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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Twenty-Eight Year Old Black Hole

For every one of us there's probably been a defining moment this summer that hit home the stark fact that we're now talking Tier Three football. Mine came a few weeks ago when the local Spanish bartender expressed surprise when I told him we had been relegated. Knowing of our recent Premiership exploits, his jaw dropped and the only words to come out of his mouth was a shocked, "Segunda B!"
Now if you've ever tried explaining the English football league naming conventions to a foreigner you'll know the problem as I tried to point out that relegation from what I'd previously told him was the Second Division means we're now in something called League One. A confused look came over his face and I knew that this was not going to be easy to explain. Because not to be outdone by the English, in Spain it's equally confusing where all logic ends after the Second Division and the Tercera (Third) Division is really their Fourth Division while Tier Three is called, as already indicated, Segunda B which, due to the distances involved and a complete lack of finance, is a regional four Division League containing many La Liga reserve teams and is clearly the back of beyond for many people.
And its not only the naming conventions that we have to get our head around. After recently reading '1421', a book that explains how the Chinese discovered the world and being told, if you choose to believe it that is, that the famous explorers Columbus, Magellan and Cook didn't exactly sail into the unknown but had maps to show them where to go, it occurred to me while attempting to put a game-by-game forecast to CAFCPicks that I didn't have a clue about Tier Three or the teams in it - I was completely mapless, so to speak, so with under 3 weeks left before the kickoff, I thought I would try to figure out exactly what storms lay ahead in the mucky waters of League One.
Last season in League One the top two, Leicester (proving there is life after death) and Peterborough, finished with 96 and 89 points respectively and into the PlayOffs went MK Dons (87), Leeds (84), Millwall (82) and Scunthorpe (76) which were eventually won, of course, by Scunthorpe, 3-2 over the Spanners.
But with all the gloom and doom around us at the moment perhaps its the other end of the table that we should be more concerned with so casting our eyes downward we find that Stockport, Hartlepool and Carlisle were the tail-end charlies, and all saved themselves from relegation by a single point all ending on 50 points, one clear of relegated Northampton.
So if you believe in fairies its a target in the 90's that's needed to get an automatic place or 80ish to reach the lottery of the PlayOffs. On the other hand if you're that bloke that sits next to me, or even Killer Hales, you'll probably be praying that we can manage at least 50.
Secondly, to give you some sort of scale of the size of things down here in the third level of english football, of the 17 teams that remain in League One from last season (ignoring the ups and downs) only 3 of them (Leeds 23812, Huddersfield 13350 and MK Dons 13550) had average gates of over 10000. (Remember Target 10000, seems like yesterday).
So obviously from the low attendances there's a lot of small, tight grounds out there in League One and we find that there's with no less than 7 teams with grounds holding 10000 or less - Brighton, Colchester, Exeter, Hartlepool, Orient, Wycombe and Yeovil. There's another 7 with less than 15000 and only 7 teams (Leeds, Southampton, Charlton, Norwich, Huddersfield, MK Dons and Millwall) that have capacities of over 20000.
The biggest club in the Division is clearly Leeds United with a ground holding over 39000 and now approaching their third season in Tier Three. Last season the prospect of playing at Elland Road obviously scared a lot of people as they won more games at home (17) than anyone else and although they only suffered 4 home defeats you could point to two of them, against minnows Colchester and relegation haunted-Carlisle, as being the difference between automatic promotion and their appearance in the Play-Offs for the 2nd year running. The season didn't start well either and they lost their first home fixture against Oldham 0-2 and they also lost to local rivals Huddersfield Town.
But, if you consider ourselves as another "big" club, perhaps we should look at their real failing last season - their away record. The warning signs are there for us to see; a whopping 10 away defeats, only one other club in the top 16, Tranmere Rovers, had more away losses.
As far as last seasons records go, of the teams still there, four were pretty bad at home with double figure home defeats - Colchester, Orient, Walsall and Brighton whilst conversely, Tranmere (only 3 defeats), Leeds (4) and Oldham (5) being the most impressive at home.
The best teams away from home were MK Dons with 14 victories, the Spanners with 12 and little Colchester with 11 whilst the worst travellers were Hartlepool (14 defeats), and Yeovil and Carlisle with 12. Makes Yeovils' 1-0 victory at the Valley last August in the League Cup even more galling. Swindon had the lowest away wins with 4.
As far as our record against these teams is concerned, the visits to Leeds, Mk Dons and Millwall (our dismal record against the Spanners is a meagre total of 11 wins in 62 league games) already look difficult before we've even started while both Exeter and Tranmere don't look good either with only 1 win in 11 visits to both grounds. And the trip to Bristol Rovers don't look promising either with our meagre 2 wins in 25 away League games.
Of the rest, there's three clubs in there that we've never played before at League level, Wycombe, Yeovil and Harlepool and there's another 4 - Carlisle, Exeter, the Gills and Oldham - who have never won at the Valley. That'll either sound encouraging to you or another banana to slip up on, depending on your level of optimism.
So, which teams are there to fear in this League Number One? Leeds must stand out as the main one to watch as the only club to make it into the Playoffs for the last two seasons. As mentioned they have the biggest fan base and a manager in Simon Grayson experienced in League One football having taken unfashionable Blackpool into the Championship in 2007 via the Playoffs. Grayson will be starting his first full season as Leeds manager, having joined from Blackpool last December.
Meanwhile the Spanners, finantially settled and in Kenny Jacketts' second full season, must be a treat also and keen to better their defeat in last seasons PlayOff final. And then there's MK Dons who after finishing winners of League Two in 2007/08 under Paul Ince and missing out in last seasons League One PlayOffs under Roberto Di Matteo will consider themselves front runners after Paul Ince was re-appointed as manager this month. Altogether we can curse our luck that the trio of MK Dons (in second place for much of last season), Millwall and Leeds remain with us and that Scunthorpe, finishing eleven points adrift of MK Dons, should have won the lottery of the PlayOffs.
So what will Dickson need to get the Divisions top scorer? Last season the hot shots were both Richard Lambert (Bristol Rovers) and Simon Cox (Swindon, now with West Brom) on 29 goals and Jermaine Beckford (Leeds) following close behind with 27, whilst you all know the dirtiest club last year would be the Spanners with the most fouls, and the highest number of Yellows and Reds shown. And over on the wing, Robert Snodgrass (Leeds) had the most assists.
Casting your mind back, the last time we were in Tier Three was 1980/81, via a touch of deja vu, after we had finished bottom of Division Two the previous year with just 22 points ( 2 points for a win). And, of course, promotion was won at the first attempt with 25 victories and only 12 defeats to finish in those days an automatic promotion-winning 3rd place in the years when the PlayOffs were just a dream in someones mind. Unfortunately, there can't be many out there willing to predict an automatic spot this time and in fact even Killer is getting nervous about an even further drop in our status. We clearly need a bit more luck this year and maybe the number 7 will provide it. Curiously, the number 7 pops up again as there are 7 teams that were still there in Tier Three from 1981, Brentford, Carlisle, Colchester, Exeter, Gillingham, Huddersfield, Millwall, Swindon and Walsall.
Can we do a Leicester then? It has to be said that with the managerial mess we find ourselves in, with the additional threat of the dreaded administration being mentioned more than once and its subsequent 10 point deduction hanging over our heads, things don't look very promising. To add to that we will need to be aware of the problem of all relegated teams where clubs will know our problems and will see us as a easy target for their aspirations and perhaps at this point it would be worthwhile remembering that Luton Town back in 1992 were a Division One team (missing out on the Premiership by one year) and finished 10th in Tier Two as recently as 2006 and now find themselves playing non-league football in the Conference.....


Floyd said...

Nelson - top thoughts - dunno if there is anything that is 'inspirational' regarding aspirations for the coming season BUT I love the analysis. I associate with the banana skins rather than the home bankers! But I guess a large % of Addicks feel the same. Thanks for the view, the 3rd division is a minefield. Lets sit back and enjoy!

nelson said...

Banana skins and minefields, Floyd, it looks like being an exciting season. Makes you feel quite sorry for those serious Premiership clubs, doesn't it?