EFL Championship Review

End of season review

Mixed emotions were the order of the day in the EFL Sky Bet Championship last Wednesday night. We already knew that Leeds United were to be crowned league champions but after that, numerous questions remained unanswered (relegation still is inconclusive pending legal and EFL investigations). Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the season team by team.

1. Leeds United

After massive playoff heartache last season, this season under Marcelo Bielsa has seen a terrific run of form after Christmas. They had the best defensive record in the division (35 conceded) while scoring joint second top scorers in the division (77).

The recruiting process in this off season will be crucial as several key loan signings may not be back at the club. A splendid season. I am looking forward to seeing the likes of Ayling. Berardi injury layoff is a blow.

Bielsa tactical nous is massive boost. The squad as a whole are excellent but the step up to the EPL is a big one. Ask Norwich City and I do worry about the attacking options and squad depth.

2. West Bromwich Albion

What a nervy last two weeks of the season for WBA. Slaven Bilic tried to act cool on the sideline but his side really struggled to close the automatic promotion berth.

The squad on paper looked good enough to seal the deal but every area of the side struggled as the goalkeeper and defense wobbled, midfield creativity dried up depending on defenders to get on the scoring stakes. Bilic will have learned tonnes on this end of the season run.

Callum Robinson hopefully has done enough to earn a full time contract at the club with that key goal against QPR. Bilic and board know now the task that is in front of them. If they do not recruit quality players in the off season, they will be relegated from the EPL.

Dara O’Shea for such a young player showed incredible leadership down the stretch, chipped in with some vital goals. A player who will be playing EPL next season and one for Stephen Kenny to further review and integrate into the national senior squad.

3. Brentford

During a podcast with Philip Flanagan (esteemed Mayo sports and soccer analyst pundit genius), Philip mentioned about Brentford and how their playoff record is horrendous.

The last two games of this regular season resembled playoff fixtures, must win games. Brentford were in the perfect setup; they had gone on a terrific run and with two games left had automatic promotion in their own hands and then cue the dip in form and confidence.

Stoke City and Barnsley pressed high up the pitch and Brentford’s nerves showed. Thomas Frank has a massive job to lift this side. The side is talented. Benrahma and Watkins provide the attacking threat but after these last two games, they are vulnerable for more playoff woe.

4. Fulham

A strange season, looked the part for early and mid-season but Scott Parker’s team started to drop points early in January 2020. The fact that the side were within distance of securing an automatic berth indicates the run of form that the side enjoyed once the season resumed.

I like the side’s chances in the playoffs. The side are well balanced. Rodak in goal is a solid performer with experience in the defensive and midfield areas. The class act is Mitrovic and he will be relishing the playoffs. Reid and Arter could provide key cameos.

All or nothing in these next two weeks but this side out of all the playoff sides look best equipped to compete in the EPL if they do get promoted.

5. Cardiff City

A fascinating season with the managerial switch mid-season as Millwall club legend Neil Harris decided to travel down the M4 and move to Cardiff City for a managerial tilt.

The side have had their issues but down the stretch have impressed with the likes of Hoilett, Mendez-Laing prominent in the attacking sense. Playoff berth secured but playing a Fulham side who can destroy teams on the counter attack when on the road beckons.

The squad has performed well in recent weeks but are they defensively solid enough to curtail Fulham? I have my doubts. A good season for the Welsh club and Neil Harris will have the chance to put his imprint on the side in the off-season with some key acquisitions in key central areas.

6. Swansea

This was the story of the night in terms of the playoffs last Wednesday night. The massive goal difference turnaround between Nottingham Forest and Swansea saw the Welsh side secure playoff football at the expense of the East Midlands club.

Cooper and management deserve massive credit. The budget has been challenging. The need to acquire key loan players paramount. The departure of Leon Britton could have destablized the club but the squad and management kept focus and went on a superb end of the season run culminating in that 1-4 road trip win against Reading.

A dark horse for promotion, they have nothing to lose. Rhian Brewster has reveled in the side and is a star in the making. Routledge continues to perform at a high level.

Swansea play the right way and with a vulnerable Brentford next, I think they could upset the league standings and advance to the final. Cooper is a manager to watch out for, an excellent coach and an EPL side will be monitoring his situation in the coming months no doubt.

7. Nottingham Forest

The fact that we are talking about Nottingham Forest outside the playoffs is unbelievable. They were in the playoff positions since Christmas only to be pipped in the final minute of the season.

I recall when the club decided to sack Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, the move initiated by the squad who did not approve of the duo’s managerial style. Perhaps it was because O’Neill and Keane told some old school honest home truths to the players and they could not take the criticism in house.

Sabri Lamouchi is an ambitious manager and will he stay around after his squad meek end to the season. The Barnsley loss was lackluster in the extreme and then the Stoke City was footballing suicide. Defensively all over the shop and zero leadership from the players on duty.

The own goal from Nuno Da Costa at the death summed it up nicely. An utterly disastrous end to the season. How the club recover from this and restore some much required steel in the side is another question? Joe Lolley deserves to be playing his football in the EPL.

8. Millwall

The Lions have a modest budget when compared with other clubs in the division. This season was a transformation considering the pressure of staving off relegation in the previous season. A change in managerial reins midway probably freshened things up.

Gary Rowett coming in to replace Neil Harris who felt that he could take the club on no further. Harris is a club legend but Rowett is a slick operator in this division and he galvanized the side well.

The regret of the season was the number of draws (17) during the league season and perhaps two or three of those draws into wins would have seen playoff football.

Millwall loan signings were excellent. Jayson Molumby the standout here. The Waterford native catching the eye with several standout displays. Rowett again will need to recruit well in the off season and the attacking goal ratio needs to improve. Matt Smith over reliance this season and that needs to change. A changing of the guard at the club with Aiden O’Brien leaving for pastures new. A season to build upon next season for the Lions.

9. Preston North End

I am disappointed with Preston North End. They were well positioned for a playoff push upon the resumption of the league but their 1-1 draw away to Luton Town was a sign of things to come. A couple of losses and they were suddenly out of the playoff picture.

The fact that there is Republic of Ireland representation in Maguire, Browne meant that I was rooting for the club to go deep into season but the side ran out of legs and squad depth.

Alex Neil is a capable manager and will identify the areas to shore up in the off season. Maguire hopefully will strike on next season. A disappointing end to a season which offered plenty.

10. Derby County

Derby County. A good start to the season and then the incident that changed the direction of their season. The infamous team bonding evening. The car crash. Keogh dismissed from the club while Lawrence and Bennett escaped any such action. The situation stank to high heaven and then came Wayne Rooney after Christmas to lift the club.

The only saving grace for the club was the performances of Jason Knight. The Dublin youngster lit up the team with some eye-catching performances and is surely on the Stephen Kenny national team radar. Derby never beat a top six side all season.

Philip Cocu looked a broken man after the WBA loss. The indiscipline of the squad there for all to see with the several red cards down the end of season run in. This is a club that needs to stop, think about its ethos because this season has been a disaster on and off the pitch.

Rooney looking for a managerial job? Will there be an internal coup at the club in the coming weeks? Given their actions in previous months, nothing would surprise me. A club with massive rebuilding to do on and off the pitch. I will whisper the EFL investigation as well at this juncture!

11. Blackburn Rovers

The end of season was flat given some key losses after the league resumption. The pandemic and the league halt affected Blackburn Rovers most than any other team. They were flying in early 2020, form was superb and scoring goals for fun.

The pandemic arrived and the performances struggled to hit those heights when the league resumed. Tony Mowbray has done a brilliant job at the club.

The likes of Linehan, Armstrong, Johnson, Diack will form the backbone of this side next season. A side to watch out for as they have shown that they can match anyone in this division on their day.

12. Bristol City

Bristol City are a true enigma. They threaten to become a top six or automatic promotion team and then they fall away with an erratic run of form.

Lee Johnson was sacked given another one of these spells, the players need to hold their hands up as well. Some of the performances this year have been well under par and the new manager will need to clear out a good number of the squad to promote a consistent winning culture at the club.

Diedhou’s form is like Bristol City. When he is good, he is world class. When he is not, enough said. A key summer with the managerial appointment and recruitment which is required for this club to get to the next level.

The City of Bristol yearns for EPL fixtures and a Chris Hughton appointment with a promotion record which is second to none needs to be supported by the club board. An interesting club to follow next term.

13. QPR

A mixed season for QPR and Mark Warburton. The question of consistency and a soft underbelly on the road are key points that come to mind. The West London club never really looked like getting relegated nor did they look like getting into the promotion shakeup.

It was great to see Conor Masterson get game time and score against Millwall. Ryan Manning continues to impress, a rich run of form with a couple of goals. Eze looks a talent, wonder if an EPL club like Crystal Palace will take a punt on the player?

Warburton needs to address the consistency issues and perhaps recruit some hard nosed central players to shore up that soft underbelly persona next season.

14. Reading

A season where Mark Bowen came in and steered the club to mid-table respectability. A team with full of potential upfront where Meite was chief goalscorer followed by Puscas.

The defensive side of the side will need to improve. Fifty-eight goals leaked during the season is too many and Bowen’s side need to secure more clean sheets next season.

Reading are one of those sleeper clubs in the division. The start of season looked ominous but then came the resurgence about Christmas. The budget of the club and identifying the right players either that is permanent deals or loan moves are paramount.

15. Stoke City

Let’s not be fooled by the league position. Stoke City struggled massively for good chunks of the season. The Nathan Jones football experiment went down in flames.

Michael O’Neill was summons to rescue the situation and the side’s unforced mistakes reduced significantly. The off season will be interesting as O’Neill needs to offload players who failed to deliver and are on massive money.

The squad on paper should be in the playoff hunt but the mentality of some of these players was off from day one of the season. O’Neill is the right man to get the side back up the table.

The late season surge of form culminating in those wins against Brentford and Forest are the baseline performances for O’Neill to level at his squad next season. Nathan Collins is a youngster with a bright future in the game.

16. Sheffield Wednesday

The EFL investigation still hangs like a bad smell over Hillsborough. When will the investigation end? Gary Monk’s managerial reign this season is one where his abrasive approach has irked experienced players within the squad.

Fletcher and Westwood were dispensed with contempt and the side’s form struggled. Westwood in particular is a strange omission. The cull happened just before December when Wednesday were riding high in the division, pushing for the playoffs.

The goalkeeper switch was made and it coincided with a dip in form, some stupid points lost late in games. Monk will do well to stay on as manager; horrible run of form and the body language of the side suggested that the players had not lost faith in the manager.

The EFL investigation needs to be completed now. Points deduction? The club’s future in the division hangs by a thread.

17. Middlesbrough

It should have been better than this. Woodgate’s arrival back to the Riverside. You would have thought a spark in creativity and skill set but the side struggled under his leadership.

The sack was inevitable and Steve Gibson reached out to the life-raft called Neil Warnock to save our season. Warnock delivered the immediate goal but whether he is the viable long term manager of this club is another thing entirely?

Britt Assombalonga could go to EPL in the off season. The managerial direction and who leaves and arrives is up in the air. Does Steve Gibson invest additional funds to support the manager? It is questionable at this time. A season to forget.

18. Huddersfield Town

The fact that two managers have come and gone from the club this season is enough evidence to suggest that the Terriers struggled in the division. Cowley’s sacking was a surprise, he came into the club when they were languishing in the bottom three.

A win over WBA in the end of season run in should have been ample evidence to the board of the direction that the manager and side were looking to go in but the board have pulled the trigger on the 10 month managerial stint. I fear for Huddersfield.

The parachute payments from EFL diminish further next season; players on big wages need to be cleared but who will take them after yet another wretched season? A club who for me are relegation candidates next season no question. No sensible manager will look to take on this job. Instability reigns.

19. Luton Town

Nathan Jones and Luton Town will play Championship football next season. An incredible achievement for the club given their goals against figure (82) which is second worse in the division.

Jones arrived back at Luton Town seeking redemption and the end of season run in was sensational. 16 out of 27 points is playoff form, not relegation form.

The side galvanized and probably were happy for the suspension of the league to regroup. Delighted for James Collins whose penalty midweek secured survival. Jones will be under no illusions about next season.

Luton’s low budget means more shrewd acquisitions from lower divisions and loan market. A great accomplishment for everyone connected with the club to secure league survival.

20. Birmingham City

This football club is a mad house at present. The fifteen game winless streak nearly relegated the club and the administration of the club do not inspire confidence. Steve Spooner could not arrest the slide.

The side looked poor in all areas of the pitch. Jude Bellingham leaves for Borussia Dortmund with his #22 jersey retired? No jersey deserved to be retired at this football club given their form. Bellingham is a talent but this move has also heightened expectations, more pressure applied to the young kid.

Birmingham City delighted with the cash flow bonanza from the Bellingham deal but who will want to take on this job? Karanka, Cook, Fowler all linked to the job but it is a complete rebuild. The academy players will need to step up as there is no clear transfer strategy at the club. A relegation candidate next season, they were lucky to stay up this term.

21. Barnsley

Luton Town and Barnsley staying up were the main stories of the final evening of fixtures. Two teams with the lowest budgets in the division staying up. Barnsley looked dead and buried throughout the season, plenty of promise but all too often cut open by superior sides in the division. Gerhard Struber arrived and provided fresh perspective on the club’s plight. His comments on the league suspension filtered to the players. The last nine games was a new season and the players delivered.

Six points against Nottingham Forest and Brentford were incredible results. The side are relatively young but Struber will know that additional squad depth is required to stay up again next season. German imports, loan market options aplenty to explore. A great end to the season for Barnsley. They never gave up and got their rewards.

22. Charlton Athletic

I have a soft spot for Charlton Athletic. I have cousins who lived close to the Valley and have visited the ground in recent years. The club are in turmoil. The ownership battle continues to rage on. Lyle Taylor deciding not to risk injury and leaving the club.

The squad could do no more for Lee Bowyer but the lack of funds and the squad depth particularly upfront without Taylor were massive factors in their relegation this week. Josh Cullen has impressed this year when injury free. It is a cruel blow, more slashing of funds unless there is a legal reprieve.

Bowyer could be tempted by another job in the division and he has links to Birmingham City. A club which needs much needed stability. A superb academy structure, build from within. The supporters will be there, whether the owners are committed is another story.

23. Wigan Athletic

A side on the pitch who were one of the form sides in the division this year. Only Leeds United and Brentford secured more points during that period.

The financial atrocities committed at this club under the watch of the EFL saw that the side would go down on the last day of the season. Paul Cook and squad performed miracles throughout the season and I thought at one stage they would manage to escape the drop.

The 1-1 draw against Charlton Athletic, that late equalizer was a ball break. The 1-1 draw against Fulham saw the side go on the front foot and only for Rodak could have won.

The club faces an uncertain future. Paul Cook, Kieffer Moore and others will depart the club as Krasner looks to clear the wage bill for the new owners. A club who are now back in the third tier of football. A club who know about struggles from their past history. This is an uncertain time.

24. Hull City

This is more board meddling in the extreme. The board sold Bowen and Prosicki in January to make a quick buck thinking the club were far enough away from the drop to offset the blow of their two main attacking players departing the club. Wrong.

Grant McCann’s side have been muck in 2020. The 8-0 loss to Wigan Athletic summed it up. 7-0 down at the break. If it was a Rugby League game, fair enough.

The side were on a downward spiral and relegation was accepted with minimum of fuss. They can sack McCann but the club board are culpable in this mess. Hull City like Wigan Athletic know about struggling in the lower tier of English football, the cycle comes full circle. I don’t see Hull City coming back to the EFL Championship anytime soon.

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