Meaningful competitive football returns to England this Friday, when Fulham host a Newcastle side determined to emulate their 2009-10 predecessors in escaping the Championship at the first attempt. Tom Simmonds looks at some of the standout fixtures from this opening weekend.
Dealing with the obvious one first, Sheffield Wednesday’s televised hosting of Aston Villa on Sunday is perhaps the biggest thing to make you go ‘hmmm’ fixture-wise.
A large part of the interest in what was a staple top level fixture in years past is to do with the division it will be happening in. Villa have the air of a hipster deliberately moving to an edgier neighbourhood and immediately seeking out an acquaintance who has been slumming it there for a while and knows the ropes. If the Championship is 1970s West Berlin, Wednesday are Lou Reed and Villa are David Bowie. As Sheffield is one of the great brewing cities of the UK, it will no doubt be offering their visitors a pint of trendy-again real ale as a precursor.
Speaking of Brewers, Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion have been given a trip to the City Ground to face Nottingham Forest, in a move that shows that the fixture computer is almost certainly human. Clough scored 101 goals in 311 appearances for Forest and is the son of you-know-who, the managerial legend who took Forest to heights they will never get near again. He is back in the manager’s chair at Burton, building on the brilliant jobs done by himself, Gary Rowett and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink to get them into the league and flying up it.
A 7,000-capacity stadium and their greenness at such heights will make it a tough ask for as solid a manager as Clough to keep Burton up, and he will need his team to make the most of the momentum promotion often brings to put a marker down early. Given Forest’s off-field travails this summer, they might make good first opponents.
Sheffield United, whom Clough managed from October 2013 until May 2015, are the team in League One who can’t possibly mess promotion up again (can they?), as they begin their sixth season at that level. Having delivered League Two promotion at a canter to a Northampton side in turmoil last season, Blades fan and ex-player Chris Wilder is the man entrusted with breaking the cycle at Bramall Lane.
Their first game of the Wilder era will be a trip to Bolton. Having been rescued from financial oblivion by Dean Holdsworth’s consortium last season, the Trotters are clearly throwing everything at an immediate return to the Championship. Phil Parkinson, architect of Bradford’s recent ascent and improbable cup runs, is an ambitious managerial appointment and signings such as centre-back Mark Beevers and winger Chris Taylor are solid additions to a squad that should have enough class to finish in the top six.
However, as recent managers of their opening day opponents have shown, it is difficult to reverse a decline. Parkinson and Wilder are two men whose first priority will be to lift their clubs from the ruts they were in last season. Saturday’s clash will offer the first insight into whether either man has had an immediate impact in that regard.
The players, staff and fans of Carlisle United will be relieved that one of their mammoth trips down south will be out of the way come five o’clock on Saturday, when their trip to Fratton Park to face Portsmouth will have concluded. Pompey, pre-season favourites to win League Two for the fourth season running, will be looking to capitalise on any Cumbrian travel fatigue to help make a fast start to fulfilling pre-season expectations. Paul Cook has overhauled his squad this summer and eye-catching signings such as Milan Lalkovic from Walsall, striker Curtis Main from Doncaster and former Irish number one David Forde from Millwall gives them the look of a team who can finally justify that tag.
Which of the opening day fixtures in FL72 have captured your imagination, and why?
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