As I was driving home from Birmingham in a monsoon with a car radio which is unreliable at best during our excellent 1-0 win at fifth placed Leicester yesterday, it seems a bit pointless me pontificating on something I know very little about to a bunch of people who, if they were not there at whatever the Walkers Stadium is called these days watching it, were, in many cases, viewing a live stream of the match. Therefore, I thought the twenty third game of the season (we’ve also now played every team in the division once) was an ideal opportunity to reflect on the first half of the campaign for all twenty four teams and make a fool of myself by predicting where they are likely to end up next May. I’ve done this over the previous three seasons at this time of year and have graded teams as “over achievers”, “under achievers” and “much as expected” recently, so I’ll stick to the same format this time.
Were very impressive in thrashing Birmingham 5-0 at St. Andrews back in September and results like yesterday’s victory at Millwall and the recent draw at Leicester show that they are capable of causing shocks on their travels. They were also desperately unlucky to lose at home to Sheffield Wednesday, but, in general, results at Oakwell have been awful. One of the few Championship sides who start a season with the outlook that mere survival will be judged a success. Keith Hill proved himself to be a shrewd manager of a team with very few of the financial resources that their rivals had at Rochdale and I think he was the right type of appointment for Barnsley, but it’s been much as expected for them so far and I can’t see them staying up.
Looked a poor outfit in televised defeats against Watford, Barnsley, Derby and Wolves and were lucky to beat Middlesbrough in another match covered by Sky. On the other hand, I thought they looked quite useful when we beat them in early October. Birmingham’s cause has not been helped by the money laundering charges against their owner and I think it was always going to be tough for them to match last season’s Play Off place, especially when Chris Hughton left for Norwich. However, they have a squad which should be doing better than their current position of nineteenth and Lee Clark’s appointment cannot be called a success at the moment – under achievers who may climb a few places, but I can’t see them finishing in the top half.
It has to be said that they been a shambles of a club under the current ownership. I found it baffling that the Venky’s seemed to sit on their hands in January and give Steve Kean very little to spend as they tried to stay in the Premiership and then probably spent more than anyone else in the division this summer after they had been relegated. Blackburn made a good start and were top of the table for a while, but as soon as results dipped a little, the manager found himself back under intolerable pressure. Say what you like about Steve Kean though, I always got the impression that the Blackburn were right behind him and there’s little evidence so far that the same thing applies to Henning Berg his successor. Under achievers who I’ve seen tipped by some for relegation, but I can’t see that happening – bottom half maybe, but not bottom three.
Started like a house on fire and were the early leaders of the division, but I thought they looked very ordinary against us in late September and, in the weeks that followed, it became obvious that, for whatever reason, Ian Holloway had fallen out of love with them. New manager Michael Appleton has a good reputation within the game and has made a decent start at Bloomfield Road, only losing his first game in charge on Friday when Wolves were very lucky to pick up on away win. A 2-2 draw at Selhurst Park when Palace were absolutely flying shows their ability, but they’ve not shown it enough since summer turned to autumn – a dodgy pitch doesn’t help their cause, but they are another bunch of under achievers who I can see improving from here to finish in the top eight even if they sell Tom Ince – not sure about top six though.
Were pre-season favourites to be Champions, but Owen Coyle was unable to halt a decline that had been going on for about eighteen months when the action started and they were involved in a relegation scrap when he was sacked. Things have improved under Dougie Freedman, but, even then, there were too many draws and recent defeats by Ipswich and Peterborough show that there are still problems at the Reebok. It would be very unusual for all three relegated sides to do as poorly over the course of a full season as they have done so far and, if one of them is going to start flying up the table, I’d say it’s most likely to be Bolton - definite under achievers and, although I can see an improvement in the second half of the campaign for them, I reckon they’ve left themselves with too much to do to make the top six.
Our draw at Brighton looked an excellent result back in August, but their patchy home form (four wins in twelve) has come as a surprise to me and manager Gus Poyet’s frustration with his team’s lack of fire power, culminating in his daft comments about where his side should be in an “average” league, has been apparent all season. However, they are handily placed, are very solid defensively and, importantly, there seems to be money available for Poyet to spend next month. I can’t see them making an impression on the top positions with their current strikers and when I watch them I think they could do with some creativity to go with all the ball retention, but they are doing much as expected for me and with the right January signings might squeeze into the top six – if I had to guess though, I reckon they’ll come up just short in seventh or eighth.
When they hit us and Palace for four in their first two home matches, the wurzels were talking about a promotion challenge, but results since then have shown that just staying up is going to be their priority this season. Like quite a few Championship sides, they seem more comfortable playing away than at home (results at Ashton Gate have been dreadful with their goals against record a joke) and recent wins at Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday, as well as yesterday’s draw at Ipswich, offer them hope. Much as expected so far and I’m not sure if they’ve got the squad depth to survive this time – I think they’ll go down unless they can significantly improve that home record.
In terms of goals scored in their games, Burnley were probably the most entertaining team in the Championship over the first three months of the season under Eddie Howe, but Sean Dyche was always going to tighten things up at the back and it’s hardly surprising that this has coincided with a drop in the goalscoring rate. Burnely are a typically consistently inconsistent Championship side though and, as long as they can keep hold of the prolific Charlie Austin, they’ll always be capable of giving virtually anybody in the division a bit of a tonking because they’ve got good, creative, attacking players – much as expected so far, I can see them just finishing in the top half.
They were an improving outfit under Dougie Freedman last season, but after selling Nathaniel Clyne to Southampton and captain Paddy McCarthy picking up a long term injury, which has prevented him playing so far this season, I’ll admit that I had them down as more likely to be concerned about matters at the bottom of the table than the top this time around. Palace have been brilliant in the first half of the season though – goals had been a problem, but Wilfred Zaha’s rapid development and Yannick Bolasie’s huge improvement this season has meant that Glenn Murray has been able to show a goalscoring capability which I had thought was beyond him at this level. You get the feeling that January is going to be a more important month for Palace than it might be for some of the teams around them, but they are big over achievers up to now and, doubts about their squad depth and a slight recent wobble notwithstanding, I think they’ll definitely make the Play Offs.
That mad night at the Valley about six weeks ago seems to have turned around Charlton’s season. Before that, home form was a real issue with just five goals to show from their first seven games before they doubled that tally against us! Away from home though, they’ve been solid and difficult to break down all season with wins at Blackpool and Burnley without conceding offering proof of a resilience that was also apparent in draws at Leeds and Millwall. there doesn’t seem to be too many stars in Chris Powell’s squad, but they ran away with a very competitive League One last season and I think they are easy outfit to under estimate. Much as expected so far, I see them finishing just below half way.
If they could sort out their away form I reckon they’d be a top six side. Everybody’s talking about Will Hughes, but Derby have other talented youngsters like Hendrick and Jacobs to go with proven performers at this level such as Brayford, Keogh, Bryson and Ward. They’ve been free scoring at Pride Park this season and I’ve been very impressed with them in recent televised games with Birmingham and Leicester. Derby also showed a lot of determination and organisation in winning at Forest in front of the cameras, but such performances have been rare away from home and they’ve suffered some heavy beatings. Over achievers, up to now, but their lack of experience suggests they might have to wait a year before becoming genuine top six challengers.
I was surprised by how good they looked against us on the first day of the season and they were even more impressive in winning 3-1 at Blackpool in a televised game. I thought Simon Grayson bought well during the summer with Clayton and Norwood being two good central midfield players at this level who were young enough to improve a lot in the next few seasons. They also recruited some decent loan signings who appeared capable of providing the goals that would be lost by Jordan Rhodes’ departure and I was not too surprised to say them looking like Play Off challengers in September and October. Huddersfield’s struggles since then though have, perhaps, shown those who like to do down the quality of the Championship that, even with Norwich and Southampton’s recent promotions, there’s still a fair sized gap between the second and third tier – much as expected up to now I suppose, I can see them finishing somewhere like fourteenth.
Steve Bruce has been saying that Hull were 33/1 to win the title – I’m surprised by that if it’s true. Hull were impressive in winning at Bristol City in a televised match and that was some win at Derby on Friday to go with an excellent three points at Watford the week before. They have a bigger squad than the team they have taken over second spot from and all of the players who were part of what was one of the Championship’s most effective back fours last season are still at the club. Second place for Hull makes them over achievers, but Steve Bruce has been talking about the importance of keeping his loan signings at the club for the second half of the campaign and, perhaps City caught them on a bad day last month – I thought we won more comfortably than the scoreline suggests and I predict the Play Off’s rather than automatic promotion for them this season.
I reckon Ipswich were heading for League One under Paul Jewell, but they’ve made a good appointment in Mick McCarthy who has steadied the ship to the extent that nobody seems to be tipping them for the drop any more. Ipswich will probably continue to gradually pull clear of the bottom places, but there’s something about them which means that it wouldn’t surprise me too much if they ended up with more of a fight on their hands. I say this because in a division full of inconsistent sides, Ipswich, perhaps more than anyone, are capable of losing five or six on the trot – they’ve conceded two sixes and a five already away from home this season as well. Much as expected for a squad which looked the weakest they’d had in a while before a ball was kicked – despite those misgivings, I can see them finishing somewhere like sixteenth.
Expectations at Elland Road are always high and with their takeover finally completed and good recent home wins against Palace and Middlesbrough, I think Leeds fans will be starting to think this is their year. With Becchio banging in goals left, right and centre, Ross McCormack yet to make an impact this season and decent loan signings in Thomas and Tonge, a Play Off place is looking more likely for Leeds than it did a month ago, but I can’t help thinking that they are a little short of guile and craft in central midfield and they will need a bit more class to get into the top six. Leeds are over achievers, but the best I can see for them is a finish between seventh and tenth.
I must admit I expected Leicester to be closer to the top of the league than they are. I say this because they have always impressed me with their pace, passing and movement when I’ve seen them in televised games and it seems they showed us some of that style in the opening half an hour of our game yesterday. The thing is though that Leicester’s appearances in front of the cameras have tended to be in home matches and their away record is not that impressive – they don’t concede many, but they have a tendency to lose 1-0 or 2-1. Nigel Pearson has an awful lot of experience of this league though and I’m sure there’ll been money for him to spend next month to bolster what is already a strong squad. Leicester are slight under achievers so far, but I’m sure they’ll make the Play Offs and can still see them putting in a top two challenge which I would say will come up just short.
For me, Boro are the best team to have visited Cardiff City Stadium so far this season. With a manager who knows what it takes to get out of this division in Tony Mowbray and a number of injured players due to return in the second half of the season, they have to be genuine promotion contenders. On the down side, they do tend to be a bit inconsistent (they lost three out of four last month including by 3-1 at home to Bristol City) and they can’t afford to lose as many matches over the second half of the campaign as they have done in the first (they been beaten eight times). However, Middlesbrough are over achievers so far and, although it’s particularly difficult to predict a top two this season, I reckon they could finish runner’s up.
Kenny Jackett would be my selection as Championship manager of the first half of the season. Millwall would have been one of my relegation picks back in August and around about the time we won by 2-0 there, I had no reason to think I’d got things wrong. However in recent months, they’ve had some spectacular results – 4-1 at Forest and successive wins at Blackburn and Wolves spring to mind. However, more than any other manager at the top of the division, Jackett needs to keep hold of his loan stars like Smith and Lowry. Of course, it’s the goals of Chris Wood that have been the biggest reason for Millwall’s unlikely top six challenge and their chances of extending his loan from West Brom don’t look great – Millwall may well be the division’s biggest over achievers so far, but, without Wood and a squad lacking numbers, it’s hard to see them being able to do as well from now on, I reckon they’ll finish in the top half though.
On the face of it, Forest would do well to challenge at the top this season – after all they had to completely revamp their defence in the summer. With rich new owners though, a highly respected new manager in Sean O’Driscoll who was able to spend millions on the likes of Cox, Lansbury and Guedioura, as well as expensive loan recruits such as Sharp and Hutton, Forest’s prospects were better than might have first been anticipated and yet something seems to missing there. They barely average a goal a game at home (we are the only team they’ve managed to score more than two against at the City Ground) and nine draws are too many in a division where there are quite a few teams who tend to be a case of win or nothing - Forest are under achievers in my book so far and, with worrying talk of people not being paid on time this month coming from the club, I’m not sure that they’ll be able to mount a credible top six challenge.
Peterborough looked doomed already when they traveled to Cardiff City Stadium eight days ago – bottom of the table with one point from a possible twenty four, they were everyone’s tip for relegation. However, a highly improbable 2-1 win at Cardiff and an amazing 5-4 home win over Bolton mean that they are now just two points from safety. They certainly didn’t look like a relegation side against us and they have always been able to score goals at this level – Darren Ferguson is very good at finding players from the lower leagues who can perform at Championship level and if he can come up with a couple more next month, then, who knows, Posh could survive for a second consecutive season at this level. Things have gone much as expected so far and I can see it coming down to a battle between Peterborough and Sheffield Wednesday for the last relegation spot – there’ll be less pressure on Posh and I think that might be crucial.
After losing to Bristol City at home a fortnight ago, Dave Jones must have been hanging on to the Sheffield Wednesday job by his fingernails, but a very lucky win at Barnsley and a more routine triumph yesterday at home to Charlton have eased the pressure on him and his team going into Christmas. Milan Mandaric (someone who has been very prone to making managerial changes in the past) seems to have a lot of faith in our ex manager and there must be some hope that he is over the worst of the crisis which has engulfed the club since early September. That said, given the manner in which they stormed to promotion over the closing months of last season, Wednesday have to be seen as big under achievers so far – Dave Jones made wholesale changes to the promotion side in summer and too many of the newcomers have spent most of the campaign on the sidelines – I can see them going down without significant investment next month.
There are those who think Watford were the best of the ten teams we beat while setting that club record run at Cardiff City Stadium. Certainly, it’s hard to see how the result would have been the same without those two sending off’s, but I tended to think of our struggles that night being more down to us playing poorly than Watford being especially good. That said, I’m not sure we saw the real Watford that night – their huge away wins at Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday were based on hitting sides on the break with their attacking pace (Leeds being down to nine men for most of the time helped as well mind!) and, if they can become a bit more efficient at home, then they could maintain their current position. It was hard to know what to expect from Watford with all of their new players this season, but my feeling is that they are over achievers - I can see them just making it into the top six.
Three wins in four have lessened the pressure that was building up on Stale Solbakken, but two of those victories, against Birmingham and Blackpool, were televised and it must be said that they were the sort of matches where supporters remember the result rather than the performance. Having received around £20 million from the sale of Steven Fletcher and Matt Jarvis to go with their massive parachute payment, there was the opportunity to get some quality into a club which had such a dismal time of it in 2011/12, but, with the exception of Bakary Sako, there’s been little sign of the newcomers blending in successfully so far. Jamie O’Hara’s return from injury will help matters, but Wolves are under achievers who I can see scraping into the top ten in a better second half of the season.
That’s everyone then except for us and I must admit that in recent weeks I’ve been suffering from a conflict brought about by me having the usual feeling that we always manage to cock things up, brought on by nearly fifty years of watching us do just that, while trying to answer as honestly as I possibly can a question which has been cropping up with increasing regularity – i.e. “if I were a neutral, how would I rate Cardiff City’s promotion chances?”. It’s difficult to be totally objective of course, but in trying to be, I would say that the fact that Cardiff have lost to the Championship’s two bottom sides suggest that motivation for games considered to be “bankers” might be a problem. I’d also point to Cardiff sometimes giving hope to other sides in the league that they can be caught and overhauled at a time when some clubs might be beginning to think that they were getting away from them – the Peterborough match was an example of us giving belief to a group of clubs who could well have been losing faith in their ability to catch us after the Blackburn win.
On the other hand though, I’d be thinking that there is probably more to come from some of their expensive new recruits, that their early problems away from home were fast disappearing (promotion is built on results like yesterday’s) and there is the expectation that Malky Mackay will be given given the funds in January to address issues such as the lack of cover at full back and the absence of consistent goalscorer. Cardiff also have a very happy knack of recovering quickly from defeats and, although the City fan in me will always believe that we are going to mess it up until promotion is confirmed, I think that a neutral pundit would look at what’s happened so far, what the bookies think and what might happen in January and think that Cardiff are currently the club best placed to finish the season as Champions.