Despite being finished behind closed doors, the Championship lived up to its reputation as one of the most exhilarating leagues in world football, with the last day of the regular season being one of the most fraught, changeable and downright exciting nights of football action in living memory. Ultimately, Fulham (via the play-offs), West Brom and Leeds (finally) were promoted to the promised land of the Premier League. It was a triumvirate that many suggested would do well at the start of the season – perhaps it was predictable, but it certainly wasn’t dull.
The most excitement / trauma (depending on what side you support) was left for the bottom end of the table. On the last gameday, Barnsley escaped a relegation zone they had been in since December in the 93rd minute of their game; Charlton suffered heartbreak; Hull were doomed and Wigan were the victim of a disastrous, shambolic takeover and given a 12 point deduction. If the EFL had got their house in order, perhaps the same fate would have hit Sheffield Wednesday, who have instead been given the punishment this season, resulting in Charlton’s demise and anger.
What’s left in its wake is another group of 24 teams, most of whom could frankly finish anywhere. Many argue its a weaker championship than usual, but when you consider relegated Watford and Bournemouth had both been in the Premier League for the last 5 seasons and that there are 17 former premier league clubs in the division, it promises to be as competitive as ever.
One of the teams who has never quite made it to the top flight is Brentford, last season’s playoff final losers. Thomas Frank’s side played with a swagger and confidence, and would have won automatic promotion if it wasn’t for a nervous two defeats in their last two games. In the final, the likes of Said Benhrama just didn’t perform and experienced Fulham came out on top. However, Brentford aren’t a side that lay down. Despite the expected departures of Benhrama and Ollie Watkins, they remain strong throughout the side, with a fluent passing style and flying full backs who get forward well. They have pro-actively found Watkins’ replacement in Peterborough’s physical goal-getter Ivan Toney and look well- poised for a title challenge this time around.
Norwich and Watford still have squads which look full of quality at this level, at the time of writing. The Canaries have kept many of their young prospects, including the mercurial Emi Buendia and easy on the eye Todd Cantwell. Having stuck with manager Daniel Farke and signed some Championship experience in Ben Gibson, Kieran Dowell and Jordan Hugill. The doubt for Norwich is the way they sunk without trace post-lockdown in the Premier League. After 10 defeats on the trot, can they find their winning mentality quickly, and with it Teemu Pukki’s goalscoring boots?
Watford had a huge squad in the top flight, sometimes to their detriment, with an ever-revolving door of foreign players and loanees from Udinese coming and going it seemed. They really need a season of stability, and if they can be patient and stick with new boss Vladimir Ivic, who has tasted success in Israel, they have the team to do it. With players such as Ben Wilmot, Will Hughes, Etienne Capoue and talisman Troy Deeney still (currently) in the squad, they should finish near the top of the table. It may depend on how nervy on the trigger the Pozzo family are should Ivic get off to a poor start.
The other relegated team, Bournemouth, are suffering with a huge exodus of players. Already we have seen Aaron Ramsdale, Nathan Ake, Ryan Fraser and Callum Wilson depart, with more likely to follow. Coupled with the departure of long-term boss Eddie Howe, it could be a real transitional season for the Cherries. Having a small stadium means they are a club which could also face a challenge adapting to the Championship’s finances. I’m not sure it will be a total fall from grace, as they still have some classy performers, but it is a tough job for Jason Tindall to cut his managerial milk teeth at.
East Midlands rivals Derby and Nottingham Forest both had seasons (or last days in the case of the latter) to forget overall. Both were expected to challenge at the top end but fell short. For the Rams, Phillip Cocu has had a season now to ease himself in and has of course got Wayne Rooney to lean on for his experience and quality; the former England captain made a difference no doubt. However, it is by trusting their young players where they might benefit the most, with the likes of Max Bird, Morgan Whittaker, Jason Knight and the highly sought-after Louis Sibley all showing great promise. As ever with Derby, the question mark will be over their consistency during the course of a whole season.
Down the A52, Nottingham Forest’s players are probably still reliving the nightmare of the last day of the season capitulation against Stoke, which left them outside the playoffs. It shouldn’t take the gloss off what was otherwise a good first season for Sabri Lamouchi. A lot will depend on their ability to shake off that disappointment, and cope with the loss of Matty Cash, a standout player at this level. They have kept most of the squad together, but a slow start may cost them, and Lamouchi his job.
Cardiff’s form in the latter part of last season was amongst the best in the league as they secured a playoff place. Neil Harris has retained the majority of his side, which is packed with Championship experience and added a bit more bite and thrust with the addition of Kieffer Moore. Given consistency is the key at this level, Cardiff could well challenge for the automatic promotion spaces. Just down Wales’ south coast, Steve Cooper is also assembling a squad which should push on this season. The loan acquisitions of Freddie Woodman and Marc Guehi (again) as well as Morgan Gibbs-White are astute, although the loss of Mike van der Hoorn on a free transfer could result in their defence suffering. Expect them to target a play-off place again as the mark of a successful 2020/21 season.
Over the border, and Bristol City fell from strong playoff contenders to also-rans last season, costing the enigmatic Lee Johnson his job. After much deliberation, the Robins went for another rookie boss in Dean Holden, to the surprise and doubt of many of their fans. They have recruited smartly, and a lot could depend on the potential ‘big man/little man’ strike partnership of Chris Martin and Nakhi Wells, with Famara Dieudhiou also an excellent option. Alfie Mawson and Steven Sessegnon are good loan recruits from Fulham, so we can expect the team from Ashton Gate to be in the top half, at least.
In London, Millwall and QPR are two sides who find themselves to be some sort of Championship dwellers. Having said that, Millwall have punched above their weight and had an impressive 2019/20, pushing for the playoffs until the end. The Lions transition to new boss Gary Rowett was seamless, as he used the tools at his disposal as best he could. Defensively, they are solid with Shaun Hutchinson, Alex Pearce and Jake Cooper all good options for Rowett. Perhaps they lack a little in forward areas, although big Matt Smith weighs in with important goals; their success may lay on the young shoulders of loan recruit Troy Parrott – the Spurs youngster is highly-rated and should grab goals for the side from The Den.
QPR seemed to go from the ridiculous to the sublime throughout last season, certainly a team you wouldn’t want to make a bet on. Whilst Mark Warburton’s side, spearheaded by the now departed Ebere Eze, were a great attacking force, they were in equal measure poor defensively. They have tried to address the weakness by signing Rob Dickie from Oxford but have also lost Grant Hall to Middlesbrough. Despite Eze’s departure, they still have flair and pace in the forward areas in Elias Chair and Bright Osayi-Samuel. Alot may rest on the shoulders of Lyndon Dykes, to replace Jordan Hugill’s status as a goalscoring target man. Another season in mid-table beckons.
Preston have been a side who have continually performed at the upper end of their limits under underrated manager Alex Neil. A team not laden with superstars, but consistent championship players, they have finished 9th the last two seasons and in likelihood won’t be far off again. They go into 2020/21 with a similar squad, playing style and manager. The likes of Daniel Johnson, Sean Maguire and Allan Browne are classy players, but the lack of a goalscorer could scupper their promotion chances. Down the road, Blackburn are another side who don’t look in dissimilar shape from last season. A huge bonus will be the return of maverick Bradley Dack, but will he return the same player? Tony Mowbray has a good, hardworking squad with plenty of experience, but it’s hard to see where the extra flair or dynamism will come from to offer any more than a mid-table finish.
Stoke, under Michael O’Neill, made huge leaps at the back end of last season, and their final two results, wins against Brentford and Nottingham Forest, hinted at a better campaign this time around. On paper at least, their squad is full of Premier League quality, but that has mattered for little the last two years. O’Neill will be confident he can turn it around. Key will be the form of the likes of Tom Ince, Nick Powell and Sam Clucas, all of whom can be match winners on their day. Young striker Tyrese Campbell, son of Kevin, is another one to watch. Expect better from the Potters this time around. Another recent top flight team, Middlesbrough, had a season to forget after their love affair with Jon Woodgate turned sour. Neil Warnock, the old crooner, came in and did his usual saving act, but has it just papered over the cracks of a weakening squad, with a lack of real playing style or penetration? The mainly English squad has some good youngsters, such as Djed Spence and Marcus Tavernier, but others who need to pick up form and goals to prove their worth.
Veljko Paunovic has taken over the reins at Reading, despite Mark Bowen leading them to safety. He is quite the unknown in English football, and has a dubious prior record – Reading’s powers that be taking a gamble rather than sticking with a pair of safe hands, it would seem. Being frank, their side shows no sign of improving rapidly, aside from signing Ovie Ejaria on a permanent deal. Jon Swift continues to be a high class player at this level, Yakou Meite provides goals and youngster Michael Olise could have a breakthrough season. Despite these positives, the squad is weak in other areas and it remains to be seen if Paunovic’s style will adapt well or quickly enough to the demands of the Championship.
Huddersfield struggled badly last season after relegation. And after the Cowley brothers seemed to steady the ship, they got fired in favour of former Leeds coach Carlos Corberan. He is unknown to first team management, and you wonder whether the Terriers would have been better to leave Danny and Nicky Cowley to continue the project they started. Keeping hold of Karlan Grant is key, he is clearly a cut above this level, but is his heart in it? They also need the likes of Alex Pritchard to show better form, and hope new forward Danny Ward can provide goals and assists. In all likelihood, though, this season will be another one of difficulty for the West Yorkshire side.
Across Yorkshire, Sheffield Wednesday begin this season on -12 points and will be playing catch-up from day 1. It might be lazy to suggest they will finish bottom, but undoubtedly it puts them on the back foot straight away. At least they can look up and target teams to shoot down, which might provide them with inspiration, but the other problem for Wednesday is their poor form at the back end of last season – a worrying sign ahead of this campaign. They undoubtedly have more talent than other sides likely to struggle – Barry Bannan has a superb range of passing, Kadeem Harris has burning pace and re-signing Josh Windass is a bonus. However, at the time of writing they go into the season with the declining Jordan Rhodes and unpredictable Elias Kachunga as their only viable striking options. They will need some more firepower to put their heads above the parapet.
Birmingham City enter this season with yet another new manager, in Aitor Karanka. A manager who has done well at this level before should bring improvement, one would think. However, a bloated and aging squad with no real flair presents an issue for a manager who is solid in approach, but unspectacular. Don’t expect the Blues to ship loads of goals, but likewise a side whose only recognised striker is the hard-working Lukas Jutkiewitz aren’t going to blow teams away either. Add the fact that Karanka appears to be a boiling pot at times, who left Forest after a fall out with the owners, and Birmingham’s own madcap Chinese owners, it could be a recipe for disaster at St Andrews.
To focus solely on Barnsley’s miraculous escape on the last day of the season would be kind of unfair on the magnificent job Gerhard Struber did, despite sceptics who were surprised at the sacking of promotion-winning manager Daniel Stendel. However, Struber has got Barnsley playing some magnificent football, with a mixture of young English talent like Callum Styles ans Luke Thomas at the fore. Add in a smattering of signings from Struber’s knowledge of the foreign market, and the Oakwell side may surprise a few this year.
Luton were another side who escaped late on last season. It was a case of the Joneses, as Nathan replaced Graeme, who had replaced Nathan in the first place. The latter (and former) enabled the great escape post-lockdown, with a great run to the finishing line. The Hatters possess some talented players such as Harry Cornick and Pelle Ruddock-Mpanzu, and have recruited well in James Bree, Jordan Clark and Tom Lockyer. The goals of James Collins will be vital in keeping the Kenilworth Road side afloat again.
Of the promoted sides, Coventry appear to have the best chance of staying up. Mark Robins has done a terrific job, in spite of the Sky Blues having no permanent home and their new signings seem intelligently sourced from overseas and on-loan from Premier League sides. They will miss the midfield dynamism of Liam Walsh but will hope that Ben Sheaf and Callum O’Hare can do a fine job of replacing him. Perhaps the most exciting signing for Cov fans is the permanent signing of Tyler Walker, who has flitted between loan spells but now finds a home where he can flourish.
Rotherham are the perennial Championship/League One yo-yo club. You have to admire Paul Warne’s persistence in getting the Millers promoted again, and staying around for another Championship battle. They will always have a low budget at this level, and in many ways are punching above their weight. However, they might just have learnt their lesson by adding Angus McDonald and Wes Harding to their back line. Kieran Sadlier is unproven at this level, but had a superb season for Doncaster last year. The battle for Rotherham may be scoring goals – between Freddie Ladapo, Kyle Vassell and Michael Smith, I’m unsure there is a huge amount of firepower.
Finally, Wycombe Wanderers. Last season’s fairytale story and a team who were written off as being relegated from League One before the season even started. Put simply, Gareth Ainsworth achieved a miracle. With the distinct possibility of getting egg on our collective faces, he needs another one to keep them up. There is no doubt Wycombe have spirit in abundance and don’t expect lots of teams to thrash them. They will throw up a few shocks along the way, but ultimately quality counts and I don’t think they quite have enough at this level. The likes of Joe Jacobsen will want to prove his worth and Fred Onyedinma and Alex Samuel also posses quality. However, the Chairboys have also lost some loan players and it will be hard for them to keep the fairytale going.
One thing is for sure, the Championship will take us on another rollercoaster ride to remember.
Headers & Volleys Championship Prediction table: