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Championship

How are the Championship promotion contenders shaping up?

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It is fair to say that the Premier League title race was never really given the green light this season. Jose Mourinho has put together a typically Jose Mourinho team at Chelsea and despite some minor setbacks, they already look set to wrestle Manchester City’s title. For a real fight for supremacy, English football fans need to look to the second tier, the Championship, where after Game-week 35 when this article was written, seven teams are separated by just six points.

If the season were to cease tomorrow however, which contenders are currently best suited to coping with the Premier League’s infamously greater demands? And which of these teams’ fans should perhaps be quietly hoping for a near-miss in order to allow an extra season’s time to strengthen? Let’s take a look:

Middlesbrough

It may not seem like too long since Middlesbrough were a regular fixture in the Premier League, beating Sir Alex Ferguson’s United 4-1 at the Riverside and challenging for European places, but the club has now spent a whopping six years in the second-tier. Before now they had not come close to getting promoted back up either, languishing in mid-table without the fear of relegation or much hope for success. This season has been completely different, and after a quiet start they have skirted with the top of the table ever since.

Boro’s success has been built on a well organised backline, the quality of which has been surprising given the players involved. The likes of once-upon-a-time Liverpool prospect Daniel Ayala, and quietly efficient George Friend have been made to look imperious under Karanka’s discipline, while youngsters like Adam Reach and Ben Gibson have excelled at full-back positions. The team’s excellent organisation is likely also helped by the presence of Greek goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, a veteran of the English Football League for over a decade.

As seen working to devastating effect against Manchester City in the FA Cup, Middlesbrough play with a narrow packed midfield and the ploy has worked for them all season. Albert Adomah breathes life into the system with his power and drive, while Grant Leadbitter has been a surprise revelation in front of goal, netting more league goals this season already than during his whole seven year stint at first club Sunderland. Adam Clayton, a summer signing from Huddersfield Town, has also made impressive impact by slotting right into a regular place protecting the defence.

While keeping out opposition has been Middlesbrough’s strength, their attackers have been able to get the job done too, albeit with less proficiency than the teams around them (when this article was written Middlesbrough had scored the least goals in the Championship’s top seven, while occupying top spot). Chelsea loan signing Patrick Bamford has been the only striker to break double figures, with fellow forwards Lee Tomlin, Jelle Vossen and Kike all struggling to consistently find the net.

Overall, Middlesbrough’s squad looks more than ready to deal with top-flight rigours next season, and it looks increasingly likely they will be there, given their consistency. In cup ties with Liverpool and Manchester City, they showed they can more than just hold their own too. With the Premier League step-up as notoriously difficult as it is however, manager Aitor Karanka will surely be in the market for player with top-level experience to lead his line however.

Derby County

There might still be Rams fans who suffer from nightmares over Derby’s last venture into the top flight in 2007/08. Just one win in 38 games, 89 goals conceded and top-scorer Kenny Miller notching a whopping four goals, it was literally the worst campaign of any Premier League club to date.

This season they are back among the top contenders, having suffered the anguish of a playoff final defeat to QPR last May despite finishing 3rd in the league standings. Defence was again County’s Achilles’ heel across the 13/14 campaign, but that appears to be improved somewhat this time round – only Middlesbrough and 11th placed Sheffield Wednesday have a tighter record as of Round 35 of fixtures – but they still average over a goal-per-game conceded, and have a tendency to concede softly against lowly sides.

An attack-minded midfield does little to protect its back four, but they are certainly a young and exciting unit going forward. Jeff Hendrick, Craig Bryson and Will Hughes (playing his third season as a regular starter aged just 19) often take turns joining the front three, while Omar Mascarell, on loan from Real Madrid, has been preferred as the more conservative anchor in a central trio.

Forwards are in abundance at the iPro Stadium, with Chris Martin chief among them, averaging just over a goal every other game. In recent internationals with Scotland his lack of mobility has been an issue, but the 26-year old knows how to convert chances and has been a focal point for Derby’s attack this season. Darren Bent has been brought in on loan from Aston Villa and repaid the chance with fine form (Villa could certainly use a goalscorer), keeping the goals coming as Martin’s form deteriorated.

To their credit, Derby already look to have had a better season this time round, than the campaign they had in 06/07 that got them promoted via the playoffs. This is a young and exciting team, led by a manager who knows success and how to achieve consistency in Steve McClaren. He also has considerable influence and knows how to bring in quality players like Darren Bent and Tom Ince, and that will only be improved if Derby can achieve promotion to the world’s most lucrative league. If the Rams can hold on to an automatic promotion spot then they have the potential to hold their own in an attacking sense, but a top quality centre back will be top of McClaren’s shopping list.

Watford

After Watford’s management fiasco at the start of the season (current manager Jokanovic was the club’s fourth of the season already when he was hired last October), it is a wonder they were even able to build on last season’s 13th finish, never mind challenging for an automatic promotion place. As it is, the Hornets have been the Championship’s top scorers and a delight for neutrals, with their matches averaging over three goals per game.

Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney lead the line, having surpassed 30 goals between them after Round 35, while Mat?j Vydra has also reached double figures, so the competition for places up front is encouragingly strong. In the centre of the park, Abdi and Ben Watson are the first choice pair – the latter holding while Abdi supports the forwards – while Daniel T?zsér, Gianni Munari and Miguel Layún have been called upon to complete a central trio on plenty of occasions. Watford’s line-up normally orchestrates with a back three featuring the likes of Joel Ekstrand, Gabriele Angella and Craig Cathcart, and this has been exposed on several occasions, evident by the fact they have conceded almost twice as many goals as league leaders Middlesbrough. Featuring the comedic Heurelho Gomes between the posts certainly doesn’t inspire confidence for a water-tight defence in any case. Jokanovic’s side certainly boast two strong options on each flank – Ikechi Anya and Juan Paredes. The Scot and Ecuadorian respectively have shown adeptness at full-back as part of a back four, and as wing-backs in a midfield quintet.

Much of Watford’s success has revolved around simply scoring more than their opponents (February’s 4-3 win over Bolton being a prime example) and that mentality will surely be punished in the Premier League. I can’t help but feel too, that the club’s best interests are not always with Gino Pozzo, who also owns Serie A’s Udinese and La Liga’s Granada. If Watford were to be promoted and failed to immediately establish themselves then Pozzo has other options to focus his energies; his preferences are already evident by the amount of players – Idhalo and Vydra among them – whose parent club is Udinese. Fans may be careful of what they wish for before making the unknown venture up a division.

The Rest:

Bournemouth: Having coasted along at the league’s summit due to stellar first half of the season form, Bournemouth’s 2015 has been disappointing, allowing a host of teams to catch up and surpass them. Goals and clean sheets have been harder to come by since the turn of the year, after free-scoring form brought them initial success (including the 8-0 demolition of Birmingham City). Eddie Howe has done a good job but his squad has outdone itself this campaign – a lot of work and investment would be required to give them any hope of surviving the Premier League.

Norwich City: Alex Neil has, since taking over Norwich in January, shown how capable this squad is, and that it should have been challenging for an automatic promotion place much earlier in the season than it is now. Six consecutive victories from Game-weeks 28-34 before a blip against Wigan have shot the Canaries back up into promotion contention, though the overall form being displayed by the division’s top three might mean they have to settle for a play-off place. With Premier League experience throughout much of their squad still intact after last season’s relegation would stand Norwich in good stead for a return to the big time. Whether their manager has the necessary know-how to compete with the best however, is another matter, but Neil’s recent accent proves he has a promising future ahead.

Brentford: Marc Warburton’s side have quietly gone about their business this season, and find themselves six points off the leaders with just over ten rounds of fixtures remaining. A steady average of two wins in three since the new year has kept them in the play-off places, though it will be tough to keep hold of that position if Ipswich manage to turn round their recent poor form. The squad has a promising crop of young players including midfielder Alex Pritchard and top scorer Andre Gray, along with some experienced heads to look up to, but the Bees still look a few players shy of being seriously capable promotion challengers. If the unlikely were to occur however, some serious investment into attaining players with top level experience would be required – the current squad is almost completely devoid of it.

Ipswich Town: Like Bournemouth, Ipswich’s 2015 has been in stark contrast to their first half of the season, and has seen them drop out of the play-offs altogether after a Game-week 35 defeat to Leeds United left them with just 12 points from the last 33. Mick McCarthy is a proven manager, who has won the Championship twice, with Sunderland and Wolves, and he knows how to build a squad capable of meeting the Premier League’s demands. Despite boasting the league’s top scorer Daryl Murphy, goals throughout the squad have been hard to come by, with David McGoldrick and centre back Christophe Berra their next highest scorers and in single figures. If they can climb out of their current rut, Ipswich are certainly capable of ousting Brentford for a play-off spot, but Norwich City and Watford both look like stronger Premier League candidates for next season.

Jonathan is a football lover based in Dublin. He is an especially keen fan of Italian Serie A, and thinks Guti Hernandez's assists may have been the work of sorcery. Struggles to forgive his father's upbringing as a Saint Mirren fan.

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Norwich City

A project is underway at Norwich City, but is it the right one?

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Norwich City
Photo: Reuters

Outsiders looking in at Norwich City would say this has been a season of regression and underachievement at Carrow Road.

Yet, as the financial implications of relegation from the Premier League linger should Norwich fail to gain promotion – which seems increasingly likely – times are tough off the field in NR1.

Amidst all this financial pressure, the need to cut cloth has been graphically displayed through the departure of four senior players for substantial fees.

In truth, Norwich is in the process of a transition.

Previously, the club has been spearheaded by an omnipotent chief executive who oversaw everything from the football recruitment to how the club is run day to day.

Now, Norwich have adopted a more continental approach to their footballing structure, installing Stuart Webber as Sporting Director, who subsequently appointed Borussia Dortmund II coach Daniel Farke as his Head Coach.

Farke arrived in Norfolk with a label of being a progressive coach who developed young talent, playing a possession based style in the process.

He was met with a reality check as to the brutality and physicality of the division, and adeptly transformed Norwich into an outfit that could grind out results. Yet, defeat to Arsenal in the Carabao Cup saw this team endure a terrible run of form which was only halted at Christmas.

This is an experiment. A rebuild the scale of which hasn’t been seen in NR1 before and, in all honesty, it is an entirely unpredictable entity.

This season supporters have felt apathy, pride and disappointed. This was supposed to be a season of improvement and progression. Instead, this team seems to be stagnating in the division whilst selling its prized asset.

The reality is Norwich is self funding and whilst the current regime is in place, the reality is Norwich will have to sell their top talent in order to progress. See Alex Pritchard, Jonny Howson and Jacob Murphy. The parameters of the debate surrounding the current top brass at Carrow Road are there to be argued all day long.

What is abundantly clear is that Norwich need to ensure they are prepared for the difficulties lying ahead and reducing the wage bill by half, whilst attempting to fill a £30 million hole in the finances with the sales of top talent, is both logical and necessary.

Whilst the squad has changed dramatically, there is still a sense that Farke hasn’t formed a side which is capable of applying his intricate philosophy. In terms of recruitment thus far, Webber and Farke have prioritised steading a backline which leaked profusely last campaign.

With the experience of Grant Hanley and the insurgence of Christoph Zimmermann, Norwich’s reargued is a more balanced and reliable unit. Now attentions have been turned onto the other end of the pitch as Norwich’s toothless nature has been seen all too often.

When James Maddison’s reliable radar is astray, Norwich looks inept and devoid of any imagination. Offensively, the Canaries require differentiation in regards to how they offensively approach games. Norwich must retain the services of the young Englishman to keep this upward mobility discovered prior to Sheffield United.

Everything offensively positive has come through Maddison.

This is a side lacking athleticism and pace in wide areas, but also lack a striker who fits perfectly into Farke’s style.

With more bodies incoming in the days approaching, Farke should have a deeper squad at his disposal alongside some funds to recruit talent with the money gained from Pritchard’s sale.

This philosophy is still in the early days of construction. The frameworks and apparatus are still being put into place with Webber ensuring the academy is improved and there is a clear pathway for young players, like Jamal Lewis, to step up and play in the first team.

A pathway through the loan system has also been established. For a club with increasingly limited resources, Norwich will become reliant on their academy in regards to making money and improving the first team.

So where is Norwich at present?

Considering the change which has occurred from top to bottom at this football club and the constraints of the financial straitjacket in which Farke has had to operate, alongside seeing four instrumental players leaving in his first six month in charge, Norwich are left with a disjointed squad. However, Farke is doing a good job.

He has displayed he has the qualities and tactical nous to take this football club forward, and that he buys into the long term project in place. His reliance on young players will be of benefit to the football club in the long-term, while he looks set to ensure the academy is prosperous for the future.

This is a project, and one Norwich need to stick with.

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Bristol City

Three ambitious signings Bristol City should make this January

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Photo: Reuters

One month ago Bristol City looked to be in a much stronger position than they are now. Three league defeats in a row to runaway leaders Wolves, Aston Villa and Norwich City put a series of large dents in Lee Johnson’s automatic promotion hopes.

All is not lost for the side from the West Country, however, with a hard earned point away at Derby County stopping the rot, so to speak. The fact remains, though, that City have a number of injuries to key players.

The Robins were boosted by the return of Famara Diedhiou on Friday night versus The Rams, but took two steps back with one step forward, as Frank Fielding and Nathan Baker left the field of play at half-time, with respective groin and ankle injuries.

An already thread bare squad suddenly might have got even lighter.

With a gruelling 90 minutes (at very least), versus arguably the best side in Europe, to occupy Bristol City on Tuesday, before the brutal rhythm of the Championship season snares them again on Saturday with a home tie against Ian Holloway’s QPR, the club really do need some reinforcements.

Ryan Kent (loan) and Liam Walsh (permanent) have been brought in already and, while inexperienced, their youthful energy, bravery and intuition going forward will certainly help the overall team effort.

In some respects, literally *any* players will do – just more bodies to soak up some critical minutes from the first XI regulars.

That said, if City are going to mount a serious promotion/top six push they require more than just *any* signings, the BS3 outfit require players who will really improve and strengthen key positions – taking the workload off of the current players who have (on average) played 300 minutes more than their Championship opponents in 2018 alone.

Here are three players that would strengthen Bristol City as we get stuck into the second half of the 2017/2018 Championship season…

Alfredo Morelos – Rangers

Rangers’ Colombian striker Alfredo Morelos is the most recent name to be linked with a move to Bristol City, although the latest from the Bristol Post suggest these reports were wide of the mark.

The 21-year-old boasts a very impressive goal scoring track record, roughly once every two games, across his time playing top flight football in Colombia, Lithuania and Scotland.

Rangers are unlikely to want to sell one of their prized assets, but every player has his price.

Bristol City broke their transfer record this summer on Famara Diedhiou for a fee confirmed as £5.3 million.

Steve Lansdown could well break this record again within a season if he feels, or is convinced by the scouting network, that Morelos could be the difference between promotion and mid-table mediocrity.

At 21, he certainly has room to improve and could be a useful investment.

Sam Byram – West Ham

Bristol City’s first choice right-back, Eros Pisano, is not returning to training for a few more weeks and, with Zak Vyner now joined Plymouth on loan, the club need a right-sided full-back to take some pressure off of club captain Bailey Wright.

Sam Byram is certainly at the ambitious end of the spectrum, but as the old adage goes, if you don’t buy a ticket, you don’t win the raffle.

The youngster has not had as much game time as he would have liked at West Ham and with former Bristol City player David Moyes in the east London hot seat, coupled with City’s recent track record with Premier League loanees, this may not be as implausible a loan deal as some naysayers may suggest.

Lukas Nmecha – Manchester City

With Bristol City being linked, by the Daily Mail, with Manchester City potential loanees after Pep Guardiola’s alleged satisfaction with Lee Johnson’s style of football, a few Citizen academy players have been linked with a temporary loan south.

Lukas Nmecha is one of those names. The German born forward has represented England at age groups from Under-16 to Under-19 with a fair degree of success.

The 19-year-old, who stands at six foot tall, as a striker, does not represent a position of real need for Lee Johnson. However, one could argue that City are so desperate for players that anyone who could help out with 20 minutes here and there is useful.

Especially as the likes of Matty Taylor and Gustav Engvall have not proved themselves at this level, and Milan Djuric remains sidelined for the time being.

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Hartlepool

Hartlepool United: Time to save the Pools from extinction

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Hartlepool United
Photo: Reuters

Chaos often brings camaraderie in the football world.  The news that Hartlepool United, in existence for over 100 years, are in serious financial trouble has once again united fans of several clubs, who have rallied to the cause in supporting the drive to raise the cash to resurrect the club from its deathbed.

As a Boro fan, this is particularly pertinent given the role that Hartlepool played in resuscitating my team in 1986. Boro fans have launched efforts to each donate £19.86 to Hartlepool’s cause and drum up support for supporters to attend the Pools’ home game against Wrexham on Saturday whilst Boro are away against Queens Park Rangers.

Whilst supporter solidarity is heartening at these times, I am once again left asking why? Why are clubs allowed to be so poorly run by the FA? Why in a game awash with money, where almost every Premier League side receives £100 million per season, can a club potentially go bust?

Why is it the fans, who pour money into clubs up and down the every week, who are the ones expected to pay for the bail out (minus a few honourable exceptions, such as Danny Graham)?

The Hartlepool fans are attempting to raise £200k to keep the club going until new owners can be found.  The fact that this sum, which would be considered paltry to every Premier League and the majority of Championship clubs, can potentially send a club to extinction, is symptomatic of the greed exhibited by those at the top of the football pyramid.

My own club, Middlesbrough, earned almost £200 million (~ £105 million prize money and £85 million parachute payments) as a result of one season in the sun of the Premier League. Why can’t Chairman Steve Gibson, who was on the Boro board in 1986, donate the 0.1% required to keep Hartlepool going?

Things are only going to get worse.  The top six of the Premier League are not content with trousering more cash than everyone else. No, they want an even bigger slice of the pie from foreign TV rights. This greed is to the detriment of the game.

Clubs like Hartlepool are the lifeblood of football. Tottenham, one of the aforementioned six that are attempting to steal ever more from the rest, owe the development of two of their biggest stars to football league clubs.

Dele Alli was brought through the system at Milton Keynes Dons, while Harry Kane cut his teeth with loan spells at the likes of Leyton Orient and Millwall.

Of the current England squad, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Jesse Lingard and John Stones, to name just a few, all benefitted from playing time in the Football League – playing time that otherwise not have received in the Premier League.

The great Brian Clough started his managerial career at Hartlepool. If we are ever to see an English manager emulate Cloughie and win the Champions League, it is likely that their formative years will be spent in the lower part of the football pyramid.

All that the big teams achieve with any extra cash is either unscrupulous owners taking millions out of the club and/or more money squandered on players and agents.

We aren’t getting a better standard of football or player. Virgil Van Dijk may be the most expensive defender in the world, but he is not a better defender than Mats Hummels, Leonardo Bonucci or Gerard Pique.

Top stars such as Lionel Messi, Neymar and Robert Lewandowski chose not to play in the Premier League. The likes of Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho head to Spain when they approach their peak.

At one time, Boro signed Paul Merson, an England international, when the club were relegated to the Championship. Last summer they spent £14 million on Britt Assombalonga, a player who has never featured in the top flight of English football.

The £70 million of so called ‘solidarity’ payments paid by the Premier League to the rest of English football show anything but solidarity. It is nothing more than a token gesture, a handing over of loose change.

Rather than rushing to stick their snouts in the trough, it time that the top clubs recognise the role of lower league clubs in developing both on and off the field talent by giving them a fairer proportion of the TV riches.

So I encourage you all to give to the Pools plight. However, I also say don’t buy that season ticket, don’t but that shirt, don’t buy that sky sports subscription. That is the only way the greed at the top of the game can be stopped.

Perhaps only then will the powers that be listen and we’ll finally see the end of fans rattling buckets to bail out once proud but now crippled clubs. There is enough money in the game for everyone. There is enough money in the game to give £200k to Hartlepool United.

If you wish to donate to Hartlepool United’s cause, you can do so using the following link: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/savehartlepoolunitedfootballclub

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