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.
2013/14 was supposed to be so different for Norwich City supporters. The ten previous seasons had featured three promotions and two relegations, but a third successive Premier League campaign beckoned and the Canaries spent big to safeguard their position amongst the country’s top sides. Chris Hughton had replaced successive-promotion and top-flight-surviving Paul Lambert, who departed for Aston Villa, during the previous summer and, against the odds, guided Norwich to a twenty-year best 11th place finish – last summer’s group of significant signings were supposed to secure a third straight mid-table finish and guarantee the Canaries a bright future. The campaign began poorly, however, and Hughton’s side found themselves mired in the relegation zone after a miserable run to early November that saw them without a win in four. A slight upturn in form saw them avoid the drop-zone for much of the remainder and vital spring victories at home to Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland looked to have improved their likelihood of survival. With Hughton under increasing pressure throughout the season, a defeat to struggling West Bromwich Albion proved the final straw – he was dismissed and replaced by former-midfielder and youth manager, Neil Adams. Adams’ first game was considered crucial – a visit to fellow-strugglers Fulham which preceded games against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal. Norwich took just one point, back home from Stamford Bridge, from their final five and will hope that Adams has the know-how to guide them to better year and an immediate return in 2014/15.
Fulham’s thirteen-year stay in the Premier League came to an end last season during a frustrating campaign in which the club had three different managers. Martin Jol looked to be continuing the decent work done by Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes during previous seasons, delivering 9th and 12th place finishes in his first two campaigns. He lasted until only December in 2013/14, however, having taken just 10 points from the opening thirteen matches – leaving the Cottagers in 13th place. René Muelensteen was appointed to the managerial post but could only repeat Jol’s 10 from thirteen record before himself being dismissed in mid-February. Much travelled German Felix Magath was Muelensteen’s replacement and took 12 points from his twelve league matches in charge – the upturn in form gave Fulham a chance of survival with four matches to spare but they took just 2 points from their final four and their relegation was confirmed during the penultimate weekend of the season. Magath has overseen a comprehensive change in the composition of the Fulham squad this summer, with the entire 2010 Europa League Final squad now having departed. He appears to have the backing of both the board and the supporters of this seemingly well-run club and there will be high hopes that the Craven Cottage side can make a swift return to top-flight football.
Ahead of the Championship kick-off this weekend, The Redmen TV spoke with Gary Gowers, of the Canaries’ Norwich City – My Football Writer, and Russ Goldman, of Fulham’s Cottage Talk – thanks to all for providing their pre-season insights into these promotion hopefuls.
You endured the heartbreak of relegation last season – looking back at the campaign, what do you put that relegation down to?
Dean: “The relegation was down to a number of things. Vincent Tan’s meddling in the match day squad, off field problems, lack of quality in the squad and poor transfer activity. We were lacking an out and out striker for the best part of two seasons but neither OGS or Malky Mackay addressed these issues. It’s only after relegation that we’ve addressed this issue. So if you weigh up the drama surrounding the club, the managerial merry-go-round and the lack of quality in the team, they all contributed to our very timid one season stint in the Premier League.”
Gary: “How long have you got? There were reasons too numerous to mention to be honest, but at its core was a gent called Chris Hughton. The squad he assembled was, on paper at least, one of the strongest seen in these parts and was certainly the most costly. Alas when the paper turned to grass they were found wanting – big time! Big money signings such as Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Leroy Fer and Gary Hooper either flattered to deceive or were just undiluted rubbish. Of the new signings, only Martin Olsson turned into a bona fide success. The others had their moments, but they were fleeting.
And then there was the style of play – *style* is probably over-egging it a bit – which was about as negative and dour as it gets. A caution-first approach won few friends among the Yellow Army and when the results faltered he really had nowhere to go. His inactivity in the January transfer window was also a major factor in the ill-fated run-in; only Jonas Guttierez and Joseph Yobo were brought in at a time when the team desperately needed goals.
I’ll leave it there… I can feel the blood pressure rising again!”
Russ: “The foundation of being relegated started I feel when the former owner did not spend on Fulham in the January Transfer Window prior and replenish the losses of Mousa Dembele, and Clint Dempsey. I think at this time he was planning on selling, so Fulham suffered because of it.
Then, you had a new owner who had very little experience with the business of the EPL and last season would be a transition season regardless. He gave Martin Jol what he wanted in the transfer window but some of the players were older and just not playing at the same level they had when they were younger. Fulham were dealing with an older squad and everything unfortunately was working against them.”
With just days to go until the start of the season, how do you feel about your manager and the squad at his disposal?
Dean: “I wasn’t filled with confidence knowing OGS was still going to be in charge if I’m to be honest. He seemed too naive for me. I thought he was going to underestimate the championship campaign, which I’ve been proven wrong with. He’s aware of the difference in tempo and physicality of the league and knows what he needs to do to succeed. With regards to transfers, I still think we are lacking a left winger and a centre back. I think if he was to address this before the close of the window then we’d look pretty decent.”
Gary: “The jury is still out. The major rebuild that many predicted hasn’t happened and, as I write, only Robert Snodgrass and Ricky van Wolfswinkel of the ill-fated Class of 2014 have left the building – although Leroy Fer is expected to leave for QPR at any time. Three new faces have been brought in – two of them strikers – and much depends on the impact of the hangover of relegation. If – and it’s a big *if* – Neil Adams can get his troops off to a flyer then it’s not inconceivable we could have a good season, but a bad start and we could be in for a proper slog. I’m obviously hoping for the former – the squad should have enough to give it a good go – but fearing the latter.”
Russ: “I am extremely excited as I feel Fulham are starting over with almost an entirely new roster. Felix Magath brought in a mix of youth and experience, and I think Fulham are built to come right back up. There is no question that this roster is all Magath so if it works he will be a hero. Only time will tell if he succeeds but I am encouraged by what I have seen so far.”
What about the ownership and off-pitch aspects of the club – are you in sufficient health to prepare for a swift return?
Dean: “I’d say we have one of the best, if not the best squads in the league at the moment. Retaining most of the promotion heroes of 12/13 and adding further after our relegation. I just hope now that Tan gives OGS time and money to spend in January and not hit the panic alarm too soon should we hit a rough patch.”
Gary: “Off the field we’re certainly in decent shape. The club is now free of external debt and has cut its cloth accordingly to cope with life in the second tier – at least while still enjoying the benefits of parachute payments. And minus a billionaire benefactor – who are hardly queuing at the door – that’s precisely how it has to be.”
Russ: “The owner has shown his willingness to spend money, and give the manager what he needs to succeed. As stated earlier, Fulham are rebuilding a completely different team with new ideas of how Fulham should play on the pitch, and the makeup of the roster is very balanced between youth and experience. Fulham honestly should not only return but contend to win the league.”
What are your hopes and expectations for the coming season?
Dean: “With the calibre of squad and the names we have recruited, nothing less than promotion is acceptable. We have one of the best goalies in English football and a prolific strike force in Le Fondre and Macheda. Just a solid CB to partner Hudson and Cala and I think we should be aiming top 2 at least.”Gary: “Hopes – top two and automatic promotion.
Expectations – playoffs
Fears – mid-table mediocrity.”
Russ: “I do expect Fulham to be promoted, and honestly would not be shocked if they win the league. The least they should do is get into the playoffs but that would be a disappointment. They should get automatic promotion from coming in first or second, but only time will tell if I am right.”