Town take big stride towards safety as fight rages

Huddersfield players celebrate Jermaine Beckford's first goal.Huddersfield players celebrate Jermaine Beckford's first goal.
Huddersfield players celebrate Jermaine Beckford's first goal.
WITH a share of £5.5bn in television rights up for grabs over the next three years, no-one can be surprised that there has never been a more ferocious fight to not only join the Premier League party but also to guarantee another chance at gate-crashing it next season.

Hull City are tantalisingly close to achieving the primary objective after Friday night’s draw at home to Bristol City though Watford, their rivals for the second automatic promotion place behind champions Cardiff City, hammered Blackburn Rovers 4-0 on Saturday.

With two games remaining, Watford are four points adrift of the Tigers, who head to next-to-bottom Barnsley on Saturday where a win would send them up and probably consign the Reds to the drop.

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Hull may, however, already be celebrating if Watford lose at former Tigers manager Nigel Pearson’s Leicester City on Friday night.

At the bottom, though, nine clubs are still fighting to retain their Championship status for next season with just two games to go for the majority of those aiming to avoid the fate of already relegated Bristol City.

Huddersfield Town were the big winners in the survival battle on Saturday, lifting themselves out of the drop zone by scoring three goals at home for the first time this season in a surprisingly nerveless 3-0 lunchtime victory over beaten FA Cup semi-finalists Millwall.

As late as November, promoted Town were eyeing a play-off place but just five wins out of 27 before Saturday had plunged them into trouble.

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The good news for their followers is that they have now won five and drawn two out of 13 since Mark Robins replaced Simon Grayson as manager and the final two matches are at relegated Bristol City and home to their manager’s former club, Barnsley.

With them three points above the drop zone, Huddersfield captain Peter Clarke hailed Saturday’s win as “a very complete team performance” and, looking ahead, added: “We will still take it a game at a time. I have said all along that I was never going to say what we might need but two more performances like this and we should be okay.

“It means everything to me and the rest of the players to make sure we are in the division two weeks from now. We have given ourselves a real chance with the result today. The pressure is now on the rest.”

It was hardly surprising that the game at the John Smith’s Stadium kicked off early on police advice considering the trouble at Wembley the previous week involving Millwall fans and under 250 of their followers were enthused enough to make the early morning journey.

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Those who did attend saw their side, who have a couple of games in hand on the other strugglers, fail to contain Town’s twin strike threat of goal-scorers James Vaughan and Jermaine Beckford.

The pair have rarely featured together due mainly to injuries and Clarke admitted: “We have been unfortunate through the course of the season in losing them both for long periods but they have a good understanding and are a real handful for defences at this level and would walk into most sides in the division if not higher.”

Manager Robins, no mean finisher himself in his days at Manchester United and Norwich, enthused: “Jermaine has Premier League finishing quality and it’s frustrating for everyone that it’s not for 46 games a season. He’s been unlucky with injury but I love watching him. He’s a master finisher and on his day he’s unstoppable.

“James’s work rate is phenomenal and he has that little bit of quality when he’s composed and he took his goal really well.”

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A 1-1 home draw with Ipswich Town left Sheffield Wednesday four points clear of the bottom three, where Barnsley remain after a goalless draw at Billy Davies’s play-off chasing Nottingham Forest.

Barnsley manager David Flitcroft is predicting that a team currently not in the immediate relegation picture could plunge into the drop zone on the final day of the dramatic Championship survival battle.

Flitcroft saw his Reds side chisel out a gutsy point on Saturday and while they remain second-from-bottom with two games left, the result moved them level on 51 points with Peterborough and Wolves, who both lost.

But with just four points separating nine clubs who are all in the relegation mix – from Barnsley up to 15th-placed Burnley – few can rest easy, with Flitcroft hoping for some final-day drama at a rivals’ expense.

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He said: “Teams are out of form, struggling and dropping from dizzy heights, having got a lot of points on the board early doors. But now they do not know how to get points or when to defend and go and attack teams.

“There is a lot of doubt in teams out of that drop zone and what I am hoping for is that come the last day of the season, you might get a team who have never been in the bottom three suddenly getting dragged into it by half-time of that last game.”

Singling out captain and goalkeeper Luke Steele for special praise after he thwarted Forest’s best efforts, Flitcroft added: “He was the hero of the day, completely. To keep a clean sheet against the sort of pounding we had in the second half is something Steely can be proud of.”

Yorkshire’s other Championship teams, mid-table Leeds United and Middlesbrough, suffered defeats at Birmingham City and Bolton Wanderers, respectively.