It’s widely accepted that the Championship is the toughest and most competitive league in Europe and it looks no different this season. The three sides relegated from the Premier League, as well as the sides who narrowly missed out in the play-offs, head the betting but as usual, you could make a case for more than half the sides in this division. And that’s also the case for relegation purposes.
With Cardiff and Hull both being promoted, Watford are the highest ranked side from last season’s competition after finished third. Gianfranco Zola’s men had to suffer two agonising close calls with promotion both in the regular season and in the final of the play-offs. Zola has managed to re-sign most of the loan players from last season with the exception of Matej Vydra, which could prove pivotal considering how prolific he was for them during his spell at Vicarage Road. Javier Acuna may well fill that void after being brought in from Girona. Watford don’t have that same surprise element this time around and although I expect them to challenge for the play-offs, I expect automatic promotion to be a bridge too far once again.
Despite finishing fourth and reaching the play-offs last season, Brighton parted company with their manager Gus Poyet over the summer in somewhat controversial circumstances. He has been replaced by Oscar Garcia who was coaching in the Israel last season. There hasn’t been too many changes in terms of playing staff and I would expect a similar philosophy from the new management team as well. Everything remains in place for another strong season down Brighton way. They didn’t score enough goals for me last season, however, and I don’t think that problem has been addressed just yet. If they were to sign a striker that could get them 25 goals in the league, they would be very much of interest for one of the top two positions.
Other sides who plied their trade in this division last season who I envisage fighting for promotion are Bolton and Nottingham Forest. Both had to suffer a slow start and change in managers (multiple changes for Forest) but finished with a lot of potential and both have stronger squads heading into this season. Only a point separated them at the end up and as Bolton missed out on sixth placed on goal difference, it shows you how close both sides were to sneaking into the play-offs.
Dougie Freedman has seen eight players come in and nine players leave over the close season but the biggest loss will be Stuart Holden who has suffered another serious injury whilst playing for his country. It could leave them short in the midfield but there is still time for Freedman to strengthen depending on the length of time he will be out.
Billy Davies knows exactly what it takes to earn promotion from this league having done so with Derby County in 2007. His return at the City Ground was pivotal in Forest finishing so well last season and he is building for another promotion push. It’s in their midfield where they look the strongest and if they can keep their key players fit in these positions, they will not be far away from the top two all season. They have plenty of options upfront but I’m not sure they have that talisman just yet, don’t put it past them buying one before August is out.
Looking to bounce back…
Reading find themselves back in the Championship at the first time of asking alongside QPR return to the division they won back in 2011 and the relegated trio is made up with Wigan who return to the second tier of English football for the first time in eight years, as FA Cup holders as well.
Reading found the step up in quality between the two divisions far too much and were always playing catch-up. Nigel Adkins replaced Brian McDermott in a last gasp bid to salvage their Premier League status but in truth, it was really planning ahead for life in the Championship. A lot more players have left the Berkshire club with the focus on adding quality rather than quantity. Roysten Drenthe and Wayne Bridge will bring that whist Daniel Williams – an American internationalist who has been playing in the Bundesliga for the last couple of seasons – adds a bit of intrigue to their transfer dealings. They have a shrewd manager but I think he’ll have to work miracles to achieve automatic promotion and this season may well be be about consolidating.
QPR will have the highest wage bill in the Championship by a huge distance but that will mean very little when they take the field this weekend for the first game of the season. They’ve seen the likes of Chris Samba and Djibril Cisse depart and it’s looking ever more likely that Loic Remy will follow suit. They can still call upon masses of experience and players who have played all their careers in the top flight but there has to be doubts around the desire of these players. Harry Redknapp has tried to bring in some hungrier players to freshen things up. Richard Dunne, Karl Henry and Danny Simpson will have a fight about them but I can’t advise backing a side who had so many problems on and off the field last season.
Wigan failed to achieve their great escape this time around but still enjoyed a memorable season with that FA Cup success after defeating Manchester City in the final. They will be playing in the Europa League this campaign and you only have to look at the likes of Stoke and Newcastle in recent seasons to see how that can affect a team’s domestic form. Owen Coyle doesn’t convince me despite winning promotion with Burnley from this division. He’ll hope to hang on to Shaun Maloney and James McCarthy and although I think they’re capable of mounting a challenge, I won’t be siding with them.
Best of the rest
Blackburn have plenty going for them on the field with a squad which can boast Jordan Rhodes and DJ Campbell as a partnership but there is too much uncertainty off the field and the manager is still very inexperienced for my liking. Middlesbrough had an excellent first half to the campaign but couldn’t take that on after the New Year and faded badly. That was similar to Leicester but they managed to recover sufficiently to sneak into the play-offs but were dispatched by Watford. If they don’t have a quick start to the season I can see Nigel Pearson being under pressure.
For the newly promoted sides – Doncaster, Bournemouth and Yeovil – I expect the best they can hope for is a challenge for one of the play-offs positions. There is a lot of quality in this division and unless one of the three dramatically strengthens between now and the close of the transfer window, I can’t see them seriously challenging the more established sides at this level.
Winners and Losers
I have been leaving this as late as possible considering there is more than four weeks between the first game of the season and the close of the transfer window, and I would have liked a more settled look to the picture in the Championship. I am between two to put my hat on to win the title and they are Bolton and Nottingham Forest. I was impressed with how both finished their campaigns last season and although neither side made the top six, they have shown what they are capable of. I also believe they are stronger this season than they were last time around and both can be promoted from this season’s Championship. I’d advise backing both to win the league and both to achieve promotion.
Nottingham Forest to be promoted 4/1 @ Sportingbet and to win title 11/1 @ Coral
Bolton to be promoted 3/1 @ Ladbrokes and to win title 9/1 @ William Hill