Championship Round-Up: A Weekend of the Expected
By Bob Melling
This weekend was stuffed with FA Cup action, meaning the Championship was strictly limited to a meagre seven fixtures. But this didn’t mean it was any less captivating than usual, with contentious decisions, a good dosage of goals and a couple of dramatic finishes mixed in there too for good measure. So, like a young and much better looking Gary Lineker, I give to you the five results I have deemed most significant.
Let’s kick this week off with a trip to the University of Bolton Stadium/The Macron/The Reebok; your guess is as good as mine. Whatever it’s called these days, Norwich fans won’t care, as they left the North with three points and a delightful 216 mile journey to look forward to. But the beer would’ve been flowing on the way home (I am in no way condoning drink driving…), Norwich having recorded their joint biggest win of the season, delivering lowly Bolton an elegant evisceration in the process.
Even Norwich fans, who have seen their side lose just twice on the road this season, would have struggled to envisage such a thorough rout after their midweek setback. But their performance on Saturday made Wednesday’s defeat at Preston appear an anomaly.
Bolton boss Phil Parkinson was hard pushed for criticism post-match, as he lauded Norwich’s classy brand of play, stating that “some of their football was out of the Premier League”. The gulf in class was prevalent from the off, as the unlikely alliance shared between poacher Teemu “The Finnisher” Pukki and no.10 Marco Stiepermann prevailed. Pukki signed on a free whilst German-born Stiepermann spent a portion of last season operating in defense.
The perfect pair combined for the opening two goals of a 4-0 rout. Stiepermann supplying a defense-splitting pass for Pukki to slot home in the 8th minute, and the roles reversed 20 minutes later, when Pukki expertly cut the ball back to Stiepermann who sent home a precise first-time finish.
Tricky attacker Emiliano Buendia volleyed in a third before the unofficial ‘Championship’s Best Signing’ Pukki grabbed his second of the game and 23rd of the season with a deft lob to cap off a rampant display. Surely that deserves some cake, Delia?
Norwich are the Championship’s most prolific scorers with Pukki having more goals to his name than the entire Bolton side combined. And when Bolton are relying on a 35-year-old Clayton Donaldson to lead the line, it really is no surprise that they find themselves on a direct train to League One.
Another expectant glance was cast towards the list of results; Sheffield United emerging 4-0 victors in a one-sided contest against Reading at Bramall Lane. But what I didn’t expect to see, was Gary Madine on the scoresheet, and not once, but twice!
Within a heartbeat of kickoff, the Blades had stormed into the lead. Some swift football on the left-flank led to a precise Mark Duffy delivery which the onrushing Freeman could scramble over the line.
Thunderstruck Reading, who have won just once on the road all season, struggled to cope with their buoyant hosts and were given a mountain to climb when loanee Gary Madine thumped home his first goal for the Blades in the 16th minute. The magnificent Madine then made it 3-0 with another powerful drive before John Fleck made it four with an effort from range.
Chris Wilder asked for energy and he got it, but the question for me is who starts for United when they face fellow promotion hopefuls West Brom on Saturday? Gary Madine was maligned when he made the move to Yorkshire and even after his brace on Saturday, 26.6% of the vote on a Sheffield United forum poll was for the option, “No he’s still a nobhead”.
But as long as he behaves himself and refrains from his drunken antics of old, he has got to be the first name on the team sheet for his aerial potency and deft touch as a targetman. In what will be a tough end of season stretch, Madine could be key.
Now back to the bottom and the Championship’s basement boys Ipswich Town, who hosted an insipid Stoke outfit who have won just once in 2019 and are without an away win since October last year.
Stoke benefited from a horrendous mix-up in the Ipswich defense to break the deadlock, but they were punished at the death when Will Keane, who boasted the least amount of touches than any other player in the match, got the most telling one, heading home a dramatic late leveler.
Town boss Paul Lambert’s succinct post-match comments some up Stoke’s season thus far; “I don’t think Stoke really caused too much of a problem for the squad that they’ve got.” It’s been a pretty heavy fall from grace for the Potters, from earning a point against Liverpool last season, to dropping points against an Ipswich side who have conceded on average 1.7 goals per game and scored a mere 0.76. A side with a Premier League wage bill producing non-League standard football.
Meanwhile, there was a mixed bag of responses from the Ipswich faithful, some left frustrated, others elated and a few with a residing sense of acceptance. There was plenty of talk around the bond shared between the club, the fans and the players but ultimately this was another “what might have been” match.
Ipswich have the makings of an attractive footballing side, but the belief and confidence of the Conservative cabinet in Theresa May. Much like the Conservatives, individual errors are costing the Tractor Boys and although the minority still believe in a late surge to safety, the majority are preparing for a League One promotion push next season.
West Brom kept their slim hopes of automatic promotion alive against an Aston Villa side who just can’t seem to get their promotion bandwagon going under the tutelage of Dean Smith, who had hoped for so much more.
Aston Villa found themselves 2-0 down at the interval and although their heroics against Sheffield United show that they are a side who can never be written off, they never truly looked like overcoming an Albion resistance who have kept an impressive five clean sheets in ten.
It was a fifth consecutive away win for Darren Moore’s side, who can at least expect the playoffs and at most hope for an automatic return to the Premier League. There was an evident gulf in class between the two West Midlands teams. West Brom a side with offensive nous and Aston Villa a brittle backline who have conceded more goals at home than any other team in the top four divisions of English football.
The substitution of Conor Hourihane sums up the sour mood surrounding Villa Park at the moment, as he was taken off the pitch to a chorus of ironic boos from the Villa faithful. By full time, Villa Park was like the Etihad, just swathes of empty seats in a ground that was bursting at kickoff.
Speaking of perpetual disappointment, Rotherham United fell flat on their faces, when fierce rivals Sheffield Wednesday netted an equaliser in the tenth minute of stoppage time to secure a fortuitous point. It was a dramatic Yorkshire derby that saw Wednesday extend their 43-year unbeaten run at Rotherham, despite being second best for much of the tie.
It was the sixth time Rotherham had dropped points by conceding in the final five minutes of a game this season, an alarming stat that will be reflected upon come May if they find themselves falling into the League One abyss. That works out at 9 points dropped over six games, a result of their own profligacy combined with lapses in concentration at the death.
Rotherham midfielder Richie Towell insists his side won’t be throwing in the towel and are determined to fight for their place in the second tier, but if they are to extend their stay, the Millers will need to turn those draws into wins. Sounds simple, but time is not on their side.
Meanwhile, Steve Bruce is yet to taste defeat as Owls boss and will continue to experiment tactically in a bid to find the winning formula. Bruce’s flexibility could be crucial for Wednesday, who are in desperate need of reinvigoration. At former club Hull City back in their promotion winning season of 2013, Bruce switched to a three-man defense. A decision that proved a masterstroke. If he can recreate the same feat at Sheffield Wednesday, next season could be fruitful.