A Championship midweek fixture list brings Championship winners and losers. And thinks are getting very bad for Sheffield United…
Bristol City and Huddersfield Town, winning when it mattered
Given their respective summers, finances and a host of other factors between the quartet of clubs, it seems fair to suggest that none of Reading, Preston, Bristol City or Huddersfield are going to be troubling the upper echelons of the Championship table this season. But with those four teams going head to head in midweek, the victors could give their respective seasons something of a boost, and it was the latter two who managed just that in rather different circumstances on Tuesday night.
Travelling to Berkshire, the Robins flew back south with all three points after coming out on top in a five-goal thriller, while Huddersfield defeated Preston 1-0 at home despite failing to get a shot on target, Sepp van den Berg’s tackle prematurely ending Preston’s hopes of getting off the foot of the second-tier table.
Neither of those victories for Bristol City nor Huddersfield have done much more than paper over the cracks, and certainly provide little hope of flying up the table, but there is always the flip side sliding doors realisation that it could be worse. While Preston and Reading sit near the bottom of the league standings with little reason for optimism, both winners will know they only need three clubs worse than them to continue to tread water. It may not be exciting and it may not be what either of these clubs should consider success in the long term, but it is better than the fates endured by Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham United and Wycombe Wanderers last season. At these early stages of the campaign, getting points on the board and breaking ducks is what matters most. That’s a big tick off the list for Bristol City and Huddersfield Town; now comes the slim chance of further progression.
Stoke City, finding their mojo
It has taken some time for Stoke City to rediscover themselves following their relegation from the Premier League and subsequent mire back in the second tier of English football, but the signs this summer were positive as the ghosts of seasons past were largely removed in multiple fell swoops and the transition from positive signs off the pitch to on the pitch have been almost immediate.
Having been much maligned under the largely solid if not spectacular stewardship of Michael O’Neill thus far, this win over Swansea City was the second time in three league games the Potters have fashioned three goals and, despite a late Swans reply, this game never looked out of Stoke’s control. It was one of the most complete performances of their three-and-a-bit-season stint back in the Championship, and with the squad more balanced than it has been at any point in the past half-decade, the good times look set to continue a while longer in ST4.
If you happen to be playing against one of your former employers, and bad blood exists between club and individual, then the best way to get one over on your old side is to p*ss them off immeasurably by scoring a goal and letting them know about it.
Sam Clucas’ celebration last night 😬😬
— The Second Tier (@secondtierpod) August 18, 2021
That’s exactly what midfielder Sam Clucas did after putting the Potters 2-0 up against the team he spent the 2017/18 relegation season with, taking his shirt off and lifting it to the east stand at the Swansea.com Stadium, angering almost every Swan in the ground and upgrading his status with his current side in the process, with one City fan even getting the moment tattooed on his calf.
Harrison Burrows and Siriki Dembele
Peterborough United kick-started their season in style with a dramatic turnaround against Derby County last time out, and for 83 minutes of their next fixture, it looked to have had the desired effect. Though Aden Flint’s late double ensured the spoils were shared, it was the same duo at the double for the Posh, each as remarkable as the other in their exploits.
Dembele was believed to be on his way out of London Road prior to his 100th-minute winner against the Rams at the weekend, and has surely done enough to earn a reprieve in the Peterborough ranks, while nobody in the division has outscored versatile youngster Burrows, who came into this season with just 25 league appearances and a single goal to his name.
Peterborough fans have bemoaned the lack of attention the 19-year-old has received from this rip-roaring week. Well, here is that attention you ordered. And how well deserved.
Sam Baldock and Phil Jagielka
Such has been the trajectory of their own careers in the past few seasons, reduced to bit-part roles at best, rocking up at Derby County was about as good as Baldock and Jagielka could expect from their next, and perhaps final EFL moves.
Everyone could have been forgiven for thinking it was more likely they were at Pride Park to offer experience in the dressing room rather than a real positive impact on the pitch, but such is the desperation for the few additions they are allowed to make, this was as good as it gets.
As it turns out, as good as it gets was a much higher ceiling than anybody could have prepared for. Hired to do their jobs at either side of the pitch, both performed excellently in their duties on their debuts. Baldock’s winner – the only goal of the contest – was just his 11th in the last four seasons, while 38-year-old Jagielka’s Sheffield United return had seen his chances to create more memories at Bramall Lane limited. On his Derby debut, the former England defender was imperious alongside fellow veteran Curtis Davies as Hull City succumbed to their fate.
The dispensation to sign Baldock may have been special; his finish was anything but – a scrappy poacher’s effort. But the impact he and Jagielka have had already is priceless.
The moment that put us ahead!
Great start to life as a Ram for Sam Baldock! 👏 pic.twitter.com/BPcQF42roa
— Derby County (@dcfcofficial) August 18, 2021
‘Dark’ horses QPR
The fact that QPR, or some iteration of them, *cough* Rob Dickie *cough*, have appeared in almost every edition of Championship and EFL Winners and Losers thus far is testament to just how well Mark Warburton’s side have started the season. Originally billed as dark horses, with every performance of this ilk, they are getting a shade lighter.
Against a similarly strong and well-backed Middlesbrough, everything that could go against the capital side did, but without ultimate punishment. Boro came into the clash having won seven of their last nine home games. An early penalty was finished emphatically by classic Warnock striker Uche Ikpeazu, and even after Rangers had levelled thanks to a rather fortuitous own goal, they were reduced to 10 men moments later and even more inexplicably, took the lead themselves soon after.
So Matt Crooks’ equaliser midway through the second half should have been the ultimate turning point, and it was, but in favour of QPR, Chris Willock’s strike separating the two contestants in the most entertaining match of the midweek fixtures. If this is how good QPR can be when the odds are stacked against them, the rest of the division should be fearful when the cards are dealt in their favour.
Like QPR, West Brom and ‘ValBall’ have been making appearances as regular in this column as the Baggies’ habit of yo-yoing between the top two divisions of English football. But each passing game has seen the Baggies become more and more accustomed to the rigours of what their new managers expect, while opponents and thrashees Sheffield United look a million miles away from where their new man Slavisa Jokanovic wants to be.
There is no room for season-defining conclusions three games in, but while these sides came down from the Premier League together, it was the Blades who looked better prepared for the season, getting their Championship cheat code in early in the summer while Ismael did not appear to be high on the initial shortlist for the Baggies and was hired after pre-season had began.
On this evidence, you really cannot tell. And if we’re not allowed to make conclusions for this season, let’s allow one for next. One way or another, Ismael will be a Premier League manager in 2022/23.
Having been on the shortlist for Championship Winners and Losers before, Mowatt deserved his spot this time around. Given his skillset and how he ties together this West Brom way of playing, just as he did with Barnsley, Mowatt could be one of the best players in the division without ever scoring.
But the ease with which he broke forward to score the third goal of the night and put the contest beyond all doubt, while looking so cool and collected throughout from taking his goal to leading the celebrations, showed the midfielder is made for this Baggies team. Already looking like one of the best free transfers of all time at this level, the ease with which Mowatt has gone from being the big fish at the somewhat smaller pond of Barnsley to still shining in the vast waters of West Brom so seamlessly makes him the catch of the day.
Alex Mowatt casually winning the ball back, making a forward run and bagging a goal. Some player 🔥pic.twitter.com/Tv8oiQG7HG
— The Baggies Bible (@TheBaggiesBible) August 18, 2021
Seven points from nine games, and Blackburn are a million miles away from where this writer thought they would ever be this season. Full props for making me continue to look a tit.
Oh, this was disappointing. Ripples of Millwall manager Gary Rowett’s response when asked about the boos heard during the taking of the knee prior to the London club’s clash with capital rivals Fulham was cowardly at best, and downright insulting at not even its worst. The initial taking of the knee was met by much ignorance from those who refused to understand what it meant, heeding their lessons from Union Jack Twitter ‘experts’ rather than experts on the subject and those who had seen the impact it had in America.
I could use the entire word count of this column to bemoan over and over again those who throw Marxism and defunding the police into the equation, never mind those who are more bored of a couple of seconds of peaceful protest a handful of times a week than people of ethnic minorities being treated anywhere between unequally and brutally, but these words are reserved for Rowett, who took the easy way out of an admittedly difficult situation.
No manager wants to upset their own fanbase, but some things are far bigger than Millwall, bigger than football. Rowett cannot force people to not boo, but he could, he should, have condemned those who did with no apologies for doing so. By this point of the discourse, there are no excuses left to boo the movement. It is somewhat just about fathomable to this writer that some don’t agree with taking the knee specifically for whatever reason, but that’s as far as anyone without a deeper, far more sinister agenda can now take this.
In refusing to go against that unfortunate number, Rowett might as well have stood amongst them and booed and heckled for those few otherwise peaceful seconds prior to kick-off. Calling for a ‘better way to unify people’ not only misses the point, but is a sitter so far wide of the mark, any striker making a similar mistake on the pitch would be dropped indefinitely. If the point of all of this is still lost on the people who can be the figureheads for change, what chance do we ever have of making the world a better place?
Sheffield United’s attack, or lack thereof
Back to footballing matters, and the concerns grow further for Sheffield United, the Blades blunt in front of goal once more despite over £50million of talent in their attacking arsenal alone. There are problems at the other end of the pitch too, of course. You don’t lose 4-0 to a supposed promotion rival and think the defensive part of your game is flawless, but in conceding once in games against Birmingham and Swansea combined, this thrashing could be an exception to the rule, while there is much madness in this repetition of 0 on one side of the Blades’ scoreline.
With an array of forwards to choose from – three of whom in Oli McBurnie, Rhian Brewster and Billy Sharp have all excelled at this level in terms of pure goal scoring, while David McGoldrick has more than enough about him to succeed once more at this level – the problem appears to lie in confidence, or a lack of it. This is a club which, despite a new manager on the touchline in Jokanovic, is playing almost the exact same squad as last season, a group of players so used to losing that as soon as something goes against them – Jack Robinson’s own goal on Wednesday night for example – they subconsciously expect to lose.
It may only take one great result to kickstart this season into life, but as more key players depart in the guise of Arsenal-bound Aaron Ramsdale and perhaps Sander Berge too, reinforcements are crucial to bring in a winning culture which has been starved in the red-and-white corner of the steel city for too long now.
But with the plethora of attacking options already available and with young forward Daniel Jebbison braced for a loan move, these forwards are going to have to find their own shooting boots while their Serbian manager works out how to get the best out of them. There is no easy answer, but the longer this run of form continues, the harder it will be to escape.
For Russell Martin, this feels like something of a reset. Having had his initial bedding-in period as MK Dons manager, the former centre-back spent first full season at the helm building a team to fit his style of play, one quite unique in the bottom two tiers of English football, and this summer perfecting that squad to match those visions. It looked so good on paper that the Dons were many people’s picks for promotion to the Championship again.
Martin chose the fast-track option at an inopportune time for him and a catastrophic time for his now former employers, less than a week before the league season began, moving up to the Championship as an exciting proposition without little in the way of results backing him up. Considering he is now at a club which is losing its best players, and has a limited budget to bring in players to fit his own mould, he may have taken two steps forward to progress to the Championship, but it remains to be seen how many backwards steps are to be taken.
On the evidence of Tuesday night’s crushing home defeat to Stoke, they could be hefty steps in reverse. It was clear throughout much of the 90 minutes that this Swansea team has a long way to go to fit Martin’s philosophy. Steve Cooper left for a reason and that is because he could see the direction in which Swansea were likely headed. All the fancy football in the world will not be enough without results to match at the wrong end of the table this time around.
Birmingham City, on and off the pitch
It has been one bad week for Birmingham City, on and off the pitch. With two of the stands at St. Andrew’s out of action, and a full-time trained media volunteer role receiving a deserved heap of backlash from the football community, winning against Bournemouth would have reduced much of that to a sideshow. Instead, a disparaging home defeat to Bournemouth was noticeable by a lack of atmosphere which comes from having a half-full ground. It has not been the best week for Birmingham, an unholy trinity of balls-ups.
Still pointless. Losing to a Huddersfield side without a shot on target from the Terriers feels like a new low even Frankie McAvoy couldn’t have prepared for. The cheap option is going to end up costing North End big time.
A league debut for the man who has been stuck behind Arsenal-bound Ramsdale ever since signing for Sheffield United, and it’s fair to say, he looks unlikely to get a second. Conceding four goals is never a good vibe, nor is doing whatever he did for the second goal, practically gifting West Brom the win on a plate. Step up Wes Foderingham.