Football League Review: Sunderland & Villa’s Purgatory
Five games into the Football League Championship season, there are surprising faces at the top of the table. Cardiff City sit at the top of the pile with five wins out of five following a narrow but deserved win against Queens Park Rangers at The Cardiff City Stadium, with Ipswich Town sitting in second place in the table despite seeing their strong start to the season stutter following a home defeat at the hands of Fulham. The top of the table, however, isn’t really where the genuine interest rests in this division. The real interest comes at its other end, where the storm clouds of crisis are starting to form at some clubs whose lofty ambitions for this season are already starting to look unlikely to be met.
Of the bottom seven clubs in the Championship table at present, five have played Premier League football in the last seven years. That Bolton Wanderers should be sitting at the very foot of the table perhaps shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. After all, Bolton have already plummeted through to League One and were only promoted back at the end of last season. And Birmingham City only managed to pull themselves clear of the relegation places at the very end of last season, so to see them struggling again under the continuing tutelage of Harry Redknapp doesn’t feel like the shock of the season either.
What, though, of the other three clubs? Norwich City inhabit the third relegation spot along witth Brentford and the aforementioned Bolton Wanderers. Norwich may well have been hoping for a little of the Huddersfield Town magic to rub off on them when they appointed Daniel Farke, formerly the coach of the Borussia Dortmund II team, during the summer, but Farke’s start to the season has more closely resembled what Huddersfield supporters were used to before the start of last season than anything else so far. Yesterday they shipped four goals for the second match in a row, this time away at Millwall.
Sunderland supporters could easily have been forgiven not having the faintest idea how this season would play out following relegation from the Premier League. The answer, for the time being, is not very positively at all. A three-nil defeat at Barnsley yesterday afternoon leaves them in nineteenth place in the table with just one win from their first five matches of the season. The personable Simon Grayson, something of a surprise appointment during the summer, is already starting to feel heat from supporters who have been starved of anything like success for longer than many of them would care to remember, but the biggest problem at the Stadium of Light continues to be owner Ellis Short, who still hasn’t sold the club – primarily because he wants the money back on his failed investment, it is understood – and it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that Sunderland will not get the clean broom that the club needs without new ownership.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, are under comparatively new ownership, but continue to labour. Villa have been, for the last couple of seasons, the Championship’s “on paper” team. In theory, with a former England captain at the centre of defence, a manager who is something of a specialist at getting out of this division in an upward direction, and a welter of other expensivelt acquired players, Villa should be challenging at the top end of the table. After five matches, however, they too have just the one win following just the one win from their opening five matches of the season, with the latest instalment in this adventure in football coming on Friday night with a one-all draw at Ashton Gate against Bristol City. Last time around, Villa recovered from a slow start to the season, but by nowhere near enough to challenge for so much as a place in the play-offs. It feels a little as though this season could see recent history repeat itself at Villa Park.
It’s not all bad news in the Championship, though, of course, and the division’s play-off places are all currently taken up with similarly big names who have fallen on tougher luck of late. The division’s big match of the weekend came on Saturday evening, with Leeds United edging their way past Nottingham Forest at The City Ground thanks to goals from Kemar Roofe and Ezgjan Alioski to move into third place in the table, while their hosts drop to sixth. Wolverhampton Wanderers drop to fourth place following a goalless draw at Griffin Park against Brentford, the the other surprise packages of the new Championship season alongside the top two clubs, Sheffield United, moved up to fifth place in the table following a comfortable home win against Derby County. Sheffield United supporters might not even be daring to dream just yet, but successive promotions up from League One are far from unheard of in the recent past.
With just four games played in League One so far, this division doesn’t particularly seem to have caught light yet. Peterborough United are the early pace-setters, and they continued their one hundred per cent start to the season with a comfortable four-one win at local rivals Northampton Town, who have begun the season with their own, somewhat more unwelcome, one hundred per cent start to the season in the form of four straight defeats. They’ve moved two points clear of Wigan Athletic, who remain in second place in the table despite dropping points for the first time this season after being at held at home by Portsmouth.
Over the last couple of seasons, Bradford City have flirted with promotion from League One without having gone all the way, and if Bantams supporters were looking for a metaphorical representation of how this has felt, they likely couldn’t have done much better (or worse, depending on perspective) one than racing into a three goal lead at Walsall yesterday afternoon before being pegged back to a three-all draw. The surprise team of this season in League One so far, however, has been Shrewsbury Town, who remain in third place in the table despite losing their one hundred per cent record for the season, though there’s no embarrassament in coming away from the still upwardly mobile Oxford United with a point. Two teams other than Peterborough United also managed to score four goals too. Blackburn Rovers recorded their second win of the season, a result which lifted them back into the top half of the table, whilst Scunthorpe United, who had looked a reasonably safe bet for promotion at the start of the year before tailing off, put four goals past Plymouth Argyle at Home Park.
The supporter ownership of football clubs has fallen from fashion over the last couple of years, but those who cling to it as a model for the reform of the ownership of football clubs may wish to take a look at the top of League Two this weekend, where the top two places in the division are currently taken by two teams – neither of whom we might have expected to be there – under this ownership model. Exeter City sit at the top of the table following a win by the odd goal in seven at struggling Cheltenham Town, whilst Newport County sit in second place in the table following a comfortable four-one win against bottom of the table Chesterfield, who are finding recovery from the trauma of relegation from League One at the end of last season to be somewhat more difficult than they might have imagined.
At the other end of the ownership spectrum, Coventry City continued their stuttering start to life in League Two with a two-nil defeat to Yeovil Town, where the moood swings seem to to be swaying from one extreme to the other on a weekly basis, whilst Forest Green Rovers’ are experiencing something similar. This week, they lost by five goals to one at Colchester United, for whom this was a first league win of the season. Meanwhile, former Liverpool and Leeds United player and now apparently football manager Harry Kewell finally got his first win in charge of Crawley Town, whose three-nil win at Swindon Town knocked the home side off the top of the table and moved them out of the relegation places at the bottom. It’s early days, of course, but League Two looks as though it might have more than a hint of enjoyable chaos about it, this season.
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