There are plenty of people in English football who feel that the newly-named Sky Bet Championship is the best league in the world, and anyone who follows it closely will know that they have a point. Sure, there may not be the glittering stars of the Premiership or any of the other major European leagues. There may not be as much money flying around, and not as many fans packed into the smaller stadiums.
It is, however, the most competitive league in the world. With the next installment set to kick off with a 12:15 kickoff between local rivals Burnley and Bolton, every team is in with a chance of glory. From Barnsley to Yeovil, from the FA Cup holders to the newbies from League One, this could be anyone’s year, and the fans can’t wait.
As usual, last year’s Premier League dropouts are the bookies’ favorites to be at the top end of the table come next May. Moneybags QPR have made some solid additions to their squad, such as Charlie Austin, who plundered 25 league goals for Burnley last year. Richard Dunne will add experience to a squad still yet to completely gel, and some of the dead wood has been removed from the squad; Jose Bosingwa and Christopher Samba will be a welcome load off the wage bill. If Harry Redknapp can finally implement his ideas and get his own players in, QPR could be in for an exciting season. If not, a Wolves-esque second successive relegation is not out of the question.
Wigan Athletic won not just the FA Cup but the hearts of the nation with their stunning final victory over Manchester City last season, and although goals were not hard to come by, their defense was poor and they paid the price. Top scorer Arouna Kone and defender Antolin Alcaraz followed manager Roberto Martinez to Everton, so Owen Coyle will have a different squad to work with. Wigan fans have undoubtedly enjoyed their team’s free-lowing attacking football over the last few years, but they will need to shore up the other end if they are to stand a chance of bouncing back.
The other relegated team were Reading, who took the Championship by storm in 2011-12 but were unable to carry their form up to the next level. Manager Nigel Adkins knows what it takes to get out of this division, and Adam Le Fondre is a proven goalscorer in the Championship in addition to bagging 14 strikes last season. However, the Royals conceded the joint-most goals last season (with Wigan) and lost more games than any other team, showing that something was very wrong at the Madejski last year. A return to the big-time is far from guaranteed.
Then there are the promoted teams. Norwich and Southampton have both come up from League One through to the Premier League in the last few years, so teams must be wary of the newcomers. Doncaster have caused a splash by signing One Direction member Louis Tomlinson on a non-contract basis, but it was the whole of Doncaster - not just the teenage girl contingent - that was screaming for the team last year as they romped to the League One title. Goals were shared around the squad, but Billy Paynter was the top scorer with 15, and the club have managed to keep hold of him so far. Many of the squad have experienced this division before, so although a title challenge would be a turn up for the books, a mid-table finish or a push for the playoffs is not beyond them.
Bournemouth missed out on top spot by just one point, but Jersey-born forward Brett Pitman helped them to a league-high 76 goals scored, so they should be able to take advantage of some leaky Championship defenses. They are also a team who can pull together and win games when it really matters; they took 25 of the last 27 points available to them last season, although eight from the first 33 means they are not the best starters. They also managed a league double over the final promoted side, playoff winners Yeovil Town.
The Glovers had a strange season, as out of the four teams in the playoffs at the end they had won the most games (23) but also lost the most (15). Their next season depends on whether they can maintain the form that took them to their 23 wins, or slump back to that which yielded 15 losses. Irishman Paddy Madden scored 23 goals, the highest in the league, but three players outscored him in the Championship against higher-level opposition (although Glenn Murray made the step up to the Premiership). He was supported by James Hayter, but otherwise no players scored more than five goals in the league. Those two need to fire, otherwise there will be nowhere to hide in their bright yellow and green kits.
And finally, last year’s also-rans. Watford have made eight more signings from parent club Udinese - make of that what you will - but will be without last year’s star forward Matej Vydra, who returns to the Italian club. Gianfranco Zola will try to implement his same attacking approach but with a different group of players, so the senior members of the squad need to step up and guide the younger loanees as they did last year. Like them, Brighton missed out in the playoffs last year, although their team was built around an impenetrable defense, conceding only 43 goals. They drew more games than anyone else in the division, but lost only nine - joint fewest with Champions Cardiff.
With a great mix of flair and experience, the Seagulls could be a decent bet for automatic promotion. Leicester were the final team to make the top six, only doing so on goal difference. Despite only finishing sixth, there is obvious quality throughout the squad, and they have been together long enough now that the team not gelling is no longer an excuse. Nigel Pearson is a good enough manager to get the Foxes out of this division, and with David Nugent and Chris Wood leading the line, their target must be the title.
Bolton Wanderers and Nottingham Forest had very similar seasons in 2012-13, and both still have room for improvement. What it may take for that improvement is a goalscorer. Neither team had a player score more than 12 league goals, so if either could add a 20-goal striker in the mold of Vydra or Murray there is no limit as to how their season could go. Charlton surprised many with their 9th placed finish last year, so some expect them to suffer from “second season syndrome.” They have several players capable of getting into at least double figures of goals at this level, and it would have only taken two more wins to have pushed the Addicks up into the playoffs.
Derby, however, surprised very few people with their mid-table finish. They are a very solid team, and they consistently drew high crowds at a high of over 33,000 last season. Too good to go down but perhaps not good enough to go up; another season of consolidation would be satisfactory, but they are capable of more. Completing the top half were Burnley and Birmingham, again two solid teams capable of more on their day, Burnley will be hurt by the loss of top scorer Austin to QPR, so Martin Paterson and Sam Vokes need to make their mark.
The sale of Austin means funds will be available for a replacement, but it is not that easy to replace 25 goals. Junior Stanislas is still an exciting talent, and at the age of 23 he needs to start to fulfill his early promise. Birmingham relied on the controversial (to say the very least) Marlon King for goals last year, but the loss of Nathan Redmond to Norwich will be noticed. Jack Butland has also gone, and although Lee Clark has not spent a penny so far this summer, there is room for improvement, and some funds available to make them.
Leeds United have fallen far in the last decade or so, but they have a squad capable of making the playoffs despite a disappointing 2012-13 season. El-Hadji Diouf and Ross McCormack could form a potent striking partnership, and Paddy Kenny remains a solid goalkeeper. Ipswich enjoyed a revival under Mick McCarthy but will do well to maintain their form from last term. They have made some good signings, but more will be expected of DJ Campbell, who is certainly capable of building on last year’s tally of ten league goals. Blackpool’s season could hinge on the future of Tom Ince, widely regarded as the best player in the division, even better than £10 million man Wilfried Zaha. 18 goals and 14 assists is a stellar year by anyone’s standards, but the rest of the team need to step up and take some responsibility off his young shoulders. His father Paul will need to make his mark on the managerial stage if he is to keep his job.
Middlesbrough were flying high at the midway stage last time out, but a run of only three wins after the new year saw them tumble to 16th. A win against Premiership rivals Sunderland was sweet, and solid performances against Swansea and Chelsea showed what they are capable of, but a goalscorer is needed if they are to have a consistent season. 23 losses was as many as relegated Wolves and more than Peterborough, so Jonathan Woodgate and Rhys Williams need to improve at the back. Scott McDonald has left, so the goal-scoring burden is on Marvin Emnes and Lukas Jutkiewicz; both are capable of scoring, but injuries haven’t been kind to either player. Despite the doom and gloom, Jason Steele, Adam Reach, and Luke Williams showed signs of a bright future on Teesside.
Blackburn had a poor first season after demotion from the Premiership, but Jordan Rhodes’ 29-goal season was a sign of promise for the forthcoming year. Like Boro, their priority should be to get the fans back onside. Attendances dipped to a low of only 5,000 last year, and the Venky’s farcical ownership has lead to five different men taking the managerial reigns in the last 12 months. Sheffield Wednesday fans dream of a forward like Rhodes; not one Wednesday player managed 10 goals last season, even in all competitions. 61 goals conceded was not bad for their final position in the table, so the defense needs to stay strong if the Owls are to survive another year.
Huddersfield were never going to replace Rhodes, but James Vaughan scored enough goals to keep the Terriers up last season. His move has been made permanent, and if Adam Hammill can rediscover his old Barnsley form, he could prove to be an astute signing. Millwall have added Scott McDonald to their squad as well as the proven Steve Morison, so goals should be easier to come by this term. They have enough experience for a higher finish this time around, but they have few players of real high quality. Like them, Barnsley survived by the skin of their teeth on the final day last year - they are often touted as relegation favorites - so they have experience in relegation dogfights that other teams may not. Like Wigan, they have made a habit of leaving it late, but we all know what happened to the Latics last year.
So there were have it. Another 46 games for your team to look forward to - 48 if you’re lucky - and another nine months of excitement, disappointment, cheers, and tears for every single fan across this division. Everyone has their own opinion and everyone has made their own predictions, but these generally turn out to be worthless. You may as well draw team names out of a hat, given the nature of the Championship, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Football, we’ve missed you.