It feels like only yesterday that what might be English football’s most unpredictable league ended with Aston Villa fans delirious after a truly remarkable set of playoffs had concluded but we are ready to go again over another wild nine-month journey.
In the end three of the division’s biggest clubs won promotion to the promised land and we could have a similar situation with two relegated Premier League clubs making plenty of appeal.
I said never again after backing a young manager to go up with Frank Lampard and Derby but he gave it a damn good shot and perhaps Scott Parker has more quality to finish the job with Fulham this year. Parker was announced as caretaker manager last season when Fulham were basically already down but they did win three games in a row in April before a 1-0 defeat to a superior Wolves outfit and they appear to have prepared well for life in the Championship at face value.
There hasn’t been a wild spending spree like last summer which ended with failure but smarter investments such as keeping midfielder Tom Cairney and striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. Those are two of the best platers any side has in the division and in the shape of Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro they’ve brought two more.
That adds firepower to what was already a potent attack and questions over the defence are calmed by the fact that they can still call upon Alfie Mawson, Joe Bryan, and Cyrus Christie there whilst Andre Zambo Anguissa and Stepehen Sessegnon are two of the divisions better players.
Parker has a big task in his first full season as the manager but he’s helped by the fact that only six players have left the squad, which essentially means that he’s working with the bulk of the squad that was promoted two seasons ago and if he can get a hang of things quickly enough then he’ll have a fighting chance with that squad.
At the other end of the experience scale are Cardiff, who have the veteran manager Neil Warnock at the helm aiming to make amends for what was a crushing relegation last year. The market did expect them to come back down – they went off 8/11 – but they only finished two points off safety and had it not been for a cruel and baffling series of refereeing decisions they most likely would have stayed up.
All the key metrics over the season had Cardiff as being better than a bottom-three side and that bodes well for a return to this division, where they should be able to enjoy more possession.
Warnock will have to do without club stalwarts Aron Gunnarsson, Bruno Ecuele Manga and Kenneth Zohore, but the bulk of the squad which earned promotion from the Championship in 2018 remains and at this level they should be at least as competitive as they were when they went up two seasons ago. On that occasion, they finished second to Wolves – one of the best sides the division has seen, who went onto finish seventh in the Premier League the season after. The addition of Aden Flint from Bristol City might be at least as important as either of those two for the style of football that Warnock plays and he’s working with a squad that knows exactly what is expected of them. Cardiff are ideally equipped to hit the ground running this coming season, and they look to be worthy third favourites.
Those are two relegated teams against the field – so far – but considering how competitive the division is, they have a good record in their first season. Relegated sides have won five titles this century and 14 of them have won promotion through some method; Eight of the last 30 relegated clubs from the Premier League have won promotion the second season, which is a record of nearly 1 in 3, nothing to be sniffed at considering the problems that so many clubs find themselves in.
It is hard to quibble with Leeds’ position as favourites given their brilliant, swashbuckling style of football and their third-place finish last season, and in Marcelo Bielsa, they have one of the best coaches in the division without a doubt – and many would say the very best.
However, the market has found them since the end of last season and there’s also the worrying way they finished the end of last season. Upto the halfway point, they were trailblazers – they were leading at halfway with 48 points, and then they took just 32 points from their final 21 league games which translates to 70 over the course of the season – a tally that wouldn’t have earned them a place in the playoffs.
The addition of Helder Costa from Wolves could be a sensational addition with the Whites already having firepower to burn in the shape of Keymar Roofe, Pablo Hernandez, Jack Clarke, and Patrick Bamford whilst Barry Douglas has had a full pre-season to boot and will be a vitally important presence. However, they are a best price of 9/2 and they can be left alone even before thinking about the concerns – the handicap might be a better option for them.
There has been a lot of support for Stoke, who went off 11/2 last season before a terrible campaign which saw Gary Rowett sacked in early January. His replacement Nathan Jones also struggled, but he’s had a full pre-season to bring in his own players in and the former Luton man should have more success in theory with this team.
The additions of Adam Davies, Nick Powell and Lee Gregory should improve the quality vastly but there has been something of a gamble on them already and there’s still a lot for Stoke to prove especially with a terrible injury to Ryan Shawcross too and they are a watching brief for the first few weeks of the season.
West Brom played thrilling football through last season and should be thereabouts but they will really miss Dwight Gayle (23 goals) and Jay Rodriguez (22 goals) even if they now do have Slaven Billic. Derby have probably upgraded in a managerial sense with Phillip Cocu but also have the same problem as they must do without Mason Mount and Harry Wilson, who combined for 25 goals last season.
Huddersfield haven’t been mentioned at this point but they do deserve a mention, and are hardly bereft of all quality, although the truly bereft nature of their performance – they finished 10 points below second last Fulham, and won just 6 points in the second half of the season – is a slight worry and Jan Siewert’s task might be to lift the mood before working on anything else. They should be pushing hard for the playoffs though.
Middlesbrough just failed to make it into the playoffs last season and Johnathan Woodgate does have some quality to work with, but it’s doubtful whether he has the same punch that other promotion chasers will do and whilst a more fluid style of football can be expected, this could be a transitional campaign for Woodgate.
There are questions over those sides at the top of the market and whilst we’ve got two favourites in our portfolio it is probably wise to have a bigger priced contender of sorts. Norwich were the 10th title winners to start the season at 12’s or bigger but they were also the biggest priced winners since Reading in 2011/12 and they’re the only the second one to start at 20’s or bigger in the last ten seasons.
Bristol City started last season slowly thanks to some notable departures but once they found a settled side they really began to impress and a closer look tells a tale of two seasons; A steady start followed by a rapid finish to the campaign. City were fifth in the table for the second half of the season and after their first 10 games of last season, they had a record of 13 wins, 10 draws and just 6 losses.
Repeat that form over a season and you’re talking of close to eighty points and Lee Johnson has more firepower now with Sammie Smodics having arrived whilst the club have now really reinforced their defence with Tomas Kalas now a permanent squad member whilst Jay Dasilva was a smart capture before one considers the arrival of Daniel Bentley in goal. Bristol do need to score more, but this is a superior side to one that was so good in the second half of last season and if they can just get the ball rolling early they can outrun their prices big time.
Brentford were the only side who finished better than Bristol City without being promoted, and even then that was on goal difference, but they are also well worth a look at. The loss of Dean Smith was a hammer blow but once Thomas Frank took the reins and changed the system Neal Maupay, Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins really began to blossom and if they can fix their wretched away record then they’d be on the verge of the top six at the very least and perhaps further.
Advice – Championship Title
2 pts each/way Fulham (7/1 Bet365)
1 pt each/way Cardiff (12/1 Black Type, 10/1 general)
1 pt each/way Brentford (14/1 Bet365)
1 pt each/way Bristol City (28/1 Black Type, 20/1 general)
Advice – Promotion
4 pts Fulham (9/4 SkyBet)
2 pts Cardiff (3/1 general)
2 pts Bristol City (6/1 general)