Leicester City fan Chris Francis extols the virtues of the English second tier…
Bloody hell am I excited. The football season is here already, but this isn’t the beginning of any old league. This weekend we get to watch the start of the most unpredictable league in the land: The Championship.
Over the past few weeks we’ve heard fans from pretty much every team talk about how they think they could reach the play-offs this year, and as ever no one has any real idea as to who will do well and who will fail and fade away.
The Championship is the best league in England because of this unknown quantity. Leicester, Forest, Blackburn, Bolton, and Middlesbrough were ‘the teams to watch’ last year, and it was a pretty poor show from the lot of them, as they finished 6th, 8th, 17th, 7th, and 16th respectively.
Instead, we had Cardiff winning the thing with a rather ugly, if efficient, brand of football, Hull in second and Palace winning at Wembley. In their place we have three teams joining the madhouse who should all fit in pretty nicely.
Back from the big time: the three relegated returnees
QPR were an absolute shambles last year, and look as if they may well fit in to the nonsensical way most teams approach promotion. Harry Redknapp did an ordinary job with an overpaid and disinterested bunch of players. It is one of many big ‘ifs’ for the new season to see how he will get on as he drops down a division. Redknapp has not managed in the second tier for a long time (briefly with Southampton when they were relegated in 2005), and trying to get life in to a side that was truly appalling in terms of defending, effort and team ethos will be a stretch. It is worth remembering that Redknapp resigned less than 6 months in to the 05-06 season with The Saints. Parachute payments may yet take on a new meaning should the former dead cert for the England job decide to bail out on Tony Fernandes’ calamitous West London misadventure.
Reading were by far the weakest side in the Premier League last year on paper. However, the Royals did pull together and perform with a shared dignity as a ‘team’ throughout last season and you could see they were trying to pull in the same direction. Nigel Adkins also has an excellent record in getting teams to gel and go up through the leagues, so with the benefits of Premier League payments they may well be in a decent place from which to launch an instant, bounce-back promotion push. Like Blackpool in the season after their return to the Championship, Reading will hope a similar feel good factor will serve them well, along with the club’s infrastructure and financial backing that can lift them above where positivity alone took The Seasiders.
You have to fear if you’re a Wigan fan. They have lost their manager and spiritual leader, Roberto Martinez, to Everton. Their goalie (Robles) has followed suit, as has their captain (Alcaraz) and their main striker (Kone) since relegation was confirmed. In anatomical terms that’s not just the spine, it’s the brains as well. And they couldn’t defend anyway. Owen Coyle has a massive job on his hands and will need his new front man Grant Holt to deliver both goals and leadership to steady the boat and climb the table.
The teams to watch out for this year
Watford may be under transfer embargo from the league authorities, but the intricacies of the Pozzo family’s ownership network means that loop holes appear to have been found. Having retained the likes of Manuel Almunia and signed up more players using their new found Udinese-Granada connections, Gianfranco Zola’s men will be looking to go one better this year and qualify for the Premier League automatically.
Mick McCarthy did a great job towards the end of last season with Ipswich, who have maintained a strong core group of players going into 2013-14. He has a great track record of getting teams up (although not so good at keeping them there), and after finishing only 14th last time out will pose problems this year more than they did last.
Charlton, too, were in something of a flux at the start of last season as they adjusted to life in the Championship having been promoted from League 1.
Chris Powell is one of the smartest and savviest managers in the league, and is able to galvanise people around him. He is very well liked amongst the footballing community, and held in great regard at his previous clubs. A finish of 9th was very credible and should be built upon this year.
Bolton this time round will surely be able to finish higher than last year (which would then mean they get a play off spot at the least). They had a dreadful start to the season as relegation and off-field issues caught up with them. Since the appointment of Dougie Freedman in place of Owen Coyle they have played attractive, attacking, and effective football. They were very unlucky to miss out on the top 6. Another serious injury to their former top flight mastermind, Stuart Holden, is a blow although the club have long since had to learn to adapt in his absence. Having seen his contract end before the summer, it is now likely the American will be forced to seek a fresh start elsewhere now that the offer of a new contract looks unlikely due to his fitness.
Leicester, Forest and Middlesbrough should all feature in the race for the title and promotion tool as they can all boast strong squads (on paper) and good men in charge of their respective dug outs. But then again people said that last year.
The beauty of the Championship is that the league is almost impossible to predict, and there is usually at least one promoted side who carry on their form and compete at this level. The difference in abilities between The Championship and League 1 is nothing like the gap teams have to surpass when moving in to the Premier League, and of the teams making that step up, Bournemouth could be this year’s surprise side.
A small word must also go to the re-appearance of Manish Bhasin and his Football League Show crew on Saturday nights. Without Match of the Day ahead of them in the schedules for the first game of the season, Manish, Steve Claridge, Leroy Rosenior, and Mark Clemmit get a good run at it. They may not be the slickest bunch on screen, but they often have a much better knowledge and grasp of the leagues about which they comment than their Premier League equivalents – a rather damning comment on Lineker and co considering the difference in scale between the 20 teams of the top flight with the four packed divisions dealt with on the late shift.
The Football League Show even has the edge when it comes to balding former strikers turned questionable pundits. The sight of Steve Claridge getting over-excited and muddled as he tries to make two arguments at once is always a pleasure. In comparison, Alan Shearer struggles to mumble out one per show.
My palette is already whetted with anticipation. The Championship is back! This is where the real excitement is in English football.