EFL moments of the decade part two: Highs & lows off the pitch

Harry Maguire helped England reach the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, four years after playing for Sheffield United in League One

It has been a decade of highs and lows off the pitch in the English Football League.

From players who rose to the top of the game, to a team who got caught spying and some touching tributes from fans.

This is the second part of BBC Sport’s look back at the past decade in the EFL.

Producing top talent

England’s run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup was their best showing in the tournament since 1990.

Of their 23-man squad, 17 players had spells in the EFL – with several coming through academies at clubs outside the top tier.

Centre-back Harry Maguire went from playing in League One for Sheffield United to scoring for his country in a World Cup quarter-final in just four years – a rise that even caught the then Leicester man by surprise.

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford enjoyed stellar campaigns on loan at Bradford City and Preston North End, defender John Stones and midfielder Dele Alli came through the academies at Barnsley and MK Dons respectively, while captain Harry Kane had stints at Leyton Orient, Millwall and Championship Leicester City before establishing himself with Tottenham Hotspur and England.

“There’s so much at stake for clubs and players in the EFL,” said boss Gareth Southgate. “When you’re looking at what helps young players develop, having consequences of winning and losing is one of the big parts of playing under pressure.”

Spying, sombreros & squirrels

Watch Bielsa’s remarkable PowerPoint presentation

A few hours before Derby County’s game at promotion rivals Leeds United in January 2019, it was revealed a member of the Leeds staff had been seen ‘spying’ on a Rams training session from a public footpath.

Whites head coach Marcelo Bielsa admitted he had sent the person and the club formally apologised, with Derby boss Frank Lampard calling the episode “unethical”.

As the fall-out from the saga rumbled on, Bielsa called an impromptu news conference at the club’s training ground.

Journalists headed out unsure whether the famously headstrong Argentine was about to announce his resignation.

Instead, the former Chile and Athletic Bilbao boss told the gathered press that he had sent a member of staff to watch ALL of the club’s opponents that season train – but because of the amount of analysis he and his assistant did, the practice was basically pointless.

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Using a slideshow presentation, he then went through how much preparation and analysis he and his staff carry out on each opponent before every game.

“I feel ashamed to have to tell you all this,” confessed Bielsa.

Although no other manager went to the lengths of spying on their opposition – or no other manager got caught doing it, anyway – Bielsa wasn’t the only boss to do something unusual in the past decade.

Rotherham manager Steve Evans wore a sombrero, sunglasses, T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops at Elland Road in May 2015. Five months later he was appointed Leeds boss

Rotherham United manager Steve Evans showed up for his side’s final-day game at Elland Road in May 2015 dressed in sombrero, t-shirt and shorts after a pledge he made if he kept the Millers up that season.

Meanwhile, Scunthorpe United boss Alan Knill was involved in a run-in with a squirrel while out cycling in September 2012 that left him relieved to be alive. No, really.

“I saw it run into the road but couldn’t do anything about it and it just hit my wheel and stuck in my wheel and hit my brakes,” he told BBC Radio Humberside.

“For a minute, I thought I might have been in trouble because I landed on my head. Then, all of a sudden, I thought: ‘I’m not, I’m alive!’

“I am pretty bruised. I could be dead and it’s so stupid. I’m not and you have to put things into perspective.”

Squirrel drives Scunthorpe boss Alan Knill nuts

Clubs in crisis

League One Bury became the first club since 1992 to be expelled from the Football League when they were removed from the competition in August 2019.

After months of financial trouble and the failure of a last-ditch takeover bid before the EFL’s deadline, the Shakers lost their place in League One just over three months after winning promotion from the fourth tier.

Requests for Bury to be placed back in League Two next season were rejected at a meeting of EFL clubs, and the future of the two-time FA Cup winners remains unclear.

Bury fans stepped up protests outside the club’s Gigg Lane home as the deadline to save the club got closer

Although Bury were the only club to be removed, several others have found themselves in difficult situations off the field:

  • Bury’s neighbours Bolton Wanderers were in danger of liquidation at the start of this season before a takeover of the former Premier League club was completed.
  • Fellow third-tier side Coventry City are spending this season playing their home games at Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s stadium. This is the second time the Sky Blues have left their Ricoh Arena home because of a dispute between owners Sisu, Coventry City Council and stadium landlords Wasps, with Coventry having played their home games at Northampton Town’s Sixfields in 2013-14.
  • Blackpool dropped down from the highs of Premier League football to League Two during the decade, with fans boycotting Bloomfield Road in protest against the ownership of the Oystons. After a lengthy legal case, owner Owen Oyston was removed from the club’s board in February 2019, and the Seasiders are now sitting comfortably in League One.
  • Portsmouth had two spells in administration as they too dropped from the Premier League to League Two, but they now find themselves back on an even keel in League One.
  • League Two Macclesfield Town’s financial issues led to former boss Sol Campbell backing a winding-up petition against the club, who have had two games called off in December.
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‘We won 2-0? You’re having me on!’

Phone-in fan who did not know score

One Coventry fan unwittingly made himself a star when he called into BBC Coventry & Warwickshire to lambast his side’s failure to score in the second leg of their Johnstone’s Paint Trophy northern area final against Crewe Alexandra in February 2013.

The Sky Blues, who were 3-0 down from the first leg, were drawing 0-0 when the fan decided he’d had enough and headed for the car to call up and share his views.

And, while he hadn’t quite missed a miraculous comeback, he ALMOST had.

Fan generosity makes the headlines

Morecambe boss tearful at fans’ generosity after FA fine

Morecambe boss Jim Bentley was fined £1,000 by the Football Association in January 2017 after being sent to the stands the previous month.

The Shrimps were enduring a particularly difficult time financially, with the Professional Footballers’ Association helping to pay wages.

Fans got together to raise the money to pay Bentley’s fine and presented him with the money after a win over Notts County.

Bentley, who spent 17 years at the Lancashire club as player and then manager before leaving in October 2019, was overcome with emotion at the gesture.

Two Cheltenham fans’ groups raised the £500 required to produce their tribute flag in five hours

The world of football was shocked in June 2019 when Leyton Orient boss Justin Edinburgh died at the age of 49, five days after suffering a cardiac arrest.

Edinburgh, who had led the O’s back to the EFL a few weeks earlier, was a hugely popular figure throughout the game and former players, team-mates and managers gathered to pay their respects to the former Tottenham defender at his memorial service in July.

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Before Orient’s first game of the season, fans of visiting side Cheltenham Town raised money for a flag containing a photo of Edinburgh and the words ‘He made you dream again’. Home supporters held up banners to create a “JE3” mosaic in an emotional start to the campaign at Brisbane Road.

Grealish attack mars derby

The rivalry between Birmingham City and Aston Villa took an ugly turn in March 2019 when a Blues fan ran onto the pitch in the first half of the game at St Andrew’s and struck Villa captain Jack Grealish from behind.

Fortunately for all concerned, Grealish was able to play on and eventually scored the only goal of the game.

“I couldn’t care less that he did it,” Grealish later told BBC Radio 5 Live. “I was just thinking afterwards ‘please let me get the winner’. It was perfect that we won 1-0 and I got it.”

Paul Mitchell was sentenced to 14 weeks in jail after admitting assault.

Jack Grealish captained Aston Villa to promotion to the Premier League via the play-offs in May

The most bizarre moment of the decade?

Earlier that season, Steve Bruce’s two-year spell in charge of Villa had come to an ignominious end.

As Bruce headed towards the dug-out before the home game against Preston, an irate fan threw a cabbage in the direction of the former Manchester United defender.

“I find the whole thing hugely disrespectful,” Bruce said after what proved to be his final game as Villa boss. He was sacked the following day.


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