Football League Review: It Never Rains…
There comes a point in the season for some supporters when one can take their foot off the pedal, a little. Indulge ourselves in a little generosity of spirit. For Newcastle United supporters, at just about any other time, Saturday afternoon’s home defeat by Blackburn Rovers was that day. Newcastle had an afternoon during which a much-rotated team couldn’t quite find the rhythm that has swept it to the top of the Football League Championship so far this season. Blackburn Rovers, who might previously have measured their time outside the division’s relegation places so far this season in minutes and seconds rather than hours and minutes, put in a solid, doughty performance and nicked a goal on the break. After the match, Rafael Benitez didn’t even seem overly concerned by the three points dropped. Being top of the table will go that to a man.
The teams tucked in behind Newcastle took full advantage of the top club’s profligacy. Brighton & Hove Albion came from a goal behind to beat Fulham, whose season continues to carry about it that “one step forwards, two steps back air” that seems likely to end in mid-table, with goals from Sam Baldock and Glenn Murray giving Brighton a win after goalkeeper David Stockdale had flapped at a cross to allow Fulham a first half lead. More impressive still of late have been Reading, and on Saturday the goals that they managed against Bristol City’s one was a fifth successive win, which sees them now embedded into third place in the table and chasing Brighton’s coat tails. It’s certainly been an impressive start to life as a manager on England for Jaap Stam. That much is for certain.
The remainder of the top six also remained unbeaten. Huddersfield Town were without a game, but there were wins for each of Birmingham City, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United. Birmingham won at Brentford, as historical quirks suggest they always do, Sheffield Wednesday won at Wolverhampton Wanderers, whose players seem to be going out of their way to demonstrate to new manager Paul Lambert that, no matter how eccentric the appointment of his predecessor Walter Zenga might have been, the current problems at Molineux may run far deeper than merely bringing in a new manager might be able to resolve.
Perhaps the most interesting game of the afternoon came at the New York Stadium, with Leeds United’s win against Rotherham United. Rotherham have gone fourteen matches without a win, and it’s not difficult to see why. Losing Peter Odemwingie to a red card for a flying elbow early on didn’t help, and neither did conceding a second goal seven minutes into stoppage-time at the end of the first half. They fought back valiantly, did Rotherham, including one goalmouth scramble that summoned to mind an episode of Jeux Sans Frontieres competed by drunks, but Leeds clung on, took all three points, and left Rotherham hopelessly adrift at the foot of the table. With Blackburn’s surprise win at Newcastle lifting them from the bottom three, their space was filled by Cardiff City who were comfortably beaten by an Aston Villa, who are now climbing the Championship table in the way that a hamster climbs a wheel. Finally for the Championship, spare a thought for Alex Neil. It wasn’t so long ago that his Norwich City was sitting at the top of the table, seemingly headed towards a swift return to the Premier League. Saturday afternoon’s defeat at Derby County however, was their fifth in a row,coming amid reports of the manager having – caution: football cliché coming up – “lost the dressing room”. Worse still for Norwich supporters, Ipswich Town eased their way to a season-best win against Queens Park Rangers.
Miniature footballs and toy taxis were the order of the day at The Valley, where the latest round of protests by Charlton Athletic supporters marked the beginning of an eventful afternoon against promotion-chasing Sheffield United. A stoppage-time Charlton goal cost the visitors three points and allowed Bolton Wanderers, the only one of the top four clubs to register a win, into second place in the table, while Scunthorpe United were held at home by Oxford United and Bradford City were surprisingly beaten at struggling Swindon Town. The Sherwood Effect in action? We shall see. Elsewhere, League One was peppered with draws. A stoppage-time equaliser grabbed Fleetwood Town a draw at Wimbledon and cost the home side in the play-off places, but on the whole league positions are something of a state of mind for the clubs in this division, with just ten points separating sixth placed Peterborough United – whose trip to Oldham Athletic fell foul of the weather – from twenty-first placed Coventry City, who were beaten at home again and now find themselves back in the relegation places.
We should, however, take a moment to pause for reflection at the very special circle of hell in which Bury have found themselves of late. They were briefly in second place in the table earlier this season but now find themselves in twentieth position after their home defeat against Millwall on Saturday. This wasn’t, however, just any old home defeat. This wasn’t, however, any old run of the mill home defeat for Bury. Two goals in seven second half minutes from James Vaughan had given the home side a comfortable lead with three-quarters of the game, but a red card and a penalty kick with twenty minutes left to play nudged the door open for Millwall, and Neil Harris’ team levelled with four minutes to play before snatching the win in stoppage-time at the end of the match. In the Football League at the moment, it never rains but it pours, and nowhere is that rain so steady and relentless as it is on the northern outskirts of Manchester, at the moment.
On the subject of sudden and precipitous downpours, Plymouth Argyle have been undergoing something of a downturn of late. They had been comfortably clear at the top of League Two, but a two-one defeat at Morecambe on Saturday was their third in a row, and allowed Carlisle United to leapfrog them to the top of the table following their thoroughly convincing home win against Mansfield Town. The drama at the top of League Two, however, came at Fratton Park, where a half-time “fracas” between two Portsmouth players led to a double substitution and, eventually, a two-one home defeat at the hands of Stevenage. With Doncaster Rovers beating poor old Leyton Orient by three goals to one the top three retain the small gap between themselves and the rest. Portsmouth could do without players falling out and losing at home to moderate opposition if they’re to close that gap, though. Tucked in below them, Luton Town were unable to break down Exeter City’s defence in a goalless draw at St James Park, whilst Wycombe Wanderers and Blackpool sit in the other two play-off spots.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, things are starting to get a little congested, with fifteenth placed Colchester United just six points above bottom of the table Newport County. Colchester had the biggest League Two win of the weekend, four-nil at home against Crewe Alexandra for whom this has been a most wretched week for reasons that have nothing to do with the current team. Indeed, none of the bottom seven in the table could manage a win, with Newport staying bottom following a four-one loss at an echoey Bloomfield Road against a Blackpool team that may have undergone psychological training to convince the players that orange tip-up seats are now their supporters. If Blackpool were to win promotion at the end of this season and no-one was there to see it happen would it have actually occurred? Well, of course it would. But football and philosophy haven’t always been the happiest of bedfellows in the past, really, have they?
You can support independent football writing here on 200% by subscribing with us through Patreon, here.