FOX Soccer Exclusive
PL return in sight for Saints and Hammers
With the hard work done and both the Championship title and promotion to the Premier League in the bag, Reading travels to Birmingham for Saturday’s final game of the season as calm as can be. The Championship playoffs may be routinely billed as the most lucrative match in world club soccer but having lost two playoff semi-finals and two finals (including the 2011 edition), the new champion is happy to leapfrog the drama and head directly to the top flight.
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Coach Brian McDermott’s side wasn’t considered as a potential title-winner by too many, but galloped clear with 16 wins in 21 games in 2012. The Berkshire club also stepped up to the plate when in mattered in the final month of the season, with impressive wins away to its closest rivals, Southampton and West Ham.
The latter two now go head-to-head on the final day of the regular season, with each hoping desperately to ape Reading, and end the season with automatic promotion, rather than being thrown into the shark pool of the playoffs. Southampton, having led the table for much of the campaign, remain favorite to secure the crucial runner-up spot, with a home match against already-relegated Coventry on tap (live on FOX Soccer Plus, 7:30 a.m. ET).
A win would secure a second successive promotion for the erstwhile Premier League perennial, absent from the top level since relegation in 2005. If it can keep its nerve, Southampton certainly has the firepower; top scorer in the division with 81, it has the 27-goal individual top scorer in Rickie Lambert, while January signing Billy Sharp has scored seven in his last seven games. It looked as if the latter’s goal at Middlesbrough inside 46 seconds last week would seal the deal, but Boro’s comeback left the champagne on ice, and kept the northern club’s own playoff hopes alive.
Sharp’s story is one of the most emotional of the season. England’s soccer fans came out in sympathy after the striker returned to action for then-club Doncaster the day after the tragic death of his two-day-old son Luey, and marked the occasion with a goal against Middlesbrough. He removed his shirt to reveal the message ‘That’s For You, Son’, and referee Darren Deadman declined to yellow card him. Ipswich fans then generously applauded Sharp after he scored against them days later. Sharp’s career has been full of twists and turns, having been twice rejected by his hometown club Sheffield United, and few would begrudge him a crack at the big time after a traumatic season.
Promotion would represent quite a comeback for Southampton, which almost went to the wall after years of financial struggle. The club was saved by Swiss businessman Markus Liebherr and in the first year under his control, Southampton spent $5m on new players. With this sort of clout, it is hardly surprising that the club – now managed by the late Liebherr’s estate - has been so quick to mount a challenge. It’s not just about the cash, however. Coach Nigel Adkins was a daring choice for the job after four seasons of success at modest Scunthorpe, where he started out as physiotherapist. At Southampton, he has built a confident and entertaining side, which would be an interesting addition to the Premier League.
Adkins’ West Ham counterpart, Sam Allardyce, has attracted rather less adulation from his supporters this season. Many had assumed that the London side would be home free by now, but five successive draws in March saw the challenge for automatic promotion stutter for the side that finished bottom of the 2010/11 Premier League.
Former Bolton, Blackburn and Newcastle boss Allardyce is a contradiction, known for his innovative use of match analysis technology and sports science, but widely lampooned for producing sides that play with a direct style – something that is frowned upon by some traditionalists at West Ham, the self-proclaimed ‘academy of football’.
The team’s approach is, however, only the tip of the iceberg of discontent. A vocal support base, pushed too far by years of mismanagement at boardroom and sporting level, has been prickly this season. The club’s proposed move to London Olympic Stadium (an unpopular prospect with many fans) continues, and just underlines the club’s parlous financial status.
The Upton Park wage bill – augmented by familiar Premier League names including Kevin Nolan and Carlton Cole – is an eye-watering $55m-per-year, and the thought of not going straight back up doesn’t bear thinking about. Having lost a playoff final in 2004 and won one the following year in 2005, Hammers fans are well aware of the nerves entailed in such a contest. Allardyce’s men need to beat Hull at Upton Park and hope Coventry does them a favor.
For whichever team does drop into the playoffs, the competition promises to be fierce. The two other sides relegated from last season’s Premier League, Blackpool and Birmingham, clinched their playoff places last weekend. Blackpool – the 2010 playoff winner against Cardiff – has mercurial coach Ian Holloway to thank for its success. Last time it was promoted, it was with one of the lowest wage bills in the Championship, and it hardly splashed the cash when arriving in the Premier League. Post-relegation, it banked $11.5m by selling Charlie Adam to Liverpool and signed veteran striker Kevin Phillips, who has scored 16 times.
Birmingham has done it on a budget too, with former Newcastle coach Chris Hughton performing a remarkable job under the shadow of major shareholder Carson Yeung’s indictment for alleged money laundering. Hughton conceded at the weekend that his side has “always playing catch-up” this season, with the unusual paradox of playing Europa League football at the beginning of the campaign after beating Arsenal in last season’s Carling Cup final, pre-relegation. The Blues scored less than any other Premier League team last season, but Marlon King has provided much-needed goal power with 16 Championship strikes so far.
Below these two, Cardiff is in pole position to secure a playoff spot for the third year running, and the presence of Malky Mackay’s side raises the prospect of a South Wales derby against neighboring Swansea in the Premier League next season. Cardiff travels to mid-table Crystal Palace on Saturday, and only Middlesbrough can deny it.
In all probability, a draw would do the job for Mackay’s men, who have a superior goal difference to Boro by ten. Middlesbrough, led by MLS-bound skipper Barry Robson (he will join Vancouver in the summer), must win at Watford and hope Palace turns over Cardiff to snatch an unlikely sixth-placed finish.
With a bounty of up to $100m at stake for the winner of the playoff final, to be held at Wembley on May 19, the next few weeks herald the prospect of much more than just a shot at glory and mixing it with the big boys. The futures of players, and staff, quite possibly hinge on the results of the Championship’s climax.
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