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Between The Lines

Championship Season Preview 2011-12

Trying to predict what will happen in a Championship season before it starts can make you look pretty stupid.  So rather than guessing where each team will be in May, let’s look at a few of the division’s more intriguing questions.

1) How likely are West Ham to go back up automatically?

Any team that comes down from the Premier League is now given £48m in parachute payments over the next four years. That’s £16m for each of the first two years, so they should immediately have a financial advantage over the other clubs in the division. But it’s never quite that simple, often because relegation means stripping down the squad and rebuilding it with cheaper parts. As the season begins, West Ham still have most of last year’s team in tact – for better or worse – but for how much longer? We won’t know for at least another month when the transfer window closes.

Sam Allardyce is a more pragmatic choice of manager than I expected from West Ham’s eccentric owners and he knows how to get out of this division. The signings of Kevin Nolan and Abdoulaye Faye look like pre-emptive strikes against losing Scott Parker. It’s not a forgone conclusion that West Ham go straight back up first time, because this division is a slog and they won’t have the same kind of huge financial advantage that Newcastle had two years ago when they kept a £50m wage bill, but if you’re planning to bet on them being promoted, don’t expect to get much better than even money.

2) What kind of state are the other relegated clubs Birmingham and Blackpool in?

Here’s a partial list of the key players Birmingham have already lost this summer: Barry Ferguson, Martin Jiranek, Roger Johnson, Lee Bowyer, Kevin Phillips, Sebastian Larsson, James McFadden and Craig Gardner. They may not be finished yet either, with Scott Dann and Cameron Jerome possibly on the way out too. Chris Hughton kept Newcastle together two seasons ago, but having a squad full of Premier League internationals with a wage bill that dwarfed everyone else’s certainly helped. Signing Marlon King and Chris Burke gives them a fighting chance.

Blackpool return to the Championship after a season of being patronised in the top division. Not blowing their parachute payments in advance and signing Barry Ferguson to replace Charlie Adam look like good moves. They conceded too many goals last season, but let in 58 the season before when they finished 6th in the Championship, so I don’t think they’ll automatically be among the promotion contenders this time.

3) Why are Forest being tipped as contenders this year?

This is baffling. Forest have lost Rob Earnshaw, Nathan Tyson and Paul McKenna over the summer and the acquisition panel that Billy Davies always complained were too conservative seem to have gone mad and allowed new manager Steve McLaren to replace them with a couple of his Middlesbrough old boys Jonathan Greening and George Boateng plus Forest old boy Andy Reid.

Some of the enthusiasm for Forest in the media seems to be based on familiarity with McLaren and a belief that somehow it must be their turn sooner or later because they are a big club. But after hastily sacking Billy Davies, then hiring McLaren after he didn’t get the Villa job and allowing him to sign ageing veterans like Greening and Boateng looks a bit desperate. Forest should still make the playoffs, but have they really taken much of a leap forward?

4) Are Leicester’s signings really so earth-shattering that they’re joint favourites?

Leicester have been the biggest spenders in the Championship this summer and they seem to be listed as favourites everywhere you look. But what exactly have they spent their money on? Here’s a list of their summer signings as of 4th August: Michael Johnson, John Pantsil, Paul Konchesky, Matt Mills, David Nugent, Sean St Ledger, Lee Peltier, Neil Danns and Kasper Schmeichel.

Are any of those players genuine Premier League quality? You could make a case for Pantsil and maybe Johnson, but the rest are at this level for a reason. Konchesky was a laughing stock at Liverpool last season. Schmeichel may not even get into the top ten goalkeepers in the division. If Nugent was any good, he would have left Portsmouth when they got relegated. Matt Mills is at least still young enough that he’s still improving. They’re all decent enough signings for a Championship club, but there’s nothing spectacular (like a Bellamy or a Boyd) that immediately separates Leicester from the pack.

5) How quickly can Malky Mackay pull Cardiff’s new squad together?

After losing twelve players over the summer, Cardiff have signed players from Scotland, England, Wales, Slovakia, France and Iceland so far this summer. Some of them, like Aron Gunnarrson, Don Cowie, Kenny Miller and Rob Earnshaw are known quantities, while others like Filip Kiss, Rudy Gestede and Joe Mason are not.

The big question mark is how they will replace the goals they’ve lost with the departures of Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd. Miller and Earnshaw are experienced goalscorers but are both in their thirties now. After that, Cardiff have only got the one-dimensional Jon Parkin and inexperienced strikers like Mason, Gestede and Nat Jarvis. Elsewhere in the squad, things look bright. Anthony Gerrard is back from his baffling loan spell at Hull and Craig Conway, Andrew Taylor and in particular Joe Mason have all looked good in pre-season.

6) Who has the bigger task to stay up, Sean O’Driscoll or Nigel Adkins?

Doncaster always seem to be getting mentioned as relegation candidates, as if they’ve pushed their luck and are finally due to drop down to a level more suitable to a club their size, particularly after they were so poor at the end of last season. That ignores two things. Firstly, Doncaster suffered a lot of injuries in the second half of the season and secondly, they have a better team many casual observers realise. At full strength, they’re capable of controlling games against anyone in this division by keeping possession.

Nigel Adkins is accustomed to working miracles. He kept Scunthorpe in the Championship for a second season, but wasn’t convinced he could pull off the same trick twice and left for Southampton. The problem with Norwich, Leeds and Millwall all finishing as high as they did last year is that now everyone thinks it’s possible to go straight through this division. Last season was probably an exception though. Adkins was clever enough to keep low-budget Scunthorpe up, but can he go one better? At least this time he has players who have played at this level before.

7) What happens to Middlesbrough now that the parachute payments have run out?

This time last year, it was all so different. Middlesbrough were favourites to win the league after using the last of their parachute payments to  sign players like Kris Boyd, Stephen McManus, Scott McDonald and Kevin Thomson. But in the end, Boro somehow spent most of the season threatened by relegation. This year, they seem to be polarising opinion more than almost any other club. They haven’t signed anyone of note and don’t appear to have the money to do so either, without selling first. Some fans are optimistic after the club got rid of some of Strachan and Southgate’s poorer signings, while others fear another relegation battle. Marvin Emnes and Scott McDonald should get them enough goals to stay out of trouble while they rebuild financially.

8 ) Will backing Paul Jewell get Ipswich back into the playoffs?

Ipswich have had a huge turnover of players over the summer – most of them outgoing. The £8m they got for Connor Wickham has been used to bring in a sprinkling of quality across the squad. Lee Bowyer has been brought in for a bit of grit. That might be a charitable way to put it. Michael Chopra and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas were both playing for Cardiff last season and were both infuriatingly inconsistent. Chopra is a streaky goal-scorer who’ll get you six goals in four games then he’ll disappear for two months. Emanuel-Thomas showed flashes of brilliance but seemed to disappear when his team needed him the most. These are players who were unwanted by their previous clubs. Can Jewell mould them into a successful team or will he be outmaneuvered by younger managers, just as Dave Jones was last season?

9) After Brendan Rogers and Paul Lambert got their clubs into the Premier League last season, who are the young hotshot managers to watch this time?

Malky Mackay and Simon Grayson are the obvious men to watch this season. Both are likely to be involved at the sharp end of the table. Then you have Eddie Howe at Burnley and Sean Dyche at Watford. Watford will be interesting to watch. Their academy keeps producing players that get sold on very early on their careers, which can be soul-destroying as a fan. This time they’ve also been hampered by the two big Welsh clubs. Danny Graham left for Swansea, while Malky Mackay has left and taken Don Cowie and several off-field personnel with him to Cardiff.

10) How soon can Brighton compete?

Brighton returning to a new ground of their own after fourteen years is one of the football league’s feelgood stories. Take a look at the stadium gallery for their new Amex Stadium if you haven’t already. Padded seats all round, eh?

Just as interesting will be how manager Gus Poyet and chairman Tony Bloom go about plotting their ascent to the Premier League. I think they’re privately hoping to make a run at the playoffs this season. I’m not sure they have enough to pull that off, but then I would never have believed Norwich would win automatic promotion last season. Is it likely at their first attempt? Perhaps not, but I think they’ll succeed sooner or later.

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