The new Championship season is almost upon us, and a quick glance at the 24 teams suggests it could be the toughest division for many years. The strength of the teams joining from the Premier League and League One adds to an already competitive set of squads, ensuring that there will be many disappointed fans come May. Inevitably we will also see one or two teams spring a surprise, and there are already many interesting sub-plots to keep an eye on as the season wears on, from Bielsa’s Leeds to big-spending Forest. Now it’s time for my pre-season predictions – I look forward to coming back to this post in May and seeing how right (or wrong) I was…
Villa narrowly missed out on promotion last season, losing in the play-off final to Fulham, and were immediately plunged into a financial crisis. A fire sale was expected but the club have managed to keep hold of their key players, and now that billionaires Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris have committed to investing in the club, the future looks much more promising than it did a month ago. The new investors toyed with the idea of replacing Steve Bruce with Thierry Henry but have sensibly shelved that plan for now, although it remains to be seen how patient they will be if Bruce’s team aren’t front-runners from the start. Villa’s squad is still one of the strongest in the league and I fully expect them to challenge for promotion again.
The last two seasons have been particularly turbulent at St Andrew’s, and it was only five wins in their last nine matches under the stewardship of Garry Monk that saw them avoid the drop to League One. It’s been a fairly quiet summer for Blues with only one permanent signing – left-back Kristian Pedersen from Union Berlin – and a handful of players leaving at the expiration of their contracts. The club have had to cut back their expenditure after Harry Redknapp’s expensive summer last season, but importantly they’ve kept hold of their key players for now. Their squad doesn’t look strong enough for a promotion push but they will be hoping the stability of the last few months will help the club to start moving in the right direction.
Tony Mowbray brought Blackburn back up into the Championship at the first attempt, a fair achievement given the conditions at the club. It will be a tough ask to keep them up in this ultra-competitive season, especially given the small budget, but the momentum gained over the course of last season may be enough to see them safely into mid-table. Mowbray has only made a couple of additions to the squad so far, bringing in Jacob Davenport from Manchester City and Joe Rothwell from Oxford. The fans will hope that their notorious owners give their manager the backing he needs to establish them in the second tier.
The Trotters saved themselves in the dying moments of last season to complete a remarkable turnaround following a dreadful start, but I’m not convinced they’ll be able to repeat that effort. They have been busy in the transfer market, signing a number of players on loans and free transfers including Yanic Wildschut, Pawel Olkowski and Clayton Donaldson, to give the squad some much-needed depth. Phil Parkinson has also had something of a clear out, releasing a dozen players, many of whom have joined clubs in League One and League Two. Given their resources, a mid-table finish would be an overachievement.
Dean Smith’s Brentford continued to establish themselves as a top-half Championship side last season, and their strong end to the campaign will give the fans hope that they can push for a top-six finish this time. As in previous transfer windows, they have seen a number of first team players depart, including John Egan, Florian Jozefzoon and Andreas Bjelland, while Ezri Konsa has joined from Charlton and Said Benrahma from Nice. Brentford are used to working the transfer market to pick up bargains so expect more arrivals before the transfer window closes. Neutrals will hope they retain their attractive, free-flowing style of play.
Bristol started the 2017/18 season superbly and looked set to mount a serious promotion push, but they faded badly after Christmas and ended up languishing in mid-table. Consistency has been a problem under Lee Johnson – for every good run of games they string together, there’s always an equally bad run just around the corner. The club brought in around £20m through the sales of Bobby Reid to Cardiff and Aden Flint to Middlesbrough, which has helped to fund the signings of Adam Webester, Andreas Weimann, Jack Hunt and Marley Watkins from various Championship rivals. A top-six finish will be the aim this season, anything else add the pressure will start to mount on Johnson.
The Rams lost their manager Gary Rowett to Stoke City at the end of last season, amidst speculation that his budget would be cut significantly following years of big spending. Events since then would appear to contradict that – Frank Lampard took his first management role and has strengthened his attack with Jack Mariott and Florian Jozefzoon, while the highly-rated Mason Mount joins on loan from Chelsea. They have also shown an interest in Ipswich’s Waghorn but that is dependent on Matej Vydra leaving the club. Lampard is a big risk for a club that has spent years trying and failing to get promoted – anything other than a top-six finish will be a disappointment and could lead to further budget cuts.
Hull’s first season back in the Championship was a turbulent one, as they flirted with relegation for much of the season before Nigel Adkins replaced Leonid Slutsky and guided them to safety. There are still issues with the ownership so money is tight, and a number of big earners have left the club on a free, such as Abel Hernandez, David Meyler and Sebastian Larsson. Adkins’ main focus has been on strengthening the defence, and to that end he has brought in centre-backs Reece Burke and Jordy de Wijs, along with full-backs Eric Lichaj and Todd Kane. I expect a more comfortable mid-table finish this time for the Tigers, though their squad is too thin for a promotion push.
So here is how my predicted league table is looking so far:
- Aston Villa
- Derby County
- Bristol City
- Hull City
- Birmingham City
- Blackburn Rovers
- Bolton Wanderers
Part 2 will be out tomorrow, in which I will assess the prospects of another eight Championship sides…