Classic EFL Championship Openers | Sporting Index
Explosive Championship Opening Games from History: Which Games Standout in Memory?
The Football League First Division was formed in 1992 before becoming the Championship in 2004, it has gone on to establish itself as one of the world's most exciting leagues. It encompasses all manner of fallen giants, rising stars and ambitious clubs bidding to reach the Premier League. They slog it out over a long and gruelling campaign full of twists and turns, and high-scoring thrillers are guaranteed along the way.
By the end of the season, the players are thoroughly knackered and full of either jubilation or despair. But at the start of the campaign they are full of energy, optimism and excitement, and the opening weekend has served up some thrilling clashes over the years. These are the top 10 opening games in the history of the Championship:
Rotherham 2-3 Crystal Palace, 2001/02
The 2001/02 season began with a bang as Rotherham and Crystal Palace played out a thriller at Millmoor. Crystal Palace were among the favourites to be promoted that season and they were expected to make short work of their hosts on a balmy August afternoon. Yet a quick-fire double from Guy Branston and Mark Robbins in the first-half sparked despair among Eagles fans and jubilation among the 6,000 home supporters.
Palace manager Steve Bruce then went for broke and pushed his wide players up the pitch to offer greater support for Dougie Freedman and Clinton Morrison. The strategy worked, as Palace were awarded a penalty just before half-time. Club legend Freedman coolly slotted it in, and Crystal Palace were revitalised after the break. They poured forward and forced the Millers into some desperate defending, but Aki Riihilahti plundered an equaliser, and Jamie Smith then broke home fans' hearts with a late winner.
Despite this initial setback, Rotherham managed to beat the drop that season by virtue of goal difference alone. They ended the campaign level with Crewe on 49 points apiece, but their slightly tighter defence kept them up. The Eagles failed to secure promotion and ended up languishing in mid-table obscurity.
Millwall 0-6 Rotherham, 2002/03
Rotherham came flying out of the blocks once again the following season as Darren Byfield headed in to hand them the lead against Millwall. Tony Warner then spilled Martin McIntosh's 35-yard free-kick into the net and the Millers seized a 2-0 lead. The meltdown they suffered against Palace the previous season might have been playing on the minds of the Rotherham players at half-time, but manager Ronnie Moore had other things on his mind. Byfield had been suffering racist abuse during the first half, and Moore told him to "answer it with goals".
The rest is history, as Byfield ended the game with four goals to his name and led his team to a magnificent victory. The pick of the bunch was a chip over the unfortunate Warner from the edge of the area, while Chris Sedgwick also unleashed a fine strike to put the gloss on the victory.
Manager Mark McGhee was distinctly unimpressed, suggesting his players were reacting to a pay freeze imposed by chairman Theo Paphitis after a broadcasting deal with ITV Digital collapsed. "If the players haven't come to terms with it and can't give their best, we'll go out and get some fresh blood", he raged. "We can't wait 15 games to see if will they will sort their heads out." Millwall did eventually rally and they secured a ninth-place finish, while Rotherham ended up 15th, but Byfield would never have a better game.
Reading 3-2 Brighton, 2004/05
Most Royals fans were still finding their way to their seats when Brighton & Hove Albion's Maheta Molango struck 15 seconds into their curtain raiser in 2004/05. That certainly took the sting out of the Madejski Stadium, but Dave Kitson - sporting dyed blonde hair that day - restored parity with a second minute strike to settle the nerves. James Harper fired in from the edge of the box to give Reading a 2-1 lead before the break, and Nicky Forster scored a superb goal to extend their lead.
Yet Brighton were dogged and determined that afternoon and Jake Robinson gave them hope when he tapped in from close range. McGhee was managing the Seagulls by this point and he threw the kitchen sink at Reading, but he was to suffer another opening day defeat as the Royals' backline held firm.
The result sparked optimism among Reading fans and they made a sustained promotion bid, only to finish seventh and narrowly miss out on the playoffs. Brighton beat the drop, but it turned out to be the only goal that Molango ever scored for the Seagulls during a three-season stint that saw him make just six league appearances.
Hull City 2-3 Plymouth Argyle, 2007/08
Veteran striker Dean Windass gave Hull the lead just three minutes into their 2007/08 season opener as he seized upon a rebound to fire home. However, David Norris quickly equalised to silence the KC Stadium. Rory Fallon headed in on the stroke of half-time, sending Plymouth on the path to a stunning upset. Hull had the chance to equalise just after the break, but Romain Larrieu saved Windass' penalty, only for Dean Marney to score from the rebound.
It looked set to finish all square, but then Sylvan Ebanks-Blake popped up with a powerful drive nine minutes from time to hand Plymouth a sensational opening day victory. They also beat Hull 3-2 once again later that season when the teams met in the FA Cup third round. Windass scored twice that day, but he could not inspire his side to a comeback after goals from Ebanks-Blake, Nadjin Abdou and Peter Halmosi.
Yet that defeat remained a minor footnote to a brilliant campaign for Phil Brown¿s Hull side. They finished third in the table, four points behind Stoke City, and that saw them enter the playoffs. They ripped Watford apart over two legs, winning the semi-final 6-1 on aggregate to tee up a final showdown with Bristol City. Windass was the hero as he grabbed the only goal of the game to send them up. It was just five years since Hull had languished in the very bottom tier of the Football League and it completed a fairy-tale rise to prominence for Brown's men.
Norwich 2-3 Watford, 2010/11
Norwich were relegated from the Premier League in 2010 and they landed in the Championship with a bump when the new season began. Watford took an early lead when John Eustace controlled a cross, skipped past Andrew Crofts and fired a low strike past John Ruddy. Danny Graham then played a neat one-two with strike partner Marvin Sordell before banging in the second.
Watford wore a new away strip modelled on the famous red and black stripes of AC Milan for the first time that day, and one reporter remarked that Norwich were so bad they made the Hornets look like the Serie A heavyweights. A fingertip save from Ruddy prevented Watford taking a 3-0 lead and the Canaries looked shaken, but they regrouped at the break and came out swinging. Crofts¿ deflected strike from the edge of the area pulled it back to 2-1 and Carrow Road sprung to life.
However, Ruddy allowed a tame effort from Graham to slip past him and the Hornets' two-goal cushion was restored. A late strike from Michael Nelson teed up a thrilling finale, but Watford were able to hold on.
Yet Norwich soon rallied from that defeat, and they ended up finishing second that season and yo-yoing straight back up to the Premier League. The Canaries continued to oscillate between both divisions for several years after that. Watford slumped to a mid-table finish that season, which was a decent result considering they had narrowly escaped going into administration the previous December.
Crystal Palace 3-2 Leicester, 2010/11
The Eagles survived a brave second-half comeback from Leicester to begin the 2010/11 season with three crucial points. The afternoon began with two new co-chairmen, Steve Parish and Martin Long, taking to the field to rapturous applause from the Selhurst Park faithful. The famous club went perilously close to extinction until the CPFC 2010 group led by Parish and Long completed an 11th hour takeover that summer, rescuing Palace from the brink.
Their reign got off to the perfect start when a 17-year-old Wilfried Zaha opened the scoring with a fine volley past Chris Weale. Darren Ambrose doubled Crystal Palace's advantage with an 18-yard strike and Alan Lee tapped in from close range to make it 3-0 on the stroke of half-time. The Palace fans were jubilant and a party atmosphere erupted at Selhurst Park. However, nerves began to creep in after Andy King pulled one back for Leicester on the hour mark. DJ Campbell then fired in with six minutes left on the clock to create a tense finish. Paulo Sousa's side push hard for the equaliser, but Palace repelled their attacks and it finished 3-2.
Zaha went on to enjoy a magnificent season for the Eagles and his dynamism going forwards helped them beat the drop, as they finished 20th. He would move to Man Utd 18 months later, only to return to the club and become a stalwart of their Premier League campaigns for many years. Leicester finished 10th that season, but it was not long before they were promoted, and they then went on to win the Premier League title in fairy-tale fashion.
Crystal Palace 2-3 Watford, 2012/13
Watford are no strangers to securing thrilling victories on the opening day of a new Championship season. They plundered three points in the most dramatic manner imaginable in the 2012/13 curtain raiser to hand Gianfranco Zola the perfect start to life in the dugout. The hosts led 2-1 at the break after Owen Garvan scored twice, either side of a Martin Taylor goal for the Hornets. Crystal Palace looked set for a morale-boosting win as the clock ticked down, but then Watford delivered a remarkable fightback.
Swiss midfielder Abdi finally broke the resistance by conjuring a moment of magic from nothing in the 89th minute. He collected the ball from Matej Vydra, bore down on goal and unleashed a magnificent long-range strike past the outstretched fingertips of Julian Speroni. The game entered the fifth minute of stoppage time when Vydra latched onto Carl Dickinson's cross and scored from outside the box with virtually the last kick of the game.
It was smash and grab stuff for the Hornets, who finished third that season. Crystal Palace also enjoyed a strong campaign, despite selling Zaha in the January transfer window, and they ended up fifth. Watford got the better of Leicester in the play-off semi-finals, while Crystal Palace overwhelmed fierce rivals Brighton in the other semi, and they met at Wembley with a place in the Premier League at stake. They could not be separated in 90 minutes and a penalty shootout seemed likely, but Crystal Palace were awarded a penalty in the 105th minute and Kevin Phillips banged it in to send the Eagles up to the top flight at Watford's expense.
Rotherham United 1-4 Milton Keynes Dons, 2015/16
MK Dons celebrated their first ever game in the Championship in style by thrashing Rotherham 4-1 at New York Stadium. Rob Hall handed his side a perfect start when he tapped in from close range on five minutes. Rotherham's Matt Derbyshire quickly restored parity by heading in from a corner, but MK Dons continued to display great ambition. A terrible mix-up at the back for the hosts saw Jordan Spence's deflected effort creep in, and a smart near-post finish put MK Dons 3-1 up at the break.
Rotherham displayed comical defending throughout the game, and their finishing was also poor. Tom Thorpe had a glorious opportunity to make it 3-2, but he missed a header from two yards out. Derbyshire missed another header, before his shot was parried onto the bar by David Martin and Andy White dragged the rebound wide, while Paul Green was also off target with the goal gaping. Rotherham looked like they might stage a comeback, but Carl Baker finished them off with a brilliant solo effort to make it 4-1.
Later that season, Rotherham gained sweet revenge by heading to Milton Keynes and thrashing their relegation rivals 4-0. Derbyshire scored in the first minute to set the Millers on their way to a rout. It left Rotherham 21st in the table, nine points clear of MK Dons and with just five games left to play. In the end, Rotherham managed to beat the drop, while MK Dons were indeed relegated.
Nottingham Forest 4-3 Burton Albion, 2016/17
Burton Albion's first game in the Championship ended in heartbreak as the Brewers lost a seven-goal thriller at the City Ground. Britt Assombalonga put Forest 1-0 up when he slid in to divert Jorge Grant¿s wayward strike into the net. But Burton battled back in style and soon found themselves 2-1 up after two goals in the space of three minutes from Lucas Akins and Lloyd Dyer.
Yet Thomas Lam struck deep into stoppage time at the end of the first half to bring Nottingham Forest level, and Jon McLaughlin really should have done better at his near post. The hosts were reinvigorated after the break and Oliver Burke handed them a 3-2 lead when he volleyed in after free-kick came back off the wall. Assombalonga headed in from close range to give Forest a two-goal cushion, but a late Tom Naylor header ensured a nervy finish.
Matt Palmer sent a glorious ball into the box in the 94th minute and several Burton players scrambled to deliver a scoring touch, but it somehow evaded them all and Forest secured the win. Burton ended up with 52 points that season and they finished 20th in the table, just one point above the relegation zone. Nottingham Forest finished 21st and they beat the drop courtesy of goal difference alone, as they were on -10 and 22nd place Blackburn had the same points tally but a -12 goal difference.
Wigan Athletic 3-2 Sheffield Wednesday, 2018/19
Newly promoted Wigan showed no early season nerves when they prevailed in a thrilling clash against Sheffield Wednesday on the opening weekend of the 2018/19 campaign. Michael Jacobs gave them the lead when he brought down a loose ball and fired in from the edge of the area, bringing the 14,000-strong crowd to their feet. The Wigan defence then froze as Atdhe Nuhiu was allowed five touches in the box before scrambling in the equaliser. But the hosts were undeterred and Jacobs capitalised on a ricochet to score with a neat finish on 26 minutes.
He almost had a hat-trick after the break as he led the Wednesday defence a merry dance and unleashed a powerful strike. Goalkeeper Cameron Dawson could only parry it and Nick Powell was on hand to score from the rebound. Sheffield Wednesday pulled one back after a brilliant team move resulted in Fernando Forestieri's cool finish. The visitors pressed hard for an equaliser, but their hopes were dented when Nuhiu was shown a late red card.
Despite that setback, they came agonisingly close to making it 3-3 at the death, but home goalkeeper Christian Walton delivered a fine save to deny Steven Fletcher. These teams finished 17th and 12th respectively that season, and Sheff Wed secured a 1-0 win over Wigan in the reverse fixture courtesy of Fletcher's wondergoal.
The opening day of the 2019/20 Championship season promises to be another exhilarating affair. Football fans can look forward to a number of intriguing clashes and there are also some great long-term season bets for you to check out, including the Championship Points spread and the Championship outright odds, so be sure to grab a stake in the action and enjoy the new campaign!