Peterborough United Championship preview

By Peter SwanBBC Radio Cambridgeshire
Darragh MacAnthony and Darren Ferguson
Darragh MacAnthony and Darren Ferguson celebrate promotion to the Championship in 2009

Peterborough United's last foray into the Championship was far from a resounding success.

Despite pre-season claims of challenging for promotion, they were instead relegated with just eight wins from their 46 matches, having used four different managers in the process.

Darren Ferguson was out of the door by November, despite having led the club to successive promotions from League Two.

Two years later and both the Posh and Ferguson find themselves back together and preparing for another crack at survival.

So what must happen differently second time around to ensure Ferguson is still in a job in four months time? The obvious starting point is expectation level.

In 2009, buoyed by their back-to-back promotions, both chairman Darragh MacAnthony and manager Darren Ferguson believed a top-six finish was a reasonable, if ambitious, target.

"We've got to aim high. There's no point in reaching the Championship and then deciding we're just happy to stay there," MacAnthony told BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

"It's not the top rung of the ladder so we've got to keep climbing. Momentum is key."

Posh started the season with defeat at Derby and took a further seven league matches to secure their first win, a 3-2 victory over Reading after battling back from two goals down.

It quickly became apparent that the task of staying in the Championship would be tough enough. Talk of promotion simply became a stick with which to beat a beleaguered set of players.

Having endured a similarly difficult period while at Preston over the first half of last season, Ferguson is now all too aware that life in the Championship can be a struggle.

"Last time it was difficult, we were naive. The quality was a lot better than we thought," he noted following Posh's play-off final win over Huddersfield.

Darren Ferguson
Ferguson lifting the League One play-off trophy following victory over Huddersfield

"We've got to try to establish ourselves. The first year is the most important. If we can do that, you get stronger and stronger because you get experience."

When Posh last reached the Championship, defenders Gabby Zakuani and Tommy Williams were the only first team regulars with any experience of playing in the second tier.

Once again much of the squad is not Championship proven, but the likes of Grant McCann, George Boyd and Mark Little are familiar with the league and that know-how could be vital.

Whether or not Ferguson chooses to add further Championship experience to the side remains to be seen, but it would be a surprise were he to rely wholly on 'young and hungry' untested raw talent such as new arrival Nicky Ajose.

Northern Ireland international McCann was a key player for Posh last season, adding both experience and quality to the side, although he struggled for consistency.

He excelled by playing at the base of a midfield diamond from where he protected the back four and could direct the pace of the game.

Norwich regularly relied on the diamond formation during their successful push for the Premier League, and the Canaries look set to be a reference point for the Posh.

"Norwich showed what can be done after going up from League One. They have stuck to their principles, played their football and it has paid off for them big-time," said striker Lee Tomlin.

However, while Norwich scored plenty of goals last season, they were also fairly handy at keeping them out.

Posh will have to improve defensively if they are to make a serious impact on the Championship, and Ferguson has admitted that they may need to reign in their natural attacking tendancies.

"We play a certain way which I think is entertaining, but it's something we may have to look at when we step up to the Championship," he said.

There is no doubt that the Championship is a difficult league, particularly for a club with home attendances averaging around 7000 people.

Ultimately, the scale of the task at hand cannot be underestimated. It is up to everyone involved with the Posh to make the most of their strengths.

"We've got to be positive. We've got good energies and we're a fit bunch of lads. We've got a fantastic togetherness and tactically we need to be spot on," Ferguson said.

Gabby Zakuani
Defender Zakuani is set to remain a key player for the Posh

Last time around both MacAnthony and Ferguson appeared to lose faith in their shared vision for the club.

Team selections and tactics became increasingly erratic in the games leading up to Ferguson's departure.

In two-and-a-half years working as a partnership, they had secured back-to-back promotions, losing just 19 games in the process.

By the time Ferguson left the Posh, 16 matches into the season, they had already suffered nine defeats. Arguably neither man was prepared for the emotional strain of regular failure.

Despite all this, the Peterborough United side at the start of the 2009 season was not far off from being competitive in the Championship.

A bit of luck combined with a greater belief in the strengths which had proved so successful in League One and League Two could have gone a long way.

So not too much needs to change second time around. If Posh can tighten up at the back, especially at home, and effectively replace departed striker Craig Mackail-Smith, they should be well placed to enjoy a successful season.

Victory against Crystal Palace on the opening day would also be a bonus, but even if it takes time for the side to click, the message is clear. Unlike last time, keep calm and carry on.