16 Conclusions on Sunderland, Salford, Henrik Larsson and…
1) It’s definitely getting better, but it’s still not quite there yet for Huddersfield Town. There was never to be a quick fix; repairing this broken, burnt-out vehicle on the move was never going to be viable for the new mechanics in town, but there are at least signs that some of wear and tear can be addressed.
Scoring goals against West Brom isn’t the toughest of tasks, and it is certainly much easier to keep them out. You know you are watching a fun side when a 4-2 win sums them up better than any other result. For Huddersfield, any defeat is typical and no matter the quality of the Cowley brothers, it is almost impossible to alter a perennial losing state.
There were signs of improvement at the Hawthorns, but when it came to the crunch, the Terriers rolled over and had their bellies tickled.
2) For West Brom meanwhile, whether or not Slaven Bilic can guide the Baggies back to the big time after a two-year absence is anyone’s guess, but it will be a fun journey to the end of the season. Losing star strikers Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez over the summer has paved the way for a more balanced, far younger and much more exciting team than last term.
The likes of Romaine Sawyers, Semi Ajayi, Darnell Furlong and Nathan Ferguson are some of the most exciting players in the division and if many clubs are spending an arm and a leg for a chance to fight at the top of table, West Brom have spent a finger or two to put together a side which makes for quality entertainment.
Show me a man who wanted West Brom on the TV every other week and I’d show you a liar. That is until now. Forget the Premier League and Super Sunday: it is difficult to see any of the 20 ‘elite’ clubs serving up the fare on offer in the Midlands right now.
3) A match not quite of the same magnitude was Bristol City against the blue team in South Wales, but Swansea City’s journey across the M4 represented a great occasion in the home of Banksy. The 90 minutes were no work of art, but this was an important point for both.
For Lee Johnson’s side, this is seven games unbeaten with Ashley Williams impressing on debut against his former employers and without star striker Benik Afobe for the first of many, many matches. Steve Cooper too has reason to be happy; a hard-earned point ensuring there is no hangover from last weekend’s first defeat of the campaign, if perhaps a sore head and slight nausea.
Both teams missed the chance to go top of the Championship table, but in the short term, avoiding defeat represented a win-win situation.
4) Preston, meanwhile, are no longer making quiet strides towards the top of the second-tier tree, for these are heavy footsteps on the way to largely and longed for unchartered territory.
Ever since the appointment of Alex Neil – who has promotion pedigree from his time at Norwich City – North End have been heading in the right direction. This is not a team of superstars. In fact, any fairweather football fan would struggle to name more than a handful of the current squad.
But that is part of the beauty of this team: no star man, just a tight squad of players winning at all costs and they were at it once again at Birmingham City. A 1-0 victory in the second city takes Preston third. Four wins in five undefeated games means it shouldn’t be long until they top the tree.
5) Rather more quietly usurping the division are Queens Park Rangers. While we all pretend to believe Preston aren’t as good as we know they are, QPR really are the most surprising of frontrunners. Rangers rode their luck at London rivals Millwall, but you make your own in this game.
Nakhi Wells’ opener made it a baker’s dozen of goals for the season for Mark Warburton’s side and his second after a howler from Millwall keeper Bartosz Bialkowski means West Brom (15) are the only side with more goals than QPR’s 14.
For a side widely tipped for lower mid-table at best, to be one point off top -and with the joint top scorer in the division too – these are rosy times at the Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium.
6) Another stalemate for Brentford, another sign of the wasted opportunity this season is fast becoming. Many, including us, backed Brentford to be dark horses for promotion this season. After all, the long-term project was finally coming to fruition.
Unfortunately for the Bees, this horse has bolted at the starting blocks and that project is missing its vital piece in a season where the frontrunners are even more unlikely leaders. Failing to replace Neal Maupay and sending out their only available out-and-out striker Marcus Forss to AFC Wimbledon represents awful business for a club synonymous with much better decision making off the pitch.
Eight points from as many games is not disastrous by any means, but in a farewell season to Griffin Park which should be so much more, Thomas Frank’s side might soon be saying goodbye to a promotion campaign.
7) This column seems to have a mention of Stoke City every week, but with good reason. This week though, it is short and simple. For months now, Potters fans have just wanted something to cheer. That they went to the second-lowest scorers in the division seemingly happy to take a point back home speaks volumes.
Still, it takes them to just five points off safety. We hope it was worth it.
8) This time of year can always be tough for promoted sides. Luton Town’s first season at this level in over a decade started promisingly, but the 3-0 home defeat to a Hull City side enduring a dry streak of their own is cause for concern.
Where the opening month provides a chance for teams who were a division lower 12 months previously to use momentum and shock to take results, now the realities of plying their trade at a higher level takes precedent.
The two late goals scored by the Tigers made this a mauling and the Hatters have now conceded more than all bar one. If any of the bottom three ever start finding form, they will need to learn to keep goals out to make sure this isn’t a brief Championship sojourn.
9) This just in…Sunderland drawing 1-1 to disappoint their fans and destroy accas up and down the country in unison. A tip: if you want to make money from the Black Cats, good luck and fortune will come to you in droves for betting on the same scoreline as Saturday’s.
The last-minute penalty in Lancashire does nothing more than paper over the cracks for a Sunderland side once again flattering to deceive in League One. That Jack Ross managed to keep his job on Wearside after failing to make last season a one-off in the third tier was astounding. That the same mistakes which blighted 2018/19 are reappearing means the Scot has to be on borrowed time at the Stadium of Light.
Much of the 4,000-strong away following was calling for the manager’s head while trailing and Aiden McGeady’s penalty only temporarily covers the problems in the North-East. If defeat had prompted the board to act, that would have been much more beneficial in the long run.
10) For Bolton, it was a wonderful effort to start clambering towards the zero-point mark.
This time last week, they were recovering from a 6-1 reverse at Rotherham United. In the two games since, a stalemate with Oxford United – scorers of six again at Lincoln – and a draw against promotion favourites Sunderland means there are plenty of reasons to be positive, both on and off the pitch. So many other clubs are showing how to survive the crisis, after all.
11) Has an EFL manager ever been appointed at a new club and quit before overseeing his first match? If not, Michael Appleton might fancy making history after watching his old side destroy his new one from the stands.
Oxford United’s 6-0 victory at Sincil Bank over Lincoln City was certainly the most eye-catching result from the weekend and shows that the Imps are struggling to get past being dumped by the Cowleys. Tariqe Fosu’s hat-trick was just one part of the U’s superb performance in Lincolnshire, but Saturday’s match showed there is much to work on for the new manager.
For what it’s worth, Appleton has worked and flourished in much tougher situations and his appointment is on par with that of Danny Cowley at Huddersfield. It is no easy task replacing popular and successful managers, but Lincoln have got that one right. Now just to get it clicking again on the pitch.
12) One of Lincoln’s fellow promoted sides from League Two last term, Tranmere Rovers, have struggled to stamp their mark on the new division, but Saturday’s dramatic victory over Burton Albion is a start.
Trailing going into injury time, two goals at the death from Ollie Banks and Stefan Payne bore fruit for Micky Mellon’s team. This second win of the season, from the most unlikely circumstances, is a chance to gain the momentum needed to charge up the table.
They may still be in the lower echelons of the table, but Rovers have opened a gap between themselves and the bottom three. Considering where they were three years ago, staying up in this division would be a remarkable success. Against Burton, Tranmere have shown they are more than capable.
13) After taking their first point of the season last weekend to end six straight defeats at the start of the season, Southend United earned all three from their clash with MK Dons and it was most surprising.
Last weekend, I spoke of Southend needing to give the job to the right man. It would take time to see if Gary Waddock was indeed that candidate, but despite his impressive stint as caretaker, it looks as if Southend are opting for playing legend Henrik Larsson, whose recent managerial record does not make for great reading, and his rapport with the fans even less so.
We said Southend need to make the correct decision and not rush in like they did with Kevin Bond. Appointing Larsson may prove to be a masterstroke; but you can’t help feeling it might be more of the same.
14) If, in August, you would have said a 4-1 win in a game between Crewe Alexandra and Salford City would leave the victors second, and just one point off top spot with the losers ten points lower, then you would have been forgiven for believing the League Two new boys would be near the top of the pile.
Instead, a second-half masterclass from the hosts has Crewe keeping surprising company at the right end of the pack under one of the EFL’s most underrated managers in David Artell. Salford, meanwhile, are struggling under the weight of expectation.
One look at the line-up shows this is not a side that can demolish League Two as many predicted. To be languishing in the bottom half is underperformance of the highest level.
15) Cheltenham Town are another side making significant strides to an unexpected promotion push and in former player Michael Duff they have another underrated manager on their books. While the big boys are struggling to keep pace in the fourth tier of English football, the underdogs are taking advantage.
Ryan Lowe achieved magnificence in guiding Bury to promotion amidst immense financial turmoil. It was assumed that at the more settled and sensible Plymouth Argyle the former forward and his band of Bury men would succeed far easier on the south coast. A 2-0 defeat at home to Cheltenham means no wins since late August. For Cheltenham, it is four in a row. Superb stuff.
16) In a week where John Nicholson named the Championship as a whole as his Hero of the Week, it is worth considering the admiration that the EFL receives on a weekend where Manchester City shipped eight past Watford without leaving third gear and Newcastle United played out a 0-0 stalemate with Brighton and Hove Albion on Sky Sports’ ‘Main Event’.
It is great to see so many facets of the Football League still providing genuine competition and entertainment where the Premier League can and does not. That is, of course, what football should be all about.
Nathan Spafford is on Twitter