Nottingham Forest remain bottom and winless; it can only be a matter of time for Chris Hughton…
Less than six months ago, Lee Bowyer was sitting on just the right side of the League One play-offs with Charlton Athletic before taking the call from another of his former employers to get a quick transfer back into the Championship. While Charlton would slip from the right side to the wrong side of that particular dotted line over the course of the remaining 10 games of the season, the drop-off since has been remarkable.
A 2-1 home defeat to Cheltenham leaves the Addicks one place above the relegation zone while Birmingham’s 2-0 win at home to Derby County on Friday night kept Brum right on track with a ninth win in 18 games under Bowyer’s tutelage. That Charlton have a very experienced manager at the helm with a good squad on paper shows just what a smart decision it was for Bowyer to get out of south London when he did. When the grass looked greener at St. Andrews, Bowyer had to ask himself how green is The Valley? The answer, not very.
For the blue half of Birmingham, the rise has been equally as remarkable in half a year as Charlton’s drop in that same six-month period. From 21st on Bowyer’s arrival to securing second-tier status with two games to spare and now sitting just three points off top spot with the most stubborn defence in the league. Keep going like this and there may be another promotion in store for both Birmingham and their manager.
If you’re looking to make an impact, a point, and a statement of intent to stay in the team into which you’ve just forced yourself, then following Sheffield United’s Iliman Ndiaye is the way to go.
Two years ago, the Frenchman was seeking first-team football with Hyde of the Northern Premier League and made one appearance towards the end of last season in the actual Premier League before returning to youth duties this season while Slavisa Jokanovic’s side laboured through the first five games of the season. Whatever happened over the international break to allow Ndiaye to come not only into the squad for the first time this season, but to start, score the opening goal, assist the fourth in the 68th minute and score a second of his own a couple of minutes later, should be welcomed and repeated.
If that sounds like a mouthful of a report, it’s because this was a mouthful of a performance all round, and a tasty one at that. Having failed to score more than one goal in each of their last 21 league games across this season and last, hitting six in one afternoon – and there are caveats that we will come to in the Losers section – is by design rather than accident. The talk from most quarters, including this column, was that the Blades board had to back their Serbian manager in the transfer market, but the deadliest weapon might well have been in their arsenal all along.
Although one man who puts paid to that conversation is Wolves loanee Morgan Gibbs-White, who has looked above Championship level before with Swansea and almost confirmed it on his Bramall Lane debut.
Having assisted Ndiaye’s opener before seeing the academy graduate return the favour in the second half, Gibbs-White made this team tick in a way it has not done since Covid-19 hit the world – and especially Sheffield United – for the worst. Gone is the back three, or five as was so often the case for the bluntest of Blades performances, and in its place was a dynamic performance aided by the figurehead that is Gibbs-White.
If it is incredible just how much one win and one signing can make a positive difference and have such a huge impact on a side, then a joint man of the match performance in an absolute thrashing could see Jokanovic and Co. at last begin to take the Championship by storm.
If Gibbs-White and Ndiaye have looked to change a season, then Cardiff City winger Rubin Colwill definitely changed the game for Cardiff, while leaving Forest deeper in the mud than before. The youngster’s introduction alongside the much more likely and obvious game changer Kieffer Moore flipped the game on its head, being in the right place at the right time to level minutes after coming on before hitting the sweetest of strikes to ensure all three points returned to south Wales.
On just his 10th senior appearance, Colwill’s first and second goal for the Bluebirds ensured he, more than anyone, was flying high come the full-time whistle.
It may have been a cruel end to the match for John Swift’s Reading side, relinquishing a 3-1 lead late in the contest that was built almost entirely on the performance of their talisman, but that takes nothing away from a player who is somehow still plying his trade in the Championship, another star performance for the Royals making that notion even more ridiculous with every passing game.
Having failed to score or assist for the first time in a league game this season in that ludicrous 4-0 defeat to Huddersfield before the international break, Swift’s trio of strikes took him to eight goal involvements in six league starts this season. Consistently linked with moves to more established Championship clubs and Sheffield United during their stint in the top flight, injuries wrecked much of the 2020/21 campaign for the former Chelsea starlet. If he carries on like this, 2021/22 will see him back in the Premier League come January’s end.
Having looked so lacklustre in the first stage of their return to the Championship after a tumultuous yet ultimately fruitful time away, the Tangerines finally got their first win of the season and against the toughest opposition of all. Fulham came to Bloomfield Road unbeaten this campaign and on a run of four straight victories going into the international break, and were unable to break down Neil Critchley’s stubborn outfit who showed just how much of a pain they can be when on song.
Former Fulham player Josh Bowler – who never played a senior game for the Cottagers – got his current home rocking when his goal early in the second half was enough for three very hard earned points. A slow start in League One last season ended with promotion. We’ll leave it there for now…
Such was the ease with which Bournemouth beat Barnsley on the south coast, the 3-0 Cherries victory largely went under the radar in one of the simplest victories Scott Parker’s side will record all season.
But the performance of left back Jordan Zemura, who had made that defensive spot his own in his first full senior campaign, should not go unnoticed. Scoring eight minutes into the game and eight minutes from the end was lovely for us number nerds, but great reward for a player who before this season had made as many senior club appearances as he had caps for Zimbabwe – two. It appears that two is his lucky number with this double helping Bournemouth assert their promotion credentials against a Barnsley side who look anything but thus far.
Coventry City’s Fergie Time
It may not have come with the same raptures as their previous two home league games back home in Coventry, but the Sky Blues kept up their 100% record of scoring in the final minute of their home league matches when Martyn Waghorn opened up his account for Mark Robins’ side.
The last-minute winners against Nottingham Forest and Reading provided scenes of jubilation. Waghorn’s settler to make it 2-0 shored it up. Far less in the way of ‘limbs’, but a surer sign of more celebrations in the long term. Coventry are getting better and better.
February 2019. That’s the last time Sol Bamba played a full 90 minutes of football. The last time until this weekend, that is. It may have been a disappointing outing for Middlesbrough, but in starting and playing the entirety of that game, Bamba marked his full return after being given the all clear from non-Hodgkin lymphoma in May. In many ways, he is the biggest winner, and the best is saved until last.
Hull City’s clipped claws
Successive goalless stalemates either side of the international break against Bournemouth and Swansea may not seem like fodder for placing Hull City at the top of the losers section, but after hitting Preston for four on the opening day of the season the Tigers have now failed to maul five league opponents in a row.
In fact, a mauling is a distant dream. Even one scratch is proving elusive for Grant McCann’s side, who have now gone nearly eight hours of league football without finding the back of the opposition net, with just the two goalless draws to show as progress from their first day heroics at Deepdale. It had been noted that Hull needed reinforcements in defence in the final days of the transfer window, and while two clean sheets from two have somewhat put paid to that notion, it cannot be left unsaid how un-Championship-ready the attacking options at the MKM Stadium are.
Josh Magennis is a workhorse, but has never been an out-and-out goal scorer at any level, and especially not in the second tier of English football. Winger Keane Lewis-Potter has a touch of the Jarred Bowen about him but, save for goal and an assist against Preston, has left a lot to be desired while George Moncur has never been a man expected to get heavily involved in the scoring side of things.
There is hope that Mallik Wilks will find his feet after an injury-hit start to this campaign following such a successful one in 2020/21, but much like new striker Tyler Smith, has proven himself largely in the division below. Unless Hull find another way to get points without scoring goals, something needs to change or it may well be that the Tigers go into next season with the best strikeforce in League One.
Nottingham Forest’s deja vu
Enough sections, columns and words have been devoted to Nottingham Forest in the latter half of these columns to last a season. That this all feels the same as it has largely done for much of Chris Hughton’s 60-game reign is testament to not having to write a raft of repeated criticism, but is a surefire sign that things are not going to get any better. To reiterate what was written before the international break; Chris Hughton is not the biggest problem at the City Ground, but he is clearly no longer the solution.
A decent if not spectacular first half where Forest played Cardiff at their own game was turned around after the break when Mick McCarthy out-thought his opposite number and Hughton’s side were outfought in their attempt to get their first league victory of the season. At long last, the experienced Forest manager opted for an unprecedented two strikers in his starting XI, but the end result was the same.
Ten wins from those 60 in charge has Forest in even worse form than the run he came to rescue them from. It is now a case of when, not if, another new man is needed to start the cycle all over again. That blame lies far higher up the Forest food chain, and Hughton will be the latest to pay the price of believing he could be the one to break the cycle. The next man up may just be left with the toughest task of all, but then, haven’t we been here before? It’s all so pathetically obvious to see.
Middlesbrough have been very – and this is the most technical word I can think of – meh in the opening month of the season. It is not the fact that Boro sit just two points above the relegation spots, nor is it just that they are four games without a victory, but it is that we all expected a little bit more Neil Warnock from this side so clearly built in the vision of their talismanic manager.
One goal across their last three outings coupled with falling to clubs who had much less expectation of reaching as lofty heights as Warnock’s side this season have left Boro’s opening to the season looking like a damp squib. It is early days, and there a plethora of players looking to bed in, but Warnock does not do long-term management anymore. His success is often instant and short-term, but right now, any progress is being measured in inches rather than miles. Middlesbrough fans might well take that after some of their recent seasons, but it is unlikely Warnock will stick around without strong belief of a 10th EFL promotion to add to his own records.
Bristol City’s lack of home comforts
Preston may have picked up towards the first international break of the season, but it still seems fair to suggest that Bristol City and Nigel Pearson will have earmarked this as a fine occasion to finally get his first three points from a fixture in the home dugout of Ashton Gate.
Preston largely frustrated the Robins, who were left red faced rather than red breasted as they exhausted themselves doing almost everything but score and get their first home win since January, a run made all the more astounding considering they had won five of their last six home games to that point.
Midtable safety is all well and good, but Nigel Pearson must pray that the home form gets better before the away results dissipate.
Peterborough United’s old habits dying hard
It is a tale almost as old as time, though it had taken some time to get started. Perennially known for their ability to entertain the neutrals, infuriate and frustrate their own fans, and absolutely kick themselves in the arse for failing to defend any better than the Dog & Duck when at their worst, Peterborough United found themselves on the wrong end of a high scoring thriller, going down 6-2 to a Sheffield United side who had scored once in five league games beforehand.
The caveats on this side are that Morgan Gibbs-White and Iliman Ndiaye are the greatest players to ever walk the Earth, but it is reminiscent of previous seasons at this level under the same management team. It is fine to be entertaining, but Peterborough have gone from starting the season in decent form to having only Nottingham Forest below them in the table. There is cause for concern.
Easy Reading defence
But Peterborough’s defence has nothing on the backline at Reading. In shipping 16 goals in the opening six games of the season, the Royals have equalled that particular Championship record. The summer may not have been kind to Veljko Paunovic’s attempts to put a side together before the latter stages of the transfer window, but this is an experienced defence.
The back four on Saturday included Andy Yiadom, who has been one of the most consistent full backs in the second tier over the past half decade, the extremely experienced duo of Michael Morrison and Liam Moore, and Chelsea loanee Abdul Baba Rahman. This is not the team of kids that it once seemed Reading were going to have to play this season.
Reading are used to being record breakers in the Championship, but that was at the right end of the table. At this point, after such a fall from six months ago, it is looking like being a long time before they are at that end of the standings again.