I might be biased as a supporter of a Football League club, but England’s lower leagues are where you’ll find the proper football this season. Sure, the Premier League will provide more quality than ever before this season (check out my Premier League preview), but the Football League is where the real, honest excitement is.
There appears to be a gulf in class starting to form between the Championship and Leagues One and Two as more teams invest big money in order to reach the Premier League. This year, fallen giants Newcastle and Aston Villa join a league littered with big clubs who’ve failed to return to the top tier.
Here, I look at the contenders for promotion and relegation in the Championship. I’ve looked at the betting markets, as well as at the last few seasons, and put together a preview for the coming season.
It’s hard to look past Newcastle for automatic promotion. They have a Champions League winning manager in Rafa Benitez and will get 50,000 a week at St James Park. They’ve added Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie to their squad and still have Jonjo Shelvey who will thrive in the Championship.
Derby are another team who should be looking at a top 2 finish. Each year they find a way to unravel a season which should end in promotion. This time, though, they have Nigel Pearson – the man who laid the foundations for Leicester’s incredible Premier League win with promotion from the Championship.
Norwich fell short of Premier League survival, but they are fully equipped for an instant return. Alex Neil showed his managerial abilities the last time Norwich were in the second tier, and will be stronger after a season in the top flight. Play-offs is a minimum for Norwich, and I expect them to be challenging the Top 2 throughout the season.
Brighton were victims of a last day showdown at Middlesbrough for automatic promotion and never recovered in the Play-Offs. They will be in contention again, but they are perhaps short of the quality that Newcastle and Norwich will bring to the league this season.
Sheffield Wednesday were impressive last season, but didn’t deliver when it mattered in the Play-Off Final. Regardless, Carlos Carvajal has retained most of his squad, and made some experienced additions. I can see Leeds joining the play-off picture this year, too. However much their erratic owner Massimo Cellino attempts to sabotage the club, they’ve made a shrewd appointment in Garry Monk. If he is allowed to manage the club how he wants, Leeds might be a surprise entry in the promotion picture.
Noteably, I’ve missed out Aston Villa from my Top 6. Yes, they have new owners and their own Champions League winning manager in Roberto Di Matteo, but after such a disastrous relegation season, I can’t see their problems disappearing just yet. Villa fans may have to endure another frustrating season before a return to the Premier League.
Burton’s rise is inspirational for any small club, but the Championship will probably be a step to far. They won’t go without a fight though, and will probably pick up a few surprising results before just falling short.
Rotherham needed Neil Warnock’s experience to escape relegation last year, but after he decided against staying, new manager Alan Stubbs faces a tough task. Again, they won’t go down without a fight, but Stubbs may have a tough start to his managerial career in England.
There’s always a big club that doesn’t realise they are in danger of relegation to League One until it’s too late. This year, I think that club will be Blackburn, who have been treading water for a few years now after their much publicised owner-issues in the Premier League. Those owners remain, and have hired former Bolton and Burnley boss Owen Coyle as manager. If that already wasn’t a recipe for disaster, Coyle contributed to Wigan’s relegation from the Championship two years ago, and their major summer signing is Danny Graham – the master of scoring 5 goals a season.
I’ve excluded Barnsley from relegation despite them being one of the favourites with the bookies. They will still have momentum from last season’s amazing run from bottom of the league to Play-Off winners. They have added Tom Bradshaw who should add enough goals to a team who will find wins hard to come by.
Newcastle signing Dwight Gayle is the bookies favourite for top scorer at around 9/1, but new Aston Villa Ross McCormack should be in with a shout (12/1) . Britt Assombalonga, back after a year out through injury, could threaten the top of the goalscoring charts. However, this depends on how Nottingham Forest fare this season.
Norwich are 11/4 for promotion, and they certainly have the quality to be one of the three promoted sides. Sheffield Wednesday are 5/1 to go one better than last season and seal promotion, while Leeds are a generous 6/1 to make the playoffs.