A summer that has strangely been filled with international football has not made it any easier for the die-hard club supporter, but fear not, your weekly fix is soon to be returning.
The newly named Capital One Cup kicks off this weekend and will give all Football League fans a chance to get back into the swing of things, whether their club is taking the competition seriously or not. But next Saturday is where it really begins, with the opening day fixtures that have been eagerly anticipated by many all summer long. Some clubs are adapting to life in a new division, some are getting over the fact that they are not and a number of clubs have a new look squad and management to make their mark on what is looking to be another terrific season in the Football League.
If people say that the Premier League is the best division in the world, then the Championship must be the toughest, with big clubs everywhere you look, a whole host of experience and talent in a league where anybody can beat anybody.
The toughest league to predict, as last year proved, but I am going to give it a go and look at each clubs chances of establishing their goals.
Firstly, the three relegated sides from the Premier League. To Wolves, Blackburn and Bolton fans, the realisation of being in the Championship will now be sinking in and all three should be confident of an improved showing from their sides.
Wolves have new boss Stale Solbakken at the helm and he has immediately made his mark on the squad with five new singings, combining youth with experience. The main positive for the midlands club is their financial state. You will rarely find a club relegated from the top flight in England who are as healthy financially as Wolves and that has resulted in them being able to keep key players such as Matt Jarvis, Kevin Doyle, Wayne Hennessey and for now Steven Fletcher. For now only Adlene Guedioura and Michael Kightly are the noticeable departures. I give them a very good chance at making an instant return to the promise land.
Bolton and Blackburn have many similarities going into the start of the season, both losing a whole host of players over the summer, unsurprisingly the better ones, but shrewdly doing some decent work of their own in recruiting Premier League experience with the likes of Keith Andrews, Danny Murphy, the now injured Leon Best and Dickson Etuhu dropping down a division and moving to the North West.
Goals will clearly be vital for both of these sides and Bolton bringing in Benik Afobe could prove to be another loan masterclass from Owen Coyle after Daniel Sturridge’s and Jack Wilshere’s recent time at the Reebok. Similarly, Steve Kean has realised the need for goals and has attracted Portuguese legend Nuno Gomes to Ewood Park and even at his age, he still knows where the net is. I see no reason why these two clubs shouldn’t be in the top six come May.
As Reading and Southampton proved last season, it is not just the big names for big clubs that are required in this division, but shrewd signings and a team ethic to match can be just as deadly if not more so.
After missing out on the promise land via play-off defeats, Blackpool, Birmingham City and Cardiff City may still be licking their wounds, but I can’t see past Birmingham being the strongest of the three this time out. With no Europa League to focus on and a whole host of summer additions that include Darren Ambrose, Ravel Morrison and Pete Lovenkrands, positivity is emerging that could well push the Blues to the next level.
Blackpool have been quieter this summer, with only free signings coming into the club and I genuinely fear that the Seasiders could struggle this time out as their play-off final defeat to West Ham may have been the best chance they have at returning to the Premier League for a long time. Cardiff City on the other hand have had a busy summer off the field, but mainly by converting their club colour from blue to red. It will be interesting to see how the fans and players react this season to the big changes but signings such as Heider Helguson and Joe Lewis could see them sneak back into the top six once again.
Improving clubs that you can’t ignore this season for me are Brighton, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest. Takeover shenanigans at Leeds and Forest have been interesting, with Ken Bates still making a mockery of a once great club but the good times seem to be back at the City Ground.
Last season’s leaky Forest defence has been completely rejigged with Dan Harding, Greg Halford and Danny Collins arriving, but the need for some attacking options is clear and they are one or two signings away from having an extremely strong squad.
Championship expert Neil Warnock hasn’t allowed takeover talk to affect his off the field plans with nine new signings arriving in Yorkshire including four from troubled Portsmouth. I’m not a Warnock fan but you can’t deny he has been clever once again in the transfer market without spending a great deal and if Ken Bates can do the honourable thing and leave, it may not be too long before Leeds are back where they belong.
As mentioned I feel Boro and Brighton will improve on last year’s average season with changes in expectations at either end of the country and under the radar activity that could see them going for a play-off spot. Tony Mowbray has got rid of any deadwood from the squad and brought back some familiar names to the Riverside that could give the small crowd the lift that’s needed. If Jonathan Woodgate stays fit (not going to happen) then he is a Premier League defender and the added flair of Grant Leadbitter and Emmanuel Ledesma could be exciting.
Brighton and Gus Poyet have attracted big names this summer with Wayne Bridge, Tomasz Kuszczak and Champions League regular Bruno moving to the south coast, but a striker is a must for Poyet before the deadline, unless Craig Mackail-Smith can vastly improve on a slow start to his Albion career.
For me the club that has had the best summer off the pitch is Huddersfield. So far keeping hold of prized asset Jordan Rhodes and adding quality to their current squad is all very positive and they could well surprise a few. In particular the singings of Oliver Norwood and Sean Scannell stand out plus stealing Adam Clayton from rivals Leeds should give them confidence that they are not too far behind their neighbours.
The other two promoted clubs from League One, Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday may not find the step up as comfortable however. A real lack of activity at The Valley must be concerning for the Addicks supporters and reported board room unrest is never a good sign going into their biggest season for years. Wednesday can be slightly more positive about their chances after adding nine players to their squad, but a lack of quality is evident to me and while Keiran Lee and Michail Antonio were decent at League One level, like the rest of the squad they need to make the underestimated step up.
Last season’s joint favourites for promotion Leicester City had a massively disappointing campaign, with millions of pounds being thrown around to try and buy their way to promotion. That was never going to happen. It’s been a quieter summer with Nigel Pearson in charge, but I think his power trip over big name players such as Matt Mills and Jermaine Beckford may be his downfall and sadly for Foxes fans I can see another mid-table mediocrity season for them.
Clubs generally seen as middle of the road outfits, the likes of Ipswich, Derby, Hull and Watford don’t stand out to me as making much of a change to that description this season. Ipswich and Derby have been active in the window, but have both mainly focused on preventing goals rather than scoring them and Hull have lost plenty of experience from their squad that could be key. However, with Steve Bruce now at the KC, I can see Hull improving, but not enough to worry the top six this time out.
Gianfranco Zola returns to English football at Watford and although he was harshly treated at West Ham I am not sure his management style suits this division. The new owners at Vicarage Road have used their contacts to bring in foreign talent, but that is usually a recipe for disaster at this level, but I can’t see them going down and expect plaudits of attractive football heading Zola’s way.
Now for the clubs I feel are really going to struggle. Burnley and Crystal Palace fans will probably disagree with me, but I can’t see where you’re going to get many points from. A real lack of transfer activity and losing key players such as Jay Rodriguez and Nathaniel Clyne, replaced with Sam Vokes and Peter Ramage is simply un-inspiring work. The need for late transfer window business is evident, but two young up and coming managers deserve to be given time to build their own squads at their own pace and I hope they get that.
In my opinion it is a lot easier to pick the bottom four or five than it is the top at the moment. A summer of rebuilding is ill-timed at Peterborough United, with numerous players on the transfer list going into the last year of their contract and no real quality being added to the squad. I am all for giving lower league players a chance to step up but United have brought in seven players from lower league clubs and it will be miracle work from Darren Ferguson if they all succeed in their first season.
Millwall have added to their squad, but mainly in defence and wide areas and although they finished the season well last time out, The Den is becoming an easier place to visit and once again they will have to prove all the doubters wrong to stay in this division for another season.
Bristol City have had arguably the worst summer of transfer activity, a club that needed three or four quality additions to make the step up hasn’t got it. A player of Sam Baldock’s quality may change things if his pending transfer is completed but if not they are in trouble.
Finally, poor old Barnsley! Spent most of their summer attracting pay-as-you-play legend Mido only to inevitably see him injured almost immediately. Losing two or three key players to bigger clubs won’t have helped either and I can see it being a long and unsuccessful season at Oakwell.
Dark Horses: Huddersfield Town
Surprise package: Brighton
Let me know your views on the upcoming Championship season, how will your club fair?