It only seems yesterday that the football season was wrapping up, but quick as a flash it’s back again and I, Tommy Doleman, will take you through a preview of the football league with the final edition coming from the Championship.
Barnsley: A similar blue print to last season was followed when Mark Robins departed and another up and comer in Keith Hill replaced him. A good pre-season suggests that they could prove to be very competitive but defensively they’re not the best and the loss of Jason Shackell will leave a massive void. Their form at Oakwell will probably determine whether they comfortably sit in mid-table or whether they’re dragged into a dog-fight.
One to watch: Craig Davies signed from Chesterfield for around 700k and after top scoring in League Two; it’ll be interesting to see if he can jump up two divisions.
Opening fixture: Nottingham Forest (A)
Birmingham City: Chris Hughton has been entrusted with reviving the Blues fortunes having previously done the job at Newcastle two years ago. While he has brought in several proven players in Marlon King, Chris Burke and Steven Caldwell, the names of Roger Johnson, Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner are already gone with Cameron Jerome and Scott Dann scratching at the door, it seems. It’ll be a tough gig for Hughton but fans should be confident that they’ll be around come playoff time.
One to watch: Lee Bowyer and Barry Ferguson join Gardner on the list of midfield departures which gives the talented Jordan Mutch an opportunity to establish a first team spot having previously gone out to Watford.
Opening fixture: Derby (A)
Blackpool: Ian Holloway only knows one way to set up his team and that’s to attack. You can be sure that they will entertain once again having many sympathised with their relegation from the premiership. This time though, many of them will expect them to challenge again for the top six which is unusual for the Tangeries as they’ve lived with an underdog tag for the previous two seasons. They should be in the mix come April but Adam is obviously a massive loss.
One to watch: Barry Ferguson has the ability to control the midfield at Bloomfield Road but not with the same creativity as Adam. His leadership will be key.
Opening fixture: Hull (A)
Brighton and Hove Albion: It’s exciting time for Brighton with an ambitious board, a young talented manager and a new stadium to play a lovely brand of football that they wooed League One with, in their title winning season. There’s no reason why can’t push on from that great season and consolidate well and truly with a top-half given the attacking threats they have from Wills Buckley and Hoskins as well as Kazenga Lua Lua
One to watch: There’s not really much to say about Craig Mackail-Smith, expect for the fact that Brighton have done a wonderful job to get the 34 goal prolific striker down south. He’s about five times the player he was when he was last here with Peterborough.
Opening fixture: Doncaster (H)
Bristol City: Expectations at Ashton Gate aren’t perhaps as high as what they were when Gary Johnson took the Robins to the play-off final back in 2008. This doesn’t mean they don’t have a good squad though, built on by some astute acquisitions in Neil Kilkenny, Yannick Bolasie and Ryan Taylor. Injuries played their part last season and once again I feel they’ll be in the mid-table log jam again.
One to watch: Bradley Wright-Phillips is no stranger to this division but has never really set it alight in the way many of us had expected from such a talented forward. If he doesn’t have a big season, Charlton will be up against it you feel.
Opening fixture: Ipswich (H)
Burnley: An inconsistent first season back in the Championship means that the objectives at Turf Moor have perhaps changed after many expected a push for promotion. Brian Laws oversaw a team that was only heading one way and was later replaced by young manager Eddie Howe. Howe did a decent job to push the clarets up to 8th but could face a tougher season after the departure of several names.
One to watch: Jay Rodriguez is a local lad that wears his heart on his sleeve and provides the spark from midfield which will be needed even more with the departure of Chris Eagles to Bolton.
Opening fixture: Watford (H)
Cardiff: Once again, the Bluebirds fell short at the playoffs and they wasted no time in bringing in a new manager in Malky Mackay, whose Watford side proved to be a surprise package. The loss of strikers Jay Bothroyd and Michael Chopra didn’t prove to be too much of a blow with Kenny Miller and Robert Earnshaw brought in to replace them. Despite losses in the squad, they’ve made some impressive signings and they’ll be there as usual but desperate to avoid playoff lottery.
One to watch: Robert Earnshaw returns to Cardiff, still a fans favourite and a proven goal scorer. Keep an eye out for that trademark celebration, too.
Opening fixture: West Ham (A)
Coventry City: It’s been a slow off-season for the midlands club with only two goalkeepers joining the playing roster from last season. Joe Murphy should prove an adequate replacement for Keiran Westwood but Marlon King and Aron Gunnarsson will leave a massive void. Unless replacements are quickly found, a relegation scrap could develop for new manager Andy Thorn.
One to watch: Sammy Clingan has a massive job in the sky blues engine room this season and is a top quality player linked with several clubs in the post-season.
Opening fixture: Leicester (H)
Crystal Palace: Relegation was fought off last season after Dougie Freedman took over from George Burley and galvanised the club to a 20th place finish. While youth at Palace is looking good the depth of their squad is as shallow as a paddling pool and with Neil Danns leaving, another battle against relegation looks on the cards for the battlers. Mile Jedinak and Kagisho Dikgacoi will add steel in the centre of the park as well.
One to watch: Glenn Murray is a steal from Brighton on a free especially given their promotion and could provide added goals from midfield to keep the Eagles up.
Opening fixture: Peterborough (A)
Derby County: Nigel Clough looks to have made some pretty good signings at Derby but you feel that this is a team that plays on confidence. Frank Fielding is a good young goalkeeper while Nathan Tyson and Jamie Ward can add a little in attack, but neither is a 20 goal forward. Defensively they’ve added Jason Shackell but a mid-table season looks about with a possibly fade away once there’s nothing to play for. Clear of any danger, though.
One to watch: Chris Maguire was a good prospect at Aberdeen but never really kicked off in Scotland and will be hoping a change of scenery can bring about his best form on a more regular basis.
Opening fixture: Birmingham (H)
Doncaster: Despite their lowly position and their woeful form, Doncaster continued to play football last season even with a horrible injury list. They came close to relegation after just two wins in the second half of the season and Sean O’Driscoll will be hoping that barren run isn’t a preview to what we will see from the Yorkshire minnows.
One to watch: Billy Sharp is a natural goal-scorer and needs to stay fit for the whole season if Donny hope to stay up this season. He managed 15 goals before missing the final two months of the campaign.
Opening fixture: Brighton (A)
Hull: Another Yorkshire team in Hull City are doing some nice things on Humberside with Nigel Pearson putting a youthful stamp on an exciting squad. While they ran out of legs last season towards the end, they’ll be better for that run out. Manchester United youth trio Joe Dudgeon, Corry Evans and Robbie Brady give the tigers fans a further reason to be optimistic after a slow season cost them a top six finish last time around.
One to watch: Matty Fryatt is one of the best strikers in the championship and is definitely a sneaky bet to be the league’s top scorer in 2011/12. Will need support if Hull are to launch a play-off assault however.
Opening fixture: Blackpool (H)
Ipswich Town: Paul Jewell has been given the trust of the board having replaced Roy Keane half way through last season. After cashing in on prized youngster Connor Wickham, the Tractor Boys have strengthened a lot with names such as David Stockdale, Lee Bowyer, Michael Chopra and Ivar Ingimarsson providing a brand new back bone. I really like the look of this side that they’ve assembled and I’m backing them to find a spot in the play offs come seasons end.
One to watch: He’s been out on loan to a few clubs now but Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has finally found a new home after sealing a 1.1 millon pound switch from Arsenal. He has real flair and could prove to be an X-factor within a pretty experienced squad.
Opening fixture: Bristol City (A)
Leeds United: Leeds were full of goals and entertainment value last season but fell short of the playoffs despite sitting in the top six for much of the season. The off-season has been quite low key at Elland Road with Kasper Schmeichel, Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny out and Andy Lonergan and Michael Brown coming in. The spine looks a lot more solid this season with Darren O’Dea also joining overnight but they still look a couple of players short in their chase for a Premier League return.
One to watch: Australian centre-half Patrick Kisnorbo returned on the last day of 2010/11 after a long layoff with an achilles injury and will be like a new signing this coming season. He could hold the key to a successful Leeds season if he can re-capture his best form.
Opening fixture: Southampton (A)
Leicester City: Expectations at the Walkers Stadium are higher after Sven Goran Eriksson once again became the money man and splashed the cash on basically a whole new squad. Plenty of depth has been added and the signing of Reading’s captain Matt Mills is a fantastic signing for the foxes. David Nugent and Paul Gallagher should provide the goals while Michael Johnson could become one of the signings of the season. Hard not to ignore them as a title contender.
One to watch: Despite the money spent on the squad, the class player for me is Richie Wellens who is a wonderful user of the ball, a hard nut and a true midfield general.
Opening fixture: Coventry (A)
Middlesbrough Unbelievably, Boro were flirting with a second consecutive relegation under Gordon Strachan before Tony Mowbray arrived and steadied the ship thanks in part to some of the clubs youth. The problem for the North-east side is that many of their rivals have larger budgets and realistically a playoff push would a fine achievement given the situation at the Riverside.
One to watch: Rhys Williams is one of the hottest prospects of the league and his versatility hasn’t gone un-noticed by the likes of Bolton in the Premier League.
Opening fixture: Portsmouth (H)
Millwall: The lions and will draw on last season’s 9th place finish to push a step further this time around. A vociferous home support makes the Den one of the least favourite places for away sides to visit so expect them to start quite quickly. They’ll be hoping that they can cause a few headaches for the teams near them but the goals of Steve Morison will be sorely missed following his move to Norwich.
One to watch: Darius Henderson shapes up as a key for Millwall this season with Morison and the clubs record scorer Neil Harris moving back to his home club in Southend United.
Opening fixture: Reading (A)
Nottingham Forest: Steve McLaren returns to English football for the first time since moving to Holland to try and repair his reputation abroad. A club rich in history and looking to recapture their glory days, perhaps Forest and McLaren go hand in hand and this could be their season. A bright and youthful side last year under Billy Davies has had experienced names in Andy Reid, George Boateng and Jonathan Greening joining. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink also joins the promotion chasers in a coaching capacity. There’s no reason why Forest can’t achieve a top six finish again.
One to watch: Young full back Brendan Moloney found game time at the end of last season and looks at home in the Championship with his enthusiasm and energy from full back.
Opening fixture: Barnsley (H)
Peterborough United: Darren Ferguson gets another opportunity to keep the Posh afloat after the club were relegated back in 2009/10. They don’t do boring down at London Road with the playoff winners scoring a remarkable 106 goals but in contrast, 75 goals conceded needs to be rectified especially against such formidable opposition. You feel a tough season lies ahead.
One to watch: Replacing Craig Mackail-Smiths goals is easier said than done so Lee Tomlin will be required to step up to the plate.
Opening fixture: Crystal Palace (H)
Portsmouth: It was backs to the wall stuff for Pompey last season with debt, takeover talk and administration continuing to be a grey cloud over Fratton Park. Looking at their squad though, you can’t help but think of the saying ‘Quality not Quantity’ with some good names such as Liam Lawrence, David Norris and Dave Kitson at the club. Depth will be severely tested though with a number of players departing but if they can keep afloat off the field then they should be fine on the field.
One to watch: Luke Varney proved to be a real livewire in an exciting Blackpool team last season and could be a real gem if he settles quickly on the south coast.
Opening fixture: Middlesbrough (A)
Reading: The beaten playoff finalists can be proud of what they achieved last season but backing up that scintillating run of form will be the challenge now for Brian McDermott. The gaffer seems pretty happy with what he’s got having only added Mikele Leigertwood and Bongani Khumalo to his squad, but skipper Matt Mills has joined the revolution at Leicester and will be sorely missed at the back. Investing that 5 million could help them have another crack at the playoffs.
One to watch: Shane Long has been continuously linked with the Premier League and moneybags Leicester City and is probably the best striker outside the top flight. If the Royals can keep hold of him then their momentum from last season should carry on.
Opening fixtures: Millwall (H)
Southampton: After winning automatic promotion from League One the Saints, like Brighton, are in a really good place going into their first season back in the Championship. They have several experienced heads at the back with youth and flair throughout the middle and a natural scorer in Rickie Lambert at the top end. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been held onto despite constant links with Arsenal which is fantastic news and they should finish comfortably in mid-table.
One to watch: Look no further for a talented attacking midfielder than Adam Lallana who scores, creates and does just about anything and everything for Southampton.
Opening fixtures: Leeds (H)
Watford: A 14th placed finish in 2010/11 probably doesn’t do justice to how well the hornets did last season but that success came at a price with Malky Mackay and Danny Graham both leaving for Wales. And in an unsurprising move the club have turned to cheap signings and youth to continue the progress at Vicarage Road. Rookie manager Sean Dyche has been given the job of replicating Mackay’s fine work but may slide a little.
One to watch: Marvin Sordell proved to be a handy partner for Graham up front but will have to do it on his own this season if Watford are to improve on their last finish.
Opening fixture: Burnley (A)
West Ham: There was too much happening off the pitch last season at West Ham and it had a terrible effect on their performances on it. Sam Allardyce is in charge of getting the Hammers back to the EPL instantly and some of his signings in Kevin Nolan, Abdoulaye Faye and Matt Taylor send out a statement of intent and a message that set pieces will typically be a key outlet for a Big Sam team. It’s hard to predict who will come and go before the window shuts but their current side has more than enough to be a title contender, especially if the likes of Scott Parker and Carlton Cole are kept.
One to watch: Kevin Nolan was the championship player of the year when he helped Newcastle win the title and there’s no doubt that he will lead well, create well and probably score double figures from midfield.
Opening fixture: Cardiff (H)