Reading fan Roger Titford is worried by the state of the Nationwide as the Premiership fulls further clear
Pre-season favourites West Ham were always going to be the big story in this league, whatever they did. One of the top dozen clubs in the country (in theory) slumming it in the Nationwide; would it be ruin or revival? From a distance it sounded like a catalogue of disasters: the Rotherham dressing room; Glenn Roeder’s exit; the ruck with Reading over Alan Pardew’s contract; his failure to get a win for ages; losing a 3-0 lead to West Brom; backroom staff shown the door; Jermain Defoe collecting red cards like they were Monopoly properties before following David James out of the club; fans booing awful home performances; dismal displays in key away games; the board under pressure from shareholders. And yet like a real EastEnders script they kept it going to the last moments of the season.
Apart from the unhappy Hammers there was not much else in the way of grand narrative or great personalities (aka “talking points”) in the division. Norwich and West Brom settled into the automatic promotion places in December and stayed for the duration, much as Portsmouth and Leicester had done a year before. Norwich gambled successfully in the transfer market (Leon McKenzie, Darren Huckerby) without the benefit of Premiership parachute money. West Brom got an opening day 4-1 beating at Walsall out of their system quickly and repeated their 2002 promotion formula. Consistency was a key virtue for both clubs, but who or what stays in the neutral’s mind? Gary Megson? Delia – as tired of doing interviews as we are of hearing them?
Behind these two successes a hideously inconsistent bunch of clubs staggered towards the play-off places including Ipswich and Palace (both earlier in relegation trouble), Sunderland, who narrowly avoided equalling Darwen’s all-time record for consecutive League defeats, and Reading, still with a slim chance on the last day despite a negative goal difference. Sheffield United, Wigan and Cardiff, both newly promoted, and Millwall, freshly distracted, were also in the fray.
The standard of play was pretty competent without being very distinguished or very distinguishable. Crewe stood out for offering the passionless, technical excellence of a well behaved provincial Dutch side, while Stoke, Bradford and Millwall had a rougher edge.
One cannot, sadly, avoid the subject of The Gap, the increasing gulf between the playing standards of this division and the Premiership. First hand I saw Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat of Reading in the League Cup and I’ve seen closer 5-0s. “Crisis-torn” West Ham and Sunderland have basically sold their Premiership teams and yet still competed very effectively at this level. The only survivors of last season’s promoted trio, Portsmouth, apparently bought 19 new players.
Six years ago Division One looked like two separate divisions – those who really thought they should be in the Premiership and those who might feel lucky not to be in Division Two (Oxford, Stockport, Bury, Port Vale, Huddersfield...). Now the division has a more even feel – more distant from the Premiership (it doesn’t look like it’ll happen soon for Derby, Forest, Coventry...) but with better resourced clubs coming up – Cardiff, Wigan and Preston. This levelling process continues with the demise of the shameful Wimbledon, who got their just deserts. Bradford clutched Bryan Robson in a relegation embrace likely to be fatal to the reputation of the latter and possibly the existence of the former. A prize for the weirdest decision must surely go to Walsall for firing Colin Lee for going for the Plymouth job, thereby precipitating their slide back into Division Two. Three more of the smaller outfits gone.
Millwall’s achievement in reaching the FA Cup final was notable rather than remarkable. The average status of their opponents on the road to Cardiff was lower than that of their League programme. You can only beat what’s in front of you and to their credit they did. But when, with a weakened team, they met Manchester United in the final The Gap was awful to behold. No one could use the customary consolation of “a fine advertisement for First Division football” with a straight face.
In itself Division One is a decent enough sporting competition: competitive, popular and spiced with fresh stories. But it only seems to exist in relation to the thing that it is not, the Premiership. The latter’s magic, media coverage and millions are leaving Division One further and further behind. As if to emphasise the point next season it will not be the Nationwide (grown-up British mutual organisation) First Division but could well be the Coca-Cola (kiddified American corporation) Championship. Leagues apart.
From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month