The Championship has a reputation as an exciting, unpredictable division. This year looks likely to be an exception, in that the outcome seems even more uncertain than usual. With no clear favourite for automatic promotion, never mind the title, and a list of play-off contenders that could stretch halfway down the table. The potential excitement only increases when you factor in the reams of talent that will be both on the field and in the dugout of English football’s second tier.
Excitement is not necessarily Tony Pulis’s stock-in-trade but his Middlesbrough side look as well-placed as any to challenge for the title this season. Having signed on at the Riverside last December Pulis steered Boro to the play-offs with 11 wins from 22 matches. The majority of that side remains intact, including the explosive Adama Traoré who finally looked like delivering on his potential under Pulis’s direction (a release clause in the Spaniard’s contract means it will be an anxious wait to the transfer deadline, however). With two astute additions in the shape of Bristol City’s towering centre-half Aden Flint and Paddy McNair, the one success in Sunderland’s brutal relegation season, Boro may have had a mixed pre-season, but look to have the most complete squad in the division and the most experienced coach.
Last season Wolverhampton Wanderers rewrote the rule book by bringing Champions League quality to the Championship and, as a result, earning promotion at a canter. The team most closely fitting the template of “doing a Wolves” this summer has been Nottingham Forest. Bankrolled by Greek shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis, Forest have spent over £25m on players, including two prospects from Benfica in midfielder João Carvalho and winger Diogo Gonçalves. Will they be the next Rúben Neves and Diogo Jota? Maybe, but even if they are not Forest can still look for goals from other new signings 30-year-old Algerian international Hillal Soudani and the tried and tested Lewis Grabban. Forest beat Bournemouth in pre-season and Málaga too and expectation is high for Aitor Karanka’s team. Keeping everyone happy in a substantial squad, however, is one potential blot on the landscape.
Stoke City are another club who have spent like they mean it. The Potters were relegated from the Premier League in 19th place but with a squad full of top-fight experience. They’ve kept hold of most of it, losing only Xherdan Shaqiri and Ramadan Sobhi to date, and have tied linchpin Joe Allen down on new terms till 2022. Owner Peter Coates has also recruited Gary Rowett, who jumped ship from Derby. Their player signings, Tom Ince, Benik Afobe and James McLean, all tick the Premier League experience box too. It feels like a classic Stoke squad, except they will be playing one tier lower. The Potters have set out their stall and there’s no place to hide, not least for the regarded Rowett.
Going about their business more quietly have been Darren Moore’s West Bromwich Albion. After almost pulling off escape from relegation last season the local hero was given the job full-time only to promptly lose goalkeeper Ben Foster and key centre-half Jonny Evans. But Moore has steadied things since. Foster was replaced with Sam Johnstone, who impressed on loan at Aston Villa last season, and Kyle Bartley was brought in from Swansea at centre-half. Moore may lose more players yet – from Salomón Rondón to Craig Dawson – but still has a strong squad at his disposal. West Brom went unbeaten in pre-season and if they can carry that form into the new season (not a small ask with an inexperienced manager) they have as good a chance as anyone.
It’s in this bracket that the really interesting stuff is going on. Marcelo Bielsa, El Loco, the man who inspired Pep Guardiola and shattered the physical limits of any number of players with his intensive pressing style, has landed at Elland Road. The Argentinian has started cautiously at Leeds United, introducing a back three during pre-season but persisting with much of last year’s squad and completing only the Championship-tested permanent signings of Barry Douglas and Patrick Bamford to date. The loans of Chelsea midfielder Lewis Baker and winger Jack Harrison from Manchester City have the potential to be exciting but with cynicism hanging in the air after a disappointing 2017-18, Bielsa still has to earn the trust of the crowd. The project could explode into either greatness or infamy, but there’s no doubting Leeds will be a team to watch.
Down the M1 and the Championship’s second most glamorous managerial appointment has been shaking things up at Derby County. Frank Lampard’s first job in management tasks him with refreshing the perennial play-off candidates after another promising season ended in disappointment. Lampard’s emphasis has been on hard work, regularly extolling the efforts of his players in pre-season, and starting to rejuvenate an aging squad. Jack Marriott, a consistent goal threat in League One for Peterborough, and the Brentford winger Florian Jozefzoon are intriguing signings, while Lampard has recruited some of the best young talent in the country on loan. Doubt still remains over the future of last season’s top scorer Matej Vydra, but the question everyone wants answering is whether one of the Premier League’s greatest ever players can begin a second successful career.
Disaster averted, the buy out of Aston Villa by Nassif Sawiris and Wes Eden has plugged a financial gap that had looked like swallowing up one of England’s grandest clubs. Now the main problem appears to be playing catch-up in a transfer window where rivals have strengthened. Steve Bruce, who has won the support of the new owners (at least in the short term) built a play-off bid on the back of five loan signings last year and will be forced to look at similar again this term. Underneath, however, Villa still have a strong squad and expectations will rightly remain high at Villa Park.
For those who just missed out on the top six last term hope springs up once more. Millwall went on a late-season charge that caught everybody by surprise and the majority of last season’s squad are still available to Neil Harris, including the permanent acquisition of chief provider Jed Wallace. Alex Neil’s Preston have strengthened with four new signings that fit Preston’s unheralded and hungry template and have slotted straight into the first team. Brentford may have lost some key talent in Jozefzoon and defender John Egan, but that doesn’t knock the model: both players have been replaced by Dean Smith with centre-half Ezri Konsa from Charlton a particularly exciting prospect. Bristol City have similarly sold and strengthened, adding experience to the squad in Ipswich’s Adam Webster and Andreas Weimann from Derby. Lee Johnson will want to replicate the first half of last season rather than the second.
Garry Monk this week admitted he is still not sure whether Birmingham City are under a transfer embargo with only a fortnight of the window remaining. Since signing full-back Kristian Pedersen in June, all has been quiet at St Andrews where they are still trying to reduce a wage bill that has seen them face challenges under Financial Fair Play rules. This is not a great atmosphere under which to begin a new campaign, especially for a Blues side that only just escaped relegation last season.
A similarly cloudy mood has descended on Reading who avoided relegation by just three points, failed to win in pre-season and have seen key defender Liam Moore submit a transfer request. Manager Paul Clement is preaching calm but has yet to spend money on a transfer fee this summer.
Bolton had the closest call of all last season but Phil Parkinson appears to have recruited well, adding the experience of Clayton Donaldson, Jack Hobbs and Marc Wilson to his squad. Hull have lost a number of senior players, most notably Abel Hernández, their main goal threat, and have replaced with unproven signings while antipathy from fans towards owners the Allam family has hardly dissipated. Rotherham enter the division as League One play-off winners and will be favourites to continue their recent yo-yo status but Paul Warne’s team will relish being underdogs.
Three players to watch
Mason Mount, Derby County
With the title of ‘golden player’ at the European under-19 championships last summer, followed by 14 goals in the Eredivisie for Vitesse Arnhem, Mount had a sparkling reputation even before he signed up to play under Frank Lampard. Now the manager has a chance to develop a player whose prodigious talents as a box-to-box midfielder match his own.
Harvey Barnes, West Brom
Another young English midfield talent, Barnes won the golden boot at last year’s Toulon tournament. He scored five times on loan at Barnsley last year before being recalled to parent club Leicester where he shone in FA Cup cameos and made three Premier League appearances. Both creative and strong on the ball, a berth on the left of midfield for the Baggies should provide the best platform yet for his talents.
Mo Eisa, Bristol City
This 24-year-old striker has taken a very different career path to Mount and Barnes. Born in Sudan and raised in north London, Eisa developed his game outside the professional system and two years ago was plying his trade in the eighth tier of English football at Greenwich Borough. Fifty-two goals in 81 league appearances drew the attention of Cheltenham Town where he moved last summer. Another 23 league goals later (a Cheltenham club record) and Eisa is a million pound player. With pace, height and calmness in the finish Eisa could be a great fit for Lee Johnson’s slick City.