Although it could never have matched the absolute, utter madness of the end of its previous season, last year the Football League still demonstrated a value in competition that the Premier League still seems unable to match, as well as a clutch of both good and bad news stories along the way. This, however, is the nature of this competition. From clubs of the stature and history of, say, Leeds United, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield Wednesday at one end of its spectrum through to the more modest means of the likes of Accrington Stanley or Dagenham & Redbridge at the other, spread across these three divisions of twenty-four clubs is the junction at which so much of the variety and depth that marks English football’s most valuable asset. All life is here.
The achievements of AFC Bournemouth last season will surely have given encouragement to some in the Championship who might otherwise have felt that promotion to the Premier League could be within their grasp in the near future. This feeling may be further accentuated by the fact that the second tier of English football is littered with the carcasses of former Premier League clubs who found to their cost that tumbling from the gilded trough is considerably easier than getting back into it can turn out to be. Queens Park Rangers, Burnley and Hull City, one might hope, would be wise enough not to take anything for granted this season. Of the twenty-one teams that they will be competing against this season, only the three newly-promoted clubs, Brentford, Huddersfield Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Rotherham United, have never played Premier League football, whilst an astonishing seven – Middlesbrough, Ipswich Town, Wolves, Birmingham City, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, and Fulham – have either won or reached the final of a European club competition at some point in their past. Small wonder it can be so competitive at times.
The three relegated clubs have fallen into the Championship in varying states of disrepair. Queens Park Rangers have the valuable services of Charlie Austin for now, but it is not expected that he will be able to resist the lure of a return to the Premier League for very long, and there are doubts over the credentials of manager Chris Ramsey. Hull City have the manager – Steve Bruce has been promoted into the Premier League three times as a manager – but the ongoing name-change fiasco has led to discord within the support-base and a predictable exodus of players following relegation leaves them difficult to predict. Burnley, meanwhile, will likely feel the loss of Danny Ings and Kieran Tripper, but they made for doughty opponents in the Premier League and will likely be difficult to beat this time around.
They are likely to be joined in the hunt for automatic or promotion places by those who came up short last season. Middlesbrough welcome back Stewart Downing to offset any disappointment at the loss of the talented Patrick Bamford, Derby County have to prove that they have recovered from any lingering psychological scars following their collapse during the second half of last season, and the world will watch with interest to see what happens to Brentford, following much-criticised decision to jettison manager Mark Warburton and replace him with the little heard of Marinus Dijkhuizen. Can statistical analysis win the day? Stay tuned to find out. Two clubs with managers with huge amounts of experience at this level, Ipswich Town and Wolverhampton Wanderers, will also be expected to push for the play-offs by supporters with memories of considerably happier times for their clubs.
The Championship being the Championship, however, we can likely expect to see one or two unexpected faces also pushing for a place at the top table come the end of the season. and as wild cards I’m going to pull out Sheffield Wednesday and Bristol City. Wednesday have been – rightly – criticised for pushing up their ticket prices to Premier League levels, but under new ownership and with a new coach in the form of Carlos Carvalhal, they are overdue a push for a place back in the Premier League. It’s been three and a half decades since Bristol City were last in the top flight, but back-to-back promotions from League One to the Premier League have become something of a motif in recent years and the momentum that propelled City to a ninety-nine point haul in League One last season is unlikely to have tailed off just yet. In all honesty, though, it would not be that much of a shock to see just about anybody in the division thrusting upwards towards the Premier League. In some respects, one of the least surprising things about the Championship is its capacity to surprise.
Two clubs, Wigan Athletic and Sheffield United, are fancied more than any others to duel it out for the League One title next season. The twenty-four year old grandson of Dave Whelan, David Sharpe, hasn’t been making himself or his club many friends with his pre-season pronouncements, and if his words only serve to motivate all those who play his team this season, it’s doubtful that there will be few outside of Wigan that will shed many tears. Sheffield United seem to be acting with a little more nous in the decision to appoint Nigel Adkins – who, of course, took Southampton to two successive promotions from League One to the Premier League, as well as two further promotions from this division with Scunthorpe United – as manager ahead of the new season.
Also likely to feature heavily near the top of the table are Bradford City, whose cup adventures coupled with cheap prices have combined to produce 20,000 season ticket holders at Valley Parade for the coming season. Other clubs that may feature at the upper end of this division include Millwall, who were relegated at the end of last season but have brought some talented new players and have, in the likeable Neil Harris, a local legend of a manager who all Millwall supporters will be willing to succeed, and Barnsley, who were relegated two years ago, under-achieved last season, and have brought in a couple of Manchester United reserve players, Ben Pearson and Joe Rothwell to add a little creativity to Oakwell.
One of the stories of the season, however, may well come at the other end of the table. Blackpool were relegated from the Championship with a state of open civil war having developed between the club’s owners, and the Oystons still in charge at Bloomfield Road after a disastrous season which ended with their last home game of the season being abandoned after forty-eight minutes after a pitch invasion protest. Blackpool’s attendance numbers may not look too bad on paper this season – there are plenty who bought two year season tickets who will be counted as having attended matches, even if they long since threw their pass away and now focus on building an awesome train set instead – but it was leaked a couple of weeks ago that the club had only sold 300 season tickets for the coming season, and when we throw in the likelihood of further protests against their ongoing ownership of the club, it rather feels as if the phrase “winter of discontent” will be inadequate. Perhaps betting companies will start offering prices on whether their matches will actually finish or not. Against this background, the team itself feels like something of an irrelevance, but it’s difficult to imagine that the players won’t be fighting an uphill battle against a second successive relegation.
Finally, in League Two, where player rosters can get dizzyingly busy and the possibility of the cold chill of relegation from the Football League lurks in the background, Portsmouth are the bookmakers’ favourites for promotion and understandably so, considering the appointment of Paul Cook as manager during the summer and the arrival of a number of players who look capable of ending the club’s stasis at this level. One surprise, however, was the departure of captain Paul Robinson to Wimbledon earlier this month. The Dons made small signs of progress as they settle into life as a Football League club and may be capable of making the play-offs themselves. Another club relatively recently promoted into the Football League, Luton Town, should be capable of improving upon last season, especially when we consider the eye-catching signing of Craig Mackail-Smith, whilst relegated Leyton Orient will be desperate to put the agony of last season’s traumatic relegation behind them, though their fortunes will likely be tied to the ongoing soap opera that their owner Luciano Bechetti has become. Elsewhere, Oxford United and Plymouth Argyle also look strong, though it’s reasonable to say that the likelihood of things being tight at the top of the table is fairly high.
At the bottom of the table, Barnet have retained the services of John Akinde, who scored thirty-one times for them last season, and this may prove to be critical in determining their fate come the end of the season. The picture is more mixed at the other promoted club, Bristol Rovers, where losing a court case against the abandonment of plans to build a new stadium may carry ongoing financial ramifications for the club. Coming in the opposite direction, Crawley Town were relegated at the end of last season in the midst of a flurry of savage cost-cutting and may find their decline difficult to arrest, while Newport County have undergone similar financial reappraisal following the retirement of their lottery-winning chairman Les Scadding and subsequent takeover by their supporters trust and may have a difficult season ahead. And it is sadly inevitable to have to mention Accrington Stanley and Dagenham & Redbridge, whose threadbare attendance figures make a salary capped existence in this division feel like a perpetual struggle.
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