While the folly of Fulham’s reliance on Aleksandar Mitrovic has been exposed, Andy Carroll and Danny Drinkwater are rolling back the years.
Last-gasp Coventry City
Coventry had made a name for themselves early in the season thanks to a triumvirate threat of strong home form, a reputation as exciting dark horses and the ability to create dramatic moments late in games. Away at Bournemouth – and with the weight of expectation now largely on Mark Robins’ side – one constant remained. Trailing by two goals but a man up for the final 20 minutes, Matty Godden halving the deficit was made meaningful by Todd Kane’s injury-time equaliser.
In such a tight top-six picture where a multitude of teams keep swapping positions with one another either side of that particular dotted line, Coventry’s consistency has been key to making them a constant figure. For all of the toil they have endured in recent years, and for how far they have already come, it would already be a great disappointment should they fail to make the end of season lottery.
In drawing and denying the Cherries three points, Coventry kept pace with all who started the weekend above them in the table. They are turning 2021/22 into a season for the ages with a plethora of breathless moments. It should never be normalised just how great this achievement already is, whatever happens between now and May.
At the start of the month, there were intense calls from swathes of the Blackburn fanbase asking for manager Tony Mowbray to leave. In their brief defence, losing 7-0 at home is likely stir up some wicked emotions, but these calls were based off more than a solitary bad day at the office. Despite how far Mowbray had brought Rovers in nearly half a decade at Ewood Park, there was a near consensus that he had taken them as far as he could.
Less than a month after that hammering at the hands of Fulham, Mowbray has taken Blackburn to fourth in the Championship. Having picked up a club on a downward spiral and facing a depressing stint in League One, he transformed their fortunes against the backdrop of poor ownership and now has them as the highest-placed team in the second tier to have not played Premier League football in the last 18 months. There is vindication for Mowbray and all who stood by him. Let this be the start, not the end.
How parent club Brighton could have done with loan winger Khadra’s sleight of foot and sharpshooting accuracy in their dull draw at home to Leeds United on Saturday evening. Blackburn’s match with Stoke largely went down a similar route, save for the German’s winning intervention to an otherwise drab affair in the Potteries.
The reaction to his appointment was overwhelmingly negative in terms of fans believing the board and ownership were not acting in the best fortunes of the club, while retaining their backing for the new manager who has proven a dedicated and passionate figure in S2 since arriving in the summer of 2020.
Just 90 minutes into his full-time tenure, and Heckingbottom has done all he can to prove that this could well be a masterstroke of a decision, making short work of a Bristol City side who often fare well on their travels.
Without making wholesale changes, but adding some renewed vigour on the touchline and letting it rub off on his team, Bramall Lane felt at its most positive this year, and not just for the glorious wintry scenes that set in at south Yorkshire.
For all the collective struggles endured at Sheffield United since March 2020, the perennially awful time Rhian Brewster has suffered in the Steel City is perhaps the saddest of all. Having scored just one league goal for the Blades under Chris Wilder, Heckingbottom as a caretaker and then Slavisa Jokanovic, Brewster fared much better under the middle man now in permanent charge. One match, one goal – and a winning one at that.
There have been false starts before with Brewster, but perhaps this new project at Bramall Lane will reinvigorate him further. Heckingbottom and co. will not be complaining.
A player given a lifeline by Chris Wilder’s predecessor at Middlesbrough shone brighter than anybody on a dreary day in West Yorkshire to give the new man in the dugout his first win in charge at the third time of asking.
Despite taking the lead in each of Wilder’s first two games in charge, Boro had only a point to show under their new man. But after Watmore’s deadly double, no questions were raised as to whether the visitors would be taking all three on the short journey home from Kirklees.
If Diego Maradona scored the Hand of God, then Ched Evans’ equaliser against Fulham was the second coming. The last two touches of the ball before it found its way just over the goal line were from Emil Riis’ hand and then strike partner Evans’ upper arm, leading to great protest among the Fulham ranks towards the officials.
The anger was, of course, misplaced. It took several replays for the commentators and us to spot any foul play, so the referee and his assistants had next to no chance of seeing an infringement or two. But however the leveller came about, it cannot be denied how much of an impact Evans has had in recent games.
Having not played since August, he was becoming a forgotten man at Deepdale but made his return to the first team in the midweek comeback win over Middlesbrough, scoring another equaliser in a game Preston had trailed since the early stages. There was to be no déjà vu with another Riis winner, but this was another sign of Preston’s defiant home form under Frankie McAvoy. With two point-earning goals in as many substitute appearances from Evans, they may just have found their secret weapon for some much-craved consistency.
Andy Carroll and Danny Drinkwater
On Saturday afternoon, the veterans combined to score their first goals for Reading to give the Royals some clear daylight between themselves and a bottom three which this squad of players has no right being near.
Having gone a goal down early on, cries for manager Veljko Paunovic’s head were becoming increasingly loud on social media, but this was a performance to defy the critics. The youngsters who have been forced to litter the Reading side were aided by two moments of brilliance from the old hands who have played at the highest level of the English game.
Both may be past their best, but Carroll will always be a threat for as long as he can stay fit, while Drinkwater has been a revelation for Reading after suffering nightmare loan spells in the Premier League with Burnley and Aston Villa. At Reading, they both appear to have a new home in which they will be very comfortable.
Oldham had sacked nine managers since Drinkwater's previous goal. This is the first day Drinkwater and Carroll have both scored since 14 April 2012 when Carroll scored in the FA Cup semi-final (Liverpool v Everton). https://t.co/tIWOeBNxOv
— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) November 27, 2021
Make that four. Having won each of their last three games 1-0 and Millwall having a penchant for a 1-1 draw, the first two goals of this game went as expected as the Lions cancelled out the Tigers’ opener in a typically ferocious first half between two beasts. But Ryan Longman’s first Hull goal – another Brighton loanee the Seagulls could have done with this weekend – proved the difference and made it four successive victories for Grant McCann’s side.
Injuries and availability may have forced McCann’s hand in switching away from the 4-3-3 formation which patently wasn’t working. Now they have stumbled on a secret formula for success, it would be madness to revert. The 12 points collected over the last four games are the same distance Hull now sit away from a place in the top six. Have stranger things happened?
At least one Kane is turning up for his club when it matters.
Peterborough and Barnsley
That was perhaps as drab as it was predictable. In a relegation six-pointer, both Peterborough and Barnsley conspired to take the collective minimum from a match which went some way to showing that perhaps neither of these sides are capable of staying in the division come May.
In many ways, the late floodlight failure which left London Road briefly shrouded in darkness was a fallacy of the most pathetic nature which sees both of these teams more than one win away from the right side of the dotted line. With neither looking capable of getting a win against one another, never mind the rest of the division, the ask to stay up is getting tougher and tougher.
While the Posh sought to give manager Darren Ferguson a new contract this month, Barnsley handed the reins to new manager Poya Asbaghi. Right now, neither extreme looks capable of adding light to the end of these two particularly dark Championship tunnels. This was the ideal opportunity for either outfit to stake a claim to get their seasons back on track, but the point which both took home did little to ignite any hope of survival.
To bemoan West Brom’s languid football and pinpoint their lack of real and genuine scoring options is old hat by now, but will remain relevant for as long as the Baggies fail to have a reliable striker with a sure percentage of their chances a la Dominic Solanke and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
There is far more that separates the Baggies from Bournemouth and Fulham than just a clinical striker, but this is one of the most glaring differences. Bringing on Jordan Hugill around the hour mark was no more effective to West Brom’s chances of winning this game than Jayson Molumby receiving his marching orders, and the misery of a striker who has reached double figures only twice (13 and 12 goals) in six Championship seasons was compounded when Hugill skied a golden chance over the bar with seconds of the match remaining.
With just one goal in 15 appearances and four across the whole of last season with Norwich, there is still a chance that the former Preston and West Ham striker could get promoted in successive seasons having contributed almost the bare minimum. But such are West Brom’s fortunes at this point, Hugill should not worry too much on that score.
Fulham’s reliance on Mitrovic
Fulham had been a rip roaring train through the Championship over the past couple of months, with the Aleksandar Mitrovic-inspired Cottagers bustling their way to the top through sheer force, brutality and beauty of consistently blowing teams away.
But in a week when they were first forced to play without their Serbian superstar before starting their talisman against Preston despite not looking 100%, the Cottagers were less at home in their reputation as super scorers, creating very few chances in the latter; Tim Ream’s poke from a set-piece was an isolated well-taken moment in front of goal.
Fulham looked second best for the majority of the match, while the goalless return against Derby leaves just the slightest hint of doubt as to their promotion credentials.
Swansea not kicking on
Swansea City took the lead in the third minute, only to be level by the fourth. Having equalised themselves in the 49th, Reading retook the lead with the decisive fifth goal of the game almost immediately from kick-off in one of the more frustrating weeks of Swansea’s season.
A difficult start to life under Russell Martin in the early months of the campaign has given way to a confident team playing very much in his idealistic mould, but this hiccup against Reading was a reminder that there is a way to go.
Four points from a week where seven or nine would have been the aim given the opposition at hand as Swansea proved to be their own worst enemy on more than one occasion. With a batch of teams trading places in the top six on a weekly basis, Swansea would have been thinking this was when they added themselves to that particular group. They have only themselves to blame that they are still on the outside looking in.
And talking of teams on the periphery, Luton are perhaps the most inconsistent of the raft of dark horses the Championship has to offer this season. The Bedfordshire club began November with a victory which took them into the top six, but the Hatters have been left mad with a winless run since which sees them closer to Reading in 20th than a play-off spot.
In losing at home to strugglers Cardiff – who scored their first first-half goal of the season – Luton made it three defeats from their last four league outings. Decent performances are not bringing home the points required to keep pace in the top half. That is acceptable, but with the bottom half just as congested, they must be careful not to allow the season to fizzle out, too.