Wayne Rooney and Derby showed they won’t go down without a fight, while Hull and Luton thrilled. Preston and the promoted clubs must improve.
There is quite simply no other place to start. After 18 long, gruelling months behind closed doors and with limited home capacities, this EFL weekend at long last saw full houses up return. Away fans filled terraces and sung their songs. Home supporters were able to finally welcome players who had been at their clubs for over a year properly, and everybody connected to the football world realised just how much we had missed all this.
There have been hundreds of thousands of words written over the past year and a half and tens of thousands more over the course of this weekend no doubt, about how football is nothing without the fans. It allowed everybody connected to the sport to remember just how vital the fans are not just to the game, but the entire experience surrounding match days. Almost all of us knew it and the 1% who didn’t will likely never realise.
So the fact that every part of the match-going experience, as well as watching the televised games with real fans and their genuine chants over pumped-in sound, was so much better came as no surprise to the majority. But in being just as excellent, as exquisite, as wonderful as we all knew it was going to be was enough to celebrate the celebrations – and the commiserations.
Let’s just hope that this is the new, new normal.
Wayne Rooney and Derby County
To say that Derby County’s summer has been dramatic, even by their standards, would be the understatement of the nascent season. Every week has brought with it a new low, every day another sorry chapter in the club’s attempts to progress and move past their feud with the EFL. While there is blame on both sides, the Rams now know the hand they have been dealt.
To be fair to manager Wayne Rooney, there has been little kicking up a fuss with that. In press conferences after friendlies and in the build-up to Saturday’s opening fixture with Huddersfield Town, the former England forward has looked ahead to the season with as much optimism as possible. In many way, Rooney has a free hit. Everybody expects Derby to go down and a fair few reckon it will come while breaking records on the way to League One.
Their bench on Saturday was littered with academy products and some others made it into the starting XI, too. They had performed admirably and played genuinely well in pre-season matches but the real thing is a completely different test and Rooney knew it.
Starting at home to Huddersfield Town was not the hardest of tasks but little was expected from the hosts at Pride Park. The players and Rooney lived up to their stadium’s name and made the fans proud once more. For all of the furore off the pitch – and there is plenty of it – the 90 minutes were all that mattered.
Covid-hit Huddersfield were without four first teamers and head coach Carlos Corberan, but were still expected to best Derby like pretty much every team who will go toe to toe with the Rams this campaign. Yet a Curtis Davies header had them ahead with counterpart centre-back Naby Sarr nodding in the equaliser for a result which shows Derby and Rooney will fight their way through this season. They may go down but it won’t be with a whimper.
Rooney here: “I’m delighted for that group of players. That’s a positive result. I’ve changed my team three times since yesterday morning because I didn’t know (who was available). The fans should be delighted with the players today. I know it’s been tough.” pic.twitter.com/gsw53fu0BW
— Ryan Conway (@RJConway92) August 7, 2021
Hull City’s return to the Championship at the first time of asking was at something of a canter as they raced to the top of League One and were never below fourth place throughout the entirety of the campaign.
Of course, a division higher and one in which the Tigers got ripped apart the last time they were there, the going should be much tougher. And it certainly looked that way when opponents Preston took the lead just eight minutes into the new season.
Then came the rest of the match as Hull City tore their hosts to pieces with four well-taken goals to move themselves top of the Championship at the end of the weekend. The run at the top of the tables continues for Grant McCann’s men.
Nathan Jones and ‘his’ Luton Town
Another team to have taken the Championship by storm in matchday one is genuine dark horses Luton Town, who made short work of newly-promoted Peterborough – while making me look like a tit in the process – defeating the Posh 3-0.
It is testament to manager Nathan Jones, in his second season back in charge of the Bedfordshire club, that Luton do not look out of place towards the top of the table. They have unsurprisingly bought well this summer, given the emphasis given to player analytics with the hiring of Jay Socik behind the scenes at Kenilworth Road. The experience and nous of Henri Lansbury and Cameron Jerome is crucial if Luton are to improve on their 12th-place finish last term, while the exciting acquisitions of Morecambe play-off hero Carlos Mendes Gomes, man of the weekend Fred Onyedinma – more on him later – and defenders Gabriel Osho and Amari’i Bell, all go some way to making this one of the most exciting squads in the entire division.
That Jones has been allowed to cultivate this versatile, electric and dynamic side is testament to both him and the club. He was never afforded the same luxuries in his ill-fated spell at Stoke City, nor did he earn the chance to prove he would make the most of them. Jones and Luton have shown that they fit together like a snug pair of slippers.
Continue like this and few visiting sides will be getting comfortable in their visits to Kenilworth Road this season.
There was much fanfare surrounding Bournemouth’s capture of versatile Dane Emiliano Marcondes, perhaps largely from those who had not followed the majority of his Brentford career. The new Cherries man came good at the end of each of the last two seasons but more often than not looked better in highlights packages as opposed to the full 90 minutes of game. If not a Match of the Day player, then certainly an EFL on Quest one.
Naturally, Marcondes’ stock rose further and further, culminating with that second goal in Brentford’s 2-0 play-off final victory in May, and led to silly shock over his release from the Bees. Always filling in as a utility player as opposed to being a first-team regular, Marcondes could wish for nothing more than a club with a definite plan within which to fit him.
It took just 12 minutes to realise that the Vitality Stadium is a far more suitable home than Brentford ever was for the 26-year-old, with Marcondes opening the scoring for the season with a calm, slotted effort after a slick and decisive attack.
Already looking key to this Bournemouth side in what was a fascinating curtain raiser to 2021/22, Marcondes made history as the first player in the modern era to score the last goal of the previous season and the first of the current one.
One of the shining stars in a Wycombe Wanderers side which just came up short last season, there will not be another relegation scrap for Onyedinma. On his debut for Luton, he set up the first two goals of the season, scored the third and nearly doubled his own tally in the closing stages of the game. Talk about making a mark in your new side.
For much of the last game of the weekend, it looked as though Coventry City were to allow their homecoming to the newly-rebranded Coventry Building Society (CBS to its friends) Arena to pass by with barely a whimper.
It was a game in which neither side looked particularly inspired with the majority of players from either side struggling to put much of an impression on proceedings. But games are not meant to be looked back on in their entirety, rather for the moments and memories made within.
Viktor Gyokeres’ late leveller for the hosts, on home ground once more, provided one memento for the supporters to take with them from the game, as well as the occasion itself.
But the true fairy tale came with the late drama of Kyle MacFadzean’s 96th-minute winner which sent the CBS Stadium into raptures, almost like it was written in the script. Manager Mark Robins was not just the coolest Sky Blue in the ground but the only man to stay cool as the stands and heroes in front of them threw themselves into great celebrations which have been missed in Coventry even longer than every other town and city in the country.
That’s how you build towards something great for Coventry in their new, old stadium.
Two days before their season kicked off, one unnamed F365 writer said:
‘Much work needs to be done in double quick time and the suggestions are that this could get a whole lot worse before it gets better again. A new season is supposed to bring with it optimism, however deluded some of it may be from a club’s own fanbase, but the general feeling around Ewood Park suggests just how tough this upcoming season could be for a club feeling the costs of these difficult last 18 months.’
Kicking off the season with a Bournemouth v Baggies bang
Friday night under the lights and the EFL kicked off with a bang between two sides expected to be in the top six at least, come the season’s end.
Four goals shared equally, fans of both clubs back inside the stadium, end-to-end football and West Brom’s first real taste of ‘ValBall’, the quite ludicrously brilliant style employed by new manager Valerien Ismael, made this a cracking way to start the season.
Out of 12 Championship fixtures, there were five 1-1 draws on the opening weekend. Five, Jeremy. That’s insane.
This was Sheffield United fans’ first time back in a full Bramall Lane since they sat seventh in their first season back in the Premier League. The fall from grace since has largely been watched from afar through computer screens and full match streams, but the problems with the club have been obvious for anybody paying even the slightest bit of attention.
The Blades were rarely put to the sword last season, 17 of their 29 defeats being by a single goal; they scored just 20 times in 38 games. Things were supposed to be different now. And of course, they still could be. The season is only one game old. But having suffered a nightmare start to the 2020/21 campaign in losing 15 of their first 17 matches, a quick start was hoped for this time around.
New manager Slavisa Jokanovic has not been able to bring in many new players to Bramall Lane over the summer but this is the bulk of the squad that got the south Yorkshire outfit promoted from the Championship three seasons ago, plus some Premier League-bound players in Aaron Ramsdale and Sander Berge.
A good start would have been beneficial but not crucial. An extension of last season’s problems against a tireless but by no means invincible Birmingham City side is frustrating in the extreme.
Almost every club suffered in performances for not having the fans in the stadiums to roar them on, and given Sheffield United’s perennially downward spiral since the first lockdown, it was safely assumed they, too, had lost out without that personal support. Having fans back was not in itself enough to see this team get back to winning ways. Bringing in some fresh players to fit new manager Jokanovic’s style would certainly help, but more than anything this side is devoid of confidence. There is plenty of skill and reputation here, especially at this level. It is vital that the Blades get out of this tailspin before another season crashes and burns.
The three relegated sides
This summer more than most saw final table predictions litter social media and football websites and this writer is far too clever to show his stupidity in how wrong he would get his. But it was impossible to not rank the three relegated Premier League sides – Sheffield United, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham – around the top six. Each should be in contention for immediate promotion back to the top flight.
The trio managed to accrue just two points between them, with all three failing to win on their returns to the second tier. Each will have tougher tests ahead of them and one game does not a season make, but none showed the capabilities to be running away with the division as this stage. That can only be a good thing for the other 21 sides.
Preston were one of the biggest losers over the weekend, not just in terms of the result but in looking forward, too. In Frankie McAvoy, they have perhaps the least established and certainly most unknown manager in the entire division, with the Deepdale job his first taste in management at 54 years old.
He performed admirably last season as caretaker when the pressure was off. That still needed a huge reach to imagine he was the man long-term for Preston to turn their eternal top-half finishes into something more tangible.
Seen by the North End fanbase as the cheap, safe option, the general mood going into the season was somewhere firmly in the middle of optimistic and pessimistic. Losing 4-1 at home to newly-promoted Hull City certainly swung the scales in favour of the latter.
Given his lack of managerial experience to fall back on when the going gets tough, one would imagine it won’t take too many similar results to see the club go for somebody more proven. If not, the Lancashire side may well end up resembling that rotting bird hidden in the Deepdale stands that was apparently there throughout the latter stages of last season.
Talk about putting the pathetic into pathetic fallacy.
— Dan Kellett 🏴 (@DanKellettPNE) August 7, 2021
Bristol City’s profligacy in front of goal
If there was any year to choose a transition season, then Bristol City picked one in which they were comfortably better than the bottom three but nowhere near the quality of the sides in the top half of the Championship without fans being present. Not bad.
After a transition naturally comes a rebuild, but remind me the next time I want to renovate my house to leave Nigel Pearson off the decorator’s list. Where I’d wanted a chrome radiator, bi-folding doors and outdoor lighting, I would have ended up with veteran ex-Leicester City players messing about in my bathroom, kitchen and back garden.
Experience is all well and good and midfielders Andy King and Matty James certainly bring that, as does fellow Premier League winner Danny Simpson, but they do little to help City in the long term and potentially even less so in the short-term.
It is no surprise, then, that a side who scored just seven goals in their final ten games of last season and have failed to add any goalscoring quality thus far while releasing focal point Famara Diedhiou over the summer created a plethora of chances and could not take any after Chris Martin’s early opener. That had the Robins in paradise until Blackpool’s 93rd-minute equaliser.
If the Robins are to fly higher than 19th this season, they must learn to take their chances and perhaps invest in some players who are not injured. Or who won promotion from this division with Leicester City the best part of a decade ago.
Out of 12 Championship fixtures, there were five 1-1 draws on the opening weekend. Five, Jeremy. That’s also a little bit dull.