“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”
Friday 5th August, 19:45, The KC Stadium in Hull.
This is where the Championship season gets underway, thus beginning a long and arduous 46-game journey for all the clubs, which they can only hope will end in the promised land of the Premier League come next May. But only a mere 3 of the 24 clubs will be granted access through those hallowed gates and drink in the utopian nectar of the top flight; for the remainder, the dream must remain only a dream, one they pray the failure to fulfil is not compounded by relegation into the abyss of League One. And with this in mind, The Football Express takes a turn to look at the season ahead in one of the most unpredictable and competitive leagues in the world.
From the outset, it should be made clear that this is not a comprehensive club-by-club guide. Some teams merit more discussion than others, some may get no mention at all. The focus of the article is on the battle for promotion and the fight to stave off relegation; a handful of teams (in your writer’s opinion) will be troubled by neither much and as such may not be written of in this piece extensively or at all.
It makes sense when discussing teams with the greatest potential to reach the highest echelon of English football to look first at the relegated teams seeking an immediate return, as they return with experience of top level football and increased financial muscle to boot. History shows us that they will likely be bubbling away in and around the playoff cauldron; the information below shows how relegated sides have faired upon dropping into the Championship for the last 5 seasons:
- Promotions: 5
- Playoff appearances: 3 (none resulted in success)
- Relegations: 0
- Top-half finishes: 13
Promotion is by no means a guarantee, with only 1/3 of the sides finding their way back at the first attempt. West Ham seem the best equipped this time around to add another tick to the promotion column. The squad has been trimmed significantly (notable departures including Upson, Hitzlsperger and Ba), but in Kevin Nolan and Matthew Taylor they have signed players more than capable of succeeding at Championship level. At present, they can still call upon the services of Parker, Green and Cole; although they are expected to bid farewell to Upton Park, the potential wage space should leave a club of West Ham’s stature no problems in attracting players of sufficient quality to see them escape to the Premier League. Despite criticism of his style, Sam Allardyce is a manager of proven top flight achievements and it would be no surprise to see him and the Hammers poised for such a campaign in August 2012.
Birmingham and Blackpool may find it a tad more difficult to readjust to life in the second tier. Much of Birmingham’s future is more likely dependant on off-field circumstances, with owner Carson Yeung’s troubles signalling potential financial difficulty. On the field, there has been a rather high player turnover (just easier to look here at this point), Premier League stars being replaced with some sensible Championship acquisitions. Much will depend on subsequent activity and whether remaining assets (Dann, Carr, Ridgewell, Jerome, Zigic, Beausejour) are retained or adequately replaced if sold.
Further north at Bloomfield Road, Ian Holloway is gearing up his squad for a gung-ho attack at the playoff slots (so we hope). A change of philosophy would seem unlikely, so Blackpool are expected to play with all guns blazing as usual – a style that endeared them to many in a fantastically entertaining season amongst the big boys. However, the squad has been trimmed, key players Charlie Adam and David Vaughan have stayed on with new employers in the Premier League and the porous defence remains suspect; all obstacles which may well prevent them from achieving a top 6 finish. But they’ll give it a damn good try.
Considering other candidates among the already present Championship teams, the most obvious example are Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Leicester City. Times are a-changing at the re-branded King Power Stadium, with the new Thai owners relieving their bulging wallets of a few pesky pounds in the transfer market. A brand-spanking new back four (Paintsil, Mills, St. Ledger, Konchesky), amongst other purchases, has given them a solid base upon which to work. Already packing one of the best midfielders in the league in Andy King, their top scorer with 15 goals last season, Leicester should be contesting the division title – a view certain to be shared by their investors. The most likely barriers will be getting so many new players to gel and they could possibly do with obtaining a high-calibre forward, having failed to turn the effortless goals of Yakubu into a permanent move (although the latter situation will doubtless be rectified with extravagant expenditure in the coming weeks).
After suffering playoff heartbreak, Cardiff, Nottingham Forest and Reading will be seeking to rectify a distressing end to the 2010-11 season. Reading burst into the playoff slots fairly late on with a fabulous dash to the finish, suffering defeat only once in their last 16 games, a run which included 8 straight victories. The squad remains largely unchanged, although the exit of defensive rock Matt Mills to rivals Leicester could be costly. The future of leading goalscorer Shane Long hangs in the balance and so may their promotion hopes; deprived of their most valuable asset and talent, it would be difficult to see them repeating last season’s finish. Playoff disappointment once again spelled the end of Dave Jones’ tenure as Cardiff manager, the Welsh side pinching Malky Mackay from Watford to replace him. It’s been all change at the front as a talented strike force (Bellamy, Chopra, Bothroyd) all left for pastures new; in their places now reside the quite capable Kenny Miller and returning hero Rob Earnshaw, and the midfield has been supplemented with the creative influence of Don Cowie (following his old manager). The automatic spots (the goal of last season) seem a little too out of reach to be a totally realistic target this time around, but a top 6 finish and more playoff woes are entirely feasible.
Over at the City Ground, the biggest signing of the summer has been new boss Steve McClaren, playoff failure, as in Cardiff, not a satisfactory outcome for the Forest board who issued Billy Davies his P45. The midfield has been fortified with the experience of Jonathan Greening, Andy Reid and George Boateng, but the squad as a whole seems to lack numbers and quality in the defence area. Shteve will be in for some shtick if they start the season struggling – but if Forest find some good form and play to the best of their attacking potential, they should be in the hunt once again.
After an agonising 7th place finish, Leeds will be hoping to be just one step further along come the end of April. It is difficult to see where there this little extra is going to arise from with the season only days away. The squad has been deprived of Kasper Schumacher (to theoretical promotion rivals Leicester) and midfield duo Johnson and Kilkenny – Michael Brown, despite the wealth of experience (and violence) he carries with him, is not enough to replace both. They can still boast impressive attacking options in Becchio and Gradel, but the former will miss an unspecified length of time at the start of the season due to injury and fellow striker David Somma most of the campaign due to cruciate damage. Some tweaks and additions are required at Elland Road for playoffs to be a realistic target, but it is one that is certainly within their grasp.
Ipswich, Hull and Portsmouth all deserve consideration when considering the promotion race. Hull have made some shrewd signings in Adebola, McKenna and Hobbs and can already call on an energetic and creative midfield, the standout names being James Harper and Robert Koren (or the Aliaksandr Hleb of the Championship, as I like to refer to him). Aaron McLean will be looking to discover once more the form he showed at Peterborough and improve upon last season’s paltry 3 goals in 23 appearances; the potential for a deadly partnership with Matty Fryatt is there and must be tapped into. Pompey may still be haunted by lingering financial demons and have a paper thin squad, but it is a squad of with ability and experience. The signing of Luke Varney will provide energy to the attack and there is defensive solidity with the presence of captain Aaron Mokoena. If they can flesh out their numbers somewhat, Portsmouth have every chance of surprising a few people this season.
Ipswich will no doubt be inspired (as well as slightly nauseous) by the promotion of bitter East Anglian rivals Norwich City. The money from the sale of Connor Wickham has been put to good use, the squad strengthened by the new presence of Bowyer in midfield, Chopra up front and Jay-Emmanuel Thomas lord knows where (versatility can be both a blessing and a curse). Defensively suspect, an ageing Ingimarsson will not improve them a great deal in this regard and is a blockage in the playoff pipe works.
The term “outside bet” is thrown around a lot in the Championship – in fact, you could almost make a case for almost any team to finish in the top 6. The teams detailed are the ones with the most foreseeable chances of success. But heck, I’ll throw in mentions for Middlesbrough, Burnley, Brighton and Southampton too. They don’t appear to have enough in their arsenal at this stage to be obvious contenders, but there are always teams who play above their apparent capabilities and set up camp in the top 6. Boro have endured two painfully average seasons in the championship, but under the guidance of club legend Tony Mowbray there is renewed hope for the coming months. Burnley should have finished better than 8th and 7 points from the playoffs last season; their task will be all the greater this time with the loss of Eagles and Mears to Bolton. However, they still have a decent side, highlighted by a dangerous strike pairing of Rodriguez and Patterson.
Brighton and Southampton are not expected to charge up the table ala Norwich, but then again neither were the Canaries. Similarly, both sides will enjoy the benefits of raucous support (Brighton’s in a shiny new stadium) and will be hoping the fans’ impact will keep the great home form coming. (Last season – Brighton: W17 D4 L2. Southampton: W16 D4 L3) Gus Poyet’s brand of “sexy football” may not cut through teams in the same manner a level higher, but they play with style and elegance. For Southampton, much relies on Rickie Lambert replicating his strike rate in a higher division and “wonderkid” Oxlade-Chamberlain showing what all the fuss is about.
Having mentioned Southampton and Brighton above as longshot promotion candidates, it may not be that promoted sides from League One suffer an immediate return from whence they came. Let’s cast our eye to see if the last 5 years can offer any insight:
- Promotions: 1 (Norwich, last season)
- Playoffs: 2 (neither ended in success)
- Relegations: 3
- Top-half: 7
So whilst a season tussling away with the big kids for supremacy of the playground isn’t on the cards, they’ll by no means be the whipping boys. Although, 3 out of the past 5 years one of the sides has failed to cling on to their Championship status. One of these sides was Peterborough United and they’ll be facing a similar threat on this occasion. The side scored a rather preposterous 106 league goals in their successful League One venture, but also conceded 75, the second worst total in the division. Craig Mackail-Smith contributed just over a quarter (27) of these, but has left for Brighton; the club cannot afford to rely almost solely on the mercurial talents of George Boyd. Darren Ferguson is utilising his familial connections and securing loan deals for promising youngsters, but without some experienced heads to guide them, what lies ahead will prove to be a steep and disappointing learning curve.
Barnsley and Doncaster have been tipped for relegation for about the last three years and have performed admirably in staving it off to this point; performing to a lesser standard could signal their demise on this occasion. At Oakwell, they’ve lost key centre back Jason Shackell and haven’t come close to replacing the attacking threat posed by Adam Hammill since he made his January move to Wolves. A lacklustre attack has been bolstered by the signing of Craig Davies from Chesterfield, but is doubtful he will score goals in the same manner he did back in League Two. Sean O’Driscoll has done a magnificent job keeping Doncaster around for a fourth season in the second tier, but the most challenging times lie before them. The small squad leans too heavily on captain Brian Stock and the goals of striker Billy Sharp – goals that may yet end up benefiting someone else.
South London duo Crystal Palace and Millwall could find a tricky season in front of them, as could Coventry City. The Sky Blues have considerable financial woes and the possibility of administration is a not out of the question. The services of top-scoring striker Marlon King have been stripped from the attack and the midfield shorn of Aron Gunnarsson’s influence; with no significant arrivals, relegation is a distinct possibility. Palace escaped the drop last season and in fact appear to be a more stable and stronger side than last year. They have lost an important figure in midfielder Neil Danns, but have accrued Australian international Mile Jedinak and Kagisho Dikgacoi to plug the gap; the addition of Glenn Murray should provide goals. Reasons for Palace fans to have a more positive outlook than this time last year, but unless they improve upon a shocking away record (1 win and 9 points) the threat of relegation will not evaporate completely.
Such concerns must seem a mile away at The Den, but a marvellous 9th place finish doesn’t look to be on the horizon again. The squad isn’t actually that strong and leading scorer Steve Morison has left, along with the talismanic presence of Neil Harris; Darius Henderson will not make up the shortfall in goals (he has scored 20 in the past three seasons, compared to Morison’s 15 last season alone). There will probably be three worse teams, but it would be surprising if Millwall spent their time looking upwards rather than over their shoulder. Moreover, the signing of Jordan Stewart is usually the death knell for a club.
Speaking of Jordan, we now arrive at a (slightly indulgent) look at the season facing Watford. Last August, doom and gloom were forecast at Vicarage Road. But then Danny Graham scored some goals, Will Buckley effortlessly glided past players as if they weren’t there and Marvin Sordell announced himself on the football stage. There were a couple of brief, sporadic flirtations with the playoff spots before the team finally settled in for mid-table bliss.
The main problem was consistency; the potential of the team was clear for all to see, best exemplified in a blistering and televised victory at Loftus Road, becoming the first side to defeat eventual champions QPR at home. Moments such as this were more than matched by those of disappointment and frustration; in the space of four November days, Watford twice contrived to blow second half 2-1 leads (at Palace and Burnley). They scored 77 goals, the 3rd highest total in the division; they let in 77, the 5th highest.
At this stage, a 14th place finish would be a happy outcome. Manager Malky Mackay has abandoned ship for the sunnier climbs of Cardiff, taking with him a portion of the backroom staff and vital midfielder Don Cowie. Danny Graham, unsurprisingly, was sold, as was, more surprisingly, Will Buckley. There have been a few new faces arrive, but the attacking quality is not the same and 77 goals is a total unlikely to be replicated. I think there are 3 worse teams in the division, but without some additions the season promises to be a nervy one; I also pray the signing of Chris Iwelumo is not a portent of Sean Dyche abandoning a passing football philosophy and resorting to a long-ball game.
Of course, in 3 weeks this could be a completely different story; the closing weeks of the transfer window will heavily influence how the season unfolds and the scope for change in the Championship is magnificently large. Whatever happens, the season promises to be full of drama, high emotion, fabulous highs and devastating lows, just about the only things one can safely predict. At the season’s close, 3 clubs will ascend from the madness of the Championship arena to the Premier League; until then, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow exists as only a distant dream.
And finally, taking a stab at predicting what will actually happen:
Automatic promotion: West Ham and Leicester
Playoffs: Cardiff, Birmingham, Nottingham Forest, Hull
Relegation: Barnsley, Peterborough, Coventry
When Matthew Campbell isn’t writing for The Football Express, he occasionally posts the odd thought or two on twitter at @mattc236. But you will more readily find him, head hung over a pint, considering the disaster that was Jordan Stewart when he was Watford’s left back.