Championship Season Review – Birmingham, Blackburn, Bolton, Brentford

Birmingham City: 10th

For the second year in a row, Birmingham City have finished 10th in the Championship, but the contrast between the two seasons is massive. In 2014-15 Gary Rowett took over a side that looked to be headed for relegation and galvanised them, whereas this time around they were very much in the play-off picture until fading away during the closing weeks as a strong home record deserted them.

At the beginning the aim was to stay clear of danger and maybe push for another top half finish, but it quickly became apparent that this was a side very difficult to beat having been built on strong defensive foundations. The signings of goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak and holding midfielder Mikael Kieftenbeld made them much tougher to break down.

A four-game winning streak into October saw the Blues move into the automatic promotion places and they spent much of the time until the turn of the year among the runners and riders at the top of the Championship, although consistency became harder to come by as the months progressed to the extent that a place in the play-offs was the best they could realistically hope for.

The loss of talented young winger Demarai Gray represented a setback during the January transfer window, and from then on results faltered with goals becoming increasingly difficult to come by. The team managed only three goals over the course of a nine-game period until the end of March and subsequent results such as defeats at home to high-flying Burnley and Brighton & Hove Albion left them playing catch-up.

In the end Birmingham failed to win any of their last six outings, ensuring that they finished 11 points off the top six. Money is tight, but improvements are needed in attacking areas if they are to stand any chance of progressing further next term.

Blackburn Rovers: 15th

After two years of unsuccessfully battling for a play-off place Blackburn took a sizeable step backwards in 2015-16, although they were badly handicapped by a transfer embargo along with mounting debts that have not been properly addressed by the club’s owners.

The relatively lengthy reign of manager Gary Bowyer finally came to an end following a disappointing start in which it took them until their eighth league outing to register their first victory, while they were beaten at home by League One side Shrewsbury Town in the first round of the Capital One Cup.

There were difficult circumstances for Bowyer to contend with, as the summer departure of prolific striker Rudy Gestede was exacerbated by Rovers’ inability to sign a notable replacement. Another regular scorer was to leave in January in the shape of Jordan Rhodes, so the team had its work cut out in terms of finding the back of the net. Danny Graham made an impact towards the end of the season in order to finish as their leading marksman with seven goals.

When Bowyer lost his job in November he was replaced by Paul Lambert, and the Scot soon guided them clear of danger by making a strong start to his tenure, only for an eight-game run without a win to drag them back towards the drop zone. From then on it was largely a story of inconsistency as they won their last two encounters in order to finish 15th.

By then Lambert had announced that he would be leaving due to a difference of opinion with the owners over the direction that the club should take. Blackburn have fallen a long way since leading a comfortable existence in the Premier League, and something major needs to happen if they are to reclaim their place there any time soon. Owen Coyle will be their new manager.

Bolton Wanderers: 24th (relegated)

It is sad to see a club like Bolton in such turmoil, but their failure to make the slightest recovery from suffering relegation from the Premier League in 2012 has sent them on a downward spiral which has shown no signs of stopping. Huge debts have been allowed to increase further, and although a consortium led by former striker Dean Holdsworth purchased the club in March, there is a considerable amount of work still to be done to bring their financial position back to a manageable level.

On the pitch it has been similarly dire, with the prospect of dropping down into League One appearing a virtual certainty from a very early stage. Manager Neil Lennon was left almost powerless as his side only won once before Christmas, as only their number of draws kept the Trotters in touch with their rivals at the bottom.

A lack of goals proved to be a huge problem as they formed an increasing reliance on young striker Zach Clough, who despite his obvious promise was far from ready for such a degree of responsibility. Veteran Emile Heskey was always a useful option, while Gary Madine was a player who looked totally devoid of confidence in front of goal.

Securing a long-awaited three points against local rivals Blackburn just before the turn of the year did not lead to an upturn in form and they were gradually getting cast adrift of safety. Lennon lost his job in March after a year and-a-half in charge, with coach Jimmy Phillips taking over until the end of the season.

His reign began with an embarrassing 6-0 loss at Bristol City and although performances did improve somewhat from there the results continued to go against them, and the inevitable demotion was confirmed on April 9 as they were well beaten at Derby County.

It is a grave period for everyone associated with Bolton as their team plunges further into crisis. It will be a struggle for them in the third tier next term, with fears rife that they could suffer the same fate as Lancashire rivals Blackpool and fail to arrest their alarming slide.

Brentford: 9th

It was a season that began in the wake of the controversial departure of boss Mark Warburton despite his many achievements, with the club dispensing with his services in order to put in place a new coaching setup that follows the European model of employing a Head Coach and a sporting director, as well as basing player recruitment around statistical analysis.

The first man to lead Brentford into this new era was Marinus Dijkhuizen, who certainly could not have been accused of a lack of enthusiasm, but results on the pitch were indifferent and he was soon shown the door. Owner Matthew Benham later admitted that appointing the Belgian had been ‘a mistake’.

After an impressive sequence of results under the guidance of Lee Carsley, Benham set his sights closer to home when naming a replacement, rewarding Dean Smith for the excellent job that he had continued to do at Walsall. He made a solid start as the club looked set to make a bid for a second successive season in the play-off, ending 2015 just a point shy of the top six following victory at Reading.

But then came a terrible run of results that persisted right up until the end of March, as the Bees suffered defeat after defeat – many of which were heavy – to leave Smith’s position in some doubt. Three goals or more were conceded against Burnley, Brighton & Hove Albion, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and Queens Park Rangers as they plummeted down the table, while further losses at the hands of lowly duo Rotherham United and Charlton Athletic also added to the concern.

But then April arrived and suddenly things changed for the better as they ended the season in blistering fashion, winning seven of their last nine matches to finish in ninth place and head into the summer with real momentum. There were 24 goals scored during that run, which coincided with the return of long-term injured striker Scott Hogan, who soon set about making up for lost time.

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