So, no doubt Birmingham fans will now be able to say “I don’t know how Cardiff are where they are, they’re nothing special” after yesterday’s 1-0 defeat to the league leaders at St. Andrews. In doing so, they will be joining a long list of supporters of various clubs who have been left to say something similar in the past four and a half months. In particular though the Bluenoses will join Leicester, Palace and Millwall fans who will be lamenting “unlucky” defeats by us in the past eleven days. I’ve not seen much of yesterday’s match yet, but it sounded like another very close affair and it has to be said that, if you looked at each match individually, you can understand why supporters of the first three sides we played over the Christmas/New Year holiday period might feel hard done by over the outcome of their matches with us.
Christmas and the New Year is often described as a very important part of the season by professionals and pundits alike and this time around, it took the form of a four game mini league – when you look at our games since 22 December in that context, then it becomes easier to understand why the league table is looking like it is as we leave 2012 behind. This version of the Championship table provided by the BBC makes for very instructive reading because it includes a last ten games section in which games won are represented in green, draws are grey and losses red.
Going into the Christmas/New Year mini league, Cardiff had been the most consistent team over the first twenty two matches of the campaign – they led the table by two points from Palace with Middlesbrough and Hull both a point further back. Those green, grey and red dots show though that City walked away with the holiday period mini league – only Hull of the other twenty three Championship clubs managed to avoid a red dot in those four matches and they fell a further four points behind us because of a couple of 0-0 draws. As for the three promotion challenging sides we beat over the holiday period, Leicester and Palace both managed more than our “traditional” one goal victory margin yesterday and it might well be that they showed more fluency and played better football in seeing off Huddersfield and Wolves respectively than we have done since winning at Blackburn almost a month ago. Millwall too, managed to beat a Bristol City side who have been in good away form recently and, who knows, they could have played with more style than we have shown lately as well.
However, when you study those dots again, you see all three of them dropped further points over the holiday period when they weren’t playing us. Go a bit further down the table and Watford looked very good in winning at Brighton, who in turn picked up a very impressive looking 3-0 victory at in form Ipswich yesterday. While we were playing four matches in ten days, postponements meant that Watford played just three times, with Brighton only having a couple of matches after their game with Millwall, originally scheduled for Boxing Day, was brought forward a week. Neither side could cash in on this apparent advantage though, Watford lost 4-3 at home to Charlton yesterday, while Brighton’s win yesterday was their first in six matches.
Only Hull were able to show the form that could lead to automatic promotion over the holiday period, the other twenty two couldn’t keep those red dots off their record and, in doing so, they proved all the cliches about this league’s inconsistency to be correct. Cardiff though were boring in their consistency – the Championship’s most consistent team just got consistenter (sorry!).
I’ve been checking through the record books and this holiday period has been the most successful in the club’s history. Now, it needs to be borne in mind that postponements are a fairly regular occurrence at this time of year and so some teams never got the chance to repeat this year’s achievement. Also, there have been some Christmas/New Years where we only had a couple of games scheduled, but, out of the seasons where I feel a valid comparison can be made, I found that the 1946/47 Championship winning side had three wins and a draw from their holiday programme, as did our Cup Final squad of 2007/08. There was a memorable Christmas in 1957/58 as well when a 1-0 win at Swansea on 21 December was followed by a 5-2 home win over Stoke on Boxing Day and a 6-1 Ninian Park thrashing of Liverpool two days later, but we’ve never played four matches over the holiday period and won them all until now.
So, how does our current position, seven points clear at the top and nine ahead of the third placed team at the turn of the year, compare to other seasons since we returned to this division in 2003?
2003/04 eventual Champions Norwich (52 points points from 26 games) were six points clear of the side who would also go up automatically, West Brom, with Sheffield United a further point off in third.
2004/05 Ipswich (52 points from 27 matches) were two in front of Wigan, who would finish runners up. Champions Sunderland were a point further back in third – Ipswich ended up third, two points behind Wigan and failed to go up through the play off’s.
2005/06 Reading (the best Championship of the past decade in my opinion) were top with an amazing 69 points from 28 games – that was ten more than second placed Sheffield United (who went up as runners up), who were in turn eight clear of Leeds in third.
2006/07 An unusual season in that Champions Sunderland were thirteen points behind leaders Birmingham in tenth. Birmingham (who would go up automatically) had 53 points from 27 games played – Derby, who were second at the time, were on fifty points and were promoted as Play Off winners.
2007/08 Eventual Champions West Brom led the way, on goal difference from Watford, with 47 points from 26 games. Stoke were fourth four points behind, but would go up as runners up as Watford faded to sixth.
2008/09 Wolves with 57 points from 25 games were six points ahead of Reading and Birmingham – Wolves were Champions and Birmingham runners up, while Reading ended up fourth.
2009/10 This is an interesting season because the Newcastle side which many rate as the best side we’ve faced in the past decade, led the way with 51 points from 24 matches. This was six clear of West Brom (who had a game in hand) who ended up second and eight ahead of Forest, who would miss out in the play off’s – Newcastle ended up going up with a series of big wins, but were efficient rather than spectacular over the first half of the season with just 39 goals scored in those 24 matches.
2010/11 Champions QPR had 47 points from 24 matches four clear of Play Off winners Swansea, while Norwich, who would finish second, were third a point further behind.
2011/12 Champions Reading were in fifth, some eight points behind eventual runners up Southampton who led the way with forty seven points from 25 matches – West Ham, who were second on goal difference at this stage, went up through the play off’s (we were third at the time, two points behind the joint leaders).
Looking at those precedents, it’s hard not to feel optimistic (even for an old pessimist worn down by years of failure like me!). Only Ipswich have led the division at this time and failed to go up automatically – while there are examples where the team at the top at the turn of the year don’t go up as Champions, they don’t tend to miss out on second place. More encouraging still is that, with the exception of Reading in 2005/06, we appear to better placed than the leaders in other seasons – Wolves may have had more points than us, but, just like the all conquering Newcastle team of 2010, their lead over the teams in second and third was less than ours is now.
I mentioned cliches earlier, well one of the most common footballing ones is the one about the season being a marathon, not a sprint. That being the case, it seems to me that City have just put in a tremendous kick at the hilliest and toughest part of the marathon course which has left all of their rivals blowing heavily as they look at us disappearing into the distance. Now, there is such a thing as the marathon runner’s “wall” which can reduce likely looking winners to shambling also rans in a matter of minutes as the effects of going off at too quick a pace take hold and it has to be said that we do have a history of blowing up when well placed – that’s why you’ll not catch me predicting promotion yet (particularly after I talked about when “I just knew” we were going to make the play off’s in 08/09!). However, what I will say is that if, for example, Hull were in our position now and we were where Palace and Middlesbrough are, I’d be starting to think that we could well be chasing just the one automatic promotion place.
Just a couple of observations about yesterday’s match before I finish. Firstly, I know Birmingham are having terrible luck at the moment with injuries, but something like that has the effect of reducing the pressure on a team. You only had to read what Birmingham fans were saying about the match beforehand to realise that – none of them were giving their team a chance and I daresay those players who had to fill in up front were hoping they could benefit from that attitude because anything they achieved would be seen as a bonus. Birmingham had a team packed with quick and nippy attacking players of the type you could imagine causing Hudson, Turner and Connolly plenty of problems (e.g. Morrison, Hall, Elliott and Redmond), but it seems our defenders coped really well.
Secondly, would any other of the current crop of strikers we have available been able to get themselves into the position to take advantage Butland’s error like Joe Mason did? I’m not sure they would, and, for someone who is supposed to be going through that difficult second season, Mason’s record isn’t too bad at all. Five goals in twenty two appearances doesn’t sound great, but that figure only includes nine starts – I wouldn’t be surprised at all if his goals to minutes on the pitch ratio is the best at the club this season (Aron Gunnarsson might run him close I suppose).
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/