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.



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.



Derby and Middlesbrough Crash Out In Cup Shocks

Following some shock results last weekend, fourteen nPower Championship teams will be concentrating on the league for the rest of the season. Another four clubs face replays, all of which means a total of six clubs will be taking part in the fourth round at the end of the month.

To be fair, seven clubs were eliminated by Premiership teams. However, four sides were beaten by opposition from below the Championship and in Derby’s case from the Blue Square Premier. Although we highlighted the possible pitfalls facing Portsmouth in their trip to Brighton last weekend, Leyton Orient’s win at Carrow Road and Middlesbrough’s defeat at Burton Albion were genuine upsets. Kudos to Crawley Town though – Sergio Torres’ last minute goal gave the Sussex club a memorable victory over the Rams.

Overall, the lack of success in the FA Cup seems to indicate that the gap between the Championship and the Premiership is wider than the gap between the Championship and the rest of the Football League. Only Reading beat Premiership opposition, although Leeds were only a couple of minutes away from a major surprise at the Emirates. Leicester – who took the lead after two minutes when Souleymane Bamba scored – deserve a lot of credit in coming from behind to hold Manchester City to a draw at the Walkers Stadium.

The fourth round draw was relative kind to the surviving clubs, all of whom are currently in the top half of the Championship table. Only Coventry and Nottingham Forest were drawn against Premiership opposition, but the remainder face teams that knocked out higher ranked opposition. Arguably the tie of the round is Reading’s trip to Stevenage, but if Leeds can defeat Arsenal at Elland Road next Wednesday then an all Yorkshire tie with Huddersfield looks like a great cup tie.

After being thrashed 7-0 at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup, Ipswich took a small yet completely unexpected step to the Carling Cup Final with a 1-0 win over Arsenal at Portman Road thanks to a strike from Tamas Priskin. Although Paul Jewell was introduced to the fans as the new manager, the victory over the Gunners was overseen by caretaker boss Charlie McParland. Jewell has a task on his hands – Ipswich still have to visit QPR, Cardiff, Swansea and Leeds this season.

Crystal Palace also have a new manager. Former striker and fan favourite Dougie Freedman was promoted from assistant manager and was awarded a two and half deal. The new boss will face a baptism of fire: Palace travel to Swansea in the first game of the weekend (Sky Sports 2, 12:45pm) hoping they can pull off a surprise win. The hosts aren’t exactly pushovers though – this season they’ve won all three of their home games against teams currently in the bottom six without conceding a goal. Not only that, a win would put Swansea into second place – although Brendan Rogers’ side has had multiple opportunities to do that this season without making the most of them.

There are a couple of other games that will have a direct impact on both ends of the table. Leeds entertain Scunthorpe in a league game at Elland Road for only the second time since President Kennedy was assassinated, but it might not be plain sailing for the hosts. Six of Scunthorpe’s seven wins this season have been in away games, including a 2-0 win at Watford in October: Leeds’ record against the bottom three includes a close win over Crystal Palace and the 4-6 defeat by Preston. The biggest problem for Leeds this weekend is that Alexander Armstrong lookalike Simon Grayson won the December Manager of the Month award – Leeds haven’t won since the turn of the year!

There’s absolutely no doubt about the game of the week. Cardiff have only won twice at Carrow Road in the 20 league games there since January 1933, although the last time was a 2-1 victory in September 2007. Norwich’s opening day defeat at home to Watford is the only time they’ve lost to a team in the current top six this season, but Cardiff have lost at both QPR and Watford. As the Canaries have won six of the last ten home games in the league, Norwich may have the edge: the potential reward for the winners is second place.

For the third week in a row there is not exactly a huge amount of transfer activity to report, although Millwall’s permanent signing of Huddersfield striker Theo Robinson is a sensible move as the Lions are currently ninth but are goal shy away from home. Norwich boss Paul Lambert signed Marc Tierney from Colchester United on Thursday and the defender could make his debut against Cardiff, but other than that there’s not much to report.



Is Paul Jewell the right man for Ipswich Town?

Following the dismissal of Roy Keane last week, Ipswich Town have appointed Paul Jewell as their new manager.  But for some reason Paul Jewell (Plan B lookalike) decided to sit out the first two fixtures and left Roy Keane’s assistant Ian McParland to sweat it out in the dugout.  After all, it was away to Chelsea in the third round of the FA Cup and at home to Arsenal in the first leg of the League Cup.

Being a wily old fox Paul Jewell probably thought that Ipswich were going to be on the wrong end of a thrashing in both games and subsequently suggested he would leave the team in the capable hands on McParland as he hadn’t got to know the players.

Well, after Chelsea returned to winning ways and thrashed Ipswich 7-0 last Sunday at Stamford Bridge Jewell must have felt rather smug.  The last thing a new manager wants to do is start with a hiding.  So imagine his dismay when he witnessed a gallant Ipswich team beat the mighty Arsenal 1-0 last night at Portman Road from a comfortable seat in the directors’ box, knowing he cannot take an ounce of credit for their best result in ages.

Instead he will take charge for the first time this Saturday when Ipswich travel to Millwall; a game which looking at the form book should result in defeat for Paul Jewell’s Tractor Boys.  The following Saturday Ipswich are at home against Doncaster Rovers.  If Jewell fails to win that game he then faces Arsenal at The Emirates in the second leg of the League Cup semi-final; and on the 1st February Paul Jewell will return to Pride Park when Ipswich take on Derby County where he is bound to get a hostile reception.

So what has Paul Jewell done since he miraculously took Wigan into the Premier League?  Not a lot is the simple answer.  His record at Derby County is not a good one.  He replaced Billy Davies and won his first match in charge when Derby, then of the Premier League, beat one of his former clubs, Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup on penalties.  Four days later they were knocked out of the same competition by Preston North End who was fighting a relegation battle in the Championship. His 16th game in charge saw him lead Derby to a 2-0 defeat to another former club, Wigan, and in doing so set a new club record of 21 league games without a win.  That same year, Derby County were relegated from the Premier League with just 11 points, equalling a 108-year Football League record.

Just three points above the Championship relegation places, if I was an Ipswich Town fan I would be sad but relieved to see Roy Keane given the sack but shaking my head at the appointment of Paul Jewell.  I wouldn’t be too surprised if Ipswich Town get relegated to League One this season while fierce rivals, Norwich City rub salt in to their wounds by winning promotion to the Premier League.