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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Classic Campaigns: Championship 2000/01

In the first of a new series looking back on Football League history, Nobes reflects on a classic campaign.

Today, he looks back on the Championship division of 2000/01.

It was a season of fantasy football, play off drama, but most notably one of the game's greatest escapes. However, could the Footballing Gods be about to write one club's perceived wrong?

Jean Tigana's stylish Fulham ran away with the Championship title in 2001

If a year is a long time in football, then ten years must feel like a lifetime. Imagine then, holding a grudge, hoping to exact a bit of revenge, for an entire decade.

Has the time finally come for that score to be settled though? Could fate possibly decree that, come the end of the season, one club's grudge has finally been laid to rest?

To explain, let me take you back. The date was May 6 2001 - the last day of the 2000/1 Championship campaign.

I find it hard to believe that was nearly a decade ago. I never thought that, ten years later, I would always remember sitting down that Sunday afternoon to listen to the final day of the season on the radio.

Certainly all the ingredients were there for a classic afternoon - with four sides battling to avoid joining QPR and Tranmere in League One for the new season.

At the other end, the story of the season had been Fulham. To say the Cottagers had impressed on their way to promotion back to the top flight would be a massive understatement.

Playing a swaggering brand of passing football under French legend Jean Tigana, the West London outfit ended the campaign with 101 points - a full ten clear of their nearest challengers.

It was their third promotion in five years and saw them back among England's elite for the first time since 1968. It was largely thanks, too, to the big-spending of owner Mohammed Al-Fayed.

This was also the season when another wealthy benefactor, Blackburn Rovers's Jack Walker, died. Walker's money had made the Lancashire club Premier League Champions in 1995.

Perhaps it was fitting then that Rovers returned to the top flight in 2001. A 1-0 win in their penultimate fixture at local rivals Preston North End helped Graeme Souness's charges edge out Bolton Wanderers to take second spot.

Those two would have their chance to follow Rovers into the Premier League at the end of the month. Cardiff's Millennium Stadium - with Wembley being rebuilt - playing host to its first ever Championship play off final between the two.

Sam Allardyce's Bolton had been expected to challenge for promotion, but Preston were new to the division having won the third tier just 12 months previously.

Wanderers easily saw off West Brom - who had pipped another newly promoted side in Burnley to sixth spot - over two legs. The other play off was an altogether more tight affair though.

Preston travelled to Birmingham in the first leg and lost 1-0 and, with the score at 1-1 in the return leg at Deepdale, it was the Blues who were heading to Cardiff.

However, a dramatic last gasp goal for North End took the game into extra time and eventually penalties. Cue a further twist.

Furious at the ref's decision to take the shoot out in front of the Preston supporters rather than at the end containing both set of fans, Blues boss Trevor Francis hauled his side off the pitch - refusing to take part in penalties.

The game was delayed for several minutes until, eventually, Francis relented. Unsurprisingly, after such antics, his team ended up on the losing side. Preston would face local rivals Bolton in the play off final with the Premier League just 90 minutes away.

Ultimately, the PNE fairytale didn't have a happy ending, with their neighbours proving much too strong - running out 3-0 winners to shatter the dreams of North End and their young boss David Moyes.

It was a testament to the strength of all three of the promoted teams in 2000/01 that they all stayed up in the Premier League the next season. It was the first, and remains the only, time that has happened in its 18-year history.

However, it was the relegation battle in 2000/01's Championship which provided a thrilling climax to a classic campaign - and that ten year grudge.

Going into the final week of the campaign, Crystal Palace were staring League One in the face. The Eagles had reached the semi finals of the League Cup that year, but with two games remaining they sat three points adrift of fourth bottom Portsmouth.

Chairman Simon Jordan rolled the dice - sacking manager Alan Smith and putting club stalwart Steve Kember in charge as caretaker.

As fate would have it, Palace travelled to Fratton Park in the final week of the season - they simply couldn't afford to lose. In fact, they did much better, securing a 4-2 victory - enough to dump Pompey into the bottom three on goal difference.

It set up a thrilling final day:


Grimsby vs. Fulham
Huddersfield vs. Birmingham
Portsmouth vs. Barnsley
Stockport vs. Crystal Palace


19. Grimsby.............45....-20....49
20. Huddersfield.......45......-8....48
21. Crystal Palace.....45.....-14...46
22. Portsmouth........45.....-15....46
23. QPR..................45.....-30....39
24. Tranmere...........45.....-31....37

Portsmouth now found themselves in the deepest trouble. Then again, it was the third time in six seasons that they had required a final day result for survival.

Anything less than a win against Barnsley at Fratton Park and they would be relying on Palace losing at Stockport.

Palace were the only one of the four teams in danger on their travels. Huddersfield knew a point at home to Birmingham would be enough for them and it was the same scenario for Grimsby who were hosting Champions Fulham.

Pompey got off to the perfect start as they scored early on. Meanwhile, at Blundell Park, a second-string Fulham side were 1-0 down at Grimsby thanks to a keeping howler from Marcus Hahnemann.

Huddersfield were trailing to Birmingham 1-0 but, with half time approaching, the Terriers levelled the match. However, the visitors went straight down the other end and restored their advantage at 2-1.

Attention switched to Edgeley Park therefore, where Palace and Stockport were goalless. The Londoners were going down if scores remained the same.

Things got worse for them in the second period. Portsmouth raced into a 3-0 lead against a Barnsley side already looking forward to their summer break. Palace now had to score otherwise they were down.

Time was running out, but then came a moment of great controversy. With three minutes remaining, Palace were defending a Stockport corner and the ball was headed out to the edge of the box.

There, Palace's David Hopkin palmed the ball away from a waiting Stockport man. The ref missed the handball, and Hopkin hoofed the ball up field as Palace looked for a break away.

The ball was held up and the on-rushing Dougie Freedman was played through 25 yards from goal. Freedman proceeded to jink past two defenders and smash the ball home from eight yards out.

Palace had their goal and salvation was in sight. With final whistles going at Portsmouth and Grimsby, both of them knew they could look forward to another season in the second tier. All eyes turned to Huddersfield.

They were still playing at the Galpharm where the home side had, at the season's death, been plunged into the bottom three.

Even a loss to Birmingham would have been enough without Palace scoring, but now the Yorkshire club's fans desperately urged their team onwards knowing they had to score to save themselves and send the Eagles down.

Or maybe they didn't. A sudden buzz went around the stadium - Stockport had got an even later equaliser against Palace. Only they hadn't. Palace held on to win.

With the match across the Pennines still going on though, the London club's fans had to wait to celebrate survival. Four minutes later, and with time having run out on Huddersfield, Palace were confirmed as safe.

Palace players celebrate survival in 2001 with caretaker Steve Kember

At the Galpharm, everything had seemed to conspire against Huddersfield. From the Fulham keeper's error at Grimsby, to Barnsley's half-hearted effort on the South Coast, to the handball at Stockport.

All had come together, as well as their own inability to claim the one point they needed at home, to relegate Huddersfield from the Championship.

Final table:

21. Crystal Palace.....46.....-13....49
23. QPR...................46.....-30.....40
24. Tranmere...........46.....-31.....38

Fast forward to the present day, though, and a resurgent Terriers under Lee Clark are gunning for promotion from League One to claim a return to the Championship.

Meanwhile, Palace - after another final day escape last term - are in the bottom three and embroiled in another relegation battle.

It couldn't actually happen, could it? Is it time for fate, rather than Hopkin, to lend a helping hand?

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