After two months of waiting, the Championship season started in style this weekend, reminding fans across the country of the highs and lows that come along with being a football supporter. On display were new players, new managers, new stadiums, late goals, red cards, dodgy defending, sublime finishing and horrendous injuries.
There’s only one place to start, and that is down at the brand spanking new Amex stadium, where Brighton were (eventually) victorious after two late goals from substitute Will Buckley earned them a 2-1 win against a stubborn Doncaster side. The second goal came in the 98th minute, after there had been lengthy stoppages in play due to serious injuries for two Rovers players.
The Seagulls found life tough in the first half and were becoming frustrated by Rovers resilient defence and the referee, with Gus Poyet being sent to the stands after protesting one too many times. Rovers then took the lead through a scrappy goal from Billy Sharp just before the interval. It looked like Doncaster would hold out for a famous victory but as the pressure mounted late in the second half Brighton eventually found their breakthrough. You feel that Doncaster would have settled for a point, and they will feel harshly done by especially as they had to play the last minutes of the game with 10 men because of injury. Given the occasion, it is hard to make a clear judgment on both teams but if Brighton can continue to make themselves hard to beat at their new home then they have every chance of having a good season.
Arguably the most impressive performance of the weekend came at Ashton Gate where Ipswich swept past Bristol City 3-0. Two goals from new signing Michael Chopra either side of Lee Martin’s strike cemented a comfortable victory for Paul Jewell’s side. Ipswich are many pundits’ dark horses for automatic promotion, and on this showing you can see why. City’s defending was questionable for all three goals, and they will need to improve in the coming weeks or it could be a long, hard season for them.
Southampton started life back in the Championship with an excellent home performance, beating Leeds by 3 goals to 1. Manager Nigel Adkins would have been expecting a tough start to the campaign against a side who narrowly missed out on the play-offs last year, but the Saints simply dominated the game and scored 3 very good goals from Dean Hammond, Adam Lallana and David Connolly. Only a late penalty from Max Gradel came in reply. Leeds boss Simon Grayson will undoubtedly be disappointed with not just the result but also the manner of the performance, which have United fans questioning the clubs ability to mount a promotion challenge this term.
Newly relegated West Ham started with a disappointing home defeat to Cardiff City. Despite dominating the game for long periods (especially in the first half) the Hammers lacked finesse in the final third and were made to pay late on in the game. A defensive mistake in second half injury time from Herita Ilunga allowed Kenny Miller to score his first league goal for the Bluebirds and hand Malky Mackay the perfect start to his career in South Wales. Cardiff looked very assured and based on this performance, you would expect them to be challenging for at least a play-off place come May. West Ham will need to improve, and manager Sam Allardyce will hope that it was just one of those days.
Another manager who will be hoping there is more to come from his side is new Forest manager Steve McLaren. His side were frustrated at the city ground as they drew 0-0 with Barnsley in a result which would have ruined many punters coupons on Saturday. Forest had plenty of possession but created little, and the Tykes were well worth their point.
Title favourites Leicester City got their season underway with a 1-0 win away at neighbours Coventry City. The Foxes have been the biggest spenders in the division in this transfer window and big things are expected of Sven’s side. The early kick off at the Ricoh arena wasn’t much of a spectacle, which may have been down to the early red card for Darius Vassel. His reckless challenge in the 10th minute was deservedly shown a red card. Coventry boss Andy Thorn would have expected his team to take advantage of the extra man, but before half time the advantage was erased as Carl Baker was also sent off for another bad tackle. After the break, Leicester were by far the better team and deservedly won the game through a 52nd minute strike by Lee Peltier.
Losing play-off finalists Reading got off to a slow start at home against an improving Millwall side. Despite a goal-less first half, Millwall were on top for the majority of this game and capitalised just after the break with headed goals from Darius Henderson and then John Marquis putting the Lions 2-0 ahead. The goals spurred Reading into life and the pressure mounted but it looked for long spells as if Millwall would hold out for the win. Reading substitute Mathieu Manset had other ideas. Having pulled what looked like a consolation goal back in the 86th minute, he then snatched an 89th minute equaliser to salvage a point for Reading. Both teams will take out some positives from the game, and look like they have the capabilities to challenge for the play-offs.
Another team who threw away a two goal lead away from home were Watford at Burnley. Having lost manager Malky Mackay to Cardiff in the Summer, it’s hard to see the Hornets challenging at the top end of the table but they can be encouraged by their display in this game. After an even start to the match, it was Watford who opened the scoring on the stroke of half time through Craig Forsyth. They then doubled their money on 70 minutes through a smart finish from Mark Yeates. But the Clarets recovered in the final 13 minutes as Charlie Austin pulled a goal back. And fellow substitute Keith Treacy – a summer signing from Preston – headed an 84th-minute equaliser. Again both managers will look back on this with disappointment, but both look like they have more than enough about them to finish in the top half.
Derby started their season with an encouraging 2-1 victory at home to relegated Birmingham City. Despite an even start, the Blues took the lead through a bullet Curtis Davies header on 19 minutes in manager Chris Hughton’s first game in charge. He will have been disappointed though, as his side were only able to keep hold of their lead for 7 minutes. Derby equalised on 26 minutes after Jason Shackell headed in a Ben Davies free kick. The Rams upped the pressure and then took the lead in the 42nd minute as Steven Davies struck with a swerving long range shot for what proved the eventual winner. Birmingham piled on the pressure in the second half but were unable to snatch an equaliser. Manager Nigel Clough will be pleased if they can replicate this form throughout the season as they look to improve on last year’s poor showing. Birmingham have lost a large number of first team players over the summer and on this showing, there is a large amount of work to be done if they are to be in the top 6 come May.
The third 2-2 draw of the weekend came at the Riverside stadium, where Middlesbrough played Portsmouth. Despite both having disappointing seasons last year, both have aspirations of returning to the Premier League. On this showing there is work to be done for both sides. Of the two managers, Pompey boss Steve Cotterill will be the happier as his team twice came from behind. The second equalizer came late on in the 92nd minute from new signing Luke Varney. This result meant that Middlesbrough have only won on the first day of the campaign once in eleven years. Tony Mowbray has his work cut out for him.
Peterborough made sure that all three of the newly promoted clubs won their opening games with a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace. Posh boss Darren Ferguson will be looking to improve on their ultimately unsuccessful Championship campaign from two years ago and despite selling top scorer Craig Mackail-Smith to Brighton they had enough about them to seal the win. Palace took the lead in an even first half through Sean Scannell, but in the second half the posh hit back through goals from Grant McCann (62) and David Ball (73). It was a deserved victory and Palace boss Dougie Freedman will be disappointed to come away empty handed after taking the lead.
The first game of the season took place on Friday night at the KC stadium where relegated Blackpool took on Hull City. It was an extremely tight game that could have gone either way, but a fine finish from Gary Taylor-Fletcher nine minutes from time gave the tangerines all three points. Hull will rue several missed chances and will feel that they should have at least come away with a point. Despite the loss of talisman Charlie Adam, Blackpool have made some decent acquisitions across the summer and look like they have the capabilities to push for promotion once again.
The championship proved this weekend why it’s worth watching, as we said at the start of the article – it had absolutely everything. If this is the standard of football we are going to see across the rest of the season, then I for one can’t wait. Who needs the Premier League?