The Championship Update
With just three points separating ninth and top going into October, it’s going to be as close as ever in the English second-tier this season.
As expected, Leeds United are battling with West Brom and Nottingham Forest at the top of the table, but surprise early-season strugglers include Stoke City and Huddersfield. The latter made one of the first management changes of the new campaign, hoping to arrest their slide following relegation from the Premier League.
With such riches at stake, the Championship is perhaps the most hotly-contest division in Europe, with the cost of failure almost as catastrophic as the rewards for success are lucrative.
We look at all the current teams and their prospects for the ongoing campaign.
The Tykes were amongst the favourites for the drop and their early season form has done little to change that. Daniel Stendel was a shrewd manager who oversaw a great League One campaign, but one win in nine at the beginning of the season highlighted their inadequacies and he paid for that with his job.
The new incumbent of the role will have a big job on his hands. They were forced to sell many of their best players in the summer, including centre back pairing Liam Lindsay and Ethan Pinnock.
If the new man is not given funds to replace those key players, he may well be on a hiding to nothing and an immediate return to the third tier is highly likely.
Birmingham City opened their season with a run of four wins and four defeats, with a solitary draw leaving them midtable as we entered the autumn period.
Losing leading scorer Che Adams in the summer was a huge blow and they turned to their youth to find a replacement; Jude Bellingham bagged a couple of early goals to hint at being a long-term solution. Reports have suggested he might be a target for Bayern Munich so the Blues will have their work cut out keeping him in January.
In the absence of Aston Villa, Birmingham supporters will be looking to the early December clash with West Brom for their first taste of real derby action, hoping they’re still in top six contention by then.
Blackburn have endured plenty of upheaval over the last few years but have proven not all so-called rogue owners are as bad as they’re made out. They’re still owned by the Venky’s, the Indian chicken farmers who were seemingly driving them to the point of destruction a few years ago.
However, Tony Mowbray’s side did egg-cellently to sit mid-table last season. Apologies, that’s a terrible yolk.
They’ve invested heavily in the playing squad, although Ben Brereton has some way to go before proving he’s worth £7m. In Bradley Dack, they have a wonderful midfielder who can get forward and ensure they’re safe from the drop, but unless others have a fowl season Rovers will remain somewhere in the middle of the flock.
The Bees buzzed their way to the top six in the early part of last season, but ended up being swatted down to the lower reaches of the table.
This season it’s been the opposite, Thomas Frank’s side started badly but should have enough quality to see themselves back in contention as the season wears on, despite losing Neal Maupay to Brighton and Hove Albion.
They’re a lovely side to watch for the neutral, but few at Griffin Park would laud their play when they’re losing 1-0 to Birmingham City as they did on the opening day.
Their big derby match is with Queens Park Rangers. Mark Warburton made his name as a manager with Brentford but is now hoping to put their West London rivals back in the top flight. The Hoops visit on January 11th.
Bristol City have a habit of turning tin into gold, bringing in unfancied players and seeing them moving out for big money. They’re once again dark horses, with most pundits simply able to copy and paste their 2018/19 predictions into this year’s articles.
Nice football; check. Impressive individual players; check. Tactically astute; check. They’re always there or thereabouts, but come May they’re always just ‘thereabouts’; always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Sammy Szmodics should be a secret weapon for them once he’s fit and firing. The former Colchester midfielder has goals and assist in him but just needs to get on the pitch a bit more.
Neil Warnock has stated this will be his last season as a manager; when he did referees across the land breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Football purists will have done the same; Warnock’s style has never endeared him to his peers. With Cardiff suffering relegation last season, their manager will hope to go out on a high.
It’s not likely that he will. His side are tough to beat, but they’re often found out by better, more organised sides. Their South Wales rivals Swansea are the opposite, slick in their passing and easy on the eye. Watch out in January as the two styles come together in what will be a heated battle.
Lee Bowyer as a player was controversial, to say the least. He wasn’t an obvious choice to be a success in the dugout, but after a spell running a carp lake, he came back pensive, tactically aware and understated.
His side snuck into the Championship via the play-offs and their obvious lack of means will make survival a big ask. Still, Bowyer has instilled the fighting spirit he had as a player into his squad; not literally, thankfully, otherwise suspensions would be a real problem.
Former Leyton Orient striker Macauley Bonne shocked Leeds with a winner in September and if he settles alongside Lyle Taylor, it will go a long way towards defining how safe the Addicks will be by Easter.
Derby called for harsh punishment for Leeds last season after an intern was found to be spying on their side, but they’ve drawn criticism from some quarters for quickly integrating Mason Bennett and Tom Lawrence back in the fold after their September misdemeanor.
Manager Philip Cocu won three Eredivisie titles as manager of PSV Eindhoven, as well being a World Cup runner-up as coach of the Netherlands, but that’s not ample preparation for the tempestuous East Midlands derby.
The Rams have already lost to Nottingham Forest in the cup, the 3-0 hammering ramping up the early pressure on their decorated manager. He needs to find a goal scorer soon, although the prolific Jack Marriott has been overlooked in the early season matches and could be a success given a run of games.
Fulham spent over £100m looking to stay in the Premier League last season, but come August 2019 they were back where they started with a new manager and another big task on their hands.
They’re looking much the same as they did last time they were here as well; mildly inconsistent with Tom Cairney driving the midfielder, Aleksander Mitrovic looking to provide the goals and Sessegnon at full back.
That’s Steven Sessegnon though; his twin brother Ryan made a big-money move to Spurs over the summer. If Fulham invest that cash wisely in the January sales, they should be in the top six by the time the barbeques are out in May.
After an awful start to the season, relegated Huddersfield Town made the decision to sack Jan Siewert. Few were surprised; Siewert’s side looked destined for relegation from the first kick of a ball.
They turned to Danny Cowley, a big fish in a little pond at Lincoln. He’s now swimming with the sharks and will be hoping the choppy waters don’t see him flounder like Nathan Jones and Paul Hurst at Stoke and Ipswich respectively.
His first move was to bring in former Newcastle man Danny Simpson, hoping to add steel to the defence. They’re a long way from the Premier League, but the untested Cowley should get the Terriers barking again.
Hull’s hopes of Championship survival rest on the shoulders of their strike duo Jarrod Bowen and Tom Eaves. Bowen stayed put despite strong interest from the Premier League over the summer and he’s hit four goals in their opening nine matches.
Tom Eaves earned himself a move from Gillingham. Having played much of his football in the lower leagues he will need to get amongst the goals if the Tigers are to stick around in the second tier.
Visiting fans at the end of a beating at the KCom Stadium hear the song ‘you’re getting mauled by the Tigers’, along with hand gestures to match. Luckily for everyone concerned, they’ve only won one of their opening five fixtures at home.
The pressure is on at Elland Road; after being ridiculed year after year for their managerial turnaround they’ve stayed faithful to Bielsa, bucket and all, despite failure to earn promotion last season.
They’re sure to be amongst the promotion contenders all season, with a squad rich in attacking talent. Arsenal youngster Eddie Nketiah will be looking to get his senior career up and running, whilst Patrick Bamford has a lot to prove after his early promise faded.
Leeds are one of the biggest clubs in the Championship, routinely attracting 30,000 supporters to Elland Road. Everything about them screams ‘Premier League’, except for the fact they’re not in the Premier League.
They’ll spend New Year in Birmingham with a doubleheader against the Blues and West Brom hoping to avoid the orders of the Peaky Blinders and come away with the spoils.
With the smallest stadium in the Championship at just over 10,000 capacity, ‘little’ Luton Town are clearly punching above their weight. After successive promotions and shrugging off the loss of manager Nathan Jones last season, they’re going to be fighting for a finish of fourth from bottom and little else; that would be a big achievement.
Hanging on to James Collins will be a big ask in the transfer window. The Irish striker grabbed a goal every other game in the opening exchanges and would be a cute signing for any other Championship side.
They might need to recruit come the opening of the window; defensively they’ve leaked goals early on and may need an injection of experience to plug the gaps.
They’re currently looking at building a new ground on the outskirts of town and if that project comes off, they might be able to recreate some of their success of the eighties.
Jonathan Woodgate was a fine player in his time with Real Madrid and Leeds, but Boro’s decision to appoint him as their manager is not without serious risks.
After the unattractive, functional football of Tony Pulis, anything different is refreshing, but just how long Woodgate will get to prove he’s a suitable manager is anyone’s guess.
The board did stick by Pulis despite some ugly performances, but were quick to get rid of his predecessor, Garry Monk. Woodgate will be one of the bosses who might fear the chop before Christmas.
He has welcomed back Britt Assombalonga into the fold; he’s terrifying defenders everywhere and should reach 20 goals this season. He’s also terrifying football writers everywhere as they make sure they get the ‘O’s and ‘A’s in the right order.
Neil Harris stood aside at the beginning of October after a solid but unspectacular start to the season, leaving the Lions at a bit of a crossroads.
They’ve been competing with much bigger clubs for a season or so now but the funds aren’t there to keep pace indefinitely. Whilst Sheffield United proved with their promotion that money isn’t the route to success, the new manager will have to do that and more to keep Millwall out of the bottom three.
They are solid at home, but their away form will need to improve as they move into the new era. It’s going to be a long haul for Millwall and their fearsome reputation isn’t likely to be eclipsed on the field.
Coming from the home of the fabled Robin Hood, Sabri Lamouchi is the new sheriff of Nottingham Forest and his task is a complicated one. It’s not just promotion, transfer success or a cup run. The task facing any incumbent of the Forest job is to shake off the ghosts of the past.
Every nook and cranny of the City Ground screams ‘two-time European Cup winners’, but that’s as much of a millstone around a manager’s neck as it is a proud boast. Almost 40 years have elapsed since they won the prestigious competition and few recall those days clearly anymore.
Forest have made a strong start this season with Joe Lolley and Lewis Grabban’s two key performers as they mount a title challenge. Their record signing, Portuguese attacker Joao Carvalho, is also back in the fold adding some much-needed flair to their forward play.
Preston North End
If Forest are living in the past, Preston might be accused of living in ancient history. They were once a dominant force in the Football League, but have not tasted the Premier League riches, yet.
Manager Alex Neill has assembled a squad capable of putting on a top ten challenge. Patrick Bauer came in from Charlton to add steel to the backline and they assured continuity in hanging on to the likes of Alan Browne and Daniel Johnson.
Their start surprised many, a run of 15 points from 18 in early autumn setting them up for what should be a solid play-off assault, or perhaps even an unlikely top two challenge.
Queens Park Rangers
Mark Warburton swapped a job in the City for the ruthless world of football management and arrived at Loftus Road via Brentford, Glasgow Rangers and Nottingham Forest. He’ll be banking on his contacts to help establish the Hoops as a serious promotion contender once again.
He is reaping the rewards of other’s investments, with exciting young talents such as Ilias Chair and Ebere Eze giving the side an exciting feel this season.
Borrowing Nahki Wells and Jordan Hugill makes them a more backable prospect upfront as well. After a couple of seasons of recession under Ian Holloway and Steve McClaren, this could be the season that West London is finally run by Queens Park Rangers once again.
The Royals began this season in the same fashion as they finished the last one; badly. They lost at home to Charlton and Blackburn in the opening fixtures, a worrying trend given last season’s relegation scare.
They weren’t amongst the big spenders in the summer, Matt Miazga came in on loan from Chelsea but they didn’t spend and they didn’t speculate. That will surely lead to a failure to accumulate.
Manager José Manuel Gomes was a man under pressure and with their previous record of sacking bosses, as of two weeks ago, he has consequently been sacked himself. He’s already outlasted the previous incumbent Paul Clement who lasted 258 days, and Brian McDermott who was pushed out in 175 days.
That won’t be any consolation for him if their form doesn’t improve as the nights draw in, especially with little prospect of spending money in January.
Sheffield Wednesday are up and down more often than a railway crossing barrier. They started last season well, then collapsed and sacked Dutchman Jos Luhukay. Steve Bruce came in and gave them hope initially, but was lured to Newcastle before the season started.
Despite that knock, they started this well under caretaker Lee Bullen and appointed Garry Monk not long after the start of the season. He’s hoping to reinstate the traditionally big club in the top flight, especially as their bitter rivals in the steel city, Sheffield United, got there last season.
Monk has a good squad to play with, no longer reliant on wayward genius Fernando Forestieri. Old hands Barry Bannan and Stephen Fletcher are proving that new faces aren’t the only route to success and with Monk’s reputation for getting the best on a shoestring at Birmingham, The Owls might be flying high come the end of the season.
Stoke’s problems at the start of the season were clear for all to see; two points from ten matches is the sort of form that will earn you a trip to Accrington Stanley or Gillingham next season. It would be remiss to blame manager Nathan Jones alone. They boast quality players in key areas but until they start to perform as a team they’ll continue to struggle.
Nick Powell could be a pivotal player for them. The former Manchester United man left Wigan for the Potters in the summer but hasn’t yet produced the sort of form they hoped to see. If he does find some form he’ll bring goals and assists, something the Potters haven’t had enough of early on in the season.
In Tyrese Campbell they have an exciting young talent who could well be the subject of interest from Premier League clubs in the January transfer window.
Swansea seemed to settle too easily into mid-table last season after coming out of the Premier League. It was viewed as a lack of ambition by some supporters, bringing a degree of unrest. When Graham Potter left for Brighton over the summer it seemed that good work was going to waste.
Steve Cooper picked up the managerial reigns and hasn’t disappointed; the Swans were majestic in the opening exchanges. His side have become everything they were during their last Championship stint; organised and exciting with real threat upfront.
Borja Baston was seen as a flop following his move from Atlético Madrid in 2016, but six goals in his opening ten games seem to suggest he’s just taken some time to settle. Three years to be precise, but better late than never.
All eyes will be on clashes with their Welsh rivals Cardiff, sure to be red-hot encounters not for the faint of heart.
West Bromwich Albion
Slaven Bilic played in a rock band and is remembered by many football fans as a tough defender who took no-nonsense. Along with Steve McClaren, he masterminded England’s omission from Euro 2008, but struggled in Premier League management with West Ham.
He saw his Baggies side reach the top of the table in October, but nothing is won before Christmas. Except for the Charity Shield and European Super Cup, but you don’t qualify for those by finishing tenth in the Championship.
Nigerian defender Semi Ajayi is an exciting prospect for them. He arrived from Rotherham in the summer and he’s the image of his manager; tough in both boxes and dominant in the air. It’s not known whether he owns a guitar or not though.
Along with prolific striker Charlie Austin and exciting homegrown talent Rekeem Harper, Ajayi should see the Baggies challenging in the top six at the very least.
Last alphabetically and, if the pundits are to be believed, potentially in the last place at the end of the season as well.
Wigan have been over-achieving for as long as they’ve been in the top two divisions. A tough summer saw them lose Nick Powell to Stoke, but a not-so tough winter saw them manage to squeeze £4m out of Sunderland for Will Grigg, an act many Sunderland fans would label as daylight robbery.
It’s highly likely Grigg will be heading into the Championship next season with the Black Cats, but only a brave man would back him to face off against his old club when he does. They’re facing a long, hard season of struggle which is only likely to end one way.
Whilst the leading contenders are often set in stone, there’s always one team that comes from the doldrums to surprise everyone. Leeds, Nottingham Forest and West Brom will surely contest the top six, but can Preston, Charlton or QPR spring a real surprise? With so much at stake there will be plenty of surprises over the coming weeks, with unpredictable results and a few eyebrow-raising moments to savour.