The 2016/2017 Championship season proved to be both highly competitive and memorable. Newcastle United and Brighton Hove Albion ran away with automatic promotion, whilst Huddersfield somehow gained promotion to the top flight for the first time in over 40 years – even though they finished the season with a -2 goal difference and did not win any of their play-off matches in 90 minutes.
The season also gave way to an epic relegation fight, with Nottingham Forest escaping the drop by 2 goals on the final day, which led to Blackburn Rovers being sentenced to third tier football for the first time since the 1979/1980 season.
As the season ended we said goodbye to Newcastle, Brighton, Huddersfield, Blackburn, Wigan and Rotherham. However, in the forthcoming season the Championship welcomes back some big names; such as Hull, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Sheffield United, Bolton and Millwall. 2017/18 should be just as entertaining as last season, if not even better.
In the first part of the Championship season preview, Impact Sport predicts who will finish in the top six this season:
1st: Aston Villa
Aston Villa were arguably the biggest underachievers last season and never really got going. They got off to a horrific start under Roberto Di Matteo, who had spent a huge amount in the summer of 2016 with new owner Xia Jiantong. However, Steve Bruce was appointed midway through last season and steadied the ship and led Villa to a 13th place finish.
Bruce is an expert when it comes to guiding teams to promotion, as he has shown in the past, when leading Birmingham City and Hull City to promotion to the top flight. Given Steve Bruce’s past track record, the star dazzled squad he has at his disposal and the financial backing he has from the owner, one must presume that Villa are very much a favourite to be automatically promoted this season. The quality and depth of players such as Scott Hogan, Jack Grealish and Mile Jedinak are just the beginning of Aston Villas’ arsenal – one that was recently bolstered by the eye-catching signing of John Terry.
2nd: Derby County
Many will expect them to find yet another way to bottle it – but Gary Rowett looks to be the man to lead the Rams to promotion, given his impressive managerial records with Birmingham City and Burton Albion.
In the last four seasons Derby have twice finished in the top six, and that number really should be four – but Steve McClaren’s sides on both occasions deteriorated.
Derby are similar to Aston Villa in that they have a star-spangled side who play high tempo football. With the combination of Gary Rowett and Mel Morris (Derby County’s owner), plus the right signings this summer, Derby should finally achieve automatic promotion.
The play-offs (3rd-5th):
Cardiff City: When Neil Warnock stepped into the Cardiff City hot seat, the club were lingering right down at the bottom of the Championship. Warnock led Cardiff from 23rd to a 12th place finish, and Cardiff would have finished in the top six had only their form over the second half of the season counted. Warnock is another manager with an exceptional managerial record, and therefore one must look at them for a promotion push next season.
Fulham: Slavisa Jokanovic is known as a mercenary when it comes to football. Since leaving Partizan in 2009 he has had six managerial jobs in just over seven years. Despite having a history with staying loyal to one club, it seems as though Jokanovic wants to remain at Fulham for a third season.
From when he took over in 2016, to how he had Fulham playing by the close of the play offs last season, it was an incredible transformation. He changed Fulham from a dull; nothing side to a fast-moving possession dominating side. Fulham excelled at the end of last season and deserved to have beaten Reading in the play offs. However, it was not to be.
If Jokanovic can keep his side playing the way they did at the end of last season then there is no doubt they will again challenge for promotion. The calibre of this manager is shown by the interest in him from a number of Premier League clubs, such as West Ham. The only reason they probably will not finish in the top two is because of nerves going into the final games of the season. They will have to rise to the pressure, due to the disappointing end to last season.
Norwich City: Norwich somewhat drifted last season whilst at other times looked like a side to be reckoned with, such as when they beat Nottingham Forest 6-1 at Carrow Road. However, on other occasions they looked lost and didn’t have the belief to mount a significant top six challenge.
Norwich have recently appointed Borussia Dortmund Second Team’s coach Daniel Farke. Farke had close ties with Liverpool’s manager, Jurgen Klopp, and even more so with Thomas Tuchel, the ex-Borussia Dortmund manager. Daniel Farke is also very close to Huddersfield Town’s manager David Wagner, who once managed Borussia Dortmund’s second team.
Farke will have a real desire to prove himself and show England what he is all about. He will surely look to tap into the Borussia Dortmund youth system and also look to bring in loans as Wagner did at Huddersfield last season. People will doubt whether Daniel Farke can make an instant impact, but he could be a dark horse his new look Norwich side could be one to keep an eye on.
Now the question is who will be the 6th and final side in the play-offs come the close of next season. From 2004 -2014, 76.5% of newly relegated sides from the Premier League did not achieve promotion in their first year in the Championship. Given the uncertainty of Middlesbrough being able to hang on to their star players such as Ben Gibson, and this surprising stat, Boro might find it harder than expected.
A lot of people have mentioned Brentford, but again; if you look at the statistics; Brentford on paper are heading the wrong way. Since Mark Warburton’s departure Brentford’s season points tally has fallen in each of the last two years. Dean Smith’s experience raises some concerns – does he have the past knowledge and ability to guide this Brentford side any further? Some may say this is harsh, but last season Brentford massively overachieved and with Jota and Lasse Vibe heading for the door its hard to see Brentford finishing in the play-offs.
Nottingham Forest: Absurd? Maybe, but Nottingham Forest have a genuine chance this season. If you look at the squad on paper it boasts a lot of talent, in the likes of Jamie Ward, Britt Assombalonga, Ben Osborn and David Vaughan. The club are now under new ownership and have a manager who knows how to get the best out of his players.
With a blend of exciting young players such as Ben Brereton and senior players such as Michael Mancienne this is a side that many Championship rivals should watch out for. They are a historic name in English football and this could be the year that the sleeping giant finally awakens from its long nap.
Look out for Impact Sport’s second preview to the 2017/18 Championship season, where the releagtion candidates will be assessed.