The new Championship season is almost upon us and our writers have dusted off their crystal balls to predict how the campaign will transpire.
Who will follow in the footsteps of Burnley and Middlesbrough and earn automatic promotion?
James: If Newcastle don’t finish in the top two, then it’s a huge fail. They’ve set their stall out early by easily outspending their rivals and with Rafa Benitez retained, they’ll certainly be the team to beat. For me, Sheffield Wednesday have bought well and consolidated a squad that got better and better last season so they’d be my pick to be best of the rest.
Matty: I think two of the three relegated teams will finish in the top two. Newcastle look certs for promotion and Norwich could well join them with the nucleus of their Premier League side remaining.
Mark: I have to agree with Matty on this one. Newcastle are operating in a league of their own and fully expect them to win the league just like the vast majority of others. Norwich have a much more settled squad than Aston Villa and I feel they are better prepared for an immediate return.
Rob: Despite failing to keep them in the Premier League last season, Rafa Benitez has generated a sense of momentum at Newcastle and has been able to make some impressive signings – with more arrivals seemingly on their way. To join them in the top two will be Brighton, who were desperately unlucky with injuries and suspensions at the wrong time last term, but have managed to keep hold of their key players.
And which teams will be competing in the play-offs come the end of the season?
Matty: Wolves are an interesting proposition now with the cash they have to spend and if Walter Zenga gets it wrong, they’ll surely bring someone else in and so on until they get promotion. That maybe not this season but I’m prepared to go with them to finish in the top six. Sheff Weds went close last time and they will be in there again, although boss Carlos Carvalhal may be hard to keep if they make another bold bid. Villa will also be in the top six and Brighton shocked everyone last season and I think they may finish in a similar position this time.
Rob: Sheffield Wednesday will bounce back from their final defeat last season and be back in the mix once more, Nigel Pearson will ensure Derby challenge, and Norwich retain a core of players who know how to be successful at this level. Cardiff could perhaps sneak that final place after missing out on the final day of last season.
Mark: I’d even go as far to say that Sheffield Wednesday are more than capable of mounting an automatic promotion challenge, but I can see them falling just short and having to scrap through the play-offs once again. Derby and Brighton will be right there with them and one to sneak in? Whisper this: Huddersfield.
James: It’s near impossible to get this right, but if you want to pick the sides that have the strongest squads right now, then Derby, Wolves, Norwich and Leeds. I’ll get slaughtered for the last one, but I genuinely believe Garry Monk has assembled a strong group and if he can be allowed to get on with the job, then who knows…..
Who is heading for relegation?
Matty: Burton, Burton and Burton. At the risk of making another Leicester-like mistake it’s impossible to make a case for them. Rotherham will also struggle under Alan Stubbs, but the other place looks wide open. I think Barnsley and Wigan will survive, so Preston might be vulnerable.
Rob: Burton Albion’s rise to the second tier has been a brilliant story but they won’t have enough quality to stay there, while Rotherham flirted dangerous close last year and have been left frustrated in the transfer market. Bristol City began last season terribly and may not be able to afford such a slow start once more.
James: I think Blackburn could struggle and might just get sucked in. To join them? Rotherham and Burton – like Yeovil a couple of years back, surely this is level too far for the Brewers!
Mark: Rotherham have finished fourth-bottom two seasons on the trot and I think this is the year they will finally plummet, taking Burton Albion and Nottingham Forest with them. They left it late to secure their Championship status last year and the apathetic feeling around the City Ground does not appear to have been lifted this summer.
Who will be the first manager to be sacked?
Rob: Owen Coyle, Blackburn, and Venky’s seem like a combination destined for failure but I’ll go for Alan Stubbs. Rotherham sacked both Steve Evans and Neil Redfearn last season before being saved by Neil Warnock, while Stubbs has already admitted he has taken a risk in joining the Millers, who have a worryingly thin squad.
James: You always look towards the tempestuous owners – and there’s quite a few knocking around at this level. Expectations will be unrealistically high at Cardiff again, so I’ll say Paul Trollope will be the first to get the tic-tac.
Mark: Same line of thinking for me, too. It will be interesting, perhaps even scary for Wolves fans, as they head into the unknown with their loaded new owners. Walter Zenga’s well-trodden managerial career path shows he does not hang around for very long and, with no experience of English football to call upon, could get found out very quickly in this unforgiving league.
Matty: The first manager to lose three games in a row! It’s an almost impossible task to predict, but I’ll side with Alan Stubbs at Rotherham.
Which team will be the surprise package?
James: The division is wide open and plenty of pundits seem to think Aston Villa will finish in the bottom half. But with a decent manager in charge and an ambitious new owner in charge, I certainly think they could be play-off contenders.
Mark: I briefly mentioned them earlier and my dark horses are Huddersfield Town. Jurgen Klopp’s mate David Wagner will be having his first full season in charge and have recruited well with their ever-ambitious owner Dean Hoyle.
Rob: Barnsley produced a ludicrous run of results to win both the League One play-offs and the Football League Trophy last season and will be a dangerous side if they can carry that momentum into the Championship. Connor Hourihane could star in midfield while Tom Bradshaw is an exciting signing up front.
And which team is going to underachieve?
Matty: I reckon Forest are in for another slog of a season with Philippe Montanier in charge and maverick owner Fawaz Al Hasawi at the helm.
Mark: It seems no matter what Fulham try, they just cannot get themselves challenging at the right end of the table and I don’t think they will be breaking the cycle this year, either.
Rob: Wolves have grabbed plenty of headlines since their takeover thanks to the appointment of Walter Zenga and links to numerous big-money transfers. Eye-catching arrivals have failed to materialise as yet, while Zenga is a huge risk due to his lack of experience in English football.
James: Forest. A club with a great history and a great fanbase. They should do well, but it looks like a long old season ahead.
Who will finish the season as top goalscorer?
Rob: Ross McCormack is guaranteed to score goals at this level, Chris Wood could threaten if he manages to remain fit at Leeds, while Dwight Gayle has the chance to prove he is too good for this league. However, I’m going to go for Glenn Murray, whose goals helped Crystal Palace earn promotion three years ago and could repeat the trick with Brighton.
Mark: I think Gary Hooper is a cracking price at 33/1. He may have competition from Fernando Forestieri and Steven Fletcher and can definitely improve on the 13 goals he scored last term.
James: Dwight Gayle is clear favourite for me. If you want an outside bet, then how about Sheffield Wednesday’s Steven Fletcher at 40/1 or Leeds’ Kemar Roofe at 66/1?!
Matty: I like the look of Brentford striker Scott Hogan. He finished last season with seven goals from four games after recovering from a serious injury and he’s a quality finisher. I think he could take some stopping and he’s a decent priced 25/1. The one big fear is that he gets a big move after tearing it up at Griffin Park.