Many pundits will tell you that the Championship is the most competitive league in Europe – actually, scrub that, the world. It’s the league where the most humble of sides can beat the recently fallen “Premier League giants” on any given day, a league where nothing can ever be taken for granted.
Well, after the latest round of Championship fixtures, the “most competitive league in the world” is shaping up to be pretty predictable in 2014/15. With the season just over two thirds completed, it’s still a little early to say for certain that this will come to pass, but, as things are shaping up, the teams to be promoted and relegated look to be coming from small groups at the top and bottom of the table.
Things look pretty clear cut to me at the top – Forest fans will be telling themselves that a win over Bournemouth tonight would put them right back in the Play Off hunt, but that ten point gap between themselves and Wolves in eighth looks a very big one to me. At the lower end of the table, there is a pretty widespread consensus that the bottom two are already gone and no one is giving Millwall much of a chance at the moment – Rotherham need to look out for themselves after two heavy defeats and Fulham are still very erratic, but people have been telling me for some time that the current bottom three would be the ones to be relegated and. as of now, I can’t mount much of an argument against them.
This of course presupposes that Cardiff City are not going to become major players in the end of season relegation drama. Such a possibility looked to be well and truly on the cards as January ended, but, with one match to go in the month, February has been a steadying period for the side and last night’s very significant 1-0 win at Wigan means that, besides picking up their first victory since beating Fulham in the back to blue match on 10 January, it’s now five matches since a defeat for Russell Slade’s team.
So, although further dramas at the bottom of the table cannot be discounted completely given the club we are talking about here, all of the signs are that City are going to see out the final couple of months of the campaign in a mini league comprising of about half the sides in the division where the prize for success will be a ninth placed finish and the price of failure will be coming about twentieth in the table.
Even if we end up winning the mid table battle to be “best of the rest”, I’m fairly sure a finish just inside the top ten will be deemed not good enough by many (including owner and Board I daresay) – even with last month’s cost cutting exercise, this is still a very expensively assembled squad.
I’d like to think that the fact I’m not using hindsight would be proved by a look back at some of my pieces on here from earlier in the season when I said that I was never convinced that our squad was as good as many claimed. Truth be told, I didn’t expect the level of performance from them to be as consistently poor as is has been, but I’d like to think that, basically, I had this squad figured out – there were others in the division that I got spectacularly wrong however.
Although it might have not have seemed like it after watching us toil against the likes of Rotherham, Reading and Brighton, it seems that there are worse sides than us in the division. For example, by completing our first double of the season in beating Wigan, we have, surely, shown that they are inferior to us.
Back in August the score was the same when the two clubs met at Cardiff City Stadium, but, back then, the game was seen by many as being very significant because, even then, the three points at stake were seen to be potentially very important at the top of the table come the end of the season. As mentioned earlier, I was not sure that this would prove to be the case for City, but I was convinced pre season about our opponents – I ended my piece about the game by saying “Wigan might have made a poor start, but it’s hard to see them struggling for long” (in fact, they and Norwich were my pre season tips for automatic promotion).
Anyone who says they saw Wigan’s troubles this season coming is a liar in my book – earlier I talked about the Championship’s competitiveness, so seeing a fancied team struggle shouldn’t be too much of a shock, but Wigan are now in real danger of becoming tailed off at the bottom of the league with Blackpool. I’ve looked at their season from afar and thought that they’ve got to start picking up results soon with the squad they’ve got and on the face of it, home matches against Charlton and Cardiff in the space of the last five days represented a great chance to kickstart a revival, but both games were lost without a goal being scored.
In fact, after beating Blackpool and Birmingham at the DW Stadium at the back end of August in the two matches following their defeat here, Wigan have been winless at home since then and it’s now just one point from eight home games after last night’s defeat – teams don’t avoid relegation with records like that.
The home team’s travails should be a warning to City as they, seemingly, face a second season in the Championship following relegation - Wigan had the advantage of another season of parachute payments and, leaving the sort of matters that prompted a boycott of the home Director’s Box by City Board members to one side for now, had an owner who, from a distance anyway, seemed pretty clued in when it came to football in a way that we are not used to at Cardiff. However, at the age of 78, it appears that Dave Whelan’s sure touch has deserted him – the appointment of Malky Mackay was a huge gamble which is just not working.
Settings aside the baggage that appointing Mackay following the nature of his departure from Cardiff brings, I find it startling how his stock has fallen so far in such a short space of time. The clues are there that his relationship with Vincent Tan had broken down when Manchester City were beaten back in August 2013 and so, even at the time of our greatest triumph in the Premier League, the writing may well have been on the wall for him already.
However, go back a few months to the close season and all of the talk was how we had one of best young managers in the game and the persistent rumours about him becoming David Moyes’ successor at Everton were never dismissed as being too outlandish to be true – Mackay to Everton seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Now, less than two years on, whatever it was that marked him out as a manager to watch has gone. Wigan have taken a meagre eight points from his sixteen games in charge and their record under him is far worse than it was under the man he replaced (Uwe Rosler).
Maybe Mackay can resurrect his managerial career yet. I’ve got my doubts about that though on two fronts, will he be able to recapture whatever it was that made him good, but, maybe more importantly, will the desire be there to try again if, as seems likely, it ends in tears for him at Wigan?
After the game, Mackay declared himself to be touched by the reception he got from the City fans before kick off – sure, plenty of bridges have been burned over the last fifteen months or so with large sections of the club’s support and I’m not going to tell those that have no time for the man any more that they are wrong to feel like that, but I look at him and what has happened to us since he left and I can’t help thinking about how things could have been.
We are where we are though and Russell Slade’s side produced more of what we have seen from them in their previous four matches at Wigan – it’s not pretty (apart from a few occasions against Blackburn about which I’m already beginning to question myself as to whether they really happened!), but, built around the solidity of our centrebacks, it’s solid and was able to survive the loss through injury of our two new full backs.
I say it’s not pretty, but it needs to be recorded that we scored one of our better goals of the season last night as a central midfielder burst forward, beat three opponents and slotted the ball confidently home. Even when he was playing his most effective football for City, I’m not sure if I had asked someone who had not seen the goal who the scorer was based on that description, I doubt it very much if I would have got the answer Aron Gunnarsson, but Gunnarsson it was.
Actually, at the risk of falling into a trap I’ve been caught in a few times already this season, I’d say that Gunnarsson is one of two much criticised members of the current squad who have stepped their game up in the last month or so. While the search for signs of the Peter Whittingham that was regarded as the best player in this league once goes on, his midfield partner is looking more like his old self and at the back, Sean Morrison is beginning to provide some evidence as to why we paid so much for him back in August – Bruno Manga’s more eye catching defending is the inspiration behind a record of two goals conceded in five matches, but Morrison’s steady work alongside him should not be ignored either.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/