Championship season review – Cardiff, Derby, Fulham, Huddersfield

Cardiff City: 12th

Few managers thrive in the Championship more than Neil Warnock. Taking over at Cardiff in October with the club seemingly headed for a serious fight to stay in the division, he drew upon his vast experience to lift them well clear of danger and an eventual top half finish, an achievement which looked way beyond them at the outset.

With previous boss Russell Slade having been moved aside in the summer and then choosing to leave his new role as Head of Football, Paul Trollope led the Bluebirds into 2016-17 in what was his first managerial role since leaving Bristol Rovers in 2010. He had been part of the Wales coaching setup during their run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, but this move never looked set to pay off.

A chronic shortage of goals was the main issue, as Cardiff failed to score in eight of their opening 12 games in all competitions, winning just twice. Trollope immediately came under severe pressure as the team continued to fire blanks and regularly lack a serious goal threat, and the final straw came when they lost tamely at Burton Albion.

Warnock was instantly summoned to weave the kind of magic that had seen him lift Rotherham United out of a desperate position the previous season, and with the help of new signings such as Sol Bamba and Junior Hoilett, he had an effect straight away as seven points from the first three games lifted them out of the drop zone.

Goals were now beginning to come slightly easier although results stayed inconsistent for some time, but a strong start to 2017 including wins over Aston Villa and Bristol City meant that they were looking up rather than down, with striker Kenneth Zohore proving his worth.

Three consecutive wins in February had them jostling for a top half spot, and it would remain that way right up until the end of the season when 12th place was secured with maximum points away to 10-man Huddersfield Town.

Derby County: 9th

Another eventful season at Derby, which was presided over by three separate managers and turned out to be another one of considerable underachievement. This is a club with the backing, the fan base and the squad (on paper at least) to justify expectations of winning promotion to the Premier League, but that never looked capable as frustration and a lack of fulfilment proved to be the overriding emotions.

It seems a long time ago now, but the Head Coach at the beginning of the season was Nigel Pearson, who seemed to be the perfect man to guide them back into the top-flight, but instead his tenure could only be described as an unmitigated disaster. Positive results – and indeed goals – were scarce during the early weeks, and behind the scenes there was clearly something wrong.

Pearson was placed on gardening leave in September and soon saw his contract terminated, making way for the surprise return of Steve McClaren, who had been sacked in 2015 after overseeing a dramatic end-of-season collapse away from play-off contention.

The former England boss soon managed to guide the Rams steadily up the Championship table, with a fine sequence of seven straight wins from the beginning of November lifting them to fifth place and looking set to sustain a challenge. Goalscoring was still something of an issue, but a fine defensive record more than compensated.

However, following the turn of the year they faded again, with defeats away to Norwich City and Leeds United clearly hinting at an unsavoury mentality within the squad. A winless February saw them slide to 11th position and some 10 points off the play-off places, effectively ending any hopes of promotion for another season.

McClaren’s future was now looking precarious, and trigger-happy chairman Mel Morris ran out of patience following defeat at Brighton & Hove Albion on March 10. That signalled the appointment of Gary Rowett, one of the most highly regarded young managers in the English game. There were glimpses of promise in the closing weeks as Derby finished ninth, but Rowett’s arrival suggests progress should soon be made.

Fulham: 6th

Despite possessing a squad full of potential and a very good manager in Slavisa Jokanovic, few pundits earmarked Fulham as possible promotion contenders at the beginning of the season, but a gradual build-up of momentum combined with one of the most attractive brands of football the EFL has to offer saw them prove the doubters wrong.

Coming into their opening match against title favourites Newcastle United, many felt a tough season lay in wait as the squad appeared somewhat light in key areas, but the Cottagers upset the odds that evening by winning by a goal to nil, a result which paved the way for an impressive start as they lost just one of their first eight games.

Exciting new signings such as Stefan Johansen and Neeskens Kebano saw optimism levels increase, while Tom Cairney was a constant threat to opponents in an attacking midfield role. However, the biggest improvement came in defence, where – although still prone to the occasional relapse – Jokanovic had successfully tightened things up after three seasons where lessons had not been learned.

The strong start did not last for ever, and they slid to mid-table after two penalties were missed on their way to defeat at home to Queens Park Rangers, but the response was good, and when truly on song no other side in the Championship could live with them. High-flying Huddersfield Town and Reading were both thumped 5-0 in West London.

As the campaign wore on, they continually looked like dark horses for a play-off place until it became a case of when, rather than if they would break into the top six. After a few weeks of jostling for position, they finally nailed down a spot at the expense of Leeds United, ensuring a rematch with Reading.

Unlike the aforementioned league encounter, both legs were very closely-fought, and this time it was the Royals who emerged on top by a 2-1 aggregate scoreline following a gripping tie. Although they missed out, Fulham can be very optimistic about their chances of returning to the top-flight in the near future.

Huddersfield Town: 5th (promoted via play-offs)

After being appointed in October 2015, it was difficult not be impressed by David Wagner. He came across as a charismatic, forward-thinking coach who seemed to provide hope that the club’s days of competing in the lower reaches of the Championship would soon be at an end.

But despite some brief glimpses of promise during the latter months of 2015-16, there was no indication that a sustained promotion challenge would be on the immediate horizon. Nobody remotely considered them as realistic hopefuls, but Wagner defied those modest expectations and went considerably further by taking the unfashionable Terriers all the way to the Premier League in remarkable style.

The key to their success was a high energy possession game mixed with constant pressing; Wagner echoing the tactics of his great friend Jurgen Klopp. It had an instant effect, as Huddersfield were the quickest side out of the blocks, topping the Championship with five wins in their first six outings including successes at Newcastle United and Leeds United.

Goals were never simple to come by, but an undying ability to win tight games served them well, although a dip in form did arrive during the autumn, as five defeats in seven games resulted in the club dropping outside the play-off places for the only time throughout the season.

A superb turnaround leading into the festive period and beyond had them back in business and in the automatic promotion race, with a run of six straight victories moving them to within four points of second-placed Brighton & Hove Albion by the end of February.

It was a challenge that was maintained until the closing weeks of the season, but some disappointing results saw them have to settle for the play-offs, where penalty shootouts served them well. They came through following a 1-1 draw with Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-finals, to book a place at Wembley against Reading.

The final was tight and neither side gave anything away, but Huddersfield shaded a goalless encounter before coming through 4-3 on penalties, completing an incredible campaign and ensuring top-flight football for the first time in 45 years.

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