Season Preview: The Championship

Last updated : 31 July 2006 By Rick Skelton
1. West Bromich Albion
Bryan Robson has done an excellent job of keeping his 'big' players. Ellington, Kuszczak and Davies should positively glow at this level. Adding Big John Hartson is a masterstroke, he'll score goals for fun, if Gera and Greening can pick him out. In Robinson, Clement, Albrechtson and Davies, they have the most formidable defence in the Championship, that before the addition of Chris Perry, an experienced head, and the possible addition of the man mountain, Danny Shittu. Youngsters Chaplow and Carter should come on a bundle at the lower level. Central midfield could be a problem, Quashie is quality, but those alongside him have to pull their weight.

2. Birmingham City
Have sensibly gone about the job of removing high wage earners from the payroll and bringing in young players with promise. Cameron Jerome, Neil Danns and Stephen Kelly will bring desire to the team. DJ Campbell has looked impressive in pre-season. Bruce is still trying to add experience and quality and Birmingham will have the funds to compete in January if they are there or there abouts.

3. Southampton
Like at Hearts last season, Burley has made good use of the foreign transfer market. Burley knows Skacel well and will hope he can reproduce the form he showed at Hearts. Defender Pele has a good reputation. Their additions from these shores are equally impressive. Jermaine Wright and Kelvin Davis are proven Championship quality players. Bradley Wright-Phillips is an exciting young player who could prosper in the correct environment, especially under Burley, whose development of young players is second only to Dario Gradi at this level. In Gregorz Rasiak, he'll have an intelligent target man to play off. The return of Michael Svensson will give the whole place a boost. Midfield could be the weakness. Last season, Saints struggled, even with Oakley and Quashie, probably the best midfield pair in the division.

4. Leeds United
Despite losing Rob Hulse to Sheffield United, in Healy, Blake and Cresswell, they should have enough fire power to compete at least. Blackwell has attempted to spice up the ageing midfield. Kevin Nicholls was an excellent signing, but he may now miss the season. David Livermore is their other new addition, he'll provide more legs in the middle, but is little better then Derry and Gregan. Kilgallon will be an important player this season, the pick of their defence last season. They have experienced players alongside him, but lack mobility and pace. A poor start, and Blackwell will be sacked by Christmas.

5. Crystal Palace
Loss of Iain Dowie may not be a bad thing, Palace were a dire team last year. Replacement Taylor will demand a high work rate and solid defense from all 11 players, but will try and get players forward in support of Morrison and Macken. Set pieces will play an integral part in their season. The loss of Fitz Hall was tempered by the addition of Leon Cort. However, replacing Andy Johnson will not prove easy. Taylor faces the further task of holding on to right back Emerson Boyce. Palace have good ball players in the midfield, with Carl Fletcher coming in from West Ham. They should have enough at front and back to challenge, but the squad is shallow. If Taylor has anywhere near the number of injuries he suffered at Hull last year, Palace will struggle.

6. Norwich City
A very capable squad, proved inconsistent and frustrating last year. Some are surprised to see Worthington given the task of turning things around, but the board have given him the benefit of any doubt. Robert Earnshaw started to look like a £3 million striker at the end of last season. They have quality, the pacy Huckerby, reliable defenders in Drury and Doherty, the class of Safri in midfield and England's 3rd choice goalkeeper, Robert Green. Lee Croft is a good addition, but otherwise, they have the same side that struggled last season, sans Dean Ashton, who they've struggled to replace. If the first 11 click, they have the quality to make the play-offs, but that is far from certain and plenty of hungry sides will be snapping at their heels.

7. Sunderland
English football's laughing stock have started the comeback. Niall Quinn is heavily involved as Manager and Chairman. Sunderland have held on to their better players, which will stand them in good stead (no pun intended). Quinn is actively seeking to bring in players, notably Kevin Phillips. A few quality additions will lift the side and the massive fan base. Quinn will have a big test in his first managerial appointment, if he can lift the players, Sunderland can go far, but if he can't, he'll have to sack himself.

8. Coventry City
Probably the most active Championship club in the transfer market. Micky Adams is looking to build on a superb second half of 2005/06. The loss of Dennis Wise is a blow, and they haven't replaced him. Other signings range from quality to questionable. Young Elliott Ward had a superb season with West Ham 2 years ago and Jay Tabb deserves the opportunity to step up a level and show what he can do. On the other hand, Wayne Andrews is a footballing nomad who hasn't scored goals at a high level, Colin Cameron is an old head, but had a mixed campaign last time out and Andy Marshall is a steady goalkeeper, but has never fulfilled his promise. Keeping Stern John has been a bonus and winning the battle to hold onto Gary McSheffrey could shape their season. As is the nature of the football club, they could finish anywhere between 4th and 24th.

9. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Coming off a massively disappointing season and having lost their best players and the manager, Wolves fans must have been close to suicide when Mick McCarthy turned up. Anyone who saw Wolves on one of their 'on days' last season would have been mystified at their league position. Like Norwich and Southampton, they failed find any consistency or cope with the physical nature of the division. Losing Seol, Miller, Lescott and Ince are body blows. There is little cash to replace them. McCarthy has an incredibly difficult job to do, but he'll do it with integrity, honesty and endeavor. Wolves fans will be heartened by McCarthy's performances in the Championship with Sunderland. He brought in good players on a budget. Wolves are still a big name, that should help McCarthy, but lightning rarely strikes the same place twice.

10. Leicester City
Another side who managed a turnaround in the second half of last season. Rob Kelly brought in hungry young players, most notably Hume and Fryatt and they lit up the place. Kelly will be hoping Josh Low and Gareth McAuley have the same effect. Alongside Andy Johnson, they are steady signings with something to prove. However, probably not the quality the Leicester fans would be hoping for. Desire and commitment will be big buzz words in Leicester this season, because they lack real quality. They show the same sort of traits that Watford did last season, so they'll be hoping for similar results.

11. Cardiff City
Another team who've brought in a lot of numbers, but not a lot of quality. Currently, the Jason Koumas situation is up in the air, meaning Cardiff are missing both of their star turns from last year. Cameron Jerome's goals will be a big loss. In Michael Chopra, they've signed someone who can score goals, but will rely on good service a lot more then Jerome. That service could be provided by Stephen McPhail, a talented midfielder signed from Barnsley, but one who frustrates on regular occasions. They'll have no problem physically; Stevie Thompson and Darren Purse are intimidating figures at both ends of the field. Lacking the quality of the top sides, but capable of sneaking a play-off place.

12. Preston North End
Already weakened by the loss of excellent manager Billy Davies, and defenders Claude Davie and Tyrone Mears, the further loss of talismanic striker David Nugent would end any hope of a play-off challenge. Preston will struggle to match last season's achievements, but new manager Paul Simpson will be keen to make further additions. Preston have a policy of signing young, home grown players, like Pugh and Chilvers. They have good experience at Championship level, but lack depth and quality. Young winger Simon Whaley is a player to watch.

13. Hull City
A frustrating close season for Hull City fans, looking to build on last year's consolidation. The loss of Peter Taylor was a blow, but not a K.O. New manager Phil Parkinson is an intelligent young man with a desire to succeed. The sale of Leon Cort to Crystal Palace enabled the signings of 3 young players: full back Sam Ricketts from Swansea, attacking midfielder Dean Marney from Spurs and tall centre back, Michael Turner of Brentford. The Tigers have a deeper squad with far more quality, on paper at least. In reality, several players, such as Parkin, Elliott, Welsh, Duffy and Delaney have to stand up and be counted. Long term injury victims, Danny Coles, Steve McPhee and Ian Ashbee will give the squad a massive shot in the arm if they can get fit. There are funds available in January to make additions, if the club are in a position to have a look at the top end of the table.

14. Derby County
Have made two excellent signings in pre-season. Manager Billy Davies and target man Steve Howard from Luton. Derby have a good crop of young players coming through, but currently lack the quality experienced heads to help them. Idiakez is a wonderful footballer in midfield and hits the best free kick in the division. They have to get him on the ball in the opposing half. Howard will take the battering from big defenders, hold the ball up and finish chances. A good start is crucial. The young heads could go down if they start poorly.

15. Stoke City
Had a mixed season last year, had occasional glances at the play-offs, looked ordinary on many occasions and finished poorly. Have brought Tony Pulis back as manager. He'll add discipline and demand consistency, but will struggle to get anything from average players. Sammi Bangoura is a quality striker; they'll do well to keep hold of him.

16. Burnley
Another side in the 'Watford' mould. Have added quality in Alan Mahon and Andy Gray. They have lots of young players who have to start delivering, but the likes of Duff and O'Connor look more then capable of holding their own. Steve Cotterill has his hands tied financially and still hasn't replaced Adi Akinbiyi. A good start will breed confidence and they could produce. However, more likely to float around mid table, will trouble some big sides and shouldn't fall anywhere near the relegation zone.

17. Plymouth Argyle
New manager Ian Holloway will struggle to get any more than Tony Pulis could out of a limited squad. Buzsaky and Djordic are talented, if inconsistent. New strikers Hayles and Ebanks-Blake have much to prove, at either end of their careers. Good professionals like Wotton, Norris and Nalis should ensure that they stay afloat, but they could get involved in the relegation scrap.

18. Sheffield Wednesday
Finished last season strongly, but have failed to find quality additions. Currently suffering from a spate or injuries. They have a great spirit, incredible support and a tough manager, which should just about keep them in the division. Fans will be disappointed with the new additions, which provide more questions then answers.

19. Queens Park Rangers
After a very average season last time out, fans would have been hoping for good additions in the summer market. It hasn't happened. Aussie Nick Ward has promise, but faces a daunting task a long way from home. Stewart and Oliseh are big question marks. QPR have lots of experience, 2 good wingers and some big men up front. That should be enough to survive, but if Danny Shittu leaves, they'll struggle to make an impression on the division.

20. Ipswich Town
Another season of struggle looks likely for the 'Tractor Boys'. Lacking quality and experience and with a new manager in Jim Magilton, facing his first job, they'll do well to stay up. The return of Sam Parkin will be a much needed boost, while Darren Currie will play a big role. The increase in local derbies, from 2 to 6 won't help either. Confidence will be fragile amongst the young squad. Like others, a good start is a must.

21. Southend United
Defied all the odds in getting promoted twice and capable of doing it again. Steve Tilson is an excellent young manager, one who they'll struggle to hold on to. In Freddie Eastwood, they have what all promoted teams need, a genuine goal scorer. They have great team spirit, and Steven Hammell and Michael Ricketts are ambitious additions. If they stay relatively injury free, they can stay up.

22. Luton Town
Last year's surprise package will have to show incredible mettle to survive this season. The loss of Kevin Nicholls and Steve Howard is a hammer blow. The heart of the team has been ripped out. Mike Newell has moved to address it by signing Adam Boyd from Hartlepool, but he's unproven and spent most of last season injured. Brkovic will play a crucial role, along with big centre back Chris Coyne. Winger Carlos Edwards is wanted by Watford, that could be the K.O. blow. Confidence can't be helped by Mike Newell, who has seemingly been interviewed for every available job in the last 6 months. Sinking ship?

23. Barnsley
Andy Ritchie did incredibly well to get them up, but will struggle to keep them up. Lost Stephen McPhail and Scott Flinders, their only real quality players, leaving the side depleted. The whole squad is unproven at this level and lacks experience. Staying up would be a great achievement.

24. Colchester United
The poor relations of the division. Have a capacity of only 6000 at Layer Road and a small squad with little Championship knowledge. Pre-season has been a disaster, firstly by the departure of Phil Parkinson. The board wasted 4 weeks looking for a new manager, only to appoint Parkinson's assistant, Geraint Williams, and they then lost playmaker Neil Danns and full back Liam Chilvers. They should have £1m sat in the bank but Williams is unlikely to see any of it. Rumours of West Ham interest in Greg Halford are floating around. Sealing of that deal would lead to the white flag going up. Derbies against Norwich and Ipswich will be the highlight of the season for the Colchester fans as they start their first ever season in the second tier of English Football.