The Championship is surely the hardest league in the world to predict, or so it feels sometimes, and there will be plenty of twists and turns before the end of the transfer window on September 1. That said, we have already seen plenty of comings and goings both in the dugout and on the pitch, and we can start to make some educated guesses at how the table might look on May 6, 2023.
The reason the Championship is one of the hardest leagues to win, is not just because of a brutal 46-match regular season, it’s also because of the sheer amount of money and ambition sloshing through it. Teams come up from League 1 each summer to find they are tasked with taking on former Premier League sides bolstered in the transfer market by their parachute payments following relegation from the top flight. The likes of Norwich, Burnley, Watford, West Brom and Sheffield United can all call upon the power of the parachute in a bid to make a ‘soft landing’ towards the summit of the table and it’s hard to look beyond that stable when picking a winner this season.
Norwich have been relegated from the Premier League in two of the past four seasons and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out what happened in the other two. They seem to be magnetically opposed to Fulham, who have gone in the opposite direction in each of the past four seasons. Norwich last faced Fulham in 2017/18. I suspected there will be plenty of people backing that pattern to continue this season too.
City boss Dean Smith might not have kept them in the top-flight after replacing Daniel Farke, but he has been there and done it before in the second tier, of course, securing three top-10 Championship finishes with Brentford and then dragging Aston Villa from 15 th to play-off glory after being appointed in October 2018. He knows what expectation feels like at a club and he delivered. I think there’s a good chance he does so again.
I’m not normally one to place too much store in pre-season results, but last weekend the Canaries turned over a Marseille side, featuring the likes of Dmitri Payet and ex-Arsenal stars Sead Kolasinac and Matteo Guendouzi, the other day. 3-0. In France. Yep.
There were two goals for target-man Jordan Hugil, who might be 30 now, but whom previous boss Daniel Farke hailed as a crucial piece of their promotion-winning side, despite playing limited minutes in their last Championship campaign in 20/21. Another player back in the fold after a loan away is Daniel Sinani, the tricky Luxembourger who made an impact coming in from out wide while at Huddersfield last season. His last appearance was the Play-off Final defeat to Nottingham Forest. There is also the potential for some x-factor in the form of new £10m Brazilian midfielder Gabriel Sara from Sao Paulo. The 23-year-old might miss the first few games after undergoing ankle surgery in the off-season but if he is able to adapt to the challenges of the league then the club will feel they have got a bargain.
Over the last 10 seasons an average total of 85.2 points from 46 league games has been enough to secure automatic promotion. Norwich have earned 94 and then 97 in their last two Championship campaigns, ensuring them the title at a canter on both occasions. I don’t think they necessarily hit those same heights this time around but I do think they have the stability, continuity and most importantly finances, to be the best of the bunch this season.
While picking a winner can be a tough ask, it feels a little simpler to narrow down the field in terms of teams who I expect to be fighting for survival.
I don’t have a very good feeling about the off-field situation at Birmingham, despite news of a takeover involving a local businessman and a consortium including former Barcelona player Maxi Lopez closing on a deal to buy the club. Even though they have secured a return for local hero and Blues legend Troy Deeney this season, I’m not sure he’s going to contribute enough to keep City away from the wrong end of the table. I expect newly-promoted Wigan and Rotherham to be down there in the bottom four or five too, but the team I have the least faith in is Reading.
Yes, ok, Paul Ince came in in February and managed to keep them up last season, though for me it was mainly by virtue of the fact that Peterborough, Barnsley and Derby barely whimpered on their way through the relegation trap-door. Ince finished the season with a 28.6% win percentage, a precise figure which was enough to get him sacked from previous jobs at Blackburn and Blackpool but this time it saw him handed the reins on a permanent basis in May.
To say I have reservations about Ince, and his transfer dealings this summer, is an understatement. Among the Berkshire side’s six signings are his son Tom, obviously, plus Jeff Hendrick, who did not have much of an impact during a loan stint with QPR last season, and Shane Long, who makes a ‘fairytale’ return to the club where he got 21 goals in 44 games in 2010/11. 11 years is a long time, however, Long has scored just 15 league goals in 149 appearances across the past six seasons and was available on a free transfer for a reason.
On paper Ince’s team might well have contended for the play-off places were it the 2015/16 season but sadly for him, and the loyal Royals fans, it’s 2022/23 and I can see another season of frustration on the horizon at the Select Car Leasing Stadium.
The average minimum number of points required to stay-up in the division across the past 10 seasons is 44.7 from 46 games – Reading were fourth-bottom and survived last season with 41, albeit with a six-point financial handicap. I don’t think the bar will be much higher this season but even so I’m not even sure Ince will still be there next May to see if they can get over it.
It feels weird to use the word ‘overachieve’ to describe a prediction for the season for a Middlesbrough team who were involved in the play-off race until the dying days of the last campaign and have spent years in the Premier League, however the bookmakers think they’re play-offs at best and I have a feeling they can prove them wrong.
Chris Wilder laid a solid foundation at the Riverside last season and I fully expect him to build on that this term. The capture of Darragh Lenihan from Blackburn is possibly my favourite signing of the entire close-season as it gives them quality, organiation and on-field leadership and I am certain there will be at least another three or four high-profile arrivals to come in the next couple of weeks, not least now Boro have the £12.5m from selling Djed Spence to Tottenham to reinvest. I thought long and hard about picking Boro as my tip for the title but, given they are down as sixth-favourites with plenty of bookies, you can get good value on them to secure one of the two automatic promotion places or secure a Premier League berth via winning the play-offs.
The blueprint for Wilder is clear. Nobody won more home games than Boro last season, however of the nine games in which they didn’t claim maximum points, they drew only two and lost seven. They need to turn silly defeats into draws at home, while on the road they need to turn draws into wins. Only six teams won fewer than their six away games last season – their away record was actually in the bottom half of teams in the division despite them finishing just one place and five points adrift of the play-offs come the end of the season.
While I’m firmly on the Boro bandwagon, honourable mention in this category must also go to Millwall who enjoyed a brilliant season in 21/22 and, should they maintain or even improve their eye-catching home form and defensive record, I expect them to be pushing for a play-off place once again, despite being around 14th in the betting.
Only three teams conceded fewer than the Lions’ 45 total goals last season, and those three will all now be playing Premier League football. Wall’s form at the fortress Den saw them claim an incredible 45 points from 23 games, the third best return in the division and only a point fewer than Champions Fulham managed infront of their own fans. If they can turn a couple of away draws into wins this season then I expect last season’s six-point gap to the play-offs to be considerably tighter this time around.
The Clarets are many people’s favourites for the title, and have even been crowned Champions Elect by one of the ‘supercomputer’ number-crunchers on the eve of the season, however I have severe reservations and will not be touching them with a barge pole.
Vincent Kompany was a hugely successful player at the highest and he raised plenty of eyebrows when he left Manchester City to begin his coaching career at Anderlecht in 2019. The honeymoon return to his first club did not endure and he left last year after the Brussels club’s board grew tired of waiting for Kompany’s rebuild to bear fruit.
The vastly experienced Premier League players James Tarkowsi, Aaron Lennon and Ben Mee were able to walk out the Turf Moor door while Nick Pope and Nathan Collins were sold to Newcastle and Wolves respectfully and big forward and failed saviour Wout Weghorst has been loaned to Besiktas. With Burnley having a £65m debt hanging over them, the incomings have been greater in number but more modest in stature. The new faces include two players Kompany knows from the Belgian league, a couple of young loanees (yes, obviously one from Man City) and Luke McNally and Scott Twine from Oxford and MK Dons respectively.
I’m expecting this Kompany revolution to bear similarities to that he launched, if not completed, in Belgium. The football should improve and the average age of the side will drop significantly, but I just don’t see them sustaining a title challenge in this brutal 46-game slog. Young and newly-assembled teams rarely find the consistency required for such a challenge in the early days.
I really ought to mention Huddersfield here too, they were in the race for automatic promotion until the final two weeks of last season, and were edged out by Nottingham Forest in the Play-off final, but I feel like there will be a significant hangover for the Terriers and I’d be astounded if they were anywhere near the promotion race this time around. Manager Carlos Corberan left the club on the eve of the season in July with Danny Schofield hastily named as his replacement. They have also lost hugely influential duo Lewis O’Brien and Harry Toffolo to Forest, of all teams, just days before their opening fixture. I envisage a tricky couple of months for the John Smiths faithful.
Top Goal Scorer
I don’t think for one minute that we’ll ever see a ‘race’ for the golden boot in the second tier quite like the one we saw last season. Fulham’s Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic wrote himself into the record books with a mind-boggling 43 Championship goals last term – one goal for every 89 minutes he spent on the pitch. Extraordinary. There is no coincidence that his goals fired Fulham to the title while his ‘closest’ rival was Dominic Solanke, who notched an admittedly still impressive 29 goals to ensure his Bournemouth side went up in the second automatic promotion place.
While there are a few of last season’s hot-shots remaining in the division for another campaign, I am leaning towards a new face – or at least a returning face – to lead the way in 2022/23. Austrian striker Andreas Weimann bagged 22 (and 10 assists) for lowly Bristol City but emulating that will be a challenge while I’m not quite sold on Joel Piroe who scored 22 following his £1m move from PSV to Swansea – the Swans might also find their resolve to keep him tested should they receive a £20m+ offer for the 22-year-old Dutchman before the transfer window closes.
No, I’m going for another Mitrovic-esque international frontman and team talisman with experience of scoring goals in the division in the form of flying Finn Teemu Pukki. His tally of 29 in his first Championship campaign in 2018/19 had at the time been bettered by only three players in the previous 25 years. He managed 11 goals in the top-flight following promotion but could not help the Canaries avoid the drop, staying at Carrow Road for another season in the Championship during which he scored another 26 goals, pushing Ivan Toney of Brentford all the way in the race for the golden boot.
It was a near identical story for the 32-year-old as he bagged another 11 in the Premier League last season but he’s stayed with the Norfolk yo-yo club once more and will have his sights set on scoring enough goals to fire them back to the promised land at the first time of asking… again! The average number of goals it has taken to land the top scorer accolade over the last 29 seasons is 26.97 and Pukki has already shown he is capable of that and more. If he can stay injury-free and Norwich return to their free-scoring ways in the second tier then I think he’ll give us an excellent run for our money.
Player to Watch
Ben Brereton-Diaz & Bradley Dack
I’ve cheated a bit here and I’ve gone for a combination. Ben Brereton-Diaz’s 2021/22 campaign had an awful lot in common with a Christmas tree. The shorter the days were getting, the better it looked… there were plenty of flashes and twinkles which made you think something truly magical was about to happen, then January arrived and it went in the bin.
The new Chilean international scored 20 goals in 25 appearances up until December 29 then managed just two in another 11 appearances in a nightmare second-half of the campaign hit by an ankle injury, international call-ups and Blackburn’s implosion in the promotion race which eventually cost Tony Mowbray his position as Ewood Park boss.
It will be fascinating to see the impact the arrival of new manager Jon Dahl Tomasson has on Rovers going forward this season, plus there is the prospect of the return to fitness of long-term absentee Bradley Dack, which might also benefit the Rovers hot-shot, who enjoyed much of his success last season coming in from out on the left and cutting in on his right foot.
The creative attacking-fielder, who fancies himself as an old-school No10, underwent knee surgery in both 2019 and 2021 and as such this will be his first full pre-season in three years. The former Gillingham starlet initially damaged his ACL in December 2019 but, less than three months after making his return to the first team in December 2020, Dack suffered the same injury in his other knee, sidelining him for another year, eventually making his return to action 12 months to the day after suffering the injury.
In his last two full seasons at Ewood Park, Dack scored 18 and 15 goals respectively, while he had already notched nine in 22 appearances in the Championship before suffering his first ACL injury. The 28-year-old made nine appearances off the bench towards the end of last season, and netted his 50th Rovers goal in one of them, but if he is able to get back to anything like his best then he could be a very influential player, both for Rovers and for Brereton-Diaz.