West Ham should bounce straight back to the Premier League, but Birmingham and Blackpool may struggle to joint them
The turnover of managers in the Championship last season was remarkable. It means that 15 teams in the division start this campaign with a different manager than they did last year (Doncaster, Millwall, Leeds, Derby, Blackpool, Brighton, Reading, Portsmouth and Hull are the only one who do not), and of those, six have never before managed a league game with their new club. One of those, though, should lead his side to the title.
The West Ham United manager Sam Allardyce has, at the time of writing at least, the strongest squad in the division. Though Scott Parker will presumably head off before the end of August (and a few others may follow him out of the Boleyn Ground) the manager should be left with a side capable of bouncing back at the first attempt.
Since the 1950s the Hammers have had four spells outside the top flight lasting, respectively, three seasons, two seasons, one season and two seasons, and in those eight campaigns their lowest finish was seventh (back in 1979-80, when that disappointment was offset just a tad by that memorable victory in the FA Cup). Basically, this is not a club who tend to rest long outside the top flight, and given the calibre of signing they have made over the summer – Kevin Nolan bossed midfields the last time he was at this level – there is no reason to believe that trend will change. They look perhaps a striker short of a 100-point side.
Chief rivals (and I have to apologise for breaking with tradition and plumping for the obvious here) will be Leicester City. The Sven-olution has gathered pace over the summer – Michael Johnson, John Pantsil, Paul Konchesky, David Nugent, Sean St Ledger, Neil Danns, Kasper Schmeichel, Matt Mills and Lee Peltier have been added to an already talented squad and it would be a surprise if they are not joined by several high-quality loans as the season progresses. Given the money that Leicester have thrown at the squad, nothing less than the top two is acceptable.
Outside those two the division looks, as ever, hugely competitive. Brighton have a new stadium, masses of momentum and, most importantly, Gus Poyet. And though Glenn Murray has departed the signing of Craig Mackail-Smith is as big a boost to them as it is a blow to Peterborough. Posh may struggle to stay up, but Poyet's side are so many people's dark horses that they are no longer dark horses (a variant of the Lee Carsley EffectTM) and it would be a bit of a surprise if they do not come close to the play-offs.
Steve McClaren's first days in charge of Nottingham Forest have been overshadowed by the big spending elsewhere in the east Midlands, but Jonathan Greening and Andy Reid are a fine pair of signings. After finishing third and sixth in the past two seasons they should go close again, as should Cardiff City, who like Forest have switched manager after two unsuccessful play-off attempts.
Malky Mackay has taken choice cuts from Watford and Coventry City, both of whom could well be in trouble come May, in the shape of Don Cowie and Aron Gunnarsson and though the signing of Kenny Miller is an odd one, the Bluebirds should be in the shake-up once more.
Hull City have signed a pointing, passing, referee-antagonising gem in Paul McKenna and have more firepower than most – they could be the team to spring a surprise. Ipswich, having made some smart signings, appear upwardly mobile, but Paul Jewell has to prove he is not yesterday's man. Millwall, Leeds and Burnley all have sound managers and should be top-half material.
Birmingham remain a curious case – as it stands they have a squad capable of challenging for the top six but financial fears mean their prospects can only really be judged at the end of August. My sense is that Blackpool will struggle to bounce back (though as I predicted them to go down the year they went up that, like all my predictions, should be taken not with a pinch of salt, but a lorry load of anchovies) and there is not much between the rest. Indeed, there is not that much between perhaps 20 of the 24 sides. If all but a couple of teams go into the season with reasonable expectations of a push for the top six, it is no wonder so many managers find themselves cast aside once things take a turn for the worse.
Champions West Ham
Play-offs Nottingham Forest, Cardiff, Brighton, Hull
Top half Birmingham, Reading, Burnley, Leeds, Millwall, Ipswich
Bottom half Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Southampton, Portsmouth, Derby, Barnsley, Bristol City, Crystal Palace, Doncaster
Relegated Watford, Coventry, Peterborough