Half a Season in the Championship
With half a season or so now completed in the Championship, my fellow blogger Lloyd and I have taken the opportunity to assess events thus far, in the wake of a bracing walk along Plymouth Hoe. Here are the results:
Lanterne Rouge: So, the Messiah has been proven to be a False Prophet who did nothing but lead his flock into the wilderness, and it’s his understated successor Chris Hughton who has turned the Toon round. I think few predicted that Newcastle would hold such a commanding lead at the half way stage of this season, and Kevin Nolan is talked about as the player of the first half of the campaign. It would surely require a very rum set of events for the Geordies to slip up now and a hallmark of their progress has been the improvement in form of previously maligned players – Smith, Coloccini, Ameobi and Jose Enrique to name but four alongside the ex-Bolton man. Do you see anyone launching a serious challenge to their title winning aspirations?
Lloyd: Newcastle’s form has been surprising. Most of us smirked at their failure to appoint a “proper” manager for the beginning of the season, but it seems that keeping Hughton on has been the best possible action for them. Expectations were lowered, and the Magpies just seem to have got on with it. They’ve averaged more than two points a game, and you can’t help but feel that they’d be worse off if the fans got their original wish and Alan Shearer was brought in.
Besides Hughton’s masterstrokes, Newcastle’s good first half exposes the relative weakness of the division this season. When the Magpies came down a lot of us gleefully anticipated seeing our teams give them a good going over, but in the most part that just hasn’t happened and we’ve realised that physical power and a phenomenal workrate are, on the whole, no substitute for good football. West Brom and Cardiff are the best sides that I’ve seen this year, but I can’t see both teams knocking the Magpies out of the top two. West Brom are always dangerous though and Roberto Di Matteo has managed to introduce a discipline to their game, so I wouldn’t rule them out of the title race. Forest are the only other side who may have a chance of finishing in the top 2; they seem to be coming on very nicely indeed. There was over 28,000 at the City Ground yesterday to witness a standard win against Coventry. Can you see the Reds in the Premiership next season?
Lanterne Rouge: It should also be said that Newcastle have displayed the work rate and physical power that you speak of, as well as the good football – although I am breathing slightly easier over the 106 point record after their slightly underwhelming Christmas. Cardiff have also impressed me, with Chris Burke looking very lively on the right, although the drying up of Chopra’s goals does supply a nagging doubt. For Albion, Jerome Thomas has been the main man; another wide player of course. Di Matteo has swept away some of the frivolity of passing of Tony Mowbray’s sides to create a steelier unit.
In answer to your question, yes, Forest look immensely powerful. Majewski and McKenna have been excellent and they are hitting the net regularly. I could definitely see them overhauling West Brom but the press could do with pointing out how much spending they have indulged in a little more regularly – they are the one club that really went for it in the Summer. Of the other play off contenders, Leicester and Blackpool have exceeded expectations. Do you think they’ll last the course, or, in the latter case, is Ian Holloway an “impact” manager as many claim?
Lloyd: I’m not sure that anyone but Newcastle, West Brom, Cardiff or Forest can go up automatically, but I’m sure that the play-off places will continue to be hotly contested and that good teams will eventually miss out. The goalposts move every week, but Leicester and Blackpool are two of the teams who’ve performed reasonably consistently throughout and each are in with a shout. I like Nigel Pearson’s mild-mannered approach and one can imagine that the Foxes are a real tight ship behind the scenes. Allied with their precise and accurate coaching is a momentum that has seen Matty Fryatt continue to rack up the goals and they have as good a chance as any at chipping away at a top-6 finish.
I’ve bored readers with my musings on Holloway many a time on this blog and on other forums, so I won’t go into too much detail on his Blackpool team. They’ve slowed up a little recently, but comprehensive wins at the Riverside and Pride Park indicate that Holloway is still having as much of an impact as he did at the beginning of the season. What I would say is that their squad has always looked a little thin and that they may need to make a few January signings if they are to sustain a play-off push. Two postponements in as many weeks means that they’ll have a lot of games to play in a short space of time in the coming months.
Swansea again failed to score in front of their own fans yesterday; did you see that clip of Paulo Sousa on the pitch at full-time jeering his players? Do you think that could be Sousa’s Phil Brown moment?
Lanterne Rouge: I agree that Leicester should last the pace. Fryatt is class and they emerged from their wobble with a great 2-1 win over Sheffield United. Blackpool have some of the hallmarks of a Burnley and, as you say, recent results have been as eye-catching as any. Swansea’s 0-0 result yesterday can partly be explained by an early sending off, but they badly need to sign a striker – neither Pintado or Beattie are reliable enough to convert the chances created by the most pleasing midfield in the division.
For once, the mid table positions give us plenty to talk about. QPR’s self destruct button has been much in evidence, Mark Robins has performed wonders at Oakwell and Victor Moses and Darren Ambrose have garnered headlines in South Norwood – the former would be my choice for player of the season thus far. Inevitably, however, it is Gordon Strachan’s frankly cataclysmic first few weeks at the Riverside that have captured the attention of the nation’s media – would you be able to form a diagnosis for why Boro have struggled so?
Lloyd: I’ll hold my hands up and say that I haven’t seen Boro before or after Strachan, so it’s difficult to assess. What does seem apparent is that the supporters have become accustomed to Premiership football, and the realisation that they probably won’t be playing it for at least another season after this has gone down awkwardly. They started like Brazil with Sunderland target Adam Johnson particularly effective, but morale has, after breaking things up when they maybe didn’t need fixing, plummeted and crowds continue to suffer. Expectations, though, have still not levelled out and each defeat seems to come as a bit of a surprise. Maybe their problems can be personified by their striker Leroy Lita? He shows a bit of flair now and again and promises so much, but thinking that he belongs in a higher league self-implodes when the smallest decision doesn’t go his way.
The economic difficulties that the region is currently facing cannot be helping. It may sound like hyperbole, but the two are so often intertwined and each benefits mutually when progress is good. The flip side is that it can seem like the world is against you when times aren’t so bountiful. Strachan has to take a portion of the blame of course and one wonders what has happened to his trademark man management, but the role he took on was, to an extent, a poisoned chalice; the club is on the decline and maybe it needs to let out a little more blood before it can flourish again.
The North Easterners lost at in-form Barnsley yesterday. Do you think that the Tykes could squeeze into the play-offs?
Lanterne Rouge: Boro seem to suffer from the cloth cutting that is almost inevitable with relegation. Players will be wanting away and won’t be 100% committed. the uncertainty over whether they will sign Sean St. Ledger permanently is perhaps a sign of how the camp is divided and the knee jerk non selection of Danny Coyne (now restored) was another sign of questionable decision making. Strachan will probably be given time though.
As for Tykes, few would feel anything but immense goodwill if they were to make the play offs, but I probably wouldn’t expect them to do so. Barnsley and their South Yorkshire neighbours, Doncaster continue to punch above their weight and, along with Malky Mackay, who has done creditably at Watford, it shows how far good honest and endeavour and team spirit can take you. Contrast this with Coventry, Reading, Derby and Ipswich, just outside the relegation zone at the moment but all fitting the description, “the sick men of the Championship”. Is it just a case of players lacking the hunger to compete in the lower reaches?
Lloyd: Where do I start? It’s a tough question to answer authoritatively, but each of their predicaments share similarities. The problem perhaps stems from all those concerned – players, management and fans – refusing to accept that they’re in the mire and are, basically, a bit substandard. Therefore, instead of looking over their shoulders and grinding out results, these clubs are looking towards the top-half of the league under the pretence that the top 12 is where they naturally belong. For differing reasons, each of Reading, Derby and Ipswich in particular still carry something of a big, or at least bigger, club mentality and may be struggling to come to terms with their current placing. Big crowds continue to turn up with the glory years still on the tip of their collective tongue, and that only adds to the gloom when things go wrong.
Momentum is a big issue for at least a few of these four as well. After disappointing relegations (see Reading and Derby), or too many seasons playing the same teams (see Coventry and Ipswich) it can be difficult to sustain a good run of form which is what this league is all about. As we’ve witnessed in recent seasons, putting a good spell of wins together once or twice in a season can see a team emerge as play-off contenders.
Peterborough’s dramatic comeback at home to Cardiff was the result of yesterday. How do you think the Posh compare to those sides around them at the table’s foot?
Lanterne Rouge: I have seen Posh play just the once this season and they won with some thrilling attacking football. The match did sum up their season though. Keeper Joe Lewis apart, the defence and midfield surely cannot be up to it, because their three pronged forward line of Boyd, Mackail-Smith and McLean is a very good one indeed. Perhaps in trying to accommodate such a potent band of strikers, Darren Ferguson and Mark Cooper have neglected the rest of the team, so it may be that one of those stars will have to settle for an undeserved place on the bench for a while.
That their main assets are attacking ones makes Posh resemble another struggling club, Scunthorpe. Gary Hooper has stepped up with ease and Martyn Woolford has also enhanced his reputation. These two clubs’ attacking options are not replicated at Reading and Plymouth, both of whom will be fearful, although the latter will be buoyed after comprehensively outplaying the former yesterday. Reading badly need a managerial appointment but are beginning to resemble the Charlton of 2008-09, and Pilgrims will need to battle as hard as they can given they lack for resources in comparison to other clubs. Sheffield Wednesday did well at home to leaders Newcastle on Boxing Day but they too probably need to settle upon their coaching hierarchy soon. One club who may find themselves sliding into further difficulties are Preston North End, following the shock dismissal of Alan Irvine this afternoon. Who would you see as reliable managerial hirings for Owls, Royals and Lilywhites?
Lloyd: A shock indeed. Irvine showed great loyalty to Preston by turning down West Brom’s overtures in the summer and his dismissal is, on the face of it, quite ridiculous. Unless it’s personal, one would imagine that Irvine has been sacked because North End are so in debt and simply have to go for broke in the hunt for a play-off place. It’s hard to imagine Chairman Derek Shaw having a replacement lined up straightaway, but it will be no surprise if that bright young thing Darren Ferguson has already crossed his mind. Ferguson said that he’d be interested in the Reading and Wednesday jobs when on punditry duties for Sky Sports recently, and the Scot will surely get another crack at this level sometime soon.
Before yesterday, Reading may have stayed safe with caretaker Brian McDermott until the end of the season but the Royals’ performance was so lame that they will surely be interviewing in the coming days for Brendan Rodgers’ replacement. Alan Curbishley is a safe, but albeit expensive, option and, should he be interested, I’m sure that he could drag any side away from danger with the aid of a full transfer window. Paul Tisdale has worked wonders on a shoestring at Exeter, and may be worth taking a risk for a club that is seeking a complete sweep of the broom. He was linked to various posts, including Reading, in the summer and would bring a certain effervescence to the second tier. Wednesday may well have already lined up former player Nigel Worthington, but the other favourites will be on the same merry-go-round that Reading and Preston are working from.
As a Reading fan, which one manager would you like to get in ahead of these two Championship rivals?
Lanterne Rouge: A no nonsense, solid and experienced appointment such as Curbishley would probably be enough to keep the club out of the bottom three, although as you say, there is no money (eavesdropping on certain board members on the platform at Plymouth station yesterday confirmed this) and it’s hard to imagine a manager coming who would accept his hands being tied.
Overall, I would say that a positive feature of the season thus far would be the increased and generally improved media coverage of this league. ITV’s The Championship always seemed half baked and Five Live’s analysis is consistently impressive. However, we are still not rid of defenders being allowed to commit obstruction whilst shepherding the ball out of play, forwards being penalized for goal celebrations, innocuous fouls being given against strikers in the penalty area and The Football League Show leading their programme with a game that has been on television live earlier in the day!
As a last word Lloyd, how do you see the second half of the season shaping up for your improving Pilgrims and what of the two clubs we have failed to mention in this half way summary, Bristol City and Sheffield United?
Lloyd: Although not exactly on fire, the league has certainly been entertaining and continues to provide a good alternative to the Premiership. I’d like to think that fans of top flight clubs have made use of the Beeb’s increased exposure; a few minor niggles aside, they’ve put on some very good shows and watching Manish and Claridge on the iPlayer has become a Sunday staple for me. Catching up on highlights at work in the week is also a real treat. I’d welcome a few different teams being given a live coverage slot but, disappointingly, I’m sure they have a Newcastle game or two up their sleeves. Let’s just hope that after showing their comfortable wins against Ipswich and Middlesbrough it’s not another dead rubber.
I’ve written about Plymouth at length since we started the blog and my latest Green entry offered a more than pessimistic assessment. To my delight and surprise, two wins in three days followed that post and yesterday’s 4-1 victory against relegation rivals Reading, our first win that hasn’t been by a single goal margin, contrasted in almost every way to the preceding home defeat against Coventry. Yes Reading were poor, but the players bounded about with passion, energy and hunger and for the first time in a couple of seasons the fans believe again. The quality of the squad hasn’t changed, but we may have a shout if the side can sustain the level of effort that they put into yesterday’s match.
Sheffield United fell right down the table an international break ago, but a decent patch of form sees them just shy of the play-off positions, which shows you how open the league is. I haven’t seen them personally, but the ability levels in their squad have never been under question and they can be difficult to play against. They won squeakily against Plymouth at Home Park and were, by all accounts, exceedingly average and I’ve heard the same from a Blackpool fan who saw her team put three unanswered goals past the Blades, who apparently just didn’t fancy it. I’d imagine that, like Bristol City (who I have seen), they will finish outside the play-offs. Both have historically relied upon their home form, and I think there are better teams this season.