Our round-up of the season outside the Premiership begins with Gavin Barber's assessment of the beached whales and battling plankton all at sea in the First
History was made in the First Division this year. The streets of Oxford rocked, fanfares sounded and choirs of angels sang, as the Manor Ground played host to English football’s first-ever pay-per-view bonanza – a 0-0 draw with Sunderland. Bizarrely, adverts urging Sky subscribers to cough up £7.95 for the privilege of watching Niall Quinn were being broadcast on Talk Radio well into the second half of the game.
The pay-per-view experiment was such a non-event as to be greeted with little more than a knowing sigh outside Murdoch Towers; it was merely another surreal twist in the nine-month David Lynch movie that was the First Division season. Take Bradford City for example. In September and October, they looked a desperately poor side. Stuart McCall was so motionless opposition teams treated him as a roundabout, and their forwards were posing more threat to passing aircraft than to the goal. Yet by May they were doing a passable impersonation of Brazil 1970.
Bury, on the other hand, started the season like the proverbial express train (and with about the same level of footballing sophistication), but ended up taking the unfavourable route out of the division. Early pace-setters Huddersfield endured a less dramatic downturn in fortunes. It was left to Watford to prove that promotion is still eminently achievable for teams who spend the season doing little more than running around a lot and kicking the ball very hard.
The bad news for Bradford and Watford is that there is no evidence to suggest that even the division’s runaway winners, Sunderland, can make any real impression on the Premiership. They played exciting and effective football throughout, but needed a penalty shoot-out to beat Everton in the Worthington Cup, then lost – albeit at the semi-final stage – to Leicester City. Hardly a ringing endorsement of their ability to compete with the best of the best.
Watford’s success goes some way to blurring the distinction between the potential achievers in the First Division and the rest. It is commonly believed that there are only a few teams who have a realistic chance of promotion – those such as Ipswich, Birmingham and Wolves who are always around the top six, and those who have come down from the Premiership. It sometimes feels as though the rest are there to make up the numbers and the relegation scrap.
Yet the division is prevented from becoming a rigidly divided two-tier league by the fact that any of the strugglers can upset the big boys at any given time. Crewe, for example, looked like relegation certainties for the first half of the season, yet effectively wrecked Ipswich’s promotion chances with a win at Portman Road on their way to survival. Seven days later, the sadly doomed Oxford gave the Bradford juggernaut a jolt by drawing at Valley Parade.
At times the First Division can resemble a Hollywood drying-out clinic, a place where famous names from the past linger as shadows of their former selves. QPR only just avoided descending further into anonymity; since the end of the season, Crystal Palace have been threatened with eviction for non-payment of bills; Sheffield United’s top-half finish was remarkable given their parlous financial state, as was Portsmouth’s eventual survival.
Barnsley, much patronised during their brief sojourn in the top flight, found sympathy as hard to come by as success on their return to more familiar pastures. Newcomers Grimsby, on the other hand, coped surprisingly well, despite being strongly tipped to go down. Bristol City were the division’s only season-long duffers. And in the middle, the familiar wodge of Norwich, WBA, Stockport, Tranmere and Swindon continued to tread water. The overall standard remains mediocre. A select handful of teams (Sunderland, Ipswich, Bolton) are prepared to swim against the tide and attempt to play skilful football, but the general reliance on cloggers can be dispiriting.
Overall, though, supporters can still count on seeing a decent number of good players during the course of a season. Michael Gray and Kevin Phillips are capable of standing out in next season’s Premiership, as are Richard Wright and Kieron Dyer (although sadly for me, not with their hometown club). Crewe’s Seth Johnson is another ready to make the step up. Before being snapped up by Leicester halfway through the season, Bolton’s Arnar Gunnlaugsson looked pretty much world class.
The diversity of First Division stadia is immense. Away supporters can squeeze into a miniscule tin shack at Crewe one week and recline in the palatial splendour of the Reebok the next. Ticket prices are generally thought to be a bit steep – quite how Crystal Palace are so skint when they charge a whopping £20 to sit in their away end remains a mystery. Referees are consistently abysmal, baffling interpretations of the advantage law being a particular speciality.
And then of course there are the play-offs, which we Ipswich fans would really rather not discuss if you don’t mind...
From WSC 150 August 1999. What was happening this month