1st) Norwich (7/1 888)
Daniel Farke’s side impressed so many with their quality of football in winning the Championship title and some even gave them a shot at ‘doing a Bournemouth’ in sustaining themselves at Premier League level.
However, they won’t be the last team to breeze the Championship and struggle immensely in the Premier League. The Canaries would only win five games all season, including at home to Manchester City, and they conceded 75 goals in the process. Since the eighth round of matches they were in the relegation zone and never really looked like getting out.
Farke remains in charge and the club very much believe in their model, but ‘going again’ is never so easy following relegation after a year of losing matches.
The challenge for Norwich is if they can shake off this losing mentality which they rather timidly accepted towards the end of the season. The extended Covid-19 enforced break probably worked against them more than most. Nevertheless, there is nothing they can do now other than to get back on the horse.
Many players have either left or been linked with the exit door, but they’ve still added some interesting new faces. Their recruitment is generally strong, especially at this level, and keeping Farke ensures some continuity rather than having a major summer rebuild. They impressed at times in the Premier League, but different sides to their game and mentality are required to bounce back.
As is often the case when suffering relegation from the Premier League, clubs tend to sniff around your better players and Norwich aren’t really exempt from that. Farke therefore will face an uncertain period right up until the window shuts, as you suspect that even if certain players haven’t left by deadline day, you know there will be interest until the final moments.
This will create some uncertainty in that regard, but in terms of players coming in they look to have done most of their business early, as if they’d be preparing for relegation for some time. The club is well run in the recruitment department, so they’ll know what type of player they require. Kieran Dowell and Oliver Skipp headline those coming in, but ultimately it now depends on who Norwich can keep in the building.
Whilst I always have concerns backing a club that has just been relegated, I can help but feel as though Norwich have the best squad in the division. As such, I’ll plump for them to win the title. They are favourites with some bookies, and for good reason. It looks as though they’re primed to retain at least most of their key players, and that will only stand them in good stead.
Roll back a few years and it was the bulk of this squad which won the league in such convincing fashion. I can only see them improving as the season progresses.
Interesting Fact: Only three teams have lost 10 Premier League matches in a row; the latest addition being Norwich during their relegation season.
2nd) Watford (8/1 Bet365)
Many Hornets supporters will once again have likely needed to look up on Wikipedia to find out more about their latest managerial appointment. The Pozzo family have hired Vladimir Ivić to the Vicarage Road hot-seat, and he at least is someone used to winning trophies.
Those highs however came for clubs expected to challenge in their respective countries, and the Pozzo family must realise that in the Championship not everything will go smoothly.
Unfortunately it seems as though the latest boss will likely need to win immediate promotion to keep his job, but that is of course possible. Last season they only went down by one point, but Watford fans accept it’ll be tough to jump straight back up, but the Pozzo’s may have other ideas.
The bookies have instantly installed Watford as favourites to win the Championship. It is understandable in respect of some of the players they have on their books. They did beat Liverpool last season after all, but the managerial change does place some doubts over what exactly Watford will be.
Putting that to one side, it is clear that the aim is to get back at the first attempt. That is easier said than done, but it all depends on who they can keep beyond the transfer window. As they are now, they will threaten, plus it remains to be seen if Ivić knows enough about the league to know exactly what type of players are needed to flourish.
When you are relegated from the top-flight, clubs ultimately come sniffing around for your players. There is a big foreign influence in this Watford squad, and you just wonder if those types really fancy a season at this level. At the time of writing, Abdoulaye Doucoure is undergoing a medical at Everton, but that won’t necessarily surprise anyone at the club to see him go.
Troy Deeney initially said he’d want to stay, but is now increasingly being linked with West Brom. They are probably one of the favourites for promotion because of him, and that price would alter significantly enough should he move on. I would fear for them overall if he did depart. After all, it really depends on who stays, but the new manager also needs to stamp his own authority on proceedings, too.
Ben Foster is the best keeper in the league, so that is something, and you suspect players like Will Hughes, Craig Dawson, Craig Cathcart and Andre Gray may have big roles to play.
Predicting the relegated Premier League clubs for me was the hardest in terms of where they’ll finish the next season. I always fear that obviously they’ve been relegated because they’ve become used to losing, so to suddenly change that mentality is never easy. Just ask the likes of Stoke and Huddersfield.
Early signs are that the new manager is impressing, and whilst he was a shock appointment, he might well be in the mould of Slavisa Jokanovic, who did so well in this league. Watford have a squad that can challenge, whilst losing Deeney would worry me, but signing Glenn Murray from Brighton is significant considering what he has achieved at this level.
Even Murray acting as an impact substitute adds marginal gains in their favour. His signing impresses me the most as to me it says Ivić gets this league and the type of player that is required to be successful. Early indications from within are that Ivić is doing all the right things, and even if they lose some key players, they still have a top Championship squad.
Interesting Fact: Newly-appointed Hornets manager Vladimir Ivić won a trophy during his first full season in charge at each of his two previous managerial jobs (PAOK and Maccabi Tel Aviv).
3rd) Brentford (7/1 Bet365)
Last season was crazy for so many reasons and Brentford was very much at the heart of the action in the Championship.
The Bees were certainly slow-starters in the campaign but things would soon improve under the stewardship of Thomas Frank. They were one team to return from lockdown better than most and won their first seven in a row to increase prospects of automatic promotion. They made a race of it, and even had second spot in their control at one point, but losing to Stoke and Barnsley in their last two consigned them to the lottery of the play-offs.
The capital club would rally and secure a spot at Wembley, before a Scott Parker and Joe Bryan masterclass denied them a Premier League berth, and now they must go again.
Brentford invested so much into last season to getting into the Premier League. When the final whistle blew in the play-off final, there was a sort of resigned feeling that this was a missed opportunity and one which they may never get again. However, now the dust has settled since then, the club can still be excited about the future. After all, they’ve moving into a new stadium and they continue to do so much right both on and off the pitch.
Brentford remain the envy of most clubs at this level, and despite missing out last season they were arguably still the best team in the league, at their best. The key is retaining the bulk of their squad. Automatic promotion is the clear aim, especially as Brentford have nine times failed to progress through the play-offs; more than any other team in the EFL.
Brentford wouldn’t be the first team to suffer a bit of a play-off hangover after losing the play-off final. As can often be the case when losing a match of that nature, big players are heavily linked with the exit door and that continues to be the case regarding several key members of this Bees roster.
Ollie Watkins is supposedly available for £18million due to a clause in his contract, and West Brom are sniffing around him and Rico Henry. Said Benrahma unsurprisingly is attracting interest, too. All the interest is mostly around their attacking players, but keeping their strong defensive unit in place could be just as important. Adding Charlie Goode offers more depth in that department, whilst Ivan Toney has moved from Peterborough for a big fee, possibly as a replacement for Aston Villa target Ollie Watkins.
Again, it is a case of waiting until the window closes to see what Frank has left to work with. Keep most in place, and they should compete again. Benrahma and Watkins virtually haven’t appeared in pre-season, so maybe that is a sign they’ll be moving on.
I expect Brentford to eventually shrug off their play-off headache enough for them to challenge for promotion. Even if they were to lose one or two before the window shuts, you have to have faith in the Brentford recruitment team, as highlighted by the signing of Toney. This team ultimately needs to prove they have the within capabilities to get the job done, as they certainly possess enough footballing ability.
I expect both Benrahma and Watkins to go, whilst David Raya has been heavily linked with a move too. Losing three key players in never easy, but I’ll back them for a play-off berth as they’re more than capable of putting a run together, but I get the feeling they may start slowly, like last season. There is also the new stadium element and we’ve seen in the not too distant past that some clubs don’t transition so easily in these circumstances, and doing so without fans may make it even harder.
Interesting Fact: No team in the Championship last season scored more goals inside the penalty area than Brentford (46).
4th) Cardiff (16/1 Bet365)
An impressive end to the season would allow Cardiff to enter the play-offs very much as the form package and certainly an outfit that nobody would really want to face. Whilst they had two competitive play-off ties with Fulham, they were never ahead at any point of those 180 minutes and once again the club endured an unsuccessful play-off campaign.
Nevertheless, Neil Harris surprised many by getting the club to that point after he was a somewhat surprising and unpopular appointment last November. Beating Leeds in June proved to the players that they can compete, but the goal now is to showcase that end of season form over 46 matches.
The benchmark has very much been set at the Cardiff City Stadium after reaching the play-offs last season. Whilst they weren’t so pleasing on the eye in the opinion of many, they are very effective at this level playing in that manner. They are incredibly strong on set-pieces and Sean Morrison once again will have a big role to play.
The addition of Kieffer Moore from Wigan will only help them in that regard, whilst getting Lee Tomlin on the pitch more often than not will only aid their cause. Remember, Harris didn’t have a full season last year and he will now, and that should strike some fear into the rest of the league, who certainly won’t enjoy facing this Bluebirds outfit.
Whilst some of the other losing play-off clubs remain at risk of losing some key players, that is not necessarily the case surrounding the Bluebirds. Harris will still be able to call upon virtually all of the players which guided them into the end of season lottery last season, with the exception of Danny Ward, who was mostly a substitute anyway. Moore is a clever signing to provide competition with Robert Glatzel, who was a little hit and miss last season.
Cardiff simply have a lot of solid players for this level, and importantly experience. Whilst some will fear a bit of a second season drop from the Bluebirds, don’t be surprised to see them go well again. They won’t surprise anyone in terms of how they play, but they appear to already tick a lot of boxes in terms of what is needed to get out of this league. Maybe a few more fresh faces just to give everyone a bit of a lift will be required, but certainly not essentially.
I don’t we’re going to see any shocks from how Cardiff line-up next season and I again expect them to be a bit of a problem for most opponents that they play. Their style of play may not win them many friends at times, but I’d like to describe it more as ‘effective’. This is a squad which has plenty of experience and they showed last season that they can compete near the top.
Cardiff are a top Championship team, and I don’t doubt for one minute that Harris can get more out of what he has got. That’ll be needed to win promotion, but they’re better placed than most.
Interesting Fact: Over their last nine seasons at Championship level, Cardiff have either been promoted or made the play-offs on six occasions.
5th) Bournemouth (12/1 William Hill)
And so one footballing fairy-tale seemingly came to an end in many ways with Bournemouth losing their Premier League spot after a heroic five-season run. A club that was playing League Two football in 2009/10, having finished 21st at that level the year before, had been living the dream for some years in terms of punching above their weight, and in the eyes of many establishing themselves in the big time.
However, alarm bells would progressively increase as last season progressed, and winning two of their last four just wasn’t enough to claw back the gap that a nine-match winless run not long before had created. Eddie Howe would also end his long Cherry association, so this is very much a new era in Bournemouth’s history.
For all that losing Howe will seem like a huge negative, in one respect it may serve them well. It was only a few seasons ago he was mentioned with the Arsenal job, or even the England gig at one stage. It is certainly rare for a manager to stay that long at one club, especially higher up the pyramid, and now they just need to put a line under that part of their history.
I for one was surprised to see Jason Tindall promoted from assistant to replace Howe, but the club hierarchy clearly believes him. On paper, this squad is more than good enough to compete, but history is probably against them winning instant promotion. Tindall will look to stamp his own authority on proceedings, which won’t be easy.
As is seemingly the case at a few clubs in the league, a new goalkeeper will be on the shopping list at Dean Court. Aaron Ramsdale departed for a big fee to Sheffield United, and Asmir Begovic continues to be linked with a move away, whilst Artur Boruc has also left to return to Poland. It could therefore be a big season for Mark Travers, an Ireland international.
Tindall ultimately needs to stamp his authority on the team, so new faces are needed, and not merely just to replace those who have gone, which also includes Nathan Ake. Their season will start with players still linked with the exit door, so they can’t really be judged until October time when Tindall knows who he’ll have available to him. This will create some uncertainty, which is also partly due to the lack of Howe, which may be a culture shock to most at the club.
Josh King, Dale Brooks and Callum Wilson have understandably linked with transfers straight back into the Premier League, so it could be a sweaty month for the club until that window slams shut. Tindall supposedly wants to bring Matt Ritchie back to the club, and he is more than proven at Championship level. Plus the fact he still has family in the area means it’d be a seamless transition if a deal can be agreed, possibly with Wilson going in the other direction?
I found it hard to pick a position for Bournemouth more than most, but in the end I’ve plumped for a play-off spot. The fact that so many doubts remain over the futures of some players is not ideal, but I actually fancy them more now than if they’d have still had Howe in charge. They needed a change, and whilst Howe’s assistant may not indicate a massive alteration, it is still a different approach.
On paper they look more than good enough to get involved near the top, so I guess the big question is can Tindall guide them there? He has every chance, but again it’ll also depend on who he can keep and who he replaces them with.
Interesting Fact: Callum Wilson is the most recent Bournemouth player to score 20 league goals in a season; which came the last time the Cherries played in the Championship (2014/15).
6th) Derby (20/1 Bet365)
Derby were one of many Championship clubs who looked as though a tilt at the play-offs looked a real possibility last season but they could never quite break into that bracket. A five-game winning run would increase prospects of that, but losing four in a row against West Brom, Brentford, Cardiff and Leeds perhaps proved they weren’t quite ready to compete with those clubs.
Phillip Cocu and Wayne Rooney have now had a feel for this league and what is needed, so spirits around the club are high that they can finally get out of this league once and for all. This will be their 13th season in a row in the second tier, and in four of the last seven saw them reach the play-offs.
Cocu will have identified the areas where Derby fell short last season, and the task now is to solve those issues to allow them to truly compete for promotion. For me, the play-offs has to be an absolute minimum for a club like Derby, especially now the Dutchman has had a year into the role.
Rooney’s role next season will be interesting. He turns 35 in October, but clearly his role in the side is adapting. The progress of Louis Sibley will be exciting to monitor and expect him to have a big say in Derby’s season. The goalkeeping situation was an issue last season, and just correcting them alone will boost the points tally, as going forward they shouldn’t have huge worries.
Last season proved to be rather a disruptive campaign for the Rams off the pitch more than anything, and Cocu will just be hoping they don’t suffer too many dramas to knock them off course in their promotion bid.
To carry on the theme in this league, they were another club also in need of a new keeper as Ben Hamer failed to impress during his loan spell, whilst Kelle Ross also looked shaky when called upon. David Marshall from Wigan fills that void nicely. Club Player of the Year Matt Clarke has re-signed from Brighton, which makes sense, but another striker would be handy, assuming Rooney mostly continues in a deeper role.
Long-serving Chris Martin has moved on, and Jack Marriott struggled badly with injuries last season. The academy continues to bring through many talented individuals that can make an instant impact, but Cocu is maybe still one or two players short of where he’d like to be.
As is often the case, Derby are touted as play-off contenders before a ball has even been kicked prior to a Championship season. I’ll go one better and back them outright to actually finish in the play-off positions. I think Cocu deserves tremendous credit for what he did last season considering the amount of disruption there was from off the pitch.
Assuming everyone goes more smoothly this time around, I can only see the Rams improving on last season. To me, that results in a top-six finish and maybe even Premier League football.
Interesting Fact: Only relegated Charlton won fewer corner kicks than Derby’s 204 in the Championship last season.
7th) Stoke (15/1 888)
Last season certainly wasn’t the most memorable in the recent history of Stoke, but it certainly could have gone a lot worse and at one point it looked as though League One was on the cards for the first time since 2002.
Stoke are no longer a Premier League club and over the last few seasons they perhaps haven’t accepted that fact. Back-to-back bottom half finishes in the Championship suggests work needs to be done, but Michael O’Neill has been building up those foundations in a quiet but effective manner. Considering what he has achieved in the building already, seeing what he can do over a full season must excite Potters fans.
This really has to be a season where Stoke threaten the top of the Championship table as they done anything but that in their two seasons back at this level following a lengthy stay in the top-flight. O’Neill delivered Championship status, and at one stage that seemed very unlikely, but now the agenda changes totally. It is difficult to make that shift so bluntly, but it has to be that way.
On paper, Stoke have one of the better squads in the league, so self-belief needs to be more positive. They are capable as results under O’Neill have been good; play-off form in fact. Achieving that over 46 games is the aim, and it is certainly achievable.
Keeping Steven Fletcher fit will only help them, whilst Benik Afobe is proven at this level and will feel like a new signing. Joe Allen returning to fitness is the same, and Ryan Shawcross in that regard, but he remains injury prone in pre-season. This team is far too good not to challenge.
Considering Stoke have struggled to make an impact at this level over the past few seasons, there is quite a weight of expectation upon them ahead of the upcoming campaign. That is understandable in one sense, but O’Neill probably would have preferred it if they could go under the radar a bit. I guess the reality is they’ve still got too many big name players to ignore, so it may not necessarily be a bad thing if they were to lose Jack Butland, who clearly would move on if given the right opportunity.
O’Neill still has some big earners like Badou NDiaye and Peter Etebo he may wish to move on, too, whilst adding John Obi Mikel was a transfer out of left field which could work out well. They appear to have a lot going for them on the squad front, but maybe another right back and midfielder would complete the set.
Expecting Stoke to suddenly jump into the promotion spots after a few bottom-half finishes in the Championship might seem like a tall order, but they will now get the benefit of a full season under O’Neill. He was fighting fires last season and proved successful by keeping them in the league, and now the mentality shifts and I just see a squad full of players that should relish an assault at promotion.
The Potters added some smart new signings and the good times look soon set to return to the bet365 Stadium. At one point in the off-season I fancied Stoke to maybe win the league, but perhaps a play-off chase is more realistic. My table has them just missing out, but they could easily finish in the play-offs and even win promotion.
Interesting Fact: Despite an injury-plagued previous season at former club Sheffield Wednesday, Stoke summer signing Steven Fletcher managed 13 goals in 27 league appearances.
8) Swansea (22/1 Unibet)
Once you get into the play-offs, you have to win them. No club will enter the play-offs happy to lose, and Swansea were no different. That being said, they went into the final day of the regular Championship season with a very slim chance and actually making them. Yet, a heavy win over Reading and a big loss for Nottingham Forest gave Steve Cooper’s men an expected chance.
The Swans would fall short to Brentford over two legs, and now the key is being able to challenge once more. That is easier said than done, but what Cooper achieved in his first club management job despite a very small squad proves that he clearly does a good job on the training ground, and they may surprise many once more.
I always felt Swansea lacked strength in depth last season and Cooper wasn’t always able to look towards his bench with a great deal of inspiration. Rhian Brewster was the star man and with his loan ending it opens up the door for someone else to deliver. Mike van der Hoorn has moved onto pastures new as well, but retaining the services of Freddie Woodman in goal is one plus point.
It is a squad with talented youngsters like Ben Cabango and Joe Rodon, good experience in Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer, whilst Andre Ayew is Premier League quality. The addition of Korey Smith is clever business, and Morgan Gibbs-White strikes as the type of player Cooper could excel with.
Woodman and Marc Guehi have re-joined on loan, whilst the recruitment of Jamal Lowe from Wigan, ahead of many other interested suitors, is a statement of intent. If you ever watched Wigan play last season, this guy was a seven or eight out of 10 most weeks.
Swansea made the play-offs by the skin of their teeth last season and the worry now is that Cooper will be expected to make them compete once more. The concern though is that several big name players have moved on, mainly with loan spells coming to an end, including Conor Gallagher.
For Swansea to achieve what they did last season was quite something considering they lacked real strength in depth, and that is something which must now be addressed. The new faces will have helped with that, but at the time of writing I still feel as though they are one out-and-out striker short, as Brewster is yet to be replaced.
The Swans appeared a little slower than most in added some new recruits to their ranks, or at least bringing back some familiar faces such as Woodman and Guehi, but they’re slowly getting into a better place. Another striker or two is needed to almost complete the package, and that way they’ll be more than capable of challenging for promotion.
Considering Cooper's troops relied on a Forest collapse to make the play-offs last season, I am tipping them to just miss out, but I won’t be surprised in the slightest to see them finish higher. It’ll be fine margins for a club like Swansea as regards to where they finish, as you suspect they’re not far off challenging, but falling off those standards could see them drift towards mid-table.
Interesting Fact: Swansea playmaker Matt Grimes was ranked only second to Fulham’s Tim Read in the number of passes produced in the 2019/20 Championship campaign.
9th) Millwall (25/1 SkyBet)
As is often the case, a plethora of clubs in the Championship will believe that they are in the hunt for a play-off place. Millwall are one of those clubs who aren’t ever really likely to challenge for automatic promotion at this level, but they do get just about enough results to qualify for the second chance of the play-offs.
Last season the Lions would ultimately fall short in that quest, but a full season under Gary Rowett might be just what they need. The club has had two top-eight finishes across the last three seasons, so the foundations are there, and finding that extra ingredient is the key to any success they may have.
Similar to Cardiff, Millwall fit into that bracket of being a team that no opposition relishes facing. They are particular effective on set pieces, especially when the likes of Jake Cooper, Shaun Hutchinson and Matt Smith are at full tilt.
Whilst they have that tag, a player such as Jed Wallace offers them a different dimension. If you ever watch a Millwall game, you know he will have a big influence on proceedings. He would be in the Premier League if his name was Jedio Wallacesemo! The foundation are there for Millwall, and a few extra quality additions will see them compete.
The vibes coming out of Millwall from pre-season indicate that whilst they believe they have found a strong standard, they ultimately need to step up if they’re to break into that play-off bracket. There is also firm belief in the camp that they can compete and make a mark at this level, rather than just survive in mid-table.
Clearly a certain type of player and character really is needed to fit in and excel at Millwall. They already have plenty of those, but could Troy Parrott be the wildcard to fire them to the next level? Possibly. He clearly has potential and teammates have been mightily impressed with him in training. He is young though and maybe a few more fresh faces will help the squad in general across the board.
Millwall got a bit of a taste of life under Rowett last season and that alone will surely spark some excitement ahead of a likely full season under his management. He just knows how to build a team that is hard to beat, and flavoured with the likes of Wallace and Parrett, you feel as though this Millwall outfit can challenge once again.
I do feel they may fall up a little short given how versatile many other clubs are at this level, and you just wonder if Millwall will do anything that will come as a surprise. They probably won’t, but they’ll have their good runs of form, but I also fear they’ll have some bad runs which may cost them a top-six spot.
Interesting Fact: Millwall are unbeaten in 25 of 33 Championship matches under Gary Rowett (W14-D11-L8).
10th) Nottingham Forest (14/1 Unibet)
Last season ultimately proved to be a year of what might have been for Nottingham Forest. This historic football club has experienced plenty of highs and lows during their 155-year existence, but their 4-1 home defeat to Stoke in July will arguably have been the lowest of the low.
The Reds have had relegations before, but the manner of that defeat when they only needed a draw, or not to lose so heavily, was such a draining experience for everyone connected with the club. The fans were probably glad they couldn’t have been at the City Ground to witness that one. They ended the season poorly, and Sabri Lamouchi now must life his troops to compete once more, as the play-offs this season are a must.
There was some debate about if Lamouchi would indeed remain at the club following their end of season collapse. The right decision was made in that he would indeed he staying on, but the pressure will be on him from the very off. For me, they need to get off to a strong start to the season so they can almost forget last season ever happened. For all they did fall off a cliff late on, it was still a campaign which contained plenty of positive.
There is less reliance on Lewis Grabban and Lewis Grabban alone now Lyle Taylor is in the building, whilst Jack Colback returning to the club was a no-brainer. Luke Freeman was mightily impressive the last time he was in the Championship when at QPR, so you’d like to think he could reach those levels again and he’ll instantly become a fans’ favourite. Maybe Forest going through what they did will serve the team well in one respect, but this season will either go really well or quite badly,
I feel. Losing Matty Cash would be a blow, but there is no doubting he deserves a crack at the Premier League. Forest are lucky in the sense that they’ve already got Carl Jenkinson and Tendayi Darikwa on the books, so there is right back cover.
I feel Forest were one team that really needed a lift more than most from last season, so it is important that they have added a few new faces to bolster the squad. Lamouchi, however, will be aware that possibly more is needed in order to get this team truly believing in themselves to compete over 46 games. It really is a case of fine tuning considering the depth of talent they’ve got available to them.
Lamouchi has to be trusted completely to get this right, as you get the sense a poor start to the season could see the owner intervene and possibly have a decision to make. This places big pressure on him, which he’ll accept considering their collapse last season. They don’t have a daunting start to the season, so getting that first win may just help the team forget the Stoke debacle.
For me, Forest’s start to the season will tell me everything about how their season is likely to go. If they do start well, then it’ll say to me they’ve shrugged off their demons of last season, yet a poor start could quite easily see Lamouchi lose his job, and then the two-time European Cup winners will again go through a period of rebuild. It really is all on the line for Lamouchi, and he’ll know that.
Determination is high around the club, and they’ll take heart from how they performed for most of last season, but I have my doubts of them doing so consistently enough over 46 games. It has all been a bit hush hush around NFFC in pre-season, with no real mentions of team line-ups etc being revealed. Make of that what you will.
Interesting Fact: In the last campaign, Lewis Grabban was the first Nottingham Forest player since 2002/03 to score 20 goals in a league season.
11th) Bristol City (40/1 Betfair)
18th, 17th, 11th, 8th and 12th have been Bristol City’s Championship league position over the past five seasons, and whilst that did resemble a degree of improvement over time, it ultimately wasn’t enough for the club hierarchy to trust Lee Johnson with being able to deliver the next step of seriously challenging for promotion.
The Robins have rightly earned the tag ‘streaky’ over recent times, and last season that had various up-and-down runs to prove that. Whilst they went 10 unbeaten at one stage, twice they endured runs of four successive defeats. Dean Holden, now in his first outright managerial job since 2015, will aim to make City truly compete at this level.
As mentioned, Holden is now in the job at Ashton Gate, and similar to Bournemouth this is a case of a club promoting from within. In one respect, they should be applauded for that fact, but when they were linked with so many big names it did leaves the majority of fans a little disappointed.
It did however lower expectations to a degree, which may serve this club well going under the radar as it’ll reduce the pressure which has been on their shoulders for a few seasons now. This is quite a young squad, so perhaps this could be a transitional season in one sense with quite a few youngsters integrated into proceedings. In that respect, Holden was the right appointment, but he’ll be glad to serve as an underdog.
It looks as though the club beat off plenty of competition to bring in Joe Williams from Wigan to boost their midfield. With Korey Smith moving on, it did open up a place in the team. It could be argued the Robins are well catered in this area anyway, especially with Joe Morrell and Liam Walsh back in the picture after successful loan spells in League One.
All in all, Bristol City’s squad on paper does look very strong indeed, and maybe trust some fresh ideas and a new voice following on from Lee Johnson is all that is needed. Their start to the season could have been harder, so Holden may get the chance to build up some momentum and good feeling around the place.
I can only really picture another mid-table finish for Bristol City once more. They appear to have a base to the squad which can finish around this area with no trouble, and Holden now needs to locate that extra percentage to break into the play-off picture. They most definitely need to remove that streaky tag they’ve developed, and then they can start looking up. I just wonder if a lack of consistency could again be their problem.
Interesting Fact: In three of their last four seasons, Bristol City have scored either 59 or 60 league goals.
12th) Birmingham (50/1 Betfred)
The 2019/20 season initially promises so much for Birmingham. Pep Clotet was something of a surprise appointment in the first place, but four wins from their opening seven league fixtures, including an opening day victory away at Brentford, indicated that maybe the Blues could mount something of a promotion push.
This proved a false dawn somewhat as things progressively began to turn south. Blues would eventually end the campaign without a win in 14 and would finally finish the season just two points above the drop, by which stage Clotet was long gone and caretaker Steve Spooner was trying to unconvincingly steady the ship.
The addition of Aitor Karanka into the dugout can only be viewed as a positive. For my money, this is a bit of a coup for the football club and is a signal of their intent. The fact they’ve been able to attract him to me suggests that they aren’t just going to be happy sitting in the middle of the table.
Losing Jude Bellingham is a blow, but the finances that provides will help in the long run, and he was never going to stay long-term. Karanka and Birmingham just seem a nice fit, and is certainly an upgrade on Clotet, who played a style that didn’t necessarily fit the players he had.
Something Karanka ultimately needs to work on is bolstering their squad depth as a first glance it looks incredibly thin on the ground. Towards the back end of the campaign, caretaker boss Spooner handed some youngsters a chance in the side, and the future looks bright in that regard, but additional help is required.
Lee Camp needed replacing and Andres Prieto will do that after Karanka again exposed the Spanish market he knows so well to sign up the 26-year-old on a three-year deal. George Friend and Adam Clayton again reunite and both played such a big role in the Middlesbrough team under Karanka, so added two trusted, experienced players of this calibre will only be an asset.
Also, they can’t necessarily rely on Jutkiewicz alone to deliver the goods, so Karanka needs to get pretty active in the market before the window shuts to make him and the fans happy enough. Luring Jon Toral back to the club gets the fans on side and also adds further creativity to the ranks. Ivan Sanchez will offer a little bit of ‘je ne sais quoi’, and you just know Karanka has been keeping tabs on someone like him for a while now.
I also like the acquisition of Jonathan Leko for what appears to be a relatively small fee. He was making an impression on loan at Charlton last season prior to a bad injury, so whilst he may need some time to get back to his best, this deal may represent good value in a season or two.
I actually quite fancy the prospects of Birmingham this season. Whilst they is always some general uncertainty when changing manager, I just feel the Blues are in safe hands with Karanka at the helm. Some fans are fearful that the club may pull the trigger once a bad run of form materialises, and history suggests that is unfortunately possible.
Nevertheless, Birmingham have been a bottom-half team for four seasons now, but I’m backing them to be something of a surprise package in the upcoming campaign.
Interesting Fact: New Blues boss Aitor Karanka has never lost any of his eight managerial head-to-head meetings versus Birmingham (W3-D5-L0).
13th) Huddersfield (35/1 Betfair)
Whilst winning promotion into the Premier League was a dream for Huddersfield, it would turn into a nightmare by the time their two-year stay in the big time came to an end. They couldn’t buy a win and that losing feeling would ultimately continue into the following campaign.
The Terriers removed Jan Siewert shortly into the new campaign and tasked Danny Cowley with the task of stabilising the club. The former Lincoln boss eventually steadied the ship and kept them up, but the club hierarchy wanted more and Carlos Corberán was the unexpected appointment at the John Smith’s Stadium. Early pre-season indications are positive, with many already comparing him to the work of club hero David Wagner.
I must admit, I was looking forward to seeing Cowley manage a full season at Championship level with this Huddersfield side. I would have fancied them to do something, or at least threaten. They have now become something of an unknown with the managerial route they have gone down. For all that it worked under Wagner, it did not with Siewart, and so this type of appointment always remains risky.
Early signs however are positive, and the challenge now is for that to lead to positive results. It may be a case of them improving as the season progresses, as Corberán is still learning about his squad and the job in general.
Huddersfield fans shouldn’t necessarily see a replica of what Leeds were last season however, just because Corberán worked under Bielsa, but even half of that would see a massive improvement on last season. He will be under pressure to succeed though as Cowley was dismissed despite achieving his objective.
Corberán ideally needs to get off to a fast start at Town. Last season, they failed to win any of their opening nine Championship games, and as such they were never higher than 16th position at any point in the campaign. This is his first managerial role, and he will still be learning, but he may thrive under that weight of expectation.
On paper, this Terriers squad is way too good to be in a relegation battle, so it could be a case of transforming their mind-set, and this is where the Spaniard may come into his own on the training ground. Not many new faces have been added, and you think they’ll need some to give them a lift considering they’ve been struggling for the last three seasons now.
Ideally the Terriers need another centre back, right back, winger and striker. Keeping Karlan Grant at the football club would be a big help, too, but having Danny Ward back from Cardiff gives them something different in the final third. Huddersfield love an on-loan goalkeeper and Joel Pereira of Manchester United is the latest. He was held in very high regard by Jose Mourinho not so long ago, but he’ll need to quickly get up to speed to what the Championship is all about.
Whilst it would appear Huddersfield are entering the unknown with an untried manager, the reality is that the club are quite used to handing out such opportunities. That again leaves very little margin for error in the sense that this appointment will be very much at either end of the spectrum.
I’d like to think the Terriers won’t battle relegation to the extent of last season, and much depends on how quickly Corberán can get his players playing like his former club, Leeds.
Interesting Fact: Huddersfield accumulated the worst first half record in the Championship last season (W7-D23-L16-GF18-GA31).
14th) Preston (25/1 Bet365)
Preston are one of many clubs in the Championship left with the puzzle of trying to break out of the mould of being a mid-table club into one that can truly compete for promotion. 11th, 11th, 7th, 14th and 9th have been their league finishes over the last five seasons, and the question is can they really break into that next bracket.
Alex Neil is constantly linked with other clubs, but he remains at Deepdale as he must believe they are capable of doing so. The core and foundation is present, but perhaps finding that X-Factor is the key to a possible Premier League push. Neil has done it before at Norwich, and they showed last season in flashes what they’re capable of.
I actually think Neil will be a little disappointed with how last season turned out. Before a ball was kicked they set off with the intention of making the play-offs, and whilst they flirted with that prospect, in the end they were well short. It was a freak season however because of Covid-19, so maybe he won’t be as harsh on himself as he might have been.
Nevertheless, everything is geared up towards a promotion push, and the key for Preston is taking points off the better teams. Their record against bottom half clubs last season was exemplary, but in 22 clashes versus other top-half opponents they won only three. Taking points off your rivals is huge, but they’ve not really added much over the summer, which they might have needed.
The basis of this Preston should has been together for a few seasons now, and they always remain competitive at this level in and around the edges of the play-off positions. You just wonder now what is left to really take them onto the next level. Could be a bit of a stellar name to give them a boost? Perhaps they need to think outside the box a bit?
North End do tend to have a lot of similar types of player, but finances may generally limit that in that regard and they do tend to focus on the lower leagues. Maybe more is needed, but Preston will always be a threat at this level if building up ahead of steam.
I tipped Preston last season for a top-six finish, and unfortunately I’m not so optimistic about their prospects this time around. Since winning promotion out of League One, they have finished between 7th and 14th, and I don’t see any reason why that’ll change this season. Much of it is ultimately on Neil getting more out of his players, as he hasn’t really added any new faces to bolster them in that regard.
On paper they have a decent squad, but I just fear they’ll come up short against a collection of clubs which will restrict them really going for the play-offs. They’ll finish mid-table.
Interesting Fact: 16.95% of Preston’s league goals last season came from the penalty spot (10).
15th) Blackburn (35/1 Betfair)
Tony Mowbray has two promotions on his managerial CV, one being out of this league into the Premier League with West Brom in 2007/08, plus he also guided Rovers to this league in 2017/18.
Whilst an 11th place finish may not all that much from the outset, it did resemble progression from their 15th position slot the campaign prior. At one point it looked as though the play-offs were very much on, but winning only three of nine following the resumption, which also included defeats to Barnsley, Wigan and Luton, ultimately left them with too much to do.
Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay Blackburn is that they generally give everybody a game. Whilst there are a couple of relatively stellar names in this pack, like Bradley Dack and Lewis Holtby, they are all grafters and will put a shift in. That’s not to say they lack in quality, as Adam Armstrong is one of the best players in this league on a going day.
When Blackburn play well, they normally get the result, and the key for them is just to put sequences like that together more often than not. The core to the team isn’t far off what is generally input into past sides that have done well at this level, and just dotting them with a little bit more around them will serve them well. Mowbray will be especially keen to improve their away form, and that requires a certain type of player.
Blackburn’s biggest task in the off-season was arguably finding a new goalkeeper after Christian Walton returned following the expiration of his loan spell. He had a mistake in him, so the club had to get this one right. Thomas Kaminski is an experienced replacement from Gent, but not experienced in the British game, so he may need some time to settle in.
Finding a central defender partner for Darragh Lenihan will be another, although Scott Wharton may now finally get his chance after several loan moves away. They’re another team with good youngsters coming through the ranks such as Joe Rankin-Costello, Jack Vale and John Buckley.
A top end natural centre forward would be ideal as well, as Mowbray often rotated this area last season, suggesting he was never entirely convinced with any of Sam Gallagher, Danny Graham or Ben Brereton taking on this job.
The Championship is likely to be as competitive as ever this season, and whilst I’ve put Blackburn to finish in 15th that could easily be only a handful of points off the edge of the play-offs. They went so well for a period last season until hitting a brick wall, but they do still enter the new season with a few question marks.
Rovers certainly won’t be dragged into a relegation fight, and if they can still in the hunt until the closing stages then they might have a better run at it this time around.
Interesting Fact: Rovers were the highest-scorers in the league last season inside the opening 15 minutes of games (15).
16th) Middlesbrough (22/1 SkyBet)
Jonathan Woodgate always seemed a somewhat risky appointment at the Riverside Stadium. The 2006/07 Boro Player of the Year, and also club supporter, had been on the coaching staff under previous boss Tony Pulis, and Steve Gibson felt the time was right to get him into the job.
It would ultimately prove to be an unsuccessful venture as at no stage in the season would they be in the top half. Gibson pulled the trigger after the club returned from lockdown to lose 3-0 at home to Swansea, and Neil Warnock was quickly brought in. As expected, he did his thing and kept them up, and less surprising was the fact that he has stayed on to try and add yet another promotion onto his CV.
As soon as Warnock kept Boro in the league, I knew he’d be staying. He just can’t resist managing in this league, especially with a club that can compete at the top end of the table. That may seem unlikely considering how badly they struggled last season, but they got into a rut that Woodgate couldn’t handle.
Warnock would have found a way to get more out of them, he is just more experienced, more than most. Losing George Friend was a bit of a shock, but he did become quite injury-prone. There are still real characters in this group, and adding Grant Hall boosts them in that regard. Middlesbrough shouldn’t battle against relegation, but maybe more options are needed for promotion.
Warnock has made no secret of the fact that he would like quite a few new faces into the building before the season starts, or at the least before the transfer window shuts in October. Five experienced players and four on-loan squad players departed in the off-season, and the veteran manager is still to really replace those. Whilst that may seem like a negative, the plan was always to reduce numbers in the squad.
Warnock ultimately needs Warnock-type players to give them a shot of competing for a play-off spot. Hall is one of those, but more are required. A new keeper has been touted, whilst defensively they do need a bit of a shake-up. A few more in the ilk of Jonny Howson will help no end, whilst they’ve only really got two senior strikers on the books, so Warnock needs to work his magic to get them where he wants them to be.
It looks as though Ben Gibson may be returning to the club, which will be a great signing. He should never have signed for Burnley, who in truth never really, really needed him if Sean Dyche was honest. The local lad has the club at heart and always will, and he’d greatly improve the defensive unit significantly.
We’re used to Warnock working his magic in this league to get clubs into the promotion picture and I feel as though this Middlesbrough job is possibly his toughest in a long time. He isn’t necessarily a patient individual, but I just feel as though a bit of a rebuild is needed at the Riverside, one which could take a few seasons.
That being said, if anyone can overachieve expectations then it is Neil Warnock. Boro have got the right manager going for them, but the squad looks thin and not necessarily one which will compete, unless Warnock gets on the phone and fast!
Interesting Fact: Middlesbrough were the lowest scorers in the Championship last season with 48 goals.
17th) Barnsley (50/1 888)
When at one stage it looked as though relegation was certain, Gerhard Struber very much got a tune out of his Barnsley side at the perfect time last season. Against all the odds, they achieved back-to-back wins in their final two clashes to defeat promotion-chasing duo Nottingham Forest and Brentford to secure the great escape. This coming after running eventual champions Leeds very close at Elland Road.
This wasn’t officially confirmed due to various points deduction issues elsewhere, the scenes on the pitch at Griffin Park at full time proved what a mammoth task this was for the Tykes.
Whilst the bookies don’t necessarily fancy Barnsley to threaten the top of the Championship table this season, in one respect it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise, either. They’ve became something of a ‘buzz team’ towards the end of last season.
Struber proved what he can do with a relatively limited group of players, and whilst they don’t have the budget to blast anyone out of the water, they will be canny, whilst the Austrian coach won’t be afraid to work with what he currently has, too.
A major problem for the Tykes last season was their poor start. Hopes were high when they defeated Fulham on the opening day, but they would follow that success with a run of 17 without a win in Championship action. They must start better this time around as they can’t afford to rely on miracles in the final few weeks to keep them in the division.
On paper they have quite a positive start to the campaign in the sense they aren’t facing many big-hitters, so that may be a help to Struber.
I don’t suspect Barnsley will struggle as much as they did last season, but I do think keeping Struber at the club will be integral to that. I fully expect him to be linked with jobs as the season progresses, and the longer they can retain him the better. He now gets Barnsley and is fully embraced with the project at hand. Whilst on paper they don’t have many stars, in the dugout they appear to have one.
Interesting Fact: In the previous Championship campaign, Barnsley striker Patrick Schmidt was the most utilised substitute in the division (27).
18th) Coventry (60/1 888)
Over the course of a reduced League One season, Coventry would never drop any lower than 8th position and they proved to be the model of consistency across the campaign.
Mark Robins, in his second spell in charge, has finally guided the Sky Blues back into the English second-tier after an eight-season absence, and did so in some style. Whilst the league standings were finally settled on a points-per-game basis, nobody could deny Coventry were the best team in L1.
Whilst the Sky Blues haven’t played a competitive match since 7th March, they also haven’t lost in the league since 14th December. They’ll relish the chance to prove themselves in the Championship, even if still having to share a ground with Birmingham.
This team earned plenty of plaudits for winning promotion last season thanks to their attractive and productive style of play, and rightly so. The challenge now is being able to replicate that in the next league above, which is anything but easy. They’ll ultimately come up against more talented opponents in terms of players and management, so points won’t be so easy to come by.
The League One season ending as early as it did may not do them many favours in the sense of building on the momentum of last season, which is my one concern, but they’ll be more than prepared. Coventry remain a big club, but expectations shouldn’t be too high to the point where avoiding relegation isn’t a good season.
Coventry are likely to approach this season exactly how they did the majority of last, and they aren’t going to be moving too far away from what has got them here. Expect to see them adopt their intricate passing game, especially in and around the final third as they aim to play through the opposition.
Losing Liam Walsh won’t help them do that, or Sam McCallum, who did a great job at left wing back. However, adding Gustavo Hamer and Marcel Hilssner will do exactly that, whilst retaining Callum O’Hare permanently on a free appeared a no-brainer. Coventry identified these targets very early and got them in very early, which is key considering the club overall hasn’t played a competitive math for so long.
Leo Ostigard is a decent little signing and he’ll likely play ahead of Kyle McFadzean in Robins’ central defensive trio. He impressed with St Pauli in Germany last season and joins on-loan from Brighton. Tyler Walker joins from rivals Nottingham Forest to help out Matt Godden, which I feel is a clever piece of business and just the type of calibre of player who they can ultimately attract and get the best out of.
The Sky Blues look to have added well to their squad and they are primed to get their Championship season started. They’ll just be glad to be back on the pitch after so long, so it could be a case of slow-starting but finishing strongly.
I guess the biggest question is if they can score enough goals, and if their strong League One defensive showings can be replicate at a higher level. Ground-sharing again isn’t ideal, but they’re now familiarised with St Andrews. I feel we’ll see a bit of an up-and-down Coventry this season, but one which will still remain in the division.
Interesting Fact: Mark Robins currently has the highest win percentage of any Coventry manager in their history.
19th) Luton (66/1 Betfair)
Nathan Jones and Luton, it just seems to work. For all that Hatters fans were both gutted and angry to see the Welshman leave for what proved to be a disastrous spell at Stoke, the 47-year-old returned in May to try and keep the club in the league that he practically got them into. With fans not allowed in stadiums due to the pandemic, that bought Jones some time to get them back on his side, and he has delivered.
Luton would avoid relegation against all the odds. They demonstrated promotion form after the lockdown, apart from the 5-0 loss to Reading, to galvanise the club to a point whereby they themselves believed they could stay up. All seemed loss when drawing at home to Barnsley, but a win over Huddersfield gave them life, and they never really looked back.
Whilst Luton ended the season with a bang, the challenge now is to push that into a full season so they avoid having to perform miracles just to stay in the league. If they find themselves in that situation again next season, they will be relegated.
The fact they survived in that fashion has almost given them a second shot at Championship football when it seemed lost. They start the campaign on a clean sheet, whereas Jones returned to the job fighting a pretty big fire. They’re tipped to struggle, and the fact they can’t compete financially to attract the type of player most in this league can offer is a worry. However, this is a hungry squad, and if they do go down, they’ll do so fighting.
Whilst identifying any real areas of strength or weakness in the Luton squad, it may be just a case of having Jones at the helm being their biggest quality. He just fits this job like glove to hand, and whilst they are very munch punching above their weight at this level, their end to last season proved that they can compete.
Certainly some new faces will be needed, but they’re going to have to target the lower leagues or youngsters from a higher level once more. Jordan Clark from Accrington is a prime example of this. They ultimately need a certain type of character to succeed, and not necessarily the most talented individual is needed.
Adding Tom Lockyer and also the permanent signing of James Bree are very good pieces of business considering you suspect there would have been interest in the pair from elsewhere. Some help for James Collins will help their cause, but they’re limited because of finances you feel.
Luton enter the season just hoping not to find themselves in a situation that they did previously in needing a miracle to avoid relegation. They most definitely can’t rely on doing that again to remain in the division, but a full season of Jones in charge could see them look more competitive across 46 games.
The Hatters showed in that end of season run what they’re capable of, and if they can have more good days than bad then they should be fine. However, they’re still likely to be in a relegation battle for the duration, but anything from 21st and above is a mission accomplished once again.
Interesting Fact: Last season, Luton were the first team since Fulham in 2014/15 to avoid relegation from the Championship despite conceding 80+ goals.
20th) QPR (55/1 Betfair)
The good times haven’t looked like returning to Loftus Road for a little while now but the good thing is that a new season always brings new hope, and everyone connected with QPR will be hopeful that this year could be the year. The reality however is that plenty of work needs to be done to make those dreams come true, as Mark Warburton’s side conceded far too many goals last season.
Big transfer fees are also a thing of the past, so Warburton must work his magic on the training ground to turn Rangers from bottom-half regulars into play-off contenders. They started last season quite well, but consistency unfortunately has never been their strong point.
It has been some years since QPR have spent big in the transfer market, and those days won’t be returning any time soon. As such, they’ve had to be quite cute in the transfer market, with Warburton targeting youngsters, with the intention of developing them and hopefully selling them on at a profit in the future.
The R's have just become that club to a degree, even if they don’t necessarily want to admit it. When that is the case, it means prospects of promotion can’t ever be too high as all it takes is a transfer window to open and they could become vulnerable in that regard. This is a squad that looks incredibly light in a few areas, especially going forward.
We saw towards the end of last season when Jordan Hugill was out injured how much they lacked in attack. Another centre forward to replace Hugill is required, even with the addition of Lyndon Dykes from Livingston, whilst they had clear defensive problems that need correcting.
It is clear that QPR are targeting a certain type of player; predominantly in the 18-24 age region. Whilst they may develop into top players and get sold on, such as how Eberechi Eze has done in this transfer window. It won’t have been a shock he has left, but nevertheless it was a massive blow considering his influence and impact. He ultimately needs replacing.
You just feel as though QPR really need players for the here and now. Looking at their squad on paper it does look quite a young roster, with a smattering of experienced types like Geoff Cameron and Yoann Barbet. To me this is where QPR perhaps fall a little short.
The addition of Rob Dickie, one of the most highly-rated centre backs in League One, is a good signing, and really fits into the DNA for what QPR are really looking for. Still, he is yet to prove himself at this level, so may need some time to settle in, especially as he is likely to be a regular starter almost instantly.
Rangers also need help managing situations in game, which is ultimately why they conceded as many goals as they did. They came across as quite naïve, and you just wonder if they’ll have really learned any lessons from last season enough for them to progress this time around.
I do fear for QPR this season. They’ve lost their star man in Eze and they look to have played a big reliance on Dykes delivering the goods for them in attack. Still there are question marks over the futures of some other key players, and Warburton is going to have to really work his magic on the training ground.
Rangers showed in patches last season what they’ll capable of, but Eze really was central to most of that. I fancy them to just about be OK given that Warburton always builds attacking teams and they will get results through this. Whilst they’ll also receive some beatings too, they’re likely to just survive, which won’t necessarily excite anyone around the club.
Interesting Fact: QPR lost 20 league matches last season and failed to score in 12 of them (60%).
21st) Reading (66/1 Betfair)
The 2016/17 season was the last time that Reading went through a full season with the same manager, and Jaap Stam guided them to the play-off final on that occasion. Royals fans may wonder what night have been if they had beaten Huddersfield on that day at Wembley, as they haven’t kicked on from that point.
20th, 20th and 14th in their corresponding three seasons hasn’t excited the supporters, just like how the appointment of Mark Bowen didn’t last season. To his credit, he kept them up, but the question is can the Royals really compete at this level. Consistency again has to be the key to that, and showcasing their Christmas form over a full season has to be the aim.
Reading is a club that is perhaps in real lack of a spark at this moment in time. They hoped the addition of George Puşcaş would provide that, and it did to begin with, but he tailed off badly at the season progressed. Getting Lucas Joao fit again will feel like a new signing, whilst seeing the likes of Chris Gunter, Garath McCleary, Jordan Obita and Tyler Blackett depart perhaps signals a new era in the club.
For me, the Royals are just missing something and I wonder if Bowen was the man to deliver that. I think maybe a Neil Warnock type may be needed to kick them up the backside, but certainly they’re capable if everything falls into place. Last season was progression following consecutive 20th place finishes, so it is something to build on in that regard.
That being said, Veljko Paunovic, the former Chicago Fire boss, has since replaced Bowen. The Welshman was maybe lucky to get the job in the first place, but replacing a manager at this time makes no sense at all. Even more so when replacing him with someone that has no experience of this level. Did the club not learn any lessons from the Jose Gomes era?
Forty-three-year-old Serbian Paunovic did build a reputation in MLS as a coach with promise, but it tailed off badly in the end and he makes the move somewhat looking to rebuild his career, and fans will be hoping not at the expense of the club. Elsewhere, Nigel Howe has been replaced as CEO, so there is plenty of turbulence ongoing at the club just before the season starts, which is not ideal.
Paunovic likes to play a neat and tidy passing game, one which almost every MLS team plays, but in the Championship he’ll come across several different styles that he’ll have to get used to setting up against.
This will be Reading’s eighth consecutive season at Championship level and you just wonder if they have enough about them to really get back into the Premier League, or even enough to compete. They fall into that bracket of club which ultimately sees any players that builds a decent reputation get snapped up by a bigger club.
John Swift and Liam Moore continue to be linked with moves away, and they don’t seem to have the pull compared to maybe others in the league. This may reduce expectations however, which may suit them going under the radar. That should be the case as they finished 14th, 20th and 20th over the last three seasons, and new additions are needed across the squad to ultimately improve them enough to make them noteworthy in this league.
Josh Laurent from Shrewsbury is a good recruit, but not to put fear into the rest of the division. Michael Olise is primed to make a big impact, whilst the permanent signing of Ovie Ejaria on a four-year deal represents excellent business. Reading have a good amount of creativity in their ranks, but these chances of course will need taking.
There has been way, way too much noise from around the club in pre-season and that to me indicates trouble ahead. On paper they should have enough to stay in the division, but changing manager at this stage to me almost confirms a season of struggle, as they’d effectively have to have another pre-season during the season.
A flurry of new signings will arrive I imagine, most who probably haven’t played in the league before and will need time to settle in both on and off the pitch. Preparation is everything and you just feel Reading have fallen short in that regard.
Interesting Fact: Whilst Reading were ranked second in last season’s Championship in relation to number of dribbles (behind Brentford, they produced the fewest amount of crosses in the league (501).
22nd) Rotherham (150/1 Paddy Power)
Paul Warne has done an incredible job at Rotherham, he really has. He has held every role possible at that football club and is now excelling in the biggest job of them all. They were always punching above their weight the last time they were in the Championship, and they always will be when playing at this level considering the calibre of clubs they’ll come up against.
The Millers accept a relegation battle is inevitable, but they are better setup this time to stabilise, and even last time they only went down by four points. Rotherham impressed last season and scored plenty of goals, and they’ll certainly need to be strong defensively to defy the odds and stay up, but Warne gets Rotherham and knows what it takes to get the best out of this group of players.
Expectations won’t necessarily be high from the outside on the prospect of the Millers staying in the league. Their past three seasons at this level has seem them relegated, but maybe this is where Covid-19 comes and benefits them more than most. Clearly they haven’t a big budget in comparison to many in this league, and with finances stretched with the lack of crowds etc, could that level the playing field to a degree?
After all, the Millers been used to winning games, whilst you have three relegated Premier League clubs that have got used to losing. Things like that may help. Of course, they will still need a big season to stay in the division, and they’ll certainly need to show something away from home, but there is still excitement around the club that they can make themselves heard. Warne is the right man at the helm, and don’t write them off just yet.
You didn’t suspect Rotherham would blow anyone out of the water in the off-season in relation to transfers and it looks as though Warne is prepared to give the majority of those who won promotion the chance to keep them in this league. They deserve that opportunity but it doesn’t hide from the fact certain recruits are needed for balance.
Angus MacDonald, Wes Harding, Kieran Sadlier and Mickel Miller are signings which makes the squad better overall, so this is some clever and selective business from Warne. Jamal Blackman on-loan from Chelsea was perhaps the most important recruit as a new first-choice goalkeeper was definitely needed, and whilst only 26 is he battled-hardened and will do a job for the Millers. They’re maybe a significant striker short as things stand, but they could go into the season with what they’ve got and be fairly happy.
I think it’ll be a close-run thing to see if Rotherham can avoid relegation or not. I certainly don’t see them being tailed off at all. I just feel as though Warne will have learned so many lessons from their past attempts at this level, and arguably they have a better all-round squad this time around to compete.
Their away form cost them badly previously in the Championship, but that was the reason for their promotion last season! I like the make-up of this squad in terms of the type of characters they’ve got, but again I just feel it may come up to a lack of quality in comparison to most. They could quite easily stay up.
Interesting Fact: Rotherham have won only one of 46 away fixtures over their two previous seasons played at Championship level (W1-D10-L35).
23rd) Wycombe (500/1 Paddy Power)
Whilst we all had some joy seeing the likes of Bournemouth rise through the leagues over the years, Wycombe are very much the club taking on that mantle. Gareth Ainsworth has been in the job on an official basis since 2013 after being named caretaker in 2012, and he has established himself as one of the best in the business, without a doubt.
Sure, Adebayo Akinfenwa will take all the headlines given his appeal, but Ainsworth is the top dog at that club, and without him they’re probably in non-league now, and not the Championship.
Making the Premier League looks a step too far for next season, but avoiding relegation is their equivalent right now and whilst everyone rights them off before a ball has been kicked, that suits Ainsworth just nicely; proving the doubters wrong.
Whilst one W in Watford are favourites to go up, Wycombe are firmly the favourites to go down. Considering they were one of the favourites to be relegated into League Two last season, I don’t think they’ll be too bothered about that!
Whilst there is a good feeling story about them, part of me does worry that this season could go horrendously wrong. They are another who perhaps don’t have a huge amount of depth, and whilst Ainsworth deserves credit for giving these players a chance at this level, some will struggle. They will likely be favourite second team next season for many, and Sheff Wed starting on -12 gives them a bit more hope.
Stranger things have happened than if they were to avoid relegation, but they’ll need some luck and a lot to go right for them to happen.
Wycombe are ultimately stepping into the unknown when they begin their Championship campaign at home to Rotherham on 12th September. The fact they’re playing a team they battled with in League One last season may actually help them in one sense. Whilst many are already writing them off before a ball has been kicked, that is ultimately all playing into Ainsworth’s hands.
The expectation from the outside is for them to finish bottom, even with Sheff Wed on -12 points. However, all the perceived negatives are really a positive, and all the pressure will be on every opponent Wycombe face this season.
The squad has little to no Championship experience, but they’ll just look to continue their momentum from last season and then reassess in the January transfer window. Whilst they get a dig from most because of their style of play, the addition of someone like Daryl Horgan suggests there is much, much more to them. He adds trickery and creativity, and is certainly no giant!
It always breaks my heart to back Wycombe for relegation, but I don’t think I’ll be upsetting Ainsworth for doing so! He’ll be more than happy to play the underdog role, and whilst they’ve been doing that job so well for a few years now, the difference is they’re doing so whilst trying to stay in the league. That shift in mentality I feel will make a big difference.
The Chairboys will now be going into matches feeling a draw is a good result, whilst they’d maybe look to win last season. They’ll enter the new campaign confident, but I do fear a lack of quality in comparison to most of their opponents will see them suffer. Their budget is likely to reflect their finishing position.
Interesting Fact: Wycombe won promotion to the Championship despite having the smallest average amount of possession in League One 2019/20 (43%).
24th) Sheffield Wednesday (100/1 Betfred)
For many months of last season the prospect of a points deduction was hanging over the heads of Sheffield Wednesday. It got to the point where it was almost forgotten about to a point, certainly when it is eventually compared to the likes of Wigan. Whilst the club didn’t lose those points last season, they had in the upcoming campaign and before a ball is kicked they face an uphill task of trying to stay in this league.
Losing 12 points last season would have relegated the Owls, so maybe they’ll view this as a bit of a reprieve in that regard. Last season, like most, they had their spells but those were ultimately too few and far between. Now Garry Monk faces the biggest test of his managerial career this season.
History is clearly against the Owls given they begin the campaign with a negative points balance. The obvious key for them is to begin the season like a house on fire and get onto plus points as soon as possible. This term is very much everything geared towards avoiding relegation, which is completely different to the past where they wanted the play-offs.
The Owls have not threatened the play-offs for a while, and if they can negotiate this tough assignment then moving forward it may galvanise them to the point where they can challenge near the top. Adding Chey Dunkley is a welcome addition in both penalty boxes, but no matter who they added or lost in their player roster it promises to be a tough campaign ahead.
The problem Wednesday have is if they’re able to recruit players that truly believe they can avoid relegation. Making a move to a club with a negative points tally will undoubtedly put some players off, and therefore Monk will need to work his magic in terms of selling the vision. He has managed to do that so far by also adding Izzy Brown, albeit on-loan, whilst they also captured Josh Windass on a permanent basis from Wigan.
There is a massive need for some strikers to enter the club. Atdhe Nuhiu has left whilst Jordan Rhodes is another linked with the exit door, but they need him considering the lack of alternatives as things stand. Elias Kachunga has joined on a free, but he mainly played as a wide man during his time at Huddersfield.
Perhaps they’ll have to call more upon their talented academy, which has already seen the likes of Alex Hunt and Osaze Urhoghide play a more prominent role. Quite simply, more in needed across the board, otherwise it really does look mission impossible.
Ultimately I just fear that history is against the Owls in trying to turnaround this points deduction, and they’ve also not been able to add as much to the squad as they’d have liked. A strong start is most definitely needed, but they face Cardiff, Watford, Bristol City and Brentford in their opening six league fixtures. I wish them well, but I can only see a valiant effort ultimately resulting in relegation.
Interesting Fact: Garry Monk’s side topped last season’s Championship in relation to the amount of fouls committed with 697, which was 73 more than Wigan, who were ranked second.