English football’s second tier; the Championship had two outstanding issues to be resolved when it came to a conclusion on Saturday.
Portsmouth, Coventry City and Doncaster Rovers had all been relegated before the final day. Reading had been promoted as champions so what remained to be decided was between Southampton, West Ham, Cardiff City and Middlesborough who were all involved in the day’s key battles.
Southampton faced Coventry at St. Mary’s knowing that three points would ensure a second successive promotion and a place in the Premier League.
West Ham meanwhile were hoping that the Saints slipped up which, provided the Hammers beat Hull would put the London side back in the Premier League.
Cardiff City would book their seemingly annual place in the play-offs with victory over Crystal Palace.
To put Southampton’s current situation in context; six games into last season and they were hovering just above the League One relegation zone. One year before that and they had gone into administration, dropping into English football’s third tier for the first time in 50 years.
Victory took them to their second successive promotion and a fourth in sixth seasons for manager Nigel Adkins as the Saints returned to the top table for the first time since 2005.
Southampton had stumbled towards the finish line rather than chesting it with heads high, having won just two out of six matches going into the final weekend of the season and started on the back foot against Coventry with goalkeeper Davis pulling off a fine save from Gary McSheffrey from a close range piledriver after the ball had pinged around the Southampton penalty area.
The pressure was taken out of the occasion somewhat however when they Saints took the lead on 15 minutes following a fine break from José Fonte, though Coventry illustrated why they are being relegated as the center half didn’t face a single tackle despite running more than 30 yards through the heart of the midfield.
Fonte then laid the ball off to Do Prado who crossed for Lambert who let the ball come across his body before smashing an 18 yard left footed piledriver into the bottom right hand corner of the net, though it nicked Sharp on its way to goal. It was a Premier League (promotion) quality goal in both construction and consummation.
One quickly became two as lively center half Fonte planted a diving header to the Coventry net from eight yards out, though, again, Coventry’s defensive marking was very poor.
It was all Southampton and the goal that well and truly wrapped up Southampton’s promotion to the Premier League wasn’t a thing of beauty. It came from a goalmouth scramble following a corner before Hooiveld forced the ball home from eight yards just before the hour. Just past the hour; Lallana put the icing on the cake with a first time finish from inside the six yard box and Southampton’s promotion party to the Premier League was in full swing 25 minutes before the whistle.
Having started in management 20 years ago, before working as a (football) physio for ten years; Nigel Adkins had secured an amazing four promotions in six years. It was a very emotional day for him and he struggled for words when interviewed by the media afterwards.
West Ham’s game with Hull ended up merely deciding that they finished third, whilst also confirming Hull’s place in the play-offs.
As it turned out; West Ham did their bit on the day. They beat Hull with a powerful header from Carlton Cole that the defender on the Hull goal line couldn’t prevent from crossing the goal line ten minutes before half time.
Cole made it 2-0 four minutes into the second half with a quality chest and volley from eight yards out to the bottom corner. Hull got into it inside the final ten minutes after a right royal defensive mix-up allowed Corey Evans to head home but it was all academic, though it was the kinda of calamity between goalkeeper Green and center half which will surely have Hammers worried going into the play offs. Hull had a last minute goal disallowed but everyone knew at that stage that West Ham were headed for the play-offs while Hull were going to finish seven points off that.
Going into the final series of games, there was still one more play-off berth to be decided and it would go to either Cardiff City or Middlesborough. Cardiff needed to beat Palace, though a draw would also likely be enough.
Cardiff got off to a bad start at Selhurst Park as Ambrose played a fantastic through ball for Wilfred Zaha who finished first time past the advancing Marshall from 18 yards out inside the opening quarter hour.
Cardiff equalized eight minutes into the second half from a fizzing free-kick from a tight angle that flashed through a crowded box.
Don Cowie put Cardiff into the play-offs ten minutes later as he smacked a first time volley from 15 yards low and hard to the back of the net, putting Cardiff City into the play-offs for the third successive year.
The result at Selhurst Park rendered Middlesborough’s defeat to Watford irrelevant as Boro’ finish the season five points behind sixth placed Cardiff and the final play-off spot.
Elsewhere, former Republic of Ireland international and assistant manager Chris Hughton ensured that his Birmingham City side qualified for the play offs in fourth place with a 2-0 win over champions Reading. The game had quite an Irish feel to it as the Republic’s Adam Rooney gave the home side the lead while Colin Doyle saved a penalty from 2002 World Cup veteran Ian Harte. Birmingham secure fourth place with a late penalty and go into the run-in in good form and, crucially perhaps, having home advantage for the second leg of those play offs.
Blackpool traveled to the Den hoping to overcome Millwall and seal that fourth spot. That was going to prove easier said than done as the home side took the lead through a quality finish from Ireland’s Andy Keogh. That was Keogh’s fourth goal in as many games; could he be a late contender for Euro 2012 perhaps?
Blackpool equalized through a header from defender Ian Evert. That was the 77th goal of the season for an exciting Blackpool side. Midway through the second half, French youngster Dicko scored his second in as many games and Blackpool seemingly had fourth place assured.
Spurs’ loanee Harry Kane equalized seven minutes from time to ensure that Blackpool finish fifth and play the second leg away – against Chris Hughton’s Birmingham. ‘Pool manager Ian Holloway stated afterwards that the order of fixtures “doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.”
All four play off teams go into the play offs in very good form. Cardiff, unbeaten in ten, face West Ham who have lost just once in 18 while Blackpool have lost one in seven are against Birmingham who are unbeaten in nine. It promises to be a very competitive conclusion to the Championship season and the race for the single richest prize in world football; promotion to the Premier League.