There is an old saying in football that ‘the table never lies’. But even for those well versed in football’s oldest clichés, this season’s final Championship rankings look like they’re telling a few fibs.
From the bottom up, it’s a table of statistical oddities. Peterborough, relegated on the final day after conceding two late goals against Crystal Palace, finished with a record-breaking 54 points for a relegated side. Only bottom-placed Bristol City lost more games than Middlesbrough, who only finished 16th.
And as Leeds’ Ross McCormack’s tame last minute chip squirmed apologetically through the arms of debutant Watford goalkeeper Jack Bonham at Vicarage Road on Saturday, the table committed its biggest deceit, with Hull City finishing second and gaining automatic promotion back to the Premier League. To many, it is an act of criminal subterfuge that this unfancied club in an unfashionable city with a squad lacking stars climbed back to the game’s summit, ahead of the flashier Watford, home to a wealth of flair players borrowed from Serie A.
But brace yourselves; they deserved it. There are undoubtedly some good teams in the Championship, many probably better than Hull at their peak. But such has been the tendency for clubs to fall over themselves and commit harikari, sabotaging their own promotion push before it even really started, Hull deserve a lot of credit. Middlesbrough burned out at Christmas, Leicester became cowed under pressure, and Bolton and Nottingham Forest left it too late. Hull simply delivered better than anyone else in the pack below them at one key and defining trait; consistency.
Despite having lost the pace and daring of match-winner Sone Aluko to injury back in the winter, Steve Bruce sustained their promotion push as all around them faltered. Gambling on George Boyd in a February loan move when Nottingham Forest declared him a liability due to faltering eyesight was astute; his craftiness and guile was key in dragging them out of a form slump. Boyd, although lacking true pace, has the technical ability to succeed in the Premier League.
Their feat is even more remarkable when you consider their dearth of forward talent. Their top scorer Robert Koren grabbed a mere nine goals, and the highest scoring out and out striker was Jay Simpson with seven. In their decider against Cardiff, winger-cum-fullback Robbie Brady was deployed upfront, keeping misfiring £2.6m Nick Proschwitz on the bench. His smartly taken goal was sandwiched by a sitter and a tame missed penalty, neatly encapsulating his first season struggles in the English game. Proschwitz’s strike was only his thirdof the campaign. An inability to score goals in the error riddled helter skelter of the Championship does not bode well for their Premier League ambitions, and Hull will undoubtedly require funds to strengthen in the summer, with adding some firepower undoubtedly their first priority.
But before all that, credit has to be given to Steve Bruce. Even on the last day of the season, Hull seemed an unlikely candidate for promotion, and they really were rank outsiders at the start of the season. In many ways, despite their consistent presence at the top end of the table, they almost crept under the radar. The media were fixated on the Watford story, the emergence of a stylish Brighton and the high-spending Leicester. Bruce has rescued a reputation which was tanking, epitomised when Wolves turned their noses up at him when searching for Mick McCarthy’s replacement. He will have allowed himself a wry smile at their differing fates since then.
He’s been well backed by enthusiastic and supportive owners, but Bruce has dealt cannily in the transfer market. He has returned to Sunderland to capture those frustrated by Martin O’Neill’s selection rigidity, and David Meyler and Ahmed Elmohamady have been key figures. Alongside Meyler, Stephen Quinn has buzzed energetically, and their reputation for hard-working performances has followed from this busy midfield engine room. Bruce seems to have developed a knack for attracting quality Egyptian players to clubs he manages, and this has continued with the loan captures of Gedo and Ahmed Fathy.
But, looking at the squad, it is difficult to find much evidence of a squad primed for the Premier League battle. Reading have suffered from proceeding too cautiously, whilst QPR have enjoyed the same fate despite a glut of dazzling purchases. Hull and Bruce will need to tread a fine line, but if the 2012/13 Championship season has taught us anything, it’s not to write Steve Bruce off, and to expect the unexpected.