The long-awaited Football League season is back, and the 2016/17 campaign started in scintillating fashion with some superb team and individual displays across all three divisions in the new EFL format.
There were also some surprises, particularly in the Championship as top two favourites Newcastle United and Aston Villa slipped to opening day defeats. But as teams looked to get off to the perfect start, who stood out the most across all three divisions? This is The Boot Room’s brand new weekly feature, the Football League Combined Team of the Week from the Championship, League One and League Two. And our pick goes as follows:
Coach: Alex Neil (Norwich City)
The Canaries kept faith with their manager even after they suffered the setback of relegation from the Premier League last season, and having led Norwich out of the Championship in 2014/15 via the playoffs, Neil got his players off to the perfect start this term, overseeing a 4-1 rout over Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park.
The Scottish coach made a big call in handing a debut to Jacob Murphy, and the gamble paid dividends as he solidified the centre of the park for Norwich and scored a superb lomg-range goal to open the Canaries’ account for the season. He got Norwich out of the blocks like an express train, and a message has most certainly be sent out on this showing that the Carrow Road outfit mean business this season, and an immediate return to the Premier League is in their sights.
Goalkeeper: Mark Gillespie (Carlisle United)
A trip from Cumbria’s Lake District all the way down to the South Coast to play promotion hopefuls Portsmouth would seem a terrifying prospect at any point in the season, never mind in a campaign opener. Add going a man down to a Jamie Devitt red card to the equation and all of a sudden you seem very much in an uphill battle to get anything from the game.
Cue Mark Gillespie inbetween the sticks for Carlisle, who made a string of fantastic saves to keep the game level at 1-1 and preserve a point for Carlisle at Fratton Park. The shotstopper was called into action as early as five minutes into the game, saving smartly to deny Milan Lalkovic, and was only beaten after the Cumbrians went a man down with Devitt’s dismissal, as Carl Baker’s low shot evaded him. In a backs-to-the-wall second half, Gillespie was excellent, and his composure in coming to claim the ball was instrumental in gaining a share of the spoils.
Right-Back: Denis Odoi (Fulham)
Fulham were given the honour of hosting the Football League curtain-raiser on Friday night as the Cottagers played host to relegated Newcastle United before the Sky Sports cameras. It was the home side who took the spoils with a hard-earned 1-0 victory, and a bright-spark was debutant Denis Odoi, a summer-signing for new boss Slavisa Jokanovic from Belgian club Lokeren.
Odoi was not only solid defensively and superb in going forward, but he produced what will probably one of the showboats of the season on the opening night, turning away from the ball dropping towards him on the byline to bounce the ball off his back beyond the approaching Paul Dummett, before beating the Newcastle man for pace and gathering the ball once more to the thrill of the Craven Cottage crowd.
Dummett, the crowd and most of the audience watching at home were left bamboozled by the debutant’s piece of skill, and if that is a sign of things to come for Fulham this season then fans of the West London club can begin to get seriously excited.
Centre-Back: Ryan Shotton (Birmingham City)
So often criticised for being a defensive liability and making crucial mistakes during his time with Stoke City and Derby County, Shotton shone in new club Birmingham’s colours with a fantastic display at Cardiff City. The Blues were under the coche for long periods, but Shotton was instrumental as Gary Rowett’s side held the South Wales club to a 0-0 stalemate to take a point back down the M6 to St. Andrews. If he can continue to produce this form, then he may finally begin to look the real part in central-defence with the West Midlands side.
Centre-Back: Nathan Smith (Port Vale)
The highly-rated 20-year old made his league debut on Saturday, and it was a tricky opening assessment as the Valiants made the trip to West Yorkshire to take on promotion hopefuls Bradford City at Valley Parade. Smith put in a solid performance in what was an intimidating atmosphere from the 17,000 Bradford supporters in attendance, and he handled the daunting task of marking the Bantams’ 6ft 4inch target-man James Hanson like a defender who’d been playing for years. On this showing a promising future lies ahead of the Madeley-born youngster.
Left-Back: Ryan Dickson (Yeovil Town)
The Glovers began their SkyBet English Football League Two campaign at home to Notts County who had made several big additions in pre-season in a bid to gun for promotion. Yeovil soon put pain to such optimism, and Dickson captained the side at Huish Park with a strong performance in defence and was always eager to get forward and join the attack. A very solid showing and encouraging signs for Yeovil as they look to make their way back toward a return to League One.
Right-Midfield: Erhun Oztumer (Walsall)
Oztumer was one of the Saddlers’ summer signings, making the move to the Black Country from League One rivals Peterborough. Not only did he put on a superb performance out on the right for his new club in their curtain-raiser against third-tier newcomers AFC Wimbledon, but he opened their account for the season with a fantastic 38th minute free-kick to open the scoring. His goal saw him so enough to stave off Cardiff’s Peter Whittingham who came in at a close second.
Centre-Midfield: Anthony Grant (Port Vale)
The star-man in Vale’s 0-0 draw at Bradford, the defensive-midfielder and reigning Player of the Year at Port Vale showed his class and his importance to Bruno Ribeiro’s team with a superb show of tackling in front of his defence and some intelligent covering play to support his full-backs when under intense Bradford City pressure. Whenever anything got through the back four, the Londoner was on hand to sweep up for his team, and he barely misplaced a pass in front of his defence either. Linked with a move away from Vale Park after handing in a transfer request earlier this summer, this performance will have upped his value that little extra although Vale fans and his manager will be desperate for their club to hang onto him.
Centre-Midfield: Grant Ward (Ipswich Town)
The 21-year old only signed for Mick McCarthy’s Tractor Boys from Tottenham on Monday, and having been thrown on as a half-time substitute in Ipswich’s Championship opener against Barnsley, Ward took the game by the scruff of the neck and made himself the first name on the teamsheet for our best XI pick with a remarkable hat-trick, scoring his first within 39 seconds of his introduction. Ward’s three strikes handed Ipswich a 4-2 victory, and if he can continue to have such an impact then the Championship had best be wary.
Left-Midfield: Jacob Murphy (Norwich City)
“Nathan Redmond gone over the summer? No problem!” Those words will undoubtedly be on the lips of Norwich City supporters after Murphy grabbed his chance with both hands following Alex Neil’s decision to start him on the left of a midfield three. He started the Canaries’ season in scinitllating fashion, with a 25-yard shot into the top corner to stun hosts Blackburn Rovers, and was a thorn in the side of their Lancashire opponents throughout as Norwich cruised to a 4-1 victory. Murphy shone at League One level last season with a fruitful loan spell at Coventry, and now he looks more than capable of making the extra step-up to the Championship.
Centre-Forward: Britt Assombalonga (Nottingham Forest)
The main-man up front for Philippe Montanier’s Forest started and ended the scoring in the Reds’ 4-3 win over Championship new-boys Burton Albion on the opening day of the season at the City Ground. It was his first start in 18 months having overcome a knee injury, and he proved his worth to Forest with two goals which sparked relief for the home crowd against a plucky Burton team who were playing in the Championship for the first-time in their history, and sending Forest to victory at the expense of club legend Nigel Clough, son of the legendary manager Brian Clough who took Forest to their two European Cup triumphs. With Assombalonga back, Forest fans will be hopeful that their paltry goal tally from last season will be history, and they can look forward to a new era under a new boss with an opening three points now in the bag.
Centre-Forward: Simeon Jackson (Walsall)
Canadian forward Jackson is the final player to make the cut after he re-ignited his career at Walsall with two opening day goals against AFC Wimbledon. Having gone off the radar since his free scoring days at Rushden and Diamonds, Gillingham and Norwich, scoring the goal that won the latter of the three promotion to the Premier League, Jackson’s career somewhat stagnated after a move to Bundesliga side Eintracht Braunschweig didn’t work out and following spells at Millwall, Coventry and Blackburn Rovers also failed to bear fruit. His brace for new-club Walsall shows that he still has goals in him at 29, and that he may just be the perfect replacement for the departed Tom Bradshaw. An encouraging opening day performance which indicates that Jackson may find himself back amongst the goals again this season for the Saddlers.
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