By Leigh Sanders
It seems to happen every year. When you get to March the Football League Championship title race becomes a sea of bottlers all stumbling over each other in the race to stay in the division they are in and forego the grandeur and financial reward of Premier League football.
Clichés state that one team should drop away at that point as injuries, pressure and sometimes a lack of real ability take their toll. There is also another team that always puts together a blockbusting end-of-season run to sneak in to the playoff places and secure an unlikely victory against a team that has been up there all season.
Two years ago (and very possibly this one) we had Burnley. Last year was Blackpool’s fairytale rise at the expense of my beloved Cardiff City. The less said about that tearful day the better.
But it has also come to light that while these usual twists and turns are occurring that another pattern starts to emerge: everyone panics.
In 2006-07 this flurry of panic was first noticed. Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers were battling it out at the top of the table whilst Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion, Derby County, Cardiff City, Southampton and Preston North End were breathing heavily down their necks.
Cardiff had in fact led the division for much of the first half of the season but then they suffered the greatest panic of all. Enduring a frankly terrible second half to the season they plummeted down the table finishing in a dreadful thirteenth position. Wolves were another to stutter as they dropped to fifth while Sunderland managed to overtake Birmingham and take the title by two points.
2008-09 was another such season. Late season jitters again attacked Cardiff and they missed out on the playoff places by one goal scored on the final day of the season which resulted in further heavy heartache for the Welshmen.
Wolves clinched the title and promotion to the Premier League much more convincingly on this occasion but Birmingham only just pipped Sheffield United to automatic promotion as just about every club stuttered to their final positions via a whole host of draws and late goals.
Now, this season, everybody seems to be at it again. Queens Park Rangers are our leaders this time around but they have recently hit a little sticky patch. While it’s not exactly catastrophic they have seen wins over Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace punctuated with a loss to Millwall and draws with bottom club Preston and promotion rivals Nottingham Forest.
Forest have perhaps been the worst offenders. Their only win in their last nine matches has come over…you guessed it…Cardiff. The Bluebirds have also had a decidedly mixed bag. They haven’t won in three and have only beaten Hull and Leicester in their last seven. Before that they had gone unbeaten in six.
Then you have Leicester City who were making a huge surge for the playoffs under the stewardship of Sven Goren Eriksson. Saturday’s 3-0 victory away at struggling Scunthorpe halted a run of four games without a win. Before that they had won five in a row.
This weekend saw only QPR and Leicester out of the teams mentioned above win. In fact only those two and Hull in the top ten won (although Reading did not play due to FA Cup commitments).
At a time of the season when every point is so crucial all the top teams should be churning out results knowing that Premier League football is so close to being theirs. That alone should be incentive enough for victory.
But football is never, of course, that easy. Teams at the opposing end of the table are also fighting for their lives as they look to stave off relegation. But surely those at the top should have enough mettle and talent to prevail having got to the position they are in in the first place?
Norwich City now have the chance to take advantage of everyone else’s latest cock ups by moving in to second place should they overcome Bristol City at their Carrow Road home tonight. But with The Robins looking to move further away from relegation trouble and being on a good run of their own this isn’t exactly a given.
It’s all part of what makes football so exciting to watch. But it remains a betting man’s nightmare. I myself am praying that Cardiff’s jitters don’t ruin it again for us this season as I’m not sure just how much more my little ticker can take.
But, equally, I wouldn’t be so surprised if we win the battle of the biggest bottlers and then have to prepare ourselves for another gruelling season in The Championship. After all, this is where most of these teams appear to want to be playing next year.