Nottingham Forest are now the play-off favourites. How will they cope? Plus all your other Championship winners and losers here…
Millwall – play-off outsiders
Nobody is quite sure how they’ve managed it, but in a season dominated by dark horses fighting for a space at the top table of English football, Millwall have been under the radar throughout the entire campaign. But it is not about being in and around the top six all season that matters. Being there after 46 games is the only real measure of success, and right now, Millwall have as good a chance of getting the final play-off spot as any of the other six clubs in with a shout.
Monday’s 2-1 win over Hull had more than an element of fortune – Scott Malone’s opener was highly fortuitous – but at a certain level, you make your own luck. They are still on the outside looking in, as they have been at best all campaign, but Gary Rowett’s side are firmly knocking on the door with a plethora of competitors around them hitting stumbling blocks of form. Four points from their Easter weekend couplet of fixtures is the sort of form which could be enough to get Millwall above the dotted line come May.
Nottingham Forest – play-off favourites
From a team looking just about capable of booking a place in the end-of-season lottery to a club who have almost certainly achieved that spot with five games of their season remaining. We, and many others, have waxed lyrical about the job done by Steve Cooper and the impressive performances by almost every member of this Forest squad since Cooper came to the helm in September.
But on Monday, it would have been easy to let the defeat to Luton three days before affect them badly. Instead, Forest were imperious from the get-go. When the pressure was on them ever so slightly, they pushed it back with aplomb and put in one of the most complete first-half performances of the season from any team in this division. The hard part was getting into the play-offs – that is all but done. Now they have to cope with the pressure of being the favourites to win them. If any team is capable of coping with that pressure, it is Cooper and co.
Just as Bournemouth’s automatic promotion credentials were being called into serious question – the Cherries went into the Coventry match without a win nor a goal to their name in three fixtures – Dominic Solanke provided the solace he so often has this season for Scott Parker’s side. To question where the Cherries would be without him is a moot point; goalscorers score goals, but there is a question of over-reliance on the former England striker. Bournemouth have one foot back in the Premier League, but it has felt in spite of manager Parker, not because of him. Solanke is the main man in this corner of the south coast.
They say never go back. Jordan Rhodes didn’t heed that advice in returning to Huddersfield Town in the summer, a club where he enjoyed some of the most prolific years of a career of two halves. It has been a long time since Rhodes was colossal in front of goal, but in one of Town’s most important games of the season, Rhodes scored one and provided one to all but guarantee Carlos Corberan’s side a play-off place. This one performance could prove to be as impressive as any 30-goal seasons in League One.
Talking of teams with one foot and one toe in the play-off places, Harry Cornick’s superb header afforded Luton a cushion within the top six thanks to a second 1-0 win of the Easter weekend. If beating Nottingham Forest was the best and most important way to overcome a recent slump, taking maximum return from a trip to Wales was just as vital in consolidating such a turnaround.
Cornick is not the only long-serving player in this Luton squad, but his importance to the team is remarkable. Having scored just once for the Hatters last season, Cornick could have been moved on. The winner against Cardiff was the 11th of an incredible season for both player and club. There is a feeling that neither is done just yet.
Tom McIntyre, again
The youth academy product was already a fan favourite through the tough times, but Tom McIntyre has written himself into Reading folklore over the course of this Easter weekend. If the last-minute winner courtesy of McIntyre on Good Friday wasn’t great enough, scoring the 95th-minute leveller to earn a point from 4-1 down on Easter Monday was beyond words.
Paul Ince, again
Perhaps the most entertaining game of the season, this was another massive step towards keeping Reading in the Championship. A crucial point added to their tally and all but relegating Peterborough and Barnsley in the process with Derby already knocked out of the survival running. Nobody can quite believe that Paul Ince is the best man to take Reading forward beyond this season, but he is certainly not the worst.
He made two changes to a side that beat promotion-chasing Sheffield United on Friday and still came up trumps, albeit eventually. Talismanic midfielder Josh Laurent has been transformed into an exquisite attacking midfielder and intimated he would stay in Berkshire if Ince did likewise. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a manager and a club who both looked out of place at this level of football.
Blackpool’s season had shown signs of wilting away after an impressive debut campaign back at this level. But after five games without a victory or much to celebrate, Birmingham City provided the perfect antidote to mark the most complete performance of the campaign for the Tangerines.
Having been sure of their status in this division for quite some time now, much of this term became about looking to next season. Step forward January signing Jake Beesley, making his first start since switching Rochdale for the Fylde coast, and making the most of it with two instinctive and impressive finishes. All of his teammates were on song to add to the tally and make it an almost perfect half dozen. The signs point once more to another season of progress under Neil Critchley in 2022/23.
Just like Solanke, it is not fair to muse where Sheffield United would be without their loan star, but the attacking midfielder provided yet another moment of magic when the Blades needed it most, hammering in an overhead kick to secure an equaliser in an off day for too many of his temporary teammates. That point could prove crucial in offering Sheffield United perhaps their only hope of getting Gibbs-White back to South Yorkshire next season – by making Bramall Lane a Premier League ground once more.
The battle for sixth place
With Huddersfield, Luton and Nottingham Forest all looking assured of their places in the top six, there are still a glut of teams slugging it out for that final play-off spot. The final three weeks of the season will be a football feast for the ages. The Championship never disappoints.
Birmingham have avoided being in either half of this column for much of the season by virtue of being – and I believe this is the technical term – meh. But the situation in the blue half of the second city has gone from bad to worse to disastrous with the 6-1 defeat at mid-table and out-of-sorts Blackpool marking manager Lee Bowyer’s ‘worst day in football’.
It remains the case that Birmingham have been incredibly lucky to benefit from Reading and Derby’s point deductions and Peterborough and Barnsley being exceptionally bad to not find themselves in a relegation battle this season. Those caveats will not exist next season, and Birmingham appear to be only going in one direction. Bowyer swapped the frying pan for the fire in leaving Charlton for Birmingham and there is now serious discussion of the former Newcastle player getting his marching orders. Birmingham supporters would lose no sleep over a parting of the ways, but no fan is of the belief that it will have any real change while those in control of the club continue to be so.
Those above Lee Bowyer
There have been protests against the BHSL ownership, who have shown a complete lack of care and attention to the footballing side of this football club. It is no wonder that the fans show such anger to an ownership who have treated them with nothing except contempt. No manager can overcome such strife. It feels like it is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better at St. Andrew’s.
West Brom’s temperament
It is testament to the quality, or lack thereof, of the Championship this season that going into the last game of the Easter weekend, West Brom were still in with a sniff of promotion to the Premier League. But any lingering chances of a place in the top six were extinguished by an embarrassing performance from almost everyone in Baggies yellow on Monday night.
The referee made a dreadful decision in awarding Nottingham Forest a throw-in prior to West Brom’s second goal, but to blame officiating alone is to ignore a dreadful showing from one of the most experienced squads in the division. Darnell Furlong was sent off for two bookings which defied his experience in the game, Taylor Gardner-Hickman was lucky not to see red for petulantly kicking the ball into the stands from close range while veteran Matt Philips too was booked for kicking the ball away later in the contest. Jake Livermore’s push on an opponent prior to Jack Colback’s wonder goal summed up a team with so many obvious limitations.
Manager Steve Bruce can deflect blame all he likes, but there are internal factors which have cost West Brom any semblance of success this season. Tackle that and then blame the referees for dropping points. An embarrassing night in an atrocious campaign all round for West Brom.
Derby and a familiar foe
Derby’s relegation to League One has been on the cards for the best part of the last couple of months – a genuine fight to stay up and alive had at long last given way to a loss of momentum in the second half of the season. But Derby fans will have wanted the final nail in the coffin to have come from anyone but QPR.
The stalemate which appeared to be coming their way against the club to which they lost the 2014 play-off final in second-half injury time would have technically left the Rams to fight another day. But just as they did that day at Wembley, QPR struck late in the day to shatter Derby hearts and confirm the Rams’ status as a League One club for 2022/23. Luke Amos is the modern-day Bobby Zamora.
Barnsley’s relegation dogfight with Peterborough would have been far more entertaining had both sides not looked destined for the drop before even a ball was kicked at Oakwell. But while Peterborough could take solace from a win without context which has been all too rare this season, Barnsley were left with egg on their face at not managing to score past the worst defence in the division despite having 11 shots on target from 19 efforts overall. There’s no mystery behind the Tykes’ impending relegation.
Another Middlesbrough drought
That’s now four games without a goal for Middlesbrough and no goals scored at the Riverside Stadium since the first week of March. They have gone off the boil at the worst possible time and with Chris Wilder being cagey about his future with the club, it could be another time of struggle for the Boro on the horizon.
There have been some bad days in the second half of the season for Blackburn, that title-storming run of form around Christmas a distant memory but losing at home to this Stoke side might just be as catastrophic as it gets.
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