Half a Season in the Football League

A year ago, Lloyd and I used a walk along Plymouth Hoe to reflect on half a season’s events in the Championship. A year on, and with Plymouth’s 4-1 hiding of Reading that afternoon still a strong memory, we have reconvened to ponder events since August 2010, bearing in mind our switch to covering the Football League as a whole since June. Here are the results:

Lloyd: You’ve been in the US for the first half of the season, LG. Enlighten us on how you went about following the Football League overseas, and whether your extended stay affected your enthusiasm for the game.

Lanterne Rouge: I was able to follow the Premier League very easily as the apartment I rented had a cable deal involving Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN. You need Fox Soccer Plus to see any Football League fixtures however – and I didn’t get to see any games down the pub. That left me with the internet and your coverage, as well as that of our fellow bloggers Ben, Frank Heaven, Scarf and Stanley, became my main source of information; along with the Guardian online and other good blogs such as Two Hundred Percent, The Seventy Two and Soccer AM/MW.

I wouldn’t say my ardour for the game has lessened. I now have a half season ticket for the Mad Stad and have already chalked up two games on returning including a trip to the KC Stadium. Relying on ‘secondary sources’ while in the US was frustrating though, so it’s good to get back to forming opinions on an eye witness basis.

My first question for you as someone who has been in the UK all along would be about League One. Are Brighton the real deal? and who do you think their main challengers will turn out to be?

Lloyd: I’m inclined to say ‘not yet’. Brighton came on strong in October and November when their record was astounding, but they’ve slowed right up and I think they’re in need of a little revitalisation in January. The loss of Kazenga Lua-Lua has been key as, along with Elliott Bennett and Iñigo Calderón, he was one of the few players who could really turn it on for them, so I think that Gus Poyet will be after dynamic attacking players to spark the run that will lead them to promotion. They’re as solid as they’ve ever been, but the rumoured addition of a Craig Noone is just what Albion need.

Aside from the Seagulls, I must say that the division isn’t a strong one this season. Huddersfield are reeling after several false-dawns and Southampton obviously had an awful start (although I think they’ll stay in the top six for the rest of the season now). Sheffield Wednesday are just about the best side I’ve seen this season, but even they weren’t that great. I quite like Bournemouth, but I’ve not been that surprised to see them slipping away given how small their squad is and the fact that they sold their top-scorer, Josh McQuoid, to Millwall. Colchester are solid and have a couple of good players; between them, Hartlepool and Exeter, I think that one of those teams might sneak a play-off place.

You’ve come back to see your team (Reading) in a play-off place. What do you think of the competition?

Lanterne Rouge: Not that strong. Without lapsing into Robbie Savage style “anyone can beat anyone” cliches, there is no one team that is impregnable, even at home. QPR deserve their lead but I am disinclined to think that a side containing the effective, but prosaic abilities of Clint Hill and Shaun Derry are that good. Of course Adel Taarabt is the player of the year so far and his talents are far from ordinary, but Rangers are unlikely to win the division at a canter.

I refuse to believe that Nottingham Forest, after their strong 2009-10, are not going to feature again and their pounding of Derby would appear to bear this out. Cardiff are wobbling horribly, although Jay Bothroyd being called up by England was a boost for the division. Norwich and Leeds’ form has all been about momentum but I’m not convinced by Adie Boothroyd’s roundhead approach at Coventry.

Apart from Forest, many, including Sky Sports’ David Jones are predicting that Leicester will emerge from the pack but I wouldn’t be so sure. Bringing in storied ex-Premier stars may garner headlines but you need a blend, and the Foxes losing to an impressive but dramatically less well funded Millwall side was telling.

At the bottom, you called for Scunthorpe to be provided with greater leeway in their hope to retain standing areas. Which do you think have been the most important broader issues in NPower land this campaign?

Lloyd: I did indeed, and that fight is still ongoing for anyone who’s interested.

One of the main issues over the past six months has been the increase in parachute payments, which we covered fairly exhaustively in the summer. Unfortunately, though, this seems to have been swept under the carpet since the season kicked off with clubs seemingly not in a position to stand up and be counted. Perhaps I’ll dig out some facts and figures and post on this before the season’s out.

Otherwise, the threat of administration and worse for a variety of clubs has probably been the key theme in 2010′s second half (which I’d venture is not entirely unrelated to parachute payments). Cardiff, Portsmouth, Preston, Sheffield Wednesday, Plymouth and Southend have all had their run-ins with HMRC for using non-payment of tax as some kind of overdraft facility, and others such as Peterborough are rumoured to be teetering. Of course, the majority seem to take winding-up orders with a pinch of salt, comforting themselves that no club has been liquidated yet and that any number of Plan Bs will save the day. But the feeling I get is that HMRC are out to make an example of someone, and the fact that they’ve slapped five winding-up orders on Plymouth worries me that they see the Pilgrims as their best target.

It’ll no doubt get worse before it gets better. Reform is needed, and suggestions such as Soccer AM/MW’s call for default one-year contracts across the leagues isn’t as outrageous as it seems upon a first glance. More lobbying is required from us fans, I’d say, and blog posts such as that one are a good start.

We began covering Leagues One and Two at the beginning of the season. Do they remain a distant blur, or are Chesterfield and Port Vale now familiar friends?

Lanterne Rouge: I guess my main interest in League Two has been directed towards the foot of the table although the doom mongering that accompanies an exit from the league is less pronounced these days: with two promotion places from the conference, many clubs have used the opportunity to relaunch themselves in recent seasons. Indeed, our fellow blogger Scarf might actually regard Stockport’s eighteenth place as a semi-triumph given his glass half full tendencies.

That said, the plight of my local club Barnet always attracts my attention and researching my post in advance of the Autumn clash with fellow basement dwellers Hereford made for grim reading.

At the top, a large group of teams are still in it, with the two clubs you mention failing to pull away. I still feel that Rotherham will be one of the three to go up, steeled as they were by play off final defeat, and in possession of an ultra-reliable goalscorer in Adam Le Fondre.

You rightly draw attention to club finances and despite clubs’ claim to be businesses like any other, the way things are conducted continues to leave much to be desired. On Wednesday, we saw a Lancashire axe fall on Darren Ferguson and Brian Laws. Do you think clubs are too hasty in getting rid of under performing bosses these days? and who do you think have been the most impressive gaffers across the seventy two clubs so far in 2009-10?

Lloyd: Of course they are. I’m not sure where I read it, but one writer advocated a three season rule within which a manager cannot be sacked. The first year would be dedicated to sorting out who he wants to keep from the squad he’s handed, the second to bringing in his own men and bedding them in, and the third to bringing everything to fruition. I’m sure that boards would find increased success if they at least kept such a thought in mind.

Instead, we’ve reached a situation where managers are in danger of losing their jobs as soon as clubs drift anywhere near the trapdoor. The pressure at some places is just ridiculous; new managers at clubs such as Burnley or Middlesbrough basically have a ‘top six this year or you’re out’ brief, which is a ridiculous state of affairs. We won’t ever see regulation that stipulates that a manager must be given x amount of time, but a renewed sense of understanding has to be applied from the boardrooms of our clubs. But for the time being, everything is so tight with money and supporters don’t need much of an excuse to withdraw their support these days, so there’s an expectation that managers must prove their worth from their first game.

My favourite managers so far? Paul Tisdale without question (even if his thoughtful interviews do seem a little affected), Eddie Howe and Gus Poyet in League 1. He’s a bit horrible, but John Sheridan is doing just fine with Chesterfield, and you have to respect what the two Pauls, Sturrock and Simpson, are doing at Southend and Stockport. Similarly, Paul Buckle continues to work wonders at Torquay considering the budget he’s working with, but I’m not sure how long that’ll last.

What are your thoughts on the latest sackings and which managers have stood out for you in the Championship?

Lanterne Rouge: You have to grudgingly admire Neil Warnock and Aidy Boothroyd. The football isn’t always that pretty (Taarabt apart) but the former oozes experience and the latter has partially turned round a club in terminal decline. Kudos also of course to Paul Lambert, Brian McDermott and Simon Grayson, although Dave Jones, whom I rate very highly, is starting to look a bit jaded.

But as with Tisdale, it’s those less well resourced managers who have impressed me most: two ex-Watford players, Malky Mackay and Kenny Jackett. Millwall have been very sparky and although it’s true that the season could still go either way for them (as it could for the ever impressive Sean O’Driscoll at Doncaster), Jackett’s achievements really cast a less than favourable light on bigger names like Gordon Strachan and Roy Keane. If there’s a lesson from this season so far, you certainly don’t need to have been a world class player to do a sterling job in the football league.

Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 45 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, A United View on Football and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

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6 Comments on "Half a Season in the Football League"

  1. Sorry, Haven't read the article yet (busy day), but congratulations, Lanterne Rouge and Lloyd and all the other contributors, for The Two Unfortunates making the Guardian.co.uk/football's '100 football blogs to follow in 2011'.

  2. Thanks very much Bill. We are very pleased. It was also very good to see your excellent site put forward especially as I believe you don't have a twitter account. Twitter did appear to be the main driver behind the listing.

  3. Ben says:

    Great news – congratulations! About time we got ourselves a Black & White Twitter feed I think…

  4. The list is only for non-club sites. Black & White & Read All Over would be a shoo in for any similar list of club blogs.

  5. What's Twitter?
    Seriously, though, this article is great and I had been meaning to tell you guys that your version last season was one of my favorites from this site, so I'm glad to see you've continued it.

  6. gerschenkron says:

    Some interesting points here, though I think a “three season rule” would make it very difficult for new managers to get a chance – conservatism in appointments would be rife and Russian style moves would see the “manager” remain in place whilst the “coach” or “director of football” held the power.

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