Saints, Hammers, Bluebirds and Boro: The closest promotion battle since 1992?
Southampton and West Ham United are level at the top of the Championship on 47 points, while Cardiff City and Middlesbrough both lie just two points further back on 45 apiece. In a division which is more accustomed to runaway winners, this is the closest gap between first and fourth on January 3rd since 1992.
Back then, Blackburn Rovers and Ipswich Town each had 44 points although the latter had played two games more than the Lancashire club. Southend United had 43, Middlesbrough had 42 and Leicester City and Cambridge United both sat on 41 points. There were then three teams – Swindon Town, Derby County and Portsmouth – with 39 points from their 24 games and all had games in hand on four of the six sides above them.
The 1991/92 Division Two season ended with Ipswich crowned champions and Boro runners-up. Derby, Leicester, Cambridge and Blackburn took the play-off places, with sixth-placed Blackburn achieving promotion to the top flight following a 1-0 win over Leicester at Wembley. Swindon finished 8th, Portsmouth 9th and Swindon down in 12th.
By the 1999/2000 season, the second tier of English football was known as Division One. On 3rd January 2000, although the gap between first and fourth was four points rather than the current margin of two, the top five teams were separated by just five points. Manchester City led the way on 52 points, with Charlton Athletic, Ipswich Town, Barnsley and Huddersfield Town in hot pursuit. When the season came to a close, the top two had swapped places and Ipswich and Barnsley had retained their positions in 4th and 5th while Huddersfield had slipped to 8th. Ipswich went on to secure promotion by beating Barnsley at Wembley, following a quite incredible play-off semi-final second leg win over Bolton Wanderers.
Incidentally, the tables before the introduction of three points for a win make for interesting reading. On 3rd January 1967, for instance, the first thirteen places were separated by just six points – and this in a division which comprised 22 teams rather than the 24 in the current Championship. By the end of the season, Coventry City had edged out Wolverhampton Wanderers by a point and there was then a six-point gap down to third-placed Carlisle United.
To find the last time there was a closer gap between first and fourth in the English second tier, we must go back just one season further to the 1965/66 campaign. Huddersfield and Coventry had both taken 32 points from their opening 24 games and Manchester City, having played a game fewer, and Wolves, having played a game more, both had 31. Manchester City ended the season as champions with 59 points, edging out Southampton on 54. Coventry finished 3rd, Huddersfield 4th and Wolves 6th.
There are warning signs aplenty in these names. Those were heady days for Coventry in particular. These two consecutive top three finishes were followed by a creditable 6th place in the First Division in 1969/70. To this day, that remains the Sky Blues’ last top six finish in any division. In 1965/66, as Coventry were roaring to third in the second tier, Northampton Town were enjoying the only top flight season in their history to date. Fast forward to 3rd January 2012 and the Cobblers are level on points with Plymouth Argyle at the foot of the Football League.
These points of interest tell us nothing, of course, about the destination of the title this April. But on 3rd January 2009, the gap between first and fourth places in the Championship was 14 points. A year later, it was 14 again. Last year, it was seven. Today it is two, making this a title race to be savoured.
The top four are much further apart in the current form table. If only taking each side’s last six fixtures into account, no team in the division has accumulated more than the 13 points managed by Middlesbrough (although Derby also have 13, which have been racked up with a better goal difference). Cardiff have 11 points from their last six games and West Ham have just seven. That leaves the Hammers 16th in the form table, but they have been doing marvellously compared to league leaders Southampton.
Nigel Adkins has overseen a return of just five points from Saints’ last six games – only Nottingham Forest have fewer (4) and three of those came in yesterday’s 3-1 win at Ipswich. Southampton, in contrast, have lost twice in four days since their Boxing Day victory over Crystal Palace. When they return from FA Cup duty, Saints face Forest at the City Ground and will also square up to both West Ham and Cardiff within the next six weeks.
It’s all shaping up nicely. So who’s your money on?