10 Fixtures That Could Decide the English Football League Championship

Charles Lawley@@charleslawleyContributor IJune 22, 2013

10 Fixtures That Could Decide the English Football League Championship

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    When you look at all the 2013-14 fixtures for the English Football League Championship, you cannot miss that this is a league tougher than trying to a chew a steak cut from Susan Boyle’s back.

    It doesn’t get the viewing figures that the Premier League does, as there aren’t the big names and the tempo is a little lower. But the Championship is the place where spells of world-class play meets "have-you-ever-played-football-before?" defending.

    And, in terms of competitiveness, the EPL doesn’t come close to the Championship.

    Who’s favorite to win the Premier League? Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea. Even though all those teams have a new manager, you still wouldn’t bet on a team outside of those three lifting the trophy.

    However, predicting who the contenders are for automatic promotion to the Premier League is a much harder task. Winning the Championship is a lot like Rihanna; you can’t help but think everyone has a chance.

    Let’s try to pick the front-runners:

    You have to presume the three relegated teams will be in the mix, so Wigan, Reading and QPR.

    Watford were so close to getting promoted twice, with their final day heartache at Leeds and losing to Crystal Palace in the playoff final, so you include them.

    Brighton & Hove Albion and Leicester City were in the playoffs too, so they’re on the list.

    Bolton Wanderers, Nottingham Forest and Charlton Athletic were all whiskers away from the playoffs, so they need to be considered.

    And when you look at the squads of Leeds United, Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool and Birmingham City, you can’t write them off.

    So that’s 13 teams, over 50 percent of the league, that you wouldn’t be surprised if they topped the Championship table.

    And don’t forget both Southampton and Norwich City got promoted to the Premier League in their first season in the Championship after being promoted from League One, so Doncaster Rovers, Bournemouth and Yeovil Town could all realistically be within a sniff of England’s top flight.

    There’s a higher number of contenders for the Championship than the number in Tahiti’s Confederation Cup “Goals Against” column.

    So with Wednesday’s announcement of the 2013-14 Championship fixtures we’re identifying the 10 games that could decide the English Football League Championship.

Leeds United vs. Blackburn Rovers, January 1

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    If you take out "The Big Four" English clubs (Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea), the past two champions of England were Blackburn and Leeds.

    However, nowadays, they’re more likely to sack their manager two or three times in a season than win the Premier League.

    If both teams can dial down the off-field insanity, they’ll both be contenders.

    It doesn’t feel right that Leeds United aren’t in the Premier League, a team with such a fantastic history’s rightful place is in the top flight.

    And with Brian McDermott you have a manager who knows how to get to the Premier League with a squad that, when you look at it, you would consider a strong Championship side. He did the same in 2011-12 with a Reading side of similar quality. 

    Blackburn are a squad with lots of Premier League names. However, they had so many managerial hirings and firings in the last campaign that they were the only team in England whose fans didn’t vote for a “Player of the Year” but a “Manager of the Year.”

Queens Park Rangers vs. Reading, February 15

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    QPR vs. Reading is a sort of derby, but it isn’t. The teams are geographically close-ish. But it’s more of a feud over similar home shirts.

    The last time they met, both teams knew they had to win otherwise they would be relegated to the Championship. Whilst you might think that would result in an all-out battle, we had to endure a drab 0-0 where neither team really bothered trying that hard in, what looked like, a Premier League mutual suicide pact.

    However, come February 15, both teams could be hunting a return to Premier League football. Hopefully, that might coax a bit of passion from the players. 

    With the recent signings of Wayne Bridge and Royston Drenthe, Reading are in the unusual position where they look like they’re going into the Championship with a stronger squad than they went into the Premier League with.

    But with QPR looking to flush as many big money flops as possible (Jose Bosingwa’s ears are burning), they will be in a completely opposite position.

    Regardless of what the Rangers squad looks like come August 3, if Harry Redknapp is still in charge, you have a manager who was tipped for England’s top job last winter and was mounting a serious Premier League challenge with Tottenham Hotspur at the time.

    Some consider Redknapp an overrated manager, even if that is the case surely he has the know-how to take them out of the Championship, and that's why they're currently considered favorites by the bookies like Odds Checker to win the league outright. 

    We bet as the news came in on February 8, 2012 that Fabio Capello had resigned as England manager, Redknapp imagined he’d be spending the the summer of 2013 preparing for the 2014 World Cup, not for life in the Championship.

Nottingham Forest vs. Leicester City, February 15

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    It can be easy to overlook just how fierce the rivalry is between some of England’s East Midland clubs, just because they're not in the top flight. But people hating people who live near them isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to Europe’s top leagues.

    Nottingham Forest and Leicester City is always a feisty game anyway, but if both (or one of the) teams can see the light at the top of the escalator, it could be a match of added importance.  

    From one of the best teams in the world, and winning back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980, to a midtable side in England’s second tier. The return of “King” Billy Davis as Forest manager in February saw them hit some incredible form. Winning six in a row and getting into the playoff position.

    However, Forest’s form tapered off, and they fell out of promotion contention.

    In Nigel Pearson, Leicester have a manager who won League One with them in 2009, before jumping ship to Hull City (which was ultimately a sinking ship, he got them relegated from the Premier League).

    Pearson will want another crack at the top flight and, who knows, if it wasn’t for a missed Anthony Knockaert penalty and that (or this) Troy Deeney goal in the seventh minute of injury time of their playoff semi-final against Watford, they could be a Premier League team now. But they’re not.

    And that’s why Knockaert isn't currently getting much sleep at night.

Birmingham City vs. Reading, March 22

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    It seems like a lifetime ago, but Birmingham City were once an established Premier League side. 

    But then Alex McLeish saw to that.

    The Birmingham City squad, whilst it may be ageing, has names that are familiar to all Premier League fans, some because they used to play in the Premier League or others because you’d assume they were related to EPL players (namely Adam Rooney). The Blues have enough Championship experience to navigate an escape out of the league.  

    To shore up their back line they will also want to keep hold of their Player of the Year and man whose name sounds like he should be a jazz musician, Curtis Davies, who is currently flirting with a move to Hull City, according The Mirror.

    Even if they aren’t in the promotion mix, they could potentially call the fire safety office on Reading’s party, who the bookies consider are likely for promotion, unlike the protagonist in Dolly Parton’s "9 to 5."

    And with what has to be Bleacher Report World Football’s first ever Dolly reference, we go to the next slide. 

Derby County vs. Nottingham Forest, March 22

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    The Brian Clough Trophy match is contested twice a year between Derby County and Nottingham Forest in honor of the late, great man who managed both clubs.

    In fact, throughout both clubs’ history, there is one name that is more important than anyone else's, Brian Clough. In fact the A52 road that connects the two cities was officially renamed "Brian Clough Way." 

    Derby are even managed by Brian’s son, Nigel Clough.

    However, Forest are managed by a man who has been a big name for both clubs’ more recent history, Billy Davies. He took Derby to the Premier League in 2007 and nearly did the same with Forest in 2011.

    The Rams didn’t finish too far away from the playoffs last season, and they’ll hope to go one better in 2013-14 despite a squad with little Premier League pedigree. They do have one of the youngest squads in the league bolstered by talent like John Brayford, Richard Keogh and Craig Bryson.

    The Nottingham/Derby derby is considered the 11th-fiercest rivalry in English football and the neutral would hope that the season ends with both teams getting promoted, for this is a rivalry like Ali/Frazier, Hogan/Andre the Giant and 50 Cent/Ja Rule that deserves the world’s undivided attention. 

Leicester City vs. Brighton & Hove Albion, April 8

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    Both Leicester City and Brighton & Hove Albion made the playoffs last season but lost in the semi-finals to Watford and Crystal Palace, respectively (or, in the case of the alleged faeces found on Palace’s dressing room floor by someone from Brighton after the game, not that much respect).

    Despite it looking like Gus Poyet is on his way out, the former Chelsea player grew a core of quality within the Brighton side and have, in Craig Mackail-Smith, one of the league’s best finishers on his day.

    Should it work out that on April 8 a Leicester victory condemns Brighton to another season of Championship football, you’d hate to imagine what they’ll find on their changing room floor after the match. 

Charlton Athletic vs. Bolton Wanderers, April 19

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    In 2010, Norwich City were promoted from League One to the Championship.

    In 2011, Norwich City were promoted from the Championship to the Premier League.

    In 2011, Southampton were promoted from League One to the Championship.

    In 2012, Southampton were promoted from the Championship to the Premier League.

    In 2012, Charlton Athletic were promoted from the Championship to the Premier League.

    In 2013, Charlton Athletic were... OK, maybe they didn’t follow the pattern, but they finished ninth. They were only three points off of a playoff place. So that's not too bad.

    There aren’t many great players in Charlton’s squad, but they’re a good team.

    If, like last season, they’re still in contention, it could prove a late-season, top-of-the-table clash against a Bolton Wanderers side who missed out on Crystal Palace’s playoff slot by goal difference, which must stick in the claw of Dougie Freedman who left his job as Palace manager (now Premier League) to manage Bolton (still Championship) in October.

    That could be the worst decision in football history this side of Stephen Ireland's first car customization.  

Queens Park Rangers vs. Watford, April 21

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    The last time Queens Park Rangers were in the Championship they won the league with a win against local rivals Watford. 

    And QPR fans won’t let the Hornets forget about it any time soon.

    However, back in April 2011, Watford weren’t promotion contenders. Last season, they only missed out on automatic promotion by two points and lost the playoff final by one goal.

    But last year’s Watford were given more loans than a global bank in the height of the recession. Will Watford be as strong now restrictions on loan players from foreign clubs have been put in place (aka "The Watford Law"), preventing them from being the holding pen for Udinese and Granada (all three clubs are owned by Giampaolo Pozzo)?   

Wigan Athletic vs. Blackpool, April 26

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    Another local derby by two teams who should be preparing their accountant for the £120million that promotion to the Premier League is worth. 

    Last season, Wigan Athletic finished higher in the football league pyramid than any of the other 23 teams in this year's Championship. This season, they have a great chance of doing that.

    Their manager, Owen Coyle, has promotion pedigree, previously getting Burnley to the Premier League in 2009. And Coyle is no stranger to derbies in this region of the world, as well as Burnley he’s also previously managed Bolton, proving he is a sucker for a Lancashire club.

    Let’s hope Wigan manage to continue playing the attractive brand of football they played under Roberto Martinez, to make this a proper penultimate day classic.

    But let’s not write off Blackpool as destined for mid-table, they have their secret (or not that secret, considering he won Football League Young Player of the Year, last year) weapon in Thomas Ince. You’d normally expect a player of that quality to be on the first train to Premier Leagueville, but as his dad’s in charge, he might feel obliged to stay and help his current teammates board that very train.

Blackburn Rovers vs. Wigan Athletic, May 3

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    What a way to draw the curtain on the Championship season, another Lancashire derby.

    In fact, Wigan’s last three games are all Lancashire derbies; Burnley (A) April 21, Blackpool (H) April 26 and Blackburn (A) May 3.

    If Wigan are on the march to the promised land of the Premier League, all three rivals will be desperate to rain on their parade (or, as the saying goes in Brighton, "defecate on their floor"). Meaning promotion or a place in the playoffs could depend on that game.

    And as we mentioned in the Leeds United vs. Blackburn Rovers slide, if Rovers manage to rein in their off-the-pitch lunacy, the game could be equally important for them.

    But between this game and the Leeds game, there will be a space of four months. Blackburn have time to go through five managers and seven on-field chicken protests by then.