By Jason McKeown
The final chapter of the 2013/14 League One season turned out to be one of its finest. At Wembley stadium, Leyton Orient and Rotherham United delivered a pulsating play off final contest in which everyone emerged with great credit. Both teams gave everything to the cause of promotion to the Championship, with Rotherham recovering from a 2-0 half time deficit to eventually triumph on penalties.
It was a horrible way for Leyton Orient to lose, one lacking in romance. On one of the division’s lowest playing budgets, Russell Slade performed a fantastic job guiding Orient to a Wembley final, and completing the job would have been one in the eye for the underdog. Rotherham are hardly goliaths of the game, but are backed relatively handsomely by their owner, Tony Stewart, and have a squad packed full of talent. Despite the fright Orient gave them, the Millers deserve their promotion.
Rotherham’s return to the Championship should be a fairy story, given all they have endured during their nine-year stay in the bottom two divisions. Leaving Millmoor and Rotherham to play at Sheffield’s Don Valley, plus two spells in administration – merely surviving as a football club was no small achievement. Yet the recovery, which was achieved through the development of the highly impressive New York Stadium and back-to-back promotions, is tainted by the presence of the man in the home dugout. There are many ways of achieving success, but most of us would prefer to find the ones that don’t involve employing the deplorable Steve Evans.
Even without Rotherham and their financial backing, next season’s League One will prove just as difficult. 2013/14 saw five teams dominate the division to the point they were all certain of at least a play off place with four games to go.
At the very top, Wolves were worthy champions and – on the evidence of the two games against Bradford City – by far and away the best side in the division. The fact they were still receiving parachute payments from their Premier League relegation always gave them an unfair advantage, and so it proved. They achieved what they should have achieved, but after the farce of their two previous seasons they still deserve credit for doing just that. The likes of Southampton and Norwich should now be their inspiration in how far they can go.
With Wolves and Rotherham’s promotions a tale of money as much as player and manager ability, there was small relief that the other club to go into the Championship was the more modestly backed Brentford. The Bees made up for their double heartbreak of last season by making sure more play off let-downs were avoided. We didn’t get to see the best of them, after City drubbed them 4-0 at Valley Parade during those heady early season days. It was one of a number of set backs they experienced in September, which prompted a big clear-the-air meeting and subsequent huge improvement in form. Mark Warburton took over Uwe Rosler – who left for Wigan – and maintained a steady and progressive ship.
Of the top five not to go up, Preston and Leyton Orient deserve to go into next season as pre-season favourites. But then there’s also the formidable second half revival of Sheffield United under Nigel Clough which makes the Blades a huge threat, and the likelihood that Peterborough will recover from their play off semi final defeat and go strongly again. And then there are the teams relegated from the Championship, who are in relatively decent health: Barnsley, Doncaster and Yeovil will expect to be in the shake-up this time next year.
Beyond the top five, League One was largely a much of muchness. The teams at the bottom were hardly terrible – witness Stevenage’s remarkable display at Valley Parade in March – whilst mid-table sides like Oldham and Bristol City possessed some terrific players. Perception is everything, and the fact we have returned to this level after six years below it has probably provided an exaggerated sense of League One’s quality. Still, I do think this is a better division than the one we vacated in 2007.
With the cutbacks in playing budget set to dominate summer talk at Valley Parade, watching Rotherham and Leyton Orient serve up a mini-classic at Wembley highlighted the scale of the challenge Phil Parkinson faces next season. Many supporters are clearly expecting a promotion push, yet the manager will have to make more from less if he is to build a side good enough to compete at the top end. It’s going to be a tough ask. Not an impossible one, but there is already a danger of expectations outstripping reality.
Just because the might of Wolves has departed, it does not mean next season’s League One will prove any easier.
Categories: 2013/14 season review