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Championship Focus: Week 12

New league leaders, a peculiar fan protest and Wolves tamed by underdogs QPR.

Sheffield United v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Wilder’s fearless Blades go top

Leeds United 1-2 Sheffield United

They may only have been promoted to the second-tier last season, but Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United are a force to be reckoned with. They now sit top of the Championship, having won ten of their fourteen games, including last week’s domination of a lethargic Reading side.

On Friday night, the Blades registered perhaps their most important win of the season in a Yorkshire derby at Elland Road. Former-Royal Billy Sharp opened the scoring after just two minutes, continuing his sublime start to the season. The 31-year old has scored six of Sheffield United’s twenty-goal total. Leeds looked startled and Sharp should have doubled the away side’s advantage soon after, forcing a reaction save from Andy Lonergan. Eventually Leeds perked up and Kalvin Phillips levelled the scores with a sweetly-struck volley just before half-time. That was the midfielder’s fifth of the season.

Sheffield United’s defence is the second-most effective in the Championship, having only conceded twelve goals this campaign, and in the second half they held firm. Mark Duffy, the deserved Man of the Match, continued to sparkle on the wing and his creativity set up the match-winner. Promising youngster David Brooks came on off the bench to score with ten minutes remaining. He latched onto Duffy’s perfectly-weighted through-ball and finished his first professional goal with aplomb.

Chris Wilder, a lifelong Sheffield United fan, may have been largely unknown to Championship football fans prior to this season, but he deserves huge credit for his achievements. Since the start of the 2016/17 season, Wilder’s win percentage (66.67%) only stands behind Antonio Conte of Chelsea and Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham in the top four tiers of English football.

With confidence and belief now at an all-time high and winnable games against QPR, Hull and Burton Albion next up, it’s not inconceivable that Sheffield United could remain at the top of the tree for the foreseeable future, and maybe pull-off back-to-back promotions into the top-flight, just as Southampton did in 2012.

Game, set and match: Forest

Hull City 2 Nottingham Forest 3

Derby County v Hull City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

I’ve heard of games delayed due to floodlight failure, or even an intruder entering the field of play, but never before have I known a game delayed for five minutes in order to remove tennis balls from the pitch… That’s exactly what happened at the KCOM Stadium in Saturday’s evening kick-off.

In protest against the club’s ownership, Hull City fans threw hundreds of yellow tennis balls onto the pitch nineteen minutes and four seconds into the game – in reference to the club’s founding in 1904. A supporters group ‘Hull City Action for Change’ had already held a march before the game, calling for the resignation of Assam and Ehab Allam, and chanted “We Want Allam Out” while the projectiles were being cleared.

Asked about the protests, recently-appointed Hull manager Leonid Slutsky commented:

“For me it is difficult to understand a lot of moments because a lot of moments were before me and I don’t know a lot of the situation. But, when the match stopped for five minutes it was not the best for us.”

The bizarre protest ultimately detracted somewhat from a hugely entertaining game. 20-year old Kieran Dowell scored his first senior hat-trick to win the game for Forest. The Everton-loanee is certainly one to keep an eye on at the Madejski on Tuesday night. The ever-impressive Jarrod Bowen scored a sumptuous curling effort for the home-side and ex-Royal Michael Hector bagged his first for goal for the Tigers, but these offered little consolation on a miserable and extraordinary afternoon for Hull City.

Elsewhere…

Queens Park Rangers v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Harry Murphy/Getty Images

This weekend’s Championship action was as unpredictable as ever. The most shocking story unfolded at Loftus Road, where Ian Holloway’s QPR sprung a surprise on high-flying Wolves. Rangy striker Matt Smith bagged a late winner for the home-side, denying the visitors a return to top spot.

It wasn’t the only upset in West London on Saturday - rock-bottom Bolton Wanderers led Fulham deep into stoppage-time, until Tom Cairney’s 94th minute equaliser salvaged a point for the Cottagers. Like Wolves, Cardiff City also missed the chance to go top. They fired blanks in a bore-draw against Millwall.

Brentford took an unlikely three points from their trip to Deepdale, beating Preston 3-2 in a thrilling contest. Impressive youngster Ollie Watkins scored the decisive goal for the Bees. Derby moved within touching distance of the top six with a 2-1 away win over Norwich, ending the home-side’s eight-match unbeaten run. Bristol City also won on the road, Milan Djuric’s header resigning Simon Grayson’s abject Sunderland to yet another defeat.

Burton Albion momentarily leapfrogged Reading, having taken the lead against Ipswich, but goals from Martyn Waghorn and Bersant Celina mean they remain in the drop-zone. Meanwhile, Harvey Barnes scored a stunning goal for Barnsley, who earned a point against under-performing Sheffield Wednesday. Finally, the Second City derby between Birmingham and Aston Villa finished goalless.

Coming up next week:

Two games in quick succession could spell trouble for Jaap Stam. Marc Warburton’s Forest visit the Madejski on Tuesday night, hungry for their third successive win, before the Royals travel to Derby to take on Gary Rowett’s in-form Rams. Such is Reading’s league position at the moment, that it will be worth following two relegation-six-pointers elsewhere.

Midweek, the bottom two Sunderland and Bolton face off, whilst Burton Albion desperately need a win against Barnsley. At the weekend, I have a keen eye on Saturday’s lunchtime fixture at Ashton Gate, between two of the league’s top six, Bristol City and Cardiff City.