The EFL Saturday: Business (Not) As Usual
Because that’s the problem, really, isn’t it? The new only season can only be seen through the context within which it begins. There are no fans at matches at the moment, because there can’t be. And many EFL clubs are financially dependent on their match day income in a way that Premier League clubs aren’t, so there are valid concerns that we might not survive the season with all seventy-two member clubs intact.
Clubs are clamouring for crowds to be admitted again, but lockdown laws are being tightened again. Who knows where that ends up? They’ve been allowed the right to show all of their matches on I-Follow, the EFL’s streaming service, but it seems unlikely that this revenue stream will raise anything like as much as money for clubs as people buying actual season tickets, actual programmes and actual food and drink inside actual grounds.
There has barely been a pre-season, after last season stretched its way to the end of July, and the chaotic nature of leagues having patched together fixture lists that finish off, coupled with rapidly increasing number of new cases – they’re doubling every 7.7 days – makes it as likely as not that everything could change from this fragile-looking state of affairs. Matches will continue to be postponed if players test positive. Some will test positive. Players will continue to occasionally break their curfews, and some will get caught.
And somewhere through all of this (and I don’t even have the energy to touch upon the political response to this, or the current political situation in a broader sense), the EFL has to continue. So there are Colin Murray and Paul Cook, sitting on the Quest sofas, making do and mending. Cook was the manager of Wigan Athletic last season, of course. He resigned during the summer after their highly suspicious plunge into administration and relegation into League One. Small wonder that the atmosphere as the new season get under way was tetchy.
Voices echo around the empty grounds. Goals scored by home sides are greeted by small cheers from playing staff and those who have otherwise managed to sneak their way in to watch. The football itself doesn’t look any different to usual, and results in the Championship contained few enormous surprises. The three teams relegated from the Premier League six weeks ago all won, while the only one of the promoted teams to pick up three points, Rotherham United, did so against another of the promoted teams, Wycombe Wanderers.
It was a particularly dismal day for the East Midlands. Derby County might have come into the new season on something of a high, having won their case against the EFL over the sale of their stadium to themselves three weeks ago, but they were beaten at home by a Reading side that had started the season amongst the favourites to get relegated. Any sniggering at this from Nottingham, however, was strictly tempered by their team’s defeat at Queens Park Rangers.
None of the three pre-season favourites in League One could muster a win between them. Sunderland could only draw at home to Bristol Rovers and chucked having a player sent off deep into stoppage-time into the bargain. Their players might have been forgiven a little relief for an empty Stadium of Light at full-time, considering the booing they’d have got had there been 30,000 people present. Portsmouth underwhelmed at home against Shrewsbury Town, scrambling to a goalless draw when they might easily have lost, and Peterborough United lost at Accrington Stanley, who continue to provide one of the ongoing good news stories from the bottom two divisions of the entire EFL.
The biggest winners of the day were Harrogate Town. Newly-promoted into the EFL from the National League, they won 4-0 away from home on the opening day. The only asterisk against this comes with the qualifier that it was against Southend United, a club in such a state that one might reasonably expect any sentient football team to run up such a number against them. The Southend defence’s impersonation of five dustbins wearing – admittedly very elegantly-designed – blue shirts became the one of the first on-pitch calamities of the season to go viral.
Otherwise, it was a similarly bad day for the ‘bigger’ clubs in League One to in League Two. Bolton Wanderers, another club for whom the agony never seems to end, lost at home to Forest Green Rovers. They played in the Europa League during the 2007/08 season. Bradford City, who finished just outside the play-off places last season and normally support high attendances with cheap season tickets, were held to a goalless draw at home by Colchester United.
There’s always a slightly strange feeling at the end of the first day of the season, isn’t there? There was a time – certainly within my lifetime – when newspapers wouldn’t even publish league tables until the first three matches of the season had been played, because anything before then was considered almost entirely useless as any form of reference. Times have changed, of course, to the point at which newspapers routinely publish league tables with the teams placed by alphabetical order before a single match has been played.
So overwhelming is our desire for instant gratification that league tables update live, these days, but there’s still an odd feeling of emptiness at the end of the first day of the season at the best of times. There’s so much of the season still to be played that it can look a little daunting. That feeling is all the more exaggerated this time around, when most of us understand that there’s a strong chance that the schedule laid out before us – usually a circadian rhythm that gives structure to our calendar – feels so fragile, in so many different ways.