Another week has passed in this season’s Football League, and the drama never fails to intensify with each week that passes. In just the last seven days alone, we have seen Crystal Palace edge closer to an appearance at Wembley with a narrow 1-0 Carling Cup Semi Final First Leg victory over Cardiff, while another Semi Final, this time in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, remains delicately poised after League Two sides Barnet and Swindon Town played out a 1-1 draw in the first leg of that encounter. We’ve also seen Billy Sharp turn down the chance to join Leicester City and remain with Championship strugglers Doncaster Rovers, which is an invaluable boost to the Keepmoat side, who are desperately struggling to stay in the division and Sharp’s goals and influence is going to play a key role in whether Dean Saunders’ side can do enough to avoid the drop. And, of course, we’ve had another round of Football League matches over the weekend…
Where better to start this week’s league roundup than with a mention for Birmingham City, who have kept their bid for a playoff place moving in the right direction with a thumping 6-0 victory at Millwall. The result is important, and very illustrative, of where the season is going for both of these teams. For Chris Hughton’s side, it is a sign that Birmingham are a team capable of joining the promotion chase after a difficult start to the season both on and off the field, and is also a genuine sign of Hughton’s ability as a manager. His previous job at Newcastle involved taking on a team who had been recently relegated, with off-field problems, and he oversaw an immediate return to the top flight for the Magpies. The signs are he may well do a similar job at St. Andrews, though this time around it has taken a little longer to steady the ship, but there is no doubt that Birmingham are in the running now.
For Millwall, a more bleak outlook seems to be awaiting, as this defeat signifies not just a poor home performance but also highlights the fact that Kenny Jackett’s side are slumping badly, having won just one game since the beginning of December. Their next 3 games are critical – they face Dagenham and Redbridge in an FA Cup replay before crucial games against Barnsley and Watford. Millwall must take some points from these two games because the fixture list beyond that is not good news for the following four to six weeks, with very little opportunities (at least on paper) to get points on the board, which could leave them planted firmly in the drop zone in March with a lot of work to be done from there.
It is also beginning to look very bleak for Coventry City. They’ve been in the bottom three for most of the season, and safety is already beginning to look a very long way away for the Sky Blues. Andy Thorn’s side are now seven points from safety, and have just allowed key striker Lukas Jutkiewicz to leave the club to join Middlesbrough. This leaves Gary McSheffrey as the club’s top scorer with just three goals to his name this season. It doesn’t take a skilled analyst to figure out that if a club’s top scorer has managed just three goals in five months, that it doesn’t bode well for the club in question. I’ve doubted for much of the season whether Andy Thorn is the right man for the Coventry job, and it seems as though they are a relegation waiting to happen, which is a shame for a team which were a solid Premiership outfit not too many years ago.
Looking to League One, and the big story of the week is undoubtedly the move which has seen now former Stevenage boss Graham Westley take the top job at Preston North End. As I alluded to in last week’s blog, Westley’s success has been well documented as it is this that made him a very attractive proposition to the Deepdale outfit. It will be very interesting to watch how Westley’s management approach works at Preston, which is without question the biggest job that Westley has had in his career to date, and whether he is able to now cope with the pressure of expectation that comes with taking a role at a club where the fanbase are used to watching their team play at a higher level, and will be expecting Westley to be the man to take them back to the Championship. Preston are not that far away from the playoffs at the moment, and surely Westley will be targeting a swift move up the table, snatching sixth place before the end of the season – ironically, a position currently occupied by former club Stevenage.
It will also be interesting to see how Stevenage move forward from here, and to see whether Stevenage appoint a manager who will attempt to keep the club operating in a similar manner to that of Westley, or whether the club will look to break away from the Westley regime and take on a fresh approach. In either case, carrying on the good that Westley has done at Stevenage will be a very difficult task to ask of whoever is appointed as the new boss, and it would not surprise me if the Stevenage board take their time over this next appointment to make sure they get the right man. The wrong decision now could undo all the hard work that has been done in the last few years, which would be a catastrophic tragedy for the Hertfordshire club.
In League Two, the intensity at both ends of the table is really starting to show, with the weekends results now meaning there is just 1 point separating the top 3, with Southend United moving back to the top of the table and Crawley Town being bumped down to third place, with Cheltenham Town sandwiched in between the two, while at the other end, the bottom three are tied on points, with Dagenham & Redbridge, Plymouth Argyle and Northampton Town all on 21 points. From here until the end of the season, every point gained and lost will be crucial at both ends of the table. It could just be that the title, or indeed relegation, is decided by a single point. How much could Southend’s comeback from being 2-1 down at Northampton to ultimately winning 5-2 mean at the end of the season for both clubs?
On a final note for this week, I just want to express a genuine admiration for former Bradford City and Hull City striker Dean Windass, who in the past week has openly admitted suffering from depression and that he has very recently attempted to commit suicide. Dean was an inspirational character for whatever club he was at in his playing days, and to be as open and honest as he has been about the struggles he has been facing in his life since retiring from playing shows a real strength of character, and I think it is fantastic that he is being very candid about how is he feeling. Depression in football is still something of a sore topic, with the death of Gary Speed in November still fresh in the minds of a large number in the footballing community, but I think it is one that the footballing community, the Football Association, the Professional Footballers Association and the clubs themselves need to pull together and work towards helping former professionals who feel that, as Windass himself put it, “they have nothing to get up for in the morning.” I genuinely hope that Dean, and other former professionals out there facing similar problems, are able to get the help they need to get their lives back on track.