Hyperbole and hypocrisy - The Championship's midweek minefield
It builds and it builds and it builds. Tension. Tight deadlines. Clever headlines. What do these ninety minutes mean in a wider context? Let us judge a whole division, a whole country, the future of our national team on one performance from one teenager. The European giants have been felled! But I am no better…
The big stories in the Championship over the past couple of nights have been eerily similar to the sprawling hyperbole afforded to the Champions League in many ways. The difference, of course, being the chasm in the number of column inches awarded to the two competitions. And the similarity being the clamour for a headline.
Among Tuesday evening’s entertainment in the second tier, that headline simply had to be Ipswich Town striker Connor Wickham’s first senior hat-trick. Agonisingly, it seems hypocritical to focus on Wickham’s achievement given his previous appearance on these pages. But his superb solo goal against Sheffield United recently had that coming-of-age look about it, a conclusion re-enforced by his three strikes at Doncaster in midweek. Perhaps we can reasonably start to talk about Wickham now.
The two English teams in Champions League action each provided a parallel for Wickham’s achievement. While Paul Jewell’s men ran riot in Doncaster, there was a mere one-goal margin in Milan in favour of Tottenham Hotspur. The goal, provided by the pace of Aaron Lennon, was scored by Peter Crouch. It is a lazy comparison to make – to cut a long story short, Wickham is rather tall as well – but it is still worth pursuing, because Wickham looks to have far more in his locker than Crouch. Can you imagine the latter dribbling from inside his own half to score, particularly during his formative years at Queen’s Park Rangers and Portsmouth? In a nutshell, this is why a growing number of people are getting excited about Connor Wickham in terms of the international stage, rather than restricting his ambition to improving with Ipswich.
Back in North London, Wednesday night saw Jack Wilshere turn in a mature performance in the Arsenal midfield in direct opposition to a handful of the greatest footballers on the planet. Wilshere may be past coming-of-age moments but the visit of Barcelona was heralded as the perfect opportunity to realise his potential on the biggest stage. As you can probably tell from the article on Wickham last year, I struggle to get to grips with our national media’s propensity to put youngsters on a pedestal. For many, it is not enough to simply acknowledge his fine contribution to an Arsenal victory. We have to plough through the endless analysis of what this means to the future of the England national team.
The tie at the Emirates was undeniably interesting, with Barcelona’s one-touch passing football its usual joy to behold and Arsenal’s resilience and will to win equally admirable. But, true to form, I was more drawn to events at Glanford Park. As one multiple European Cup-winning club recorded a surprise defeat on their travels against inferior opposition, so did another. Scunthorpe United’s 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest lifted the Iron to within four points of safety, with two precious games in hand. Barcelona do not lose that often, but neither do Forest. This was their first league reverse since November.
As far as defeats of this manner go, Scunthorpe’s triumph was a fairly predictable one. Billy Davies had seen his side go down to ten men halfway through the first half of a tense encounter with league leaders Queen’s Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Sunday and a midweek trip to Glanford Park was not on his wish list. In fact, nine of Forest’s starting eleven from the weekend began the game against Ian Baraclough’s relegation battlers. Davies can rotate his midfield and attack to some extent, but the team must understandably miss the physicality of the injured Guy Moussi and Dexter Blackstock. If either of his impressive first-choice central defensive pairing of Wes Morgan and Luke Chambers were to join Moussi and Blackstock in the treatment room, Forest would be in real trouble.
The goal at the City Ground is obviously still automatic promotion, regardless of a minor setback in Lincolnshire. Nevertheless, there is a long queue of clubs waiting to take advantage of any patchy form between now and May. There is a suitably devilish ring to the statistics too – six points separate the six sides beneath the top six.
We await a crucial weekend at the top of the Championship, with Forest hosting second-placed Cardiff City and the two promoted sides currently sitting in play-off positions, Leeds United (6th on 52 points) and Norwich City (3rd with 54), meeting at Elland Road. Meanwhile, Leicester City (7th and the only team in the division still unbeaten in the league this calendar year after Forest’s defeat) face Bristol City on Friday evening and the teams between 10th and 13th position all meet each other the following day (Reading v Watford and Ipswich v Hull). The table could look very different by 5 o’clock on Saturday.
In essence, you’ve had it all here. Lazy comparisons between completely different types of player or club? Check. Overblown hyperbole about promising youngsters? Natch. Wildly exaggerated conclusions as to the importance of one round of fixtures? You betcha.
Who needs the Champions League? We can delight in losing all sense of proportion over our own little corner of the English game too, you know…