Championship review: Millwall & Watford eye promotion to top flight
With the season already beyond the half way stage, James Pozzi brings us part two of his Championship review
Derby County – B
This season has showcased the great strides made by Derby under their manager Nigel Clough, who has patiently assembled an exciting and combative young team, led by 17-year-old midfield starlet Will Hughes, perhaps the hottest property in the division. Currently in tenth and just three points from the playoffs, Derby could once again falter and finish in mid-table once again, but the signs of a club on the up are there for all to see and heading into January, it has been a solid season for the Rams.
Huddersfield Town – C
Since buying his hometown club four years ago, Dean Hoyle has transformed the Terriers from League One also-rans into a Championship side. But it is clear his ambition doesn’t stop at just this. Since bringing in Simon Grayson last season, the spending has continued. Names such as Jermaine Beckford, Anthony Gerrard, James Vaughan and Adam Clayton have arrived to take the club forward. Like most newly-promoted sides, Huddersfield remain frustratingly inconsistent and ship far too many goals, highlighted by their conceding of ten in the last five games. While a slide down the table considering the money spent has alarmed fans, the know-how of manager Grayson will be enough to see they stay in the division. Pushing on next season is imperative.
Hull City – A
Upon joining the club last summer as the new manager, Steve Bruce was a man with a point to prove. Having been sacked just months before after a disappointing spell at Sunderland, there was a real sense of make or break for the Geordie. Yet past half way, his Hull side are currently second in the table, looking a sure fire bet for the playoffs at the very least. Heavily backed the Allam family’s money, Bruce’s signings – particularly those of loanees turned permanents such as David Meyler and Robbie Brady – are playing brilliantly, and have age and potential on their side to improve further. While the ambitious owners announced in pre-season that they were looking at a playoff berth, even they probably wouldn’t have expected such rapid progress. Much to be excited about.
Ipswich Town – D
As chairman Marcus Evans tightened the purse strings last summer, then manager Paul Jewell resorted to the loan market, bringing in no fewer than eight players. This proved a hazardous route to take, as a disjointed and out-of-sorts Ipswich found themselves bottom of the league upon dismissing Jewell last October. Ex-Republic of Ireland and Wolves boss Mick McCarthy has since taken the helm and managed to revive the Tractor Boys, taking them out of the relegation zone and now five points clear of the drop. Going by pre-season expectations and the hope of turning around last season’s disappointment, Ipswich have failed to live up to expectations. However, considering the disarray the club found itself in before McCarthy arrived, just staying up will be a good achievement for the Tractor Boys. The jury remains out for now.
Leeds United – C+
After promising so much last summer, manager Neil Warnock has faced the harsh realities of managing Leeds United, a club distracted by an on-going takeover which finally resolved itself last month. Despite working with little resources, the veteran boss still finds himself with a talented squad weighed down by inconsistency. If funds are available from the new owners, then how Warnock spends them could make or break the west Yorkshire club’s season. For now, it’s a case of must do better.
Leicester City – B-
Like promotion rivals Cardiff, Leicester have also had the good fortune of Far Eastern investment – but from Thailand. Having heavily backed manager Nigel Pearson in the summer, Leicester find themselves in the playoffs – perhaps the very least expected – but have begun to falter somewhat in the last month. However, the backing could prove crucial, as the Foxes stole a march on their rivals to get the signature of West Bromwich Albion’s Kiwi striker Chris Wood, who has enjoyed a successful loan spell at Millwall this term. After scoring a double on his debut to help demolish Huddersfield 6-1, Leicester are currently in fifth yet find themselves with it all to do if they are to reach the pre-season goal of automatic promotion. Improvement needed.
Middlesbrough – B+
Having spent three years out of the top flight and now missing out on lucrative parachute payments, manager Tony Mowbray has formed an exciting team combining astute signings with talented young players. Chelsea loanee Josh McEachran has been particularly influential in Mowbray’s midfield, and now Middlesbrough find themselves fourth and just two points from the automatic slots. Returning old boy Jonathan Woodgate has shored up the defence, while the goals of Marvin Emnes and Scott McDonald have carried the side forward. Although the fans would have expected progress this season after last year’s mid-table finish, the nature of Middlesbrough’s ascent up the table has surpassed expectations.
Millwall – A-
Kenny Jackett’s side have been one of this season’s overachievers. Currently lying just outside the playoffs in seventh, their season has been defined by a club record 13-game winning run. In a squad that has little in the way of big names but everything in terms of commitment, the midfield dynamism of Liam Trotter has been particularly consistent and effective. But Millwall must now find a way to fill the void left by star man Wood, whose successful loan spell ended last month before being sold by parent club West Brom to division rivals Leicester. A top-half finish would be a fine achievement for the Lions this term, but considering where they find themselves after the half way stage, a playoff finish is a now a legitimate and reasonable target.
Nottingham Forest – C
After investing heavily last summer, the two-time European Cup winners were a lot of the bookies’ favourites for promotion this term. But things have not worked out to plan, and a 4-2 Boxing Day win over Leeds was not enough to save Sean O’Driscoll’s job. Alex Mcleish has since came in, and he’ll need to get results quickly if he is to push his side up the table. 11th place for a team that spent nearly £6m last summer is a poor return.
Peterborough – C
With relegation avoided at London Road last season, it looked from day one to be another season of struggle for Darren Ferguson’s men. Having lost key striker Paul Taylor to Ipswich and with other influential man George Boyd looking set to leave on a free transfer this month, an air of uncertainty engulfs the club. But credit is due. The Posh looked doomed in the opening month, having lost every one of their first seven games. And yet Ferguson has sparked a mini revival, giving Peterborough a genuine chance of once again avoiding the drop. Staying in the league would be a fine achievement.
Sheffield Wednesday – C-
As one of the division’s biggest and most famous clubs, Sheffield Wednesday – promoted from League One wilderness last season – looked like a club on the verge of finally moving forward. Now under the boardroom stewardship of Milan Mandaric, mastermind of the rise of Portsmouth, fans had hope of making noises in the league this season. But the Owls have instead encountered a season of struggle under manager Dave Jones, culminating in a recent seven-game losing run. Mandaric, who invests heavily but is also notoriously trigger happy with his managers, has so far stuck with Jones. For most clubs in their first season back up, staying in the division is the priority. But for a club with the history, tradition and backing of Wednesday, this term has proved bitterly disappointing.
Watford – A
After a summer takeover by the Pozzo family – owners of Italian Serie A club Udinese – Watford find themselves a club rejuvenated. Having made their first task appointing Gianfranco Zola, who utilised the links between the clubs by bringing in a number of players on loan from Udinese, the family’s steady investment looks to be paying dividends. The Hornets lie in sixth place and their fans are refreshingly looking at the table for the first time in a number of years without any looming threat of relegation. They can safely be labelled the Championship’s surprise package after what has so far been an excellent season.
Wolverhampton Wanderers – F
Desperate for new ideas following last season’s relegation from the Premier League, Wolves turned to Norwegian Staal Solbakken for inspiration in bouncing back, but only eight months later, dismissed the Scandinavian after just three wins in the last 17 games. Solbakken wanted to implement a footballing philosophy at Molineux, but his players – undoubtedly one of the division’s finest squads – struggled to adapt. Although difficult for teams carrying forward a losing mentality from relegation, a squad containing the likes of Kevin Doyle, Jamie O’Hara, Roger Johnson and Bakary Sako should not find itself threatened by relegation. With Dean Saunders rumoured to be the man to come in, the job presents an uphill task for anyone to salvage what could have been a much stronger season. The league’s biggest underachievers.