EFL COLUMN – ALL EYES ON NEXT SEASON AS FINAL WEEKEND LARGELY FOLLOWS THE SCRIPT
The final weekend of the EFL season so often gets underway with plenty to play for at both ends of the league table, and it was no different in the last two days of the 2020/21 season.
Even though automatic promotion and the sides who will contest the play-offs had already been decided in the Championship, the top two and relegation was already certain in League One, and the two teams who will be leaving League Two for the National League already a formality, there was a lot to keep an eye on.
Technically none of the relegation spots had been decided in the second tier at the start of play, but even though Wycombe picked up a thumping 3-0 win at Middlesbrough, it was some way short of the 14-goal swing they needed to have any chance of surviving their maiden season in the Championship.
Despite Gareth Ainsworth’s side going into their 46th fixture as the team least likely to survive, they have performed considerably better according to expectations than either Derby County or Sheffield Wednesday this season, and the two former Premier League sides faced off on the final day knowing only one of them could avoid the drop.
Derby’s eventual draw against the Owls at Pride Park meant that not even a cricket score would have saved the Chairboys, yet to assume the afternoon was even remotely comfortable for Wayne Rooney’s side would be something of a misjudgement.
An early goal for Rotherham – the other side involved in the four-way relegation tussle - at Cardiff left the Rams needing three points to keep their heads above water, something that seemed unlikely when Sam Hutchinson put Wednesday in front on the stroke of half-time.
The visitors needed a win themselves to have any hope of survival, meaning a Derby turnaround early in the second half thanks to goals from Martyn Waghorn and Patrick Roberts was a harsh welcome back to the touchline for Darren Moore after his recovery from a serious bout of Covid-19.
Goals from Callum Paterson and Julian Borner saw Wednesday retake the lead, and a Cardiff equaliser lifted Moore’s side out of the bottom three for what turned out to be only a fleeting moment.
Chey Dunkley brought down Kamil Jozwiak in the penalty area just seconds after Marlon Pack had pegged back the Millers in the Welsh capital, allowing Waghorn to step up and fire the Rams level, moving Derby above Wednesday in the table in the process.
Although it has hardly been an impressive campaign for a side that was just one win away from the Premier League in 2019, the uncertainty caused by the prolonged attempts of Mel Morris to sell the club meant players, staff and fans had every right to celebrate at full-time.
The League One play-off race was the only area of contention that ended with a different outcome to the one at the start of play, with Oxford United stealing sixth place from under the noses of Portsmouth.
An early goal is always a handy nerve-settler on the final day, and whilst the U’s found one in a thumping 4-0 win against Burton, Pompey instead fell behind to Accrington and could find no way back thanks to an inspired performance from opposition ‘keeper Toby Savin.
Oxford will now take on a Blackpool side that have been the form side in the third tier since late autumn, and the Seasiders will no doubt fancy their chances of coming out on top when pitted a Lincoln side that have stuttered since Christmas, a team they are unbeaten against this season in Oxford, and a Sunderland outfit that seem forever destined to make hard work of returning to the Championship.
In League Two, Cambridge and Bolton joined Cheltenham in securing promotion.
The achievement of Mark Bonner’s side cannot be understated. They were tipped to end up firmly in the bottom half of the table after a 16th-place finish last season but thanks to the goals of Paul Mullin and the magic of Wes Hoolahan they will start next season in the third tier for the first time since 2002.
Ian Evatt also deserves credit for turning Bolton’s season around when it appeared his adventurous brand of football might not be the right fit to get Wanderers back to where they feel they belong. A thumping 4-1 win at Crawley a further indication of how impressive they have been since the turn of the year.
It was Morecambe that they ultimately beat to the final automatic spot, denying the Shrimps their own fairy-tale season ending unless they can come out on top in the play-offs, starting with a semi-final against Tranmere.
Forest Green avoided the clutches of both Exeter and Salford to hold on to their place in the top seven thanks to a second half mauling of Oldham. They now face a cross-border clash with a Newport side keen on avenging their play-off final defeat in 2019.
However, far more important than any of the action that took place on the field is the fact that the play-offs are set to see fans return to EFL grounds for the first time in 2021.
Even though this EFL campaign has provided plenty of talking points, intriguing narratives and dramatic moments, it would be fair to say it has lacked the visceral backdrop of packed stadiums roaring on every wildly optimistic shot at goal or horribly timed tackle.
This season has understandably felt like a grind at times with the most packed fixture list in recent memory damaging the quality of the football played, and even though there is no guarantee that the games will be any better when normality hopefully returns next season, the chance to re-establish an in-person connection with football clubs will mean that it hardly matters.