Picking the winner of TV’s favourite dance show is obviously extremely challenging at this stage, not knowing how good or bad the contestants are going to be, and how they are going to react to being exposed to months of intense training and the pressures of performing live in front of millions week in and week out. The one thing we can do when looking at the line-up, is to whittle the numbers down from the original 15 by using the formula that has found many of the previous winners.  

The golden rule which you should always try and apply, is to look towards those whom the public will grow to like over the course of the show and not just concentrate on the dancing skills. As history tends to dictate, the best and most gifted dancers do not always win the show. You only have to look at the recent roll of honour to see how this trend has panned out. Joe McFadden, last year’s winner, had no previous dancing experience and from being one of the outsiders, when betting opened up before the show, he gradually worked his way up the leader board to overtake the early front runners such as Debbie McGee, Alexandra Burke and Gemma Atkinson.  

Other notable winners, Ore Oduba, Jay McGuiness, Abbey Clancy and Caroline Flack were all slow-burners, but they each had the combination of the likeability factor and a sound enough dance technique to prove a hit with the voting public. The ‘journey’ is never more present than in the king of all the reality shows and that’s why the policy of looking beyond the obvious to find the winner is usually the best option. 

First off the bat is this year’s early favourite ASHLEY ROBERTS, who sprung to prominence on our screens courtesy of her runner-up spot in the 2012 series of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Continuing her association with Ant and Dec, the Phoenix-born singer enjoyed more exposure thanks to a cameo role on the duo’s Saturday Night Takeaway, so she has fair claim to being one of the few A-listers in this year’s low-key line-up.

A former member of the pop group The PussyCat Dolls, the 36-year-old comes from a background of choreographed dance routines and has performed to a professional standard since she was very young, so it’s pretty clear she is going to have a fair idea of what she’s doing on the dancefloor, which is where the problem lies for her supporters as ever since Denise Van Outen got a huge thumbs down from the voting public for having a perceived advantage over her fellow competitors in series 10 because of her role in the West End, a similar fate has awaited the likes of Simon Webbe, Danny Mac, and both Alexandra Burke and Aston Merrigold last year.

 All of these had a pop video or stage school career to call upon and that just did not sit well with the BBC viewers. Of the millions who tune in on Saturday night the majority seemingly want their winner to be ‘totally clean’ coming into the show which is a far cry from when the likes of Jill Halfpenny and Alesha Dixon were trouncing their rivals in series 2 and 5 in a semi-professional fashion.

If ever a contestant was going to feel the backlash of the voters, I think this is going to be the biggest one of all, and don’t be fooled by her quotes suggesting, the “Latin and Ballroom world are alien to me” because if you take a look at her ‘Dance Time’ programme she presented back in January, she got to perform just about every dance genre there is – including hip-hop and street dancing. 

She’s sure to be one of the early front-runners, but expect the bubbly blonde to hits the skids when the judges start under-marking her in a bid to derail her ‘unfair’ advantage. In simple terms, she’s almost too good to win and knowing how the British public loves an underdog, it’s hard to get involved even though she will probably be light years ahead of everyone else in terms of technique and rhythm. Capable of getting 10’s in the first few weeks and likely to outshine the professionals, where do you go from there? 

Another one of the market leaders, FAYE TOZER, may not be quite in Roberts’ league, but she could fall victim to the same negativity thanks to her years with the cheesy pop band Steps. The singer-songwriter also has to admit to previous dance experience which began courtesy of a spell at The Anne Gale School of Dance where she achieved qualifications in ballet, tap and modern. To add insult to injury, she danced professionally with the Belinda King Dancers for two years and her CV shows that she has experience in Salsa and Burlesque! 

With the greatest respect to VICK HOPE, she’s probably one of the least well-known of the 15-strong field, but that could end up working in her favour as she doesn’t come with any of the preconceptions that some of her rivals possess.  A TV and radio presenter better known for her stint on Capital Xtra, she’s also noted for her investigative work into the roots of African dance origin at the Islington Arts Factory where she could be seen strutting her stuff with the teacher Francis Angol to a pretty high standard.

Based on that small sample and her participation in the group dance on the reveal show, the inclusion of a new dance to this series – better known as The Couple’s Choice – will really suit her as it allows contestants to show off their skills in non-Latin and Ballroom styles such as Contemporary, Street/Commercial and Theatre/Jazz.

The other major positive is that she’s been teamed up with one of the show’s new dance professionals, Italian hunk Graziano Di Prima. Dripping sex appeal (according to my missus!), the former Latin dance champ is likely to take over from the likes of Aidan Turner, Idris Elba and Richard Madden as the one most women drool over on prime-time TV and it’s a duo that is sure to have plenty of legs and as she’s also likely to appeal to the younger viewers, the 28-year-old could emerge as the surprise package of the show. 

DANNY JOHN-JULES has already come in for some early support and it’s easy to see why given he used to be a backing dancer for several high-profile performers back in the 70’s. The negative, however, comes in the shape of the comments he made on his twitter account two years ago suggesting that the show “always gets rid of the black guy first” following the elimination of Melvin Odoom. Whether his dancing and personality will enable him to win back the voters is open to question.

As previous winners of this contest have proved, the ladies love a heartthrob, and this year’s hot favourite for that role is undoubtedly CHARLES VENN. A dead ringer for Richard Blackwood of recent EastEnders fame, the camera clearly loves him and after watching the small samples of his moves in the group dance, the 45-year-old actor should go deep into the heart of the show.

A gym and fitness lover, his powerful frame is also likely to come in handy when he’s asked to perform the routines where lifts come into play. Said to already be getting on like a house on fire with pro dancer, Karen Clifton, this partnership should have enough chemistry to light up the dancefloor week in, week out, and with genuine male contenders looking pretty thin on the ground this year, it would come as little surprise to see this hospital beefcake stake a proper claim for the Glitterball trophy.

“Who the hell is JOE SUGG”, was probably the cry from the older half of the nation as they tuned in to watch the big reveal show last Saturday. Fair play to him if he can garner 13million people to watch him play pranks on his mates, but it would come as a massive shock if he were to have the backing of the devoted Strictly viewers, who surely want their favourites to have more substance to their backstory than getting noticed just for internet vlogging (whatever that means!)

The Google search engines were probably in meltdown as the name STACEY DOOLEY flashed on our screens and even though she came across as being a thoroughly nice girl with a voice and personality to match fellow cockney, Stacey Solomon, she, too, may not have the sort of support to get her beyond Blackpool week. The only thing she has in her favour, is that she’s been partnered up with one of the most popular pro dancers on the show, Kevin Clifton, and with the Grimsby-born dancer’s record of only once not making the final since he joined the show in 2013 (he even got Susan Calman to week 10 last year), the 31-year-old reporter shouldn’t be dismissed totally out of hand.

Undoubtedly the one most people will be routing for is KATIE PIPER. A budding model, whose life got turned upside down by a horrific acid attack, Katie has undergone hundreds of operations to rebuild her face and during that time, she’s managed to forge a career as a TV personality. From documenting her own harrowing story on ‘My Beautiful Face’, to Bodyshockers and, more recently, appearances on Loose Women, the 34-year-old really has become a total inspiration to so many and her charity work for fellow survivors of acid attacks has only gone on to further her popularity as a woman of incredible strength.

Recently on the front cover of Women’s Health magazine, it is apparent that the philanthropist is also clearly intent on looking after her body and her powers of fitness will come into good use when being put through her paces for the demands of this show. Whether she can dance or not, time will tell, but even if she doesn’t make it through to the final, she will be perceived as a winner in most people’s eyes. 

KATE SILVERTON has the sort of mild and pleasant personality that could ensure she goes deeper into the competition than her potentially modest moves indicate. The perennial Cheshire Cat, Aljaz Skorjanec, makes for a solid partnership. 

Cricketers have a decent record in this show down the years, as Mark Ramprakash and Darren Gough proved, and although GRAEME SWANN doesn’t immediately jump off the page as being the third winner from that sport, he does have the sort of personality that should see him go beyond halfway. Like most sportsmen who are incredibly competitive by nature, the ex-England spinner is bound to take this challenge by the scruff of the neck and that attitude along with his partnership with the equally driven Oti Mabuse, should ensure a fair stay at the crease. 

Johnny Peacock paved the way for those with disabilities to compete on a level playing field last year and LAUREN STEADMAN takes hold of the baton this series. An accomplished Paralympian, she will clearly have the necessary focus and drive to do well but as we saw in the reveal show when her dance partner AJ Pritchard almost dropped her from a basic hold, the couple will face challenges on a level that will make life extremely difficult to compete with this year’s big guns. 

According to the latest newspaper clips, LEE RYAN has put himself in prime position to become the fastest contestant to join the ‘Strictly Curse’ club as after only a week of rehearsals, the former Blue singer has already been linked on a romantic level with his professional dance partner, Nadiya Bychkova. Whether this has a detrimental effect on his prospects on the show itself only time will tell, but either way, it’s not usually something that sits well with the voting public. Brendan Cole has never really recovered after his fling with Natasha Kaplinsky, Kristina Rihanoff was quickly ousted once she got her teeth into both Joe Calzaghe and Ben Cohen respectively and Flavia Cacace also had to do a little shimmy off stage left when she fell for celeb partner Matt Di Angelo back in 2007. 

Being paired with Anton Du Beke usually means you are considered the comedy turn and that will not sit well with SUSANNAH CONSTANTINE. With the greatest respect to the elder statesman of the show, the former What Not to Wear presenter was probably hoping for one of the young bucks to boost her flagging image and the fact that she’s with a dancer better known for churning out routines that have gone down in Strictly folklore for their wackiness, this won’t have improved her health or temper. That said, the 57-year-old is one of the few genuine personalities on this year’s show and it would be a shame to lose her at an early juncture if Anton has her just plodding around the dancefloor ala Ann Widdecombe.  

DR SANJ SINGH comes across as being a happy-go-lucky character (some would compare him to last year’s Judge Rinder) and that sort of personality is made for Strictly, meaning he should do well enough to survive the early rounds. Despite being This Morning’s resident doctor and co-host of ITV’s Save Money: Good Health, it’s hard to see him having the sort of following to go deep into the competition and his odds of 33-1 are a fair reflection of his chance. 

Even bigger at 66-1 is comedian SEAN WALSH, who would become the first winner from that medium if he were to triumph.  A regular on panel programmes such as 8 out of 10 Cats and Celebrity Juice, the 32-year-old is clearly taking this show seriously as he’s just rescheduled his forthcoming Autumn tour to Spring, but at the same time he doesn’t come across as someone who’s going to set the place alight on the dancefloor and, as a result, an early exit looks imminent. 

In conclusion the first thing I would say about this series is that something has gone badly wrong with the booking process. Without a maverick entertainer and a bunch, who, by and large, we only vaguely recognise off the telly, the class of 2018 are potentially an unforgettable crowd. That said, devotees of the series probably won’t care too much and if we can just have a bet to spice things up a little, the process of going from September to December won’t seem half as bad if we land on someone who’s genuinely in contention to win the show.  

Looking at some of the previous male winners of this series, Joe McFadden, Jay McGuiness, Ore Oduba, Chris Hollins, Louis Smith, Harry Judd, Tom Chambers and Darren Gough they all had one thing in common, they each fell into the bracket of being someone who most women would gladly take home to meet their mother.

Without an obvious standout candidate for that particular role this year, we could be looking for a different type of winner and CHARLES VENN (best price 16-1) appeals as the one who the public could easily latch onto. Charming and charismatic enough to do the ballroom dances with a touch of class, and enough confidence and sexiness to do just as well in the Latin section, he has enough in his favour to warrant an early interest at 16-1. Having put a fork into many of the other male contestants, it makes sense to also get stuck into his price to be top in that category at 9-2, as unless it transpires that he has two left feet, it’s hard to see him not having more appeal to the masses than some of his counterparts. 

Charles Venn - 0.5pts e/w @ 16/1
Charles Venn Top Man - 1pt @ 9/2

Based on the theory that it will be difficult for Ashley Roberts to win for all the reasons I have outlined, VICK HOPE (best price 10-3) is the lady waiting in the wings to take advantage. The potential dynamic between herself and Graziano Di Primo should make for avid viewing and she appears to have all the right tools to be able to do all the different genres of dance on the show justice, being tall, elegant and athletic.  

Already one of the best-backed in the ante-post markets, expect her odds to shorten even further after the first two sets of dances on the live shows so it makes sense to strike early before the remaining value gets eroded. In what should turn out to be a two-horse race to be Top Woman, she also makes plenty of appeal at 2-1 in that category. 

Vick Hope - 1pt @ 10/3
Vick Hope Top Woman - 2pts @ 2/1