Allowing for those in catch-up mode due to COVID-19 related postponements, the EFL Championship is into its 2nd half of the campaign. And looking at the table I have to immediately offer an apology to fans of the 3 relegated clubs who I believed - before a ball was kicked in September - would not ALL be a competitive force this season. Perhaps one or two of them would compete up there in the top 6, but not the lot of them. I reasoned to myself that the division was weaker for the promotion of Leeds, West Brom and Fulham coupled with the 3 coming down. I have been shown to be wrong thus far - the division is still wonderfully competitive, but those who dropped into it have all reacted pretty well in their own way.
When my lot, Birmingham, got relegated a decade ago, Chris Hughton took over and oversaw a huge restructuring of the playing staff - something like 48 ins and outs in that summer window as free transfers and cast-offs appeared our best route to bolstering numbers despite cash coming in from players sales (not everyone was sold - remember Zigic staying on £50k+ a week?).
Quite how Hughton got that rag-tag squad of the seemingly unwanted, unloved & loanees to 4th spot in the table along with a gruelling Europa League campaign is still a total mystery to me. It was a gargantuan effort but ultimately not enough, of course, as Blackpool saw us off in the play-off semis. That upheaval in staff contrasted with our last promotion under Alex McLeish in 2008, when most of the relegated squad were kept together, Kevin Phillips was added and hey presto! 2nd spot.
Continuity, then, is always seemingly a vital tool for promotion from season to season. And so, there sit Norwich at the top of the pile with a largely unchanged group from a year ago and a record identical to that which they had 2 years ago under Daniel Farke when they won the title. Bournemouth sit 3rd as I type 8 points off the summit as the post-Howe era begins, whilst Watford are only 2 points and 2 places further back despite another season of managerial upheaval at Vicarage Road.
I watched Norwich beat Cardiff 2-1 on Saturday for talkSPORT 2, and whilst some Canaries fans are a little agitated by the sheer number of games their side are winning by just the odd goal lately, the fact that a side that has had a huge list of injuries to contend with during the late Autumn/early Winter (AND arrived in Cardiff lacking top scorer Pukki and ‘keeper Krul) can still do the business is a real warning to the rest of the league. Kenny McLean was outstanding in central midfield by the way.
It’s probably the Cherries’ solidity that is the most surprising of the three, given the departures of more key men in their squad than the Canaries or Hornets had to deal with. Getting around £80m for Ake/Wilson/Ramsdale is all well and good but the subsequent reinvestment can be a very risky business. The news of Jack Wilshere’s return to the Vitality on a permanent deal is one to applaud if Jack can stay fit. Jason Tindall has coached Dominic Solanke very well to relearn his striker’s instinct to play within the width of the 18 yard box and if the talent of David Brooks is retained this month, they’ll go close.
Watford looked a little ragged when I saw them last in losing 2-1 to Swansea (I’ll get to the Swans in a minute!) but their home form is spectacularly good, particularly in these times where empty stadia seems to have eroded home advantage for so many sides. Joao Pedro is an exciting addition to their attacking armoury and a great foil for Troy Deeney. Xisco Munoz is, I’m sure, well aware already of the ‘no let up’ vibe of this league. He will have to box clever - let’s see if new winger Phillip Zinckernagel adjusts quickly to life in the 2nd tier. His goal to game ratio for Bodo/Glimt is highly impressive for a wide player (34 in 86 appearances).
Swansea’s pursuit of the USA striker Jordan Morris is exactly the area they need strengthening if they are to keep up their brilliant 2nd position thus far. Steve Cooper has had some bad luck this season - losing loanee Morgan Gibbs-White early on to a broken foot was a big blow, as hopes were high for him to shine at this level. I’m sure they were as keen on Max Watters of Crawley as their neighbours who sealed the deal for him in Cardiff City.
Conor Hourihane of Villa is also on his way to the Liberty Stadium (a very smart move) and it’s only squad depth that I think can affect the Swans adversely as we head into the Spring. Having snuck into the playoffs right at the death last season, Cooper has admirably handled a cutting of the financial cloth and made them incredibly touch to breach at the back, whilst striker Andre Ayew looks like he is completely relishing being one of the older experienced heads out there, guiding young players through matches. Keep an eye on Swansea - they won’t be far off.
Elsewhere in the table, there’s the usual 8 or 9 sides bubbling under the top 6 with genuine playoff aspirations. One of these days, Preston will make the post-season jamboree again - Alex Neil gets them close time and again despite being another boss who doesn’t have the budget of others around him. They may ultimately pay for the wretched home form early on.
Dean Holden’s first full season as Bristol City boss is going ok - having lieutenants in Keith Downing & Paul Simpson with him has proved invaluable at times in making changes from the bench at the right time in games (Huddersfield away being a prime example). Famara Diedhiou’s goalscoring form hasn’t matched last season’s tally one bit which is a surprise, but he appears to be notching important goals again just lately so the Robins may be a playoff dark horse...and that’s just 2 teams on the fringes of the top 6 in Preston & Bristol City who’ve both amazingly - given their size, history & heritage etc - never tasted Premier League football up until now!
Picking a side to ‘come out of the pack’ as it were to make a playoff spot is always tricky. Sometimes it’s the ones you least expect, but if you have a player with 17 goals to his name in early January, that’s more than worthy of note. Blackburn’s Adam Armstrong is that man, and if fit-again Bradley Dack can regain the form he had before his long-term injury to assist Armstrong in front of goal, then Rovers have a good shout.
At the wrong end of the table, my lot have spent countless minutes behind at St Andrew’s but barely any minutes behind on the road by comparison. It’s a really odd stat on the face of it, but Karanka’s MO has always been ‘be tough to beat’ and that is something you can execute as a game plan away but invites pressure at home from teams who can’t believe their luck that they’re not being pushed back, even with empty stands around them.
I was fully expecting mid-table mediocrity this season, but I don’t even have that meagre crumb of comfort now. The ownership situation is riddled with 10 times the mystery that there ever was under Carson Yeung (if you can believe that) and the 7-point gap to 22nd as I type is easily whittled away - Blues fans have seen that before, let’s face it. We’ve circled the plughole to League One an awful lot in the past 5 years or so. But we are where we are, and we have to hope that inconsistency bothers those beneath us more at this point.
Elsewhere with those struggling to avoid the drop, QPR have fabulous approach play but no finishing power (at least before Charlie Austin’s recent arrival) Sheffield Wednesday appear to have an owner unwilling to let any manager manage, and the fact that Wycombs are not cut adrift at the bottom despite just 3 victories in 23 shows the nip and tuck this division provides. Coventry are doing brilliantly on a meagre budget, by the way. And the less said about the East Midlands sides’ seasons the better.
I’m loathe to make predictions for how it will all play out come May (if that indeed is when the season can finish) but there is the distinct possibility that, for the first time I can remember, the 3 relegated sides can all bounce back at the first attempt. I think we’ve seen 2 sides make the instant return down the years (Palace/Forest in the first PL season of 92/93, Forest and Bodo in ’97, Birmingham & Sunderland in ’06 and finally Newcastle and West Brom in ’09), but ALL THREE? It can happen - it’s the Championship after all. Whatever happens it will be fun…and it’s always fun in a VAR free zone, I’ve found.