It’s not all about the Premier League, of course. Well, it is, except it isn’t. The top two divisions of English football had a weekend off thanks to the international break, so attention turned to the lower divisions and the scramble to get promoted and to avoid relegation’s sweet, if chilling, kiss. This time of year is the time of year when the luxury of believing that the future will take care of everything starts to run dry, to be replaced with the immediate panic that comes with the realisation that collecting points needs to start, well, now. It was, perhaps this sort of thinking that persuaded more than twelve and a half thousand people from turning out at Fratton Park on Saturday afternoon to see two League One clubs, both former inmates of the Premier League and both arguably still paying for their involvement in that division, do battle in The Battle Of The Basket Cases (2013 edition).
We’ve gone into detail – as some have helpfully pointed out of late, quite possibly too much detail – regarding the off the pitch travails of these two clubs quite a lot in recent weeks, and perhaps it was appropriate to concentrate on what was going on when the referee’s whistle blows and all of that financial bother can be put to one side for a couple of hours. Coventry missed an early penalty kick, and Portsmouth went on to win by two goals to nil thanks to one in each half from Jed Wallace and Patrick Agyemang. It was a result which leaves Portsmouth five points adrift of the dotted line at the bottom of the table with six matches left to play and, whilst the teams above them all have games in hand, there is still hope for Portsmouth, who have now lost just one of their last six matches and whose team is showing the sort of commitment that the club could have done with in the boardroom in recent years. Coventry City, meanwhile, drop to tenth place in the table, and that is without taking into account the possibility of a ten point deduction being imposed by the Football League in the near future. Still, without any confirmation at the time of writing of where they will even be playing their next home match, perhaps chasing promotion is the last thing on anybody’s mind at that club at present.
Meanwhile on Friday night, England warmed up for their win or bust – well, win or play-offs – match against Montenegro this week by stuffing eight goals past San Marino. It’s famously impossible to take a great deal from a match as one sided as this was, but Roy Hodgson looked pretty pleased with it all, particularly considering that Rio Ferdinand’s appearance shortly followed by absence in the squad had kicked up a predictable kerfuffle in the press over the previous few days. The one-sidedness of the match led to another round of claims that the smaller sides in European international football should have to play pre-qualifiers to earn the right to get hammered out of sight by nations with populations several hundred times the size of theirs, but such considerations do not take into account how desperately, jaw-droppingly funny it will be on the day that England – and we can all agree that when this moment comes, it will be England, yes? – pitch up in San Marino, Liechtenstein or wherever and get beaten. It will happen one day. Oh yes it will.
In the other World Cup match to grab the attention over the weekend (which wasn’t Spain being held at home by Finland – see above for a toned down version of the reaction to that result), Wales scored twice in two second half minutes to beat Scotland by two goals to one at Hampden Park. Celebrations at seeing Wales back in third place in their group were tempered somewhat by the gap between them the first and second placed teams in the group, Belgium and Croatia, remaining at a whopping seven points, with five of their ten group matches played. Wales can keep their sliver of a hope of qualification alive by beating Croatia tomorrow night but they will still be reliant on the munificence of others should they still wish to play in Brazil next summer. Scotland, meanwhile, remain bottom of their group with just two points from five matches. It’s this sort of performance which fuels speculation that the game north of the border is, to use the vernacular, dying on its arse.
It is the long game feel of international tournament qualifiers that jars at this time of year. The names of the qualifiers for next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil not be known until for many months yet, but all of this has been dropped into the schedules at a time during which futures are being decided in a fulcrum of activity that is only being accelerated by the intensity brought about by the bad weather. Several leagues lower down the football pyramid have granted extensions to their seasons rather than making their teams play three games a day until the end of this season. The long game of the World Cup finals in Brazil next year is an incongruous fit with the instant gratification atmosphere that drifts into view at this time of year. Normal service, dare we say, will return against shortly.
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