Paul Ince belongs atop our Championship winners and losers

Date published: Thursday 7th April 2022 10:22 - Nathan Spafford

Paul Ince, West Brom celebrating and Mark Warburton

Mark Warburton is not long for QPR and Paul Ince perhaps isn’t Reading’s long-term answer, but he deserves to be part of that conversation.

 

Winners

Paul Ince
Who would have thought it? Certainly not us. Almost certainly not you. In truth, even Paul Ince himself must have had his doubts. But Reading’s 2-1 victory over Stoke has afforded the Royals one foot and an extra couple of toes in the Championship next season. A difficult campaign has flirted with the farcical at times in Berkshire, rarely more so than finally getting rid of Veljko Paunovic and replacing him with Ince. But that decision has been vindicated.

Ince was brought in to keep Reading in the second tier and barring an insane turnaround, has done that with relative ease. He has made some odd comments and there are obvious doubts as to whether he is the right man for the long term, but he at least deserves the opportunity to be included in that discussion when May comes and Reading are almost certainly still a Championship outfit.

If Reading are no longer likely to finish 21st, it is because they are looking good to overthrow Hull rather than dropping into the bottom three – since losing 4-0 to Nottingham Forest, they have taken eight points from four games and hold an eight-point buffer to Barnsley with six games remaining. Given the downward trajectory the club was on when Ince got the gig part time, those results and that league standing are impressive, even more so considering almost nobody thought it was a good idea.

 

Nottingham Forest
As the cliche goes, it is far better to have points on the board than games in hand, but Nottingham Forest’s situation was so advantageous before Wednesday’s clash with Coventry that anything other than a play-off spot would have been considered a disappointment.

After the 4-1 thrashing of Blackpool in the first game after the international break, two Midlands derbies against winnable opposition presented themselves in the form of Coventry and Birmingham. The first of those potential banana skins was passed with consummate ease, Brennan Johnson scoring once again and James Garner providing a peach of a finish. The hard part looked to be getting in the top six. If Forest get there – and it is entirely in their hands – they have to be the favourites to go up. Start getting excited, Forest fans.


Eight Championship loanees ready for the Premier League


 

Joel Piroe
A 16th Championship game in which Dutch striker Piroe has scored in his debut season for Swansea was also his 16th league goal of the campaign. Piroe absolutely refuses to deal in braces, but he has belted up Swansea’s season more than well enough to give fans something to cheer even when the going has not been so good.

Now Russell Martin’s side are riding the crest of a wave with 10 points from their last four games, the thrashing of bitter rivals Cardiff on the road and a follow-up victory at Millwall in which they started the game as second favourites. It is too late to get anything more tangible this season, but if the Swans keep Piroe around at the Liberty, they are in for a treat in 2022/23. At £1million last summer, Piroe has to go down as one of the best value signings at this level for years.

 

Sheffield United’s old heroes
2018/19 called. They want their Sheffield United promotion heroes back. John Fleck setting up Oliver Norwood for the only goal of the game from a well-worked set-piece that puts the Blades in play-off contention sounds like something straight from the Chris Wilder playbook, but this was indicative of current manager Paul Heckingbottom’s qualities.

A squad that had become stale in their second season back in the Premier League and under Slavisa Jokanovic this campaign has been reinvigorated under Heckingbottom. Lightning could still strike twice in this corner of South Yorkshire.

 

West Brom
An excellent first half was followed by a stuttering second 45 minutes, but that didn’t detract from one of very few genuinely enjoyable matches of the season for suffering West Brom supporters. It feels too late to mean anything this term, but perhaps we have seen the start of something to build upon with Steve Bruce at the helm. Alex Mowatt started in fine fettle under his old Barnsley boss Valerien Ismael but has waned in recent months, while Andy Carroll’s first Baggies goal had eluded him since his winter switch to the Hawthorns.

Both could have big futures – long and short-term respectively – in the Midlands, and Wednesday night went some way to proving that.

 

Preston setting up next season
Like Swansea at the weekend, Preston proved there is never an irrelevant time to beat your local rivals. The clash with Lancashire opponents Blackpool was a mid-table game to neutrals, but meant the world to supporters of both. With play-off hopes just about in tact for either at kick off, Preston’s deserved victory affords them great optimism for next season under Ryan Lowe.

 

Cameron Archer
It is a shame that a genuinely impressive loan spell – six goals in 12 starts earning eight points – has been for a team fighting at neither end of the table. A season-long loan spell back at Deepdale next season will be hugely beneficial for all parties.

 

Fulham
Only so low because we are running out of superlatives, and we expect nothing less than greatness from this amazing side. Fulham were far from their best but that mattered not. A rigid defensive display was capped by a moment of typical accuracy from Aleksandar Mitrovic to deliver all three points. Two more results like that and promotion is theirs. In truth, it has been a matter of when, not if, for months now.

 

Aleksandar Mitrovic
Thirty-eight goals, Jeremy. Thirty-eight. That’s insane.

 

Losers

QPR’s attackers
Recent results have been poor, but QPR’s performances will be of even greater concern for Mark Warburton and his side. Against Sheffield United, a game that would have seen the victors make headway at the expense of their opponents, QPR never looked like being that team.

The Londoners are still only three points off the play-off places, but they are being punished for lifeless display after lifeless display which has seen them go from promotion dark horses to absolute outsiders for a top six berth. Lyndon Dykes and Andre Gray started the game and played a combined 158 of 180 minutes without ever looking like troubling the Sheffield United backline, never mind the scoreline.

Dykes had started the season on fire, but the Scotland international is without a goal since January, much like veteran former hero Charlie Austin; he didn’t even get off the bench on Tuesday night. Gray has been capable of better but put in the sort of insipid performance which has been all too common this campaign.

 

Mark Warburton
And of course the man who will pay the price for that collective failure sooner or later is the manager. Warburton’s time in the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium dug-out is done now, regardless of whether he receives his marching orders this morning or in the summer. It is nigh on impossible to envisage QPR turning around their disastrous form. A win away from the play-offs they may be, but they have been miles off the pace for the majority of the calendar year now.

It is a shame that it will end with such acrimony. Warburton has done a terrific job transforming a club once known for overpaying mercenaries and turning them into a club their fans can be proud of. He has provided many memories this season, but his stubbornness in not changing a formula which stopped providing correct answers some time ago will be his undoing.

 

Millwall when it mattered
In another corner of London, Millwall have experienced a quite different calendar year to their near-neighbours. 2022 has brought about a run of form which has seen the Lions go from absolute mid-tablers to threatening a space in the top six, culminating in a seven-game unbeaten run.

With hopes of the play-offs in their sights, a Swansea side on a high from the weekend were the next obstacle to overcome. But overcome the Swans they could not. When it mattered, when a play-off spot actually looked like a reality rather than a pipe dream, Millwall could not make it count. The chances go back to being slim once more.

 

Michael O’Neill
Stoke fans are rightfully divided on Michael O’Neill. The Potters had looked like genuine promotion challengers for much of the season, but have been facing mid-table malaise since the turn of the year. Defeat to Reading was the latest in a long line of defeats which have derailed faith in the former Northern Ireland manager.

It is possible to accept that O’Neill has done an amazing job in having kept Stoke in the Championship two seasons ago, helping to shift the deadwood and giving the Potters a team with at least a semblance of identity, while also accepting that he likely isn’t the best man to take them to the next stage. One step forward on Saturday has been followed by another two back. It is probably time to change.

 

Middlesbrough
Chris Wilder’s home form since taking charge of Middlesbrough late last year had been imperious. Against league leaders and promotion certainties Fulham, Boro put in a decent performance, but this was a third straight game at the Riverside without scoring. If we are to believe that the play-off spots are now four from six, Middlesbrough might just have found themselves as one of the outside two for the end-of-season lottery.

 

Coventry City
Losers in name only. This has been a wonderful season for Coventry. Back in their own city, multiple moments of late magic and defying expectations on a near-weekly basis have all accompanied a fine 2021/22 campaign. This is a team and a club that can go from strength to strength from here. But Wednesday’s defeat to Nottingham Forest all but ended their chances of glory this time around. The Sky Blues are eight points off sixth-placed Sheffield United with six games to play.

 

Taylor Harwood-Bellis
Harwood-Bellis is one of England Under-21s’ brightest stars and has a great future ahead of him. At Stoke, he hasn’t quite had the desired effect on loan from Manchester City. But just as he had begun to find some form, the young centre-back scored a comical own goal, heading into his own net under little to no pressure. It’s all very different to the promise that littered the bet365 Stadium at the season’s start.

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