FOOTBALL LEAGUE expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) delivers his team-by-team Championship verdicts ahead of the 2019/20 campaign, with a 1-24 rundown covering each club in-depth ahead of the new season.
1st) Fulham (15/2 Betway)
It was a forgettable one-season stay in the Premier League for Fulham in 2018/19 after deservedly winning promotion to the top-flight two years ago. The Cottagers were fancied by many to consolidate after splurging over £100m in the summer but the club’s dearth of backline reinforcements and focus on defence quickly proved to be their undoing.
Confidence drained and Slavisa Jokanovic’s front-foot football was often exposed, leading the Serbian to a November departure with just a solitary success from Fulham’s opening 12 encounters. The Cottagers were playing catch-up thereafter and the appointment of Claudio Ranieri failed to stem the bleeding, leaving Scott Parker to take charge of the final flourish.
Parker has since been given the gig on a permanent basis and made positive strides. The respected coach added much needed balance to the team, set higher standards and created a more enjoyable training ground atmosphere. A lack of managerial experience is a concern, although the former England ace has a star-studded Championship squad at his disposal.
Tying both Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic to new five-year contracts, plus the eye-catching additions of Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro highlight the club’s ambition, and with the likes of Alfie Mawson, Joe Bryan, Cyrus Christie, Andre Zambo Anguissa and Stepehen Sessegnon still in situ, Fulham are supremely stocked for the upcoming campaign.
Stoke flopped when well-fancied 12 months ago, but relegated clubs boast a reasonable record in their first season back in the Championship. Five (26%) relegated sides this century have taken title honours with 14 (25%) winning promotion; 25 (44%) tabled a top-six finish and 42 (74%) clinched a top-half berth so there’s enough evidence to suggest a serious challenge could be on the cards.
2nd) Leeds (9/2 BetVictor)
Leeds were the most dominant team in the Championship last year, finishing top of the tree across all the major performance data metrics. The Whites’ set seriously high standards throughout the campaign but a spectacular and gut-wrenching collapse in the final fortnight saw Marcelo Bielsa’s men miss out on promotion twice with the finishing line in sight.
Despite claims to the contrary, Leeds’ W10-D2-L10 return after Boxing Day showed no clear signs of decline. The Whites remained remarkably consistent, although injuries to key forwards played their part. For example, Leeds’ points per-game dropped from 1.93 to 1.63 without Kemar Roofe leading the line, whilst their goal output dipped from 1.74 to 1.34.
Bielsa’s boys continued to monopolise possession, carve out the best goalscoring opportunities, and limit the damage defensively. Leeds simply paid the price for a lack of killer instinct in the final-third in 2019, as well as a few brain farts in their own penalty box; the unhappy combination has been described as having a direct effect from potential mental fatigue in some quarters.
Aware of his team’s faults, Bielsa has brought in Helder Costa to add more penetration and conviction in attacking areas, whilst young centre-half Ben White is likely to play a key role with Pontus Jansson departing. Kalvin Phillips’ future remains unsolved but the Whites are working hard to keep their talented and versatile youngster and his involvement could prove pivotal to any potential success this season.
‘El Loco’ has committed his future to Elland Road and if the Argentine is capable of orchestrating a repeat campaign then Leeds are very worthy 9/2 favourites to end their 15-year Premier League exile. However, there’s always a lingering concern that Bielsa’s intensity could push the players to breaking point and the scars of last season may surface.
3rd) Brentford (16/1 Sportingbet)
Data darlings Brentford delivered a fifth successive top-half Championship finish in 2018/19 despite a turbulent campaign that saw Dean Smith depart in October. The Bees were sat as high as second in September following an impressive opening stanza but the managerial departure initially derailed the West Londoners and a promotion push extinguished.
Thomas Frank stepped up from his role as first-team assistant and the Dane initially saw his side suffer eight defats in 10 tussles to tumble into the lower reaches of the table. However, Brentford bounced back thereafter with Frank making noticeable tactical tweaks and small alterations to the Bees mentality to picking up points.
Brentford are no longer obsessed over aesthetics with Frank determined to implement a stronger mindset and sturdier system to compliment their undeniable edge in the final-third. The likes of Neal Maupay, Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins form a formidable front three and the arrival of Pontus Jansson should give the Bees much-needed defensive leadership.
This is by no means the finished article. There’s hope Frank’s subtle adjustments will improve a wretched road record (W18-D18-L32 since the start of 2016/17) and should Maupay or Benrahma join skipper Romaine Sawyers in departing, the Bees are going to require extra bodies. Danish pair Mathias Jensen and Christian Norgaard could plug the deficit in midfield.
Brentford have regularly threatened a sustained promotion push in the past but this year looks as good as any for the Bees to really make their mark. The club have signalled their intent in the transfer market and appear to be answering many of the big questions posed with a more mature and physically-imposing squad built. They could go very close.
4th) Bristol City (22/1 Blacktype)
Lee Johnson has engineered year-on-year progress at Bristol City since taking the reigns at Ashton Gate and following a flirtation with the play-offs in 2018/19, the Robins could be set to take flight towards the upper echelons of the division this term. The club have certainly displayed their ambition of a top-six finish with a flurry of eye-catching summer additions.
City made an understandable slow start to last season (W6-D3-L8) following the departures of Aden Flint, Bobby Reid and Joe Bryan before ‘streaky’ Johnson guided the group to W13-D10-L6 in the final 29 outings, a 1.69 points per-game return that included a seven-game winning run. The Robins boss remains a polarising figure at Ashton Gate but few can fault his credentials.
Backed by ambitious owner Steve Lansdown, the club have made no secret of their desire to challenge this year and, defensively at least, the Robins look well set for a solid campaign. Tomas Kalas and Adam Webster are the division’s standout centre-back pairing, supported by Nathan Baker with England U21 left-back Jay Da Silva and Jack Hunt on the flanks.
There’s hope that Sammie Szmodics can fill the attacking midfield void behind striker Famara Diedhiou, whilst the problem position in goal has been filled by Daniel Bentley. City are still searching for extra firepower – the Robins only scored twice or more on 16 occasions in 2018/19 – and should Johnson find the right balance, Bristol City could prosper.
5th) Stoke (14/1 BlackType)
Stoke were 11/2 favourites for an immediate Premier League return last season but it became clear in the opening encounter against Leeds that promotion was going to be a tall order. The Potters played out a desperately disappointing campaign lacking excitement or enthusiasm, never featuring higher than ninth and only once winning back-to-back games.
Gary Rowett was sacked in early January after a run of eight triumphs from 26 left Stoke marooned in mid-table and the club installed Nathan Jones in the hot-seat. The Welshman managed just W3-D11-L6 during his stint five-month stint with the Potters failing to score in nine of their 20 outings. Even so, hopes are high at the Bet365 Stadium with Jones enjoying a full pre-season to impart his modern techniques.
Smart, intense, demanding and ambitious, Jones is renowned for playing slick, attacking, passing football with his teams deploying a diamond formation in midfield. An excellent coach on the training ground, the confrontational 46-year-old will have relished the time he’s had to imprint his philosophy on the squad, as well as jettison any deadwood.
Jones opted to work on the defence last season, displaying pragmatism whilst implementing his framework. Stoke posted plenty of positive Expected Goals (xG) against returns and even boasted a run of six successive clean sheets. The key is now to find the magic attacking formula and Nick Powell’s arrival could be crucial if he can stay clear of injury issues.
Backed by one of the division’s biggest budgets, the expectation is now on the Potters to challenge for a Premier League place. With Jones calling the shots, Stoke should figure prominently in the promotion shake-up with the potential to take top honours should the combination of Sam Vokes, Lee Gregory and Benik Afobe find form and consistency.
6th) Cardiff (11/1 Betway)
Neil Warnock declared, “I think this is probably the best Championship team I’ve ever managed” after completing the signings of Will Vaulks, Joe Day and Curtis Nelson at the end of June. The 70-year-old boss will see out the final year of his contract in the Welsh capital and is clearly keen to add to his eight promotions across his 40-year coaching career.
The Bluebirds defied pre-season predictions to reach the Premier League two seasons ago and the veteran manager admitted immediate relegation “still rankles a little bit”. Despite starting the campaign as hot 8/11 favourites for the drop, Cardiff finished just two points shy of survival with a series of baffling refereeing decisions ultimately costing the club.
City enjoying the lowest share of possession in the top-flight last term, but the Bluebirds were outside of the bottom-three when viewing ratio returns for Expected Goals (xG), xG from open play or attempts from inside the penalty area. And so without a wild turnover in playing personnel, plus a couple of canny additions, Cardiff could prove tough opposition.
Warnock’s charges collected 17 (50%) of their Premier League points tally against bottom-five rivals (W5-D2-L1) and deserve immense credit for their efforts having also endured the dreadful Emiliano Sala tragedy mid-season. Should Cardiff settle early, expect a tenacious, aggressive, combative and effective outfit to enjoy a strong assault on the top-six.
7th) Preston (40/1 BlackType)
Preston finished last season slap-bang in mid-table, as bookmakers predicted pre-season. Following a dreadful start (W1-D3-L7), North End recovered to a challenge for a play-off place – peaking in seventh – before the March international break. However, a wretched finale – six defeats in eight – quickly ended any talk of an outside promotion push.
Injuries weighed heavily on the Lilywhites squad. Tom Barkhuizen, Ben Pearson, Sean Maguire, Andrew Hughes, Alan Browne, Brad Potts and Tom Clarke all faced large spells on the sidelines, disrupting Alex Neil’s plans for progress with a small squad. Nevertheless, Preston remained competitive throughout and posted impressive numbers mid-season.
Exclude the two poor runs of results at either end of the campaign, PNE pocketed W14-D9-L4 in matches between October and mid-March. That’s a 1.89 points per-game average that included scoring goals in all bar four of their 27 contests. The underlying numbers showed sparks of life during this period and there’s hope that sample can act as a catalyst this term.
Preston might not be capable of competing on a budgetary level but Neil’s a shrew operator and he’s backed by an astute board. The Lancashire club have registered 10 top-half finishes in the Championship over the past 19 seasons this century and there’s no real reason why the current crop can’t enhance that impressive return in 2018/19.
The sale of Callum Robinson was always on the cards, and whilst David Nugent isn’t the ideal replacement, you would expect North End to bolster the offensive ranks soon. Even so, Jayden Stockley should improve as the team’s focal point, Patrick Bauer is a smart arrival and the side is underpinned by solid centre-halves Ben Davies and Jordan Storey.
8th) West Brom (12/1 Bet365)
West Brom kept faith with Darren Moore in their quest for an immediate bounce back to the Premier League, but axed the club legend in March with 10 games to play and automatic promotion seemingly out of touch. Moore’s tactical shortcomings and ponderous in-game management were to blame, particularly when Albion were hosting at The Hawthorns.
Expecting the WBA board to act swiftly and decisively, a new permanent boss wasn’t forthcoming and so James Shan was asked to step up from the academy to navigate the run-in and play-off assault, alongside Michael Appleton. Despite an organised and passionate effort, the Baggies lost out in the play-off semi-finals and that unsuccessful season could have lasting consequences.
Slaven Bilic was appointed in mid-June and his arrival has at least perked Albion supporters up with WBA in the midst of cost-cutting measures. With the loans of Dwight Gayle and Harvey Barnes expired, plus the sale of Jay Rodriguez, the club have lost 55 goals from 2018/19 – 69% of their overall output. James Morrison and Craig Dawson have also moved on.
The Croatian takes over a rebuilding job with a significant overhaul required. There’s been plenty of movement in the coaching team, although no permanent additions had arrived until mid-July; Kenneth Zohor, Romaine Sawyers and Semi Ajayi headline the incomings but technical director Luke Dowling has a tough job on his hands to plug the obvious talent drain.
Bilic’s presence and aura is a plus for West Brom but his squad lacks the class of 12 months ago. Last season was a major missed opportunity and if the Baggies perform to the same on-pitch standards it’s difficult to see the West Midlanders mounting a major challenge on the automatic promotion places. A campaign of regression beckons in West Bromwich.
9th) Blackburn (50/1 Blacktype)
After a one-year stay in League One, Blackburn returned to the second-tier with consolidation in mind. Rovers made an impressive start to life back in the Championship but an inconsistent campaign saw the Ewood Park club eventually play out the season in 15th despite having hit the dizzy heights of eighth towards the end of January.
Tony Mowbray’s men fell away from top-six contention following a tough run of defensive injuries that played a key role in results nosediving. Blackburn were beaten nine times in 11 outings, and appeared particularly vulnerable without the influence of Irish centre-half Darragh Lenihan, before eventually steadying the ship in mid-April with four straight wins.
Mowbray has opted to keep the core of the squad he inherited in February 2017 intact. There’s a likeable stability surrounding Ewood Park right now and, whilst the arrivals of Sam Gallagher and Bradley Johnson could be considered more functional than flashy, there’s an air of optimism and positivity amongst supporters suggesting progression can be achieved.
Rovers boasted one of the youngest squads in the Championship last term and the acclimatisation to the level should ensure another healthy campaign. Mowbray’s looking to implement a more possession-based game but we should still expect Gallagher, Danny Graham and Bradley Dack to again play leading roles in attack.
There was a soft underbelly to Blackburn’s defensive game in 2018/19 that will need solving before any aspirations of the top-six are met. Too often the Lancashire club were bullied on their travels with the concession of sloppy (and late) goals particularly frustrating. If Mowbray can iron out those elementary errors, Rovers can continue to look upwards.
10th) Derby (20/1 Blactype)
Frank Lampard’s first season in management was deemed a success after the ex-England midfielder guided Derby to the play-off final having been marked down as eighth favourites in the ante-post Championship betting. The Rams were largely indebted to their loan players with Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Timori all making crucial contributions.
Mount and Wilson combined for 25 (36%) of County’s 69-goal tally and new boss Phillip Cocu will be desperate to cover that shortfall. At the time of writing, Kieran Dowell and Graeme Shinnine are the only new faces in Derby’s ageing squad and so it’s very difficult to see the Rams repeating last year’s achievements in their current clime.
Truth be told, Lampard’s achievements were potentially overplayed due to the quality at his disposal. County may have claimed a top-six berth but they featured in the bottom-half for ratio return in the three major metrics of Expected Goals (xG), xG from open play and shots from inside the penalty area – all despite boasting the fifth highest possessional average on the ball.
Derby will be entering their 17th campaign in 18 years at this level – the club have registered top-half finishes in eight seasons on the spin but from the outside it looks like a slump could strike in 2019/20. Much will depend on the exciting and interesting appointment of three-time Eredivisie title-winner Cocu, as well as any late moves in the transfer market.
11th) Middlesbrough (20/1 Blacktype)
Middlesbrough started last season with expectations of a sustained promotion push and the Teessiders settled in amongst the front-runners following a fine August (W4-D2-L0). However, inconsistency and a one-dimensional eyesore style soon took precedent and Tony Pulis’ fate appeared to be sealed following a six-match losing streak in the Spring.
Boro eventually ended just one point shy of the play-off positions in an underachieving campaign that saw Pulis’ tenure terminated in May. Long-term chairman Steve Gibson has handed the reigns to local hero Jonathan Woodgate with the former captain committed to playing a more enterprising, front-foot style to entertain The Riverside faithful.
Woodgate’s hands are tied pretty tightly in terms of recruitment, however. Parachute payments have ended for Middlesbrough and a new financial reality is beginning to bite. With no new permanent signings onboard, the new number one has promised to invest in the club’s burgeoning academy prospects as he bids to build a new identity at Boro.
There’s been a large turnover in the coaching department behind the scenes as the Teessiders prepare for a probably season of transition. The shrinking squad remains overly stocked in central areas, lacking pace, width and invention, and so without major reinforcements it’s difficult to foresee anything over than a campaign of consolidation.
12th) Nottingham Forest (25/1 Blacktype)
Nottingham Forest posted only their fourth top-half Championship finish in their current 11-year Championship stay last season in typically chaotic fashion. The Tricky Trees went through two more managers as Aitor Karanka (W9-D12-L5) and Martin O’Neill (W8-D3-L8) failed in the club’s mission for a return to the Premier League for the first time since 1999.
The club invested heavily last summer, signing Benfica midfielder Joao Carvalho for a club-record fee of £13.2m and striker Lewis Grabban for a reported £6m but Karanka walked away in January with the club four points off the top-six. By the time the campaign concluded under O’Neill, the Reds were eight points adrift of the play-off places.
Sabri Lamouchi was quickly installed on the eve of pre-season – Forest’s 13th full-time manager since June 2011. The sentimental decision to bring O’Neill back always appeared misguided and the fractious relationship he endured with the playing squad was well documented, and this, alongside his agriculture football, ultimately proved his undoing.
It’s almost impossible to foresee a serious promotion push at Forest until an element of stability arrives. There’s undoubted quality within the ranks but a ridiculous turnover of players and management have left behind a bloated squad and mishmash of personalities and nationalities that makes forging a competitive, close-knit group tricky from the outset.
Lamouchi enjoyed a semi-successful stint with the Ivory Coast national team and was well-liked by Yaya Toure during his reign. The former French international, who will be “assisted by six new members of staff”, then showed plenty of signs of promise with Rennes in Ligue 1, implementing an enjoyable, attacking style before being axed in his second season.
13th) Swansea (40/1 Blacktype)
Swansea’s first campaign back at Championship level since 2010/11 resulted in a fine top-10 finish. Expected to suffer after a difficult relegation, the Welsh outfit were revived and reinvigorated under Graham Potter’s watch and produced plenty of statement performances, particularly during an eye-catching second half of the season.
The Swans returned W9-D6-L7 (1.50 points per-game) after Boxing Day, although results don’t tell the full story of their rejuvenation. City saw their Expected Goals (xG) ratio leap from around the 52% mark through Autumn and Winter to 63% in Spring – a figure normally associated with club’s chasing automatic promotion and only bettered by the top-three.
The striking performance data was picked up on by Brighton owner Tony Bloom and Potter was parachuted into a Premier League position following his notable one-season efforts with Swansea. The club have taken a left-field approach to his successor with England U17 World Cup winning coach Steve Cooper takng charge after 60 candidates were interviewed.
Cooper arrives with a reputation as a high-class coach who wants his teams to play possession football and the 39-year-old Welshman is keen to build on the principles instilled by Potter. Nevertheless, the appointment has to be considered a gamble and it’s very difficult to assess how successful (or not) the new man in charge will be at the Liberty.
Cooper has spoken about promotion as a key aim but finances remain tight, last year’s star name Daniel James has departed, whilst Ollie McBurnie also linked with a move away. The squad remains wafer-thin and reliant on an impressive crop of academy prospects; Ii’s therefore hard to envisage a serious top-six assault without major reinforcements.
14th) Luton (75/1 Blacktype)
Luton picked up just one point from their opening three games in League One last year but it was still evidently clear the Hatters were a class above third-tier level. Nathan Jones’ troops soon found their range following promotion to blitz the division as deserved title winners despite a late wobble when a top-two finish was already assured.
Town retuned W25-D11-L2 between mid-August and early April – a 2.26 points per-game average that included a club record 28-game unbeaten streak. Luton completed the campaign unbeaten at their Kenilworth Road base (W16-D7-L0) and smashed 90 goals en-route to top spot, including 13 occasions when the Hatters notched at least three times.
The philosophy and culture implemented by Jones was so engrained in the club that even his departure to Stoke in early January failed to derail the Luton juggernaut as Mick Harford stepped in to keep the Hatters’ players on auto-pilot. Harford deserves immense credit for the consistently high standards that continued to be set in the final five months.
Graeme Jones has been recruited as the club’s next permanent boss and arrives with an impressive coaching CV. The former West Brom and Belgium assistant is keen to immerse himself in the club and has spoken about reinforcing the same principles that made Luton such an effective beast over the past 18 months in his pre-season dealings with the press.
The League One winners’ exploits didn’t go unnoticed, mind. Flying full-backs Jack Stacey and James Justin have been pinched by Premier League clubs and recruitment thus far has been solid if not spectacular. Nevertheless, the togetherness, collective ambition and proven ability for efficient attacking football make Luton an interesting outsider this term.
15th) Huddersfield (22/1 Blacktype)
Huddersfield are licking their wounds after a fairytale two-year stay in the Premier League ended in disaster. The Terriers upset the odds to win promotion under David Wagner with a negative goal difference via the play-offs, and then defied 4/6 quotes to survive in their first top-flight season since 1972. But reality soon bit for Town last term as they were cut adrift.
Wagner amicably opted to part company with the club in January with Huddersfield seemingly marooned and on course for relegation. Jan Siewert’s appointment made next to no difference as the Terriers registered just one victory during his stint and attention was quickly turned towards 2019/20 and the reconstruction work required for a bounce back.
Siewert remains in situ despite rumblings of discontent amongst the players, although the former Dortmund youth coach has reportedly demanded a total overhaul of the squad. The 36-year-old is still working on offloading a surplus of players and the delays in departures have held Huddersfield back in their quest to strengthen the squad.
Still, incoming Liverpool loaneee Kamil Grabara will take over the goalkeeping shirt, Reece Brown arrives after a flourishing campaign with Forest Green, Tommy Elphick adds much-needed leadership and experience, and Josh Koroma an unpredictability in attacking areas. Siewert will be desperate for his new additions to hit the ground running in 2018/19.
Even so, the club have been preaching patience and the need for stability. Over the past 24 months, Town have lost Wagner, chairman Dean Hoyle and sporting director Stuart Webber, and with a club lacking identity, plus a young squad led by an inexperienced coach, it’s easy to assume Huddersfield won’t be in the running for a top-six finish.
16th) Millwall (80/1 Blacktype)
“Too many players have let me down this year. Some players have maxed out what they can do, some players need a fresh start and some players don't want to play for the club and I want to move them on. There will be a surprise element to some of the players that leave, but they need to move on because they will not buy in to what I want to achieve.”
Millwall manager Neil Harris promised an overhaul of his squad after securing a third successive season in the Championship in May and the Lions’ record goalscorer has overseen plenty of change at The Den this summer, focussing his recruitment on players who are “committed to the club” and “buy into” his work ethic.
Having come so close to clinching a play-off spot in 2017/18, Millwall concluded last term in 21st with 28 points fewer than the previous season. A run to the FA Cup quarter-finals was a brief respite but Harris was keen to make changes after watching his side turn stale, and lacking the same intensity after nearly four years of consistent overachievement.
Matt Smith and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson will provide plenty of physicality and aerial threat in attack to replace Steve Morison, Frank Fielding and Alex Pearce are smart free transfer captures in goal and defence, whilst Connor Mahoney arrives following a fine loan spell at Birmingham to provide quality ability from the flank. Meanwhile, Tom Bradshaw is fit again.
The Lions will prove imposing opponents at The Den; their traditional 4-4-2 can unsettle unprepared visitors and their tenacious attitude can certainly aid Millwall on home soil. Towering centre-halves Pearce and Jake Cooper will cause plenty of problems at set-pieces and if Harris can improve the away record, this crop can avoid relegation comfortably.
17th) Sheffield Wednesday (28/1 Blacktype)
Sheffield Wednesday’s 2018/19 campaign can be easily surmised in two categories: With Jos Luhukay (WJL) and After Jos Luhukay (AJL). The charmless Dutchman was dispatched days before Christmas having guided the Owls to 18th – only six points above the drop zone – with a return of W6-D6-L10. His results were glossed over by a series of Adam Reach screamers.
Following his departure, Lee Bullen and then Steve Agnew took caretaker charge before Steve Bruce arrived towards the end of January and the improvements and reaction to Luhukay’s exit was almost immediate. Wednesday posted W10-D10-L04 in their final 24 fixtures, improving their points per-game average from 1.09 WJL to 1.67 AJL.
Bullen and Agnew added organisation to the backline before Bruce’s affable approach kicked-in. The Owls – by and large – played functional football with Steven Fletcher at the focal point, but more importantly the mood was lifted, the atmosphere relaxed and the players encouraged to express themselves. Wednesday improved immeasurably.
All appeared rosy at Hillsborough as the club prepared for 2019/20, with an eye on a potential top-six challenge. So the subsequent fallout with Bruce over his resignation has thrown the club back into limbo; at the time of writing, the Owls are yet to appoint a permanent replacement and the list of candidates for the role are rather bland.
Wednesday are still in the midst of a soft transfer embargo and recruitment has been slow. Julian Borner should provide leadership in defence, whilst Moses Odubajo and Kadeem Harris are hoping to revive their careers in Sheffield. However, the squad still appears short of bodies at the back and midfield, and matching last season’s exploits looks unlikely.
18th) Birmingham (75/1 Blacktype)
Birmingham completed their eight successive Championship season in 17th, although ignore the nine points deduction for breaching the EFL’s profitability and sustainability rules and the Blues would have been just three points off a top-half finish. Supporters were quite rightly impressed by the continued upturn under Garry Monk and positive about the future.
So it came as a major surprise in mid-June when the club announced they had dispensed with Monk’s services due to an apparent dispute relating to the use of Monk's agent in “all” of the club's transfer deals, according to Blues CEO Xuandong Ren. Ren also suggested the pair clashed over owner Paul Suen Cho Hung's request for a more attacking style of football.
Monk’s assistant Pep Clotet has stepped up as Birmingham seek continuity and stability with the majority of the backroom staff also unchanged. However, it’s hard to foresee a similarly successful season with star striker Che Adams snapped up by Southampton, Jota moving across to Aston Villa and captain Michael Morrison also leaving the club this summer
Clotet is Blues’ sixth manager in the space of three years and his previous managerial position at Oxford left a lot to be desired. Recruitment has been lethargic; Dan Crowley’s arrival came amidst plenty of fanfare and there are high hopes surrounding the playmaker but the reality is Birmingham boast a bottom-eight squad and a bottom-half finish seems inevitable.
19th) Barnsley (150/1 Blacktype)
Barnsley celebrated an immediate return to the Championship with an eye-catching campaign under unheralded head coach Daniel Stendel last season. The Tykes hit League One hard from the off, and whilst results didn’t always match the performance levels, it was clear early on that the South Yorkshire side were well-set for a serious promotion push.
Barnsley exceeded expectations by accumulated their highest-ever points tally (91), enjoyed a 20-game unbeaten streak (W12-D8-L0) during mid-December and late-March, and even took the title race to the final day. The Tykes were unbeaten at Oakwell (W15-D8-L0) and recorded a club-record 21 clean sheets along the way in a very memorable nine months.
Nevertheless, optimism has been tempered in the off-season following the departures of goalkeeper Adam Davies and centre-half pair Liam Lindsay and Ethan Pinnock. Stendel’s side boasted the best defence in the EFL last term with the aforementioned trio all featuring at least 40 times for Barnsley throughout the campaign. They are likely to be missed.
The Tykes have looked for reinforcements with Brad Collins taking the gloves and Leeds youngster Aapo Halme joining relatively unknown 21-year-olds Bambo Diaby and Mads Juel Andersen as potential centre-halves. Elsewhere, star striker Kieffer Moore continues to be linked with a move away but Mallik Wilks and Conor Chaplin’s arrivals have bolstered the attacking ranks.
Survival remains the main aim at Oakwell and Stendel’s specialist high-press, counter-attacking approach should give Barnsley a great opportunity of at least competing and accomplishing their pre-season aims. The longer-term plan might be for Premier League football but after bottom-half finishes in each of their last 10 campaigns at this level, simple consolidation is all that matters in 2019/20.
20th) Hull (75/1 Blacktype)
Hull were touted for relegation in this parish 12 months ago and sat joint-bottom of the Championship after 14 fixtures (W2-D3-L9). The Tigers seemed to be paying the price for another dismal off-season as the recent cost-cutting measures continued to bite. Appearing doomed, Nigel Adkins somehow produced a sensational turnaround at the KCOM Stadium.
The Humbersiders returned W15-D8-L9 from their final 32 encounters – 1.66 points per-game – a run of form that even saw Hull flirt with the play-off places before tailing off in April. Adkins’ positivity rubbed off on the Tigers’ players and he crucially managed to persuade Polish ace Kamil Grosicky to re-join the first-team with devastating effect.
Grosicky and starlet Jarrod Bowen combined for 31 (46%) of Hull’s 66 goals, as well as combining for 16 assists. The pair remain on Hull’s books but speculation continues to link the duo with moves away and sources close to the club have suggested they’ll be surprised to see both in Tigers’ colours come September, which is an obvious concern for City fans.
What’s more, leading forward Frazier Campbell has already departed – a further 18 goal involvements last season – along with smart stopper David Marshall. Throw in the blow of losing Adkins earlier in the summer and the jury still being out on replacement Grant McCann and the Humbersiders could find themselves in a serious strife this term.
McCann has promised exciting, entertaining football in the hope of persuading supporters back to the KCOM but the level of ambition at Hull is minimal compared to the bright lights surrounding the stadium three years ago. The Allam family are stripping the side of their key components and should Grosicky and Bowen move on, relegation is a realistic threat.
21st) Charlton (150/1 Blacktype)
Charlton were 12/1 third favourites to take League One title honours 12 months ago but few fancied the Addicks to mount a major challenge following another turbulent summer under nightmare owner Roland Duchatelet. Lee Bowyer pulled off a minor miracle by guiding Athletic into the top-six, and completed the unthinkable by sealing play-off final glory at Wembley.
The Londoners began their campaign live on Sky Sports against Sunderland and were only able to name five substitutes – three of which had not played first-team football. Yet Bowyer continued to grind out results and produce competitive performances, even when top goalscorer Karlan Grant was sold in January and replaced by Josh Parker, a forward who had only recently been discarded by Gillingham.
Ownership issues continue to wrangle on and the playing budget remains mighty tight at The Valley. Joe Aribo, Josh Cullen, Patrick Bauer and Krystian Bielik are no longer about but Charlton shouldn’t be underestimated considering the togetherness Bowyer has built, as well as the talented crop of youngsters that have flourished in the Addicks first XI of late.
Macauley Bonne, Adedeji Oshilaja, Tom Lockyer and Chuks Aneke have all been given their opportunities after impressing at lower levels in the EFL, whilst Lyle Taylor should be well capable of stepping up to the Championship and causing a nuisance in opposition penalty boxes. Johnny Williams could be crucial if he stays fit and so I don't anticipate Charlton being easy meat.
Obviously squad size, budgetary issues and losing a chunk of last season’s side have imprinted Athletic as relegation favourites but only nine (16%) promoted clubs have suffered immediate relegation this century with the average finishing position in that time 14th. In fact, all three promoted clubs have survived in 11 (58%) of the last 19 years.
22nd) Reading (80/1 Blacktype)
Reading have finished in the bottom-eight of the Championship in four of the most recent five seasons and head in 2019/20 off the back of consecutive 20th-placed finishes. The Royals have collected just 20 triumphs across 92 encounters in those past two campaigns, whilst averaging just 1.05 goals per-game. The Berkshire boys have been rather dour.
For large swathes of last term under Paul Clement’s watch, Reading appeared to be sleep-walking towards relegation. Disorganised, lacking team spirit and toothless in attack, the Royals axed Clement in early December when only outside the drop zone on goal difference. The move came less than 24 hours after the club reappointed Nigel Howe as CEO.
Reading gave Rio Ave boss Jose Gomes the gig before Christmas; a former assistant at Porto and Malaga, the Portuguese coach immediately set about improving the atmosphere around the Madjeski and setting clear, defined goals. Hard training ground work paid off as an upturn in fortunes followed with survival eventually assured with room to spare.
Emiliano Martinez, Nelson Oliveira, Lewis Baker Matt Miazga and Ovie Ejaria all played key roles on-loan but only Miazga has returned. Veteran Charlie Adam has penned a deal with the Royals, as has former Birmingham skipper Michael Morrison, although Gomes is still attempting to move at least six senior players out to free up funds to continue the overhaul.
Reading look likely to rely upon their talented and successful academy to bulk out the squad ahead of the big kick-off in August. Achieving Championship status for another season remains key and there has to be doubts over the lack of senior squad members featuring and so another year of struggle looms in Berkshire.
23rd) Wigan (125/1 Blacktype)
Wigan had experienced two promotions and three relegations in six seasons coming into 2018/19, and at times, it looked like another demotion could be on the cards. The Latics began brightly (W6-D2-L5) before losing their way for a six-month spell (W4-D10-L15). Fortunately, Athletic found their feet for a final flourish to secure survival comfortably.
Curiously, Wigan’s performance data remained reasonably strong throughout the season and manager Paul Cook was left increasingly incensed by his side’s elementary penalty box errors at both ends of the pitch. The Latics were also put on the back foot due to a crippling injury crisis over the festive period that left numerous key players sidelined.
Consolidation in the Championship remains the key aim but at the time of writing, there’s concern surrounding Wigan’s plight. Cook has seen 13 players leave the club this summer, including on-loan Player of the Year Reece James and attacking lynchpin Nick Powell. Just three players have joined the DW Stadium side and Joe Garner is the only senior striker.
Considering goals and converting chances was one of Wigan’s major flaws last term, it’s hard to see where the invention or consistency is coming from in the final-third. Cook’s charges have lost 60% of playing minutes from 2018/19 and without reinforcements in defence and attack, a relegation dogfight could be in store for the Latics.
24th) QPR (75/1 Blacktype)
It’s never easy selecting the side you feel will finish bottom of the pile and it’s rather heartbreaking typing the words of your favourite football team alongside 24th, but there’s little evidence to suggest QPR have the tools at their disposal to safely navigate an incoming relegation battle. The R’s four-year stay in the second-tier could be coming to a close.
Rangers have defied pre-season predictions of doom under Ian Holloway and Steve McClaren in the past two campaigns and there’s hope that Mark Warburton can perform similar miracles at Loftus Road in 2019/20. However, the new boss will head into the current campaign with at least one hand tied firmly behind his back; QPR are simply understocked.
Mismanagement during the Premier League years, FFP sanctions and the expiration of parachute payments have collided to leave Rangers in serious financial peril. The club continues to slash the wage bill and every player is up for sale. The departures of star man Luke Freeman, Darnell Furlong and imminent exit of Mass Luongo is the reality of our plight.
No Championship club has overseen a higher turnover of playing minutes from 2018/19, increasing the size of the task facing Warburton. The R’s have shown glimpses of quality over the past 24 months and there is hope that the likes of Ilias Chair, Bright Osayi-Samuel and Eberechi Eze can provide much-required spark but our prospects are gloomy at best.
Following the end of Nakhi Wells and Tomer Hemed’s loan spells, plus the sale of Matt Smith, QPR are heading into the new season with only Jan Mlakar – a 20-year-old Slovenian signed on-loan from Brighton – and youngster Amaride Oteh available fowards on the books. Oteh suffered a disappointing loan spell at Walsall last term, highlighting the selection woes. Warburton faces a massive test to avoid the drop.