The Winners and Losers in the Championship This Season
The final night of Championship action – for the regular season at least – promised to be a dramatic one. It exceeded all expectations, turning into an emotional rollercoaster for so many clubs. With three teams fighting for the last automatic promotion spot, three aiming for the play-offs and eight battling against relegation, all but one of the 12 games on the night had something riding on it.
Ultimately, West Bromwich Albion secured promotion despite failing to win any of their last four matches; Nottingham Forest somehow conspired to lose their seemingly secure play-off spot to Swansea; and both Charlton and Wigan (as things stand) succumbed to the drop. The winners and losers of the final day are painstakingly obvious, but what about the season as a whole?
Their mid-season wobble sparked fears of a repeat of their collapse last season, but Leeds were more mentally tough than their rivals in the end. Twelve wins and just one defeat from their last 14 matches meant they won the title by 10 points. The team ethos that the magnificent Marcelo Bielsa has built offers them a real platform for success in the Premier League.
While there have been impressive individual performances throughout the team, there is no reliance on one man and there is a level of competition within the squad that suggests major work in the summer is not necessary. Leeds have clearly been the best team in the division yet only one of their players – Luke Ayling – makes it into our statistical team of the season. This has been a team effort.
Brentford blew their hopes of automatic promotion with back-to-back defeats in their last two games, but Saïd Benrahma will undoubtedly be playing top-flight football next season. The top scorer in the league post-lockdown, with seven goals taking his tally to 17 in total, the Algerian has caught the eye at various clubs, including Chelsea, in his second season in England.
To say he is the Lionel Messi of the Championship is probably a slight stretch, but comparisons to his compatriot Riyad Mahrez are merited given his flair, creativity and confidence. There were some really exciting attacking performers throughout the Championship campaign – Matheus Pereira at West Brom and Eberechi Eze at QPR in particular – but Benrahma finished top of our ratings. He was among the top five players in the league for shots, dribbles and key passes.
Gerhard Struber took the reins at Oakwell when Barnsley were bottom of the league with just one win from 16 matches. It was his first job outside of his native Austria and it looked like an impossible task. Fast forward to the final day and a 91st-minute winner at promotion-chasing Brentford has seemingly secured the club their second-tier status – pending the result of Wigan’s appeal against a 12-point deduction.
It was the club’s 11th league win in 30 matches under Struber. If the campaign had started when he arrived, they would have finished 13th – just seven points shy of the play-offs. Barnsley looked so out of their depth before Struber joined but the 43-year-old masterminded a remarkable turnaround. He made the team more aggressive –they rank top in the Championship for tackles – but also a passing game that meant they averaged 54.3% of possession since his appointment. His work will not have gone unnoticed.
Following an unexpectedly strong start to the campaign, very little seemed to go Charlton’s way. Their early-season form quickly fell away and Lee Bowyer’s side were their own worst enemies, conceding nine times in second-half stoppage time alone. They dropped so many points over the season, the most pivotal of which was in the 93rd minute of a 1-1 draw at fellow strugglers Birmingham last week.
They lost some some of their best players from last season, including Karlan Grant, Patrick Bauer, Anfernee Dijksteel, Joe Aribo and loanee Krystian Bielik, and that trend continued into this season. Chelsea decided that it was best for his development that the talented Conor Gallagher switch to Swansea in January, while top scorer Lyle Taylor refused to play after lockdown as he was worried about picking up an injury and ruining his chances of a transfer this summer. The Charlton fans continue to be put through the mill.
When Stoke managed to retain their prized assets last summer after their relegation from the Premier League, they would have expected a quick return to the Premier League. Jack Butland was chief among those players who stuck around. He was a target for Aston Villa, among other clubs, but Stoke stood firm, demanding a big asking price for their keeper, and he stayed. The Potters may well wish they had cashed in now. It has been a dismal season for the England international, whose reputation and market value has plummeted.
He was deemed too good for the Championship at the start of the season. Not any more. He ended the campaign as our lowest ranked player with at least 30 appearances. His save success rate of just 56.8% was the second worst in the division and he made five errors that led to opposition goals before being dropped. Stoke’s win rate rose from 31.4% in the keeper’s 35 starts to 45.5% when he didn’t play. The team conceded 0.51 goals per game fewer without him. That big-money move suddenly looks a long way off.
It’s harsh to focus on a rookie coach in his first senior job, but Jonathan Woodgate’s managerial career got off to a dismal start at Middlesbrough. He supported the club as a boy and was a fan favourite as a player, but he could not count on the same support by the time of his sacking. Woodgate was replaced after a 3-0 defeat to Swansea in June, by which time the club were sitting above the relegation zone by virtue of goal difference after 38 matches.
The football Middlesbrough played under Woodgate’s predecessor Tony Pulis was not pretty but, after finishing fifth and seventh in the table, the results were downright ugly under Woodgate. No side had won fewer games than Boro at the time of his departure. They were also the league’s lowest scorers, with just 37 goals. Fearing a second relegation in four years, the board returned to the tried (and tried) and tested Neil Warnock, who oversaw four wins from eight matches to guide the club to safety.