Throughout the course of the 2012/13 season, it’s reasonable to suggest that the three East Midlands teams were all at one stage within the promotion mix. Nottingham Forest missed out on the play-offs by 1 point, Leicester City succumbed to a brutal counter-attack deep into injury time in their play-off second leg, whilst Derby County were a case in point of just how tight the Championship is, finishing 10th with 7 points from both relegation and 6th place. In this blog piece, I’ll evaluate each team and their chances of promotion in what is fast becoming one of the best leagues in the world (no hyperbole intended).
In some ways progression, in other ways more of the same. 10th spot is manager Nigel Clough’s highest league finish as Derby manager, and the general consensus amongst the coaching staff and Rams fans is that performances have improved since the 11/12 season’s 12th place finish. However, it is once again an extremely poor showing away from home which has cost Derby a concerted promotion challenge. Whilst winning 12 games at home (their best home record since the 06/07 promotion season), just 4 wins away equated to the third worst away record in the whole division; as Derby manager Clough has never won more than 7 games away from home in a season.
Derby fans still clamour for a Billy Sharp-style 20 goal a season striker, yet only Crystal Palace and Leicester City have scored more league goals at home this season. The statistics speak for themselves with regard to where Derby need to improve next season; 22 goals scored and 40 conceded on the road. Investment has been tight under Clough’s reign, with the now longest-serving manager in the Championship forced to sell Jason Shackell last season in order to finance moves for Player of the Year Richard Keogh and Michael Jacobs, but quality signings at centre-back, right wing and up front, along with the retention of key players such as John Brayford and Will Hughes, should make Derby strong contenders for the play-offs.
12/13 Player of the Year: Richard Keogh
12/13 Top goalscorer: Jamie Ward (12)
My 13/14 prediction: 11th. Significant investment of around £2-3 million could make a world of difference, but consistently poor away form in a fiercely competitive league has cost Derby moving up the table in the past, and if it is not addressed it is unlikely that next season will be much different.
One to watch: Will Hughes. The 17 year old chalked up a run of 37 consecutive appearances before injury in February halted his progress. Hughes was lauded not just for his mature displays but his flair, technique and skill, leading to rumours that Barcelona were preparing a dossier on him. Recently linked with a £10 million move to Manchester City, Hughes will be crucial both to Derby’s style of play and their promotion chances next season
Until Blackburn Rovers quickly took their mantle, Nottingham Forest were widely understood to be adhering to the Roman Abramovich model of managerial relations. After an impressive 4-2 Boxing Day win over Leeds United and just 1 point shy of the play-offs, Forest dispensed with Sean O’Driscoll’s services, curiously appointing Alex McLeish as his replacement. One month later, and McLeish quit after the Forest board had vetoed the transfer of Peterborough midfielder George Boyd after the play had apparently “failed an eye test”. Briefly a laughing stock, the appointment of former manager Billy Davies lead to an immediate upturn in fortunes, with Forest winning 6 games on the bounce and undefeated in 10 matches before a 3-0 defeat to Cardiff.
A last minute 3-2 defeat to play-off rivals Leicester City on the final game of the season (coupled with results elsewhere) meant that Forest finished 8th and 1 point outside of the play-offs. With the 11/12 season’s terrible showing aside, the Reds have been chasing promotion since 2009, finishing in the play-off spots in the 09/10 and 10/11 seasons. Significant investment is likely in the summer (with large portions of the squad on loan), although Forest’s wealthy owners may well be conscious of incoming Financial Fair Play regulations. Davies has developed somewhat of a habit of taking teams into the play-offs (with varying sizes of resources), doing the feat twice each with Preston and Forest, along with gaining promotion with Derby; it would be foolish to bet against them contending next season. Formidable home form in conjunction with ‘solid’ if unspectacular away form has always been a prominent feature of Davies’ track record, but will his abrasive personality and relations with board members (which lead in part to his sacking in 2011: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/13644012) end in tears once again?
12/13 Player of the Year: Chris Cohen
12/13 Top goalscorer: Billy Sharp (11)
My 13/14 prediction: 6th. Despite often suffering from a poor start and a limping end to the season, Davies has developed a winning habit at most of the teams he has managed, regularly chalking up impressive strings of victories on the bounce. A talented squad with more investment to come should see Forest challenging once again.
One to watch: Adlene Guedioura. Known for his play-making abilities and an eye for spectacular goals, Guedioura is popular amongst the Forest faithful. With Premier League pedigree for Wolverhampton Wanderers, his performances within a talented Forest midfield will be crucial to any promotion push next season.
Leicester City’s season epitomised the topsy-turvy nature of the Championship. Second place in the league in late January, they recorded just 1 win in 12 before clinching 6th spot on goal difference after a dramatic late 3-2 victory away at Nottingham Forest on the last day of the season. With Nigel Pearson back as manager, Leicester have at times this season been renowned for their solidity as well as impressive attacking displays. Like Forest, they have aimed for the Premier League since 2009 where they finished an impressive 5th in their first season after promotion from League 1. In between significant investment, play-off disappointment and high profile management (think Sven-Goran Eriksson), they have somewhat found their way again.
Leading 1-0 going into the second leg of their play-off match against Watford, their traumatic defeat has been well documented: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foznsHb39oY Yet more managerial upheaval will not help, with Nigel Pearson’s second tenure in charge rumoured to be under threat. The King Power Stadium remains a fortress (13 home wins this season and 46 goals), but with 6 wins away Leicester won 1 fewer on the road than relegated Peterborough and Wolves, highlighting room for improvement. Leicester also need to avoid the dreadful end to this season, which arguably sapped them of the kind of momentum which has benefitted the likes of Blackpool in recent years going into play-off campaigns.
12/13 Player of the Year: Wes Morgan
12/13 Top goalscorer: Nugent (16)
My 13/14 prediction: 8th. With strong teams coming down from the Premier League and up from League 1, Leicester’s promotion credentials are by no means assured. Sacking Pearson could lead to instability, and they will need to hope that Wood and Nugent can fire on a regular basis again. Expect them to challenge, but fall just short again in a competitive league.
One to watch: Chris Wood. Something of a footballing nomad despite aged just 21, Wood notched an impressive 11 goals in 19 Championship games on loan for Millwall before a permanent switch to the Foxes, where he scored 6 goals in his first 3 games before finishing the season on 11 goals. With a misfiring forward line to the end of the season, a return to the kind of form which lead to Wood’s signature for Leicester will be key next season.