It Was a Bad Weekend For… Romance, Royalty, Tigers, Wolves & Cod

It was a bad weekend for…

RomanceAlthough Bradford City have beaten more Premier League teams this season than QPR, facing Swansea in the League Cup Final always looked like it would be one step too far. And so it proved yesterday afternoon as the Swans took apart the Bantams for 90 minutes at Wembley to win their first-ever major trophy with a convincing 5-0 victory.

Despite a pre-match blessing from the Dalai Lama, and Cup Final suits from famed tailor Simon Carter (a much more successful homonym of your correspondent), Bradford forgot their cup form and instead brought their League Two form.

With Valentine’s Day now a distant memory, romantics everywhere suffered a double-whammy when first Swansea made it perfectly clear that they would not make the same mistakes as Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa before them – and then the heartless Jonathan de Guzman denied teammate Nathan Dyer the chance of a hat-trick by insisting on taking a penalty with the cup already effectively won.

But romance is overrated and Swansea’s master-class in possession football, and how to deal with lower league opposition – seducing Bradford into committing men forward before ruthlessly exploiting the space left behind – was fitting of any cup final.

So Swansea, and Michael Laudrup, take 2013's first major English silverware and can look forward to European football next season. Meanwhile Bradford resume their play-off push on Wednesday night as they welcome Dagenham & Redbridge to Valley Parade. Despite yesterday’s lack of romance, they can expect a loving welcome from their adoring and admirable fans.

The Royals (1)Now the Queen is no fan of football but it is believed that Her Majesty enjoys tuning in five minutes before major cup finals to hear her subjects deliver a rousing rendition of her aural wallpaper God Save The Queen.

Pity poor Ma’am then, had she asked a foot servant to flick over to Sky Sports at 15:55 yesterday to hear her anthem: she’ll have been greeted instead with the sound of commentators and pundits patronising Bradford to within an inch of their lives.

The Football League’s decision to forego the national anthem due to the presence of a Welsh side in the final did cause faux rage in certain parts of the media, but if our gracious Queen did stay tuned in after kick-off, she’ll have realised, like the rest of us, that’s it all really about the football.

The Royals (2)Looking back it feels as though there was a certain inevitability about Wigan’s 3-0 win at Reading on Saturday. After all, the Latics have been embroiled in relegation battles on an annual basis for years and know the territory well; furthermore, their only two wins in the last 16 (!) league games have come in the crunch six-pointers against Villa and the Royals themselves.

Yet for the first half-hour at the Madejski, Roberto Martinez's side were the very picture of nerves, repeatedly conceding possession and offering little going forward. And little wonder, as Reading’s recent form has borne the hallmarks of a team on the rise, with battling wins over Sunderland, Newcastle and West Brom and a remarkable comeback draw with Chelsea.

But, even ignoring the implications of the result, there were a number of worrying signs for Reading on Saturday afternoon. Considering all the recent praise of their fighting spirit, the Royals crumbled following Arouna Kone’s double just before half-time. Once Wigan scored immediately after the break, Reading played as though they couldn’t wait for the game to finish.

The lack of character on display was epitomised by Pavel Pogrebnyak’s senseless lunge on goalscorer Maynor Figueroa, for which he earned a straight red card.

Why Reading showed so little belief against a team who started the day below them in the table is a mystery – but it certainly doesn’t bode well for March trips to Everton, Manchester United and Arsenal.

Mauled TigersIt’s fair to say that Bolton Wanderers haven't had the season they expected. Having been relegated from the Premier League by a single point with a fairly decent squad and a well-regarded young manager in Owen Coyle, the Trotters were promotion favourites with the bookies.

Fast-forward seven months and Bolton have a new manager, and new ambitions: survive (they have been as few as three points above the relegation zone), consolidate, and push for promotion next year. Yet on Saturday, Wanderers fans got a glimpse of what might have been as their side destroyed high-flying Hull City.

By 10 past three Bolton had scored three times and hit the post against a Hull side who hadn’t conceded in nearly 200 minutes. Such was Wanderers’ domination that when Hull eventually did score, Bolton immediately regained their three-goal cushion just two minutes later.

The Tigers began the day in second place and with genuine hopes of closing the gap on leaders Cardiff. The 4-1 defeat allowed the apparently unstoppable Watford to leapfrog them with a 2-1 win over Derby. And Bolton? Though it’s probably too late to mount a serious play-off charge, Saturday was a good day in a disappointing season – and hope for the future under Dougie Freedman, who had turned Crystal Palace from drop-dodgers into promotion contenders.

Sorry WolvesHaving slipped into the bottom three following Tuesday’s defeat at Barnsley, Wolverhampton Wanderers suffered the very definition of a Bad Weekend as both Saturday and Sunday hurled bucketfuls of ‘suck’ their way.

First, on Saturday – when Wolves didn’t even play – just two of the bottom 10 Championship sides lost, pulling Wolves further into the relegation mire. And waiting for them at Molineux on Sunday afternoon were league leaders Cardiff, who'd already won eight away league games – more than anyone bar Watford. It didn't bode well.

And so it proved, as Cardiff put together a regulation 2-1 victory to stretch their lead at the top to eight points – and leave Wolves in a sorry, sorry state. Like Bolton and Blackburn, Wolves have had to severely realign their expectations for this season: if they are not to suffer back-to-back relegations, they need wins and fast.

But if winning is a habit, Wolves simply haven't got it. No team in the division has won fewer games this season; they haven't won since before Christmas, gaining four points from the last 11 games; moreover, the two teams above them have games in hand, and the (only) two teams below them are picking up wins.

Boro (1)Oh Middlesbrough! Their post-Christmas form reached a nadir this weekend as Boro hosted a Millwall side smarting from five consecutive league defeats. Inevitably, the Lions won and Middlesbrough finally fell out of the play-off spots. There’s still time to turn this around; the question is, how?

Boro (2)Bit by bit, Stevenage’s season is falling apart. In the most open League One in memory (only two points separate the top six), the Hertfordshire side were until very recently one of the sides with a shot at promotion. But recent form has beached them in lower mid-table.

The warning signs were there as early as November when Boro suffered back-to-back 4-1 defeats, but draws with Bournemouth and Tranmere seemed to steady the ship before a 2-0 win at Hartlepool put them firmly back in the promotion race. Unfortunately, that was as good as it got.

Consecutive home defeats over Christmas heralded a run which has seen just two wins from 11 league games (having won more than half of their opening fixtures). On Saturday, Boro were humbled 2-1 by Shrewsbury, their fourth successive defeat.

With 43 points on the board, Stevenage are safe from relegation, yet with 15 points separating them from the play-offs, promotion looks highly unlikely. There are certainly worse things than three months of mid-table boredom, but it will be a new experience for many fans of Stevenage, who have spent the business end of the last four seasons either in the play-offs or winning the Conference title.

League One, post-Paolo“I am the manager and they are the fans. For this, they have to hope that I will be the manager in the future because it's difficult to find another one like me.”

Paolo Di Canio may have been talking directly to Swindon fans when he said those words, but anyone with even a fleeting interest in the Football League will find League One a quieter and less interesting place after the exit of the Italian (and his entire backroom staff). We can only hope that the crazy Di Canio roadshow rolls into town somewhere else very soon.

Oh, Cod...The bottom of League Two looks like a six-way stramash over the two relegation spots, with Plymouth finally sinking to the bottom on Saturday and Torquay joining the likes of Aldershot and Barnet by losing for the sixth consecutive game this weekend.

But it is up towards the top that we focus and the moneyed Cod Army of Fleetwood Town. The North West club have enjoyed a stratospheric rise in recent seasons using the Crawley Town blueprint (i.e. have more money than everyone else), but any thoughts of back-to-back promotions have been scuppered in recent times thanks to a drop-off in form.

Following a midweek 4-0 home thumping by Burton Albion, Fleetwood travelled to struggling Aldershot hoping to avoid a repeat of the FA Cup tie in which the Shots upset the odds to proceed to the third round. Unfortunately for Fleetwood, Aldershot, buoyed by new blood in the dugout, made light work of their visitors consigning them to a fourth defeat in eight games.

If things don’t improve soon, Fleetwood could lose touch with the play-off contenders and their promotion hopes will surely, er, flounder.