Championship Round-Up: Second City dramatics and a relegation shake-up
After the first 10 games of the Championship season, Preston North End were rock bottom having put a meagre five points on the board.
With 10 games remaining, they sit a mere four points outside the playoffs, having lost just four games since the beginning of October.
A turnaround that has been nothing short of remarkable and a narrative that defines what the second tier of English football is all about.
On Saturday, the Lilywhites went head to head with Lancashire rivals Blackburn Rovers, a tie Preston tend to get the better of. In their last six meetings Preston had lost just once and this pattern remained intact, North End taking a narrow 1-0 victory west along the M65 and back into Preston.
In fact this was Preston’s first league double over Blackburn since 1978-79 and for Alex Neil personally, he hasn’t lost a single derby since taking over at Deepdale.
After starting the season with so much promise, Blackburn have seen this campaign fade away into nothingness. There were even calls post-match for “starman” and the former “best no.10 in the Championship” Bradley Dack to either a) be dropped or b) lose weight.
But for PNE, this was a win that not only gave North Enders the bragging rights when they go into work on Monday morning, it was also, as Alex Neil stated, “a must win game for us today to keep the dream alive.”
Alex isn’t talking about his own dodgy dreams, he’s talking about the playoffs and dream that unifies the Preston camp and city as a whole.
Naturally PNE are the dark horses, but sooner rather than later, teams will have to treat them like the promotion contenders they are. Saturday was by no means a vintage Preston victory, but it was their fourth clean sheet in eight and they now haven’t conceded more than a single goal in any of their last ten.
The thing is with Preston, they aren’t relying on that 20+ goal a season striker. Norwich have Pukki, Sheffield United have Sharp, Aston Villa have Abraham and Birmingham have Adams.
Since January, only four of Preston’s 18 goals have been bagged by out-and-out strikers, Where have the rest come from then? Well, PNE’s resolute base at the back and use of a deep midfield enforcer has allowed the attack-minded midfielders to provide the goals.
Alan Browne is leading the way on eleven, Barkhuizen and Johnson each have six, Gallagher has five and even Callum Robinson, who has been injured since November, is still second in the goal charts with nine.
PNE also have one of the best and most promising backlines in the division, boasting an average age of 23.5. Ben Davies, who just missed out on the POTM Award for February, has been a consistent and ever-present figure throughout the season and his central defensive partner Jordan Storey, who had only played twelve games in the EFL prior to joining PNE, has been remarkably purposeful too.
With Sky Bet, Preston are 11/1 to make the playoffs and Nottingham Forest, who are just two points above, have odds of 4/1. Even renowned bottle jobs Derby County are at 2/1. All I’ll say is, anything can happen. Ten games to go and thirty points to play for. Say no more.
Speaking of the playoffs, Nottingham Forest sent out a statement of intent as they swept aside fellow playoff hopefuls Hull City with a ten minute goal blitz in the second half.
Nottingham Forest smashed through this opportunity like a mitre ball hitting your next door neighbour’s greenhouse. Hull had won each of their five previous visits to Forest’s City Ground, but this incredible streak was cut short.
Reds boss O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane have now had nine games in charge and this win was evidence of things finally falling into place.
Up until the hour mark, this game had been a battle punctuated with rare moments of quality, but when Karim Ansarifard and Joao Carvalho were introduced, Forest began flaunting a much more attractive brand of precise play.
The diminutive Carvalho beautifully broke the deadlock before Ansarifard and Lolley completed the rout.
Post-match, fullback Ben Osborn called the Championship “madness” and “unpredictable”. Who can disagree? With another flurry of games coming up, who knows what will happen next.
At the other end of the table, Reading made a monumental step towards survival with a 97th minute winner in a relegation dogfight with Wigan Athletic; 3-2 it finished. Caught your breath yet Reading fans?
Last week I told you that Wigan were 25/1 to drop to League One, but they are now just three points above the relegation zone and those odds have dropped to 12/1. Christ, I should be working for a betting company!
Reading are now 19th, unbeaten in three and secured back-to-back wins for the first time since December 2017. Although they certainly did not make it easy for themselves.
Reading boss Jose Gomes probably had a few years knocked of his life after a frenetic affair which he said “had two different sides – the football, and the fight.” Reading won that fight and although Gomes said he didn’t like the way his side played, he won’t care, as he ran on the pitch to celebrate his side’s last minute heroics.
Wigan are second in the Championship for yellow cards received and it was easy to see why. They clattered into Reading, pouncing on every misplaced pass but were good value for their 2-1 lead.
Reading had scored just ten goals in 2019 before this game, but they have a habit of winning games with just minutes to spare. In fact, each of their last two wins had been won with late goals. And in the dying embers of this one, speedster Modou Barrow and Ivorian Yakou Meite netted two of the most important late goals this season.
Reading have to play four teams in the top six in the final ten games giving them a tough final stretch, but if they are willing to fight like they did on Saturday, they might just have half a chance at survival.
Players not getting paid, the police not getting paid, food shortages, suspensions, a touchline ban and the second lowest scorers in England’s top four tiers. They even issued Bolton News’ chief football writer Marc Iles a stadium ban for a meme.
But on Saturday, Bolton won at home in the league for the first time since Boxing Day.
Not only was this a win, but it was a win against fellow strugglers Millwall, closing the gap to safety to just five points. They couldn’t? Could they?
Phil Parkinson was left proclaiming that the march to survival is well and truly on. And with potential new owners imminent, the momentum could be building for yet another great escape.
Last week, Bolton were well-beaten by mid-table Swansea, getting two players sent off in the process and Parkinson said it was one of the quietest coach journeys of his managerial career. The post-match feeling couldn’t have been more different this weekend.
On Saturday, Parky was serving game number two of his touchline ban, something that may well have benefitted Bolton with their manager watching on from a different vantage point.
Granted, Wanderers were playing a woeful Millwall side with little attacking ambition, but they looked much more competent and effective on the ball and not as laborious in possession.
Centre-half Jack Hobbs, who was stepping in for the suspended David Wheater, put in a dominant display and showed that he could actually distribute the ball. Something the cumbersome Wheater is useless at.
The midfield also stepped up in the second half. Connolly brought the composure, Joe Williams funnelled his rage into focussed aggression and Gary O’Neil rolled back the years with a stunning solo effort.
Marauding Pole Pawel Olkowski was back to his best, charging down the wing with directness and a bit of skill. He took his goal emphatically and its those big individual performances along with team endeavour that will give Bolton a shot at survival.
Blind hope is a wonderful commodity in football and that is just what Bolton fans need.
Prior to the fierce and esteemed Second City clash between Birmingham and Aston Villa, one Villan produced not a chant, but a battle rap. Yep, you read that correctly: ‘You’re funnier at football than an hour with Ben Stiller, You’ve got no fans or silverware, it’s all down at the Villa.’ Can’t exactly call it the pinnacle of the rap scene, but the line about Mr. Stiller had me chuckling.
Anyway, a hit-and-miss Villa side took on a Gary Monk outfit who have also struggled for consistency and it ended largely as expected.
Especially when combining the past and present. Birmingham have only won once at home in 2019 and they have won just one of their last 15 matches in all competitions against Aston Villa (D4 L10).
Also, Villa were unbeaten in their last six league visits to St. Andrew’s against Birmingham (W3 D3) – each of the last three have been draws.
Although this one was not another stalemate, as man of the moment Jack Grealish literally climbed up off the canvas to deliver the knockout blow to Birmingham: the only goal of the game.
After being punched by a pitch invader less than ten minutes into this heated affair, the potent playmaker went on to use the bizarre and disgraceful moment as the perfect platform to net the winner as he captained his boyhood club.
It was Grealish’s fourth goal of the season as he was named Sky Bet Championship MOTM. He created 3 chances, had 83% passing accuracy, won three fouls and had the second most touches in the opposition’s box.
Lee Hendrie, who spent 14 years with Aston Villa, claimed that the match should have been abandoned whilst Gary Neville claimed that Blues should be handed a points deduction or even an empty stadium for ten games.
It’s a difficult one really. How far do you punish one club for the mindless action of one individual? This man is not a supporter, but a criminal. But how do you deter such actions? At least, Birmingham City should expect a hefty fine.
Grealish showed the utmost professionalism though, not allowing his attacker’s actions to overshadow what he labelled “the best day of my life”.
Villa move up to ninth, just four points off the playoffs with successive wins for the first time since November. Meanwhile, Birmingham have only kept one clean sheet in their last 11 Championship games, as a dark day in the club’s history may well mark the end of their playoff ambitions.