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Happy Christmas?

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Paul Fletcher | 09:16 UK time, Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Normally by this stage of a long and demanding season, the heady optimism of the summer months has become a distant and wistful memory for supporters of many of the Football League's 72 clubs.

Dreams of promotion have died long ago, with the uninspiring comfort of mid-table suggesting the season will be over in any aspirational sense long before it actually finishes.

For others, their clubs cut adrift at the bottom of the table like a motorist on a Scottish motorway, the Christmas turkey provides but a momentary distraction from the already inevitable relegation.

Last Christmas, Darlington were 11 points adrift of safety in League Two, Stockport were nine short in League One and Plymouth six shy of fourth-bottom in the Championship. All three clubs were relegated.

This season, no team is more than six points adrift as we go into Christmas, with that dubious honour falling to League One Yeovil. Hereford are four points short in League Two and Preston only two points shy of safety in the Championship.

QPR are currently top of the Championship.

QPR are top of the Championship but have suffered successive defeats. Photo: Getty Images

No supporter in the Football League should feel that his team is doomed. Yet it would be foolhardy for any fans to think that promotion is in the bag.

Last Christmas, Newcastle had a seven-point lead over the third-placed side in the Championship, Leeds were eight clear of the play-off places in League One and Rochdale were 10 clear of the team in fourth in League Two. All were promoted. This season, all the leaders going into the festive programme are only four points above the play-off zone in their respective divisions.

"Nobody seems to be running away with the Championship," said Coventry skipper Lee Carsley, who could have easily been talking about League One and League Two.

"You can lose a couple but then you win a couple, Suddenly you are back where you were. It is what makes the league so exciting."

The three divisions are more congested than a departure lounge at Heathrow, with teams in the lower reaches of each table still very capable of pushing into the play-offs.

None is tighter than League One, in which there is already an almighty tussle for a place in the top six. There are only eight points between Bournemouth, who lie fifth, and Bristol Rovers, who are 21st and currently in the relegation zone.

Given that we have not quite reached the halfway stage in the 46-game campaign, it is more than feasible that the Pirates, who sacked manager Paul Trollope last week, could make the top six if their new boss can bring the best out of a squad that has some real quality but which has been maddeningly inconsistent.

The story is similar in the other two divisions, with 10 points separating third and 17th in the Championship and seventh and 23rd in League Two.

The two most attractive teams I have seen are Swansea, fourth in the Championship, and League One leaders Brighton. I watched Swansea win at Cardiff and Brighton brush aside Exeter. Both the Swans and the Seagulls played a patient brand of possession-based football and attacked with flair and pace.

Championship leaders QPR are in the midst of their first blip, having lost back-to-back fixtures at the end of their long unbeaten run. Every Championship manager and player that I asked about Rangers over the last six weeks reckoned manager Neil Warnock's team will end the season celebrating.

But for all that the likes of Norwich and Coventry have also done very well so far, the story of the Championship to date must be the rise of Leeds United. They lost 4-0 to Cardiff, were on the wrong end of a 6-4 defeat by bottom club Preston and shipped five at Barnsley earlier in the season.

Those dark days seem a long time ago now for Leeds. Second in the table at Christmas and top of the form chart over the last eight games, it will be fascinating to see whether Simon Grayson's team can last the distance. As things stand, the Yorkshire club are living the dream once again.

Leicester are 16th after a poor start that resulted in boss Paulo Sousa losing his job but they have brought in quality loan signings since Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager arrived and, only six points off the play-offs, look increasingly dangerous.

There have also been definite shoots of recovery for Bristol City after their atrocious start but there is scant evidence of such a recovery at Middlesbrough, who are 21st in the table. Form has not really improved since Tony Mowbray succeeded Gordon Strachan in the hot-seat and only goal difference separates Boro from the bottom three. Too good to go down? Not at the moment.

I think League One has so far been the most exciting division. Brighton have been on top for their last 12 games but the activity underneath them has been frantic. Take, for example, Huddersfield. They have twice led the division this season and had a brief spell in second but, in between those highs, have slipped as low as 10th, 11th and ninth.

At one point in late October, Huddersfield were second in the table but numerically closer to the relegation zone than leaders Brighton, who have since experienced a dip in form.

I asked in a blog at the start of the season whether anybody could stop Southampton. I guess I had not factored in the Saints themselves. The unexpected sacking of manager Alan Pardew at the end of August, days after they thrashed Bristol Rovers 4-0, undoubtedly resulted in a destabilising period for the club. They are currently two points off the play-offs but I still believe they have the ammunition to do some serious damage.

Port Vale supporters have not had a promotion to celebrate since they went up to the second tier in 1994. Since then, the only way has been down, with the club finishing 20th in League Two in 2009. This season, manager Micky Adams has instilled a winning mentality into his players and his side are second in the table. All their fans want for Christmas is Adams to resist the attentions of managerless Sheffield United.

A mention, too, for Chesterfield. They are top of the table and clearly enjoying life at their new b2net stadium, where they have won eight of their 11 league fixtures. Bradford, pre-season favourites but lodged in mid-table, are in the midst of another underwhelming campaign, while another nail-biting battle against the drop appears likely for Barnet.

It is impossible to predict what is going to happen as we approach the second half of the season. For me, it is an essential part of the charm and attraction of the Football League.

But, with most teams set to play four games in nine days starting on Boxing Day - weather permitting of course - and the transfer window opening on 1 January 2011, there is no doubt that we are about to enter a crucial phase of the season.

You can follow me throughout the season at twitter.com/Paul__Fletcher

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Excellent summation of how things stand Paul. You are right..surely this is the closest, most topsy-turvy season ever seen - throughout all divisions. So called top sides are being beaten or held by those at the bottom and no supporter should feel their team is beyond redemption or achieving something.

    It does make for a happier xmas but as you say we've now reached the crucial period and 2011 will be seeing a lot more 'squeaky bums time' and 'hope's a dangerous thing..Hope can drive a man insane' ;)

    Enjoy your Xmas!

  • Comment number 2.

    Sorry Paul, but that photo is of Andy Bond (a Colchester United player)!

    The match appears to be Colchester (blue/white) v Huddersfield (red/black), not Brighton v Huddersfield.

    All three play in blue & white stripes at home so it's an easy mistake!

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Fletch, I was a little dissapointed that my team did not get a mention, although I realise you will get that as you can't get all 72 in!

    Oldham are sitting in 7th place, and have been around the top all season. Paul Dickov's first ever season as manager, and many people laughed about his appointment as the cheap option, and I think I am right in saying all Latics fans are very happy.

    We are 4 points off 2nd, with 3 games in hand on Wednesday. Although there is only 3 points separating us from 14th!

    Playing an attractive brand of attacking football on a shoestring budget, after finishing last season 2 points off relegation. I feel we are worth a mention!

    Merry Christmas

  • Comment number 4.

    Your blogs are always an enjoyable read, Paul. It's good to get an insight on the rest of the 71 clubs in the FL, and this is a good summary of how things stand at the moment. League One does sound very exciting, as do the Championship and of course League Two. Being a Torquay fan, this season has been decent for us so far. We picked up where we left off at the end of last season, not conceding in 998 minutes of League football, before Port Vale put one past us in August. However, we've topped the table, and we've been in the top 8 all season, which, considering we aren't exactly one of the biggest sides in the league, and we are working on a small budget, is an incredible feat. I hope we can keep it up.

    Anyway, yeah, Merry Christmas Paul and keep up the good work! (Maybe give TUFC a mention soon aswell!)

  • Comment number 5.

    hi fletch
    loved the overview. as a birmingham city supporter i find it increasingly difficult to get excited about the premier. i loved the days of the ever exciting championship not knowing what results would be. whenever i get the sunday papers always the lower divisions i look to

  • Comment number 6.

    Now then - thanks for your comments so far.

    Firstly, Simon (post 2) it really is time I made an appointment with the optician. Hope it didn't impinge too much on your enjoyment of the article.

    davemathieson (post 3) - I always get torched off someone or other for not mentioning their club when I write a piece like this. Oldham are doing very, very well and after interviewing Dickov earlier in the season, I cannot say that comes as a huge shock.

  • Comment number 7.

    Paul

    " ....like a motorist on a Scottish motorway " or better
    " ....like a passenger at an English airport !"

  • Comment number 8.

    Sorry Paul, very remiss of me, very good article (as always). I was just excited at see a pic of my team (Col U), even if incorrectly labelled.

    Should have gone to Specsavers?!

  • Comment number 9.

    Another good blog Paul, I think the bbc's coverage of the football league is proving to be excellent.

    The football league is always very exciting, none more so than this season. Yes, we all know that the Premiership is the most watched and supported league in the world but to many outsiders, they do not realise exactly what exists beneath the Premiership (the Premiership is not the ba all and end all!).

    Of course, the skill levels are lower, mistakes are higher and the household names are not seen as they are in the Premiership, but to many, the football league is just as exciting, if not more so than the Premiership. In fact, mistakes do not necessarily lessen the enjoyment as a spectacle; to the contrary, it means you can never take your eyes of a match as anything can happen at any point.

    Traditionally, it has always been assumed that the 'lower' teams in English football play a 'kick and rush' style. Well, this is simply not the case these days (well, Mr Boothroyd's teams apart, perhaps!). Look at teams such as Swansea, Doncaster, Blackpool, Bournemouth, but to name just a few examples. All teams that have got to their current positions playing the game the right way and with hard work to build up the teams -not through millions of pounds given to them by a sugar daddy!

    For me, the Championship is the nearest thing there is to the old Division from the late 80's, where anybody could finish in the top 5 (teams such as QPR, Southamption, Ipswich, Norwich, West Ham, Forest all achieved this in the 80's). Sadly, without a massive injection of cash (and we are talking well in excess of £100m required here) this is simply completely out of reach of any of these sort of teams for the forseeable future.

    That doesn't mean to say that I don't want my team to reach the Premiership, however, but there IS life beneath the Premiership (if not, scandalously, the money, but that's a whole separate blog).

  • Comment number 10.

    I think this year shows that the worries of the last few years about two tier divisions has not come to pass. When stupid amounts of money started rolling into English football, all the talk was of the rich clubs pulling away from the rest of the teams. Granted this has happen to some degree in the Premiership, but not throughout the rest of the divisions. It was said that teams reglated from the Preimership would have a a greater advantage over rest because of the parachute payments. The competitiveness of the championships over the last few seasons is showing this not to be true.
    I think what this has shown is that a good manager is what teams need rather than vast sums money. I sure most Chelsea fans would rather have Mourinho than Abramovich at the club.

  • Comment number 11.

    Surely it's "Merry Christmas" and "Happy" New Year?
    /DRTA

  • Comment number 12.

    Paul,

    Why doesn't the FL generate more money from TV?

    As I understand it, the Championship on its own is the fifth best attended league in Europe (after Germany, PL, La Liga and Serie A?), and has plenty of teams with global fan bases,(as does League One), so why so little money?
    The football is better than, for example, the top french division, but I suspect Ligue Un gets more money from broadcasters.

  • Comment number 13.

    12. At 2:27pm on 22 Dec 2010, backinwhite wrote:

    Paul,

    Why doesn't the FL generate more money from TV?

    As I understand it, the Championship on its own is the fifth best attended league in Europe (after Germany, PL, La Liga and Serie A?), and has plenty of teams with global fan bases,(as does League One), so why so little money?
    The football is better than, for example, the top french division, but I suspect Ligue Un gets more money from broadcasters.
    ---------------

    Because attendances do not equate to viewing figures. A lot fo people will watch top premier league games without actually supporting either team in particular. Certainly never to the extent of attending games. The same is true of top level football in France.

    That drops off immensely when you talk about the Championship. Viewing figures have proven that outside of the core support for the clubs involved there are very few people willling to tune into games at a lower level.

  • Comment number 14.

    Paul what do you think about Big Sam's idea to play youth football in the summer?

    Have a read of 'Umbrellas for goal post' for my opinion!

    http://upper90magazine.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/umbrellas-for-goal-posts/

  • Comment number 15.

    It's a reasonably good Christmas for us at Bury, riding high in the league. But we have a big problem with our home form, that is something that badly needs to be improved over the second half of the season. It's pretty much always been the problem at Bury because we only get small crowds (considering where we are geographically it's not surprising!) and the most vocal of our support is not brilliant - on away days the vocal supporters seem to be more in number!

    I think the club needs to look at ways of getting other supporters in to see just how good Bury are under Alan Knill. Maybe a deal whereby season ticket holders at other clubs can come watch Bury half-price when their team is away (Bury prices are very high for League 2!).

    Anyway, here's to a grand 2011 and hope we can avoid the late-season slump that's dogged up for the last 3 seasons!

  • Comment number 16.

    I really enjoy watching FL - more so than PL these days. Teams are more evenly matched, anyone can beat anyone, more exciting and reminds me of the old days standing on terraces watching proper man's footie. Tight budgets mean that managers have to look for local or cheap talent, work with them and develop players - and get the best out of what they have. There are a lot of really good English players in FL, but so few have a chance to develop at PL level. The same goes for managers - some very talented young managers but no chance at PL club. David Moyes - what an example of a PL club taking a chance on a young up and coming manager and look what he has achieved! Shame Blackburn did not give Ince more time.

    Congrats on a great Blog Paul.


    Lastly, well done to BBC to FL highlights programme. A very nice incentive to watch, just in case the footie is not so good, is to see the lovely Lizzie - class presenter.

  • Comment number 17.

    #13

    I take your point for domestic subscribers, but a lot of PL TV money comes from abroad. FSC in the States get much higher figures for their Championship games than Ligue Un. I still think the Football League undersells itself. It was a real disappointment that a global brand didn't take over from Coca Cola, as to be honest nPower can't be paying a premium for having their services marketed around the world when they don't even operate outside the UK, and the little bit of international business they do is under the RWE brand.

    With the amount of full internationals playing in the Football League, fans from those countries are always iterested, and the local commentators/producers focus on them.

    Anyway, here's to a snood free Football League!

  • Comment number 18.

    Now then, just a quick message before I crack on with dinner or my father-in-law will start becoming grumpy.

    Flux Redux (post11) - I always think that merry implies a sherry or two. I want to know whether you're happy with where your club is at Christmas, regardless of whether you have had a drink or not.

    Steve (15) - yep, so far, so good for Bury. But can they last?

    And finally - if you could buy one gift for your club this Christmas, what would it be and why?

  • Comment number 19.

    The Championship has been close for quite a few years now, indeed I've long thought it much better than the more preidctable Premiership, though that has tightened up over the past two seasons. My club, Barnsley, had a pretty awful start to the season. A decent run of form has us seriously looking at the playoffs though we all know a dip in form could put us back in the mix.

    #17 I understand your point about nPower not being a global brand like Coca-Cola, however the England cricket team were also sponsored by nPower, and the football team was sponsored by Nationwide. Put bluntly, domestic sales are probably worth more. Watching Barnsley vs Hull doesn't make me want to buy Coca-Cola, though I'm not sure why we'd switch to nPower either...

  • Comment number 20.

    Paul (18)
    What would Lincoln City like for Christmas?
    How about a game of football?!! We haven't played since November 27th. Our FA cup replay with Hereford has been postponed 3 times!
    Weekends have become so boring!!
    Happy Xmas one and all

  • Comment number 21.

    I think this is an excellent article as are many of the comments. As a supporter for over 50 years , Ive frankly had enough of the predictable Premiership and actually hope my club go down this year to bring some real excitement back into the league programme and for my team to actually have a real chance of winning something. What is the point of being in a competition year in ,year out that it is not even possible to win anymore. Well done all Championship Clubs for making your league the exciting sporting spectacle it has become

  • Comment number 22.

    I take issue with Swansea being described as one of the most entertaining sides in the Football League. I will grudgingly conceed that BR is doing a great job. Nonetheless, they're doing what his teams always do: controlling possession, defending quite well, creating few chances, and scoring some wonderfully worked goals when they very occasionally venture into the last third.

    If you're looking for highlights they're probably the perfect choice. But if you actually want to watch 90 minutes, I'd put Swansea well down the list of entertaining teams.

    As a neutral I'd much rather watch a game involving a team that creates lots of chances. A team where every outfield player is expected to put the miles in, including the striker(s). A hard working midfield with one or two box-to box players, one or two capable of absolute magic, and one or two who can really tackle. A set of defenders who are willing to get forward and wildly unpredictable in defence.

    As someone who is unashamedly biased, I firmly believe that team is Watford, but my bias is backed up by the stats. 71 goals scored in 21 league games involving Watford, including two televised games widely recognised as being magnificent. 47 goals in 22 games involving Swansea, including an extremely dull albeit hard fought televised win over their rivals.

    Anyway, at the top of my Christmas wish list is for Ashley Young to go to Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City or Chelsea for over £20m. With our resulting windfall there should be less pressure for us to sell in January, giving us a realistic chance of sqeaking into the playoffs and/or going on a cup run.

  • Comment number 23.

    THERE IS NO MONEY UNDER THE PREMIER LEAGUE

  • Comment number 24.

    @forestrock

    QPR have loadsa money!!

    And plenty of clubs have come up and established themselves in the Premier League. Look at WBA, they are run the right way and are competing.

    http://www.inofftheghost.wordpress.com

  • Comment number 25.

    While I found this article very good, I hace to query what you have written about Leeds. Why are they the story of the championship i have to ask? My team Norwich are only 2 points behind them, we have been up in the playoffs for most of the season. Personally I think QPR are the story of the championship so far. Ok they have lost their last two but to go unbeaten for almost half the season is a pretty bloody good achievement and I honestly cant remember a team being unbeaten in the championship until Mid December in rescent years

  • Comment number 26.

    I love to read about the football league, I find the Premiership so boring and predictable and this is a real breath of fresh air. Saying that though, I'd love to see Bradford back there again!

  • Comment number 27.

    I do love the Championship, and this season has been very exciting (probably because we're not involved in a relegation scrap for once!)

    My team Norwich have lost at home to Hull and Portsmouth in games we've dominated, and to Palace who we're there for the taken in the first half. Positive results in these games would have seen us in second place.
    Because of this, it makes every goal more meaningful and makes us fans celebrate that little bit more when we do get a vital goal (like Holts in the 87th min on Saturday!)

    Im hoping for a collapse from QPR and hope they lose out in the playoffs!!

    Promotion- Cardiff, Swansea
    Playoffs- QPR, Leeds, Norwich, Forest
    Relegation- Scunthorpe, Palace, Preston (would like Middlesbrough but think they will have too much and pull away into mid-table)

    Good luck to all!

  • Comment number 28.

    I'm someone who has never really taken much interest in any league other than the Premiership but during the last couple of years I've really started to enjoy the lower English leagues.

    If only the Premiership was more like the Championship it would be great, literally anyone can win it each year but it isn't just that it's the fact that nearly every game is exciting and anyone can really beat anyone.

    For me though, I can see Cardiff, Swansea and QPR getting promoted this year. It'll certainly make for interesting viewing if we have the Welsh derby on MOTD.

    www.sportrambles.wordpress.com

  • Comment number 29.

    Phil - I'm hoping we can last the distance this time...we signed the young boy Mozika, and he's been brilliant in the midfield since he came in. It's hard to replace a player of Stephen Dawson's quality but Mozika has been excellent. I really do hope we've got enough squad (or Knill can get the loans in next month) to not fade away in the run-in. This year should be Bury's for the taking!

  • Comment number 30.

    Oops, Paul not Phil...keep thinking I'm on Phil's blog *chuckle*

  • Comment number 31.

    ' No supporter should feel that HIS team are doomed '. Really, are there no female fans ? Or are they not to be mentioned !

  • Comment number 32.

    Alot of them will come on ere n talk abahrt ow great their club is n that they'll go up blah blah blah, but I wanted to talk abahrt Yeovil n avin seen theirn play dahn our gaff they don't deserve to go dahn n there aint that much difference between top n bottom n the quality of the football. It'd be a great loss if Yeovil were to go dahn but I reckon theirn will stay up.

 

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