Wayne Rooney aims to power Derby to the big time, Brentford try and put play-off heartbreak behind them and relegated trio Norwich, Watford and Bournemouth bid to bounce back… the key talking points ahead of another bonkers Championship season
- The new Championship season started on Friday as Watford host Middlesbrough
- It has been just 38 days since last season ended with Wembley play-off final
- Brentford lost that to Fulham but are fancied to make it to the Premier League
- Norwich look the strongest of the three sides that came down from top-flight
- It’s been all change at Watford and Bournemouth with new managers in place
- Sheffield Wednesday start the season with handicap of a 12-point deduction
After an off-season that lasted all of 38 days, the new Sky Bet Championship campaign gets underway on Friday night with Watford hosting Middlesbrough.
The fixture at Vicarage Road fires the starting pistol on what promises to be a madcap scramble to win automatic promotion to the Premier League, reach the play-offs and avoid relegation to League One.
With the first month of a standard Championship season effectively shaved off by the Covid-induced late kick-off, an already gruelling schedule in the second tier will become even more hectic.
Leeds United won the Sky Bet Championship in 2019-2020 – but who will succeed them?
Leeds were joined in winning promotion by West Bromwich Albion, who finished in second
Fulham defeated Brentford 2-1 at Wembley to return to the Premier League via the play-offs
Squads will be stretched to the limit by the relentless pace of the fixture list between this weekend and May 9 next year with no fewer than 13 midweek rounds of games.
Piled on top of that will be the vast uncertainties caused by the pandemic with everyone adversely affected by the absence of matchday revenue for at least the first few weeks of the season.
Sportsmail previews what promises to be an extraordinary campaign in the Championship.
Can Watkins-less Brentford recover from their play-off heartache?
Even the departure of Ollie Watkins – the Championship’s joint-leading goalscorer last season with 26 – to Aston Villa this week hasn’t dampened the bookmakers’ and pundits’ enthusiasm for Brentford to reach the Premier League.
The Bees, who have just moved into their sparkling new stadium near Kew Bridge, have become specialists in renewal and reached new heights under Thomas Frank last season even after the sale of star striker Neal Maupay.
Brentford manager Thomas Frank reflects on their Play-off final defeat to Fulham last month
Griffin Park’s final season saw some of the best football ever witnessed there but having wasted an excellent shot at automatic promotion, Brentford then suffered a devastating play-off final loss to Fulham.
It’s also possible they could lose another talisman, Said Benrahma, before the end of the transfer window.
But with £28m from the sale of Watkins to reinvest and the core of last season’s entertaining side still present – not to mention Frank’s tactical acumen – we can expect another sustained promotion push from the west Londoners.
Ivan Toney – signed for £5m after 26 goals for Peterborough United last season – will shoulder most of the burden of replacing Watkins’ goals.
Brentford’s leading goalscorer Ollie Watkins has signed for Aston Villa in a deal worth £28m
Can Norwich bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt?
Norwich didn’t leave much of an impression on the top-flight last season, sinking straight back to the Championship with little more than a whimper.
However, their frugality in refusing to spend way beyond their means to give Daniel Farke a shot at keeping them up now looks smart following the devastating impact of the Covid-19 crisis.
Losing became a habit towards the tail end of last season – with 10 consecutive losses post-restart – but Farke has managed to keep the core of the team together and also freshened things up.
The goals didn’t flow so well for Teemu Pukki in the Premier League but he’ll be instrumental in Norwich’s promotion push this season
Though right-back Jamal Lewis has departed for Newcastle in a £15m deal this week, new additions have included forward Jordan Hugill from West Ham and creative midfielder Kieran Dowell from Everton.
Oliver Skipp and Ben Gibson have arrived on loan from Tottenham Hotspur and Burnley respectively to add stability and balance to Farke’s side, which still boasts the likes of Max Aarons, Todd Cantwell, Teemu Pukki and Emi Buendia.
Striker Jordan Hugill is one of a number of decent summer signings by the Carrow Road club
Farke had his side playing some very attractive football when they won promotion in 2018-19 and all this helps explain why Norwich are the bookmakers’ favourites to make a swift return to the Premier League.
Whether they will then make a better fist of it, or be content to continue as a yo-yo club, remains to be seen.
Any chance of some stability at Watford?
Watford suffered one of the Premier League’s most ignominious relegations last season and became known as something of a basketcase after getting through four managers.
And, guess what, they have someone else in charge as they prepare to kick-off the Championship against Middlesbrough on Friday night.
Serbian Vladimir Ivic, 43, is an unknown quantity in English football but at least he knows how to put together a successful side following back-to-back titles in Israel with Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Watford have welcomed another new manager in the form of Serbian Vladimir Ivic
His first task was to cull a bloated and under-achieving squad, resulting in the departures of Abdoulaye Doucoure, Jose Holebas, Heurelho Gomes and a host of fringe players.
New faces include two from Udinese – the Croatian striker Stipe Perica and the Chilean centre-back Francisco Sierralta – plus the wily 36-year-old Glenn Murray, on loan from Brighton.
It looks as though Troy Deeney could be on his way but Watford should have enough quality in their squad to be in the promotion mix.
Watford’s captain Troy Deeney could depart Vicarage Road before the end of the window
But, as Sportsmail revealed last weekend, Ivic is already on borrowed time with the players already openly speculating about how long he’ll be in the dug-out.
Given Watford’s recent track record with managers, you’d expect little else to be honest.
Opening weekend fixtures
Watford vs Middlesbrough (7.45pm)
Live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football
3pm unless stated
Birmingham City vs Brentford (12.30pm)
Live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Football
Wycombe Wanderers vs Rotherham United (12.30pm)
Barnsley vs Luton Town
AFC Bournemouth vs Blackburn Rovers
Bristol City vs Coventry City
Cardiff City vs Sheffield Wednesday
Derby County vs Reading
Huddersfield Town vs Norwich City
Millwall vs Stoke City
Preston North End vs Swansea City
Queens Park Rangers vs Nottingham Forest
How will Bournemouth cope with life after Eddie Howe?
It will have been a weird pre-season at Bournemouth without Eddie Howe there on the training ground. The Cherries’ relegation from the Premier League was quickly followed by Howe’s departure after a second spell in charge lasting eight years.
His former assistant, Jason Tindall, has stepped up and is charged with guiding the south coast club back into the Premier League.
And just to add to the sense of ‘all change’, the past few weeks have seen a host of club stalwarts leave in order to recalibrate the budgets to a Championship level.
Jason Tindall (left) has the task of rebuilding Bournemouth after relegation and Eddie Howe’s (right) departure as manager
Long-serving players like Charlie Daniels, Simon Francis and Andrew Surman have left, while crucial income has been raised by the sales of Nathan Ake (Manchester City, £41m), Aaron Ramsdale (Sheffield United, £18.5m) and Callum Wilson (Newcastle United, £20m).
Now Tindall faces a scramble to reinforce a thin squad against the rigours of a Championship season and with nobody through the door as yet, it doesn’t bode well for a promotion push.
It could well be that mid-table is the ceiling of Bournemouth’s ambition in the season ahead though that hasn’t stopped the bookmakers tipping them for the play-offs.
Bournemouth did defeat West Ham 5-3 in the Betway Cup at the London Stadium last week
Can Rooney power Derby back to the big time?
It took ages for Derby to get going under Phillip Cocu last season but the January arrival of Wayne Rooney saw the Rams improve drastically – though not enough to make the play-offs.
The former England captain will again be the star attraction in what Derby fans will expect to be a concerted promotion effort in the months ahead.
The short pre-season has seen the exit of established names such as Tom Huddlestone and Chris Martin, though fans will be more disappointed to see rising stars Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe head to Sheffield United for a combined £15m.
All eyes will be on Wayne Rooney once again as Derby try and make a bid for promotion
The season begins against the backdrop of the EFL’s appeal against the decision of an independent panel to clear Derby of breaching spending rules.
Having been cleared of any rule breaking over the club’s valuation of Pride Park, there could yet be trouble regarding how Derby valued their players.
It could be a distraction as Cocu tries to bring his squad up to scratch and reduce some of the burden on converted midfielder Rooney, who improved the team’s performances markedly after his arrival.
Creating chances was a problem last season and Cocu must address it. The Dutch boss will most likely pay the price if Derby start as slowly as they did a year ago.
Manager Phillip Cocu cannot afford a similarly slow start to the one Derby made last season
Who else will be in the promotion shake-up?
We can expect another open race for promotion and certainly for the four play-off places given the number of factors at play this season.
Nottingham Forest chucked away a play-off place in a comical fashion right at the end of last season but manager Sabri Lamouchi has galvanised the club in a way many of his predecessors failed to do.
They’ve signed the prolific striker Lyle Taylor from relegated Charlton as well as Jack Colback from Newcastle and Tyler Blackett from Reading but, as with last season, Joe Lolley and his penchant for spectacular long-range strikes will be key.
Lyle Taylor proved a reliable goalscorer at Charlton and will hope to do similar at Forest
9/4 – Watford, Brentford, Norwich
4/1 – Stoke, Bournemouth
9/2 – Nottingham Forest
5/1 – Cardiff
6/1 – Swansea
13/2 – Derby
7/1 – Middlesbrough
Courtesy of Oddschecker
Neil Harris did brilliantly to transform Cardiff City from mid-table mediocrity to play-off semi-finalists last season and will look to land them in exactly the same part of the season again.
In classic Harris style, Cardiff saw very little of the ball but proved incredibly stubborn and score plenty from set-pieces, so you’d certainly fancy them to grind their way through a marathon season.
Swansea will have similar ambitions after Steve Cooper’s team stole a play-off spot on the final day of last season.
Replacing the impact of Conor Gallagher and Rhian Brewster, who shone on loan from Chelsea and Liverpool last season, will be difficult though Cooper’s rapport with the England youth players he used to coach has seen Morgan Gibbs White and Marc Guehi come in for the season.
Stoke City, steered away from relegation by Michael O’Neill in the second half of last season, appear to be placing great trust in wisdom and experience.
Ex-Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel (33), James Chester (31) and Steven Fletcher (33) are their headline summer acquisitions and they’re unlikely to struggle as they did last season.
Nonetheless, it’s odd to see the bookmakers making them fourth favourites to go up!
Marc Guehi has joined Swansea City on loan from Chelsea for the forthcoming season
Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel, 33, has joined Stoke City ahead of the new campaign
Can promotion specialist Warnock revive Middlesbrough?
With Middlesbrough only out of the Championship drop zone on goal difference, manager Jonathan Woodgate was given the boot on June 23 and replaced by old hand Neil Warnock. He steered them clear of danger to a 17th-place finish.
Warnock may have won eight promotions in his long career but surely it’s a bit of a leap to think that Boro are about to become his ninth?
Mid-table would be more a realistic ambition for a manager who turns 72 in December but admitted he simply can’t resist the pull of the touchline.
Neil Warnock, 71, is preparing to throw himself into another season of football management
The likes of Adam Clayton, George Friend and Daniel Ayala have left the Riverside this summer – with hardly any replacements coming in – and it will take all of Warnock’s nous to keep them out of trouble.
A short-term target would just be to get Boro playing some attacking football and winning matches again, with anything else a bonus.
Is there any hope for Sheffield Wednesday?
No question who most people are tipping to be relegated to League One come May.
Sheffield Wednesday are playing catch up from the outset with their 12-point deduction for breaking spending rules relating to the sale of their Hillsborough stadium.
It leaves Garry Monk facing the most unenviable job in the Championship and a number of regulars have left over the summer to make his task all the more tricky.
Garry Monk has the most unenviable task in the Championship with a 12-point deduction
With last season’s top scorer Fletcher leaving for Stoke and fellow forward Fernando Forestieri also departing, firepower will be the main issue for a side who slumped post-restart anyway.
Striker Elias Kachunga has come in from Huddersfield on a free and attacking midfielder Josh Windass arrives from Wigan permanently after a loan spell with the Owls.
But, boy, do they need to score a lot of goals to stave off certain relegation.
How will the promoted sides get on?
Coventry City, Rotherham United and Wycombe Wanderers were promoted into the Championship following a curtailed League One campaign.
Wycombe, who beat Oxford United in the play-off final, are a true fairytale story. Gareth Ainsworth only had nine players at the start of the campaign following drastic budget cuts but somehow guided them to Wembley glory.
Inevitably, Wycombe have the lowest budget in the Championship and are favourites to go straight back down but their team spirit is iron-tough.
The fact Wednesday are almost guaranteed to occupy one of the three relegation places offers Coventry and Rotherham more optimism.
Wycombe Wanderers were one of the fairytale stories of last season as they won promotion
Mark Robins has done a superb job with the Sly Blues and their impregnable defence was key to their League One title success last season – a second promotion in three seasons.
Matt Godden is the primary scoring threat but they once again face the prospect of playing at Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s ground which is a travesty given their on-field success.
Rotherham have bounced between the second and third tiers once again and Paul Warne will wish to remain true to their vibrant style of play at the higher level.
Reading and Luton Town are the other clubs likely to be struggling against relegation this season, according to the odds-makers.
Matt Godden was Coventry’s top scorer last season and now has a crack at the Championship
Will all of the Championship clubs even survive the season?
The intense schedule of the forthcoming Championship season could well prove to be the least of the clubs’ worries.
All 24 clubs had hoped that at least some of their supporters would be able to return to stadiums next month, giving them some much-needed matchday income.
However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson dashed these hopes on Wednesday by announcing new restrictions on gatherings and a delay to planned pilot events involving crowds.
The season will begin behind closed doors as expected but the longer this continues, the more financially damaging it will be for clubs throughout the EFL.
Wembley was empty for the Championship Play-off final last month and second tier games will remain behind closed doors for the foreseeable future
Though those in League One and League Two will be impacted more – and will most likely require a bailout from the Premier League – Championship clubs are far from immune.
And, as Sportsmail revealed on Thursday, their prospects became even bleaker with news that the Government could pursue an immediate repayment of deferred tax receipts.
A number of second-tier clubs now find themselves confronted with bills of between £4m and £5m they simply cannot afford.
This latest blow means the risk of clubs as high as the Championship going bust this season is a very real one.
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