Championship Season Review – Brighton & HA, Bristol City, Burnley, Cardiff

Brighton & HA: 3rd

In almost any other season, 89 points would be more than enough to win automatic promotion, and comfortably at that. For that reason Brighton can consider themselves massively unlucky not to have secured top-flight football for the first time since 1983, with a second chance in the play-offs having also failed to deliver the status befitting of their stadium, facilities and their fan base.

There was clearly ability within a squad that had been added to by the signing of Israeli striker Tomer Hemed and left-back Gaetan Bong, but any optimism there may have been going into the season was of the guarded variety, following a disappointing 2014-15 which had seen them flirt with relegation.

As it turned out, the Seagulls were unbeatable in the early months of the season as Hemed began in promising fashion. They soared to the top of the league thanks to an admirable level of resilience, and although the wins gradually began to morph into draws they remained very much part of the shake-up towards the top of the Championship heading into the festive period.

Then came the first defeat, as Middlesbrough won in comprehensive style at the AMEX Stadium on December 20. This was the catalyst for a significant slump in form which led many to wonder whether they would remain in the reckoning, but after five defeats in six they suddenly turned things around in mid-January, beginning with a narrow success at Blackburn Rovers.

The signing of former Leicester City star Anthony Knockaert breathed new life into the side and with the exception of an off-day at Cardiff City, Chris Hughton’s men were imperious right up until the end, growing in confidence and adding goals to their game as automatic promotion became a three-horse race.

With Burnley going up with a game to spare, everything was riding on the final day as Brighton visited fellow hopefuls Middlesbrough, behind only due to an inferior goal difference. A 1-1 draw meant they missed out by the narrowest of margins, but Hughton embraced the challenge brought by the play-offs.

Facing a Sheffield Wednesday side that had finished some 15 points behind them in the regular season, they suffered terrible luck in the first leg, losing four players to injury as they suffered a 2-0 defeat. The attacking intent they showed in the second leg was impressive, but ultimately futile as it finished 1-1, condemning them to another season in the second tier. All the same, the achievements of 2015-16 will live long in the memory.

Bristol City: 18th

Winners of League One by a considerable margin in 2015, Bristol City were a club surrounded by positive vibes as the season began, with some believing that they could be dark horses for a play-off place. Manager Steve Cotterill had achieved great success by playing an expansive style of football, but for one reason or another, such promise was not matched by consistently strong results.

It became a recurring theme in autumn to hear Cotterill bemoaning his team’s bad luck in seeing positive performances fail to lead to a larger points haul. Almost every error seemed to be punished by clinical opponents, and so the season merely became a battle to avoid the drop despite the strong form of striker Jonathan Kodjia, one of the few arrivals of a frustrating summer transfer window.

Heavy away defeats at the hands of Rotherham United, Derby County and Burnley meant that the Robins began the New Year in the bottom three, and with results showing no signs of improvement Cotterill was sacked in mid-January. It was a moment of regret for supporters, who will never forget the manner in which his leadership saw the club dominate League One.

After an encouraging spell under John Pemberton that included securing a league double over high-flying Middlesbrough, former player Lee Johnson was installed as the new manager, following in the footsteps of his father Gary. He soon led them to an impressive sequence of away wins which lifted them clear of danger, and their safety was never in doubt following a 6-0 thrashing of Bolton Wanderers.

They are a team that have their off days, but Bristol City are a team very capable of achieving great things at Championship level if only if they can fulfil their potential. The aims will surely be loftier at Ashton Gate next term.

Burnley: 1st (promoted)

Although striker Danny Ings left along with two key members of their back four, Burnley managed to retain several of the squad that had represented them with great character in the Premier League. Sam Vokes was fit and firing again ready for a promotion push, but what really tipped the balance in their favour was the signings of the experienced Joey Barton, and prolific Brentford striker Andre Gray for £9m.

From the moment they arrived, Barton and Gray were critical performers for the Clarets, who initially could not match the consistency of their rivals and so were not in contention for a top two place until well into the second half of the season.

After no wins in three to begin, some suggested they might have been suffering something of a hangover, but four straight wins soon put those thoughts to rest, although as the weeks drifted by towards Christmas a large number of drawn matches halted their progress and a run of just one win in seven culminating in a Boxing Day defeat at Hull City left them clinging on to a play-off place.

But from then on they did not look back as Sean Dyche led the side to a 23-match unbeaten run which ran all the way to the end of the season. Spectacular performances at Milton Keynes Dons and Brentford were followed by a 4-1 home success over promotion rivals Derby County, which acted as a huge statement of intent to their rivals.

There were many key moments that sealed their triumph, but the ones that stand out are the two last-gasp equalisers from defender Michael Keane which earned valuable points against the other main contenders for a top two place, Brighton & Hove Albion and Middlesbrough.

As those sides were due to meet on the final day it meant Burnley were in the box seat, and they sealed the deal in their final home match with a nervy win over Queens Park Rangers. Five days later they made sure of the title, so they are back in the big time.

Cardiff City: 8th

Supporters of the club from the Welsh capital were never truly convinced by the management of Russell Slade, but he at least helped Cardiff make some progress in what turned out to be his only full season in charge. A play-off challenge was mounted and maintained right up until the penultimate weekend, but it was a lack of away wins and a regular goalscorer that eventually cost them.

Right from the beginning they looked like a difficult side to beat as a result of their defensive solidity, which led to a number of tight and low-scoring encounters. It took until December for the goals to start flowing as they floated around in the vicinity of the play-off places, scoring eight goals in gaining seven points in games against Bolton Wanderers, Sheffield Wednesday and Brentford.

Then followed a run of no wins in four before their best period of the season began in mid-January as the Bluebirds lost just once in seven matches, including away victories at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Huddersfield Town and Bristol City, along with a four-goal show against promotion hopefuls Brighton & Hove Albion. Inspired by long-serving Peter Whittingham and January signing Lex Immers, it was a result that came totally out of the blue and increased belief of a top-six finish.

As the season approached its business end, it became a two-way battle for the final play-off spot between themselves and Sheffield Wednesday. The intrigue was added to by the fact they met just a week before the end, and that clash came at Hillsborough with the Yorkshire side five points clear. Unfortunately for Cardiff, their opponents proved too good on the day as they lost 3-0, and they were even caught for seventh on the final day by Ipswich Town.

By then it had already been announced that Slade would be removed from his role as manager, but will stay at the club to take on the new post of Head of Football. The new Head Coach is former Bristol Rovers boss Paul Trollope, who will have to get off to a good start next term in order to appease those fans questioning his appointment. A new striker is badly needed.

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