Wayne Rooney has done a phenomenal job at Derby but our biggest winner of the weekend is Matt Crooks.
Either side of the dotted play-off line sit two clubs who have benefited from inspired mid-season managerial changes. Nottingham Forest’s rise up the table has been well-documented, but yet another Middlesbrough victory under Chris Wilder underpins Boro’s very real promotion credentials this season.
With Premier League strikers Aaron Connolly and Folarin Balogun loaned in from Brighton and Arsenal already this month, the Teessiders are shouting their short-term vision loud and proud, but it was one of their summer signings who proved to be the hero against Reading. Matt Crooks could have struggled in a similar vein to Onel Hernandez and Uche Ikpeazu when Neil Warnock departed the Riverside Stadium, having been bought in the mould of his former manager’s vision.
Instead, Crooks is proving to be an integral part of Wilder’s plans too, and against Reading, his two late strikes took the industrious yet deceptively agile midfielder to seven goals for the season. Having been a talisman at this level for biennial Championship strugglers Rotherham in recent years, more match-winning performances in this mould could see Crooks and his current employers swapping the Championship for the top flight.
Another late show came in Sky’s lunchtime offering in what was arguably the best game of the day. Not only did we get treated to great goals, a raucous atmosphere, a wasted comeback and that Nathan Jones knee slide, but also a thoroughly entertaining 90 minutes of football in between the drama. When writing articles like this, it is easy – and necessary – to reduce matches to the key moments, but something about Luton’s clash with Bournemouth was easy on the eye from first whistle to last.
That full-time whistle of course came seconds after the versatile Kal Naismith showed his instincts further up the pitch with a deft touch to fool the Cherries’ defence before finding the back of the net with pinpoint precision to give Luton all three points after they had seemingly wasted a two-goal advantage with a largely lacklustre second-half performance.
This was another example of just how happy manager Jones and Luton are to have each other, and why the Hatters are so happy to sit in the middle of the Championship table looking upwards.
This writer has to admit that there was disappointment to be had at midday on Saturday when he realised Cardiff’s clash with Blackburn was not the televised game of choice. At long last, it appears the Sky schedulers made the correct decision – not picking West Brom was a start – but it was a great double-hander all round for everybody in the Rovers contingent. It did appear midway through the second half that it wouldn’t turn out too rosy for Tony Mowbray’s side as Bournemouth had pulled themselves level and Ryan Nyambe had been sent off with Blackburn just a goal to the good in south Wales. Holding on at Cardiff coupled with Naismith’s 97th-minute winner ensured Blackburn finished the day two points off top and now level with Scott Parker’s Bournemouth. They are the real deal.
The bad news keeps coming off the pitch for Derby County, but a fourth win in five games – the outlier being a draw from 2-0 down – ensures Wayne Rooney’s side are off bottom for the first time all season. Perhaps lucky to play against a Sheffield United side looking rusty from having not played a league fixture for the best part of a month, the Rams took full advantage. Constantly tearing at their opponents until they could stand no more, a second-half double took Derby above Barnsley and just eight points off safety.
On the same day that it appears Rafa Benitez has run out of time at Everton, Rooney will naturally be linked to the Goodison Park hotseat. Whatever happens in the rest of this season, Rooney and Co. have put together one of the best managerial performances of the modern football era.
It has been some week for Phil Jagielka. Having been unable to renew his short-term contract at Derby, the veteran defender found himself returning where it really all started. If you thought his anti-climactic return to Sheffield United a couple of seasons ago was a homecoming, Jagielka was at Stoke as a schoolboy. Now the elder statesman of another new set-up, Jagielka looked at home in the heart of Stoke’s three-man defence in the Potters’ first away game in six weeks.
He could have marked his debut for the club with a goal on an occasion in either half, but it was in his day job where the former England man excelled, continuing to roll back the years as he did so often in the first half of the season with Derby to help Stoke to an important victory and a debut clean sheet in what looked a makeshift Stoke side, but was actually one of the slickest we’ve seen in months.
Talking of slick, how was that for a league debut for D’Margio Wright-Philips? The youngster has been making waves for his own ability since swapping Man City’s academy for Stoke, and a pathway to the first team has been a long time coming. He may carry the weight of his grandfather Ian Wright and dad Shaun, but when he plays, the youngest Wright-Philips glides as if he is weightless. Too often, Stoke players have looked afraid to take on their markers. Wright-Philips and his exuberant youthfulness will take on three or four with glee, and Hull could not handle that. The goals may have come from other sources, but Wright-Philips will get bums off seats. Stoke needed that. Now they have it.
Against Reading, the two best goals of the game were scored by the Royals who still conspired to lose 7-0. Antoine Semenyo did score two legitimate goals for Bristol City to hand the Robins an early 2-1 lead but this was still game over come full time. Sixty-four goals and counting for Fulham already this season, there is a reason they are the Championship’s greatest entertainers for quite some time.
Ditto their star striker. A third hat-trick of the season takes the Serbian superstar to 27 goals for the season. Some still subscribe to him being (far) too good for the Championship and not good enough for the Premier League. On the back of this campaign, it is difficult to see him not reaching double figures when the Cottagers make their inevitable return to the top flight.
Away day Sky Blues
Coventry’s superb home form back in their city has been well documented this season, but with less notice on ttheir away form having tempered expectations of an unexpected tilt at promotion this campaign. Peterborough United may not offer the toughest test for any of their opponents, but this was an away day that had the Sky Blues feeling wholly positive about their season again after a stop-start couple of months owing to Covid postponements and inconsistent form. Scoring four goals in one of the most comfortable victories of the season to move back towards the top six is a welcome antidote to those away day hiccups.
To label Charlie Austin’s time at West Brom underwhelming would be an understatement, with his goalscoring failures at the Hawthorns now engulfing the entire Baggies’ strike force this season. Fortunately for Austin and QPR, a club with whom he has a great relationship and fine goal scoring form across two separate spells, the veteran striker was in the right place at the right time to take his current club ahead of his former employers in the second-tier standings.
Nothing will stop this man. The QPR defender was our Unsung Hero of the Season for 2020/21, partly for his ever-present exploits and largely for his underrated defensive performances. Against West Brom, the Frenchman exhibited his right to reclaim that crown, not allowing being pushed into the advertising hoardings and requiring stitches to take him off the pitch. The sight of a heavily bandaged and bleeding Barbet celebrating the big win at full time was a hark back to days of old in football. Another incredible performance from Barbet on another incredible day for QPR.
Cardiff’s home form
There is little shame in losing to this Blackburn Rovers team right now. Unbeaten in the league since a 7-0 drubbing at the hands of Fulham, that is form of which Cardiff can only dream. Steve Morison had originally appeared like being an unlikely shining light for the Bluebirds following the long-awaited ending of Mick McCarthy’s reign at the club.
While the performances are largely better than Cardiff’s lowly position would suggest, this 1-0 reverse to promotion-challenging Blackburn was emblematic of the club’s much bigger problems. Played behind closed doors due to the new Covid rules in Wales being enforced this month, there was no change to recent results in familiar surroundings. This was Cardiff’s eighth defeat in nine league games at home. When the fans are allowed back into Welsh venues from next weekend, Cardiff will be even closer to the drop than when they were last allowed to watch their club in the flesh.
Considering Cardiff were fighting for a place in the play-off places last season, it seems ridiculous to suggest this squad is far from good enough to be assured of a place in the Championship, but the evidence at either end of the pitch suggests this to be the case. Morison is not the problem. He is likely not even a problem, but his inexperience in management could mean he is not the solution to overcome the deficiencies Cardiff have in defence and attack. If any of the bottom three can work their way above the dotted line, Cardiff could easily find themselves trading places.
Hull’s playing out from the back
Hull did start the game against Stoke in decent fashion, looking relatively solid and equally capable of causing their opponents problems on Sunday lunchtime. Credit should be given to manager Grant McCann for having the vision to get this Hull team playing nice football, but there is little substance behind it. As soon as Stoke took the lead with consummate ease from Sam Clucas’ peachy cross for Jacob Brown’s firm header, the Tigers didn’t look capable of getting even a scratch on Michael O’Neill’s side.
The second goal came from Di’shon Bernard being caught out of position after making an advanced pass and move for which only he was aware of the plan in amber and black. Former Hull man Tom Ince was the ultimate beneficiary with his emphatic finish doubling Stoke’s lead seconds later. Hull still have a buffer to the bottom three, but there is too little quality at either end of the pitch to make up for a weak midfield which was overrun by a player on his league debut and the often-maligned pairing of Sam Clucas and Joe Allen.
We have written countless words, lines and virtual column inches about Valerien Ismael’s time at West Brom – so much so that it feels like he has been there for far longer than six months. The lowly mood West Brom fans are feeling has been well founded and it feels like they are sleepwalking towards a P45 being handed out to a manager who doesn’t suit the club’s culture.
To play poorly and win is just about acceptable, but late defeat to QPR at the hands of a former player could be another, if not yet the final, nail in Ismael’s coffin. Daryl Dike is a good signing, but not a miracle worker. His introduction to league action came midway through the second half and did little to change West Brom’s fortunes in front of goal. There was never likely to be a quick fix to the season-long problems, but a quick fix is just what Ismael needed. A miracle might only suffice for him and West Brom to get their respective happy endings come May. With every result like this, it looks less and less likely.
Peterborough boss Darren Ferguson has gotten off lightly with the Posh’s poor first half of the season largely owing to his longstanding good relationship with the club and the excuse that the summer recruitment was poor for Championship level. Against Coventry, there was no hiding place. It was perhaps fitting that summer signing Jorge Grant provided the one bright spark on an otherwise miserable day in Cambridgeshire.
Peterborough are not averse to buying their way out of trouble or to grant more success at London Road, but given the miserable record they had with that last summer, it would be tempting to get a firefighter in to get Peterborough on the other side of the relegation zone. While the teams on the other side of the dotted line are still within catching distance, it could prove to be the best option to avoid an immediate return to League One.
We ranked Reading as the most miserable club in the Championship this week. The last 10 minutes of their clash with Middlesbrough encapsulated just why times are so tough in Berkshire, with all positivity provided by Andy Carroll’s opener wiped out late on by a Matt Crooks double to leave Reading in deep trouble, one place above the bottom three having played a game more than the team immediately below them.
For manager Veljko Paunovic, the tide has turned from a fanbase split between excusing him and wanting him gone to almost all wanting the latter option. There have been suggestions from those in the know that Paunovic will be given to the end of the season regardless of results between now and May in a decision borne purely of financial reasons. Beyond that, there are no benefits for anybody with that decision, least of all Paunovic who looks a far different man to the optimistic and bright figure who guided the Royals throughout a largely positive 2020/21 season. With their hands tied behind their back, both Reading and Paunovic could be pushed to League One without a whimper.
They didn’t even play and Barnsley still end up on the losers list. They may have two games in hand over Derby, but they also had a 21-point head start. That the Tykes now sit bottom of the table proves just what a sh*tshow of a season they have had at Oakwell.
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