With no action in Leagues One or Two over the weekend owing to the FA Cup Second Round, this week’s blog will inevitably focus on the Championship. And why not?Iit is beginning to develop into quite a battle all the way from the top to the bottom.
At the top end of the table, chinks are beginning to appear in the Southampton armour. Two defeats in recent weeks to teams struggling down the wrong end of the table, and the whole atmosphere around the club has changed to reflect the fact they are now facing a real test of character as the season moves into the cold, hard winter months. They face a stern test with the likes of West Ham (many people’s pre-season favourites to win the division), Cardiff City and Leeds United all within striking distance, and Saints fans will know the importance of ensuring they don’t throw away all the good work that has been done at the start of the season in getting their team to the top of the table at this stage.
It is fiercely competitive wherever you look in the table, with just a dozen points separating the playoffs from the relegation zone. It means that no team can breathe easily at any point, as they know that although a couple of wins on the spin could see them jump half a dozen places in the table, even a short spell of poor results could see them slide alarmingly down the table.
Two cases in point here: Firstly, Burnley, who in the last two weeks have won three games on the bounce and have jumped from 21st to 10th in the table. It wasn’t so long ago that questions were being asked of Eddie Howe and his team, and yet they seem to have provided all the answers. Secondly, Ipswich, who in a similar space of time have done the exact opposite after a wretched run of form which will no doubt be placing Paul Jewell under a massive amount of pressure. They’ve now lost seven on the spin, which is a pretty horrendous run of form, one which nobody at the club can be happy with. I’m not one to try and tempt fate, but I can’t recall a manager in recent history who’s lost 8 games in a row and kept his job. The trip to Barnsley, for me, is a massive game for so many reasons for the Tractor Boys, and one that they absolutely must win.
One team who will be worth watching over the next few weeks is Bristol City. Earlier in the season, I’d written them off as being utterly hopeless and without a chance of staying up, especially once Nicky Maynard is sold in January. It is an entirely different story now, however, as new manager Derek McInnes has come in to the club and completely rejuvenated it from top to bottom. The team are now playing with confidence, and unlike at the start of the season you can now back them to score goals and win matches. I can’t see Nicky Maynard leaving either, and in fact I can see him being a critical part of McInnes’ side, which I am convinced will begin rapidly climbing the table having now jumped out of the bottom three. It is a wonderful turnaround in such a short space of time, and I believe the Robins’ faithful can only look forward for brighter things to come as the season progresses.
It is remarkable what difference a change of manager can make, and I think that Coventry City need to follow Bristol City’s lead, and fast. As things stand right now, I can’t see them managing to finish 23rd, let alone avoid relegation. They’re picking up the odd point here and there, but they look defensively vulnerable and seem to be plagued by a lack of belief that even when they get into a decent position in a game that they can go on and capitalise on this to take the points. Given how tight and competitive the table still is at this point, I don’t think getting a new manager would be the worst move that Coventry could make, and with the January transfer window approaching, now would be a good time to do it. I do admire the faith that is being shown in Andy Thorn by the Coventry board, but ultimately football is a results business, and right now Coventry aren’t getting results.
In the weekends other big news, the FA Cup Third Round was drawn on Sunday and it has thrown up a big day out for some of the clubs lower down the league pyramid. Bristol Rovers, who have suffered a difficult season so far in League Two, have been given a home tie against Aston Villa, which will no doubt provide a lot of excitement around the club as it gives them the chance to forget about their league difficulties and test themselves against top-flight opposition. Swindon Town have earned an equally exciting tie with Wigan Athletic, which will no doubt provide Paolo di Canio’s promotion-chasing side with a morale-boosting tie which they might just fancy their chances of winning.
For two teams, however, a potential dream tie awaits. Southend United and Oldham Athletic could not be separated at Roots Hall, with the teams playing out a 1-1 draw, and will play a replay in just over a weeks’ time. The prize for the winner? A trip to Anfield and a dream tie with Liverpool, the prospect of which has got both teams excited and both sets of fans equally hopeful and determined to provide the support to help their team come through the replay to secure what will be a big day out for whichever team wins.
I usually try to remain as neutral as possible in this blog, but for once, I’ll break this rule to illustrate my point. As a Southend United fan myself, I’m all too aware the opportunities like this don’t come around every day, and will be quite literally praying that we can come through what will be a very tough game at Oldham. I’ve never been to Anfield before, and I suspect this may be an opportunity which may not come around again for a very long time. For whichever team gets through, whether it’s my beloved Shrimpers, or Oldham, it’ll be an occasion to remember for a very, very long time.