The final Football League round-up of 2017

by Gabriel Sutton / 31 December 2017, 13:53

Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) rounds-up the final wave of 2017 Football League fixture!

Perfect weekend for the Rams

Sam Winnall's brace gave Derby County a 2-1 win at Ipswich, completing the perfect weekend with which to round-off 2017.

Automatic promotion rivals Cardiff, Bristol City, Leeds and Sheffield United also failed to pick up anything, leaving Gary Rowett's men 2nd in the table.

This blog had reservations about the Rams in pre-season: Rowett bravely dismissed their best technical players in Tom Ince and Will Hughes, seemingly seeking a team built on muscle and industry.

Would this come at the expense of the flair that has seen Derby challenge for promotion in three of the last four seasons?

Not in the slightest. Only Wolves have scored more goals than the East Midlanders, for whom the front four of Johnny Russell, Matej Vydra, Tom Lawrence and Sam Winnall interchanged superbly at Portman Road. The latter fully deserved his brace, completed by a stunning strike for his second, in an outstanding centre-forward's performance.

That quartet had the freedom to roam due to the control provided by George Thorne, who impressed in just his second league start of the campaign alongside Tom Huddlestone. Richard Keogh and Curtis Davies meanwhile, ever-presents at the back, remain models of consistency.

Derby fans have had the perfect weekend - in fact, the only thing that could have bettered it for them would have been Nottingham Forest losing...

1-0 to the Birmingham

Any comparison with George Graham's Arsenal side after a first win in eight for Birmingham City might be tonge in cheek, but it's intriguing that four of their five victories have come by the 1-0 scoreline.

Incidentally, the other was a fortuitous 2-1 triumph over Bristol City in the second week, when they should have been at least three down at half-time. In fact, Blues have only won nine games in the whole of 2017 and you might argue that in each of them, the performance was of a battling rather than free-flowing nature.

The 1-0 triumph over Leeds on Saturday was no different. Steve Cotterill's side didn't create too many chances but centre-back Tony A- sorry, Harlee Dean led by example in the absence of Michael Morrison while Maikel Kieftenbeld fought ferociously in midfield.

Jota's late arrival gave them an injection of quality but, with their current final third problems, one sensed they needed a bit of luck to score. That came when the ex-Brentford man's curling shot was pushed out by Felix Wiedwald and Jacques Maghoma was on hand to tap home.

All five teams above Birmingham avoiding defeat - with Bolton and Sunderland winning - means the B9 outfit remain bottom of the table, so hopes of a Graham-esque trophy glut can be put on hold for now. Maybe though, just maybe, that win over Leeds can be a springboard for better things.

Preston's progress

Radio presenter and Cardiff City fan Jason Mohammed was at the centre of some controversy when he claimed that Preston North End had looked ordinary in their 1-0 victory against his side, which came thanks to Tommy Clarke's 90th minute goal.

The fact that they are up to eighth, he argues, is a sign of the lack of quality in the Championship this season. While the Welshman's comments weren't necessarily made with bias as some have suggested, they may not be entirely accurate.

If anything, Preston represent the modernization and development of the Championship. They were a long ball side in their first season back at this level, when they relied heavily on experience and industry to keep clean sheets, grinding their way to 11th.

In their second season, Simon Grayson added some pace and youthful exuberance into the side with Callum Robinson, Tom Barkhuizen and others beginning to shine, as the Lilywhites had an eye on the play-offs for much of the campaign.

This season, new manager Alex Neil has been rewarded for introducing a more attacking style. Wide men are encouraged to press up alongside Jordan Hugill, with a greater emphasis on retaining the ball and sustaining a high tempo.

That was evident at Cardiff, where the Lilywhites had 59% possession and 16 shots. Granted, their end product could have been better but the intent was always there.

Preston have evolved tactically over the last three years to improve every season. If we look at the teams that have finished eighth in the last two campaigns, Cardiff fans weren't happy with the style of play in 15/16 and Norwich had a terrible defensive record the year after.

Although North End aren't yet a perfect side, any team that gets everything right at this level will move into the top flight. While Mohammed is entitled to his opinions, his view perhaps does Preston something of a disservice.

History made at MK Dons

MK Dons' 1-0 win over Peterborough on Saturday will go down as one of the most remarkable games in English football history. Why? The home side had to play 55 minutes of the match with 9 - yes 9 - men on the field against 11 and still won.

Chuks Aneke's opener was sandwiched by Joe Walsh's ninth-minute dismissal for bundling down Jack Marriott and Moussa Sow's 35th-minute red card for a high-footed challenge on Ryan Tafazolli - after that, it was all hands to the pump.

They needed tireless work from Conor McGrandles and Ousseynou Cisse, heroic last-ditch defending from Ethan Ebanks-Landell, fine goalkeeping from Lee Nicholls - and even a small hint of fortune when Marcus Maddison hit the bar in injury-time.

The scale of the achievement from those players simply cannot be underestimated. There does not appear to be any record of a team winning with 9 men, let alone having that numerical disadvantage for so long.

The closest that springs to mind in 2017 is Newcastle staying level at Nottingham Forest last season until the 86th minute after Jonjo Shelvey and Paul Dummett had been sent off, with Karl Darlow saving two penalties. In similar circumstances, Chelsea nearly overturned a three-goal deficit against Burnley on the opening day of this term.

Not only did Newcastle and Chelsea ultimately lose those games, they had huge financial advantages: MK Dons have a similar budget to Peterborough and remain 11 places behind their visitors.

While the style of football under Robbie Neilson has been questioned, their achievement on Saturday afternoon answers a lot of questions about the spirit in togetherness in the group. Whatever happens between now and May, that Saturday afternoon in Buckinghamshire won't be forgotten.

Valiant Vale hit Hatters hard

Luton Town have hit four or more goals on five occasions this season and prior to Saturday's game, they had just won 5-0 at Swindon: a sixth victory in seven. Imagine their shock then, when they came unstuck in a 4-0 defeat at Port Vale.

Nathan Jones' men remain nine points clear in the promotion race and one bad afternoon is insufficient for us to question their credentials, but the result speaks volumes for the progress being made in Burslem.

The gangly Tom Pope and the nippy Ben Whitfield combined beautifully in a performance some fans regard to be the club's finest since April 2013, when they beat Burton Albion 7-1 en route to promotion.

Talking of the P word, this victory lifts the Staffordshire outfit to nine points off the play-offs. A continuation of their current form under Neil Aspin, who has re-connected the whole club, would leave them on 71 points, the same tally that play-off finalists Exeter accrued last term.

With Pope and Whitfield bang in form, Marcus Harness running tirelessly, Anthony Kay screening everything in midfield and Nathan Smith commanding from the back, Vale look the real deal. If the runaway leaders can't come close to stopping them then, well, who can?

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Phil Brown
(Southend United)
17th January
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