Friday, 5 August 2011

Championship Preview

Like an excited child on Christmas morning, Saturday will see football fans around the country wake up with a feeling that has been missing since May.  Anticipation of the new Football League season has been building for several weeks and after a hectic transfer period there will be a number of clubs who fancy their chances of promotion.

The signing of Kevin Nolan signals
West Ham's intent of returning to the
The Championship in particular is shaping up to be a more competitive league than ever before.  With the return of a number of big clubs to the second tier of English Football, expectations will be high for the likes of Birmingham, Blackpool and West Ham to make an instant return to the Premiership.  Although both The Blues and The Seasiders have been forced to sell key players, they have two charismatic managers in the form of Chris Hughton and Ian Holloway respectively, both of whom are well known for getting the best out of their players.  West Ham, meanwhile, have been able to keep hold of the core of their squad - most notably Scott Parker - while making a number of excellent signings by adding the experience of both Kevin Nolan and Matty Taylor to what is already shaping up to be a very strong group of players.  With 'Big Sam' at the helm, there is every reason for Hammers fans to be hopeful of bouncing straight back to the big time.  

Following Norwich's back to back promotions the likes of Brighton and Southampton will be hoping that history can repeat itself. The Saints were relegated from the Championship in 2009 amidst financial problems but their return to the second tier sees them much more secure off the pitch, and arguably in much better shape with regards to their playing squad as well. Following their promotion from League One, Nigel Adkins will be hoping he can return Southampton to where both the owners and fans believe the club belongs - in the Premiership.  Brighton, meanwhile, have every reason to be optimistic of a successful season.  Saturday will see the first league game at their new 22,000 seater stadium, and Seagulls fans will be hoping that new signing Craig Mackail-Smith can spearhead a push for the playoffs.  Brighton's gain is Peterborough's loss however, and the sale of Mackail-Smith along with the rumoured departure of George Boyd could see The Posh struggle to avoid relegation as they did in 2010.  

Eriksson will be happy with his
summer business
You'd have to go very far to find a club with higher expectations for the season than those of the owners and supporters at the Walkers Stadium.  Leicester have spent no less than £9.5million this summer and with manager Sven Goran Eriksson claiming there could be more signings to come, it is no surprise to hear that The Foxes are going all out for promotion.  Combined with the managerial experience of Eriksson, the versatility and strength in depth of Leicester's squad creates the perfect recipe for success, and few will be surprised if the Foxes are filling one of the automatic promotion places come April. 

Of course it would be foolish to write off the likes of Nottingham Forest and their new manager Steve McLaren, while Cardiff will be hoping  that Malky Mackay can get the best out his new side as he did at Watford.  However, with the Championship becoming increasingly competitive, both Forest and The Bluebirds may find it more difficult to secure a playoff spot than in previous seasons.  Cardiff in particular could suffer from the departure of their entire front line, although the signings of Kenny Miller and Robert Earnshaw will go some way to fill the gaps left by Jay Bothroyd, Craig Bellamy and Michael Chopra. Last seasons playoff finalists Reading will be hoping to go one better this campaign, but after losing Matt Mills to promotion rivals Leicester, The Royals need to keep hold of key players Shane Long and Jimmy Kebe to have a realistic chance of repeating last seasons success.  

After suffering a difficult time last season, Middlesbrough may fancy their chances going into this campaign as underdogs.  Tony Mowbray is an experienced head to have at the helm, and having turned around Boro's fortunes after taking over as manager last October, he will be hoping that his side will be challenging at the right end of the table come April. Another side hoping to achieve more than last season will be Ipswich Town.  Paul Jewell has been working tirelessly throughout the transfer window to ensure his squad is fit to challenge for the playoffs.  The additions of Michael Chopra and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas will make The Tractor Boys more potent up front, and coupled with a solid back four, Ipswich have a realistic chance of pushing for the playoffs this campaign. Similarly to Ipswich, Hull will be hoping that they too can force their way into the top six following a disappointing campaign last season.  Nigel Pearson now has the pace up front to supply goals in the form of Matty Fryatt and Aaron McLean while the arrival of Paul McKenna will add steel to the midfield of a side who pride themselves on conceding very few goals.  Furthermore, despite undergoing a rather subdued summer, it would be naive to discard the likes of Leeds and Burnley who are once again likely to be in the mix of teams challenging at the top come the  end of the season.  

Testing time ahead - Dougie Freedman
Of course, there will be a number of sides aiming to stay in the division this season and will have set realistic targets in the knowledge that they are not yet ready to challenge the big spenders of The Championship.  Crystal Palace have narrowly avoided relegation in the past two seasons and Dougie Freedman will be hoping this season can act as a time to consolidate The Eagles position in the Championship.  Palace legend Freedman has made some shrewd signings to strengthen his squad, and will be hoping to create the right blend of youth and experience which is capable of competing at the top of The Championship in future seasons.  Fellow Londoners Watford will be hoping for much of the same. Following the departures of manager Malky Mackay and top goal scorer Danny Graham, The Hornets could be in for a tough season. However, Sean Dyche will be relishing his first crack at management and has acted quickly to bring in Chris Iwelumo while maintaining the core of his squad in the form of captain John Eustace and goalkeeper Scott Loach. The case will be much the same for the likes of Milwall and Portsmouth, both of whom don't appear to have the financial strength to compete at the top of The Championship and will be looking to build a squad adequate enough to challenge in the 2012/13 season.  

Barnsley and Doncaster are two sides often tipped for relegation at the start of the season, but it would come as no surprise if they were to prove their doubters wrong once more.  Tykes manager Keith Hill has got his new side playing some beautiful football in Pre-Season and will be hoping that his players can carry that form into Saturday's game against Nottingham Forest.  Donny meanwhile will be relishing their title of underdogs. Sean O'Driscoll has the advantage of a settled squad and has strengthened his side over the summer without making any spectacular signings.  Rovers have often earned praise for their style of football, and O'Driscoll will be hoping that James Coppinger and Billy Sharp stay fit to give his side the best opportunity of breaking into the top half of the table.  Coventry meanwhile may find this season a struggle.  With financial problems looming over the Ricoh Arena, the loss of last seasons top scorer Marlon King has done The Sky Blues no favours going into this campaign.  With a new manager at the helm, a good start will be essential for Coventry if they are to steer clear of relegation.  

If asked, I'm sure Keith Millen would tell you that the most exciting prospect about tomorrow's opening game with Ipswich is that he has been able to keep hold of Nicky Maynard.  After a lacklustre campaign last season it is essential for The Robins to keep Maynard beyond the transfer period if they are to stay out of trouble. Derby County meanwhile, look set for another season of ups and downs despite manager Nigel Clough claiming this is the season for his side to take their football to the next level.  Clough is yet to live up to his famous name at Pride Park, and the arrivals of Jamie Ward, Nathan Tyson and Kevin Kilbane are unlikely to cause The Rams Championship rivals any sleepless nights. 

Football supporters up and down the country will go to sleep tonight dreaming of the season ahead and what might be come the end of April.  However, one thought to leave you with, although the sound of the new football season sounds appealing now, we may wish it was the summer break again when sitting in sub zero temperatures at three o'clock in December. Then again, it beats an afternoon shop with the wife. Bring it on!  

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