The Championship – The Final Day
They’ve been stumbling, lurching and tripping on their shoelaces, but Birmingham City are a Premier League club again. As it turned out, it was a surprisingly untense day. Kevin Fahey’s early goal at The Madejski Stadium meant that events at Selhurst Park, where former Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock had a tug of love going on in taking two points off the club that he never tires of telling everyone that he supports. Kevin Phillips added a second Birmingham goal before Reading pulled one back, but by this time everyone knew that the game was up and that Reading, who had briefly threatened to look like a steamroller during the autumn, would join Sheffield United in the play-offs.
The race for the final two play-off places was between Preston North End, Burnley and Cardiff City. Cardiff should have been absolutely nailed on for one of them, but they had failed to win in their previous three matches – seeing off Ninian Park in the process with a 3-0 home damp squib against Ipswich Town – and they failed again yesterday, going down 1-0 at Sheffield Wednesday. This result left a window of opportunity for the two Lancashire clubs, and they both took full advantage of Cardiff’s end of season implosion. Burnley brushed Bristol City aside by four goals to nil in the manner that one would swat at a bluebottle with a newspaper. Preston made slightly harder work on beating Queens Park Rangers, but this combination of results meant that Cardiff miss out on a play-off place.
There was a somewhat funereal air hanging around at The Valley yesterday. Charlton, of course, had already fallen through the trapdoor, as quietly as a mouse. What was probably less expected was the supine way in which Norwich City followed them. As it turned out, there wouldn’t have been anything that Norwich’s players could have done about it all as Barnsley came from a goal down to win 2-1 at Plymouth Argyle, but Norwich simply collapsed at Charlton, going three goals down before losing by four goals to two. Charlton seemed to take an impish delight in comdemning their former Premier League compatriots to at least one season’s comparative purgatory of the first two rounds of the FA Cup.
The play-offs, then, see Sheffield United play Preston North End while Reading play Burnley. Reading’s patchy form in the second half of the season would seem to give Preston half a chance, and the prospect remains of a Lancashire derby at Wembley in “The Most Valuable Football Match In The Universe” at the end of this month. Meanwhile, Norwich City, Southampton and Charlton Athletic will be looking to Leicester City as a glimmer of hope for next season, although one suspects that Southampton may have bigger fish to fry over the next few months or so.