Paul Newman: History points to Rangers reversing their recent decline
The Football League Column: Seven of the last 10 Football League champions led the table at Christmas
Monday 20 December 2010
Fans of Queen's Park Rangers worried over their loss of form – Neil Warnock's Championship leaders have won only three of their last 11 matches – might give themselves some Christmas cheer if they look back at the table as it stood 12 months ago. While the consensus is that this is the country's most competitive and unpredictable division, recent evidence suggests that final finishing positions can generally be forecast even before the season has reached the halfway mark.
Look back at the Championship table after last year's Boxing Day programme and you will find the two automatically promoted teams, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion, already filling the top two spots, while Sheffield Wednesday, Plymouth Argyle and Peterborough United were lying in the bottom three places, which was where they would finish five months later.
Nottingham Forest, Cardiff City and Leicester City were already sitting in third, fourth and fifth places, with the final play-off slot the only position of significance to change hands by the end of the season – seventh-placed Blackpool replacing sixth-placed Swansea City.
Seven of the last 10 Football League champions – Fulham (2001), Portsmouth (2003), Norwich City (2004), Reading (2006), West Bromwich Albion (2008), Wolverhampton Wanderers (2009) and Newcastle (2010) – led the table at Christmas. Birmingham dropped a place but still won automatic promotion in 2007.
QPR, currently three points clear of second-placed Leeds with a game in hand, will be hoping, nevertheless, to avoid the fates of Burnley and Ipswich Town, the only clubs in the last 10 years to fail to win promotion despite topping the table on Boxing Day.
A 5-1 defeat away to a Paulo Wanchope-inspired Manchester City in the last match of December 2001 put Burnley on the slippery slope. Having won 15 of their first 24 matches, Stan Ternent's team won only six of their last 22 and did not even make the play-offs.
Three seasons later, Joe Royle's Ipswich led the table until mid-February, only to be elbowed out of second by Wigan Athletic after winning just one of their last five matches. West Ham beat them in the play-offs.
The most spectacular surge towards a Football League title in recent years came from Sunderland, who were in 11th place on Boxing Day 2006. Beginning with a New Year's Day victory at Leicester City, Roy Keane's champions won 16 of their last 20 matches, having begun the season with four straight defeats. West Brom, in fifth place on Boxing Day 2001, are the only other automatically promoted team in the last 10 years who were not in the top three by Christmas.
Over the last 10 years Crystal Palace have made the most progress since Christmas to win promotion via the play-offs. A 1-0 defeat at home to Millwall on Boxing Day 2003 left Palace 20th, but Iain Dowie's team propelled into a sixth-place finish before beating Sunderland and then West Ham to reach the top flight. Palace threatened to do it again four years later, but after finishing fifth, having been 23rd in mid-November, they lost to Bristol City in the play-offs. What George Burley would give for a similar revival this year with his team currently sitting in 22nd place.
Palace underlined their credentials as the Championship's most unpredictable team in the second half of the season when they slipped from sixth on Boxing Day in 2008 to 15th at the end of the campaign. Coventry, nevertheless, suffered an even steeper fall from grace in 2003, dropping from sixth to 20th after winning only one of their last 21 matches.
The bad news for those propping up the table is that every side occupying 24th place at Christmas since the turn of the century has been relegated. Preston North End are currently bottom but Darren Ferguson's team will swap places with Scunthorpe United if they win at Glanford Park on Boxing Day.
How high up the table do you have to be to feel confident of avoiding relegation? Walsall went 13th with their Boxing Day victory over Cardiff in 2003 only to finish 22nd. Indeed, they are the only club relegated in the last 10 years who were not in the bottom seven at Christmas.
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