Championship season review: Ipswich, Leeds, Leicester, Middlesbrough
If it were not for inconsistency, Mick McCarthy’s hard-working side could well have reached the play-offs in what was the East Anglian club’s best season for some time. The former Sunderland and Wolverhampton Wanderers boss built on the revival he initiated in 2012-13 by forming a new-look team that was not only much more competitive, but tougher to beat.
There will be some frustration that they were unable to capitalise on regular slip-ups from play-off rivals such as Reading, Nottingham Forest and Brighton & Hove Albion, particularly towards the end of the season. Results against the top clubs also suggested that there is work still to be done to turn Ipswich into a force to be reckoned with, as of the four main pace setters, Derby County were the only side they took points from.
Arguably the biggest reason why they fell short in the race for the play-offs was an injury to top scorer David McGoldrick, whose goals won games single-handedly on occasion. Daryl Murphy chipped in with a reasonable tally of 13, but a lack of goals from midfield proved detrimental.
With their strong home record and battling qualities, Ipswich have made great progress in such a short space of time under McCarthy, who is now just a couple of signings away from launching a significant attempt to lift Ipswich into the top-flight for the first time since 2002.
After a very promising start, Leeds ended the season full of disappointment, with a catastrophic festive period leading to a slide which left the club comfortably in the bottom half, a long way off the play-offs, which was their minimum target at the beginning of the season.
That manager Brian McDermott is still in charge is also something of a sensation, as the Whites underwent a turbulent change of ownership which took many twists and turns, before Italian Massimo Cellino was eventually allowed to buy a majority share in the club. He initially sacked McDermott, only for the former Reading boss to be reinstated in what looked a sorry state of affairs.
On the pitch, Leeds spent most of the first half of the season in and around the play-off places, and they were able to match the best sides in the division. Then came a disastrous losing streak from which they would never recover. The run would include an embarrassing FA Cup defeat to Rochdale and a 6-0 mauling at rivals Sheffield Wednesday.
Despite wins at Barnsley and Birmingham City, they ended the season in somewhat disappointing fashion, with a final resting place of 15th far from what had been envisaged at the start. The main bright spot was captain Ross McCormack, who unquestionably had the most consistent season of his career, scoring 28 goals to earn himself the Championship’s Golden Boot.
Across the whole of the Championship, nobody could match the incredible consistency of Leicester, who thrived on defensive solidity and attacking flair to earn 102 points and clinch promotion with plenty of time to spare. They are now back in the Premier League for the first time since 2004.
The achievement is all the more impressive considering the play-off heartbreak they suffered at Watford at the end of the previous season, when Troy Deeney’s dramatic late strike dashed their hopes of reaching the top-flight. Instead, it was clear that they had dusted themselves down and moved on once they came from behind to win at Middlesbrough on the opening day.
For the first half of the season, the Foxes were involved in a three-way battle for supremacy at the top of the Championship with Burnley and Queens Park Rangers and suffering the occasional defeat, but the goals of David Nugent, Jamie Vardy and January signing Riyad Mahrez guided them through a fantastic run of wins, which rendered their promotion an inevitability.
It was confirmed on the first weekend of April with a win over Sheffield Wednesday, and manager Nigel Pearson deserves credit for retaining faith in the squad which fell short in 2013. It was that continuity as well as a touch more quality and consistency which saw them finish nine points clear of the rest.
The beginning of the season on Teeside was simply a continuation of the end of the last, as Middlesbrough struggled so badly for wins under Tony Mowbray that his sacking seemed to be only a matter of time away. It came after a first half capitulation at struggling Barnsley in November, and Aitor Karanka, the former assistant to Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, emerged from nowhere to become his successor.
Under Karanka, there was considerable improvement; enough to suggest that Boro will finally make a serious challenge for a return to the Premier League next season. However, they lacked the overall consistency they needed to push for the play-offs this time around, with a lack of goals the main problem.
Defensively, few sides in the Championship proved tougher to break down, but in attack they often fell short, going on a club record run of seven games without scoring between the end of January and the beginning of March, although they would begin to score more freely in the final weeks when they had little to play for.
Looking ahead, there seems to be long-awaited good times ahead for Middlesbrough, as they are only a couple of signings away from becoming a side capable of challenging at the top. Karanka has proved over his five-month spell in charge that he is an able man for the job, and with Steve Gibson as chairman, he is certain to be given ample opportunity to succeed.
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