The 2016/2017 Sky Bet Championship season proved to be both highly competitive and memorable. Newcastle United and Brighton Hove Albion ran away with automatic promotion, Huddersfield somehow gained promotion to the top flight for the first time in over 40 years, even though they finished the season with a -2 goal difference (GD) and did not win any of their play off matches in 90 minutes. The season also gave way to an epic relegation fight, with Nottingham Forest escaping the drop by 2 goals on the final day, which led to Blackburn Rovers being sentenced to relegation to the third tier of football for the first time since the 1979/1980 season.
As the 2016/2017 season ended we said goodbye to Newcastle, Brighton, Huddersfield, Blackburn, Wigan and Rotherham. However, in the forthcoming season the Championship welcomes back some of the big names in English football history, such as Hull, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Sheffield United, Bolton and Millwall. It is therefore right to presume the forthcoming season should be just as entertaining as last season, if not even better.
In the first part of my preview I will discuss who I think will finish in the top six this season.
The Top two
Aston Villa: Aston Villa were arguably the biggest underachievers last season and never really got going. They got off to a horrific start least season under former boss Roberto Di Matteo, who had spent a huge amount in the Summer of 2016 under new owner Xia Jiantong. However, Steve Bruce was appointed midway through last season and steadied the ship and led Villa to a 13th place finish.
Bruce is an expert when it comes to guiding teams to promotion, as he has shown in the past, when leading Birmingham City and Hull City to promotion to the top flight. Given Steve Bruce’s past track record, the star dazzled squad he has at his disposal and the financial backing he has from the owner one must presume Aston Villa are very much a favourite to be automatically promoted this season. The quality and depth of players such as Scott Hogan, Jack Grealish and Mile Jedinak are just the beginning of Aston Villas’ arsenal.
Derby County: Derby County have for so many years been labelled as the ‘bottlers’. In the last four seasons Derby have twice finished in the top six, and that number really should be four had Steve McClaren’s sides on both occasions not deteriorated. However, I feel that Gary Rowett (Derby County’s present manager) is the man to lead them to promotion, given his impressive managerial records with Birmingham City and Burton Albion. Derby are similar to Aston Villa in that they have a star ridden side who play high tempo football. With the combination of Gary Rowett and Mel Morris (Derby County’s owner) and the right signings this Summer I believe Derby will finally achieve automatic promotion.
The Play Offs (3rd-6th)
Cardiff City: When Neil Warnock stepped into the Cardiff City hot seat, the club were lingering right down at the bottom of the Championship. Neil Warnock led Cardiff from 23rd to a 12th place finish in the second half of last season, and given the form guide over the second half of the season, Cardiff would have finished in the top six. Warnock is another manager with an exceptional managerial record and therefore one must look at them for a promotion push next season.
Fulham: Slavisa Jokanovic is known as a mercenary when it comes to football. Since leaving Partizan in 2009 he has had six manager jobs in just over seven years. Despite having a history with staying loyal to one club, it seems as though Jokanovic wants to remain at Fulham for a third season. From when he took over in 2016, to how he had Fulham playing by the close of the play offs last season, it was an incredible transformation. He changed Fulham from a dull nothing side to a fast moving possession dominating side. Fulham excelled at the end of last season and deserved to have beaten Reading in the play offs, however, it was not to be.
If Slavisa Jokanovic can keep his side playing the way they did at the end of last season then I have no doubt they will again challenge for promotion. The only reason I do not think they will finish in the top two is because I feel that the team will be nervous and afraid going into the final games of next season and will not be able to hold their nerves, due to the disappointing end to last season. The calibre of this manager is shown by the interest of a number of Premier League clubs such as West Ham.
Norwich City: Norwich somewhat drifted last season and at times looked like a side to be reckoned with, such as when they beat Nottingham Forest 6-1 at Carrow Road. However, on other occasions they looked lost and didn’t have the belief to mount a significant top six challenge. Norwich have recently appointed Borussia Dortmund Second Team’s coach Daniel Farke. Daniel Farke had close ties with Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool’s manager) and even more so with Thomas Tuchel (the ex-Borussia Dortmund’s manager). Daniel Farke is also very close to Huddersfield Town’s manager David Wagner, who once managed Borussia Dortmund’s second team.
I feel that Daniel Farke will have a real desire to prove himself and show England what he is all about. I predict that Daniel Farke will look to tap into the Borussia Dortmund youth system and also look to loan players in as did David Wagner at Huddersfield last season. I understand that people will doubt whether Daniel Farke can make an instant impact, but I believe that he will be a dark horse and thus we must keep a close eye on this new look Norwich side.
Now then the question is who will be the 6th and final side in the play offs come the close of next season. Statistics show that back in 2014 76.5% of newly relegated sides from the Premier League did not achieve promotion in their first year in the Championship (since 2004). Therefore given the uncertainty of Middlesbrough being able to hang on to their star players such as Ben Gibson and this statistic from the Telegraph I do not think Middlesbrough will be in the top six next season.
A lot of people have mentioned Brentford to me, but again if you look at the statistics Brentford on paper are heading the wrong way. Since Mark Warbutton’s departure Brentford’s season points tally has fallen each of the last two years. I do not feel Dean Smith has the past knowledge and ability to guide this Brentford side any further. Yes some may say I sound harsh, but I feel last season’s Brentford massively overachieved and with Jota and Lasse Vibe heading for the door I cannot see Brentford finishing in the play offs this season.
Nottingham Forest: Absurd? Yes maybe, but I really do think Nottingham Forest have a chance this season. If you look at the squad on paper it boasts a lot of talent, in the likes of Jamie Ward, Britt Assombalonga, Ben Osborn and David Vaughan. The club are now under new ownership and have a manager (Mark Warbutton) who knows have to get the best out of his players. With a blend of exciting young players such as Ben Brereton and senior players such as Michael Mancienne this is a side that many Championship sides should watch out for. They are a historic name in English football and I believe that this could be the year that the sleeping giant finally awakens from its long sleep.