Blackpool & QPR lead the Championship and remain unbeaten

Ahead of another busy night of international football, now is a good time to assess how the new season has started as far as the Sky Bet Championship is concerned.

Five games in and Blackpool & QPR (both on 13 points) lead the way as the only two unbeaten sides in the Championship.  Both have drop points with four wins and a draw a piece, with Blackpool sitting at the top of the pile by a single goal difference.

It’s a great start for Blackpool under the guidance of Paul Ince and his goal scoring son, Tom Ince.  Blackpool done well to keep hold of their top scoring England Under-21 midfielder as there was allegedly interest from several Premier League teams including Liverpool & Everton.

QPR were tipped by many critics as favourites to bounce straight back to the Premier League though I wasn’t so sure.  Firstly, manager Harry Redknapp had to address the ill-discipline and lack of commitment from some players, which appeared to be causing rifts behind the scenes; and thought Redknapp is known for his man-management, he isn’t overly qualified at getting teams promoted from the Championship. That is one of the reasons why I still consider Reading to be in with a shout for automatic promotion.  Manager Nigel Adkins gained promotion with Southampton before being sacked during the season, along with former Reading manager Brian McDermott (now managing Leeds United) after both managers had achieved promotion in the 2011/12 season.

Furthermore, Reading have kept the majority of their squad together from their previous season in the Championship whereas QPR can still boast several ‘big star’ names that hitherto were household Premier League players.  The likes of Shaun Wright-Philips, Niko Kranjcar, Jermaine Jenas, Bobby Zamora, Richard Dunne, Joey Barton and current England squad goalkeeper Robert Green. That is a lot of egos to massage, and Harry Redknapp may find that if QPR begin to slip a few points that some of his overpaid stars may go missing or not play as a team.

Below the two automatic promotion positions, currently occupying the play-off places (3rd – 6th) are Burnley, Nottm Forest, Leicester (10 points) followed by Bournemouth (9 points). The top 10 places are made up by Watford, Wigan, Reading & Leeds United all currently on 8 points.

This campaign will be no different to any other Championship season and the three teams to eventually get promoted to the Premier League next May could realistically be any of the aforementioned current top 10 teams, something I could have predicted before the start of the season with, if I’m being honest, the exception of Bournemouth who have had a positive start to the season. So if you’re feeling lucky, click here to bet on football.

There’s a return to normal service after the international break next Saturday with no 11 ties including mouth-watering ties Burnley v Blackburn, Bolton v Leeds, Leicester v Wigan, QPR v Birmingham and Bournemouth v Blackpool.  I predict QPR will be clear leaders after the weekend but the season is going to be a very hard, long battle between several teams, all hungry for the bigger prize.

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.

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The FA Cup: Fun While It Lasts

The FA Cup presents a unique set of challenges for Championship clubs: the extra revenue generated by a run in the oldest knockout competition in the world is always welcome, but as it’s been over three decades since a second tier side won the cup. The competition is also a distraction from the league but having said that, five of the last 20 finalists are currently playing in the Championship (Cardiff, Millwall, Portsmouth, Southampton and West Ham) with both Cardiff and Millwall reaching the final as Championship clubs in the last decade.

Seven clubs will be playing Premier League sides with half of them having home ties, although it seems odd writing about Burnley’s trip to Norwich as it was only last season that this would have been a league game. Barnley’s game against Swansea at Oakwell could be the best chance of an ‘upset’ even though once again this was league fixture in 2010/11. At the other end of the telescope, Portsmouth have to visit Chelsea in a repeat of the 2010 final but given Pompey’s poor away form I’d be surprised if that tie finished with a 1-0 scoreline this time round.

The Championship is guaranteed at least four clubs in the fourth round: Nottingham Forest play Leicester City, Southampton travel to Coventry, Derby entertain Crystal Palace and Hull take on Ipswich at the KC Stadium. That leaves nine clubs playing opposition below the Championship, although at the moment only Brighton (who will be playing Wrexham in the first FA Cup tie at the Amex Stadium) are the only club playing opposition outside the football league. If Fleetwood Town beat Yeovil in next Tuesday’s replay then Blackpool will have to make the seven mile trip north to visit the Trawlermen.

The FA Cup ties don’t take place until next month and so it’s back to league action – and there were some real coupon busters last weekend. Billy Sharp scored the only goal of the game as Doncaster Rovers beat Southampton and Burnley came from behind to beat West Ham at Upton Park for the first time since 1973. Those results meant that the goal that Kenny Miller scored for Cardiff against Birmingham on Sunday lunchtime was very significant: the Bluebirds could overtake West Ham this weekend but more of that later. Middlesbrough needed some questionable referring at Ashton Gate to record their sixth win away from home this season, while Hull’s two wins in the space of a week means they’re back in the top six.

At the bottom of the table, Coventry’s defeat at Portsmouth and Doncaster’s surprise win means that Sky Blues fans could be facing a very miserable Christmas as their team is now rock bottom. Nottingham Forest  join them in the bottom three – since Steve Cotterill took over in mid October, Forest have lost five of their nine league games and have failed to score in their last three.

There are two televised games this weekend: the first is between Southampton v Blackpool (Sky Sports 2, 12:45pm) both of whom were outside the Championship last season but have made good starts in 2011/12. Although the Tangerines won the last time these two met in the league, it’s not been a happy hunting ground for them over the years and considering Saints impressive home record Ian Holloway’s side could struggle at St. Mary’s.

Although there’s no outstanding candidate for game of the week, there are a couple of 3:00pm kick offs that could be worth keeping an eye on as they involve teams at either end of the table. If Cardiff City win at the New Den and West Ham lose at Reading, the Bluebirds will move into the second automatic promotion spot – although it’s a big if as the Welsh club haven’t won at Millwall since September 1982 and the last four league games between the sides in South London have ended all square.

Hull travel to the Ricoh Arena having lost two of their last three away games but there are some signs that caretaker manager Nicky Barmby has removed the ‘defence first’ mentality that characterised the Tigers under Nigel Pearson. To make matters even worse for the hosts, they’re still far too reliant on Lukas Jutkiewicz for goals: rumours are beginning to circulate that Coventry’s leading scorer could be on the way to Southampton during the transfer window – a move that would ensure the short term financial future of the club but would appear to cast doubts over their future as a Championship team.

The teatime game is Barnsley v Ipswich (Sky Sports 2, 5:20pm) – under the management of former Rochdale boss Keith Hill the Tykes have quietly crept up the table and are now just three points off the playoff positions. There are no household names in the Barnsley side, but when you’ve got a promising young goalscoring defender like Jacob Butterfield playing behind Craig Davies and Ricardo Vaz Te then you probably don’t need them. I wasn’t very complimentary about the Tractor Boys last week and despite taking the lead against Watford on Saturday thanks to Keith Andrews, two goals in four minutes meant a seventh consecutive defeat for Paul Jewel’s side, who are now only outside the bottom three on goal difference.

The winners of manager of the month and player of the month awards for November were announced on Friday afternoon and although I don’t normally mention them, under the circumstances I think it’s worth highlighting that Billy Sharp of Doncaster Rovers won the award for player of the month.  In case anyone’s forgotten Sharp’s story, you can read it here: he deserves an award – however inconsequential – after the terrible few weeks he’s been through.

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Leicester City: A Second Tier Club.

My wife and I went to France for a short holiday over half term: I bought a copy of the excellent Football League Paper to read on the plane and thought that I was up to date with what’d been happening in the Championship. A couple of days later and suddenly Sven-Goran Eriksson was no longer manager of Leicester City.

I scribbled a few thoughts into my notebook but a couple seemed fairly pertinent: since Nigel Pearson left Leicester in summer 2010, it’s best to describe both Sven and his predecessor (Paolo Sousa) as ‘vanity’ appointments. Despite having a reputation that appears to be built on sand, Sousa hasn’t been at any club long enough to make any kind of a positive impression as a manager and Eriksson hasn’t won anything with a club since the double with Lazio in 1999/2000.

Perhaps they both interviewed well, but my second thought was that Leicester City have a great deal in common with  a lot of other teams in the Championship. The Foxes have spent more seasons in the second tier of English football than they have at any other level and haven’t played in the Premier League for eight seasons. Leicester were this season’s ‘trendy’ pick to win the Championship and are thought of as a ‘big’ club in the Championship, even though these days that largely means having foreign owners, a flexible policy over stadium naming rights and being one of the clubs that Eriksson used to manage. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Manchester City are currently top of the Premier League not half way down the Championship.

I’ve got nothing against ambition, but it has to be tempered with a dose of reality now and again. It’s all very well having superb facilities and no immediate local rivals to compete against, but a quick glance at Leicester’s honours list indicates that they’re very much a second tier club that has historically performed better with managers from the UK and Ireland.

Upon returning from France there was no time write a post last weekend, so it’s double helpings this week.

Unusually for a Tuesday night, there are three games that will have a direct impact on both ends of the table so we’ll start with Hull’s trip to Barnsley: the Tykes – who lost at home to Bristol City last weekend – have a dreadful record against the Tigers at Oakwell (only two wins in the last ten meetings) while Nigel Pearson’s side have only lost two of their last 20 away games and are are one of the best away teams in the Championship despite their lack of goals on the road. Having picked up three single goal wins away from the KC Stadium this season, another one wouldn’t come as a massive surprise.

Despite their away record being as good as Hull’s, Middlesbrough have fallen off the pace a little recently – one win in the last month is hardly promotion form – but they face a Doncaster side that have only won three home league games in the last calendar year. There hasn’t been a draw between these two clubs in South Yorkshire since the first time they ever met in the league, a goalless draw almost a century ago

Despite having picked up a vital win in South Yorkshire at the weekend, bottom of the table Bristol City will be underdogs when they travel to West Ham for a league game for the first time since January 1993, but although the Hammers home record isn’t bad they’ve not won three consecutive games in the league for almost three years. The Robins last won back to back away games in the Championship last season but have only won one of their last five games in the capital and have only ever won once at Upton Park.

I’ll be back on Friday, possibly with news about an appointment at Fratton Park but with a review of the midweek action and a preview of the weekend’s games.

Southampton In Control At The Top

After two games in less than a week, there are gaps opening at the top and bottom of the table. Southampton are five points clear of West Ham, who were beaten by the Saints on Tuesday night when Dutch defender Jos Hooiveld scored on the stroke of half time.

At the other end of the table Bristol City are four points from safety – the Robins were one of four sides who failed to pick up any points from the six available in the last two games, but will have a new manager in place before Sunday’s game with Birmingham City. Former WBA and Millwall midfielder Derek McInnes took over at Ashton Gate on Wednesday after two years as manager of Scottish Premier League side St. Johnstone; as we mentioned last week, Nottingham Forest appointed Steve Cotterill as manager, which leaves Portsmouth as the only club needing a to make an appointment.

It was a good week for both Peterborough and Crystal Palace, who won both beat Bristol City on their way to achieving maximum points. The Posh have maintained the type of form that earned them promotion from League 1 last season: despite having failed to keep a single clean sheet in the league so far, Darren Ferguson’s side have only failed to score once and only Southampton have scored more goals this season – which makes Ferguson’s decision to sell Craig Mackail-Smith to Brighton look like a very astute piece of business indeed. This weekend’s games begin when Leeds travel to London Road for only the second league meeting between the clubs and it looks like a game that won’t finish 0-0.

It was a bad week for Doncaster, Watford and Burnley all of whom emulated Bristol City’s inability to pick up a single point. Donny’s mini revival under Dean Saunders seems to have hit the skids following consecutive defeats while Watford have failed to score in seven of their twelve games this season and haven’t scored at all since Craig Forsyth scored the winner against Millwall at the end of September. Whilst we weren’t sold on either Doncaster or Watford before the season started, Burnley’s current difficulties aren’t immediately obvious until you realise that they have only won five of their last fifteen games at Turf Moor and are another side currently having trouble scoring: if you can stop Charlie Austin scoring you’ve effectively stopped Burnley.

There are two games between the top six on Saturday afternoon. Derby travel to Middlesbrough: the last time the Rams picked up a point on Teeside was in January 2000 and Boro have won the last five meetings at home since then. However, despite being unbeaten at the Riverside this season, the hosts last home win was back in August and there are signs that their impressive start could be on the rocks: they’ve failed to score in four of their last five games and – like Burnley – are over reliant on one player (Marvin Emnes) to provide the goals.

Game of the week is between two clubs that have shown significant improvement this season. Whatever changes Paul Jewell introduced after Ipswich were thrashed 7-1 at Peterborough in August seem to have worked: they’ve only lost once in the eight games since and have won at West Ham and drawn at Cardiff in that spell. Crystal Palace’s resurgence is down to their metamorphosis away from Selhurst Park. The Eagles have already won more away games this season than they did in 2010/11 – including victories at Brighton and Hull – but still look as if they’re a work in progress rather than genuine promotion candidates.

The last game on Saturday is Reading versus Southampton (Sky Sports 2, 5:20), but this weekend’s round of matches continues until Monday. Birmingham have to play two games in four days (at Bristol City on Sunday and at home to Leeds on Wednesday) and with West Ham’s trip to Brighton on Monday (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) coming the day before the Carling Cup ties between Championship teams it’s almost as busy as Christmas.

With two guaranteed qualifiers for the last eight in the Carling Cup the Championship is well represented but it’s difficult to see any of the four teams left in the competition getting any further. Only Southampton have ever reached the final (in 1979); Burnley, Crystal Palace and Cardiff have all reached the semi finals before, but have been knocked out every time they’ve reached that stage so once again it looks as if Championship clubs might have to be content with being knocked out before the final by a Premier League club. We’ll see.

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