The exceptional Mark Robins tops our Champo winners and losers

Date published: Sunday 3rd October 2021 2:53 - Nathan Spafford

Mick McCarthy Mark Robins Dominic Solanke Championship collage

Mark Robins led Coventry to a stunning fightback over the weekend against Fulham, who are suffering an inconsistent second month of the season…

 

Winners

 

Mark Robins
Where to start? In reality, I could dedicate 3000 words to the brilliance of Coventry; from responding to a 5-0 thrashing in midweek, to turning the game on its head in the space of five second-half minutes. From turning Viktor Gyokeres into one of the Championship’s deadliest marksmen to making it six wins out of six home league games since returning to the city and the CBS Arena.

But all the credit can be rather aptly – on a day of high precipitation in the Midlands – put under Mark Robins’ umbrella. No manager currently active in the English game has transformed a side this demonstrably and dramatically. In that way, Robins is the best manager in the EFL. His Sky Blues side embody everything he is: hard working with flair and expertise in all the right places.

Robins returned to the club at their lowest ebb in 2017 and has taken Coventry from League Two and spiralling to soaring at the top end of the Championship. It took a recovery of a similar scale to bounce back from losing 5-0 at Luton in midweek and trailing the Cottagers at the break. It would have been easy to cede that perfect home form and accept back-to-back defeats, but that would be to defy what Robins stands for, and in turn, what this team stands for.

Fulham were their own worst enemy – and that caveat will be addressed in the latter half of the column – but Coventry took absolute advantage of the mistakes being played out before them, closing down on a Fulham backline who were not capable of playing with the ball at the back. In every way that Fulham got it wrong, Coventry got it oh so right. In midweek, we wrote that whether it was 1-0 or 5-0, it was still only three points dropped. But in winning 4-1, Coventry almost repaid that goal difference back too. There is just very little this side can do wrong. There is nothing Robins can do wrong. Coventry are not only dreaming; they are on cloud nine.

 

Stoke’s back three
We have become accustomed to Stoke City’s terrifyingly monstrous, youthful and yet composed back three of Harry Souttar, Ben Wilmot and Brighton loanee Leo Ostigaard shining in defence for the Potters this season.

Against unbeaten table-toppers West Brom, the latter was replaced by James Chester, whose name still carries a light sense of dread when in the starting XI. But performances such as this showed just how crucial Chester can be to this side. At 22, 21 and 21, the initial back three are beyond bolstered by the 32-year-old Chester, who used all his experience and skills beneficial to playing in a back three to keep the Baggies at bay. Still judged on his early appearances in red and white in a position which less benefited him, Chester is proving to be one of the best rotated defenders in the division.

As for Wilmot, and I really hate/love to say we told you so, but the former Watford centre back is showcasing just how superior he is to almost every centre back on the Hornets’ roster. In the summer, we said a loan move would have made sense, but that Watford would regret not getting the England youth international back. Given some of the current performances exhibited by the Hertfordshire club this season, to allow Wilmot out at all is a decision bordering on madness.

As for Harry Souttar, he is the perfect amalgamation between beastly and ball-playing in equal parts centre-back. That new Burnley boy Nathan Collins is not missed is testament to the defenders still in ST4 and manager Michael O’Neill.

 

Lewis Grabban – embodying Nottingham Forest’s revival
Make that seven points from a possible nine. Steve Cooper’s Nottingham Forest and his predecessor’s iteration may appear chalk and cheese, but there are some similarities. Chris Hughton’s sides were not getting battered, but missing out on marginal gains to take points from tight games, unable to make anything tangible out of decent first-half performances. But Cooper’s gains have not just been marginal; they are major.

Forest fans are enjoying football again. That is the biggest transformation and the biggest revival. Everything about the club has new life within, and that includes former talisman Lewis Grabban, whose form under Hughton was bordering on despicable. His opener at Birmingham was not only possible because of his true talent, but because of the confidence which has been thrashed back into him, making it two goals in three outings under Cooper. Immediate relegation worries already feel a long time ago.

 

Dominic Solanke
That the Championship’s top three at the start of the weekend – West Brom, Fulham, Bournemouth – all kicked off at various stages of this round of fixtures made for fascinating viewing. After West Brom went down to Stoke on Friday night before that Fulham capitulation on Saturday lunchtime, the Cherries looked like completing the trio when Morgan Gibbs-White gave Sheffield United a second-half lead.

But we know by now that this Bournemouth side are made of sterner and better stuff, as is Dominic Solanke, whose thunderbolt of a penalty for the leveller ensured no English player has scored more goals than in the Championship this season. Phil Billing’s winner moments after ensured a three-point gap over their challengers. Bournemouth are much the better for this extra season in the Championship, as are their key performers, none more so than Solanke.

 

Millwall’s persistence
Twenty-nine shots, Jeremy. Twenty-nine. That’s insane. Insane it may be, but if the definition of madness is to repeat the same pattern and expect different results, it was their opponents Barnsley who felt crazy after Murray Wallace’s late winner handed Millwall the three points.

Gary Rowett’s side are just three points off the top six, having lost just twice in their opening 11 games. Having won just once in their opening nine league outings, it is a remarkable turnaround, and showcases just how close the Championship still is going into the second international break of the season.

 

QPR, back in form
Having suffered something of a wobble in the middle of September against admittedly good opposition, QPR knew it was vital to take a good haul of points from this week’s home encounters with Birmingham and Preston – they passed with flying colours.

Two of the bottom three may have shipped fewer goals, but they are entertainers for a reason, both to neutrals and their own supporters. West London neighbours Fulham are the only team to have scored more, so you know the postcode to travel to when you want to see goals. This weekend though, it is the hooped corner of the capital which is most jubilant.

 

Sammie Szmodics
His team may have lost (again), but for former Bristol City player Szmodics, this was a good day at the office. The 26-year-old spent an injury-hit year with the Robins, making just three league appearances after being a stellar and consistent performer with Colchester United before that. A loan spell at London Road was just what the exciting talent needed to reignite his career, and it showed with two well-taken goals against his former employers. It’s a shame his teammates weren’t on the same level.

 

Blackpool, liking to be beside the seaside
A fourth victory of the season has taken Blackpool into the top half of the Championship for the first time since the Tangerines’ return to the second tier of English football. In something of a local derby, the Blacks – Pool and Burn – went head-to-head with the hosts making the most of home comforts to win at Bloomfield Road in successive matches.

That the goals came from this season’s top scorer Shayne Lavery, who has been nothing short of a revelation following his summer switch from Linfield, and last term’s chief marksman Jerry Yates, brought an amalgamation of the success which boss Neil Critchley has brought to the Fylde coastline.

 

Hull City
Technically, they are one of the three worst teams in the Championship this season, but between Derby’s points deduction and a win over fellow crack north-eastern outfit Middlesbrough, Grant McCann’s side have done enough to get themselves out of the bottom three.

Taking four points from two games just before the international break means the momentum will have to hold, but there is joy to be had in Humberside over the next fortnight. Mallik Wilks’s first goal of the campaign sealed a first victory since the opening day of the season after Joe Lumley’s own goal in what was a largely drab affair.

But a bit of boredom for large parts is a fair price to pay for good results. McCann rolled the dice in a potential do-or-die scenario given the City board would have had two weeks to find an able replacement, but in switching to three at the back and making bold calls like starting forward Keane Lewis-Potter at wing-back, Grant showed he McCann get it right at this level. After the international break, the correct calls have to be more consistent.

 

Junior Hoilett
If it is true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, then Reading winger Junior Hoilett didn’t get the memo. The veteran former Cardiff City man has been playing as a striker in recent weeks to decent effect and despite being shifted back to his more natural position, the 31-year-old scored his first goal for his new employers with a Royals seal of approval from his new adoring fanbase.

That Hoilett chose not to celebrate against the club for which he made nearly 200 appearances was likely borne out of respect, but perhaps also a tinge of sympathy. Even the worst-case scenario of a nine-point deduction would take Reading only four points behind Cardiff. Given the current form of these two clubs, that appears a gap which would be closed as soon as possible.

 

Derby County
It’s not often a club will get mentions in the winners’ section for a 0-0 home draw, but Derby are still fighting for their survival in this division. Given the wholesale troubles surrounding the club, that they remain the only side yet to trail at home in the Championship this season is a sight to behold in the third month of the campaign. Another point on the board and yet more vindication for the decision to make Wayne Rooney the manager. His signing as a player may have been indicative of how Derby came to this position; his performances in the dugout might yet get them out of it.

 

Losers

Early frights for Marco Silva
There is a top five in the Championship right now. A break of points between fifth and sixth means there is a gap, but Fulham sit at the bottom of that top five, and it is very much deserved after an inconsistent second month of the season which has bled into their heaviest defeat of the campaign to start October.

The end of the month is usually reserved for Halloween, but Fulham will bookend October with fear and frights, looking particularly spooked by Coventry’s pressing at their illogical playing at the back and frightened of the transformation from a tame Coventry first-half performance to the beasts they became in the second 45. Matty Godden was even tripped by a ghost for good measure.

And while fingers will be pointed towards a penalty which really shouldn’t have been to give Coventry the lead, the turning point was afforded by Fulham’s own set-up and faults. Tim Ream has proven time and time again he is not up to the task at any level for the Cottagers, while Fulham invited so much pressure on themselves by failing to run at a Coventry defence which can be gotten at, especially down their left-hand side.

Marco Silva’s sole experience of second division football saw him promoted in his first ever season as a manager with Portuguese side Estoril but his Cottagers side have now won just two of their last six league games. They will be glad of the international break but know much better is needed going forward.

 

Markus Schopp and Mick McCarthy
Whether or not a club looks forward to an international break largely rests on the sort of form they are in. That Barnsley and Cardiff have taken a collective two points from their last five games indicates that their supporters will be glad of a Saturday where they don’t lose. Conversely, the Barnsley manager and his Barnsley-born counterpart will know that their jobs have never been less secure.

With a full fortnight now available to the hierarchies at the Tykes and the Bluebirds, there is plenty of time to identify, bring in, and get a new manager to working with their respective squads. These two may be very new to the English game and one of the most experienced within it, but they both share the common fact that they have struggled desperately this season, even more so when taking into consideration these sides finished in the play-offs and just outside of it in 2020/21.

Both lost only 1-0, but both in winnable home games, the fan reaction to each showcasing there is little hope left in the managerships in South Yorkshire and South Wales. Should either manager still be in a job by the time the next league fixtures come around, these clubs will likely be headed in only one direction.

 

Birmingham City
Talking of clubs in bad form, there is less concern at Birmingham City, but this has not been a good run for the Blues from the second city. Since defeating Derby on 10th September, they have scored once in five games, that coming in a 4-1 home defeat to Fulham, and the only point in that time a St Andrew’s stalemate with Preston.

It is a run of form which has seen Lee Bowyer’s side go from dark horse potential to slipping firmly into midtable. You would think they have enough about them to avoid slipping much further, but Cardiff have shown how difficult is in this division to arrest an alarming slide down the standings.

Nottingham Forest, who started the season far worse than anybody, now sit one place and one point behind Brum, who it must be said, are feeling rather glum. A reset is needed over the next two weeks.

 

Middlesbrough
We’ve said it before, and we’re not averse to repeating ourselves when it needs saying. Neil Warnock does not do midtable. He is far too long in the tooth and far too short on patience to accept any job which does not stimulate him. The veteran manages because of his love for the thrill of a promotion chase which more often than not does result in his clubs being elevated to the Premier League.

With every passing week, even the victories have come with caveats that make this Boro side look anything but promotion challengers. Going down 2-0 at a Hull City side yet to win on their own turf or at all since the opening day of the campaign means a club statement feels impending and necessary, for both Warnock and Middlesbrough’s benefit.

 

Luton’s inconsistency
This one slips in near the bottom of the list because it is not a big problem, especially on the scale of the clubs and the individuals above, but Luton’s inconsistency is proving a source of frustration. Having beaten Coventry City 5-0 in midweek, one would have expected the Hatters to hit the back of the net at least once against Huddersfield, but instead they settled for a point from a goalless draw.

It is indicative of their form in the first quarter of the season which has embedded Nathan Jones’ side very much in midtable territory. The only results that have come back to back were four successive draws across August and September, with wins often followed by defeats and defeats by victories and draws.

There are a number of clubs who would kill for those victories, but Luton could be capable of so much more.

 

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