Championship Preview Part 1

With the Championship starting this week, it’s time to preview the 24 teams that will be fighting it out to reach the Premier League. This preview will be split into three articles, with each featuring eight clubs.

Aston Villa 

Tony Xia went big in an attempt to get Villa back in the Premier League at the first attempt, but it backfired dramatically. Roberto di Matteo was given the chop early on and replaced by Steve Bruce, who steadied the ship but didn’t significantly improve the club’s fortunes, ending the season in 13th place. Large fees were paid in particular for forwards with varying results – Jonathan Kodjia looks the real deal, in contrast Ross McCormack was shipped out on loan in January.

Getting the best out of the significant talent available will be key to Villa’s season, and surely Steve Bruce is one of the best managers around for this job. They have also made arguably the biggest signing in the league this summer, bringing in John Terry after his release from Chelsea. His leadership qualities are undoubted but all opposition strikers will be looking to make a name for himself this year. Glenn Whelan will add experience to the midfield which already looks strong, with Henri Lansbury and Conor Hourihane brought in last season. If Bruce can get the squad to gel, they’ll be challenging for the top six at the very least.

Verdict: Title contenders

Barnsley

The Tykes started the 2016/17 campaign strongly but faded away as bigger clubs poached their star names. In January, James Bree and Conor Hourihane were sold to Aston Villa and Sam Winnall went to Wednesday. The exodus has continued this summer, with Marley Watkins, Josh Scowen and Marc Roberts all leaving for other Championship clubs. Manager Paul Heckingbottom is popular amongst the fans but is facing an uphill battle this season.

The rebuilding jobs this summer has been focused around bringing in young talent on free signings and on loan. Lloyd Isgrove has arrived on a free from Southampton, left-back Zeki Fryers arrives from Crystal Palace and highly-rated teenage striker Ike Ugbo has been brought in from Chelsea. Getting the new-look squad up to speed quickly will be key to their season as they look to stabilise in the second tier.

Verdict: Struggling to survive

Birmingham City

Last season was almost a catastrophe for Birmingham. They were on the edge of the play-offs when the new owners decided to sack Gary Rowett, replacing him with Gianfranco Zola who won a pathetic two of his 24 games in charge. With the club tumbling towards relegation, Zola was put out of his misery and replaced by Redknapp, who led them to two victories in their final two games.

This summer has been a relatively quiet one so far, but more incoming transfers are expected, with Redknapp aiming to bring in experienced heads. David Stockdale was a coup, having chosen the Blues over an extended stay with newly-promoted Brighton and Hove Albion, while Marc Roberts has joined from Barnsley. The owners will be hoping for a promotion push, but with the squad as it stands it’s hard to see them breaking into the top six.

Verdict: Mid-table mediocrity

Bolton Wanderers 

The Trotters have returned to the Championship at the first opportunity, but the financial problems remain. Phil Parkinson arrived as manager last season and did a good job in finishing runners-up to Sheffield United, but is currently operating under strict financial restrictions. Nonetheless they’ve been able to bring in striker Adam Armstrong on loan, as well as Sammy Ameobi and winger Will Buckley. Mark Little has arrived from Bristol City to strengthen their defence.

One positive for Bolton is that many of their players have a lot of Championship experience – David Wheater, Jem Karacan and Buckley in particular, which will certainly improve their chances of avoiding an immediate return to League One. The financial situation, however, will make it harder to keep hold of their key men.

Verdict: Struggling to survive

Brentford

The Bees had an excellent end to last season, knocking in 75 goals over the course of the campaign – only Norwich, Newcastle and Fulham netted more. However, their defence was also the second worst in the top half, suggesting they need to strike a better balance between attack and defence this time round.

They continue to work to a relatively small budget and their policy of bringing in players from the continent remains. Neal Maupay arrives from Saint Etienne, along with players from the Belgian, Danish and Dutch leagues. Young striker Ollie Watkins has signed from Exeter City, having scored 15 goals in League Two last season. Keeping hold of midfield dynamo Jota is crucial to their hopes of challenging for the play-offs.

Verdict: Mid-table mediocrity

Bristol City 

Lee Johnson’s men had a poor campaign last time round, finishing in 17th place, and the pressure is on the young manager to do better this time. That pressure will have been intensified further by the surprise club record signing of Senegalese striker Famara Diedhiou, for £5.3million.

Other than that it has been a quiet summer at Ashton Gate, with Eros Pisano and Nathan Baker signed from Verona and Aston Villa respectively to strengthen the back line. The unpredictable Lee Tomlin has left to join Cardiff City. Expect more signings during August as Johnson looks to build on a squad that should at least be able to hold steady in the Championship.

Verdict: Midtable mediocrity

Burton Albion 

For a club the size of Burton Albion, simply surviving last season was nothing short of a miracle. Nigel Clough’s tactical awareness and canny use of the transfer market have given the Brewers a second shot at the Championship, though it’s unlikely this season will be any easier.

The small budget means Clough will mostly be signings free agents and loan players. He has already added the experienced pair of Stephen Warnock and Jake Buxton to his defence, will Hope Akpan joins from Blackburn and Luke Murphy has been signed on loan from Leeds United. More players are likely to arrive once the Premier League clubs have formally selected their squads. Keeping hold of star players, such as Australian international Jackson Irvine, will also be crucial to their survival hopes.

Verdict: Struggling for survival

Cardiff City 

Championship expert Neil Warnock performed another rescue act in Wales last season, leading Cardiff to a comfortable midtable finish after a slow start saw Russell Slade get the boot. Controversial owner Vincent Tan remains, so Bluebirds fans will be hoping he keeps his cool if they get off to a slow start this season.

The loss of parachute payments has led to a tightening of the purse strings with a number of players leaving, including the long-serving Peter Whittingham, midfielders Emyr Huws and Tom Adeyemi, and forward Rickie Lambert. Other departures are expected over the next few weeks. The attack has been strengthened with the signings of Danny Ward from Rotherham and Lee Tomlin from Bristol City, while the highly-rated full-back Callum Paterson has joined from Hearts. One or two extra signings might be enough to enable a concerted push for the play-offs.

Verdict: play-off hopefuls

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