Stop Hitting Yourselves: The Three-Way Obstacle Race For The Premier League
The warning signs have been there, not just all season but perhaps for the last decade or so. Recent results had dictated that Good Friday should be the day when Leeds United should have taken their great leap forward towards a place in the Premier League. Last Saturday, it all looked as though the clouds of confusion hanging over the top end of the Championship should have been set to lift. Sheffield United dropped two points at home against Millwall after having a player sent off, seeing their opponents miss a penalty kick, and then concede an equaliser five minutes into stoppage-time. In the evening, meanwhile, Leeds were nervy in their home match against Sheffield Wednesday but still held out for a one-nil victory that opened up a three point gap, with four games of the season left to play.
This, however, is the Football League Championship, and taking anything for granted is usually a fool’s errand. Yesterday afternoon’s football began with third-placed Sheffield United recovering from their disappointment from a week earlier with a comfortable two-nil win against a lethargic-looking Nottingham Forest. Martin O’Neill has been the manager of Forest for ninety-four days. The Forest owner Angelos Marinakis is already rumoured to be unhappy with O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane’s time in charge at The City Ground. So the managerial merry-go-round goes. Mid-tabloe opponents with little left to play for this season may be the most comfortable opposition that any ambitious club can hope for at this point of the season, but three points are three points and the win put United back into second place in the table on goal difference above Leeds United.
Leeds were at home against a Wigan Athletic side that has spent the season floundering near the bottom of the league table, and when Cedric Kipre was sent off for a deliberate handball fourteen minutes into their game at Elland Road, it felt as though they should be able to go on and win the match with a degree of comfort. Even after Pablo Hernandez’s resulting penalty kick hit the post, Patrick Bamford was on hand to put Leeds in front just three minutes later. All of this, however, was reckoning without Gavin Massing, who equalised for Wigan shortly before half-time and then gave them the lead seventeen minutes into the second half. As the atmosphere from a crowd of almost 35,000 people reached fever pitch, Leeds couldn’t force an equaliser and Sheffield United held onto second place, at least until the end of the next round of matches.
When it’s running your way, it’s running your way. In the evening match, leaders Norwich City were also at home against opposition who might have been forgiven taking to the pitch with stuffed doneys under their arms in the form of Sheffield Wednesday, and an early goal from Marco Stiepermann seemed to be putting them on course for another win, but Wednesday found a little gumption, levelled through Fernando Forestieri a quarter of an hour later and then snatched an unlikely lead early in the second half. It looked for all the world as though Norwich had blown their chance of taking anything from the match until six minutes of stoppage-time had been played but then, with an inevitability that seems to come naturally for some clubs at this point of the season, Marco Vrancic curled in a free-kick to hand Norwich a point and the knowledge that promotion might be secured by the end of the Easter weekend, should they beat Stoke City on Monday and either Leeds United or Sheffield United fail to win their matches against Brentford and Hull City. Considering the nervousness that come to resemble blind panic at times in recent matches, neither of the latter scenarios feels particularly unlikely.
This point of the season, of course, makes something of a mockery of the vast amount of analysis that is put into the Championship over the remainder of the season. Not every season results in a finish quite as tight as this, but any division in which just about anybody can beat just about anybody else is always likely to be almost impossible to predict, even with just three games of the season left to play. So, what are the current positions? Norwich City are five points clear at the top of the table and one more win from their remaining games against Stoke City, Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa. The last match looks like their most challenging by some considerable distance, but the likelihood remains that they should already have ensured their return to the Premier League by the time of this match.
Sheffield United and Leeds United are now level on points with three matches to play, but Sheffield United’s goal difference is six better off than that of their rivals. On Monday, Sheffield United travel to Hull City in the afternoon whilst Leeds travel to Brentford in the evening. A failure to win a match that will be considered a derby match by their opponents despite the fact that mid-table Hull are also already fully paid-up members of the Stuffed Donkey Club. Should they fail to win Leeds can go back into second place by winning from their trip to West London, and they’ll only need a point to get back there should Sheffield United lose. A Sheffield United win, however, changes the balance of it all. Leeds would take to the pitch at Griffin Park knowing that they need a win just to keep Sheffield United in their line of vision. A different type of presure altogether.
Whether knowing what you have to do or not as a result of staggered kick-offs can be a double-edged sword, of course, especially at this time of the season. Regardless of the extent to which any Sheffield United or Leeds United supporters think it’s better to know in advance or not, Leeds find themselves in this position again this weekend, when Sheffield United take on the already-relegated Ipswich Town in the afternoon before Leeds take on Aston Villa, whose form is outstanding at the moment, the following lunchtime. And following all that, on the last day of the season – by which it could be all over, of course – Leeds travel to Ipswich while Sheffield United travel to Stoke City. Looking at these fixtures, the obvious prediction to make is to set one’s laptop on fire and throw it through the nearest window.
Everything will ultimately come down to how Leeds react to yesterday’s defeat and Sheffield United’s result on Monday afternoon. It’s entirely possible that, by the time they take to the pitch at Griffin Park, they will be three points behind Sheffield United and with an inferior goal difference. Coaching, at this point of the season, becomes a job of tight man-management rather than long-term planning. All that matters is these last three matches. Win all three of them and it’s likely that you’ll go up because it’s at least possible that your opponents will drop points at some point over the remaining three matches. With Sheffield United having the superior goal difference and Leeds having to face the division’s in-form team in one of their matches, they are surely the favourites to go up for now, but that could all change yet again in the blink of an eye.
There are lessons that are never learnt during the closing weeks of the Championship football season, the most notable of which is that the very sight of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow will often result in such an undignified race. Points dropped other points of the season start to look considerably more important than they did at the time because the forty-six match season gives the lie that there are points that can be dropped or wasted earlier on in the season. The Championship’s relentless nature makes consistency difficult, and the pressure makes focus the most important attribute that any team can acquire over the course of the first six months of any season.
That the final push for Premier League football comes to resemble the last couple of hundred yards of a Mascots Grand National most years is probably attributable to the vast gulf in money between the two divisions and the accompanying “status” that comes with such a difference. Considering how unhealthy that variation is, small wonder that supporters of other clubs take so much schadenfreude from the panic of others as the possibility of missing out on at least a year in El Dorado hones into view. If financial imbalance is going to drive dozens of football clubs insane as they chase getting their noses into the golden trough, then the least that anybody should expect is a lot of laughter while they stumble over the obstacle course to get there in the first place.