Championship preview 2011/12: Sven, McClaren & Big Sam prepare to do battle

It’s a well-worn mantle: ‘The toughest division to get out of is the Championship’. Something of an overused phrase perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.



Of course, it’s ‘tough’ because it is professional football at a very high level. But the difference between the Championship and Leagues One and Two is that because of the nature of the prize at stake, the pressure is astronomical from the very start. Because of what it means to clubs who achieve promotion, every team has a gigantic weight on their shoulders.



Consequently, it’s tough on the flipside too. Just ask Reading or Cardiff fans, or those of any other clubs who have had near misses in recent seasons. When you come agonisingly close to promotion from the Championship, but ultimately fail, you don’t forget it in a hurry. That is, if you can forget at all.



So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at this year’s runners and riders – and those with less lofty ambitions...




PROMOTION CHALLENGERS



You’d be hard pressed to find a Championship preview that didn’t have LEICESTER CITY among its tips for the top, and rightly so. A quick scan of the summer arrivals column makes for impressive reading indeed.

Witness playmaker Michael Johnson – on a season-long loan from Manchester City, who could make serious waves if maintaining peak fitness. Not to mention David Nugent, Paul Konchesky and Kasper Schmeichel. Throw in Gelson Fernandes (another season-long loan), Matt Mills, Sean St Ledger and the lovable John Pantsil to a squad that already contained the likes of elusive goal-grabbing midfielder Andy King, and things are looking rather rosy at the Walkers.

Plus, critically, manager Sven-Goran Eriksson has experience of life in the division under his belt. Surely it is only a matter of time before the magic that paid dividends with Ulrika is a similar hit with the Foxy talent he has at his disposal. Automatic promotion likely.

"May the best man win, old chap..."

With a potential central midfield pairing of Scott Parker and Kevin Nolan – should the former not find himself a new club in the top-flight, WEST HAM are likely to make a big impact too.

Big Sam, big wages, big club, big fanbase, big players, big squad. They are just bloody big, especially for the Championship. Expect a lot of big long balls that will cause lots of teams big problems and get many big results in the process. But they are also a big scalp; the team everyone will want to beat.

Nevertheless they boast the talents of (big) Carlton Cole, Matt Taylor and Rob Green among others, and there could well be a big Hammers promotion party come May.



NOTTINGHAM FOREST used to be big. But that was a long time ago and this campaign marks their 12th successive season outside the top flight. There are reasons for their faithful to be cheerful, however, the shrewd appointment of Steve McLaren being one of them. ‘The Wally with the Brolly’s’ managerial record at club level is actually fairly impressive, major trophies bagged at both Middlesbrough and FC Twente, with a forgettable spell at Wolfsburg chucked in.

He also is likely to feel he has something to prove on these shores – which can be no bad thing.

Hitting the back of the net could be Forest’s biggest problem. Whether Dexter Blackstock, Marcus Tudgay and Robbie Findley are a potent enough strike-force is debatable. McLaren’s ability to harness the attacking prowess of Lewis McGugan and larger-than-life passmaster Andy Reid will be key to their chances.

A watertight back four and Lee Camp between the sticks is a proven plus, and the acquisition  of Jonathan Greening could be a masterstroke. That they are four times the price of Leicester and West Ham with some bookies seems a bit silly.

McClaren and his new coaching staff - sans umbrellas...

MIDDLESBROUGH finished like a steam train last year, and despite the recent loss of Leroy Lita they could really excel under Tony Mowbray. The former West Brom boss’s time on Teesside has been uneventful to date, but things certainly appeared to be coming to fruition at the back end of last term.

A healthy Boro dressing room is a must, given their relatively thin squad, but there is certainly the required talent within to maintain a serious promotion assault. Dutch hitman Marvin Emnes resisted Premier League interest to remain at the club and is the type who could smash the 20-goal barrier for the men in red.

Elsewhere, Barry Robson, Scott McDonald and Nicky Bailey all ooze quality, while fit-again youngster Jonathan Franks could blossom into a real star. The return of free agent Julio Arca, who is training with the club again, would be a massive bonus and Mowbray has been there and done it in this division too, taking West Brom into the Premier League in 2007-08.

Another man who knows what it takes to get out of the Championship is Chris Hughton. BIRMINGHAM CITY will surely benefit from the calmly efficient approach he employed during Newcastle’s Championship-winning campaign of 2009/10. Sure, they have lost some key men in the shape of Craig Gardner and Roger Johnson et al, but enough quality remains for the Blues to be contenders.

Hate figure Marlon King is a significant presence at this level and Cameron Jerome has thrived, albeit inconsistently, both in and out of the Premier League. Adam Rooney could be the division’s surprise strike package, and lively Scottish winger Chris Burke provides some zest and panache.

At the time of writing, Scott Dann, Liam Ridgewell and Stephen Carr all remain and Steven Caldwell’s arrival adds extra steel. Hughton’s biggest headache may come from matters away from the pitch.

Financial controversies have reared their ugly head and a Europa League campaign might now be a simply unwelcome distraction. But, they are decidedly unfancied in many circles – which is probably just how Hughton likes it.

Holding on to Ridgewell and Dann could be key for Birmingham

Recovering from defeat in last season’s play-off final is the darkest cloud hanging over the head of READING. Otherwise, all roads lead to Wembley, or better, once again.

Only Danny Graham bagged more goals than Irishman Shane Long last season and he appears set to stay at the Madejski. With Noel Hunt, Jimmy Kebe and Jobi McAnuff also among the ranks, the Royals are choc-full of threat.

Indeed there are capable players throughout the squad (Mathieu Manset, Brian Howard, Ian Harte, Adam Federici) and with no glaring weaknesses it is hard to fathom just why they didn’t manage to return to the Premier League last season. It is indeed a tough old league.



PROMOTION OUTSIDERS

Gus Poyet can simply do no wrong in the eyes of Seagulls fans and there are murmurings of expectation of more success for BRIGHTON this term. On paper they don’t seem a million miles away from Norwich City, who achieved back-to-back promotions from the Championship last year.

They certainly have a lot to shout about at present. A lovely (but awfully named) new stadium has bolstered the feel-good factor on the South coast. But adjusting to life away from the decrepitly unique Withdean Stadium might not be as smooth a process as many assume.

Poyet’s easy-on-the-eye approach should be rewarded at this level though – note Blackpool and Swansea’s recent triumphs. Yet while Craig Mackail-Smith, Kazenga LuaLua, Will Hoskins and Gary Dicker should take care of things at one end of the pitch, there are certainly defensive concerns.

A lack of strength in depth at the back could be their undoing, but a top-half finish at the very minimum is realistic.

CARDIFF CITY might have to settle for similar. Unlike Albion, however, they appear to have a rock solid base from which to operate. Malky Mackay has added to a tight unit (assembled largely by the now departed Dave Jones) by snapping up Andrew Taylor, while the return of Anthony Gerrard from Hull, where he won Fans’ Player of the Year, means competition for starting spots at the back will be fierce in South Wales.

Having lost 12 players after more play-off heartbreak last year, though, means this is likely to be a transitional season for the Bluebirds. Much will depend on how quickly the new faces, of which there are many, settle.

Fan favourite Rob Earnshaw is back and Kenny Miller should thrive on the service provided by compatriot Craig Conway and Peter Whittingham. Should the enigmatic Craig Bellamy return then there will be renewed optimism of another tilt at the play-offs.

Kevin Phillips - a goalscoring certainy at Championship level

Ian Holloway seems to have toned down his larger than life presence in the media of late (or maybe people are a little bored of his West country twang). Regardless, there is unlikely to be anything dull about BLACKPOOL’s approach as they aim for a quick return to the Premier League.

But the worth of Charlie Adam to the Tangerines cannot be overstated, and without him and the also departed DJ Campbell they might just fall short of a top-six finish.

Still, they should be in there pitching, having recruited Barry Ferguson and Kevin Phillips amongst others. If Gary Taylor-Fletcher can bring his A-game with him for another season and Holloway can uncover another gem or two then it could be another rollercoaster at Bloomfield Road.

Another North-West hopeful, BURNLEY, still seem to be reeling from the loss of manager Owen Coyle 18 months ago. Can young gun Eddie Howe repeat the unlikely success he enjoyed with Bournemouth at Turf Moor?

A paper-thin squad that has been further depleted by the loss of Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears suggests he has his work cut out. Yet Howe appears to flourish in unlikely circumstances. Wade Elliott, new recruit Keith Treacy and Dean Marney are all useful assets, but they will all need to contribute goals.

Much like Birmingham, low expectation levels could suit.

Simon Grayson will enjoy no such luxury at Elland Road, however. LEEDS UNITED hung around the top six grimly for the majority of last season before missing out at the death. Their loyal fans will expect to go one better this time around. Is that realistic? Maybe.

Grayson’s love for the club he supported as a child is oh so evident, and his infectious enthusiasm could help instigate another lofty finish. But they will have to endure a lengthy spell without prolific Argentinian Luciano Becchio, who has undergone hamstring surgery, and fellow attacker Davide Somma could miss the entire campaign.

A lot rests on the potency of diminutive Scottish forward Ross McCormack and Player of the Year Max Gradel, as well as Robert Snodgrass. If Michael Brown can curb his irrational streak, then he will provide valuable cover to a back five in which Alex Bruce remains but Kasper Schmeichel does not.

Michael Brown and Leeds United - a winning combination?

Former Leeds star Lee Bowyer is one of many new faces at Portman Road this season, where Paul Jewell will be hoping to steer IPSWICH TOWN back to the league they last graced in 2002.

He will have to do so without Connor Wickham, who has departed for Sunderland, but as well as Bowyer, Michael Chopra has arrived plus Nathan Ellington and highly-regarded Arsenal academy product Jay Emmanuel-Thomas. Chopra in particular should prove to be a massive addition alongside targetman Jason Scotland.

Improvement on last season’s 13th place finish seems a distinct possibility, but sneaking into sixth is probably the most they can hope for. And that’s assuming the likes of Carlos Edwards, Grant Leadbitter and Damien Delaney perform.



MID-TABLERS

PORTSMOUTH continue to stabilise, and the excellent signings of trio Greg Halford, Luke Varney and David Norris offers some hope of a flirtation with the upper echelons of the division, but in all likelihood another mid-table finish is the call.

If they can keep Nicky Maynard fit and actually at the club, BRISTOL CITY could enjoy something of an upturn in fortunes. But they are so dangerously reliant on the 24-year-old that they could almost as easily be looking nervously over their shoulders should the former Crewe man depart or become crocked.

They appear content to stay put for the time being, which is something that might also be true of HULL CITY. Saddled with a significant wage bill, and with Jimmy Bullard currently suspended by the club, boss Nigel Pearson has had little opportunity to strengthen.

In Matty Fryatt, Robert Koren and Jay Simpson they have the thrust to compliment their solid defence, but they still look a little short.

On a par are Nigel Adkins’ Championship new boys SOUTHAMPTON. They will be dependent on Ricky Lambert being as destructive at this level as he was in League One. Chelsea rookie Jack Cork is a great signing, and they could get off to a flyer and surprise a few. Sustaining any fast start might be the problem, however.



Newly-promoted Saints: a potential surprise package?

DROP-DODGERS

Sean O’Driscoll has earned many plaudits for the way his DONCASTER ROVERS outfit play the game, but they were dangerously close to sliding down to League One last year. Billy Sharp is key, so too James Coppinger and Brian Stock, and if Giles Barnes can rediscover the Midas touch then they might just scrape their way to safety.

With the departure of Craig Mackail-Smith, PETERBOROUGH UNITED’s hopes of survival might have disappeared too. Darren Ferguson will be hoping daddy is in a generous (loanee) mood if they are to avoid a return to from whence they came.

COVENTRY have stagnated recently, but mid-table mediocrity is something to aspire to this season. Unfortunately for the Sky Blues, a relegation battle is likely to loom large, especially having lost Marlon King and Kieren Westwood.

WATFORD start the Championship season at a three-figure price – no change there then. But can they overcome the loss of boss Malky Mackay and key men Danny Graham, top scorer in the Championship last year, Don Cowie and Will Buckley? It is a very big ask indeed.

CRYSTAL PALACE will be similarly reliant on a doggedness that has seen them evade demotion in recent years, but it maybe a bridge too far this time around. That is unless Darren Ambrose can have another wonder season and Glen Murray hits the ground running.

Another London club who could find things tough is MILLWALL. Kenny Jackett’s Lions punched well above their weight in 10/11, even briefly entering the play-off picture, but it may well be a different story without talismanic duo Steve Morison and Neil Harris.

Finally, BARNSLEY and DERBY aren’t likely to find too many below them, which will probably mean the end for poor old Nigel Clough. And on that cheery note, please see predicted table below:

FourFourTwo.com predictions

1 - Leicester2 - Nottingham Forest             3 - Reading4 - West Ham  (p/o winners)5 - Birmingham6 - Middlesbrough                   7 - Blackpool8 - Brighton9 - Leeds10 - Cardiff11 - Ipswich12 - Burnley13 - Hull14 - Portsmouth15 - Southampton16 - Bristol City17 - Watford18 - Millwall19 - Crystal Palace20 - Doncaster21 - Peterborough                   22 - Coventry23 - Derby24 - Barnsley

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