Toppo’s Top Tens – Moments of 2011

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As we are a few days into 2012, there’s no better time to reflect on the previous year in the Football League. 2011 served up some memorable moments, with unexpected promotions, great relegation escapes, controversies and goals aplenty.

A resurgent East Anglian outfit upset the odds to claim their second promotion in two seasons and top flight football returned to South Wales for the first time in nearly 30 years. A Premier League legend turned up in Wiltshire to begin his managerial career while two former England managers were hired and fired in the East Midlands.

Plenty more took place in 2011 and this week Toppo’s Top Ten takes a look back at some of the most memorable events of the past twelve months in the Football League.

10: Stevenage are promoted again

Stevenage were promoted to the Football League for the first time in their history in 2010 and made a decent start to life in League Two, hovering around mid-table for the first six months of the campaign. In January the club were sat in 18th place but went on a remarkable run of form in February and March, winning nine out of eleven games to propel themselves into the play-off spots. They may have come to the attention of many for their ‘timewasting’ tactics and the hard work put in by the team on the training field, but Graham Westley’s side were on the up.

They finished sixth and defeated Accrington Stanley 3-0 in the play-off semi-finals, to set up a meeting with Torquay United at Old Trafford in the final. Stevenage had the better of the first-half and made their dominance count four minutes from the break as John Mousinho rifled in a shot from the edge of the area after a fine run from midfield. The goal would prove to be the decider and Stevenage saw out the match to secure a famous double promotion into League One, emulating Exeter’s back-to-back promotions from the Conference into the third tier in 2008 and 2009.

9: Crystal Palace shock Manchester United

Having struggled at the wrong end of the Championship table early in 2011, Crystal Palace made a much better start to the 2011-12 season under manager Dougie Freedman, challenging for the play-offs and having a good run in the Carling Cup.

In the quarter-finals on November 30 they travelled to Old Trafford to face Manchester United, with the home side considered big favourites, despite Sir Alex Ferguson fielding some fringe players. After a dull first half, the game sparked into life when Palace midfielder Darren Ambrose thumped a brilliant 35-yard strike into the top corner at the Stretford End. United equalised thanks to Federico Macheda’s penalty but they could not find another goal, so the match went into extra-time.

Eight minutes into extra-time Palace won a free-kick which Ambrose swung into the penalty area, Glenn Murray escaped the attentions of his marker and nodded the ball into the back of Ben Amos’ net to restore Palace’s lead. The Londoners came under pressure in the closing stages of the game but defended resolutely to seal a last-four spot for the first time in ten years.

8: That Clarke-Di Canio bust-up

Former Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham United striker Paolo Di Canio was appointed manager of Swindon Town in May, not long after the club’s relegation into League Two had been confirmed. The Robins got off to an inconsistent start under the Italian, who was known for his short temper and hot-headed moments as a player. At the end of August we saw this side of Di Canio return as he had a furious bust-up with striker Leon Clarke on the touchline at the County Ground after losing to Southampton in the Carling Cup.

Clarke had an argument with one of the club’s fitness coaches before manager Di Canio stepped in. He asked the striker to leave the field but Clarke refused, Di Canio tugged at his shirt which seemed to wind the striker up more. Eventually the pair headed down the tunnel where the confrontation continued and became more heated with the two having to be pulled apart. Clarke had only joined Swindon from QPR 11 days later, and he was soon heading for the exit – farmed out to Chesterfield on loan.

7: Darren Ferguson returns to Peterborough

In January 2011, fourteen months after leaving the club by mutual consent, Darren Ferguson strolled back into London Road to become Peterborough United boss for a second time. He had just been sacked by Preston North End, who were bottom of the Championship – which was where Ferguson took Peterborough from League Two thanks to successive promotions in 2008 and 2009 during his first stint as manager.

Posh were in the play-off mix when he arrived and he eventually guided them into the end-of-season shootout for a place in the Championship. After overcoming MK Dons in the semi-finals they would face Huddersfield Town at Old Trafford on May 29, where Ferguson began his playing career and where his father Sir Alex, is a club legend. Huddersfield were considered favourites having just been pipped to automatic promotion by Southampton but the game was a tight affair until the late stages.

In the 78th minute Peterborough broke the deadlock when Tommy Rowe headed Grant McCann’s free-kick into the back of the net, before striker Craig Mackail-Smith’s 35th goal of a memorable season made it 2-0. Posh sealed the victory five minutes from the end thanks to a great free-kick from McCann to seal promotion back to the Championship and a remarkable comeback for manager Ferguson.

6: Huddersfield’s unbeaten run

In 2011 Huddersfield Town came close to securing a place in the Championship, being beaten to an automatic promotion spot in League One to Southampton, before losing the play-off final to Peterborough United. Lee Clark’s side were tipped to go one better in the 2011-12 season and pushed for the play-offs again from the start as they carried on a long unbeaten run from the previous season.

After losing in the league to Southampton on December 28th 2010, Huddersfield picked up 24 wins and 18 draws from their next 42 league games to equal Nottingham Forest’s Football League unbeaten streak of 42 matches. In their next game at home to Notts County on the 19th of November, Town would make history as they ran out 2-1 winners thanks to a brace from Jordan Rhodes and make it 43 unbeaten.

In this time they had lost matches in the FA Cup, Carling Cup and most notably, in the League One play-offs, so some felt the record should have been ended much sooner, however it was an impressive feat from the Terriers which came to an end with a 2-0 loss away to leaders Charlton Athletic in their next game.

5: Brighton move to their new home

Fourteen long years after leaving the Goldstone Ground and playing at the Withdean Stadium since 1999, Brighton and Hove Albion finally moved to a new stadium of their own, the impressive Falmer Stadium (named the AMEX Stadium due to sponsorship) which was in construction since 2008.

The move coincided with Gus Poyet’s side winning the League One title last season to be promoted to the Championship and the feel good factor was back amongst the Seagulls and their supporters. Their first competitive match at their new ground was a home league fixture against Doncaster Rovers and it would be a memorable afternoon for the home side. The teams took to the field amid a great atmosphere and the sell-out 20.219 crowd waving flags, but it was Doncaster who threatened to spoil Brighton’s afternoon as they took the lead through Billy Sharp.

Brighton tried to find a goal and finally equalised on 83 minutes as Will Buckley, a summer signing from Watford, hit a shot from the egde of the penalty area after Doncaster had failed to clear a free-kick. Injuries meant there were eight minutes of injury time and in the final minute, Buckley converted an excellent pass from Craig Noone to complete a brilliant turnaround and send the home fans into wild celebration.

4: Fans Reunited

Plymouth Argyle began the season in financial turmoil and had just suffered back-to-back relegations from the Championship into League Two. The club were £13 million in debt and placed in Administration. On the pitch the club’s fortunes continued to slide as the Pilgrims sat bottom of the whole Football League after nine games and manager Peter Reid was sacked.

A ‘fans reunited’ day was organised for Plymouth’s home match against Macclesfield Town on September 24th, led by Brighton and Hove Albion fans, hundreds of well-wishers pledged to descend on Home Park in their own teams’ shirts to support Plymouth’s plight. Albion themselves went through a similar situation in 1997 when they were evicted from the Goldstone Ground, docked points and nearly dropped out of the Football League.

Over 6,000 people attended Plymouth’s match with Macclesfield, with fans from clubs all over the country making the long trip South to be at the game. Argyle’s players responded and ran out 2-0 winners to pick up their first win of a difficult season. Two weeks later a second ‘fans reunited’ day was staged on an International weekend to encourage even more fans to support Plymouth, and the Home Park attendance swelled to over 8,000 as the Pilgrims drew 2-2 with Accrington Stanley.

3: Norwich City reach the Premier League

Norwich City’s rise into the Premier League is remarkable. Defeated 7-1 at Carrow Road by Paul Lambert’s Colchester United on the first day of the League One season in 2009, the club dismissed manager Bryan Gunn and appointed Lambert as the new boss. The Scot galvanised the team as they regained their form and went on to win the League One title later that season, immediately bouncing back into the Championship.

Norwich carried on their winning momentum into the second tier and the club were in and around the play-off spots for most of the season. Thanks to the goals of striker Grant Holt the Canaries were very much in the promotion shake-up and moved into the top two, maintaining consistent form in the process – not losing back-to-back matches all season.

On May 2nd the club went into their penultimate match of the campaign away at Portsmouth needing a win to guarantee promotion. The game was a scrappy affair with neither side fashioning many chances, however in the 50th minute they did find the net. David Fox curled a free-kick into the penalty area and Simeon Jackson met it with a close-range header to give the Canaries a priceless lead.

Norwich held on to secure the win and with it a second consecutive promotion into the Premier League as the players ran towards the travelling supporters to celebrate a remarkable triumph. The club became the first since Manchester City in 2000 to win back-to-back promotions into the top flight.

2: Brendan Rodgers takes Swansea City up

Having narrowly missed out on a Championship play-off place the season before, Swansea City appointed former Watford and Reading boss Brendan Rodgers as manager in the wake of Paolo Sousa’s departure for Leicester City. The Swans developed a reputation for playing attractive, attacking football and this would continue under Rodgers. He moved to bring Scott Sinclair to South Wales for £500,000 from former club Chelsea before the season began and he would be one of the club’s key players throughout the campaign.

After a slow start, Swansea picked up form and were soon in the play-off places, moving into the top two on occasion before falling away to allow Norwich to finish second. They eventually finished third to secure a play-off spot and face Nottingham Forest in the semi-finals. After a goalless first leg at the City Ground, Swansea won the return at the Liberty Stadium 3-1 to reach the Wembley final, where they would face Reading for a place in the Premier League.

On May 30 the two sets of fans descended on Wembley to witness what would be a pulsating encounter. Swansea took control of the first half as two goals from Scott Sinclair and a strike from Stephen Dobbie saw the Swans go into the half-time break 3-0 ahead. Reading looked out of it but they pulled a goal back when Joe Allen deflected a header into his own net four minutes after the restart, and eight minutes later the Royals got another when Matt Mills headed home from a corner to put Brian McDermott’s side right back in the contest.

Swansea had to see out Reading pressure as they pressed for an equaliser, being denied by the post and some last-ditch defending from Garry Monk, before they were awarded a penalty with ten minutes to go when Fabio Borini was brought down in the Reading penalty area. Sinclair stepped up and converted the spot-kick to complete his hat-trick and send Swansea on their way to promotion. At the final whistle they returned to the top flight after a 28 year absence and became the first Welsh team to reach the Premier League – quite a feat considering the club won promotion from League Two six years before.

1: Barnet’s great escape

On the final day of the 2010-11 League Two season Barnet and Lincoln City were locked in a battle to remain in the Football League. Lincoln were two points ahead of the Londoners with a home game against Aldershot, while Barnet faced Port Vale at Underhill. Barnet began the season with Mark Stimson as manager but he left with the club bottom at New Year and they turned to former boss Paul Fairclough as caretaker manager.

However after 15 points from a possible 48 the club were staring the Conference in the face and Fairclough left, with another former manager, Martin Allen returning as Bees’ manager on an eight game deal. He gave the side the lift they needed as they won two and drew one of his first three matches in charge, before he shocked everyone by agreeing to join managerless Notts County, just 19 days after his return to Underhill.

Giuliano Grazioli, a Barnet legend and assistant manager to Allen was placed in charge until the end of the season. After a win, a draw and two defeats from his first four games as boss, Barnet went into the final day of the season needing a victory whilst hoping Lincoln lost. Three minutes into the second half, Izale McLeod scored from the penalty spot to give Barnet the lead, but it would be meaningless unless Lincoln conceded against Aldershot.

Midway through the second-half at Sincil Bank Aldershot themselves won and converted a penalty to take the lead, with the news gradually filtering through at Underhill amid chants of “We are staying up!” from the Bees’ supporters. Fifteen minutes later Aldershot doubled their lead and the Barnet fans began cheering once more. Aldershot made it 3-0 with five minutes left, while at Underhill there were six minutes of injury time which only added to the tension, but Barnet held on to survive in the Football League, climb up to 22nd place in the table and condemn Lincoln to non-league football.

At the final whistle the Bees fans poured onto the pitch to celebrate with the players and coaching staff. Barnet had saved themselves by the skin of their teeth.

Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up podcast member and Nottingham Forest blogger

Tweet Steven at @steven_toplis with your suggestions for Toppo’s Top Tens

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