This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
What exactly is the key to Championship success? It’s a question many ask but few can answer, given that free-flowing Norwich, star-studded Watford and data-driven Brentford each went up with differing principles last season.
Many of the 24 clubs, though, can take inspiration from a Barnsley side that made the 2020/21 play-offs on a low budget, having only survived the previous season by virtue of Wigan’s 12-point deduction. New manager Markus Schopp inherits a clear template at Oakwell, but his predecessor Valerien Ismael – now one of three new managers at newly relegated clubs – must reconstruct a new squad at West Brom.
Life might be more straightforward for Marco Silva, who hopes to rebuild his reputation with a Fulham side rich in quality. Clashes with the Cottagers’ former bosses could be key. Slavisa Jokanovic hopes to add a third second-tier promotion to his CV with Sheffield United. Meanwhile, ex-Fulham chief Scott Parker is aiming to double his own promotion tally – clearly those 2019/20 accomplishments appealed to beaten play-off semi-finalists Bournemouth.
It’s the same for Chris Hughton, who must convert solidity into success at long-time underachievers Nottingham Forest. Down the A52, their East Midlands rivals crave such stability. Wayne Rooney has a huge job making Derby competitive while they battle off-field troubles: among 10 senior players departing the Rams is forward Martyn Waghorn, whom Coventry hope can be the experienced finisher they require for a safe mid-table finish.
The Sky Blues adjusted well after winning the League One crown in 2019/20, though, and represent a benchmark for Hull, who also return as champions with an unpopular ownership regime. Grant McCann’s side are joined by his former club Peterborough – with returning striker Jack Marriott in tow – and play-off winners Blackpool. The tenacious Tangerines will aim to capitalise on perceived stagnation elsewhere in Lancashire, namely Blackburn and Preston, while across the Pennines, Huddersfield have been busy this summer – but have they been shrewd enough to succeed?
Canny business is the norm at Luton, who pluck gems from the lower leagues – watch out for Carlos Mendes Gomes, snapped up from Morecambe. Hatters boss Nathan Jones’ former club Stoke, meanwhile, have had to be smart in the market due to recent overspending, but signing Ben Wilmot for a sixth of the £12m fee they received from Burnley for Nathan Collins suggests the Potters are learning.
Though the Championship has plenty of talented young coaches, with Veljko Paunovic at Reading and the up-and-comer expected to replace Steve Cooper at Swansea hoping to build on strong seasons, rule out the wily campaigners at your peril. Neil Warnock and Mick McCarthy’s Middlesbrough and Cardiff sides were rarely far off the play-offs; much depends on whether Uche Ikpeazu can be the focal point Boro missed last season, while Cardiff will hope Crewe controller Ryan Wintle embraces the Welsh capital.
Only one point separated Bristol City and Birmingham last season, but the two clubs begin with contrasting moods: a substantial re-build is underway for Nigel Pearson at Ashton Gate, the Blues appeared a different team under Lee Bowyer.
In some respects, the way that Bowyer’s side played to their strengths proves that there really is no all-encompassing manual for second-tier success. But those who have a plan, pick a clear style and stick with it – all while recruiting suitable personnel within budget – won’t go too far off track.
Easier said than done...
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