Only Forty Games To Go…

A busy week for most of the clubs in the Championship – there’ll be at least one game featuring teams from the competition until next Thursday – but for those of you dreaming of life in the Premier League next season or worried about the prospect of League One, be careful what you wish for.

A quick look back at the Championship table from a year ago shows that although QPR were top with the same amount of points as Brighton have this season, only one club from from the current top six were in the playoff positions last September: Cardiff City, who were eliminated in the playoff semi finals.

It’s a similar story at the bottom of the table – a year ago only one of the clubs that were eventually relegated featured in the bottom six (Preston) and only Bristol City find themselves in a similar position to the one they were in last season: the Robins eventually finished 15th.

Another indication that we’re still too early to make any sense of what’s happening is that there are six teams that are unbeaten away but have lost at least once at home. That group includes four teams in the top ten, including West Ham and -yes, you’ve guessed it – Cardiff City.

There were some significant results last weekend. Despite – or possibly because of – a fan protest against the current owners Coventry picked up their first win of the season when they beat Derby 2-0 having only won six of their last 20 games at the Ricoh Arena: Watford’s victory by the same score at the Madejski Stadium was a rarity as Reading hadn’t lost consecutive home games for almost two years.

This weekend, five of the top six and four of the bottom six are away from home and there are a couple of local derbies, although that’s probably the most understated way of describing them.

The action starts at 12:30 on Saturday lunchtime when Millwall travel ten miles or so across London to West Ham for a league game for the first time in six and a half years; the Lions have never won at the Boleyn Ground but even though the Hammers picked up their first home win of the season against Portsmouth last weekend, there was yet another late goal. Greg Halford’s 97th minute strike for Pompey didn’t make any difference to the outcome, but once again West Ham have shown that they have a tendency to switch off at the end of games if they think the job is done.

Half an hour later the game between Derby and Nottingham Forest kicks off at the City Ground and it’s almost a ‘must win’ for Steve McClaren as if results go against the Tricky Trees they could find themselves in the bottom three of the Championship for the first time since they narrowly avoided relegation in 2008/09. History appears to be on their side though: the Rams have only won once in their last ten trips along the A52 and although Forest are notoriously slow starters they generally perform well at the City Ground.

It’s hardly ‘game of the week’ material, but probably the most important match this weekend is when the bottom two clubs meet at the Madejski. Although Doncaster’s poor start was expected, the curse of the playoffs seems to have really affected Reading as they’ve only won one of their last five home games in the Championship.

Having said that, the last time Rovers won at Reading ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ was about to replace ‘Careless Whisper’ at Number 1 and the Yorkshire side have failed to score in half of their last ten visits to Berkshire. Once again, it’s far too early to tell but Doncaster might be in for the type of season Sheffield United in 2010/12.

Birmingham’s trip to Southampton and Ipswich v Coventry (Monday night, Sky Sports 1 at 7:45pm) complete the league programme for this weekend, but then we’re straight into the third round of the Carling Cup. With only one guaranteed place in the fourth round and five clubs facing Premier League opposition, it’s fair to say that the chances of a Championship club winning the trophy are slim at best. However with Leeds (Manchester United), Brighton (Liverpool) and Cardiff v Leicester all being showcased on Sky next week there’s a good chance to show the standard of Championship football to an audience that may not normally be interested.

Who will gain automatic promotion to the Premier League?

The forthcoming nPower Championship season looks likely to be as exciting as previous seasons with several clubs in contention for the two automatic places.

Reading, Leicester, Millwall and Ipswich all finished strongly last season, while Leeds United and Nottm Forest will both be targeting a return to their former glories with a return to the top flight, next year.  Also in the mix will be Blackpool, West Ham and the League Cup winners Birmingham after they all faced relegation from the Premier League.

The fortune of the three relegated teams will no doubt rely substantially on retaining their best players and adapting to life in the Championship.  Blackpool are the only one of three to keep their manager, but it looks likely that Ian Holloway is going to lose his captain and star asset, Charlie Adam to either Spurs or Liverpool.  I think Blackpool will suffer from having such a great season in the Premiership that began so well but by January had lost its wheels.

After losing Alex McLeish to Black Country rivals Aston Villa, Birmingham have in my opinion made a fantastic appointment in Chris Hughton who was unceremoniously sacked by Newcastle after he steered them to promotion as champions in the 2009/10 season.

Hughton has said that he is knows he will lose some of his best players and he expects to revamp the squad before the new season.  Defenders Scott Dann, Roger Johnson and goalkeeper Ben Foster are among the players linked with transfer rumours.

The West Ham owners sacked Avram Grant less than one hour after they were relegated in May and in Big Sam Allardyce have appointed a manager with plenty of man-management experience and getting the most out of his squad on a shoe-string budget, but less experience of the Championship than both Holloway and Hughton.  West Ham is destined to lose some of their top players as long as other teams agree to match the big wages West Ham is currently offering the likes of England internationals Scott Parker, Robert Green and Matthew Upson.  But he has already made the signing of the summer with the acquisition of Newcastle’s Kevin Nolan who has chosen to drop down a division to link up once more with Big Sam.

Furthermore, Steve McLaren’s appointment at Nottm Forest is an interesting one.  McLaren is known for his coaching abilities and youth policy which is a great fit with what Forest wants to achieve by re-focusing on their youth academy.  That said they have allegedly made an approach for out-of-favour Sunderland midfield playmaker and former City Ground favourite Andy Reid.  McLaren is also keen to keep out-of-contract duo Rob Earnshaw and Guy Moussi.

Before the transfer merry-go-round has really started, it’s a bit premature to be betting on the teams who will be promoted just yet.  That said, I believe with Big Sam Allardyce and Sven Goran Erikson, given backing from their respective owners, will be able to entice good players to West Ham and Leicester respectively to block any holes left by outgoing players and in doing so look likely to be among the favourites to achieve automatic promotion in what promises to be another thrilling Championship season

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Nottm Forest sack Billy Davies & appoint Steve McLaren

Yesterday morning Nottm Forest sacked manager Billy Davies.  The decision didn’t come as a total surprise and follows an ongoing public disaffection between Davies and the Nottm Forest directors; and though Davies had taken Forest to two consecutive play-offs the writing was on the wall when he met with Chairman Nigel Doughty last month.

The final decision appears to have been a result of the public humiliation suffered by Steve McLaren at the hands of Aston Villa’s American owner, Randy Learner who last week cancelled a meeting with the former England manager over the current vacancy at Aston Villa.  I’m assuming Nigel Doughty and the Nottm Forest board thought this was a golden opportunity to appoint someone with the right qualities and experience.

Nottm Forest have suggested they want to return to the successful days of their Nottingham Forest F.C. Youth Academy and the good work started by Paul Hart in 1997.  McLaren impressed when he was at Middlesbrough by nurturing young talent in a similar fashion.  But I have always believed Steve McLaren is an excellent coach, but not a great manager.  There is no denying his abilities as a coach with Derby, Manchester United (winning the treble as Alex Ferguson’s most successful sidekick) and with England under Sven Goran Eriksson.  But there is a fundamental difference between the roles of football manager and coach.  You need look no further than Nottm Forest’s heyday for an example, and the partnership between Brian Clough and Peter Taylor.

As a manager Steve McLaren was successful with FC Twente, wining the Dutch league but then failed to reproduce that success and was sacked less than 12 months into his contract at Wolfsburg.  That followed an abysmal time as England manager and at best a mildly successful time at Middlesbrough.

That said, I think the Nottm Forest appointment is a good fit for both Forest and McLaren.  It will give him the opportunity to re-establish himself and regain some credibility without the spotlight of the Premier League.  But following two top six finish’s is not going to be easy.