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Friday, June 18, 2010

False Dawns

With the fixtures for the 2010/11 season released yesterday, Nobes looks at why fans shouldn't react to quickly to an opening day result.

Never read too much into the opening day - just ask Reading fans

The release of the new season's fixture list is always a cause for excitement for football supporters.

Your team may have been promoted and you're looking forward to visiting new and different grounds, or you've been relegated, and are dreading trips to 'tinpot' teams.

Who have you got on Boxing Day? When's your local derby? Which God awful away trip have you got to endure on a Tuesday night? Where can you have a nice weekend away in the spring to watch your club?

It's the anticipation of a new campaign - and marks the countdown to nine months of hopes and dreams following your team.

Inevitably, much of the countdown and focus turns to the first game - the 90 minutes which kick off your season and, for some fans, seems to hold incredible importance.

A win on the opening day and suddenly you're feeling a lot more positive about your hopes. A defeat, and relegation is surely going to be the end result come May.

However, just how important and influential is the first game of the season? Can we really read into how teams kick off their campaign or is it, more often than not, no indication whatsoever as to how your team's season will go?

Put simply, do the history books show that you really shouldn't jump to any conclusions too quickly after the first final whistle of the year?

Let's consider last season's evidence. Of the ten clubs promoted in the Football League last term, only four won their opening matches - Leeds, Notts County, Bournemouth, and Dagenham.

Notts were 5-0 winners over Bradford - putting them top of the very first League Two table. They had a rocky campaign, but top spot is where they finished after 46 matches too.

On the flip side, Norwich were bottom of League One after a 7-1 thrashing on the opening day to Colchester. They ended up running away with the title. Just above them were Swindon, humiliated 5-0 at Gillingham.

However, come May, Swindon rounded off their 2009/10 season at Wembley in the play off final. Robins fans couldn't have dreamed of that after leaving Priestfield last August.

The Gills, on the other hand, had been demoted back down to the basement division. There can't have been many bigger false dawns than theirs.

One of the five - Gillingham opened up with a 5-0 win but ended up going down

Of the nine teams who suffered relegation, four did lose their first match - Peterborough, Wycombe, Darlington, and Grimsby. Interestingly, only one - the aforementioned Gillingham - won their opening game.

Perhaps Sheffield Wednesday fans should have realised their campaign was going to be a disappointing one, though, as they threw away a 2-0 lead to draw with local rivals Barnsley at Hillsborough.

However, 12 months previously, the Owls had thumped Burnley 4-1 on the opening day of the season. Indeed, the Clarets lost their next game 3-0 to Ipswich and didn't win until the fifth attempt.

Of course, they went on to win the play off final and a place in the Premier League at the end of a season that started so poorly.

Also in the 2008/9 season, Championship winners Wolves only managed a draw at a Plymouth team who would battle against the drop. League Two winners Brentford went down to a disappointing 1-0 loss at Bury.

Indeed, none of the sides promoted from League Two that season won their first match. Similarly, both Peterborough and Scunthorpe lost their opening games in League One but went on to win promotion.

Chester City fans probably knew they were in for a long campaign - which did eventually end in relegation - when they lost 6-0 in their first match though.

Another year previously, and in League One, Swansea went down to a 2-1 loss at Oldham. Roberto Martinez's side only lost seven more times all season. Neither Nottingham Forest or Doncaster - promoted with the Swans - won their first match.

Forest were held by Bournemouth - who ended the season going down to League Two. Port Vale and Luton, relegated with the Cherries, also picked up points in their first game.

In the same campaign, West Brom began their Championship winning campaign with a 2-1 defeat at Burnley. Hull fans also wouldn't have believed that they would have ended the season promoted after losing 3-2 at home to Plymouth in their first match.

Plymouth also feature in, quite possibly, one of the biggest first day misnomers in Football League history. In 2005/6, their opening day 2-1 victory at a Reading side who looked very ordinary seemed to suggest the Royals were, once more, not promotion material.

In the next 45 matches, Reading lost only once more as they raced to the title with a record number of points. In the long term, the Argyle defeat was simply consigned to being a distant memory in a glorious campaign.

Amid the mixture of promise and broken dreams of the opening day, it will be the long term view which counts most.

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