FOOTBALL LEAGUE boff Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his thoughts on how the Championship table might look come May in the 2017/18 campaign.
1. Middlesbrough (7/1 Marathon)
Middlesbrough suffered immediate Premier League relegation have managed just 27 goals – fewer than any top-flight side in nearly a decade. Aitor Karanka’s crippling pragmatism was to blame as the Teesiders were defensively sound, producing the best goals against record in the bottom-half.
Chairman Steve Gibson claims he wants to “smash the Championship” and has invested heavily in forwards; Britt Assombalonga, Ashley Fletcher and Martin Braithwaite join Patrick Bamford, Rudy Gestede and Adama Traore in a Boro squad full of options and intent.
Daniel Ayala and Ben Gibson boast a W31-D15-L2 record when playing together in the second-tier whilst the additions of Jonny Howson and Cyrus Christie give new boss Garry Monk more than enough ability, pace, strength and experience of Championship football to secure an immediate return to the top-flight.
In eight of the previous 11 Championship campaigns, a recently relegated top-tier side has won promotion and Middlesbrough look head-and-shoulders the leading candidate to enhance that record with the 11/13 (Unibet) on a top-six finish looking perfect ante-post accumulator material.
2. Fulham (9/1)
An unsteady relationship between previous Championship promotion winner Slavisa Jokanovic and the club’s hierarchy could derail the heady progress made at Craven Cottage but the Serbian’s a hardened campaigner and has dealt with worse in his time in English football.
Committing captain Tom Cairney and exciting young full-back Ryan Sessegnon to a long-term deals showed the capital club’s intent and last season’s joint-top scorers should again continue to thrill when going forward.
The departure of Chris Martin and a lack of a number nine is an obvious concern but Fulham got by just fine in 2016/17 with a top goalscorer that netted just 12 goals. Goals arrive from all over the park whilst the return of Tomas Kalas provides much-needed strength to the centre-back position.
Fulham may have only keep one clean sheet post-February (against Rotherham) but they accrued more points than any divisional rival across the final 31 fixtures (W18-D8-L5) whilst boasting a monumental +31 goal difference.
In four of the previous 12 Championship seasons, a team involved in an unsuccessful play-off campaign has returned as champions the following year; I expect them to mount a major challenge and odds-against quotes (15/13 Unibet) on a top-six finish are more than fair.
3. Sheffield Wednesday (11/1 Unibet)
There seems to be a sombre mood around Hillsborough heading into 2017/18, especially so considering Sheffield Wednesday are entering their 150th anniversary season and arrive off the back of two top-six finishes under Carlos Carvalhal’s leadership.
Despite another failed play-off campaign, the Owls improved from sixth to fourth in terms of league position and you have to assume the Portuguese boss will have learnt his lessons; a little too falamboyant in 2015/16, Wednesday were far too pragmatic last time out and suffered when it mattered most.
The Owls boasted the division’s third-best defence last season but doubts remain over the lack of covering options at the back (particularly centre-half) whilst I’d like to see Carvalhal show a little more adventure with his tried-and-trusted 4-4-2 to accommodate his wonderful array of attacking arsenal.
Gary Hooper’s return from injury could prove key, Fernando Forestieri’s genius remains crucial and should Jordan Rhodes finds his stride in a system that suits, Wednesday could blast their way into automatic promotion contention as the spine of the side is as strong and settled as ever. The 5/1 (SkyBet) on a top-two finish shouldn’t be scoffed at.
I’d earmarked Brentford to go well in 2017/18 at the backend of last season and I’m surprised to see the Bees so underrated in the outright markets; the cash has come for the West Londoners over the past month but even so, Dean Smith’s side seem well-placed to mount a major assault on the top-six.
Once Spanish wingers Jota and Sergi Canos returned to the group over Christmas, Brentford released the shackles and produced some exhilarating football. Even Scott Hogan’s big-money departure failed to dampen enthusiasm as Lasse Vibe stepped up to finish the campaign with a real flourish.
Having tabled fifth, ninth and 10th-placed finished since arriving in the Championship, Brentford are now eyeing a serious tilt at the top. In 11 of the past 12 Championship seasons, a 20/1+ shot has won promotion to the Premier League and co-director of football Rasmus Ankersen believes the club are ready to execute their ambitions.
Midfield signing Kamohelo Mokotjo was a star in the Eredivisie last season and will add vital physicality, Ollie Watkins has a burgeoning reputation and striker Neal Maupay arrives with glowing references from Sainte-Etienne.
There’s depth to the squad with two equally strong first XI’s to select from and so, should the Bees improve their performances at the back, they’ll be there or thereabouts. I’m all over the 7/1 (Ladbrokes) for promotion and 4/1 (BetVictor) for the top-six but the 4/5 (William Hill) on a top-half finish is arguably the best banker you’ll find in the Championship.
5. Aston Villa (8/1 Unibet)
It wasn’t a huge surprise to see Aston Villa toil in their first season in the second-tier for 28 years. The Second City club managed just 17 Premier League points in their relegation campaign and arrived at the Championship with new owners, a new manager and effectively a brad new squad.
Roberto Di Matteo’s reign was rotten and although Steve Bruce steadied the ship, even his return of W15-D7-L13 was largely uninspiring. Considering the amount of cash invested in the Villans squad, the Championship’s second favourites should be capable of a drastic improvement this time around.
Bruce has won promotion to the Premier League on four occasions and looks to be building his squad from the back. John Terry was the headline addition but the arrival of Glenn Whelan could prove a masterstroke in defensive midfield following a few rather indifferent displays by Mile Jedinak.
Jonathan Kodjia misses the start of the season through injury but in Scott Hogan Villa have an adept Championship striker and should Bruce find the magical formula to fit either Henri Lansbury or Conor Hourihane into the XI, the Villa Park club should be knocking on the door.
However, prohibitively-short pricing means there’s little value to be found in the markets.
6. Derby (14/1 William Hill)
I fancied Derby to challenge for top honours last season; the appointment of Nigel Pearson was promising – a manager with course and distance form – suggested the Rams were ready to rid their tag of perennial promotion underachievers.
What followed was a shambles. County went through four managers under impatient owner Mel Morris and never really threatened the top-six, entering the play-off positions for only three December days all season. But there are seeds of hope springing around Pride Park.
The appointment of Gary Rowett made Derby a difficult side to beat and should the former Birmingham boss manage to reintegrate Chris Martin into the central striking position, there’s no reason why the Rams can’t kick-on.
County conceded just 50 goals last time out and have strengthened their defence with the additions of Curtis Davies and Andre Wisdom whilst Tom Huddlestone’s return should add class to the middle of the park.
Of course, Tom Ince and Will Hughes will be missed but George Thorne’s back from injury soon and the physical improvements in the squad under Rowett should ensure the Rams are a competitive beast.
Derby suffered only two defeats in their final nine games and might be a touch underrated at 15/8 (Marathon) to squeeze into the top-six.
7. Norwich (12/1 Unibet)
Norwich are a curious case this summer. It’d be lazy to just presume the Canaries will dramatically improve under the stewardship of former Borussia Dortmund reserve boss Daniel Farke but the comparisons to David Wagner are almost unavoidable.
New sporting director Stuart Webber sourced both appointments and has been making sweeping changes at Carrow Road since his arrival only a matter of months ago. There’s been a sea change in attitude and optimism amongst supporters and City certainly have a squad capable of competing.
Last term Norwich conceded more goals than relegated Wigan and Blackburn and were regularly taken apart on the road. But a lack of organisation should be addressed by Farke, a coach that was managing in the fourth tier of German football last season.
Dortmund’s second string shipped only 25 goals – 10 fewer than any other side in the Regionalliga – and the additions of towering defender Christoph Zimmerman and highly-rated centre-half Marcel Franke plus midfielder Mario Vrancic suggest he’s keen to build a powerful defensive line behind a high-pressing and energetic midfield.
Cameron Jerome and Nelson Oliveira may not be consistent but there’s goals in the group, as well as leadership, so a top-six finish isn’t out of the question. There’s a need for promotion due to the financial position at Carrow Road but I’d rather wait on the Canaries before assuming they’re the real deal this time around.
8. Cardiff (33/1 BetVictor)
Cardiff suffered a disastrous start to 2016/17 but moved quick to sack Paul Trollope as boss after less than five months in charge. The Welsh coach guided the Bluebirds to only two wins from 11 games, leaving City second from bottom.
It was left to Neil Warnock to clean up the mess and wily veteran soon put Cardiff back on the path to progression. The Bluebirds climbed back up the standings to finish a hugely respectable 12th; Cardiff were actually the ninth best side in the division after Warnock’s appointment in October.
The 68 year-old worked his magic with free transfers and rejuvenated fringe players with a back-to-basics approach. Warnock added pace in wide areas, strength and experience at the back and inspired a number of outstanding performances out of striker Kenneth Zohore and Sol Bamba at the back.
With Lee Tomlin’s creativity arriving this summer and a superb solid base to work from, the Bluebirds could easily outperform their pre-season odds. Warnock’s improved the side in both boxes, has created a real buzz around the club and signalled his intent for a challenge on the top-six.
9. Wolves (12/1 William Hill)
Arguably the toughest team to forecast is Wolves. The Jorge Mendes/Fosun International group takeover last summer has seen another hectic transfer window involving plenty of comings and goings at Molineux but on the whole, business has been sweet for Old Gold.
The stunning captures of Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota mean Wanderers will command maximum respect whilst new head coach Nuno Espirito Santo performed excellently during rough waters during his time at Valencia (less said about his recent stint with Porto the better).
Wolves are in a better place than at this stage last summer, that’s for sure. Then the Black Country boys were as skinny as 14/1 for the title but a lack of direction and stability cost the club dear; Nuno’s the fourth man to take charge in 10 months and the Molineux men are crying out for consistency.
Nuno’s overhauled the backroom staff and brought in ball-playing centre-backs as the Wolves revolution begins to take shape. Roderick Miranda looks likely to start at centre-back whilst work has been done to improve full-back areas where Wanderers have been weak for some time.
Should a striker be signed, should Helder Costa continue his match-winning displays and should Neves and Jota bed-in successfully, Wolves will be pushing towards the upper echelons of the league. But the layers have priced the team up on potential thus far, making the Old Gold a ‘no-bet’ at this stage.
10. Nottingham Forest (50/1 Black Type)
Following four years of regression under the reign of chaois of Fawaz Al Hasawi, Nottingham Forest finally appear to be in a positive space. Although new owner Evangelos Marinakis has a questionable past (he was recently cleared of match-fixing allegations in Greece), the outlook is rosy on the banks of the Trent.
Marinakis – also owner of Olympiakos – has promised to back manager Mark Warburton and recently installed Nicholas Randall as the club’s chairman to provide the Tricky Trees with the boardroom structure it’s painfully been lacking over recent seasons.
Warburton’s appointment nine games before the 2016/17 campaign’s conclusion provided the necessary boost to stave off relegation on the final day of the season and his forward-thinking philosophies should stand Forest in good stead to push-on this term.
Britt Assombalonga’s departure was disappointing (if slightly inevitable) but Warburton’s worked hard to strengthen in key areas, adding players that can play in a variety of systems. Jason Cummings is an exciting arrival, as is Barrie McKay, whilst Tendayi Darikwa comes with pedigree and Daryl Murphy should carry the goalscoring burden with aplomb.
Concerns remain over a defence that shipped 72 goals last season and Forest do look a little light in central areas but with a blossoming academy producing an array of talented youngsters, I can only see signs of progress at the City Ground. Around 17,000 season tickets have been sold – the most this millennium – and the 5/4 (SkyBet) available on a top-half finish certainly appeals.
11. Leeds (18/1 Unibet)
Leeds’ resurgence was one of the Championship’s best stories of 2016/17 with Garry Monk surviving early sack speculation to guide the Whites into top-six territory for the majority of the season. Unfortunately, the Yorkshire giants were unable to seal a play-off position following a miserable climax.
Fans can feel hard done by; Leeds were eight points clear of seventh with eight games to play whilst United became only the third side in 29 years to miss out on the top-six having tabled 75 points. It’s a cruel world at times.
Monk’s unforeseen departure upset supporters but on the whole, optimism encircles Elland Road following the takeover of Andrea Radrizzani. Thomas Christensen was then appointed head coach following a campaign in which he led APOEL Nicosia to the Europa League Last 16 for the first time in their history.
With Victor Orta brought in as director of football, Leeds finally appear to have off-field structure and serenity. Elsewhere, Pontus Jansson signs permanently and midfielder Mateusz Klich arrives with plenty of compliments from the Eredivisie amongst an eclectic mix of additions.
Charlie Taylor and Kyle Bartley are no longer around and Leeds do look a little short at centre-half but promotion aspirations surely reside on Chris Wood’s ability to fire in front of goal once more. The Kiwi played a leading role in 31 (51%) of the Whites’ 61 league goals last season.
Leeds could be anything this time around but I’d rather lay the 18/1 than back it with the 13/8 (SkyBet) on a bottom-half finish more eye-catching than the 8/15 (Ladbrokes) they break the top-half again.
12. Sunderland (28/1 Black Type)
Sunderland seemed destined for Premier League long before they eventually fell through the trapdoor. Following four successive seasons of survival by the skin of their teeth, the Black Cats’ luck ran out and years of financial mismanagement, awful managerial appointments and a bloated, disjoined squad soon caught up.
With the Wearsiders £110m in debt and owner Ellis Short desperate to sell, the Stadium of Light club looked a worthy candidate to ‘do a Wolves’ and suffer back-to-back relegations when I looked at the early Championship prices.
However, Sunderland have pulled off a real coup with the capture of Simon Grayson – the perfect candidate for a major rebuild following four-and-a-half outstanding years in charge of Preston. Grayson’s won promotion at every club he’s managed thus far and although top-six aims seem a little far-fetched, I do believe he’ll keep the Black Cats competitively-placed in mid-table.
Bar Jermain Defoe and Jordan Pickford, few departures will have caused consternation amongst Wearsiders whilst I’d back Grayson to whip an underperforming and unorganised backline into shape. There’s heaps of grit and grunt in midfield, wizardry from Wahbi Khazri and Aiden McGeady with Lewis Grabban and James Vaughan good enough to grab a few goals.
There’s little excite punting-wise, mind and so I’m happy to take a watching brief on Sunderland.
13. Sheffield United (40/1 BetStars)
It took six years of trying but when it arrived, it was mightily impressive. Perennial ante-post League One favourites, Sheffield United finally justified their position as market leaders by blasting their way through the third-tier, collecting a century of points.
In fact, the 18-point margin between the Blades and third-place in League One was the largest cushion since three points for a win was introduced. It was all the more impressive when you consider United were entrenched in the bottom-four of the division after a run of four winless games to open the campaign.
Blades fan Chris Wilder saw his side dominate the division with a free-flowing side that utilised wing-backs, outmuscled opposition sides in the midfield and importantly, boasted a clinical edge in attack. The squad was wonderfully managed with Wilder also fostering a real togetherness and team spirit.
United’s first target is survival and consolidation. There’s an acceptance that the Championship has moved on since their exit and the Bramall Lane club can’t compete financially with most in the section; however, the momentum and camaraderie built up should propel the Blades into mid-table.
Many of the squad still have a lot to prove at this level but there’s ability alongside the work ethic and United won’t take a step back when up against the league’s leading lights. They’re an aggressive group and there’s a swagger about Wilder’s men that makes me confident they’ll survive with plenty to spare.
United are evens (BetVictor) to penetrate the top-half – it’s a fair price but not one I’d be willing to back.
14. Reading (50/1 Black Type)
Reading were last season’s head scratchers. The Royals finished third in Jaap Stam’s first management gig – outstripping ante-post 40/1 quotes – but without ever really impressing.
The Berkshire boys concluded the regular season with a +4 goal difference and a post-season poll on fanzine The Tilehurst End revealed the majority of supporters found Stam’s football boring, rather than exciting – and that’s despite being a penalty shootout away from promotion.
Data nerds (me included) and bookmakers were baffled by their consistent overperformance. Reading were only chalked up as odds-on favourite on five occasions last term, out-shout their opposition in 16 (35%) games and scored 28 (41%) of their 68-goal tally from set-piece situations.
The second best goals-to-shots conversion played a real helping hand but I can’t help but feel the Royals are ready to reverse to the norm. With Player of the Season goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi and Danny Williams departing, Stam’s side is certainly weaker on paper so regression looks likely.
Reading finished 19th and 20th in the two campaigns prior to Stam and whilst I don’t see the Madjeski Stadium side sliding back that far, I do feel they’re likely drop and 6/4 (Betfair) quotes on a bottom-half finish are attractive enough.
15. Birmingham (50/1 Black Type)
The infamous decision to jettison Gary Rowett in December with Birmingham sitting seventh in the Championship standings and only three points off third in December very nearly had catastrophic consequences. Gianfranco Zola was employed and the Blues came ever so close to dropping into League One.
It was down to Harry Redknapp to inspire a revival with two games to play and wheeler-dealer managed to mastermind two victories from his three games in charge to secure survival. The veteran boss remains at St Andrews with Paul Groves and Kevin Bond coaching the club on a day-to-day basis.
Elsewhere, director of football Jeff Vetere is now in charge of recruitment, despite Harry’s best efforts. Having held posts at several clubs, including Real Madrid, Newcastle, West Ham and Aston Villa, he should be well versed in putting Birmingham back on the straight and narrow.
Marc Roberts’ signing at centre-half appears an excellent piece of business, as does the addition of Senegalese international Cheick N’Doye from Angers. There’s certainly plenty of physicality in central areas for the Blues now although they still look a little light on the flanks in attack.
Lukasz Jutkiewicz and Clayon Donaldson are admirable performers but neither are particularly eye-catching strikers and Birmingham might need a little more if they’re to puncture the top-12 or realise play-off ambitions. The 5/6 (William Hill) on a bottom-half finish looks bang on.
16. Hull (25/1 Black Type)
Only two sides have suffered back-to-back relegations from the top-tier since 1987 but Hull could easily become a third casualty if problems from last summer aren’t rectified sooner than later.
Relegated Premier League sides have largely impressed in their first campaign back in the second-tier in recent years but it’s worth noting, in seven of the most recent 10 editions of the Championship, a relegated club has finished 11th or below. City look the prime candidate to underperform this time around.
The 13/8 (Betfred) on the Tigers finishing in the bottom-half grabbed my attention as I’ve a number of question marks over Hull’s ability to turnaround what was a disastrous last campaign.
Leonid Slutsky arrives with wonderful coaching credentials but having never experienced football life outside of Russia, there has to be a concern at his ability to adjust to Championship life. Meanwhile, supporters are continuing their crusade against the awful Allam ownership and the atmosphere around the club is toxic.
Promotion remains the aim but the squad is looking extremely threadbare. Up until last week, only three defenders were left on Hull’s books – only one of which, Michael Dawson, was a central defender by trade. Michael Hector’s arrival on-loan has at least soothed that particular crisis, for now.
As well as Hector, Slutsky has used his Chelsea links to bring in full-back Ola Aina and Czech defender Ondřej Mazuc joins from Sparta Prague whilst Frazier Campbell’s return provides Abel Hernandez with support in attacking areas. But there’s still no left-back in the squad and wingers are in desperately short supply.
Still, the squad looks eight or nine players short on challenging for top-six positions and having lost solid and experienced Championship players such as Curtis Davies, Tom Huddlestone, Harry Maguire and Ahmed Elmohamady, Hull look laughably short in the outright markets. I’m backing them to struggle badly.
17. Ipswich (125/1 Black Type)
Ipswich entered 2016/17 under a glaze of mediocrity and the way the campaign played out, a 16th-placed finish was as good as could be expected. But in deepest Suffolk, the natives were growing restless with Mick McCarthy’s one-dimensional tactics and owner Marcus Evans’ frugality.
The national embarrassment at being knocked out of the FA Cup by Lincoln hurt, attendances dropped to record recent lows and that 16th-placed finish was Town’s lowest since 1958/59. All really wasn’t well behind the Portman Road curtains.
Fast forward a few months and the outlook has improved ever so slightly. So what’s changed? Star loanee Tom Lawrence may have left but the purse strings have been loosened a little this summer to allow McCarthy to strengthen a squad that badly requires a facelift.
There are very high hopes for Bersant Celina – an attacking midfielder signed from Manchester City – Emyr Huws has joined permanently having completely transformed the midfield whilst on-loan last season plus the arrivals of Joe Garner, Tom Adeyemi and Dominic Iorfa give the group a hardened edge.
The Tractor Boys are still a quality striker short to mount any major attempts on the top-half but McCarthy sides are always competitive and I’d be surprised if Town ever ventured too close to the drop-zone with the proud Yorkshireman in the dugout. Expect Ipswich to hit par once more.
18. Bristol City (66/1 Black Type)
There was a feeling of relief around Ashton Gate when 2016/17 concluded. Bristol City finished three points above the relegation zone but a disastrous run of results between October and April very nearly spelt disaster.
The Robins made an encouraging start to the campaign and did finish with a flourish but a club record eight-game losing streak amidst a run of W1-D0-L11 caused widespread consternation whilst Lee Johnson’s men collected only five triumphs in a 25-match spell between October and April.
The loan of 23-goal top scorer Tammy Abraham has expired and in fairness, City have splashed the cash for a replacement. A club record £5.3m was splurged on Senegalese striker Famara Diedhiou from Angers and understandably comparisons have been made to Jonathan Kodjia.
Bobby Reid’s performed superbly up front during pre-season but the success of Bristol City’s campaign surely resides on Diedhiou finding his feet (and the back of the net). Similar question marks could be placed over Eros Pisano’s ability to slot into Championship football at right-back following his arrival from Verona.
Elsewhere, ever-present centre-half Aden Flint looks certain to leave Ashton Gate before the window closes whilst fans weren’t too pleased to see Lee Tomlin sold to M4 rivals Cardiff due to the playmaker ‘not fitting the culture of the club’. So having claimed the League One title in style back in 2015/16,
City have tabled 17th and 18th-placed finishes with many supporters growing frustrated on the back of limited on-field progress. It’s a crunch campaign for Johnson and although the Robins should be OK, odds of 8/1 (BetVictor) for the drop appear too big to ignore with 4/5 (Betfair) on the bottom-half a banker bet.
19. Preston (75/1 Paddy Power)
After over four years at the helm, Preston will no longer be led by the steady hand of Simon Grayson. From League One strugglers, Grayson established North End as a reputable top-half Championship outfit, consistently overachieving.
The Lilywhites conclude their campaign in the same 11th-place as the season before, with the exact same tally of points. But a run of only five defeats from 32 until the start of April had Preston flirting with the play-off positions before trailing off at the season’s end.
Alex Neil steps now into the breach and has plenty to prove following a topsy-turvy stint at Norwich. With last season’s star Aiden McGeady following Grayson to Sunderland, the Scot knows he’s big boots to fill in Lancashire.
With finances tight, the club has raided the Irish market with relative success over the past 12 months and there’s hope Cork hitman Sean Maguire will flourish in forward positions whilst Preston can still call upon the likes of Callum Robinson, Tom Barkhuzien and Jordan Hugill in a solid second-tier attack.
There’s pace and panache going forward but Preston did leak 63 goals last season and with influential skipper Tom Clarke ruled out until 2018 through injury, question marks remain over North End’s defence, and Neil’s ability to organise a backline following kamikaze efforts to do just that at Carrow Road.
I’ve huge respect for Grayson and would love to see Neil prove me wrong but this feels like a downward step in leadership and the Lilywhites may suffer regression to the bottom reaches of the Championship ladder in 2017/18.
20. QPR (150/1 Black Type)
The worst defence in the Championship has finished rock-bottom in nine of the past 12 campaigns and suffered relegation on 11 occasions.
At the time of writing, my beloved Queens Park Rangers could be a candidate to take the unwanted crown in 2017/18. A tightening of the purse strings has frustrated manager Ian Holloway in the transfer market with no new blood arriving at the back.
Only four sides shipped more goals in the second-tier last time whilst goalkeeper Alex Smithies swept the Player of the Season awards, which is always quite telling.
As well as Smithies, there’s an overreliance on injury-plagued Grant Hall at the back. With the former Spurs defender in the side, QPR returned W13-D7-L14, without Hall Rangers recorded just W2-D1-L9. He’ll miss the start of the season.
Consistent and combative central midfielder Josh Scowen is a welcome arrival at Loftus Road and there were encouraging signs after January when Holloway brought in beanpole Matt Smith, silky Luke Freeman and young prospect Ryan Manning to the first XI.
The club have worked hard to improve the infrastructure off the pitch but there’s a despondent mood around supporters that could negatively impact on the first XI. A deeply disappointing end to 2016/17 (W1-D0-L7) where Holloway insisted on making widespread changes to his team, game-by-game hasn’t helped and Rangers look likely to be in for a season of struggle.
Relegation quotes of 4/1 (BetVictor) are well worth grabbing.
21. Millwall (150/1 BetVictor)
Having suffered the play-off heartache in 2015/16, Millwall enjoyed Wembley jubilation 12 months later to secure their place back in the second-tier. With the Lions also enjoying FA Cup victories over Watford, Leicester and Bournemouth, the capital club were understandably pleased with their campaign.
Promotion wasn’t entirely convincing. That FA Cup jaunt threatened to derail their top-six ambitions but Neil Harris’ men refound their form when it mattered most with Millwall’s never-say-die attitude evident with crucial late goals in key fixtures over the final furlong.
The Lee Gregory and Steve Morison partnership may prove pivotal for the Lions’ survival hopes; the pair hustle and harry from the front and have displayed a clinical edge to their game in League One. Supporters will be desperate to see the duo step-up to the Championship but Aiden O’Brien and Fred Onyedinma offer alternatives from the bench, even if the Londoners lack a little pace.
At the back, Jake Cooper’s loan spell expired but the base of a solid structure is in place with Byron Webster excelling at centre-half and the additions of attacking full-backs Conor McLaughlin and James Meredith arriving this summer. Elsewhere, Jed Wallace and George Saville have signed permanently to bolster the midfield.
Expect a wholehearted effort in each and every game from Millwall. They’ll be aggressive, physical and reasonably basic but organised and astute in their approach. Reaching Championship safety won’t be a breeze but Harris’ battlers won’t shirk the challenge and could well bloody the nose of a few big-hitters along the way.
22. Barnsley (200/1 SkyBet)
In December 2015 Barnsley were rock-bottom of League One. Lee Johnson soon moved on to Bristol City and Paul Heckingbottom was given the gig of reviving the Tykes fortunes whilst resisting relegation.
Fast forward 12 months and the Reds had won promotion, lifted two Wembley trophies and were on the cusp of the play-off positions in the Championship. It was a remarkable turnaround but one that failed to go unnoticed.
The vultures circled and Barnsley soon lost captain Conor Hourihane, top goalscorer Sam Winnall and outstanding full-back James Bree. Understandably, the Tykes’ form soon dropped off and the Reds managed only two triumphs from their final 18 outings.
Things haven’t gotten any easier at Oakwell. Although the club have now installed a new chief executive to ease the burden on Heckingbottom, more key players have moved on with Marc Roberts, Marley Watkins and Josh Scowen all departing for pastures new.
As is the Barnsley way, an array of reinforcements have been sourced from the lower reaches of the football pyramid but all highly thought of. Ethan Pinnock, Liam Lindsay and Jason McCarthy arrive with bags of potential to fill the defensive void whilst Joe Williams, Lloyd Isgrove, Stephen Mallan and Cameron McGeehan shore up the midfield.
Having to cultivate a whole new squad, let alone a brand new side, Barnsley have to be considered as potential strugglers. The Reds are very short on attackers, although the loan signing of Chelsea youngster Ike Ugbo promises plenty, and may not have enough to avoid the bottom-three.
23. Burton (250/1 SkyBet)
Back-to-back promotions saw Burton rise through the Football League ranks but the Brewers were dismissed as odds-on favourites for relegation in their debut season in the second-tier; understandably so, you could say. But Albion defied pre-season predictions to comfortably preserve their Championship status.
The difficult second series now awaits Nigel Clough’s charges. Clever recruitment in January assisted Burton’s efforts and although the club are keen to continue their year-on-year progress, ambitions have been hit by the season-ending injury of star summer signing, striker Liam Boyce.
Albion were profligate in front of goal for the most part of 2016/17 and were eager to strengthen in forward areas. Whether there’s now budget to replace Boyce remains to be seen with fellow newcomer Marvin Sordell far from a consistent goalscorer in recent seasons.
Elsewhere, goalkeeping stalwart John McLaughlin was surprisingly released and full-back Tom Flanagan decided to depart. John Brayford hasn’t returned from his loan spell whilst there’ll be plenty of pressure on Jackson Irvine to continue his excellent exploits from midfield.
Clough’s keen to add to his squad but with the surprise factor no longer about, the Brewers might find it difficult to replicate last term’s heroics. In a tougher looking league, Albion might well feel the squeeze and suffer demotion back to League One.
24. Bolton (250/1 SkyBet)
Relegated to League One for the first time in 23 years and only five seasons after playing Premier League football, I’m not quite sure Bolton (and in particular, boss Phil Parkinson) were given the credit they deserve for an immediate bounce back to the Championship.
Parkinson’s patchwork team full of free signings and loanees made the club’s best start in 82 years and never looked like missing out on a strong promotion push. It was all achieved amidst a transfer embargo and further speculation regarding two more potential winding-up petitions. Impressive.
Majority owner Ken Anderson reportedly hasn’t paid some of the agreed promotion bonuses and the club is still paddling hard to avoid another financial mess. But on the pitch, a rugged team came together to produce a workmanlike campaign, characterised by the beef of centre-backs Mark Beevers and David Wheater who added 16 goals between them.
With Wanderers’ spending under severe restrictions, strengthening the squad hasn’t been easy and the Trotters still lack a proven goalscorer. Parkinson’s calming influence and expertise is an undoubted positive but I do wonder where the creative inspiration will come from as Bolton take a step-up.
A switch to three at the back paid dividends during the final furlong of 2016/17 but a thin squad, attritional style and lack of quality across the board may prove the Trotters’ undoing. Survival is the only aim and I’m not sure the Trotters have enough to achieve safety.
Hosted by Ali Maxwell (@TheMakeleleRole) and George Elek (@GeorgeElek), the NTT20 podcast is an essential listen for EFL fans so get downloading and listening.
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