It is hard to recover from the disappointment of playing 49 matches over nine months to end up back where you started, only with added dejection. It is painstaking work to get to a playoff final and when you lose it, a strict plan is needed to avoid slipping off the pace the following season.
Only six teams have lost the Championship playoff final and gone up the next year since the turn of the century. At the other end of the spectrum, Leeds went from being 90 minutes from the Premier League in 2006 to relegation the next season. A loss can have huge knock-on effects.
Huddersfield start on Friday against Burnley as they begin their recovery from losing the playoff final, via a Levi Colwill own goal, against Nottingham Forest. Continuity would have helped but they have lost their head coach Carlos Corberán and the key players Lewis O’Brien and Harry Toffolo.
Jem Karacan was part of Reading’s 2011 playoff final loss to Swansea and the squad that won the Championship the following season. “We jumped on the bus, got back to the Madejski and had a little party. It was quite strange; it was a celebration because there was no pressure any more – it was all done. We actually had a really good night, surprisingly; we all had a good laugh. That summed up the group. It wasn’t the typical, ‘Go home, get your heads down and think about your performance’. It was an incredible achievement to get there, so we had to celebrate something that was so unexpected.”
Getting the disappointment out of a player’s mind is crucial, otherwise it will lurk in the background for a long time, infesting the squad going into pre-season. Most teams who fall at the final hurdle lose their best players, so signings are important to refresh and revive the group. After Middlesbrough lost to Norwich in 2015, the key loanee Patrick Bamford departed and Lee Tomlin was sold to Bournemouth. Stewart Downing and David Nugent were brought in by Aitor Karanka to add experience. They went on be promoted as runners-up.
“You want to add something better to improve you,” the former Middlesbrough goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos says. “That is what we did and credit to Aitor: he did his research and the players he brought in didn’t disturb the dressing atmosphere, they were adding to it. We were even better the season that followed and we deserved to follow up automatically.”
Danny Schofield, who has replaced Corberán, faces a tough task because the manager is integral to helping a team bounce back. This is Schofield’s first managerial role, after his work in the academy. Karanka’s experience ensured Middlesbrough did not wallow in their failure.
“He kept the standards high, he never let anyone relax, he raised the bar even more the season after the final because that season we also had the tag of ‘favourites’,” Konstantopoulos says. “Of course there are going to be ups and downs but the downs were handled well and we didn’t let it turn into a long period of bad results. I think that’s important.”
Staying in contention for promotion is what everyone aims for but it can have a negative impact if thoughts of returning to the playoffs and losing allow doubt to creep in. Equally, players can be spurred on to make sure they finish in the top two and avoid the precarious nature of the playoffs. “Once we saw automatic promotion was in our sights, nothing was stopping that group of players; we were just hungrier than the others to get there,” Karacan says of the title-winning season. “We were just ticking off the games – we weren’t ever looking at the table, which was drummed into us when Steve Coppell was in charge … That was our mentality and it served us well.”
Huddersfield, despite a tumultuous summer, will be a target after their third-place finish. The club have lost plenty of Championship experience and their replacements have largely come from the lower leagues.
“It is tough,” Karacan says. “We had the continuity, whereas they’ve just lost their manager, and we just said: ‘Let’s go get it again.’ It will be difficult for them but they will just have to start the season as well as possible. It’s hard because who can forget that disappointment? Wash it off; they did well to finish third and get to the final when they were underdogs. They have some quality players and are a real tight-knit group, which is similar to what we had.”
There are no guarantees in a league as competitive as the Championship but looking forward rather than back is the key to success.