England’s lower leagues were once viewed as a retirement home where ageing top-flight footballers went to top up the deposit money for their first pub.
In reality, the standard between the worst teams in Division Four and the elite in Division One was not so great. This was an era when occurrences that would never transpire today were much more commonplace. It was a landscape where Hereford United – then a Southern League team – knocked top-flight Newcastle United out of the FA Cup on a mud-heap at Edgar Street in 1972, third division Swindon humiliated an Arsenal side that was two years out from winning the double, to lift the League Cup in 1969 and it was an environment, too, where Kevin Keegan left fourth division Scunthorpe United one May day in 1971 and was a Liverpool first-team starter a few months later.
These days – the gap in quality feels much wider and while some players can still make the leap, and the minnows still bite back, it is the exception rather than the norm.
Nevertheless, in the modern era, England’s lower leagues are a much slicker affair. Relegation from the bottom spot in League Two – as opposed to the old re-election system – has forced clubs to pull themselves up by the bootstraps as a slew of names have made their way into senior football via promotion from non-league football.
One such club who arrived via this route was Burton Albion, a team that has risen to Championship status on two occasions before nestling back in League One. Today, they resemble something akin to an SPFL old boys teams with Louis Moult, Kane Hemmings, Lucas Akins among their forward options.
The midlands side were plummeting towards a second successive relegation when the reappointed Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as manager last season whereupon the legendary Dutch striker masterminded a run of wins across February and March that eventually allowed them to finish 12th. Today they face a Cambridge team that once had to re-enter the league through the play-off system themselves having once been previously elected into the Football League. Cambridge were promoted from League 2 last season, relying heavily on the individual brilliance of Paul Mullin, who has since departed for Wrexham (who happen to be in the National League). At 11/8, there is enough confidence that Burton, who have won three out of three, will come away with a win as they exhibit the kind of form that is starting to look like an extension of last year’s good run under Hasselbaink.
Elsewhere in the same division another National League old timer, AFC Wimbledon, travel to Sunderland with both teams averaging two goals per game (admittedly according to a small sample) and unable to keep a clean sheet thus far, making a BTTS bet the selection.
Final preference is for Championship newcomers Bournemouth to beat Blackpool – a team also returning to that division – after a solid start to the campaign.
As for last week, it took just 10 minutes of the new season to feel as if The Tenner Bet’s seven-year hiatus from these pages had never ended as Aston Villa fell behind at Watford before slumping to defeat. It wasn’t much better for Dundee United at Ayr United nor Aberdeen a day later at Raith Rovers. My big caveat – that picking football teams at this juncture of the season with little by way of form to go on – proved all too prescient. It won’t stop another tilt this week, though.
Selection: Burton Albion (11/8), Sunderland v AFC Wimbledon BTTS (9/10), Bournemouth (9/13)
Treble pays: 6.64/1
Season’s total: -£10.00