The Championship: Winners and Losers
The end of the season is a time to reflect on the nine months just gone. As we approach the season’s finale, it is time to consider: Who has overachieved, and who has flattered to deliver? Who has surprised us and who has underwhelmed us? Here we take a look at five clubs who have sparkled this year, and five more whose once bright lights have somewhat dimmed.
Defying the Odds
Prior to the start of the season, many predicted that Newcastle might follow in the infamous footsteps of Leeds United and implode spectacularly. Nine months later, boss Chris Hughton can look back with pride at how he transformed his squad from an egotistical bunch of Premiership failures to well-drilled Championship title winners. Elsewhere, the notoriously erudite Ian Holloway has – for once – let his team do the talking for him as Blackpool defied their pre-season billing as relegation candidates to push for the playoffs. In Charlie Adam they have one of the standout performers in the division and are evidence that small clubs still can compete with their more illustrious counterparts. Similarly, both Leicester and Nottingham Forest have performed well above expectations to sit in the playoff zone, whilst Reading’s post-New Year revival suggests they will be a strong force next time around.
Solid as a Rock
Despite the feeble surrender of their top-flight place last season, West Bromwich Albion proved they are still far too good for the Championship. Solid and consistent, their promotion prospects have rarely looked endangered and they will relish another crack at the Premiership in 2010/11. Baggies fans will hope they are a little better prepared this time around; the practical approach of boss Roberto Di Matteo suggests they may well be. A little further down, Cardiff have made up for last year’s near miss on the playoffs. They could yet face Welsh rivals Swansea, who currently occupy the final playoff spot and have continued the good work of their debut Championship season. More quietly, but equally as impressively, Yorkshire duo Doncaster and Barnsley have continued their upward mobility as they continue to establish themselves in the second tier.
A Haven for False Dawns
There are only two possibilities for those teams who attract a lot of media attention at the start of the season. Either they justify the hype or they fail spectacularly. Ipswich, QPR and Peterborough can all be said to have fallen firmly into the second category. The nation’s media flocked to Portman Road last summer with the high-profile appointment of Roy Keane as manager, swiftly followed by several £1m+ signings. Keane talked optimistically of taking Town back to the Premiership. Failure to win in his first 14 games, however, has signalled a season of struggle, and his big-money signings have largely failed to pay off. Similarly, the multimillionaire-backed QPR also talked of promotion at the season’s start, but the brief tenure of Jim Magilton has been symptomatic of a club that has failed to find consistency on the field and stability off it. The mercurial talents of Spurs loanee Adel Taraabt has been one of the few reasons to cheer at Loftus Road this season. A season to forget too for the young talents who had propelled Peterborough through the bottom two divisions have found themselves massively out of their depth and, for all their promise, the Posh lacked the established quality required to stay in the division. A season of almost 40 players and 4 managers tells its own depressing story of a season to forget at London Road.
Finally, there are those teams who were tipped at the start of the season to do well and have fallen way short of expectations. Middlesbrough have fully justified their position languishing in mid table, with some insipid displays this season. Captain Gary O’Neil is right to express concern at the chasm in quality between the Teesiders and promoted WBA. Sheffield United have similarly belied their reputation as Championship powerhouses, and it is unsurprising that manager Kevin Blackwell has recently found himself under pressure. In the midlands, the Nigel Clough revolution has failed to materialise at Derby. Whilst much good work continues to be done off the field, the on-field rebuilding process looks set to continue for a while yet at Pride Park. Troubled times too for Crystal Palace, whose promising team has been undone by administration and the selling off of star assets. Unless they can resolve their financial problems and hold onto prized assets like Darren Ambrose, they could follow their neighbours Charlton down to League One next season even if they manage to survive this time around.
With two games still to go in the Championship, plus the playoffs, the fate of many teams has still yet to be decided. This is symptomatic of a league that is long on excitement and unpredictability even if occasionally short on quality. The season has been engaging and entertaining – new stars have been born whilst others have bid the game farewell. There will surely be at least one more twist between now and the season’s end. Maybe one of the clubs above can turn a good season into a great one by getting promoted, or make a disappointing season an acceptable one by avoiding relegation. Time will tell, but, as a neutral, I can say, whatever happens, that it has not been a bad Championship year.