Championship preview: The runners, riders and relegation candidates ahead of a new season in the second tier
“I don’t know how they do the fixtures these days – I’ve heard they are done by computer, but I think there’s somebody just sitting there with a pen and paper for the opening-day ones.”
Nigel Clough, sitting in Burton Albion’s newly painted media room at the Pirelli Stadium on Wednesday, might have said these words with a smile on his face and his tongue in his cheek but he could hardly be blamed – not when the Championship newcomers’ first fixture at this level takes him back to the City Ground to face his father Brian’s old club, Nottingham Forest, on Saturday.
“It’s always emotional going back there, even when you pull into the car park,” admitted Clough and Burton supporters, seeing their side step out at the City Ground just seven years after first reaching the Football League, will doubtless feel the same. Burton, a club whose transfer record stood at £20,000 prior to this summer, versus the former European Cup winners is just one of the stand-out fixtures of a Championship opening weekend which begins this evening when Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle United visit Fulham.
While Burton’s goal is “survival anyhow and anyway” – as Clough puts it – Newcastle are the understandable bookies’ favourites to win the division, having retained Benitez’s services after last May’s relegation.
At the latest count there have been some 35,000 season tickets sold for the new campaign at St James’s Park – a reflection of the feelgood factor sparked by the presence of Benitez, manager of Real Madrid 12 months ago, on Tyneside and some canny-looking recruitment with signings such as winger Matt Ritchie from Bournemouth, midfielder Mohamed Diame from Hull City, central defender Ciaran Clark from Aston Villa and striker Dwight Gayle from Crystal Palace.
Those transfers should more than offset the sales of Georginio Wijnaldum and Andros Townsend and anticipated departure of Moussa Sissoko as Newcastle look to bounce straight back, just as they did when last in the Championship in 2009/10.
As for Aston Villa, the Championship’s other newly acquired fallen giant, they too have a Champions League-winning manager in Robert Di Matteo and the arrival this week of the £12m Ross McCormack from Fulham should boost their beleaguered fans’ optimism – the Scot has scored 116 Championship goals, including 21 last season at Fulham.
Tommy Elphick’s signing from Bournemouth and immediate installation as club captain should provide some of the leadership so sorely lacking last term, though there remain question marks about the direction of the club under their new Chinese owner, Dr Tony Xia. Unlike the departed and unlamented Randy Lerner, Xia is keen to communicate with Villa’s fans, via Twitter, though what Villa need more than anything is a few victories to generate much-needed positive momentum in their first campaign outside the top flight since 1987/88.
They face a tough opening fixture on Sunday at Sheffield Wednesday, last season’s beaten play-off finalists, who look poised for another promotion push after strengthening their spine with the signings of striker Steven Fletcher, attacking midfielder Almen Abdi and defender Daniel Pudil – the latter two from Watford. Abdi, in particular, should bring the creative spark Wednesday missed in the play-off final defeat by Hull.
Three to watch in the Championship
by Andy Hincliffe, Sky Sports commentator and former Sheff Wed full-back
Matt Ritchie (Newcastle)
“Newcastle are strong in every department and for me their best signing could be Ritchie. He’s a winger who can come infield and score goals – he hit 15 goals when Bournemouth got promoted. Has an appreciation of what the full-back behind him wants and having him there with two good attacking full-backs behind him in Daryl Janmaat and Paul Dummett means he is going to cause problems for the opposition.”
Almen Abdi (Sheffield Wednesday)
“Wednesday have a good squad and have added just the right players, especially Abdi. He’s an attacking midfielder who can get on the ball and score goals himself. Played big part in getting Watford promoted in 2015, with nine goals and clever link-up with Troy Deeney.”
Ross McCormack (Aston Villa)
“I am not sure Villa are guaranteed to finish in the top six but the signing of Ross McCormack has changed their prospects – he is guaranteed to score you goals.”
Derby County, by contrast with the above trio, have yet to spend a penny but they have acquired a manager in Nigel Pearson who, with his experience of leading Leicester City out of this division, should get the best out of a talented squad which underwent a £20m makeover 12 months ago. Derby’s players have spoken of a more physically demanding approach, which should do no harm to a team who fell away badly in each of the last two campaigns but could well do better this term – especially if they can stave off Premier League interest in midfielders Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes.
Norwich City’s hopes of an immediate return to the Premier League were not helped by their failure to sign McCormack but Alex O’Neill has led them out of this division once before and has lost only one of his leading lights in Nathan Redmond, while adding Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Alex Pritchard and the Spain Under-19 winger Sergi Canos from Liverpool – both players who know the Championship from successful loans with Brentford.
While Chris Hughton should ensure Brighton & Hove Albion will be pushing for the play-offs once more – especially if they can keep hold of Newcastle target Anthony Knockaert – other challengers may emerge in the months to come, depending on the impact their managers can make.
This number includes Gary Rowett’s Birmingham City, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s Queens Park Rangers and a Leeds United side now managed by Garry Monk, the seventh manager appointed by owner Massimo Cellino in the last two years.
In Monk’s case, he has lost Lewis Cook, the Football League Young Player of the Year, to Bournemouth but has recruited Kemar Roofe, free-scoring at Oxford United. It will be intriguing to see how the 37-year-old, touted as a future England manager while at Swansea City, fares. “There is no such thing as a honeymoon period for managers any more,” he has noted – and nowhere more so than at Elland Road.
The middle men
Other managerial new faces whose fortunes will be worth following are ex-Manchester United defender Jaap Stam, installed as Reading’s new manager after working in the coaching ranks at Ajax, and one-time Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga who replaced Kenny Jackett at Wolverhampton Wanderers following the club’s takeover by the China-based Fosun Group.
Elsewhere, a more familiar face, Mick McCarthy, will once again look to wring every last drop out of his Ipswich Town squad, Bristol City will ask Lee Johnson to oversee on-field progress to match their near-complete £45m stadium redevelopment, and Cardiff City will hope their Iceland midfielder Aron Gunnarsson can repeat his Euro 2016 heroics. Wigan Athletic’s own unlikely Euro hero, Will Grigg, meanwhile, will try transferring his prolific League One scoring form to the Championship stage.
According to Nigel Clough, who knows the Championship well from his time as Derby manager, “it is one of the first seasons where you can’t identify potential strugglers”. That said, aside from his own Burton side, survival will be the goal for Preston North End, Huddersfield Town and a Barnsley team who have at least acquired a goalscorer in Tom Bradshaw.
It could be a difficult campaign for Nottingham Forest and their new French manager Philippe Montanier – the City Ground’s 20% capacity reduction a sad reflection of the former European champions’ fall from grace. Owen Coyle at Blackburn Rovers needs Shane Duffy and Ben Marshall to sign new deals to lift the mood at Ewood Park while Fulham may struggle without the goals of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele. It took Neil Warnock’s nous to save Rotherham United last spring so it will be interesting to see how Alan Stubbs fares in his first managerial job in England, having led Hibernian to the Scottish Cup in May.