Anyone can beat anyone. The Championship will no doubt return on Friday coated in the usual cliches. Part of its charm often comes from the unpredictability.
Yet there was rather less of that last season in what many felt was a poor division, both in terms of excitement and drama, compared to previous years. Two of the relegated clubs won automatic promotion. A third, Bournemouth, could have also made an immediate return to the Premier League but for self-inflicted problems, from appointing Jason Tindall manager, to failing to find their desired replacement for him in winter, to Chris Mepham’s play-off red card against Brentford.
The 2021/22 season begins with three clear favourites to go up: the trio who have just come down, in Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United. It is often the case that the demoted trinity are tipped for promotion; they have never all done it together.
As the gulf between the Premier League and Championship has grown, exacerbated by the financial problems of the last 17 months for clubs who are more dependent on gate revenue, it feels more possible than ever before; and thus worse for the league. The equation has altered.
Parachute payments can both prevent relegated clubs sliding into administration and give them a huge budgetary advantage that their peers feel is unfair. And yet cut-price promotions have been constructed without them: Brentford’s last season was the culmination of years of incremental improvement and clever trading whereas others – for Ian Holloway’s Blackpool or David Wagner’s Huddersfield, for instance – seem to come quickly and out of nowhere.
But if surprises are by their nature unexpected, it feels harder to envisage others overhauling the recent rejects from the Premier League. In a league where most clubs have spent nothing, Fulham are paying £12 million for Harry Wilson; he looks a cheat code for promotion. Albion and United are yet to fork out such a fee, though the Baggies have done astute business in getting Alex Mowatt and Adam Reach on free transfers, and will be potentially selling Sam Johnstone and Matheus Pereira, just as the Blades could part company with Sander Berge and Aaron Ramsdale.
But the context could give them an overwhelming advantage. Most of the best of the rest last season, the teams who ought to provide the stiffest challenge, have lost pivotal figures. Swansea have bade farewell to manager Steve Cooper, plus Andre Ayew, Conor Hourihane and Marc Guehi. Barnsley are shorn of manager Valerian Ismael, who was hired by Albion, plus Mowatt and Daryl Dike. Cardiff no longer have Wilson. Reading are deprived of Michael Olise and Omar Richards. Bournemouth’s departures so far include Asmir Begovic and Diego Rico but the real game-changer could come if Arnaut Danjuma or David Brooks go before the window closes. Some were only loanees and there will be a scramble to borrow talents from Premier League clubs but so far there has been a widespread weakening.
And with budgets limited, with outgoings outnumbering incomings, few look stronger than they were. Nottingham Forest ought to do better in Chris Hughton’s first full season in charge. Stoke have cleared out some of the deadwood. Millwall look to have made a couple of astute additions. QPR finished last season with a flourish and have now kept the players who excelled on loan, in Charlie Austin, Stefan Johansen, Sam Field and Jordy de Wijs. Yet the fact Middlesbrough are being tipped to do well after losing much of their firepower reflects on Neil Warnock’s promotion-winning pedigree but also the lack of obvious challengers.
Meanwhile, Fulham, West Brom and Sheffield United are packed with players who have won promotion: often with their current clubs, sometimes with others. Perhaps yo-yo clubs can collect such personnel and Fulham have yo-yoed more than most. Some belong in the bracket of being too good for the Championship and not quite good enough for the Premier League. Many are definitely excellent second-tier players, the sort their rivals cannot afford.
Beyond that trio, and Bournemouth who may be in a no-man’s land between them and the rest, the sense is that there are a lot of average teams with marked flaws, deprived of the ability to make catalytic additions. If no one acquires the momentum or quality – and, in fairness, few tipped Barnsley for a top-six finish before last season started – someone could get into the play-offs by a process of elimination. It is very possible that anyone could beat anyone among the mid-table masses.
But if they cannot defeat a trio over 46 games, if three recent escapees from the Premier League run away with the top spots, it will be bad for a division whose selling points have invariably included the chance to reach the promised land when that opportunity is reduced.
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