TTU Go Predicting: A Club-by-Club Championship Preview 2016-17

Posted by on Aug 1, 2016 in Previews | 2 Comments
TTU Go Predicting: A Club-by-Club Championship Preview 2016-17

We are back for a new season and one in which we hope to post more regularly and where we intend on introducing some new features while exploring the most important themes that impact upon the game, be they political, financial, sociological or economic. There’ll be room of course for some old fashioned analysis of on-pitch trends, some nostalgia and some personal memories – while we shall continue to reflect a fan’s eye view that is not beholden to vested interests. First up, this week will see us preview the three divisions of the Football League, starting somewhat illogically, with the biggest of these. Thanks to Ben Woolhead for input on this particular preview while I should remind people that this year’s competition has been rebranded as the slightly sinister ‘EFL’ – which could be an energy company or a ragbag of right wing n’er do wells depending on how hard your hearing is.

Aston Villa

From Villan to villain, Randy Lerner is painted as the chief baddie of Aston Villa’s recent history but the proper reason for this should be the American’s incessant bankrolling of Martin O’Neill in a failed bid to join the true elite of English football. That the owner compounded things by losing interest to the degree that Tim Sherwood seemed like a good appointment is really only a footnote – Villa’s long term health isn’t good despite the arrival of Tony Xia with a £50m war chest. To date, the club have found it difficult to spend that money as the priority has been to rid the organisation of last season’s overpaid underperformers and much will depend on whether former teenage starlets Gary Gardner and Jack Grealish can coalesce as young guns – that the latter started just nine times in an injury ravaged 2015-6 suggests there is a way to go. Elsewhere, Ashley Westwood is still there to anchor the midfield, Tommy Elphick looks to be an astute acquisition and new boss Roberto Di Matteo has the words ‘Champions League winner’ on his CV but the squad is still a dog’s dinner and the memory of losing game after game in the Spring won’t be easily erased.

Verdict: Chasing the Play-Offs

Barnsley

The Tykes were famously in twenty fourth place in League 1 at the beginning of December but subsequently embarked on a miraculous run that led to dual Wembley triumphs in the Football League Trophy and the play-offs, all conducted with a playing manner that was highly pleasing on the eye. The midfield dynamism of Conor Hourihane and the skills and spectacular goals of Adam Hammill, especially in North London, were fundamental but the latter’s failure to set the world alight at Championship level in the past might have signalled a need for manager Paul Heckingbotham to look elsewhere – something he has done in bringing in Liverpool’s 19 year old winger Ryan Kent on loan and Walsall’s much sought after goleador Tom Bradshaw. With Alfie Mawson having enjoyed two outstanding seasons in central defence, the former in the Oxbridge colours of Wycombe, the South Yorkshire club have the ability to create a surprise or two.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Birmingham City

Never out of the top ten last season and in possession of probably the division’s brightest up and coming managerial mind in Gary Rowett, so why aren’t Birmingham City among the favourites for a more convincing push this time? That the Blues have done little business in the transfer market and finished 2015-6 with a sole victory in nine matches could be reasons but overwhelmingly, it’s the ownership situation that has hampered recent progress. A takeover from Trillion Trophy Asia has been beset by delays and even they have made a less than reassuring promise not to sell the club on for two years. It’s hardly an ideal situation but Rowett has a tenaciously minded assemblage that revolves around Stephen Gleeson and Maikel Kieftenbeld in midfield. With Michael Morrison providing solidity at the back and Clayton Donaldson as mercurial as ever veering in from wide areas, the squad is proven but should not be distracted by all the parochial noise that will surround Aston Villa’s visit the day before Hallowe’en. Beating their rivals will do nothing to prove the team’s true credentials – the other forty matches are just as important.

Verdict: Chasing the Play-Offs

Blackburn Rovers

As unwelcome managerial appointments go, Owen Coyle’s arrival at Ewood is another to rank alongside Christian Gross rocking up at Spurs and Steve Lomas joining Millwall. Although an ability to navigate the touch line wearing skimpy shorts might be seen as an attribute in a region where toughness is admired, that their hue has been claret and blue in the past would always be a stumbling block to being welcomed warmly. Coyle’s stuttering progress as a manager since his Turf Moor days is an additional dent to confidence while a new forward line of Danny Graham and Anthony Stokes has a decided feel of ‘yesterday’s men’. Graham did reasonably well in a loan spell last year, netting 7 times in 18 games but Stokes has quite simply never done it south of Hadrian’s Wall. That the whole business continues to be stewarded by the demonic chicken farmers of Venkys overshadows everything.

Verdict: Relegated

Brentford

The prospect of a new stadium near to Kew Bridge has dominated longer term thinking at Brentford in recent times although the club is enjoying some real salad days. Having seemingly peaked the season before last, they finished 2015-6 spectacularly with a 5-1 humping of Huddersfield and, even better, a 3-0 demolition of local rivals Fulham. That said, Jake Bidwell’s departure to the other point of the West London Championship triumvirate in QPR is a bitter pill to swallow indeed and Dean Smith has stated that this and the sale of goalkeeper David Button to Fulham were for ‘economic reasons’. The funds needed for a 20,000 capacity stadium are considerable and one wonders whether 15,000 might have been quite enough for a club of the Bees’ size. John Egan looks like a very good capture in central defence and the youth set up is reputedly good – so I’d tip Brentford to have another comfortable season at this level while continuing to damage a few more vaunted reputations.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Brighton and Hove Albion

Tipped by every man jack to struggle last year, including this website, Brighton defied everybody with a start that saw them remain unbeaten for a gazillion games. Eventual, perhaps inevitable agony in the play-offs takes nothing away from their achievements and in particular the wholly admirable stewardship of Chris Hughton. The many players who excelled last year should be just as primed this time out and in Israeli duo, Tomer Hemed and Baram Kayal, the combative Dale Stephens and wingers Anthony Knockaert and Solly March, the Seagulls have some real gems even if Knockaert is attracting the attentions of Newcastle. March will miss the start of the season as he recovers from injury but two former players have arrived in the hope of doing a ‘Zamora’. Steve Sidwell might find competition for places too tough in an already fearsome midfield but Glenn Murray may be just the ticket as a partner for Hemed up front – as long as he is forgiven for jumping ship to Crystal Palace in a previous life.

Verdict: Promoted

Bristol City

It’s been a busy summer at Ashton Gate and the capture of Lee Tomlin on a three year deal after a successful temporary spell is a real boon. Defender Hörður Magnússon, evidence of the Summer craze for all things Icelandic, also looks like a well-chosen arrival having been a consistent appearance maker for Cesena and Spezia in the Italian lower leagues and having been on Juventus’s books, while the evergreen Gary O’Neil has been consistency personified over a lengthy career. That said, City lack the financial muscle of most of their opponents and a similar outcome to last season would probably be realistic although minus the godawful start. Defender Aden Flint continues to be a rock as well as a menace in opposing boxes but the most fascinating aspect will be whether Jonathan Kodjia can continue to show the fine goal scoring form he displayed in 2015-6.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Burton Albion

One of the smallest clubs ever to appear in the second tier of English football and as Culture Club once sang, ‘every day is like survival’. That’s taking nothing away from a magnificent achievement in reaching this level but Nigel Clough has acted decisively in reaction to what was in all honesty a pretty average second half of 2015-6. The Brewers won only a third of their matches in the run in and found things especially difficult in front of goal – so a plethora of newcomers have arrived including Lloyd Dyer, Lee Williamson, Ben Turner and Kyle McFadzean. The latter two names could form a new central defensive partnership and could make Albion hard to beat but the scoring problem is yet to be addressed. Chris O’Grady, a diffident, frustrating presence at his various clubs is very likely not the answer.

Verdict: Relegated

Cardiff City

That Cardiff only missed out on a play-off place very late in the day last season comes as something of a surprise on reflection as it was really a very uninteresting campaign indeed for the Bluebirds. Russell Slade always looked like a fish out of water in South Wales but Paul Trollope is a low key replacement and to date, there has been little adventure in the transfer market save for the patriotism-inspired swap deal that has seen Jazz Richards join the fray. No forward got into double figures for Cardiff in 2015-6 and the team’s most prominent performers were in midfield – Anthony Pilkington and the ever excellent Peter Whittingham stood out in particular. After a fine Euro 2016, Aron Gunnarsson will want to spend less time on the bench and overtures from Hull for the club’s best player, goalkeeper David Marshall, will be about as welcome as a Boris Johnson at a European trade show.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Derby County

Nigel Pearson is the manager Derby County should have turned to after the sacking of Paul Clement last autumn and although a late rally saw the Rams reach the play-offs, it’s a big tale of what might have been for one of the league’s most expensively assembled concerns. Pearson, long respected and liked in the lower leagues, seemed to develop a deeply unfair reputation for being a nasty piece of work in his Premier League days while receiving scant credit for the Leicester City miracle, a series of events that he was fundamental in bringing about. Quite rightly, the club’s ownership have refused to be overly active in the transfer market, reasoning that the existing personnel should be altogether good enough to feature in the promotion shake-up. Jeff Hendrick had a superb Euro 2016, really coming of age as a player, and Will Hughes will be back after missing almost all of the last campaign through injury. Pearson will not tolerate continued underperformance from the likes of Nick Blackman and Andi Weimann while Tom Ince, despite scoring 12 goals last term, can also do better.

Verdict: Chasing the play-offs

Fulham

Fulham fans probably think that holding on to Ross McCormack is the key to their being able to compete in 2016-7 and they may well be right – but the chance to recoup most of a fee that became a watchword for lower league fiscal irresponsibility may be welcome as we enter a new campaign. Slaviša Jokanović has shown a degree of acumen in the transfer market thus far with goalkeeper David Button, on loan Chelsea centre back Tomáš Kalas, Wolves’ midfield leader and powerhouse Scott McDonald and Hull’s talented Sone Aluko going some way to forming an effective spine. The loss of youngster Moussa Dembele after a break out season of some significance was inevitable but disappointing nonetheless, and were McCormack to join him, the Cottagers might be in for more more torment – like many squads full of ex-Premier League players, that kind of recipe rarely adds up to success but expect the west Londoners to do a little better this time out.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Huddersfield Town

The Terriers made great strides under David Wagner last season after a series of managers who commanded more respect outside the Pennines than they did at the club itself. Still, it was an absolute horror show at the death with nine goals conceded against mediocre opposition in Bristol City and Brentford. Whether that will give Wagner and his men the jitters will be fascinating to study and bringing in Danny Ward on loan after the netminder signed a new contract at Liverpool displays real opportunism. Harry Bunn and Jonathan Hogg continue to give Town a robust look while Nakhi Wells will once again be relied upon for thrills and spills up front while being set an objective to break 20 goals for the season. World University Games alumnus Joe Lolley continues to make progress.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Ipswich Town

Ipswich took half a step backwards in 2015-6 through no real fault of their own as bigger spenders helped themselves to the play-off spots. Fundamental to the slight regression was a marked failure on the part of Daryl Murphy to replicate his form of the previous year. The Irishman can cite injury as part of the reason for this as can David McGoldrick and the exciting Teddy Bishop. Granite boss Mick McCarthy has likened Bishop to a quarterback which will make most football fans come out in hives at the memory of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney being deployed in a similar roles for England, but the youngster is far from his peak, let alone over it. Elsewhere, Luke Chambers is a central defensive colossus who provides brain and brawn while signing up Tommy Smith to a new contract is a smart move – but McCarthy will present opposing managers with few surprises. Comfortably safe but no more than that.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Leeds United

The kamikaze ownership of Massimo Cellino has set the tone at Elland Road and like the aforementioned Venkys over the Pennines, it’s hard to imagine too much of a turnaround despite Garry Monk having bountiful raw materials to work with. Kemar Roofe was enticed from Oxford under the noses of a host of rival clubs – although two division jumps can be hazardous to negotiate – while kids Charlie Taylor and Alex Mowatt and loanee Matt Grimes provide dynamism. Monk, incredibly harshly sacked by Swansea, might have just been appointed England manager in a more satisfying parallel universe but with Lewis Cook having joined Bournemouth, he’ll have his work cut out having to please his trigger happy boss. Leeds have been down so long now that the name of the club no longer seems odd in this company – although the fee for Cook and his onward destination is a scenario that does have a hefty element of the surreal about it.

Verdict: Middle of the Road

Newcastle United

Rarely can the pre-season mood around St James’ Park have been so upbeat – as reflected in increased season ticket sales that are all the more remarkable given that the Magpies find themselves back down in the Championship. That they’ll kick off against Fulham filled with expectation rather than hope, for once, is largely thanks to one man and his decision to stay. While Rafa Benítez’s sanity can be called into question, his managerial credentials certainly can’t. Granted a level of autonomy and respect that Mike Ashley routinely denies his employees, Benitez has quietly and sensibly set about the business of recruiting Premier League-quality players with Championship experience (including Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle and Grant Hanley) and a highly rated young ‘keeper (Mats Sels) while authorising the sales of Georginio Wijnaldum and Andros Townsend for healthy fees. Further departures are likely before the transfer window closes, with unlikely Euro 2016 hero Moussa Sissoko, Darryl Janmaat and Florian Thauvin in particular all desperately eyeing the exit – but even without them or the released quartet of Steven Taylor, Fabricio Coloccini, Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveaux, the squad is arguably the division’s strongest. The target – indeed, the expectation – is obvious: an immediate return to the top flight. That objective is eminently achievable – though football has a funny habit of biting one savagely in the arse. If (as is possible) things fail to go to plan in the first few months, and if (as is likely) a juicy vacancy materialises in the Premier League, then the club’s lifesaving buoyancy aid may yet decide to jump from a ship he can’t help from sinking.

Verdict: Promoted

Norwich City

Norwich crept up via the play offs a little over a year ago and relegation takes none of the shine off Alex Neil’s promise as a manager nor the players’ efforts which for much of the season were manful and admirable. Having collected £11m from Southampton for Nathan Redmond, City are now circling in the hope of teasing Ross McCormack away from Fulham but the main intent has been to keep a more than capable unit together. Kyle Lafferty would have the physical presence to rattle more than a few Championship cages were he not able to concentrate on the things that matter, Timm Klose is getting positive reviews at centre back and the effort, nous and commitment shown by Robbie Brady in Euro 2016 was simply to die for. If McCormack doesn’t arrive, more late business is likely to be made – the only bum note is foot-in-mouth specialist Jez Moxey arriving from Wolves as chief executive, perhaps out of keeping with the lack of flash that is the Norwich way.

Verdict: Chasing the play-offs

Nottingham Forest

In this post-Brexit world where foreigners are afforded the same suspicion as dachshunds were subjected to in World War I, there will be many who are cynical about Nottingham Forest’s new continental management structure that has seen Pedro Pereira come in as director of football and Philippe Montanier in charge of day to day training ground matters. Montanier has extensive experience at the top level in Europe with Real Sociedad and Rennes so should not be taken lightly. The club struggled to progress under the listless ownership of Fawaz Al-Hasawi although his stated intention to sell the club within weeks – possibly to Evangelos Marinakis, accused of match-fixing and directing a criminal organisation in his native Greece, might be expected to alert the devisers of the fit and proper persons test had that examination not been proved to be entirely fictional in recent times. On the pitch, much hope will rest on the shoulders of fit-again Britt Assombalonga but the playing staff is littered with the names of men who have failed to reach their potential. Another stormy season beckons.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Preston North End

A model for stability and good decision-making, Preston under Simon Grayson have, as a unit, pulled together and quietly set an example that many other clubs would do well to follow. Every player knows his job and the squad has been added to incrementally and with good judgement – no better personified than Daniel Johnson, a £50,000 capture from Aston Villa a year and a half ago and a man who treats the football like his own personal property. North End are a hard-working unit in the main and possess an extremely parsimonious defence but Paul Gallagher and Jermaine Beckford provide enough skill to make a difference at the business end. Beckford’s return is welcome indeed as scoring enough goals has been the only challenge for the men in white; Joe Garner having failed to replicate his League 1 scoring form despite some good performances for the team. Loanees Eoin Doyle and Callum Robinson have now signed permanently but the newcomer likely to make the biggest difference is Ben Pringle, back up north after an aborted year at Fulham.

Verdict: Chasing the play-offs

Queens Park Rangers

QPR boss Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has spent the summer annoying the hell out of supporters of fellow London clubs by poaching their more reliable talent. Jake Bidwell, from Brentford and Jordan Cousins from Charlton continue the recent policy of hiring hardened Football League performers while Joel Lynch falls into the same category, arriving for an undisclosed fee from Huddersfield. Having also seemingly escaped any serious financial penalty from the authorities for past financial misdeeds, Rangers can look back on the excesses of the Redknapp and Hughes years with relief but a young squad probably doesn’t have quite enough to challenge the best in a cruelly tough division. Goals continue to be a major issue with Conor Washington failing abysmally after his big money move from Peterborough last winter – that he helped fire Northern Ireland into the second round of Euro 2016 with a lively performance against Ukraine is a sign that his confidence may be returning though.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Reading

Most of the pre-season coverage of Reading outside the Madejski Stadium has revolved around the decision to let Hal Robson-Kanu go even if it was the player himself who surely wished for the move. Euro 2016 looms large over the club and the hope is that Oliver Norwood and Chris Gunter can recapture their French form despite the tendency of the former to plonk free kicks on to opposing centre backs’ heads and the latter needing to show more confidence in overlapping his winger. Big Jaap Stam has arrived along with a host of virtual unknowns – Roy Beerens from Hertha Berlin, John Swift from Chelsea via Brentford and Joey van den Berg from Heerenveen seem to be the best of these on paper but all will have to adapt quickly to their surrounds. At the time of writing, a gap in the striking position is yawning and waiting to be filled given Yann Kermorgant’s advancing years while Garath McCleary, a threat to any defence on his day, is paying for successive summer tournament sprees with Jamaica. The record of Fergie acolytes in the hot seat is poor – Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Roy Keane and others having failed to pull up trees, but Stam is a leader and knows his own mind so one would hope that he’ll be given time enough over a period of two to three years to build a new dynasty at the club even if a flirtation with relegation could be on the cards this time out. Never has the impulse to demand instant success been more important to suppress.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Rotherham United

An 11 game unbeaten run in the spring augurs well for the Millers who perhaps for the first time in years stood a chance of avoiding being touted as immediate relegation favourites. That said, that spurt was very much masterminded by the Red Adair-like figure of Neil Warnock – a supertemp who did his job and then some. Now Alan Stubbs has arrived fresh from an impressive Scottish Cup triumph with Hibs. Transfer activity has been light but that ‘supergroup’ of a player, Jake Forster-Caskey has come in from Brighton and the South Yorkshiremen have been linked with some audacious swoops including one for Tom Bradshaw who has somewhat gallingly ended up at rivals Barnsley. Lord knows the team need a striker though while Stubbs will seek to foster more of a settled side – only goalkeeper Lee Camp completed in excess of 40 games in 2015-6. In all, in a division where clear relegation candidates are far from obvious, they are perhaps as likely to be demoted as any other club in the league barring Burton but that doesn’t mean they will be.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

Sheffield Wednesday

The Owls enjoyed their best season in eons last year and despite a lacklustre surrender to Hull in the play-off final are rightly and squarely among the favourites to go close again. Last year, they took advantage of Watford’s upsizing by tempting Fernando Forestieri to Hillsborough and the diminutive forward repaid their faith with some whirlwind performances. Now, Daniel Pudil and Almen Abdi in particular are thoroughbred signings from the same corner of Hertfordshire (the former having spent the past 12 months on loan in Owlerton) while the excellent Kieran Lee signing a new three year deal is another reason for cheer. The way Wednesday blew Cardiff away to secure a play-off place will live long in the memory and with a revitalised crowd behind them and a manager in Carlos Carvalhal who really knows his onions , the team should be vying with their old play-off rivals Brighton to accompany Newcastle in the automatic places.

Verdict: Chasing the play-offs

Wigan Athletic

It’s a credit to Gary Caldwell that a divisional decline that might have become terminal was quickly halted in 2015-6 and even allowing for a weaker than usual League 1, the achievement of promotion was well earned. Despite being away for a just a year, however, the Latics are still something of an unknown quantity, with David Perkins perhaps one of their best known players – and he was last seen at this level sliding out of the league with the ongoing basket case that is Blackpool. Trumping in him in the fame stakes is a certain Will Grigg, immortalised in song and the European Championship’s most celebrated player despite not seeing a minute of action. Grigg’s record in the Championship during his Brentford days was distinctly unimpressive and if the same scenario unfolds, Wigan will probably face a relegation battle. Nick Powell, returning after an inevitable spell of inactivity at Manchester United, is another one time lower reaches wunderkind with a lot to prove.

Verdict: Relegated

Wolverhampton Wanderers

The stop press on his preview has been in overdrive over the weekend. After the £45m takeover of the club by Chinese conglomerate Fosun, the new owners have acted quickly, dispensing with the services of Kenny Jackett and installing the unlikely figure of former Italian international keeper Walter Zenga as manager. Zenga is unrecognisable from his playing days that saw him fill much of the gap between the Zoff and Buffon eras, and he has managed a cornucopia of clubs from the United States to the United Arab Emirates. The likelihood is that all these changes have come too late to arrest the beginnings of a decline that started with a low key 2015-6 for Wolves, especially as midfield general Kevin McDonald has departed for Fulham. The one bright spark is the club’s bevy of younger players with Dominic Iorfa especially important if he can escape the clutches of higher-ups.

Verdict: Looking over their shoulders

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.

2 Comments

  1. Chris Litchfield
    August 1, 2016

    Although I do not disagree with your assessment of Derby´s chances for this upcoming season, I do take issue with your assertion that we only made the play-offs last year after a late rally. We hit the top 6 in October and were never out of the play off places all season.

    Reply
  2. James
    August 2, 2016

    Will Grigg is yet to play a game at Championship level in his career (was loaned out when Brentford got promoted and sold to Wigan a year later). After three straight promotions from League One this will be the first time he’s ever played in the second tier!

    Reply

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