Its a new season & we have a new treat for you! Its the ALL NEW Ross Ramble!
We all know Ross’ love for The Championship here in jolly old England, so who better than to preview some teams & look ahead to a long tough season once again…
So here we it is, folks – the return of the domestic football season. Friday the 4th of August heralds the long-anticipated return of weekly football, and what better division to officially raise the curtain than my favourite division in the world – the English Championship.
Now for those who joined me on the Championship roller coaster for the first time last season, you were treated to an excellent campaign, albeit one that diluted some of the Championship’s greatest facets. The rousing success and damn-near domination of both Newcastle United and Brighton & Hove Albion detracted from the some of the less glamorous success stories we saw in Cardiff and Barnsley, for example. The comedic styling of Birmingham City, too, distracted many of us long enough to not fully appreciate the enormity of former Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers entering League One on the final day. Lost in the middle were a number of outstanding players, brilliant managers and newsworthy stories.
This season, though, promises a new sort of madness. We stand now on the precipice of one of the most exciting Championship seasons in recent years. Unlike last year, there seems no definitive favourite in the hunt for the Championship title, and the options for relegation don’t seem so clear-cut either. Indeed it seems facile and ultimately pointless to pretend anyone has a clue who the biggest winners and losers will be come May 2018; in that vein, I’m not here to predict the 2017/18 Championship season as we did last year. I’m simply here to point to a few of the sides worth watching – for reasons both good and bad – in one of the most difficult to predict seasons in Championship history.
It’s hard to see how the Championship season ends without Aston Villa being involved in the promotion conversation come the final day. Under Roberto Di Matteo, the Villains stalled thanks to their lacklustre and ponderous summer transfer window, but found themselves rebuilding with aplomb after Steve Bruce’s appointment late last year. The foundations were laid in January with the signings of Hourihane, Bree, Hogan and others – those energetic Championship-savvy signings have now been complimented by the experience of El Mohamady, Whelan, Samba and most notable of all, John Terry. Whether the blend will be potent, only time will tell – certainly, though, the centre back pairing of Christopher Samba and John Terry will be one to keep your eyes on.
If there is a favourite for the Championship title this year, then it’s probably Middlesbrough. Now under the guidance of Garry Monk, who shocked everyone – no-one less than his new chairman – by leaving Leeds in the 2017 off-season, Boro have invested heavily in attacking options in a bid to blast back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. The attacking trio of Martin Braithwaite, Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher is probably the best in the division on paper, and with steady hands such as Darren Randolph and Cyrus Christie now plying their trade at the Riverside, Middlesbrough will certainly be aiming for automatic promotion.
Nuno Espirito now heads the ship at the Molineux Stadium, and with an entire summer to play in, the board seem to have finally begun to back their new project, too. The £15m signing of Ruben Neves stunned many outsiders this summer, and while the figure represents a staggering fee for the Championship, it keeps well in line with the near £12m Wolves laid down on Helder Costa last season. Given the pedigree of the manager and the influx of talented young up-and-comers, Wolves are one of the most enticing propositions in this season’s Championship. It could come crashing down around them, or they could become a dark horse for the title. Whichever way they go, they’ll be one of the most popular saves on Football Manager 2018, I’ll tell ya that for free.
What is there to say about Leeds United’s summer? It seems the only thing that hasn’t changed is the name – a new chairman in Andrea Radrizzani, a new manager in Thomas Christiansen and damn-near an entirely new squad with more incomings probable. It seems even when Leeds are trying to be stable, they’re completely unstable, and the concoction brewing at Elland Road seems somewhere between “volatile” and “inspired”. The manager and many of his new charges will need to adapt quickly in a division that knows nothing less than “full steam ahead” if they hope to build on last season’s near-miss promotion push. The real intrigue with Leeds United will be their chairman, though – given the volume of changes and adjustments that must now be made, will Radrizzani show more patience and constraint that his predecessor? For Leeds’ sake, let’s hope Christiansen gives him no reason to find out.
It’s all a bit crap for Sunderland, you feel. Relegation from the Premier League was long overdue, but now that it has finally come, there seems to be a “marching to the gallows” feel about the start of the Championship season. Simon Grayson was the man chosen to lead the Black Cats back in to the second tier of English football, and to his credit, the former Preston manager has lead all of his previous sides to promotion at one time or another. Stories such as that of Darron Gibson never seem far from the surface, however, and while the foundations of an excellent Championship seem to have been laid, the Black Cat’s financial difficulties have hampered their efforts. It’s hard to see Sunderland becoming genuine contenders for promotion at this stage, but we never say never in the Championship.
Good ol’ ‘arry is back in the Championship, and he’s going to accept pay for it this time! The Redknapp Revolution rolled in to St. Andrew’s after Gianfranco Zola’s comedy run came to an end before the final nail could be knocked in to the Blues’ coffin late last season. Redknapp ultimately kept his side afloat, and began preparing in earnest for his first full season in English management since his QPR days. Birmingham’s transfer window seems far from finished with stories of albeit “derisory” offers for Aiden Flint still doing the rounds as we approach the first day of the season, and they’ve already sprung a surprise with the signing of ex-Brighton keeper David Stockdale. If anyone could upset the apple cart and take Birmingham back toward the playoff places, it’s probably Harry Redknapp, but the Blues could just as easily find themselves fighting a high tide given the talent now dwelling within the sides above them. If nothing else, Redknapp’s box-office reputation will make proceedings at St. Andrew’s very interesting indeed.
For Burton Albion to even be in the Championship this season is a bit of a nonsense. For a club of their size and with their meagre financial clout, Burton should have been cannon fodder in last season’s Championship. But Albion didn’t achieve back-to-back promotions from League’s 2 and 1 for no good reason. Last season’s success was an incredible achievement, and if Burton could pull a second rabbit from the hat, it would be quite an incredible achievement the Brewers. That being said, even more so than last year, the odds seem stacked against them with the heavy investment enjoyed by the teams around them. While Millwall, Bolton, Ipswich and Barnsley look to be their nearest rivals in the race to stay above the dreaded red line, the odds don’t look good. That being said, given their safety last season, who could bet against the Brewers this year? A braver man than me, that’s who.
As ever with the Championship, the many omissions from this piece do a huge disservice to many other clubs in the division, such as Nottingham Forest, Cardiff City, Norwich City and more. Ultimately, though, that is precisely why we love the Championship; the dynamic landscape that one can never quite predict, and continues to regenerate year upon year. Get ready for another silly season in the Sky Bet Championship, folks. This one could be a belter.
Ross Bramble (@rossbramble)