Championship season preview 2013/4

In last season’s preview, I only managed to pick: –

  • Two of the top six (Cardiff and Leicester)
  • One of the relegated clubs (Bristol City)
  • Put Derby 17th (seven places out – although in fairness, it was published before the signing of Conor Sammon, which would have led me to push us up my predicted table to 14th.  Yes, really!  Also, it wasn’t clear at that point just how good Will Hughes would turn out to be…)

Wolves and Birmingham, who I predicted would go up automatically and finish 6th respectively, both underachieved – in Wolves’ case, catastrophically – and Blackpool, whom I had down as play-off challengers, were well short.

I thought that Bolton would win the division, although I wasn’t aware quite how parlous their financial position is and also that their totem, Kevin Davies, was already past his peak.  Nevertheless, once Dougie Freedman got his feet under the desk there, he did manage to propel them up the table and almost into the top six.

At the other end, my predicted bottom two, Millwall and Barnsley, both survived, although it went down to the wire for the Tykes and Kenny Jackett resigned his post at the New Den at the end of the season, in search of a ‘new challenge’.

This season, I’ve decided to be a bit less exacting and not try to place every team in specific league positions.  It isn’t hard to predict that the relegated clubs from the Premier League will take advantage of their parachute payments and be in the shake up for a swift return, but clubs do come down with problems and clearly, Wolves’ issues were a lot deeper-rooted than I realised.  As I said in last year’s preview, the gamble of hiring a foreign manager in Ståle Solbakken was not guaranteed to work – although sacking him after a handful of games in favour of the unproven Dean Saunders didn’t turn out to be the brightest idea, either.

Blackburn were easy to predict as a basket case who might struggle to get back up again and so it proved to be.  This season’s Blackburn could be QPR – but it’s difficult to see Reading or Wigan becoming this year’s Wolves.

Overall, I forecast quite a weak division, with only a handful of clubs in a position to seriously challenge for promotion and plenty of dross whose seasons will peter out pretty quickly.

With smaller clubs coming up from League One this time, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this could be a season for the Mighty Rams to push for the play-offs, along with our East Midlands rivals and the parachute-laden likes of Wigan and QPR.

It would be a great achievement if we could crack it against the odds and I won’t be too downhearted if we don’t, so long as we improve on last year’s 10th place finish and are genuinely in the running until the end of the season.  I’d be more confident had we managed to keep Brayford, but alas, that wasn’t to be.

Anyroad, here we go….

AUTOMATIC PROMOTION

Reading – Nigel Adkins has the chance to take another club up, with the huge financial advantage of parachute payments.  Hopefully, he will make Reading less boring while he’s at it – the signing of ex-Real Madrid and Everton wideman Royston Drenthe suggests that could be the case.

Watford – I’ve spoken to Watford fans about the Pozzo approach and they are really happy with it.  Many of the same players they enjoyed watching last season have returned for another crack at promotion, plus a few more on top.  Even if the Paraguayan striker Carlos Javier Acuña Caballero (Bob to his mates) doesn’t prove to be as successful an acquisition as Matěj Vydra was last year, they have the Italy cap Diego Fabbrini – a demon false nine, I’m reliably informed – to turn to.  Frankly, the owners aren’t fucking about and they clearly want a Premier League side to go with their La Liga and Serie A outfits.  Money talks….

PLAY-OFF CONTENDERS

Queens Park Rangers – ‘Arry’s crack at promotion will bring extra media scrutiny to the Championship and the Sky cameras will be hovering around Loftus Road should they stumble.  Signing the likes of Danny Simpson from Newcastle and Charlie Austin from Burnley shows that there is still money sloshing around, although sadly, the Brazil international Júlio César will not be keeping goal at Pride Park next February.  They should walk it, on paper – but you get the sense that an ageing squad (bolstered by more veterans in Richard Dunne and Karl Henry) won’t find it as easy as all that, especially if, as I suspect will be the case, they miss out on the top two.

Wigan Athletic – Owen Coyle’s patchy recent record made him a surprise replacement for Roberto Martínez in my mind and they might find it difficult to clamber out of the Championship again, especially with the distraction of a Europa League campaign to prepare for.  However, that financial advantage looms large and the signing of Grant Holt from Norwich strengthens their attack.  Other signings with PL experience include James Perch and Scott Carson.

Bolton Wanderers – I tipped them for promotion last season, but it was only after finally parting with Owen Coyle that the Trotters woke up and started looking like the big, parachute-bloated fish that they currently are at this level.  Building on last season’s strong finish – they won nine of their last 14 league games to finish just shy of the top six – the expectation will be that they will go at least one better this time around, although they will need to replace the likes of Jay Spearing, Craig Dawson and last year’s player of the year, Marcos Alonso.  Still, they have shown off their financial advantage this summer by agreeing deals for Alex Baptiste (whose wage demands were ‘eye-watering’, according to Sam Rush), André Moritz and Jermaine Beckford.

Nottingham Forest – As ever, Napoleon will fancy his chances and Jack Hobbs, Gonzalo Jara, Jamie Paterson and Darius Henderson have all been added this summer – not exactly stellar signings, but decent squad men to bolster their ranks.  Jamie Mackie was undeniably a good signing and the most costly business of their summer to date was the £1.5m Algeria winger Djamel Abdoun; however, bids for Wes Morgan, Kelvin Wilson and Grant Leadbitter had all failed at the time of writing.

Leicester City – The debt-laden Foxes will have another tilt at glory this year under their Thai backers, but seem destined to fail every time.  The moment of schadenfreude when Anthony Knockaert missed his penalty in the play-offs was marvellous, but hopefully, this season, the Foxes won’t even get that far.  The talk has been of reigning in the overspending to comply with Financial Fair Play regulations and as a result, they look set to go again with pretty much the same squad as last year.

Brighton & Hove Albion – The controversy over the dismissal of Gus Poyet has cast the rapid development of the Seagulls into doubt.  Replacing him with Maccabi Tel Aviv manager Óscar García, who has no previous experience of English football, is a gamble, although his pedigree (ex-Barcelona midfielder and under-19s coach) is more eye-catching than was the case with poor old Ståle Solbakken.

Derby County – Could this be the season?  Last season’s 10th-placed squad has been largely retained and strengthened with the signings of Grant, Martin, Eustace, Russell and Forsyth, while the general air of stability about the club contrasts greatly with many other clubs with play-off pretensions.  A further improvement on last season would push us right up into contention and with the youngsters Hughes and Hendrick ever improving, plus new additions across the pitch, there’s every reason to feel optimistic about what this season could bring.  It’s just a shame we couldn’t hang onto John Brayford.

MID TABLE 

Ipswich Town – After enduring a prolonged period of underachievement, Ipswich finally appointed a solid manager in Mick McCarthy and will improve as a result.  This season probably won’t be the one in which they make the top six, but expect them to have more of a say than has been the case in recent seasons.

Bournemouth – Eddie Howe has received backing from a Russian investor and the signing of Ian Harte, albeit at 35, adds know-how.  They may not have been a match for Real Madrid in pre-season, but expect them to be the best of the three promoted clubs this season.

Blackburn Rovers – As good as he is, Jordan Rhodes doth not a team make.  Under their clueless owners, Blackburn Rovers are in trouble and if things don’t change, they’ll drop another level eventually.  Probably not this season, though.  New signings include the injury-prone defender Matt Kilgallon and a couple of players who came through their own academy, Alan Judge and Alex Marrow.

Middlesbrough – For some reason, Boro are the team I always think that Derby should be beating.  One of the bigger second-division clubs, with a tradition of producing good players through their academy, they are nevertheless somewhat marooned in this division now and generally give me the impression of a club in the midsts of a long-term, slow decline, with more empty seats than full at the Riverside most weeks.

Leeds United – Brian McDermott has told media that he expects to have to offload players before he can buy – the deal for Noel Hunt was financed by sending Steve Morison to Millwall on a season-long loan, for example.  The signing of midfielder Luke Murphy will have lifted morale around Elland Road, but think of it this way – all they’ve done is what we did a few seasons back, when we took the top prospect from Crewe. They’ll need to strengthen further if they want to challenge.

Huddersfield Town – Despite the windfall of selling Jordan Rhodes, they only loaned in Jermaine Beckford and James Vaughan for last season, before taking Vaughan permanently from Norwich on a free transfer this summer.  It will be interesting to see how they go this time around.

Blackpool – Memories of their Premier League season under Ian Holloway have faded and this is a club, like Burnley, that is finding post-promotion life very tricky.  Paul Ince reportedly offered to resign this summer and a clutch of players left on free transfers this summer, giving them a difficult task.  With Ince publicly unhappy about a lack of new signings and his son Thomas unlikely to stay, Bloomfield Road doesn’t seem the happiest of places at the moment.  The likely cash windfall for Ince Jr should provide money for much-needed new recruits, though.

Burnley – Burnley under Sean Dyche do not look like promotion contenders.  Much will depend on whether Charlie Austin leaves or not – they lost a decent keeper this summer, as well.

Millwall – 
 It will be interesting to see how they get on post-Kenny Jackett.  The return of Steve Morison will certainly help and they will be banking on his goals to keep them in this division – but they have brought in further experience in Nicky Bailey and Richard Chaplow.

STRAGGLERS

Charlton Athletic – Under the stewardship of Chris Powell, Charlton will continue to pootle along without bothering the top six.  Survival will suit them fine, but is by no means assured.

Barnsley – Did well under new manager David Flitcroft at the tail end of last season and will address their annual battle to retain second-tier status with gusto.  Perhaps they will be saved by another high-profile catastrophe?

Doncaster Rovers – Having recovered from the disastrous ‘experiment’ which saw a team of mercenary foreign cast-offs led by El-Hadji Diouf relegated, Donny are now managed by Paul ‘Works His’ Dickov. The budget realities that led them to be open to trying out ‘the experiment’ mean that it remains difficult for them to compete at Championship level, but as they proved under Sean O’Driscoll’s management, it isn’t impossible – and there are whispers of possible fresh investment, which would help their cause immensely.

Sheffield Wednesday – With Milan Mandarić reportedly looking to sell up, an unimpressive looking Owls squad will have to scrap their way through another tough Championship campaign.  It will be very interesting to see how their new acquisition from Burton, Jacques Maghoma, acquits himself at Pride Park in November, while goals will be required from the 6’6″ Austrian striker Atdhe Nuhiu.

Birmingham City – Brum’s ongoing financial crisis means that they have been forced to shed their higher earners and replace them with a mixture of free transfers, youngsters and loanees.  Crippled by the financial and legal meltdown of owner Carson Yeung and the staggeringly stupid contract they awarded to goal-free beanpole Nikola Žigiç – who will reportedly be paid around £4,000,000 this season alone – Birmingham are being forced to flog off anything resembling a decent player this summer.  Selling Curtis Davies to Hull and Nathan Redmond to Norwich could allow them to bring in enough bodies to stay up, but Lee Clark is going to have to earn his corn and no mistake.

Yeovil Town – A minnow at this level, Yeovil will love welcoming ‘big clubs’ like Derby to Huish Park and anyone with a sense of romance would like to see them do well this season.  Their home form will be critical to their aspirations of survival.  However, when you look at the sort of players they are thinking of signing, you can see that it will be very tough for them, even if they have made use of the loan market to bring in striker Michael Ngoo from Liverpool and defender Alan Tate from Swansea.

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