Fair to middling

David Harrison offers views on the current state of play in the Second Division from which his club Watford have just made their escape

Before considering playing styles, and the overall Division Two experience, it is perhaps worth spending a moment on the most fundamental element of the lot: the playing surface.

It would be churlish to criticise Bristol Rovers. To have returned to within a couple of miles of their spiritual home, following the wilderness years at Twerton, must make almost any sacrifice worthwhile. No cover for the fans behind the home goal, whilst enduring play on a roughish pitch, is probably seen as no more than a minor inconvenience. However, the construction of a very splendid-looking new stand appears to have added dozens of boxes, but no more than a thousand or so to the Memorial Ground capacity, leaving one convinced that the funny-shaped ball brigade remain firmly in control on that side of the city. Which leads to a slightly more serious observation.

On my visit to Ashton Gate, the pitch was marked-out for American Football. This may not sound overly intrusive, but picture your ground with lines painted across the pitch every ten yards, thick side-lines well inside the football touchlines and the word “Monarchs” painted in each goalmouth. And all in vivid lime green…not good. Watford stand guilty here as well. The quality of their playing surface, now shared with Saracens, appeared to be deteriorating rapidly in the second half of the season.

Clearly there is some sort of balance required here, between these important revenue-generating initiatives and the bread and butter of League football. The superb condition of Loftus Road, used for a B international in mid-April, after a season of first-team and reserve football, plus a dozen or so Wasps matches, suggests that with the necessary investment in the latest pitch technology that balance can be found. Surely the week-in, week-out fans deserve that much.

As for the standard of the league – well, “variable” is probably a charitable description. There is unquestionably a range of widely-differing boardroom mentalities, or resource levels, at play here. We have the upwardly mobile (the automatically-promoted clubs, obviously Fulham, probably Wigan, maybe Preston) set against those seemingly in a downward spiral (Southend, Millwall, Oldham, Brentford, Luton, Plymouth). There are those currently in a fairly bullish frame of mind (Northampton, Grimsby, Wrexham, Gillingham) and those just treading water (Blackpool, Bristol Rovers, Wycombe, York and so on). And then there’s Carlisle , who seem to go up and down ad nauseum, without ever really settling at any level. Burnley, of course, fit snugly into whichever category you choose.

There are playing styles to suit all tastes. On their day Grimsby are by some way the best footballing side in the division. Their Wembley win was thoroughly deserved, although the consequent fixture pile-up took its toll. Northampton, on the other hand, must represent the most charmless, boorish, dead-ball outfit since… well, since Bury went up last season.

The promoted sides were promoted because each of them experienced fantastic runs, during which time they blew the opposition away. A Rosenthal-inspired Watford were irresistible in the Autumn, Goater’s goals warmed City through the winter and, come the spring, both Grimsby and Wrexham came with ter-rific runs of form, but both were just too late. The top two had flown – beyond recall. Waddle, meanwhile, continued to maintain that Burnley were every bit as good as anyone in the division.

This piece is penned prior to learning the make-up of the play-offs and will appear foolish as a result. However, the complete about-turn in perception of Fulham, over the course of a season, must represent one of the most priceless shifts in recent British football history. As I write, Teletext is suggesting that the Cottagers front line could be led, next season, by a smash ’n’ grab dream team, comprising those slightly less-than-obvious bedfellows, Paul Moody and Jean Pierre Papin. If Chris Coleman really is taking eleven grand a week out of Harrod’s petty cash box, then Mo, Kev and Ray deserve all they get. And would I be the only small-minded Division Two traditionalist hop-ing that is precisely nothing?

Tony Thorpe and Mr Brady should represent easily the best front two in this division. But Thorpe (who kept Luton afloat with his goals) can’t get in the side, while the frequently horizontal Pesch is wasted at this level and looks happy enough just to draw his weekly wad. Long-standing Fulham fans of my acquaintance are already drifting away, doubtless to be replaced by the latest consignment of west London glory-hunters. I don’t like the look of it at all.

There are some absolutely sound managers around. Mel Machin is clearly a thoroughly good bloke, whilst nobody deserved the treatment handed out to Mickey Adams. I still like Neil Warnock (although I can’t remember why) and there’s no way that Lennie Lawrence should be lumbered with his chairman David Kohler at Luton, whilst the Graham Taylor/John Ward mutual appreciation society has a certain olde-worlde charm to it.

Some Division Two players are destined for bigger things. Barry Hayles at Bristol Rovers and Ade Akinbiyi at Gillingham will be picked-up by somebody – hopefully for them not Wimbledon, although they do fit the Kinnear bill. Peter Kennedy at Watford looked a real find early on, while Carl Serrant of Oldham won’t be there for much longer. One or two at the other end of their careers are worthy of note – David Lee of Wigan is still a really dangerous winger, whilst the points that Watford racked up when Ronny Rosenthal was fit carried them through their dodgy spell later on when he was missing. And Shaun Taylor may have been around for a while, but he obviously played a major role in that miserly Bristol City defence.

In summary, it’s been desperately competitive, but really not all that clever. Very few players these days seem to go straight from this level to make an impact in the Prem. The promoted sides looked shot to bits by the end, but the hard work had long been done. And as ever, there exists an intriguing balance between those trying to kick their way out and those who at least pay their respects to a more spectator-friendly approach.

The Second Division remains a football staging post. Not fully part of “the lower leagues”, yet certainly not “in with the big boys”. There are almost equal opportunities for away fans to stand in the rain as there are to sit in (at least relative) comfort. Escape doesn’t get any easier, but this is undoubtedly a division for the ambitious to leave behind.

Macclesfield, you’re most welcome…

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month