Yorkshire has a three-strong frontier putting the pressure on Championship leading pair Newcastle United and Brighton and Hove Albion. Leon Wobschall analyses why the next few weeks will be crucial for Leeds United, Huddersfield Town and Sheffield Wednesday.
GIVEN a thoroughly riveting Championship itinerary over the coming weeks, many would be forgiven for thinking that the impending games were recently hand-picked by a gathering of script-writers seeking to thicken the plot as opposed to a ';fixture computer'; back in June.
For anyone seeking intrigue to spice up the race for automatic promotion, it is provided in abundance not just by Huddersfield Town’s emerging threat to the top-two hegemony of Newcastle United and Brighton, but also by a fascinating selection of fixtures looming large on the horizon.
Town fans in particular are likely to be watching developments at the Amex Stadium intently over the coming days, while naturally hoping David Wagner’s side continue to take care of their own business.
Inspection of the forthcoming Championship fixtures for the rest of this month and through March and April also provide just a kernel of hope for Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday in their quest to make a surprise late pitch for automatic promotion.
If any rival team are to truly emerge from the pack and challenge the top two, then you sense we will find out fairly shortly.
If any rival team are to truly emerge from the pack and challenge the top two, then you sense we will find out fairly shortly.Leon Wobschall, YP Football Writer
For leaders Newcastle and second-placed Brighton, whose advantage over Town was reduced to four points after the West Yorkshire outfit’s sixth league victory on the spin, against Reading on Tuesday, their looming assignments offer reward on the one hand, but clear risk on the other.
Storm Doris warnings may be in place across Britain, but for Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez, he is probably rather more preoccupied with making contingencies for a triple-header of away games in the space of a week which should arrive complete with hazard warning lights.
Saturday’s home encounter with lowly Bristol City at St James’ Park very much represents the calm before the storm for the Magpies, who could be without top-scorer Dwight Gayle for the next month due to a hamstring strain.
After that, they visit nearest rivals Brighton for a game which takes on monumental importance next Tuesday night before calling in at Huddersfield four days later ahead of a trip to sixth-placed Reading on March 7.
A past-master at cracking the code in tense Champions League elimination ties, Benitez will need to draw upon his considerable experience to ensure Newcastle emerge relatively unscathed from of a demanding run of games which is as tough as it gets at this level in 2016-17.
Anything less than a haul of six points would give inspiration to the chasing pack, with the Magpies also facing arduous games against Wednesday at Hillsborough on April 8 and at home to Leeds on April 15 before the end of the regular season which sees them entertain away-day specialists Barnsley on Sunday, May 5.
Benitez will aim to have Newcastle’s promotion wrapped up comfortably before then.
The Spaniard has previously excelled on tense European nights of combat, and Brighton counterpart Chris Hughton is particularly well-versed when it comes to the theatre of Championship run-ins.
Brighton’s weekend victory at Oakwell provided the ideal fillip to a definitive home double-header with Reading on Saturday, and then Newcastle – with the realisation that someone has to drop points on the night.
Eighteen days later, Albion call in at Elland Road for another weighty assignment at Leeds and they also visit play-off chasing Norwich City in late April in another hazardous looking encounter when credentials will be tested to the maximum.
As for the chasing pack, inspiration can be found from recent history, specifically for those Town supporters daring to dream of gatecrashing the party of the top two.
There are the events of 12 months ago to consider
Last Spring, Burnley powered to not just promotion, but silverware by a relatively comfortable four points over second-placed Middlesbrough at the end of the 2016-17 campaign.
Strikingly, at the same stage of last season after 32 games, the Clarets had 59 points, five less than Town have accrued from the same amount of fixtures in 2016-17 with the current points tallies of Leeds and Wednesday also not too dissimilar from the Lancastrians heading into the season’s business phase.
Yet while some may thrive amid the welter of pressure which is cranked up as March approaches, others can find it an intolerable strain as minds can get frayed and frazzled, with every disappointing result being magnified.
Just ask Boro, whose promotion bandwagon was almost spectacularly blown off course around 12 months ago by virtue of successive away defeats to relegation candidates Rotherham United and Charlton Athletic, with another promoted side in Hull City also failing to register a win last March and suffering a case of the yips.
Plenty can happen yet and most probably will.