THE MOST OPEN LEAGUE IN EUROPE – A DOZEN TEAMS HAVE REALISTIC HOPES OF PROMOTION FROM THE CHAMPIONSHIP By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
It is probably the most open league in European football and as the Championship kicks-off a dozen clubs have realistic hopes of claiming one of the three promotion places.
“Last season there were 14 points between Leicester in sixth and Peterborough in 22nd,” said Geoff Peters who covers the Championship for talkSPORT. “Fourteen points between the playoffs and relegation. This highlights how competitive the Championship is and how, if a team puts a good run together, they can lift themselves from the doldrums to possible promotion.
“Crystal Palace lost their first three games of 2012/13, but were promoted to the Barclays Premier League after winning the playoff final against Watford. At Christmas, Bolton were looking over their shoulders at the relegation zone and really should have got into the playoffs after their fantastic run, but had a last day blowout.”
The three relegated clubs from the Barclays Premier League should, on the face of it, have an advantage with their parachute payments amounting to £60 million over four years from this season, but Bolton, Blackburn and Wolves, who went down in 2012, finished eighth, 17th and 23rd respectively last May, the Molineux club suffering the ignominy of a second successive drop. However, since 2000 only nine clubs have been relegated and bounced straight back to the top flight within 12 months, so money is not necessarily the help it should be.
The bookmakers have Queens Park Rangers, Reading and Bolton as favourites to go up with Yeovil, Doncaster and Barnsley most likely to be relegated. But as Peters pointed out, the Championship is a league where form can and does change regularly. At the start of the year, Leicester were well set to win automatic promotion with Cardiff, yet just squeezed into the playoffs on the final day with a stoppage time goal. Given the investment they’ve had over the past couple of seasons they should have gone up.
“If this season’s Championship is half as competitive as last season’s we’re in for a great ride once again,” said Peters. “It’s a very even division.”
While clubs in the Barclays Premier League are likely to top £400 million with their summer spending, only around 15 players moving to Championship clubs cost fees. It is literally becoming the land of the free. “With financial fair play, this is the working market now,” said Peters.
Leicester typify the parsimonious approach to Championship transfers in 2013. Peters said: “People say ‘oh, they’re moneybags’ and yes, they spent a lot of money over the last three years, but Sven Goran-Eriksson torched a lot of money buying too many average players on high wages. The only arrival this summer is Zoumanae Bakayogo on a free from Tranmere. Leicester have done the least in the transfer market and their fans’ expectations have be lowered accordingly.”
FA Cup winners Wigan have – so far – held on to four of their most promising young players, James McCarthy, Shaun Maloney, James McArthur and Callum McManaman. Peters said: “Of the three clubs who went down, I think Wigan are the most likely to make a quick return to the Barclays Premier League. Buying Grant Holt is excellent business, he’ll score plenty of goals, while Marc-Antoine Fortune from West Bromwich is a solid signing.
“It was important for Reading to keep Adam Le Fondre while Wayne Bridge, Roysten Drenthe and Danny Williams give them experience. They also have a good manager in Nigel Adkins who led Southampton to two promotions playing outstanding football.
“Charlie Austin will help to improve QPR’s goalscoring, while if he can stay fit, Richard Dunne could be one of the summer’s best free transfers.
“If we are looking at surprise packages, Ipswich and Charlton are the best bets. When Mick McCarthy took over at Ipswich last season they had seven points from 13 games, but won 53 points from 33 after his arrival. If the season had carried on for another half a dozen games they would probably have made the playoffs. McCarthy’s experienced at this level and he’s won promotion before.
“Of the three sides that came up in 2012 I felt Charlton were the best equipped to finish highest, though finishing ninth, three points off a playoff place, surprised me. Chris Powell kept the momentum going from League One and while Charlton will rely heavily on last season’s team he has recruited well since his appointment in 2011. In Johnnie Jackson they have one of the most underrated midfielders in the Championship, he brings a lot of energy from box-to-box and scores his share of goals.”
Watford, the Championship’s top scorers last season, have signed most of the players who were on loan from Udinese and Granada. Lewis McGugan was signed from Forest – “I’m surprised Forest didn’t keep him because he’s a reliable scorer.”
Yeovil, making their debut at this level, are favourites to be relegated and manager Gary Johnson knows their form at Huish Park will be crucial. Eddie Howe transformed Bournemouth from League One relegation candidates to automatic promotion winners in six months. League One champions Doncaster have Paul Dickov in charge – “they didn’t do very well the last time they went up, despite playing attractive football.”
Peters said: “If you can get a really good team spirit going you have a chance but it’s a long season though the teams that come up are used to that having played 46 games in League One. They’ll know what a slog it is.”
So head on the block time. Peters said: “For promotion, in no particular order, my top six are Bolton, Wigan, Nottingham Forest, Watford, QPR and Reading.
“To go down, from Bournemouth, Doncaster, Yeovil, Huddersfield, Barnsley and possibly Blackpool who might struggle this season.
“But predicting anything in such an open, competitive league is so difficult. I absolutely love the division, bring it on.“