EFL COLUMN: HECTIC EASTER WEEKEND JUST THE START OF AN ENTHRALLING END TO THE EFL SEASON
Even though this EFL season has probably been less enjoyable than any that came before with no fans in stadiums for the majority of the campaign, a condensed fixture list making fatigue unavoidable and less goals than usual across all three tiers an understandable consequence, the Good Friday action has meant that there is still plenty to play for with most teams having fewer than ten games left to play.
The Easter weekend always throws up something to talk about season in, season out.
Having two games in the space of four days on days of the week that football is not usually played seems to draw something extra out of players, and the number of eye-catching results on Friday was an indication that this year will be no different.
The Championship saw two of the bottom four pick up wins to ensure the relegation dogfight will continue to jangle nerves right until the very end.
Rock-bottom Wycombe Wanderers overcame midtable Blackburn at Adams Park, reducing their gap to safety to a mere nine points and suggesting one of the greatest ever escapes might not be out of the question yet.
Lee Bowyer’s Birmingham collected a deserved three points to move further clear of the bottom three against promotion contenders Swansea thanks to a last-minute penalty from Scott Hogan after strike partner Lukas Jutkiewicz had blasted a spot-kick of his own straight down the throat of Freddie Woodman in the first half.
In League One, there was a heated encounter at the Stadium of Light between an in-form Sunderland side that are beginning to look destined for a return to the second tier and an Oxford United outfit that still harbour hopes of finishing in the play-offs.
Lyndon Gooch’s equaliser in first half injury-time sparked what Sunderland boss Lee Johnson described as a “royal rumble” in the tunnel at half-time, leading to an incident that saw the police called after Oxford goalkeeper Jack Stevens was allegedly headbutted.
The drama did not end there though, as once Aiden McGeady had given the home side the lead in the final ten minutes, Yellows’ boss Karl Robinson was sent to the stands by referee Trevor Kettle for protesting that the goal should not have stood as play was allowed to continue with Cameron Branngan lying injured on the edge of his own box.
To add insult to injury, Sunderland midfielder Max Power celebrated his game-clinching, injury-time goal in front of the Oxford dugout to cap a less than friendly afternoon.
Sunderland’s win was vital as table-toppers Hull and second place Peterborough secured victories of their own thanks to last-minute goals against sides that were sat comfortably in mid-table with nothing to play for, presumably keen to earn their chocolate egg at the weekend.
Meanwhile, Bristol Rovers manager Joey Barton mistook a former German goalkeeper with a former German Formula One driver when trying to describe why he felt Ipswich’s Tomas Holy should have been sent off in a 2-1 defeat at Portman Road that made it five defeats in a row for the Gas – they now sit second bottom of the third tier.
In League Two, Tranmere Rovers were battered by Cheltenham in a meeting of two of the main contenders for automatic promotion. Mike Duff’s Robins ran out 4-0 winners with three of the four goals coming from melees that were the result of potentially the most lethal weapon in all of the Football League: the long throw of captain Ben Tozer.
It was also a day to forget for the majority of the main play-off chasers.
Bolton and Salford were held to draws by lowly Colchester and Grimsby, Forest Green were rolled over by Bradford, Exeter never recovered from going a goal down in the first minute at Port Vale and Newport lost to Barrow thanks to a free-kick from Jamie Devitt that was made all the more painful by the fact that he had spent the first half of the season on loan at Rodney Parade.
Fortunately for all the sides that suffered on Friday, they only have to wait three days to rise again.
Easter Monday sees important games at both ends of the table in the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday (23rd) hosting Cardiff (8th), Swansea (4th) taking on Preston (17th) and Derby (19th) travelling to Reading (6th).
There is a mouth-watering game in prospect at London Road as Peterborough play third-placed Sunderland in a game that could go a long way to deciding who wins promotion from League One. A win for the Black Cats will see them move into the automatic promotion places for the first time since April 2019, although Darren Ferguson’s Posh did win 7-0 in their last home game.
Tranmere couldn’t have asked for a harder task to bounce back from their defeat at the Jonny Rock’s Stadium as they host league leaders Cambridge United. Powered by the timeless dribbles of 38-year-old Wes Hoolahan and the remarkable goal-scoring of journeyman Paul Mullin, the U’s have won four games on the spin to continue their unexpected march towards promotion.
Regardless of how the results pan out, a bank holiday Monday spent full of chocolate eggs and misguided hope placed in the team of your choice sounds like an ideal start to the season’s run-in.
Combinations don’t come much better than the EFL and Easter weekend.