Championship Season Review – MK Dons, Nott’m For, Preston, QPR

Milton Keynes Dons: 23rd (relegated)

After knocking on the door for several seasons, MK Dons finally achieved promotion to the Championship in 2015, and having wiped the floor with many of the teams in the third tier it appeared as though they would have little trouble acclimatising to playing at the higher level.

Some key players departed over the summer, but their absence was not felt initially as a resounding win at Rotherham United on opening day was not long followed by victory at home to Bolton Wanderers. However, things began to unravel from the end of August as they went on a six-game losing streak in all competitions, including a 6-0 pummelling by Southampton in the Capital One Cup.

That was when alarm bells began to ring, and although wins began to arrive on a sporadic basis to allow Karl Robinson’s men to keep their heads narrowly above water, they were too often found wanting at both ends of the pitch as clean sheets proved rare and their sometimes gung-ho approach was capitalised upon by ruthless opponents.

Victory over Queens Park Rangers in early March had the Dons three points clear of the drop zone, but from then on they did not win a single game right up until the end of the season; an appalling sequence that coincided with Rotherham’s march to safety. It soon became apparent that they would be making an instant return to League One, and their fate was sealed by another heavy defeat on the penultimate weekend, this time by Brentford.

Manager of the club since the summer of 2010, Robinson frequently bemoaned the shortcomings of his players throughout the season and looks set to have to rebuild over the summer if he is to launch another serious bid for promotion.

Nottingham Forest: 16th

Weighed down by a transfer embargo and a squad limited in terms of attacking quality, there was relatively little in the way of optimism at the City Ground as the 2015-16 season began, and some tame performances in the early weeks did little to alter things in that regard. The setback of seeing star performer Michail Antonio poached by West Ham United late in the summer transfer window only added insult to injury.

Portuguese forward Nelson Oliveira added some top-level pedigree to the side, but wins were hard to come by at the beginning and they languished in 19th place when rivals Derby County visited in early November. Victory in that match kick-started a much improved run of form which, in the final reckoning, prevented them from being involved in a serious relegation battle.

It was a period which lasted right up until the beginning of February, with the team losing just once in 15 games in all competitions. The upturn in fortunes – which included a shock success at Middlesbrough – was largely thanks to solid defensive foundations and strong organisation, rather than enterprising attacking football, but it lifted the club as high as 10th place.

The bubble burst with a home defeat to Huddersfield Town and from then on, performances and results became increasingly desperate, leading to the sacking of manager Dougie Freedman after a run of five defeats in six. Coach Paul Williams took over until the end of the season and initially struggled to stem the tide, but two wins in the last three matches at least provided some respite.

From the outside looking in, Forest are a club that badly needs stability. The search for yet another manager is ongoing, but if they do not recruit well over the summer it could be difficult to maintain Championship status next time around.

Preston North End: 11th

They went somewhat under the radar, but Preston can be delighted how they performed throughout their first season in the second tier since 2010-11. Under the reliable stewardship of Simon Grayson they were resolute, compact and always competitive, tidily and efficiently ensuring a comfortable mid-table finish.

Partly due to a long-term injury for striker Jermaine Beckford, goals were hard to come by initially as only midfielder Daniel Johnson was chipping in with any degree of regularity. As a result they only managed one win before mid-October, where a convincing success over struggling Charlton Athletic  began an improved sequence of results.

And from then on they did not look back as they soared clear of the lower reaches to establish themselves firmly in the top half. Impressive wins over high-flyers Burnley and Hull City during December paved the way for an excellent start to 2016, peaking in February with a run of four successive victories.

Once again, that success was built on a strong defence, led by the impressive Tom Clarke and Bailey Wright. The Lilywhites were particularly successful in away matches as they pulled off a flurry of 2-1 wins, most notably over Lancashire rivals Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers.

Over the course of the season they managed to score three goals in a league match just once, so it is obvious where Preston must improve going into 2016-17. However, the club is heading in a positive direction and will set its sights on a play-off push in the year ahead.

Queens Park Rangers: 12th

It was left to Chris Ramsey to pick up the pieces following QPR’s relegation from the Premier League in May 2015, an unenviable task given the number of players tied to lucrative contracts, and the general feeling of instability that surrounded the club.

Given the manager’s job on a permanent basis despite overseeing the eventual demise from the top-flight, Ramsey’s first success was holding on to star man Charlie Austin throughout the duration of the transfer window, and the prolific striker was central to some over their early season successes, which included away wins at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Huddersfield Town.

But he was injured during a dismal display at Fulham which ended in a 4-0 loss, and from that point onwards Ramsey was living on borrowed time. He was shown the door following defeat at Derby County and, after achieving two wins during a four-game spell under the temporary watch of Neil Warnock, former Chelsea striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was appointed his successor.

The Dutchman earned the role after doing a tremendous job at Burton Albion, but got off to a difficult start at Loftus Road. It took nine attempts to collect a first victory as they won in style at Rotherham United, but Austin left in order to return to the Premier League, with replacement Conor Washington struggling to fill his boots.

The final months of the season was very much a case of maintaining a place in mid-table and securing a top half finish, but Hasselbaink did a good job in restoring continuity and addressing the poor home form of before Christmas. Although there were still off days such as a heavy defeat at Brighton & Hove Albion, the signs were that they are getting back on track.

In terms of star performers, young defender Grant Hall thrived, while summer signing Tjarron Chery racked up an impressive haul of goals. The experience of Karl Henry was also useful in the midfield and he looks set to stay for another year, unlike Robert Green and Clint Hill, who have both been released.

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