Nottingham Forest: 21st
Yet again, there was a new manager in situ at Nottingham Forest heading into a new season, this time in the shape of Frenchman Philippe Montanier, whose aim was to arrest the club’s downward trend of recent years. It was an unforgiving role that was not made any easier by a lack of summer signings and discontent from the fans towards owner Fawaz Al Hasawi.
The team got off to a mixed start, and soon developed a Jekyll and Hyde tendency to win at home – where the opening two games were won 4-3, but fall to pieces on their travels. Their brightest light at the time was the promise of young midfielder Oliver Burke, whose decisive contributions were soon lost as he left for Bundesliga upstarts RB Leipzig for a massive £12.75m
That provoked the first bout of negativity and in turn a slump in results. A run of just one win in 10 games saw them slip to 20th by the end of October, and although three consecutive wins lifted them back up to mid-table in December, that would provide only temporary respite as a disappointing festive period made it appear that a relegation battle was on the horizon.
Although Montanier was well respected by the supporters, by mid-January he had reached the end of the road, so the club placed Gary Brazil in temporary charge. The ship was steadied somewhat during the ensuing weeks, but they could never find a level of consistency that would guide them away from the danger zone, and they were in a perilous position by the time Mark Warburton was appointed the new permanent manager in March.
Performances quickly improved, but the former Brentford and Rangers boss oversaw just one win in his first six games, leading to a battle with Blackburn Rovers to retain Championship status. Victory over Reading helped them remain in the driving seat going into the final day, where they managed to hold their nerve to defeat Ipswich Town in order to stay up through goal difference only.
Preston North End: 11th
Since being appointed manager in 2013, Simon Grayson has improved Preston’s fortunes year on year, lifting them from mid-table mediocrity in League One to becoming one of the more solid clubs in the Championship, and for a while in 2016-17 a place in the play-offs appeared to be a realistic target.
That was after they recovered from an uncharacteristically dismal start which comprised of six defeats from the opening eight games, the last of which was a 5-0 capitulation at Brentford. Such poor fortunes were a mystery to all, but a scruffy home win over Lancashire rivals Wigan Athletic seemed to inspire some confidence as a run of four wins in six lifted them all the way up to ninth.
The set-pieces of Paul Gallagher were proving a reliable route to goal, while big striker Jordan Hugill was beginning to make his mark as the focal point of their attack. With the exception of a heavy home defeat by Leeds United on Boxing Day, the remainder of 2016 was highly promising, and they continued to show that they were a match for anyone in the division, convincingly seeing off high-flying Brighton & Hove Albion at Deepdale.
An unbeaten February moved them to within just six points off the play-offs, but the first weekend of March would go a long way towards determining their fate. However, defeat at seventh-placed Fulham was a setback from which their hopes would never recover, and although heavy home wins were gained against Reading and Bristol City, the season would end poorly and result in a repeat of last year’s 11th placed finish.
There were still numerous positives, such as the performances of two January signings. After being rescued from the cold at Everton, winger Aiden McGeady was totally rejuvenated and produced some marvellous moments. Meanwhile, Grayson’s decision to take a chance on striker Tom Barkhuizen also paid dividends, with the former Morecambe chipping in with several goals over the second half of the season.
Queens Park Rangers: 18th
This was meant to be the season where progress was restored at QPR, where promising manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink laid the foundations for a tilt towards a return to the Premier League. Instead, the Dutchman was discarded in November and the club experienced several traumatic periods of form on their way to just about staving off the threat of relegation.
Five goals scored without reply in opening wins over Leeds United and Cardiff City hinted at a positive nine months ahead, but they proved to be a major false dawn as performance levels plummeted and goalscoring became a major issue. Conor Washington found it difficult to replicate his prolific form for Peterborough United, while summer signings failed to hit the ground running.
There were some games where the West London side simply carried next to no goal threat, and a run of just two wins in 12 games saw Hasselbaink lose his job in early November. That run had included a 6-0 mauling at home to Newcastle United, and latterly a footballing lesson from neighbours Brentford at Loftus Road.
Over a decade on since leaving QPR, former boss Ian Holloway was installed as Hasselbaink’s successor, although things would certainly get worse before they got better. An initial victory over the 10 men of Norwich City was followed by a demoralising run of six consecutive defeats, leaving them dangerously close to the bottom three.
Three wins in four going into the turn of the year halted the slide, but results remained patchy until February, where a more sustained period of improvement culminating in a 5-1 victory over Rotherham United, lifted them up to 15th and just a point off a place in the top half.
However, things would go dramatically downhill after the international break that followed, and another run of six straight defeats sent the sliding down the table again and still not mathematically safe with just two games to go. Fortunately, three points against fellow strugglers Nottingham Forest ended any concerns, but wholesale changes are needed for a shot at promotion next term.
Nobody knew what to expect from Reading in 2016-17. After two seasons of underachievement and transition at the top, former Manchester United and Ajax defender Jaap Stam was named as the club’s new manager in the summer, making them something of an unknown quantity. It was an arrival what would prove to be either a master stroke or a misguided mistake.
The early signs were fairly positive, and once a couple of poor away performances were cast aside they steadily climbed the table with great efficiency. Central to their success was a patient passing style, but they were also able to mix things up in the final third, where veteran striker Yann Kermorgant often reaped the benefits.
Four wins in five from late August had them among the early pace setters, and the run continued throughout the ensuing months, with a perfect record in November establishing them as genuine contenders, four points shy of the automatic promotion places in third.
This was not just a side that constantly showed itself to be capable of winning tight games, they were also the masters of recovery. Every time the team suffered a setback – and they did go down to some heavy defeats during the season including a 5-0 thrashing at Fulham and a 7-1 hammering by Norwich City, they responded in the ideal manner to sustain their challenge, showing extraordinary resilience.
A run of one win in five as winter turned to spring threatened to derail their hopes, but victory at fellow promotion hopefuls Sheffield Wednesday got them back on track and they were never subsequently in danger of missing out on a play-off place, which they had to settle for after failing to match the consistency of the top two.
Despite finishing third, the Royals were underdogs coming into their semi-final tie with free-scoring Fulham, but two resolute displays saw them move into the final 2-1 on aggregate, where they faced fellow surprise package Huddersfield Town.
It was a tight affair where neither team gave much away, but Reading struggled to create chances. It was destined for penalties, and at one stage in the shootout they seemed set for the Premier League and a huge financial windfall as they led by three kicks to one. However, it all went wrong as Liam Moore and Jordan Obita both missed, and they fell agonisingly at the final hurdle.