2014/15 Championship Focus: 2013/14’s Playoff contenders.

The 2014/15 Football League Championship gets underway on Friday night, with Blackburn Rovers hosting relegated Cardiff City at Ewood Park. England’s second tier is a notoriously difficult league – Norwich City, Swansea City, and Southampton have proved exceptions to the rule in recent years but many clubs find themselves occupying a position in the Championship for many seasons.  Leicester City, Burnley, and Queens Park Rangers were the promoted class of 2013/14, and will participate in the Premier League this season, whilst Norwich City, Fulham, and Cardiff have dropped down to take their places.  The Championship isn’t so straightforward as to be able to make favourites of those sides with recent Premier League experience, or that of a Championship promotion challenge, but across these two articles The Redmen TV will take a look at those sides who dropped down last season and those who narrowly missed out via the Playoffs in May.

2014/15 will be Brighton and Hove Albion’s fourth successive season in the Championship, having taken the League One crown under Gus Poyet in 2011.  The Seagulls finished 10th in their return season and 4th in 2013, but Poyet was controversially dismissed following defeat in last season’s Playoff Semi Final to fierce rivals Crystal Palace.  Former Spanish midfielder, Óscar García was appointed ahead of 2013/14 but the south-coast side started the season poorly and sat 16th after thirteen matches, already 8 points adrift of their Playoff ambitions.  Fired by the goals of Argentine-forward, Leonardo Ulloa, the side found improved form and began to climb up the table – by spring they were well and truly back in Playoff contention.  Three successive defeats in late-March dented their chances, but they remained in touch and 16 points from their final eight matches saw Brighton and Hove Albion secure a 6th place finish – only on the final day, however, with a dramatic injury-time winner over Nottingham Forest enabling them to beat Reading to the final Playoff position.  Unfortunately for Albion supporters, the Playoffs would end in similar disappointment to the season before – a talented and impressive Derby County side secured a 6-2 aggregate victory on their way to their own heartbreaking day at Wembley.  Brighton’s García offered his resignation the following day – former-Liverpool captain Sami Hyypiä has since been appointed by chairman Tony Bloom, having been dismissed by Bayer Leverkusen towards the end of last season, and will be keen to deliver supporters the promotion to the Premier League that they have long-desired.

Derby County enjoyed Premier League football between 1996-2002, even finishing as high as 9th and 8th in 1998 and 1999, respectively – they’ve been ever-present in the second-tier since then, aside from their record-breaking 2007/08 campaign in which they set a Premier League-era low by recording just 11 points.  They’ve largely been a mid-table Championship side, but the Rams made gradual improvements under former-Red Nigel Clough between 2009-2013.  They were fancied for a decent run last year but, like Brighton, started poorly – Clough was dismissed following a disappointing run culminating in defeat to local rivals, Forest.   Former England manager Steve McLaren returned to Derby in the subsequent days – they sat 14th at the time of his appointment but their form picked up and, following a run of seven successive league victories during November and December, they became a genuine promotion hopeful during the remainder.  They battled hard with Queens Park Rangers in an ultimately futile attempt to catch runners-up Burnley.  The Rams were already reasonably comfortable with six games remaining, but 16 points from six matches guaranteed their Playoff position.  As described, Derby were assertive and dominant against Brighton but their Final would end in heartbreak – despite impressive during the first half and playing against QPR’s ten men for the final half-hour, McLaren’s side conceded a last minute goal to deny them the opportunity of extra time and possible penalties.  Considered genuine Championship contenders for 2014/15, Derby will be desperate to banish the demons of May.

Under Roberto Martinez, Wigan Athletic were regarded as survival specialists until last season.  The Latics were initially promoted as Championship runners-up in 2004/05 and secured a 10th place finish on their top-flight debut under Paul Jewell – a difficult relegation battle followed but 14th and 11th in 2008 and 2009, respectively, suggested that new boss Steve Bruce had steadied the ship.  His departure for Sunderland allowed lauded Swansea City boss, Martinez, to step up to the Premier League – the mid-table finishes ended but he gained a reputation from extracting the best out of his squad during thrilling late-season battles against the drop.  The Latics’ Premier League stay finally came to an end in 2013 but they had secured their first ever major trophy, beating Manchester City 1-0 in the FA Cup Final, just days previously.  Martinez joined Everton last season, with Owen Coyle taking the helm at the DW Stadium.  A poor start saw Wigan languishing in 14th during early December, costing Coyle his job – the highly-regarded Brentford manager, Uwe Rösler was appointed an oversaw a great improvement in form. Six successive victories during February and March pushed the Latics into the top six – they remained there until the season’s end. Drawing 0-0 after the first leg, Wigan’s early goal saw them lead QPR for much of the Playoff Semi Final second leg but a second-half penalty and an early extra time goal saw Rösler’s hard work undone at the penultimate hurdle – supporters will hope that they can take those extra steps towards promotion this season.

Ahead of the Championship kick-off this weekend, The Redmen TV spoke with Ady Packham, of Brighton and Hove Albion’s The Albion Roar, Barry Worthington, of Wigan Athletic’s Progress with Unity, and Ollie Wright, of the Rams’ Derby County Blog – thanks to all for providing their pre-season insights into these promotion hopefuls.

You endured playoff heartbreak last season – looking back at the campaign overall, did you end up better or worse than you feel deserved?

Ady: “Im not sure heartbreak is the right word. The fact that we even finished in the top 6 at all was a minor miracle. Injury wise ive never known a season like it but we managed to drift through the season and finish on a high. We had a tough January & lost Andrew Crofts to injury & then sold Liam Bridcutt & Ashley Barnes and never sufficiently replaced them. Anything we got out of the play offs was a bonus.

That said Leo Ulloas injury time goal at Forest to put us there was one of those moments that we all crave as football supporters and will live with us forever.”

Barry: “Our problem last season was the poor start that we made, people outside the club blamed the Europa League campaign, but in my opinion our participation in the competition had more of a positive impact than a negative one and the real reason was the man at the helm, Owen Coyle.

After four years of the fans being educate in football tactics and awareness under Roberto Martinez to suddenly fall back on a bawler and shouter on the touchline was a real eye opener, I am just surprised it took so long to make a change.

The impact Rösler made was immediate, we suddenly had tactics and we started to get fitter, we were 16th when he took over and looked out of touch for a playoff spot, but he transformed the squad and the belief was back, I am 100% certain that if he’d been in charge all season we would have gone up automatically.

Our FA cup semi defeat by Arsenal on penalties really took a lot out of the squad, we also lost our top defender Ivan Ramis in that game for the rest of the season, Rösler points to that game as one that effected us most during the run in for various reasons.

QPR were the worst side in the playoffs but under Redknapp they played tight constrictive football and it was no surprise that they went up winning by the odd goal in both ties.

To answer your question, following our disastrous start we probably got what we deserved on the season as a whole.”

Ollie:  “We deserved to be promoted, no question. We finished a clear third in the division, 13 points better than QPR, despite having spent untold millions less than them. Am I bitter? Oh, without a shadow of a doubt. We were excellent last season and until we get going and make a good start to this season, there will be a lingering sense of injustice.”

With just a week to go until the start of the season, how do you feel about your manager and the squad at his disposal?

Ady: “Its very difficult to say. The jury is most definitely still out on Sami Hyppia. He had a difficult time in Germany with Leverkusen & is seen as a bit of a gamble. Losing Leo Ulloa is a massive blow but if the £8 million we got for him is reinvested back into the team then we should be ok.

At the time of writing, now all of our transfer targets have come in but we released a lot of players this summer & there are massive gaps that need to be filled.”

Barry: “Extremely excited with Rösler in charge, he is a very focused manager, knows how he wants to play the game, but not afraid to change things around or listen to advice, he openly admits that prior to our FA cup quarter final win away at Man City he spoke to Martinez and altered our patterns and style slightly

He has been building a good squad over the summer, brought in Spanish striker Oriol Riera from Osasuna, 13 La Liga goals last season, he is a big lad and good in the air, the squad looks balanced with experience and youth all over the pitch, three excellent keepers, a top notch defence, the midfield looks as strong as ever and with the new striker up front playing alongside Callum McManaman you can see goals in the team.”

Ollie: “Steve McClaren did an outstanding job last season, after taking over from the former Liverpool striker Nigel Clough. A few loan signings – not least the outstanding Andre Wisdom – gave our campaign real impetus and we rocketed up the league pretty much as soon as McClaren arrived.

This summer’s business has mostly involved tying down our outstanding midfielders – Craig Bryson, Jeff Hendrick and alleged Liverpool target Will Hughes – to long contracts. Holding midfielder George Thorne was also prised out of WBA for a reported £2m – but promptly succumbed to a cruciate ligament injury.

With George in the side, I would have been a lot more confident than I am about our promotion credentials. He was the key man who made the rest of the team tick towards the end of last season. Hughes *might* be able to play the deeper lying role in our 4-3-3, but it isn’t his best position. You may be aware that if he gets the ball close enough to the opponents goal, his ability to see and deliver the killer pass is nothing short of eerie.

All in all, we have a lovely passing style and will probably batter a few opponents this season – the lingering doubt is whether we’re strong enough at the back to grind out results when the pretty football isn’t quite clicking.”

What about the ownership and off-pitch aspects of the club – are you in sufficient health to prepare for another promotion push?

Ady: “Off the pitch things are Blooming(sic). We have just opened a state of the art £30 million new training centre and have been given elite status which means our development squad will now be playing the likes of Arsenal & Villa rather than Bristol Rovers & Orient

We are seen as the flag bearers in the championship for FFP which many see as a blessing & a curse & off course its very difficult when your up against the relegated teams with parachute payments.

In Bloom we trust though. He is Brighton through and through.”

Barry: “We are still benefitting from the parachute payments, so we have a slightly larger budget than the majority of the Championship, though we are a club that never spends rashly and always has one eye on the future, Whelan maybe a lot of things, one that he definitely is and to the benefit of the club is shrewd. Most fans appreciate this and although we’d love to get back to the big league, we certainly wont be bursting the bank to do so.

Our CEO Jonathan Jackson is always at pains to stress that the future of the club is certain and that it will always be run with prudence, we understand that the ownership will remain in the Whelan family when big Dave passes it on.

Off the pitch the Community department at the club is doing wonderful things, always involved with lots of projects, not just football related ones either, they are a massive part of our town and make the club something that the communities of Wigan can be really proud of.”

Ollie: “Couldn’t be happier with the stewardship of the club. I’m fairly sure that we’re the only Championship-challenging side who have actually bothered to adhere to Financial Fair Play regulations and yet we are very competitive, partly due to good recruitment by Clough and McClaren, but also due to the emergence of Hendrick and Hughes from our academy system.

We underwent a long, difficult period of consolidation and cost-cutting under Nigel Clough’s management, which has now put the club on very solid foundations. It’s all good.”

What are your hopes and expectations for the coming season?

Ady:  “Obviously promotion but without knowing what the make up of our squad is going to be it difficult to make any solid predictions but I would certainly expect us to be top 6.”

Barry: “Expectations are for another exciting season, last season was fantastic but left us disappointed at the end, this time round we can hopefully go up automatically, we have been Champions of both League 2 and League 1, but only runners-up in the Championship, it would be great to rectify that this season and see us win the league – we can but dream.”

Ollie: “Play-offs minimum. After last season, anything less would be tough to take. However, automatic promotion is very difficult in the Championship, even for the strongest squads – we’ll need better luck than we’ve had already with Thorne if we’re to go one better than last time.”


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