Look back through the past decade and you will realise that the fate of the Championship favourites has not been a pretty one. Since 2002 no favourite at the time of kickoff has won the League, with Manchester City being the last to do so, a stat that underlines the fierce competition in England’s second tier.
That said, I wouldn’t let it put me off this season’s joints. Derby were well fancied enough to go off at 4/1 and were moving easily towards Promotion through the season – they were top in February – before a nightmare finish to the campaign saw them slump into ninth, missing out on even the playoffs. Serious moves have been made, understandably, to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again.
Derby have made loan moves for Darren Bent and Tom Ince – who had 21 goals in 29 appearances between them – permanent but action has also been taken at the back to correct major defensive failings too with Alex Pearce and Jason Shackell bought in. Pearce particularly brings a lot of experience to the back four while Schackell played a full Premier League season last year for Burnley.
Upfront the addition of Aston Villa’s Andreas Weimann brings width and pace to an attack that will have Chris Martin back at the helm – perhaps the most crucial thing to their challenge – and hopefully fit for the season.
Steve McClaren is gone but replacement Paul Clement has a wealth of high level coaching experience at PSG, Chelsea and Real Madrid and it would be a big surprise if Derby did not go closer this season.
Middlesbrough were taken apart by Norwich in the playoff final last year, a body blow for Aitor Karanka’s men who had gone so close to landing automatic promotion – they were just 5 points off Bournemouth in the end – and then reached the playoff final to boot.
They have made their own impressive addition, possibly the most important in the Championship, in the shape of Stewart Downing, who had been a thorn in the side of many Premier League defences for West Ham last year and a previous Liverpool and England starter.
Karanka’s impressive connections have given him and edge in the transfer market and young Chelsea centreback Tomas Kalas will be present for a full season now while Alex Baptiste adds more beef to a backline that was the best of any of the top eight last season.
Boro’s problems came at the other end of the pitch, where they were lowest scorers in the top eight, and the departure of Patrick Bamford is a serious blow on paper. However at the time of writing they’re linked with Jordan Rhodes – who has surpassed the 20 goal mark in the last four seasons – and have already added Uruguayan international Christian Stuani (15 goals for Espanyol last season in La Liga) and Diego Fabbrini from Watford too.
The ‘value’ has gone from their price for the title but such is the strength of the squad it’s hard to argue with quotes as short as 6/1 and in four of the last seven campaigns the previous year’s play-off finalists have finished in the top-six and twice they’ve topped the division, so they have the look of an attractive bet for promotion while making appeal in many of the other special markets.
Such is the competitiveness of the division that relegated sides can often be found struggling here, especially with the parachute payments now spread out over many sides, and Hull and QPR could easily struggle. QPR were truly abysmal in the Premier League last season and have finally seen years of ill-advised over investment catching up with them as a flood of players have been released as a huge restructuring process takes place.
There are still talented players at Loftus Road but Charlie Austin’s future is still hugely uncertain and there has been a major talent drain along with the troublemakers, which makes life hugely unpredictable and very difficult for Chris Ramsay.
Hull have Steve Bruce’s experience and a long list of departures does not bode well with doubts over the future of Assem Allam’s investment in the club. Robbie Brady, James Chester, and Liam Rosienor are just three of the names that have left the club and this season could well be a struggle for them too.
Burnley have lost Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier, but apart from that basically all of the side that was so impressive in gaining promotion two seasons ago remain and perhaps most importantly, Sean Dyche does too.
He has proven himself to be an astute operator in the transfer market and the capture of Jelle Vossen from Middlesbrough could prove to be a solid singing with the 26 year old having scored nine goals last season while Matthew Lowton may well find his level at left bank having arrived from Aston Villa. Everton youth product Chris Long showed flashes of promise for Brentford in only a handful of appearances last year and could also kick on.
Last year Burnley drew away at Chelsea and Manchester City while holding Manchester United and Tottenham to home draws and the season before they finished eight points clear of Derby when taking the automatic promotion spot. Most of that side remains and there should be little need for adjustment, and they look to be the best of the relegated sides and worth backing to come straight back up too; One team in three of the last four seasons has found a route back up through some method and another bold title bid is not out of the question.
Brentford lost out in the semi-finals of the playoffs and have seen key talents Alex Pritchard go back to Tottenham and Moses Odubajo go back to Hull, but they have reinvested that money and under the guidance of statistically minded chairman Matthew Benham few have a license to doubt their vision for the future even if Mark Warburton’s departure was puzzling on all form. New boss Marinus Dijkhusen made inspired singings when promoting S.B.V Excelsior to the top flight in Holland.
Josh McEachran’s injury is a blow to their prospects but otherwise the only way is up with centre back Andreas Bjelland a Dutch international from Twente and Philipp Hofmann a German U21 international with potential to only improve. Striker and winger Andre Gray and Jota should both improve for their first seasons in the championship, which bought double figure hauls in terms of goals and an even bolder promotion bid looks a distinct possibility this time around.
Ipswich and Wolves finished level on points with Brentford last year and both have plenty of reason to be optimistic of launching another bold challenge. Tyrone Mings had to be let go to Bournemouth for the asking price of £8m but Mick McCarthy has already been seeking to replace him and Brett Pitman looks to be a solid move with the jersey born striker having landed 13 goals for Bournemouth last season, an important piece of support for Darryl Murphy. Much relies upon him going close to repeating his 27 goal tally that made him the Championship’s top scorer by a margin of 6 goals last year but if he goes even halfway towards him doing that then there’s plenty to recommend them. The Tractor Boys pride themselves on being hard to beat and Johnathan Douglas is a good capture from Bournemouth to add steel to the midfield ahead of what traditionally is a strong defensive unit.
Wolves missed out on the playoffs only on goal difference and the strikeforce of Benik Afobe and Nouha Dicko will again stretch plenty of Championship defences. Dicko missed two months last year while Afobe only joined midway through the season; It will not take much for them to potentially double their tally and if doing so then another playoff challenge at the least is surely in the offing.
Sheffield Wednesday have signed heavily in a bid to arrest a horrendous goalscoring record that saw them score the fewest goals of anyone outside the bottom three last year. Thanks to the arrival of Marco Mathias, who scored 17 goals for Nacional in Portugal – a total topped only by Jackson Martinez, Lima and Jonas Goncalves – that should be fixed but there are a whole raft of signings for new manager Carlos Cavalhal to gel together and that process is likely to take time for a side that were only 13th last year.
Fulham were fancied to go close to the title last year but spent much of the time staving off relegation with the £11m purchase of Ross McCormack not enough to carry a failing team and a raft of young players struggling. They should all have learned from their experiences and Fulham can improve on their seventeenth with Felix Magath long gone too but anything else may be well beyond them.
Charlton were 12th last year and there’s no reason they can’t do equally as well this time around with a trio of potentially impressive singings to add to a solid squad. Zakary Bergdich plied his trade in La Liga and Serie A last season, Patrick Bauer comes here from the Primera Liga and Simeon Maikenok may do well on loan from Palermo. Barring Joe Gomez’s sale the squad hasn’t been weakened and they can go close to another top half finish.
Reading can be in the top half once again although they’ve lost Adam Federici to Bournemouth and Alex Pearce to Reading and despite some good dealings it’s hard to see them challenging. Brighton and Leeds lack for firepower upfront and Cardiff the funding power overall. A full season of Gary Rowett should see Birmingham continue to progress with their astute loan dealings.
With attacking trip James Vaughan, Nahiki Wells, and Harry Bunn Huddersfield’s problems won’t come going forward but they lack the overall quality for a top half finish although another relegation scrap would be a disappointment.
Debt-ridden Blackburn have already let go of Tom Cairney and Josh King and while Jordan Rohdes is still a Blackburn player at the time of writing he and Rudy Gestede (also sold) scored 65% of Blackburn’s goals last season. Without those two the drop could well be looming and Bolton, having sold their goalkeeper and two of their first choice back four players, look in big danger of the drop this time around. MK Dons are trying their luck in the loan market once again but may not have the fortune they did in League One last year; Preston’s solidity may see them make it by the skin of their teeth and Rotherham, 21st last year, could well be in another struggle. Bristol City, winners of League One last year, can also stay up.
2 pts Middlesbrough (6/1 Coral)
1 pt each/way Burnley (14/1 general)
Advice – Promotion
5 pts Middlesbrough (2/1 general)
2 pts Burnley (5/1 general)
Advice – Relegation
1 pt Bolton (5/1 general)
1 pt Blackburn (7/1 general)
Advice – Handicap
1 pt each/way Middlesbrough +0 (18/1 general)
1 pt each/way Burnley +7 (18/1 general)
1 pt each/way Charlton +24 (18/1 Betfred)