I love it when managers or footballers say they don’t bother looking at league tables because, in the current climate with technology ramming everything down your throat, you really would have to live in a cave to avoid knowing the state of play.
It’s true, though, that thinking about tables week after week can be pretty draining for the guys in the thick of it. You have to take some interest because, hell, a club’s ranking in the league is the name of the game, but if you run through the permutations every time you play it’s emotionally exhausting. Nine or 10 months of ifs, buts and maybes: the reality of second guessing is why everyone talks about going game to game.
The Championship as it stands is a vindication of that attitude. It’s so incredibly open that, at this stage, I genuinely wouldn’t like to say who’ll be there when the season ends in May.
I’ve been impressed by Leeds United, I’ve been impressed by West Brom, I’ve been impressed by Sheffield United and I’ve been impressed by Middlesbrough. I’ve also seen all four sides dip to a less-convincing standard and it’s interesting that while each of them has had the chance to strike out at the top of the table, they’ve all failed to do so.
I was at West Brom on Wednesday for their game against Derby County. It was a mystifying night. It wasn’t that I didn’t think Derby could go there and win, but it was hard to comprehend how badly West Brom played and how it was that a team with so much potential – a team pretty highly regarded – found themselves 4-0 down on their own turf.
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You could take the result in isolation and assume that Derby are the ones to watch. And if they win at Middlesbrough at lunchtime on Saturday, they’ll move into first place for a few hours at least.
But then I remember the way they were taken to the cleaners by Leeds in August and, while accepting that Frank Lampard was still bedding in as manager back then, I wonder whether Derby are likely to last the pace.
All through the division there are unexpected appearances: Stoke City a mile down and Norwich City up in the top six.
It’s not so long since people, including me, were sounding the death knell on QPR’s prospects but they’re up to 20 points and they’re on a bit of a roll.
This could be one of those years where, come April, everything is up for grabs. The one thing I can say pretty confidently is nobody will run away with the title.
The situation last season was very different. Wolves drew a bit of scepticism at first – the usual doubts about whether it was all a bit flash-in-the-pan – but step by step they met every challenge put in front of them. Can they extend their good start through the autumn? Yes. Can they take it to Christmas? Yes. Will they survive in the new year? Yes. And like that, they were home and dry with barely a scratch on them.
The key factor for Wolves, in and amongst some very good Championship players, was a bit of prime gold dust in their squad. In Diogo Jota and Ruben Neves they had star quality which went beyond the simple matter of big transfer fees and the reputation of having played at a higher level.
Lots of Championship clubs spend big money on lads with ‘Premier League quality’. But Premier League quality sometimes translates as ‘once played in the Premier League’ and is therefore classed as such. Jota and Neves were off the scale. They were players who looked good enough for the Champions League, never the mind the top flight. And, unsurprisingly, Wolves became impossible to live with.
I don’t see anything to compare with that this time, individually or collectively. There are footballers in the Championship I rate very highly but what you’ve got this season are units rather than stand-out individuals. That’s why there are two points between first place and sixth. It’s why there are six points between first place and 13th.
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I know we say this every year but so many sides are falling into the same bracket of performance and consistency.
So from Leeds’ point of view it’s good to be back at the top of the table after Wednesday’s win over Ipswich Town.
Everyone wants to lead the way. But in the terms of the division itself, I wouldn’t lose much sleep over it at this stage. I wouldn’t lose much sleep over individual results either. You look for patterns at this point – for patches of form which are clear enough to indicate positives or negatives about a squad – and on the basis that a side in first this evening could be seventh by tomorrow night, the table at the moment is strangely irrelevant.
When will it settle down? I hope it never does.
The best campaigns are those where nothing is resolved before the last few games approach.
I might be wrong but this is already looking like a game of the survival of the fittest in which case all bets are off.