Championship 2013-14 season preview

Reading have sights on being a rare side to bounce back to the Premier League and Watford have to forget the heartache

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The Championship is the most unpredictable league around but previews of the battle for promotion tend to be predictable in their focus, more often than not homing in on the teams that have been relegated from the Premier League, partly because they are what we know best and partly because they should have more money, bigger crowds and better players.

That's the theory anyway and it's not foolproof: relegated teams can be in a state of financial disrepair (Birmingham and Portsmouth) or they can self-implode (Wolves). In the past five seasons, four teams have bounced straight back into the top flight: Birmingham City in 2009, Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion in 2010 and West Ham United in 2012.

So, with that in mind, where better to start than by putting forward the title-winning credentials of two of the relegated sides? Nigel Adkins's sacking by Southampton last season was baffling and, although he was unable to prevent a doomed Reading from going down, his exploits at St Mary's means his new side, who have been boosted by the arrival of Wayne Bridge, will enter the season with justifiable optimism. Reading never looked strong enough to survive last season but they have not lost anyone of note and their squad has not altered radically from the one that won the Championship two seasons ago.

While Reading seem settled, there are likely to be more changes at Wigan Athletic. Roberto Martínez has left for Everton, taking Arouna Koné and Antolín Alcaraz with him, and they may not be able to hold on to James McCarthy, Shaun Maloney and Callum McManaman, who are all far too talented not to be playing in the Premier League. However, Wigan's new manager, Owen Coyle, who has already invested in Scott Carson, Marc-Antoine Fortuné and Grant Holt, would probably be able to use the money from their sales. The major worry for the FA Cup holders, though, is that their exertions in the Europa League during the winter will put a dent in their bid for automatic promotion.

The losing side in the play-off final can often find it difficult to recover and it will be a challenge for Gianfranco Zola to ensure there is no slump at Watford after their defeat to Crystal Palace at Wembley in May. Perhaps a bigger problem for Watford, who are one of three clubs owned by the Pozzo family, along with Granada and Udinese, to overcome is their nasty habit of freezing at crucial moments. Last season they lost five of their last 10 league games and threw away 14 points in the final 15 minutes of games. When they are in the mood, though, few teams will be as dangerous as Watford and although they cannot call upon Matej Vydra, the Championship's player of the season last year, there have been more arrivals from Udinese and Granada.

Few managers will be under as much pressure as Nigel Pearson, whose Leicester City will be expected to maintain a strong challenge after fading badly last season and eventually losing to Watford in dramatic circumstances in the play-offs, while their east Midlands rivals, Nottingham Forest, will be awkward opponents under Billy Davies, who won promotion with Derby County in 2007. Jamie Mackie is an intelligent addition from QPR.

Play-off hopefuls

The Championship's volatile nature was summed up last season by Peterborough, who filled the third relegation slot, finishing 14 points off a play-off place, while six points separated Derby County in 10th place from Barnsley in 21st. Few leagues are as open and sometimes it only takes one good run at the right time to put a side in contention.

It means that Charlton Athletic, where Chris Powell continues to impress, Birmingham City and Blackpool, who may have done enough to keep the highly-coveted Tom Ince for another year, will enter the season with something approaching quiet confidence. Dougie Freedman will also be expected to prove himself in his first full season as Bolton Wanderer's manager, while Brighton will hope to be there or thereabouts under Oscar García, Gus Poyet's replacement.

The side to watch out for could be Ipswich Town. When Mick McCarthy replaced Paul Jewell in November, Ipswich were bottom with one win and the Tractor Boys were on the road marked League One. By the end of the season, they were safely ensconced in mid-table. McCarthy is proven at this level, having won the title with Sunderland and Wolves, although this could be a season too soon for Ipswich.

Life has rarely been easy for Leeds United during the past 10 years but for the first time in a while there is a feeling that they may be heading in the right direction. That has much to do with their new owners appointing Brian McDermott in March, while Ken Bates's ties with the club were severed last week. McDermott was unfortunate to lose his job at Reading, with whom he led an unfancied group of players to the title in 2012. However, given that Leeds finished 13th last season, no one should expect any instant miracles.


What to make of QPR? Maybe they will run away with the league, maybe they will challenge for the play-offs, maybe they will slumber in mid-table or maybe they will do a Wolves and go down. The last option seems unlikely under Harry Redknapp but there is a lingering sense that he may jump at any vacancy that happens to present itself in the Premier League, especially if QPR start badly. He did not last long in the Championship with Southampton in 2005.

It feels as if every positive at QPR comes with a caveat. They have Júlio César, Joey Barton and Loïc Rémy but will any of them be there once the transfer window shuts? Richard Dunne, signed on a free, is an excellent defender but will he stay fit? Redknapp is shrewd in the transfer market – and definitely not a wheeler-dealer – but with all the upheaval, can he create a coherent side in time for the new season? At least the signings of Karl Henry and Danny Simpson suggest a return to the hard-working ethos that won QPR promotion in 2011.

Still, QPR's plight could be worse. They could, for instance, be Blackburn Rovers. Their long-suffering fans probably do not have a clue what to expect from the campaign but they will know better than to anticipate it to be fun under the unacceptably preposterous Venky's. Blackburn had four managers last season. How long will Gary Bowyer last?

Barnsley escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth last season while Millwall may struggle after losing Kenny Jackett. As for the promoted sides, Doncaster could be on the verge of a lucrative takeover and Bournemouthwill hope the cherubic Eddie Howe can guide them to safety. However, Yeovil, who were promoted with a wage bill of less than £1m, know that they will be up against it. Gary Johnson will need to galvanise a small squad and bank on his inspirational striker, Paddy Madden, firing in front of goal.

New managers

Owen Coyle is looking to rebuild his reputation at Wigan after being sacked by Bolton last season. He impressed for a while at Bolton and, although he was unlucky with injuries, his record in the transfer market was poor. He is unlikely to be as tactically adventurous as Martínez but knows the Championship, having won promotion with Burnley in 2009.

Paul Dickov was sacked by Oldham despite beating Liverpool in the FA Cup, but he has been given a chance by Doncaster after Brian Flynn was made director of football.

Oscar García is, at first glance, a gamble by Brighton after Gus Poyet's departure. The 40-year-old Spaniard arrives in England having taken charge of 26 senior games with Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. Yet he led them to their first title in a decade and can be expected to maintain Poyet's free-flowing style.

A former West Ham captain, Steve Lomas, as Millwall's new manager? A brave appointment but a potentially canny one: Lomas led St Johnstone to third in the SPL last season and the second qualifying round of the Europa League.

Players to watch

Matt Smith (Leeds)

The 6ft 6in striker scored two goals to help Oldham beat Liverpool 3-2 in the fourth round of the FA Cup, before he scored a last-minute equaliser against Everton and a consolation in the replay at Goodison Park. His exploits have earned him a move to Elland Road and the lack of pressure could aid a 24-year-old who was playing non-league football two years ago.

Liam Bridcutt (Brighton)

The deep-lying midfielder was one of Brighton's most impressive performers last season but continues to operate under the radar. The Scotland international is neat and tidy in a side based on possession football.

Lewis McGugan (Watford)

Most of Watford's signings have come from Granada and Udinese and the most eye-catching was Diego Fabbrini, a 22-year-old winger who has been capped by Italy. However, McGugan, signed on a free from Nottingham Forest, could be the bargain of the summer if Zola can help him become more consistent.

This article has been amended after originally stating that Bournemouth were League One champions

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