The Championship is back, and whilst it’s a little different, it still promises to be an enthralling campaign in England’s second tier, with the division playing host to some fine players and managers, with plenty of interesting clubs to keep you on your toes during the 46 game campaign.
I have decided to rank where I believe each of the 24 clubs will finish this term, as the season prepares to get into full swing.
24th – Wycombe Wanderers
For many neutrals, Wycombe will become almost like a ‘second’ team in many ways, due to their meteoric rise under charismatic coach Gareth Ainsworth. The fact they’re even here in the first place is a miracle – but they’re also not here for the head pats.
Whilst I can definitely envisage a Burton-esque 2016/17 campaign in which the Chair Boys just survive the drop, I unfortunately think it’s more likely they’ll put up a fight, but with a squad largely made up of players better suited to leagues one and two, they’ll come up short.
Having said all of that, Gareth Ainsworth and his team constantly punch above their weight, and hopefully this season is no different.
23rd – Sheffield Wednesday
Any team starting with a 12 point deduction is obviously going to struggle to stay up in a division as competitive as the Championship, and whilst I can see the Owls making a fight of it, I’ve got Wednesday to go down second from bottom.
They have also lost their top goal scorer from the past two seasons in the shape of Steven Fletcher, combined with just five league wins in 2020 and a manager in Garry Monk whom I have grown increasingly disillusioned with since his days at Swansea, I believe it’ll be too big a mountain to climb, despite their unbeaten start to the season.
22nd – Huddersfield Town
A dreadful 2019/20 season resulted in a disappointing 18th place finish for the Terriers – only three points above the bottom three – as Jan Siewart was replaced by the Cowley brothers in September, before they too were dismissed at the end of the season.
Whilst I thought the decision to move the pair on was strange given their short time in the role, I can appreciate the club wanting to move in a different direction. But the possibility of losing the goals of Karlan Grant, coupled with a lack of reinvestment, will prove too difficult for Carlos Corberán in his first proper managerial role, for a club on a downward spiral.
21st – Rotherham United
To survive by the skin of their teeth, I have picked the perennial yo-yo club Rotherham United. Since 2013, the Millers have spent consecutive seasons in the same division only once, securing four promotions and suffering two relegations in that time.
But I fancy Paul Warne to do it, albeit perhaps with more emphasis on there being worse clubs below them. However, I also believe this Rotherham side has more goals in it than in previous years, with the likes of Freddy Ladapo, Michael Smith and Matt Crooks all notching double figures last term.
20th – Queens Park Rangers
QPR are up next in 20th, as I predict Mark Warburton’s side to largely struggle in 19/20. A six place drop from last season may seem harsh, but they only finished ten points above the drop, and the loss of Ebe Eze to Crystal Palace is seismic.
A £16m fee will certainly help Rangers in their ongoing financial battle, the loss of Eze and Jordan Hugill, as well as Nahki Wells last January, means the R’s have lost 40 of their 66 goals from last season.
Lyndon Dykes will be a decent goal scorer for this level, but I predict another season of mediocrity at Loftus Road.
19th – Luton Town
Some managers and clubs just seem to go together. Whether it’s Chris Wilder at Sheffield United or John Coleman at Accrington, clubs, players and boards are sometimes made to be with a certain man in the dugout – that can now be said for Nathan Jones at Luton.
Having brought the Hatters up from League Two, he led them to the top of the League One table before leaving for Stoke. But things ended poorly at the Potters and he returned to Kenilworth Road over lockdown – leading Town to a great escape last season.
The likes of Jordan Clarke and Tom Lockyer will improve an already solid group of players, with many of which playing under Jones previously. I can see the Hatters finishing higher, but for now it’s a somewhat cautious 19th place finish, as there is so much quality in this league.
18th – Barnsley
Another club who switched their manager to great effect last season was Barnsley, who appointed Gerhard Struber from Austrian side Wolfsberger, with the 43-year-old steering the Tykes to 21st after a remarkable 2-1 win against promotion chasing Brentford on the final day.
His gung ho approach to Championship football won his side a lot of plaudits after his arrival in late November, so much so that he was a leading candidate for the Watford job earlier in the summer, as well as spearheading other managerial shortlists.
If Barnsley were to finish any higher than 18th, I wouldn’t be surprised. But Struber is their biggest asset, and I would struggle to see him sticking with the Oakwell club if they are in the upper echelons of the table once the league gets into full swing.
17th – Birmingham City
Birmingham are a writer’s nightmare for a piece like this, as the Blues have proven to be pretty unpredictable in previous years. Somehow surviving relegation in some, whilst being in touching distance of the play-offs under Gary Rowett in others. It’s never dull at St Andrews, at least in an excitement sense.
The appointment of Aitor Karanka I believe is a good one, as well as the signings of George Friend, Neil Etheridge and Jon Toral – especially if the Spaniard can recapture his form from his previous spell in the Midlands. Having said this, there’s always a new breed of chaos unfolding at St Andrews, and I fear that will plague them again.
Overall, I’d say Birmingham were perhaps the hardest team to place, but I know it will take a huge job from Karanka to get them into mid-table this term.
16th – Middlesbrough
Neil Warnock arrived at the Riverside in June and did what most people predicted; he kept Boro up without much fuss. But can he take them further than that? It would take a brave man to write Warnock off – but I’m not convinced.
This Boro squad is in fairly poor shape, with Warnock and his predecessor, Jonathan Woodgate, having to largely rely on bargain bin signings and players from the academy as the club are yet to spend any real money this window.
Of course, if Warnock works miracles in the transfer window then I can see Boro being closer to the top end than the bottom, but for now I can’t see them finishing much higher.
On that note, I would also like to wish Neil a speedy recovery after his positive Coronavirus test result.
15th – Coventry City
The rise and fall of Coventry has been well documented over recent years, but the fall and rise again is as remarkable and points towards a bright future for the Sky Blues – with Mark Robbins working wonders at the helm. Two promotions in three seasons, as well as just one league defeat since last December, means Coventry have momentum behind them, and a manager they can trust.
I can’t help but find myself enamoured by their business, too. Tyler Walker has proved to be a reliable goal scorer in the football league, whilst Callum O’hare, Ben Sheaf and Gustavo Hamer all excite me.
A year of solidarity in the Championship would be excellent going, and who knows, maybe the Sky Blues will be back in the Big Time in not too long.
14th – Reading
Since reaching the play-off final in 2017, Reading have endured three turbulent seasons in the Championship, consisting of two 20th place finishes, one in 14th last term, and seven different managers whether temporary or permanent.
However, their latest appointment of Veljko Paunović is something different and one I can get behind after his work in Serbia, as well as the permanent signing of Ovie Ejaria from Liverpool. After a couple of tumultuous years as the Madejski, a solid year of development under the right manager would set the Royals up in good stead for the future, with a steadily improving squad.
13th – Blackburn Rovers
This is where the division gets tight. As last season showed, a mid table finish in the Championship doesn’t necessarily mean that the sides finishing between ninth and fourteenth had nothing to play for heading into the final dozen games or so, and I think that will be the same here. Just ten points separated 5th placed Cardiff and 12th placed Bristol City last term.
But unfortunately for Blackburn, I fancy them to be the weakest of the cluster of sides who will be vying for a spot in the play-off lottery – but these middle of the pack spots are hard to predict, given that just three or four extra points could account for a handful of places in the Championship this season.
I like Tony Mowbray, I like some of the players down at Ewood Park, and I hope they make a real push to break into the top six, but without investment, that will be very difficult.
12th – Nottingham Forest
There is no doubting that the 2019/20 season was one of huge improvement for Forest, even though it didn’t yield what it had promised at various points of the campaign – promotion to the Big Time.
But the tail end of the season left a lot to be desired, as Sabri Lamouchi’s men recorded just three wins in the final 17, with games against Derby, Barnsley and most crucially their final day collapse against Stoke, being the biggest disappointments.
The signings of Lyle Taylor, Luke Freeman and Loïc Soh are solid, but with a play-off disappointment hangover to contend with, three defeats from three to open the season and an increasingly frustrated fan base, I fear Sabri might not be making Forest fans happy for much longer.
11th – Preston North End
Like others in this list, Preston have been tentatively tapping at the door of the play-offs in recent years, without ever truly threatening to break it down. But when I said the league begins to get tight from 13th onwards, from here on in, it gets very tight.
I’ve enjoyed the journey Preston have been on since Joe Garner fired them back to the second tier in 2015. They’ve meticulously stitched together a decent side over the past couple of seasons, as Alex Neil routinely has the Lilywhites punching above their weight.
However, the seemingly inevitable loss of star men Daniel Johnson and Ben Davies would leave Neil in a position where the club would need to strengthen, amid no real business thus far into the window.
I feel Preston will once again be up there, but they lack the goals necessary to make it into the top six just yet.
10th – Cardiff City
Remarkably, Cardiff are already the sixth team on this list who Neil Warnock has either managed or played for.
Now that pointless Warnock trivia is out the way, I have Cardiff to be in with a shout of making the play-offs, but to fall off into the mire of mid-table before the season’s end.
Neil Harris did an excellent job of lifting a team who were 14th in the table last year to 5th, before losing out in the play-off semi-finals to eventual champions Fulham. But simply, I see better teams with more potential finishing above them this term, especially if Kieffer Moore and Sheyi Ojo are their main pickups this window.
9th – Derby County
It feels like an absolute age ago that Derby were a club in turmoil, sent into a spiral of shame after a drunken night out ended in chaos with a handful of players being involved in a car accident in the opening stages of the Championship season.
Given the circumstances, as well as an increasingly precarious financial position after years of lavish spending – leaving the Rams to widely rely on youth – Phillip Cocu has done a very good job in the Midlands.
Some of that talented youth has moved on in the shape of Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe, but both Jordan Sibley and Max Bird have recently signed new deals, with the likes of Jason Knight and Morgan Whittaker set to play major roles in Cocu’s team.
Add to this youth the experience of Wayne Rooney, Curtis Davies and David Marshall, Derby will be up there, but I think there will be better placed teams above them.
8th – Stoke City
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times? Well, it’s not happening this time, Stoke. After punting on the Potters to get promoted in each of the past two seasons, only for them to inexplicably finish 15th and 16th, this year I’ve got them to improve, but not trouble the top six yet.
In an attempt to balance the books, the Coates’ have had to mostly shop in the free agent market over the past couple of windows, with only a few players arriving for fees in the meantime.
Similarly to Reading, a year to grow under the right manager, whilst the likes of Jacob Brown and Tyrese Campbell develop into quality Championship Players, as more outcasts leave their bloated Premier League wage bill, will do them the world of good.
7th – Millwall
From perennial strugglers and yo-yoers to competing at the right end of the Championship table, the last few years have certainly been ones of development at the Den under Neil Harris and Gary Rowett, with two 8th place finishes in the last three seasons raising expectation levels down in South East London.
Similarly to my thoughts on Garry Monk, I have become less enthused by his near namesake Gary Rowett over the past few seasons, after failed stints at Derby and Stoke, but the former Burton manager looks to have found his home at Millwall after arriving last October.
Solid summer additions have helped bolster an already talented group of players, with Ryan Woods returning on loan from Stoke as well as the highly rated Troy Parrott from Tottenham. Whilst further down the field in the shape of Bartosz Białkowski they have arguably the best goalkeeper in the Championship, as well as the likes of Jake Cooper and Alex Pearce making up a sturdy backline.
Don’t be surprised if there’s some extra football played down in Bermondsey come May.
6th – Bristol City
Finally, 13 years after their last appearance in the Championship play-offs, I have 2021 down as the year that Bristol City will enter the extended season, after waiting patiently at the door with the likes of Preston over the past few seasons.
Over this time, I fell both in, and out of love with Lee Johnson, who ultimately couldn’t deliver on his early promise in the job and was replaced by Dean Holden last season. Flanked by two top coaches in Keith Downing and Paul Simpson, Holden will look to utilise a talented squad, consisting of the likes of Famara Diédhiou, Nahki Wells and Jay Dasilva.
Add these players to new recruits Joe Williams and Alfie Mawson, as well as a returning Liam Walsh, I’m confident City will be up there this term, with Holden’s opening record of just one loss in nine games also reason for optimism.
5th – Swansea City
Excellent late season form and the goals of Rhian Brewster helped to catapult the Swans to an unlikely play-off campaign last term, as Neil Cooper built on the good work of Graham Potter from a year earlier. Whilst any potential to re-sign Brewster on loan for another season looks unlikely, I still think Cooper’s side are in for another good season.
Using his England contact book, the 40-year-old has landed highly talented Wolves attacker Morgan Gibbs-White – who scored the winning goal away to Preston on opening day – on a season-long loan deal, as well as adding Jamal Lowe and Korey Smith to an ever-improving squad.
Whilst the loss of Brewster and fellow loanee Conor Gallagher will be disappointing, I can see Cooper’s side being there or thereabouts come May.
4th – Bournemouth
Relegated sides are always difficult to predict – especially those whose coach is stepping into his first managerial job. But I have faith in Jason Tindall to get the best out of a squad which is packed with Premier League quality – nevermind players capable of bossing it in the second tier.
Defensively, the Cherries look solid, with a plethora of former Championship players in their ranks including Chris Mepham and Lloyd Kelly. The likes of Jefferson Lerma, Lewis Cook and Phillip Billing make up a strong midfield unit, whilst David Brooks, Dom Solanke and Sam Surridge should score goals at this level.
Brooks and Josh King’s futures may be up in the air at present, along with a couple of others, but if Tindall can keep ahold of the majority of this team, whilst adding some key additions, Bournemouth will be challenging to return to the Promised Land at the first time of asking.
3rd – Brentford
I’m not quite sure when it happened, but somewhere in between the last minute penalty heartache against Doncaster in 2013, and the Bees side that reached the Championship play-offs in 2015, I adopted Brentford as a second team. Going on to lead them to the Premier League, along with two of my friends, as the three of us did simultaneous Football Manager saves last summer.
Whilst the last few years have brought fantastic players, managers and some of the finest football I’ve seen from a Championship side, Brentford just haven’t been able to get over the line. Last season, vital losses in the finale of the campaign snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, as West Brom finished 2nd, before play-off heartache resigned Thomas Frank to another season in the Championship.
Unfortunately, I can see this term holding more of the same. The loss of Ollie Watkins, surely to be followed by Saïd Benrahma, are massive, and whilst Ivan Toney and a returning Marcus Forss will carry some of the goalscoring burden, I feel there are stronger side in the division again this year, especially as Frank’s side are notoriously slow starters.
For what it’s worth (absolutely nothing), I managed to keep Brentford in the Premier League for three seasons on FM, before my save file was corrupted.
2nd – Norwich City
There won’t be much to split my top three, with any of them being able to interchange from top one week, to out of the automatics the next – as is so often the case in the Championship.
I’ve got Norwich to pip Brentford to the top two due to the Canaries’ squad having that Championship winning mentality, with ten of their 17 man squad that beat Huddersfield on opening day being involved in their 2019 title winning campaign.
More goals from Pukki and youngster Adam Idah seem inevitable, whilst the club could still yet hold onto star men Max Aarons, Todd Cantwell, Emi Buendía and Bed Godfrey before the window shuts next month. If they don’t, I have faith Stuart Webber would reinvest the money smartly anyway, making Norwich a leading contender for promotion.
1st – Watford
That leaves Watford, who I believe should comfortably return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Whilst there are bound to be some departures from their current squad, there is simply too much quality out on the pitch, and in the dugout with the appointment of Vladimir Ivić, for the Hornets to spend an extra season in England’s second tier.
Over the years, Watford have quietly stitched together an absolutely huge squad, whilst loaning several youngsters out in an attempt to gain experience and first team football. The most exciting of their youngsters is 18-year-old João Pedro, who was signed from Brazilian side Fluminense after being granted a work permit this January.
Add Pedro to the likes of Jeremy Ngakia, Domingos Quina and Luis Suárez, and the upper end Championship quality of Will Hughes, Ben Foster, Andre Gray and Craig Dawson to name but a few, this Watford squad is ready to lead the way in the Championship this year.
Who knows, maybe even Ismaïla Sarr, Étienne Capoue and Troy Deeney will stay, and if they do, it’s their league to lose.
So, there we have it, my Championship table predictions after some assessment, but what do you think will happen?
Please remember though – places may only be separated by points or even goal difference, and I don’t have a crystal ball!