A mixed weekend, altogether, I guess. Manchester United have scored ten in four matches, but one would hope that they will have stiffer challenges to come than those that they’ve faced so far, whilst Chelsea were poor on Sunday, but were fortunate to be playing a Blackburn team on the crest of a slump. There are also bad signs ahead for Spurs, whose performance against Everton indicated trouble ahead at White Hart Lane. This, of course, is to take nothing away from Everton, who were surprisingly excellent again. Liverpool, meanwhile, continue to labour – this time to a 2-1 against an unfortunate West Ham side at Anfield. It seems more than a little odd to be typing this, but the form teams of the start of this season are… Aston Villa and Portsmouth. Villa were excellent in beating Newcastle on Sunday in front of Randy Lerner, though I suspect that their start to the season has had more to do with The Martin O’Neill Effect than anything else. Newcastle were poor again. It’s somewhat agonising to watch Glenn Roeder on the touchline. Given that he had a brain haemmorhage just a couple of years ago, is Newcastle really the best place for him to work right now? Meanwhile, Portsmouth pulled off the most surprising result of the season so far in winning 4-0 at Middlesbrough. Remember what I said about Gareth Southgate’s managerial career? Well, it’s opening up in front of us. How long, do you think, before Steve Gibson gets cold feet over his “bold” decision to bring a coaching novice into The Riverside Stadium? Southgate can, at least, be thankful for the fact that Gibson is possibly the most loyal chairman in football. Consider the many years’ grace that he allowed Bryan Robson, for example. I’m secretly delighted to see Portsmouth near the top of the table. In spite of my many reservations about Harry Redknapp, the idea of their ramshackle ground (Fratton Park really is the Premiership’s last bastion of “old” football, holding out against Premiership glitz and glamour) and their unreconstructed supporters with their bells and their gloriously unreconstructed “Pompey Chimes” being near the top of the table does please me somewhat.
As for Arsenal… well. Well. Against Manchester City, they were terrible. Really, really poor. Thierry Henry didn’t seem interested, and they don’t appear to have plugged the gaps at the back left by the departure of Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole’s pre-Chelsea garden leave. Stuart Pearce had, evidently, decided that way to beat Arsenal was to play in the style of Wimbledon circa 1988, and it worked. It’s one thing to stick within your limitations, but City looked like they were trying to reverse evolution. Whether this can work in the long term is open to question, but after the week they’d had, with their spineless capitulation against Chelsea and Ben Thatcher’s, ahem, “tackle” on Pedro Mendes in the week, they needed a result, and they got it.
The top of Division One is opening up quite nicely. Cardiff have bolted clear of the pack – the first capacity crowd at Ninian Park for a League match in over forty years saw them win 2-0, and the more Neanderthal elements of Brimingham’s support showed their dissatisfaction via the medium of ripping seats up and lobbing them about. Nice. Norwich went second, after demolishing Barnsley at Carrow Road, with another two goals for Robert Earnshaw, who’s rapidly turning into the League’s find of the season. Other than that, everything was largely business as usual, with Wolves moving up to fifth with a 1-0 win against Luton and Colchester upsetting a few applecarts with a 4-3 win against Derby County. The big story of the weekend, though, was obviously at The Stadium of Light, where Sunderland confirmed Roy Keane as their new manager. The players, presumably quaking in their boots at the thought of their first Roy Keane tongue-lashing, went on to beat West Brom 2-0 to finally kick-start their season. Yes, yes, I know. I promise to get my league fixtures from only one source in the future.
The bottom two divisions saw most of the early pace-setters taken down a peg or two. Nottingham Forest could only draw at Huddersfield (though they still looked about twenty times better than they have for the previous couple of seasons), but they stayed top because Port Vale returned to type with almost pleasing haste in losing 3-0 at Yeovil. In Division Three, Swindon’s rampant start to the season continued with a 2-0 win against Stockport, whilst bottom club Bury, seemingly buoyed by knocking Sunderland out of the League Cup in midweek, picked up their first three points of the season with a 3-0 against Grimsby. In the Conference, a mixed weekend for dear old St Albans. Having been away for the weekend, I missed out on both of their matches, but they lost at Altrincham on Saturday, but beat a Tamworth side that had upset Exeter on Saturday 1-0 at Clarence Park to go back into the top half of the table this afternoon. The match of the weekend was at The Wessex Stadium, where a capacity crowd saw Oxford and Weymouth draw 1-1. Apparently, the major talking point of the weekend was the behaviour of a large number of Oxford fans in Weymouth town centre on Saturday night. A warning to other sides in the Nationwide Conference: ever was it thus with clubs just relegated out of the Football League and the “bigger” they think they are, they worse they are.
Finally for now, Scotland. The SPL continues to confound expectation. At least, it does up to a point. Celtic and Hearts both won on Saturday (Hearts at a canter against Inverness, Celtic having to come from one behind against Hibernian), so we were all expecting Rangers to go top at Kilmarnock yesterday. Hilariously, they failed, with a last-minute goal giving the Killies a 2-2 draw. Amazingly, it was Kilmarnock’s first point against Rangers in four years. In Division One, Gretna had an extra 24 hours grace because of their UEFA Cup match against Derry City, and they seemed to take full advantage of it, as they beat Queen Of The South 3-0 to continue their rampage towards the SPL. As QOTS are based in Dumfries, I presume that this counts as a derby match for them – the crowd of 5,500 would certainly seem to indicate that it was. Finally… hats off again to East Stirlingshire, who equalled their matches won record for the whole of last season when they beat Stenhousemuir 5-0 on Saturday. Their players all earnt their £10 a week wages there.
Tomorrow: a completely ill-informed European round-up, including the all-important question: who the hell are Gimnastic and Recreativo Huelva?