Here we go… the third and final part of Andy’s team-by-team Championship preview:
Preston North End
The fortunes of Alex Neil’s Preston will provide an interesting sideshow for Norwich fans this season. Last year they clearly overachieved under Simon Grayson, which earned him a move to Sunderland.
Whilst they appear to have retained their key players, including striker Jordan Hugill at time of writing, Neil clearly doesn’t have the quality of players available to him that he did when he arrived at Norwich. He does however have a pre-season to drum 4-2-3-1 into them.
As yet he hasn’t made any new signings although the luckless Declan Rudd did arrive just before the manager who had previously dropped him and loaned him to a League One club for the season.Frankie McAvoy has also arrived on the coaching side, bringing with him the finest set of cones outside of Madonna’s wardrobe.
Preston’s achievements of last season will set a high bar for Neil that he will struggle to get over if he cannot add quality to the squad he has. I don’t think that they’ll go down but I think they’ll come closer than they’d like.
Verdict: Lower Mid-Table
Queens Park Rangers
It’s no secret in football that QPR, as a club, are a bit of a mess.
“New regimes” spring up at Loftus Road every couple of years, promising the world, and then a series of disastrous short-term decisions later, they’re back to square one, or worse.
Ian Holloway’s appointment last season worked in the sense that the “dead cat bounce” effect of Ollie’s arrival got some much needed points on the board to keep them up before ending the season on a whimper.
Whether he’s the man to drive change going forward is another matter and in a way I hope he does because whatever you think of him as a manager he is a unique character and the Championship feels richer for having him in it.
Wide man Josh Scowen has come in from luckless Barnsley and with Bidwell, Cousins, Mackie and Furlong there are some good players to build around. However, there remains something fundamentally wrong in West London and it can only be a matter of time before those short-term placebic decisions come back to haunt them.
Verdict: Relegation Candidates.
Having renewed Jaap Stam’s contract, contrary to rumours he would move on, following their narrow failure to reach the Premier League, there appears to be a fresh sense of optimism for the Royals.
This will be vital in dispelling the disappointment of the play-off final defeat and getting back to winning ways. Reading flew under the radar to a third place finish last season, rarely receiving the plaudits that their consistent performances deserved.
Due to the delay of not knowing which league they would be in until three weeks after the season was finished for most teams, their only signings of note at this stage are goalkeeper Vito Mannone and striker Jon Daoi Boovarsson, a player described by many Wolves fans as one of the worst players they’ve ever seen (although God knows what they’ll make of Ryan Bennett).
On the flip side they’ve lost midfield general Danny Williams on a free. After last year’s surprising success, you wouldn’t bet against Reading being at the right end of the table again, but automatic promotion is probably beyond them.
Verdict: Play Off Challengers.
Chris Wilder has done well to awaken the sleeping giants of League One and get some consistent wins for the team that every other team wanted to beat.
Next season will be a different feel and have different expectations, which Blades fans will have to adjust to. The major signings so far this summer can best be described as divisive characters. Richard Stearman is renowned as a malcontent and a pain in the posterior wherever he has been. And as for the morality of employing Ched Evans, that’s a debate for another time, but it certainly isn’t a universally popular decision.
Chris Wilder, it seems, isn’t a manager that minds a challenge, or doing what he thinks is necessary. I have a feeling that this determination may translate to the squad, and last year’s League One Champs will have what it takes to do reasonably well in the Championship.
Verdict: Lower Mid-Table.
Of all the teams that lost in the Play-Offs last year, Sheffield Wednesday looked most devastated.
Having spent big on transfer fees and wages the Owls were expecting to do well and a semi-final defeat to Huddersfield with a squad costing a fraction of their investment didn’t add up in more ways than one.
Carlos Carvahlal renewing his contract will ensure that Wednesday have another shot at the league without having to start again from scratch and with players like Tom Lees, Barry Bannan and Fernando Forestieri there is a good base to work with.
An attack featuring options such as Gary Hooper, Jordan Rhodes, Steven Fletcher and the newly-arrived George Boyd is not without talent, although I’d question what the combined work rate will be like.
Overall, Wednesday have too much talent at their disposal not to pick up points and I’d expect them to finish around where they did last season.
Verdict: Play-Off Challengers.
The Black Cats have been installed as one of the bookies favourites within the division, and for the life of me I can’t see why.
Stripped of Jordan Pickford and Jermaine Defoe, their two outstanding players, new manager Simon Grayson has inherited a squad comprised mainly of Manchester United and Everton benchwarmers that were never good enough to break into either first team and which plummeted from the Premier League last season with barely a whimper.
Grayson is perhaps a shrewd appointment in that he’s repeatedly proved himself capable of organising teams and getting the best out of the players at his disposal, and with a big club in an apparently downward trajectory, this may be a way to cushion the fall in order to reverse it.
It’s certainly a safer appointment in the circumstances than gambling on a “big name” or an untried foreign manager to right the ship.
Make no mistake though, this is a high-price squad with a lot of underachieving players and low confidence. A toxic mix.
Sunderland fans would probably accept a play-off place right now. I’d expect them to have to set their sights a little lower whilst Grayson refreshes a squad that reeks of disappointment.
Verdict: Upper Mid-Table.
Fans who base their opinions solely on money spent or their own scouting on Football Manager have already declared Wolves runaway champions next season.
Manager Nuno Esperito Santo, backed by the club’s wealthy Chinese owners, have brought in an influx of expensive European talent, including the highly touted Ruben Neves.
There are now five Portuguese first-teamers for the Portuguese coach to mould into his new system around, underpinned by the accompanying signings of Willy Boly on loan from Porto, and John Ruddy and Ryan Bennett on free transfers from Norwich.
Wolves were often a mess last season, and I’m not buying that throwing a load of cash on a couple of players will cure all those ills, especially as we’ve yet to see how the new players adapt to England but they’ll certainly hope to improve on a 15th placed finish last year.
It will be gradual improvement though and not the march to triumph that some of their less cerebral fans are expecting. Verdict: Upper Mid-Table.
Only a liar would pretend to know what we can expect from City this season.
Under Alex Neil we had a team that could occasionally batter teams at Carrow Road but who, away from home, were pushed aside more easily than a lethargic chihuahua.
Daniel Farke is likely to sacrifice a little of the former to improve the latter and set up the team in a more conservative, but hopefully more effective manner. But how successful that will prove is anybody’s guess.
The decisions made so far on and off the pitch have been met with approval by the fans and media, and optimism is high. The expectation is that we may struggle initially as we adapt to a host of new players and to Farke’s system but improve over the course of the season.
I’d be happy with that personally but I’m enjoying the thought of an unexpected journey also. My guess? We’ll do well, and we’ll have a crack at the Play-Offs once more.
Verdict: Play-Off Challengers.