Money talks at all levels of football, not just in the Premier League. The Championship is as competitive as ever this season, but look at the top of the table and you’ll see that cash counts.
I think it’s clear that Birmingham have made the biggest financial commitment. Consider the size of their squad and the quality of their recent loan signings: Scott Sinclair (a player I would have loved to bring back to Crystal Palace) from Chelsea, Lee Bowyer from West Ham, Hameur Bouazza from Fulham and Djimi Traoré from Portsmouth. I thought someone was pulling my leg when I was told they were signing Carlos Costly, a Honduran striker. The only player I could have signed was Carlos Costnotalot.
Reading have maintained their commitment to a strong squad, though they might struggle to hang on to their best players if they don’t go up. We all know about Queen’s Park Rangers’ financial resources, while even clubs like Cardiff have stuck their necks out. I take my hat off to Peter Ridsdale for the way he’s made money available to his manager, bringing back Michael Chopra and keeping hold of talented youngsters like Joe Ledley.
Having said all that, I think promotion is still wide open, with a dozen teams in contention. That’s the great thing about the play-offs, although you hate them when you finish third. When I was at Notts County I remember finishing 18 points ahead of Bolton, but still having to beat them in the play-offs before winning promotion.
Birmingham aren’t helped by their pitch, which is one of the worst in the country. It’s just dead and you can’t run with the ball on it. Reading have been looking good, but even they have gone off the boil. If anybody deserves to go up it’s Mick McCarthy, who got Wolves through a sticky period last season and has stuck with a young and vibrant side. Cardiff have been as consistent as anyone recently and Preston keep digging out results. I think they have a cracking manager in Alan Irvine, as do Burnley with Owen Coyle.
2. Goals whet appetite of gluttons for punishment
Fans in the Championship are the bread-and-butter sort, not the prawn-sandwich brigade. They follow their clubs through thick and thin.
I was chatting to a group of our supporters before our match at Plymouth this week. I said: “What on earth are you doing all the way down here on a Tuesday night? We’ve just lost four matches on the trot. You must be mad.” One of them replied: “Neil, just give us a goal. We don’t even need to get any points. Just give us a goal.”
When Neil Danns scored after 21 minutes – a cracking effort after a great run – I turned to Keith Curle, our coach, and said: “What a great goal that was.” He said to me: “What a goal – never mind a ‘great’ goal. Any goal will do.”
We were 3-0 up by half-time and eventually beat my former club 3-1. The conditions were difficult, with a very heavy pitch, but you could see our confidence rise when the first goal went in. We’re still in with a chance of promotion and we’ll certainly have at least a say in the shake-up because we still have to play all six of the top teams at home. We’ll have a go at them because we’ve got nothing to lose.
3. Beach boy to couch potato’s just a short hop
I spent a few days in Cornwall this week. As we were playing Plymouth it was a chance to take a break with the family. On Sunday we were on the beach at Hannafore, Looe. We had a stone-skimming competition. Our seven-year-old, William, believe it or not, did a tenner. I think my best effort was a sevener. I don’t like that. It reminded me of when James, my oldest son, first beat me at tennis. That hurt too.
I’m having an operation on my hip in May and it was killing me last weekend. I was on the settee with my feet up watching Sky Sports. I never moved as the family brought me crisps, sandwiches and even fish and chips. Sharon said I was turning into Jim Royle from The Royle Family.
4. Refs’ nightmare is on the cards, red or yellow
Michel Platini, the head of Uefa, is suggesting that we should have three referees – as well as their two assistants – in every match. Just imagine it: Rob Styles refereeing, assisted by Mike Riley and Steve Bennett, with Graham Poll assessing in the stand. Please tell me I’m only dreaming.
I was pleased, incidentally, to see that I’ll soon be able to start shouting again at Mark Clattenburg, who will be back refereeing in April after contesting his recent ban. I always thought he was one of the best.
5. Someone has to pay if you forget the away kit
Amy is only 10, but she’s already showing some womanly guile. She forgot to pack her clothes for the match at Plymouth, so guess who had to fork out for a new outfit and shoes?