Here, for the sixth month in a row, is a screenshot taken from the BBC website showing the top seven teams in the Championship, the second tier of English football. The first four screenshots all showed the team that I have followed since childhood, Leeds United, at the top of the table. Last month’s piece showed that they had dropped to second, below Norwich City, but still in line for automatic promotion. I wrote, less than three weeks ago, “If Leeds are still in the top two at the end of the season, after the final five fixtures have been played, I will be happy.”
As you can see, they are now third and will definitely not be in the top two at the end of the season. With one game left to play Leeds could conceivably slip to fourth place. In the most recent games, three sets of fixtures played out in the nine days from Good Friday to last Sunday, Leeds managed to lose twice and draw once. Sheffield United won all three of their games and are five points clear. They and Norwich City will finish as the top two teams and have already won promotion to the Premier League. It all happened rather quickly. The rest of this piece (all 1200 words of it) records how it happened, and reflects on precedents and omens in football.
On Good Friday, Sheffield United played at lunch-time and beat Nottingham Forest 2-0 to go second in the table. Leeds kicked off at 3pm, at home to Wigan. A point would be enough to return to the top two. I settled down to watch the Sky Sports Soccer Special coverage. Alan McNally was watching the game and giving us regular updates. When the show is broadcast in the evening or on a Bank Holiday it features replays of significant action from the Championship while the games are being played, so I would be able to see any goals or other highlights as the afternoon progressed. (This doesn’t happen with the Saturday afternoon show.)
The match preview on the BBC website had shown how good the omens were for this game. Leeds had never lost at home on a Good Friday in the Championship. This season they had secured more points at home than any other team in the division, and Wigan had the worst away record. After 14 minutes Leeds won a penalty and Wigan had a player sent off. Pablo Hernandez missed the penalty, but within a few minutes Patrick Bamford had put Leeds ahead. Earlier in the month Leeds had won 2-0 at Preston, after the home side had been reduced to 10 men. One of the commentators stated at the time that Leeds were the hardest team to play against without all 11 on the pitch. Everything was going well for Leeds and badly for Wigan, who had started the day just above the relegation places. Rotherham, their main rivals in the fight to stay in the Championship, had taken the lead. The “As it stands” table showed Leeds back in second place and Wigan in the bottom three. By half-time this had changed. Wigan equalized with their first shot on target, to lift themselves out of the relegation places, but at 1-1 Leeds were still in second place. Leeds failed to score in the second half. Wigan took the lead with their second shot on target, and won 2-1. Leeds remained in third place.
So much for good omens. The team with the worst away record, reduced to 10 men for most of the game, had beaten the team with the best home record. Leeds had 36 attempts at goal, 10 of them on target, and scored once. Wigan had 8 shots, two of them on target, and scored twice.
Three days later, on Easter Monday, the precedents were less favourable. Leeds were away at Brentford, and had not won there since 1950. Leeds had only once won an away game on an Easter Monday in the Championship. This time the pattern was not broken. Brentford won 2-0. I watched every miserable minute of the game live on Sky. Sheffield United had won their earlier game (away at Hull City) so were now 3 points clear in second place.
Last Saturday Sheffield United won for the third game in a row, 2-0 at home to Ipswich, to go six points clear. With their significantly better goal difference they were effectively guaranteed promotion, but it was confirmed on Sunday when Leeds drew 1-1 at home to Aston Villa. The game kicked off at noon and was broadcast live on Sky, but I missed it all. It was the day of the London Marathon, and we were in town to watch our daughter running the “Mini Marathon”, the race for Under-17s that takes place before 10am. If Leeds had still had a realistic chance of finishing in the top two, I would have sought out a bar somewhere in town to watch at least part of the game (possibly the Hole in the Wall in Waterloo). Instead we had a big family lunch in a pub without TV screens (the Admiralty, on Trafalgar Square) and checked for updates on our phones. The BBC preview had noted the following: after that goal against Wigan, until the end of the next game (against Brentford), Leeds had had a further 46 attempts without scoring again. By half-time against Villa that had risen to something like 57 shots without a goal.
I have spent much of this season looking for precedents and omens, particularly relating to Leeds United. On Christmas Eve the team were top of the Championship. As I noted in this piece: “In each of the last 10 seasons the team at the top of the table on Christmas Day has been promoted to the Premier League”. I also noted the omens for Liverpool FC. At the time they were 4 points clear at the top of the Premier League, and “Most years the team leading the way at Christmas goes on to win the title”. The last time it didn’t happen was in 2013/14, when Liverpool were top at Christmas and did not end the season as champions. I concluded that paragraph with this observation: “Here’s a better omen for Jurgen Klopp’s team: the last time Leeds were promoted from the second tier (in 1990) was also the last time Liverpool won England’s top division.” Well, Leeds have not won automatic promotion, and Liverpool are no longer top of the Premier League. With two games left, they are in second place, a point behind Manchester City. If City win their remaining games they will be champions. Over the next 9 days we will know how things work out.
For a while, during the winter, I wondered if another precedent from that earlier season would play out this year: Leeds and Sheffield United were both promoted to the top tier of English football in 1990, while Liverpool were winning the League. Maybe the same thing would happen again. By March, with Norwich consistently in the top two of the Championship, I realized that a different precedent might be significant: in 2010 Leeds and Norwich were both promoted from the third tier on the final day of the season. That looked more relevant for this season, until things went wrong at Easter. Maybe there’s a precedent for Norwich and Sheffield United both winning promotion in the same season. You’ll have to find someone who follows either of those teams to advise you on that one.
My attentions are now turning to the play-offs, where the precedents are not good. Leeds are, at least, guaranteed a top four finish, so will have home advantage for the second leg of the semi-final. The final set of Championship fixtures, in two days’ time, will confirm the line-ups. The only thing we can be sure of is that Aston Villa will finish fifth. Leeds will finish third, and West Brom will finish fourth, unless the following happens: a win at Derby for West Brom, and a defeat for Leeds at Ipswich. If that does happen, Leeds and West Brom will swap places. The final play-off place will go to Derby, Middlesbrough or Bristol City. If Leeds do get through to the final, at Wembley on Monday 27 May, there are no good omens. The team’s last appearance in a play-off final (2008, the League One decider against Doncaster) ended in a 1-0 defeat. Before that, in 2006, Leeds lost 3-0 to Watford in the Championship play-off final. If the opponents are Aston Villa the only significant precedent is the League Cup Final of 1996, another hapless 3-0 defeat. But it might not even come to that. On current form (a single point from the last three games) Leeds look unlikely to make it to Wembley. Another season outside the Premier League beckons. I would love to be proved wrong about all this. If I am, you can be sure that I’ll write about it here.
Previous posts detailing Leeds United’s progress this season (those marked * contain screenshots showing the top of the Championship on that date)
“Goal difference” 20 December 2018*
“Supply and Demand, and Christmas Trees” 24 December 2018
“When your team is knocked out of the FA Cup, again” 6 January 2019
“2 points per game” 24 January 2019*
“More about goal difference, and 2 points per game” 16 February 2019*
“Enjoying it while it lasts” 2 March 2019*
“Two sporting hat-tricks, one good and one bad” 25 March 2019
“Twists and turns” 3 April 2019
“More twists and turns” 13 April 2019*