Wayne Rooney has Derby dreaming of the impossible. West Brom and Sheffield United might be looking at the bottom club’s coach with envy.
The problems for Derby are obvious and oft-repeated, both off and on the pitch. The final nail had seemingly been put in the coffin this week with a further points deduction taking them to minus 21 for the season, left to fight it out with an unbalanced squad full of well performing but limited veterans and youngsters under the stewardship of an inexperienced manager.
Derby came into the game with the bluntest attack in the league but also one of the tightest defences against a Bournemouth team who have conceded fewer than anyone in the Championship this term. A goal fest was not to be expected, yet it is exactly what we got. For the hosts, that worked a treat.
The Rams came into the contest having lost more points than any other second-tier club this season from winning positions, and by half-time it looked like being the same old story for Wayne Rooney and co. But the second-half performance was one of the best the EFL will witness this season, and Rooney should take much of the credit. Against all odds, he has been the light at the end of a particularly bleak tunnel, mocked now only by those who ridicule anything less than perfection in the name of banter. He is one of the greatest managers in the Championship – of that there is no doubt.
Three hard-earned and delicious points get Derby back to ground zero. There are half a dozen sides in the Championship they have outperformed on paper, and while 21 points may be too much a stride for this spirited camp to overcome, you can be assured they will give it everything. They have clawed back 21 points in 18 games and sit 15 behind the right side of the dotted line now. Given what they achieved against title challengers Bournemouth on Sunday afternoon, anything is just about possible.
In terms of sheer importance to their club’s season, Tom Lawrence’s performance against Bournemouth on Sunday lunchtime might just be the best this EFL season has seen and likely will see. For while all the world and the decision makers at Pride Park have done all they can to see the Rams down and out, the people on the pitch are doing everything they can to pull off a miraculous tale.
Lawrence’s second-half double – an exquisite equaliser from the periphery of the penalty area followed by an emphatically taken penalty – turned the game on its head in a way that even the most optimistic of Derby supporters could not have foreseen at half-time.
Jason Knight’s fine opener had been quickly cancelled out by a brain fart of a goal to concede and then Dominic Solanke’s typically brilliant finish. It looked like Derby were to make it 17 points lost from winning positions this season; had they held onto all of them they would sit very close to being out of the bottom three despite their 21-point deduction.
In striking twice, captain Lawrence continued his own personal redemption, but his salvo epitomised the spirit of this entire Derby County team, who defy and embarrass the hierarchy above them that makes performances and results like these almost inconsequential. But on weekends like this, it is important to celebrate and believe that the impossible is possible.
Norwich City loanee Danel Sinani may have been the match-winner on paper, but this was a performance in which everybody connected to the Terriers on the day made the difference. Even after the 1-0 victory, Huddersfield are five positions and four points behind the Baggies, but the contrast in joy between the two sides is very much in favour of the lower-placed Huddersfield.
An electric opening half-hour in which the West Yorkshire side took, held onto and could easily have extended their lead, was indicative of the direction these two outfits are heading in, aligned with pre-season expectations. The second half saw West Brom attack, but with neither enough purpose nor threat of breaking the Huddersfield backline.
Another dismal day for West Brom – more on that to come – but for Huddersfield, this was a team performance which justified the faith in Carlos Corberan over the summer: a risk reaping rewards with half of the season nearly played. On the cusp of the top six and unbeaten at home since September, Huddersfield have as good a chance of being in the end-of-season lottery come May as any of their closest challengers. Considering the downward spiral the club has endured since their sophomore Premier League campaign, it is a mesmeric turnaround.
A starting XI packed to the rafters with youngsters was exemplified by the midfield pairing of academy graduates Lewis O’Brien and Scott High, the latter’s assist for fellow youngster Sinani the defining moment of the match. On-loan Chelsea centre-back Levi Colwill continues to impress in his teenage years in a back three. The kids are more than alright.
While relegation rivals Barnsley have spent this week hiring a new manager and Peterborough United handed a new long-term contract to their current incumbent, Hull have maintained the status quo.
But if their manager has too often this season been Grant McCan’t, this weekend saw Mr. McCann finally come to the fore. Wins have been rare for the Tigers this season but their fourth of the campaign was achieved with largely consummate ease, mauling a Birmingham City side who can’t make their own minds up whether they are good or bad.
In the East Riding of Yorkshire, Brum were very much the latter and all the more glum for it. There was luck involved for the first goal, with the ball appearing to go out of play before being squared to George Honeyman, but Hull doubled down and deserved the three points regardless.
Coupled with Peterborough’s reverse and Barnsley surrendering to Fulham, Hull are out of the bottom three. The trick now is to get a run of form together. Play like this and they should have little trouble in doing so.
Four goals against Barnsley took Fulham’s tally to 48 league strikes for the season with just 18 matches played. Bournemouth are the best team, but Fulham’s quite frankly ridiculous output is unmatched, and right now it sees them top the pack.
The Cottagers have scored more goals than the Championship’s bottom three teams combined, while Stoke City in fourth have netted exactly half as many as Fulham. The four goals were shared equally among Fabio Carvalho, Neeskens Kebano, Harry Wilson and the opening scorer, That Man Aleksandar Mitrovic. He started it all with his 21st league strike of the campaign. Eleven second-tier clubs have scored fewer than that.
The stats are ridiculous and on course to break a whole heap of records. Can anyone stop the immovable and near immeasurable force that is this Fulham side? It looks less and less likely with every passing week.
Casual Championship viewers could have been forgiven for not realising that former Luton Town hotshot James Collins had swapped the Hatters for south Wales, such has been the striker’s profligacy in front of goal for his new club this season.
Youth-team graduate Chanka Zimba was given the nod to replace the unavailable Kieffer Moore, but an ineffective first 45 in which Cardiff fell behind and rarely looked like levelling ensured Collins was given the entirety of the second half to make his mark. The man with the most shots in the second tier without scoring this season prior to the weekend missed a good chance at 1-1 but made no mistake from a Ryan Giles corner to break his duck and earn Steve Morison a win in his first game as permanent manager.
That’s also now seven points from four games under the former Millwall striker’s tutelage, whose influence is rubbing off on the team and Collins alike.
By the time Tyrese Campbell doubled Stoke City’s lead in injury time, the game was sewn up against a Peterborough side who offered little resistance. The Potters were already on course for a third successive Championship victory since taking the lead in the third minute.
But if good things come in threes, it was the return of Stoke’s No. 10 after almost 12 months out that provided the biggest cheers of the day in ST4. Campbell’s late strike marked a return to his best – much like his employers. A great start to the campaign had threatened to give way after a poor run of form through October, and despite a lack of glossy performances, three victories on the bounce takes Stoke up to fourth and a firmer place in the top six. It’s a numbers game after all, and it’s adding up to a positive season at last for Stoke and their returning superstar.
Of all the plaudits aimed at promotion dark horses QPR this season, being stubborn is not one of them. Only Blackburn have conceded more goals than the capital side in the top half this season, and Mark Warburton’s team have been punished on more than one occasion in recent weeks for their slackness at the back – especially late on in games.
So it was refreshing to see that in the first Championship game after the international break, and despite being second best in almost every metric besides the most important one, the Hoops’ backline held firm against a wasteful Luton Town side who must still be wondering how they made the short trip back home empty handed.
Last week’s League One and Two Winners and Losers saw the first inclusion of a referee in the column – in the latter half of the list, no less. Referees are the easiest of targets, so it is only right to give praise for the many occasions they get it right, too. In the Sheffield United v Coventry fixture, Michael Salisbury made two good decisions, latterly spotting Callum O’Hare’s dive in a crowded penalty area and rightly booking the attacking midfielder.
Moments earlier, Blades striker Billy Sharp felt he had been unfairly bundled to the ground and handled the ball, assuming the foul would come his way. Most referees relent in these situations, but Salisbury correctly stuck to his guns, officiating a tight game with consummate ease throughout. His performance was indicative of many referees whose good jobs go unnoticed far too often.
Even when they win, West Brom fans have often been left irate and perplexed with the style in which they have done it. Having won just three times since the start of October, though, another less than ideal result has called into serious question the era of ‘Valball’. Head coach Valerien Ismael has hardly ever felt truly at home since his summer switch to the Hawthorns, and as the gap between West Brom and the top two continues to widen, it looks unlikely he will get the chance to make himself comfortable.
Saturday’s defeat leaves the Baggies eight points off the top two, while their status as the very definite third-best team in a two-horse race is looking less defined with every fixture. They are as many points away from leaders Fulham as they are 14th-placed Middlesbrough. Twenty attempts on goal in West Yorkshire resulted in just two on target and none in the back of the net, while striker Callum Robinson wasted away on the bench and former Town attacker Karlan Grant showed why the Terriers should not miss their former talisman.
With a chasing pack hot on their heels and such a toxic atmosphere following West Brom home and away, it is difficult to see the situation getting better before it gets any worse. With such lofty ambitions in this corner of the Midlands, such lows will not be accepted for much longer.
Everybody connected to West Brom had a bad day at the office, but Jake Livermore in particular was left red in the face by a poor performance which culminated in a sending-off for catching Huddersfield striker Fraizer Campbell in the face with a high boot. Whatever the opposite of a captain’s performance is, this was it, and not for the first time this season.
Livermore will now miss the next three league games, and far be it from us at F365 Towers to be cynical, but that could prove to be in West Brom’s favour.
Barnsley leaving it too late
Much like they did against Fulham, waiting until they were three goals down to score a consolation, there are already fears that the Tykes may have left themselves too much to do and too little time to do it in appointing Poya Asbaghi to save their season. The latest out of left-field manager to take the Oakwell hotseat was in a watching capacity at Craven Cottage, but would have seen little to lift his spirits in swapping Sweden Under-21s for South Yorkshire.
With Hull City winning, Barnsley are now four points off safety, a precarious position to be in on the back of a run of nine defeats in the last ten Championship matches. Asbaghi ticks plenty of boxes that prove he has what it takes to be successful, but whether or not it is enough to overcome the disastrous start that has come under the tutelage of predecessor Markus Schopp remains to be seen. Asbaghi’s appointment, much like Victor Adeboyejo’s strike, could be too little, too late.
Sheffield United, moving forward
It is no surprise to see Sheffield United’s name swiftly followed by a ‘0’, but against Coventry City, the Blades showed just why they are so dismal going forward. Only in the final quarter of the game did Slavisa Jokanovic’s team begin to show a unified force of attacking impetus, and even then they rarely looked like scoring a goal.
Watching a full 90 minutes of this makes you wonder what any of it is about for Sheffield United this season: what is the plan moving forward in this corner of South Yorkshire? Nobody is having fun, promotion is a pipedream and there is very little threat of relegation. Given his previous spells in England with Watford and Fulham ending in dismissal after success, coupled with the Serb’s penchant for walking out on clubs in his managerial career, is it a matter of weeks rather than months left for Jokanovic and Sheffield United? That may well be the best way forward.
From 18 games this season, Luton have an equal amount of wins, draws and losses. A sixth defeat of the campaign at QPR is no disaster but the Hatters will be mad with themselves for not breaking up the symmetry of their league record in 2021/22.
Luton doubled their west London opponents for attempts and shots on target. Yet while both of QPR’s accurate strikes found the back of the net, Harry Cornick, Elijah Adebayo and Kal Naismith all missed good chances. There are few worries for Luton this season – Nathan Jones’ side are very much looking up rather than over their shoulders – but a dash of added quality in the next two transfer windows could be what it takes to have Luton ahead of the pack they currently chase.