This week’s midweek matches, the vast majority of which were played last night, seemed to catch many people unaware. This certainly seemed to be what happened at The Reebok Stadium, where just 17,700 people took the time to drop by for their 0-0 draw with Fulham. The missing thousands must have known something. Meanwhile, Arsenal went back to the top of the table with a 3-0 win against Newcastle United, whose new managerial “team” could only watch in silence as their players turned in a second successive dreadful performance in North London. This morning’s BBC web site leads with Keegan’s bullish response to Dennis Wise’s appointment as Supreme Galactic Overlord – most notably of all, the article points out that Newcastle are now just seven points off the relegation places. One shudders to think what the effect on Mike Ashley’s apparently fragile mental state might be if they get sucked into a battle against relegation. You can probably expect to see him topless and daubed in war paint next Saturday. As it stands, anyone from Tottenham Hotspur (in twelfth place) down could find themselves fighting for their survival. The prognosis at least looks a little healthier for Sunderland this morning after their 2-0 win over Birmingham City lifted them up to fourteenth place. Taking their place beneath the trapdoor are Wigan Athletic, who lost 1-0 at Middlesbrough.
Anyone that believes that FA Cup is detrimental to league form should probably take a look at last night’s results in the Championship. Preston North End seem to have been given a healthy dose of self-confidence, and followed up their thrashing of Derby County at the weekend by beating West Bromwich Albion 2-1 at Deepdale last night. This result meant that Albion failed to move clear of this season’s surprise package, Bristol City, who stay in second place on goal difference only in spite of not having played last night. A few weeks ago it looked as if the race for the promotion places might come down to a two horse race, but there are now just four points between the top five. Charlton won a critical game against Stoke by a single goal last night, whilst Watford could only draw at Sheffield United, muddying the waters still further. Barnsley followed up the news that they will be the next team to try and knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup by beating bottom of the table Colchester United 1-0 at Oakwell, while Wolves, who seemed to be in free-fall over the last couple of months, beat Sheffield Wednesday at Molineux. This result left the bottom of the Championship table as open as the top, with six points now between third from bottom Preston and Sheffield United, in fifteenth place.
All eyes in League One last night were on Roots Hall – how well would Leeds United’s players react to the surprise departure of Dennis Wise? The answer was “not very”. Southend United beat them 1-0 to drop them down to sixth place. If the match between Nottingham Forest and Swansea City was meant to be “an advertisement for the division”, it was an advertisement that lacked an end product. It finished goalless, although the crowd of over 21,000 was notable for a Tuesday night match in January. All of this suited Doncaster Rovers very nicely. They leapfrogged over Forest and into second place with a 2-0 win against Hartlepool United. At the the bottom, there’s all still to play for. Luton Town lost 1-0 at home to Swindon Town in The Battle Of The Clubs That Have Flirted With Bankruptcy. The result leaves them one place off the bottom of the table, but results elsewhere went their way – fellow relegation candidates Bournemouth lost at Huddersfield, while Crewe could only draw at home against Bristol Rovers. The last time that I looked at the League One table, Cheltenham Town appeared doomed to the drop. Since then, they’ve gone unbeaten in 2008 until last night, when they were beaten 1-0 at home by Millwall, who hauled themselves out of the relegation places. It still looks like being tight, though, with anyone from Brighton & Hove Albion (in fourteenth place) likely to end up fighting against the drop.
In League Two, Franchise’s implosion continues apace. They’ve now lost five home matches this season, and the “loyal” people of Milton Keynes demonstrated their impatience with it all with just 6,500 turning up to see them drop another two points, this time with a 1-1 draw against struggling Macclesfield Town. The chasing pack are catching up ominously. Franchise are still five points clear at the top, but everyone below them has got games in hand, though Rotherham United wasted the chance to close the gap to just two points with a 3-1 defeat at Peterborough United. Peterborough are up to fourth place now, with a game in hand, whilst Darlington stay in third place after a 1-0 win against Accrington Stanley. A highly undignified battle to stay in the Football League looks likely, with half a dozen teams in touching distance of the relegation places. Wrexham’s mini revival continued with a creditable 2-2 at Morecambe, whilst Mansfield Town (who must have taken encouragement from their excellent performance in losing at home to Middlesbrough in the FA Cup on Saturday lunchtime) won at Lincoln City to keep Wrexham bottom of the table.
Finally, there were three matches in the Conference last night. Aldershot Town moved six points clear of Torquay United at the top of the table with a 1-0 win against Oxford United, although Torquay still have two games in hand and would go top if they won both of them. Oxford’s slump has been as surprising for the rest of us as it has been alarming for their own supporters. They have now won just two matches in fifteen since the start of December, and have plummeted from having a reasonable chance of making the play-offs to fifteenth place. With thirty-seven points in the bag, they’ve probably got enough about them to steer clear of a relegation battle (there are still sixteen points between them and fourth from bottom Farsley Celtic), but this wasn’t, I rather suspect, what anyone at The Kassam Stadium thought would happen after they lost out in last year’s Conference play-offs. Elsewhere, Exeter City closed the gap on Cambridge United (who occupy the last play-off place at the moment) with a 1-0 win at The Abbey Stadium, and Burton Albion cemented their fourth position with a 2-1 win against struggling Rushden & Diamonds.
You can see some of last night’s Premier League goals here, along with highlights from the African Cup Of Nations, the group stages of which are coming to an end. More on that tonight.