Twelve months ago, in the run-up to the start of the 2011-12 Championship campaign, I was convinced that West Ham United were going to be the team to beat and should comfortably run away with the title, thus securing a return to the Premier League. In making this assertion, I made two fundamental oversights. Firstly, I overestimated how well the Hammers would adapt to life in the Championship, and secondly, I underestimated just how competitive a division the Championship has become in recent years. West Ham did of course secure promotion, via the playoffs, but they were certainly not the team to beat by any stretch of the imagination.
This season promises to be as competitive as the last, with a number of teams potentially capable of lifting the Championship title. Who ultimately manages to achieve this feat after 46 games will have done so through a combination of playing at a consistently high standard throughout the season and getting results at important times. We saw this last season, as West Ham United failed to record a victory against either of their promotion rivals, Reading or Southampton, and this ultimately cost them a place in the top two. This season will be equally ruthless on those teams who cannot score victories in the big games. By the end of the season, every lost point could potentially make a big difference.
So, who will be the teams fighting for honours this season?
It would be foolish to rule out any of the three teams that were relegated from the Premiership at the end of last season. As is usually the case, each team had their own set of circumstances which resulted in relegation from the top flight in May, and with Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Wolverhampton Wanderers, this was no different.
As far as I’m concerned, Blackburn were just not consistent enough on the pitch, and despite being one of just two teams to record a victory at Old Trafford in the league, they only managed one other win on the road all season. Matters off the field hardly helped their cause either, with Steve Kean being immensely unpopular with fans, furthermore the Venky’s hardly provided much source for optimism either. In Wolves’ case, they started the season well enough, but something went badly wrong mid-season which completely sucked the life out of the club. It cost Mick McCarthy his job, but with nobody willing to take the job on at Molineux, it was left to Terry Connor to try and rescue the situation, which he unfortunately couldn’t.
Bolton last season suffered some of the worst luck I’ve ever seen a football team suffer from with regards to injuries. To lose three players of the calibre of Lee Chung-Yong, Stuart Holden and Tyrone Mears to long-term injury will hurt the progress of any club. Add to that the losses of Johan Elmander and Daniel Sturridge, the club’s most prolific goalscorers from the previous season, and already you can begin to sense the size of the task Owen Coyle had on his hands. Battling against relegation for most of the season, it looked as though they might just survive, only for a combination of Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest against Tottenham in the FA Cup having a visibly deflating effect on morale at the club for a while and Queens Park Rangers’ superb run of home form towards the end of the season doing enough to send Bolton down into the second tier.
All three clubs will have a certain amount of rebuilding to do, but as far as I’m concerned, Bolton is in the best shape of the three clubs. They have stability with the ownership, they have a very good core of players, and in Owen Coyle, a manager who has achieved promotion from this league before. I’m wary about picking a favourite for the title this season, because I don’t think that there is an outstanding favourite, but if I had to stick my neck on the line and pick a team, it would be Bolton.
Blackburn and Wolves have a bit more work to do but should be capable of pushing for promotion too. Something needs to change at Blackburn before that club starts moving forwards again, and it needs to come from the top. The way that the Venky’s have been running the club doesn’t strike me with being that of footballing people with the footballing interests at heart. They certainly don’t seem to be in touch with the fans, who would have undoubtedly like to have seen Steve Kean depart and somebody else brought in with fresh ideas, which I what I think is desperately needed at Ewood Park.
Wolves, on the other hand, have decided to wipe the slate clean and go with a new manager. Ståle Solbakken isn’t a name that is too familiar with a lot of English fans but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He will come in with fresh ideas and it will definitely rejuvenate the club, something which is much needed after the way things went completely off the boil last season. At 44, he’s still quite young for a manager, and 5 consecutive league titles with FC Copenhagen certainly suggests that he knows what he’s doing and he knows how to win things. Critics will no doubt point to his ill-fated spell at FC Koln in Germany last season which ultimately saw the club relegated, but even some of the most respected names in the game, both past and present, have had a club where it just didn’t work. Hodgson at Liverpool and Clough at Leeds are two examples that spring to mind. If they can keep hold of key players like Matt Jarvis, Steven Fletcher and Wayne Hennessey, it’s hard to see how they won’t be contenders.
Beyond the three teams that have come down, there are a number of other teams that also stand out as potential promotion candidates. Last season’s beaten playoff finalists Blackpool will look to emulate the way that Reading bounced back from defeat in the 2010-11 final to go on and take last season’s title. While they don’t have the resources that some other teams in the division do, Ian Holloway has continued to do a tremendous job with the club and while some people may write them off, I don’t think you realistically can.
Birmingham City are another side that look capable of being genuine contenders for promotion. They looked in tremendous shape in the second half of last season, but I always felt after a difficult start to the season, with a lot of speculation about the clubs financial state with the Carson Yeung situation, the club weren’t able to rebuild as quickly as they would have wanted. The club being in the Europa League didn’t particularly help league performances in the early part of the season, with the squad that they had perhaps being stretched a bit too thinly as the club played a lot of games in the opening months of the season. Once things had sorted themselves out and the club had become a more stable creature, the club began to show great form and weren’t too far away from claiming a playoff place. If they can continue on this season as they finished the last, they will be in great shape. I don’t feel the loss of Chris Hughton to Norwich will hurt them too much either, because although they have undoubtedly lost a good manager, in Lee Clark they’ve found a more than adequate replacement, and he will be able to bring success to the club without a doubt.
Cardiff, Leicester and Middlesbrough are three more clubs that will be there or thereabouts and will be ones to watch. They are all strong sides with good managers and I suspect at one stage of the season we will see each of them being right in contention amongst the top places in the table. Cardiff in particular will be looking to build upon the success of making the playoffs last season and will be hopeful of pushing on one step further and taking an automatic promotion place. They have already shown that on their day, they can compete with much more established teams, as they showed by taking Liverpool to a penalty shootout in last season’s Carling Cup final. Malky Mackay has already proven he’s a manager of real quality, and given he will now have some serious money to spend I genuinely can’t see them taking a step backwards this season.
Middlesbrough are a team heading back in the right direction, something which Boro fans hadn’t been able to say for a while until last season. They have a good squad of players, with a great blend of youth and experience and it looks as though things are coming together, now that Tony Mowbray has been at the club for a little while. They were unfortunate to miss out on a playoff place last season but I think that was as much about needing a couple of signings in crucial positions as much as anything else, and I think that with the additions that have been made already, with Jonathan Woodgate being the one that stands out, they might be able to claim a top-six spot. There are a lot of good teams in this division though and although I think Middlesbrough will be right there, I have a feeling they may just fall short again this season.
Leicester are perhaps the club under the most pressure in the entire division. Last season, with a massive injection of money and with Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager, they were tipped by a lot of people for promotion, only for their season to never really get going. Nigel Pearson will be expected to make this club challenge for promotion, and although he certainly has a good squad of players at his disposal, question marks still remain about how good this team is and how good it can be. Consistency is the key issue that will need to be addressed this season if Leicester are to be serious promotion contenders. It’s definitely achievable, but if, and only if Pearson can come up with a winning formula for this team on a consistent and regular basis. I worry that if Pearson fails to deliver this season – he’ll be out the door and another new manager will be brought in, which won’t do the club any favours whatsoever.
And of course, there’s Leeds United. There are a number of talented and experienced players at Elland Road who will certainly make Leeds a tough team to go and beat, but I don’t think they have the strongest all-round squad by any means. I don’t think you can rule out any team managed by Neil Warnock though. He has a proven track record of getting teams promoted, and after getting the boot at Queens Park Rangers halfway through last season when they weren’t actually in the relegation zone, he may feel like he has a point to prove.
I wouldn’t place any of these clubs amongst the hot favourites for promotion but every season there is a couple of teams which achieve more than you expect them to. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen Norwich City and Southampton, straight off the back of promotion from League One, go on and achieve promotion to the Premiership at the first attempt. I’m not sure we’ll see the same thing happen for a third straight season but I believe all three newly-promoted teams will be immediately competitive in the Championship, primarily because they had to play such good football just to get into this league in the first place.
Charlton were simply mesmerising at times last season. They played some fantastic football and Chris Powell did a stunning job to have the team playing as well as they did from the first day of the season given the number of new players that had been brought in. With a year under their belts as a team now, they will only continue to get better but I don’t think they’ll be promotion contenders this season. However, the Valley won’t be an easy place to go and they may take some major scalps along the way.
Sheffield Wednesday, meanwhile, are my tip to be the surprise package in the Championship this season. They have a tremendous amount of experience in the squad that they have and with Dave Jones, have a manager who is massively underrated. I would be very surprised if the Owls aren’t occupying the top half of the table throughout the season. They have the players to do very well in this division and I fully expect them to surprise a lot of people as they grow in form and confidence as the season progresses. I don’t think any of the three newly promoted teams will go all the way and get promoted, but if I had to say which was the most likely to do so, I’d have to say that Sheffield Wednesday look the most complete package of the three.
Huddersfield will always be a threat, too. They have Jordan Rhodes, who was the best striker in the Football League last season. The statistics don’t lie but they only tell half the story. He was in sensational form last season and while the records will always show that he scored 40 goals in 45 appearances for Huddersfield last season, what they don’t tell you is the quality of the goals he scored. There were very few tap-ins in the tally, with most of his strikes showing the great technique and natural ability to find the back of the net that he has demonstrated in the time he has spent at the club. He will score plenty of goals in the Championship, but my main worry is that they will be over-reliant on his form and that they may struggle if teams are able to keep Rhodes quiet. With that said they have a decent team across all areas of the pitch and shouldn’t find themselves fighting a relegation battle this season.
The mid-table battle will be fierce, and I expect that it will be made up of a couple of the teams that I’ve tipped as potential contenders but end of falling short of expectations, plus the newly promoted teams who, as I’ve already detailed, should be capable of being competitive in this division, along with the likes of Burnley, Hull City, Derby County, Brighton & Hove Albion and a couple of others.
I’d like to see Burnley really punch above their weight again because it was a thing for football to see a club on a relatively modest budget go and achieve the things that they did, and I think their time may yet come again, but I’m not sure that they will be able to push much beyond the upper reaches of mid-table. I think Eddie Howe’s a terrific young manager and he did great things with Bournemouth but he will still need more time at Burnley before we see great things from the club.
Hull are an interesting proposition this season. I think they have been punching above their weight for a couple of seasons now but may struggle to replicate the form they’ve shown in the last couple of campaigns, despite the arrival of Steve Bruce as manager, who comes with vast managerial experience following spells with Birmingham, Wigan and Sunderland. Although I’m sure he will do well at the club, I’m not feeling very confident about them making much progress this season for one reason or another.
Derby County are a team who I was really impressed with in the first half of last season but they ultimately lacked the quality and consistency to keep up the pace for the full duration of the season and were eventually unable to push beyond a mid-table place. That said, it was still much needed progress from the struggles in the bottom half of the table that the club had endured in recent seasons. Nigel Clough is a decent manager though and although he doesn’t have the kind of resources available that a lot of teams in this division do, he knows how to get the best of out the group of players he has, and I would expect Derby to be in the mid-table battle again this season.
Brighton had a terrific first season back in the Championship last season. The only problem I foresee is that it is going to be difficult to replicate this success now, and the real challenge for Gus Poyet is to ensure that they don’t suffer from the infamous ‘second season syndrome’. They’ve got some great players in the squad however, and have continued to surprise people wit the the calibre of player they’ve been attracting over the summer with Tomasz Kuszczak and Wayne Bridge joining the club, albeit the latter on a loan deal. They should be able to solidify a mid-table position.
Peterborough and Crystal Palace were equally impressive, given their modest budgets, and I expect both sides to be competitive but not challenging for honours towards the top of the table. The two sides have a lot in common in that they play good football and will always look to try and play their brand of football, no matter who the opposition is, which is admirable and a lot more than can be said for some teams even at the highest level. Darren Ferguson and Dougie Freedman are both talented young managers who I think will go far in the game, but will both have to contend with rebalancing their squads after the inevitable losses of key players over the summer. I would be surprised if either of these sides found themselves in a scrap at the bottom of the table.
This leaves just six teams that I’ve not yet given a mention to, and it is these six teams that I think could be in for a difficult season. Each of these teams arrives into the 2012-13 season off the back of a number of different circumstances and events over the past couple of years and as a result it could be a difficult campaign for some of these sides.
Despite their recent takeover by the Pozzo family, I think it could be a tricky season for Watford. Although I think ultimately the takeover will be beneficial for the club going forward, the new owners have to be careful not to make too many major changes too quickly or they will risk unsettling the club. Their ambition is admirable, and I think they’ve done well to attract Gianfranco Zola to the club, but I feel Sean Dyche was treated very unfairly by the Pozzos. Dyche had done a decent job in replacing Malky Mackay, especially when you take into consideration the players that they’d also lost last summer. Zola will have a tricky job ensuring that he not only wins over the Hornets fans but that he also balances maintaining the decent core of players at his disposal with the right number of additions. If he gets this balance wrong, it could backfire spectacularly for Watford.
Similarly, Nottingham Forest are going to struggle despite also having new owners recently take charge. They clearly have money and they clearly will make it available to be spent, but the problem for Forest goes back for quite some time. Last summer, then-new boss Steve McClaren was trying to put a squad together and openly admitted he wasn’t able to strengthen the squad as much as he would have liked. Following his departure after a poor start to the season, former owner Nigel Doughty put the club up for sale, which paralysed the club in the January transfer window and left Steve Cotterill helpless. Doughty’s untimely death in February then caused further complications which has meant the sale of the club has only very recently happened. Cotterill’s job was never secure in the long-term and it became immediately apparent that the new owners would always want to bring their own man in. Unfortunately this means that preparations for the new season, in terms of bringing in players to replace those that have left, still have not started and we are just a couple of weeks away from the start of the season. The task for Forest will be not to lose too much ground in the early phases of the season and hope to make up for lost time by trying to spend their way to safety in January. If they can survive this season, better things await Nottingham Forest in future years.
Next in my list of potential strugglers are Ipswich Town, who have baffled me in the last couple of seasons. Normal footballing logic would suggest that when someone new takes over the club and invests money into the club, then the club ought to take steps forward. This doesn’t seem to have happened at Ipswich. Marcus Evans took over the club in 2008 and since then, I find myself feeling like Ipswich are actually slowly falling further away from their aim of getting back to the top flight. With that said, I’ve been impressed with the business they’ve done so far this summer and perhaps it is a sign that the club might be about to take a step forwards again. My worry for Ipswich is that they cannot afford to stand still again this season, as they may find themselves propping up the table if they are not careful.
Barnsley and Bristol City are teams which I genuinely fear for in the coming season. They are small clubs who operate on very modest budgets when you compare them to even some of the teams that they are competing with to ensure survival year in, year out. Barnsley impressed me and looked very good at times last season, but the loss of Ricardo Vaz Te in January definitely hurt them and if they aren’t able to find a replacement for him over the summer then they could be in for a real struggle this season. Bristol City had a poor start to last season but they were able to battle successfully against relegation under manager Derek McInnes. They are going to need to have a much better start to this season or they will be in trouble. The problem I foresee for both of these clubs is that last season they finished 20th and 21st, meaning they were only just good enough to stay up. This, coupled with the fact that the three teams that have come up are all very good footballing teams and have decent resources behind them, mean it’s going to be tremendously difficult for both Keith Hill and Derek McInnes to do enough to get their clubs into the midfield pack. I do think that they will be able to put up a fight though.
However, I’m not convinced I can say the same about Millwall. I think Kenny Jackett’s a terrific manager and he’s done brilliantly to deliver some stability to the club and to have done it with the side in the Championship. They’ve got some good players in the squad but looking at the squad they have as a whole, I just don’t think they will be able to compete with a lot of the sides that are now in this division. What makes it really difficult for teams like Millwall, as I’ve already said, is that this season there are three teams that have come up from League One which will be immediately fighting in the mid-table group and that immediately puts pressure on the teams that finished in the next 3 or 4 bottom places in the league. If Millwall are to survive in the championship, I think they’ll need luck to go their way and they will need to capitalise on the opportunities that come their way but I think it is going to be a very big task for Millwall to avoid the drop this season.
Ultimately, the key to survival will come down to which of the clubs will be able to best cope with the circumstances that they find themselves in and get the results they need. I definitely think some of these teams are in a better position to secure their own safety but it will still require a lot of hard work to stay in this division. A poor start to the season will most certainly not help the situation, as Doncaster Rovers found to their detriment last season. This is a very competitive division and if you fall off the pace early on, it will be very difficult to get back on terms with the teams you are trying to chase down.
The competition promises to be fierce at both ends of the table. The Championship is a very tough division, but with the prize of the Premiership on offer for three of the 24 teams in the division, there is no doubt that the competition will be as fierce as ever. It will be a gruelling 46-game season, but at the end of it, the strongest teams will end up fighting for honours, and those that cannot compete will end up paying the price and wondering what might have been. I, for one, cannot wait to see how it unfolds.