Football League Review: Meet the new Leeds, same as the old Leeds
It can be easy to forget just how quickly that pre-season optimism can burn up and vanish in the wind. This summer has seen the return of an old trope in the Football League Championship, that the division’s new arrivals are grand that they will merely waltz back into Premier League through only having to step onto the pitch to prove their apparent superiority. This may yet happen. One match, after all, is not very much with which we can build a hypothesis for the forty-five that will follow. But for two of those who fell through the trapdoor at the end of last season, some considerable improvement will be required for the division’s more recent truism – that the Championship is far easier to tumble into than it is to clamber out of, in an upward direction, at least – not to come to pass this season.
On Friday night, Newcastle United stumbled and stuttered their way to a one-nil defeat at Fulham in a match that likely blew a cold wind across the cheeks of the other two relegated clubs. True enough, Newcastle had a solid call for a penalty kick waved away by the referee, but after the match manager Rafael Benitez was honest enough to admit that his team wouldn’t have deserved to come away from Craven Cottage with a point anyway, a tough admission to have to make when everybody at the club has been told for the entire duration of the summer that a swift return to the Premier League is inevitable on account of the scale of the club.
At least Benitez can console himself with the fact that the forty-six match slog that constitutes a Championship season allows room for error, and this is a thought that most likely will have flickered through the thoughts of the Aston Villa manager Roberto di Matteo after his similarly acclaimed team also stumbled to a lone goal defeat, at Sheffield Wednesday. If we’re looking for silver linings to all of these clouds, then at least Villa know that their defeat was at the hands of a Wednesday team that is expected to compete at the top end of the table this season – perhaps the most troubling thing for Newcastle supporters about their loss at Craven Cottage was that Fulham are expected to be amongst the division’s makeweights – and that the only goal, scored by Fernando Forestieri with five minutes to play, came about as a result of a catastrophic clearance by goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini rather than anything structural. This extensively reassembled Aston Villa team is still gelling, and should improve upon this.
The third of last year’s relegated teams, Norwich City, found the going altogether more comfortable at Ewood Park with a comfortable win against a Blackburn Rovers team that may have a difficult winter ahead. Goals from Jacob Murphy, Wes Hoolahan and Cameron Jerome wrapped the game up with twenty minutes to play of the first half, and Steven Naismith added a fourth shortly before an hour had been played. Blackburn did manage a consolation goal, but with boos having already been echoing around the ground for an hour when they managed it, how much of a consolation that may prove to be is somewhat debatable. Norwich, who may have proved the benefits of sticking rather than twisting during the summer transfer market, looked strong, but it’s surely unlikely that they’ll play another team as rudderless as that which Blackburn fielded on Saturday afternoon again this season.
Above any other division, the Championship is stuffed with the ghosts of Christmases past, and no ghost is so full of foreboding as that of Leeds United. Leeds supporters probably know better than to approach the start of a new season with a great deal of optimism these days, but this doesn’t detract from a shambolic performance at Queens Park Rangers yesterday which condemned the club to a three-nil defeat and a barrage of questions over newly appointed manager Garry Monk, as well as a number of the new signings brought into the club, many of whom played as though they’d fleetingly met for the first time in the tunnel before the match. Can Leeds improve on this? Well, they’d be going some to do a great deal worse, but that’s hardly glowing praise on the first day of the new season.
Elsewhere in the Championship, two avalanches of goals came at The City Ground and Portman Road. Nottingham Forest overcame the early loss of goalkeeper Dorus de Vries, who lasted less than twenty minutes before being stretchered off against Burton Albion after jarring his knee. Stephen Henderson replaced him, and Forest eventually beat their newly-promoted opponents by four to three, although they were a little more comfortable in victory than a mere glance at the result might suggest. Ipswich Town also filled their boots against newly-promoted opposition, with substitute Grant Ward scoring a debut hat-trick in a four-two win against Barnsley.
New Wolves manager Walter Zenga got off to an unusual start, with his team recovering from the dubious sending off of Dominic Iorfa and falling two goals behind to Rotherham United before clawing their way back to a two-all draw, whilst Reading beat Preston North End by an odd goal and two teams who might yet prove to be outsiders for a play-off place, Bristol City and Huddersfield Town, both won by two goals to one, against Wigan Athletic and Brentford respectively. Two teams who did make the play-offs last season, Derby County and Brighton and Hove Albion (who would be a decent bet for “the team most likely to draw every single one of their away matches all season”) could muster only a goalless draw between them, whilst Birmingham City and Cardiff City managed the same at St Andrews.
It’s sometimes forgotten that expectation levels can be as high in League One as in the Championship, and few have higher expectations this season than Sheffield United. With a Premier League level support and new manager Chris Wilder having been poached from Northampton Town while his League Two championship trophy was still warm, Blades supporters might have been hoping for something more than they got from the opening day of their season, a one-nil defeat at Bolton Wanderers. His old charges, meanwhile, ended the first day of the season above Wilder in the table – Northampton drew their home match against Fleetwood Town. Millwall enjoyed similar success to Bolton in winning their opening match of the new season by three goals to nil against Oldham Athletic, but there was no such luck for the long-suffering supporters of Charlton Athletic, whose team were beaten by two goals to nil at Bury. Wimbledon, meanwhile, were given something of a lesson in how tough this season is likely to be with a three-one defeat at Walsall, with their only goal coming with a stoppage-time penalty kick.
It’s unlikely that you’ll much of it in Exeter, but there might be some sympathy on show this week for Plymouth Argyle. Beaten for a second successive season in the League Two play-offs at the end of last season, their new season got off to as bad a start as possible with a three-nil home defeat at the hands of Luton Town. Indeed, it wasn’t a great opening weekend for the promotion favourites in a division that’s expected to be tight this time around. Portsmouth were held at home by Carlisle United, as were Cambridge United by Barnet, and Doncaster Rovers, who not so long ago were playing Championship football, were beaten at Accrington Stanley, whose win might have demonstrated that their excellent performance in that division last season wasn’t the flash in the pan that many likely expected it to be. And finally, Grimsby Town made their return to the Football League after six years away in front of 6,000 people at Blundell Park, marking it with a two-nil win against Morecambe. It’s a long road back to their former position for this particular club, but you get the feeling that escaping the clutches of the National League was a huge, huge step on that front particular road.
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