How do you get out of the Hell that is the Championship?
Over the last few years the Championship has picked up a (highly deserved) reputation as being a tough and very competitive division. There are now a host of teams that can boast fairly recent Premiership experience (Sheffield United, Portsmouth, Leeds, Burnley, Ipswich, Reading, Hull, Middlesboro) as well as those that can think of themselves as ‘established’ Championship sides looking to kick on to the next level (Cardiff, Bristol City, Nottingham Forest, QPR). All this means that it can be very difficult to pick out who the winners and losers will be of a weekend as there are usually a couple of surprises and teams can be counted on to take points off each other. It also means that the difference between mid table and the playoffs can be a well-timed semi-decent run of matches at the back of the end of the season (see Blackpool last year).
Last night provided an example of how this competitiveness can result in some ludicrous stuff. Somehow Cardiff lost to Leicester but still managed to hold onto 2nd spot in the league due to other teams below them trading blows. The league is 6 games old and frankly any team that loses a match in the first 10 games of the season would expect to drop a couple of places.
Another ludicrous example was Cardiff’s collapse in form just after Christmas last year which carried on into the February of 2010, where occasional scrappy wins punctuated draws and defeats. Despite this, Cardiff managed to maintain their place in the playoffs during this period until their form recovered as others below and around them traded punches.
However these are exceptions rather than the rule and a mini-slump in form can often see a team dropping like a stone or rising like a whale that’s running out of breath. So how is it possible to escape the melee that is the mid to upper end of the Championship table? The simplest approach is to rise above the kicking and punching scrum by storming out into an early lead. This is easier said than done, but by escaping out of it all you can score an easy and early psychological blow. Opposition teams will feel there’s no point trying to haul you back in as you’re effectively out of reach, so they’ll concentrate on those a bit closer to them and making sure that they don’t get away. This forms a virtuous circle as you keep on picking up points while all those in the chasing pack keep taking points off each other in an effort to keep in touch. The perfect example came last year with Newcastle (admittedly a very good side at that level) who sailed away into an early lead and simply kept it going. Other examples include Reading in 2005/06 and Sunderland in 2004/05.
I suppose it’s quite simplistic; ‘win league by being top from the start’ isn’t exactly a revolutionary approach, but after watching this division for a number of years it seems to be the best approach to avoid the manic end of season jostling for position that inevitably happens. Could QPR be the team that will do that this year? It’s too early to tell but they are certainly the early runners with a string of impressive results during their first 6 games. If they’ve got a 7 point lead after 10/11 games then it’ll be interesting to see how teams approach games against them.
Of course, the other option is to just fluke your way up like Blackpool did.