Football League Review: Welcome Back, The Football
After a summer during which we have, as ever, been forced to get caught up with our insolvency and company law, the sens of relief at being able to start the Football League season at all was evident. It may have been a summer break truncated by international tournaents, but it had started to feel like enough. For some of us at least. Luton Town vs Middlesbrough has never looked so alluring and, as it turned out, it was an effervescent opening fixture which recoovered successfully from an opening Middlesbrough goal which might have killed the game stone dead. Two Luton goals in eight minutes span the first half son its head before Britt Assombalonga levelled for the away side with eight minutes of a breathless half to play. It looked like Lewis Wing had done enough to win the game when he put Middlesbrough back in front midway through the second half, but a James Collin goal five minuets from the end rescued a point for Luton, who were bold and spirited against decent opposition. There was even time for Assombalonga to thrash a penalty kick wildly over the Luton crossbar.
There are, however, a couple of things about Friday night’s match that need to briefly be mentioned. Firstly, the arrangement of kits could at a glance have been reversed. I’m a big fan of unusual colours being worn by football teams and orange is definitely an unusual colour, but Luton Town’s had a tinge of red about it and, combined with the fact they the wore white and navy that Middlesbrough had on as a change kit for such a long time, it made for some momentary cognitive dissonance. Still, this wasn’t as bad as the fact that Luton Town have not only finally succumbed to box goals, the scourge of the modern age, but they’ve also switched the side of the ground upon which the camera gantry sits. Now, it might be argued that there is some mildly satisfying schädenfreude to be had from the idea of a freezing cameraman and a couple of commentators in a hoist, high above Kenilworth Road on a freezing February night when the the rain is horizontal, but even so, this is surely further proof that the game has, indeed, gone. Still, it was an entertaining way to spend a Friday evening.
Saturday lunchtime brought the first live League Two match of the season, and it was little surprise to see that Sky’s first choice from this division was their chief pundit Gary Neville’s Salford City, who were at home in their match against *checks notes* Stevenage. They won, and did so quite comfortably in the end, but they’ll find stiffer tests in League Two this season than this somewhat lumbering Stevenage performance. It’s a most curious phenomenon, the fact that there still seem to be some who want us consider theirs a “fairy tale.” Very few seem to be buying this version of events, but the BBC and Sky have both pushed it, when the involvement of the Class of 92 and Peter Lim really make this a fairy tale with football contacts, media contacts, and money. Small wonder they cruise to promotion every season.
The early evening brought a third match in less than 24 hours. Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion started brightly, with three goals in the first twenty-six minutes, an early lead for Forest through Matty Cash, before two for Albion, from Kyle Edwards and Matt Phillips, whose cross swung over the Forest goalkeeper and in was probably the fluke of the day. Much of this match, however, was a little stodgy, bridging that gap between pre-season firendlies and the league season at full acceleration. A first league win for Slaven Bilic, who is growing a beard that moves his look from “supervillain” to “supervillain in disguise.” When discussing Nottingham Forest of late, it has been commonplace to talk about the vast number of players they have. Hopefully the eleven that started on Saturday weren’t the best eleven they’ve got.
The Championship weekend was, for lovers of hubris exploding in people’s faces, mixed. The two relegated teams to have played so far – Huddersfield are trailing Derby County as I write this – both lost. Fulham were tepid in losing at Barnsley, and the allegations that two Fulham supporters – by all accounts a couple – hit and racially abused the sister of the Fulham defender in the away end during the match. It should also be mentioned that Fulham supporters have stated that they requested an persistently abusive supporter in their end – it’s unconfirmed whether this was one of this particular couple or not – but that stewards were slow to respond. Presumably we’ll find out in the coming days. Cardiff City, meanwhile, found themselves surprised at Wigan Athletic and not even Neil Warnock could find anything in particular to complain about, other than that his team hadn’t won. It was a good weekend for the newly-promoted teams, though, with Luton’s draw against Middlesbrough, Barnsley’s win against Fulham, and Charlton Athletic’s win at Blackburn Rovers, a result which will have given an erotic tingle to anybody who genuinely believes that former players “get” clubs. Somewhere in the world, the hairs on the back of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s neck stood on end.
The put-upon supporters of Bolton Wanderers had some cause to celebrate last week, when it was confirmed that the club would actually be starting this season in League One after all. With all 1,800 hundred tickets for their trip to Wycombe Wanderers sold, though, there were reality checks regarding the scale of their task ahead with media reports of the club travelling with as few as three registered players. It’s no surprise that Bolton were beaten at Wycombe, but those supporters who travelled could return with their heads held high after their patchwork team put in a dogged performance and held their opponents to a two-nil defeat. Playing their first match at St Andrews, meanwhile, Coventry City beat Southend United by a goal to nil. Six and a half thousand people made the trip to St Andrews. Quite where Coventry City go from here, though, is anybody’s guess. Not back to Coventry in the foreseeable future, so far as anybody is aware. For those who like their crises in the past, though, there was happier news at Bloomfield Road, where Blackpool beat Bristol Rovers by two goals to nil. Amazing what you can do with owners who care about a football club that they’re running, isn’t it?
The two clubs who looked as though they were going to get promotion last season both had unsatisfactory starts to the season. Sunderland were held at home by Oxford United, where a crowd of almost 33,500 people chaired the team off at full-time after their one-all draw against Oxford United. Not really. Sunderland drawing a match? Whoever would have thought it? Portsmouth, meanwhle, managed even worse, going down by a single goal to Shrewsbury Town. It’s probably not much of a consolation that Ryan Giles’ second half goal was worthy of winning a match if you’re a Portsmouth fan, is it? The division’s other pre-season favourites, Peterborough United, also slipped on an opening day banana skin, going down at home against Fleetwood Town, by three goals to one.
In League Two, meanwhile, almost 15,000 people turned up at Bradford City, only to see their team labour their way to a goalless draw against Cambridge United. With crowds like that, some may wonder, how can they not be winning at home more regularly than they have been? People were thinking exactly the same thing last season. Elsewhere, there was a minute’s silence and a spirite of camaraderie between the supporters of Leyton Orient and Cheltenham Town as the two teams met for the first league match since manager Justin Edinburgh’s untimely death, just after the end of last season. Orient paid their own fitting tribute by winning the match by a goal to nil. All this, and they may be the only club left in the Football League with D-stanchions still on their goals. Welcome back, The Football.