The new year started so optimistically for Hull City.
Winning at Sheffield Wednesday with a Jarrod Bowen goal put them a point outside the Championship’s play-off places. “Why can’t we go for automatic?” asked midfielder George Honeyman.
Things have not gone as planned since. That was the last time the Tigers won a Championship match – they narrowly edged League One Rotherham United out of the FA Cup days later – and Bowen’s last goal for them.
The worry even then was that Hull would be unable to resist a big bid for Bowen, and so it proved. But with the top-scorer’s £25m move to West Ham United only confirmed after the January 31 transfer deadline, there was no scope to reinvest. Worse still, Hull’s second highest-scorer, next-best player and other winger, Kamil Grosicki, joined West Bromwich Albion earlier that day.
The Tigers were only following Yorkshire’s Championship trend.
Barnsley, Huddersfield Town, Leeds United, Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday all won just once in the league. For some the damage is recoverable, for others it might not be.
Cup ties apart, Wednesday did not win another game all month. Their miserable Festive form continued, dragging them to 11th, seven points behind their target of the play-offs.Stuart Rayner
Even a week before the deadline, things looked more positive for Hull, who got their transfer business done early and well, bringing in three players McCann knew. With Bowen to the fore, they gave Chelsea an FA Cup scare in front of a sold-out KCOM Stadium. Fast forward sevens days and they were nearer the relegation zone than the play-offs after being hammered in front of their second-lowest crowd this season.
If only January’s results had been better, might they have been able to keep them? The fans and the wingers? It always seemed likely Bowen would move on once the Premier League loomed, but if the Tigers had kept reaching it it a realistic proposition, would staying put a few more months have appealed? McCann always insisted the 23-year-old was happy to stay.
Jacob Murphy was as confident as Honeyman when the Owls won 2-0 at Elland Road in January.
“Top two? Why not?” he asked.
Cup ties apart, Wednesday did not win another game all month. Their miserable Festive form continued, dragging them to 11th, seven points behind their target of the play-offs.
At least their window had a happy ending, Connor Wickham and Josh Windass added late to supply the firepower missing since Steven Fletcher was stretchered off against Brighton, although the Scot is back in training.
Leeds United’s results took a turn for the worse in mid-December, and they too are yet to pull it back.
They rang in the new year top on goal difference from West Bromwich Albion, but the more significant figure was the nine-point gap to third.
The Baggies and the Whites remain the top two but their form is alarming, particularly for Leeds fans having flashbacks to the second half of last season. Their two wins in the last 10 matches were high-octane affairs highlighting where things are going wrong.
Until losing a three-goal lead to draw with Cardiff City, their defensive record was fantastic, taking the load off the front end of a team brilliant at making chances, poor at taking them.
With Kiko Casilla in such fine form, it did not seem to matter who played in front of him but the goalkeeper’s form has disintegrated. In the transfer market, coach Marcelo Bielsa’s solution has been to worry less about improving defensively, more about being more clinical up front.
The Argentinian is quite dogmatic, and has faith in those he has worked long and hard with on the training ground, so his January strategy was about replacing winger Jack Clarke and centre-forward Eddie Nketiah.
Leeds preferred a centre-forward with Championship experience, but financial restrictions in an overblown market meant they had to settle more for long-term potential than short-term solutions. Neither Ian Poveda nor Jean-Paul Augustin have played English senior fooball – even now, two matches after signing.
The cushion is down to three points – four to Saturday’s hosts Nottingham Forest.
Barnsley needed a good month, the question was if they had the ambition to pay for it. Only in the relegation zone on goal difference after Gerhard Struber kickstarted their season, they are now seven points adrift with 16 matches to play.
The positivity of back-to-back victories against Crewe Alexandra – in the Cup – and Huddersfield has been wiped away by four straight defeats. Struber has brought in a trusted face in centre-back Michael Sollbauer from Wolfsberger, but apart from shoring up the defence, experience was the biggest concern, and Killian Ludewig and Erthan Erhahon are teenagers who had yet to play in this country.
After starting it with a 5-2 defeat at home to Stoke City, Huddersfield’s January was only a point better, but their encouragement must come from transforming their squad to one with Danny Cowley’s stamp all over it.
Seven players have been added to the free agents Cowley signed before his first transfer window opened and, importantly, eight have left, but not Karlan Grant or Steve Mounie. The new boys are a mixture of exciting young talent and experience.
Middlesbrough extended their winning streak to four at Preston North End on New Year’s Day, but although they have not tasted victory since, their only defeats were one-goal losses at Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham. Their five signings offer something at both ends, even if Patrick Roberts has been ruled out for six to eight weeks.
For all that their January results were quite similar, the February mood varies from club to club.