It was fitting that the Championship season – often likened to a marathon due to its brutal, exhausting and seemingly never-ending nature – produced drama and season-defining moments for a number of teams right up to the final whistle (and sometimes beyond) on Saturday.
This gruelling 10 month slog climaxed in a finale similar to the famous ‘Agueroooooo’ moment of 2 seasons ago in the Premier League. In this instance the teams involved were Brighton, Birmingham and Reading. The equation for the Royals was simple; they knew if they matched or bettered Brighton’s result then a playoff berth was theirs. As both matches headed towards the final whistle 6th place was seemingly in their grasp, as their game with Burnley at home remained 2-2 and Brighton were being frustratingly held by Notts Forest. However, a 90th minute winner from Brighton’s Leonardo Ulloa snatched 6th place, which had looked to be slipping away from them. They will now play Derby in the two-legged playoff semi-final, while Wigan go up against QPR.
It was a similar tale of late drama, jubilation and misery at the other end of the table, where Birmingham knew if they bettered Doncaster’s result they would stay in the league for another season. With Doncaster’s match against Leicester having finished in a 1-0 defeat, Birmingham merely needed to equalise against Bolton to ensure survival. This is exactly what they did, with Paul Caddis bundling in an injury time leveller to provoke scenes of barmy, bonkers, unbridled joy in the away end.
With the final league table in place, it is now time to assess which sides exceeded expectations, and which teams will be disappointed with the result of this arduous campaign.
Leicester, Burnley and Derby are the three teams in the top half of the league which achieved unqualified success this year. The former two teams stormed the league, amassing 102 and 93 points respectively. This was built on rock-solid organisation, metronomic consistency and several prolific strikers (Danny Ings, David Nugent etc). Derby have been another major success story, achieving one of their highest recent points totals, and provoking admiration for their enterprising, attacking football.
Moving through the playoff pack, Wigan and Brighton will both feel they have achieved the realistic season’s goals, while QPR will be frustrated that after being top at Christmas, indifferent results in the latter stages means they long ago had to settle for the playoffs.
We then come to a clutch of teams who will feel that but for a few results the last playoff berth could have been theirs. Reading and Nottingham Forest in particular will be bitterly disappointed that they could not string a consistent enough run of form together to put themselves in pole position, and both paid the price. Ipswich, Bournemouth and Blackburn all probably slightly exceeded expectations in challenging, and all came up slightly short in the final reckoning.
Moving down the table into the lower half, the overall rating of a team’s season starts to change from success to failure. Middlesbrough, Bolton and Leeds would all have hoped for a playoff berth back in August; all had realistic hopes dashed before Christmas. Leeds’ ridiculous season has been documented well enough; suffice to say Brian McDermott will need a long and relaxing summer holiday before another attempt to get back in the Premier League next season.
Huddersfield, Sheffield Wednesday and Watford would have realistically settled for mid-table finishes at the outset of the campaign. While all three had flirtations with either the playoffs or relegation, in the end it was a relatively stress-free end to the season for these sides.
Next we come to the sides who failed definitely in their objectives this year. Birmingham, Blackpool and Charlton would have hoped for a mid-table finish at worst, they ended up in a desperate struggle to remain in the league, with safety for Birmingham only assured in the 93rd minute of the season finale. Lee Clark will pray for a season of financial stability in which to rebuild his squad next year. Barry Ferguson at Blackpool will also hope for some kind of stability next season, the Tangerine’s extraordinary season (4th at the end of November before a run of 3 wins in 30), defined by endless crowd protests against the owner.
And so to the down-and-outs. For Doncaster, Barnsley and Yeovil this was a season of struggle, bruising defeats and very few high points. While all three surely anticipated being in the relegation scrap, there will be hurt and frustration at the number of missed chances to clamber out of the mire.
In the end, every team in the league shares one common trait; they all can’t wait for August and the start of yet another season.
Image courtesy of The Telegraph