As expected, it’s the playoffs here we come – but as is the way with the Championship, it wasn’t without its blood pressure increasing moments.
Parker made 3 changes to the starting lineup with Bryan and Odoi coming in for Christie and MLM and Cairney replacing StefJo in the centre of midfield. There was also a place on the bench for Aboubakar Kamara who was returning from injury (or whatever it was keeping him out!).
Whilst Fulham held out a paper-thin hope of going up, Wigan knew they had to win in order to stay up thanks to the impending 12 point deduction that would be applied after the final whistle thanks to their crooked owners. Based on this, it was unsurprising to see the home side come out of the traps strongly, especially on the back of their last home game when they put 8 past a hapless Hull.
Whilst the Latics were looking like a team filled with determination, Fulham’s intensity was somewhat lacking, despite a couple of early chances. Following a penalty shout for what initially looked like a foul on Mitro by the keeper, although replays suggested that Marshall did get his hand to the ball first, the Whites seemed to let their heads drop. A disallowed goal was only a short-lived reprieve as Wigan took a 32nd-minute lead, but this was just the start of what would be a roller-coaster evening across the league.
I think the majority of fans can say they were expecting the playoffs, but under the surface, we all held out that slight hope that QPR and Barnsley could pull off something a bit special. Barely 2 minutes after Wigan had scored, West Brom found themselves behind and a few minutes after that, Barnsley were beginning their Houdini act. The “Ah well, it’ll be nice for Wigan to stay up” rhetoric immediately turned to “FFS Scott, sort them out!!!”. The Baggies found themselves level at the break but yet there appeared to be some glimmer of hope that Parker’s men could pull off the improbable…
It seems the last few weeks, Neeskens has been practicing his free-kicks (not his crossing but there’s only so many hours in a day), and his 2nd set-piece special in 2 games got the hearts racing again – but almost simultaneously, Slaven Bilic’s men put Rangers firmly back in their place. However, there was still the chance for 3rd place although from watching the game it appeared that the prospect of survival was more enticing than potentially snatching a last-ditch promotion place as Wigan pushed for that vital winner.
Simply put, Fulham didn’t look good enough going forward. I don’t want to jump on a bandwagon, but TC (a few little passes aside) brought very little to the side on his return to the starting lineup and in reality, this should really be his last season as captain; he just doesn’t offer enough in that role, especially when there’s the need to push the team up another level. He wasn’t the only underperformer by any means – Onomah wasn’t on top of his game, Knockaert had another all-too-familiar Knockaert-esque 60-odd minutes before BDR came on to add an injection of mediocrity and Neeskens was lively and worked hard, but his deliveries continue to offer little threat to opposition defences (free kicks aside!). And despite sealing the golden boot, Mitro – as we all know by now – is always going to find it difficult to have a good game if those around him are struggling and this one was no exception. Our French bull in a china shop came on with about 10 minutes to go and he certainly looked hungry, if unsurprisingly rusty, and hopefully, that hunger sets the tone for the playoffs in which he will need to play a part considering our lack of attacking options.
With QPR snatching an equaliser, there was still a chance that they could’ve done the neighbourly thing and grabbed a winner, but alas they could only manage a draw. While over in Hounslow, Agent Woodrow was introduced to the game just in time to see Barnsley grab a winner that sends Brentford into the 4-team lottery on the back of two defeats against teams they really should have beaten. Good times!
Final whistles went around the grounds and whilst there was both heartbreak and mild disappointment at the DW, there was jubilation at the Hawthorns, some head-scratching and celebrations at Griffin Park and I imagine some pitchside queasiness at the City Ground as Nottingham Forest managed to blow what was an almost guaranteed playoff place with a resounding defeat to Stoke combined with Swansea turning over Reading at the Madjeski.
The Championship: the Las Vegas of football leagues – great fun while you’re there, but you definitely don’t want to stay!
THOUGHT FOR THE PLAYOFFS:
With Reed back, who does Scott drop? Will there be some shuffling with the 2 legs of the semi-final only 3 days apart? You have to think given his performances (needless red card aside), Harrison has to be on the pitch from the get-go. Given Cardiff’s style, do him and Arter anchor the midfield while Onomah plays ahead of them? This would certainly be my preference (although would be happy for StefJo to come in for Arter) based on recent performances.
Obviously this means no place in the starting XI for TC and unfortunately, I think that’s something that needs to happen. The last two seasons have not been kind to our beloved captain, and it’s fair to say we looked better in the latest games when he was out. Is it his long-standing injury that’s holding him back? is it the style that Parker is imposing on him that’s limiting his game? Is Aubrey playing up in the night and he’s not getting enough sleep? Who knows! Either way, this isn’t the player that was integral to our play during the Slav years. And while it would be a hard decision to make, if we are going to drag ourselves up once again through this brutal end-of-season knockout, we are going to need players who will grind out the results and unfortunately, Tom is not a grinder. Also, we need a shouter on the pitch. I’ve spoken about his captaining ability various times and these games call for a KMac-esque presence on the pitch, especially when there are no fans in the stands to push the team forward. If anything, if the actual KMac isn’t going to be getting any game time, then Scott should be utilising him on the sidelines…we all know how well he gees the team up and it’s that point now that we need to fight for results by any means necessary.
These last 3 games are a sprint that will feel like a marathon, and hopefully, I’m proved wrong and TC pops up with another Wembley winner. But what is for certain, this is going to put Parker’s managerial skills to the ultimate test…let’s hope between him, his backroom staff and the team, there is still enough left in the tank to see us back into the Premier League, even if they have to do it without the White Wall.