MARK O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his verdict on the 2015/16 Championship campaign, rating all 24 clubs as well predicting the end of season table.
1. Middlesbrough (6/1 Bet365)
I put the boot into Middlesbrough on plenty of occasions last season but having suffered play-off final heartache and missing out on automatic promotion by just five points, all on Teesside are expecting Boro to go one better this time around. And I can’t disagree with them.
Boro’s defence was their best weapon last term – they kept clean sheets in 21 Championship fixtures, conceding eight goals fewer than the next best – but the Teesiders were also the lowest scorers in the top-eight. Championship Player of The Year Patrick Bamford’s loan has expired but with a deal for Jordan Rhodes likely to be struck and the headline signing of Stewart Downing already onboard, Middlesbrough are seriously reloading.
Too often Championship also-rans marooned in mid-table, 2014/15 was Middlesbrough’s best league finish since their relegation in 2009. Supporters are back on side and if the impressive Aitor Karanka can successfully marry the defensive solidity of the past 12 months with a ruthless streak in front of goal, the Teesiders are going to take some stopping.
Karanka knows he must succeed this time around; expectation levels are high around the Riverside but Boro are primed to challenge. In four of the past seven seasons the previous year’s play-off finalists finished in the top-six again, twice topping the division – failure to follow in those footsteps cannot be entertained.
2. Ipswich Town (20/1 Bet365)
Ipswich fans were down in the dumps after their play-off semi-final defeat at the hands of arch-rivals Norwich and with star left-back Tyrone Mings sold to Premier League-bound Bournemouth for £8m in the off-season, you’d be forgiven for thinking, the only way is down for Town.
Not so. Managed by the one of the best bosses in the land, Mick McCarthy’s men are stronger and look set to continue their year-on-year improvement under Big Mick’s charge. The Tractor Boys bettered their previous year’s performance for the fourth successive season in 2014/15 and McCarthy’s now seen the team he’s in charge of improve on their previous year’s effort in eight of his last 11 full seasons at the helm. That’s ridiculous.
Proven goalscorer Brett Pitman and young Scottish winger Ryan Fraser joined as part of the Mings deal and the loan capture of 17-year-old Arsenal flyer Ainsley Maitland-Niles adds pace and dynamism to the squad – two elements lacking last term. Town boasted the league’s best home record in 2014/15 and should they improve upon their road return of W4-D7-L9 when excluding the bottom three, they’ll go very close to a top-two finish. After all, they did occupy the top-two until December!
3. Derby County (6/1 Bet365)
Heavily tipped, heavily fancied. Derby looked destined for a return to the Premier League last season following their heartbreaking play-off final defeat in 2013/14. But a dramatic end-of-season collapse (W2-D6-L5) saw the Rams plummet from top to eighth and Steve McClaren move on.
Paul Clement’s the man trusted in the hot-seat to provide fresh impetus and get Derby back on track. With experience working alongside Carlo Ancelloti at Chelsea, PSG and Real Madrid, plenty are expecting another bash at the top-two. Loan signings Tom Ince and Darren Bent have joined permanently having scored 21 league goals in 29 appearances between them last year whilst Alex Pearce, Andreas Weiman, Jason Shackell and Chris Baird have made the league’s best squad stronger.
But the jury will be out on Clement. Although an exciting appointment from the outside, we’ve seen numerous reputations ruined as they’ve failed to transition into the number one role. There’s plenty to prove and early reports suggest the players are struggling to adapt to his ideas with accusations also being banded about that Clement has no clue as to what his best XI is yet. The uncertainty is enough warning to steer clear of the Rams in the title betting.
4. Brentford (12/1 Bet365)
Genius? Lunacy? Chances are, Brentford owner Matthew Benham will be closer to the former when the dust settles on the coming season. Under a ‘Monetball’ approach of mathematical modelling and statistics, the Bees chairman dispensed with Mark Warburton to bring in unheralded Marinus Dijkhuizen despite performing well above expectations to finish fifth in their first season back at second tier level since 1992/93.
Understandably, plenty of scepticism has surrounded the events at Griffin Park as they enter their third season above League One level in 50 years. Benham’s analysis-based vision brought him huge success at FC Midtjylland and Dijkhuizen was carefully selected by co-Director of Football Rasmus Ankersen this summer.
The former Excelsior head coach won Eredivisie promotion before keeping the penniless club in the Dutch top tier and the 43-year fits the profile, philosophy and system at Griffin Park. Undoubtedly there’ll be teething problems but going on Benham’s previous success in the betting industry and Brentford’s rapid rise under his watch, you’d have to assume they’ll challenge again.
Jonathan Douglas has been banished to the youth team having fallen out with the club’s hierarchy and the likes of Alan McCormack and Harlee Dean will also move on but Toumani Diagouraga and Andre Gray, two of their leading lights from last season remain. Having used only 24 players in 2014/15, the new Directors of Football have keen to flesh out the squad and they’ve been busy recruiting.
Josh McEachran was brought in as a like-for-like replacement for influential loanee Alex Pritchard but a broken foot will keep the former Chelsea midfielder out for three months. Elsewhere, experienced Danish defender Andreas Bjelland signed for £3m and French centre-back Yoann Barbet should improve a vulnerable defence. But it’s the captures of Lasse Vibe, scorer of 31 goals in 56 games from Gothenburg and German U21 international Phillipp Hofmann that have excited supporters – the duo should add plenty of bulk and competition to Brentford’s offensive output.
The club have set their sights on promotion and are rapidly moving in the right direction. I wouldn’t bet against the Bees doing the business this season but then I wouldn’t be backing them at the prices either. Expect another top-six finish.
5. Wolverhampton Wanderers (14/1 Bet365)
It wasn’t a huge surprise to see Wolves roar last season. Led by the shrewd management of Kenny Jackett, the club eased to League One glory and continued their upward trajectory in 2014/15. A solid foundation has been laid at Molineux with only goal difference keeping them out of last season’s play-offs. Now thoughts are turning towards a serious and renewed crack at promotion back to the Premier League.
Star winger Bakary Sako has gone but highly-rated Jed Wallace was been snapped up from Portsmouth, impressive Huddersfield performer Conor Coady joined for £2m and Jackett’s kept hold of his prized assets in attack – Benik Afobe and Nouha Dickho are arguably the division’s hottest partnership and there’s more than just hope that a top-six surge is within their capabilities.
Having missed out on a play-off place on the final day of last season, there’s a hunger and drive about the Black Country club and they should be taken very seriously. Defensively the side are sound – only Middlesbrough and Bournemouth kept more clean sheets than Wolves’ 18 last season – and although the lack of squad depth has been called into question, missing out on the top-six for a second successive season is not on the agenda for 2015/16.
6. Hull City (10/1 Bet365)
I’ve big sympathy for Hull fans. This time last year they were relishing making their debut in European competition. But having underestimated Lokeren in the qualification play-off round, fielded a weakened team in the first leg and failed to turn the tie around, the Tigers’ European adventure was over before it had even begun. Nine months later they were relegated.
Ten players have left in the off-season with James Chester and Robbie Brady’s big-money sales headlining but the loss of fans favourites Liam Rosenior and Paul McShane should also be noted. Little has been done to freshen up the squad with injury-plagued full-back Ryan Taylor and promising Sam Clucas the major arrivals but even so, Hull will still hope to be competitive.
Rarely to relegated clubs prosper in the title winning market – only two have taken top honours in the past 13 seasons whilst only 8/30 (27%) have won promotion back to the Promised Land at the first attempt in 10 years. Steve Bruce may have three Championship promotions on his CV but even he’s admitted that there’s still ‘much soul-searching to be done’ following the Tigers’ last-day relegation.
Hull won just 13/68 (19%) Premier League games dating back 18 months and were beaten in 23/38 (60%) away matches since 2013/14. The majority of the squad had a clause in their contracts reducing wages by 50% should relegation befall the club so whilst the financials aren’t horrendous on Humberside, there’s still a decent contingent who see their futures elsewhere.
The mood around the KC Stadium is a far cry from the optimism heading into 2014/15. Bruce will need to call on all his experience to galvanize the group and with exactly half of the past 30 teams to drop down from the top tier reaching the top-six in their first Championship season, the Tigers should still have enough to claim a play-off place. Just don’t back them outright.
7. Brighton & Hove Albion (25/1 Bet365)
Brighton fans might laugh this off but I’m reasonably confident the Seagulls could well be the big-priced side that takes the second tier by storm this year. Albion are 25/1 to top the division and despite a degree of pessimism ringing around the Amex, I’m feeling positive.
It’s 32 years since Brighton were a Premier League club and after a hugely disappointing season, they should return to par, if not better. The Seagulls went dramatically backwards following successive play-off semi-final defeats but – with Chris Hughton having replaced Sami Hyypia as manager in December – survival was ensured despite a seven-match winless streak to end the campaign.
The club’s recruitment has failed a little too often in recent years. January’s capture of Beram Kayal was one of few bright spots and in Tommer Hemed, Albion may have finally found a goalscoring gem. The Israeli striker is hoping to be the missing piece to the Brighton jigsaw; only Sheffield Wednesday (43) scored fewer goals outside the bottom three than Brighton (44) and the former Mallorca and Almeria striker has impressed in struggling La Liga sides.
If the Seagulls can keep hold of Lewis Dunk then the centre-half partnership with Gordon Greer remains resolute, allowing the team to build from the back. The league’s best defence has not finished outside the top-eight in the past 10 years and you’d assume Albion will continue to give little away to opposition teams.
The unavoidable departure of Young Player of the Year Joao Teixeira is the only black mark against their off-season. With a new training facility, the club is ‘Premier League ready’ off the pitch and in Hughton they have a manager experienced in Championship promotion to guide a challenge on it. They’re in a more stable and healthier position than 12 months ago and I certainly don’t see another season of toil.
8. Bristol City (22/1 Bet365)
Bristol City fans won’t forget 2015 in a hurry. League One title winners and Wembley success in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final was just reward for an outstanding season. The Robins suffered just five league defeats and fell one point short of racking up a century of points and that relentless domination and momentum should ensure they pass the Championship test with flying colours.
In recent years both Charlton and Wolves have racked up 100+ points in League One and using their promotion-winning squads fallen just short of a top-six finish in the Championship. In fact, the last seven League One champions average a very impressive ninth-placed finish. Although there are a few concerns worth airing…
Owner Stephen Lansdown admits they are now ‘joining the division of death’ and says the club – who were relegated with £50m worth of debts two years ago – will aim to be competitive without over-stretching themselves. Fans have seen only one major signing bolster the squad but £2m forward Jonathan Kodija arrives with a very healthy reputation from Ligue 2 in France.
Boss Steve Cotterill has been frustrated in the transfer market with Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Wade Elliott, George Saville and James Tavernier no longer around at Ashton Gate, the squad is weaker than the 2014/15 vintage. But the core of remains fresh and health and there is budget to spend so you’d assume City will be looking to add cover in midfield and at least one more new face in attack to compliment the current crop.
The Championship looks tougher than ever to call but Bristol City’s momentum is surely a plus point and the Robins should have little problem finding their feet in the second tier. A play-off push might be just beyond them but expect City to be perched around the top-half come May.
9. Burnley (14/1 Bet365)
Rarely embarrassed and rarely outclassed, Burnley justified 8/13 quotes on immediate Premier League relegation last season but at least they went down fighting. Finishing just five points off safety with a Championship-standard squad was no embarrassment and now the Clarets will be hoping for an immediate return to the big time.
Sean Dyche’s side took the second tier by storm two years ago; having been chalked up as 80/1 ante-post rags, Burnley finished second but a repeat of that performance appears unlikely. The Clarets squad may be stronger on paper but their first XI has certainly been weakened by the departures of three key individuals.
Star striker Danny Ings has joined Liverpool whilst the ever-impressive full-back Kieran Trippier was let go for just £3.5m to Spurs. But arguably losing captain and outstanding Championship performer Jason Shackell to Derby was the bitterest blow. Matthew Lowton is a decent replacement for Trippier but Jelle Vossen is yet to show he’s capable of stepping into Ings’ shoes, leaving the club a little light of goal-getting ability.
Burnley were only beaten by more than two goals twice in the Premier League and eight of their defeats came by a single goal margin. It reflects a fantastically balanced unit, unafraid of hard work. Dyche has proven himself as one of Britain’s brightest young coaches but whether he can turn the tables on last year’s relegation remains to be seen. They’ll be tough to beat but stabilising the Turf Moor club should be top of the agenda with a promotion push an added extra.
10. Sheffield Wednesday (20/1 Bet365)
There’s always plenty of unknowns at the start of a season but Sheffield Wednesday are most certainly near the top of that foreign category. Portuguese coach Carlos Carvalhal has been handed the reigns after Stuart Gray’s untimely sacking. It’s the Owls first non-British boss in their history with new Thai owner Dejphon Chansiri setting a target of promotion by 2017.
It could go one of two ways for the Yorkshire club but they’ve been active in the off-season with the investment in the club far outweighing anything they’ve seen across the previous 20 years. Some supporters are expecting a title challenge, others are keeping their feet on the ground, well aware they’ve seen more than enough false dawns at Hillsborough before.
A new pitch has been laid, a new scoreboard erected and seven new faces have been brought in. The permanent addition of Lewis McGugan was most welcome after his positive impact in 2014/15 whilst Jack Hunt and Ross Wallace offer plenty of second tier know-how and experience. But it was the £2m signing of Marco Mathias from Nacional that’s gotten Owls fans a flutter.
Under Gray’s watch last season Wednesday were conservative but solid. They equalled their record clean sheet haul but orders from above suggest Carvahal will be asked to favour an aggressive and attack-minded approach. Mathias should fit that bill – the Portuguese attacking-midfielder is fast and direct and alongside McGugan should have a positive impact on chances created.
Little is known about the bulk of the other incoming players at Hillsborough but with an ambitious new owner, a coach without previous experience of English football and a sea-change in on-field philosophy, anything could happen with Wednesday this year. They’ve targeted a top-six finish but a top-half finish seems a more accurate summarisation.
11. Preston North End (50/1 Bet365)
It was a case of 10th time lucky for Preston last season as they finally enjoyed a slice of play-off success. The Lancashire club have earmarked Championship survival as their first target but ambitions for a mid-table finish may not be doing the Lilywhites justice. They’re better than that and I fancy PNE to pierce the top-half.
It was Simon Grayson’s fourth League One promotion and having already steered Leeds to seventh in their first season back in the second tier, as well as keeping Blackpool up, represents a safe pair of hands at this level. He’ll also have his feared attacking trio back together with Jermaine Beckford and Paul Gallagher both joining permanently after successful loan spells to link with hot-shot Joe Garner up top.
Despite scoring 51 goals across the past two campaigns, Garner’s got something to prove at Championship level having failed to fire at Nottingham Forest or Watford previously. Goals shouldn’t really be an issue though for a side that only failed to net on three occasions last year but squad depth could be should Grayson miss out on a few transfer targets, particularly at full-back.
Paul Huntingdon and Tom Clarke marshal an organised defensive ship that kept 24 shutouts during their last campaign and with the energetic and feisty John Walsh sitting in front, there’s enough bite to believe they’ll be tough to breakdown. Only five of the past 30 promoted clubs have suffered immediate demotion with 14 finishing in the top-half. Preston have the tools, the stability, the goals and the leader to guide the club to a comfortable finish.
12. Leeds United (25/1 Bet365)
By Leeds’ standards, it’s been a relatively quiet and stable summer. There’s no need to go over old news and ramble on about the many court appearances the owner has made or waste breath on players backing out of matches with mysterious injuries, nor even pass comment on Neil Redfearn’s treatment – it’s all been done before. In fact, there’s actually plenty to be positive about for fans of Yorkshire’s finest.
True, Leeds may finish anything from 6th-24th (but when hasn’t that been the case?) but this year things do feel a little different around Elland Road. Uwe Rosler’s appointment should be celebrated and following finishes of 14th, 13th, 15th, and 15th the Whites might be ready for a top-half finish.
Rosler has a point to prove following a set-back in his young management career. His departure from Wigan seemed a little untimely and it’s worth remembering the German laid the first foundations for success at Brentford too. The new boss has spoken in detail about creating a top-six mentality, wanting to improve fitness, shape and discipline and bringing about a ‘heavy metal’ football philosophy to the club, similar to Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund.
Signings too have been astute as opposed to unknowns or journeymen. Midfielder Tom Adeyemi has impressive pedigree, centre-back Sol Bamba impressed on loan and the £3m spent on Chris Wood should at least guarantee more goals than the meagre 50 managed last time out. Rosler’s admitted the squad lacks pace and width but there’s time to address that. The imminent arrival of Brentford winger Stuart Dallas should fill that void.
Hope still burns strong amongst Leeds supporters that Premier League football isn’t too far away. The outstanding crop of academy graduates that broke into the first-team last term provides extra optimism and it’ll be interesting to see how the likes of Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt, Charlie Taylor, Sam Byram and Liam Cooper kick on from last year. The transfer embargo lifted, Adam Pearson’s steadying hand in the boardroom and Rosler’s sharp mind leading the on-field renaissance, Leeds might just surprise a few this season.
13. Nottingham Forest (25/1 Bet365)
You have to go back to 1999 for the last time Nottingham Forest were a Premier League club and it’s a record that’s unlikely to be broken this year. The Tricky Trees have proven to be masters of inconsistency over the past few seasons and until the club solve that conundrum the City Ground side won’t be getting close to the top-six.
Forest started like a train under Stuart Pearce last season before tailing off spectacularly and ambling to a 14th-placed finish under Dougie Freedman. It was a similar story in 2012/13. Oh and 2013/14. But Freedman’s reign started encouraging with seven wins from his first 10 and although no victory was secured in their final eight, six of those fixtures came against top-nine clubs.
The former Bolton boss, ridiculed for his lack of tactical acumen and signings by Trotters fans, has been restricted in his recruitment due to a transfer embargo. High-earners and underperforming players have been shipped out with the club looking towards a strong crop of youngsters making their mark during Forest’s 150th anniversary season. But back to the negatives…
Britt Assombalonga scored 15 in 29 before injury struck; a common curse for Forest stars, and is out until the New Year. Captain Chris Cohen and playmaker Andy Reid are still on the comeback trail leaving Michail Antonio, so impressive last season, to burden the attacking and creative responsibility. Jamie Ward’s signature should lessen that load but the Tricky Trees are worrying short in the final third.
Since chairman Fawaz Al-Hasawi arrived on the scene, Forest have regressed from eighth, to 11th and to 14th. There’s a decent spread of talent in the squad but they’re missing fit and available match-winners and Freedman’s still got plenty to prove. I’d be surprised if they came close to the play-offs.
14. Queens Park Rangers (14/1 Bet365)
Do I really have to do this? You’re seriously asking me to sum up our prospects, aspirations and aims for the new season? Eugh. I’ll try and keep it brief…
No club knows how to piss money up the wall quite like my beloved QPR. You can join them by pissing your own money up the wall by backing the R’s this season – yes, that’s a firm piece of advice to steer well clear of Chris Ramsey’s side.
Bouncing back from relegation is hard enough but juggling a total overhaul and restructuring of staff and players makes the task doubly difficult. At the beginning of June I was seriously contemplating a play on relegation but summer signings have at least given Hoops supporters a little wriggle room for optimism.
Don’t expect Charlie Austin, Matt Phillips or Leroy Fer to stay – one, if not all, are likely to leave and the current squad is worrying thin in defensive areas and short of goal-getting ability outside of Austin. Tjaronn Chery arrives with an exciting promising reputation from the Eredivise but the jury remains out on Ramsey’s ability to succeed as a number one.
I’d love to sit down and wax lyrical over West London’s finest but I’m afraid it’s mid-table mediocrity at best. And I’d be happy with that, to be fair.
15. Birmingham City (50/1 Bet365)
Man crush alert. Hi Gary Rowett, fancy dinner sometime? Just you and I. You can chose where. I’m happy to travel. Honestly, I’ll travel anywhere, Gary. So Gary, where are we going to dinner. Gary? Gary? GARY?
What Rowett achieved at St Andrews last season deserves a whopping big statue outside the ground. Taking over a side floundering in 23rd, directionless under the laughable Lee Clark and on the back of an 8-0 tonking by Bournemouth at the end of October, the former Burton boss transformed the Blues. Rowett guided Birmingham to a 52-point return from 32 league games and into 10th. Taking results into account after his appointment, Blues were the eighth best team in the Championship. Taking his 1.625 points-per-game average over a 46 matches would have accumulated 75 points and a place in the play-offs. Now do you want to join my date with Gaz?
No wonder Birmingham fans are feeling good. Carson Yeung’s in prison, Rowett’s on a role, a sense of normality is returning to the club and exciting youngster Demarai Gray has penned a new three-year deal. For a club described by vice-president Michael Wiseman as merely “existing” in recent years, that’s a lot of positivity.
Now to temper things a little. The Blues squad is small, very small. Michael Morrison, so impressive in the Birmingham revival, is without a consistent centre-half partner and there’s a glaring lack of creativity following the expiration of Robert Tesche, Diego Fabbrini, and Lloyd Dyer’s loan spells. FC Groinngen’s cup winning captain Maikel Kieftenbeld should plug a hole in centre-midfield whilst Jon Toral’s loan capture from Arsenal bolsters their offensive output.
Bar Gray and 15-goal top scorer Clayton Donaldson, there’s not a huge amount of X-Factor but Rowett won’t care. He’ll keep his side compact, difficult to beat but you can be sure they’ll pick up enough points to saunter reasonably comfortably into mid-table.
16. Cardiff City (25/1 Bet365)
You know you’re a long way from winning a league when all the attention is on the colour of your kit. After months of protesting, controversial owner Vincent Tan eventually gave in and Cardiff switched back from red to their traditional blue to much fanfare. Although a portion of supporters were so pissed off, they’re yet to return to the Cardiff City Stadium! Seriously, it’s a kit. It’s a colour. Give it a rest…
There are much more pressing issues to iron out in the Welsh capital. The Bluebirds pre-season ambitions for an immediate return to the Premier League were dashed and having finished in their lowest position since 2007/08 a huge improvement is required. City used 56 different players across the last two seasons and Russell Slade’s first job was to give the squad a fresh look.
Slade took £12m off the wage bill and steadied the ship but supporters weren’t happy. Performances were mediocre and the football ugly. His own reputation as a lower league battler went before him and despite tailing the season off with seven wins from 14, Bluebirds fans remain far from convinced he’s the man to take the club forward.
Sammy Amerobi’s loan signing from Newcastle is the only addition of note but there’s still a decent spine of players available to Slade. Goalkeeper David Marshall might be on the move but Bruno Ecuele Manga won the club’s Player of the Year award from centre-half, Aron Gunnarsson’s committed his future to City whilst Peter Whittingham and the fit again Anthony Pilkington are top-six class in the division. And that’s without mentioning the returning Kenwyne Jones to lead the line.
Big things are expected of Joe Mason this campaign playing off the main striker but Cardiff will need to start on the front foot to improve the atmosphere around the club or there’ll be going nowhere fast. Cost-cutting continues and an unsettled season is perhaps the fairest assessment of what lies ahead.
17. Reading (33/1 Bet365)
Last season was a bit of a hit and a bit of a miss for Reading. An FA Cup semi-final appearance at Wembley – good. Pre-season aspirations for promotion and finishing three places above relegation – bad. It was a transitional year for the Royals who saw new owners arrive, a new boss in Steve Clarke and a financial position that needed seeing to.
Club stalwarts and youth prospects Alex Pearce, Jem Karacan and Adam Federici were all released along with Danny Guthrie and Stephen Kelly to free up funds and the arrival of Stephen Quinn and Paul McShane from Hull should at least add Championship bite to the troops. Meanwhile, Orlando Sa has been drafted in to hopefully answer their ongoing quest for goals in attack.
Anton Ferdinand’s return from injury will feel like a new signing and I’m excited to see young striker Dominic Samuel at this level after a decent loan spell at Coventry. Samuel’s just one of an exciting bunch of young talent in the Berkshire club’s squad looking to make the breakthrough; their U21 side won promotion to the top-flight last term.
At times they were awful last season and it’s true, the FA Cup run masked the mediocrity at the Madjeski Stadium. However, victories away at Norwich, Derby, Middlesbrough, Ipswich and Wolves suggests there’s something to work with if Clarke can find the magic formula to breakdown stubborn defences. The new Thai owners are keen to invest and see the club progress but should the lethargy leftover from last season’s slugfest continue, expect a new face in the dugout.
18. Huddersfield Town (80/1 Bet365)
Having earmarked Huddersfield as last season’s surprise package, I’ll be keeping a low profile this time around. Slaughtered 4-0 on the opening day by Bournemouth, boss Mark Robins was relieved of his duties the very next day. Chris Powell was handed the reigns and continued the steady progress since returning to the Championship.
The Terriers finished 16th, following previous 17th and 19th efforts, to mark their best league performance in 15 years and also represented the eighth season in nine that the club had made year-on-year progress – the one season that they didn’t, they went from finishing third in League One down to fourth, they achieved promotion via the play-offs. It could have been even better had the FA awarded the side three points for their abandoned match with Blackpool – it would have seen the club finish above their bitter rivals Leeds. A shame, eh?
Powell’s cleared out the deadwood in the squad and although Conor Coady’s departure was disappointing, the Terriers netted a £1.5m profit on the player and been able to strengthen. Experienced second tier campaigner Dean Whitehead will add thrust to the midfield whilst talented youngster Kyle Dempsey’s arrival from Carlisle has caught the imagination.
If Powell can plug the obvious defensive flaws (two of the three teams with a worse defence were relegated last season) then Huddersfield have a chance to crack the top-half. The team has plenty of goals in it with Nakhi Wells and James Vaughan leading the line and the switch to 3-5-2 brought about an unbeaten seven-game spell to end the campaign.
But seasoned supporters are searching for a more gung-ho approach and murmurings of stagnation are harsh and a touch unfair. Should those backline bugs fail to be cleared up, the Terriers will be operating around the lower reaches of the bottom-half and the John Smith’s Stadium support will need to lower expectations, just a tad.
19. Blackburn Rovers (33/1 Bet365)
I backed Blackburn for the title last year – yeah, that went well – and this season I’m suggesting they could be a decent punt for the drop. Whilst Rovers don’t appear in any immediate danger, things could really turn sour at Ewood Park in their financial situation is to be believed.
The Lancastrians were spoilt by having two 20-goal-a-season strikers in tow but Rudy Gestede’s been taken to Aston Villa having struck 33 in 66 appearances for Blackburn and rumours continue to swirl regarding Jordan Rhodes’ future. Rhodes has smashed 73 goals in 134 matches across the past three terms and the departure of both to meet Financial Fair Play targets that have enforced a transfer embargo could have horrendous implications.
Gary Bowyer’s men struggled with consistency in 2014/15 as well as a creaking defence, costing the club any serious aspirations of a top-six finish. Bowyer’s been an impressively calm and steady influence since being handed the role over two years ago but with Josh King already out the exit door, excellent playmaker Tom Cairney off to Fulham and exciting winger Ben Marshall also being courted, will be without a number of last term’s impressive performers.
Parachute payments have ended, there’s little cover to a solid first XI and they lack a central creative player to take the weight off their ever-impressive widemen. Blackburn did their best business against the league’s lesser lights in last season, returning W15-D11-L4 when taking on teams below them in the table, but with the league growing stronger, they might find the going much tougher this time around and so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see the Red Rose begin to buckle.
20. Charlton Athletic (50/1 Bet365)
The bookies reckon Charlton will be amongst the leading contenders for relegation. The fans believe the Addicks have the potential for a crack at the top-six. So who do we believe? I haven’t a clue, if I’m honest. Charlton could be absolutely anything this season and I’ve flirted between backing them for promotion and umm… predicting they might be hovering just above the drop zone.
Athletic finished in a surprisingly high 12th last season but were battling against the drop when big Bob Peeters was relieved of his duties. Guy Luzon, a controversial choice, became the fourth manager to lead the Londoners in 18 months but a run of seven wins in nine following a switch to a counter-attacking 4-4-2 system propelled the team into the top-half.
We’ll have to wait and see whether the softly-spoken head coach can continue to work his magic and it’s not unfair to say he’s still a little unconvincing in the role. But he has gotten talent to work with; Tony Watt was inspirational under his watch, Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s committed his future and Igor Vetokele is sticking about too. Throw in Stephen Henderson, Jordan Cousins, Johnnie Jackson and Chris Solly and you’ve a time capable of competing with any in the division.
But we’ll still approach the campaign with a degree of trepidation. The direction of Roland Duchatelet regime remains suspicious and summer recruitment has left many (I included) scrabbling around to find solid information about the off-season arrivals. The Addicks remain short in the centre of defence and have a number of areas the stat boffs will suggest need improving; Charlton fired in the fewest number of shots in the league last season, conceded the most and averaged the fourth lowest possession figure.
21. Fulham (16/1 Bet365)
Following 13 years as a stable Premier League, Fulham disintegrated into a shambles, dropping out of the top tier and very nearly into League One. Felix Magath was dispensed with after seven Championship games and after club stalwart Kit Symons initially steadied the ship, regression soon continued. The Cottagers won just six matches after the Christmas turkey was scoffed and conceded more goals than any side outside of the bottom-three.
Symons has stepped down from his role as Wales assistant boss to focus on Fulham full-time but wanted out by a portion of fans, a slow start to the season would undoubtedly see him quickly come under pressure. Charlton, Portsmouth and Wigan have all fallen down the Championship trapdoor in their second season back in the Championship and there’s a realistic chance the Cottagers could follow.
Summer signings have at least promised a touch of positivity. Ben Pringle and Tom Cairney are impressive additions who should at least provide plenty of supply to Matt Smith and £11m man Ross McCormack up top. And although Luke Garbutt and Jazz Richards are enterprising full-back arrivals, the problem centre-back position remains unsolved.
It’s been a chaotic couple of seasons at the Cottage and seeing the side chalked up at 16/1 to top the table is laughable. There’s definitely room for a lot of improvement but things may get uglier before they get better on the pitch for Fulham supporters. So what price were they to be relegated?
22. MK Dons (66/1 Bet365)
Only five of the last 30 teams to win League One promotion have suffered immediate relegation but this year the second tier isn’t hanging around for any stragglers. It’s stronger, meaner and more unforgiving. The Championship is going to be a tricky and trappy test for most.
MK’s aim will be to stay up despite public suggestions that they’re eyeing a mid-table finish. Two of last season’s bedrocks and goalscorers Dele Alli and Will Grigg are no longer at Stadium:mk despite boss Karl Robinson outlining the latter as his number one transfer target this summer. The duo’s influence can’t be overstated and although Simon Church has slotted in nicely during pre-season, he’s yet to truly fire in a stop-start career.
Peruvian international Cristian Benavente’s arrival from Real Madrid has excited supporters but they’ve yet to replace Alli in the defensive midfield role (yes, he was a defensive midfielder despite scoring gallons of goals) and there’s little strength in depth. Another forward is high on the agenda with Robinson desperate to unearth the next Patrick Bamford, Benik Afobe or Grigg through the loan market.
Without anyone capable of doing the dirty work bar Samir Carruthers and Darren Potter, the Dons might get overrun in the more challenging environment of the Championship. MK enjoy their attractive, fast, attacking football and they’ll be an entertaining team to follow but I have my doubts whether the current crop really can hack it when the going gets tough.
Last term was Robinson’s final shot at promotion following five years of standing still. It worked out well, chairman Pete Winkleman has now shelled out on a brand new training ground; optimism in the town is high heading into their maiden second tier season. However, they’re a weaker prospect than 12 months ago and that’s worrying. They might be heading straight back down.
23. Bolton Wanderers (40/1 Bet365)
Avoiding relegation is the one and only target for a club that’s hands are strapped financially and finished their 2014/15 campaign with just five league wins from January. Of course, a horrendous injury crisis contributed too – at one point Bolton were without more than half of the senior squad – leaving Neil Lennon struggling to fill the bench with available substitutes.
Lennon is most definitely the Lancashire club’s prized asset. He’s the sole reason why I won’t be going balls deep on Bolton going down and you’d assume those behind the scenes will be doing all they can to keep hold of the former Celtic gaffer. Leicester came calling in the summer and they’re unlikely to be the last.
But the Trotters stagnation has really stunk in recent years. Brief promise under Dougie Freedman soon dissipated and now in their final year of Premier League parachute payments, they’re relying on freebies such as Gary Madine and versatile Spanish U21 defender Derik from Real Madrid for a bit of buzz.
Underperforming high earners have been moved on but they were unable to hold onto Eidur Gudjohnsen nor Adam Le Fondre and both Adam Bogdan and Andy Lonergan left the side without a goalkeeper until young Ben Amos was snapped up. Keeping Mark Davis fit is a must but also a mission, they’ve been forced to play talented midfielder Josh Vela out of position at right-back and the squad looks no better than average.
The only chink of light I can find bar Lennon is perhaps the huge investment in the youth system is starting to bear fruit. Zach Clough hit six goals in 10 games before injury struck and alongside Vela, Tom Walker and Quade Taylor have made their breakthroughs whilst Max Clayton’s signing suggests there’s plenty of potential.
Last season only Blackpool and Fulham faced more shots-on-target, the club suffered 15 away defeats (only Blackpool lost more) and were kept afloat by Lennon’s steady hand and a solid return in front of their fans at the Macron Stadium. The club’s looking for new owners off the pitch but on it, they might be heading for the third tier for the first time in 22 years.
24. Rotherham United (100/1 Bet365)
Steve Evans might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I like him. We need characters like Steve in the game – just leave the sombrero and board shorts at home next time, eh Steve? I was heavily pro-Rotherham last year and although the Millers stayed up, it wasn’t quite as comfortable as I’d envisaged and Evans’ men are deservedly heavy favourites to flout under the second season syndrome.
Set-piece specialist and left wing star Ben Pringle has gone, as has last year’s skipper Craig Morgan and stalwart centre-half Karl Arneson – three of Rotherham’s anchors and prominent players in recent years. Although 11 new faces have come through the New York Stadium doors, improving on their 21st-placed finish from last term will take some beating.
Evans is dealing with a smaller squad, relying on versatility of individuals and team strength rather than any match-winning stars but you can bet your bottom dollar the outspoken Scot will be hammering home the motivational speeches on confounding the critics. The Millers will look to impose their high-pressing and high-tempo style as often as possible but having won just three games on the road in 2014/15 and operating under a tight budget, it’s difficult to find enough evidence to suggest they won’t be battling at the bottom come May.
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