A fortnight ago City turned in what has been described as the most complete performance of the Malky Mackay era in beating Burnley 4-0 at Cardiff City Stadium. When you consider that we had two players from that game (Don Cowie and Matt Connolly) missing through injury to go with the medium to long term absences to Craig Bellamy, Tommy Smith, Jordon Mutch and Nicky Maynard and that we ended up having to make changes, which involved one of our team playing in an unfamiliar position, following a further injury to Kevin McNaughton (his replacement Filip Kiss also only lasted twenty five minutes or so before a tight hamstring forced him to be taken off at half time), then I’d say there was an argument for saying yesterday’s 2-1 home win over Hull was even more impressive. Whether that is true or not, I wouldn’t mind betting that there were a fair few Burnley and Hull fans thinking that they had just been beaten by a promotion team as they headed north on their journeys home.
How is it then that we played like drains at Charlton in midweek having also lost yet again on our travels at Bolton a week ago? I put this question not as a prelude to another analysis of our away day problems (I’ve done more than enough of them already!), but more to simply ask how can we be so inconsistent? Well, I’m not going to try to answer that question (mainly because I can’t!), but what I have done is undertake some research into previous seasons which I believe shows a couple of things – firstly fans of sides that went up in an automatic promotion place must have been asking the same question at this stage of the campaign in almost half of the nine completed seasons since we returned to this level and second, the 2012/13 Championship is shaping up as the most open one in years because so many teams have the same inconsistency problems as us.
To deal with the second point first, the fewest number of defeats suffered amongst the twenty four Championship clubs is three by Palace, Blackburn and Forest with too many draws tending to negate the benefits such a record should bring in the case of the latter two. That figure is high compared to the nine completed seasons we’ve spent in this division since 2003 seasons though – in fact, it’s only matched in 2008/09 when you look at the table after sixteen matches. In 10/11 and 04/05 there were sides still unbeaten at this stage (QPR and Wigan respectively) and in 05/06, Reading had only lost once. Therefore, taken overall, the oft repeated line about the Championship being a league where any team at the bottom can beat the team at the top in any given week applies even more in 12/13.
This is further backed up when you look at how many sides have topped the league so far this season. 12/13 is also unusual in that, whereas the opening month of a campaign tends to see different sides topping the table every week, Blackpool led the league for all of this time – except for the day or so after we beat Huddersfield the night before everyone else played their first match. However, since they lost their position at the top in mid September, Blackburn, Brighton, Cardiff (twice), Leicester and Palace have all led the league with Middlesbrough having their few hours at the top as well through playing before every else did this weekend.
Since losing their first three matches, Palace have been far and away the most consistent team in the division and, provided they can keep hold of their best players in January, I’m beginning to think they can go the distance. So far though, there has been no side really sending out the signal that this is going to be their year in the way that QPR, Newcastle, Reading and Wigan, for example, have done in the past. Five defeats at this stage of the season is a lot for a team with automatic promotion aspirations, but that is the number that last season’s Champions Reading had suffered after sixteen games, as had 10/11 and 07/08 runner’s up Norwich and Stoke, while, remarkably, 06/07 Champions Sunderland had been beaten nine times by now.
Given the anyone can beat anyone nature of the early months of the 12/13 Championship, it seems to me that sides may be able to suffer more defeats and finish the season with less points than what is considered the norm for automatic promotion and a Play off place, so our woeful away results are not working out as harmful as they would be in other seasons.
Turning to yesterday’s game, besides Palace, the form sides in the league have been our next visitors Middlesbrough, who looked very impressive in beating Sheffield Wednesday on Friday night, and Hull City who had won five out of six before yesterday (the one defeat in that run being at Middlesbrough) and had also turned it on for the TV cameras in winning at Ashton Gate recently. However, in my opinion, they were beaten a lot more comfortably than the score suggests yesterday – they left complaining about a handball decision that saw a goal disallowed in first half stoppage time, but I was sat in line with Simpson when he put the ball in and he looked offside to me. Besides that Sone Aluko (dangerous at times, but not as influential as I feared he might be) clipped the bar with a free kick and Hull passed the ball about quite prettily at times in a manner we couldn’t, or didn’t want to, match.
However, for the first twenty minutes as the City strikers were fed a string of quality crosses and for most of the second half when the always impressive Joe Ralls improved things, I’d say we passed the ball more effectively than our opponents. That’s not to say we didn’t play our fair share of neat and intricate passes either – there was an incisiveness to a lot of our passing (which invariably was looked to be played forward rather than sideways or backwards) which Hull couldn’t match and this, together, with the aforesaid good crossing from dead ball and open play meant that we looked dangerous nearly every time we attacked.
As for individuals, I’ve got to say that, having been a bit so, so about him up to now, I was impressed by Heidar Helguson. Sat at the other end of the ground, I presumed that Craig Noone’s cross would be a routine one for Hull keeper Amos to gather and it took me a little while to realise that Helguson had, effectively, outjumped him to head the ball in. My immediate reaction when I realised it was a goal was to put it down to a goalkeeping howler and I still feel Amos could have done better with it, but Helguson made it very difficult for him and the desire he showed to get to the ball first was excellent. As Aron Gunnarsson said in his post match press conference, there are many players who wouldn’t have bothered going for that ball in the knowledge that they were going to get clattered by the keeper (not to mention hit the post as well!) and, based on the courage he showed in scoring and the way he threw himself back into the fray after six minutes of treatment, you can understand why Malky Mackay called Helguson the bravest player he’s seen after the game.
Peter Whittingham was back to his normal standards in general play and probably above them in terms of his dead ball delivery, as only a fine save and, later, the woodwork denied him from free kicks and his corners were always bang on the mark, while Kim Bo Kyung had his most effective game so far, mixing some lovely skills with effective passing and a great willingness to work for the team. Aron Gunnarsson missed an easy chance in that opening period when City would not have been flattered by a three goal lead, but he was doing a fine job in midfield and proved to be a perfectly adequate right back (I’d not want to see him used there if McNaughton and Connolly are both going to be out for a while though), while the cross he put in for the second goal was as good as anything seen from a City player from that position this season. As for the scorer of that second goal, it was much better from Mark Hudson (as it was for all of the back four) – being hyper critical, he could have done better with the header which gave Koren the opportunity to score a superb goal in the dying minutes, but, overall Hudson played to the level he’s tended to show in home matches this season.
There’s not getting away from the fact that away performances and results have been very disappointing – they need to improve a hell of a lot and it was right that Tuesday’s shambles at Charlton received the criticism it did, but it’s also only right that the team are praised when they play well and I believe they have done more than this in the last two home matches. City were very good yesterday and against Burnley – they also showed against Hull that, in midfield at least, they have the strength in depth to be a top two side despite those five defeats by early November.
Finally, a word of praise to all involved in making it possible for the statue of 1927 Cup Final captain Fred Keenor to be unveiled at the ground yesterday (and to those who put together the commemorative brochure to go with it). I’m no expert on these matters, but, having seen it close up before the game, the statue certainly compares favourably with some I’ve seen at other grounds – once again, thanks to all involved.