A new Football League campaign is now underway and there’s an open feel to the desperate scramble for promotion from the Championship to the promised land of the Premier League.
This year’s second tier in English football contains 19 sides that have played in the big time since the Premiership launched in 1992 and the division looks more competitive than ever.
In recent seasons, we’ve had hot promotion favourites like Wolves and Newcastle United live up to that billing after big investment, so who is in the mix this time around? We take a look at who is fancied and why.
Despite a dismal Premier League campaign under Mark Hughes and then Paul Lambert that culminated in relegation, Stoke City have a new manager in the ambitious Gary Rowett and cleared some of the deadwood from their squad.
Although they’ve lost Xherdan Shaqiri, the Potters expect to keep number one Jack Butland barring any late transfer window drama. Rowett is set to add Wales captain Ashley Williams from Everton to his defence and has already freshened up midfield and attack with the signings of Benik Afobe (loan), Nigeria’s Oghenekaro Etebo, Tom Ince and James McClean.
While further departures from a large squad cannot be ruled out, especially with other European leagues giving their transfer windows open to the traditional end of August date, the options in the Potteries may be trimmed.
So long as that strength-in-depth remains, however, Stoke look worthy favourites in the outright Championship betting and promotion market with bet365 at 5/1 and 6/4, respectively.
Middlesbrough – managed by long-time Potters boss Tony Pulis – and West Bromwich Albion, who came down from the Premier League, too, are the sides reckoned most likely to challenge. Fallen giants Nottingham Forest and Leeds United with the latter club trying yet another different coaching approach in maverick ex-Argentina and Athletic Bilbao boss Marcelo Bielsa.
The Baggies, who have given Darren Moore the managerial gig full-time at The Hawthorns after the team showed spirit under him despite relegation being inevitable, have lost key players like goalie Ben Foster and captain Jonny Evans already. They are also braced for further interest from Premier League clubs in attacking duo Jose Salomon Rondon and Jay Rodriguez.
West Midlands rivals Aston Villa might be a better bet to go up at 4/1 after losing in the Championship play-off final to Fulham last season and having ridden out a stormy summer. Villa’s new owners have offered their support to Steve Bruce, whose promotion record from this division is fantastic, and they look set to keep hold.
Losing Jack Grealish might not be as bad as it sounds – if apparent in him interest does materialise – because he only scored three goals and set up six others last term. John Terry’s departure means there’s a leadership void to fill on the pitch and in the dressing room, but Atletico Madrid have obliged on the goalkeeping front by sending Andre Moreira on loan to Villa Park.
Swansea City also dropped out of the Premier League last term and are under new management with Graham Potter of Ostersunds fame now at the helm. Several departures from the Liberty Stadium and the prospect of more to come means they cannot be regarded seriously as leading promotion candidates.
Derby County, however, are a team that’s desperate to get back into the big time and have tried almost everything in their bid to do so. Coaching novice Frank Lampard is now installed at Pride Park and has been backed in the wake of Rowett’s departure to Stoke despite the Rams hierarchy previously saying they may curb the big spending of recent years.
This appointment has a boom or bust feel about it but, however Lampard’s first job as a manager turns out, County look value to record a fourth crack at the play-offs in six seasons at 7/4. Beyond those eight, other sides will have to punch above their weight if they to even get into the mix for promotion.