This Friday, Watford will take on Middlesbrough to kick off the Championship season – in turn, beginning several months of nail-biting football, unexpected manager sackings and odds-defying scorelines.
It’s near enough impossible to try and predict the final standings in this division. This is the league in which Nottingham Forest missed out on the play-offs despite occupying one of the top six spots from Christmas until the 91st minute of their final game. This is the league in which Neil Warnock abandoned Cornwall retirement plans to leg it up to Middlesbrough and save them from relegation. This is the league in which Wigan can be shifted from 13th to 23rd on a points deduction, but Sheffield Wednesday can stay in the league despite the EFL recognising offences by the club dating back over two years. By the way, this was all last season.
Nonetheless, as the transfer window draws on and managers start to solidify their squads in the latter friendlies and League Cup games, a picture starts to form of how the various sides might fare (subject to the EFL’s disciplinary whims). In alphabetical order, the speculation kicks off with:
Bournemouth return to the Championship after five seasons in the top-flight. After spending big on players in the Premier League, their descent may not be entirely graceful. Other than the construction of a new training ground, the club did little in terms of bolstering its infrastructure, resulting in its income staying at the lower end of the Premier League scale. Eddie Howe is gone, along with key players Nathan Aké and Aaron Ramsdale. Others such as Josh King and David Brooks remain for the time being and will be key to any hopes of returning at the first time of asking. Funds brought in from sales will likely have to first pay off the substantial existing transfer debts before focusing on any new incomings. New manager Jason Tindell may well be tasked with steadying the ship in mid-table for the Cherries as they adjust to the more limited budgets of the second-tier.
There have been few beneficiaries from the farcical situation that has consumed Wigan over the past few months, but Barnsley have been advantaged, avoiding relegation courtesy of Wigan’s 12 point deduction and a shock win against Brentford on the last day. Under the reign of Gerhard Struber, the Tykes have begun to show signs of promise. Additions have been limited to former Liverpool youngster Isaac Christie-Davies and Austrian Dominik Frieser. It is difficult to know what to expect from the pair and Struber is likely to need to further add to his squad to be assured of safety, although promising young players such as Connor Chaplin will look for greater consistency with a season of Championship experience under their belts. Still, expectations will be relatively low after last season’s great escape and a season of consolidation will be the aim.
Former Premier League champions Blackburn are in a group of clubs who will be hoping to look up rather than down this season having finished in mid-table last season. Rovers ended up seven points off the play-offs, but never really posed a serious threat. That is the next step for Tony Mowbray, and it is a step they must take after a few years of consolidation and stability. Striker Adam Armstrong’s 16 goals last season is a cause for hope, so too is the return of Bradley Dack from injury. The rest of the squad is solid with pockets of quality like former German international Lewis Holtby and a few exciting youngsters led by Lewis Travis. However, Blackburn, like many clubs, have been quiet in the transfer market thus far. Further activity will likely be required if they are to make a serious push up the league.
It has been a rocky few years for Birmingham. Financial instability has plagued the club in recent years but they have retained their second-tier status, at times seemingly against all odds. The sale of starlet Jude Bellingham to Borussia Dortmund should go some way to alleviating any financial issues. The appointment of Aitor Karanka as manager feels like a new start too. The appointment is fairly uninspiring, despite having achieved promotion with Middlesbrough a few seasons back, but the Blues are not in a position to be picky. In Lukas Jutkiewicz, they have a proven Championship goalscorer while Jon Toral and Dan Crowley should provide plenty of creativity. However, it is not a squad that feels capable of achieving anything beyond mid-table stability. This is not a particular negative for Birmingham given the past few seasons and it’ll certainly be the aim under the pragmatic leadership of Karanka.
Brentford, after late drama in their attempts at the automatic spots last season, and subsequent play-off heartbreak, will be out for revenge. In the latter stages of 2019-20 they looked impenetrable at points, and throughout the season were absolutely ruthless on the break and never seemed to tire throughout the 90 minutes despite their relentless attacking style. The loss of Ollie Watkins to Aston Villa is a blow, if not an expected one, and the Bees will hope to keep hold of other stars such as Saïd Benrahma and Bryan Mbuemo. Big sales is all part of the Brentford model, however. The arrivals of Ivan Toney and Charlie Goode from the lower leagues is textbook Brentford, and one could expect them to put in some dazzling performances and leaving for a healthy fee. Additionally, the team’s use of a B Team rather than an academy enables the management to draw from a healthy pool of backup players. Brentford have been playing this game for a while, and it would be no surprise to see them reap the rewards and gain promotion this time around.
The Robins had been regularly challenging for the play-offs, without ever actually qualifying, under Lee Johnson. It had seemed to be a constant progression under the former City player until this season when the board finally lost patience after again falling away from the play-off race. In his place has come former assistant Dean Holden, such is the trend this summer. Holden possesses little experience in the hot seat but does have the advantage of knowing the current squad inside out. It is one that has plenty of quality, meaning that they should steer clear of relegation regardless of Holden being an unknown quantity. Jay Dasilva is an exciting left-back option, while midfielders Ádám Nagy and Joe Morrell together are a strong unit. In Nakhi Wells, they have a striker proven at Championship level. With a new boss at the helm, it is ultimately difficult to tell how results will turn out at Ashton Gate this term. A solid mid-table finish would broadly be acceptable, but with such a squad there may be higher ambitions.
Neil Harris’ arrival midway through the season heralded an up-turn in form that saw Cardiff fall at the play-off stage to eventual play-off winners Fulham. The Bluebirds boast a strong squad for the Championship which should serve them well. They have arguably two of the best ‘keepers in the league in Neil Etheridge and Alex Smithies, while Robert Glatzel showed fleeting examples of his goalscoring potential. Old-campaigners Sol Bamba and Lee Tomlin provide buckets of experience too. The addition of sought-after Welsh international Kieffer Moore has been popular – not just due to the player’s nationality but also his ruthlessness in front of goal during his time at Wigan. With a few extra goals in the team, they may well be a force to be reckoned with.
Coventry return to the second-tier for the first time since 2012 amidst instability around ownership and particularly over their home ground. Home games will continue to be played at Birmingham City’s St. Andrew’s stadium, just as they were last season. On the pitch, however, things are looking rosier. Boss Mark Robins has been able to keep hold of his key players and has added a number of youthful recruits. Tyler Walker, son of Des, has been brought in to add goals alongside Matt Godden, while Callum O’Hare and Ben Sheaf should add quality to the midfield. Survival will surely be the target for the Sky Blues, and this will likely rest on the ability of key players to adapt to the Championship. Matt Godden was plying his trade for Ebbsfleet in the National League South just four years ago and will now be entrusted to lead the line in the Championship. If players like Godden make the leap, then it could be a good season. A lack of Championship experience is a worry, however, and may be the downfall of an otherwise promising squad.
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