The East Midlands bit back in the Championship, while Grant McCann could be the next managerial casualty of the season….
Derby County’s spirit
It was almost written in the stars. After such a devastating week off the pitch for Derby County, in which their full official punishment appears to have finally come to light after what has felt like an eternity for everybody connected to the Rams, there was a silver lining over Pride Park on Saturday afternoon.
Because, for all the lack of pride Derby fans have in Mel Morris and Co. and their misdeeds and collective inability to successfully run a stable football club, this team and these players and this manager are so far from being the worst of Derby’s problems. With news of points deductions and transfer embargoes and the definite threat of job losses and redundancies filling the week prior to Saturday’s match, a complete first-half performance followed by a professional second 45 minutes was enough to provide some sheen on the ugliest of events.
Max Bird’s first goal for the club saw the Rams off to a flyer and experienced centre-back Curtis Davies put his old head to good use minutes later as both men had Graeme Shinnie to thank for being teed up for their respective strikes.
But goals were just a small part of what made this particular Saturday afternoon so special. For 90 minutes alone, thoughts could turn to something not quite so dastardly as the future of the club. For those who will be most adversely affected, those whose jobs are on the line, it was next to no solace; at this time, nothing could be. But for everyone else connected, this hour and a half offered something of a respite, to remember why the game hurts so much because when it is good, boy it is good.
As far as auditions go, this wasn’t bad. Perennial sleeping giants Nottingham Forest came into their first game after Chris Hughton with the inexperienced Steven Reid taking caretaker reins, and knowing that even at this early stage of the term, any and all points were crucial, if not for the tangibility of their rivals, then certainly for the morale of those within.
It would be easy to credit the 2-0 victory in the Kirklees to a cocktail containing one part lacklustre Huddersfield Town and two parts new manager bounce with a dash of luck in there for good measure. The truth though was that this was a tasty and rare delicacy for Forest fans. A first win of the season, only the second time to have avoided defeat in the opening games and a three-point haul for the first time in half a year, is a treat no matter how it came.
But then, this was not born out of sheer fortune. Reid made enough changes to the playing personnel to make a difference without going the whole hog and upsetting the slither of rhythm borne out of only losing once by more than a single goal. Forest’s short-term improvement was always to be found in marginal gains rather than sweeping transformations, but the feeling after this game was immeasurable in its improvement to the aftermath of each of Forest’s seven league games under Hughton this season.
It would be equally foolish and churlish to suggest that Reid should be the manager on a permanent basis; this job requires somebody with the experience and belief long term to get tough when the going does so too. It is easy to raise a calling after a great victory, but they won’t all be this way. The importance of this victory alone though is what makes Reid a winner; there may well be many more wins to come for Forest this season, but this could be the most important. Steven Reid deserves accolades for that alone.
Just as Chelsea wipe away almost all before them with near-consummate ease at the top table of English football, Bournemouth are becoming something of a similar emblem in the Championship, and under the tutelage of a former Chelsea midfielder who is quickly and vastly improving his managerial credentials with every passing victory.
Cardiff’s start to the season may have been inconsistent, but a visit to the blue side of south Wales is rarely an easy one. So while a 1-0 scoreline may not scream total dominance, the watching eye did. Like Chelsea, a first half with much endeavour but little in the way of goalmouth action paved the way for a dominant second 45 minutes in which Philip Billing scored the winner for the Cherries, who needed no second bite to earn their three points.
Bournemouth are top of the table, and as the only club relegated to last season’s Championship to not make an immediate return to the top flight of English football, they may be all the better for it. While Norwich remain pointless and Watford largely flatter to deceive, there is every chance that Bournemouth will be the only one of that particular group to grace the Premier League in 2022/23.
Reading were not the only club to have struggled so far this season to mark an impressive result over the weekend, but they were perhaps the most eye-catching. Fulham may have begun to stall their promotion charge over the last week, but Reading at home looked a fixture that the Cottagers would relish in their attempts to get back on track following a mini bump in the road.
Thanks largely to Reading midfielder Ovie Ejaria, that bump has gotten a little bigger, while Reading’s smooth week on the grass came to a wonderful end. Seven points from three games marks a great return for a team who took just one point from the opening portion of the campaign before the international break.
Having missed the start of the season, Ejaria took the main man mantle away from John Swift for one game at least, scoring two delicious goals with which Royals fans will be feasting on all week.
That is more like it. Four straight defeats with nine goals conceded across the last two alone had even the most optimistic of Posh supporters fearing an instant return to a division from which they spent so many years to get away from.
On Saturday, Darren Ferguson’s side reversed Fergie time, benefitting from a Harlee Dean own goal in the very first minute of the game as opposed to the last, but never looked back until the final kick of the game. Scoring goals has rarely been a problem, even at this level, but keeping them out is a near-perennial issue when it comes to the second tier in the 21st century. A first clean sheet of the season in addition to three goals is a most welcome return.
Ntcham’s signing for Swansea always felt like a coup for Russell Martin’s side. With a number of Steve Cooper’s most important players out of the door, it was imperative that Martin got the men who could help the former MK Dons boss get his vision out on the pitch. Ntcham may not be a like-for-like replacement for Andre Ayew in terms of position, but he already looks to offer the talismanic touch that left with the Ghanaian.
Having looked bright but without anything in the guise of tangible goods in his first two appearances for the Swans, the Frenchman soared when brought on as a half-time substitute for Liam Walsh with his side 3-0 down at Luton.
A squared ball for Jamie Paterson started the Swans on the recovery trail before a stunning – albeit deflected – strike brought the game to 3-2 in the closing stages before Joel Piroe completed the comeback in injury time. Without Ntcham, a point would have been impossible. Without Ayew, Swansea may just have found their new icon.
Bristol City, playing away
In the last iteration of Winners and Losers, we bemoaned Bristol City’s home form, urging the Robins to sort that out before their away results turned sour. Well, inflicting QPR’s first home defeat of the campaign with an injury-time winner from Nakhi Wells was the best way of doing that. Though there is still that run of 14 home games without a win to worry about, this weekend was for celebrating another good day on the road; that’s three victories in a row away now.
At the time of the season’s first international break, Blackpool had taken just two points and looked like early favourites for an immediate return to the third tier of English football. But the last two Saturdays have brought about two impressive victories – the first at home to promotion favourites Fulham and this weekend’s win at Middlesbrough having gone a goal down. There was the midweek mauling at the hands of Huddersfield, but Blackpool will take two wins out of three as an extremely successful week as Neil Critchley looks to guide his team to success from a slow start for the second season running.
Coventry may have had to settle for shared spoils, but their Swedish striker Gyokeres was making a point of his own this season having failed to make the grade at Brighton and accepting a permanent move to the Sky Blues.
Such has been the 22-year-old’s form in his first permanent season in the Midlands, that it won’t be long before he is headed back to Brighton’s level. Gyokeres’ opener was his fifth goal of the season, and a seventh goal involvement in eight matches. Those stats are as Swede as they come.
Seven of Saturday’s victors started the day in the bottom half of a Championship table which we, perhaps foolishly believed, was starting to take shape. There is plenty of time for a big jumble yet.
How long ago does the opening day feel right now? For all fans, we have become so used to seeing stadiums full of supporters again that the empty hollow shells of the previous 18 months already appear to belong to a bygone age. But to nobody must the first game of the Championship season feel further away than it does for Hull City manager Grant McCann.
All the goodwill and reputation reinstated during the Tigers’ promotion charge from League One last time out and the 4-1 victory at Preston on that opening August afternoon has paved way to what is looking increasingly likely to be another disappointing Championship campaign for McCann and Hull.
Having lost 25 times, conceding 87 goals and finishing rock bottom in their only season at this level under the tutelage of McCann, this is looking like déjà vu at the KCOM Stadium. Keane Lewis-Potter’s late goal brought to an end a run of six matches without a goal, but the three conceded earlier in the contest made sure this was largely anything but. McCann may not get another chance to bring City back up. At this rate, he will be lucky to make the next international break, never mind next season.
A second successive defeat after such a great start to the season has seen Mark Warburton’s rise tempered somewhat, with his QPR side now sitting in eighth in a difficult week which has returned just one point and the first serious questions being asked of a side who started the season in the finest of fettles.
There is little to worry about yet, and a win in their next league outing against West Brom will see QPR take their place amongst the top six where many have pinned them to finish, but a poor week has seen London rivals Millwall, who have had a decidedly average beginning to the campaign, sit just three points behind.
Coming into this week, Birmingham had placed themselves amongst the forerunners of the early form tables, leading to talk of Lee Bowyer’s timeliness in swapping disaster club Charlton for the Blues, who had made such a stellar start to the season that behind-the-scenes issues could be swept under the carpet.
But the last five days have brought with them strife out on the grass too. A 4-1 home defeat to Fulham after a good run of form could be seen as just one of those things. A 3-0 defeat v 23rd-placed Peterborough United immediately after could mean shame on us. Fooled a third time in succession and Bowyer will have a job on his hands to maintain an unlikely promotion push.
West Brom, waking up when September ends
It has been far from a disastrous month for the Valerien Ismael’s team, but Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Preston capped a frustrating September to date for the Baggies. Three games have brought three draws, two at 1-1 and a goalless stalemate against Derby County. Throw the Millwall game into the mix and that’s a return of just three points from as many outings against sides all in the bottom half at the time of playing.
The previously all-action Baggies now have just three goals in their last five games across all competitions. Perhaps upcoming games against top-half outfits QPR and Cardiff City can provide a kickstart to their season.
3-0 up at half time and conspiring to an Ntcham-inspired Swansea side to record their fourth successive draw. In the last two, Luton had been the beneficiaries of injury-time levellers. This time, the boot was on the other 22 feet, but with added pain inflicted from that seemingly imperious lead built in the first period.
Somewhat like Bristol City needing their home form to pick up before the away drops, Luton should pray their next game which is not a draw means three points going in the Hatters’ pockets. A loss at the end of this run would not make for pretty reading.
Just one of Saturday’s victors started the day in the top half of a Championship table which we, perhaps foolishly believed, was starting to take shape. There is plenty of time for a big jumble yet.