Widening gap

Mansley Allen reviews what was an exciting end to the season but points at the overall drop in standards in Division Two

With promotion issues decided in the last minute of the last match, the Second Division was an exciting contest but it was hardly a vintage year. Stoke’s 8-0 home defeat by Liverpool in the Worthington Cup and Brentford and Port Vale’s removal from the FA Cup by Kingstonian and Canvey Island respectively, hinted at the overall standard. This was of course offset to some extent by Wycombe’s magnificent run to the last four in the FA Cup, but this was largely a case of a moderate squad being fired up to play above them­selves by an astute management team.

There was one outstanding side, Millwall – vastly improved by the arrival of Mark McGhee – and one particularly inept one, Oxford United, but little to choose between the rest. Broadly, the difference be­tween third place and 23rd place was stability in the boardroom and a settled squad, not disrupted too much by suspensions or injuries. The contrasting for­tunes of two of the clubs promoted from the Third, Rotherham and Swansea, bear this out. The former would have started the season with the single objective of staying up. They kept the squad together, didn’t lose key players for any significant time and with the addition of Alan Lee from Burnley got into a groove the took them past faltering promotion candidates. Swansea were handicapped from the outset by owners seemingly intent on offloading the club and were a dispirited bunch before the winter set in. By the end of the season they were possibly even worse than Oxford.

Reading, the team pipped by Roth­erham, might have gone straight up had striker Nicky Forster, a proven goalscorer in this division, not been injured for most of the season. What­ever one might think of the corporate ethos at the Madejski Stadium, there is no doubt the club has taken huge strides forward. Wigan were another team with superior resources (which, for instance, enabled them to take Keith Gillespie on loan from Blackburn) but again all was not well behind the scenes with the first of their two managers, Bruce Rioch, departing amid accusations of boardroom in­terference in team selection. Most neutrals will have been happy to see Walsall pip the moneybags clubs in the play-offs, Ray Graydon’s achievements mir­roring his club’s previous promotion two years ago, with a sprinkling of foreign players well in­tegrated into a passing team.

The outstanding playing prospect in the Sec­ond Division is Lee Trundle of Wrexham, plucked from Rhyl in the League of Wales. Powerful and technically adept, not since Chris Waddle has a player had a less apt surname. The most improved player was probably Gavin Mahon of Brentford, who began the season as a maligned defensive midfielder but was a revelation after moving back into a sweeper’s role after the cup debacle against Kingstonian and is now tipped to join his former manager Ray Lewington at Watford.

The player who made the biggest impact on the division, though, was Jermain Defoe, on loan to Bourn­emouth from West Ham, who equalled a League record for scoring in consecutive matches. The success of a raw teenager who couldn’t get a game for a struggling Premiership team, yet looked like a complete centre-forward in this division, further points to the wide­ning gap between the top level and the rest.

Finally a word about what some might call razzamatazz. Swindon have an Australian striker, Danny Invincible. His goals in home matches were greeted by Waltzing Matilda blaring over the tannoy. When are clubs going to realise that with the Premiership on another planet, the only thing fans at this level have to cling on to is their heritage? If we’re to be doomed to mediocrity, let’s not have commercial man­agers given permission to turn a football match into a circus.

From WSC 174 August 2001. What was happening this month