Football League Review: Songs of Fire & Ice
An ominous sound was heard across the Football League Championship on Saturday night. Newcastle United’s fourth win in succession, a comfortable win at Derby County, was another fine performance against a team that had been widely predicted to challenge near the top of the table before the start of the season but instead find themselves floundering near the wrong end of the league. This win kept them breathing ominously down the neck of leaders Huddersfield Town, whose one-nil win at Leeds United was one to be filed away under “workmanlike”, but did carry the added bonus of being a local derby match. Garry Monk remains on the critical list at Elland Road.
Each of these clubs tells a story about life in the Championship. Newcastle United’s blossoming relationship with Rafael Benitez has an almost romantic style to it, a burgeoning affair in the manner of that which they had with Kevin Keegan, all those years ago. Derby County have a man in charge who is credited by some as having laid the foundations of the most remarkable league title wins of our lifetimes, but Derby County is a club at which various laws of unintended consequences having been felt more keenly than most, of late.
Hudderfield Town represent those clubs that periodically ascend from nowhere in this particular division. Sometimes these clubs continue their upward ascent, sometimes they settle and become a part of the flotsam and jetsam of the division, sometimes they sink again, as quickly as they arrived. It is too early to say which direction Huddersfield Town’s season will end up taking, but they deserve their place at the top of the table, on the basis of their performances so far.
And then there’s Leeds United. The bottom three clubs in the table each have their place in the history of English football. At the very foot are Blackburn Rovers, progenitors of the professionalisation of the game in the 1880s. Just above them are Preston North End, the first champions of league football, anywhere in the world. And then there’s Leeds United, one of the first main beneficiaries of the industrialisation of the game in the 1960s, and arguably the first widely-hated team that English league football has provided.
To this day, there remains considerable schadenfreude taken by some from the continuing misfortunes of Leeds United, and what has been so strange in recent years has been the club’s apparent complicity in all of this by continually making itself Britain’s longest-running football soap opera. The start of this season has been marked by a “Will he, won’t he?” plot-line concerning new manager Garry Monk. Highly-rated not so long ago, at most clubs at this level his acquisition would be considered quite a coup.
At Leeds United, however, the normal laws of physics do not always apply. Monk’s team has had an abysmal start to the new season, and with just six games played it is already being so strongly rumoured that comedy football club owner Massimo Cellino is lising his patience that I’m quickly checking Google News before finishing this sentence. But what if this is the limit of the ability of the players that Leeds United have at the moment? He can keep managerial merry-go-round spinning as much as he likes, but without better players there will only be a finite extent to which the team can improve.
The two teams in third and fourth place are similarly surprising names. Birmingham City’s one-nil win at Fulham was the sort that usually leaves the losing manager “fuming” at the referee – two penalties and a red card (and, before critics write in, it’s broadly irrelevant whether they should or shouldn’t have been given, in this context), on the day – whilst Barnsley beat Preston North End by two goals to one, which is making some begin to wonder whether half a push at a return to the days of the late 1990s could be on the cards at Oakwell.
In the middle of the table, all is inconsistency. Four clubs – Brighton, Burton, Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday – have won two, drawn two, and lost two. Both Aston Villa and Wolves have drawn three of their first six matches. The middle of the table is a strange, confusing place. Villa’s two-all draw was selected by Sky Sports as their live Sunday lunchtime match, and it turned out to be an enjoyably knockabout affair, although Villa supporters may hold a somewhat different opinion, what with an equaliser with three minutes to play nicking two points off their team and all.
Bolton Wanderers remain top of League One, but their home draw on Saturday was their third tied game in a row. Scunthorpe United, in second place, have a game in hand that would send them to the top of the table and put four goals without reply past Southend United. Bradford City and a Fleetwood Town team that only just avoided relegation at the end of last season occupy third and fourth place in the table, but both of them could only draw, as well. It looks like it’s going to be that sort of a season in this division. Northampton Town, for example, drew their first five matches of the season, but have won the two that they’ve played since then and now sit in eighth place in the table. Saturday’s win was against Walsall, who continue to labour after coming so close to promotion last time around.
Coventry City have drawn four of their matches, but have lost the other three and now sit one place off the bottom of the League One table. On Saturday they actually picked up a decent result, highly creditable a one-all draw against a Millwall team that is well-placed in a play-off place. No wins from their first seven matches of the season, however, is clearly deeply troubling. Sheffield United’s poor start to the season seems to be becoming a rapidly vanishing memory. Their three-two win at Wimbledon, a win more comfortable than the scoreline really suggests, lifted them into the top half of the table for the first time this season. On the matter of local derbies, the match between Oxford United and Swindon Town was played in front of a near capacity crowd at The Kassam Stadium and it ended with a win for Oxford by two goals to nil, with two Swindon red cards thrown into the mix as well.
James Coppinger was the star of the day in League Two. After twelve years, he was making his five-hundredth appearance for Doncaster Rovers in their match at Morecambe. Not only did Doncaster win by five goals to one, away against a team that had started the season flying but has been stumbling of late, but Coppinger chipped in with the fifth goal, appropriately enough. The win wasn’t enough to lift Doncaster into the top three, though. Plymouth Argyle and Portsmouth both won, though Luton Town blotted their copybook with a two-one home defeat at the hand of newly-promoted Grimsby Town.
At the foot of the table, however, this has been a disastrous start to the season for both Yeovil Town and Cambridge United. By way of mitigation, Cambridge’s trip to Plymouth was a fairly thankless task and the margin of their defeat was not as great as it might have been. Yeovil’s home defeat against Hartlepool United only came as a result of a winning goal scored two minutes into stoppage-time, but it was their fifth in a row. Difficult times at Huish Park and The Abbey Stadium, at the moment.
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