This season sees relegated Wigan Athletic, Queens Park Rangers and Reading aim to complete the seemingly impossible task of bouncing back up to the Premiership at the first time of asking. Also joining the fun are Bournemouth, Doncaster and Yeovil, with the latter sealing their place in the second tier after defeating Brentford in the play-off final. Here's my soon to be incorrect team by team prediction on the most unpredictable league in world football.
After an incredibly frustrating relegation from the Premiership, you could have forgiven Blackburn fans for thinking that last season was their year. However, last year saw Rovers dismiss three managers whilst sliding further and further down the table after a promising start. By the end of the season, they'd survived a relegation battle and despite finishing four points clear of trouble in 17th, had had by their standards, another shocking year. Things can only get better for them and despite having the fairly inexperienced Gary Bowyer in charge, I think this season will be a turning point. The squad at Ewood Park is still dotted with Premiership experience and if Bowyer can get the best out of the players that have hid away for the last two seasons then they should do well. They succeeded in retaining the services of the outstanding Jordan Rhodes and have made some good signings, especially Matthew Kilgallon who should prove to be an assured central defender at this level. Despite missing out on Crewe's Luke Murphy, Rovers added another of League One's finest prospects to their ranks, in Notts County's Alan Judge. I expect a lot more from Blackburn this year, who might not find themselves too far away from the play-offs.
In recent years, the loss of as talismanic a character as Ian Holloway combined with things such as Michael Appleton's lack of decision making ability has seen Blackpool fade from a club flirting with Championship promotion to mid-table mediocrity. Now under the stewardship of the unimpressive Paul Ince, I expect another disappointing season for the Tangerines, particularly if they lose Tom Ince as expected. On their day, they could probably match the majority of the Championship but are far too inconsistent and unpredictable to finish anywhere higher than mid-table next season. Ince has taken risks on signings such as Rochdale's Bobby Grant but has done well in securing the signing of Michael Chopra who should add some much needed fire-power. Keeping his son happy is the manager's greatest challenge and this could deter Blackpool away from anything other than another season of mediocrity. They're far too good to get relegated.
Last season was Bolton's first season back in the Championship since 2001 and it was this lengthy stay in English football's top flight that enhanced their reputation a great deal. Such a reputation was enough to attract manager Dougie Freedman to drop down from the Championship's top half to the bottom to join the Trotters from high flying Crystal Palace. The current boss' first game in charge saw Bolton defeat eventual league winners Cardiff City 2-1 and this kicked off a turnaround which, after an outstanding revival post-Christmas, ensured Bolton had realistic play-off hopes going into the final day. Sadly, a 2-2 draw with Blackburn wasn't enough, but it does put them in an excellent position going into this year's campaign. Freedman has kept the majority of his squad together, and has replaced outgoing hero Kevin Davies with Jermaine Beckford, who, undoubtedly using less effort, has the ability to fill Davies' goalscoring void. Individually, the likes of Chris Eagles flourish at this level and across the whole squad, they could match the majority of the division in terms of depth and experience. They should be in for another very good season and could even go one better than last year.
Led by one of the finest young managers outside the top flight, Bournemouth did fantastically well to finish champions of League One after a fairly torrid start. Key to their success last year was striker Brett Pitman who managed nineteen league goals, a return that you feel has to be reciprocated if the Cherries are to produce this season. Pitman will be supported by new signing Mohamed Coulibaly, signed on a free transfer after being released by Grasshoppers. Howe has also brought in both Elliot Ward and Ian Harte, two players that add some much needed experience to a team full of exciting youth. The midfield is possibly Bournemouth's area to look out for with the youthful Harry Arter and Matt Ritchie being supported by Wes Fogden and the impressive Marc Pugh. It will be interesting to see how the forward thinking South Coast club will adapt to life in the Championship. They'll almost definitely be involved in some form of relegation scrap, but I think they'll survive.
Brighton & Hove Albion
Defeat to Crystal Palace in the play-off semi final was a disappointing end to a strong season from the Seagulls and under Poyet, everyone was set to expect better things from them this season. However, Poyet was unfathomably sacked just weeks after the season's climax to the surprise of pretty much everyone, not least Poyet who found out whilst sat in a television studio on a live broadcast. Under Poyet, you felt that Brighton were slowly building towards something and its almost difficult to predict how they will fare under new boss Oscar Garcia, who is new to the English game. A league championship winner with Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, Garcia has been quiet in the transfer market, with Albion adding only Matt Upson and Adam Chicksen to the squad at the AMEX. Midfielder Ryan Harley has departed for pastures new at Swindon, but the rest of the squad has remained together, indicating that yet again, the Seagulls may not be far away from the play-off positions come next May. With stars like Ulloa, Buckley and, in my opinion one of the best players in the league, Liam Bridcutt, Brighton will never be far away. However, I do think they may miss out this year, as they undergo a slight transition under their new manager.
Last season was same old, same old for Burnley as an 11th placed finish signalled another season in the middle order of the Championship. However, next year may be a rude awakening, judging on the back end of last season which saw Burnley drop perilously close to the relegation zone before recovering in the last few games. In recent times, they have become over reliant on the goals of Charlie Austin and with rumours rife surrounding the striker's exit from the club, the Clarets could potentially be in for a much tougher season. They've lost important players during the summer, with Chris McCann re-uniting with Owen Coyle at Wigan, Martin Paterson leaving for Huddersfield and Lee Grant joining Derby. Three goalkeepers, Scott Arfield and Ryan Noble have been brought in as replacement. Hardly exciting. Lose Austin as well and this lukewarm bunch of players led by a less than charismatic manager could, for the first time in a long time, have a struggle ahead.
Derby finished 10th last year, impressive considering they boasted one of the worst away records in the division. This season I think they'll finish higher; every year there is one team that turns into a surprise package and I think its Derby's year. As a Leeds fan, I see them beat us twice a year and they've always impressed with a solid back four and a very tidy midfield. They've always lacked a striker and this summer, they've found one. A very good one. £750,000 was spent on Johnny Russell and I expect him to repay Clough's faith with an impressive goal return. Clough also did well to bring in Burnley stopper Lee Grant as well as Craig Forsyth and John Eustace from Watford; the latter should bring an experienced head to compliment the extremely talented trio of Craig Bryson, Jeff Hendrick and Paul Coutts. In the past few days, the Rams have lost right back John Brayford to Cardiff City, but with the £2,000,000 they received, more new arrivals may be on their way. You have the feeling that Clough and Derby have been slowly building something and I don't think they've had as good a chance as this for a long time. If they can fix their lack of consistency and turn Pride Park into a fortress, they could well be in for a very good season.
An excellent start to last year's campaign had the ever ambitious Town fans dreaming of back to back promotions after finally breaking their League One play-off curse the previous season. However, as Leeds fans expected, the failure of Simon Grayson's plan A, combined with a lack of a plan B, resulted in a down-turn in results. Grayson was sacked and replaced by Coventry City's Mark Robins. Huddersfield were less than impressive after that and only survived mathematically on the final day. In fairness, they never looked like they would actually go down and probably deserved to stay up. Over the summer, Robins has had a vast, much needed overhaul of the Terriers' attacking threats, getting rid of both Lee Novak and Alan Lee who failed to impress last season. The outstanding James Vaughan has been signed on a permanent deal, with Martin Paterson of Burnley and John Stead joining him to form a new look front three. They also secured the permanent signing of Adam Hammill who will add some excellent competition for places on the wing, challenging the likes of Danny Ward and Sean Scannell. Today, Huddersfield confirmed the signing of impressive central midfielder Jonathan Hogg and with the likes of Adam Clayton already available for selection in that position, you sense that a solid squad is slowly taking shape. Its hard to imagine Huddersfield tearing up the Championship next season, but they'll be absolutely fine.
There's a lot of optimism in Suffolk at the minute surrounding Ipswich Town, so much so that I revised my prediction. Like myself, a lot of other predictions I've seen had the Tractor Boys towards the lower end of the table but under Mick McCarthy, you can see them doing fairly well. There's some classy footballers at Portman Road these days; the likes of Luke Hyam, Elliott Hewitt and Aaron Cresswell are examples of young players that have broken through and have become first team main stays, complimenting the experience found there in the likes of Luke Chambers and now Christophe Berra, a useful summer addition. McCarthy has also added Dean Gerken, Cole Skuse, Paul Anderson and Ryan Tunnicliffe to his squad, with these signings again reinforcing the blend of youth and experience that runs through the team. They do look a little lightweight up front but you can always rely on David McGoldrick to score goals; with some support from other strikers and from out wide, they may be dangerous. Ipswich fans seem to be expecting a top half finish this year but I'm not sure. A 14th placed finish last season was a good one; expect something similar again.
I've never been to Dubai, but when I think of it I imagine a modern, futuristic city characterised by air-conditions buildings carved out of shiny surfaces. If I think of the people entering and exiting these buildings, I think of Caucasian business men wearing Dolce and Gabbana and influential locals in the finest Arabic dress. Now if you take a taxi ten miles out of town and into the desert, you'll find a small wooden hut. In that hut you might find a rickety fan, a crumbling sofa and the faces of Salem Patel and Salah Nooruddin, lead figures at GFH Capital, board members at Leeds United and the world's poorest Arabs. With this in mind, any fan of English football would struggle to place Leeds United somewhere on the unpredictable hierarchy that is the Championship. Once you rule out the top two, you have to actually start to think about where to place a team with one of the weakest squads yet finest managers in the division. Last season was awful, the 13th placed finish being a generous end to a season that promised so little and offered absolutely nothing. Again, the pre-season pressure and optimism remains as high, but again I think we'll be disappointed. The lack of expected investment from owners GFH has seen Brian McDermott welcome only three new faces in Matt Smith, Noel Hunt and Luke Murphy. The latter, being the first seven figure sum player Leeds have signed since Richard Cresswell will be expected to impress in a midfield void of any quality, whilst Hunt and Smith will have to work hard to support Ross McCormack and Luke Varney up front. The decision to loan Steve Morison out to Millwall may turn into a huge mistake and should the financial situation remain the same, we won't be anything special. Again.
Had Anthony Knockaert's last minute penalty found the back of the net at Vicarage Road, I may never have been writing about Leicester City in terms of Championship football. The legs of Manuel Almunia sadly dictated that I am but what I'm about to write features a similar story. Whether its promotion, play-offs or just missing out on one of the two, its hard to see Leicester not featuring at the top end of the Championship this season. They have one of the strongest squads in the league and, if they manage to survive Nottingham Forest's cheque book which is waving at Wes Morgan, will have managed to keep all their key players together. Knockaert, already one of the league's finest prospects, will be keen to bury the blues of last season's penalty miss whilst Chris Wood, loaned out to Millwall at the start of last season, is set for big year. The likes of David Nugent and Andy King mature into something finer every year and with the Championship's finest young goalkeeper behind them all, Leicester again should be challenging for automatic promotion.
If there's any Championship club more frustrating to support right now than Leeds and Blackburn Rovers, its Middlesbrough. Their second half of the season woe continued again last year after an unbelievable start that had the Teeside club dreaming of Premiership football. Taking just twelve points from January until the end of the season was never going to end in glory and a 16th placed finish seemed almost generous given their dire form after the turn of the new year. They lost striker Scott McDonald to Millwall but do have youngster Curtis Main coming through the ranks who could potentially be a big player, as well as fellow youth products Richard Smallwood and Adam Reach who featured a lot more towards the end of last season. Dean Whitehead has joined from Stoke as well as Jozsef Varga on loan from Debrecen, adding some steel to what is already a fairly solid midfield. Mowbray knows his time is short-lived; most are surprised he's still in a job. For me, it'll be another disappointing season for a club the size of Middlesbrough and I think a change in manager is needed for them to hit the highs of a few years ago.
The Millwall team of recent years has been characterised by unnerving determination and an incredible team spirit, all held together by the outstanding Kenny Jackett. Jackett's decision to leave the South London club for Wolves during the summer came as little surprise as things became slightly stale towards the end of last season. In his place comes Steve Lomas, a young manager with fresh ideas who is especially keen to impress given his unfortunate connections with West Ham. Similarly to Ipswich Town, optimism is rife around Bermondsey after an excellent pre-season that saw Millwall trounce League One Gillingham and edge past La Liga side Rayo Vallecano. The appointment of Neil Harris to the coaching staff is a clever one that has been greeted with much support and the manager's activity in the transfer window can also be praised. With star man Liam Trotter set to miss the start of the season through injury, experienced central midfield pair Richard Chaplow and Nicky Bailey have been brought in, both on frees, with Steven Bywater and Lee Martin also signing. Perhaps Lomas' best signing though is the loan deal involving Steve Morison. The striker was deemed surplus to requirements by Leeds manager Brian McDermott but should settle back in perfectly at his old club. He's had a good pre-season, will link up well with Andy Keogh and is a proven goal-scorer at this level. Expect Millwall to improve on last season's league finish.
Unlike Leeds United, Forest have managed to find themselves some Middle Eastern buyers that actually have some money - I'm not bitter, I promise. Last seasons squad, with the likes of Simon Cox, Chris Cohen, Lewis McGugan, Billy Sharp and Radi Majewski to name a few, was a strong one but was led poorly by Alex McLeish after the extremely harsh sacking of Sean O'Driscoll. However, under the stewardship of old favourite Billy Davies, Forest flourished and only narrowly missed out on a play-off position on the last day of the season after a 3-2 defeat to rivals Leicester City. Expect them to go one better this season. Owner Fawaz El Hasawi, has promised, has dug into his pockets, allowing Forest to rejuvenate their pack into serious promotion contenders. Despite losing McGugan to Watford, they have secured the signings of Jamie Mackie, Djamel Abdoun, Eric Lichaj and Jack Hobbs and if rumours are to be believed, aren't far away from the signing of Celtic's Kelvin Wilson. They'll probably miss out on Wes Morgan, but given the strength of their squad, I don't think they'll mind. Davies' managerial ability also has to be credited for pulling out of signing Olympiakos winger Rafik Djebbour; the winger's drink, drug, attitude and ultimately lifestyle problem, could have been a major distraction to a successful campaign. As usual, they'll be up there.
Queens Park Rangers
QPR are a club that simply have to return to the top flight this season if they are to avoid the risks set up by their big-spending but failed Premiership season. Thankfully, they were able to off-load Chris Samba back to Anzhi for £12,000,000 but still have the likes of Loic Remy, Bobby Zamora and Junior Hoilett to name a few, on Premiership wages. The money invested in the squad and its depth is matched by no-one else in the division and so you would expect QPR to be amongst the division's high flyers. Harry Redknapp is a manager that knows his way around this division and has spent the masses of money chucked at him fairly wisely, bringing in Danny Simpson from Newcastle, as well as Championship proven Karl Henry and the experienced Richard Dunne at centre half. With the quality Redknapp has at his disposal, anything less than the play-offs would be a huge disappointment but this pressure and expectation could lead for a troubled season for the London club. They have the ability, but ensuring the players are up for every game could prove a challenge. If Remy can't do it on a cold Tuesday night at Stoke, will he able to do it on a cold Tuesday night at Bournemouth?
Reading were fairly outclassed in the Premier League last season but are a good club built on solid foundations behind the scenes and a return to the top flight should be well within their reach this season. The majority of the current squad has both played at the highest level and played a part in Reading's Championship winning success two seasons ago and in Nigel Adkins they have one of the best managers in the country, with experience at both this level and higher. Rumours linking them with Gary Hooper over the summer never materialised but Adkins did secure a major coup in Royston Drenthe, who has played in the Premiership with Everton and has the pace and the ability to torment the Championship defences. Both Reading and Adkins historically play good football and despite things not quite coming together last year, the Royals should be far too good for the Championship. Its hard to see a team going to the Madejski and winning comfortably and with the likes of Drenthe, Le Fondre, Robson Kanu, Kebe, Roberts and McAnuff in attacking areas, Reading will be extremely dangerous.
Sheffield Wednesday have a fight on their hands over the next few years to establish themselves as a Championship club, after surviving last year. Last year's 18th placed finish was as solid as they were ever going to get, with a fairly weak squad that lacked a true goalscorer. This summer they have turned to Austrian striker Atdhe Nuhiu, but similarly to the failed signing of Pecnik last season, this is a gamble that you feel may not work. Jaques Maghoma has signed from Burton Albion to give the Owls some flair out wide but there are still too many positions that lack in quality for them to push higher up the table. Their defence is solid and at Hillsborough you can see them being effective but away from home weaknesses can easily be exposed particularly in the centre of midfield which is weak. They are too over reliant on the pace and trickery of Jermaine Johnson and Michail Antonio and could really struggle with a few injuries. I'm not sure there's enough depth in the squad to improve on last year's position and although they should be fine, they could be dragged into the relegation battle if they hit a bad run of form.
After Troy Deeney's remarkable last gasp winner against Leicester City in the play-off semi final, the final was something of an anti-climax for Zola's Watford who were defeated 1-0 by Crystal Palace at Wembley. The great Udinese loan experiment failed at its first time of trying and it will be extremely interesting how they fare this season. Again, the Italian connections have come in handy for the Hornets, who have signed a number of players from both Udinese and sister club Granada. A number of these; Daniel Pudil, Cristian Battochio, Marco Cassetti, Ikechi Anya, Almen Abdi and Joel Ekstrand were on loan last season and played a major part in Watford's success. Also joining from the Italian clubs owned by the Pozzo family are midfielder Iriney, as well as Diego Fabbrini, Gabriele Angella, Javier Acuna and Davide Faraoni. From slightly closer to home, came the big signing of Nottingham Forest's Lewis McGugan whilst Reece Brown also signed from Manchester United. Lee Hodson, John Eustace and Craig Forsyth have been moved on, with Hodson moving to MK Dons and the latter two both joining Derby County. Its another experiment from Zola and although they should definitely make the top half, I think it will fail again. Although permanent deals are in place for the players signed from Udinese and Granada, the masses of Italian flair won't work in a division where sometimes all you need is Danny Shittu or Michael Brown. The failure to re-sign Vydra is a huge blow; expect Watford to flirt with the play-offs but finish just short.
The third and final side relegated from the Premier League last season, Wigan are another side you would expect to do rather well this season. Their season by season survival act over the last few years means that the squad is packed full of players with experience at the top flight and with Owen Coyle in charge, they have a manager who knows this division inside and out. Coyle's appointment signalled the end of the lengthy Martinez era, an era which has brought great success to the Latics and with this in mind, I'd expect a transition period as the players get used to their new manager's way of doing things. Martinez's departure opened the exit door for key figures Antolin Alcaraz and Arouna Kone who followed the Spaniard to Merseyside, but Wigan have been quick to replace them. The signing of Grant Holt is one of the most eye-catching signings of the summer at this level. Previously with Norwich City, Holt offers something similar to the departing Kone, with un-nerving strength, determination and an eye for goal. He'll be supported by fellow new signings Nouha Dicko and Marc-Antoine Fortune. Defensively, Coyle has recruited Newcastle's James Perch and the unknown Honduran Juan Carlos Garcia as well as raiding one of his former clubs Burnley for club captain Chris McCann. Scott Carson is another excellent acquisition in goal at this level, but perhaps most pleasing for Coyle is the way that Wigan have held onto their key, most talented players. The likes of Shaun Maloney, James McCarthy and young Callum McManaman were shining lights throughout Wigan's relegation season and should flourish at this level. A squad with this depth and ability should definitely be looking to bounce back up to the top flight at the first time of asking.
It took Yeovil 108 years from their birth to make their first appearance in the football league after earning promotion from the Conference as champions in 2003. For a club extremely limited resources, Yeovil have done fantastically well to reach the second tier of English football in only ten years, with last season's play-off success over Brentford confirming that the Somerset club would be playing at the highest level of football in the club's history this season. Last year's success was engineered by manager Gary Johnson, now in his second spell in charge of the Glovers. At the turn of the year Yeovil were in the relegation zone. Johnson replaced Skiverton at the helm and just five months later on the 19th May, a 2-1 win over Brentford at Wembley secured a remarkable promotion. If Johnson was the engineer, striker Paddy Madden was the driving force scoring 23 goals and Yeovil will be delighted to have retained his services for this season amidst masses of transfer speculation. Championship football may be a step too high for Madden's partner James Hayter, but goals from these two are necessary if Yeovil are to have any chance of survival. The extremely talented Ed Upson is also set to stay at Huish Park and despite losing a few fringe players such as Dom Blizzard, Johnson has kept the majority of his promotion winning squad together. Recruitment is tough for a club the size of Yeovil, but Johnson has added a few fresh faces. Michael Ngoo, Sam Hoskins and Kieffer Moore, the latter from non-league Dorchester Town, have signed to increase the competition up front whilst at the other end of the pitch, Alan Tate, on loan from Swansea, will be expected to partner fellow new signing Dan Seabourne. Both have experience at this level and should act as good replacements for the outgoing Dan Burn, who played a pivotal role in Yeovil's successes last season. For a relatively small club, Yeovil have big ambitions but I think this season is one step too soon for both a club and a manager that are new to the challenge of Championship football.