Category: Championship



Torquay United were unceremoniously dumped out of the League Cup by Championship side Leicester City on Tuesday night as the Foxes emphatically highlighted the gulf in class between England’s second and fourth tiers by cruising to a 4-0 win.

Both sides had been eliminated early on in last season’s tournament, Torquay losing 4-1 at an impressive Southampton who would go on to earn promotion to the Premier League; Leicester reaching the third round before losing on penalties to divisional rivals Cardiff City.

With cup competitions such as this a valuable source of income for lower-league clubs, Torquay manager Martin Ling unsurprisingly selected his strongest outfit, although his hand was somewhat forced by the absence through injury of midfielders Danny Stevens, Lloyd Macklin and Nathan Craig, while £70,000 signing Billy Bodin was also unavailable after being called up to the Wales under-21 squad.

With Ling still able to pick from a full complement of players in other areas of the squad, United lined up with their first-choice defensive unit of goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik, full-backs Joe Oastler and Kevin Nicholson and centre-backs Brian Saah and Aaron Coombes, while Ryan Jarvis and Ian Morris replaced Stevens and Bodin on the wings as captain Lee Mansell was joined in the middle of the park by Damon Lathrope and new recruit Craig Easton. As was the case in 2011-12, targetman Rene Howe led the line on his own.

Leicester winger Ben Marshall scored a brilliant free-kick

Though any combination of their impressive squad would have seen them enter the match as favourites, Leicester boss Nigel Pearson took no chances by selecting a strong starting XI that included former Manchester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, ex-England international Paul Konchesky, highly-rated winger Lloyd Dyer and forward Jermaine Beckford, who was Premier League side Everton’s joint-top scorer just two seasons ago.

Showing no signs of what was to come, the game’s early exchanges were surprisingly even, Leicester winger Ben Marshall firing well over from a decent position before Lee Mansell saw a dangerous header deflected over Schmeichel’s crossbar. Indeed, Torquay matched their illustrious opponents for the opening 20 minutes – and only a mistake at the back allowed Leicester to seize the initiative.

The sides had previously traded several long balls to no avail, and the aerial pass launched by Leicester’s defence on 21 minutes seemed to be no different. As United right-back Joe Oastler attempted to usher the ball harmlessly out of play for a goal kick, however, he inadvertently flicked the ball with his thigh, allowing his pursuer Nathan Dyer to burst into the box. The former West Brom winger showed his class by calmly rounding Michael Poke and slotting into an empty net.

Torquay responded quickly, and typically, it was Mansell who came closest to levelling the scores on the half-hour mark. The United captain thundered a header goalwards that Schmeichel tipped onto the bar, but Leicester learned their lesson and recovered quickly to double their lead ten minutes before half-time.

A Leicester counter-attack was somewhat slowed by an accidental trip from Damon Lathrope, but despite the visitors eventually firing off a shot that forced Michael Poke into a diving save, referee Oliver Langford chose to bring play back and award the free-kick. It was a harsh decision that annoyed many Torquay supporters, and their anger was quadrupled when Leicester’s  Ben Marshall curled a brilliant effort over the wall and into the top corner of Poke’s goal.

The second goal represented a huge blow to Torquay’s chances of winning the game – even 1-0 down had been an uphill task, but that scoreline was still retrievable; a 2-0 deficit was unlikely to be overcome against a thoroughly professional Leicester side that had their hosts just where they wanted them.

Needing to pour more men forward to assist the isolated Howe if they were to get back into the game, Torquay began the second half in more attacking fashion, but as the game wore on, the Gulls’ defensive flaws were highlighted by a series of rapid Leicester counter-attacks. With most of the Torquay midfield stranded in the Leicester half as the visitors broke away, United’s defence was frequently exposed by the pace of Beckford and fellow forward Jamie Vardy, as well as wingers Dyer and Marshall, and the Foxes always looked like adding to their lead.

Even so, it came as something of a surprise when Leicester’s former Manchester United midfielder Matty James put the result beyond doubt just three minutes into the second half. Played through on goal by Beckford, the 21-year-old showed great composure to slide the ball past Poke and effectively end the game as a contest.

Tiring and increasingly struggling to contain Leicester’s rampant attack, Torquay spent much of the next 15 minutes trying to avoid falling further behind, Beckford only denied City’s fourth by an excellent recovery save from Poke after the ex-Leeds forward appeared to have rounded the goalkeeper.

As the game entered its final throes, both managers turned to their dugouts for inspiration; in doing so further highlighting the gulf in class between the two clubs. Pearson introduced David Nugent, Andy King and Neil Danns – the first two full internationals for England and Wales respectively, Danns boasting Premier League experience achieved at Blackburn aged just 20, while Ling brought on left-sided former Arsenal trainee Tom Cruise and youth-team products Niall Thompson and Ashley Yeoman, who have accumulated just tfive Football League appearances between them.

Leicester celebrate a job well done

Though Thompson’s brief cameo showed glimpses of promise – including a threatening run that saw him turn former Liverpool defender Konchesky before delivering whipping a dangerous cross into the box – Leicester still looked the more likely team to score, and on 77 minutes £1 million signing Vardy rubbed salt into the Gulls’ wounds. The simplicity of the final goal was as depressing as the full-time result: a hopeful cross from Marshall was left by both of United’s centre-backs; Vardy ran through on goal, unchallenged, before nodding the ball over a stranded Poke who had rushed out, leaving his net unguarded.

Torquay will not face such quality in any of their 46 League Two fixtures this season, but without playmaker Eunan O’Kane’s creativity in midfield – replaced on Tuesday by the more industrious and defence-minded Craig Easton – the Gulls may struggle to unlock opposition defences, especially if Howe is deployed as the lone striker, a role that saw him easily outnumbered by Leicester’s back four.

United will hope to welcome back Stevens, Macklin and Craig in time for Saturday’s league opener at Fleetwood Town, and the pace of the former two players, combined with Craig’s central creativity, could prove key – either utilised from the start or from the bench. Thankfully for the club, United manager Ling resisted the temptation to dismiss the cup loss as a “nothing game”, admitting “We were well beaten on the night and if you play a team of Leicester’s quality, all 11 players need to reach their potential. We only had three or four players who did that… Overall, it was disappointing because we didn’t give Leicester a real game.”

Ling also criticized the performances of defenders Joe Oastler and Kevin Nicholson (the latter’s uncharacteristically poor dead-ball delivery being a large source of disappointment for supporters) as well as his side’s attacking play: “the full-backs were not up to the standard I expect, and I don’t think our passing asked them enough questions…I was hoping Leicester would be another building block in terms of confidence after the Leeds and Stoke [pre-season friendly] games, but we had a reality check. Their movement was excellent but we made it too easy for them.”

Torquay: Poke, Oastler, Saah, Downes, Nicholson; Jarvis (Yeoman 76), Mansell (C), Lathrope, Easton (Thompson 64), Ian Morris (Cruise 72); Howe. Subs not used: Rice, MacKenzie, Craig.

Leicester: Schmeichel, De Laet, Morgan (C), Moore, Konchesky; Marshall, Drinkwater (Danns 78), James (King 74), Dyer (Nugent 67); Vardy, Beckford. Subs not used: Logan, Waghorn, Gallagher, Schlupp.

Referee: Oliver Langford.

Attendance: 3,367 (1,166 Leicester).

 

Images: Marshall – BBC/Getty Images; Leicester team celebration – http://www.lcfc.com/

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Scotland forward Kenny Miller has joined Major League Soccer outfit Vancouver Whitecaps as the club’s third “designated player”. Miller leaves Championship side Cardiff after just one season in Wales.

The 32-year-old  began his career in his homeland with Hibernian, soon joining Rangers before moving south to sign for Wolverhampton Wanderers. Leaving Britain altogether in 2011 to sign for Turkish side Bursaspor, Miller failed to settle in his new surroundings and joined Cardiff just five months after landing in Bursa.

Miller boasts experience playing in several European leagues

Having suffered a poor finish to the 2011-12 season as Cardiff failed to secure promotion, Miller has elected to join a league that contains a number of formerly world-class European footballers, including David Beckham, Torsten Frings, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Arne Friedrich.

Indeed, Miller expressed his delight at joining the Canadian side, telling the club’s official website: “I’m delighted to be making this move to Major League Soccer and Vancouver Whitecaps FC. I have heard many great things about the club and the city of Vancouver, and have been impressed by the standard of MLS. To have the chance to continue my career in North America with Whitecaps FC is a fantastic opportunity for me and my family.”

Miller will also link up with compatriot and international team-mate Barry Robson – an arrangement that suits both parties. Having only joined Whitecaps himself earlier this month, Robson revealed “I told Kenny all about the club and he is excited about coming. He’s a top-quality player and everybody will be excited about his arrival.”

The pair will join Vancouver’s only other British player, Redditch-born midfielder Matt Watson, as the club compete in the second half of the 2012 Western Conference in which they currently lie in mid-table.

Image: http://www.zimbio.com

Bobby to Boro


Torquay United suffered a big blow on Monday as their record clean-sheet keeper Bobby Olejnik departed to Championship side Peterborough United for a fee believed to be in the region of £300,000.

As reported here, Peterborough had publicly registered their interest in the former Falkirk shot-stopper last week, with manager Darren Ferguson citing his need to secure a high-quality goalkeeper early in the transfer window – the club’s only other custodian, 21-year-old Joe Day, is considered too inexperienced to be first-choice.

Indeed, Day and Olejnik have not featured in a single Championship match between them, causing Peterborough fans to suspect Ferguson will be looking to make a further addition to his last line of defence before the transfer window slams shut – although whether Olejnik would be still be first-choice goalkeeper in this situation remains unclear.

Olejnik had a lot to shout about during his only season at Plainmoor

Despite being clearly saddened by the loss of the talented 25-year-old, Torquay United and their supporters will clearly be rooting for the Austrian in his new role, with manager Martin Ling saying “I would also like to wish Bobby great luck for the future. He has been the ultimate professional and someone we had to drag off the training ground…he has worked immensely hard”. Olejnik had played a large part in Torquay’s run to the play-offs in 2011-12, keeping an incredible 20 clean sheets as the Gulls defied their odds to challenge for automatic promotion for much of the season.

Olejnik’s departure also puts pressure on Ling to find an equally good replacement before the start of the 2012-13 season, with names from ex-United goalkeeper Michael Poke to former 53-cap England international David James being bandied around as possible signings  on fan forums. One possibility is to hand Martin Rice – signed from Truro City as back-up for Olejnik last season – the number one shirt, although the man himself admits he’d have a tough act to follow: Rice has described the former Austria under-21 international as the “best I’ve worked with”, adding “he’s been outstanding all season”.

However, the fee received, believed to be in the region of £300,000, opens up possibilities for further signings to be made to strengthen the squad in more areas. Some fans are also hoping that this sale will allow the club to be in a position where they are financially able to turn down large offers for playmaker Eunan O’Kane, believed to be the subject of a £150,000 bid from League One new boys Crawley Town.

Admitting that the Olejnik deal represented “a terrific piece of business for the Gulls”, a Torquay club statement on Monday said “United have also inserted a sell-on clause to ensure a share of the profits, should Bobby leave [Peterborough] in the future.” Ling concurs: “It is a great deal for our club and for Bobby, and my job as a manager is to buy low, sell for a profit and then fetch in low again. That is the nature of the beast in League 2 and this has been a great bit of business.”

Olejnik’s departure will boost Martin Rice’s chances of first-team football next season

Having signed Olejnik for free from Scottish outfit Falkirk in July 2011, any fee received for the former Aston Villa youth-teamer would have represented a profit for the Gulls, although Ling also suggested the deal had been allowed for other reasons as well as the financial side, saying “My hat goes off to Bobby and there is no way we could stand in the way of an opportunity for him at a Championship club”, while Peterborough’s latest signing revealed “I couldn’t sleep last night as I was so excited about the move… I left Falkirk a year ago and if anyone had said I would end up playing in the Championship so soon I’d have laughed in their face. It’s a dream move for me and I can’t wait to get started.”

Olejnik looks likely to face former club Villa in one of his first games for his new side: Peterborough are due to play the Premier League outfit in a pre-season clash on 1 August.

The goalkeeper is the fourth player to leave Torquay this summer, following the release of defenders Lathaniel Rowe-Turner and Ed Palmer and forward Taiwo Atieno. The club’s only signings so far are former Everton midfielder Nathan Craig and ex-Norwich striker Ryan Jarvis, both of whom had temporary spells at Plainmoor last season.

Images: Olejnik – http://www.torquayunited.com; Rice – http://www.thisisdevon.co.uk.


The fates of Championship clubs Portsmouth and Coventry City have today been sealed as both sides’ failure to win their penultimate matches of the season resulted in their relegation from the second tier, while the rest of the division’s bottom-half clubs can breathe a collective sigh of relief at the confirmation of their safety, with all three relegated teams’ fate now rubber-stamped.

Portsmouth were doomed following their 2-1  defeat to mid-table Derby County at Fratton Park this afternoon, proving that games against clubs with “nothing to play for” are a dangerous proposition for any team. Derby had taken a first-half lead through Jake Buxton, but Luke Varney’s equaliser sixteen minutes from time looked likely to secure a draw for Pompey. However, just four minutes later a Steve Davies penalty condemned Michael Appleton’s men to League One football next season.

Rookie manager Michael Appleton has suffered relegation in his first full-time managerial role

The club’s supporters will be disappointed to have been relegated today but it will not come as a shock – Portsmouth’s survival had begun to look increasingly unlikely as the weeks progressed. Indeed, only a late, controversial 5-4 win at Doncaster Rovers last week kept the slim chances of survival alive – without the vital three points gleaned at the expense of Doncaster, who were relegated as a result of the loss, Pompey would have entertained Derby today with their fate already sealed.  A further 2-1 success against Crystal Palace in midweek may have had some optimists dreaming of the greatest “Great Escape” of all, but realistically these wins were simply delaying the inevitable.

With midfielder David Norris and defender Greg Halford the club’s top scorers this season, netting just eight and seven goals respectively, it is not hard to see why Portsmouth have been struggling. However, the club had actually been looking like staying up until mid-February, when a ten-point deduction for entering administration once more plunged Pompey from the relative comfort of 18th place to the midst of a relegation dogfight. Portsmouth’s financial troubles  had once again begun to overshadow events on the pitch, with Russian owner Vladimir Antonov being arrested in November for alleged asset stripping.

It is a far cry from the FA Cup final reached in 2010, when only a solitary strike from Didier Drogba handed the trophy to Chelsea. The Portsmouth team that day included such talents as David James, Aruna Dindane and Kevin-Prince Boateng – this season the club has relied on a host of free transfers and inexperienced academy products in an attempt to slash transfer fees and wage bills. Pompey’s plight shows just how fast a club can plummet from one end of the English league hierarchy  to the other.

Coventry City’s disappointing defeat to already-relegated Doncaster confirmed the Sky Blues’ exit from the league they have occupied since dropping out of the Premier League in 2001. Tellingly, today’s 2-0 loss barely mattered  – even a win against the demoralized Dons wouldn’t have saved Coventry’s bacon.

Coventy local lad Gary McSheffrey tries in vain to create a chance during his side's 2-0 loss to Doncaster

Unlike Portsmouth, the club’s relegation battle has lasted for the duration of the season. Just one win in Coventry’s first ten Championship fixtures made survival unlikely, and by mid-February the club was in 22nd place, six points adrift of safety. Supporters may point to a chaotic season in the boardroom as a reason for their team’s demise:  2011-12 has seen failed buy-outs, directors standing down and former chairman Ken Dulieu even resigning from a new role after just 18 days. This may well have distracted the players, but large winless streaks have done as much damage. Following the dismal start to the season, Coventry suffered eleven games without a win between October and December, and the club has so far failed to register a win in April.

Although fellow strugglers Bristol City, Nottingham Forest and Barnsley will all be relieved to have preserved their Championship status for another season, the truth is that the gap between them and the  three relegated clubs never looked likely to be breached. Seven points separate Barnsley and Portsmouth, neighbours in the table in 21st and 22nd respectively, while bottom club Doncaster are eleven points adrift of safety.

Rovers had overachieved to remain in the Championship for as long as they did – they only won promotion from the Conference in 2002-03,  but fans of Portsmouth and Coventry will feel that relegation to the third tier is a disaster for clubs of their stature. It could be years before they return.


Fans of League One and Two clubs could be forgiven for looking at the significant distance between their beloved team and the big-time Charlies of the Premier League and deciding their side is destined never to reach the top flight. Given the gap in finances and quality of players, it’s a reasonable assumption.

But history can provide comfort for those who continue to resolutely believe that Accrington Stanley will one day march to the Premier League title, leaving Man United City in their wake. Three successful seasons is “all” it takes for a club to reach the promised land from England’s basement professional division.


Stoke take on Valencia in this season's Europa League - a far cry from their days of battling Wrexham and Cambridge in the Third Division as recently as 2001-02

A cursory glance at the 1991-92 Division Three table would surprise many a fan, and rightly so. Current Premier League sides Fulham, Wigan Athletic, West Brom, Stoke City and Swansea were all languishing in the third tier exactly twenty years ago – in fact, Swansea only survived relegation to the fourth division that season by five points. Teams flying high in the Championship this season were also mired in  Division Three mid-table mediocrity in 1991-92 – Reading finished in twelfth place, behind the likes of Brentford and Stockport County.

For more recent examples, look no further than the 2002-03 league tables. Just eight seasons before they would win promotion to the Premier League, Swansea were still battling in England’s lower divisions and even faced relegation to the Conference in 2003, surviving by just one point at the expense of Exeter City. Swansea learned their lesson and look what they have achieved since.

Taking Exeter’s place in the Football League were current Championship side Doncaster Rovers, fresh from Conference play-off victory, while even further down the league pyramid current League Two clubs Accrington and Aldershot helped themselves to themselves to Northern Premier League and Isthmian league titles respectively.

Plymouth have swapped fixtures against the likes of Wolves for games at AFC Wimbledon and Macclesfield

Granted, this year’s League Two consists of fewer big clubs. In recent years, Plymouth Argyle and Bradford City have worked their way to the top before suffering a slide through the divisions – the opposite journey to the teams outlined above. As recently as May 2001 the people of Bradford were enjoying Premier League football, but this season the Bantams could even drop in to non-league football.

Plymouth never quite made it as high as the top-flight, but if you had told Argyle fans in 2007-08, when they finished 10th in the Championship – just six points shy of the play-offs – that they would be battling for League Two survival in five years time, you would have probably been laughed at. The club’s downfall has been astonishingly fast – they were still playing in the Championship in 2009-10. However, financial difficulties have robbed Plymouth of their chance to reach the Premier League, an opportunity that now seems a lifetime away.

So while your tiny lower-league team of small-time professionals may look more like reaching the Ryman League than the Premier League, don’t give up hope. Clubs can shoot through the leagues with impressive speed, but be warned – the fall from grace can be just as fast if you’re not careful.