Football League Review: A Tale of Two Penalties
All remains the same at the very top of the Football League Championship, but none of this is to say that this hasn’t been a most curious of weekends in this particular division. On Friday evening, Brighton & Hove Albion needed to regain a little poise after losing in the league for the first time since the first time since the tenth of September at Preston North End last weekend. Their opponents, Sheffield Wednesday, were the team that knocked Albion out of last year’s play-offs as well, so this particular match might have been considered a psychologically important one for Chris Hughton’s team in more than one respect.
What followed at the Amex Community Stadium was one of the season’s feistier Championship matches so far this season. Anthony Knockaert gave Brighton the lead with ten minutes to play of the first half, but from there on, the home side had something of a difficult twenty minutes or so. Lewis Dunk put through his own goal to bring Sheffield Wednesday level just before half-time, and twenty minutes into the second half a handball by Glenn Murray brought a red card for the Brighton forward and a penalty kick for Sheffield Wednesday. Enter stage right, however, David Stockdale. The Brighton goalkeeper saved the penalty and the follow-up, and from there on it was Wednesday’s evening that started to fall to pieces. Knockaert added a second goal for Brighton with five minutes left to play, and Wednesday had two players sent off in the closing stages, as concentration levels dropped and temperament levels rose.
Brighton’s lead at the top of the table was only ever likely to be a short one. Newcastle United brushed Rotherham United aside with a degree of a comfort to reclaim their lead at the top of the table, evetually registering a four-nil win, but there was an element of “what if” about all of this, after the Newcastle goalkeeper Karl Darlow slipped in trying to claim a loose ball, dropping it at the feet of Jerry Yates, whose ankle he appeared to flick as he made away. Might Rotherham taking the lead have changed the timbre of this match? Possibly. But kudos to Darlow, who, once Yates had worked his way across the penalty area, recovered extraordinarily to pull off a magnificent save to keep the score goalless. Newcastle spread their wings from their and sit top of the table again, although Brighton still have that game in hand on them.
This pair of results extended the gap between second and third place in the table to eight points, after Huddersfield Town lifted themselves back into third place following a two-nil win against Ipswich Town. Ipswich are now almost comically inconsistent, and this might have led supporters to hope that their defeat at non-league Lincoln City in the FA Cup last week might have been the spur for an improvement at The Galpharm Stadium. Goals from Isaiah Brown and Christopher Schindler were enough to secure a Huddersfield win, though. The vultures continue to circle for Mick McCarthy over Portman Road.
Below the top spots, life remains as congested as ever. Derby County’s status as the division’s in-form team had slumped after three games without a win, but they came to life at Pride Park on Saturday with a narrow two-one win against Reading, whose own promotion hopes have faded a little over the last few weeks or so. The other big match at the top of the table, however, came on Saturday evening with the match between Barsnley and Leeds United. With Leeds having lifted themselves to third place in the table and Barnsley’s recent form having lifted them to the fringes of the play-off places, this turned out to be a disappointing evening for Leeds, who were beaten by three goals to two and now drop to fourth place in the table.
Aston Villa’s frustrating season, meanwhile, continued with a two-all draw at home against Preston North End at Villa Park. Two goals from Albert Adomah had given them a comfortable looking lead – although the second goal came from a penalty kick, the awardance of which was just an outright bad decision – before two second half goals from Preston’s Jordan Hugill earned a draw for the away side and ensured that Villa’s season continues to carry that feeling of two steps forward, one step back about it, a feeling further reinforced by Steve Bruce’s public tongue-lashing in the direction of Ross McCormack, whose explanation for absence from training being due to problems with the electric gates at his house have been considered with appropriately short shrift by the manager.
Another of last season’s relegated teams, Norwich City, had a little relief from recent troubles with a comfortable three-one win against Wolverhampton Wanderers, in a match that featured both the very rare sighting of an outfield player having to have a go in goal after the Wolves goalkeeper Carl Ikeme was sent off and the eyeball-straining sight of Norwich’s yellow shirts playing against Wolves’ luminous yellow/green shirts. A triumph of marketing over practicality, there. Saturday lunchtime’s match was a keenly contested London derby between Queens Park Rangers and Fulham which ended in a one-all draw and featured a magnificently melodramatic display from the QPR coach Marc Bircham after he was sent from the dugouts following a bit of pushing and shoving with his counterparts on the Fulham bench.
At the other end of the table, there was a mixed bag of results for the teams now scrambling to retain their Championship places. Blackburn Rovers were held to a one-all draw at home by Birmingham City, who remain without a win since their curious decision to replace Gary Rowett with Gianfranco Zola last month, and they’re now josined in the relegation places by Burton Albion, who have now lost three games in a row and are starting to show signs of wear around the edges of their modest resources and were beaten by a goal to nil at Cardiff City.
Wigan Athletic, however, continue to show signs of life, with a narrow home win against Brentford lifting them out of the relegation places. Finally, Nottingham Forest supporters protested against owner Fawaz Al Hawasi over the collapse of the takeover that had been hoped to mean the end of the club’s recent difficulties prior to the start of their home match against Bristol City, but at least the team responded with Ben Osborn goal proving enough to win the match and comdemn Bristol City to an eighth successive defeat from what has been a ominous slide down the table.
In League One, both Scunthorpe United and Bolton Wanderers found their matches falling foul of the weather, but Sheffield United could only take partial advantage of this with a somewhat disappointing two-all draw at home against Gillingham. Two goals in eight minutes from Gillingham’s Josh Wright gave them a two-one lead at Bramall Lane, but this only lasted for three minutes, with Kieron Freeman bringing United level and extending their lead at the top of the table, albeit only one point rather than the three that they might have been expecting.
One point separate the three teams below them. Fleetwood Town won by a goal to nil at Coventry City, who are now rooted to the bottom of the table, whilst Bradford City were held at home by Millwall and Rochdale were beaten four-nil at home by Oxford United. At the other end of the table. Shrewsbury Town, who had looked dead and buried in this division a couple of months or so, lifted themselves out of the relegation places with a one-nil win against Oldham Athletic, who stay second from bottom, whilst Chesterfield managed a goalless draw at home against Wimbledon.
Things are starting to look increasingly familiar at the top of League Two. Doncaster Rovers stay comfortable at the top following a home win against Crewe Alexandra, with Plymouth Argyle still second after a win at Cheltenham Town. Portsmouth’s trip to Crawley Town was called off, but third placed Carlisle United couldn’t take full advantage of this, only snatching a one-all draw from their trip to Lancashire to play Accrington Stanley. The big match at the top of the table, between fifth-placed Wycombe Wanderers and sixth placed Luton Town, ended in a one-all draw. The team to watch in League Two at the moment, however, may be Exeter City. It doesn’t seem like so long ago since Exeter seemed likely to have a season looking over their shoulders at the relegation places between them, but a three-nil win against seventh-placed Colchester United was their seventh win in their last nine games and lifted them to ninth place in the table.
At the bottom of League Two, a goalless draw for Newport County from their trip to Barnet made little difference in terms of their push towards trying to make up the gap between the bottom club and Football League safety. One place above them are Notts County, who themselves are entering into full-blown crisis mode. A two-nil loss at Grimsby Town left them one place off the bottom of the table, with their place in the Football League, of which they were founder members in 1888, now seriously in doubt. Without a league win since the twenty-second of October, this year’s Notts County team might just find themselves creating one of the most unwelcome records in the entire history of the club, should they prove unable to arrest this tailspin.
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