The Championship season ended with a whimper with Sheffield United the big winners in more ways than one…
At the start of Saturday, Sheffield United were not assured of a play-off place. Come the season’s conclusion, the Blades were five points inside the top six with a goal difference twice as good as that of seventh-placed Middlesbrough. It may have been an untypically drama-free final day of the Championship, but that suited Paul Heckingbottom’s side down to the ground.
When former Barnsley and Leeds boss Heckingbottom took charge at Bramall Lane in the first half of the season, the Blades looked likelier to face a second successive relegation than fight for an immediate return to the top flight. The hard part was turning a season of struggle under Slavisa Jokanovic into a campaign of joy, hope and excitement. That isn’t to say that winning the play-offs is easy, but United will fancy their chances of defeating first Nottingham Forest over two legs and then either one of Huddersfield or Luton at Wembley.
Performances like this 4-0 demolition of champions Fulham have been rather commonplace as the season progressed, and any more like it will give the South Yorkshire side every chance of joining the Cottagers back in the promised land of the Premier League. Four different goalscorers and four different assist-makers with three players landing on both sides of the goal-getting statistics made for pleasant reading too.
Like Sheffield United, a relatively drama-free lunchtime for Luton. Making a mockery of that 7-0 defeat to Fulham which left their play-off place looking precarious, the Hatters also finished with a five-point cushion to the dotted line. They could have lost 7-0 again and it wouldn’t have mattered thanks to defeats for fellow challengers Millwall and Middlesbrough, but this was as good a way as any to finish the regular season.
The goal was a gift from goalkeeper Orjan Nyland, but Harry Cornick’s snappiness to take the ball from the Norwegian’s feet and finish between the shot stopper – or lack thereof – and the near post still required work. Cornick’s metamorphosis into a dependent Championship marksman is far from the only individual improvement seen at Kenilworth Road this season but it is a big reason why Nathan Jones’ side deservedly finished a good distance inside the top six. Huddersfield will rightly fear their Bedfordshire opponents…
Huddersfield Town’s pole position
But Huddersfield also know they are going into the top-six battle in pole position of the four contenders. Hull City’s last-gasp equaliser at home to Nottingham Forest handed Huddersfield third place in the league and a home clash with Luton after a trip to Kenilworth Road as opposed to a double header with Yorkshire rivals Sheffield United.
Another special day in West Yorkshire for the Terriers was wrapped up with simplicity – the theme of this final second-tier weekend – first-half goals from Danny Ward and Harry Toffolo showcasing just how simple Carlos Corberan’s side had made their campaign for quite some time now. No drama. No fuss. No hassle, but plenty of hope for a promotion back to the Premier League after three seasons in the Championship. A first season in nine ending on positive goal difference will also be welcomed. There has undoubtedly been more cheer than misery in Kirklees in 2022/23.
Five goals in seven games for the left-back, Toffolo could write himself into Huddersfield folklore if he takes that form into the final potential three games of the season.
A more expected beneficiary of a stellar run of goalscoring form, but Kieffer Moore has at last come good after missing out on being in the goals for most of the season due to poor form and injuries with both Cardiff and Bournemouth. A second-half substitute for one of the few Championship games with anything riding on it, Moore’s late winner in midweek made this a drama-free afternoon for the Cherries.
That didn’t stop Moore from being the difference late on once more with his fourth late goal in the past three appearances to suggest he can help alleviate top scorer Dominic Solanke of some of the goalscoring burden in the Premier League next season. A shame about the manager though.
Preston’s Danish striker has gone under the radar for much of the season, but his double on the final day helped prevent Middlesbrough from ever looking capable of fighting for a spot in the top six while staking a claim of his own to fight for a spot in the top flight next season.
Thirteenth and 14th goals of the season took Riis to 19 goal involvements in a team who have all too often struggled for goals this campaign. This is the ruthlessness which Ryan Lowe will be hoping to see more of and bring to the fold himself next season.
Peterborough’s fond farewell
If ever a team summed up the belief that playing without pressure makes for better performances, already-relegated Peterborough seeing off Blackpool 5-0 in their final game as a Championship club for at least a year was overwhelming evidence of such. Perhaps the most complete performance of the Posh’s season means ending on a high and the London Road outfit will be hoping to carry some of that momentum into their League One season in 2022/23.
Tony Mowbray and Mark Warburton ending on a high
Each had been treated with more contempt and less respect than they deserved as their contract ran down and were being prepared to be let go respectively, but the good work that Blackburn boss Mowbray and QPR chief Warburton have brought to their clubs was on show on the final day with hard-fought victories against Birmingham and Swansea respectively. That is the least both men deserved. Wherever they end up next will be getting special managers who have out-performed many expectations. Blackburn and QPR will have their work cut out to make improvements in the dugout next season.
Well that is how you make a day less dramatic. One of only two teams who could add any jeopardy to proceedings on the final day, Middlesbrough were 2-0 down before the ‘as it stands’ tables make their customary first appearance of the final day. Chris Wilder’s side have been their own worst enemies at times during the business end of the season, albeit not scoring has more often been their fallback.
On the final day, conceding four goals to a Preston side who don’t make a habit of scoring bucketloads of goals showed just how far off the pace they really were. Because of results elsewhere, Boro could not have made the top six regardless, but this was a poor way to end a season which has concluded with such a bitter taste in the mouth. Wilder cast doubts that his future did lies at the Riverside in April, while performances have left a lot to be desired for some time now.
Some promotion-chasing clubs who just miss out on the final day use it as a springboard to push forward the following season. Instead, Middlesbrough have a boss who refuses to commit, finances that require promotion sooner rather than later and high wages spent on loanees who have provided no tangible benefit to the campaign. Where Middlesbrough go from here is undetermined, but looking down is looking likelier than up going into 2022/23.
Barnsley’s hard goodbye
West Brom’s lack of goals have cost them sorely on more than one occasion this season, but against Barnsley they felt at home finding the back of the net in perhaps the most promising performance and certainly the most wonderful result of Steve Bruce’s reign. For Barnsley, this was a sad goodbye at the end of a desolate season just 12 months after the momentous joy of reaching the play-offs.
Managerless and rudderless, the primary fear is that this was not yet Barnsley hitting rock bottom. There isn’t much else to say when there are so few silver linings to focus on. It’s going to be a summer of disconsolation for the Tykes and everyone connected to them. At this rate, the move to League One will not be a sojourn.
Nottingham Forest’s momentum
Barring the effective points deduction that was Chris Hughton’s seven games in charge this season, Nottingham Forest have been by far the second-best Championship team this term. It therefore feels odd to suggest that Steve Cooper’s side could be losers by any metric having gone from bottom to fourth under the former Swansea City head coach.
But losing in midweek in the winner-takes-almost-all tussle to Bournemouth was always going to have taken the wind out of Forest’s sails, and it showed for much of the final-day clash with Hull in which the only thing up for grabs was finishing either third or fourth. Having the home leg second was assured, but Hull’s last-gasp leveller meant one point from their final two games with late ache in either fixture going into the play-offs and playing much-fancied Sheffield United instead of dark horses Luton.
In the space of six days, Fulham have gone from winning 7-0 to being on the wrong end of a 4-0 scoreline. The 11-goal swing is a Championship record in consecutive fixtures and one of those wonderful occurrences which can only happen in the nonsense that is the final day. It will soon be forgotten when another case of champagne is collectively cracked open.
Blackpool’s end to the season
The worst performance of the season was saved for the last day of the season. Manager Neil Critchley echoed such a sentiment as Blackpool’s fantastic first campaign back in the Championship just half a decade after having hit rock bottom ended with the most pathetic of whimpers at Peterborough. If momentum means anything in football – and it almost certainly doesn’t over a three-month break – Blackpool are in trouble next year. Realistically, they know where they need to improve ahead of 2022/23. This was a bad day for Blackpool in a good season which had ended only a tad sourly. Sounds like every childhood trip to the sea I ever had.
A lack of Championship final-day drama
The Championship is renowned for its reputation as being one of, if not, the most entertaining division in the world. This season has been littered with typically great moments, but also overshadowed by points deductions and parachute payments at either end which meant much had been decided before gameday 46.
The final day was uncharacteristically without much in the way of jeopardy prior to kick-off, and that didn’t change once during the afternoon. The title was wrapped up, as was Bournemouth’s automatic promotion. The three relegation spots had long since been sewn up; just two of the four play-off places remained up for grabs. Sheffield United and Luton started the day in fifth and sixth and never once veered away from those positions. Hopefully the play-offs will provide more in the way of cheer and excitement.
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