Ben Summer and James Reid’s Championship predictions continue – as Middlesbrough hope for some Warnock magic, Luton Town hope for survival and Forest hope to avoid a repeat of last season’s heartbreak.
Derby always seem to exist on the brink of the Premier League, but have been unsuccessful in making the final step in recent years. This year expectations will be high, as much due to one specific major investment last season. Whilst it is easy to poke fun at Rooney’s contribution to the side, he has added chances, composure and leadership to a squad filled with promising but untested youngsters. For Derby to stand a chance of promotion, though, these youngsters will need to step up. There are signs that this could be happening – 18-year-old Louie Sibley scored a hat-trick on his second league start at the end of last season, and a number of Derby’s young prospects have put in impressive pre-season performances. Derby’s transfer activity tells a story, and the club now boasts a roster of many, many goalkeepers and defenders. Phillip Cocu’s side is already able to put chances in front of its forwards, and will expect a defensively resolute – and ultimately successful – season. However, the looming cloud of an ongoing legal battle with the EFL may rain on the Pride Park parade.
Last season was a major disappointment for Huddersfield who looked at times in real danger of back-to-back relegations. The appointment of the Cowley brothers looked to have steadied the ship as they steered the club away from relegation. However, they were surprisingly given their marching orders in July. In their place comes Carlos Corberán, who previously worked under Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds. This is a potential source of excitement should the Spaniard implement a similar brand of football as his Argentine mentor, but it seems too soon to predict a one-season repeat of what “El Loco” achieved at Leeds. Incomings have been limited, though a number of players have returned from loan including Kosovan international Florent Hadergjonaj. Whether they remain on the books due to their wages is unclear. It will likely be a season of rebuilding for the Yorkshire club. There are the foundations of a good squad with the likes of Harry Toffolo and young midfielder Lewis O’Brien. However, Corberán will likely need more time to properly shape the squad to his demands.
Since the Hatters returned to the Championship last season after years in exile, they’ve been hanging on for dear life. With the return of manager Nathan Jones after a failed period at Stoke, who put in some impressive performances to steer the side clear of the drop, the side may not find themselves quite as directly embroiled in a relegation battle next season – but it won’t be far out of sight. The club’s rapid rise back to the second-tier after a string of relegations in the mid-2000s has left it with limited funds for this level. Incomings have been encouraging, with the Cameron Carter-Vickers-shaped hole being immediately filled with the free signing of Charlton standout Tom Locker. The expiry of Izzy Brown’s loan won’t be much of a blow – despite the player’s proven quality, he didn’t appear to be in the manager’s plans. As it stands, the Hatters look to have a fair chance of survival.
Neil Warnock simply cannot help himself. The seasoned campaigner, and everyone’s favourite source of Twitter memes, returned to steer Boro’ from safety last term. There are quiet murmurings about whether a challenge on the top of the league can be managed due to the man at the helm. Warnock has been promoted from the Championship three times, and holds the record for the most football league promotions, too – with eight. His most recent promotion, with Cardiff in 2018, was done on a very limited budget against the odds, thus evoking comparisons with the current situation on Teesside. However, a mid-table finish is more likely for Boro this season. There has been little quality added to the squad, while notable departures have included stalwarts Adam Clayton and George Friend. After a scare with relegation last season, one of stability this time around will likely be more than welcome.
The Lions have made a habit of defying expectations, and finished the last season within a hair’s breadth of the play-offs. Manager Gary Rowett has plenty of experience in occupying the top half of the table, and the side will be looking to build upon their 8th-place finish. The team is undoubtedly strong defensively, conceding the 6th-fewest goals in the league and nabbing the Golden Glove for Bartosz Bialkowski in the process. However, the team’s attacking calibre is more of a question mark – the addition of Troy Parrott on loan from Spurs may go some way to increase last season’s underwhelming goal tally, but retaining Jed Wallace, (provider of 13 assists in the 2019/20 campaign) will be key. As it stands, Millwall may not be set to storm up the table – but for the club that turned Matt Smith into a hat-trick scoring complete forward, nothing should be written off.
Norwich are back after their Premier League season was dead on arrival, but they have been planning for this moment from the very start, after a promotion that was “ahead of schedule,” according to manager Daniel Farke himself. Little money was spent on their return to the Premier League, though this created opportunities for the development of a crop of young talent. Should the likes of Todd Cantwell, Ben Godfrey, and Max Aarons remain at Carrow Road then Daniel Farke’s men will expect to challenge again. The Canaries will do well to hang onto all of their stars amid Premier League interest. Flagship signing Jordan Hugill is unlikely to rock the boat should the club return to the top flight, but he has consistently proven his ability to score goals at this level when supplied well. Along with Spurs midfielder Skipp on loan and the permanent signing of Kieran Dowell, underutilised at Everton but experienced at England U21 level, Norwich have the potential to try their hand at returning to the Premier League.
Forest looked capable of nicking automatic promotion from around December until their season petered out and will be aiming unambiguously for promotion this time around. The club have already strengthened their firepower with the addition of Charlton forward Lyle Taylor – dubbed “the Montserratian Messi” by author and AFC Wimbledon fan John Green. The supply line has seen new additions too, with Sheffield United loanee and former QPR midfielder Luke Freeman. However, an early exit from the League Cup demonstrated the impact of star right-back Matty Cash’s departure, and could be a forecast of troubled waters ahead. Lamouchi will be under pressure from eccentric owner Evangelos Marinakis after last season’s capitulation, with many believing he is lucky to have remained in the job. Retaining Joe Worrall will be key, and looks more likely now that the sale of Cash has alleviated some financial worries. Forest certainly have the squad to compete should they have mentally recovered from last season’s disappointment.
Preston North End
Preston finished 9th last time out, four points off the play-offs. It feels like a familiar story for Alex Neil’s men, who have often come close without actually making the top six. Play-offs must now be the aim at Deepdale for a squad that has threatened to challenge for so long (and one that is fairly stable, with few players either arriving or departing). Midfielders Daniel Johnson and Alan Browne both have over 200 appearances in Lilywhite. This should be fairly encouraging for Neil who should be able to build off of last season’s relative success. A few more additions would never go amiss, though North End are challenging at the top end of the league on a smaller budget than most other teams. Regardless, the current squad should have plenty of quality to make an assault on the top six positions. Scott Sinclair is a mercurial talent, while Browne and Sean Maguire are both Irish internationals. Veterans David Nugent and Paul Gallagher continue to provide a wealth of experience to a side that has predominantly cut its teeth at lower levels before making the step up at Preston. They’ll be hoping to challenge the promotion places.
Image: Neil T via Creative Commons