The FA Cup third round has given a chance for the dust to settle on the Championship table after a busy festive period, but do things look any clearer in 2012?
Often considered a key part of the season, we are regularly treated to the mantra that the Christmas and Easter seasons are critical to our teams’ chances when it comes to the final reckoning. This is largely because the number of games in quick succession can allow teams to break away from the travails of a relegation battle or firm up their promotion aspirations.
However, this year, no decisive move has been made. If anything, the league has got tighter. Judging the league table as it currently rests against that of the weekend of the 10th and 11th of December, little has changed. The bottom three remain the same, as do the top two and there has been just one change in the play-offs, with Reading replacing Leeds.
At the foot of the table, Coventry remain seven points from safety, and one must say, despite their recent upturn in form, look set to stay there. Chris Coleman was sacked by the club in 2010 for twice having flirted with relegation, a scenario that would probably earn manager Andy Thorn the keys to the city if he were to conjure it from the position they are in now. League 1 seems to be beckoning, though it could be a blessing in disguise if the Sky Blues can sort out boardroom wrangles.
Alongside them lie Doncaster who will do well to avoid the chop too as it looks like they will be without the services of talisman Billy Sharp, currently in transfer negotiations with Leicester.
But the side that has created the most column inches this year has been Nottingham Forest. Having been a regular fixture in the play-offs over the last few years, Forest seem to have burned out. Former managers Billy Davies and Steve McClaren have both levelled accusations of a lack of ambition at the club’s board and Steve Cotterill’s appointment appears to be more on a fire-fighting basis than a long term vision of Premiership football. On paper they should be well capable of survival, but as has been seen before, big clubs such as Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Forest themselves, have not been able to defy the football gods and have slipped down to the third tier.
In the midst of this struggle however, lies the true beauty of the Championship and the reason why it is the fourth best attended league in European football. Fans of the bottom three know from experience that nothing is impossible in this division. A month of fixtures that may look hopeless one week, can look favourable the next. The simple point is that consistency is the Holy Grail, but the table shows that this year more than ever, it is very difficult to attain.
Sam Allardyce will insist every week that you need to be looking at a two points per game average throughout the season to win promotion comfortably, and he is right. Win your home games and pick up points away sounds like a simple mantra but it is not all that attractive to fans.
West Ham are a case in point. Currently positioned in second, level on points with leaders Southampton, they look well placed to make a return to the top flight at the first time of asking. They are likely and able, to add to an already strong squad in the transfer window, with the insatiable Jordan Rhodes being heavily linked with a move to East London.
Yet many fans are not happy with this state of affairs. Three home defeats to Burnley, Ipswich and Cardiff are probably the key to this discontent, but the Upton Park faithful seem unhappy with the more direct style of football their team is playing.
Fans must appreciate that in the Championship, or any other league for that matter, no team has the divine right to play scintillating passing football and glide to the title. The fact that Allardyce recognises this need for a pragmatic approach despite the talent he has at his disposal, serves to demonstrate the intensely competitive nature of the division from top to bottom.
The three point lead that Southampton held before the festive fixtures has been eradicated, but more significant is the gap opening up between the top four and the rest, who risk becoming the chasing pack. A two point gap between fourth and fifth has turned into six points with Cardiff and Middlesbrough looking to cement their designs on automatic promotion.
Despite Malky Mackay having undoubtedly done a fantastic job at Cardiff so far, slashing the wage bill and seamlessly assembling a new team, Tony Mowbray’s Middlesbrough would seem the strongest candidates to break into the top two come the end of the season.
Based on form for the calendar year 2011, Boro come out on top in the Championship, evidence that the club are back on an upward trend. Having worked largely with the players he inherited from Gordon Strachan’s dismal tenure, former captain Mowbray has rejuvenated football on Teeside and shown the value of coaching your players as opposed to looking for a quick fix. It is they who could benefit as the mightily impressive Southampton stumble upon their first sticky patch, with the current form guide putting the Saints in 22nd.
Middlesbrough apart, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else that looks set to make a strong case for anything other than the play-offs. Reading and Hull are two solid sides who will be consistent enough to stay in and around the top six until the end of April and those lurking just beneath them, such as Leeds and Blackpool are just as likely to lose a game 4-0 as win by the same score line.
The team that many predicted would lay claim to one of the top two places currently languish in 12th position. Leicester City, despite spending their considerable millions in the summer, have flattered to deceive, so much so that Sven Goran Eriksson lost his job at the King Power Stadium. The Foxes undoubtedly have the ingredients for success; a great fan base, plenty of money to spend on players and their own stadium, but thus far it has proved anything but the magic formula.
Out of no personal malice I find this quite comforting as it shows that no matter how much money a club spends and irrespective of its status in the football world, the quality of competition in the Championship provides a real test.
Of those teams currently outside of the promotion and relegation zones, quite literally anything could happen. 16th placed Barnsley find themselves just six points off the play-offs, the same number of points that separates fourth and fifth. A month’s worth of fixtures can totally change objectives for the season. New Years day could find fans calculating the point gap between their team and the bottom three, and by Valentine’s Day a play-off campaign may have become a distinct possibility.
This January’s transfer window could well be pivotal in allowing sides to find that elusive consistency or it may well rob some of their stars. One would expect the top two to strengthen their hands and Leicester will almost certainly be active again under the returning Nigel Pearson.
What may be more important though than any incomings, could be the issue of whether clubs can hold onto their star players. Momentum and a solid team unit will be more important than anything in the end of season run in but what is certain is that it will go to the wire. To put it bluntly, the Championship is not the league to base an accumulator on.