By Paula Marcus
With the season now complete, here is part two of the Championship look at how far teams have come in the past 12 months.
Nothing to declare
So let’s start with the remaining mid-table teams, the ones that have known for the past few weeks they have had nothing really to play for. First up are Brentford, who finished this season one place worse than last year, in 10th place. Whilst they may not have been able to repeat their 5th place finish from three years ago, there is still steady progress seen for Brentford, as they enter their fourth year in the Championship.
The other two teams occupying those middle places are Cardiff City and Preston North End. Cardiff were largely expected to build on their eighth place finish in 2016, but a poor start and early relegation battle put paid to that. Bringing in the experienced Neil Warnock has certainly improved results, and City should be up around the playoff at least next season.
As for Preston, they are this seasons winners of the ‘as you were award’ finishing in the same position (11th) with the same points (62) as last season. It is really hard to see what they need to change to make the playoffs. Their gap to sixth place increased to 18 points this year, and the division will be strong again next season.
Last up are QPR who have had another season to forget. If last season was poor, this one is even worse, with safety luckily assured the game before their final day thrashing by Norwich City. QPR finished in 18th place, six places lower than last year. Poor form at the end of the season didn’t help, but they will need to find real consistency if they want to get out of the division soon.
The fight to stay up
Whilst the relegation of Blackburn Rover’s has been coming for a long time, the way it came about was certainly a surprise to many. With all three of the relegation threatened teams winning, it came down to an anxious wait to see if Birmingham City could hold on to a narrow 1-0 win. They could.
How much of Birmingham’s survival is Harry Redknapp’s inspiration and how much is just the removal of Zola is unclear. That aside, the drop from tenth to 19th in the past year won’t have escaped the Birmingham fans, and survival on the last day of the season won’t distract from what has been a disastrous year for City fans. Turning a team from playoff candidates at the mid-point of the season to relegation fodder lies solely with the new owners, and, whether Harry stay’s or not, changes will be needed next season.
As for Rovers, there isn’t a single good thing you can take from this season. The slide has been on the cards for the past few years, primarily due to the poor leadership shown by the Venky’s. It is sad to see a club like Blackburn where they are now, but without changes to the way owners are regulated, they certainly will not be the last club to suffer.
Speaking of poor ownership and suffering clubs, step forward Nottingham Forest. Twelve months ago, Forest were one place below Rovers in 16th and, while they may have finished one place above them this season, without changes at the top of the club it is very clear where they will be in the next 12 months.
There is always next year
Despite sitting in the playoff places for most of the season, Leeds United just missed out on the playoffs, needing a miraculous set of results to sneak in on the final day. Unfortunately for United, their blip in form came at the worst time, but after finishing 13th last year, the signs are better. Plus they kept the same manager the whole time. Definite progress.
The playoff picture
Last up are the four teams battling for the final promotion spot. Sheffield Wednesday are facing the playoff struggle for the second year in a row, this time finishing two places higher and getting that home advantage in the second leg. Whilst Wednesday have only slightly improved over the past 12 months, the same is certainly not true for the other three playoff teams.
Reading ended last season in 17th with no manager and little hope. In came Japp Stam for his first managerial appointment and the improvement has been drastic. Aside from a poor start, and that Norwich result we no longer talk about, things have been pretty great for the Royals. After entering the playoff places in October, Reading haven’t left, and a third place finish is far beyond expectation at the start of the season.
Just one point below Reading last year were Huddersfield Town and Fulham. Now these two sides also sit in the final playoff places. For most of the season it really seemed like Huddersfield were capable of pushing for one of the automatic places, but a dip in form at the wrong time, and some very inconsistent results over the past ten games, means they have had to settle for fifth place. Despite this, it is still a major improvement from 19th place last year.
Another major improvement is Fulham, who for the second year in a row finish one place below Huddersfield. Unlike Town, who seemed to have a playoff place sewn up at Christmas, Fulham have done things the hard way, only entering the playoffs over the last few weeks of the season. That aside, at no point did it seem Fulham were going to replicate their poor form of last year, and the turnaround at the club has truly been remarkable. We will have to wait a few weeks to see just how far that turnaround takes them.