The Twohundredpercent Pre-Season Predictions: The Championship
With the division in general overviewed by Ian yesterday, it’s time for the final of the three official twohundredpercent Football League pre-season previews. For those that haven’t seen the other previews, we’ve gone about them slightly differently this season. With the transfer window affecting some managers psychologically to the point that they build their team by the end of the transfer window, rather than the start of the season, predicting how it all ends up before teams have finalised their squads is tricky. It also means that I can’t correctly crow about correctly predicting that Doncaster and Preston finished 21st and 22nd last season. NOTE: Each group of teams is in alphabetical order, rather than the order I think they will finish in. NOTE 2: This prediction was thrown together before I knew the result of the Hull City v Blackpool match.
Having sacked Brian Laws, Burnley managed to persuade Eddie Howe to leave Bournemouth, and try to work his miracles in East Lancashire. Chris Iwelumo, Tyrone Mears and Chris Eagles have been sold, yet the first team looks a little stronger, with Keith Treacy (seemingly courted by the entire Championship), and two of Manchester City’s more highly rated youngsters (Kieran Trippier and Ben Mee) arriving on season long loans. Charlie Austin only played four times after arriving from Swindon in January, before injury hit, so he will feel like a new signing.
Sven-Goran Eriksson’s arrival at Leicester City last season saw a number of high profile loans arrive, only for the team to fall away just as it looked like they were going to enter the race for the playoffs. Leicester have thrown their money around this time, and the players they have signed look very sensible – Kasper Schmeicel, Neil Danns, Sean St. Ledger, David Nugent, Matthew Mills all have a lot of Championship experience, while Lee Peltier has looked ready to step up for a while, although how many will be ready for the Premier League, should Leicester get promoted, is a different question. Two players who are, are Paul Konchesky and John Pantsil, who also join the club on a permanent basis. Michael Johnson arrives on loan, as does Swiss International Gelson Fernandes, and the only question mark about the Foxes, is how long will it take them to learn to play as a team?
Reading timed their run from mid-table to the playoffs like the best Derby winners, with many people forgetting that it was Brian McDermott’s second season at the club. Like last season, I expect McDermott to do most of his tweaking during the season, with Mikele Leigertwood (who was on loan last season) and Tottenham loanee Bongani Khumalo the only senior signings of the summer. Khumalo is the likely successor to Leicester-bound Matt Mills, and if he isn’t, I would expect either Sean Morrison or one of the many defensive graduates from the huge Reading Academy to step up.
When West Ham United’s owners talked about the club’s debt levels in the Premier League, it seemed like relegation could be financial Armageddon. However, the owners appear to have taken the Mike Ashley Newcastle approach, by keeping every player that they can, with most of the departees (Danny Gabbidon, Jonathan Spector, Matthew Upson, Kieron Dyer, Thomas Hitzlsperger, Luis Boa Morte) either reaching the end of their contracts, or reaching a mutual consent. The three key players in the side (Robert Green, Scott Parker and Carlton Cole) have all stayed, and manager Sam Allardyce has even had the freedom to make four signings in the shape of experienced Premier League players Abdoulaye Faye, Kevin Nolan, Joey O’Brien and Matthew Taylor, with the latter three all being familiar to Allardyce, thanks to their time together at Bolton. It’s been eleven years since Allardyce was in this Division, but he had an excellent record, and while his style of play may not be to the liking of the Upton Park faithful, that may be all they have to moan about.
Blackpool’s approach for the Premier League was entirely based on not committing themselves to high wages in the top flight, and making sure players agreed to take wage cuts to Championship levels in the event of relegation. This also saw some players not sign contracts past the end of the season, and elevn players left on free transfers, while the influential midfield pairing of Charlie Adam and David Vaughan were sold to Liverpool and Sunderland respectively. Add DJ Campbell’s departure to Queens Park Rangers, and Ian Holloway has a rebuilding job on his hands. This isn’t the problem it would be with most managers, as Holloway has made a career out of doing great deals. Barry Ferguson, Matt Hill, Miguel Llera and Kevin Phillips look to be the pick of the eleven signings Holloway has made so far.
Gus Poyet’s Brighton & Hove Albion side were the surprise package of League One last season, and with the club finally getting to play at a football ground, it’s a great time to be a Seagulls fan. As if that wasn’t enough, Poyet makes some interesting signings – Craig Mackail-Smith’s pace will cause a lot of problems for a lot of defenders, Will Hoskins should be the partnert for him, too, while Will Buckley should be a fine replacement for Elliott Bennett, as Poyet notes how well Mackail-Smith linked with George Boyd at Peterborough. To Like Chesterfield last season, the new ground will give the club a major lift, and Poyet is increasingly looking like one of the League’s best new managers. Should be a good season at Falmer.
Hull City’s biggest problem is the impact that Jimmy Bullard’s salary has on the overall wage bill, which restricts the ability to bring many more players in, but manager Nigel Pearson also chose to spend money in the January transfer window (spending over £3million on five players), rather than during the summer, and the lack of activity this time around suggests this may be the case, if needed. This is the main reason as to why Brazilian keeper Adriano Basso, and Nottingham Forest midfielder are the only two permanent signings. Peter Gulacsi and Robbie Brady also arrive from Liverpool and Manchester United’s youth schemes respectively. Nigel Pearson has kept last season’s team together however, and McKenna is the sort of defensive midfielder that Hull have needed, and with the January recruits, Hull should be challengers.
Paul Jewell has been busier at Ipswich Town, bringing in seven players. The biggest changes are up front, where Michael, Nathan Ellington and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas try to fill the gap left by Connor Wickham, and at the back where Ivar Ingimarsson and Aaron Cresswell are the replacements for the departing Gareth McAuley, Tom Eastman and Troy Brown. The most high profile arrival of the summer is Lee Bowyer, who appears to be the replacement for former loanee Jimmy Bullard.
Most of the action at Leeds United over the summer has been replacing departing players. Andy Lonergan and Paul Rachubka replace Kasper Schmeicel and Shane Higgs, Darren O’Dea replaces Richard Naylor in defence (although O’Dea has the added versatility of being able to play at left back), and Neil Kilkenny and Bradley Johnson are replaced by Michael Brown. As a result, the squad is slightly weaker in midfield, but still capable of making a challenge similar to last season – although anything else seems a reach at this stage.
Thirty miles or so further north, and Steve McClaren is looking to take Nottingham Forest further than predecessor Billy Davies, and while the club haven’t made many signings, they have made good signings in Jonathan Greening, Andy Reid and George Boateng, and find themselves having a surfeit of midfielders. They have lost Robert Earnshaw, Dele Adebola and Kelvin Wilson, and while they have still have more than enough options up front, they will need to bring in some defensive cover, especially if injuries or suspensions start to bie,
Cardiff City’s model appears to have changed from one of short term, high profile loans, with a small squad allowing them to pay higher wages, to a larger lower profile squad. Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd both leave (along with returning loanee Craig Bellamy), and new manager Malky Mackay has recruited Rob Earnshaw, Kenny Miller and Joe Mason to replace them. Don Cowie follows the manager from Watford, and Aron Gunnarsson and Craig Conway add to the midfield competition, with left back Andrew Taylor the main defensive acquisition. With such an overhaul of the squad, a playoff battle may be too much of a reach, as the squad will need time to settle and develop, and hopefully a change of approach will bring patience with it.
Dougie Freedman’s first summer as Crystal Palace manager sees him bring in half of his signings on a temporary basis, with Andrew Davies, Ryan McGivern and Peter Ramage arriving from Premier League clubs and Aleksandr Tunchev arrives from Leicester. All have Championship experience, and should help push them up the table, but some the permanent signings are more experimental. Norwegian left back Jonathan Parr and Australian midfielder Mile Jedinak are fortunate that the squad is big enough to cover them, should they need time to adjust, while more conventionally, Glenn Murray joins having scored 22 league goals for rivals Brighton, and former loanee Kagisho Dikgachoi makes his move permanent.
Doncaster Rovers continue to punch above their weight, and their best work in the transfer market over the summer was extending the contract of James Coppinger, and rejecting offers for Billy Sharp. Giles Barnes arrives from West Bromwich Albion, to increase the supply to Sharp, and Sean O’Driscoll also improves the Donny defence by adding Tommy Spurr, Richard Naylor and foreign import Rachid Bouhenna. The Rovers problems in recent seasons have been the squad depth, and a drop in form when injuries and suspensions have hit, but that is less likely to be an issue, as they have 27 registered professionals at the time of writing. Such a subtlety could be the difference between the late tailing off of recent seasons, and a possible top half finish.
Middlesbrough started last season with an expensive side assembled by Gordon Strachan, featuring a lot of SPL players that looked out of their depth. Strachan paid for Boro’s poor start with his job, and he was replaced with Teesside legend Tony Mowbray. Since Mowbray’s arrival, there have been rumours of the club’s finances, and these rumours haven’t been helped by the club’s transfer policy in the meantime, with just two permanent additions to the squad over the summer. Curtis Main arrives from Darlington, and Malaury Martin joins from Blackpool having spent last season on the North-West coast without playing a game. Mowbray turned the club round last season, and guided the club to mid-table, but they’re going to need more investment if they’re going progress further.
Millwall were the lowest of the three promoted sides last season, despite finishing ninth. Kenny Jackett has also spent the last few years building himself a reputation as the country’s most underrated manager. The main departure from the Den this summer was Steve Morison to Norwich, but Darius Henderson should fill that gap fairly seamlessly, while fullback Jordan Stewart and midfielder Thierry Racon are the other two main signings. As a result, the squad looks a little stronger, but unfortunately for Millwall, so does the division.
Southampton have spent most of the last two seasons winning, and have had a squad that looks good enough for most of that time. The squad was already a decent size, so Nigel Adkins has only added a couple of players – Belgian winger Steve de Ridder and utility player Jack Cork. It will be interesting to see if Rickie Lambert can step up to the Championship at the age of 29, but if he struggles, Lee Barnard, Jon Forte and David Connolly all have experience at this level, and Guly looked to be adapting to English football more and more each week. Retaining Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was also significant, considering the reported attention from Arsenal.
STRUGGLING BUT SAFE
The resignation of Barnsley manager Mark Robins at the end of last season came amid suggestions that the Tykes were unambitious. However, the subsequent appointment of Keith Hill is one that suggests that Barnsley are looking for the ambitious approach that saw Hill create the best Rochdale side in a generation. Hill’s approach will take a few seasons to bare fruit, and he is clearly rebuilding the squad from the back, as four of his signings are defenders. Hill takes a safe approach by signing three players who played for him at Spotland (Matt Done, Scott Wiseman and David Perkins – the latter coming via Colchester). Jim McNulty is a player who has looked ready to step up to the Championship for a few years, and Rob Edwards and loanee Miles Addison have plenty of Championship experience. The well-travelled Craig Davies is the only questionable signing, but last season saw him score 25 goals in League Two, so there is some method in the madness.
Steve Cotterill proved his worth as manager of Portsmouth last season, by keeping out of the relegation battle, when most people predicted that they would go down in what was a victory in the face of no resources. This season, the squad has grown to fifteen players with league experience, and money has been spent on the side, however, with Luke Varney and Jason Pearce costing a combined £1million. David Norris, Greg Halford and reserve keeper Stephen Henderson make up the signings, as Portsmouth look to replace the handful of high earners that left last season – David Nugent, Michael Brown, Danny Webber and Richard Hughes being the main departees. It’s still going to be difficult, especially with a squad that small, and it’s rare for a club to have good fortune in terms of injuries two seasons on the trot.
With Malky Mackay departing for Cardiff, Sean Dyche becomes the latest man to start his managerial career at Watford. Another club with few resources, the Hornets have seen main goal threat Danny Graham and his supplier Will Buckley leave the club for a reported £4.5million, with only midfielders Craig Forsyth (Dundee) and Mark Yeates (Sheffield United) arriving for fees. Prince Buaben (a third midfieler) comes from Dundee United. Only the bottom four had worse defences than Watford last season, and centre-half David Mirfin arrives from Scunthorpe alongside Stoke left-back Carl Dickinson, in an attempt to reduce the goals against. Danny Graham’s 24 goals from last season will be sorely missed, and consider ing the only forward signing is Chris Iwelumo, either he or young Marvin Sordell will need to increase their goal tally from last season, when both sneaked into double figures.
Keith Millen’s first pre-season as manager has been fairly quiet, with very few comings and goings at Bristol City. Neil Kilkenny and Yannick Bolasie add to the Robins midfield, while Ryan Taylor replaces John Akinde as the forward with potential. Apart from that, Millen keeps faith with the team that finished lower mid-table after a delicate start. There’s not really enough in the squad at the moment to suggest that they’re going to keep away from the relegation battle two seasons on the trot, but if last season’s anything to go by, Millen seems the type of manager that builds during the season, rather than between them. If he does, the Robins are the most likely to escape this group.
Rumours have abounded regarding Coventry City’s financial state, and their summer transfers do nothing to alleviate this, and even Andy Thorn’s appointment as manager seemed to be the cheap option. Four first teamer leave (Kieran Westwood, Marlon King, Aron Gunnarsson and Isaac Osbourne), Lee Carsley retires, and just two players arrive – Joe Murphy and Chris Dunn – both goalkeepers, and neither with the reputation or ability of Westwood. As such, a side that finishes just thirteen points clear of relegation that seriously weakens its lineup over the summer needs to either strengthen the squad during the season, or start looking at directions to League One grounds.
Nigel Clough’s not had the greatest tenure at Derby County, and will aim to get into the top half. Frank Fielding spent two loan spells at Pride Park last season, so Jason Shackell (who seems overpriced at £750k) is the only new arrival in a Rams defence that desperately needs shoring up further. Three forwards join the club (Jamie Ward, Nathan Tyson and Chris Maguire), but none have hit double figures above League Two or in the last two seasons. Theo Robinson also signs permanently having been on loan last season, and his goal record is little better, so it’s difficult to see where the goals will come from. The best signings look to be in midfield with Kevin Kilbane and Craig Bryson both looking to take over the space left vacant by Robbie Savage.
Two seasons ago, Darren Ferguson was sacked as manager of Peterborough United, after getting them into the Championship, so this time around he will be looking to keep the club up, but the signs aren’t great. The Posh’s tactical plan seemed to revolve around having little to no defence, knowing that between then Aaron Maclean, Craig Mackail-Smith, and to a lesser extent George Boyd, would score the goals. However, Maclean left for Hull in January, and Mackail-Smith has joined Brighton, and neither has really been replaced, and what signings have been made are unconvincing. The only forward that arrives is Nicky Ajose, from Manchester United, but Ajose’s only experience is in League Two, where admittedly, he did score thirteen goals. Ryan Tunnicliffe and Scott Wootton also arrive from Old Trafford – on loan, presumably in case Darren gets sacked again – but Wootton’s seven games for Tranmere are the only experience either of the two has. Craig Alcock is another defensive signing, but he’s the only experienced signing likely to play, as the other two permanent signings are goalkeepers Paul Jones (who was on loan last season) and Joe Day, and they’re both likely to be understudies to Joe Lewis.
As with most sides relegated from the Premier League, Birmingham City have had a wage bill purge, with thirteen players leaving St. Andrews, including Seb Larsson, Kevin Phillips, Barry Ferguson, Roger Johnson, Lee Bowyer and Craig Gardner, while Ben Foster spends the season on loan to West Bromwich Albion. New manager Chris Hughton has the reputation of steadying a team while everything else around him is uncertain, and with Carson Yeung’s liberty in doubt, and the much heralded £6.2m investment from the Inkatha group is less than the £7.5m that the club’s most recent accounsts claimed the club needed ‘in order for the company to continue to operate with its agreed bank facilities’ (ie, remain solvent), off the field, things are in a worse position at St. Andrews than they were when he was manager at Newcastle, and Mike Ashley went for the “keep as many players as possible and try and get straight back up” approach, and that clearly is not the case at Birmingham. The newcomers are all on free transfers, but Marlon King, Steven Caldwell and Chris Burke are settled Championship players, and loanee Boaz Myhill is a safe pair of hands, while Jonathan Spector should flourish in this division. Birmingham’s accounts only referred to the money that needed to be raised by the end of October if the club stayed up, so anything could happen after that.
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