Harrold strike makes it seven home wins out of eight for Reds

There were plenty of promising signs for Mark Yates as Crawley overcame Cambridge United 1-0 on a wet afternoon at the Checkatrade.com Stadium to make it seven home wins out of eight and, considering the circumstances, claim one of their best wins of the campaign.

A dominant home display was sealed when Matt Harrold’s strike separated the two sides, completing a double over their opponents for the Reds.

The boss named five changes to the defeat at Portsmouth with Jimmy Smith injured and Luke Rooney and Roarie Deacon dropping to the bench. Mitch Hancox and Josh Emmaunel returned to their parent clubs, whilst Lee Barnard, Gavin Tomlin, Ross Jenkins and Jon Ashton made starts.

There was also a place in the starting XI for Reds latest addition, George Smith, at left-back. The 19-year-old loanee has played 17 times for Barnsley in League One this season and was up against his former Tykes team-mate, Luke Berry, who returned to the U’s in the summer.

Crawley were looking to get the first three points of 2016 against the team they gathered their first win of the season against back in August.

In the opening 25 minutes the home side’s best chance of finding the net came from direct balls into the box. Deliveries from Simon Walton and the sweet left foot of Smith reached Matt Harrold on numerous occasions and the target man did well to hold up the ball. On 15 minutes he shielded the ball from the U’s defence for the oncoming Tomlin, who shot through a crowded box only to be parried by Will Norris.

Reds’ dominance paid off on 35 minutes when Lee Barnard’s low driven cross from the right met the boot of HARROLD, who slotted home passed a helpless Norris from six yards for his fifth goal of the season.

As the rain began to pour down the slippery surface made it tricky for both sets of players to judge the bounce.  The quality of football, however, showed no sign of fading, especially from the Reds. Both full-backs combined with Gavin Tomin and Gwion Edwards, but the inch-perfect final ball was proving the obstacle preventing Crawley from grabbing a second.

Reds were in trouble in the early stages of the restart as Conor Newton’s knock down was met by Berry, whose 30-yard effort swerved away from the goal, clipping Darryl Flahavan’s left-hand post.

Midway into the second half the U’s had a ten-minute spell where they were putting Reds under pressure, but the towering home defence were first to every ball and prevented Flahavan from having to produce a save.

Harrold and Barnard looked like a proven strike partnership and both put in solid performances. Harrold could have opened the scoring even earlier when he found himself in on goal with a few yards on the chasing Darnel Furlong, but the right-back recovered, sticking a toe out to deny the striker.

The addition of Smith at left-back looks to be a smart bit of business by Reds and he certainly won the battle against Berry. The newcomer didn’t put a foot wrong all game and was a threat going forward, and impressive defensively chasing back and helping the back four clear their line.

Reds looked comfortable towards the latter stages of the game and cruised through four minutes of injury time to claim a well-deserved three points which lifted them to 13th in the League Two table.

 

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2015/16 Championship preview

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The Championship is known for its tough tackles, grueling number of fixtures and sheer competitiveness as all 24 clubs battle it out to be promoted to the best league in the world.

With four teams going for automatic promotion at the end of April and the final day twists and turns, the 2014/15 campaign was one of the most eventful yet; but fear not football fans, the upcoming season promises to be just as entertaining. Plus, many of the games will be shown on beIN SPORTS for readers in the US (see the latest TV schedule).

With the calibre of clubs dropping down from the Premier League, plus some of the world’s most proven players and coaches joining, it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict the league standings come May each year.

Money has been a big talking point in the worldwide game recently with the Sepp Blatter and FIFA scandal, plus Sky and BT Sport locking horns for the Premier League’s £5 billion television deal. For 2015/16 it seems some of the cash has trickled down into the Championship, with the likes of Derby and Middlesbrough spending big on their mission to return to the Premier League.

Derby have been the nearly-men for the past two seasons, losing in the 2014 play-off final and missing out on a top six finish last year after a dismal back end of the campaign. This season, however, with big name signings like Tom Ince, Darren Bent, Jason Shackell and Andreas Weimann, there is a flurry of excitement around the club.

The most important recruitment of the summer, however, may be the acquisition of a man who has spent much of his career as Carlo Ancelotti’s understudy. Paul Clement has worked at some of the world’s biggest clubs in Chelsea, PSG and Real Madrid, but the coming season in the Championship may be his toughest yet.

Another man who took the step up (or down) from assistant at Real Madrid to managing a Championship side is Aitor Karanka. The Spaniard impressed during his full season in charge at Middlesbrough and seems to be taking the club in the right direction with important signings such as Stewart Downing, Christian Stuani and Diego Fabbrini.

Both Derby and Boro were front runners in the early stages of 2015 but faded away when it really mattered as Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich went on their terrific runs to promotion.

Burnley were relegated from the top tier after resisting the urge to spend big in order to stay up. Manager Sean Dyche has said the Clarets can’t cope with the money being spent even in the Championship, despite their Premier League cash windfall.

Dyche has said the likes of Derby and Boro have taken spending to a “whole new level,” but it would surely be worth it if either were to return to the best league in the world.

Steve Evans did an incredible job last season keeping Rotherham United in the league. The Scotsman will have to do an equally miraculous job this coming year, with the pedigree of Championship sides at an all-time high.

The minnows will find it tougher than ever to survive this season, with the amount of money being thrown around by the big clubs.

Relegated QPR, Hull and Burnley will be looking to bounce back to the Premier League at the first opportunity and avoid following in Wigan’s footsteps at all costs.

QPR manager Chris Ramsey looks to be offloading the big wages and could be left with a skeleton of a squad by the start of the season. Captain Joey Barton and fan’s favorite Charlie Austin are still at the club, but look to be on the move in the near future. However, if the R’s were able to keep the pair, along with Matty Phillips, then Ramsey could be in with an outside chance of the play-offs.

Last year’s Championship hitman at Ipswich was Republic of Ireland international Daryl Murphy, who netted 27 goals on the way to becoming top scorer of the division. The 32-year old was linked with a move away from Portman Road after his impressive tally last season.

Reports suggested that Middlesbrough put a bid in of £4.5m and Sheffield Wednesday had a ‘ridiculous’ loan offer rejected before the striker put any doubts to rest, signing a new 2 year contract extension.

Ipswich have a tough task to better last season’s finish, but keeping their front man could boost their chances if he shows the same form as he has done the last 12 months.

Blackburn fans suffered a disappointing season last year. Even with the devastating front pair of Jordan Rhodes and Rudy Gestede, they only managed a top 10 finish. The partnership conjured up 41 goals. Hhowever this year it looks as though the club could cash in on the proven goal poachers with big money moves.

Cash-strapped Rovers are currently £80m in debt and under a transfer embargo this season after failing to comply with the League’s Financial Fair Play rules last year. Aston Villa have already lured the Gestede to Villa Park to replace Christian Benteke, whereas promotion hopefuls Middlesbrough are trying to find a way to meet the £12m asking price from Rovers’ owners, the Venky’s.

Other strikers with the potential to have a prolific season a Jermaine Beckford, Darren Bent and Ross McCormack. All three are proven Championship goal scorers who will be relishing their first full campaign for their respective teams in the second tier of English football.

Last year, there were unexpected finishes all over, from the top to the bottom of the table. At the peak, you had the likes of Bournemouth, Brentford and Wolves, whereas down at the foot of the table not many people would have bet on Fulham or Brighton to be in the relegation dogfight.

This season there will no doubt be a surprise package from the three promoted teams, and I am backing Preston North End. Simon Grayson’s men missed out on automatic promotion on the last day of the season, but tore their way through the play-offs scoring eight in the process.

If Joe Garner and Beckford can repeat their return of 43 goals last term (plus some smart defensive transfers from Grayson whilst the window is still open), Preston have the basics to go above and beyond what’s expected them this season; staying in the league.

They could even emulate Wolves and Brentford’s efforts last year and go one step further on a charge for promotion, but some fine tuning is needed from the management staff.

There are also the so called ‘big clubs’ that expected to be challenging for promotion last year, but instead hovered around mid-table. The message to the fans was that the focus was on the coming campaign, building a solid infrastructure to build from going into the new season. The underlying message was, however, that the clubs wanted an underachieving 2014/15 to be forgotten about as quickly as possible.

We should expect a few past Premier League sides to fall in this category, with the likes of Blackburn, Cardiff, Fulham and Nottingham Forest looking to put 2014/15 behind them.

Middlesbrough must up their game for season defining playoffs

There’s one last push for Boro as Aitor Karanka’s men aim to end a six-year spell without Premier League football.

Automatic promotion to the Premier League slipped out of Middlesbrough’s grasp in the dying embers of the Championship season as they had to settle for fourth place.

There is, however, still plenty of hope for the fans and if Boro can reproduce the same performances against the other playoff candidates from earlier in the campaign, Karanka’s players will be in the top-flight next season.

Against Brentford and Norwich, Boro won 4-0 at home and 1-0 away, however, both away trips proved a nervy 90 minutes and the defence put everything on the line to try and preserve a clean sheet. A 4-1 home win against Ipswich in March made up for the lacklustre winter display at Portman Road, where Mick McCarthy’s men beat Boro 2-0 to go top.

On aggregate against their fellow Wembley-bound hopefuls they won 5-0 twice and 4-3. A well-drilled Boro side will be the one team that East Anglican sides will look to avoid in the final.

Karanka has brought optimism and hope to the fans and there hasn’t been this sort of feel around the Riverside since the Steve McClaren era. Under his guidance the club achieved their highest ever Premier League position, won their first trophy in their 128-year existence and competed in Europe.

Coming so close to automatic promotion, plus securing Boro’s highest finish since they entered the league in 2009 has enhanced Karanka’s reputation both within the club and worldwide.

Since that sunny day at Upton Park back in 2009, when relegation from the top tier was confirmed, there have been hardly any ups or downs for Boro, just mediocre performances matched with a massive drop in matchday attendances.

A couple of seasons ago Tony Mowbray’s men were top of the league at Christmas and were favourites to go up. This was followed by a four-month period where just three wins saw them plummet to a bottom half finish.

This season has been as entertaining as the last five combined for the Boro faithful. An away trip to Anfield, where the spirited Championship side only lost on penalties, was the start of the fans belief and optimism. Then came another Premier League away day in the FA Cup third round as Boro went on to beat champions Manchester City in their own back yard.

Boro found themselves on a winning streak in the league and flirting with first place at the start of the year, then came the defeats on the road to Arsenal, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Bournemouth and Watford.

Karanka’s men had promotion in their own hands with only a few games to spare, but looking back the 12 points dropped to Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday, plus the two draws versus Blackburn proved costly as Boro entered the final week with nothing to play for, having already secured their extension to the Championship season.

Karanka has always admitted a playoff position was the objective in August and now it is time to see what the manager and players are made of, starting with a tricky away trip to Griffin Park.

The manager has stressed how important these games are and that Boro have to “live for the moment” to avoid replicating what struggling Brighton and relegated Wigan did after their stint in the playoffs last season.

The next few weeks building up to the Wembley final at the end of May will be a nail-biting, rollercoaster ride for all Boro fans, even more so than the fatal blow at Craven Cottage, where Ross McCormack’s injury time winner ended automatic promotion chances after a highly eventful occasion.

Middlesbrough had the biggest home attendance (vs Brighton) and largest away following (vs Blackburn) of the Championship this season and it is because of this type of support that Boro fans deserve a day in the capital.

The perfect scenario would be to replace Sunderland or Newcastle United in the top tier come August after a successful Wembley outing, but from experiences down the years Boro fans are all too well aware that the club never do things the easy way.