Championship season review – Ipswich, Leeds, Newcastle, Norwich

Ipswich Town: 16th

There is a very strong argument to suggest that Ipswich have overachieved during Mick McCarthy’s reign as manager, which has lasted since October 2012. Despite a continued lack of investment from the top, play-off challenges had been mounted in each of the previous three seasons, in which a very workmanlike squad probably achieved more than the sum of its parts.

Therefore, as few changes were made to the playing staff once again over the summer of 2016, it was reasonable to assume that standards could slip, and there was also the reality that standing still would inevitably see them get left behind by their rivals.

Yet the supporters are a demanding group who have become starved of Premier League football during a 15-year absence from the top-flight, which meant that these facts were often overlooked in favour of berating McCarthy over the course of what was, admittedly, a very underwhelming season where entertainment levels were at the lower end of the scale.

Four goals were scored in an opening weekend victory over newly promoted Barnsley, but that would be a misleading indication of how things would continue, as throughout the early months of the season goals were in a ridiculously short supply. Following that win over the Tykes, only three goals were scored in the next 11 league fixtures, giving way to a perennial mid-table battle.

Midfielder Tom Lawrence was brought in on loan from Leicester City and became the club’s most valuable player, almost single-handedly earning the team results and ensuring the club was never dragged into a full-blown relegation scrap. As inconsistent form continued, fears did occasionally rise of a slide into danger, but at those moments their battling qualities prevailed.

Despite that, plenty needs to change and money needs to spent if Ipswich are not to decline further in 2017-18.

Leeds United: 7th

The summer of 2016 provided yet more upheaval for Leeds, who after two seasons of instability and frequent managerial changes under the unique governance of Massimo Cellino, eventually appointed Garry Monk as their new manager. It seemed a very strong appointment, but few really expected a serious promotion challenge.

The start they had reflected such an assumption, with a dreadful opening weekend display at Queens Park Rangers marking the beginning of a run which saw them take just four points from their first six league outings. Monk was already under pressure at this stage due to Cellino’s infamous hire-and-fire policy, but three successive wins in September allowed him to gradually guide the club up the table.

Forward progress was maintained from then on, as the prolific Chris Wood filled his boots with his regular goalscoring exploits, but it was not until early November when they began to be seen as a force to be reckoned with. A 3-2 victory at Norwich City saw Leeds emerge as genuine contenders, and the good results continued into the New Year, including a run of five home wins without conceding.

A dominant performance against Derby County in mid-January had them eyeing an automatic promotion place, and although a shock FA Cup exit at the hands of non-league Sutton United instigated a brief wobble, their hopes were still alive by the end of March, which culminated in victory over second-placed Brighton & Hove Albion.

They were still looking up rather than down at this stage, and the mere thought of missing out on the play-offs was almost unthinkable. Yet their season would completely unravel during the month of April, where just one win from seven games, combined with the excellent form shown by Fulham, allowed them to be overtaken by their rivals and edged out by the Cottagers with a game to spare.

It was a massively disappointing end to a season which brought such promise, from a Leeds side that at times looked truly capable to bringing their top-flight exile to a close. It all ended on a sour note, which continued in the aftermath as Monk resigned following a change of ownership.

Newcastle United: 1st (promoted)

Following the upset of being relegated from the Premier League, Newcastle managed to pull off the biggest coup of the summer by convincing manager Rafael Benitez to stay and lead them back to the top-flight. The Spaniard was used to coaching at the very highest level, but showed great appreciation of the task in hand by recruiting wisely, swooping for goal-poacher Dwight Gayle and explosive midfielder Matt Ritchie among others.

Everyone expected the Magpies to coast to promotion, which brought a great deal of pressure, and initially they struggled to make their mark, losing the opening two matches at the hands of Fulham and Huddersfield Town. But they refused to panic, responding with five straight wins which saw only one goal conceded, ending with a 6-0 thrashing of Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road.

A dramatic success over Norwich City at the end of September began another imperious run of eight consecutive victories, which had them comfortably clear at the top of the table with 40 points from 17 outings, five clear of second-placed Brighton & Hove Albion and fully nine ahead of Reading in third.

Defeat at home by lowly Blackburn Rovers ended that remarkable sequence, and the festive period ahead would prove far from straightforward as defeat in the reverse fixture at Ewood Park at the beginning of January came as their fourth reverse in just over a month.

However, although Brighton were now matching them stride for stride in the race for top spot, they still managed to maintain a healthy lead over third place, and seemed to take a decisive step towards promotion over the space of week heading into March. Victory away to the Seagulls came thanks to two late goals, before a 3-1 success over Huddersfield and a draw at Reading widened the gap further with just 10 games to go.

But the ensuing weeks were far from faultless, casting some doubt over their title credentials but they were always far enough clear of the rest not to come under any undue pressure. An inconsistent April led them into a home meeting with Preston North End, which they won handsomely to ensure an immediate return to the Premier League, and the title was snatched from Brighton’s grasp on the final day. Success for Rafa.

Norwich City: 8th

Despite having just suffered relegation from the Premier League, not a lot changed at Norwich over the summer of 2016. The vast majority of the squad remained intact and very few additions were made during the transfer window, but expectations were high as the side from East Anglia looked to return to the top-flight at the first attempt once again.

The start they made was ideal, with a convincing opening weekend win over Blackburn Rovers beginning a run of just one defeat in nine games, with four successive victories coming off the back of a uncharacteristic 3-0 reverse at Birmingham City. The signs were immediately promising, as this was a side that contained great cutting edge, and plenty of nous after achieving promotion at this level in the past.

But matters began to go downhill in October, where a home defeat by Preston North End gave way to a shocking run of five straight defeats which saw them plummet from second in the table to eighth, some 11 points from the automatic promotion places. This sequence came very suddenly, but this time they would not be able to recover.

Although wins in December over Brentford and Aston Villa provided temporary respite, the downward spiral continued into the festive period, and their bemused manager Alex Neil – at a loss to explain the extent of his team’s slump – was now under severe pressure.

An upturn in form going into February gave the Canaries hope of restoring their promotion bid, but defeat away to Burton Albion and Sheffield Wednesday soon scuppered that, with Neil made to pay shortly afterwards as he was sacked after just over two years in charge.

Alan Irvine was installed as caretaker until the end of the season, but in spite of some good performances from then on, the play-offs were always too far beyond their reach, ensuring that it would go down as a season of disappointment at Carrow Road. Former Borussia Dortmund II boss Daniel Farke will lead the challenge in 2017-18.

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