As Sky Sports News carry out their 92Live event today in celebration of the Football League’s 125th anniversary I am nearing the end of my previews for each league. What started on Monday with the Skrill Conference leagues now sees the limelight being focused on the Championship. One of the most competitive leagues in the world, the Championship is probably the hardest league to predict. Anyone can beat anyone, it may seem cliché but its true. For example last season was supposed to see sides like Blackburn, Leicester and Bolton being the front runners for promotion and though Leicester got to the play-offs all three ended the season with a sense of underachieving.
So who are the teams to watch this year? Who are the men to beat in the quest for Premier League football? For me one of the teams who should and probably will be up there for most of the season are Queens Park Rangers. With Harry Redknapp at the helm anything can happen, but what should happen is promotion. On paper they have the best team in the league that money can buy (literally!) with international players in near enough every position. The fact that they still currently have the likes of Julio César, Loic Rémy and Park Ji-Sung in their ranks shows the high quality and high level of strength in depth at the club. Realistically though Rémy and César probably won’t be at the club by the time the transfer window closes, but despite that they boast quality, experience and a manager who not too long ago everyone touted to be the next England manager. With a man like Tony Fernandes in charge upstairs, they have a man who is as determined as ever to make it work at QPR this season and will do anything to see them back in the big time sooner rather than later.
Today they signed Charlie Austin, a man who has been chased by both Championship rivals and newly promoted Premier League sides. He joins a front-line of experienced Premier League players with Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora. In my opinion, if QPR don’t go up this season Harry Redknapp should give it all up and retire. Simple as that.
Another one of the relegated sides who have the ability and potential to bounce straight back up is Wigan Athletic. Having won the FA Cup and ended an 8 year stay in the top flight the close season has been a manic one with ex-manager Roberto Martinez replacing David Moyes at Everton. Martinez was replaced at the DW by former Burnley and Bolton manager Owen Coyle. Now I am a big fan of Owen Coyle, I think he did a great job at Bolton. However, I was more of a fan of “The Big Jo” Johan Elmander but Coyle got the best out of the big Swede and was a couple of bad Chris Foy refereeing errors away from staying in the Premier League. Like QPR, Wigan have kept most of their Premier League squad together, yes they have lost their top scorer Arouna Koné but they have kept they majority of their influential players last year whilst adding to it as well. By signing players like Grant Holt and James Perch – two players with bundles of experience – they have players who know what it takes to get to the Premier League and will be itching to get back up there. Will it be this season? If it all clicks together it just might well be.
I can’t talk about two of the relegated teams without talking about my home-town club, Reading. Again like their fellow relegated sides the Royals have kept their squad together and have added areas of quality. However, a poor pre-season has dampened spirits around Berkshire but the majority of the players in the squad were part of the Championship winning team two seasons ago. Without sounding too harsh the Reading squad last season was a great Championship squad, but it wasn’t a Premier League squad. By breaking the bank to sign a guy like Pavel Pogrebnyak doesn’t impress anyone in the footballing world. He is still there at Reading and unless one of the Russian clubs have a rush of blood to the head and make a traditional silly Russian signing, he will probably be there for a while. Will he have an impact on Reading’s season? Reading fans will hope so because bar the big Russian, Adam Le Fondre and an ageing Jason Roberts the only striker Reading have is fairly inexperienced Nick Blackman. Despite adding quality in other areas like ex-Real Madrid man Royston Drenthe and England international Wayne Bridge, Reading need some investment of the cash owner Anton Zingarevich claims to have and fast.
The 2013-14 Championship sees little Yeovil Town take their place one division below the big time. With manager Gary Johnson they have a man who nearly achieved promotion to the top flight with Bristol City a few years ago and a man who knows football. It may seem like a silly comment but Gary Johnson in interview shows that he has knowledge of football from top to the bottom and he cares about each club he manages. He doesn’t just think of his career but everything and everyone that his club meets. He has taken Yeovil from potential relegation to League Two to League One play-off winners in 18 months and that on its own is an amazing achievement. But how will they fair in the Championship? It will be tough, realistic expectations will be about avoiding relegation and then kicking on next year. But having said that Yeovil aren’t there to just make up the numbers, they will give it a good go and may just be able to cause a few surprises along the way. With front man Paddy Madden being the focal point of the Glovers’ play they have a man with loads of potential and the ability to showcase this season.
Lets turn our attentions to sides who were in the Championship last year and will be looking for a better season this year. Three in particular, the first being beaten play-off finalists Watford. With Gianfranco Zola’s men coming so close last season they will be looking to go one better this time around. With so much interest on the copious amounts of loan signings from Italy last season it is going to be interesting who Watford get in on loan and how many they will get in. However, the squad still has the quality of Troy Deeney, Fernando Forestieri and Lewis McGugan Watford have all the tools to cause some problems to a lot of the teams in the league. For the second year in a row they are going in with Manuel Almunia between the sticks, a quality keeper who as we saw in the play-offs against Leicester can turn games on their heads and most importantly win games. Zola as a manager is an exciting prospect in football, he didn’t succeed at West Ham as much as he would have liked to but has the experience and know how to potentially lift Watford back to the top flight once again.
As mentioned Watford were beaten in the play-off final, but the attention switches to the side they beat in the semis, Leicester City. Like some of their league counterparts, Leicester have a good team on paper, a pretty impressive team on paper. They have Kasper Schmeichel, the son of one of the greatest goalkeepers the world has ever seen as well as players like Paul Konchesky, Paul Gallagher and David Nugent who have Premier League experienced. They also have Manchester United academy graduates Danny Drinkwater, Ritchie De Laet, and Matty James. Add these players to the mixture with experienced Championship players Wes Morgan, Chris Wood and Lloyd Dyer and many more, Leicester have a squad good enough to challenge once again. I think they will fall short of automatic promotion this season but it wouldn’t surprise me if they find a way to make the play-offs once again.
Lastly, the farcical circus of a club (so it has seemed in recent years) Blackburn Rovers. They are a side who need to perform better this season, not just for the fans but to take the crashing train and put it back on the tracks. It’s quite sad to think that Blackburn have gone from Premier League champions to this in the time my 18 year old brother has been alive. After the wrongful right decision of sacking Steve Kean – right decision, wrong timing – Henning Berg was forked out before he had even started as was Michael Appleton, collectively the two of them only managed 124 days, not even half a year in charge. This all stemming in my opinion from the wrongful sacking of Sam Allardyce back in 2010. It was reported at the time that the reason they sacked Big Sam was because of Blackburn’s 7-1 defeat to Manchester United, it just so happened to be the game the Indian owners chose to watch with their businessman friends to show off their property. That overreaction signalled the spiral of peril that Blackburn are on. Can they get off it this season? If they can get stability early on this season with new manager Gary Bowyer in charge, they have a good enough squad to at least push for the play-offs.
Championship – Promotion Prediction
1st : QPR
2nd : Watford
Play-offs : Wigan Athletic
Tomorrow sees the football season preview come to end for What the Butler saw when the Premier League gets a good going over.