The 200% Pre-Season Previews: The Championship
With less than 48 hours to go, Rob Freeman interrupts the Premier League Previews to bring the first of three previews of the football league. In a break from tradition, the previews are mainly predictionless, considering that most clubs won’t finalise their squads until the transfer window closes at the end of August. That and previous predictions have not been the most accurate…
One of the biggest themes in the Championship as we head towards the start of the season is the implications of the Financial Fair Play introduced in the Football League’s highest division, however, because it was only voted for in the spring, clubs will have two years grace before sanctions kick in. Unlike the UEFA version, however, the Football League’s FFP system doesn’t seem to be high on transparency. For a start, the FFP regulations haven’t been made public as of the time of writing, with just an overview as part of the original press release made public. As well as this, the sheer number of undisclosed transfers in the division (just one out of 42 cash signings have had their fees announced) suggests that the Championship chairmen appear to have voted in FFP as a way of reducing, rather than increasing transparency within the sport.
Barnsley have been many people’s favourites for relegation, but when he was at Rochdale, manager Keith Hill was known for patiently building a team. In that respect the signing of Mido seems an unlikely one for Hill, and how he settles into the club may have a major impact on the Tykes’ season. However, Hill’s other signings are experienced hands in the second flight. Kelcin Etuhu, Martin Crainie and Marlon Harewood have a wealth of experience at this level, and Tomas Cwyka has settled into the English game in his time at Derby County, and will be looking to establish himself regularly. Lee Collins also arrives from Port Vale with a lot of potential, while Ben Alnwick is a goalkeeper whose potential is yet to surface, (despite debuting for Sunderland at the age of 18, eight years ago) and will compete with fellow new signing David Gonzalez and existing glovesman Luke Steele for the role of first choice keeper. The biggest departures are Andy Gray and Jacob Butterfield, but the squad looks stronger than last season, but so does the division in general.
While there remains simmering off the field questions regarding part-owner Carson Yeung’s future, Birmingham City have had upheaval in the bootroom, with manager Chris Hughton leaving for Norwich, and Lee Clark arriving after being controversially sacked by Huddersfield in January. A section of Terriers fans were critical that Clark’s side tended to draw too many games, and a repeat here will see the Blues hovering in the playoffs, rather than in the automatic promotion places. Clark hasn’t changed the squad too much, with just one major sale (Jordon Mutch to Cardiff) and Darren Ambrose the only cash signing. Hayden Mullins and Peter Løvenkrands arrive on free transfers, and it will be interesting to see if West Ham loanee Ravel Morrison gets much game time, having failed to make his Hammers debut since arriving from Manchester United in January.
Having been relegated with the questions about their finances, Blackburn Rovers are one of the bigger spenders, with Leon Best, Dickson Etuhu, Danny Murphy and four Portuguese players (including Nuno Gomes) arriving. However, Best is out for six months, and Colin Kazim-Richards returns from Turkey on loan to cover. There has also been a small exodus led by Yakubu, Junior Hoilett and Michel Salgado. Blackburn clearly have one of the strongest squads in the division, and this will be a true test of Steve Kean’s managerial ability.
Play-off losers Blackpool try and go one better this season by keeping most of last season’s squad together. Long-serving midfielder Keith Southern ends a decade at Bloomfield Road and heads for Huddersfield. Isaiah Osbourne and Scott Robinson arrive from north of the border, while Tiago Gomes is the fifth Portugese player to join the division over the summer. The Tangerines have had a lot of upheaval over the last two seasons, so continuity should only benefit the club, but Ian Holloway has utilised the loan system well over the years, so the shape of the squad now, is unlikely to be the one at the end of the transfer window.
Bolton Wanderers finally relinquished their Premier League place after eleven years in the top flight. The drop in income has seen a lot of the higher paid players leaving, with Ivan Klasnic, Nigel Reo-Coker heading the released list, with Jussi Jaaskelainen and Ricardo Gardner also leaving the club after having two of the longest one-club associations of any foreigners in the game, both having joined in the 20th Century, and having made almost 1000 first team appearances between them. Owen Coyle has still been able to make signings, with Andy Lonergan set to challenge Adam Bogdan for the keeper’s jersey, and Matt Mills and Keith Andrews both arriving for the promotion push.
The main spending at Brighton & Hove Albion has been on increasing the capacity of the Falmer Stadium, after selling out most games last season. Alan Navarro is the only departee to have made more than a dozen appearances, and he drops down a division to join Swindon. Four experienced players arrive, with left back loanee Wayne Bridge the biggest name. Andrew Crofts arrives from Norwich, while Tomas Kuszczak looks to capitalise on his good form on loan at Watford last season, as he looks to establish himself as a first choice keeper for the first time since he left West Bromwich Albion. Right-back Bruno is an intriguing signing, having spent the last three seasons as a squad player at Valencia.
Bristol City have yet to recover from Steve Coppell’s shock resignation as manager five days into the 2010-2011 season. Initially replaced by managerial rookie Keith Millen and then former St. Johnstone boss Derek McInnes, Coppell’s replacements have yet to match his achievements on one of the weaker set of resources in the division. McInnes has a clearout, led by David James, but theexodus mainly consists of squad players. Greg Cunningham (who has has two good loan spells at Leicester and Nottingham Forest) is the only cash signing, with winger Paul Anderson, and keeper Tom Heaton both having good experience at this level. Jody Morris returns to the Championship, after four years at St. Johnstone, and whether he’ll be able to offer as much as he did in his days at Millwall, Rotherham and Leeds.
Eddie Howe continues to build his Burnley side in a similar way to how he fashioned his Bournemouth team. A mixture of signings from lower down the divisions (George Porter from Leyton Orient, and Mansfield’s Luke O’Neill) and players with Championship experience (the older Jason Shackell and Brian Stock, loanee Joseph Mills, and his former Cherries charge Sam Vokes) arrive at Turf Moor, with Jay Rodriguez the main departee, as he left for Southampton. Joining him in exiting the club were Andre Amougou, Brian Easton and Zavon Hines (all released), and as such the Clarets look stronger than last season, and dark horses for the playoffs.
It’s impossible to talk about Cardiff City without mentioning their kit colour change and the implications. With the club banning protests outside the ground, and alleged threats of violence from sections of fans towards those looking to protest inside the ground, the atmosphere in the Welsh Capital will be strained. But, other than buying the existing debt (and the interest rate that goes with it), what has Vincent Tan’s investment brought the Bluebirds? Filip Kiss makes his loan move permanent, and former loanee Craig Bellamy returns permanently. Jordon Mutch and Joe Lewis arrive with a lot of potential, while Heidar Helguson provides the experience. As well as the strained atmosphere, much will depend on how Kim Bo-Kyung and Etien Velikonja settle in. A lot of players leave the club, as Malky Mackay makes sweeping changes. Kenny Miller and Anthony Gerrard bring almost a million into the club in transfer fees, with the released list headed by Bristol City bound Tom Heaton.
Charlton Athletic return to the Championship after two seasons in League One, and after Chris Powell overhauled the squad last summer, this season has been one of continuity. Just three arrivals – Jordan Cook from Sunderland, Salim Kerkar from Rangers and Lawrie Wilson from Stevenage – none of whom have any real experience in the Championship. Gary Doherty and Jason Euell are the main departees, but both were on the fringes of the squad last season, and spent time away from the Valley on loan. The squad are one of the most inexperienced at this level in this division, and the biggest aims will be survival, consolidation, and utilising the loan system well.
Crystal Palace are one of the few clubs this season who look weaker on paper than they did in May, and another season in the lower reaches looks likely. Darren Ambrose, Nat Clyne, Antonio Pedroza and Sean Scannell have all been sold, with just three permanent signings arriving. Defender Joel Ward was courted by many clubs, Peter Ramage looks another useful signing at this level, but Aaron Wilbraham has rarely impressed outside the bottom two divisons, and at the age of 32 it may be a bit late for him,
Derby County had their best season since being promoted to the Premier League in 2007, but still finished mid-table. Richard Keogh replaces Burnley bound Jason Shackell, and James O’Connor adds to the defensive options, as he arrives from Doncaster. Michael Jacobs and Paul Coutts add to Nigel Clough’s midfield options, but the feeling is that the Rams still lack a striker, with all their forward options being providers, rather than finishers. If they can pick one up before the transfer window closes, they could be looking at a play-off tussle, rather than another season in mid-table.
After almost a decade since they last competed at this level, Huddersfield Town return, after a record breaking penalty shootout against Sheffield United in the playoffs. Simon Grayson starts his first full season, and like his predecessor Lee Clark, he gets to splash the cash, with the experienced former Blackpool midfielder Keith Southern, ex-Cardiff defender Anthony Gerrad and the promising Crystal Palace winger Sean Scannell looking the pick of Grayson’s signings. Left back Joel Lynch has great experience at this level for his age, with Dundee United’s Paul Dixon being the biggest question mark. The arrival of Adam Clayton and Oliver Norwood also shows that Grayson has an eye on the future. A handful of players left on free transfers over the summer, but the fact that most of them stayed in League One, or dropped further down the league (with the exception of Gary Naysmith, who has returned to Aberdeen), suggests that Grayson made the right decision. The biggest criticism of the Terriers over the last couple of seasons has been drawing games they should have won – if they can get that out of their system, they could challenge for promotion.
One game the Terriers will be looking forward to are those against Hull City, and their new manager Steve Bruce. Bruce’s signings are intriguing to say the least, with Nick Proschwitz (one of the few disclosed fees in the division at €3.3m), Eldin Jakupovic and Sone Aluko all untried at this level. Alex Bruce and Abdoulaye Faye are used to the Championship, and both offer the Tigers some versatility, but with three newcomers to the English game, Hull’s early months are more likely to be ones of transition,
With Coventry’s relegation last season, Ipswich Town become the Championship’s longest tenants. The Blues have a younger look about the squad this season, with defender Luke Chambers the oldest signing at 26. Watford goalkeeper Scott Loach, and teenage right back Elliott Hewitt are the permanent signings, while Damien Delaney, Grant Leadbitter, Lee Bowyer, Ibrahima Sonko and Jimmy Bullard all exit the club, while Mark Kennedy hangs up his boots and joins the coaching staff. With one of the smaller squads at the time of writing, the season looks to be one of transition and consolidation, rather than promotion or relegation.
Neil Warnock has had the busiest summer of any of the Championsip managers, with no fewer than eleven players arriving at Leeds United, and nine squad players leaving. Warnock swooped vulture-like over the carcass of Portsmouth’s relegation squad, signing four of their players (keeper Jamie Ashdown, defender Jason Pearce, midfielder David Norris and forward Luke Varney), Warnock reunites himself with keeper Paddy Kenny, while the rest of the signings (bar Jamaican midfielder Rodolph Austin) are proven, experienced Championship hands – Norwich left-back Adam Drury, Leicester right-back Lee Peltier, Derby midfielder Paul green and forwards El-Hadji Diouf (from Doncaster) and Andy Gray (from Barnsley). The biggest departures are Robert Snodgrass (£3m sale to Norwich), Adam Clayton (reuniting with ex-boss Simon Grayson at Huddersfield) and keeper Andy Lonergan, who leaves for Bolton. The squad numbers handed out to the newcomers suggest most of them are considered first choice players, and how well Leeds do this season will depend on how fast the team gels.
Leicester City are many people’s favourites to win the division, based on their financial clout, but their new signings are neither big names, nor experienced players. Jamie Vardy is the headline signing, arriving for an undisclosed fee reputed to be over £1m – an enourmous amount for a player who has never played above Conference level. Ritchie De Laet and Matty James arrive from Manchester United, Marko Futacs is signed from Portsmouth, and Norwich’s Zak Whitbread adds to the defensive options. Matt Mills and Lee Peltier head the list of departures. And with eight players also released, including high earners Darius Vassell and John Paintsil, Leicester suggest that while they were the only side to remain in the Championship who voted against Financial Fair Play, they do intend to stick to the rules.
Two defenders returned to Middlesbrough over the summer in the form of Jonathan Woodgate and Stuart Parnaby, and if the former can stay fit, he will be a real asset to Boro’s promotion push. Local lad Grant Leadbitter arrives from Ipswich to shore up the midfield, while George Friend and Mustapha Carayol provide new options down the left hand side. Eight players depart, but Boro haven’t lost any first teamers, so should improve on last season’s seventh place.
Millwall have had one of the lowest-profile summers in the division, with three players arriving from League One – defender Karleigh Osborne from Brentford, and midfielders Chris Taylor from Oldham, and Scott Malone from Bournemouth, with Tony Craig (Brentford) and Hameur Bouazza (Omonia Nicosia) leading the departures. However, Kenny Jackett has always slowly developed his sides, and while they may not look to have the players to survive a relegation battle in theory, as a team, they’re likely to be just above the drop zone again.
The arrival of the Al-Hawasi family in July made Nottingham Forest the latest Football League club to attract megarich foreign buyers. However, the Kuwaitis have made the right impression with the fans, in replacing the unpopular Steve Cotterrill with the canny Sean O’Driscoll. O’Driscoll was already familiar with the squad, having coached Forest last season, before being appointed Crawley manager at the end of May. O’Driscoll has made half a dozen signings since his arrival, and they all impress. He is most familiar with Simon Gillett, having signed him for Doncaster, while Danny Collins, Greg Halford and Dan Harding will replace the departed Luke Chambers, Chris Gunter and Joel Lynch in defence. Simon Cox has been courted by many Championship sides over the last season or two, and Adiene Guedioura makes his loan move from Wolves permanent. Garath McCleary, Paul Anderson and George Boateng join the three departing defenders, but Forest look stronger overall, and capable of challenging for promotion.
Darren Ferguson has brought in a handful of players mainly from the lower divisions as he looks to take Peterborough United to greater heights. Tyrone Barnett is the headline signing, having originally joined on loan from Crawley last season, and Macclesfield’s Shaun Brisley also makes his temporary move permanent. Highly rated keeper Robert Olejnik arrives from Torquay. Midfielders Danny Swanson and Michael Bostwick join from Dundee United and Stevenage respectively, while Wrexham defender Nathaniel Knight-Percival and young Wolves striker Nathaniel Mendez-Laing complete the arrivals. Keeper Joe Lewis is the only major departure, but Olejnik looks capable of filling his gloves.
Sheffield Wednesday return to the second flight as runners up, and Dave Jones buys two players (forward Chris Maguire from Derby, and midfielder Michail Antonio from Reading), and a surfeit of free transfers including Chris Kirkland, defenders Joe Mattock, Anthony Gardner and Kieran Lee, and midfielders Rhys McCabe (from Rangers), Nejc Pecnik (Nacional) and Diogo Amado (Leiria). Numerous squad players have left on frees, including Jon Otsemobor, Clinton Morrison, Chris Sedgwick, Ryan Lowe and Rob Jones. With an overhaul like that, and a step up in division, it is likely that Wednesday will need to aim for consolidation, rather than anything more ambitious.
Watford have had almost as big an off-field upheaval as Cardiff. In three months they’ve gone from being one of the model clubs in terms of developing youth players and one of the Championship clubs to go for a category one academy under the new Elite Player Performance Plan, to essentially becoming a feeder club for Udinese, with their academy funding being slashed, and the club dropping to category three. Sean Dyche has also left as manager to be replaced by Gianfranco Zola. On the playing side, just two players arrive on permanent deals (both on free transfers), defender Fitz Hall, and ex-Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia. Watford also have four players on loan from Udinese – cast offs Alexandre Geijo and Almen Abdi, as well as youngsters Steve Leo Beleck and Matej Vydra. Two further loanees come from Udinese’s other feeder club Granada, journeymen wingers Daniel Pudil and Ikechi Anya. The feeling is that Watford’s on field performance is not a priority, with developing Udinese’s youth, and being the resting place for high earners who would otherwise not be playing. If that’s true, it will be the first of a number of long seasons for the Vicarage Road faithful.
Wolverhampton Wanderers ended their Premier League tenure in an almost embarrassing fashion, as long-serving, and well-respected coach Terry Connor struggled to adapt to management, and Mick McCarthy’s policy of building a large squad of similar quality backfired as the club couldn’t find the spark they needed to try and escape relegation. The club’s board have taken the brave step of appointing Stale Solbakken as manager, and his biggest signing is Björn Bergmann Sigurdarson, for a fee reputed to be over £2m from Lillestrom. West Ham’s Frank Nouble is the only other permanent first team signing, with Tongo Doumbia and Slawomir Peszko arriving on season long loans as Solbakken recognises that the squad that Mick McCarthy built was not good enough for the top flight, but should be there or thereabouts in the Championship, even with the departures of Michael Kightly, Sam Vokes and Adiene Guedioura.
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