WLB Season Preview 2018/19 | Championship: Team Verdicts


FOOTBALL LEAGUE anorak Gabriel Sutton ( @_FootbalLab ) delivers his team-by-team verdicts on the 24 Championship clubs ahead of the 2018/19 campaign, as well as revealing how he feels the end of season table may look come May.

1. Leeds (11/1 Bet365)

Marcelo Bielsa, a man idolized by Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, is an excellent appointment for Leeds.

Before his job interviews, he studied every match in intense detail; often, that intensity rubs off on others.

He demands nothing but the highest possible standard of technical excellence from his players and high-tempo, faced-paced, fluid football at Elland Road is a hugely exciting prospect.

The Argentine inherits a better squad than last season’s 13th place finish suggested: they were in the mix at Christmas but once Luke Ayling got injured, then Samuel Saiz and Liam Cooper picked up suspensions, form waned.

Bielsa has already lured left-sider Barry Douglas, one of the best players in the Championship last year and with Ayling on the other side, he will have intelligent wing-backs.

Should Patrick Bamford arrive from Middlesbrough, they will have a striker who will thrive off creativity from dribbler Samuel Saiz and pin-point passer Pablo Hernandez.

Lewis Baker will add further talent in midfield and fellow Chelsea loanee, Jamaal Blackman, should solve last season’s keeper conundrum.

While the Whites have proven performers, they also have a collection of academy graduates such as forwards Ryan Edmundson and Jack Clarke along with midfielder Jamie Shackleton, so that Bielsa’s squad has the energy to execute his high-pressing methods.

The ex-Bilbao boss simply doesn’t do quiet seasons, so this has the feel of an all-or-nothing situation. Is it plausible that the manager will ask too much of his players and leave in September? Yes.

However, it is even more plausible that he will elevate his players to levels they never thought possible. With the other five title favourites all managed by far more conservative tacticians, Leeds have the potential to take the division by storm.

2. Derby (15/1 Unibet)

Most Championship fans would be nervous about their club appointing a managerial rookie, but Derby fans are excited by the arrival of Frank Lampard, who could be the man to freshen up the team.

His predecessor, Gary Rowett, who has ironically been replaced by a Chelsea legend in each of his three previous jobs, lacked the versatility to alter his beloved 4-2-3-1 in the second half of last season.

As teams learnt how to nullify Matej Vydra, the Rams threat fizzled out.

They could be harder to read this time. 2017-18 League One top scorer Jack Marriott signs from Peterborough, Eredivise star Mason Mount adds creativity and Florian Jozefzoon, pace and width in a 4-3-3; even academy graduate Luke Thomas has had a great pre-season.

No longer will the Rams play with a slow double-pivot or rely on one or two star individuals to create something out of nothing; attacks will be constructed with more runners from deep. They should have more width this season too, with Max Lowe coming in at left-back over Craig Forsyth, who has lost a yard of pace.

They still retain an experienced core: goalkeeper Scott Carson, centre-back Curtis Davies and midfielder Tom Huddlestone all have the muscle and experience to help the younger players through.

After being the nearly-men for so long Derby, 15/2 with 10Bet for a top two finish, can finally win promotion.

3. Preston (33/1 BetVictor)

Over the last half-a-decade, Preston have progressed every season.

After the experienced 2015-16 side ground out enough narrow wins to secure a top half berth, the squad has gradually evolved into a young, hungry outfit; a transition aided partially by last summer’s decision to replace Simon Grayson with Alex Neil.

They press high up the pitch and attack quickly after turning the ball over, thanks to the energy of forwards Tom Barkuizen, Callum Robinson and Sean Maguire when fit.

They shock teams, which explains why they scored more than one goal within a 15 minute period on 10 occasions last term.

The one ingredient missing from the 2017-18 outfit was a touch of composure to unlock the more defensive sides in open play.

Ryan Ledson, who signs from Oxford, provides enough tenacity to fit into the current system, but he also switches play well enough to offer something different alongside the excellent terrier, Ben Pearson.

North End boast a conveyor belt of centre-backs: Tommy Clarke and Paul Huntington have been great servants and the latter will remain first choice to guide Ben Davies, while summer signing from Exeter, Jordan Storey, waits in the wings.

Either side of their duo will be arguably 2017-18’s two most improved full-backs in the EFL in Darnell Fisher and Josh Earl.

Preston, an attractive 4/1 for a top six finish with Marathon, have arguably a stronger squad than the one that finished seventh and offer potentially the best value in the Championship.

4. Brentford (18/1 Unibet)

Brentford showed plenty of potential and promise last season but couldn’t quite produce the results to match.

The Bees played some sumptuous football; wide forward Ollie Watkins and deep-lying playmaker Ryan Woods both continued their impressive rise.

Dean Smith’s side took the most shots in the division; 803, 153 more than any other side and 194 more than champions Wolves. They had the most shots on target, 240 and the most shots blocked, 254.

There were two main reasons that they didn’t reach the play-offs: firstly, they didn’t add a proven striker.

Let’s not forget, they were one point behind Fulham at Christmas having scored six more goals, with both teams having final third issues.

While their West London neighbours had the funds to bring in a goalscoring beast in Aleksandar Mitrovic, who took their attack to another level, Brentford gambled on unproven youngsters Emiliano Marcondes, Jaako Oksanen and Chiedozie Ogbene, who started a combined two league games.

Had the Serb gone six miles further west of Craven Cottage, we could be discussing a completely different Championship promotion race.

The other problem Brentford had though, was managing the leads they did attain: the injury time capitulation in November’s 2-2 draw at rivals QPR being a prime example.

Otherwise, the Bees have been brilliant. If they can find an extra bit of knowhow at both ends of the pitch – and this young squad has had another year to develop – Sportingbet’s 11/2 on promotion could have value.

5. Stoke (11/2 Betway)

Stoke have taken few chances this summer.

They have added five players of proven quality, including Nigerian lung-buster Oghenekaro Etebo who should, on paper, form a strong midfield partnership with midfield maestro Joe Allen.

However, Allen and Etebo’s best positions are not in a holding role, nor in the number 10 position.

That begs the question whether Rowett can adapt from his beloved 4-2-3-1; although his template has achieved relative success with Burton, Birmingham and Derby, it doesn’t seem insignificant that he is yet to oversee a promotion.

This is his best chance: loanee Benik Afobe represents the closest thing to a guaranteed Championship goalscorer, having been part of Wolves’ title win.

Tom Ince, who signs from Huddersfield, is an enigmatic talent at this level and new wide man James McClean is an honest worker.

Bruno Martins Indi, a star in Holland’s 2014 World Cup campaign, should be commanding although his centre-back partner, Ryan Shawcross, lacks pace, which could cause issues with the midfield balance.

Moritz Bauer added bags of energy at right-back after joining in January and Erik Pieters could do well with a simplistic role under Rowett, rather than the wing-back berth he sometimes had under Mark Hughes.

However, Stoke are available at very skinny prices and while they should finish in the top six, better value can be found elsewhere.

6. Bristol City (40/1 Bet365)

Bristol City not only achieved their highest finish in eight seasons last year, they also reached the semi-finals of the League Cup, beating Manchester United before losing to the eventual winners.

Pep Guardiola, himself, was complimentary of the way they approached that game, a testament to Lee Johnson’s innovative ideas.

Yes, there is disappointment at the way their campaign fizzled out, but the club is on an upward trajectory and playing pretty football to boot.

Bobby Reid might look like a loss, given that he scored 19 league goals last season, but he commanded a sizeable fee for a player that has only produced at this level in one season.

There is no reason why Mo Eisa, a star at Cheltenham last term, can’t rise to the level: while we’re at it, he would be my top goalscorer tip at 100/1 with William Hill.

The Robins should have more pace on their right side thanks to the additions of Jack Hunt and Hakeeb Adelakun while Andreas Weimann is an adaptable performer.

Letting Aden Flint go to Middlesbrough for a hefty fee and bringing in the younger Adam Webster, for a much cheaper fee from Ipswich, could prove a shrewd piece of business.

Marlon Pack and Korey Smith, a consistent pairing during the 2014-15 League One title-winning campaign, remains intact.

Johnson’s side, 9/4 with Betfred for a top six finish, can use last season as a springboard for further progress.

7. Aston Villa (12/1 Ladbrokes)

Steve Bruce divides Villa fans: his supporters feel he has improved the spirit around the place whilst overseeing tangible progression.

His doubters, however, are critical of his defensive style, which stifles potential for repeats of more handbrake-off displays, like the 5-0 win over Bristol City.

New chairman Nassef Sawiris’ decision to stick with Bruce, rather than appoint Thierry Henry, might have been down to convenience, rather than a feather in the gaffer’s cap. With little time for a new manager to come in before Monday’s trip to Hull, changing the boss to a rookie would have been a massive risk.

While the ownership change is good news for the club, in terms of stabilizing the finances, it’s not necessarily good news for Bruce: he is now under the microscope more than he would have been if there was no money.

The Geordie is hoping to keep hold of his two key performers from 2017-18, centre-back James Chester and playmaker Jack Grealish, who have attracted interest from Stoke and Tottenham respectively. The latter has looked focused in pre-season and with the new owners not intending to sell, Villa retain the core of a decent squad.

However, due to due to delayed recruitment combined with the exits of Sam Johnstone and John Terry, they could be worse off than last season.

8. Sheffield United (28/1 Bet365)

After harbouring ambitions of a second successive promotion for much of 2017-18, Sheffield United finished 10th: not quite what they could have achieved but a positive campaign overall.

The style of play rarely changed. Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp hassled defenders and, perhaps lacking the raw pace to attack in transition, they held it up to instigate prolonged spells of pressure.

Mark Duffy found pockets of space behind opposition midfields and showed impressive craft, even if he tired in second halves.

While right wing-back George Baldock had the drive to attack the flank, left-sided counter-part Enda Stevens would wait to combine with a midfielder or even Jack O’Connell, an adventurous left centre-back.

That worked well, especially when midfield maestro Paul Coutts was fit; the Blades won 11 of the 16 league games the Scot started, but just eight more after he picked up a long-term injury in November.

This season’s potential re-union of Coutts and his compatriot, John Fleck, might help, but Chris Wilder’s men could do with an alternative plan, should their midfield not be able to dominate every week: with David Brooks now at Bournemouth, they need a counter-attacking outlet.

Forward James Wilson was loaned in January to offer that but he, like other mid-season additions, didn’t quite produce the goods.

However, an abnormal proportion of their 55 league goals shipped last season came from long-range; better luck therefore, might see the signings of John Egan and Dean Henderson complete one of the best defensive units in the division.

9. Middlesbrough (9/1 888)

Tony Pulis set his side up poorly in the play-offs last season.

He knew, in the second leg at Villa Park, that Middlesbrough needed to score to have a chance of reaching Wembley, yet they went 90 minutes without mustering a single shot on target.

Ryan Shotton lacks the mobility to be a right-back and he was mysteriously favoured over the more confident Fabio, who impressed from the bench in both games but has since moved on.

Adama Traore carried Middlesbrough in the second half of last season; almost all their attacks went through the speedy Spaniard, who could be set for a move. It seems baffling, therefore, that at the time of writing, Pulis has not added a midfielder or a striker to either match Traore’s influence or reduce the creative burden on him.

Boro should threaten from set pieces given that Stewart Downing is a specialist, Daniel Ayala grabbed seven league goals last term and his new centre-back partner, Aden Flint, has scored a hat-trick in his career.

They still have, on paper, a reliable goalscorer in Britt Assombalonga, an exciting forward in Martin Braithwaite if he stays, along with promising kids like Lewis Wing and Harry Chapman, who could help dilute a stodgy midfield.

This ninth-place prediction is based on Pulis leaving with the team in the bottom half and a more innovative coach coming in to elevate the squad.

10. Nottingham Forest (10/1 Ladbrokes)

When Aitor Karanka won promotion with Middlesbrough in 2015-16, he had a clear template: two sitting midfielders, a stable defensive base and one or two individuals who can produce a moment of magic. Players were put into binary attacking and defensive categories, an approach very successful in that climate; Burnley and Hull got promoted with similar strategies.

Last season though, Nuno Santo, Slavisa Jokanovic and Chris Wilder produced strategies in which the difference between attacking and defending blurred into control – the aim was to press for the ball and keep it, a way of both keeping the opposition out and creating openings.

The Championship is becoming a more tactically sophisticated league and the big question is whether Karanka’s methods can still be as successful as they were.

The Spaniard has, undoubtedly, a good squad. Costel Pantilimon, Michael Dawson, Ben Watson and Lewis Grabban form an experienced spine with a glut of Portuguese talent around it.

Centre-back Tobias Figuierdo did well on loan last season, Gil Dias and Diogo Golcalves add to potentially exciting wide options, striker Hillal Soudani arrives with Champions League experience and, of course, the club saw enough talent in attacking midfielder Joao Carvalho to part with £13.2 million.

Questions could be raised about the full-back areas, as well as a potential lack of control and creativity from deep; especially if Ryan Yates is loaned out.

Karanka has the tools but, having previously been successful due to his stubborn single-mindedness, there is a possibility that he might under-estimate how much the Championship has improved since he last won promotion.

11. Blackburn (50/1 Paddy Power)

True stability will never come to Ewood Park until the Venky’s hand over the reigns to a competent owner, but Tony Mowbray has provided the next best thing.

Not only has ‘Mogga’ restored unity, he has also re-built the squad into a likeable, hard-working unit with a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

They have quality, too: Bradley Dack’s deliveries were excellent last season and, after being arguably League One’s stand-out player in two of the last three campaigns, he more than deserves his shot at the second-tier.

Danny Graham, an industrious front-man, has pedigree, even if alternative forward options wouldn’t go amiss.

Charlie Mulgrew, too, arguably has the class in possession to become a Premier League centre-back, Derrick Williams is a steady operator at left-back while goalkeeper David Raya grew in confidence as 2017-18 progressed.

Richie Smallwood is an underrated component, too: his hassling and harrying in the defensive third is key to breaking up attacks and Joe Rothwell should do a similar job alongside the ex-Rotherham man.

Rovers, 6/4 with William Hill for a top half finish, press well and threaten in transition, which could see them adjust better than their fellow promotees.

12. QPR (66/1 Betfair)

Over the last few years, QPR have gravitated towards a more youth-centred recruitment policy; since Harry Redknapp’s ‘sore knee’ forced him to resign hours after an unsuccessful deadline day in 2015, the club have made 46 signings, of which only Alex Baptiste was in his thirties.

Club legend Ian Holloway deserves credit for blooding lower league talent and building bridges with supporters, but his starting eleven changed every week. While his insistence on high deliveries from deep got the best out of assist-king Luke Freeman and target man Matt Smith, it left the Rs short of alternative ideas.

In Steve McClaren, Tony Fernandes hopes to have appointed a head coach who will encourage football on the deck, which might give attacking prodigies Eberiche Eze and Paul Smyth the platform to shine.

Massimo Luongo and Josh Scowen offer dynamism and solidity respectively in central midfield, giving them a base to which either Ryan Manning, Sean Goss when fit or even Freeman in a deeper role could add guile.

Left-back Jake Bidwell progressed last season but the injury-prone defence still needs to improve, especially at right-back with Darnell Furlong sidelined, youngster Osman Kakay being the likely replacement.

New centre-back Leistner could make an impact but with key stopper Alex Smithies off to Cardiff, they need either Matt Ingram to step up, or Joe Lumley to be absolutely fabulous.

Still, a top half berth – 7/4 with Betfred – looks within their reach.

13. West Brom (8/1 William Hill)

It was an obvious decision for the West Brom board to give Darren Moore the permanent job.

He deserves great credit for galvanizing the club last season; the resurgence from a hopeless position was strong enough to make supporters believe in their team, even if the points gap to safety was realistically too big.

Giving Moore the gig appeases fans; but it remains to be seen whether the rookie can deliver the overhaul the squad desperately needs, when perhaps Dean Smith might have better qualified.

Chris Brunt and Jake Livermore look set to start in a double-pivot and while the former can deliver a set piece, it’s hard to see the Baggies launching a promotion push with that duo.

Auxiliary right-back Martin Cranie and stalwart James Morrison have both played in pre-season but there’s ambiguity as to whether either are contracted, while the club is yet to appoint an assistant manager.

New boys Conor Townsend, an impressive left-back at Scunthorpe and Harvey Barnes, who grabbed five goals and four assists in 23 games for Barnsley, add to a reasonable collection of young talents including left-footer Sam Field and dribbler Oliver Burke.

However, West Brom begin their campaign with plenty of unknowns and Labrokes’ 11/4 on a bottom half finish could be one to look at.

14. Norwich (25/1 BetVictor)

Since relegation in 2015-16, Norwich’s transfer policy appears to have become increasingly modest and frugal.

Initially, they kept the same manager and squad that won promotion in 2014-15, hoping to repeat the trick straight away but when that didn’t work, the parachute payments dried up and the club had to cut costs.

It would be wrong to call their current position austerity, given that loanee Jordan Rhodes is a proven Championship goalscorer and Tim Krul has kept goal in the Premier League, but their arrivals represents exceptions, rather than examples of the rule.

Since Stuart Webber became director and Daniel Farke, head coach, 77% of their signings have been under 25 and 65% are foreign.

These promising, young players from abroad have been cheap and potentially possess a high sell-on value, the latter being part of Norwich’s thinking, given the big-money sales of James Maddison and Josh Murphy.

Emi Buendia, a 20-year-old playmaker from Getafe, is hoped to be the next big thing while Moritz Leitner could dictate play from a deeper role next to the tenacious Tommy Trybull; Grant Hanley should form a decent centre-back pairing with Timm Klose, too.

Without arguably three of their best players from last season though, the Canaries risk losing key men as quickly as they develop them.

15. Birmingham (50/1 Betfair)

Birmingham have had a mixed last six months.

It is encouraging that they have a manager fans trust in Garry Monk, whose appointment in March has helped the team play more front-foot football and create more chances in a 4-4-2 in which wide men are given freedom to drift inside.

After the final day survival however, potential for further progression might have been hindered by a brief transfer embargo.

It’s not a bad thing that there hasn’t been a major overhaul, as has been customary in the poor post-Rowett era – and the rise of academy graduates like goalkeeper Connal Trueman, right-back Wes Harding and attacking midfielder Bez Lubala is great – but the squad is far from perfect.

Blues are short of a few touches of quality in certain areas to truly control games, because many of the players rely on an obvious physical attribute.

Wide men Jacques Maghoma and Viv Soloman-Otabor along with forwards Isaac Vassell and Che Adams are quick, target man Lukasz Jutkiewicz is aerially strong while midfielders Maikel Kieftenbeld, Cheikh N’Doye and Craig Gardner are willing battlers.

Those aren’t bad qualities to have, but until the club can add more technically refined players like Jota – who has started to rediscover his Brentford form under Monk – midtable looks the most realistic target.

16. Swansea (14/1 888)

Swansea City’s only three additions, at the time of writing, are 19-year-olds Yan Dhanda, Jordi Govea and Joel Asoro.

Of those, only the latter will be thrown in straight away and while he is an honest runner, he is not yet the type of forward to rely on for goals.

Oliver McBurnie might be, given his positive stint at Barnsley, but he too is at an earlier stage of his development than the Ayew brothers, who are both likely to leave.

It’s good to see Swansea thinking long-term after years of focusing just on immediate survival and Graham Potter is a promising appointment. The progress he instigated at Ostersund however, happened over eight years, which suggests patience is needed.

The Silhillian (from Solihull) will have a group of raw youngsters desperate to make their mark, including energetic right-back Connor Roberts and midfield technician Matt Grimes, but who have little experience.

He must also work with players of a higher pedigree, but who had arguably let the Swans down in last season’s relegation campaign.

With Lukasz Fabianski gone, potentially centre-backs Alfie Mawson and Federico Fernandez following suit, it remains to be seen whether there will be enough players with both desire and knowhow in the side 2/1 with Coral to finish in the bottom half.

While Potter finds that balance, this looks every inch a transitional season.

17. Wigan (40/1 188BET)

Anything Chris Wilder can do, Paul Cook can do too.

The Liverpudlian led title wins in successive seasons with Portsmouth and Wigan, triumphs which sandwiched a controversial move from Solent to West Lancashire.

Cook’s doubters will say he is yet to prove himself as a smaller fish in a bigger pond (in fairness, he did guide Chesterfield to the League One play-offs in 2014-15).

He will be helped by Christian Walton, arguably the best goalkeeper outside the Championship in the last two seasons.

Walton and centre-backs Chey Dunkley and Dan Burn did superbly to keep 27 league clean sheets, although there’s questions about how they might adjust to the pace of a higher league.

Marauding right-back Nathan Byrne might not have quite as much freedom this time and another left-back is required – oddly, they’ve released and loaned in two different full-backs named Reece James.

Star performer Sam Morsy should thrive alongside Max Power or Shaun MacDonald, with the latter returning from injury.

Will Grigg, consistently brilliant in League One, is hoping to prove himself at this level, having been a tad unlucky last time out.

The key creative influence though is Nick Powell, who has scored in the Europa League and for Manchester United. Now he has his mojo back, he could be an asset, although Wigan might have to settle for a bottom half finish.

18. Millwall (50/1 Betway)

Millwall performed valiantly to assemble a strong play-off challenge last season.

They bloodied many a big-hitter’s nose at The Den and once their away form clicked into gear from January onwards, the sense of fearlessness grew.

Shaun Hutchinson provided guidance for aerially dominant centre-back Jake Cooper, midfielder George Saville offered composure, winger Jed Wallace made direct runs and Steve Morison looked surprisingly mobile for a veteran target man.

Another big part of Millwall’s success, though, was the element of surprise: they would have been the archetypal second-tier side a decade ago but in an evolving league, opponents aren’t used to facing teams that attempt long balls in 26% of their passes.

Throw in the strong challenges along with raucous fans and going to The Den might have felt almost like a nightmare.

Now that three-quarters of the division have experienced the pressure, know the drill and will be mentally prepared for the onslaught, it remains to be seen how the Lions will fare.

While Millwall won’t necessarily get worse, their opponents might get better.

19. Ipswich (70/1 188Bet)

Paul Hurst is the best man Ipswich Town could have appointed.

He can pluck players from the lower leagues and mould them into a competitive outfit; at least, that’s what he did at Shrewsbury, who are unlucky not to be in the same division.

It would be wrong to say however, that he inherits the 12th best squad in the Championship, even if that’s the position they finished.

Ipswich started 2017-18 with four wins, all of which were down to clinical finishing rather than convincing performances; thereon, they are 16th in the form table, eight points off the top half and that’s whilst relying heavily on goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski.

The fact they failed to score in 12 of their final 26 games was partly down to a lack of quality, as well as Mick McCarthy’s defensive tactics – the five shots in a goalless home draw with Burton won’t live long in the memory – so Hurst must coax more counter-attacking ambition out of his side.

We shouldn’t expect fireworks from him straightaway, especially following the loss of key midfield loanees in magician Bersant Celina and the energetic Callum Connolly.

They hope to have found a replacement for the former in ex-Crawley men Gwion Edwards and Jordan Roberts; the latter meanwhile, could be replaced by Tom Adeyemi, Emyr Huws or Andre Dozzell, who all return from injury and even Flynn Downes might have a shot after a productive loan spell at Luton.

Hurst aims to rejuvenate The Tractor Boys – but limitations in his budget and squad means he has his work cut out.

20. Sheffield Wednesday (33/1 Bet365)

Wednesday improved hugely in 2017-18 when the mid-season injury crisis cleared up and key men, Barry Bannan and Fernando Forestieri, returned to fitness.

Some could say the preceding two campaigns prove the Owls have a top six squad which, given better luck with injuries, will be back to it’s promotion-chasing best.

However, the fact they had lots of injuries arguably reflects negatively on the reliability of the squad and the fitness setup at the club.

FFP means they not been able to evolve an aging group; at least not in the transfer market.

Jos Luhukay used six academy graduates, of which left-back Ashley Baker and midfielder Connor Kirby caught the eye, while Jordan Thornily (signed from Everton at a young age) continues his rise.

A lack of pace in forward areas though could still be problematic. Forestieri is tremendously gifted but lacks the power to carry a ball up the pitch and Atdhe Nuhiu is not the most mobile target man, therefore the midfielders like Joey Pelupessy and George Boyd will have to get through a lot of leg work.

Stay fully fit and this squad could threaten in the top half, but Wednesday risk their season once again being derailed by fitness issues.

21. Rotherham (500/1 SkyBet)

Rotherham have little more than a good League One squad.

Will Vaulks, a stand-out performer during last season’s promotion campaign, should adjust to the Championship with ease, but otherwise it’s a group who either haven’t been tested at this level or have been found wanting when they were.

In that sense alone, they are not much better off than they were when they began 2016-17; and we all know how that panned out.

Where they are better off though, is the spirit around the place.

Alan Stubbs and Kenny Jackett had done little to ingratiate themselves with fans during their short stints whereas Paul Warne, a club legend, has done a lot.

He has re-assessed the characters brought into the club and thus there is now a strong team spirit that will be needed in a likely relegation battle.

The fact defender Richard ‘magic hat’ Wood was the brace-scoring Wembley hero was as surprising as it was fitting: the captain had not once complained when dropped for the first five league games, instead remaining a positive influence.

Wide man Ryan Williams might have been disappointed to have been dropped to the bench in that final – after doing well in the semis – but when he came on he made a huge difference.

There’s selfless characters in this Millers squad, which is far more united than it was 15 months ago.

Although on paper Rotherham would be in the bottom three, they could be kept afloat by a collective, burning desire to rid the 2016-17 skeleton from their closest.

22. Reading (66/1 Paddy Power)

Expected goals connoisseurs will say that, over the last two seasons, Reading have been fortunate: both to reach the play-off final in 2016-17 and to avoid relegation last term.

After Paul Clement took over in March, the two wins were smash-and-grab displays against QPR and Preston, in which his side had a combined ten shots, two of which were on target.

In fact, the Royals haven’t beaten a side that avoided relegation with more than one shot on target since they won 4-2 at Derby in November.

Forward Marc McNulty, a history-maker at Coventry, could provide quick feet and shooting accuracy, but creativity will be required for those skills to come into play.

Where will that creativity come from? John Swift’s form has dropped alarmingly in the last 12 months, Sone Aluko hasn’t delivered, George Evans could be off and Dave Edwards, at 32, no longer has the energy to make his trademark box-bound bursts.

Speedster Modou Barrow had a reasonable season last year – and full-back Andy Yiadom is a decent addition from Barnsley – but otherwise it’s slim pickings.

They won’t have a great defence either: they are arguably set to swap one of the Championship’s best centre-backs in Liam Moore for one of the worst in John O’Shea.

Unibet’s 5/1 on Reading for the drop might be good value.

23. Hull (66/1 Bet365)

Last season, Hull won six games by a margin of three or more goals – the fourth-most in the division – and yet the threat of relegation often loomed large.

The task for Nigel Adkins this summer, theoretically, was to retain players with the quality to produce the occasional wonder-show, whilst adding strong characters to aid consistency.

The danger though, is that the opposite has happened. Yes, Jarrod Bowen could stay but Kamil Grosicki might be affected by personal issues, Abel Hernandez has left by mutual consent while Jackson Irvine has had fitness problems.

Leaders Allan McGregor, Michael Dawson, Sebastien Larsson and David Meyler have all left and of the new signings only Eric Lichaj, who Forest were content to dismiss, fit that category.

The other six signings are all under 25; of those, the player with the most Championship experience is centre-back Reece Burke and he’s 21.

Those young players could struggle if off-field tensions mount. Adkins’ pull-together positivity worked to an extent last season, but the ex-physio risks being perceived as a ‘yes-man’ too close to the Allam regime.

For a side 5/1 for relegation with Betfair, a season of strife could be in the offing.

24. Bolton (250/1 SkyBet)

Bolton might not be under a transfer embargo anymore, but the eight permanent additions they have made are all frees.

Yanic Wildschut, the one loanee, might add pace in wide areas along with Sammy Ameobi, who was arguably their brightest attacking performer last term.

There are otherwise major question marks about this squad, 54% of which are either teenagers or in their 30s.

Most teams have pace either in defence or up top to reduce the workload on the midfield, but Bolton don’t.

David Wheater and Mark Beevers, an excellent centre-back pairing in League One, have struggled with the tempo of the Championship, while a slow veteran like Adam Le Fondre or new signing Clayton Donaldson is likely to start up top.

The midfield, which could consistent of the out-of-form Josh Vela and Blackburn cast-off Jason Lowe, might therefore have to cover unfair amounts of ground.

Erhun Oztumer showed some quality at Walsall but it is possible his diminutive stature and questionable attitude might count against him in Phil Parkinson’s system.

‘Parky’ set his side up very defensively last season, especially away from home, where they won only once and scored 14 goals; three fewer than Rotherham the year before.

Bolton are 5/1 with 188Bet to finish bottom and if they continue to be so defensive then, unfortunately, a tough season awaits.

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