Soccerlens’ Football League preview reaches its climax ahead of the big kick-off this weekend, with The Championship playing a starring role.
There’s plenty of big names battling it out for a money-spinning place in the Premiership, so read for our views on who’ll be mixing it with Manchester United next season, who’ll be lowering themselves into League One, and our prediction for Newcastle’s season.
Bluffer’s guide to the league
Even in the days when it was the old Second Division, the league that isn’t the top flight has been well regarded. Known as The Championship since 2004, it’s the richest second-tier league anywhere in the world. The playoff final is often referred to as the most valuable game in the world due to the riches on offer from the Premier League for one season before the inevitable relegation.
If The Championship were a football it would be…
Craig Bellamy. Not quite as good as it thinks it is, but there’s enough class to be able to mix it with the best from time to time. Never quite convinces at the highest level but exciting to watch and genuinely unpredictable.
Last season in a Tweet
Wolves take the title despite a mid-season dip. Nearest challengers also fall over themselves not to win the league. Ex-Premier League teams make up the bottom three.
In a league where none of the relegated three from the Premier League look quite capable of lighting up the Championship, Sheffield United look a good bet for the title. Although the Blades stumbled in the playoffs, they have the momentum behind them and, at times, looked the best team in the league. There’s plenty of firepower and creativity in the side (Ched Evans is a good signing) and Kevin Blackwell’s side will the the ones to beat.
Never underestimate the power of Roy Keane. You can ask questions about his ability to manage in the Premier League but he took Sunderland up from the Championship and should do the same with Ipswich Town. Owner Marcus Evans has deep pockets and Keane has already set about building a squad for promotion. The Tractor Boys know what’s expected of them and Keane is the man to lead them to it.
Had Tony Mowbray stayed at West Brom and kept the vultures at bay for the Baggies best players, we’d have made them title favourites. As it is, they should comfortably make the playoffs. Roberto Di Matteo is new to this level but did well with the MK Dons and, in Simon Cox and Rueben Reid has signed players with potential but no proven experience at this level. A lot rests on whether the Baggies can hold onto the likes of Jonathan Greening until the transfer window shuts.
Gareth Southgate has quietly been going about his business at Middlesborough this close season and despite the departure of Stewart Downing, likely to be followed by that of Tuncay, but Boro still have a very strong squad. If Southgate can refocus his troops then expect the Teesiders to be challenging for an immediate return.
Reading should have been good enough to head straight back to the Premier League. As it was they occasionally lost their way last season, and new boss Brendan Rodgers may find it hard to turn them into title contenders. Kevin Doyle may be gone but the Hunt brothers will always be dangerous and the Royals should play some of the most eye-catching football in the division again.
Preston are getting to be a fixture in the playoffs without ever being quite good enough to make the step up to the Premier League. Alan Irvine has slowly put together a very good team that may not be high on star quality but North End will again be tough to break down and may fly under the radar again. Other teams should not underestimate them.
There’s plenty of other teams – Swansea, Cardiff and QPR – who’ll be challenging for the playoffs but keep an eye on Derby County. This will be Nigel Clough’s first full season in charge and all the signs are he could replicate his success with Burton. He’s signed players he knows like Jake Buxton and Dean Moxey and has revitalised a club badly in need of a pick-me-up. Clough will be in for the long haul but the Rams may yet surprise many.
Barnsley may have just managed to keep themselves in the Championship in recent seasons but this could be a fight too far. Simon Davey’s team will give it their all but with two strong teams promoted from League 1 and their rivals have strengthened. The Yorkshire club have what it takes to compete at this level, but may need a season in the division below to realise it.
Scunthorpe won a lot of friends by beating MK Dons then Millwall in the League One playoffs last season but it won’t be an easy season in the Championship for the Iron. Nigel Adkins is a good young manager but with the resources at his disposal and the quality of oter teams in the division, Scunthorpe may have to settle for being a yo-yo club.
Blackpool have Ian Holloway as manager and if anybody can save the Tangerines from the drop it’s the outspoken manager from Bristol. Holloway had fellow relegation rivals Plymouth punching well above their weight but his record is somewhat tainted by relegation at Leicester. Much will rest on new signing Jason Euell but even his goals won’t be enough for ‘Pool.
Joker in the pack
Newcastle United, in every sense of the word. After a pre-season of complete inertia with no takeover, no manager and no new players, the Toon are an utter mystery ahead of the season. On paper, the ‘biggest club in the Championship’ looked strong enough to bounce back but many of the squad are looking for an exit and there’s no telling how a bunch of players who looked uninspired last season will fare outside of the Premier League. Death or glory, or, quite probably, mediocrity, awaits.
Solid gold gaffer
Gary Johnson has a knack of getting the best out of teams that are more than the sum of their parts. Defied expectation that Bristol City would head straight back down to League One by turning them into playoff contenders and will continue to do so this time around.
Three players to watch
Simon Cox was hot property in League One last season, topping the scoring table for the division in an average Swindon side. West Brom have paid £2m for his services, and the youngster has much to prove as the Baggies look to fire their way back to the Premier League.
Craig Noone has come a long way since coming up through the ranks at non-league Skelmersdale United. The midfielder leapt from the Blue Square North to the Championship when Plymouth Argyle signed him last season and he was a rare bright spot as the Pilgrims struggled. Wigan and Sunderland were rumoured to be interested and Noone will be a key player again for the Devon club.
George Boyd has already more than justified his record-breaking £260,000 move to Peterborough three years ago. Now the 23-year-old has his chance to make his mark on the Championship. Tipped by many to reach the Premier League, expect the former Stevenage man to terrorise defenders again this season.