F365's Championship Preview

The Championship starts on Friday, so Daniel Storey talks you through the runners and riders ahead of kick-off. It's a typically tough season to call...

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Title Challengers
It's a Championship season that's as difficult as ever to predict, which is probably why muggins here was given the job. Each of the relegated trio provide reasons to frown at the idea of them going straight back up (Cardiff - shonky defence, Fulham - downward spiral, Norwich - Neil Adams), whilst Derby are deemed by the bookmakers to be the best of last year's bunch, despite their best signing George Thorne being ruled out for the season and Patrick Bamford no longer doing his thang at the iPro Stadium.

Wigan are third favourites across the board, with the Uwe Rosler factor expected to cause a further upsurge in fortunes, but the Latics have lost Jordi Gomez, Jean Beausejour and Nick Powell from last season's midfield. Don Cowie and Emyr Huws would not immediately appear to be upgrades on those departures.

It's anyone's guess, basically, with 15 clubs available at 20/1 or lower with one bookmaker or another. In contrast, you can get 4000/1 on the 12th favourite for the Premier League.

Arm twisted firmly, I'd plump for Fulham. If Felix Magath can reverse the fortunes of last season, then a squad containing Scott Parker, Maarten Stekelenburg, Hugo Rodallega, Ross McCormack and Bryan Ruiz for experience and Thomas Eisfeld, Patrick Roberts, Alexander Kacaniklic, Dan Burn and Konstantinos Stafylidis for the smattering of youth could be dangerous indeed. The 11/1 available for the title and 10/3 for promotion look generous, I'd say.


Dark Horses

There is little doubt that Nottingham Forest owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi is gambling on the club making a concerted push at promotion this season. His decision to take the money for Jamaal Lascelles and Karl Darlow was evidently based on thinking for the moment, keeping both players on season-long loans whilst spending £7million the very next day. The £5m sploshed on Britt Assombalonga is as eyebrow-raising as Ross McCormack's fee, and it's boom-or-bust time on the banks of the Trent.

Watford are another interesting proposition, pairing together Matej Vydra and Troy Deeney in a bid to replicate the heights of 2012/13, when the Hornets finished third and lost in the play-off final to Crystal Palace. Recruits such as Heurelho Gomes, Gabriel Tamas and Juan Carlos Paredes could go right or very, very wrong.

Blackburn probably merit a mention too (and not just because Matthew Stanger is doing that weird smile at me), on the basis that Jordan Rhodes has scored nearly 100 goals in his last three seasons, whilst Rudy Gestede and Tom Cairney have the potential to be amongst the best players in the division. Bournemouth, Ipswich, Brighton and Reading, I'm sorry, this is the only mention you are getting. But good luck.

However, Middlesbrough are my dark horse shout, 6/1 for promotion (they were as long as 9s only a week ago). The presence of Aitor Karanka as manager has led to Kike, Tomas Mejias and Emilio Nsue arriving from Spain, but it is the cushy relationship the club enjoy with Chelsea that offers the most promise. Kenneth Omeruo (impressive last season at the Riverside) has returned from Stamford Bridge for another season, with Bamford reportedly also close to a move. That might be the clincher.


Strugglers

Blackpool's summer struggles are now infamous. I wrote at great length here about the turmoil surrounding the club and, whilst Jose Riga now at least has a squad of 18 players, they are the only club in the Football League who are odds-on for relegation. Can a rag-tag bunch of misfits, loans and free transfers really provide meaningful resistance in a fight against the drop?

Charlton and Millwall look set to be the other obvious strugglers from last season's Championship, finishing 18th and 19th respectively last season, although there is perhaps more reason for hope at The Den, where most eggs are placed in a basket marked Ian Holloway. He loves eggs.

The two clubs that deserve to be placed in their own category simply labelled 'Pfft' are Birmingham and Leeds. The former survived relegation by the smallest of margins and have dealt purely in free transfers thanks to a money-laundering saga surrounding former owner Carson Yeung, whilst the latter have a bats**t mental new Italian owner who has promised much but recruited little. They have also casually appointed a failed non-league manager.


Promoted Trio

With two of the promoted clubs immediately succumbing to relegation last season, only Rotherham appear to be in grave danger of suffering such a fate this time around. An amazing 22 players have been bought or sold on permanent deals, with manager Steve Evans presumably welcoming his wheeler-dealer tag far more than Harry Redknapp did. Would anyone cry if he was relegated?

Wolves and Brentford, however, have far more reason for optimism. Kenny Jackett's side appeared to have swallowed their League One medicine and return revitalised and refreshed, capable of making a genuine push for the play-offs, whilst Brentford are a club that it's just damned difficult not to admire.

In League Two just six years ago, the Bees have been inspired by the excellent Mark Warburton, who has instigated sustainable improvement based on logicality and sensibleness - that should be the blueprint for plenty of others in the lower reaches of the Football League. In Moses Odubajo and Alex Pritchard, they have two under-the-radar summer signings that could become stars at this level. You heard that here first. Ish.


Top Scorer

It's mightily difficult to look beyond Rhodes and McCormack, the top two scorers from last season but, whilst 7/1 and 10/1 respectively are generous to justify each-way pokes, it would be churlish of me not to offer a couple of options at fancier prices.

No-one scored more league goals for Norwich than Gary Hooper last season, despite the striker starting just 22 matches. He will rely on better service than he received in the Premier League (or more generous defences), but scored 19 goals at this level for a struggling Scunthorpe side when aged just 21. There would seem little reason why that feat couldn't be repeated, and quotes of 20/1 seems fair.

The only other price that stands out is the 50/1 available on Nouha Dicko of Wolves. Picking strikers from promoted clubs obviously contains an element of risk, but Lewis Grabban managed 22 last season at high odds. Dicko was signed by Wigan in 2011 but never played a league game at the JJB, also largely failing to impress on loan at Blackpool. However, 19 goals in 25 matches in League One last season indicated a demonstrable ability to score regularly, and he is likely to lead the Wolves line this season. Worth a speculative shout.


Predictions

Fulham to win the title - 11/1
Middlesbrough to gain promotion - 6/1
Charlton to be relegated - 13/4
Gary Hooper to be top scorer - 20/1 (each-way at 1/4 odds)
Fulham to win the title and Ross McCormack be top scorer - 33/1

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