The Championship: Stay Away From That Trapdoor
They’ve both been here before. On the last day of the 1982/83 season, Derby County went into their last game of the season needing a win against Fulham in order to preserve their Second Division status. A second half goal from Bobby Davison was enough to achieve exactly that, but the closing stages of the match were marred by significant crowd disturbances and survival in 1983 only turned out to be a temporary stay of execution. They were relegated at the end of the following season, instead.
On the last day of the 2009/10 season, Sheffield Wednesday found themselves in a similar predicament ahead of their last match of the Championship season against Crystal Palace. Wednesday needed a win to stay up, but could only manage a 2-2 draw, and at the final whistle there were also significant crowd disturbances, as the players tried to leave the pitch. Wednesday ended up playing two years of League One football for their troubles.
For the neutrals amongst us, these last day of the season, winner-takes-all matches can almost feel like turning up uninvited to a funeral. Whatever has gone on at Pride Park and Hillsborough this season, that this 46-game slog should have all boiled down to a straight shootout between these two clubs to stay at this level is, in a way, what the Championship is all about. The division has been unusually stultifed at the top of the table – all matters relating to automatic promotion and the play-offs were resolved with room to spare before this afternoon’s exercise in rubber-necking, so attention inevitably turns to the undignified scramble to stay in the division.
The pre-kick-off permutations are sufficiently dizzying to encourage giving up and just letting things wash over you instead. The winners of the Derby vs Sheffield Wednesday match will stay up. That much we know for certain. Should they draw, however, a win for Rotherham United at Cardiff City – who have nothing to play for – would relegate both clubs. Going into the match, it was even mathematically possible for Wycombe Wanderers to stay up if Derby and Wednesday drew and Rotherham United lost at Cardiff. They’d need to win by a double-digit margin away to Middlesbrough to do so, but doing so would relegate Derby, Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham. This division should really come with complimentary packet of paracetomol.
Within the first 15 minutes, things are starting to happen. Lewis Wing has given Rotherham the lead at Cardiff, a goal that updates the league table to nudge both Derby and Wednesday into the relegation places, while even Wycombe have decided not to give up the ghost just yet and have taken the lead at Middlesbrough. Meanwhile, in what might be considered an act of pathetic fallacy on the part of the football gods, the ‘highlight’ of the first twenty minutes at Pride Park turns out to be Derby’s Martyn Waghorn almost smacking himself unconscious by running headfirst into the Wednesday goalpost.
It’s not difficult to see why these two clubs are in so much trouble. They’re all heat and no light, all bustle but no hustle. Between them, going into this match, they’ve only scored 71 league goals between them this season. There’s very little creativity, and looking at the substitutes’ bench doesn’t offer much hope that the managers will be able to summon much up, should they need a goal, even though both teams desperately need one. At the very end of the half one turns up, though, and it’s a scruffy as most of the previous 45 minutes. A throw-in from the right is flicked on by Derby’s Craig Forsyth, Jordan Rhodes’ tame header is blocked by the Derby goalkeeper Kelle Roos, and Sam Hutchinson bundles the ball over the line.
A goals go, it’s an important on for Wednesday, but they remain dependent upon support from elsewhere. Their lead at Derby will count for naught unless Cardiff can thrown them an almighty lifeline by scoring against Rotherham. Waghorn’s injury means and additional 8 (EIGHT) minutes of stoppage-time at the end of the half, but in common with most of what has preceded it, there’s little danger of anything particularly dramatic happening. Half-time comes with both Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday heading into League One, and it would be difficult at this point to argue otherwise.
The narrative, however, must have its say, and the first ten minutes of the second half provide more entertainment than the entire first 53. Four minutes in, a downward header from Martyn Waghorn – who might easily not have been on the pitch in the first place after his first half injury – brings Derby level, and two minutes later Patrick Roberts curls the ball into the bottom corner to turn the half-time score on its head. Now Derby are staying up and Wednesday desperately need a goal, and it doesn’t take very long for one to come along when Forsyth, who’s not exactly having the best of afternoons, mis-controls the ball, allowing Callum Paterson to bring Wednesday level again. It’s a poisoned chalice of a goal. Wednesday still need a third goal to have any chance of staying up, but bringing themselves level now threatens to relegate both clubs.
It’s a state of affairs that only last for eight minutes. With a little over twenty minutes to play and caution packing its bindle and heading for the front door, a Wednesday corner from the right by Barry Bannan is flicked on by Colin Kazim-Richards for Chey Dunkley, who touches it back for Julian Börner to put Wednesday back in front as the Derby defenders stands around perfecting their best Easter Island statue impersonations. For all this 25 minutes of feverish activity, we’re back to where we were at half-time. Furthermore, all reports from Cardiff are that Rotherham United are extremely good value for their lead and that they should be more than just the one goal up.
And then it all changes. And then it all changes again. At Pride Park, Kamil Jóźwiak gets across Dunkley, who hauls him down and Waghorn, that man again, scores to bring Derby level at 3-3. And at the same time in Cardiff Marlon Pack scores to bring the home side level against Rotherham, but there’s a catch. The first half hold-ups have delayed things at Pride Park to such an extent that the Cardiff vs Rotherham match is now running ten minutes ahead of the Derby vs Sheffield Wednesday match. With just two minutes left to play, there’s no time for them to find a second goal and they’re relegated, leaving the last few minutes of the Derby vs Sheffield Wednesday match as a straight shoot-out, with Wednesday needing a goal to stay up.
The twelve minutes, plus six minutes of stoppage-time (making a total of fourteen for both halves), aren’t enough for Sheffield Wednesday. Throwing attacking players doesn’t seem to make that much of a difference, and with Derby doing everything they can to run the clock down – Waghorn is substituted shortly after his goal and is then booked for throwing the ball away – Wednesday don’t have the chops to be able to rescue this one. At the final whistle, Derby County have survived by the skin of their teeth, as they did in 1983. Sheffield Wednesday are relegated, just as they were in 2010.
It feels like a stretch to be calling this a day of celebration for Derby County, when in all honesty it’s little more than the shortest-term relief possible. With another attempted takeover having collapsed, it feels as though there may be something going very wrong behind the scenes at the club, and this may well turn out to be a very difficult summer, regardless of today’s result. And when they did survive the drop in 1983, they only went down the following season instead.
Sheffield Wednesday, meanwhile, were ultimately relegated by the points deduction that they incurred for the shenanigans that surrounded the sale of Hillsborough to their owner. Derby County, of course, got off on technicalities. Had Wednesday also done so, they’d have finished one place above Derby in this season’s final league table. They face a different sort of uncertainty to Derby. They may not have been at the centre of repeated stories of failed takeovers this season, but at least Derby still have Mel Morris, who, for all his flaws, at least cares deeply about his club. Wednesday have Dejphon Chansiri, whose competence may be measured in that points deduction and subsequent relegation.
But when the tears have been wiped away and the celebrations have died down, both Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday should probably reflect upon the fact that neither of these clubs should really have been in the position in which they found themselves today in the first place. Even Derby, who managed to stay up, were dependent on a goal two minutes from time for Cardiff against Rotherham. There was little to cheer about much of this for either club, and both have considerable work to do if they are to get anywhere near the expectations of their supporters.