The Football League is back!
Earlier this week, Sky Sports expert Peter Beagrie analysed the runners and riders in Leagues One and Two and now he has turned his attention to the Championship.
West Ham, Blackpool and Birmingham will be looking for an immediate return to the top flight, while newly-promoted Brighton, Southampton and Peterborough will hope to prove they can cut it with the divison's leading lights.
But what does Beags think will transpire? Read on for his club-by-club guide...
Former Rochdale chief Keith Hill has come in as Barnsley manager and he's brought some real freshness to the club. He'll be disappointed to have lost defender Jason Shackell to Derby, but that money has allowed him to sign some players from the lower leagues, such as Craig Davies, Scott Wiseman and David Perkins. In addition, they have Derby's Miles Addison on loan for the first half of the season. If he is fully over the injury issues which have decimated his career so far, he'll be a pivotal figure.
Blues seem to be having somewhat of a fire-sale following relegation; Roger Johnson and Craig Gardner have gone and Scott Dann and Cameron Jerome could follow. It looks like a tough job for new manager Chris Hughton, but he did brilliantly to get Newcastle up a couple of years ago and even if he is left with a skeletal squad come the end of August, I would back him to do a decent job. Marlon King has joined from Coventry and should find the net on a pretty regular basis, while Chris Burke, an arrival from Cardiff, will provide a creative outlet on the wing. I think Birmingham can get involved in the promotion mix.
Ian Holloway will play in the same manner as he did in the Premier League last year: all-out attack. The signing of Kevin Phillips could be a masterstroke and he should blend well with Gary Taylor-Fletcher. They'll miss the presence of Charlie Adam, and David Vaughan's departure is also a blow; he did a lot of unheralded work in the middle of the park. But they've retained a lot of their other key players such as Ian Evatt, Stephen Crainey and Matt Gilks, and they know how to get out of this division.
A bright young boss, a spanking new ground, a chairman with a vision and Craig Mackail-Smith: things look very positive for Brighton. Gus Poyet is pulling up trees in his role as manager, and even though they have lost the creative spark of Elliott Bennett and the goals of Glenn Murray, Mackail-Smith will surely compensate for that. It must have been some talk that Poyet gave the former Peterborough man to persuade him to join them and not Leicester or West Ham. The new AMEX Stadium should inspire Albion's players, too, and I expect them to do very well this year.
Bristol City just missed out on promotion to the top flight in 2008, losing to Hull in the play-off final, but their expectations are lower these days. They had a disappointing time of it last year and were severely hamstrung by an injury to their star striker Nicky Maynard. Their midfielders seem to be suffering from a severe lack of confidence and it could be difficult for Keith Millen to rally his troops - particularly if Maynard is transferred away. Having said that, without too much pressure on their shoulders, perhaps the Robins could surprise a few people.
Eddie Howe is renowned as a forward-thinking manager who likes to play progressive football and he will be determined to lead Burnley to a better season than last year. They've lost right-sided duo Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears to Bolton this summer - two guys who produced plenty of assists - but on the plus side they've acquired talented full-back Kieran Trippier on loan from Manchester City. Martin Paterson, Chris McCann and Charlie Austin are also returning from long-term injuries and will add to Burnley's armoury.
Cardiff have had to deal with a lot of departures with four of the best players leaving; Chris Burke, Jay Bothroyd, Michael Chopra and Craig Bellamy. Those guys could run riot against anybody and they will be sorely missed. Malky Mackay has gone some way to replacing them by signing Robert Earnshaw and Kenny Miller and they'll take no time settling in up front - but I just wonder if they will get enough service from the midfielders behind them? I can see it being a difficult season for Cardiff.
Coventry have lost some big players this summer in the likes of Marlon King, Kieren Westwood and Aron Gunnarsson and so far have only brought in two goalkeepers: Northampton's Chris Dunn and Scunthorpe's Joe Murphy. Murphy is a fantastic custodian and should be a cracking acquisition but is there enough quality in front of him? Gary McSheffrey is their major creative outlet, while skipper Sammy Clingan is a very good player, too. Yet with little strengthening having been done, manager Andy Thorn has a difficult job on his hands.
I think Palace could have a season of struggle again because their squad looks wafer thin. They'll have plenty of home-grown players and manager Dougie Freedman is at one with the fans, so that will help them, and I always think of Palace as scrappers. Their fans are very educated and know that it is going to take many years for them to get on a financial footing where they can challenge the big clubs in this division. Nevertheless, Dougie has acquired astutely and he'll be hoping Glenn Murray, a free transfer from Brighton, can supply the goals.
"Fluffy" is how I would describe Derby; they've got a lot of players who are gifted in possession but fragile out of it. That was evident last year when they were flying high, had a couple of defeats and then the bubble burst. Jason Shackell has arrived from Barnsley and should supply a bit more strength at the back, but they still look short of goals. Nathan Tyson has been recruited from Nottingham Forest and has pace to burn, but he doesn't hit the net regularly enough. I envisage this being a tough season for Rams boss Nigel Clough.
Once again Doncaster will play a lovely brand of football but will need to have enough of a goal threat to steer clear of danger, so striker Billy Sharp will be crucial for them. They, along with Swansea, were the most attractive side to watch last year and if you awarded a goal for every ten-pass move, Doncaster would win the league. Richard Naylor will strengthen the defensive area and it is great news that James Coppinger has extended his contract, but even if Donny do struggle, we should all remember how far they have progressed.
Hull are on the fringes of success. Earlier last season, they lacked pace and didn't score enough goals. But Nigel Pearson rectified that by signing Cameron Stewart from Manchester United, who was excellent on the wing, and Aaron McLean and Matty Fryatt, who brought cutting edge up front. They've been further augmented this summer by the arrival of Paul McKenna and if you take their 3-0 win over Liverpool in pre-season as a yardstick, things look promising. They frittered away lot of money in the Premier League, but they now seem to have found a balance between being competitive and staying on top of their finances.
I think Paul Jewell has the perfect job at Ipswich because he's got want all managers want - time and money. The Tractor Boys have lost Connor Wickham for a sizeable sum but that has allowed them to strengthen in other areas; Lee Bowyer, Michel Chopra and Ivar Ingimarsson look like very shrewd signings, while former Arsenal youngster Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has bags of talent. They look a lot stronger than last season and will have that extra bit of fire in their belly after watching rivals Norwich get promoted to the Premier League.
If Leeds score 81 goals again this season, I think they'll go up because they look to have more solidity about them. They've signed the vastly-experienced Michael Brown who will shore things up in midfield; he's played at the top level with Tottenham and Portsmouth and can chip in with goals as well. Rearguard frailties cost Leeds a play-off spot last term but they will be boosted by the returns from injury of highly-rated left-back Ben Parker and Australian centre-half Patrick Kisnorbo - one of the best defenders in the Championship when fit. Having also kept attackers Max Gradel and Robert Snodgrass, the Whites should be a threat.
What is it about Sven that persuades football club owners to give him bucket loads of money? It's certainly a great ability to have! He's spending vast sums but he seems to be buying players who could cut it in the Premier League, so that if they do go up they can stay there. Matt Mills seemed expensive at £5million but he's an excellent centre-half, while Paul Konchesky, John Pantsil and Manchester City loanee Michael Johnson will bring top-flight experience - and the possible arrival of Reading striker Shane Long will make them even stronger. They are definitely one of the promotion favourites.
Boro's campaign will be one of consolidation and getting their finances sorted. Last season they had a £25million budget but the players in the dressing room didn't reflect that, and it was only at the end of the season when Leroy Lita showed some form that they picked up. Lita's gone now and that will deplete them, but Marvin Emnes is a talented striker and there's no-one better than Tony Mowbray, who is a legend up there, to get Boro back on track. They are moving in the right direction but the fans will have to be patient.
I was very impressed with Millwall last year. They've lost Steve Morison during the summer and replaced him with Darius Henderson; a more physical but less mobile type of striker. The referee will need a new pea in his whistle because Darius gives away more fouls than anyone I know! They've also got James Henry, who was one on the best wingers I saw last year. He produced a constant supply line and I expect him to carry on in a similar vein this term. I don't think Millwall will be a threat for the play-offs but that's no disrespect to them because they've done wonderfully to get where they are.
Steve McClaren says he has found it difficult recruiting players in pre-season but I still think Forest have a squad that should be challenging for promotion. The midfield looks very strong, with Paul Anderson, Lewis McGugan and Radoslaw Majewski being joined by Jonathan Greening, George Boateng and the returning Andy Reid, and with Dexter Blackstock as the focal point up front when he's fit, Forest could be a formidable proposition. They've been knocking on the door for a few seasons now and could go one better, because I think McClaren will be given funds in January if he asks for them - unlike previous incumbent Billy Davies.
Even the Peterborough fans will be anticipating a carbon copy of the last time they were in the Championship when they really struggled. They're lovely going forward with that fluid 4-3-3 formation but can they do it in the Championship up against better players? My answer to that is no. They'll receive plaudits for their expansive style, but I just feel that with Mackail-Smith departing, they will find things tough. I am, though, looking forward to seeing how former Manchester United starlet Nicky Ajose gets on, as he was excellent while on loan at Bury last term.
Steve Cotterill had such a small squad at his disposal last season and that should be the case again, but if you look at their first XI, it is packed with experience. The likes of Aaron Mokoena, Dave Kitson and Hayden Mullins will be crucial, while new signing Luke Varney will be buoyant after a successful period on loan at Blackpool last year. Much will depend on injuries and suspensions because if Pompey get blighted by those, they may not be able to cope. I can see them finishing anywhere between seventh and 17th.
Brian McDermott covered himself in glory by taking Reading to the play-off final last season, but can they recover if they sell both Matt Mills and Shane Long? Mills was a tower at the back and mopped up some of the mistakes of Zurab Khizanishvili, while Long provided both tremendous work rate and goal return. His loss would be massive. The Royals can still upon the trickery of Jobi McAnuff and Jimmy Kebe, and the experience of Ian Harte, but it is difficult to imagine them doing as well as last year during the forthcoming season.
Southampton have plenty of players who are pleasing on the eye and their midfield looks full of talent. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana are two of the best young English players around; the former is extremely dynamic and can play in a variety of positions, while the latter is a master creator. They also have two more orchestrators in Morgan Schneiderlin and Guly Do Prado and despite some people's reservations, I think Rickie Lambert can get goals at this level. Add in the experience of Kelvin Davis and Danny Butterfield and if they can defend well enough, they have a real chance.
I don't know how Watford replace last season's top scorer Danny Graham. Is Chris Iwelumo the answer? That said, new manager Sean Dyche will be delighted to be getting his first crack at football management. In addition to Graham, Don Cowie and Will Buckley have departed, but there is still the nucleus of a good squad there with skipper John Eustace, defender Adrian Mariappa and goalkeeper Scott Loach. Mark Yeates' arrival from Sheffield United will bring them some flair and I think the Hornets have enough to steer clear of the relegation scrap.
Sam Allardyce's incredible self-belief, organisational skills and excellent coaching staff should see West Ham up the top of the division. At this moment in time, they've kept hold of some big players like Scott Parker, Carlton Cole and Mark Noble and made a cracking signing in Kevin Nolan, who was a driving force for Newcastle when they went up the season before last. Add to that the additions of Abdoulaye Faye at the back and Matty Taylor on the left-hand side and they look very strong. They are my out-and-out favourites for promotion.
Do you agree with Peter's assessment? Whoever you support, carry on the debate by filling in the feedback form below...
Jake Self (Middlesbrough fan) says...
Big Nige to take Hull City upo with Big Sam at Wet Spam. Middlesbrough certs to go down. Mowbray is basically clueless.
Posted 17:34 5th August 2011
Andrew Cockburn (Sunderland fan) says...
The Championship looks as if it could be quite competitive in 2011/12, as far as the promotion issue is concerned. No doubt the relegated trio of Birmingham, Blackpool & West Ham will be going all out for an instant return "upstairs", then you have to throw into the mix Reading, Forest & Cardiff, who all made the play-offs last season, but eventually missed out. Also, the likes of Burnley, Middlesbrough, Ipswich and one or two others may also have a say, and all-in-all, the battle to reach the promised land of the Premiership should be quite an interesting one.
Posted 17:27 5th August 2011
Andrew Leyland (Walsall) (Walsall fan) says...
I can't see Leicester living up to their billing as favourites and I even theink they'll finish outside the play-off spots. I just don't rate Sven. West Ham should be strong enough to go straight back up automatically. The two teams that might surprise a few people are Southampton and Brighton. Both cruised in League One last year, both amassing more than 90 points. That momentum could see them promoted again.
Posted 16:12 5th August 2011
Stu Hall (Hull City) (Hull City fan) says...
West Ham, Notts Forest and Leicester should go well and I like the look of Middlesbrough. Hope Hull make playoffs but top ten looks more like it. Good luck to all of you. The happy times start this weekend.
Posted 14:56 5th August 2011
Jake Self (Middlesbrough fan) says...
leicester to win, west ham 2nd play offs middlesbrough, leeds, forest and burnley. Middlesbrough or forest to win play offs
Posted 14:45 5th August 2011
Warren Fowler (Leicester City) (Leicester City fan) says...
leicester were a good team last yr with a real bad defence.. sven as closed the gaps up with some great signings.. we will go up this yr but need a 20 goal plus striker to seal top spot.. as for west ham.. play offs at best.. parker will go, they cant afford him, take him out the team and like last season they struggled.. as for the other 2 relegated teams from the prem... ya got no chance... you should be staring downwards not up
Posted 14:24 5th August 2011
Luke O (Queens Park Rangers fan) says...
i think qpr will walk it.oh wait we dd last year :-D west ham will win the league wih leicester in 2nd with a good 7/8 teams battling for the playoff spots.with cardiff getting relegated
Posted 14:01 5th August 2011
David East (Reading) (Reading fan) says...
Reading thankfully over achieved last year and our run from Feb made it possible. To lose 3 experienced centre backs including our club captain is not a good start. Those waiting in the wings ie Pearce and Morrison are nowhere near good enough to fill Mills, Ingimarsson and Zurab's shoes. If they were, they'd have been first choice last year. Lose Long and we have no chance. Church, Hunt, Manset... not good enough to win the league or challenge at the top. Bring is some experienced quality before we lose our prize assets, not when they have gone!! Mid table at best I fear as the squad is its weakest in years. Even the most harden Reading fan must admit we are going backwards
Posted 13:44 5th August 2011
Dave Needham (Derby County) (Derby County fan) says...
This will be one of the most open leagues for ages. I have a sneaky feeling that the Rams might just surprise everyone - even their own fans! My head says West Ham to walk it with Cardiff chasing them, but the Rams might just nick it!
Posted 13:19 5th August 2011
Jethro Finch (West Ham) (West Ham United fan) says...
Whilst we can't afford to be cocky, we should win the league this year, if we keep hold of Parker and the like beyond the transfer window! Can't see what the hype is with Leicester by any means. Very average. West Ham to win the league, Millwall to be relegated
Posted 13:11 5th August 2011
Lee Crawford (Leicester City) (Leicester City fan) says...
I fancy West ham & Leicester to be up there, come what may. Birmingham, Notts Forest, Ipswich & Middlesborough for the Play offs, with Birmingham winning the Final. Relegation for me is : Coventry, Barnsley and Crystal Palace. Good article though Peter.
Posted 12:53 5th August 2011
Steven Allen (Watford) (Watford fan) says...
I think West Ham will go up easily providing the likes of Cole, Green and Parker aren't cherry-picked just as the season is getting under way. I fancy Watford to surprise a few people now that we have added some experienced players alongside our excellent youngsters - Sordell to provide the goals now Danny Graham has gone.Nobody is really talking about Ipswich that much but I fancy them as this season's surprise package.
Posted 12:51 5th August 2011
Jake Knight (West Ham) (West Ham United fan) says...
West Ham and Forest up automatically; Ipswich, Hull, Leicester and Reading in the playoffs - Hull win; and Millwall, Barnsley, and Peterborough to go down.
Posted 12:19 5th August 2011
Rickie Lambert (Southampton) (Southampton fan) says...
Southampton to win - and I'll get several hat-tricks.
Posted 12:13 5th August 2011
Dale Hall (West Ham United fan) says...
I think west ham will go up but it all depends on the start. If we can some how keep Parker and Green I don't see many beating us! COYI!
Posted 12:04 5th August 2011
Adrianne Moran (Watford fan) says...
I think West Ham have a very good chance of automatic promotion as they have added some quality to their squad but Watford may surprise a few people. Up the Hornets !
Posted 11:41 5th August 2011
Richard Pope (Brighton and Hove Albion fan) says...
If we're as good as our manager is enthusiastic we'll give you all a suprise. Come and enjoy the party in our new stadium and watch Lua Lua smash them in from 40 yards.....hoo har!!!!!!!!!
Posted 11:32 5th August 2011
Joe Facer (Leeds United fan) says...
I don't know why everybody rates West Ham to go straight back up. Sure they have a good midfield and a decent keeper but everything else isn't that good... If they were that good they wouldn't have been relegated from the Premier league below the likes of blackpool (who have been written off by everyone this season)... I honestly think they will only get play-offs. I think it's time they get a wake up call and i think Cardiff will be the ones to do so...
Posted 11:17 5th August 2011
Liam Lufc (Leeds Utd) (Leeds United fan) says...
i remember this time last year when boro spent big and were gonna walk the league but it never happerned, although Leicester have got alot of new players doesnt mean you have done anything yet. west ham will be up there no probs with the signin of nolan but have they got the goals to get them up? southampton and brighton will be looking at a play off position! then there is notts forrest, cardiff, blackpool, ipswich n hull. all will be at least looking for play offs them selves. i dont think anyone could pick out three teams to go up n feel 100% about it. hopefully leeds get the defence sorted n we will also b in with a shout. MOT!!!!
Posted 11:11 5th August 2011
Steve Ward (Leicester City) (Leicester City fan) says...
Big Sam will have a massive impact and Steve McClaren also. It's going to be a very tight and exciting season. Come on Leicester!
Posted 10:57 5th August 2011