Not All Turning Points Are Created Equal

The St Louis Rams lead in the 4th Quarter at the New England Patriots. Having lost their opening four by a combined total of one hundred and four points, St Louis got up off the mat, after a bye, to record back to back victories over Dallas and Washington. They faced an injury riddled Patriots team at Gillette, before getting back to divisional play against Arizona at the Dome. The Rams had a chance to resurrect their season.

It all looked good early in that fourth quarter. Josh Brown kicked a 25-yard field goal to put the Rams up 16-13. Minutes later, Chris Long, in the midst of the first multiple sack game of his career, pole-axed Matt Cassel to cap a Patriots three and out. Donnie Avery already had six receptions for 163 yards. I remember thinking: the Rams have got a huge chance to win four straight and be .500 at the turning pole of the season. It was to be one of the great stories of the 2008 NFL season.

Sorry, I should have mentioned that earlier. This was the 2008 Rams and all that’s recounted about did happen. All except the last part. But you all know the story of what really happened next.

Spin forward four seasons, and these Rams, some new, some young, are at a similar turning point. The familiarity of the situation struck me as Greg Zuerlein missed his 66-yarder in Miami. The Rams have shown some early promise, faced early adversity and bounced back. But the bounce back job they have now will come to define their season.

The Rams have a week nine bye, slap bang in the middle of the season. The sense of first half/second half could not be more clearly defined for this team. And considering the strides the the men in dark blue and gold have taken in the first half, it is more important than anything that these Rams have the respectable record to go along with their unexpectedly respectable play. Fired up from trashing the Cardinals castle in primetime last week, I was certain the Rams would head into their bye no worse than 4-4. Looking at things in the post Dolphins defeat haze, I would take now take .500, no question.

The Rams face, in the famous words of Steve Savard, tough sledding in the next few weeks. The Green Bay Packers, played the previously undefeated Texans in Houston as if they had taken all the analysis labelling them as early disappointments, and looped it into one huge motivational mix tape. Their offensive sharpness, without their best back or their most familiar name at receiver was a sight to behold on Sunday night. Being lit up doesn’t do justice to describe the Texans secondary. They bring that potency into the Dome Sunday and afterwards both teams will fly out of St Louis, the Packers for their home game against Jacksonville and the Rams, for their home contest over here in London.

You might find this surprising to read but I was really disappointed on 20th January 2012, when it was announced the Rams were to play at Wembley Stadium. Strange? I’ve lived in London all my life. The home of English football is a maximum of an hour’s journey away. Why would I not be delighted that the team who’s performances define my Monday mornings was to set up camp a few miles down the road for a weekend?

Well, the fact is that, while the International Series is hugely popular in the UK and does the job of raising the profile of the NFL in a market where it is low on the list of priorities for the average sports fan, it is this team I care about, not the profile of the sport in this country. The London game robs fans in St Louis of a home game and, even worse, it doesn’t give the fans who will show up next Sunday, nor the team who will take the field, an equivalent home atmosphere. The Wembley games are populated by fans of all 32 NFL teams. There is normally a higher proportion of fans from the two teams represented, but not enough to make a meaningful difference. The game is more like a convention for UK fans of a sport which, while definitely on the rise, is still very much niche. Added to this, most of those neutrals who see the game in Old England will more than likely be supporting the them from newer namesake, given the fact that the renaissance in popularity of football in this country has coincided with rise of Tom Brady and the Belichick Pats.

Ownership justified this loss of one eighth of a home schedule by extolling the virtues of promoting their product globally, allowing those who’ve never heard of the St Louis Rams to see what they have been missing. I would agree with this view if it wasn’t for one glaring issue. What particularly about the Rams recent history would they want to promote after an NFL worst 15 wins over the previous five seasons? If they want to promote a product, why choose this product to promote?

That was my reaction then and given the Rams home performances and results this season, the loss of a home game seems to be an even bigger tragedy for our team and fans. The Rams are an improving team and the basis of improvement should be making your home stadium a fortress. The Rams playing in London game is a glaring strategic gaffe for front office and management, and that is disappointing because they seem to be doing an awful lot right recently.

So the Rams have a tough road to travel to get to their bye without a losing record but there should be optimism. The Rams, with their genuine top 10 defense, have a chance to neutralise the Packers resurgent offense and the Patriots are not the team which dominated the 2000’s. However, the Rams don’t have enough of a recent track record to make me believe they will definitely show up, at a crucial time, and produce a genuine elite performance. They can do it. Will they do it? Stay tuned.

So a bleak outlook? Maybe, but it’s a bleak outlook for the Rams to be 4-4 at their bye week. In 2008, my bleak outlook was because because I couldn’t see a time this team would be competitive again. This is a similar turning point, but not a similar team. Look at the players who were key contributors in that close loss to the Patriots in 2008. Bulger, Holt, Dante Hall, Corey Chavous, Will Witherspoon. The NFL has a habit of describing every non rookie as a ‘veteran’ but these are veterans in the truest sense of the word. In Miami on Sunday, it was Bradford, Richardson, Givens, Kendricks, Long, Laurinaitis, Quinn and Jenkins. It might seem like I’m picking and choosing my examples, but have a look at the two rosters yourself. The 2012 Rams are packed with young playmakers, raw and inconsistent some of them, but much more exciting than the inconsistent veterans we’ve had over the current run of poor play. The future is brighter than it has been for years, just don’t expect the sun to shine in London. In fact, I live here: forget about it.

Offensive NFL Rookie Watch – Week 1

I make no guarantees, save to say this will be a wholly over reactive and subjective look at the top rookie performances this week. I was going to include a ‘most disappointing rookie’ section, but I think it’s safe to say Brandon Weeden has enough on his plate right now.

1. Robert Griffin III – Quarterback – Washington Redskins – Round 1, Pick 2

19/26 – 320 yards passing 2 touchdowns, 10 – 42 yards rushing

The Heisman trophy winner will play against better defenses, more potent rushes – he was sacked just once. The most impressive thing about Griffin on Sunday was not his gaudy passing yardage – only three quarterbacks have thrown for more in their NFL debut – or his weekend leading 139.9 passer rating. It was his poise. He looked like he was running his college offense, one of the biggest staples of which was the broad smile on his face. He enjoyed his first NFL touchdown pass relaxing on the seat of his pants, looking like nothing in the world could bother him, including the big shot he had just taken from Malcolm Jenkins. With forty seconds left in the second quarter, with the Redskins up 20-7, Martez Wilson blocked a punt which skipped into the hands of Courtney Roby who waltzed into the endzone. The Superdome exploded, putting me in mind, and I couldn’t have been alone in this, of Steve Gleason’s punt block (www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIGgBhNtOP4) on the Saints’ return to New Orleans post Katrina. Then it was a fanbase released and united after unspeakable tragedy. On Sunday, it was a moment of defiance and togetherness after Bountygate. I honestly thought the Saints would come out in the second half and roll. Griffin’s response after receiving the second half kickoff: 3 of 3 for 47 yards, plus a 32 yard pass interference penalty, on a drive which resulted in a one yard touchdown run and a 27-14 Redskins lead. The Saints never got that close again.

Signature Moment

With 10:44 left in the 3rd quarter, Griffin handed off to the right to Alfred Morris, who cut the run all the way back to the left and burst down the sideline. Suddenly, he had a blocker in front and it was Griffin, putting everything on the line for his team. Was it smart? No, but considering what Washington gave up to get him, the fearlessness, commitment and tenacity must have been exciting for Skins fans to see.

2. Stephen Hill – Wide Receiver – New York Jets – Round 2, Pick 43

5 – 89 receiving, 2 touchdowns

Lets look at the offseason for Stephen Hill. Declares as a junior despite only having 49 career catches at Georgia Tech, with questions abound regarding his craft as a wide receiver. Goes to the NFL combine, where he earns the the annual label of ‘combine freak’, as if that title in itself is some kind of indictment. Then after being drafted in the second round by the Jets organisation his own coach comes out and says he didn’t want him on his team. Add that to the ongoing, will she/won’t she, ‘Tebow should be a tight end’, ‘Mark Sanchez is terrible’, backfield debate, it hasn’t been the most auspicious start to an NFL career in living memory. Hill put all of that behind him Sunday, along with Bills rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who, despite possessing more than adequate size himself for a defensive back, clearly struggled with Hill’s physicality. Rangy and long striding, Hill demonstrated a nice ability to snatch the ball with his hands and should become yet more of a threat as he develops his skills as an NFL route runner – he did little outside of go, slant, curl and drag patterns in this game. The biggest feather in his cap Sunday could be that he was looked for by Mark Sanchez three times on 3rd down. He caught each one and converted all three for first downs. I’m not saying he’s the new Wayne Cherbet (would that be a compliment?) but for a player who was thought by a lot of people as a deep threat, at least at this early point in his career, it was a very positive sign for the Jets.

Signature Moment

On the Bills 17 yard line, facing a 3rd and 6, Sanchez found Hill underneath against man coverage at the 12. Catching in stride, he shrugged off the attentions of Leodis McKelvin and nipped the ball inside the pylon for his second touchdown of the game. The play demonstrated impressive ability to gain yards after the catch, the strength to break away from defenders and nice situational awareness to keep his balance and extend the ball across the goaline – a collection of skills that some, including perhaps his own head coach, might not have believed he possessed.

3. Doug Martin – Running Back – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Round 1, Pick 31

24 – 95 rushing, 4 -23 receiving

It’s well documented how wrong the NFL’s experts can be when it comes to assessing draft prospects, and I get it. It’s a long offseason and you have to say something about somebody. The college game has different rules, requires a different skill set, and it’s easy to become enamoured with a player running, jumping and playing against inconsistent competition. I mean, I remember watching the NFL combine and becoming more and more convinced that Dorin Dickerson – zero career catches – was ready to revolutionise the NFL. However, the general assessment of Doug Martin as a ‘bellcow’ seems like it might be one that keeps a few faces in work, because he looked every bit the durable pacemaker of the Bucs offense. He ran hard all game, and still seemed to have something left late on – his last carry, a 15 yard scamper in the waning minutes, was his longest of the contest. With his diminutive stature, Martin put me in mind of Warrick Dunn, a player who found success late in his career as a grinder, move the chains type, having been a big play threat early on. Tampa Bay will hope that Martin can develop some of that home run ability, if only to prove the experts are never 100% right.

Signature Moment

Martin, and the Buccaneers coaching staff, set the tone early in the 1st quarter with a sequence of a 1 yard run, an 11 yard catch, a 6 yard run and a 2 yard catch. After taking the next play off, Martin returned with an 11 yard run down to the Carolina 6 yard line. The next play was Tampa Bay’s first touchdown of the season.

4. Alfred Morris – Running Back – Washington Redskins – Round 6, Pick 173

28 – 96 yards rushing, 2 touchdowns

I honestly can’t think of a better place for an unheralded, late round rookie running back to land than in the care of Mike Shanahan. So many guys, who were probably just that, had moments in the sun under Shanahan’s watchful, one cut, eye. We all know Terrell Davis but remember Mike Anderson? The party starter, Reuben Droughns? Madden Cover Peyton Hillis? Olandis Gary? Luggage thief Tatum Bell? What about the one that got away, Quentin Griffin? This list is long and for the most part, with the brief exception of Peyton Hillis, undistinguished when the next man came along. All of which is both a chronicled boost and a warning from history for Morris, who came to the Redskins from FAU via the 6th round of the draft. For the Redskins head coach is not about your name, it’s about your production and whether or not your put the ball on the ground. Morris had both boxes ticked on Sunday, running with a power and verve which belied his 5-10, 218 pound frame. Washington’s coaching staff showed they were prepared to back his efforts, handing him 28 carries, the most among all players in the NFL in week one. The worry for Morris will be Roy Helu’s constant presence on 3rd down, suggesting the faith shown in his carrying ability does not extend to his skills in the passing game, but Shanahan will, as ever, ride the hot hand and Morris’ are the hottest at this point.

Signature Moment

With 3:23 left in the game, taking a hand off at the 3 yard line, Morris was stoned, cold in the hole by linebacker David Hawthorne. Giving away two inches and twenty-five pounds to the veteran, who signed for the Saints as a free agent from Seattle in the offseason, Morris kept his legs churning, and power slammed his way into the endzone for his second touchdown, icing the shock result from week one.

5. Blair Walsh – Kicker – Minnesota Vikings – Round 6, Pick 175

4 – 4 Field goals, Long 55

A kicker. Alshon Jeffery is steaming right now, and from what I’ve seen, he does have a temper on him (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXBsz1bBfF0). Nevertheless, rookie kickers have it tougher than most amongst first year NFLers. Even those who, like Walsh, are lucky enough to get drafted, must come in and perform at the level of veterans or their careers could be shorter than an extra point. A replacement committee is just a few phone calls away. The NFL does not seem to have enough good quarterbacks for all 32 teams. There seems to be far too many kickers, who could take a job in a heartbeat. To accommodate Walsh, the Vikings cut Ryan Longwell, whose career kicking conversion rate comfortably eclipsed Walsh’s success percentage in his playing time at Georgia, ramping up the pressure for the young man. It would be like the Colts drafting Andrew Luck and cutting Peyton Manning. Thankfully for the Vikings, and to the probable dismay of men across the country, quietly strengthening their quads and waiting for the phone to ring, they needn’t have worried about Walsh, who sat calmly on the bench for most of the first three quarters, only rousing himself to kick two out of three touchback kickoffs and convert two extra points. Walsh never blinked at the prospect of kicking three fourth quarter field goals, of 20, 42 and 55 yards, and standing tall to boot the Vikings to victory from 38 yards in overtime. The only thing that might have bothered him was having to wait another minute to be confirmed as having won his first game as a pro for his team, courtesy of the new NFL overtime rules, but if it did, I expect he probably got over it quickly. Kickers have to have short memories.

Signature Moment

Minnesota’s coaching staff didn’t hesitate at giving their rookie kicker the opportunity to attempt the a 55 yarder, only one yard short of his career long, with no time left in the game. Walsh stepped up and drilled it, like an archer hitting gold, to tie the game at 23 a piece. Some players wait a whole career to have the chance to put their team on their back. Some players never get it. To a kicker, it’s just another Sunday. Next.

Bonus Looks

I’ve already mentioned Alshon Jeffery, whose 3 catch, 80 yards and a touchdown performance might be the first argument in his case against those who overlooked him. Blair Walsh’s late game heroics might not have been possible if Matt Kalil hadn’t added blocking extra points to his offensive line prowess – Adrian Peterson 4.9 yards a carry and just one sack of Christian Ponder in the pocket. And as I’ve mentioned one specialist it would be churlish of me not to champion the efforts of St Louis’ all rookie kicking staff. Greg Zuerlein kicked two extra points and was 3 from 3 on field goals, with a long of 48. Meanwhile, Johnny Hekker had 5 punts averaging 49 yards, booting a 57 yarder in the fourth quarter. Exciting stuff, no? It’s a long time though before I will have a punter in the main list. I mean he would literally have to break one of Dallas’ videoscreens.

Rams Must Not Settle For Nearly Good

‘Whatever happens from here on in I’m happy. Please remind me at the end of the game that there was a moment when I felt like this because I probably won’t remember.’

That is a text message I sent to a friend of mine with five minutes left in Sunday’s game. Three minutes later, Greg Zuerlein kicked the Rams into the lead. Four minutes and fifty seconds later, Matthew Stafford found Kevin Smith in the flat to win the game for the Lions.

I didn’t need a reminder. I remembered I was supposed to be happy. I just couldn’t remember why.

What I did remember is that you only get sixteen chances a season. Sixteen chances to win and you can’t miss any of them. Losses like this feel like winning for the Rams, because over the past seasons we haven’t even had many chances to win, let alone wins themselves. On Sunday, we had the chance to steal a game from a team that is further down the road towards relevancy from anonymity than the Rams are. The Rams didn’t win.

‘That is one tough loss for the Rams’ said Sports Illustrated’s Peter King (https://twitter.com/SI_PeterKing). ‘Good effort by the St Louis Rams’ said Neil Reynolds on Sky Sports TV here in the UK. ‘Rams take the moral [victory]‘ was Rich Eisen’s summation (http://twitter.com/richeisen). Those assessments reflect the common sentiment around the NFL about a 2-14 team losing by four, with ten seconds left, to a 2011 playoff team, on the road. That’s an easy argument to make and as you can tell from my feelings with five minutes to go it was my first thought. The Rams average performance last year was a double digit loss. The average score from our eight road games: 8-25. What sort of fan couldn’t see the bright side in the situation from Sunday?

When I thought about it, I thought differently. The Rams could have won, maybe should have won, but deserve to win? I’m not so sure. As for a big improvement from a year ago? Forget about it. Comparing years will always be tricky but from a pure numbers perspective, these could be the same Rams. The Lions were the NFL’s number five offense last year, reeling off 396 yards per game. On Sunday, they gained 429. The Rams only allowed 358 yards a year ago. Our cringing conservative offense in 2011, clipped 284 yards on Sundays. Today we gained just 251.

I’ll admit that stats never tell the whole story and what you can’t see in the numbers is the some excellent game management from the coaching staff, the attitude the Rams seemed to have and the tactical nous that they showed.

It was 3rd and 9, with 2:03 left and the Rams were already in field goal range. Too often this would be a simple hand off to run time off the clock, but knowing that any play would only run the clock to the two minute warning, Fisher calmly called a timeout, and dialled up a pass, knowing that a conversion would effectively lead to a last second field goal attempt. It didn’t come off, but after some of the managerial mishaps we have seen, it was a welcome sight for tired eyes.

They played with a swagger on defense, intercepting three first half passes, one for a touchdown, and all three from recent additions to the roster. More than that they got into the faces the Lions, playing the self styled cage rattlers at their own game. Seeing how the Rams have meekly capitulated in recent years, it was heartening to see from those players. And it seemed to be working. With Calvin Johnson looking like a virtual spectator until late in the game, Stafford and the Lions secondary receivers seemed to be affected, sailing throws high and dropping key passes respectively. The only problem was that when the drops stopped and the interceptions dried up, the Lions carved up our secondary, with absolutely zero pressure from the Rams up front. I get it, not every other offense the Rams will face will be top five, like the Honolulu Blue but we can’t start thinking our defense is already at a level that can carry this team to multiple wins. While they forced three interceptions, they still shipped 27 points.

We need to see more from this defense because even dropping balls and completing them to the other team, there was only ever one offense capable of being the deciding factor in this game. Steven Jackson still runs the ball as hard as ever, Sam Bradford stood in and took on the rush like a man and Brandon Gibson made an excellent catch for the touchdown, but when push comes to shove I have no belief that these guys can make a clutch play. I actually said out loud at one point, facing 3rd and 10, that there was zero chance the Rams would get a first down and I would happily put up everything I own to back up my statement. Just a frustrated outburst and probably a crass one, but it reflects how I feel about the unit. They seem to know it as well. A deer in the headlights look, wide eyed behind their facemasks. Sub par offensive line play and no separation, is a horrible recipe. Even their best moment was quickly brought back down to earth by Roger Saffold’s quite frankly disturbing injury. A group that wasn’t stellar to begin with, will no doubt be impacted by his and Scott Wells’ absence if either miss any gametime. By the way, the third and ten? They didn’t make it.

I hate being negative. My thoughts come as much of a surprise to me as they might do to you. I have been the biggest Rams optimist, and apologist, for a very long time. I have told anyone who will listen that the Rams are going to the playoffs, going to the Superbowl, for years, even post 3-13, 1-15. I suppose I’m writing all this because I don’t want to be part of another false dawn. I sat through the highs and lows of Martz, the hope of Linehan, the short term boost of Haslett, the high expectations of Spagnuolo. Different rhetoric. Similar Rams. Same disappointments.

Moral victories are just empty words. They’re a trap that the Rams cannot afford to fall into. When you start being happy with getting close you get what the Rams have been for too long: happy with slow progress without realising the progress is so slow you might as well not be making any. People asked me this Summer: ‘Going to the Superbowl?’. For the first time ever, I told them no. I’ve lost my unshakable faith in this team and no moral victories will help me regain it, no matter how desperately I want it back.

Which brings me full circle to what I really wanted to say. The Rams will be a new team when they start deserving to win more than a couple of games a year and when they start winning a few that they don’t deserve. Whatever the positives and however close the score, they didn’t do either Sunday. And that’s what I’ll remember.

Parachute Regiment Fail To Storm Championship Castle

It’s the time of year when, for football fans up and down the land, hope springs eternal. The doldrums of the summer are gone and thoughts of this year being our year, have returned to the minds of supporters from Newcastle to Plymouth, and all points in between.

But for followers of some teams the feeling should be, if it isn’t already, anxiety. For Blackburn, Bolton and Wolves, the clock is ticking, and with each second that passes history turns against them. The fact is that not getting promoted back to the Premier League at the first time of asking can be costly, both financially and for the chances of seeing top class football in your city sooner rather than later. Just ask Wolves’ opening day opponents, Leeds United.

The beginning of 2012-2013 season marks the Whites’ ninth straight season outside of England’s top division since their relegation in 2004. For a club that was once a dominant force in English football the word dormant is perhaps now more appropriate.

Their story is not a unique one. The Championship is littered with sides who were perennial Premier League mainstays. Eighteen of the twenty-four teams have logged time in England’s top club competition, fourteen of those having spent multiple seasons in the promised land. Over the past twenty seasons only six clubs have won the top league in England. Two of those currently call the second tier of English football home.

All of which points to the stark reality that the Championship is harder than ever to succeed in. At least ten teams harbour realistic hopes of automatic promotion, with many more eyeing the playoff places. For the newcomers to the league coming down it is vital to strike while the iron is hot, because as tough a task as it is, it will only get tougher.

Premier League financial assistance, ‘parachute payments’, were introduced in order to help relegated clubs cope with the loss of revenue that a relegation from the world’s most commercially successful league brings. They allow those clubs to keep living the lifestyle to which they are accustomed. But, like the recently unemployed who might spend some time living off their savings, unless they find their way back to the financial levels they were at before, within a short period of time realities have to be faced and luxuries can no longer be afforded. For those Premier League dropouts, those luxuries usually consist of quality football players.

So getting off to a fast start is essential, and crucially for Rovers and the pair of Wanderers it seemed they have put themselves in the best possible position by not having the usual exodus of players, desperate to stay in the top division. Of those on their way out, only David Hoilett and Michael Kightly remained at Premier League level. This might be a continuation of the recent trend of relegated players willing to stick with their clubs for at least one season to see if an instant ‘bounce-back’ is possible. It could be, perhaps more likely, speak to the quality, or lack thereof, within the relegated squads; that the Premier League looked at what these squads had to offer and decided to pass. Whatever the reason, the continuity and maintenance of quality seemingly boded well for the recent Premier League orphans.

Unfortunately, for all the good omens, the results were disappointing. A return of just a single point from those three teams, the lowest for the three relegated clubs on the opening day of the season for over ten years. It should be noted that all three opened up away from home, and all against opponents who have been Premier League teams in recent years. However, and perhaps worryingly, these were the teams who finished thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth in the Championship last term, over twenty points off automatic promotion. In 2011-2012, the three teams who won promotion lost a combined twenty nine games. The Championship new boys combined have already lost two, with forty five games to go.

Even though they were the only one of the three to gain a point, it will be Blackburn who are the most disappointed. In a game against an Ipswich side with well documented problems at the back, they managed to muster little in attack, with only two attempts on target. Despite this they managed to lead for most of the game though loanee Colin Kazim-Richards’ first half header, his first goal in English football for over five years after spells in Turkey, France and Greece. Ipswich’s vulnerability at the back was exposed as first Scott Dann was left all alone to head Morten Gamst Pedersen’s corner back across goal, allowing a similarly lonely Kazim-Richards to nonchalantly nod home. It would have been a sweet moment for Pedersen after being described as a ‘pensioner’ by the Rovers Global Advisor Shebby Singh. The other target of Singh’s criticism, manager Steve Kean, was typically upbeat at the end of the match. Having been pegged back to a draw courtesy of a Jason Lowe own goal with less than ten minutes to go, Kean was quick to assert that he felt not many teams would come to Ipswich and win this year, a belief born out by the fact that Ipswich were a top half team last season in terms of home record. Still, this game felt like a missed opportunity for Rovers to whip up some early momentum and good feeling around the club, following the well documented turmoil which has surrounded it.

Wolves were presented with an early chance to steal a march on their rivals, after being handed Saturday’s early kick off. Perhaps unusually, the only team of the relegated three to part company with their manager, they came into the game with just one league win in their last twenty four, a run stretching back to 4th December last year. They were never dominated by Leeds, but never looked like winning either, with a solitary Luciano Becchio goal proving enough at Elland Road to kick-start their own promotion challenge. Without Steven Fletcher, Wolves fans were given a view of what life might be like if the striker moves on to Sunderland, and while they might be optimistic that against lesser defenses Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Kevin Doyle could be a potent vanguard, against Leeds’ typically well organised and well marshalled back line they could not fire. Stale Solbakken, making his return to English football after a season playing with Wimbledon in the late 90’s, made no excuses for his side, feeling the result was fair. He perhaps will be aware that the Yorkshire clubs promotion ambitions will make Elland Road a difficult place for visitors to come this season.

Much of the hope for Bolton will surround the fact that they have lost very little of note from the side who were relegated by just a single point at the end of last term, and that in Owen Coyle they have a manager who very recently engineered a much less fashionable club’s rise from Championship to Premier League. Unfortunately for him, it was that much less fashionable club who had much the better of the chances and who deserved their victory over their Lancashire rivals. What might be more concerning for Coyle is the lack of any sort of potency from his attack, with Olympian Marvin Sordell still finding his place at Bolton and Kevin Davies showing clear indication that he will not be a player whose fitness will allow him to play a significant part every week. Coyle chose to focus on the shortcomings of his defence and the potential for offside in Martin Paterson’s opener, but the fact that his side were outplayed must have registered and must be worrying for the Glaswegian.

The sides might take solace from last years promotion trio’s opening weekend: a record of won one, drawn one, lost one. A sample size of just a single game means little over the course of a whole season. But for these three, every game this year is vital because the clock is ticking and the bank balance is falling. Every second counts. Forty five games to go.