TTU Go Predicting: A Club-by-Club Championship Preview 2015-16

Posted by on Aug 6, 2015 in TTU Go Predicting | One Comment
TTU Go Predicting: A Club-by-Club Championship Preview 2015-16

Despite the grumblings of the odd curmudgeon, AFC Bournemouth’s promotion to the Premier League in 2014-5 made it a memorable campaign for up and coming clubs last year and the competition looks perhaps yet more even this time out. Relegated clubs are usually among the picks to hop straight back but here is our assessment of the riders and runners for the fray that commences tomorrow evening. Note that this piece was written a week ago and may not reflect some of the more last minute transfers or changes.

Birmingham City

After the woeful tenure of the beleaguered Lee Clark, Gary Rowett came in from Burton Albion and negotiated the two division jump with ease midway through last season. Rowett’s stewardship was never spectacular but he immediately established the Blues as difficult to beat while the emergence of Demarai Gray provided some fantasy to the mix. The club finished 2014-5 with three consecutive 1-0 wins, neatly summarising the steadiness of the progress made and they will look for the same level of solidity again after a low key summer window that has seen just Jacques Maghoma and the unpronounceable Adam Legzdins arrive along with experienced Polak keeper Tomasz Kuszczak. That restraint is of course the result of continued disarray behind the scenes and an ownership situation that has seen Birmingham International Holdings pursue former owner Carson Yeung and his henchman Peter Pannu through the courts. But, with mainstays such as Gray, Jonathan Spector and Paul Caddis penning new deals, on the pitch at least, the trend will continue to be upwards.

Verdict: Chasing the Play-Offs

Blackburn Rovers

Another club which benefit from a manager who knows his onions, Blackburn might have been expected to launch a more convincing challenge for promotion last season. This could be the year when the parlous financial situation detailed for us by Phil Lloyd in June bites hardest. The exits from Ewood Park have been noteworthy with Tom Cairney and Josh King particularly regrettable departures, albeit for decent money. With Middlesbrough sniffing around striker Jordan Rhodes and the player professing himself disappointed that he isn’t being allowed to talk to the Teessiders, a year of downsizing is on the cards even if Craig Conway and Ben Marshall are good assets to possess despite the probable loss to Aston Villa of Rudy Gestede. Gary Bowyer should be wily enough to see off any serious trouble but crowds will continue to fall amid a policy of what business analysts would label managed decline.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Bolton Wanderers

The new managerial bounce instigated by Neil Lennon’s arrival last season started to peter out alarmingly in the Spring and five games without a win to round off 2014-5 does not augur well. The financial complexion also remains highly doubtful even if the wage bill has been considerably lightened by the exit of Chung-yong Lee, Adam Bogdan and Matt Mills among others – the squad remains mammoth and injuries bit hard in denying the Trotters the use of some key players. Few other Championship clubs will have failed to identify Bolton as a team they can finish above and that familiar cycle – the protracted Premier League hangover, an accumulation of dead wood and a series of owner bail outs that would shame Alexis Tsipras – is readily identifiable. That fans are clubbing together to try and keep Adam Le Fondre is admirable but representative of the desperation. Lennon is bright but would surely have taken the Leicester job had he been offered it.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Brentford

The perplexity and outrage that greeted the termination of Mark Warburton’s spell as manager at Griffin Park has been largely drowned out by the smug pronouncements of the analytics crew and we are told that Brentford’s extraordinarily comprehensive new backroom team will bring special teams, random variables, psychology and top spin to the Championship, all under the stewardship of new coach Marinus Dijkhuizen. As a reported tax exile who made his money as a professional gambler, Matthew Benham’s approach is unlikely to win friends, influenced as it would seem to be by the worst excesses of modern corporate culture while Dijkhuizen’s blunt announcement that Jonathan Douglas’s career at the club is over also sticks in the craw. While some of the new playing team are unlikely to bring about improvement in the wake of the departure of Alex Pritchard and others – serial underperformer Josh McEachran in particular – the capture of centre back Andrea Bjelland and strikers Philipp Hofmann and Lasse Vibe in particular does look like very shrewd business and while such an outlay in wages doesn’t quite fit with the size of audience the Bees are accustomed to, the club should go close again this time.

Verdict: Automatic

Brighton and Hove Albion

Underwhelming in a recent friendly draw at Lewes, having hammered their local rivals 5-0 at the same point last year, something of a fug seems to have settled over Sussex. Like many so-called hipster clubs, will the fans stay when the results go wrong? So far, the answer is yes, although the atmosphere at the impressively cavernous Amex could do with some stoking. A daring bid by Fulham for key man Lewis Dunk will have unsettled the squad and that he finished as top scorer last term says it all about the paucity of Albion’s striking options. Vahid Hambo at 20 and Jack Harper at 19 are highly unlikely to put that right and Chris Hughton looks to have his work cut out even if Tomer Hemed’s eight La Liga goals in 2015-6 is none too shabby. In truth, the squad is no worse than many in the division but failure to beat Nottingham Forest in the season opener will make it eight league games without a win.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Bristol City

That Steve Cotterill succeeded where Sean O’Driscoll failed shows there are a great many ways to skin a cat and Bristol City won over everyone after a swashbuckling spring to the League 1 title in 2014-5. So far, the main concern has been to hold on to assets rather than add to an already successful squad and the exit of the inconsistent Jay Emmanuel-Thomas is far from a disaster. Most intriguing will be how the stars of the promotion campaign – defender Aden Flint, midfielder Joe Bryan and winger Luke Freeman adapt to the higher echelon and it’s hard to see the momentum stalling. City’s squad has a fresh look to it and despite the manager’s perhaps unfair reputation for deploying the long ball, further good times look on the cards.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Burnley

Burnley fought manfully to preserve their Premier League status and the club’s comparative lack of spending a year ago signalled that modern day strategy of accepting relegation manfully in order to build and come back stronger using the monies earned. That approach does, however, rely to a degree on holding on to one’s best players and the loss of Danny Ings and Kieran Tripper will leave star shaped holes up front and in defence. The squad now has a much more prosaic look about even if the likes of Scott Arfield and Sam Vokes were instrumental in earning the Clarets promotion a year ago. Having done nothing to diminish their reputation in the year upstairs, the hard part starts here and not replacing Ings adequately would be foolish in the extreme. So far, the answer has been to recruit Everton kid Chris Long.

Verdict: Chasing the Play-Offs

Cardiff City

An critically disappointing season under the watch of the hapless Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Russell Slade will have come as a shock for Cardiff’s expensive squad and there is a rudderlessness and lack of spirit that will be hard to stamp out second time round. The suspicion is that Slade is out of his depth and the squad constitutes a bloated, unhappy marriage of the expensive failures of the previous regime and the not quite good enough lower divisioners brought in by the former Leyton Orient boss. One can see Slade’s tenure juddering to a halt in the early autumn and if the still unpopular regime chooses a new manager well, the corner may be turned – Peter Whittingham continues to show remarkable consistency and Sammy Ameobi on loan from Newcastle does look like a superior capture.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Charlton Athletic

The revolving door at Charlton continues to spin and while there is a suspicion that the club’s tie in with Standard Liege is a low rent version of Watford’s successful strategy, there were signs towards the end of last year that Guy Luzon was building shrewdly. Signing excellent right sided midfielder Johann Berg Gudmundsson to a new deal is a major coup and evidence of Premier League clubs missing the trick and for all the comings and goings, it’s home grown Jordan Cousins and Chris Solly who still provide the most for the supporters to be proud about. The problem – as with so many clubs – is goals. Igor Vetokele was a qualified success in 2014-5 while Simon Makienok, prolific in Denmark with Brøndby but practically non-existent at Palermo, will be expected to come up with the goods.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Derby County

After a simply horrific ending to a season when Derby should, by rights, have achieved automatic promotion, there has been a real determination to put things right next time out. Tom Ince and Darren Bent’s signatures have been made permanent, Scott Carson comes in between the sticks and Andi Weimann is the kind of player one always expected might eventually prosper in Championship climes. The squad was pretty damn good already of course and Chris Martin and Will Hughes are still around. The doubts linger over an unhealthy preference for slow, traditional centre backs and the returning Jason Shackell and Alex Pearce will do little to change the tenor of a lumbering backline. Then there is the new boss –Paul Clement’s CV as a back-up man is stellar but he’s never taken charge of the reins.

Verdict: Chasing the Play-Offs

Fulham

Last season’s appalling outcome will have shocked Fulham fans reared on the Premier League years. Youngsters such as Patrick Roberts and Moussa Dembele were supposed to have dominated and Ross McCormack’s £11m price tag redefined the label ‘millstone’ – a return of 17 goals did not amount to failure per se but given the outlay, the Cottagers will certainly have expected better. Now Roberts has gone and Fulham are showing aggression in the transfer market again – the excellent Tom Cairney, Ben Pringle and Luke Garbutt look to be well judged acquisitions but ultimately, McCormack’s threat does little to defer the impression that Fulham are something of a soft touch, especially at the back where home hammerings at the hands of Bournemouth and their perhaps natural local rivals Brentford linger in the memory.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Huddersfield Town

Any confidence in the Terriers at the start of last season was disproved in the early weeks as Mark Robins lost his job and midfielders Oliver Norwood and Adam Clayton moved on. Injuries to Nakhi Wells and James Vaughan also cost the Yorkshiremen dear and if both can stay fit in 2015-6, they and Jacob Butterfield could ignite a play-off push. Of the newcomers, Dean Whitehead will never let anyone down but Ishmael Miller’s continued employment in the second tier is a puzzle. Chris Powell is possibly the most patronised boss in football and he has a steeliness that belies his affable exterior – a year ago, I picked Huddersfield as a likely surprise package and I’m not going to make the same mistake again even if it’s hard not to be enticed.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Hull City

A year ago, Hull City were losing valiantly in the FA Cup Final and their recent relegation from the Premier League says more about the toughness of the competition they were involved in than any of their shortcomings. Disruption came with Jake Livermore’s involvement in narcotics and too few players made the number of appearances needed to bring success. A squad that contained James Chester, Robbie Brady, Tom Huddlestone and Nikica Jelavic looked frankly too good for the division but now the former duo have moved on and the Championship is no respecter of reputations. Steve Bruce knows that of course and the Tigers should certainly be in the frame at the top of the table but having to gerrymander his line up so late in pre-season might see the East Ridingers off to a sticky start.

Verdict: Chasing the Play-Offs

Ipswich Town

A heartening advertisement for the wisdom of sticking with an experienced manager, Ipswich fans were rightly proud of a super 2014-5 even if they had to stomach the humiliation of defeat to rivals Norwich in the play-offs. Tyrone Mings’ astounding £8m transfer to Bournemouth sees them lose a terrific but not necessarily fundamental player and the emergence of Ted Bishop shows that the Suffolk production line is still very well oiled. With Daryl Murphy a striker reborn to the tune of 27 goals and Luke Chambers and Christophe Berra virtually ever present in McCarthy’s image at centre half, the club are well poised although they’ll need more than Championship journeymen Luke Varney and Brett Pitman to go that extra yard.

Verdict: Chasing the Play-Offs

Leeds United

The Yorkshiremen have been in the lower divisions for so long now that they no longer feature among the favourites to get back into the Premier League – and no longer are we surprised to see the name Leeds United on the Championship roll call. That also owes something to the keystone cops personality of occasional owner Massimo Cellino while a tendency to chop and change managers has made instability a given at Elland Road. But, with youngsters such as Sam Byram and Alex Mowatt continuing to shine and a colossal new centre back in the shape of Ivorian Sol Bamba arriving at the club this summer, the hard times might just be behind them. The signing of Chris Wood for a cool £3m is another statement of intent even if the Kiwi’s reputation largely hinges on a very short purple patch at Leicester City. Ditto incoming boss Uwe Rösler, successful at Brentford but anything but at Wigan.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Middlesbrough

Beaten play-off finalists rarely fail to pick themselves up off the floor and there is a determination at the Riverside to go one better this time. Under the sophisticated management of Aitor Karanka, Boro exceeded expectations in 2014-5 and proved to be a beguiling mix of the experienced and the youthful; the English and the other. Losing loanee Patrick Bamford is a blow of course but prodigal son Stewart Downing is back and the return of Czech centre back Tomas Kalas is most welcome. Nor is the club finished – a rumoured £14m has been bid for Jordan Rhodes while Christian Stuani was cited as the best summer capture of a South American by BBC Sport’s Tim Vickery recently. With Grant Leadbitter continuing to dominate opposing midfields, Lee Tomlin showing wit and invention and Albert Adomah rifling down the wing, Middlesbrough are rightly among the promotion favourites.

Verdict: Automatic

Milton Keynes Dons

These are uncharted waters for Franchise FC and ones that they may have difficulty in negotiating. Dele Alli and Will Grigg contributed most of the team’s goals but both are off – the former to Spurs and the latter to Wigan. Simon Church, fortunate to get another chance at this level, has come in as a none too adequate replacement. Cristian Benavente Bristol – to give him his full name – does look like an intriguing acquisition however. Freshly arrived from Real Madrid’s B team, he operates just behind the striker and comes with good notices. Only part of Peru’s Copa America preliminary squad, he should still be fresh but elsewhere, the squad has a lower leagues look about it – Darren Potter was often despised at Sheffield Wednesday, Dean Lewington has been with the Dons since Day One and Kyle McFadzean came up through the divisions with Crawley. Momentum is a fine thing and as a city with a population approaching 250,000 people, there will be Premier League football at the Winkledome at some point but for now, this town full of chain pubs will have to satisfy itself with the Rugby World Cup and a relegation fight.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Nottingham Forest

Last season started thrillingly for Forest with Britt Assombalonga and Michail Antonio making hay while the sun shone. Then, the wheels feel off the Stuart Pearce bandwagon and the club made a slightly underwhelming appointment in another ex-player, Dougie Freedman. The last time the team won a game was against Rotherham in mid-March and there is a worrying possibility that the slide could continue. Jamie Ward and Matt Mills are sensible new signings but all will hinge on whether Assombalonga can recapture his form and stay clear of injury, especially as the club is having to bat off repeated bids from West Brom for Antonio. Elsewhere, Henri Lansbury and Chris Burke remain mainstays and owners the Al-Hasawi family would be well advised to try and stick with what they have in a bid to mould a more sustainable blend.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Preston North End

Having achieved promotion with a number of different clubs from the third tier, it’s become a truism that Simon Grayson has been less effective in the Championship. However, his Leeds side actually finished one place outside the play-offs after promotion before he was garishly jettisoned by Ken Bates. So, a Preston team that has become very used indeed to winning matches over the past two seasons looks well prepared for their ascension. Putting the excellent Joe Garner on a new deal while making the signatures of Paul Gallagher and Jermaine Beckford permanent were no brainer moves and this highly skilled triumvirate will be a match for any defence in the league. Add to that the talent of energetic Aussie centre back Bailey Wright and a real willingness to scrap and North End look likely to be this year’s surprise package.

Verdict: Chasing the Play-Offs

Queens Park Rangers

QPR have taken full advantage of the Football League’s hesitancy to punish them for flagrant breaches of Financial Fair Play rules to bring in some astute signings in Swindon duo Massimo Luongo and Ben Gladwin and eternal trier and ex-Ranger Jamie Mackie. Add to that a seriously lightened wage bill following the exit of Joey Barton and assorted bad eggs and the club look in much better shape even if it’s highly debatable that they should be allowed to continue to trade to this degree. At the time of writing, prized asset Charlie Austin is still in the blue and white hoops but the intention would appear to be to allow them to leave as long as the money is good. All this points to a year of transition but the quality in the squad remains high enough to challenge for the play-offs even if there are doubts about the calibre of manager Chris Ramsey.

Verdict: Chasing the Play-Offs

Reading

A magical run to a Wembley semi-final masked an awful second half of the season for Reading and manager Steve Clarke’s record is as poor as any recent boss in statistical terms. He understandably wants a squad of his own players and the Thai owners have finally opened the purse strings to allow for some significant summer moves. Stephen Quinn and Paul McShane in particular will add experience to a squad where much is expected of youngsters such as Michael Hector and Tarique Fosu. Up front, the arrival of Orlando Sá looks a less convincing solution to the team’s lack of goals with all reports suggesting that he’s a carbon copy of Pavel Pogrebnyak, now entering into his fourth, long season in Berkshire. With Hector and Garath McCleary occupied for most of the summer with the Jamaican national team, there will be a disjointed look to the squad – and an unfamiliar one given that the departures include Alex Pearce, Adam Federici and Jem Karacan, all of whom having been with the club since before the Ark.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Rotherham United

The Football League’s lawyers breathed a sigh of relief at the end of last season when Rotherham amassed enough points to avoid relegation following a points deduction which would never have been imposed on a more powerful or financially influential club. Despite this escape, the Millers second league status will be perilous in 2015-6, however. As usual, Steve Evans has presided over the annual bout of musical chairs with Kári Árnason and Ben Pringle particularly important departures. The new arrivals are cut price and in possession of unconvincing track records, save perhaps for 34 year old Danny Collins and Sheffield Wednesday’s Chris Maguire while Evans’ knowledge of the less elevated reaches of the football pyramid has always stood him in good stead. It will be an achievement indeed just to stay in the division.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Sheffield Wednesday

For the first time in years, Wednesday have been buoyed by feelings of vague optimism, purchased by large amounts of money from a takeover and arrival of new head coach in Carlos Carvalhal, and that anticipation has been substantiated by some big changes – new pitch, training facilities and, controversially, premier league ticket prices. That change is underlined by the departure of the reliable Lewis Buxton and Chris Maguire. Jack Hunt and Ross Wallace will be welcome to the piece even if Lewis McGugan’s inconsistency can rival that of the British weather, while the team will need to get the crowd behind them quickly – there is a danger that by raising the admission prices by such a substantial leap, the Owls will be content to earn the same money from smaller crowds, and Hillsborough has hardly been a fortress of late.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Few fans hop about with anger with as much gusto as Wolves supporters and the prospect of Bakary Sako making his way down the A41 to West Bromwich is likely to cause a minor earthquake if it happens. That said, there is tendency in seasonal previews to concentrate on the comings and goings at a club at the expense of existing good squads and with Kenny Jackett at the helm and a really encouraging season behind them, Wolves can certainly expect to be featuring in the play-off shake up. Jed Wallace may have arrived from lowly Portsmouth but has always looked good enough to play higher and Huddersfield fans were disappointed to see Conor Coady leave for the West Midlands – these newbies lend an already very strong midfield spearheaded by Kevin McDonald a rocklike look while Danny Batth is one of the football league’s best young defenders and Benik Afobe was imposing in front of goal after his arrival from MK Dons.

Verdict: Chasing the Play-Offs

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

1 Comment

  1. Dave
    August 6, 2015

    Since when has Matthew Benham been a tax exile?

    Reply

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