotion, I’d advise you to wait for a couple of weeks. The Welsh club have conceded as many away goals as Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester’s five game winning streak came to an end at Birmingham on Saturday – the hosts took the lead with a goal from Peter Lovenkrands just before half time and Ben Marshall equalised with only four minutes left.

The situation at the bottom of the table is just as tight, but it’s slightly more fluid than it was before Friday night. Having earned a point against Leeds, Wednesday fans could be forgiven for thinking the worst when two goals from Steven Davies gave Bristol City the lead at the Reebok, but Bolton fought back to earn all three points. If the Robins lose at home to Burnley this evening and Sheffield Wednesday beat Blackburn at Ewood Park tomorrow night, City will drop into the bottom three for the first time since the end of March.

Game of the night is between two clubs just above the drop zone: Birmingham City play Millwall at the New Den. A win for either side could propel them up the table in time for Saturday’s games and there’s an extra incentive for the Lions tonight. Last January they lost 0-6 to tonight’s visitors and both Shane Lowry and Alan Dunne were sent off: it was the first time Millwall had lost to the Blues at home in the league since 1986 and tonight’s game looks as if it’ll be much closer.

Having spent most of the afternoon trying to get this post finished, it came as no surprise that Dougie Freedman was appointed Bolton manager just before I was finally happy with it. Freedman had been in charge of Crystal Palace since the start of last season, but there’d been a lot of grumbling from Palace fans over the past few months about the perceived lack of direction under Freedman. I think the best thing to say is that he’s left the Eagles in a better position than when he joined, but it’ll be interesting to see how the new manager copes with the expectations at the Reebok.

UPDATE: Sky Sports are reporting that Dougie Freedman has not yet been confirmed as the new manager of Bolton, there are also reports that Paul Jewell may not be in charge of Ipswich for much longer after the Tractor Boys sank to the bottom of the table after losing at home to Derby on Tuesday. Next scheduled post is on Thursday.



QPR Finally Promoted as Champions of the Championship

Neil Warnock was all smiles just today as QPR were officially crowned nPower Championship champions this morning when the FA finally announced they had come to the decision that QPR had breached two technical issues but would not be docked any points.

Whether you agree with the outcome, no one can disagree that once again the FA have proved how incompetent an organisation they are by leaving this importance decision to the very last day of the Championship season.

The result not only affected Queen’s Park Rangers promotion to the Premiership but also the play-off matches.

So QPR are promoted as champions even though they were beaten today by Leeds United; and following today’s other results, Swansea will play Nottm Forest and Cardiff will play Reading with the possibility of an all-Welsh final if Swansea and Cardiff.  That would be a great game for the neutral and a nightmare to police. But whoever gets through to the Play-off final it will no doubt be a fitting finale to yet another exciting Championship season.



Aidy Boothroyd & Ian Baraclough Sacked

More managerial casualties this week: Aidy Boothroyd left Coventry City eight months after taking charge of the Sky Blues and Ian Baraclough was shown the door at Scunthorpe after six months in charge at Glanford Park following a catastrophic 3-0 home defeat by Preston on Tuesday night.

Revisiting the theme of managerial stability, fourteen clubs have now changed their manager at least once since March 2010, so with the end of the season rapidly approaching it’s worth taking a look at which appointments have had the most impact – positive or negative.

Neil Warnock’s appointment at QPR in March 2010 is beginning to look like the best decision Queens Park Rangers’ management have made since they took over the club. It’s stating the obvious, but QPR are clearly the most improved team in the division, having finished 13th in 2009/10. However, Brendan Rogers’ work at Swansea since last July deserves an honourable mention: the Swans missed out on the playoffs by one point last season but have been in the top six since October.

At the other end of the scale, both Sheffield United and Scunthorpe have had three managers this season: managerial instability plus poor home performance is a recipe for disaster at any level and this is probably why the Blades and the Iron look certainties for relegation. Although the Championship is about as good as it gets for Scunthorpe, Sheffield United fans would have been thinking in terms of the playoffs back in August. All of the clubs in the current bottom six have made managerial changes since March 2010, with the biggest wake up call coming at Middlesbrough – although Boro seem to be out of immediate danger this season, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Coventry, Crystal Palace and Ipswich have all made managerial changes in the last year without any apparent affect, although to be fair to Palace if they’d replicated their form at Selhurst Park on their travels they’d be challenging for the playoffs. If Ipswich don’t improve dramatically they could be the next ‘big’ team looking at relegation to League One next season.

This Saturday’s games start with an early kickoff between Sheffield United and Leeds. The last time the visitors won at Bramall Lane in the league was the season that they won the old First Division, but with both sides looking for points for different reasons in what’s bound to be a typical Yorkshire derby, anything could happen.

Without any doubt the game of the week is Swansea v Nottingham Forest. With Forest having played all their games in hand, they remain three points behind the Swans and still have to travel to Leeds and Norwich before the end of the season. Perhaps surprisingly, Forest don’t have a bad record at the Liberty Stadium, having only lost one of their five visits since Swansea moved from Vetch Field and with neither side scoring lots of goals at the moment this contest has all the hallmarks of a playoff game, especially as the visitors have yet to lose an away game against the current top six.

The other game worth keeping an eye on is at Deepdale, where the temporary management team of Steve Harrison and Andy Thorn have the weight of history against them – Coventry have never won at Preston in the league, even though the fourteen game series goes back to 1949/50. It may also be the wrong time for the Sky Blues to be playing the bottom team in the Championship: although mathematically the Lillywhites could still escape relegation, their midweek win at Scunthorpe – the first since Phil Brown took over as manager – could be the start of a confidence building run that might pay dividends next season.



QPR Face FA Charges

After stating last week that none of QPR’s rivals look as if they’re going to be able to mount a serious challenge for the title, it looks increasingly as if Queens Park Rangers are going to give the chasing pack one last opportunity.

The circumstances surrounding the signing of Argentinian midfielder Alejandro Faurlin are serious enough for the FA to have made the decision that QPR have seven charges to answer before a disciplinary enquiry. The main issue appears to be whether Faurlin’s contract actually belonged to his former club (Instituto de Cordoba, who produced Mario Kempes and Osvaldo Ardiles amongst others) when he joined QPR in July 2009; rumours and allegations of ‘third parties’ and unregistered agents have also been making the rounds.

There’s been plenty of speculation about what might happen if QPR are found guilty of the charges – points deductions and/or heavy fines have been suggested – but even though Neil Warnock had nothing to do with the signing, the ironic part of the case is that it was the current manager at Loftus Road who demanded that West Ham lost points in the aftermath of the Carlos Tevez situation in 2007.

Even if Rangers were docked ten points – the same amount Luton Town had deducted for similar offences in 2008 – they’d still be in the Championship playoff spots. Two games in less than a week is always a challenge and although there were clear winners and losers in the Championship over the past week, QPR are still in top spot.

Four teams won both games their games: with ten games to go it looks as if Leeds will at least reach the playoffs, but both Burnley and Reading can capitalise on any loss of form by the clubs immediately above them. At the other end of the table, Bristol City’s best form of the season continued with a 2-1 win over Portsmouth: Pompey’s keeper Jamie Ashdown had beaten the club’s consecutive clean sheet record by five minutes when former Barnet winger Albert Adomah opened the scoring.

Two of the current top six were amongst last week’s biggest losers. March isn’t a particularly good time to start dropping points if you’re planning on getting promoted: Nottingham Forest lost their first regular season home league game since September 2009 Saturday when a Matty Fryatt goal gave Hull the points. On Tuesday Forest lost at Sheffield United – the Blades’ first win at Bramall Lane since Christmas and their first since Mickey Adams took over. Cardiff also suffered a defeat by a bottom three side, losing to Palace on Tuesday following their televised home defeat to Ipswich on Saturday evening. Forest have now gone five games without a win, but the Bluebirds will gain some comfort from knowing that they haven’t lost three straight league games since November 2009.