News, views and gossip from the magnificent 72
What's been going on so far in one of the world's toughest leagues? Ed Wilson examines the evidence
Championship fixtures come thick and fast, meaning trends and patterns appear with all the clarity of one of those magic eye pictures shoved right up against your face. With that in mind, the international break provides a good opportunity to take a couple of steps back, squint a bit, and see what's emerged so far.
Southampton aren’t ‘the new Norwich’… yetOnly the most hardcore Pompey fan – the character with the tattoos and the bell, for example – would deny that Southampton have made a great start to their return to the Championship.
After 10 games they’re top of the table and playing with all the confidence and purpose we’ve come to expect from the best newly-promoted teams. The box marked ‘attacking gusto’ has been emphatically ticked, with the Saints scoring more goals than any other side. In Rickie Lambert, they have the division’s joint top scorer.
But they shouldn’t be booking their open-top bus for May just yet. Of the current top six, they’re the second most generous at the back – only fellow arrivistes Brighton have conceded more goals.
And while they’ve filled their boots against sides who started the season in a catatonic stupor (Birmingham, Ipswich, Watford), they’ve lost to the two teams you would expect to offer a real challenge, Cardiff and Leicester.
More than ever, the Championship is a fiercely competitive division, with at least 10 clubs capable of claiming one of the three promotion spots. This season, there’s no obvious runaway title winner like Newcastle a couple of seasons ago, or even a side who look reliably hard to beat, like Warnock’s QPR. All the top teams will take points off each other.
So while it’s true that Southampton have got off to a flyer, only an impulsive idiot would be marking them down as a certainty for back-to-back automatic promotions. Let me finish, then, by saying that Southampton are a certainty for back-to-back automatic promotions.
West Ham need to relaxTo the unbiased observer, West Ham look nicely positioned in 4th, just four points off the top spot. But dissatisfaction is in the air at Upton Park. Their 1-0 loss to Ipswich, a second home defeat of the season, drew boos from supporters and prompted Kevin Nolan to criticise himself and the team.
But while Nolan might find it productive to stare dementedly into a mirror and slap his own face until his form improves, West Ham should resist the temptation to beat themselves up over their failure to take the division by storm. They're only ‘failing’ in the context of massively high expectations.
In fact, plenty of teams would envy their position. They have one of the best squads in the division and, in Sam Allardyce, a proven manager capable of delivering the goods. ‘Big Sam’ doesn’t call himself ‘Big Sam’ for nothing, you know?
Rather than cranking the pressure gauge up to 11, the Hammers should accept that it’s going to take a while for them to find their feet. They should also be encouraged that they’re still comfortably in contention for an automatic promotion place, despite not playing their best football.
Granted, their start hasn’t been the stuff of legend, but it’s not been seriously damaging, either. All that’s needed is a little perspective. A 1-0 defeat to Ipswich isn’t a disaster. Speaking of which…
Ipswich are in a false position When Paul Jewell is embarrassed, his features slide to the side of his face, as if they’re trying to disassociate themselves from humiliation. After his team’s dire start to the season – including a 5-2 home defeat against Southampton and a 7-1 spanking at Peterborough – he looked like he’d be condemned to see out the rest of his life without a nose and mouth.
Luckily for Jewell’s facial integrity, Ipswich have started to turn things around. In recent weeks wins against Coventry, West Ham and Brighton, and a draw at second-placed Middlesbrough, have seen them rise to 10th in the table.
So, what’s changed? Well, firstly, Jewell has strengthened his defence. And while 12 goals conceded in two games means he doesn’t deserve much praise for spotting the problem, he can take the credit for recruiting Senegalese international Ibrahima Sonko, who has added some much-needed steel at the back.
Just as importantly, the 12 signings brought into the club over the summer have started to resemble a team. And with their poor start behind them, they should be looking to kick on. Jimmy Bullard and Lee Bowyer are one of the strongest midfield pairings in the division.
Up front, Michael Chopra guarantees goals. Their goalkeeper is Robbie Stockdale, on loan from Fulham. With players like that, the minimum Ipswich should be aiming for is a play-off place.
McClaren situation defies analysis
After two top-six finishes in a row, Forest must have hoped that the appointment of continental sophisticate Steve McClaren would convert playoff potential into promotion. The omens were good. On his first day, McClaren wore a green jumper, causing some journalists to invoke the memory of Brian Clough. (To be honest, you suspect that these people would have drawn the Clough comparison whatever McClaren had worn. "Look! Trousers! Brian Clough used to wear trousers!")
Unfortunately, the jumper was as good as it got. With Forest just one point above the drop zone, McClaren resigned after only 111 days in charge, claiming the board didn’t share his ambitions for the club.
But while it’s true that McClaren didn’t have much money to spend, he should have done better with the resources he had. Defensively, his side were a shambles, conceding three to both Southampton and Birmingham, four to West Ham and five to Burnley. His tenure was so disastrous that Nigel Doughty, the chairman who appointed him, has announced his intention to stand down as a result.
The Forest job was presented as a decisive point in McClaren’s career. He would either salvage his reputation in his home country, or be categorically condemned as a hapless buffoon with a squeamish dislike of rain. Given the spectacularly awful way things ended up, it’s tempting to conclude that the latter must be true. But in fact, the whole situation is so strange, and the rancour between McClaren and Doughty so extreme, it defies conclusions.
So, for McClaren, the jury, in England at least, should still be out. Forest, meanwhile, have been forced to ditch their play-off ambitions and instead must simply try to steady the ship. New chairman Frank Clark and manager Steve Cotterill have a job to do.
Palace put their trust in youthCrystal Palace struggled to stay up last season, but they’re currently 12th, and look like a solid bet for a top-ten finish.
This turnaround has happened without big-money signings. Over the summer, Dougie Freedman’s major additions to his squad were striker Glenn Murray, signed on a free from Brighton, and Australian international midfielder Mile Jedinak, also on a free.
Instead, Palace are relying on young talent. The 18-year old forward Wilfried Zaha is probably the pick of an impressive bunch that also includes Sean Scannell and Jon Williams. The phrase ‘impact player’ is often a euphemism for ‘wildly inconsistent’ but Zaha has the skill and pace to change games. Against Coventry, he came off the bench to cause mayhem, grabbing two assists as Palace turned a 1-0 deficit into a 95th-minute 2-1 win.
Palace’s success, then, will depend on whether their youngsters can maintain their form for a whole season. Speaking of which, during the January transfer window Freedman will have to hope he can stop richer clubs – Chelsea are reported to be chasing Williams, and Fulham are supposedly interested in Zaha – from pinching his players to fill out their reserve squads.
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