Football returns to our TV screens tonight, with the Championship kicking things off ahead of what promises to be another fiercely competitive season.
There are few, if any, leagues in Europe that are more hotly contested than the Championship, with almost every team believing they can compete in the upper half of the league.
This time around however, there looks to be one side who are a cut above the rest. The opening game features the side who will almost certainly dismantle all before them this season.
Let’s be honest, it’s embarrassing that Newcastle are in the Championship. A club of their size, history and stature should be competing in the upper-echelons of the top flight. But, due to mismanagement from the owners and the directors, and the appalling management of Steve McLaren, the Magpies find themselves back in the second tier for the second time in seven seasons.
On their last relegation from the Premier League, Newcastle stormed to the Championship title. They are almost certain to do that again this time around, with Rafa Benitez having done major surgery on the squad – building a British core with Championship experience.
But the Championship is a slog, we all know that. It takes a special kind of mentality to gain promotion and if Newcastle believe their exile from the Premier League will be brief, they could find themselves caught out. Complacency seems to be their only enemy.
It is hugely exciting for those of us who follow Championship football that there are two Champions League winners managing in the league – in charge of two of the biggest names in English football.
Previously Premier League ever-presents Aston Villa are embarking on a Championship campaign for the first time, with Roberto Di Matteo at the helm. The Italian, who guided Chelsea to the Champions League title in 2012, looks to have a much tougher job getting Villa to bounce back at the first time of asking.
The big-money capture of proven Championship predator Ross McCormack will provide a much-needed boost, but Di Matteo has inherited a mismatched squad on sky-high Premier League wages who were absolutely dreadful from start to finish last season. Don’t be surprised if they are battling in the bottom half of the table.
But the Championship is notoriously hard to predict (though I will give it a go at the bottom of this piece). 46 games is a long, long season and a battling mentality is required to succeed. It’s no coincidence that the three promoted sides last year were the teams who kept the most clean sheets. Defence is key to second-tier success and that will be no different this season.
Arguably the best story ahead of kick-off is the arrival of Championship new-boys Burton Albion. A non-league side for 59 years until 2009, Burton have clinched back-to-back promotions to arrive in the second flight for the first time. On paper, they look favourites to go down, but the Brewers play good football and will be fearless – which gives them every chance of survival.
It will be fiercely contested at the bottom, as always, with Rotherham looking like the side with the biggest mountain to climb. Neil Warnock pulled off the miracle survival last season, but he is no longer at the club and it could be a tough season for the Millers.
New-boys Barnsley will also be looking over their shoulders, but are a quality outfit who ought to have confidence to express themselves in the Championship.
Above that, it’s anybody’s game as a whole bunch of sides will compete to push for the play-offs and stave off relegation. That’s what makes the Championship the thrilling league it is. There are so many sides who can claim to have a genuine chance for promotion, while a slow start can leave even the most fancied of teams facing a relegation battle.
What the Championship lacks in quality it makes up for in drama and fierce competition. With the huge names in the league this season, it could be the best campaign yet!
As I’ve made clear, Newcastle are going to the win the league, leaving one more automatic promotion spot up for grabs. I’m giving it to Norwich. Fast-becoming a yo-yo team, the Canaries once again failed to establish themselves in the Premier League last season, but Alex Neil is a good manager and the squad is strong enough to compete again.
Sheffield Wednesday would be another with a shot at automatic promotion. Losing play-off finalists last season, they are an upwardly-mobile side with a good gaffer in Carlos Carvajal and will at least make the play-offs again. Brighton missed out on automatic promotion on the final day last season and suffered play-off heartbreak. Expect them to bounce back, but I’m only tipping them for the play-offs.
Derby have been the biggest under-achievers in recent years. Once again they ought to compete at the top of the table and new boss Nigel Pearson knows what it takes to get promotion. They will make the play-offs.
My final top six spot goes to Cardiff. New manager Paul Trollope is a young, inexperienced manager, but I like their squad and fancy them to make it. Other contenders will be Ipswich, Leeds and an outside bet on QPR.
At the bottom end I’m afraid I’m sending Rotherham and Barnsley down. Both have quality but I’m not sure it will be enough. In contrast, I’m backing Burton to stay up. Many are tipping Preston to struggle but Simon Grayson is a top manager who will keep them safe again. Keep an eye on Reading. Jaap Stam is a surprise appointment and will need a good start to stave off nerves. My third relegated team is Blackburn. A club in crisis, Owen Coyle is a hugely unpopular appointment and I can see major struggles at Ewood Park this season.