Thursday, 6 August 2015

All set for another close Championship marathon

I can't help thinking that the Championship is like one big mid table. Take a look around and the vast majority of clubs seem to be going into the season thinking that they're in an Ok position but are probably just missing one or two ingredients to make them contenders.

That hits at the heart of what makes this league so tight. Most sets of fans - at least before a ball is kicked - will hope their side can click and make the promised land. It's a cliche to suggest any team can beat any other but it is true.

There are exceptions of course. The pressure is well and truly on our near neighbours down the road. Fresh from being at Carlo Ancelotti's side at Real Madrid, Paul Clement has been backed with big money in a bid to succeed where Steve McClaren failed. (Yes, I enjoyed typing failed there).

Darren Bent and Tom Ince will command big wages while Ince comes in for a hefty-looking £4.75m fee. Both excelled on loan last season but it'll be interesting to see if Ince can stay interested long enough to carry on his form - he certainly didn't look as though he fancied the challenge for us last year.

Middlesbrough, themselves also managed by a former Real Madrid assistant, will also be among the favourites. Aitor Karanka has added the Premier League quality of Stewart Downing and loanee Tomas Kalas to his squad and carries experience of football of this level into this season after missing out to Norwich in the play offs.

Beyond those two there's a whole batch of teams who should make the top six - and then the rest who, frankly, could make it if everything does click.

My money would be on Wolves to continue to flourish under Kenny Jackett - probably the most underrated manager in the Football League. Yes, he's lost one-time Forest target Bakary Sako but he's shopped smartly and should have more than enough firepower to make the top six with Dicko, Afobe and Le Fondre.

The three relegated clubs will inevitably attract attention as contenders - but all remain in flux. Hull City have lost players but I'd back Steve Bruce to get them into the play offs at least. However you feel he hasn't finished his shopping yet and it will take time for him to get his side settled after losing players in recent weeks. They're still the most likely of the three to 'do a Norwich' and bounce straight back for me.

QPR, too, are a team in transition. Leroy Fer failed a medical with Sunderland, while Charlie Austin seems destined to be snapped up any time soon. Their planning must be on hold until their respective futures are decided.

Burnley, meanwhile, will have to regroup after losing Ings, Trippier and Shackell - although Dyche could well be the man to make that happen.

Beyond those six Bristol City should be on a huge roll after their stunning form last year and Mick McCarthy's Ipswich Town have built on last year when they forced their way into the play offs. Gary Rowett's rescue job at Birmingham sees them on an upward curve too.

Sheffield Wednesday will need to settle with a manager who is unfamiliar to the league, Fulham should be an awful lot steadier this time around and Preston and MK Dons should be well placed to make the step up.

Leeds United probaly epitomise the whole league in the sense that they're impossible to predict. I like Uwe Rosler but the club seems chaotic and anything could happen at Elland Road this time around.

I fancy the hot seats at Cardiff and Reading to become vacant early on, two clubs where last season's poor league form will soon become an issue if they don't have a good start. Brentford may have made the top 6 last time but I just don't fancy them to repeat that feat under their new boss and I fear they may continue to lose some of the players who made them such a good side to watch under Mark Warburton.

Charlton, Huddersfield, Blackburn, Brighton and Rotherham feel like they should struggle too, as should cash-strapped Bolton. Yet, again, none of these three should be as bad as last season's relegated trio. If the Championship is one big well-matched mid table, these might be the teams who just find themselves in the lower part of that mid table. All do have their merits though on their day and could easily prove me wrong.

And what of Forest? In the Seat Pitch season preview I plumped for 10th and I'll stick to that. We've got enough firepower to win some games - but enough frailty in certain areas to hold us back. I don't think we'll be far off but I do think Middlesbrough, Hull, Burnley, Wolves and (through gritted teeth) the dirty Sheep will definitely be stronger. That leaves one place to aim at for us and pretty much everyone else to fight over it. I don't think we'll be far off, points wise, but I do think we'll just fall short.

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