Another season draws to a close - one that nobody will ever forget for very obvious reasons. I thought I’d attempt to pick my way through it from my perspective as a commentator, particularly after last week (22nd July) where the Championship’s final set of regular season fixtures threw up the sort of stuff that still has you gently shaking your head and unable to sleep hours after the fact.
I’ve just called my last game this campaign, which was Swansea’s home tie with Brentford in the playoff semi-final first leg at Liberty Stadium on Sunday evening. The fact that it’s the Swans who have a playoff berth at all is remarkable in itself…factor in Brentford coming with the wettest of wet sails towards automatic promotion post-lockdown and yet choke without a Heimlich manoeuvre in sight in their final 2 fixtures is just barmy. (like my podcast - hint hint)
And that’s just one daft story in a season of points deductions, no points deductions and ‘I’m not sure if they’re getting any’ points deductions. Then, you consider the usual mad results that the EFL constantly throws up, a global pandemic, closed stadia and red/amber/green zones and you have a season that has more strands than a multipack of Cheesestrings.
As with last season, my role across the talkSPORT network is to commentate on Premier League, EFL, Cup ties and European club football. And as with last year, it has on occasion taken me to places I’ve never worked at before in my 2 decades plus in this game. Like:
Colchester United - where I witnessed Spurs meekly exit the Carabao Cup on penalties to the U’s, despite Pochettino throwing on all his heavy artillery from the bench in the 2nd half when it became obvious how desperately one-paced his starting XI were - nothing changed and John McGreal’s side deservedly won the shootout. I find it hard to fathom having returned to the Jobserve Community Stadium after things restarted for their playoff first leg vs Exeter that it would turn out to be McGreal’s final home game in charge. They’ll have a hard job replacing him. I also think that night against Spurs was the day I gently alerted the Mirror’s affable John Cross about his propensity to start answering questions put to him on talkSPORT with the phrase ‘Yeah, no, absolutely…’ He didn’t hit me.
Lincoln City - where Everton were in town for a League Cup tie and I was dispatched to Sincil Bank. Luckily I had brought along a brand new piece of broadcasting equipment I had only just purchased called a Comrex. This unit allows you to broadcast in quality using Wifi signals rather than a fixed ISDN-style phone line that most radio stations use at grounds. As it turned out, the ISDN line reserved for me had no intention of working despite nearly an hour’s gentle coaxing from yours truly (I say gentle…) and as my pundit Jermaine Beckford arrived to do his first ever game as a pundit for talkSPORT, he came up to the press box right in the middle of my almighty flap with 10 minutes to going on air, floundering around without instructions as to how to make this Comrex nonsense actually work where the ISDN line had so spectacularly failed me. I swear it was literally 2 minutes to going on air where connection was made with base, and Jermaine humoured me as I furiously mopped my brow and cursed missing out on a light snack.
Fleetwood Town - where Chris Iwelumo and I got rained on rather a lot on an uncharacteristically foul summer’s evening on the Fylde coast, as Wycombe, who’d snuck into the League One playoffs by osmosis, promptly tore Joey Barton’s Cod Army into fish bits for cats when most expected Fleetwood to serenely progress to Wembley. The cardboard cutouts that adorned blocks of otherwise empty seats were there in part as they have been at most stadia since Project Restart, but some wag had gone a stage further at Highbury, lashing together 8 or 9 tailors dummies bedecked in red and white at the home end, one of whom was even cradling a large drum!
The swirling wind and driving rain that night did little for my broadcast equipment which needed covering with plastic bags to prevent the latent threat of electrocution…and nor was it much good for Gareth Ainsworth’s barnet, which matched mine at the time for its sheer length and luxuriousness! But he rocked his leather jacket and red cowboy boots in a wonderfully unapologetic way, and Wycombe’s equally unapologetic style won through on the night…and the next night…and in the final too.
Salford City - a stadium tucked away in Manchester suburbia where Leeds United made light work of the Ammies in another early round tie of the League Cup. A fairly unremarkable first visit both on and off the field for me, although I did recommend to Blues that they should sign the stewards on the entrance gate as nothing got past them for 20 impressive minutes when me and other media types first arrived.
Harrogate Town - where Danny Mills took me for afternoon tea in the town centre, though sadly not at Betty’s Tea Rooms (cheapskate) and then onto Wetherby Road, whereupon more ISDN shenanigans ensued - namely a load of brand new ISDN boxes installed by the club specifically for the FA Cup tie against Portsmouth, only for none of them to have been configured correctly for broadcast by BT, so they were about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Good job I’d learned the vagaries of the aforementioned Comrex unit by this point…there was a shock on the cards early too, but Kenny Jackett’s men hadn’t read the script and were 2-1 up before half time and held on.
I must have seen Leeds United more than any other team this campaign. Once again, they were the Championship’s headline attraction under Marcelo Bielsa and Elland Road was as noisy as ever pre-Covid as Leeds finally got it right over the course of a season to get back to the top flight 16 years on. The comeback win against Millwall in January was one particularly raucous night - 2-0 down and struggling at half time, it was a stunning 2nd half performance from Bamford, Hernandez and co to win 3-2. I think the intervention of the pandemic and the subsequent 3 month rest helped Bielsa’s men more than most given their propensity to press as intensely as they do, and so when football returned in June, aside from the opening defeat to Cardiff and a hesitant draw at home to Luton, Leeds were unstoppable. I don’t believe that teams ‘belong’ in the top flight and nowhere else - you are where you are - but the Premier League will welcome a club of this size and heritage back in with open arms.
There have been some incredibly shrewd mid-season appointments in the 2nd tier that ultimately did for teams who didn’t roll the dice. Not that changing managers is always the answer, of course. Hull persisted with Grant McCann, Lee Bowyer tried manfully to keep Charlton on the straight and narrow…and how was Paul Cook to know that his herculean efforts to pull Wigan well clear of trouble were effectively torpedoed by new ownership that collapsed like a Baked Alaska in Death Valley?
Meanwhile, Stoke persuaded Michael O’Neill to renounce International management with Northern Ireland to save the Potters, Nathan Jones returned from Stoke to Luton, tail between his legs, and no doubt benefitted from an empty Kenilworth Road where he could not be barracked by fans angered by his decision to jump ship for Staffs last summer.
And then there was Gerhard Struber at Barnsley who I watched last week charging down the touchline at Griffin Park a la Barry Fry as the Tykes scored a dramatic winner right at the death to stay up, only he went one further than old Bazza did by leaping onto the pile on with goalscorer Clarke Oduor at the bottom. That result in itself was extraordinary, and then you look at Forest somehow surrendering a playoff place to Swansea and Cardiff with a not impossible but gettable goal swing against them. Forest fans remember Yeovil & Blackpool playoff nights in the last 10 years or so - now they add Stoke to the list of hurt.
And Birmingham City fans like me are hurting - more than we have in about 30 years and the wilderness years of the Kumar brothers and a truly dilapidated St Andrew’s ground. How indebted we are to Lukas Jutciewicz’s late late equaliser against Charlton with 2 weeks of the season to go, otherwise we’d have gone back to League One level for the first time since 1994. Clueless ownership has dominated us for such a long time now, from Carson Yeung and co. through to TTA at present, and the malaise shows absolutely no sign of ending. Why any decent manager would wish to apply for a job with us knowing full well the interference run around his immediate predecessors is a total mystery to me. We are a total mess of a club and if we had fallen through the trap door, my God we’d have deserved to. And don’t anyone labour under the misconception that the Jude Bellingham transfer fee will be used to spend on players. Ask Jeff Vetere, Darren Dein and Harry Redknapp where the financial holes desperately need plugging first, ok?
As always, as I travel the length and breadth of the country, I meet up with many a great pundit to commentate with. Perry Groves brings the laughs and the Jelly Babies, Chris Iwelumo usually has chocolate covered pretzels in tow as well as regular demands to me to sort my Instagram out, David Connolly seems to know a member of coaching staff at every club we watch to get inside information off, and Neil Redfearn should be managing somewhere in the EFL without question. They all put the hard yards in on the prep side of things as much as I do, which is comforting as you know you can throw pretty much anything at them in commentary and they’re ready for you. Brilliant professionals one and all - I know Perry thinks I’m very good…at locating media car parks.
Strange how you seem to inadvertently bypass some grounds for ages even though the law of averages suggests otherwise. I’ve still yet to experience the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, for example, and I hope next season to finally get to Rotherham’s New York Stadium now that they are back in the Championship. My only previous visit to that part of South Yorkshire was in their days at Millmoor, whereupon a lady whose back garden looked out over the pitch was casually hanging her bloomers out to dry during the first half! She wasn’t the slightest bit interested in Millers vs Baggies that day!
Game of the season? Some of the most memorable matches do tend to come when the pressure is really on one or both sides, so the sheer drama of Brentford v Barnsley last week with all that it entailed at both ends of the table (Barnsley had been in the bottom 3 from September until the 91st minute at Griffin Park!) was fantastic to commentate on, along with my increasing disbelief at the incoming scores that did for Nottingham Forest and got Swansea into the top 6 instead of them right at the last.
Player of the season? I’ll look at the EFL as lots of blogs will concentrate on the Premier League. Pablo Hernandez has once again put in commanding performances in Leeds’ midfield and I think the club should be actively searching for a doppleganger who’s about 10 years younger to aid them back in the top flight. His first time ball for Jack Harrison to run onto and score the third goal against Fulham in June should be on the national curriculum, it was that good.
Moment of the season? On a personal note, being at Fratton Park to witness Jude Bellingham become Birmingham City’s youngest ever player was wonderful to witness, even if Blues did get cuffed by Pompey 3-0. But it’s hard to top Gerhard Struber joining that pile of players at the corner flag when Barnsley scored that survival goal.
Gripe of the season? EFL committee meetings that have yet to reach any sort of resolution with regard to those clubs charged and the subsequent confusion that envelops entire leagues and brings constant talk of litigation. It’s all so unnecessary for all concerned. Steps must be taken to quicken the whole process…and the top brass should have learned their lesson from the ridiculous length of time my club had to wait LAST season for a decision on our FFP breaches. Please please sort it out EFL, I beg you. Hundreds of thousands of supporters deserve better - not just those who support clubs directly involved
So, on a happier note, here’s to getting good people like you back into your home stadium next season. I hope any commentary you’ve heard from me over the past year - but especially during the lockdown - has been as entertaining and descriptive as you’d wish from a radio commentary.
See you at the (disinfected) far post