Championship season review: Aston Villa, Barnsley, Birmingham, Blackburn

Aston Villa: 13th

After sinking from the Premier League without trace in 2015-16, a summer of transition inevitably ensued at Aston Villa as this illustrious club aimed to lift itself off the floor. Taken over by the Chinese businessman Tony Xia, former Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo was appointed the new manager and although a surprisingly high number of the existing squad remained, hefty sums of money were spent on strikers Ross McCormack and Jonathan Kodjia.

Expectations were high, but there was clearly a weak mentality within the squad which showed in terms of their early season results. Di Matteo lasted until only the beginning of October; shown the door following defeat at Preston North End, having won just one of his 12 games in charge in all competitions.

Lying in 19th place, they called upon a man who had achieved four promotions from the Championship to give them the lift they needed. Steve Bruce’s arrival did lead to a mini upturn in fortunes and a welcome succession of home wins, but by and large results remained patchy until January, where they were the most active club in the transfer window, swooping for Brentford striker Scott Hogan and Barnsley captain Sam Winnall among others.

Yet the overhaul coincided with a run of just one point from a possible 24, a period which put an end to any hopes of a play-off bid. Form improved from then on as Kodjia found the net with increasing regularity, but a general degree of inconsistency meant that they would finish in the bottom half. Bruce will undoubtedly be demanding a top six place at the very least next time around.

Barnsley: 14th

The calendar year of 2016 will forever live long in the memory for Barnsley. After completing a staggering rise up the League One table by winning promotion through the play-offs in a season that also saw them win the Football League Trophy, there was a considerable amount of momentum behind them as they returned to the second tier.

The one concern surrounding them was a lack of experience. Paul Heckingbottom was a given his first managerial role in the summer after his incredible achievements as caretaker, while the majority of the squad had never plied its trade at Championship level, but that did not seem to affect them in the early weeks.

Adopting an attack-minded style which used the width of the pitch at every opportunity, the Tykes proved adept at playing to their strengths, as star striker Sam Winnall thrived on the excellent service from the flanks. Conor Hourihane was a talismanic figure in midfield, too, as they banged in the goals during the early weeks, hitting four past Rotherham United and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Hopes of another play-off adventure were beginning to appear realistic as the good results continued, and on January 2 they were just four points off sixth following a late victory at Nottingham Forest.

However, the January transfer window would hit them hard, as many of their key players were snapped up by the Championship rivals. Winnall moved to nearby Sheffield Wednesday, while Hourihane moved to Aston Villa along with impressive young right-back James Bree.

And despite a series of battling performances, only two more wins were obtained after the beginning of February, although 14th place still represented a successful campaign. Heckingbottom faces an important summer in order for the side to regain the fine form of 2016.

Birmingham City: 19th

It often happens when new owners take a controlling stake in a football club, they stamp their mark by replacing the existing manager in an attempt to implement their long-term vision. Never has such a decision been so misguided than when Birmingham’s new Chinese custodians chose to dispense with the services of Gary Rowett back in December.

After taking over in October 2014 with the club looking like relegation certainties, Rowett defied the odds and built a reputation as one of English football’s most promising young managers by guiding the Blues to top-10 finishes in each of the last two seasons, and during the first few months of 2016-17 his team of battlers was again punching above its weight.

Indeed, when he was sacked – to widespread consternation – Birmingham were lying in seventh place and just a point off the play-off places. The glamorous name chosen as his replacement was Gianfranco Zola, and that abrupt change paved the way for an alarming slump in form which saw all talk of a potential promotion bid evaporate into genuine concern that they could be sucked towards the relegation zone.

Zola tried to alter the club’s style of play, but despite a couple of January signings and the goals of striker Lukas Jutkiewicz, the squad responded in a negative manner and the defeats kept on coming. As fears grew over the possibility of dropping out the division, the Italian – who had hinted at resignation more than once already – opted to walk away after achieving just two wins in 24 games in charge.

The club now found itself in a perilous position, so they issued an SOS call to Harry Redknapp, whose managerial career had seemed to be over. He had three games to save them, and after defeat at rivals Aston Villa to begin, he masterminded crucial victories over Huddersfield Town and Bristol City to ensure survival in nervy fashion on the final day. Redknapp has since signed a one-year contract to remain at St. Andrew’s.

Blackburn Rovers: 22nd (relegated)

At the outset, it was clear that all was not well at Blackburn. Previous manager Paul Lambert left the club in the summer of 2016 after finding himself at odds with their transfer policy, and he had been replaced by former Burnley and Bolton Wanderers boss Owen Coyle.

The former Republic of Ireland international was not a popular appointment with most fans, and not just due to his previous connections. The squad also looked woefully short, and the atmosphere around the club became even more toxic as the season began, as Rovers fell to heavy defeats against Norwich City and Wigan Athletic, barely putting up a fight in either encounter.

Yet slowly but surely, performances did start to improve, albeit not necessarily the league position. The arrivals of striking trio Danny Graham, Sam Gallagher and Marvin Emnes made them a much more potent force in attack, but wins remained too scarce in order to haul themselves out of the bottom three, where they would inhabit for the majority of the season.

Victory over Nottingham Forest in October did see them briefly lift their heads above the water, but such results remained infrequent and a poor December which yielded just two points from a possible 18 left them in serious trouble. The lack of a serious upturn in results eventually accounted for Coyle, who made way for Tony Mowbray in February.

Mowbray had an impact, immediately presiding over a six-match unbeaten run that raised genuine hope that they could pull off an escape. But as the teams around them miraculously began to pick up points on a regular basis, Blackburn were constantly forced to play catch-up, and they ended up needing a final day win at Brentford to give themselves any chance of survival.

They fulfilled their part of the deal, but wins for relegation rivals Nottingham Forest and Birmingham City meant that it counted for nothing, and that the club – under the ill-conceived leadership of Venky’s – will be in the third tier for the first time in 36 years.

Related posts

Leave a Comment