Awash with clubs that have experienced the Premier League and been spat back out, the Sky Bet Championship is a Chairman’s wishing well. After a grueling season, there will be three teams that will be lauded for getting to the Premier League and the cash windfall that accompanies such an achievement. As disproportionate as this is, it is arguably what keeps the top two tiers of English football so enticing.
Last May, Leicester, Burnley and QPR sealed promotion to the top flight, with fans and pundits reveling in their achievement and rightly so. Fast-forward to this season and only Leicester have managed to get a point on the board. Admittedly it is still early days and it would be foolhardy to brandish the trio as relegated in August.
Nevertheless my opinion is that QPR will survive by the skin of their teeth, leaving Burnley, Leicester and Crystal Palace with parachute payments and trips to Charlton instead of Chelsea. The Shepherds Bush club has an owner in Tony Fernandes that is not only a supporter of the club, but also a financier of new signings. They also have the pulling power of ”London” when agreeing personal terms with players. Without being disrespectful to Leicester and Burnley, neither offers the lifestyle that London and many other UK Cities can. In the case of foreign players especially, the choice of restaurants, social scene and overall location will often over ride the plan of Sean Dyche.
Too good for the Championship but never good enough for the Premiership was the verdict on West Bromwich Albion for years, as they alternated between the two leagues. They yearned for what Charlton Athletic had under Alan Curbishley-mid table stability. That was until the owners hankering for the exclusive top ten club culminated in his dismissal and Charlton’s relegation. Had they achieved this pipe dream, it is almost certain that they would face the same difficulties that the prodigious Southampton team did in the summer.
After sacking Nigel Adkins in 2012, Mauricio Pochettino transformed the South Coast club from relegation fodder to challengers for the top six, with impressive football to boot. Off the back of such a feat, starlets such as Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert departed for Liverpool, Luke Shaw joined Manchester United and Arsenal snared Callum Chambers. Not bad business for a club that were docked points in 2009 due to its parent company entering administration. Relegation followed from the Championship to League One.
Making a case for the current batch of Championship sides was never going to be easy. On any given weekend, the team odds on to win will succumb to the rigors of their fixture laden jaunt to the finish line. The fence I am sitting on is getting crowded though and I will lay my cards to the mast. The teams that I think will finish in the top six are Norwich, Watford, Nottingham Forest, Cardiff, Brighton and Derby.
At first glance, the Kuwaiti owners of Nottingham Forest are what most fans want from the owners of their football club. They have given the club the financial clout to compete against the club’s that have been relegated and are seemingly embracing football. Perhaps it is the latter part of this that is concerning reds fans though, after Stuart Pearce appeared to be miffed at the sale of Karl Darlow and Jamal Lascelles to Newcastle. Both players made an instant return to Nottingham Forest on loan and Pearce then retracted his disapproval as if to appease the new owners decisions. Since then, the focus has been on football and what swashbuckling entertainment is has been. Britt Assombalonga has been an instant hit and Michael Mancienne has shown the qualities that earned him a move to Hamburger in the first place. The reds will scrutinize the qualities at their disposal and will be able to add more new faces in the January transfer window if injuries occur. If there is a concern it is that if Assombalonga suffers an injury, goals come at a premium and finding a replacement may be tougher than imagined, in a crowded market.
Across the City, Derby looked to be suffering a Play Off hangover until they thrashed Fulham 5-1. Steve McClaren’s youthful side plays a passing brand of football that will see them win more games than they lose. Having said this, they will need to replace the goals of Patrick Bamford and the presence of the injured George Thorne will be felt in the centre of midfield. New addition, Jordan Ibe, will add direct running to this creative team and hopefully add some more goals for a team that shared the five goals they scored against Fulham. The Ipro Stadium is sold out week in, week out and the Club’s facilities are Premiership quality. The ethos of buying young players has brought fruitful returns and if they could go one step further and win promotion, McClaren will prove that he is more than just a wally in a brolly.
Winning the Old Farm Derby away from home is massive for Norwich. Consecutive defeats on their travels would have dented confidence, in the wake of a poor premiership record. Dispelling the concerns in the manner they did was outstanding. New signing, Lewis Grabban, was a nuisance for the Ipswich defence and took his goal well, albeit he should have scored more. Canaries fans can look forward to potentially the best strike force in the Championship when Cameron Jerome links up with the talisman. A back four that boasts Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner, will become even more miserly with the news that Carlos Cuellar has joined on a free transfer. They have even replaced Leroy Fer, who left for QPR, with Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe from Club Brugge. He is the creative midfielder needed to gather the ball and make something happen. For me, the yellows are looking good value for their recent scores and don’t bet against them winning the title.
Watford are an enigma in the sense that they are brilliant offensively, can beat anybody and lose dreadfully. In Troy Deeney, Matej Vydra and Odion Ighalo, goals are guaranteed from Ikechi Anya and Lloyd Dyer’s direct running. Gabriel Tamas’ experience will be vital in a team that is blessed with individual class as Fernando Foriestieri’s goal outlined. They have played in the Premier League before and the Pozzo family will hope that this can be repeated by promotion. Fending off the transfer speculation that has hounded Troy Deeney, with an improved contract, is testament to the efforts of the board and Watford. By his own admission the hornets is the best place for him to play and follow this by playing regularly for them in the Premier League
Speaking ahead of the Championship campaign, new Brighton Boss Sami Hyypia was methodical, articulate and realistic. He notifies the Championship’s physicality and the need to put your ”foot in”, even though his mantra is ”a possession game with the purpose to score a goal”. He wants his team to advance forward and play an expansive brand of football. As an onlooker it looked as though the Fin was going to struggle to sign players, until the last couple of weeks, that is. The defence has been uncompromising in the main and the addition of Joe Bennett will have strengthened the Left back position, in Wayne Bridge’s departure. The midfield has been upgraded by the arrival of Gary Gardener from Aston Villa, Celtic’s Paddy McCourt and Danny Holla from the Eredvisie. Upfront there are no such problems with Adrian Colunga and Sam Baldock arriving from Getafe and Bristol City, respectively. Finally the addition of Joao Teixeria is a coup that the Seagulls are reaping the rewards of, already. He has notched two goals in three appearances to date and there will surely be more to follow.
The state of the art Amex Stadium is packed to the rafters for every home game and the club is ready for the Premier League. Craig Mackail-Smith will be hoping that his injury problems don’t return and that he will get another chance at Premier League football, having rejected West Ham to join the South Coast club.
Off the field issues have dictated the headlines for Cardiff City in recent weeks. Never one to shy away from confrontation, Vincent Tan will hope that his current manager can achieve what his predecessor did in terms of promotion, at least. Needless to say, he and Cardiff City will be glad to put the unseemly allegations that have been drawn out since last season, behind them. This weekend sees the Welsh side travel to Fulham in a game that they will look to use to rectify the disappointment of losing to Wolves. Solskjaer is fond of rotating his team selection to meet the demands of an unforgiving league. Some fans have critiqued this and are still undecided on the pedigree of the ex Manchester United Legend, to manage. One thing that cannot be questioned is his passion, liveability and experience in Norway and with Manchester United. The four strikers he can choose from is based on the Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham partnerships that he was part of. Cardiff’s might not beat that quartet but Kenwyne Jones, Federico Macheda, Adam Le Fondre and Javi Guerra is as good as you will see in this league. If the Bluebirds can get wins on the road, and aster the attacking game plan that Ole Gunnar wants to see, then automatic promotion could be achieved.
By David James – @davidj1927