Saturday 8 March ~
It's a sign of how close the Championship is this season that Leicester City, who are currently in 19th place, have the best defensive record in the division while their opponents today, the leaders Bristol City, have a goal difference of just plus three. If Leicester win today, they will have completed the double over the team that their Bristol Rovers-supporting manager Ian Holloway probably most wants to beat. Both clubs have had surprising seasons so far, for very different reasons.
Bristol City were second in League One last season, six points behind champions Scunthorpe. But the two clubs are now separated by 22 places and 30 points. If Gary Johnson's side were to go up it would be their first season at the top level since 1979-80. That was to be the start of the most traumatic period in Bristol City's history. Indeed the club would have gone under had a group of players not agreed to tear up their long-term contracts. Gary Johnson was not an instant hit when he took over the club in 2005 – the chairman of Bristol City's supporters club even labelled him a “Conference manager” during a poor run of form. There was also some doubt cast on claims, heard frequently during Euro 2004, that Latvia's qualification for that tournament was due to progress made by Johnson during his spell as national coach from 1999 to 2001. English commentators tended to take the pro-Johnson line, while Latvians seem inclined to credit his successor, Alexander Starkov, for having improved greatly on what he inherited. Still, Johnson overcame his critics in Bristol and his stock has now risen to the extent he is even being compared to Don Revie, who transformed Leeds Utd in the early 1960s.
Ian Holloway, meanwhile, is going through a tough time at Leicester. In mid-February, with the team having won three matches out of 17 since his appointment three months earlier, Holloway's job was said to be on the line. Leicester chairman Milan Mandaric appears to bask in the public attention that comes with owning a football club. The criticism he's received for some of his odd decision-making – notably during the latter stages of his time at Portsmouth – doesn't seem to have deterred him from acting on impulse. Mandaric has already declared that he has a three-year plan for promotion. It's unclear what will happen if his target is not reached.
Holloway is Leicester's eighth manager in the seven years since Martin O'Neill left, during which they have gone from being a cup-winning team in the top half of the Premier League to the bottom six of the next division down. Mandaric has only overseen a small part of that decline, but it's doubtful that anyone outside Leicester would recall who the chairman was during the period of success in the 1990s. Expect to hear that the current owner is “standing by” his manager if Leicester lose today. In fact, he'll be shovelling out press statements whatever the score.