Following on from our look at the Championship last week, the first leg of the playoffs have thrown up some interesting results, with Blackpool and Cardiff now in pole position to take their places at the Wembley final. As suggested previously, many had already written the Tangerines off before the competition had started but it seems that Ian Holloway’s men are not about to succumb to their own supposed inferiority complex. The second legs will certainly be fixtures not to miss.
Today we turn our attention to the success stories of League One, a division which has certainly thrown up some talking points over the past season. In this writer’s opinion there are clearly two places to start concerning the stand out sides in the third tier, as after an eventful season, Norwich and Leeds will be returning to the Championship in the automatic positions. Norwich started the campaign seemingly still suffering from a relegation hangover. A 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Colchester was the last thing anyone was expecting. In the coming weeks, Paul Lambert arrived at Carrow Road, ironically enough from Colchester and steadied the Norwich ship and pointed it firmly in the direction of promotion waters. Since his appointment, the Canaries have not looked back and have near enough strolled to the league title. An attacking blend of football, led by the firepower of Grant Holt and Chris Martin, Norwich have rarely looked troubled under Lambert and despite a loss on the final day, they can look forward to their return to the Championship with confidence and optimism.
The final day of the season also saw a nervous Elland Road crowd bear witness to Simon Grayson’s men finally escaping League One. Leeds have been the nearly men ever since they dropped into the third tier, having come close to promotion on several occasions but always falling just short. Following a famous F.A. Cup victory over rivals Manchester United in January, their league form suffered and for a while it appeared that they might have to settle for another playoff campaign. However, despite a recent defeat at the hands of now relegated Gillingham, Grayson saw his men over the finishing line with a hard-fought victory over Bristol Rovers. With a number of players having been linked with moves away from the club, the lure of the Championship might be enough to see Leeds keep hold of their stars.
So Norwich and Leeds are the obvious success stories from League One but there are certainly at least two other clubs who warrant a pat on the back. Swindon have shown themselves to be a force to be reckoned with this year. After last season’s mid-table finish, few expected the Robins to make quite such a concerted promotion push but they have found themselves in a well-earned playoff position. Danny Wilson has galvanised a strong squad at the County Ground, with striker Billy Paynter finding the form of his life but perhaps more interestingly, Wilson has unearthed a gem from non-league in Charlie Austin. He is the classic “rags to riches” tale, having been working whilst playing part-time for Poole Town, only to suddenly find himself playing regular professional football and flourishing in the limelight. It will be fascinating to see how Austin develops next season, regardless of which division he plays in.
Finally, we simply cannot ignore the story of Southampton this campaign, who it would seem are starting to put their troubles behind them. The south coast club started the season with a 10 points deduction following their entry into administration and subsequent relegation. The question on everyone’s lips now was how would they react to the situation? Would they struggle, and face another relegation or prove a force to be reckoned and surge up the table? The answer was the latter, and were it not for a slightly hesitant start to the season, Saints fans could well have found their team in the playoffs now. The truth is that given the turbulent few years the club has endured, this year has to be seen as one of great success. Coupled with their league form, Saints have also enjoyed a successful trip to Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and the signs are that they are on a much sounder financial footing (the £1m signing of top-scorer Rickie Lambert is indicative of that.)
In the case of Swindon, there is still all to play for but regarding our other success stories, there is every reason to be optimistic for the coming season. All have fallen on hard times over the last few years but with stability seemingly assured for all parties, now is the time to look to the future with a sense of pride and positivity.