1) It is not often you will find this writer praising the broadcasters of live EFL football, but you have to hand it to Sky Sports for their perennial fascination with West Bromwich Albion this season. I believe the average subscription holder has seen more of the Baggies this campaign than season-ticket holders at the Hawthorns.
But if the flagship football providers were ever to lose their fascination with West Brom’s fellow title challengers Leeds United, then they could not have picked a better side to follow than Slaven Bilic’s table toppers.
The Baggies have scored at least ten more goals than any other side, have conceded just four fewer than 18th-placed Reading, and are on course for more than 100 points. They might not be the best, but there is no doubting they are one of the most entertaining in the land.
2) For the only side in the EFL better than West Brom, ceasing being the apple of Sky’s eye had not stopped Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds side from being one of the most consistently good teams the Championship has seen all decade.
But on Saturday, something quite remarkable happened. Having fought and scraped their way to the majority of their seven preceding wins in a row, two goals in the opening ten minutes and an early second-half penalty made this look the easiest victory in quite some time for the Whites.
Opponents Cardiff City, however, were not in the mood to wave the white flag or allow a West Yorkshire procession. For Leeds, this is a stark reminder that nothing ever comes easy. They may still have a double-figure lead over the chasing pack, but there are chinks in this armour.
3) Neil Harris was not the most exciting manager that Cardiff could have opted for. He was never going to change the entire ethos of a club which prided its recent success on a multitude of the qualities which Harris favoured in his only previous managerial role at Millwall. Even the staff on first-name basis with the manager at the Cardiff City Stadium have not had to rehearse new pronunciation.
But that all works very neatly for the Bluebirds who will be happy to keep former manager Neil Warnock’s greatness around the Welsh capital for as long as possible. They will also be delighted to be picking up more points per game since Harris’ appointment than they had done under Warnock while maintaining an aura of being underrated.
That was until Saturday, and a late charge from three goals down to claim a point against a Leeds side who had conceded just four at home all season prior to this fixture. That’s a result Mr Warnock would have been proud of. Neil for your new king, Cardiff fans.
4) When you are in the midst of a bad spell, though, it is good luck which you hope will find you sooner rather than later. A 96th-minute equaliser for Hull City on Friday night leaves you wondering how many mirrors Charlton Athletic manager Lee Bowyer has smashed since the Addicks’ last win in mid-October.
It is now time for the season’s early surprise package to look themselves in the eye and find resolve to see out games. In a week when injury-time goals have seen them pick up one point instead of the four they had going into time added on, the Londoners find themselves just a few points above the dotted line.
Injury crises and off-field turmoil are legitimate excuses, but they won’t put Championship football on the table this time next year unless Charlton can put a halt to the worst form in the division.
5) For Hull, though, it is difficult to see just where their quality starts and Jarrod Bowen’s talents end.
Without the young English starlet, who must surely be picked up by a Premier League outfit in the New Year, you fear the Tigers would be mauled on a near-weekly basis.
His equaliser on Friday means only Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic has more goals than his 15, while a further four assists mean nobody has had more goal involvements than the 22-year-old this campaign. It also means he has had a part to play in more than half of Hull’s goals this campaign.
They are not so far above a relegation battle to be sure of their Championship status should Bowen
depart for pastures of a top-flight variety.
6) If the top two of the Championship is looking more and more a formality with every passing week, then the play-off race in the division is separated only by a series of noses between each position from 3rd into the upper echelons of the bottom half.
That Sheffield Wednesday sit near the top of that particular pile is more shocking than the advice owner Dejphon Chansiri was given by his financial advisors. Right now, though, that matters little.
The Owls are flying higher than they have done all weekend. If they didn’t have so many problems off the pitch, these would be near-unprecedented times for the S6 outfit.
Having said that, four first-half goals away from home at one of the strongest hosts in the second-tier
is not to be sniffed at. That near-constant flop Jordan Rhodes rewarded Garry Monk’s faith in him
with an early, perfect hat-trick – in every sense of the adjective – just showcases what an excellent
job the former Swansea man has done in his short time in the Steel City.
7) At the other end, Middlesbrough fans must really be dreading how long this so-called ‘long-term project’ can actually last. Jonathan Woodgate is not necessarily a bad manager. Robbie Keane is not necessarily a bad assistant. Chairman and Owner Steve Gibson is most certainly not bad at what he does, while this team should be far from awful.
But a 3-1 defeat at an out-of-sorts Swansea while losing two men to red cards stinks of p*ss-poor planning all round. If Boro are to stick by their man, they need to give him the arsenal required to get out of a near-certain assault on relegation. An experienced backroom staff is essential, quality is required across the team, and even then, that might not be enough to stave off the bottom three. Of the four teams lower in the table, Barnsley, Luton Town and Stoke City are all showing signs of improvement. Middlesbrough, on the other hand, are becoming more and more tedious for their own fans. It is difficult to see it continuing much longer.
8) Since the last iteration of 16 EFL Conclusions, Preston North End’s underrated and surprising brilliance had come somewhat off the wheels, but against lowly Luton, they were given a chance to surprise once more and return to form instead of slipping out of the top six like fellow early surprise packages Charlton and Swansea.
Against the Hatters, North End were made to leave nothing off the pitch, but left with smiles on their faces as a late winner saw the Lilywhites return to the top of a pile herein deemed ‘the best of the
rest’. Manager Alex Neil is once more showing just why the likes of West Brom and Stoke were after
him, and even more so why he was right to turn them down.
9) Brentford, meanwhile, have come out of the proverbial woodwork to ensure their Griffin Park farewell campaign has every chance of being a memorable one – for all the correct reasons. A derby day victory over fellow play-off challengers Fulham in west London saw the Bees rise to fourth in the
From out of nowhere, Thomas Frank’s side is gelling and the players who were tipped to star – Bryan Mbuemo chief among them – are now showing why they came so highly rated in the summer.
It may have taken some time to get going, but Brentford’s long wait for a first-ever Premier League
campaign could come in their debut year at their new home. Continue at this rate and Pontus
Jansson could end up in the top flight before Leeds.
10) Once more, and seemingly as ever, while the Premier League provided a bit of drama and a few
goals here and there, the Championship was host this weekend to an eight-goal thriller, a first half
hat-trick, a three-goal comeback, just one stalemate, and a couple of wonder strikes. Vive la second
11) At the start of the season, this writer questioned the rapidness of the average fan and pundit alike in suggesting that League One’s promoted charges this campaign would come from the trio of Portsmouth, Sunderland, and Ipswich Town.
This weekend, the three picked up just one point between them, the Black Cats drawing at home to Blackpool hardly enough to get the discontented Stadium of Light faithful on the edge of their seats, while Ipswich’s recent run of poor form reached a head with a disappointing but not entirely surprising defeat at home to a Bristol Rovers side who will fancy their chances of finishing higher than all three.
The Gas will be expecting to turn on better than Portsmouth most of all, now 10th and on the back of a 4-1 defeat at lowly Accrington Stanley. At this stage of the season, it has never been fairer than to remind supporters not to back sides on reputation and past glories alone.
12) Wycombe Wanderers, meanwhile, would not have been top pick for promotion by even the most optimistic of Chairboys, but their constant churning of wins is looking less and less a fluke with every passing collection of three points and even more so with the cherry on top of clean sheets.
With 11 shutouts to their name and a wide array of goalscorers on their books, Wycombe are taking full advantage of their closest challengers faltering and manager Gareth Ainsworth being fully committed to the Adams Park project.
In the past, I have compared this to the time Yeovil Town inexplicably reached the Championship; it is becoming clearer that the Buckinghamshire outfit are not here by fluke.
13) With a points deduction suspended, the sides around them looking much worse on many an
occasion, and with a handful of games and potential points in hand, there are an array of positives to
be taken from Bolton Wanderers’ 1-0 defeat to Peterborough United on Saturday.
Against the country’s highest attacking line, the troubled club conceded just once and while failing to find an equaliser, the reminder of the poor quality across the division means that a 15-point gap to safety is not an unscaleable mountain. With one of the most astute managerial teams in the land in the guise of Keith Hill and David Flitcroft and a number of players proven above the third tier, there is still hope Bolton could survive both on and off the pitch this season.
14) As if to prove the point that anything can happen in football, MK Dons, under the permanent tutelage of rookie manager Russell Martin, got their first win in 12 league games at home to Oxford United, unbeaten in 11 matches going into the weekend.
The result leaves Oxford outside the play-off places having been a fixture of the top six for much of the season, while the Dons sit inside the relegation zone on goal difference alone. The fact this coupon buster came as little surprise speaks not for the beauty of football, but that this League One campaign is perhaps the poorest quality, not just of the decade, but perhaps the century. Change is needed.
15) In League Two however, the story is rather different. It is not beyond exaggeration to suggest that the entire top half of the EFL’s basement division would fancy their chances of repeating their current positions a level above.
For Swindon Town and top scorer Eoin Doyle, this season is proving to be a masterstroke for both club and player. Doyle’s goal on Saturday afternoon made it ten scoring games in a row for the former Preston forward, a run which has seen the Robins fly to the top of the table. Without a league defeat in almost two months, Richie Wellens is proving himself to be a potential top-class manager and Doyle is once again in a golden run of form, just like the good times at Chesterfield and Oldham Athletic. When he’s the star man, he lives up to the billing.
16) A final word to one of the most tumultuous and debt-stricken clubs in the EFL: Macclesfield Town, and their new head coach Daryl McMahon. Unheard of to the majority of EFL supporters even now, the 36-year-old is working miracles akin to those of the much more famous – and now infamous in these parts of Cheshire – Sol Campbell.
Against a backdrop of an unpaid squad, strikes and the threats of more, winding-up petitions and the club’s very future at stake, McMahon has got the Silkmen looking pretty in mid-table and nine
points off of League Two’s sole relegation spot. If he keeps it up, the former Ebbsfleet United coach
should be up for Manager of the Season. How’s that for an epic from the Irishman?
Nathan Spafford is on Twitter