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Championship Promotion Race: In Their Own Words - Part Two

Yesterday, we spoke to bloggers from clubs in the top six of the Championship - today we've grilled their counterparts from the chasing pack.

Aston Villa v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

For answers from Brighton, Newcastle United, Huddersfield Town, Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday fans, you can find part one of Championship Promotion Race: In Their Own Words here.

Derby County, 7th, Ollie Wright, @DerbyCountyBlog

Steve McClaren returned to the club this season after a failed promotion campaign a few seasons ago - what did Derby fans make of his appointment?

Initial bemusement swiftly turned to relief as things rapidly got back to normal, following a dreadful year of turmoil and underachievement. McClaren simply reverted to the 4-3-3 system which made Derby good in the first place and, hey presto, Derby were good again. The boat was seriously rocking, but has been steadied. Now we can look ahead with optimism again.

In terms of your comment about the failed promotion campaign - the main reason for that was injuries to key players, although McClaren's dalliance with Newcastle United was certainly another destabilising factor. All is forgiven now.

You have a few former Royals on your books at the moment - how are Alex Pearce, Matej Vydra and Nick Blackman getting on at the iPro?

Pearce has done very well this season and became first choice centre back alongside Richard Keogh, after the very capable Jason Shackell suffered an injury. Everyone has been very impressed by his application and positive attitude.

Blackman, on the other hand, has endured something of a nightmare spell at Derby. He has never looked capable of improving the team, either up-front or wide and is currently out injured. Steve McClaren did make encouraging noises about his performances in training in recent weeks and he would probably have been handed an opportunity over the festive period, had he not succumbed to another niggle.

Vydra was Nigel Pearson's big signing and presumably the reason for sanctioning the bizarre loan departure of Chris Martin. Unfortunately, it's fair to say that it has not happened for him. With Pearson gone and 4-4-2 a thing of the past, Vydra became McClaren's second choice behind Darren Bent as the lone striker. Now that David Nugent has arrived, Vydra is at risk of dropping even further down the pecking order, unless he can adapt his game to play wide.

In short, Vydra and Blackman are symptomatic of the managerial turmoil Derby have experienced in recent seasons, with both signed under a manager who would soon be gone. They might be decent players, but neither is an obvious fit for McClaren's preferred system and their future at the club looks in doubt.

What (if anything) needs to be done to strengthen the team in January?

A new striker to play the 'Chris Martin' target man role was the key priority - Fulham's Chris Martin would be an ideal candidate, but in his continuing absence, Nugent was recruited for around £2m. There's no doubt that Nugent fits the bill short-term (although the awarding of a two-and-a-half year contract to a 31-year old was a classic Mac move.)

The next target is likely to be a wide forward, to put more pressure on Tom Ince and especially Johnny Russell. Andi Weimann has been unable to force his way into contention and unless Abdoul Camara can build on an encouraging performance in the FA Cup at West Brom, an additional option will be required.

What have you made of Reading under Jaap Stam?

Like everyone else, very impressed with their purist, possession-based style. I always enjoyed Derby's status as one of the division's main ballhogs in McClaren's last spell and under Clement and personally, I believe that's the best way to play the game (which is why I will never quite take to the cumbersome Bradley Johnson).

I'm really intrigued about the forthcoming game at Pride Park, which will be a great test of both sides' true promotion credentials.

Where do you think you'll finish come May?

If we can add one or two more quality attacking options - ideally Martin and a wide player - I'm confident that we can finish in the top six.

***

Barnsley, 8th, Ian Wilkinson, @OnThePontyEnd

You've shot up from the bottom of League One in December 2015 to the edges of the Championship Playoffs now - what's been the secret to your success?

It would be impossible to single out one particular aspect. However it would be fair to say that around the end of the 2014/15 season and beginning of the 2015/16 season, the management and hierarchy laid out a very specific plan. This was based on creating a specific style of play and this was partnered with a recruitment policy to identify specific young talent from within our academy and the wider football league who could deliver it. Everybody knows their role and responsibilities in ensuring this plan is successful.

Conor Hourihane has won plenty of praise this season - how important has he been for the Tykes?

It’s evident from the statistics that Hourihane has been very important. His eleven assists so far this season have put him at the very top of the charts in the Championship. According to WhoScored.com, he’s their highest rated player in the whole of the division. He’s our Captain and is adored by the Oakwell faithful, but we’re by no means a one man team.

What (if anything) needs to be done to strengthen the team in January?

Retaining our key players would be a success in January, like Hourihane, Winnall, Bree and Roberts to name just a few. We have a small squad and this appears to work well for us. We have faith in the plan and might only expect one or two new faces in this window.

What have you made of Reading under Jaap Stam?

Very impressed. Reading were very difficult to play against, even with they only had ten men on the pitch at Oakwell. They seem to be a determined bunch, as they also demonstrated recently at Ashton Gate. At two nil down on seventy minutes, to winners at full time (after three goals in reply). Any side who contributes to piling more pressure on Lee Johnson are likely to be admired in this neck of the woods.

Where do you think you'll finish come May?

Top 10, but would not be surprised to see us competing for and sneaking into a play-off position.

***

Norwich City, 9th, Gary Gowers, @Gary_Gowers

Alex Neil has come under a lot of pressure in recent weeks, with some fans calling for him to go. Is it time for a change in manager?

Yes, in my view it is, albeit they produced their best performance of the season when beating Derby 3-0. But 2016 was grim - Alex Neil admitted as much - and there has been little evidence to suggest he's even going to take us to the play-offs. A decent guy who did well for his first five months but a disastrous run at the end of the year was, for me, the final straw.

(Watch him lead us to an unbeaten run now!).

Norwich are finding life back in the Championship tough this season - did Canaries' fans expect that, or is there a feeling that the side should be much higher up the table?

We expected better but after a good start that took us to the top of the table the wheels fell off - big time. It's a quite talented squad but one that's ageing and lacking badly in cojones and we're mid table because that's exactly where we deserve to be.

What - if anything - needs to be done in January?

In truth who we offload is as important as who we sign. We have a few big earners who see their rightful place as the Prem and who can pee off there as soon as possible. The sense of entitlement of some has been astounding and quite frankly we're a better side without them in it, and if we're able to offload we'll free up some wages and get in a decent fee or two. How we spend that money will be important, and we need strengthening at both extremities of the pitch, but our track record in identifying a 'good fit' is atrocious.

What have you made of Reading under Jaap Stam?

Judging by the way you dispatched us with the minimum of fuss I reckon you're a decent shout for the play-offs. Looking ahead your biggest challenge will be keeping hold of Stam.

Where do you think you'll finish come May?

Mid table mediocrity beckons I'm afraid.

Fulham, 10th, Andrew Beck, @CottagersC

In August you said Fulham fans were ready to temper their expectations after two bad years - is this season the start of a brighter future for the Cottagers?

I think so. The team is pretty good this year. There are a few lingering issues in defense that one more central defender could cure, and they could use a little more depth in the defensive midfield.

However, they have taken to Slavisa's system very well and I think almost every Fulham fan would have taken this position if it was offered before the season started.

Slavisa Jokanovich has tried to instil a possession-based philosophy at Fulham similar to Jaap Stam at Reading - how well have the side adapted to that?

The team have adapted well, too well at times in fact. In some of their games where they have struggled they have held onto the ball and completed a very high percentage of passes.

When they are most successful they don't complete quite as many of their passes, but they take more chances which leads to better scoring opportunities. They seem to have righted this ship, mainly by switching some of the more conservative players for more ambitious passers.

What (if anything) needs to be done to strengthen the team in January?

They could use another ball playing CB. The team has depth at CB, but when Tomas Kalas is out, it requires the team to play a weaker defender to get a player who can handle passing the ball out of the back. They could use some depth in defensive midfield, and they have been linked to a few players in this position.

Fulham are losing two players to the African Cup of Nations, and both of those players are attacking wide players. They might need to bring in one player at that spot for some coverage. The elephant in the room is Chris Martin. When Derby brought back Steve McClaren, he wanted Chris Martin back. He offered more money to him, and Martin has refused to play for Fulham. If he leaves, Fulham will need at least one player, and possibly two to replace him.

What have you made of Reading under Jaap Stam?

I'm frankly amazed at your position in the table. What little I've watched of you hasn't looked good. Your goal differential is only +4. The xG's metric (expected goals) says you should be closer to the bottom of the table than the top, yet there you are in a Playoff spot. Whatever magic voodoo you have working, can I buy some?

Where do you think you'll finish come May?

Before the Martin issue cropped up, I would have bet on 6th. Now I'm not so sure. I think top eight for sure, and if he stays or a good replacement comes in, I still think the Playoffs are possible.

***

Aston Villa, 12th, James Rushton, @7500ToHolte

When we spoke to you in August, you described Aston Villa last season as "historically bad" - has Steve Bruce completely turned the side around or is there still a lot of work for him to do?

Aye. I remember it well. Look, Aston Villa's last season was a damn catastrophe. No one can change that. You may as well think of last year as one of the Hangover films, last season we got royally pissed, stole a lion, messed up our lives and now this season we are waking up with sour heads and dry tongues trying to figure out what the hell happened.

Bruce is doing OK, but there's a lot of work to do. He's getting us winning though! Occasionally.

Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Clarke only lasted 124 days at Villa Park - what went wrong?

Everything. Villa were unable to play football at all. I mean, we could pass well and make some great attacking plays, but nothing resulted in a goal. Even worse, Di Matteo and Clarke refused to react to clear errors. Teams swamped us midfield because Di Matteo constantly played two midfielders in the middle with four, yes, four, strikers. They were unable to learn, unable to win and paid the price.

Aaron Tshibola has only made nine senior appearances for you so far - do Villa fans think he should be getting more game time?

100% - He's got technique and is a beast on the ball. No idea why he isn't playing, especially with the monolithic Jedinak who runs out of steam often. Tish would be a great third midfielder, but Bruce is avoiding him.

What - if anything - needs to be done in January?

It's a paradox. Villa have ALL the tools necessary to win this league (but they won't). We've got a stellar attacking lineup backed up by a decent midfield, but things aren't working.

If we splurge, that's good - but what do we do with the masses of first team players we are acquiring? I'd like to see us bring in some additional defenders and a box-to-box midfielder (since Tish looks like he can't get a look in).

What have you made of Reading under Jaap Stam?

Honestly, I think you guys have done well. Jaap looks like he is getting the most out of Reading and could you guys ask for someone with more of a pedigree than Jaap Stam, the big Dutch man?

He's played across the continent, has been a scout and an assistant at two MASSIVE clubs and seems like a great student of the game. Reading are a great club for him and it's good to see they have taken this slight gamble rather than rely on someone like Neil Warnock.

Where do you think you'll finish come May?

Ideally, in a Playoff spot. The Championship, as you guys will know, is very competitive and you need to be consistent to get anywhere.

Villa aren't consistent and we are falling off the pace. We've got a few guys who can actually do math on our site and the calculations aren't looking good. We'd need to keep up a great run of form all year to make 6th. But who knows who will fall apart in the top six?

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this mid-season review, and best of luck for the rest of the campaign.