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 second part of my Championship preview I will discuss who I think will finish in the bottom five in the forthcoming season.
Predicting who will just avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth and who will be relegated to League 1 is arguably very hard to call. You will always have the smaller clubs and newly promoted clubs from League 1 in the back of your mind when thinking about the relegation battle but the problem is in the Championship anyone can beat anyone. There are no guaranteed wins and nothing is for sure even if you are top of the table or had an excellent first half of the season. The Championship does not abide to usual league rules, were the wealthier clubs finish higher than the smaller cash strapped clubs. Therefore my bottom five are not based on facts or the financial muscle backing a club, but instead I have gone with my gut feeling.
20th and 21st
Sunderland are a club filled with ‘cancers’, players and management staff eating away at the club and ruining it. It is to no surprise that they were relegated from the Premier League last season, and to be frank it was an overdue relegation. Sunderland had escaped four relegation battles prior to their relegation and struggled as a club both on and off the pitch since Steve Bruce left the club in November 2011. Sunderland have an owner, Ellis Short, who wants to sell the club and has stopped pumping money into the club and therefore it is unlikely that the new manager will be given the funds to strengthen or overhaul an ageing squad. Sunderland have already lost and look set to lose key players and have not replaced them as of yet, such as Jordan Pickford to Everton, Fabio Borini to AC Milan, and Jermain Defoe looks Bournmouth bound.
Sunderland are filled with outdated and ageing Premier League players, such as John O’Shea and Bryan Oviedo. I do not think these players will be hungry or ready to tackle a very competitive line up of Championship teams. I feel that not enough of the Sunderland players want the shirt therefore I predict manager less Sunderland will narrowly avoid back to back relegations.
Ipswich Town are one of the most cash strapped clubs in the forthcoming Championship season and I feel that this season their lack of spending over the last two seasons could catch up to them. According to the website transfer league Ipswich Town have spent less than £1 million in the last two seasons but have sold players in excess of £9 million. Mick McCarthy (Ipswich Town’s manager) has had to rely constantly on free transfers and credit must go to him as Ipswich Town have never been involved in a relegation battle under his tenure. However, I feel that this is because over the last few seasons the sides who have been relegated from the Championship have been very poor (e.g. MK Dons, Charlton Athletic and Rotherham), but this season there are no stand out poor sides. Therefore I believe that Ipswich Town will struggle this season, but one must believe that the knowledge and ability of Mick McCarthy will be crucial in their survival.
The Bottom Three
Burton Albion surprised everyone last season as the Brewers survived relegation by finishing 20th. Nigel Clough truly did the impossible last season with a squad full of players who lacked Championship experience and were mainly accustomed to playing in Leagues 1 and 2. Eight seasons ago Burton Albion were playing their first season in the Football League and now they have just finished above both Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers in the Championship. What an achievement. However, despite Nigel Clough building a side that were very hard to breakdown, I cannot see Burton Albion escaping relegation again. Rotherham in the 2015-2016 Championship miraculously escaped relegation under Neil Warnock but a season later they finished the campaign with only 23 points (28 points adrift of 21st). Rotherham’s struggle in their second season in the Championship is the main reason why I believe that Burton Albion will struggle to survive in the 2017-2018 Championship season.
I have to be brutally honest, before writing this article I struggled to look at this seasons’ Championship teams and pick out three sides I thought would be relegated come May 2018. I have gone for Bristol City as my second out of three sides to be relegated based on their last six seasons and also having watched them live last season. In the last six seasons Bristol City have either been at the wrong end of the Championship or in League 1. They have never played attractive football and are a very direct playing side. With Tammy Abraham not returning on loan this season to Ashton Gate (Bristol City’s home ground) I am not able to see where the goals will come from this season. Not only this but upon watching Bristol City against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground (Nottingham Forest’s home ground) they did not strike me as being a threatening side with their current crop of players and with their current manager, Lee Johnson. I humbly accept I could be proven wrong on Bristol City this season but I have to stick with my gut feeling.
Bolton are my side to finish bottom this season but I expect them to challenge other sides more than Rotherham (finished bottom with 24 points in the 2016-2017 Championship season) did so. Bolton are not a side that lacks the ability and the desire of a newly promoted side, but instead I fear that problems off the field could affect the club. It is rumoured that the owners, a Dean Holdsworth fronted consortium, are already running out of money. The club made a £11 million loss last season and on multiple occasions were late at repaying loans, notably to Prescot Business Park Ltd. Co-owners Ken Anderson and Dean Holdsworth are rumoured to be in the midst of a feud which could jeopardise any transfer targets that Phil Parkinson has for his Bolton squad. Despite Bolton finishing 2nd In League 1 last season they scored less than 70 goals, which is unusually low for an automatically promoted side in League 1. Phil Parkinson knows he needs to add to his firepower up top but given the problems with the senior hierarchy as of yet any new big signings looks unlikely. My verdict is that Bolton will be relegated come May 2018.