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Championship Focus: Week 19

Two managerial casualties at Hillsborough, Fulham defeat billionaire Barnsley and Christmas cheer for Parky.

Fulham v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Boro comeback not enough to save Monk

Sheffield Wednesday 1 Middlesbrough 2

When Ryan Shotton headed home Stewart Downing’s corner to complete a late ‘Boro comeback at Hillsborough, few of the celebrating travelling fans would have predicted what was to come. Within hours of the final whistle, Middlesbrough parted company with their manager Garry Monk – a sensational response to a hard-fought win on the road.

Look a little closer and the sacking appears less surprising. Newly relegated from the Premier League, ‘Boro spent a staggering £50 million on new players (transfermarkt), twice forking out eight-figure sums to sign Britt Assombalonga from Forest and Martin Braithwaite from Toulouse. Having appointed a young, ambitious manager, fresh from relative success at Leeds, ‘Boro fans were confident of bouncing back at the first time of asking, in fact, even the club’s Chairman Steve Gibson claimed that the Teeside club were going to “smash the league”.

Unfortunately, results and performances fell short of the lofty expectations. ‘Boro’s form stagnated in the opening fixtures and their multi-million-pound investments up front struggled to find the net. In October, ‘Boro arrived at the Madejski with Monk’s job hanging by a thread and, despite a short-lived resurgence, three defeats in the last six games have left ‘Boro three places shy of the play-offs at Christmas.

Persistent rotation of formation and playing personnel has been a source of confusion for many and Monk’s failure to adequately connect with the fanbase at the Riverside has bred unrest and impatience. Browsing Twitter and the Gazette Live of Teeside, it feels like this sacking was a popular, even if ruthless, decision.

With games approaching thick and fast in this busy Christmas period, Gibson will be under pressure to secure the right successor as swiftly as possible. Tony Pulis is the early favourite, with Nigel Pearson and former-manager Aitor Karanka also in the running. It will no doubt be an appealing job for many – Boro have one of the league’s strongest squads on paper and, with the play-offs still within realistic reach, it’s not too late for a disappointing season to be salvaged.

Incidentally, Sheffield Wednesday manager Carlos Carvahal also left his post on Sunday morning, by mutual consent. The Portuguese manager led the Owls to back-to-back top-flight finishes, but a disappointing first half of the season has disgruntled supporters and left Wednesday in 15th. Who’d be a football manager?!

Lights, Camera, Ojo…

Fulham 2 Barnsley 1

Burton Albion v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

It’s been an exciting week for Barnsley fans. On Tuesday, the club confirmed that a consortium including a Chinese billionaire and Billy Beane, the baseball boss who inspired the blockbuster film ‘Moneyball’, had taken over the Yorkshire club, ending a thirteen-year spell under the ownership of Patrick Cryne. The star-studded new cast have been given the task of developing an already-proven strategy at Oakwell – investing in young players, harnessing their potential and giving them the opportunity to flourish.

Despite increased hype, Saturday’s game was hardly a script for a Hollywood blockbuster. The home side dominated large spells of the game, maintaining 61.5% of possession and registering nineteen shots to Barnsley’s seven. They deservedly took the lead early in the second-half. Winger Floyd Ayite marked his return from a spell on the side-lines with a goal. He masterfully worked space on the edge of the box and rifled a shot low and hard past Adam Davies for 1-0.

With little more than twenty minutes to play, Welsh striker Tom Bradshaw levelled, powering a diving header into the bottom corner, but this was no Oscar-winning performance from the Tykes and Fulham edged back in front soon after. The goal was somewhat fortuitous. Sheyi Ojo, on loan from Liverpool, crossed from the right wing but his skewed delivery looped over the helpless keeper and into the net to seal the points.

Reports suggest that Barnsley manager Paul Heckingbottom is on the verge of signing a new contract at Oakwell, but he has imminent work to do to steer his side clear of the looming relegation zone. Barnsley have earned one point from their last seven games, scoring just two goals in the process, and sit only two points above the bottom-three. The long-term future may well be bright for the Tykes, but defeat against Preston on Boxing Day could spell danger in the short-term for the league’s new billionaire-boys.

Elsewhere in the Championship…

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Wolves are the Championship’s Christmas No.1 and look strong favourites to remain ‘top of the charts’ until May. On Saturday, Wolves defeated Ipswich by a single goal, ending Mick McCarthy’s thirteen-match unbeaten streak against his former employer.

Cardiff stumbled though - Phil Parkinson’s Bolton scoring two late goals at the Macron Stadium to condemn the high-flying Bluebirds to a fourth defeat of the season. The Robins could only rescue a draw at Loftus Road, fresh from their heroics in the Carabao Cup midweek. That result allowed Derby to leapfrog Bristol into third. Gary Rowett’s in-form Rams won 3-0 against Millwall, Matej Vydra and David Nugent administering the telling blows.

Play-off hopefuls Aston Villa and Sheffield United played out a Christmas-cracker in the evening kick-off. Experienced striker Clayton Donaldson scored a brace to secure a 2-2 draw at Villa Park. A point was not enough for the Blades to cling onto their play-off place however. Yorkshire rivals Leeds United stole their spot with a 1-0 victory over Hull City.

Brentford may be my dark horses for a late play-off challenge. A double from Danish international Lasse Vibe gave the Bees a deserved 2-1 win away at Norwich, increasing pressure on under-scrutiny manager Daniel Farke ahead of a busy winter fixture list. Honours were even at Deepdale, where Preston drew 1-1 with Forest and, finally, Sunderland and Birmingham both remain in the drop-zone at the halfway mark. They also drew 1-1, Sam Gallagher scoring and subsequently receiving a red card for the away side.

Coming up next week:

If you overdose on turkey and mince pies, then fear not; there’s a full Championship fixture list this Boxing Day. Reading must recover from an inept performance against Burton, to ready themselves for a tough test at Ashton Gate.

Elsewhere, Brentford vs Aston Villa is almost impossible to predict and could well be the pick of the action. Then, at the weekend, Reading face Barnsley at Oakwell and Bristol City see out 2017 with the visit of table-toppers Wolves.