So we’re half way through the season in England; some football fans will be quietly hopeful of promotion or a league title; many more will be convinced their team is capable of making a surge into the play-offs; a minority will already be wondering if their side is doomed to relegation. Here are my predictions for promotion/relegation this year:
Premier League: I don’t really enjoy watching the English first division, though this year I’ve become more interested than usual – it’s not as predictable. Having said that, I still think Manchester United are the all-round best side, and I expect them to be champions. Beneath them we’ll perhaps see two of the ‘big four’ finish outside the Champions’ League places (Chelsea, Liverpool). Cue patronising attitudes towards the Europa League from both sets of fans, though as a tournament it’s for my money a lot more interesting to watch than its celebrity-obsessed big brother.
At the bottom of the table, nobody has become marooned (as has been the case several times over the last ten years). However, I can’t see Wolves avoiding relegation – as is common with many relegated sides, they play reasonable football but concede silly goals. At home they’ve scored as many goals as Manchester City, however – if anything will save them it could be that. Something tells me Fulham will join them, and possibly it’s also Wigan’s time after several seasons in and around the bottom half of the table. Other teams that could get sucked in are Aston Villa, who seem to be having some serious management issues, and Blackpool. The latter have been everyone’s favourite second team and they’ve acquitted themselves well at the top-level, but the real test will be second half of the season when the rest are used to their style of play.
The second division’s also shaping up to be interesting. I expect QPR to get automatic promotion, though they could be pipped for the title by either Swansea or Leeds. Leeds score a lot, but need to stop conceding silly goals to turn draws into wins. I expect Cardiff and Nottingham Forest to make the play-offs as well, leaving me one more team – Norwich look most likely, but a side like Reading or Burnley could also contend.
At the bottom, Preston are beginning to look marooned – I don’t expect a new manager will do enough to save them. I think Crystal Palace will join them, as they have struggled all year, and Scunthorpe may struggle to stay up after a good season last year. The other teams near the bottom, Middlesbro’, Sheffield United and Ipswich, should all turn things round – though I wouldn’t discount one of them joining the recent ‘big names’ in the third division. If they do get their acts together, Barnsley could find themselves needing a final-day win.
Brighton should win this one, though Southampton, Charlton and possibly Sheffield Wednesday will push them. I expect Huddersfield and Bournemouth to be there or thereabouts, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for the league’s smaller sides. However, Hartlepool’s good away record will make them contenders, and a side like Peterborough, who score an awful lot of goals at home, could make a charge into the play-offs.
Sides that get stuck to the bottom of this league by Christmas always struggle as there are four relegation places – Walsall and Yeovil are already more than a win and a draw from safety, and both struggle to get goals away from home. Dagenham have struggled to adapt at this level, though will surely be back if they do go down. Seemingly perennial strugglers Tranmere and Leyton Orient will be involved in the fight right to the end, and newly-promoted Rochdale might also find themselves in a spot of bother come May. Of the teams at the bottom perhaps the biggest surprise is Swindon – their poor away record needs to be improved if they’re to be certain of survival. Notts County fans might have expected a little more from their side, though a season of consolidation will probably look quite attractive at this stage.
In division four Chesterfield’s strong home record should see them claim one of three automatic promotion places. The next two, Rotherham and Wycombe, are strong at this level and look good bets to go up. Port Vale might slip following Micky Adams leaving for Sheffield United, but will hope to make the play-offs. Of the other sides Bury look hard to beat and do very well away from home; if anyone will challenge the current top 3, I expect it to be them. Shrewsbury are unbeaten at home, and Gillingham have recent experience of the next level, as do Crewe. They all have a good chance of making the play-offs – something tells me Gillingham will win that.
At the bottom Hereford are yet to win at home; with a record like that, it’s difficult to imagine them surviving. Barnet have been struggling for a while – this could be the year they drop down, though a new manager could turn things round. Morecambe will struggle, though like Barnet they know how to score at home. Another potential struggler is Stockport, a side with a leaky defence that is feeling the full effects of ground-sharing with a rugby team.
Whatever happens to the teams here in terms of promotion and relegation, perhaps the biggest hope is this – that the promoted sides won’t overstretch themselves and get into trouble when they get relegated again, and that the relegated sides stablilise and don’t end up in administraton or in the hands of unscrupulous owners.
Saul Pope is the author of ‘New Holland’, a mystery novel set in Russia and published by Espresso Books. He also writes for the football magazine ‘When Saturday Comes’.