The Premier League is still a week from its curtain raiser but the English Football League will kick-off this weekend, headlined by its top division: The EFL Championship. The Championship isn’t the most glamorous or technically skilful league in the world, however it is the most unpredictable and pressured around. It’s also incredibly gruelling, run over 46 tough games. The prize for the top two is automatic promotion to the lucrative Premier League, with the next four teams going through playoffs to decided the third and final promotion place. At the other end of the spectrum,the bottom three will be relegated to League One and face increasingly small clubs with dreams of the promised land set back years. So who are 24 teams dreaming of a place in the Premier League?
The Relegated Trio
Last season saw West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and Swansea City suffer relegation from the Premier League. All three are returning to the Championship after lengthy stays in the top-tier and immediate returns to the Premier League rarely happen for more than one of the unfortunate trio.
West Brom wisely signed caretaker manager Darren Moore to a long-term deal, while Stoke poached an excellent young manager in Gary Rowett. Swansea found themselves taking a gamble on Graham Potter from Swedish football. As usual, the relegated sides have lost their best players with Johnny Evans, Xherdan Shaqiri and Alfie Mawson amongst those leaving with more likely to follow before the Premier League kicks off.
Stoke have underlined their favorites tag with big name signings in Benike Afobe and Tom Ince, as well as appearing to be retaining key men Joe Allen & Peter Crouch. West Brom have retained striker Jay Rodriguez and made smart additions in Sam Johnstone & Kyle Bartley to replace Ben Foster & Evans. Swansea have found themselves shopping in the bargain bin with young forward Joel Asoro as their biggest recruit.
The Fallen Giants
The Championship is stacked with once-great clubs desperately trying to get back to the big stage. They don’t come much bigger than one-time European Champions Aston Villa, after narrowly missing out on promotion in last year’s playoff final, having suffered a summer of anguish. With the last of the Premier League money drying up, Villa faced a winding up order from the angry tax authority and seemed set for administration, but new owners have surfaced and the club is back from the brink. With the likely exit of star player Jack Grealish and John Terry already gone, it looks like a year of consolidation for Villa.
Things are looking much rosier for two-time European Champs Nottingham Forest. After years in footballing purgatory, Forest spent big this summer to acquire razor-sharp striker Lewis Grabban. They also added Portuguese playmaker Joao Carvahlo and midfield dynamo Jack Colback on a season long loan. Manager Aitor Karanka previously won promotion with Middlesbrough and he should have Forest amongst the front-runners this season.
Such ambitions seem a distant memory for the 1995 Premier League Champions Blackburn Rovers. They suffered the indignity of playing in the third tier last term, but won a swift promotion back to the Championship. In saying that, the club’s unpopular owners have kept a tight grip on the purse strings and Rovers look set for a survival fight rather than a promotion push.
The two most intriguing signings of the summer weren’t players, but were new managers signed by two clubs with a rich history in the dug-out. Between 1969 and 1975, Leeds United and Derby County won the League twice each while their legendary managers Don Revie and Brian Clough engaged in a bitter personal feud since committed to the silver screen in ‘The Damned United’. After years of languishing in the second tier, both have gone big with their managerial appointments.
Leeds brought in former Argentina, Marseille and Athletic Bilbao coach Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa is hugely respected for his coaching skills and tactical nous, inheriting a Leeds team who underwhelmed last term. Leeds appear to have bought well, bringing in left-back Barry Douglas to provide the ammunition for new forwards Lewis Baker and Patrick Bamford.
Meanwhile, Derby signed Chelsea and England legend Frank Lampard to his first management post. Lampard has smartly added former Chelsea Youth Team boss Jody Morris as his number two and raided his old club to sign England starlet Mason Mount on a year-long loan. Both these sides could suffer a slow start but both hold realistic top six hopes for the season.
There are plenty of other contenders in the division with Tony Pulis’ Middlesbrough looking strong contenders. Pulis is an excellent coach at this level and spent heavily on new central defensive duo in Aden Flint and Paddy McNair, the north-east club look set for a promotion push. Millwall came close to the playoffs last season after an excellent season under Neil Harris, they don’t have the financial clout of some of their rivals but remain a tough well-drilled side.
The biggest derby dates of the season have been set for 10th November and 2nd March when Steel City rivals Sheffield United and Wednesday face off. United lost promising youngster David Brooks to Bournemouth but will again push for the playoffs, whilst Wednesday need a boost in the transfer market after a disappointing 2017/18 campaign.
Another curious management appointment took place at QPR this summer with the signing of former England Manager Steve McClaren. The London club lost goalkeeper Alex Smithies to promoted Cardiff, but McClaren made a shrewd purchase in defender Toni Liestner. In saying that, getting back to the top half of the table would be a major step forward this term.
Reading are coming off a terrible season after getting within a whisker of promotion in 2017. They’ve signed former Real Madrid assistant coach Paul Clement for another crack at management whose best signing looks to be midfielder David Meyler, meaning that Reading could be a dark horse. Meanwhile Preston North End came close to the playoffs last season and have a good manager in former Norwich boss Alex Neill. Despite a limited budget and the sale of key defender Gregg Cunningham, Preston should again be in the playoff mix.
Finally, Bristol City having been a continuously stable mid table side have suddenly turned into a big money turnstile with Aden Flint and Bobby Reid leaving for a combined £19million. City has spent wisely bringing in Andreas Wiemann, Adam Webster and Jack Hunt to make them an unpredictable side.
The Possible Strugglers
It seems harsh to be talking about relegation battles before autumn, but there are a handful of teams who look set for a season of struggle. Brentford have consistently over-achieving, but sold three key players this summer. Meanwhile Birmingham City have been in free fall since the strange sacking of Gary Rowett 18 months ago, staying clear of the drop zone would be an achievement this time around.
East Coast rivals Ipswich Town and Norwich City could both struggle this year. Norwich made a colossal £35million profit on selling star players James Maddison and Josh Murphy, but after the Premier League parachute payments stopped haven’t been able to buy big in replacing them. Ipswich are starting again under Paul Hurst after falling out with former boss Mick McCarthy.
Promoted clubs Rotherham United and Wigan Athletic both start the season with promoted club momentum but with little in the way of transfers, both will be hoping their existing squads can adapt to higher level football.
Bolton Wanderers survived on the final day of last season and with times hard on the financial front survival will again be the limit of their ambitions. Hull City were in the Premier League two years ago but remain an unstable club and having seen key men Allan McGregor, David Meyler and Seb Larsson leave will be nervously looking to avoid the relegation trap-door.
So stand by for 10 months of blood, sweat and chewed fingernails, the Championship rollercoaster is about to begin.
Automatic Promotion: Nottingham Forest, Stoke
Playoffs: Leeds, Middlesbrough, Preston, Derby
Relegation: Hull, Bolton, Rotherham
Player of the Year: Joao Carvalho (Nottingham Forest)
Young Player of the Year: Mason Mount (Derby)
Top Scorer: Jay Rodriguez (West Brom)
Picture Credits: Sportsmancs.com, Twitter