Has the Championship lost its magic? Football League followers would love to dismiss that idea as lazy doom-mongering – but even avid lovers of English football’s once-unpredictable second tier might confess to pausing for thought.
Fulham, Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich have taken half of the last 12 promotion spots between them, as parachute payments continue to threaten the league’s competitive balance. The task for those without summer handouts is to get everything right, from recruitment through to coaching and culture. For those with them, it’s to not get everything wrong.
So, do we await a procession for Norwich, Watford and Burnley? Well… not quite. The Canaries and Dean Smith both have previous at this level but don’t look well-matched yet, while relative rookies Rob Edwards and Vincent Kompany (below) face big rebuilds.
Parachute payments don’t guarantee success anyway, as West Bromwich Albion proved by drearily slumping to 10th. This year, however, the excellent captures of goalscoring creators John Swift and Jed Wallace should turboboost their attack.
As important as financial advantage is, having the right manager is second. Middlesbrough and Sheffield United will go far if Chris Wilder and Paul Heckingbottom can extrapolate the bright form from their mid-season appointments over a full campaign.
Luton and Huddersfield have also been galvanised by their gaffers, Nathan Jones and Carlos Corberan respectively. Both clubs are expected by most to fall away after near misses in 2021/22, but why? Retain key assets and there’s no reason they can’t go again.
That pair of plucky play-off participants provide some inspiration for Coventry, who have continually progressed for five years under Mark Robins – not to mention Millwall, who are replacing Wallace well, and Preston, who finally have the goalscorer they need.
Things look less rosy at Blackpool, whose fans were already dismayed by Neil Critchley’s departure and now find themselves split over the return of Michael Appleton. Tony Mowbray’s replacement at Blackburn, former Milan striker Jon Dahl Tomasson, may have an easier time winning over Lancastrians.
Leam Richardson has already done that and then some at Wigan, who pinched the League One crown from Rotherham. The Millers were unfortunate to rack up three consecutive Championship relegations and would be content with better luck and mere survival here, unlike the buoyant, Ross Stewart-inspired Sunderland. The three promoted clubs are helped by there being not one but two crisis clubs, in Paul Ince’s Reading and an imploding Birmingham, which almost makes for a one-team relegation zone this season.
There are few candidates to fill it. Hull have fresh investment from ‘Turkish Simon Cowell’ Acun Ilicali, while Bristol City’s Nigel Pearson and Cardiff’s Steve Morison have fostered levels of cautious optimism on Severnside. Gareth Bale seems to be the only player not joining Cardiff, who want to move on from losing 3-0 and 4-0 to Swansea in history’s first South Wales derby double for either side, at only the 31st attempt. The Swans themselves will benefit from keep-ball connoisseur Russell Martin having a full pre-season.
Elsewhere, QPR are giving esteemed coach Michael Beale his first step into management, while Stoke are hoping for something, anything, to end the malaise.
A spark can come from anywhere. This is a league that turns zeroes into heroes, and vice versa; where novice coaches stun the old hands; where hotshots from non-league can suddenly become stars; where styles clash starkly, with fascinating results. Clubs go on unthinkable journeys – not all of them upwards.
Has the Championship lost its magic, then? Not yet. It might have bodged a few tricks in recent years: for instance, the last three runners-up – West Bromwich Albion, Watford and most recently Bournemouth – ambled there largely on the back of individual quality. But bewitching bewilderment is never far away.
Predicted Championship table 2022/23
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