24: Season Review, Part Two: COV to DON
Our next tranche of the appraisal process casts light on four who will still be amongst us next season: Coventry, Crystal Palace, Derby and Doncaster. Of these, Palace’s has been easily the most tempestuous twelve months, suffering the ignominious fate of administration, while Donny have perhaps provided a model for how things should be stewarded, both on and off the pitch. As for Coventry and Derby: days of yore seem ever distant.
In a mid-season post, I theorized that the problem at Coventry is one of slow decline. We are currently seeing evidence of how a drop into League One can re-invigorate the very fabric of a club: Leicester and now Norwich have roared back to prominence after the briefest of stays down under, making a mockery of the doom mongering connected with relegation. That Coventry’s stint in the Championship’s lower reaches is beginning to resemble their largely undistinguished three decade sojourn in the top flight is evidence of the sheer, cloying stagnation of the Sky Blues experience.
Having lost Scott Dann and Danny Fox going into the campaign, Coventry’s most consistent autumnal performer, Leon Best followed the duo out of the door at the Ricoh in January after some of his best performances for some time. Sadly, last season’s revelation Aron Gunnarsson failed to press on and their other remaining youthful asset, Keiren Westwood also suffered a slightly less distinguished season, no longer touted as the best in the division in the face of Julian Speroni and Lee Camp’s excellence.
Has been forwards Clinton Morrison and on-loan Jon Stead made little impact and Freddie Eastwood’s one significant scoring flurry was at the expense of Plymouth and Peterborough. Chris Coleman, an increasing fraught figure, paid with his job immediately after the season’s end, to be replaced by Aidy Boothroyd. The Sky Blues are rather clinging on to Championship status.
Final League Position: 19
Our Pre-season Prediction: 21
Marks out of 10: 4
TTU Player of the Year: Leon Best
As with Cardiff, whom I analyzed in Part One of this review, Palace have been beset by off field concerns, making this the tensest season they will ever experience. That they survived with that epic win at Hillsborough and continue to trade as a business is semi-miraculous – just a fortnight ago, administrator Brendan Guilfoyle was speechless when asked if the South Londoners could continue.
Unlike Coventry, who might benefit from dipping a rung, relegation really would have been catastrophic for Crystal Palace, underlining the importance of that final day reprieve. Outstanding efforts from a bevy of inspirational performers has been key: Darren Ambrose pillaged vital goals all season, Julian Speroni was acrobatic between the sticks and Sean Derry a ticking presence as captain. Before the window, Victor Moses gave us this Championship season’s best moments in terms of pure skill and Neil Warnock was assembling a play off challenging squadron.
But Agilo sent in their demands and the Eagles were contemplating a different kind of exit in the blink of an eye. Inevitably damaged in confidence, form dipped and the gaffer departed. Paul Hart looked to be an unimaginative appointment but credit to this manager of many clubs, he selected the team to prevail in the end. The asset stripping looks set to continue but a slight breather is now possible.
Final League Position: 21
Our Pre-season Prediction: 9
Marks out of 10: 5
TTU Player of the Year: Darren Ambrose
Clubs whose fans obsess over beating local rivals at the expense of league placings rarely challenge for silverware and so it proved for Derby County last season. The chief memories of an underwhelming sequence were two barnstorming battles with Nottingham Forest: in effect, a tug of love over the copyright for the word “Clough”. The Rams may have avenged “Flag-gate” with a Springtime win but it doesn’t mask how poorly they performed overall.
An asymmetric season can be detected: Derby did well at home and were dire away – although Pride Park did still host some horror shows: the visits of Scunthorpe and QPR among them. Robbie Savage seemed to care not one jot how dreadful the side were as long as he got a game and previously heralded wide men, Lee Croft and Kris Commons contributed next to nothing. Shaun Barker, incoming from Blackpool, was also disappointing, emblematic of a lack of pace across the back line.
The bright spots for County are an improved financial situation and bumper crowds. Nigel Clough took his time to build Burton Albion into something special and having enjoyed taunting Forest with their “we’ve got Nigel” chants, they are not about to throw him away.
Final League Position: 14
Our Pre-season Prediction: 13
Marks out of 10: 4
TTU Player of the Year: Rob Hulse
Doncaster Rovers’ sophomore season in the Championship saw them convert the tentative, dainty steps of their first outing to become a real force. Shorn of Matt Mills and Richie Wellens in the close season, most tipped the South Yorkshire retail park dwellers to struggle – but Sean O’Driscoll is cuter than that and once again, he fashioned a side capable of giving anyone a fright.
There was less of the plucky underdog about Rovers this season. A genuine play off attempt lasted into April and the football was as purist pleasing as ever. Not losing their helmsman to Burnley was crucial: O’Driscoll is exemplary in his strategy – the system remains the same and the training clearly effective, and the improvement this term was brought about by the addition of a more incisive marksman. Billy Sharp, on loan from Sheffield United, burst back to form after his woeful time at Bramall Lane and provided the finishes to the clever approach play of Martin Woods and James Coppinger. That Rovers can now go somewhere like Ashton Gate and hit five shows the progress that has been made.
Final League Position: 12
Our Pre-season Prediction: 20
Marks out of 10: 8
TTU Player of the Year: Martin Woods