With the likes of QPR, Reading and Wigan as well as Bolton, Leicester and Watford, to name a few, the Championship is likely to be one of the toughest leagues in years this season. Mark Rippey looks at some of the promotion contenders…
You’d be hard pushed to find a Forest fan who isn’t pleased, if not delighted, with the work the club has done in the transfer market this summer. With six brand new players (and at least a couple more likely) as well as the short-term contracts of Gonzalo Jara Reyes and Darius Henderson being extended — and Lewis McGugan the only significant outgoing — it’s fair to say that this season promises much for most fans. But should it? Has the strengthening improved our chances of reaching the Premier League or is it simply needed in order to stand still? How do Forest compare to the 23 teams they’ll be competing against?
This division is traditionally very open and last season’s Championship was one of the most open we’ve ever seen; it doesn’t promise to be too different over the coming 10 months. It’s easy to split the teams (or at least likely contenders) into three different categories. First is those clubs who have the benefit of receiving large parachute payments.
The recently relegated
Currently QPR are the highest profile team in the division, managed by media favourite Harry Redknapp and, with millions chucked at them by Tony Fernandes in the past two years, their failure last season was as spectacular as it was diabolical. Their squad is still full of expensive, uninterested flops that they’ve not been able to flog; their fans aren’t happy with the sale of Jamie Mackie to Forest; they’ve missed out on priority targets Wayne Bridge and Gary Hooper; their most valuable and sellable asset — Loic Remy — has been arrested putting off potential buyers; and Redknapp has frozen the man that fired them to the league title two years ago, Adel Taarabt, out of pre-season completely. Whilst they’ll be hoping to bounce back straight away, like West Ham and Newcastle, it’s hard to fear them much right now, although Danny Simpson and Richard Dunne should shore up their defence.
The other two teams who’ve come down are much more of a threat. Reading’s squad is similar to the one that won the league in 2011/12, but with a bit more depth and quality to it. With Nigel Adkins now at the helm you’d expect them to be competing throughout the season. Wigan are more difficult to judge because they have a European campaign to juggle with, and a new manager in Owen Coyle, but they’ll bypass the qualifying rounds of the Europa League and the early League Cup rounds so fixture congestion isn’t likely to be a problem. With only a couple of key players leaving (Kone and Figueroa) and eight signings made — including Forest old boys Grant Holt and James Perch — it would be no surprise to see Wigan make an immediate return to the top flight, particularly if their squad still boasts talent like Shaun Maloney, James McCarthy and Callum McManaman come September.
Last season Bolton and Blackburn were both back in the Championship after long stints in the top flight and both will be hoping for better seasons this time around. Both struggled at various points last campaign although Dougie Freedman got Bolton playing well and they’ll have been disappointed to have missed out on a play-off spot. The summer has been good to them with the likes of Alex Baptise, Marc Tierney and Jermaine Beckford adding strength and depth to a squad already boasting plenty of quality, they’ll have the realistic aim of improving on last season. The Venky’s ownership have managed to turn Blackburn into one of the laughing stocks of the game over the past couple of seasons but they’ll be hoping for a bit more stability this time around. They’re another team whose summer has been good, getting rid of underperforming high earners and adding young, hungry players to the squad. Any club boasting Jordan Rhodes, Leon Best and DJ Campbell up front is more than capable of finishing inside the top six.
They were close last year
With around a dozen games remaining in the previous season there were only ever eight teams likely to be able to finish the top six, and they ended as the top eight. Three went up and Forest and Bolton finished just outside, leaving Watford, Brighton and Leicester to suffer play-off heartache, and they’ve had contrasting summers. Watford were beaten finalists last season and when they were at their best no team in the division could match them. Top scorer Matej Vydra and the impressive youngster Nat Chalobah have both returned to their parent clubs but their squad is still brimming with quality. The rest of the Udinese and Grenada loanees have become permanent signings, and they’ve strengthened elsewhere too. Diego Fabbrini is capped for Italy and has Champions League experience, Javier Acuna is a highly rated striker capable of emulating Vydra’s success and they’ve also brought in Forest’s McGugan on a free transfer. He’s impressed in pre-season for the Hornets and is capable of being a key player for them, he could flourish under Gianfranco Zola in the system he uses.
Leicester have had a quiet summer, they’ve made just one signing and the only outgoings have been players who didn’t play last season. Their wage bill is high and they’ll have to sell before they can buy but they still have a squad capable of challenging for the top two, they should’ve last year before an abysmal run of form towards the end of the season. Brighton’s summer has been bizarre. Play-off favourites, they were outplayed by Palace after leaving the opposition an unwanted ‘gift’ in their changing room, Gus Poyet and his assistants were suspended soon after and he was sacked live on TV. Expectations are probably less this season after continuous improvement over the last few years, with very little transfer activity and a new manager in Oscar Garcia who has no experience of English football. That said, their squad still possesses large amounts of quality, and a full season with Leonardo Ulloa up front will give opposing teams something to worry about.
The best of the rest
It’s probably not be normal for a Forest fan to say Derby might do well, but their constant slight improvement each year has continued over the summer. As usual, they’ve sold a star player in John Brayford, but once again they’ve done their business early, having the majority of their signings available for the start of pre-season, which probably goes someway to explaining why they tend to start well. They’ve made signings too, who will add depth to a decent squad with some excellent home grown players. Top 10 last year, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they improved this season and Clough finally ‘came good’.
One manager heavily linked with Forest a year ago was Mick McCarthy, and it was always likely he’d take over a struggling Championship club and improve them, leading them to relatively easy safety. That club happened to be Ipswich and their form under him over a season would’ve seen them in the play-offs. They’ve made a bunch of solid if unspectacular signings this summer which should see their improvement under the Irish-Yorkshireman continue.
My outside bet for a play-off spot this season would be Millwall, they plummeted down the league after losing top scorer and best player Chris Wood, along with his striker partner Darius Henderson, and only survived on the final day, followed by manager Kenny Jackett leaving to join Wolves, but their summer has been as impressive as anyone’s. Steve Lomas becomes the third successive St Johnstone manager to move to the Championship after doing a good job in Scotland, the Lions will be hoping he’s more Owen Coyle than Derek McInnes. With the likes of Steve Morison, Scott Macdonald and Nicky Bailey signing they look like they have plenty of goals and fight in them.
In short there are plenty of teams capable of mounting a challenge, and even more than mentioned above (Leeds, Middlesbrough, Barnsley, Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday). Not many would’ve picked Hull, Watford or Crystal Palace as contenders twelve months ago but they were all comfortable in the top six come May, whatever happens it’s not going to be easy for Forest and it’ll take as big an effort as it ever has to be in with a chance of reaching the Premier League. It’s hard to predict the team you support will finish in the top two, particularly when the division contains the likes of Watford and Reading, but top six is a very realistic possibility. If I had to guess I’d say play-offs along with Ipswich, Wigan and Bolton.
What will be interesting are the weeks leading up to September’s international break. Teams managed by Billy Davies traditionally start seasons slowly and the fixture generator has hardly been kind to Forest in the first five fixtures. With expectations having risen, with good reason, it will be interesting to see how fans, and more importantly the owner, act should Forest stay true to form and still aren’t firing on all cylinders by the time Derby arrive at the City Ground at the end of September.
You can follow Mark on Twitter: @rippey89
Your last chance to win the Nottingham Forest home shirt!
Image: Courtesy of khunaspix/FreeDigitalPhotos.net