Even a cursory glance through the list of clubs in the Npower Championship for 2011/12 shows just how tough, tight and unforgiving it will be.
By my reckoning, there will be at least 13 teams with a chance of making the top six and hardly any who will be content just to survive. This said, many clubs are suffering with debt problems, meaning that activity in the transfer market has been sporadic, with plenty of clubs still under pressure from their supporters to make signings as the start of the season looms.
At present, six Championship clubs are in the hands of foreign owners – all of whom would see themselves as amongst the ‘bigger’ clubs at this level (Derby, Portsmouth, Southampton, Cardiff, Leicester and Birmingham – Leeds United recently passed into Ken Bates’ “ownership”, having previously been owned by an anonymous, foreign-based consortium).
Derby are unlikely, in my analysis, to be in a position to seriously push for promotion. If you don’t go forwards, you go backwards and it seems that the investment levels provided by GSE will not be enough to do much more than keep the Rams stable at Championship level, unless the squad knits together extremely well from the start of the season and stays relatively free of injuries.
Whether mid-table anonymity will be enough to gain Nigel Clough an extension to his contract remains to be seen.
DERBYCOUNTYBLOG.COM’s PREDICTED 2011/12 CHAMPIONSHIP LEAGUE TABLE
1st – WEST HAM UNITED – With the move to Stratford looming, there is huge pressure on ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce to get the Hammers back up at the first time of asking. In fact, failure is not an option. Whilst big name players like Scott Parker and Carlton Cole could still leave, that might not actually be such a bad thing and besides, players of the calibre of Kevin Nolan and Matt Taylor have already arrived.
Factor in the first fat chunk of parachute payments from the Premier League and the deck is heavily stacked in their favour.
2nd – LEICESTER CITY – Bound to be among the favourites to go up, the big guns coming down notwithstanding. Well-funded by their Thai owners, the Foxes will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
The timing could be perfect as well, given that Blackpool are not the strongest side ever to come down and Birmingham City are staring down the barrel of financial meltdown. I hope that Sven’s men blow it, but judging from their transfer activity, the Thais seem to be leaving little to chance.
3rd – READING – Gutted by their defeat in the play-off final, Reading will have to go again under Brian McDermott. The club seems relatively stable under Sir John Madejski and although they may have to do without striker Shane Long, they will be doughty opposition again in 2011/12, as long as the loss of defender Matt Mills is adequately covered.
4th – BLACKPOOL – An interesting one. In theory, they are perfectly armed for a yo-yo bounce back up, with parachute payments and presumably still a fair wedge of their £39m of TV rights and ‘reward money’ from the Premier League to spend. Ian Holloway knows the Championship well and knows and trusts his core players, so there probably won’t be major changes – apart from the release of a few expensive fringe players, like Marlon Harewood.
However, much will depend on whether they can replace Charlie Adam, whose skill was integral to their brave Premier League endeavours, and DJ Campbell (on the verge of a move to QPR at the time of writing), who would have been a good source of goals at this level.
5th – CARDIFF CITY – Dave Jones’ nearly men were there or thereabouts for the past three seasons, but even with Craig Bellamy in tow, couldn’t crack it last season. Their new owners have decided that a change of manager is what’s required to get them promoted this time around. What’s more, there’s been a major turnover of players, with the likes of Bothroyd, Chopra, Bellamy and Burke departing, leaving Malky Mackay with a major job on his hands – not least to replace the goals of the old Bluebirds strike force.
Although Rob Earnshaw and Aron Gunnarsson are signed up (and some bloke called Kenny Miller), a relatively undistinguished transitional season might well be the result for the Bluebirds; however, I wouldn’t back against Mackay to pilot them into the play-offs.
6th – BURNLEY – Still in receipt of parachute payments and should be strong again, having just missed out on the play-offs in 2010/11. They have lost a few players this summer, but Eddie Howe is a highly-rated young manager with a good record from his time at Bournemouth and will relish the challenge.
7th – IPSWICH TOWN – If their May bids for Sharp and Coppinger from Doncaster are anything to go by, they have money to spend and will back Paul Jewell in the transfer market. Whether giving money to Jagger will actually propel them into the play-off berths is another matter.
Jewell’s Ipswich signings parallel eerily with his transfer moves from the Derby days – Michael Chopra, a striker guaranteed to bag goals at this level (Rob Hulse); Lee Bowyer, an experienced midfielder (Robbie Savage); Aaron Cresswell, a promising prospect from Tranmere Rovers (Steven Davies) and, erm, Nathan Ellington.
Why the hell is he so obsessed with Nathan Ellington?
8th – BIRMINGHAM CITY – The furore caused by Alex McLeish’s defection to Aston Villa and the arrest in Hong Kong of owner Carson Yeung, on money laundering charges, could derail Brum.
Chris Hughton is a coach with a good reputation (earned the hard way at Newcastle United), but he needs a Championship-ready squad, as well as facing the distraction of a Europa League campaign.
If reports at the time of writing are accurate, further player departures – on top of Foster and Johnson are necessary to cover the funding black hole left by Yeung’s legal problems. They will receive parachute payments and will still be a pain in the arse to play against, that’s for sure – the Rams’ last victory over the Blues was in 1995. However, unless Yeung manages to clear his name and unfreeze his assets, trouble could well be brewing.
9th – LEEDS UNITED – Leeds will hope to challenge for the play-offs, but haven’t been particularly active in the transfer market this summer. That is as much as I wish to say about Leeds United.
10th – SOUTHAMPTON – Were always likely to get back to the Championship under their new Swiss ownership and will expect to do OK. Rickie Lambert is their source of goals, but they have also been chasing players of the calibre of Sharp and Maynard – and managed to complete the relatively high-profile signing of Jack Cork from Chelsea.
11th – NOTTINGHAM FOREST – Having made the play-offs for two consecutive seasons under Billy Davies, Forest are now reportedly preparing to scale down their spending in the transfer market. Billy Davies, of course, is not the manager to have if you aren’t prepared to wave millions of pounds around and so one-time pariah (and two-time Ram) Steve McClaren has been recalled from his European wanderings to replace him.
The turbulence Davies leaves in his wake will certainly unsettle the club, who are also due for a major squad ‘overhaul’, with players like Earnshaw, Boyd, Konchesky and Nathan Tyson leaving. Here’s hoping that chaos ensues.
12th – DERBY COUNTY – Modest investment in players is not sufficient to guarantee a play-off spot and despite the club’s stated aims, mid-table is probably about as far as the current squad can go. A poor start to the season could trigger serious unrest amongst the supporters and it’s perfectly conceivable that Nigel Clough could be sacked before the end of 2011/12. On the other hand, steady improvement should be enough to see off his detractors and earn him a contract extension.
13th – HULL CITY – They have a steady manager in Nigel Pearson and a reasonable squad, bolstered with no less than four Manchester United youth products (most notably Corry Evans). Clearly not swamped with cash, having been priced out of moves for Keith Treacy and Jason Shackell – probably due to the crippling drain on their resources that is Jimmy Bullard’s ridiculous contract. Unlikely to be strong enough for the play-offs.
14th – BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION – Ambitious Brighton should not be underestimated. Under Gus Poyet, they strode out of League One in some style and have a new stadium ready for unveiling. A bounce through to the Premier League is probably beyond them, but there’s no reason why they can’t do well. The signings of Craig Mackail-Smith and Ronald Bergkamp will have been a major boost to fans.
15th – PORTSMOUTH – Limped through last season without a squad to speak of, but have now been taken over by Russian investor Vladimir Antonov. The new man will demand success quickly and you hope he doesn’t discard Steve Cotterill too hastily if Pompey don’t get off to a flyer. Mid-table is realistically their best hope as they continue to rebuild.
16th – MIDDLESBROUGH – Got over their nightmare Gordon Strachan period and should be better under Tony Mowbray. However, there doesn’t seem to be too much brass to spend and Boro will be far from the strongest club at this level.
17th – MILLWALL – Toughed their way to a top ten finish last season, without any big name players or splashing of cash. If they can follow that up with another mid-table season, I’m sure they’ll be delighted. Star man Steve Morison has left and it will be tough for the Lions to replace his goals.
18th – BRISTOL CITY – Had an undistinguished 2010/11, although this can be excused in part, as their plans were wrecked by the resignation of Steve Coppell with the season barely underway. If Nicky Maynard stays, they should have goals in them, but mid-table will be the height of their aspirations.
19th – WATFORD – Their 2010/11 season tailed off rather and it would seem that mid-table aspirations are about as much as they can hope for this time around. Star striker Danny Graham, goalophobic on loan at Derby but a goalophile every-bloody-well-where-else, has got his move to the Premier League with Norwich. With Malky Mackay also gone, to Cardiff, a season of struggle could be the result for the Hornets.
20th – DONCASTER ROVERS – Their form collapsed alarmingly towards the end of last season, perhaps betraying an over-reliance upon the injured Billy Sharp. Sean O’Driscoll has done a fine job at Donny, but they will probably struggle again this season. By mid-May, Ipswich Town had already dangled a tidy sum for their two most salable assets, Sharp and attacking midfielder James Coppinger, which Rovers knocked back. It doesn’t disguise the fact that there are tough times ahead.
21st – CRYSTAL PALACE – One of the smaller clubs at this level, much will depend upon how much money their fan consortium owners can find for new players. James Vaughan will not be around this time, but on the plus side, they have managed to get rid of Claude Davis.
22nd – BARNSLEY – The departure of Mark Robins might spell the end for Barnsley at Championship level. In a congested, increasingly competitive league, smaller clubs are starting to feel the squeeze. Robins will go on to better things, but Barnsley might not.
New manager Keith Hill is being asked to cut a wage bill which must be one of the lowest in the division anyway; former captain Jason Shackell is now a Ram and it doesn’t bode well when you’re obliged to bring in a loanee to replace a £1m player – even if it’s a good loan in Miles Addison. In summary, it doesn’t look great. Relegation candidates.
23rd – COVENTRY CITY – Losing key players Keiren Westwood, Marlon King and Aron Gunnarsson is not a good omen for the Sky Blues, who are languishing under the ownership of Jeremy Keith’s old friends SISU. Striker Lukas Jutkiewicz has been linked with a move away too, showing the depth of the problems that Coventry face.
The Fat Controller’s pals aren’t interested in providing a transfer budget and the squad is stocked with youngsters, marketed by the club as ‘a strong base of homegrown talent‘. The Ricoh Arena is half-empty most weekends and the unproven manager Andy Thorn faces a battle to keep them up.
24th – PETERBOROUGH UNITED – Darragh MacAnthony and Darren Ferguson, with Barry Fry in the background, are back for another crack at Division Two. Joe Lewis and George Boyd are still around, but Craig Mackail-Smith has left for Brighton and you fail to see Posh getting very far in the Championship this season – Manchester United loanees notwithstanding.
Survival would be a good result for them, although MacAnthony might not see it that way if they have another poor start to the season. Groundhog Day, anyone?