Football League Review: Brighton’s Happy Christmas
With around twenty minutes to play in the New Year’s Day round of Football League Championship matches, an unusual sequence of events occurred across three matches that may just turn out to have a significant psychological effect on the second half of the season in that particular division. At Ewood Park, the division’s leader Newcastle United were tied goalless by struggling Blackburn Rovers. Elsewhere, at Craven Cottage the divisional leaders, Brighton & Hove Albion, were defying their recent white-hot form by having fallen a goal down at the hands of Fulham. And finally, third-placed Reading, who have been keeping in touch with the top two with the quiet, unassuming stealth of a private detective from a film noir, were somewhat surprisingly two goals behind at Bristol City, who had previously lost eight of their last nine matches.
Over the course of the final twenty minutes of these three games, however, the complexion of the top of the division changed about radically as might be considered possible. Brighton scored twice in a minute to turn the scoreline at Fulham on its head. Reading scrambled their way back into the match against Bristol City, scrapping their way to parity before snatching a winning goal three minutes into stoppage-time through Yann Kermogant. And in the plot twist, the result that threw a dustbin full of cats into a phalanx of pigeons, Charlie Mulgrew scored for Blackburn Rovers against Newcastle United, a goal that ended a run of six games without a win for the struggling Rovers and flipped the situation at the top of the table on its head. By ten to five, Brighton were two points clear at the top of the table above Newcastle, with the gap between Newcastle and Reading and Huddersfield Town now cut to six points, with Huddersfield also having the benefit of a game in hand on Rafael Benitez’s team.
They’ve been blowing hot and cold for a few weeks now, but even allowing for this it’s difficult to paint the Christmas period in a positive sense for Newcastle United, with this defeat meaning that their points haul from the festive period amounted to just three points from their three matches, with defeat at Blackburn having been preceded by a home defeat at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday and a home win against the increasingly uncomfortable looking Nottingham Forest. Brighton, meanwhile, seem to have made some progress in the “winning without playing particularly well” stakes. It’s an extremely useful hand to be able to play when near the top of the table. The Fulham win had been preceded by a win played out in similar fashion at Birmingham City, whilst their other Christmas fixture at home against Cardiff City on Friday night was called off due to extremely heavy fog over that corner of East Sussex, which manager Chris Hughton may have considered a handy little break for his players at one of the most congested times of the entire season.
It’s not that Newcastle United’s performance at Blackburn Rovers was spectacularly bad. Charlie Mulgrew’s goal for Blackburn came with sixteen minutes of the game to play, but it was Blackburn’s first shot on target of the afternoon. Sometimes, football is like that. A slightly anaemic performance coupled with a little bad luck and a the rub of the green just favouring their opponents can often be enough to guarantee a defeat, and Newcastle have had a few games like this, of late. Whereas both Brighton and Huddersfield feel as though they have enough to scrap their way back into matches, there has been a tendency of late for Newcastle to be unable to find a route back into a match once they fall a goal behind. Criticism of Rafael Benitez remains a little unfair. He has, after all, brought a sense of purpose and togetherness back to Newcastle United after last season’s calamitous denouement. They have, however, lost seven Championship matches this season, all bar one by a one goal margin. For all the good things that have – deservedly – been said about them this season, they do perhaps remain something of a work in progress.
Brighton & Hove Albion, however, continue to soar. Their win at Fulham was a fifth in successive matches, and the only league times that they have lost in the league this season came successive matches against Newcastle United and Brentford either side of the international break that was held over the first weekend in September. What’s more, the atmosphere around the club doesn’t feel surrounded by the clouds of self-doubt that seemed to be a permanent fixture over it over the course of the last few seasons, no matter how close to winning themselves a much-coveted Premier League place may have felt at the time. The goals are flowing, the defence is parsimonious in the extreme – just fifteen league goals have been conceded by Brighton in twenty-four league matches this season – and a popular manager is leading a popular team. This year is starting to feel like it might be Brighton’s year, in the Championship.
And that chasing pack isn’t going anywhere, either. Reading have made a mockery of those who criticised the decision to appoint Jaap Stam as their manager and will get an excellent opportunity to test the progress of his team at Old Trafford in the FA Cup Third Round, this coming weekend. Huddersfield Town are level on points with Reading, although they’ve played a game more, and Leeds United are in fifth place in the table, just a point behind them. With just under half of the season left to play, the Football League Championship is starting to look as tight as it has done in many previous recent seasons. Those who assumed that this season would be little more than a procession for Newcastle United – and most of us have had good cause to think that at some point throughout the first half of the season – are now left wondering whether they have been left floundering somewhat at just about the worst of all possible times.
We may get to see whether Newcastle United can haul themselves back to the top of the table at the end of this month, but even this is assured. They are scheduled to be travelling to Sussex to play Brighton on the last weekend of January, but this is also scheduled as the weekend of the Fourth Round of the FA Cup, so even the scheduling of this keenly-awaited match might yet be left to the vagaries of the fixture planners and television schedulers. And on top of that, of course, a division that continues to confound those who expect football seasons to play out according to a certain script could yet throw a further surprise or two. With most in the division capable of dropping points at any moment, an excellent run of form could propel any one of a cluster of clubs into the play-off places, or perhaps even higher. And, of course, the close proximity to all that delicious Premier League television money has a tendency to have a peculiar effect on club owners as well. As 2017 gets under way, anything remains possible in the Football League Championship.
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