As we count down the hours until the big day, the season of good cheer may only be apparent to certain fans in the EFL Championship.
At the bottom of the league table, the freezing winter months and recent snow storms anticipate the times of trepidation that many fans of relegation-threatened teams seem to be forecasting.
So, has it been a week of festivities, or a round of fixtures that further signal doom?
At Soccity, we’ve got all the answers concisely wrapped up, just for you.
EFL weekend winners and losers
Friday night’s game was a devastatingly appealing one, as Lee Johnson’s resilient Bristol City side travelled to Sheffield United, who were looking for a way to stop the rot.
Jamie Paterson’s viciously clean strike opened the scoring for the Robins, but Sheffield United’s clinical striker Leon Clarke restored some hope for the home side early inside the second half.
John Fleck, however, caused some groans around Bramall Lane, when his two-footed challenge resulted in a yellow card. Those groans turned to wails of pained lamentation when Aden Flint nicked City’s winner in the 91st minute, to ensure that United’s winless run was stretched to four games.
Saturday’s fixtures managed to throw up their usual surprises. Aston Villa drew 0-0 against Millwall, in a match that saw Sam Johnstone stop eight shots on target for the men in claret and blue.
Sunderland also, remarkably, managed to hold title favourites Wolverhampton Wanderers to a nil-nil draw, becoming only the second side to prevent Wolves from scoring in the league this season (their first 0-0 draw came at the hands of Brentford in August).
Elsewhere, Nigel Adkins got off to a winning start at Hull City, as his Tigers side beat Brentford 3-2 at the KCOM stadium. Hull were one of five teams to score three goals in a match on Saturday, with the others being Derby County away at hapless Barnsley, Nottingham Forest at home against a resurgent Bolton Wanderers, Leeds United away at QPR, and Norwich City at home against Sheffield Wednesday.
Meanwhile, there were wins for Fulham against Birmingham City, Middlesbrough against Ipswich Town, and Preston North End away at Burton Albion.
With derby day in the Premier League looming its ugly head, there were unsurprisingly no fixtures in the Championship on Sunday.
However, Sunday’s top flight bonanza meant that Monday Night Football was unusually placed at the feet of England’s second tier, as Reading hosted Cardiff City.
The Bluebirds were far from their majestic best at the Madejski, and found themselves 2-0 down at half-time, but a remarkable fight-back—ignited by Joe Bennett’s stunning 83rd minute volley and capped by Lee Tomlin’s first goal for Warnock’s side in the 91st minute—earned Cardiff a share of the points.
Five things we’ve learned
Reading may have missed their chance this season
For Jaap Stam’s Royals, the table makes somewhat frustrating reading (pun intended?).
While the Berkshire side are unbeaten in their last five domestic games, they remain languishing in 14th place, despite some impressive performances in recent weeks.
For a team that has the ability to demolish Derby County 4-2 away, and that can dispatch teams below them with aplomb—one need not look further than their 3-0 bashing of Barnsley last month—Reading have missed a big chance this season.
Touted by many to be challenging for automatic promotion, and with a solid squad and wily manager, many Royals’ fans must be wondering exactly what’s gone wrong this season.
The result against Cardiff, a huge missed opportunity, epitomises the season Reading’s had thus far. Given the volatility of the Championship—as many Fulham followers will feel all too keenly after last year’s disappointment against them in the play-offs—Royals might not get such an offering again for some time.
Cardiff have shown a promotion side’s character
I said it about Wolves last week, and I’ll say it again now about the side immediately below them: teams that gain promotion are unilaterally defined by their ability to get results even when they’re playing poorly.
Reading looked dead-set to end Cardiff’s four match winning run when Neil Warnock was sent to the stands with 13 minutes left on the clock. The Bluebirds had played quite the antithetical game as they flopped to an unexpected 2-0 down at the break, having surrendered 52% possession to the home side.
Yet, with their manager dismissed from his technical area, Cardiff fought back and snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat. When you’re challenging for your ticket to the big time, that’s exactly what you need to be able to do.
Warnock’s side showed character, grit, determination and fight, and they were justly rewarded. With Sheffield United, their colleagues in over-performance, beginning to fall by the wayside, Cardiff have shown that its not form that has got them to this stage, but pure, unadulterated class.
Lee Johnson is one of the best young managers in English football
When he was at Birmingham City, Gary Rowett was being touted as the next big thing in English football. He was classy, presented himself well, and was beginning to master the tactical approach.
Now, he’s got a competitor for the best English up-and-comer award, in the person of 36-year-old Lee Johnson.
Johnson was appointed, after leaving Barnsley, to save Bristol City from relegation in 2016, a task that he admirably performed, leading the Robins to seven wins in their last 16 fixtures.
The following season, City found themselves in a relegation scrap yet again, but Johnson, for the second year in a row, managed to steer them clear of troubled waters.
Now, the former Bristol City and Yeovil Town player is repaying the faith put in him by the club’s hierarchy, in spades. His side have won three games in a row, and are managing to keep pace with Cardiff and Wolves at the top—particularly impressive for a team that was considered relegation candidates before the season had started.
These days, Johnson won’t be fearing for his job security; instead, he’ll be inundated with offers from bigger clubs looking to secure the signature of one of England’s top young managers.
Birmingham City can’t score for toffee
It’s no great secret that I’m an avid Birmingham fan.
And what can a fan be described as, if not avid, when he remains passionate about the club in times such as these?
The Blues are the lowest scorers in the Championship with a meagre ten goals, three less than Burton Albion, and a demoralising 11 less than next-worst finishers Norwich City and Bolton.
With exciting attacking players in the team such as Jeremie Boga and Jota, it’s hard to understand why such aridity has seeped into the side. Confidence, however, at the top levels of professional sport, is a really nasty beast, and Blues’ impotence in front of goal might well be here to stay.
Still, it needs to get better, if fans are to see Championship football at St Andrew’s next season.
I know what I’ll be asking Santa for this Christmas…
The relegation fight might be becoming a four-invite party
Though disappointment as a result of dire times is certainly not an emotion unique to fans of Birmingham City.
At the foot of the table sit Burton Albion, a side on a three-match losing run, and one that hasn’t won since the opening weekend of November.
Above them are Sunderland, enduring a period of mysterious and terrifying transition under Chris Coleman, having won only twice all season.
A mere point ahead of them sit Birmingham, and, occupying the place precariously above the relegation zone, are Phil Parkinson’s Bolton Wanderers; outside it only because they’re one goal better off than the second city side.
Then, a gap of four points opens up before we arrive at Barnsley in 20th. Such distance, at the top of the table, seems perfectly surmountable, but down at the tail end, where wins are scarce and goals are endangered, it’s a veritable ravine.
Barnsley are themselves on a tremendous run of five losses in a row, but have, in the past, shown more quality than any of the four bottom sides.
This quatrain of misery are fast becoming an iceberg adrift, separated from the mainland, left to drift dejectedly towards unknown waters.
Am I exaggerating? Definitely. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Probably.
Are these teams in palpable trouble? Certainly.
Next week marks the last conventionally structured set of fixtures before the madness of the Christmas period ravages the calendar.
Tune in next week as we enjoy this period of calm before the storm inevitably hits, and hits hard.
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