MANY observers, myself included, had been quick to question Eddie Howe after a somewhat lacklustre start to the season. Indeed, relegation was more than just an irrational fear a little over five weeks ago.
However, a solid month of December has all but eradicated the possibility of joining neighbours Preston North End in the lower tiers of English football.
Touching on the relegation zone, it appears a given that Coventry City will slip through the trap door come April. Any two from five could join them, although Bristol City look a different side under Derek McInnes,and I would be astounded if they were to begin the next campaign in League One. Chairman Colin Sexstone will reap the rewards of the Scotsman’s appointment in the not too distant future, of that I am sure. Common sense also dictates that Doncaster Rovers are likely to survive, but will their plethora of unlikely acquisitions gel in time to steer them towards safety?
Meanwhile, at the business end of the table, West Ham United are my prediction for first place. The style of football adopted under Sam Allardyce will win few admirers, but, in a results-driven industry, he is well on course to ensure that his stint in the Championship is short lived.
I see no great discrepancy in quality between ourselves and current league leaders Southampton. Football is not played on paper, but looking at our respective starting XI, I have to conclude that ours is equal, if not marginally better.
Our main enemy thus far has been the distinct lack of consistency. For every comprehensive victory over Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town, there has been a poor display against Portsmouth and Middlesbrough.
That comes as no surprise, given the youthful nature of our squad.
Our recent revival has occurred since the return of veteran Michael Duff to full fitness following injury, and that is by no means a coincidence. Talent is not the issue down at Turf Moor, but a lack of experience could prove costly. I would certainly look to acquire the archetypal late 20-something leader of men in the present window.
Television is awash with “best of” programmes at this time of year. If such a feature was to be produced relating to the first half of the season, what would our highlights be? Jay Rodriguez’s four-midable display against Burton Albion would surely rank as the greatest individual performance, whilst Ross Wallace’s dead-ball expertise against Blackpool is guaranteed to be a goal of the season contender.
On a more general note, Barnsley manager Keith Hills facial topiary is unlikely to set a trend, whilst Gus Poyet scoops the inaugural “magician of the year” crown for his first half vanishing act at the AMEX stadium three weeks ago.
In terms of televisual highlight, it goes without saying that a little show presented by Messrs. Lineker, Hansen, Lawrenson and Shearer enjoys astronomical viewing figures in the borough of Burnley. I trust that no explanation is needed as to why?! However, for those of you in need of a clue,all I will say is that barring promotion, we can expect away games to include a short journey along the M61 and M65 respectively next season.
The magic of the FA Cup returns on Saturday, and, as with all cup fixtures, our game is difficult to predict. Will Paul Lambert focus on Premier League survival and rest key players, or look to progress as far as he can? League results against cup progression is a comparison which rears its ugly head every single year. Do we want three points against Middlesbrough, or to be in the hat for the fourth round? For me, we should be looking for both. After 2009 we are all acutely aware of the role momentum has to play in a successful season.
As I have previously emphasised, the present squad are more than capable of equalling that glorious afternoon at Wembley, three years ago. Over to you, Eddie!