Football League Review: The Slenderest of Margins
After six minutes had been played at The American Express Community Stadium yesterday afternoon, the Norwich City goalkeeper Michael McGovern mis-controlled a routine back-pass and was muscled off the ball by Glenn Murray, who rolled the ball in off the post to give Brighton & Hove Albion the lead in their top of the table Football League Championship match. What a difference a handful of inches can make. Had Murray missed this chance, Norwich may well have tightened their defence on account of this early scare. The result might have been very different.
On this occasion, however, Murray had providence on his side. The ball bounced into the goal off the inside of the post, and Murray went on to score a hat-trick as Brighton recorded a win that has reverberated around the division since the full-time whistle blew. There is now a small gap between second and third place in the division. Brighton are now three points and fifteen goals in terms of goal difference better off than third-placed Huddersfield Town – more of whom shortly – but it seems unlikely that their supporters will be taking too much for granted any time soon.
In the five seasons since getting promoted as League One champions in 2011, Brighton have been beaten in the semi-finals of the play-offs on three separate occasions, by Crystal Palace in 2013, by Derby County in 2014, and by Sheffield Wednesday at the end of last season. If getting up through the play-offs is reaching that point at which a failure to be able to do so might be as much a psychological matter as anything else, though, then perhaps it is written in the stars that the only way that the club will be able to ever play Premier League football will come as a result of winning automatic promotion. Norwich City, meanwhile, who were looking so impressive at the top of the table not so long ago, remain in fourth place in the table.
For eighty-nine and a half minutes or so, the division’s leaders, Newcastle United, looked quite comfortable against Preston North End at Deepdale. Preston had been in good form going into the match – they’d been unbeaten in their previous six games – but two Alexsander Mitrovic goals in twelve second half minutes gave the visitors what should have been a comfortable lead. In the last minute, however, Jermaine Beckford pulled a goal back for Preston, and in stoppage-time at the end of the match they had a convincing shout for a penalty kick waved away, whilst Marnick Vermijl hit the post with an overhead kick. Those slender margins again.
Those slender margins were conspicuous by their absence at Craven Cottage, where Fulham put five goals past Huddersfield Town without reply. Chris Martin scored twice, with Tomas Kalas, Lucas Piazon and Kevin McDonald, but the true star of the show was Sone Aluko, whose trickery and bloody-mindedness was a large part of an extremely accomplished performance. This was, somewhat surprisingly, Fulham’s first home win since beating Newcastle United on the opening day of the season. Huddersfield Town, meanwhile, have now lost three of their last four matches and are starting to look as though they may have peaked far too early this season.
There is a new face in the Championship play-off places today. Reading are now up to fifth place in the table after beating crisis club in waiting Nottingham Forest by two goals to nil. They leapfrog Sheffield Wednesday, who drop to seventh place after losing to Derby County, and Bristol City, who could only manage a two-all at Barnsley. Derby’s win was the seventeenth game that they’ve gone unbeaten against this particular opposition. Somewhat remarkably, Derby’s defence is one of the most parsimonious in the entire division. Only Brighton & Hove Albion have conceded fewer goals, but despite this Derby remain in nineteenth place in the table. Still, they seemed to have turned a significant corner under Steve McClaren.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, Kenny Jackett’s arrival at Rotherham United seemed as though it was going to end with a surprise win at Ipswich Town, only for Ipswich’s David McGoldrick to salvage a point for the home team with a five minutes of stoppage-time having been played. At least, Jackett may console himself, his arrival has coincided with the team ending a club record of seven successive defeats. The big match at the wrong end of the table came at The Cardiff City stadium, where the home side’s recent rival under new manager Neil Warnock came to a halt with a one-nil home defeat against Wigan Athletic, who in turn got rid of their manager Gary Caldwell last week. Jordi Gomez scored the only goal of the match with four minutes to play. Burton Albion, meanwhile, continued their stop-start Championship life with a two-nil defeat at Leeds United, who have now won six of their last nine matches and are now just a point shy of a play-off place.
In other, crisis club-related news, Blackburn Rovers staged a performance that was impossible for the television cameras to avoid during their Saturday evening match with Wolverhampton Wanderers, refusing to enter Ewood Park until eighteen minutes had been played and then leaving after seventy-five minutes had been played. By the time they got into the ground, Blackburn were already a goal up thanks to Sam Gallagher’s excellent volley, but Dave Edwards’ header with twelve minutes to play rescued a point for Wolves – who, stop us if you’re getting a little tired of these constant references, are also without a manager following the sacking of Walter Zenga last week – and Blackburn remain in the relegation places.
The Championship weekend was bookended by local derbies. On Friday night, Brentford recorded their first win at Loftus Road since Lyndon B Johnson was the President of the USA, beating Queens Park Rangers by two goals to nil with goals from Josh Clarke and Romaine Sawyers. And on Sunday lunchtime, honours remained resolutely even between Birmingham City and Aston Villa at St Andrews. Gary Gardner ran the length of the pitch to celebrate with his own supporters after a pinpoint first half header gave Villa the lead before a second half equaliser from David Davis – no, not that one, or that one – levelled things up for Birmingham, who ended the match as the stronger of the two teams. Steve Bruce, however, remains unbeaten as the manager of Aston Villa.
It says something about how competitive League One is that there are now only five points between Northampton Town, in fifth place in the table, and Oxford United, who are down in seventeenth place. The top four, meanwhile, kept winning. Scunthorpe United stay top after four first half goals were enough to tie up a win against Swindon Town before half-time, whilst Bolton Wanderers stay second after their roller-coaster of a season continued with a fifth straight win, at home against Port Vale. Sheffield United stay in fourth place with another home win, but the most incident-packed game of the fay came at Kingsmeadow, where Bradford City took an early lead against Wimbledon and then fell behind before two goals in the last quarter of an hour, including one two minutes into stoppage-time from James Hanson, gave them a three-two win at Wimbledon, who dropped from the play-off places and down to ninth place in the table.
People are starting to drift away from Charlton Athletic. Whether this turns out to be a fleeting apathy or not remains to be seen, but a crowd of only just over ten thousand people was in attendance to see a one-nil win against a misfiring Chesterfield, who remain in the relegation places at the bottom of the table. The division’s other current source of discontent, Coventry City, remain unbeaten under interim manager Mark Venus after a one-all draw at Walsall, a result that lifted the club, albeit on goal difference only, out of the relegation places. Their place in the bottom four was taken by the aforementioned Swindon Town, and Oldham Athletic are now third from bottom after losing one-nil at Rochdale, who now occupy the final play-off place. Another team on the rise, meanwhile, are Millwall, whose two-one win at Oxford United on Saturday lunchtime was their third in four matches, and a result that further lifts the pressure on the previously under pressure Neil Harris.
This time last week, church bells were ringing at the news that Leyton Orient had won a football match. This, of course, wasn’t a state of affairs that could be allowed to continue and Orient returned the world onto its axis yesterday by losing two-nil at home against Crewe Alexandra, a result which dropped the Os into one of the relegation places at the bottom of the table. Can you imagine a Football League without Leyton Orient in it? No, me neither, but the club’s owner Francesco Becchetti seems to be giving it a good go at making it a reality. Even the only team below them in the table, Newport County, managed a win yesterday, three-one at Accrington Stanley.
At the other end of the table, results largely went with form. Leaders Plymouth Argyle overcame the setback of being pinned back at one-all by Colchester United before winning the game with a goal from Ryan Donaldson. Almost as notably, referee Kevin Johnson left the field of play with his head in a neck brace after colliding with Plymouth’s Jimmy Spencer, which led to a ten minute delay in proceedings. Carlisle United stay second and remain unbeaten in the league this season following a comfortable home win against Crawley Town, whilst Portsmouth won by a goal to nil at Cambridge United. The only teams in the top five not to win were Luton Town, who were held to a goalless draw at Notts County, and Doncaster Rovers, who were held at home by Wycombe Wanderers. Perhaps the performance of the day in the division came, however, from Exeter City, whose three first half goals at Morecambe were enough the team from one place off the bottom of League Two to nineteenth place in the table. With only seven points separating twenty-third placed Leyton Orient from sixth placed Notts County, though, the identity of the teams that might occupy the bottom two places come the end of the season remains a mystery. Those slender, slender margins.
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