Football League Review: Eleven & Out For Di Matteo
It wasn’t, of course, supposed to be like this. Relegation from the Premier League, new ownership and a new start in the Football League Championship was supposed to be a clean break for Aston Villa, an opportunity to rebuild, to rid the club of the ghosts of the recent past, to actually start enjoying the football again. After eleven matches of the new season, however, things are starting feel troublingly familiar for the club’s supporters. The team has won one of its first eleven matches of the season. It has managed to acquire ten points, so far, and sits two points and three places above the relegation places in the league table with a quarter of the season played. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Saturday’s two-nil reversal at Preston North End proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the new owners of the club. Manager Roberto Di Matteo had been feeling a steady increase in the heat underneath his feet for the last month as the wins failed to come, as often as not snuffed out by late goals scored by spirited opponents who wouldn’t consider a match over until the final whistle blew. A mildly chaotic first half performance against Newcastle United the weekend before last saw the penultimate nail smacked into the coffin representing his hopes of getting the club back to where it believes it should be, though a late comeback of their own bought him another week and a final chance to prove that he wasn’t quite yet a busted flush of a manager.
Then, however, came Preston North End. Preston haven’t found Championship life particularly easy themselves so far this season, but they managed to find an extra gear to run through against a soporific Villa team at Deepdale on Saturday. First half goals from Ben Pearson and Jordan Hugill won the game for the home side before the referee even had the chance to blow the half-time whistle, but even this only partially tells the story of another afternoon of rancour for away supporters. Ross McCormack missed a second half penalty kick for Villa, and at the final whistle a cacophony of boos rained down upon Di Matteo. The club is rumoured to be more than a little interested in the Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner, and it’s not difficult to see why. A one-nil win at Ipswich Town kept his team ahead of Norwich City at the top of the table. But will the name of Aston Villa be enough to tempt a manager from a club that he has only just arrived and at which he has already overseen a highly successful start to the new season?
It was a weekend of narrow wins and low scoring at the top of the Championship. Nobody in the entire division scored more than two goals and each of the teams that ended the weekend in its top six won their matches by a single goal margin. Norwich City remain in second place after a two-one win at the wildly inconsistent Wolverhampton Wanderers, an encouraging result after spectacularly throwing away a two goal lead to lose at Newcastle during last week’s round of midweek fixtures. But what of Newcastle United? Thirty-four years ago, they travelled to Millmoor to play Rotherham United in the Second Division and the cameras of Match Of The Day saw the burgeoning of the developing love affair between the club’s supporters and Kevin Keegan, as the bubble-permed one scored four goals in a five-one win.
There were no such histrionics this time around. A first half goal from Christian Atsu was enough to grant them a one-nil win and keep them in third place in the table. The other three teams in the play-off places also recorded narrow wins. Brighton & Hove Albion’s two-one win at Sheffield Wednesday might not have atoned for losing to them in the semi-finals of last year’s play-offs, but it was their first ever win at Hillsborough, whilst another of the surprise teams in the division, Bristol City, beat Nottingham Forest at Ashton Gate and Birmingham City threw a damp cloth over Blackburn Rovers’ recent mini-revival with an odd goal win at St Andrews.
The big match at the top of League One at the weekend had a somewhat surprising look to it. Bury went into their home match against Scunthorpe United off the back of five consecutive wins that had propelled them towards the top of the table, but a goal midway through the second half from Josh Morris was enough to give the visitors a two-one win and extend their lead at the top of the table to three points. This was Scunthorpe’s sixth straight league match unbeaten, but even this run palls in comparison with that of Bradford City, who are now one of just three teams in the top four divisions to remain unbeaten – the other two are Tottenham Hotspur and Carlisle United, by the way – and now sit in second place in the table after a one-nil win at Chesterfield. Bradford have won five and drawn six of their first eleven matches, but the key to whether they can maintain a position near the top of the table will likely come to rest upon their fortunes changing in front of goal. They’ve only scored thirteen goals in those eleven matches. The remainder of the teams in the play-off places, Sheffield United, Northampton Town and Port Vale, couldn’t manage a win between them.
Of these three, the Port Vale result was the standout of the weekend across the whole division, marking as it did Coventry City’s first league win of the season. This result lifted Coventry off the bottom of the table – where they’ve been replaced by Oldham Athletic – albeit on goal difference only, and it marked a change in fortunes following the resignation of manager Tony Mowbray last week. Time will tell over whether this turns out to be a dead cat bounce or something more substantial, but with Coventry City still gripped by the ongoing war of attrition that has been strangling the club under its dreadful owners Sisu for several years now, it’s difficult to see what manager of reasonable standing would want to take over the reconstruction job required at the Ricoh Arena at the moment.
Another League One manager currently feeling a little heat is Millwall’s Neil Harris. Beaten in the play-off final by Barnsley at the end of last season, Millwall have had a stuttering start to the new season, and a loss at Walsall on Saturday, their fourth in succession, dropped them to eighteenth place in the table, although it is worth pointing out that only two points separate thirteenth placed Peterborough United from the dreaded dotted line. It’s congested at the moment, is the bottom half of League One. We may, however, wish to spare a little sympathy in this division of managerial furrowed brows towards Phil Parkinson. The Bolton Wanderers manager may have forgiven for thinking that he’d got the mix just right after winning his first four matches of the season and winning August’s Manager Of The Month award. Wrong. Bolton have failed to win in the seven games since he picked up his award, and Bolton have now dropped to seventh place in the table following a two-nil home defeat at the hands of Oxford United on Saturday.
Plymouth Argyle remain five points clear at the top of League Two following a comfortable home win against Yeovil Town. They’re five points clear of second placed Doncaster Rovers, who won the division’s match of the day by two goals to one at Portsmouth thanks to goals from John Marquis and Andy Williams in front of a crowd of almost seventeen thousand people at Fratton Park, whilst in third place the aforementioned Carlisle United beat Colchester United by two goals to nil at Brunton Park. Carlisle have drawn seven of their first first eleven matches, but as mentioned above remain unbeaten. Another team which harbours lofty ambitions but has not yet been able to hoist itself to the very top of the table is Luton Town, who were held to a draw at Cheltenham Town.
Finally, however, spare a thought for the Cambridge United goalkeeper Will Norris. Norris has spent much of the last three seasons on loan in the non-league game, but he’s got his chance in the first team this season, and although the team’s start to the season has been poor, Norris has chipped in with penalty saves against Doncaster Rovers in the league and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the League Cup. On Saturday, however, he topped those achievements by saving two penalty kicks in stoppage-time against Accrington Stanley. Because both of these kicks – and no, the second was not a retake of the first – were so late, the Man of the Match award for the day had already been awarded to Brad Halliday, who was sent off for punching the ball from the goal-line to result in the second Accrington penalty. Norris may have missed out on what surely would have been one of the most deserved Man of the Match awards of the weekend, but there was a consolation for the goalkeeper. His saves meant that Cambridge held on for a two-one win, their third win in a row and a result which lifts the team to nineteenth place in the table. Goalkeepers, as they say, are different.
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