Football League Review: Seconds Out, Round One
We spend the summer waiting for it, but when it arrives it feels like a little bit of a let-down. Such are the levels of hype that some to associate themselves with the beginning of a new season in the Football League that, by the end of the first weekend of matches, it can all feel a little bit unfulfilling. For all the friendly matches in the world, the players may still be getting used to each other, whilst in the stands there is a certain sluggish feeling in the air as supporters wake themselves from their summer-long slumber, excitement soon giving way to visual reminders of our teams’ glaring shortcomings and the amount of work required to make them the world-beaters that our pre-season aspirations might have hoped they would be.
It is, therefore, inevitable that many clubs will get off to a stuttering, stumbling start. This is certainly what seemed to happen on Friday night with the first televised league match of the new season, as Sunderland and Derby County cancelled each other with a one-all draw that raised more questions than answers for the supporters of two clubs with ambitions of returning to the Premier League season. Sunderland were not as terrible as some pre-season predictions had suspected they might be, Derby remain a work in progress, just as they have done for much of the last two or three seasons. Nottingham Forest, meanwhile, at least started their season with a win, albeit a narrow and nervy one against Millwall.
This ring-rustiness was written all over the Championship results on Saturday, as well, with teams who are expected to do well this season struggling to pick up points and those expected to struggle getting off to a strong start. Ipswich Town, Bristol City and Queens Park Rangers have all had a cloud over themselves for much of the summer, but they all started their seasons with wins, against Birmingham City, Barnsley and Reading respectively. At the other end of the Championship food chain, none of the three clubs relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season could register a win to kick-start their seasons either. Following on from Sunderland’s draw on Friday night, Middlesbrough went down by a goal to nil at Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Hull City had to come from a goal behind to scramble a draw against Aston Villa.
There was a similar opening day surprise in League One, where Blackburn Rovers, playing their first match in the third tier since 1980, went two goals down in the first half against Southend United at Roots Hall and found that a second half fight-back and goal back wasn’t enough to rescue a point from their trip to Essex. The other two relegated clubs continued the mixed results for relegated clubs, with Wigan Athletic winning in Milton Keynes by a single goal and Rotherham United going down by two to nil at Fleetwood Town. The team performance of the day in League One, however, probably came from Charlton Athletic, who had to play eighty-four minutes with ten players following the early sending off of Lee Novak (for a tackle that looked more tired than anybody who’s only played six minutes of a competitive match should be entitled to) but still managed to scrape a one-nil win against Bristol Rovers.
By the end of the first day of the new season, however, there was one result that stood out above all others. Luton Town ended last season losing on aggregate by six goals to five against Blackpool in the League Two promotion play-offs. How might a team react to such a defeat? How long might the hangover last into the following season? After all, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, considering that only one of the four clubs that enters the play-offs can win promotion, merely getting into that four-way fight can be celebrated as though promotion has already been achieved and the subsequent disappointment of defeat, either in the semi-finals or the final, can be crushing.
Now, Luton Town have appeared in the play-offs on four previous occasions – twice in the National League and twice in the Football League – and have lost all four times, so perhaps their supporters are better insulated against the damage that the play-offs can cause, but even this doesn’t necessarily fully explain the Hatters racking up eight goals on the opening day of the season against Yeovil Town. Yeovil supporters must be wondering whether their one solitary season in the Championship four years ago was worth what has happened to the club since. There’s a whole other story to be written about what’s been going on away from the pitch-side at Huish Park over the last few years, but on the pitch the statistics have spoken for themselves.
Since joining the Football League in 2003, the Glovers have only finished above halfway in the whichever division they’ve been playing in on four occasions. It’s just that two of those four seasons ended in promotion, leading to the club taking its place in the Championship for the 2013/14 season. Since that achievement – and an achievement it certainly was – the club found itself relegated for two successive seasons, and has spent the last two years treading water, just above the relegation places in League Two, finishing last season in twentieth place in the table.
On Saturday afternoon, they even had the temerity to score first at Kenilworth Road, but this turned out to be little more than a mirage, as Luton scored five goals in twenty-four minutes to put themselves out of reach with time to spare before half-time. The second half saw the home side take their foot off the pedal a little bit, but Luton still ran out winners by eight goals to two, a result that bodes very well for their chances of challenging for a promotion place whilst saying something very troubling about what sort of season Yeovil supporters might have to endure this time around. It probably remains too early to draw any blanket conclusions, but there is little positive that one can take from such a result.
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