Birmingham’s Europa Cup commitments mean that not every Championship club reached the halfway point of their league campaign on Boxing Day, but this time represents the best opportunity for a review of how the first half of the season has gone for our rivals and a prediction on how things will pan out for them over the next four months – I’ve done similar pieces just after Christmas in each of the last two seasons and let’s say the results have been mixed!
I’ve seen three Barnsley matches this season – they’ve lost them all and conceded five in two of them! However, they currently stand closer to the top six than the bottom three and the gamble of looking in the lower divisions for many of their new signings in the summer can be said to have paid off so far. Appointing the right manager clearly helped and in Keith Hill, who did such a great job at Rochdale, they’ve made a good appointment. It seems obvious that finances dictate that Barnsley have to shop in the bargain basement – names like Scott Wiseman, Matty Done and David Perkins are not ones that are well known to many supporters of Championship clubs, but they seem to be doing a decent job at Oakwell while Craig Davies has shown the ability that so many managers knew was there but could not tap into. With Danny Drinkwater also showing he can be an influence at this level, I see Barnsley as over achievers so far who may find the second half of the campaign tougher, but should finish clear of the bottom three.
They’ve followed relegation with an instant promotion on the two previous occasions they have dropped out of the Premiership, but have shown few signs that they can repeat that achievement this time around. The aforementioned Europa Cup hasn’t helped their promotion ambitions, but, with Chris Burke settling in impressively, victory in the two matches they have in hand on most of the other sides in the league would see them level on points with Reading in sixth place. Owner Carson Yeung’s future is uncertain though following his arrest for money laundering and the January transfer window would seem to be a time for high profile departures rather than arrivals at St. Andrews. The threat of Administration, which was heavily rumoured in the summer, appears to have receded, but Birmingham still have their financial issues and so I’d say this season has worked out much as expected so far and an away record which has them showing just one draw from their last six outings hardly suggests Birmingham can do more than scrape into the top ten.
Ian Holloway’s side has the advantage of knowing what is needed to succeed in the Play Off’s and, to be honest, that has to be the most likely way of them making a return to the Premiership now. There’s no Charlie Adam or David Vaughan to dominate in midfield this time though and there has to be doubts as to whether veterans Barry Ferguson and Kevin Phillips will be able to keep on going for the full season. If Blackpool are to succeed, then it seems that it may well be through the efforts of younger players such as Matt Phillips (scorer of a hat trick at Barnsley on Boxing Day) and more clever loan signings like McManaman. Ince and Shelvey. Goalscoring is not a problem and they were very impressive in becoming the first team to deny Southampton a win at St. Mary’s Stadium, but, like so many in this league, they can be inconsistent. It’s been a much as expected season so far, I’d say, but I can see Blackpool getting into the top six if they can find loan signings in the New Year that are as influential as Seamus Coleman and Steven Dobbie proved to be two seasons ago.
Brighton and Hove Albion
Looked so impressive in beating us at Cardiff City Stadium back in August and I don’t think I was the only City fan who thought we might have been watching a promotion team that night – who knows, we might have been, but, as things stand, it’s more likely to be us than them! That said, Brighton are only four points outside the top six, but their disciplinary record is poor and their form since the end of September has been very patchy. If the suspicion that they are one of the few Championship sides with significant money to spend next month is true, then something needs to be done to improve their goalscoring record which has them averaging just a goal a game. With Craig Mackail-Smith not doing enough to justify his huge transfer fee and Ashley Barnes’ goals having dried up following a fast start to the campaign, Brighton do not seem to have the fire power for a top six finish and I can see a much as expected first half of the campaign being followed by more of the same as they finish just inside the top half.
The days that saw the wurzels as authentic promotion candidates following their promotion to the Championship five seasons ago seem a long way off now. For me, they were the poorest team to visit Cardiff City Stadium so far this season and, based on that display, it was not a surprise to see their season develop into a relegation scrap. Derek McInnes is regarded as a bright young manager though and early results under him (including a deserved win over Southampton and an impressive televised victory at Millwall) were encouraging, but five matches without a win (including just one goal and one point in their last four) sees them only being kept out of the bottom three on goal difference. The decision to try and cash in on Nicky Maynard in January rather than lose him for nothing in the summer shows that this is another Championship club with money issues, but the striker is one of a few decent players at Ashton Gate (e.g. Adomah and Elliott) and they are under achievers so far in my book – they are also one of four clubs in danger of becoming tailed off at the bottom at the moment, but, as long as the money they get for Maynard is invested well, they look the best placed of the quartet to survive.
Are Burnley just your typically inconsistent Championship team going through a good spell or are they the real deal and their run of five wins in six matches is a sure fire sign that a talented squad with plenty of attacking options are going to be involved in the promotion shake up come May? Eddie Howe is another young manager with a big reputation and his work at Bournemouth suggests it’s deserved in this instance, but the one game they didn’t win in the last few weeks was at Turf Moor when a Portsmouth team without an away victory up until then, left with all three points thanks to a late David Norris goal. That points to the sort of inconsistency that Burnley showed last season when they always seemed to be on the brink of breaking into the top six, but never actually delivered on that and my suspicion is that this campaign might end up the same way – they’ve done much as expected so far and I’d say that they will need to tighten up defensively if we are not to see more of the same over the second half of the season.
This season was always going to be one where success would be seen as staying up for Coventry. A confusing state of affairs off the pitch has seen a third Board member in three months leave the club this week and if a Championship club are going to take the ten point hit and go into Administration this season, then Coventry, are probably joint favourites, at least, to be the ones to do so. The truth is though that, even without any points sanction from the Football League, Coventry look very unlikely to survive. The 1-0 win over Bristol City on Boxing Day was absolutely vital because there was a gap beginning to develop between them and the rest of the division, but with Lucas Jutkiewicz and maybe one or two others likely to be sold in January, manager Andy Thorn faced a much bigger challenge than he did earlier in the year after taking over from Aidy Boothroyd. The fact that Thorn was able to get Coventry playing good quality passing football as they comfortably avoided the drop, suggests that there is some talent at the Ricoh Arena and that they have under achieved slightly so far, but it’s relegation for them come the end of April I’m afraid.
Palace were able to avoid the drop last season because of an excellent home record which saw them pick up a number of 1-0 wins over higher placed sides (including us). This time around, they are still defensively sound at Selhurst Park (six goals conceded in eleven matches), but, whereas they were a bit of a shambles on their travels previously, they are well organised and difficult to break down away from home now. Dougie Freedman had been lucky to have youngsters like Clyne, Zaha and Scannell to work with as well as proven Championship performers like Speroni, McCarthy and Ambrose, but signings such as Parr, Dikgacoi, Jedinak and Murray for relatively small fees show him to be a shrewd judge of a player as well. With a victory at Old Trafford on the way to a League Cup Semi Final to consider, Palace have to be seen as big over achievers, but twenty two goals from twenty three league games shows exactly where their weaknesses lie and a top half finish is the best they can expect I reckon.
The Derby Board promised supporters their money back if they were not satisfied with the signings they made last summer and with ten new arrivals during the close season (many of them signed just after the end of the 2010/11 campaign), Nigel Clough was backed in a manner that he had not been used to previously. Players such as Ward, Shackell, Fielding, Tyson and Bryson would not have come cheap either and a 100% winning record after four games suggested that the club was geared for a real promotion push. However, the traditional Derby injury crisis was not far away and our visit to Pride Park in November saw them reduced to fielding 15 year old striker Mason Bennett in the starting line up. I don’t know what it is about this club that seems to have about half of their substantial playing staff injured for any given game, but it’s something which has blighted them for a couple of years now. That said, even with everyone fit, Derby have a mid table look to them – wins like the one in their last match against Leeds suggests they are too good to struggle and that they have over achieved slightly so far, but I’d say they’ll end up closer to the bottom (around 14th/15th?) than the top of the league
I used to have a real soft spot for Doncaster – they survived comfortably in their first two seasons in the Championship and did so while playing some excellent football. However, although Sean O’Driscoll did such a great job there, results really did go to pot from around the turn of the year onwards and when there was no sign of an improvement in the opening weeks of the new season, you could at least see the argument for the Donny Board deciding it was time for a change. Sadly, for those of us who admired the club so much previously, what has replaced O’Driscoll’s side leaves a sour taste as you feel that new manager Dean Saunders is just a puppet of the real power at the club – agent Willie McKay. To be fair, an initially cynical fan base is showing signs of being won over by the never ending stream of high profile loan signings and out of contract players who have arrived. Recent wins over Southampton and Leicester inspired by the excellent Billy Sharp have offered hope that Donny’s frantic approach might work, but they are still too inconsistent and I’d say it’s an under achieving squad at Doncaster who are headed for relegation – as the current club bears no relation to the one I used to have so much time for, I hope they do go down as well.
With Hull racking up the points under Nick Barmby’s more expansive approach, they go into the New Year as automatic promotion candidates. A profitable relationship with Manchester United under former boss Nigel Pearson which has seen the Humberside club rebuild sensibly and efficiently has left them with a solid defensive base and, for now at least, Barmby has got an attack which wasn’t the most potent by any means, firing. Hull had won four on the trot before their Boxing Day visit to Middlesbrough, but their defeat that day maybe gives a clue as to a problem which could have a big bearing on where they finish – they have yet to pick a single point in matches against the current top three. To be honest, I’ve not seen much of Hull at all this season, so it’s very much a case of my gut feeling when I say how I expect them to do over the second half of the season, but, while they’ve definitely over achieved so far, they seem to me to be over reliant on late goals from the excellent Robert Koren – I feel that the Fryatt/McLean partnership is not prolific enough and I can see them finishing in a top eight, but not top six, position.
If any side has taken over the Cardiff City mantle as the Championship’s galacticos this season, then it’s probably Ipswich Town. Apart from Sven Goran Ericksson and Sam Allardyce, no other Championship manager was indulged by his Board in the way Paul Jewell was throughout the last six months of 2011 as a series of high profile and often expensive newcomers headed towards Portman Road. Ipswich were many people’s dark horses for promotion and a 3-0 win over Bristol City (including a couple of goals from the troubled Michael Chopra) on the opening day suggested that Jewell had brought shrewdly. Since then though, Ipswich have often played like a bunch of strangers – Southampton and Peterborough scored a total of twelve against them in successive games in August and their defensive record is the worst in the division. Keith Andrews has done well in midfield, but most of the big name newcomers have flattered to deceive and it’s telling that it’s widely reckoned that the best deal Jewell made in the summer was the little known Ryan Cresswell on a Bosman free from Tranmere. Huge under achievers so far, Ipswich are currently in one of their periodic better spells, but they are much too inconsistent (and old!) to suggest that they can finish above halfway.
One of the Championship’s cliches is that it is a league where any anyone can beat anyone else on any given day. Since they were promoted in 2009/10, Leeds have often proved the validity of this and in their all too frequent television appearances, they often have me wondering why they aren’t higher in the league. Leeds were a very dangerous side last season and, their performances at West Ham, Brighton and Burnley in televised games (as well as a dominant display against us at Elland Road), shows that they can be this time around as well. That said, I don’t think they are quite as strong a team as last year – despite a couple of highly rated youngsters in Lees and White becoming regulars at the back for them, their defence is still too porous and they have issues in goal where Schmeichel doesn’t appear to have been satisfactorily replaced. With captain Howson missing from their midfield with injury, Ross McCormack’s goals drying up and Bechio not looking as dangerous as last season, too much attacking focus seems to have been centred on Robert Snodgrass lately. Leeds have done much as expected so far given the important players they lost in the summer, but they haven’t scored in losing their last two matches and, unless they can find someone to consistently stick the ball in the net, I think something like tenth is the best they can hope for.
The pre season forecasters had it that the other twenty two were just playing for Play Off spots – West Ham and Leicester had the automatic promotion places sewn up. Money was no object at whatever they’re calling the Walkers Stadium these days as Sven Goran Eriksson spent more than £10 million on a squad that has stubbornly refused to move out of mid table all season. As City found last season, being promotion favourites brings a special kind of pressure and Leicester have coped with it even worse than we did so far. The sacking of Eriksson in October gave plenty of people the chance to say “I told you so” as a manager who never really proved that he knew what was needed to succeed at Championship level was replaced by one who many thought should never have left the club in the first place. I think Leicester have the right manager in place now, but the results are still not coming and four matches without a win does little to suggest that they can get the promotion the new owners demand – the biggest under achievers in the division will no doubt spend big again in January, but that’s not worked so far and it may well be that Leicester will have to wait at least another year for the promotion they thought would arrive last season.
Boro showed at Cardiff City Stadium last May that they could be contenders at the top of the table this season and they were probably even more impressive in winning there just under a fortnight ago. That victory was their seventh of the campaign on the road and, with them now overcoming their earlier habit of drawing too many home games, there is every reason for optimism on Teesside this Christmas. Middlesbrough have a proven manager at this level who looks to have the solid defensive unit that some of his previous successful Championship sides have lacked and it seems to me that they have to be the team most likely to break up the duo who have been in the automatic promotion positions for most of the campaign. Boro have certainly over achieved so far, but if this team aren’t a typical Mowbray side in that they are solid defensively, then it’s also true to say they are nowhere near as prolific in front of goal as his West Brom sides used to be- City could consider themselves a little unlucky in a way in that they encountered Middlesbrough on a day when they had their shooting boots on, because they don’t often score more than two in a game – for this reason I see them as a Play Off team to be avoided if possible.
Millwall are having one of those difficult second seasons, but I suppose it’s true to say that their current position is more representative of the ability in their squad than last year’s flirtation with the Play Off’s was. On that score, the much under rated Steve Morrison is definitely being missed – Darius Henderson is a player who has had a short spell when he couldn’t stop scoring this season and he has certainly caused us problems at times down the years, but he is a one dimensional player compared to Morrison who has surprising speed and mobility for someone of his build. Millwall’s problems have also got a fair bit to do with their ropey away record, they are still pretty strong defensively though and their home record is much better than many of the teams around them. In Kenny Jackett they also have a manager who seems to be pretty good at picking players from the lower divisions who can perform in the Championship – Morrison and Mkandawire proved that last season and Feeney is this time around. I’d say Millwall have slightly under achieved so far, but I dont’ see them being sucked into the bottom three and, in fact, can see a slight improvement for them so that they finish three or four places above their current twentieth.
If Sven is the biggest managerial casualty of this season’s Championship, then Steve McLaren has to be the second biggest. The suspicion with which many Forest fans greeted the ex England manager’s appointment said much about how far his stock has fallen in this country despite his successes abroad and, as with Eriksson, the news of his leaving wasn’t too big a shock. However, if replacement Steve Cotterill was regarded as a “safe pair of hands”, there’s been few signs yet that he is going to prove any more successful than McLaren was. At first glance, it’s difficult to see why Forest should be struggling as much as they are – although they’ve been unlucky with a long term injuries to Cohen and Blackstock, their squad still looks pretty strong. However, stories about them selling the likes of McGugan, Morgan or Chambers to fund the signing of newcomers next month gives the clue that this is another Championship club for whom there is a new reality of financial prudence in place. I can remember people were thinking that Forest were too good to be relegated back in 2004/05, but then I saw them play and knew they were going down! This season’s under achieving side were nowhere as bad in losing to us last month as that team was nearly seven years ago, but a goal difference of -19 tells it’s own story and I think Forest are going down.
I mentioned earlier that the current bottom four are in danger of becoming detached and they’ll be hoping that this season will see another seemingly safe team drop like a stone and become embroiled in the relegation struggle. If asked who that team is likely to be, I daresay many would come up with Peterborough who found this division too hot to cope with two years ago. However, there is plenty of evidence already that Darren Ferguson’s team is a more resilient and streetwise outfit this time around. Yes, they still let in more goals than they should, but they are scoring more this time around (only Southampton can beat their total of forty two league goals). Players like Boyd and Bennett are more at home at this level now, while the likes of Sinclair and Taylor have not found the step up in class a problem. Peterborough are over achieving and it might be that they will find their second twenty three matches more of a challenge than their first twenty three were, but if they do drop down the table. I don’t see it being the nine or ten places to drop them into the relegation places, more four or five to take them into the bottom third of the table.
No, if a side is going to drop into trouble in the coming months, I think it is more likely to be Portsmouth. Obviously, my main reason for saying this is because, once again, the club appears to be in serious financial trouble and you can see them having to sell again next month as the threat of another Administration grows. That said though, I look at the Portsmouth starting eleven most weeks and can’t help thinking that they are not punching their weight. Their awful away record suggests a brittleness in their squad which doesn’t bode well for them if they did start dropping down the league and, although new manager Michael Appleton comes with a fine reputation as a coach, it’s been proved time and again that good coach doesn’t always equal good manager. Pompey’s programme over the next couple of months looks a testing one and their under achieving squad could do with a win or two to keep that gap from the bottom four at six points or more, but, despite what I’ve said about them, I think Portsmouth have enough quality to stay up – if they were to go down, I’d say it would be more to do with off field problems than on field ones.
Five wins in six matches since their loss to us at the Madejski in November suggests that Reading’s season is proceeding along similar lines to the previous two under ex City midfield man Brian McDermott, in that the Royals will be as good as anyone in this league over the last two thirds of the season. Wins in their last three matches over West Ham, Leeds and Brighton without conceding a goal is exactly the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from Reading around this time of year and, just as they have done on the past four occasions when we’ve played them down here in the league, they’ll be in a very confident frame of mind for Monday’s match. If I have doubts about Reading, it’s whether they’ve managed to adequately replace Shane Long’s goals from last season – Adam Le Fondre has only scored once in the Royals last eleven games. However, Simon Church is showing signs of looking more like the player who looked such a good prospect two years ago and McDermott is another manager who seems to have an eye for a bargain from the lower divisions, so I would expect a shrewd signing or two next month as Reading’s over achieving squad head for a finish in the top six.
Although I haven’t checked this, I would have thought that Southampton have a better record in the year 2011 than any other of the ninety two clubs that make up the Premiership and Football leagues. They finished last season like a train with thirteen wins and a draw in their final fifteen matches and, certainly at home, have become as strong a team at this level as I can remember in ages, with the recent draw with Blackpool being their only blemish on an otherwise perfect record this season. The victory overPalace on Boxing Day sent out a signal that normal home service had been resumed and with money to spend in the January window, Nigel Adkins and his team are superbly placed to make it successive promotions. Southampton have very good players for this level – Lallana, De Prado and Lambert to name three, but, for me, the winning mentality that the sort of run they have had engenders is their main strength and they are big over achievers this season. Some recent wobbles away from home, do offer some hope to the other sides at the top mind, but I can’t see Southampton slipping up unless playing at home becomes much tougher for them than it is now – runner’s up I reckon.
In both of Malky Mackay’s seasons with that club, Watford went into the campaign with many tipping them for the drop and, given the exodus of staff to Cardiff during the summer (not to mention Don Cowie), it was more of the same this summer before a ball was kicked. Although losing so many important people to one club from South Wales was bad enough, perhaps the biggest loss was last season’s Championship top scorer Danny Graham to Swansea, but, although not doing as well as Malky did during the first half of his seasons at Vicarage Road, rookie boss Sean Dyche has done an admirable job in taking his team to a relatively safe place in lower mid table with Monday’s draw with us being their seventh game unbeaten. Dyche has been given a fair amount of money to spend by Watford standards mind and Hogg, Yeates and Dickinson have all done well for their new club, while Michael Kightly is a good loan signing from Wolves. Watford are over achieving and look to be improving – I can see them finishing three or four places above their current position of eighteenth.
Although the football doesn’t seem to be too easy on the eye for a support brought up on playing the “West Ham way”, their team look to be coping with the pressure of being favourites well enough. Middlesbrough are in their best form of the season while West Ham haven’t been at their most convincing lately and yet they are still level on forty four points and, with the prospect of quality reinforcements arriving in January, the Hammers look to be halfway towards the promotion that most of the country was expecting to me. Occasionally, that pressure manifests itself with unexpected home results (three defeats so far at Upton Park, as well as a draw with Bristol City), but away form has been excellent with one of only two defeats coming when they were reduced to nine men at Reading. Although I would like to see them fail because I’m no fan of the sort of football Sam Allardyce sides tend to play, West Ham are going along much as expected, and, rather like Newcastle did two years ago, I can see them getting stronger over the second half of the season as they clinch a return to the Premiership as champions.
You’ll see that I’ve only tipped three sides for the Play Offs and that’s because I can see us making them for a third consecutive season. Two potential problems with my prediction that I can see are, firstly, that our squad won’t be big enough to cope with the injuries and suspensions we’ll inevitably pick up. I’ve mentioned my second concern a few times already – Malky Mackay’s Watford teams were not so good in the second half of seasons as they were in the first and the suspicion has to be that the high tempo approach favoured by our manager began to take it’s toll. Two or three new players in the next month will help with both of these matters though and my feeling is that the combination of a good league results and our run in the League Cup will persuade the Malaysian investors to give Malky Mackay sufficient funds to bring in the players he needs. I don’t expect it to be millions and there’s no need for it to be – the last three Play Off winners spent wisely and prudently and I’d like to think that our manager will do the same as he gives us more of the sort of approach to player recruitment we saw in the summer.