Hulse keeps Albion's heart beating as relegated sides bounce back

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The Independent Football

Recovering from the crushing disappointment of relegation has proved no handicap to West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland, nor has the frustration of losing in the promotion play-offs stalled the good form of Reading and Sheffield United. All four clubs are in the top seven of the Nationwide First Division

Two seasons ago Albion were promoted to the Premiership on a diet of firm defending and narrow wins. It wasn't a recipe for a long stay at the top table but is rich enough for a less demanding level and yesterday's typical 1-0 win at Derby County, courtesy of Rob Hulse's fourth goal of the season, lifted Albion to first place and sank the Rams to the bottom.

Manager Gary Megson isn't getting carried away. "We've got new players trying to get into the way we play and you need time for that to happen. But in football you don't get time, so if you get results in the meantime, like we've been doing, then it's got to be all well and good."

Having ended their run of 17 consecutive defeats at Preston last weekend, Sunderland won their third consecutive match in convincing style when they thrashed Bradford City 4-0 at Valley Parade, Gary Breen, Marcus Stewart, his third of the season, an outstanding Julio Arca strike and Sean Thornton doing the damage.

"We played another relegated Premiership club, West Ham, in mid-week, but I think Sunderland are stronger," Bradford boss Nicky Law said. "At the end of the season I think they will be up there in one of the two automatic promotion positions."

Morale at second-placed Reading and Sheffield United, third, clearly hasn't been affected by failure in last season's play-offs. The Royals' 3-0 defeat of Wimbledon at Selhurst Park saw Shaun Goater score twice to make it four goals in four games. Andy Hughes added the third.

The Blades beat Coventry City 2-1 at Bramall Lane thanks to substitute Jack Lester's late winner. It was not a prime performance, manager Neil Warnock said. "It was the best result of the season after the way we played. Our midfield players admitted they couldn't pass water, the strikers were at sixes and sevens, but the back lads kept us in it."

Ambitious Wigan are carrying on last season's championship form and yesterday went fourth after a convincing 3-0 win at Rotherham. The Millers manager, Ronnie Moore, was scathing. "We looked like Real Madrid last week when we beat West Ham but we looked like the Rose and Crown this week."

At Deepdale, Stoke lost their unbeaten record and Preston North End earned their first win of the season, Paul McKenna scoring in the 1-0 win. Watford scored their first league goals of the season and gained their first point in a 2-2 home draw with Gillingham.

A Richard Chaplow strike from close range earned Burnley their first home win of the season, a 1-0 defeat of Crewe, and a 90th-minute Gareth Whalley equaliser earned visitors Cardiff City a 1-1 draw at Walsall, where Alan Lee (Cardiff) and Zigor Aranalde (Walsall) were sent off.

Norwich City's goalkeeper, Robert Green, caught a Nottingham Forest cross, rolled the ball in front of himself but didn't notice David Johnson lurking behind him. The forward nipped in to steal the ball and score, setting Forest on the way to a 2-0 win.

In the Second Division, Port Vale went back to the top after a 1-0 win over Brentford and the bottom side Notts County won their first point from a 1-1 draw at Barnsley. At the top of the Third Division, York City lost their 100 per cent record when they went down 3-0 at Lincoln City and Swansea City beat nine-man Mansfield Town 4-1 to go top.