Saturday’s round of fixtures saw the second automatic promotion spot to the Premiership sealed, as Roberto Di Matteo’s West Brom side confirmed their return to the top flight, accompanying already promoted Newcastle. Only a matter of weeks ago, it appeared as if the Baggies promotion train might have derailed following the improved form of Billy Davies’ Nottingham Forest. The tables turned again recently however, and after a couple of slip ups from Forest, Di Matteo’s side confirmed their promotion at the Keepmoat Stadium, defeating Doncaster in an entertaining encounter.
The Championship has proved to be a highly competitive and entertaining place to watch football this season and to finish at the top of the pile is a credit to the promoted sides. West Brom didn’t start the season in spectacular fashion and their Italian coach was doubted by some on occasions. However, their record speaks for itself, and the Baggies are worthy of a place back in the big time. Indeed Di Matteo has enjoyed a greater run of results at the Hawthorns than during his spell in charge of MK Dons, where he had received nothing but praise for his efforts. During his playing career he gained much experience in the Premier League with Chelsea and so he will be fully aware of what to expect. Without wishing to label the club as relegation fodder at this point (such a sweeping statement would be clearly unjust and untimely), nobody will be expecting the Baggies to set the world alight upon their return to the top flight. It will be interesting however to see, just how Di Matteo adjusts from an environment where promotion form is not only expected but where nothing less will suffice, to a position where the must pressing priority is merely survival.
Making the giant leap to the complete opposite end of the Football League, the battle to avoid the drop on to the non-league ladder is intensifying. Relegation from League Two is not a matter to be taken lightly. It means a departure from the traditionally professional ranks and there are also financial implications to be considered. Competing outside of the Football League is not the disaster that it once was for a team however. It is the opportunity for a club to rebuild and breathe new life into its ranks. Many clubs have fallen only to fight their way back up. The likes of Barnet, Hereford and Aldershot have all succumbed in one way or another but have fought their way back to our attention. A quick glance at the Blue Square Premier league table today shows all four playoff spots currently occupied by sides with experience at a higher level. Whilst Stevenage look a good bet for the title, the playoffs appear likely to be contested by Luton, Oxford, Rushden and York. However, two clubs will make their bow from the nation’s elite 92, but nobody is leaving without a massive fight.
Despite avoiding defeat and thus certain relegation on Saturday at home to Accrington, Darlington cannot afford to drop any more points from here on in if they are to avoid the seemingly inevitable. The Quakers now require seven wins from seven games to have any hope. Unfortunately, this won’t happen and so it seems only a matter of time before their fate is confirmed. The final relegation berth looks set to be filled by one of Grimsby, Cheltenham or Torquay, with the former looking most likely to face the drop.
The Mariners are seven points adrift of their nearest rivals and have flattered to deceive all season long. In spite of their plight, an away victory at Hereford on Saturday will have done much to boost morale in the camp. Their push for survival has been aided by the loan acquisition of Hull City winger Jamie Devitt, whose early goal gave Grimsby their 3 points at Edgar Street. Should the Blundell Park side survive this season, a large slice of thanks will be due to the young Irishman’s form.
Unfortunately for the Mariners, as they were toasting a hard fought victory, so were their closest rivals. Cheltenham and Torquay both put in five star performances against promotion chasing sides with the Robins seeing of Bury 5-2 whilst in Devon, Rochdale fans expecting to see their side confirm promotion were left shell-shocked as they were thumped 5-0 by a determined Torquay side. Clearly no club is ready to accept their fate just yet and so the final few games should prove to be tense affairs (although hugely entertaining for the neutrals). This coming Saturday sees Grimsby entertain Torquay in a match which could go a long way to determining the final standings. A victory for the Gulls should see them safe. Anything less than a victory for Grimsby, and survival will be an almighty ask.