Championship preview: Predict the unexpected, but also expect the predictable

Dean Smith will be tasked with ensuring Norwich bounce back once again

Their first four games produced no points. They had one from the opening seven. In many a league, that would be the prelude to the most miserable of relegations. In the Championship, Nottingham Forest then averaged more than two points a game and won promotion to the Premier League.

The alchemy of Steve Cooper feels doubly significant. As the Championship restarts, it worth revisiting the 2016-17 season. Then, in part due to the underperformance of sizeable clubs at the higher level, many converged in the second tier. None of arguably the six largest is now in the Championship: Newcastle, Aston Villa, Leeds and Forest won promotion, in that order, while first Sheffield Wednesday and then Derby went down to League One. It prompts a question if the big-city clubs will take up permanent residence at the top, if footballing social mobility is restricted to a handful of increasingly dissatisfied yo-yo clubs who lack their resources but forever have the funds to go up.

But go back to last season and the play-offs were packed with examples of the Championship’s appeal. The eventual winners Forest were accompanied by Huddersfield, who went from 20th in 2021 to 3rd in 2022; Luton, a non-league club eight years earlier and with a still smaller budget than the Terriers; and Sheffield United who, while widely tipped for a top-six finish, took the scenic route, sitting 18th after 17 games and sacking Slavisa Jokanovic soon after.

And yet the division could be defined as much by the fact that Fulham and Bournemouth won automatic promotion, one a year after coming down, the other in their second season, while Norwich and Watford made the opposite journey. Now the self-same Norwich and Watford look the two strongest sides and even some of their own supporters may deem the probability of promotion – or the seemingly inevitable relegation the following campaign – depressing.

If parachute payments represent the great divide, there is growing evidence they distort the division too much; of the last eight teams to win automatic promotion, only Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds and Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United were not funded in part by the Premier League.

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There are proposals to alter the model of where the redistributed money from the top flight goes but in the meantime it sets the scene for a season when Wilder’s Middlesbrough look the likeliest of the clubs without parachute payments to disrupt their cartel. Wilder has addressed one major weakness by replacing Joe Lumley with Zack Steffen in goal; the windfall from selling Djed Spence may bring a much-needed scorer, with Marcus Forss perhaps the first of several striking signings.

Chris Wilder will look to break through with Middlesbrough

West Bromwich Albion were last season’s major underachievers and, likewise, may have turned shortcomings into strengths, with free transfers Jed Wallace and John Swift adding goals and assists to the midfield and a fit-again Daryl Dike promising potency in attack. Manager Steve Bruce is going for a record fifth promotion from this level, though he perhaps should have secured that with Villa. Instead, Dean Smith took them up and a combination of a proven manager and Norwich’s promotion specialists bodes well for them: Teemu Pukki might not rival the 43 goals Aleksandar Mitrovic scored for Fulham last season but he could guarantee 25 for a team packed with players who feel too good for one division and not quite good enough for another.

Watford have taken a different approach in the dugout, bringing in Forest Green’s Rob Edwards, promising a longevity their trigger-happy board have rarely shown. Roy Hodgson undiplomatically said he knew little of his successor but if Watford still have Ismaila Sarr and Emmanuel Dennis, they will possess more ability in attack than anyone else.

Sheffield United are deprived of last season’s catalyst Morgan Gibbs-White, though Reda Khadra could be an inspired addition on loan – and borrowings from Premier League clubs feel ever more influential – but manager Paul Heckingbottom has strengthened the defence.

The wild card among the favourites for the top-six positions are Burnley. The two most exotic appointments this summer came in the often unglamorous corridor of East Lancashire, with Blackburn plumping for Jon Dahl Tomasson and Burnley for Vincent Kompany. A side stripped of many of the stalwarts of the Sean Dyche years, given an influx of youth and players designed for a very different style of play could be promotion candidates or disappear into mid-table.

Vincent Kompany faces a tough task at Burnley

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And one of the differences between the Premier League and the Championship is that, if only about 10 clubs can feasibly finish 10th in the top flight, around 20 look capable of ending up there in the second tier. They include Sunderland, whose exile in League One was ended by the astute Alex Neil, QPR, who have taken the youthful route in the technical area by appointing Michael Beale, formerly part of Steven Gerrard’s coaching team, and Hull, after a cosmopolitan overhaul. Shorn of manager Carlos Corberan and five starters from the play-off final, Huddersfield seem a case that anyone can end up virtually anywhere in the division.

The exceptions may at either extreme. In a division where financial mismanagement and wretched ownership can come at a cost, Reading and Birmingham look the likeliest candidates for relegation. Rotherham’s tendency to veer between the Championship and League One could put them in peril. It speaks to a greater gap between divisions, but it also makes the yo-yo clubs at the top both the headline acts and the largest obstacle to everyone else dreaming of the Premier League.

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