The North Eastern Programme Club: (3) looking on from the sidelines

Click me for a better view of the ingredients: geographical references to Jake, Monsieur Salut & Sixer, Malcolm Dawson and John McCormick

Hopelessly out of sequence but bit by bit, we are adding the articles written by members of the Salut! Sunderland team for the matchday programme. This was Malcolm Dawson‘s contribution, published in the programme for the Peterborough United game, drawn 2-2 at the beginning of October, and it is interesting to look at the way the teams he mentions have fared since then (check the table at this link) …

When I looked at the make-up of EFL League One before the season kicked off and tried to assess our chances, the majority of the teams seemed an unknown quantity. After all, apart from the four games involving Burton Albion and Barnsley, we hadn’t met any of the clubs – other than in a few pre-season friendlies – for several years.

There were names that jumped out at me of course. Blackpool, Luton and Charlton Athletic had all been relatively successful clubs just before I was old enough to start taking an interest in football. Then there were Coventry and Portsmouth, who had both won the FA Cup long after our last success in that tournament in 1973.

It was apparent that we were by far the biggest club in this division and while followers of Arsenal, Chelsea and the Manchester clubs might scoff at our “big club” claims, not having won a major trophy in the lifetime of many supporters, the number of fans we still get turning up home and away puts us head and shoulders ahead of anyone else in League One (and beyond). That, plus the fact we were in the Premier League just two seasons ago.

But size of support or recent history is no guarantee of success at this level as Wolves, Leeds, the two Sheffield clubs, Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn etc will testify.

With all that had gone on in recent years I was prepared to wait a season or so while the club repaired the damage and rebuilt from foundations up. But the new ownership, targeting promotion or the playoffs at least, and a young manager who stated that missing out on promotion would be considered failure, suggested the right noises were coming out of the Stadium of Light.

So who would be our rivals in the promotion battles and which teams might struggle to stay in the division?

Of those clubs which could look back on recent times spent in the top flight, Portsmouth, Coventry, and Blackpool have had problems even greater than ours, Barnsley and Bradford might be thought to have been punching above their weight at that level and Charlton, who beat us on that special day at Wembley in 1998, had been out of the Premier League for years and were used to this level of football. Would those sides be our main challengers?

What of some of the smaller clubs? It hasn’t been that long since some of them weren’t even in the Football League. Accrington Stanley, Burton Albion and Fleetwood I had seen as non-league clubs and Wycombe were in my mind only relatively recent additions to the Football League so it came as something as a shock to rediscover that a quarter of a century has elapsed since that team, managed by Martin O’Neill, won the Conference championship!

To help me gauge our prospects I turned to the assessments of those who know this division well.

Pundits and journalists who write every week on these sides, to get their inside knowledge and expectations as to how the season might pan out.

As I am writing before the visit to Coventry, the two teams involved in tonight’s game are sitting in third (us) and first (Peterborough) place. Both featured heavily as favourites for promotion so this point, with 20 per cent of the league campaign completed, seemed a good time to see how those pre-season predictions are panning out.

Before the first ball of the new season had been kicked at the Stadium of Light, four teams stood out as promotion candidates. Ourselves were the runaway favourites followed by Barnsley, Portsmouth and Peterborough. Today two of those clubs are in the automatic promotion spots while we are third and Barnsley are sitting in the final playoff place.

So it looks at this point of the season that the pundits are more or less spot on, though Walsall who were clear favourites for the drop are in 5th place with Charlton and Doncaster also in the picture.

Apart from Walsall, other teams picked as likely relegation candidates were Wycombe, AFC Wimbledon, Accrington Stanley and Gillingham. The Gills are down there in the mix with Wycombe and Wimbledon hovering just above the drop zone but it is Stanley who at this early stage are confounding the pundits, just a point off the playoff places.

The bottom two clubs, Plymouth and Oxford didn’t feature in the list of teams considered for the drop but were seen as possible promotion contenders by some – probably journalists from those cities!

Of course it may be all change after the weekend’s results and there is still a long way to go but so far things are looking positive for us and, having played several of those sides considered to be the stronger ones in the division, I am cautiously optimistic for the rest of the season.

But no matter what happened on Saturday, tonight’s match is already a significant fixture between two sides hoping to get out of this league.

Ha’way the Lads.

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