I knew it would be painful. But it had to be done.
I just checked back to the pundits’ and bookies’ pre-season view of this year’s Championship.
Favourites to win the division were … yes, Norwich City. “With not too many changes to the squad and Dean Smith in charge, Norwich are looking for a quick return to the Premier League – and are the bookies’ pick to do just that”.
The predictions are no less painful reading for fans of Watford, marginally behind City as second favourites. I’ll come back to them.
Third and fourth favourites were West Brom and – in the first instance of accuracy – Middlesbrough.
Fifth and sixth-ranked were Burnley and Sheffield United. I’m no great fan of the Blades and Paul Heckingbottom – but credit to him and, without reservation, to Vincent Kompany.
Also credit to Blackburn (ranked 10th before the season), Luton (11th), and Millwall (17th). They’ve exceeded the expectations of experts – and I suspect their own fans’ expectations too.
I remember years when City overachieved. It’s a great and uplifting feeling. Underachieving, which we’re going through for the second successive year, is frustrating and dismal.
It’s also wearing – illustrated by the manager’s statement on being appointed, then some weeks later:
On being appointed: “We have an opportunity to kick-start things. We have the experience and we certainly have the talent”
A few weeks later: “At times we’re really good, other times not good enough. That’s why I’m having the same results as previous managers have had”
Not quite David Wagner’s style – and actually not his words. They might also apply to us, but they’re the words of Chris Wilder at Watford.
So, to our game at Blackburn on Friday.
In theory, it’s an exciting opportunity for us. Win, and we’ll be just one point behind Blackburn – ie one point off a playoff place.
Yet the mood of City supporters is clearly downbeat. Some of that’s understandable: the verve and hunger we showed at Millwall has dried up since, and with it our ability to create chances. A run of ten points from four games has been followed by two points from the last four.
Under David Wagner, we’ve had scintillating days and depressing ones. We’re not sure which City will turn up for any given game.
Meanwhile, however, Blackburn fans will be saying the same. They started March by beating Sheffield United. But it’s been downhill from there: a narrow win over Reading sandwiched between losses to Stoke and, in their most recent game, Birmingham.
Form, then, isn’t much help in predicting Friday’s outcome.
What we can say with greatest probability, looking at the stats, is that it won’t be a draw. I’ve seen people saying Norwich don’t deserve to make the playoffs having lost 14 games this season. But Blackburn have lost 15. They’re above us by virtue of having drawn so few – by some way the fewest in the division.
(There’s a side story to this, for those who enjoy statistical quirks. Having set new records by going the first 27 games of the season without a draw, they promptly drew four in a row – and none since. Football, eh?)
Despite being above us, Blackburn have a significantly worse goal difference. They’ve scored 43 and conceded the same. While we’ve conceded a similar number (42), we’ve scored 52. Friday would be a good day to get that stat moving again.
Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted that the MFW preview team tends to do pairs of fixtures. I’ve done the two games against Watford and Hull, for instance, and now Blackburn.
It’s a sign of the Championship that Blackburn is unique for me, in that they haven’t changed manager between the two fixtures. It’s still Jon Dahl Tomasson, who’s done a fine overall job in his first season.
Similarly, the main threat on the pitch remains Ben Brereton Diaz, who’s now up to 12 league goals for the season. No one expects him to be at Blackburn next year.
From all of the above, you won’t be expecting me to make a prediction about Friday’s result.
Against City’s prospects, it has to be noted that Blackburn’s home record is one of the division’s best: won 13, drawn 1, lost 4. Only Burnley’s is better.
To get the win that would revive hopes, City will have to channel their Millwall performance again. It can be done – but will it?
My colleague Martin Penney put the question succinctly here earlier this week: “Do we believe City have a top six finish in them?” A repeat of the Millwall performance, and of course result, would go a long way to rekindling fans’ belief that the answer might be yes.