The Race For Promotion

For me, Fulham (1st) will win the league.

Their relegation from the Premier League last season was dismal, as were plenty of their signings, but it’s hard to see how their business this summer won’t be a stonking success.

Aleksandar Mitrović, equipped with a new contract, will score goals at this level for fun as we’ve already seen. Ivan Cavaleiro was outstanding for Wolves during their promotion season, while Anthony Knockaert was arguably the best player the Championship has ever seen when guiding Brighton to the Premier League a few years back.

Tom Cairney will continue operating just behind the forwards, while Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan will thrive in the second-tier – though the former is currently injured.

Scott Parker is the one big unknown for Fulham heading into the campaign, and I do feel he’s being written off a touch. He has a wonderful squad at his disposal—plenty of whom have already experienced promotion—and while he’s no Slavisa Jokanovic, I’m backing him to grow into the task.

Bristol City (2nd) are a team who have utterly infuriated me for years. ‘Streaky’ Lee Johnson has an outstanding group of players at Ashton Gate, but the Robins are just so prone to going on dreadful runs of form throughout a season: in 16/17 they had a run of 11 defeats from 12; in 17/18 one win from 10; in 18/19 two wins from 11.

These runs aren’t the mark of a side who are capable of securing promotion, but this season I believe it’ll finally be different.

I can’t stress enough how important the permanent signings of Tomas Kalas and Jay Dasilva are for City, as the continuity and familiarisation at the back from last campaign, which proved a success defensively, will be key.

Daniel Bentley also arrives in goal (though he’s definitely not better than last year’s first choice Niki Maenpaa, so he’s there for depth as far as I’m concerned), and considering the goalkeeping problems at Ashton Gate last term, that’s a signing which shouldn’t be sniffed at.

Johnson has the ability to better the players he currently has at his disposal, and I see no reason why they can’t improve on last season. This is the year he finally shows all of his true qualities.

12/1 for an automatic promotion place looks like a bet.

I’m not doubting this will be a controversial decision, but I’m backing Leeds United (3rd) to once again narrowly, perhaps agonisingly, miss out on automatic promotion.

Leeds last season were phenomenal; they were utterly brilliant. Whether it was the much-touted ‘Bielsa Dip’ which saw them fall away from the automatics at the eleventh hour, or indeed repeated instances of poor finishing, we’ll never fully know (although their wastefulness in some cases was truly shocking). Whatever the case, they’ll be in the promotion conversation again come April/May.

I’m impressed with Bielsa’s decision to replace fan favourite Pontus Jansson with ball-playing youngster Ben White, and his acquisition of Helder Costa from Wolves is another good piece of business.

My two main issues with Leeds—and if these are addressed I believe it turns them into overwhelmingly strong promotion candidates—come up front and in goal.  

If Patrick Bamford could finish last season, Leeds would be a Premier League side. It’s as simple as that. Kemar Roofe, tireless and hard-working, had a great season, but I don’t see Bamford as effective cover; that’s one thing for Bielsa to address.

And in goal, Bailey Peacock-Farrell never truly convinced as number one, and Bielsa’s decision to replace him with ‘Champions League Winner Kiko Casilla’ spectacularly backfired. Neither of these two should be starting in a promotion-chasing side.

Finally, there’s the important task of keeping the versatile Kalvin Phillips. It looks as if Leeds will succeed in that endeavour, however, which is great news.   

Cardiff City (4th) are a side I was desperately close to backing for automatic promotion.

The Bluebirds’ best piece of business this summer was keeping hold of promotion expert Neil Warnock for another season, and their squad looks stronger than when they were promoted.

I think Warnock is utterly brilliant, and I simply cannot see how they don’t at least finish in the play-offs. Their Premier League campaign was oh-so-nearly successful, and with very few genuine first-teamers leaving the club this summer, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Aden Flint, Curtis Nelson, Will Vaulks and Joe Day are all incredibly astute acquisitions—the first two adding yet more depth to Warnock’s already terrifying defensive options—and they join an experienced, savvy, hardened squad who will be right in the automatic promotion mix.

Promotion number nine may be beckoning.

Stoke City (5th) were a huge disappointment last season, but I’m backing them to enjoy a much more successful campaign this time around.

I’m going to write off Nathan Jones’ time in the Potteries last term, simply because he essentially inherited a Gary Rowett squad (wouldn’t wish it on anyone) who were already failing.

Jones will be keen to stamp his Luton-style diamond onto this squad, and with Jack Butland keeping clean sheets for fun under the Welshman last time out, you feel he’s close to finally getting this undeniably strong squad to click – they just need goals.

I have the darlings of the Championship Brentford (6th) finishing in a play-off place.

There were concerns around Griffin Park following Dean Smith’s departure to Aston Villa mid-way through last season, and while Thomas Frank got off to a fairly ropey start, they finished the season well, and that’s enough to convince me of a top six finish this time.

Frank’s side will be incredibly hard to beat—particularly with their Ethan Pinnock, Pontus Jansson, David Raya trifecta at the back—and with Ollie Watkins, Neal Maupay (if he stays) and Said Benrahma providing the attacking impetus, it’s hard to see too many weaknesses.

The manager’s Danish connections have also no doubt influenced the signing of midfielder Christian Nørgaard – another player who will thrive at this level.

I was tempted to place Brentford a little higher on this list, but with one or two more exits a possibility, 6th seems fair.

This is the season where I see Preston North End (7th) making a serious push towards the play-offs. Last campaign was actually fairly disappointing, with a truly horrendous start and end to the season pretty much killing the campaign – but there is plenty of talent and quality there, and I rate Alex Neil.

Their transfer window has been a little disappointing thus far, but the squad is definitely a top-half squad as it is, and perhaps Deepdale legend David Nugent’s arrival will spark the Lilywhites into becoming a little more consistent, a trait they desperately need to avoid another mid-table finish.

Fulham - Championship Winners - 2pts @ 15/2
Bristol City Top 2 - 1pt @ 12/1
Brentford Top 6 - 3pts @ 2/1

The Mid-Table Mire

There are a lot of unknowns surrounding Swansea City (8th) this season. The departures of manager Graham Potter to Brighton and forward Dan James to Manchester United are clearly huge blows, with new boss Steve Cooper—a totally unknown quantity—coming into the hot seat.

The key for Cooper is continuing the fantastic work Potter did at the Liberty – similar to the Mick Harford role at Luton following Nathan Jones’ departure. Whether he can do that, I’m not sure, but there’s talent in this squad, and I’m cautiously optimistic about them.

If they lose Oli McBurnie, however, things could go sour quickly.  

Derby County (9th), for all their numerous so-close-yet-so-far seasons, are going to have a transitional, fairly dull campaign. I’m convinced of it.

Phillip Cocu is a big name who has done great things with PSV, but he inherits a squad who are without Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and Harry Wilson—three of last season’s stars—leaving behind the remnants of what looks like a Steve McClaren squad.

Relics like Richard Keogh, Jacob Butterfield, Scott Carson and Chris Martin (still on their books!) remain at the club, and the youthful feel around Pride Park under Frank Lampard has dissipated.

Cocu is a better manager than Lampard, but he doesn’t have a better squad. A strange scenario.

I’m strangely apathetic about West Brom’s (10th) upcoming season – despite my general fondness of Slaven Bilic.

Their squad is a tough one to work out. Matt Phillips, Ahmed Hegazi, Sam Johnstone and co. are all excellent Championship players, while Romaine Sawyers and Semi Ajayi look like great coups.  

But then you look at Chris Brunt, Jake Livermore, Hal Robson-Kanu and it makes you think…stale.

Losing Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez are massive blows, and Kenneth Zohore is no replacement for them; West Brom still have a competitive squad, but considering his lack of Championship experience, it won’t be an easy ride for Bilic.

A rogue shout perhaps, but I’m backing newly-promoted Barnsley (11th) to sensationally finish in the top half.

Of course, losing the likes of Ethan Pinnock, Liam Lindsay and Adam Davies will have some of the more pessimistic Tykes fans fearing for relegation, but I have so much faith in the club’s recruitment team—and in particularly the fantastically talented Daniel Stendel, who I envisage enjoying a David Wagner-style rise in the coming years—to get their replacements right, and use the momentum from last season to be this year’s surprise package.

11/4 is a nice price for Barnsley to finish in the top 12, and it’s not uncommon to see newly-promoted sides thriving in the Championship, such as Millwall in 2017/18 or Preston in 2015/16.

I like Tony Mowbray and I like his Blackburn Rovers (12th) side. They enjoyed a very solid first season in the Championship last time out, and if not for a pretty sizeable post-January blip, the play-offs may have been a possibility.

With the outstanding Bradley Dack set to stay at Ewood Park—Blackburn’s most important piece of business—Mowbray’s also brought in Sam Gallagher for a few more goals, as well as experienced campaigner Bradley Johnson.

Overall Blackburn look set to improve on last season’s finish, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they snuck into play-off contention, either.

One club I’m very interested in is Huddersfield Town (13th). It would be harsh to judge Jan Siewert after last season’s Premier League campaign, and on the whole the club are fairly well-equipped for a decent Championship season.

Christopher Schindler is a fantastic centre-back who will be a massive player for the Terriers in the Championship, Karlan Grant looked good in the Premier League following his January arriva from Charlton, and while Philip Billing is a talented player, his attitude (or lack thereof) has ensured many Huddersfield fans won’t miss him too much as he heads to Bournemouth.

A season of re-adjusting may be in store for the Yorkshire outfit.

Middlesbrough (14th) are a side who are definitely value to finish in the bottom half – priced at a generous 13/8.

For new, rookie manager Jonathan Woodgate, his job is to de-Pulis the football club; to change the style of play and culture around the place, and to get the locals enjoying football again. The sale of tall, lumbering centre-back Aden Flint—far better in the air than with is feet—to Cardiff is evidence of this shift.

Boro won’t be afraid to play some youth in the upcoming season, and there may well be some teething problems with Woodgate’s new system, so I’d expect a campaign of transition, potentially ending in the bottom half.

Millwall (15th) have had a good transfer window, and I don’t expect them to be in a relegation battle this season. I can’t stress enough how perfect Matt Smith is for Neil Harris’ system, while Jon Dadi Bodvarsson will also add some more physicality to the forward line.

The Den is always a tough place to go, and I believe they’ll enjoy an improved campaign this time around.

Oh Nottingham Forest (16th), what a strange football club you are.

Last season started with so much hope: Joao Carvalho and Lewis Grabban arriving for almost a combined £20M; the highly-rated Aitor Karanka at the helm – and then…chaos.

Karanka left in January with the side four points off the play-offs, and the laughably stupid appointment of Martin O’Neill was the kiss of death for the 18/19 campaign.

New boss Sabri Lamouchi has a good CV, but Forest’s general instability from the top down, questionable transfer activity this summer and unerring ability to fall apart mid-season doesn’t fill me with home.

It could be a fantastic season, but I believe otherwise.

Birmingham City (17th) look in a pickle. Garry Monk’s slightly dubious exit opened the door for Pep Clotet to take charge – a man whose stint at Oxford United didn’t make him too many friends. The Blues have lost their two best players—Che Adams and Jota—while the choice between poppadum-wristed Lee Camp and cumbersome David Stockdale in goal isn’t a particularly inviting one. I think they’ll be ok, but I’m not expecting a particularly fun season for Birmingham.

Barnsley Top Half - 1pt @ 11/4
Middlesbrough bottom half - 1.5pts @ 13/8
Sheffield Wednesday bottom half - 3pts @ evs

The Relegation Battle

Don’t be surprised to see Reading (18th) down in the doldrums once again. Despite Jose Gomes’ revival at the end of last season to keep them up, Reading are a very poor side without much threat going forward. The Royals are unable to spend much money these days due to FFP restrictions, and if they went down, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. The signing of Charlie Adam says it all.

Looking at who I believe is great value to finish in the bottom half, look no further than Sheffield Wednesday (19th), who are definitely overpriced at evens.  

Essentially, it’s chaos at Hillsborough. Steve Bruce’s sudden exit threw all pre-season plans in the bin, and after how good Wednesday were at the end of their last campaign under Bruce, it’s a real kick in the teeth to now be forced to start again.

What on earth will Wednesday do? They have a passable Championship squad—though they’re increasingly reliant on individual moments of brilliance, which is never a sustainable trait—and if Lee Bullen is the man to take the helm permanently, then don’t be surprised to see them in a relegation battle.

A right mess.

I do also slightly fear for Luton (20th) – another newly-promoted outfit. They’re a side who absolutely tore up League One last season, but the problem for Hatters fans is that new boss Graeme Jones is now tearing up the blueprint left by Nathan Jones and Mick Harford. The hugely successful NJ diamond system is being dismantled by the looks of things, and with a string of fairly uninspiring signings, I do thin Luton will be in for a tough slog.

Another side who I originally fancied for relegation is QPR (21st), but I have them surviving – just. Mark Warburton is now an experienced campaigner at this level, and while many Hoops fans have resigned themselves to being pretty naff every single season, I do believe there are perhaps reasons to be optimistic; Ebere Eze is a cracking player, Jordan Hugill should do a job for them, and Ilias Chair looks an incredibly exciting prospect. They’ll just about have enough.

My first pick for relegation this season is Hull City (22nd); a club being held back by questionable ownership. While last season was, for all intents and purposes, fantastic for the Tigers, general incompetence around the club has seen them sleepwalk into a position of relegation candidates for me.

The loss of Nigel Adkins was imminently avoidable, and his replacement Grant McCann doesn’t carry as much pedigree. Add to this the departures of goalkeeper David Marshall (who has been woefully replaced by Matt Ingram) and Frazier Campbell and that’s suddenly a huge part of last season’s success just…gone.

Now, if either Jarrod Bowen or Kamil Grosicki follow them out of the door—by far the Tigers’ two best players—then I do believe it’s curtains. At 5/1 Hull are certainly a solid bet for relegation.

Another side who look in deep bother is Wigan Athletic (23rd). Paul Cook is a funny manager to work out – I’m still not certain whether he’s over or underachieving. Last season’s campaign was, to put it bluntly, shocking, and their away form in particular—which was the joint-worst in the league alongside relegated Ipswich and Rotherham—was so dreadful you wonder how sustainable Cook’s possession-centric style is at this level.

It’s effective when bulldozing sides in League One, like with their 98-point 2017/18 promotion campaign, but when opposition players are generally better than yours, that’s where the problems arise.

With the talismanic Reece James now back at Chelsea, it’s looking like an underwhelming situation at the DW.

I see this season ending in tears for the Latics.

It’s always a little bleak predicting the plight of certain teams, none more so than Charlton Athletic (24th), whose dramatic (fairly sizeable understatement) play-off final victory against Sunderland last season saw them parade into the second-tier.

However, I’m expecting them to finish bottom, and that’s a tip which won’t come as a massive surprise. After the years of tumult, turmoil and pain experienced at the hands of Roland Duchatelet (a name that makes my blood boil), Charlton deserve some good fortune, but the chairman’s indifference towards the club—a total antithesis of the culture Lee Bowyer and club legend Johnnie Jackson have cultivated—makes this incredibly difficult.

A lack of Championship experience in the squad, as well as a string of exits in the summer, doesn’t bode particularly well; in Lyle Taylor, the Addicks have a goalscoring talisman who I believe will be a success this season, but with a dearth of quality options in midfield, I don’t believe they’ll have enough overall.

Final Table Prediction

1. Fulham 

2. Bristol City 

3. Leeds United

4. Cardiff City

5. Stoke City

6. Brentford 

7. Preston North End 

8. Swansea City 

9. Derby County 

10. West Bromwich Albion 

11. Barnsley 

12. Blackburn Rovers 

13. Huddersfield Town 

14. Middlesbrough 

15. Millwall 

16. Nottingham Forest 

17. Birmingham City 

18. Reading 

19. Sheffield Wednesday 

20. Luton Town 

21. QPR

22. Hull City 

23. Wigan Athletic 

24. Charlton Athletic 

Follow @RyanEJourno

Hull City Relegated - 1pt @ 5/1
Wigan Relegation - 2pts @ 5/1
Charlton to finish bottom - 1pt @ 15/2