It was a Bad Weekend forÃ¢ÂÂ¦
Those who thought they were safe
Reading's trip to Fulham held a significance that nobody expected. With the Cottagers on 40 points and the Royals already relegated, the fixture seemed set to be an end-of-season stroll in which Martin Jol's men would quietly guarantee their already almost certain safety.
However, a 4-2 defeat leaves the Londoners still stuck on the Ã¢ÂÂmagicalÃ¢ÂÂ 40 points, which could by tonight be just two points clear of safety (if Wigan beat Swansea) with two games to play. NorwichÃ¢ÂÂs 2-1 home reverse to resurgent Aston Villa, SouthamptonÃ¢ÂÂs loss at Tottenham and NewcastleÃ¢ÂÂs draw at West Ham squeezed a bottom half in which nobody is yet safe.
As the sun sets on another Premier League season, the early completion of the title race and rapid relegation of two candidates threatened to render the season end dull, especially compared to the excitement in the Football League. But a final fortnight's relegation battle between seven or eight teams should be enough to keep us watching until May 19th.
The Championship's astonishing last-day drama can be approached from many different angles. And the most compelling tale of the automatic promotion drama centred on young Jack Bonham.
As Watford sought the victory over Leeds that could seal promotion if Hull failed to beat Cardiff, the 19-year-old Hornets goalkeeper had arrived at Vicarage Road expecting to watch from the stands; after all, thus far in his tender career he hadn't made a senior club appearance or even been named in the matchday squad. Then Manuel Almunia pulled a hamstring in the warm-up and Bonham was on the bench Ã¢ÂÂ until the 24th minute, when Almunia's replacement Jonathan Bond suffered a sickening collision. While nine medics took 12 minutes to load a neck-braced Bond onto a stretcher and staff cleared the pitch of bloodied tissues, Bonham warmed up on the touchline.
It didnÃ¢ÂÂt take long for what could have been a dream debut Ã¢ÂÂ promotion and all of that Ã¢ÂÂ to turn into a nightmare. Less than 20 minutes after coming on, Bonham was involved in a mix-up with Joel Ekstrand which allowed Leeds' Dominic Poleon to roll into an empty net.
Almen Abdi's quality equaliser gave the Hornets hope, and the injury delay brought the advantage of foreknowledge: Watford could react to Hull's result against Cardiff. So when the champions equalised late on at the KC, all of Vicarage Road knew that Gianfranco Zola's men had 15 minutes to score a promotion-clinching goal.
Watford gamely threw everything forward, leaving them vulnerable to the inevitable counter-attack. As HullÃ¢ÂÂs players and fans watched on TV screens and smartphones, breaking the habit of a lifetime by willing Leeds on, Ross McCormack broke beyond the Watford defence and tried to chip the young goalkeeper. The chip was tame but Bonham found himself caught between palming the ball, punching it and attempting to catch it. In the end, he did none, instead merely helping the ball into the goal.
So, Gianfranco Zola and Watford go into the play-offs to face late re-entrants Leicester City Ã¢ÂÂ possibly with Bonham still between the sticks. Let's hope he continues to show the spirit demonstrated by his post-match tweet: I believe in myself, my ability and have the best people around me to go forward.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table the relegation candidates swapped places seven times in a fraught 90 minutes before the fickle finger of misfortune finally pointed at Peterborough.
Some would say that the writing was on the wall as early as September after the Posh lost their opening seven games, but Darren FergusonÃ¢ÂÂs men have fought hard since then, amassing 54 points from 39 games. Not a great return, sure, but a better haul than their fellow relegation candidates. And at least they fought to the end, unlike Wolves, who surrendered their Championship status with a whimpering 2-0 loss at Brighton.
Cruellest of all for Peterborough was the manner of their relegation. With their fate in their own hands, a point would have been enough to save them, and with only seven minutes remaining in their game at Crystal Palace, they had all three. Even Kevin Phillips' 83rd-minute equaliser was OK, considering Barnsley were drawing at Huddersfield and had a worse goal difference. But with seconds remaining a Mile Jedinak header gave Palace all three points and sent Peterborough back into League One.
It was a heartbreaking end to a rollercoaster season. For the neutral, however, it was incredible.Shattered dreamers
The play-offs can the most exciting, exhilarating way to end a season Ã¢ÂÂ the likes of Watford, Brighton, Crystal Palace and Leicester will certainly hope so Ã¢ÂÂ but they can also be cruel.
So pity poor Burton Albion Ã¢ÂÂ who missed out on automatic promotion from League Two by two points Ã¢ÂÂ and Cheltenham, who were one point further back: both saw their promotion dream end this weekend with play-off defeat. Pity Sheffield United, who saw a 1-0 first-leg lead wiped out at Yeovil. Perhaps most of all pity Swindon, whose season ended in penalty shoot-out defeat to Brentford (although it was heartening to see the Bees win on penalties after the way they missed out on promotion last week). With Wembley in use next week for the FA Cup final, the finalists face a fortnight's wait. All the worse for those who finally lose.Hednesford Town
Last Friday FourFourTwo previewed the title race in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier, where North Ferriby United and Hednesford Town have battled for the sole automatic promotion spot. With both sides in terrific form and going into the game on 90 points, one of them was destined to be consigned to the dustbin of Ã¢ÂÂunlucky losersÃ¢ÂÂ.
Hednesford started the day in second place on goal difference and did all they could, winning 2-1 at fifth-place AFC Fylde with a late goal. Unfortunately for them, North Ferriby were at the same time cruising to a 2-0 home victory over Ashton.
So Hednesford once again face Fylde, this time tonight at home in the play-offs. It's a hurdle they have fallen at for three consecutive years, but fans of the Pitmen will be praying that their stunning form Ã¢ÂÂ which saw them claw back a nine-point disadvantage in six weeks Ã¢ÂÂ will pull them into the Conference North this time around.
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