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Three months have passed since Norwich, Sheffield United and Aston Villa made it to the promise land of the Premier League whilst Rotherham, Bolton and Ipswich dropped into the purgatory of League One. Now the best second division in Europe is back with teams vying for the riches of the Premier League. This division is no respecter of budgets or reputations with the winners notoriously difficult to pick. Here’s our preview and less than certain list of predictions…
Being favourites in this division has proved a dubious honour, this year the favourites tag goes to Leeds United. The most talked about team in the division last season came agonisingly close to ending their 15 year exile from the Premiership. Most were surprised when the brilliant but controversial Marcelo Bielsa opted to stay for a second season in West Yorkshire. Last season, Leeds’ bid fell short due to injuries exposing their lack of squad depth.
This summer they’ve tried to sort to solve that issue with the arrivals of Helder Costa, Ben White, regaining Jack Harrison for a second loan season and getting Jack Clarke back from Tottenham on a season loan. The creative Costa could prove the signing of the season after ripping through this division with Wolves two years ago. Leeds surprisingly let defender Pontus Jansson leave but seem confident White and youngster Pascal Struijk can fill the void. Leeds also need to improve their finishing which proved profligate last season despite creating more chances than any other side in the division, £7million striker Patrick Bamford will need to find the net more if Leeds are to justify their status as favourites.
The Relegated Trio
Teams freshly relegated from the Premier League are usually amongst the favourites, however none of the relegated sides last season went straight back up. Fulham appear the best placed of the three to bounce back after finishing the season in good form under new boss Scott Parker. The Cottagers received a timely boost when striker Alexsandar Mitrovic signed a new contract, the Serbian will start the season hot favourite for The Golden Boot. Fulham look set to lose the precocious Ryan Sessegnon but have already replaced him with Anthony Knockaert who excelled in this division with Brighton. Fulham’s biggest concern is the defence that conceded an alarming 81 goals last season and dropping down a division is no guarantee of defensive improvement.
Cardiff came close to staying in the Premier League, but 34 points left them just shy of safety. Fortunately, Neil Warnock is staying on for another season and will attempt to add to the record 8 promotions he already has on his CV. The squad is largely the same as last season although midfielder Will Vaulks looks a sound addition. Cardiff’s biggest issue last season was the lack of a goalscorer, however Cardiff have a solid spine to their side who know their way around the EFL.
Then there’s Huddersfield whose relegation looked inevitably as early as last autumn. Question marks remain over new manager Jan Siewert who has big shoes to fill after David Wagner’s departure. A summer clear out has seen the likes of Tommy Smith, Erik Durm, Jonnas Lossl and Chris Lowe depart. In saying that, Huddersfield have retained their most valuable assets in Terence Kongolo, Alex Pritchard and Aaron Mooy. However after such an atrocious season bouncing back immediately is a huge ask.
The Dark Horses
The relegated teams need look no further than Stoke City to see the issues of trying to bounce straight back to the Premier League. Stoke started as last season’s favourites but finished a woeful 16th. They do now have a bright young manager in Nathan Jones and there’s still international talent in the squad in Joe Allen, Jack Butland and James McClean. New fullbacks Tommy Smith and Stephen Ward are good low cost additions but key central defender Ryan Shawcross picked up an horrific preseason injury and looks set to sit out most of the campaign. Up front Benike Afobe needs to justify his £12million fee if Stoke are to get back on track.
Derby County came within 90 minutes of the Premier League but suffered Wembley heartbreak and then the loss of manager Frank Lampard. In comes former Dutch International Phillip Cocu, with 3 Eredivisie titles to his name. Owner Mel Morris has hinted at the need for belt tightening but has retained star men Tom Lawrence and Jayden Bogle. Loanees Harry Wilson, Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount have all returned to their parent clubs having been key players for Lampard. Kieran Dowell has been loaned in from Everton having helped Sheffield United to promotion last season, but the playoffs again look the limit of Derby’s ambition.
West Brom, like Leeds and Derby, suffered playoff agony last season but have a new manager in the shape of Slaven Bilic. The former West Ham and Croatia coach is trying his luck in this league for the first time but has a proven record elsewhere. West Brom will be a younger squad this season as veterans Gareth Barry, James Morrison and Wes Hoolahan saw their contracts expire. More worryingly last seasons fearsome strike duo of Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez both left, with Cardiff’s Kenneth Zohore loaned in. Bilic has added creativity in talented young Croat Filip Krovinovic and Romaine Sawyers, but in the absence of Gayle and Rodriguez who will put the chances away?
Brentford have frequently found themselves of the fringes of the promotion race with an attractive brand of football. Talented attacked duo Neal Maupay and Ollie Watkins have stayed at Griffin Park to spearhead Brentford’s latest challenge. However the defence got a facelift after the sale of Ezri Konsa, as Brentford pulled off the surprise signing of Swedish international Pontus Jansson from Leeds who should partner another new comer in Ethan Pinnock. With goalkeeper David Raya arriving from Blackburn and Danish duo Christian Norgaard & Mathias Jensen added to the midfield, Brentford have a strong spine to their side and could be a contender.
Dreaming of the Playoffs
There are a glut of sides coming off middling seasons with aspirations of better things this season, starting with two time European Champions Nottingham Forest who seem mired in the Championship. Under the ownership of Evangelos Marinakis, Forest are onto their seventh manager in two and a half years. After Martin O’Neill was surprisingly jettisoned former Rennes manager Sabri Lamouchi comes in. The squad isn’t without talent but neither O’Neill nor Aitor Karanka were able to pull it into a winning formula. Former Aston Villa winger Albert Adomah is a steal on a free transfer, but getting the most out of midfield schemer Joao Carvalho and striker Lewis Grabban are key to moving Forest in the right direction.
Middlesbrough finished a disappointing seventh last season and that wasn’t enough to keep Tony Pulis in post. In comes ex England defender Jonathan Woodgate and Ireland legend Robbie Keane to steer a new course. ‘Boro haven’t spent big but were defensively strong under Pulis and have a potent striker in Britt Assombalonga. How quickly Woodgate and Keane adapt to management will determine if ‘Boro can get into the promotion race.
Bristol City proved one of the most unpredictable sides in the league last season, eventually falling just short of the playoffs in eighth. They lost star left back Lloyd Kelly but spent wisely on Czech international defender Tomas Kalas and England Under 21 Jay Da Silva, both from Chelsea. Winger Andreas Weimann on his day was unplayable last season, City need more from him and Irish international Callum O’Dowda if they are to make the jump to the playoffs.
Hull City threatened a playoff charge last season but never quite put it all together and saw manager Nigel Adkins leave this summer. In comes Grant McCann who did well to get Doncaster into the League One Playoffs. There’s been little transfer activity but Hull have retained star man Jarrod Bowen despite rumours of Premier League interest. Bowen and Kamil Grosicki will be a menace on either flank, but Hull conceded 68 goals last season, too many for a promotion bid.
Former Premier League Champions Blackburn Rovers had a better than expected return to the Championship after suffering the indignity of a year in League One. Splashing out £5million on striker Sam Gallagher rekindled memories of headier days at Ewood Park, whilst the arrivals of seasoned campaigners Stewart Downing and Bradley Johnson will provide some craft in midfield. Crucially Blackburn held onto Bradley Dack whose form will be pivotal to Rovers season.
New Boys Looking Up
Promoted teams can carry the momentum from a successful League One campaign into The Championship, this season sees the return of a trio of clubs who’ve all tasted life in the top division.
Luton Town were a top tier regular back in the 1980s but suffered the misfortune to be relegated in the final season of the old First Division of 1992. Since then Luton nosedived down the leagues and almost went out of existence as they spent five years in the Football Conference. Luton are now on the up and despite the loss of manager Nathan Jones were promoted as League One Champions. This summer saw the arrival of experienced defender Martin Cranie from Sheffield United and talented but inconsistent winger Callum McManaman. Striker James Collins will be paramount to Luton’s hopes after winning the League One Golden Boot.
Barnsley bounced back from relegation at the first time of asking. Manager Daniel Stendel has added ten new players but did lose centre back dup Ethan Pinnock and Liam Lindsay. Of the new recruits Danish defender Mads Juel Andersen will be key as will Mallik Wilks who returns after a successful loan spell. Midfielder Alex Mowatt has experience at this level and enjoyed an excellent promotion campaign, whilst former England Under 21 forward Cauley Woodrow has talent and a point to prove.
Charlton are back after three seasons in League One. Former Charlton player Lee Bowyer steered a course to The Championship via a dramatic playoff final win over Sunderland. Boweyer has been given little wiggle room in the transfer market but did grab former Manchester United apprentice goalkeeper Ben Amos. Charlton had an excellent defensive record last season and will again need to keep things tight to stay up. It’s likely Charlton will need a good run in and the fixture computer threw Bowyer a curveball with the last game of Charlton’s season away at his old stomping ground Elland Road.
For most clubs the summer is a time of renewed hope but for some the summer brought frustration and trepidation for the season ahead, nobody fits that bill more aptly than Birmingham City. The Midlands club ended last season with a points deduction for breaking FFP regulations and spent the summer balancing the books with the sales of star men Che Adams and Jota. That lead to a breakdown in the relationship between manager Gary Monk and the board and Monk was sacked to be replaced by former assistant Pep Clotet. With few incomings it will be a season of consolidation at best for Birmingham with striker Lukas Jutkiewicz paramount to their chances.
Swansea are another club in retreat. The club’s cost cutting owners lost manager Graham Potter and star winger Daniel James to the Premier League. New manager Steve Cooper managed England’s Under 17’s to a World Cup win in 2017 and with few incomings will again be looking to work with youngsters. Swansea fans will be hoping the transfer window ends with promising striker Oliver McBurnie still at The Liberty Stadium.
Sheffield Wednesday finished last season on an excellent run of form but their plans for the new season were thrown into chaos by Steve Bruce leaving for Newcastle. Lee Bullen is in temporary charge and sorting out the management position remains Wednesday’s top priority. There’s talent in the squad particularly in attacking midfield with Adam Leach and Fernando Forestieri so this should be an attractive club for potential managers.
Preston got agonisignly close to the Premier League in 2014 and 2015 but have since found themselves in mid table. Alex Neill had to cope with the loss of star player Callum Robinson this summer and there’s been little in the way of reinforcements. One encouraging signing is the return of goal poacher David Nugent but the youth team will be the primary source of new talent for Preston and another season in the middle of the pack beckons.
Survival is Success
For some clubs 21st or better represents success this season. For Queens Park Rangers it’s been a depressing five year slide from the Premier League through financial turmoil to the wrong end of The Championship. Steve McClaren kept the club afloat last season with loan signings, but they departed along with McClaren himself. Now the experienced Mark Warburton is charged with moving up with youngsters after the sale of key man Luke Freeman. Warburton smartly added Yoann Barbet on a free and Luke Amos on loan from Spurs. However QPR fans will be nervously waiting to see if Massimo Luongo stays beyond the transfer window.
Wigan looked set for the drop last season before they took four points off Norwich and Leeds to cement their place in the division. Paul Cook added young left back Antonee Robinson and experienced goalkeeper David Marshall to Wigan’s ranks and although they lack star players that end of season run showed a collective spirit that should stand The Latics in good stead.
These are worrying times for Reading. Jose Gomes kept the Berkshire club in the division last season but again they’ve been looking to strengthen from the bargain bin. The addition of veteran Charlie Adam should add some guile to the midfield alongside John Swift. Liam Moore leads a steady backline but Reading lack punch up front.
Millwall survived last season as much through the failings of others as there own performances finishing with a dismal 44 points. Neil Harris’ side struggled for goals last term and have attempted to solve that by adding Icelandic striker Jon Dadi Bodvarsson. Millwall showed with their cup win over Everton and two strong performances against Leeds they can turn it on. But there’s a lack of quality in the squad and survival would represent a successful season.
The Championship begins with Luton vs Middlesbrough (2nd August 19:45 BST)
Automatic Promotion: Leeds, Fulham
Playoffs: Cardiff, Brentford, Stoke, West Brom
Relegated: Birmingham, Reading, Millwall
Top Scorer: Alexsander Mitrovic (Fulham)
Player of the Season: Pablo Hernandez (Leeds)
Featured Image: Getty
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