Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Championship – promotion winners, relegation losers, and those going nowhere in the middle

With the huge financial rewards and infinitely higher profile of the Premier League it can be easy to ignore the Championship, and pass it off as an insignificant second-tier league full of sub-standard players and long-ball football. However the Championship is undoubtedly one of the most competitive and unpredictable leagues in world football, exemplified by the fact that just seven points separate Barnsley in 15th place and Cardiff City in 4th. I don’t believe there are many other leagues in which a run of only three or four wins can turn a club battling to stave off relegation to one competing for the play-offs or even automatic promotion. Such is the nature of the Championship that although the top two places are often relatively easy to predict, with teams relegated from the Premier League frequently retaining strong squads and using their parachute payments to good effect, the play-offs remain impossible to call. For instance, who would have expected Ian Holloway’s Blackpool side to be lying in eighth place, or newly-promoted Leicester City to be occupying fifth spot?

In terms of the current top two I greatly expect both to gain promotion at the end of the season, as West Bromwich Albion certainly have the playing staff to ensure their return to the pinnacle of English football, at least for one season. Meanwhile Newcastle United appear to have a steely determination and ability to grind out results they simply did not possess last year, when they dropped out of the Premier League with a whimper. The fact that Newcastle often fail to dominate matches and control possession in the manner of Roberto di Matteo’s West Brom side, yet manage to find the goals they need, often from Kevin Nolan who has been majestic so far this season, gives them an ability few other teams have. However such displays of good fortune and persistence appear to have deserted Newcastle United in recent weeks; a run of just one win from four games has seen the Geordies’ lead at the top cut from a seemingly unassailable ten points to six, which could become three if West Bromwich Albion were to win their game in hand. With the two sides set to meet at St. James Park in two weeks time, the title race couldn’t be closer and will almost certainly go down to the wire, unless Newcastle continue to falter and hand the title to the Baggies on a plate.

As for the play-offs, it remains unclear which sides will occupying the coveted four places come the end of the season. Currently it is Nottingham Forest, Cardiff, Leicester and Swansea that make up the top-six, but one would imagine with just over half the season gone and a lot of football still to be played that the situation will change. Whilst Nottingham Forest would appear to be the most immune to temporary setbacks, given that they have a six point advantage over all the other sides in the play-off places, this is in fact not the case. Cardiff have a game in hand over Billy Davies’ team, whilst Leicester have two; if they were to win both of these it would be enough to enable them to go level on points with Forest. Swansea’s position in the top six is the most precarious, given that they have an advantage of just two points over Sheffield United, and although they are currently three points ahead, Blackpool have two games in hand as well as a far superior goal difference. Moving further down the table Crystal Palace, Queens Park Rangers, Middlesbrough, Bristol City and Watford all probably harbour ambitions to reach the play-offs, and will hope to be able to capitalise on any dips in form suffered by the teams above them.

As for the question of which teams will finish in the play-off places, it would be unwise to rule out Nottingham Forest and Cardiff for certain. Forest Chief Executive Mark Arthur has described Billy Davies’ first year in charge as “remarkable”, and his side are currently unbeaten in 17 games, a hugely impressive achievement. Despite suffering the ignominy of defeat at home to Plymouth Argyle, and embarrassingly throwing away a four goal advantage at Peterborough last week, and the fact that the club is allegedly facing a winding up order over an unpaid £2.7 million tax bill, on the pitch Cardiff are definite contenders. As proven by successive away victories at West Brom and Middlesbrough, Dave Jones side have enough about them to be in with a strong shout of the play-offs. If Leicester manage to win their two games in hand they could also prove strong contenders, however the fate of Swansea, led by former QPR manager Paulo Sousa, is less clear. Blackpool are well-placed, but I wouldn’t rule out Sheffield United who have greater experience of such promotion battles.

Away from the glitz and glamour of the promotion scene is battle to avoid relegation, one certainly of less significance to the media at large but no less compelling or important. Despite their stunning comeback at home to Cardiff last week, which saw them turn a 4-0 half-time deficit into a 4-4 draw, Peterborough face an uphill battle to stay in the Championship. Manager Mark Cooper will have to install a huge sense of belief and a winning mentality in order to haul the Posh off the bottom, let alone see his side clear of the relegation places. Meanwhile manager-less Sheffield Wednesday desperately need to have a new manager installed as soon as possible, and in my view ought to look for someone with experience of relegation battles and a proven track record, instead of trying to entice high-profile bosses such as Alan Shearer. Gary Megson would be an ideal candidate for Wednesday, but whoever takes up the mantle will need to start winning games very quickly.

Meanwhile Plymouth Argyle have gone from being cut adrift at the bottom to just two points off safety, largely one can only assume, to the impact of new manager Paul Mariner. The former Ipswich Town striker appears to have settled in rather quickly to life in Devon, and has managed to end Argyle’s run of five successive defeats in which the side failed to score a single goal, with two wins in a row including a 4-1 thrashing of Reading. It is likely the renaissance will be brought to a halt at some point, but until then Scunthorpe, Reading and Ipswich all remain at risk of slipping into the bottom three. Whatever the outcome at the end of the season it has been another year in which the Championship has cemented its reputation as an unpredictable division in which any team has the capacity to beat any other, glory is not pre-assumed and the winners and losers are, if not impossible, difficult to forecast. Whereas in the Premier League it has become possible to state which teams will occupy the top four, and pinpoint those likely to be relegated, the Championship remains an erratic, changeable contest from the first game until the last, qualities I’m sure most would agree are vital for the future of our beloved game.

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