Are we really contenders this time? The loss of Tom Ince is undeniably a factor, especially as the Rams didn’t score nearly enough last season anyway. This will hopefully be mitigated to an extent by the return of Chris Martin – a very different type of threat – while Curtis Davies should improve a defence which had a respectable record in any case. Throw in the nous of David Nugent, the surprise return of Andre Wisdom and the surreal return of Tom Huddlestone and there’s something there for Gary Rowett to build on. Still, I can’t help wondering if this season will turn out to be one of ‘transition’, rather than promotion, just because of the scale of the task ahead of Rowett in terms of refreshing and reshaping the squad. As things stand, I feel confident that this year will, at the least, turn out to be the start of a positive transition towards longer-term progress under this manager.
No Wardrobe this time, but plenty of flair, which will continue to make them the neutral’s favourite. Tom Cairney enjoyed a breakthrough season in the number 10 role and was promptly handed a contract extension, as was the prodigy Ryan Sessegnon. However, questions linger over their defensive capability, as Derby demonstrated in that bizarre 4-2 victory at Pride Park. It seems that Slaviša Jokanović is looking to take the McClaren route to the top – and fair fucks to him for that.
Garry Monk’s reward for bringing stability to Leeds is the chance of piloting Boro back to the top flight. Doubtless, he will feel very confident of doing so, given the resources available to him – Jonny Howson’s capture from Norwich was a solid start, which felt very ‘Boro’. That said, they’ve gambled £15m on Britt Assombalonga’s fitness – then there was a bizarre spat which developed between the club and its local newspaper, the Gazette, over their reporting of the fee. And don’t get Ramspace started on Cyrus Christie…
One of last season’s big spenders, Norwich’s underachievement relative to their budget was a big Championship story and cost Alex Neil his job. They will expect to go closer this time. New coach Daniel Farke (pictured) is the latest member of the Dortmund coaching staff to be offered a gig in England, alongside sporting director Stuart Webber, poached from Huddersfield.
The stattos hated Reading all last season and kept waiting for the wheels to fall off – and yet. Jaap Stam must now be a contender to get a managerial gig with a bigger club. Veteran target man Yann Kermorgant retires at the end of this season and it would be truly remarkable if he could follow up last year’s 19-goal ‘Indian summer’ with a final big campaign – Iceland striker Jón Daði Böðvarsson has arrived from Wolves as cover. On paper, they ain’t great. And yet.
After two successive failures in the play-offs, the Owls somehow need to find a way to kick on under Carlos Carvalhal. They have already paid £10m for Jordan Rhodes, which makes you wonder how much cash they can possibly have spare to strengthen elsewhere, given Financial Fair Play rules. George Boyd is the other high-profile recruit for Carvalhal’s third crack at the big time.
Strange times in Wolverhampton, as this unprepossessing corner of the West Midlands becomes an English outpost for the infamous ‘super-agent’ Jorge Mendes. Exit the prosaic Paul Lambert, enter Mendes’ long-term pal Nuno Espirito Santo as coach – followed, incredibly, by the Portugal midfielder Rúben Neves, from Porto, for a preposterous amount of money. Neves’ agency? You’ve guessed it – Gestifute.
While the glamorous Neves deal made the headlines, Wolves have strengthened significantly beyond that, with two further signings from Portuguese football – the local journos particularly like the centre back Willy Boly – plus two from Norwich (including John Ruddy, following the awful news that Carl Ikeme had been diagnosed with leukaemia). They’ve even found a second bloody Jota, Diogo, a winger on loan from Atlético Madrid.
Riotous levels of Chinese investment plus Mendes’ close involvement make Wolves a different proposition to the bafflingly meek side who have turned up for an annual hiding at Pride Park in recent years. Owners Fosun are not here to make up the numbers, that is for sure.
The Dark Horses
Always entertaining to watch and an established Championship club these days, with a brilliant recruitment ethos which allows them to consistently punch above their weight. They may lose “King” Jota, but it doesn’t really matter, as they probably already have a future superstar lined up to replace him from the Slovenian second division – or Exeter, in the shape of the much-hyped Ollie Watkins. Scout smartly, use data unashamedly, grow players, sell, reinvest. It’s working a treat for them.
The Bluebirds have been in the wilderness for a while and they’ll be an outside bet to crack the top six, but will certainly be competitive this season. Denmark striker Kenneth Zohore had a fine 2016/17 for the Bluebirds, with 12 goals in 29 appearances (24 starts). Keeping him away from lurking suitors like Hull will be key to their chances. Another question mark is over the ownership of the club, with Vincent Tan reportedly ready to sell up.
All hinges on whether new coach Thomas Christiansen turns out to be a David Wagner or a Ståle Solbakken. Moving from the Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia to Leeds has to be considered a leap, but the Dirties’ new chairman is clearly intending to bring a measure of stability and sanity back to Elland Road – buying the ground back was a move to applaud, at the very least. Vurnon Anita was the first major signing, with Pontus Jansson joining the club on a permanent basis and a slew of recruits from across Europe following. In that sense, they appear to be taking a steer from Huddersfield Town last season – I’m sure that Terriers fans will be gratified to hear that being said. They still have Chris Wood, of course.
Dire predictions of two successive relegations never came to pass, but I find it hard to see why Villa are bookies’ favourites for promotion, after they limped to a mid-table finish last year. I could be proved totally wrong if the players signed by Steve Bruce last year actually start to gel this season – but they need to, as Bruce cannot possibly be backed to the same extent again this season and has already reportedly committed £5m on John Terry’s wages for a single term. Again, I could be wrong, but I can’t see how that is what Villa, or any Championship club, could possibly need. Too many veterans with big wage packets and egos to match in a bloated squad is not usually a recipe for success.
Harry Redknapp rides again! I can’t see how this is going to end well – for Brum, at least. Redknapp always walks away whistling, with another cheque to deposit in the Sandbanks. If it’s tits up by Christmas, he can just announce that he has a bad back / knee / elbow / dog died and resign, blaming the board for not letting him sign enough players. Links to the likes of Ashley Cole – “he could still do a job at this level” – only serve to reinforce the impression of a man whose finger isn’t exactly on the pulse.
Tammy Abraham banged in enough goals to protect them from relegation last season. Now he’s gone and the Robins have paid big money for Angers (and occasional Senegal) striker Famara Diedhiou to fill the void. Much hinges on whether that works out, although they have profited from Villa’s “Dad’s Army” recruitment strategy by re-signing the centre back Nathan Baker.
After losing Marco Silva, the Tigers have turned to Leonid Slutsky, previously coach of the Russian national team and CSKA Moscow. Slutsky enjoys a good relationship with Roman Abramovich, meaning that he will be offered his pick of Chelsea’s stockpile of young players on loan. Defenders Ola Aina and Michael Hector have duly joined – but Hull need all the help they can get, following a worrying exodus of talent over the summer. A major recruitment drive is necessary to make them competitive, but there doesn’t seem to be either the will or capability to do it.
Having sailed through the EFL’s test as a ‘fit and proper’ owner, Private Eye star Evangelos Marinakis takes the reins down the road and at this stage, threatens to be a safer pair of hands than his predecessor (caveat – it’s impossible to imagine anybody doing any worse). The noises I’ve heard from the Forest end are pretty positive, even if the signing of 34 year-old Daryl Murphy on a three-year deal has echoes of Greening and Boateng, all those years ago. A ‘consolidation’ season, with good young ‘uns like Ben Brereton coming through and not being sold off will probably satisfy the fans for now.
Preston North End
After losing Simon Grayson to Sunderland, PNE needed to find a manager with the experience and nous to get the best out of a limited group of players, on a relatively low budget. They turned to ex-Norwich boss Alex Neil, the archetypal “dour Scot”, who certainly has the charisma of a David Moyes and will hope to have a similar impact on this famous old club’s fortunes.
The Blades are part-owned by Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia these days and “consolidation” is their apparent aim for now, under Chris Wilder. That could change if the petrodollars start to flow.
Simon Grayson was an astonishingly low-profile appointment for such a giant old club, signalling that the Black Cats are looking at a rebuilding project, rather than a cash-splurging bid to yo-yo straight back. Unflashy signings such as James Vaughan and Aiden McGeady point to a club looking to adjust by picking up players who “know the level”, while Lewis Grabban on loan and Jason Steele from Blackburn for a bargain fee were similarly low-key moves. But surely there must be some more cash to spend, particularly after Jordan Pickford’s big-money departure? Saturday’s embarrassing home thrashing by a Celtic XI pointed to the sheer scale of the task ahead for Grayson.
A youthful and bustling Tykes side led by the effervescent Conor Hourihane put the cat among the pigeons early last season (*cough Nigel Pearson*), before bigger clubs twigged what was going on and plundered them remorselessly. Defensive leader Marc Roberts was the most recent asset to be prized away and, as a selling club, Barnsley’s realistic goal can only ever be survival at this level. Paul Heckingbottom did a great job to build a Championship-ready team – now he has to do it all over again.
The Trotters return to the second tier despite ongoing financial constraints and transfer embargo. With off-the-field matters still dominating debate around Horwich Parkway, it seems probable that they will struggle in this unforgiving division, although the loan signing of the promising striker Adam Armstrong from Newcastle offered some cause for optimism.
Jake Buxton, Stephen Warnock, Shaun Barker, Stephen Bywater, Tom Naylor, Luke Varney… Nigel’s Ghosts of Derby Past XI continue to punch ludicrously above their weight at Championship level. They have no chance, really, except that somehow, they do. Maybe it’s because Clough is a good manager who revels in the Brewers’ underdog status.
Vying with Derby to be the longest-serving Championship club, Ipswich have seemed more likely to exit via the trapdoor than the ladder in recent times. Big Mick McCarthy has been there for such a long time now and I suspect that a shake-up is inevitable before the end of the season – whether that turns out to be for better or for worse is hard to say, but I’m leaning towards the latter.
Lions boss Neil Harris is optimistic ahead of the much-loved Millwall’s return to the second tier. New recruits include the (Huddlestone-era) Derby academy product James Meredith and a big target man, Tom Elliott from AFC Wimbledon, to add to their existing firepower in Lee Gregory and Steve Morison. There will be no tiki-taka, but will they put a few noses out of joint – on the pitch, I mean – at the New Den?
Queens Park Rangers
I defer to Clive Whittingham of Loft for Words when it comes to all things Hoop. His feeling at the start of July was that “QPR look short. Short up front, short of goals, short in defence, short just about everywhere other than goalkeeper in fact.” Which doesn’t bode well, does it? Their struggles towards the end of last season were those of a club reeling towards the precipice and although they had just about enough to stay up last time, this season is a whole new ballgame.