Football League: your thoughts | John Ashdown
Tuesday night’s results felt potentially pivotal – but things remain tight at the top and bottom in all three divisions
• 1.30pm update: Huddersfield’s defeat against Sheffield United proved to be the final straw for the club’s directors who have dispensed with the services of Lee Clark. “”With 16 matches to go we still have an opportunity to achieve promotion and we have made this change with this in mind,” said the club in a statement.
It’s certainly a shock decision – Huddersfield went unbeaten (sort of) in the league between January and November and have lost only three games this season, two of those against the division’s current top two. But Clark lost the big one, last season’s play-off final against Peterborough, and the Terriers failed in the play-offs in 2009-10 too, against Millwall at the semi-final stage. With the club drifting away from the top two the play-offs were looming once more, and the club clearly didn’t think it was going to be third time lucky for Clark and his coaching staff.
Replacements? Would Neil Warnock like the chance to deny his alma mater Sheffield United and his old enemies Sheffield Wednesday promotion back to the Championship? The former Leeds manager Simon Grayson might be a good shout. Mark Robins? Sean O’Driscoll? And up-and-comer like Oxford United’s Chris Wilder? Or Cheltenham’s Mark Yates? It’s a huge decision for a club who have been banging their head against the League One ceiling for years now. And where next for the previously in-demand Clark, who showed commendable loyalty to the club during his tenure despite interest from elsewhere, a courtesy not shown by his former bosses.
The fourth tier is shaping up for the sort of blanket finish usually reserved for Flat racing – the top five are separated by a solitary point after Tuesday night’s results with Southend, Cheltenham and Torquay cuddled up on 56 points and Swindon and Crawley snuggled in on 55. Shrewsbury are a point further back, making a very cozy top six.
This week had the potential to prove pivotal, but the results between four of that quintet only served to crunch the promotion race up again. Cheltenham missed the chance to go three points clear at the top with a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Torquay. “We are probably in a sticky patch right now and the only way we will get out of it is to stick together,” said the Robins manager, Mark Yates, whose side have picked up only four points from their last five games. For Torquay it was a seventh win on the bounce, but they are hardly hammering sides. Those seven wins: 2-1, 2-1, 2-1, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0 …
Paolo Di Canio got the better of Steve Evans in the battle between two of the Football League’s most volatile managers, his Swindon side hammering Crawley 3-0. “That’s our worst performance in 18 months,” said Evans, who added: “One or two people in the away end forgot where we have come from.” For the cash Crawley have spent, though, Evans has no excuse not to put Town in the top three come May.
At the bottom, Northampton were the big winners. Well, that is to say the only winners. Aidy Boothroyd’s side victory over AFC Wimbledon (they have now taken a quarter of their points from games against AFC) was their first win at Sixfields since September. “The momentum and the feelgood factor in the dressing room is terrific but this is just one win,” warned the former Watford manager, whose Cobblers remain bottom, but are now level on points with Dagenham and Redbridge, who lost at play-off-chasing Oxford, and Plymouth, who eked out a draw with Barnet.
“You used to be shite, but now you’re alright,” sang the Sheffield United fans at the Galpharm Stadium. It was directed at Danny Wilson, the former Sheffield Wednesday manager who has the Blades playing their best football in more than a decade, but it could well have been aimed at Neill Collins, whose goal proved the only one of the game against Huddersfield in a crucial battle at the summit.
Collins, the former Leeds, Sunderland and Wolves centre-half, bore the brunt of the fans’ frustrations as United plummeted miserably out of the Championship last season, but he has been nothing short of a revelation this year. Only his central defensive partner Harry Maguire has played more minutes for United this season, and together they have kept four clean sheets in the past five games.
Lee Clark’s Huddersfield side now trail the Blades by four points having played a game more. “Tonight wasn’t going to define our season whether we won, drew or lost,” said Clark. “It does give them a little bit of edge, but there will be plenty more twists. I am certainly not writing off the top two places; there is so much time to go and I am sure that Danny with his experience will know that as well.”
It meant a night to forget for Sheffield Wednesday, whose defeat at home to Stevenage meant United leapfrogged the Owls into second. It was an “ugly, one-dimensional, scared performance” from Wednesday, according to the Owls Alive blog. The Steel City derby at Hillsborough looms large for both sides a week on Sunday, but Stevenage deserve a tip of the hat for the way they have responded to Graham Westley’s departure to Preston. The Boro were seen as very much Westley’s project and I don’t think I was alone in expecting a collapse following the removal of that keystone. Gary Smith, the former Colorado Rapids coach, was an intriguing appointment as a replacement and he has kept the side on course for the play-offs.
Charlton maintained their place at the top with victory over the stuttering MK Dons. The Addicks are over the hill and far away, though, as far as the rest of the division is concerned. Surely the race now is for second.
At the bottom Wycombe’s 3-2 home defeat to Yeovil was a huge blow to their survival hopes, while Scunthorpe’s win over Rochdale lifted the Iron out of the bottom three and dumped Dale to the foot of the table. “We kept a clean sheet and this was massive for us – absolutely massive,” said Alan Knill, who recorded his seventh league win as Scunthorpe manager in his 39th game in charge. “It gives everybody, especially the defenders, confidence. It’s something we can build on now.”
Are West Ham and Southampton going to blow it? The draw between the Championship’s top two felt pretty inevitable given their recent form. The Hammers have now won five of their 11 league games since the start of December, the Saints three of their 12 in the same period, although to be fair Sam Allardyce’s side looked like they might steamroller the visitors at Upton Park until Matt Taylor’s idiotic sending off.
Six teams are lining up to take the top two down, with three points separating Cardiff in third and Middlesbrough in eighth. Blackpool, Birmingham and Reading are the form sides, although Hull are beginning to develop ominous solidity – it’s now five clean sheets on the bounce for Nick Barmby’s side. Middlesbrough will hope they’ve turned a corner after their first win since Boxing Day, while Cardiff, despite dispatching Peterborough, still have an air of distraction with the Carling Cup final coming up.
Still (he wrote reaching into a bag marked “Acme’s Big Bucket of Hoary Old Cliches”) never underestimate points on the board – the chasing sides have to be better than the top two over the final few months of the season, and I’m not so sure that they will be.
At the bottom Nottingham Forest show no signs of life. “It’s sad to have to say this – but Steve Cotterill is clearly not capable, even by deploying his hideous brand of percentages football, of turning this around,” writes the Forest blog Through The Seasons Before Us, following another defeat, this time to Middlesbrough. Doncaster also look increasingly doomed, but Coventry will have set a few butterflies fluttering in the stomachs of those immediately above them, even though Tuesday night’s win was against the increasingly hapless Leeds United.