Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Moving forward, looking back

Now where were we...? Ah yes - we were in 2006.

How did it all end, one has to wonder? Well let's remind ourselves of how things stand as we march ever onwards into 2007.

In the Premiership, Chelsea ended the 2005/06 season having won the title at a canter, but by the end of the year they were six points behind the leaders for 2006/07, Manchester United. Arsenal found themselves struggling to keep up with the pace, lagging behind Liverpool and Bolton in fifth whereas Portsmouth were exceeding expectations in sixth place on the same number of points as the Merseysiders.

Newly-promoted Reading also outpunched their weight by holding a top-half-of-the-table position, while at the other end, Sheffield United and Watford quickly became stuck in the early stages of a likely relegation dogfight to come in 2007. Joining them in the Premiership quicksand were West Ham and Charlton who exchanged managers but after the first couple of weeks the amount of positive effect its had on both teams has been minimal.

Falling rapidly in their direction are Wigan who, like West Ham, achieved great things in the league last season including an appearance in the Carling Cup Final, but that crucial second season after promotion could yet be their undoing.

In the Championship, Birmingham took their place having dropped out of the top flight but quickly became favourites to return as Steve Bruce steered his team into first place. Sunderland haven't been quite so convincing in plotting their return but the appointment of Roy Keane as coach has helped them slowly improve their plight. West Brom were the other relegated team and they, too, look to be in with a chance of making an immediate trip back to the Premiership in the summer of 2007.

They'll have to fight off the challenge of Preston and Derby, though, and with a surging run by Stoke and Colchester - yes, that's COLCHESTER - the Championship title run-in this season should be interesting and rather exciting.

Sadly the ony chance Southend had to achieve glory was in this season's Carling Cup, but with Tottenham showing them the door in the quarter finals, they now sit bottom of the table. But who's this just above them in 23rd place? It's Leeds United! Yes, the team who not so long ago were playing their football in Europe now appear to be staring League 1 full in the face, despite the arrival of Ken Bates as chairman and Dennis Wise as manager.

In the FA Cup, Burton Albion briefly stopped Man United's charge with a third round 0-0 draw before a 5-0 defeat ensued in the replay. Bolton knocked out Arsenal in the fourth round and in the quarter finals, Liverpool beat Birmingham 7-0. Liverpool were obviously keen to get their hands on the trophy and showed intent from as early as Round 3 when Xabi Alonso was scoring goals from his own half of the pitch against Luton. Manchester United were pushed aside in Round 5 and it seemed only Chelsea could stop them when they met in the semi finals.

In the end, Jose Mourinho's men were beaten 2-1 while in the other tie of the round, West Ham booked their place in the Final by beating Middlesbrough 1-0. As is now widely felt, the 2006 FA Cup Final was one of the best in recent history with both teams playing exciting, attacking football. In the end, the difference between the two sides could be summed up in two words - Steven Gerrard. His goals, including the emphatic long-range drive to win the match late on, lit up the Final, thus injecting some life into a competition that seemed to be lacking some spark in recent years.

Now before we draw a line under 2006, let's take a moment to remind ourselves of those Premiership predictions we made at the start of the season. Kedge, Smart and myself all laid our reputations on the line by trying to guess where each of the twenty teams would finish at the end of the 2006/07 season, as did FourFourTwo magazine.

Well, we punched all the predictions into the big SPAOTP computer - you know the sort: the ones with the spinning reels of tape and flashing lights like Benny Hill had in The Italian Job - and the results so far are quite literally 'interesting'.

Download the data in spreadsheet form here

At the end of August, Smart found himself lagging behind in fourth place but one month later, he was out in front leaving yours truly trailing behind in last. Kedge regained second spot by the end of October as Smart extended his lead, but it was all still pretty close between the four predictees.

When November drew to a close, there was a three-way tie for first place with Smart, Kedge and FourFourTwo magazine all 96 positions away from a faultless prediction. One month on and everyone had split up again with Martin regaining the outright lead and me goodself finally moving up from last place to third as 2007 was about to start.

All of which proves that it's a tricky business trying to predict the future (as 'You Bet' has been proving) but there's a long way to go yet before the season ends. That being the case, we'll return with another update to see how true-to-life our predictions are in a few months time, so watch this space...

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