The waiting is almost over as the Championship kicks back in to action tonight as Hull face Blackpool at the KC Stadium. For lower league fans all across the country the time is now upon you as reality kicks in. Will your pre season optimism turn to a nightmare? Is it inevitable that West Ham will romp home at the top? Can Coventry stay up? Will Blackpool go straight back up?
All these questions will be answered come May next year, but in the meantime, we take a look at the front runners in the Championship and with plenty of bookmakers free bets on offer now is a great time to pick out some value.
West Ham head the betting and it’s easy to see why they are priced up at 4/1 to lift the title.
Much has been made of Gould and Sullivan’s take over and the £80m debt at Upton Park, but the there are signs of a very promising season and a quick return to the Premiership will be all important for the future of the club.
Manager Sam Allardyce has made some shrewd signings in the summer, most notably raiding his former club Bolton of Matty Taylor and Joey O Brien, while Kevin Nolan has made the surprising move south from Newcastle to once again join up with his former boss.
Despite the slip down a division the Hammers still hold on to much of their squad from the Premiership. Rob Green, Scott Parker and Carlton Cole still remain, although it remains to be seen for how long, so much depend on new blood at Upton Park. James Tomkins, Winston Reid, Jack Collison and Freddie Sears are all expected to feature much more often this year and with a healthy dose of experience it appears that Allardyce has a winning formula. On paper at least,
Leicester City (5/1) are the bookmakers close second favourites, and its easy to see why the Foxes are seeing plenty of support. Sven Goran Erikkson has deep pockets at the King Power Stadium through investment from a Thai duty-free emporium, and with a squad featuring Yakubu, Michael Johnson, John Pantsil and the impressive Matt Mills in defence, who was superb for Reading last season, the Foxes should have squad more than worthy of challenging for automatic promotion.
Birmingham (12/1) have also attracted plenty of support but its very difficult to make a case for Chris Hughton’s side. The Blues’ new manager has seen a host of departures from during the summer months, and with Chairman Carson Yeung under arrest in Hong Kong all is not well at St Andrews. The core of the side has been ripped out with Ben Foster, Roger Johnson, Barry Ferguson all departing and the future of Scott Dann unclear. Jon Spector has been brought in from West Ham to bolster the defence but it is clear that with so much upheaval it would take a monumental effort to secure promotion.
Middlesbrough (14/1) are another side that will surely be knocking on the door but they have been dealt a big blow with the news that striker Leroy Lita has joined Swansea, Kris Boyd has left for Turkey and with Marvin Emnes also rumoured to be looking for a move away the Boro could be a little short of firepower going forward.
They possess a great lower league manager in Tony Mowbray and he is to be respected, but with a tight purse to use automatic promotion could be a little too much to ask.
Cardiff City (18/1) continued the theme of change as Dave Jones stepped aside to let Malky McKay take over the reigns at the City of Cardiff Stadium. The Bluebirds were one of the most consistent sides in the Championship over the last few years but after coming up short each year, a change had to be on the cards.
Jay Bothroyd, Craig Bellamy and Michael Chopra may have left the club but their shoes have been filled with quality players in Rob Earnshaw, who returns to the Cardiff side from Forest and ex Rangers man Kenny Miller. These two could develop into a very productive partnership together with Peter Whittingham in midfield, and with arch rivals Swansea City playing in the Premiership, there is no better incentive for Cardiff this year.
Brighton (20/1) are still riding on the crest of a wave following successive promotions and it is clear that boss Gus Poyet is building something very special on the south coast. A move to their new Amex Stadium, together with the shrewd purchases of £2.5m man Craig Mackail-Smith, who scored 35 goals for Peterborough last season, Will Buckley from Watford and Will Hoskins who looks to have a bright future after signing from Bristol Rovers have all strengthened the side. Perhaps Seagull s fans are asking too much for another successive promotion but Brighton definitely are a team to watch over the next year or two.
Nottingham Forest (16/1) have brought in a new man at the top, ex England manager Steve McLaren has taken over at the City Ground on a three year contract with Billy Davis leaving the club during the summer. Rob Earnshaw has left for Cardiff while Nathan Tyson, Julian Bennett and Paul McKenna have also departed. Keeper Lee Camp is also rumoured to be on his way after an impressive season.
This may be a worry for some fans as it appears there has been a distinct lack of investment into the club, with Chairman Nigel Doughty indicating the club must ‘financially prioritise’. There are a few new faces, with veterans Andy Reid, George Boateng and Jonathan Greening all arriving in the summer but surely their best playing days are behind them, and Forest fans must be wondering when the big name signing will happen. Forest may be a dark horse this season but they look a little off the pace at the moment, in the transfer market at least, and with no further signings imminent a playoff place looks the most likely outcome.
Any of Ipswich (22/1), Leeds or Hull could make a challenge with Ipswich looking the more likely. The arrival of Michael Chopra from Cardiff, together with Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Lee Bowyer are likely to see the Tractor Boys challenging around the playoffs, but it is vital that these players are kept fit. This may be difficult in the light of Chopra’s increasing injury worries, where he missed a large portion of Cardiff’s season. Ipswich do have a great manager in Paul Jewell and they should be a difficult side to beat this year.
Leeds (20/1) look to be a little short this year with some big name departures during the summer really rocking the side, with Neil Kilkenny, Bradley Johnson and Kasper Schmeichel all leaving Elland Road. There are also serious injury concerns over Davide Somma and Luciano Becchio who will both miss the start of the season, and it is likely Leeds may have left themselves with two much ground to catch up when these two return at Christmas.
Hull (25/1) look to have a great balance in the side at the moment and with the calming influence of Nigel Pearson at the helm should do well. The Jimmy Bullard suspension will have annoyed the placid manager but the arrival of Paul McKenna and Dele Adebola should bolster the side, and a top six finish is not out of the question.
In the bottom half of the table Andy Thorn looks to have his work cut out at Coventry, with Marlon King, Westwood and Gunnarsson all leaving the Ricoh, and with deep financial trouble there are no transfers on the horizon. Crystal Palace also look like a side teetering on the edge but could well stay up with the impressive Dougie Freedman at the helm and the arrival of Glenn Murray from Brighton.
The rest should play out mid table mediocrity and survive for another year.