F365’s top ten Championship players to watch…

Date published: Tuesday 2nd August 2016 8:18

Ayoze Perez

Honourable mentions: Everyone from your club who you think deserve a mention.

 

10) Jonathan Kodija (Bristol City)
The best striker in England that you’ve never heard of? Perhaps. Bristol City took a gamble on Kodija when paying £2.1m to import him from Angers last summer, but he didn’t look back. The Ivorian scored 19 league goals last season, a total bettered by only Andre Gray (£9m), Ross McCormack (£12m) and Abel Hernandez (£10m). Bargain.

Unsurprisingly, rumours already link Kodija with a move away from Ashton Gate. Aston Villa have had a £5m bid rejected, and Lee Johnson admitted as early as March that Bristol City would struggle to keep hold of their star.

“I’m sure he will be attracting all sorts of interest because of his goals and the way he plays,” Johnson said. “There are very few players with the quality he has around. Of course we want to keep our best players, but you never know.” Odds of 28/1 (with four places each way) for him to be this season’s top scorer look like fine value indeed.

NB: Award yourself five 90s points if you spotted the laboured Oasis pun.

 

9) Britt Assombalonga (Nottingham Forest)
If the bookmakers are to be believed, Forest are in for another struggle this season. New manager Philippe Montanier has no experience in England, owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi is desperate to sell the club to a Greek businessman bailed on charges including blowing up a referee’s bakery and the only player to have arrived for a fee is Apostolos Vellios, a striker who scored three goals in four years at Blackpool and Everton.

Forest’s aspirations of a top-half finish may depend entirely on the returning Britt Assombalonga, finally fully fit after almost 18 months out with injury. Having scored 54 goals in 117 league games before his ligament trouble, Assombalonga is keen to make up for lost time. The striker was the subject of a £7m (rejected) bid from Norwich in June, but Forest will know that the potential saviour of a grim campaign is worth far more to them than that.

 

8) Aaron Tshibola (Aston Villa)
Aston Villa’s summer has been largely filled by the difficult job of clearing a squad comprised of 60% deadwood. The only arrivals have been goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, Tommy Elphick from Bournemouth and Tshibola from Reading.

Tshibola is by far the most interesting of the three, not least because he cost Villa £5m. Turning 22 on the second day of next year, the midfielder only has 33 career starts; 29 of those were for League Two Hartlepool.

“Aaron leaving was very, very disappointing,” said Reading’s technical director Brian Tevreden. “The manager wanted to keep him, I wanted to keep him. We had lots of conversations and I told him that. Then one day he came into the office and he said he wanted to go. He is a player with great potential – so it was really disappointing to lose him. But I think with the amount we sold him for, it was a very good deal.”

We’re about to find out whether “a very good deal” means ‘silly money’.

 

7) Will Grigg (Wigan Athletic)
Because what could be better than watching the world’s most flammable footballer?

 

6) Matt Doherty (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
Winner of Wolves’ Fans’ Player of the Year award. Winner of Wolves’ Players’ Player of the Year award. Winner of Wolves’ Goal of the Season award. It’s fair to say that 2015/16 was a good year for the 24-year-old right-back. Doherty should consider himself unfortunate not to have made Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad.

This season promises to be fascinating at Molineux. Jorge Mendes has his sticky fingers all over the club’s transfer business post-takeover, and Walter Zenga was a controversial choice to replace the sacked Kenny Jackett. Zenga has no experience of English football, and has only stayed for longer than 12 months in one of his 15 managerial jobs.

With so much uncertainty at the club, Wolves fans will take solace in the development of their young players. Dominic Iorfa, Kortney Hause and Doherty have the potential to take Zenga’s side to the play-offs, just so long as the sideshow can avoid being thrust onto centre stage.

 

5) Almen Abdi (Sheffield Wednesday)
After 25 Premier League starts last season, it may come as some surprise that Watford were prepared to let Abdi leave Vicarage Road. The Swiss midfielder was a fan favourite and cult hero, but was often played out of position. Walter Mazzarri was presumably less impressed than the supporters, and Abdi has joined ambitious Sheffield Wednesday for £4m to join up with former teammate Fernando Forestieri.

“I met Fernando the day before I signed for Wednesday and was very happy to see him,” Abdi says. “I always enjoyed playing with him and [Daniel] Pudil at Watford. Fernando is brilliant. When he’s confident, he is one of the best players in the Championship. I’m very happy he plays for us.”

You might think that there is no such thing as smart money in gambling. Let me show you prices of 5/1 on Sheffield Wednesday for promotion. Something is building in South Yorkshire.

 

4) Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City)
Traditionally, every summer the cream of the relegated crop are picked off by those Premier League teams expected to fight bravely against relegation the following season. Yet the increase in parachute payments as part of the new broadcasting deal threatens to plug that particular pipe, as clubs can reject offers for players until they become too good to turn down. That’s how Newcastle and Norwich have recouped a total of £60m for Georginio Wijnaldum, Andros Townsend, Nathan Redmond, Remy Cabella and Papiss Cisse, an unprecedented return on Championship players. Moussa Sissoko’s silly fee is still to come.

Norwich have lost only Redmond and Gary O’Neil (released on a free transfer) from last season’s first-team squad, meaning Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady, Jonny Howson and Martin Olsson all remain. While Brady may be the more proficient player, it’s Hoolahan who I’m most looking forward to watching in the second tier again. He has scored 26 goals in his last three seasons outside the Premier League.

Now 34, Hoolahan is basking in the sun during the autumn of his career. Immensely popular with supporters at club and country level, he has the chance to inspire a fourth promotion campaign in eight years at Norwich.

 

3) Will Hughes (Derby County)
If you’d forgotten about Hughes, so often tipped for stardom over the last few years, there is a good excuse. The midfielder damaged his Achilles ligaments in an innocuous fall on the opening day of last season, and promptly spent eight months recuperating. Hughes returned for a play-off campaign that ended in a disastrous 3-0 home defeat to Hull, but Derby would have been confident of automatic promotion with Hughes’ presence throughout the campaign.

“You never think it’s going to happen to you,” Hughes told the Guardian in May. “I couldn’t walk for a good few weeks after having surgery. You’re pretty much bed-bound. I went from confusion, to anger. You start to think: ‘Am I ever going to get back to where I was?’ I was very paranoid.”

Now back fully fit, Hughes can enjoy another breakout season. Subject to a £15m bid from Liverpool during Brendan Rodgers’ reign, it’s high time a wonderful prospect made it to the Premier League; with or without Derby.

 

2) Anthony Knockaert (Brighton)
The signing of the season in last year’s Football League. Brighton’s £1m capture of former Leicester City winger Knockaert in the January transfer window took them to the verge of automatic promotion, eventually missing out on the final day against Middlesbrough. Given Brighton’s strict adherence to the Financial Fair Play measures that other clubs have waved two fingers towards, it would have been a fitting promotion.

Brighton achieved 89 points last season, and no Championship team scored more goals. There are questions over whether that achievement can be matched in Chris Hughton’s second full season in charge, but there is no doubt that Brighton are one of the Championship’s feel-good clubs again.

Much will depend on Knockaert’s own form; he’s still just 24 years old. Only four Brighton players scored more league goals, only one contributed more assists, and just three attempted more dribbles. A reminder: he joined in January. No wonder Newcastle have reportedly made a bid of £8m for the Frenchman; no wonder Brighton rejected it.

 

1) Ayoze Perez (Newcastle)
Newcastle’s approach to Championship life is to merrily pretend that they are still in the Premier League. The arrivals of Matt Ritchie, Grant Hanley, Dwight Gayle and Matz Sels means that 13 of the club’s first-team squad was signed for a fee of £5m or higher; that’s ridiculous for a second-tier team.

One player who cost far less than that was Perez, overlooked in the talk over Ritchie, Mitrovic, Sissoko, Shelvey et al; this is a forward still linked with a move to Barcelona despite Newcastle’s relegation. Perez struggled to make an impact during the second half of last season, but now has a chance to win over the fans once more in a role as a wide forward on the left, with Ritchie as a more natural winger on the right.

Perez has been in fine pre-season form, and will hope to be selected on the opening night of the season against Fulham. Newcastle might not yet be completely proficient in defence, but their attack really is an embarrassment of riches.

 

Daniel Storey

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