Choosing favourites is a guessing game
Chris Lakey If anyone asks you to put a fiver on the table and have a flutter on the outcome of the Championship, ignore them. Discussing the merits of the 24 teams is a good way to lose an evening, but the gamble just isn't worth it.
If anyone asks you to put a fiver on the table and have a flutter on the outcome of the Championship, ignore them. Discussing the merits of the 24 teams is a good way to lose an evening, but the gamble just isn't worth it.
Last season, you could take a look at the League One line-up and pick out four, possibly five, teams who would be in the mix come the final day; City, Leeds, Charlton, Southampton and maybe Huddersfield. Two got through the escape hatch, one came mighty close and the other two gave it a good go. It wasn't the most difficult outcome to predict.
Fast forward a year and there are two, maybe three, times the number of realistic promotion candidates, and all sorts of different scenarios and personnel movements that make it impossible to forecast with any true conviction.
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When Paul Lambert talks of there being a dozen or more teams in with a shout, he's not far wrong.
What he and many others have to cope with is the perennial problem of teams that come down with parachute payment cash stuffed in their pockets. Fortunately, the fact that Newcastle and West Brom went straight back up to the Premier League means that the Championship isn't flooded out with such ill-gotten gains. That alleviates the problem faced by the rest, as do the financial problems that have beset two of the three: Portsmouth and Hull are more concerned with balancing the books than the shape of the team.
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The parachute softener is �16m for each of the first two seasons and �8m for each of the following two, but already Portsmouth have been told they won't benefit directly until 2012, because the money will be used to pay off creditors - it could even be longer, if one of their main creditors calls in the �14m he's owed.
Hull's problems aren't as acute, but they have to watch the pennies, although the fact they were able to tempt Nigel Pearson away from Leicester to be their manager following the shambles of last season, suggests there is some sort of attraction on the other side of the Humber Bridge.
Why Pearson, pictured, left a club with such promise is still a mystery - perhaps the fact that Milan Mandaric let him go without much of a struggle provides the answer.
The other two clubs with parachute money and perhaps best equipped to use it properly are Burnley and Middlesbrough. Burnley went up, played it frugal for a season, kept the accountants happy and came crashing back down. They left behind the memory of wins over Manchester United, Everton and Spurs, but in the cold light of day they were unambitious on the field, far too frugal off it. Which is probably why Owen Coyle left halfway through - leaving Brian Laws in charge. A nice guy, but perhaps one reason why you'd think twice before backing them this time around.
Gordon Strachan has embarked on an interesting experiment on Teeside, where he's turned the club into McBoro by concentrating his recruitment in the Scottish leagues: ex-Rangers players Kris Boyd, Stephen McManus and Kevin Thomson have all added to the Scottish contingent.
“I played in an era when lots of Scottish players came down to England,” he said. Yes, but you were good.
So of the quartet with the extra financial aid, it looks like Burnley and Middlesbrough are the best bets to do well, although be wary if you wager.
And the rest?
Leicester got to the play-off semi-finals, and while they've lost Pearson they've gained Paulo Sousa, who led Swansea to seventh last term. The Foxes have hardly figured in the transfer market and may have lost too much ground.
Likewise Nottingham Forest, who signed Radoslaw Majewski from Polonia Warsaw for �1m in May, but have done little else. Forest finished third last season, but it's a bit of a gamble to suggest they can better that with the same group of players.
Cardiff were in the play-offs, but they have been quiet in the summer, plus they've lost Joe Ledley to Celtic, while Swansea will hope they haven't taken too big a risk in appointing Brendan Rodgers to replace Sousa - Rodgers had a disaster at Reading last season, from which the Royals were lucky to survive and prosper under caretaker Brian McDermott, who was given the job on a full-time basis and might just spring a surprise or two.
Sheffield United have been nearly men on too many occasions and while Kevin Blackwell has been busy with the cheque book you suspect he's probably brought in too many reputations and not enough quality - Simon Walton, Rob Kozluk and Nyron Nosworthy spring to mind.
If you're really keen on a bet, perhaps Steve Coppell's Bristol City are worth a punt for the play-offs: they've threatened to shake off the security of mid-table for a year or two now and David James must have spotted something at Ashton Gate to make his move worthwhile.
Queens Park Rangers should be challenging given the money at manager Neil Warnock's disposal, but Loftus Road obviously doesn't have the allure to match Lakshmi Mittal billions.
Talking of money, we ought not forget that down Suffolk way there is a very rich man with a hidden identity who everyone thought was going to be the power behind the new Tractor Boys. Instead, it all went a bit flat last season - Town stumbled to 15th place by virtue of drawing a staggering 20 games. Their fans were disgruntled, Keane was under pressure - even more so when it was reported that owner Marcus Evans had met former player and coach Tony Mowbray in June, the consensus being that he was being readied to take over.
Keane's signings include 34-year-old left back Mark Kennedy, which has left a few blue noses a little non-plussed. The general feeling is that Town really could struggle this season, to the point of it becoming critical.
If they are down there, who will they be rubbing shoulders with? Take your pick from Watford, Scunthorpe, Crystal Palace, Barnsley and Doncaster. Millwall might just keep their heads above the pack, courtesy of that incredible home support.
Coventry, Derby and Preston are all much of a muchness: they threaten at times, but then it tails off and they return to the mediocrity from whence they came. Mid-table beckons.
Which leaves one other opponent to be taken care of - Leeds, last season's League One runners-up.
Manager Simon Grayson will have to do without Jermaine Beckford -although judging by his performance for Everton at the weekend it's no great loss. In have come goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, the excellent Swindon striker Billy Paynter, Derby's Paul Connolly, Federico Bessone from Swansea and winger Lloyd Sam.
Leeds, like City and Millwall, go into the Championship with the push of League One success behind them, and the very real prospect that the glory days are within touching distance. Their right to a place in the top flight is courtesy of their team, not their stature in the game, not their trophy cabinet full of replicas from the “glory days”, not their history - as some national commentators would have you believe.
But their team is a good one and given that the Championship is, as we keep being told, wide open this season, they will be at the business end come next May. That's the outside bet - just don't put any money on it.