The Big Football365 Championship Preview

Proper football returns this weekend in the shape of that most unpredictable of beasts the Championship. Nick Miller looks at who'll challenge & who'll struggle...

Last Updated: 01/08/13 at 15:44 Post Comment

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Never mind your Under-20s, your Under-21s, your Confederations Cup, your Women's Euros, your pointless pre-season tours across the globe, your Emirates Cup and whatever else - proper football is back this weekend. And by proper football, I mean the Championship. You can just smell it, can't you?

Without wishing to reduce the whole thing to something as grubby as money, the financial incentive to win promotion to the Premier League, while always pretty strong, has never been stronger. The team that finishes bottom of the top flight this season will earn more money than Bayern Munich gained from winning the Champions League last season. It's quite, quite astonishing, but easy to see why so many clubs in the second tier are gambling on promotion.

The most obvious place to start is QPR, where Harry Redknapp is most definitely not wheeling and dealing. No sir. He most definitely is not trying to replace the likes of Esteban Granero with 'tough bastards' who he thinks will scuffle Rangers to promotion. Apart from signing Karl Henry. And Richard Dunne.

Redknapp does of course have quite a job to do, clearing out the overpaid and the underperforming players that got QPR in this mess to start with.

"There are a few here who have got the wrong attitude and that's the problem," he said this week. "If they want to move I'm happy to move any of them. If they come and say 'nah, I want to play for a bigger club' then get someone to pick the phone up because we'll do business. We want to sell them and make room for those who want to be here."

Indeed the Rangers squad is such a work in progress that, while few have finalised their plans, it's difficult to see why they are such strong favourites for the division. They have a solid set of players and a good manager, but they had the same last season, and look what happened there.

Of the sides that dropped last term, Reading look better bets. Nigel Adkins has form in the Championship, taking Southampton up last year, while the additions of Wayne Bridge (stop laughing - he's a perfectly good Championship left-back) and Royston Drenthe supplement an already strong squad at this level.

Wigan are a little more difficult to judge. They probably have the strongest set of players in the division at the time of writing, but so much depends on who they keep. If James McCarthy and Callum McManaman remain Latics they will take some beating, but that's a pretty large 'if'. Having said that, some of their additions (Grant Holt and Chris McCann in particular) look especially shrewd, so even if the stars depart, they look in reasonable shape. If only they had someone other than Owen Coyle in charge.

Of the sides that just missed out last season, Watford look pretty strong, having magically acquired many of their notorious loans from Udinese on permanent deals. Must've been some pretty tough negotiations to get Almen Abdi, Christian Battocchio et al through the door. Chuck in the free signings of Reece Brown and Lewis McGugan, along with rumours that Nick Powell might be joining on loan, and it will be quite a surprise if they aren't challenging.

Leicester have been oddly quiet, only adding Zoumana Bakayogo on a free from Tranmere, and Nigel Pearson has spent much of the summer trying to fend off interest in his better players from elsewhere. One assumes that this is Pearson's last chance, and a slow start to the season might see him gently shoved out of the door.

Rather more active have been Nottingham Forest, making eight signings so far and with the promise of more to come. Jamie Mackie, Jack Hobbs and the permanent addition of Gonzalo Jara Reyes will improve them, but drama of some description at the City Ground is inevitable, and even if Billy Davies doesn't fall out with club's owners, the rather combustible Al-Hasawis, his habit of taking sides so far but falling at the last means they can't be relied upon for promotion.

Brighton have been oddly sluggish in the transfer market, possibly due to the uncertainty of their managerial situation, but Oscar Garcia has been in place for over a month now, and there are still glaring holes in the Seagulls' squad. Bolton will be favoured by plenty after their remarkable second half of last season, although they have lost a couple of key men in the shape of Jay Spearing and Marcos Alonso.

Derby might be a decent outside bet to reach the play-offs, having shown vague signs of improvement and made a couple of handy additions over the summer to add to the maturing Will Hughes, while Leeds under Brian McDermott will be interesting. They've only made one signing of real note, in Luke Murphy from Crewe, but McDermott took an unfancied Reading up in 2012 and while the ownership situation at Elland Road remains...interesting, they can't be discounted.

Then there's Blackburn. Oh Blackburn. What fresh shambles shall thee present to us this season? In fairness, they have made a couple of handy-looking recruits, with talk of a move for Barry Bannan floating around as well, but while Shebby Singh is around...well, nothing is certain except uncertainty.

The other end of the table looks interesting too. The promoted three are all worth keeping an eye on for different reasons, although it is tricky to see Yeovil doing anything but struggling. Eddie Howe seems to have some sort of spell over anyone in a Bournemouth shirt, so something unlikely could happen there, while Doncaster have shown some ambition by going for the likes of Shay Given. And it's not as if a policy of recruiting big names on high wages has backfired there before, is it...?

While it might seem odd to say so given some of the talent at their disposal, Blackpool could be down among the scufflers. In Matt Phillips and Tom Ince they of course have two of the most talented wingers in the division, but in all likelihood at least one of those players will leave before August is out, leaving them with a thinnish team and Tom's old man in charge, and any side with Paul Ince guiding them cannot be backed with confidence, especially with the Oystons continuing to offer a shade above minimum wage to any prospective recruits.

But hey, this is the Championship. That most uncertain of divisions, about which only a fool would make a prediction...

PREDICTIONS

PROMOTED: Watford, Reading, Wigan

RELEGATED: Yeovil, Barnsley, Millwall

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