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The new Championship season is around the corner and EFL pundit Gab Sutton shares his 2021/22 season preview, complete with his 1-24 predictions.



For a club that spent 13 consecutive seasons in the Premier League this century, recent years have been comparatively rocky.

The last Fulham campaign to involve neither a Championship Play-Off showdown nor a Premier League relegation was 2015-16 – the UK has had three different Prime Ministers since then.

Three of those seasons finished with Scott Parker in charge but the former midfielder has departed for Bournemouth, with replacement Marco Silva tasked with rebuilding his once sky-high reputation.

The Portuguese boss inherits a squad rich in depth – 25 of the players on the books going into late-July would likely make the starting XI for more than half their divisional competitors – so settling on a line-up will be challenging.

Physical centre-back Michael Hector, playmaker Tom Cairney and aggressive goalscorer Aleksandar Mitrovic are second-tier specialists who would forge a formidable spine, though the latter two need mobility around them.

Dribbler Neeskens Kebano, energetic presser Bobby Reid, hardworking midfielder Harrison Reed, box-to-box man Josh Onomah and athletic forward Aboubakar Kamara can influence games by providing the pace, energy or tenacity to allow the classy operators to work their magic.

Two more left-footed technicians have entered the picture: controller Matt Grimes is set to join from Swansea, having been an influential figure for the two-time Play-Off participants, while £12M recruit Harry Wilson will bring bags of quality when cutting in from the right.

Two positive, attacking full-backs in Kenny Tete and Antonee Robinson will stretch the play whilst having the stamina to match defensive demands, while there is also numerous excellent options at centre-back; especially if Alfie Mawson and Terence Kongolo can stay fit.

Given what he has at his disposal, Silva should prolong the yoyo theme for at least one more year.

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Barnsley might not have achieved the miracle of top flight football last season, but the fifth-placed finish was their highest since the 1999-00 campaign.

Having stayed up on the final day the previous year, the Reds’ remarkable rise was a shining example of what a low-budgeted club can achieve with a coherent plan and a clear style of play, if they then appoint coaches and players that fit into those strategies, showing perseverance during challenging times.

That is exactly what Tarn have done and, when Gerhard Struber departed for New York Red Bulls, they upgraded on the Austrian with Valérien Ismaël.

The Frenchman seized the principles that Struber and Daniel Stendel implemented and took them to a whole new level, with the high-octane pressing game for which Barnsley had been renowned becoming even more intense.

Ismaël and influential captain Alex Mowatt have since departed for West Brom, so the board hope to have found the next star coach in Markus Schopp, who achieved big things with TSV Hartberg in Austria, building a reputation for developing young, emerging talent.

That is great news for Callum Styles who, having been a key creative livewire for the Reds, is set to be moved into midfield this season – getting on the ball even more frequently, do not put it past the “Bury Baggio” to become the best player in the division.

Styles’ shift means a big opportunity for Jordan Williams to thrive as an inverted left wing-back, where the right-footed 21-year-old will drift infield to open gaps for Liam Kitching to overlap with intent from his left-sided centre-back role.

Kitching was initially affected by injuries after joining from Forest Green in January, but he finished last season superbly and could give Barnsley crucial left-footed balance in their rear-guard, enabling them to play out from the back in a way they rarely did under the previous regime.

Kitching’s presence means right-footed Mads Anderson, having operated on the left of a defensive trio last season, can move to a right-sided role that will suit the talented defender even more, behind boundlessly energetic wing-back Callum Brittain.

In attack, meanwhile, Barnsley might have lost key loanee Daryl Dike but they have added a physical, 6’4 striker in Obbi Oularé, who complements grafter Carlton Morris and technician Cauley Woodrow in the forward options.

With neat ball-recycler Romal Palmer capable of a good season in midfield, too, Barnsley have the core of a squad that achieved the Play-Offs last season and, under Schopp, could go even one step further…

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Five years of Premier League football was a great achievement for Bournemouth, but memories are all they have to show for it.

Gabriel Sutton



Five years of Premier League football was a great achievement for Bournemouth, but memories are all they have to show for it.

Opting to invest the TV revenue in players rather than infrastructure, the Cherries spent big but chose poorly and, having lost in the Play-Offs in their first season back in the Championship, look back to square one.

Scott Parker, though, arrives with other ideas. The former Fulham boss won promotion from this level in 2019-20 and looks to implement a possession-heavy style.

Attacking right-back Jack Stacey, ball-playing defender Chris Mepham, midfield all-rounder Lewis Cook and technical forward Dominic Solanke should suit his approach, but business has been slow in both directions.

Colombian controller Jefferson Lerma, lanky midfielder Phillip Billing and enigmatic wide man Arnaut Danjuma are still expected to depart and sales would almost be welcome, if only to accelerate business in the other direction.

Forward-thinking dynamo Emiliano Marcondes looks a sensible free acquisition from Brentford, having starred in the Play-Off Final, likewise speedy left-back Leif Davis, who joins on loan from Leeds to compete with the talented Jordan Zemura.

The rest of the transfer moves, as well as adding a centre-back or two, will be about recruiting to the right characters: like Ben Pearson.

After arriving from Preston North End in January, the consistent ball-winner added much-needed aggression, energy and determination; in fact, Parker may see shades of his former self in the 26-year-old, who could stamp his mark on games at this level.

With the right signings, Bournemouth might stamp their mark on the division, too.

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Sheffield United


Chris Wilder’s reign as manager may be unlike any other at Sheffield United.

The Blade-by-birth not only took his beloved club from 11th in League One to ninth in the Premier League in four years, he also shared a unique connection with supporters that may be impossible for any future successor to truly emulate.

That, though, does not mean that Wilder’s achievements cannot be matched. Future managers can still be successful at the Lane, albeit in a different way and that is the target for Slavisa Jokanovic.

The solemn Serb has won promotion from this level twice before, showing rare pragmatism to do so with different styles; his 2014-15 Watford side got the ball forward quickly, while his 2017-18 Fulham team employed a more patient approach.

Jokanovic adapts to his resources and his current challenge, as well as retaining the key men – goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, impressive right wing-back Jayden Bogle and midfield all-rounder Sander Berge – is to judge the extent to which the squad should be evolved.

On the one hand, the South Yorkshire outfit possess a reliable core in versatile battler Chris Basham, defensive leader John Egan, intelligent left wing-back Enda Stevens, ball-progressing midfielder John Fleck and back-post poacher Billy Sharp, who achieved great things under Wilder.

Equally, there is a need to rejuvenate the group with fresh legs like energetic left-footers Ben Osborn and Rhys Norrington-Davies, with the latter – despite having starred as a left-back or wing-back in loan spells at Barrow, Rochdale and Luton – a surprise contender for the left-sided centre-back role vacated by the injured Jack O’Connell.

Jokanovic may also be intrigued by the impact made by forward Daniel Jebbison, whose exuberance inspired those around him in the final few games of last season. There should be much excitement over the 18-year-old who, last season, became the youngest player to score in their first top flight start (Premier League era).

If Jokanovic can manage the squad correctly, the Red and White Wizards may work their magic in the Championship once again.

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Queens Park Rangers


QPR have spent the last six years recovering from a failed era of the past, rather than creating a successful new one.

CEO and realist Lee Hoos, among others, has done a great job of clawing back the deficit, but previous periods of overspending were still haunting the West London club last summer, when they had to sell star man Ebere Eze.

Mark Warburton’s side subsequently won just four of their first 22 league games, scoring only 20 goals in that period, despite the individualism of Ilias Chair.

The Rs needed to ally Chair’s agile creativity with nuggets of proven quality and, luckily for Warburton, the board were able to sufficiently extend the purse strings.

Technical midfielder Stefan Johansen and legendary poacher Charlie Austin inspired new levels in the likes of Chris Willock and Lyndon Dykes whilst maximizing QPR’s attacking output, which began to match their defensive solidity.

Austin and Johansen have since agreed permanent deals – great news ostensibly – although in signing the latter, Warburton looks set to be very brave with midfield setup, having also added deep-lying playmaker Andre Dozzell from Ipswich.

Dozzell is a left-footed technician who can be a touch passive off the ball, an area Johansen may have some limitations in too and with Sam Field injured long-term, Dominic Ball looks the only midfielder likely to cover lots of ground and put challenges in.

Then again, it could be that Warburton feels enough relentless pressing will come from the likes of Chair, target man Dykes and potential 2021-22 star Willock in more advanced roles that midfielders will be tasked with intercepting rather than tackling.

Plus, the defensive structure is robust: centre-back Rob Dickie has proven a huge upgrade on 2019-20’s centre-back partners for left-footed ball-player Yoann Barbet, while left wing-back Sam McCallum looks an athletic alternative to assist-king Lee Wallace.

Seny Dieng, meanwhile, provides excellent shot-stopping and distribution between the sticks for a QPR side tantalizingly close to turning the page: strike the right midfield balance and the Play-Offs could be on.

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Doubt Neil Warnock at your peril.

The wily campaigner inherited a Middlesbrough side that was above the drop zone only on goal difference with eight games to play in 2019-20, kept them up comfortably and led his troops up to 10th the following season.

Boro, though, concluded the campaign 13 points shy of the top six, so Warnock is using the summer to construct a squad he feels can win the ninth promotion of his managerial career.

Two of the four arriving by early July are established Championship performers like solid right-back Lee Peltier and enigmatic wide man Sammy Ameobi, but another is Uche Ikpeazu.

The former Wycombe front-man has the height and physical presence to handle long balls, something missing in last season’s options, but Ikpeazu is also reasonably mobile and capable of the spectacular.

Powerful strikers with Ikpeazu’s range of qualities are rare, so there is a chance the 26-year-old can, individualistically, elevate the steady outsiders into serious contenders.

The same may be asked of Martín Payero: Boro have reportedly agreed a £5.8M deal with Banfield for the Argentine attacking midfielder, which would have been confirmed earlier in the summer but for various logistical issues.

The 26-year-old is an extremely exciting player capable of standing out against top Primera División sides like River Plate, with excellent creative and ball progressing qualities as well as an eye for goal from distance.

Ikpeazu and Payero could bring exactly the quality Middlesbrough need to augment a solid, hardworking group of players including right-sided defender Anfernee Dijksteel, centre-back Dael Fry, midfield battler Sam Morsy and speedster Duncan Watmore.

With new means to unlock opponents, a ninth promotion might be within Warnock’s grasp.

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Having not once been higher than 14th in 2019-20, Reading were, last season, not once lower than seventh.

The Royals might have missed out on the top six due to injuries, especially those to 19-goal front-man Lucas João, but their Play-Off challenge represented a welcome antidote to three consecutive bottom half finishes.

The man who inspired this turnaround is Veljko Paunović, with the Serb having built, in a short timeframe, a complete side that possessed all the ingredients for success.

Michael Morrison brought organisational qualities from the back, Josh Laurent and Andy Rinomhota provided tenacity in midfield while Ovie Ejaria produced a sprinkling of flair between lines.

Further physicality came from right-back Andy Yiadom, centre-back Liam Moore, wide target man Yakou Meite and João, while defender Toms Holmes and McIntyre have youthful exuberance, following Omar Richards through the academy.

Richards, now at Bayern Munich, will need to be replaced at left-back, likewise departed creator Michael Olise, now at Crystal Palace, so while depth must be added, the summer task-list is not exceptionally long.

Then again, EFL restrictions mean Reading cannot spend as much as owners Dai Yongge and Dai Xiuli would choose to, so the club must strike gold in the loans and frees market, whilst hoping Under-23s talents step up.

In fact, left-back Ethan Bristow, Serbian Under-21s midfielder Dejan Tetek, attacking livewire Femi Azeez and right winger Mamadi Camará could all feature far more prominently than would otherwise have been expected.

Reading’s top six prospects, therefore, could rest on whether the youngsters grab their opportunity: the demands will be great.

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After successive top half finishes, Millwall enter this season on solid footing.

The Lions have kept a respectable 30 clean sheets in 79 league games under Gary Rowett’s guidance, conceding more than once on just 21 occasions.

Bartosz Białkowski must take some credit for that, with the goalkeeper having made the second-most saves in the Championship at 119, but the defensive unit in front of the veteran Pole is also formidable.

Arsenal loanee Daniel Ballard is an excellent addition to an already strong rear-guard: left-footed aerial specialist Jake Cooper takes no prisoners, fellow centre-back Shaun Hutchinson brings valuable experience and Scott Malone, on-loan again from Derby, is among the division’s most complete left-backs.

With Maikel Kieftenbeld’s tenacity, Ryan Leonard’s steady work rate and Billy Mitchell’s youthful exuberance, Rowett can select a steady midfield, but one with a dearth of central creativity that the returning George Saville, though impressive in his first spell, is unlikely to fill.

The Londoners, therefore, have attempted to reduce the attacking overreliance on flying forward Jed Wallace by adding Benik Afobe. The former Stoke striker brings physicality, but it’s been a while since he was a regular goalscorer – 2015-16 was the 28-year-old’s double-figured campaign.

Solid and industrious, Millwall will be hard to dislodge but, without quality late additions that might prove financially unattainable, may lack the creativity and guile to prize open the top six.

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In essence, 2021-22 hinges on the manager’s willingness to compromise his preference for experience and knowhow to give his side the injection of pace, energy and exuberance it’s crying out for.

Gabriel Sutton

Nottingham Forest


Chris Hughton deserves a C+ for his work to date on Trentside.

Having inherited a bloated, fragmented, imbalanced and mentally drained squad that had started with four straight defeats, the 62-year-old kept Nottingham Forest up comfortably in 17th, with his side conceding just 38 goals in his 42 games in charge.

The Reds took 30 points from 15 games under the former Brighton promotion-winner against bottom 10 opposition, thanks to strong shot stopping from Brice Samba, no-nonsense defending from Joe Worrall, progressive ball-playing from Scott McKenna and midfield athleticism from Ryan Yates.

Against those above 15th, however, the East Midlanders were granted more counter-attacking opportunities, which they were not always able to take due to the lack of pace.

Hughton was cautious in his use of teenage winger Alex Mighten, who started just 13 times despite his rapid speed, meaning Forest began 33 games with no real outlet.

Attacking r-back Jordan Gabriel and versatile forward Brennan Johnson are two direct, willing runners who have the talent to acquire prominent roles after strong showings in League One with Blackpool and Lincoln respectively – neither should be sold this summer.

In essence, 2021-22 hinges on the manager’s willingness to compromise his preference for experience and knowhow to give his side the injection of pace, energy and exuberance it’s crying out for.

Forest can challenge for the top six, but any serious push would require a stickler for safety to be brave with youth

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Luton Town

Having the second-lowest budget in a division jam-packed with sleeping giants and parachute payees makes life tough for Luton, but they have means of bridging the financial gulf.

Brentford and Barnsley have shown, in different timescales, what can be achieved through magic management and rigorous recruitment, which is lucky for the Hatters.

Not only do the Bedfordshire outfit boast an exceptional coach in Nathan Jones, who kept them up against the odds in 2019-20 before achieving a top half finish last season, they have also appointed a Head of Recruitment Analysis in Jay Socik, who is one of the best in the business.

Socik and the team have made Carlos Mendes Gomes their most audacious addition of the summer, after the wide forward enjoyed an excellent season at Morecambe.

Strong yet agile, mobile yet capable of a looping, diagonal through ball and tactically disciplined, Mendes Gomes has it all and could become one of the stars of the Championship – whether that’s this season or 2022-23.

Lower league gems like Mendes Gomes and back-to-goal front-man Elijah Adebayo, who made an impact after joining from Walsall last January, will lean on the second-tier knowhow of hardworking striker Cameron Jerome and midfielder Henry Lansbury, who arrive from MK Dons and Bristol City respectively.

Lansbury joins legendary stalwart Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu, whose decision to remain in Bedfordshire is a huge plus and Motherwell recruit Allan Campbell, whose energy will be key to the press.

Leader Sonny Bradley, all-rounder Tom Lockyer, talent Gabriel Osho and Hull recruit Reece Burke provide a reasonable set of centre-backs, but the left-backs have limitations.

This level is a stretch for Dan Potts, unless he plays wide in a back-three, so Jones must work his magic with Amari’i Bell who, after arriving from Blackburn, needs to add productivity to his undoubted athleticism.

Peter Kioso, six years Bell’s senior at 21, looks likelier to make the required refinements after positive loan spells last season at Bolton and Northampton, making the right-back a viable challenger to James Bree, but there are lots of unknowns.

Luton have come a long way in a short space of time, so 2021-22 is more likely to be about consolidating their place in the top half than cutting last season’s 15-point gap to the top six.

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Birmingham City

Ever since the 2011 League Cup win, clouds have loomed large over St Andrews.
Birmingham’s 10 subsequent seasons in the Championship have comprised primarily of fleeting, fanciful Play-Off tilts dispersed by regular relegation dogfights, due to constant boardroom incompetence and the failure to match windows of competitive spending with periods of good management.

The departure of unfit CEO Xuandong Ren has at least gone some way to opening a patch of blue above B9, likewise the successful appointment of cup-winning legend Lee Bowyer, who comfortably saved the club from a precarious position.

Not only did Bowyer transform the senior players – chiefly intelligent right-back Maxime Colin, aggressive centre-back Harlee Dean, hard-hitting left-sided defender Kristian Pedersen, ball-winner Ivan Šunjić and target man Lukas Jutkiewicz – he was also unafraid to take a chance on youngsters from a successful Under-23s crop that were crowned PDL National Champions.

Blues have been active in the loan market, too: Manchester United’s Tahith Chong threatens to inject Birmingham’s attack with much-needed pace, as Dion Sanderson brings mobility, physique and ball-playing qualities in defence.

The other star addition, on a free transfer, is Ryan Woods who, as well as having the energy to fit into Bowyer’s high-intensity style, also has the vision and deftness of touch to inspire chance creation via different avenues.

That is great news for Ivan Sanchez, a wide man with an excellent left-foot who is not afraid of a scrap, plus Jeremie Bela, who created the most Championship chances in 2020.

With the current head coach, Birmingham now have transparency in the dugout – find a touch of it upstairs and more grey skies could yet turn blue.

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Whatever the ambition, the key to achieving it in the Championship is to maintain a clear playing identity: Blackpool have that.

Head coach Neil Critchley might not always deploy the same formation, switching between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, but the principle remains to suffocate the opposition by pressing high up the pitch.

The tenacious Tangerines did that superbly in League One last season and, though they were promoted via the Play-Offs, they had been the division’s stand-out side from November onwards.

On the one hand, there is an elite intelligence about the way Critchley’s side work without the ball, with top scorer and line-leader Jerry Yates, among others, knowing exactly the moments and directions from which to press that are likeliest to force errors or clearances.

That intelligence, though, is tinged with a rugged, old-school dimension: hard-hitting midfielders Kevin Stewart and Kenny Dougall love a sliding challenge, some of which could shock younger second-tier players that may have had a sanitized education.

This combative style is firmly in the mind of Blackpool’s recruitment team, evidenced by the arrival of extremely energetic finisher Shayne Lavery, who has glowing reviews from Northern Ireland.

Versatility is also a factor, which is why direct left-footer Reece James and energetic utility man Callum Connolly have joined to fill various positions in defence and midfield.

Blackpool aim, too, to threaten in transition, which is why they have wide men capable of taking on opponents: CJ Hamilton proved last season to carry a threat when fit while 22-year-old Josh Bowler, from Everton, is similarly quick and unpredictable on the flank.

Even when the press is beaten, Pool possess reliable performers at the back in goalkeeper Chris Maxwell – the best in League One last term – and leader Daníel Leó Grétarsson, who in the second-tier could rekindle his international career with Iceland.

Blackpool are ready for the Championship: but is the Championship ready for them

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West Bromwich Albion

Valérien Ismaël has it all to do.

The Frenchman might inherit a squad with more individual quality than the one he had at Barnsley, but it is also one that is not at all accustomed to his style.

With the youthful Reds, Ismaël did an incredible job of taking the foundations laid by his predecessors to a whole new level, yet in the Black Country he must work from scratch.

Just one West Brom player in the head coach’s squad, at time of appointment, was under 24 and had played for the club at senior level previously, that being Dara O’Shea, which means recruitment is everything.

All-action midfielder Alex Mowatt, who joins the head coach from Barnsley, will at least know what the 45-year-old’s requirements are, while fellow left-footer Matt Clarke, after impressing at Derby, gives Albion ball-playing qualities.

Neither Mowatt, 26, nor Clarke, 24, solve the age conundrum, but midfielder Quevin Castro –signed initially for the Development Squad – has done enough in pre-season to fight for a first team berth.

Castro’s rise to contention highlights how this new stylistic plan levels the playing field between West Brom’s 29+ contingent – centre-back Kyle Bartley, midfielders Jake Livermore and Romaine Sawyers, wide men Matt Phillips and Robert Snodgrass – and the academy graduates.

Youngsters like right-back Ethan Ingram, left-backs Taylor Gardner-Hickman and Zac Ashworth, colossus centre-back Caleb Taylor, forward-thinking midfielder Rico Richards plus lively forwards Owen Windsor and Rayhaan Tulloch know, with strong training performances, they may have their moment.

Such an open selection policy might be good for motivation, but is likely to compromise short-term quality.

For Ismaël’s methods to be successful in the long-term, the Baggies hierarchy will need to be patient and acutely aware of the time it takes to build a team that can press with the efficiency that last season’s Barnsley’s side did.

Whether such patience will be forthcoming, though, remains to be seen.

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This change, though, has left the Swans scrambling around for a head coach leading up to the final Saturday of pre-season, at a time when players are departing.

Gabriel Sutton

Swansea City

Most teams that have just achieved successive Play-Off finishes would be confident of going one step further the following season, but that’s not the case at Swansea.

The South Wales club have lost head coach Steve Cooper by mutual consent and while the 41-year-old had his critics, unable to deliver the free-flowing football seen under Graham Potter in 2018-19, the timing is an issue.

Cooper would likely have been keen on the move to Crystal Palace that did not materialize, after which the internal vibe may not have been especially positive: that, at least, is the most plausible explanation for the former England Under-17s World Cup winning boss leaving just 17 days before the opener.

This change, though, has left the Swans scrambling around for a head coach leading up to the final Saturday of pre-season, at a time when players are departing.

Flair forward Andre Ayew, on whom the team has relied heavily over the previous two seasons, has already left the Liberty Stadium, while key controller Matt Grimes looks set for Fulham.

On top of that, none of the important loanees – goalkeeper Freddie Woodman, centre-back Marc Guehi and midfielder Conor Hourihane – are expected to return.

In terms of incomings, there could be a case for midfielder Liam Walsh plus forwards Kyle Joseph and Joël Piroe being reasonable additions in normal circumstances, but they are not the signings to significantly enthuse a concerned fanbase.

Walsh, though a capable technician, is yet to replicate the brilliance he displayed in League One with Coventry at Championship level, where Joseph is also unproven despite patches of promise at Wigan, while Piroe has only started one league game in his senior career.

Swansea will rely, therefore, on the core of defensive leader Ryan Bennett, athletic centre-back Ben Cabango, all-action right wing-back Connor Roberts and speedy forward Jamal Lowe to ensure that any regression doesn’t leave them languishing deep in the bottom half.

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Stoke City

Over the last three years, Stoke have acquired the Championship’s unwanted ‘underachievers’ tag.

The Potters were among the pre-season promotion favourites because of the parachute payments in 2018, because of Nathan Jones in 2019 and because of Michael O’Neill in 2020, but each time they failed to live up to their billing with a bottom half finish.

Any optimism for 2021-22, therefore, is tempered with a sobriety that lingers from recent underperformance and financial issues that must be addressed.

A £12 million sale of Nathan Collins goes some way to bridging the deficit, especially with a similarly abled centre-back in Ben Wilmot arriving for a sixth of that fee, while signing Mario Vrančićon a free transfer is a smart move that suggests the club is learning.

Nonetheless, the wage bill remains extortionate and offloading players, along with getting supreme wide forward Tyrese Campbell back fit, is a bigger priority than adding to a bloated squad.

The current crop is a jumbled mixture of older heads with international experience like midfielder Joe Allen, target man Steven Fletcher and left-sider James McClean and possible future internationals like Rogerio Ceni-esque goalkeeper Josef Bursik and aerial powerhouse Harry Souttar, with very little in between.

In fact, the Potters have just two players who are older than 22 but younger than 27 – athletic forward Jacob Brown and midfield all-rounder Jordan Thompson – who are decent, committed players that might not immediately be considered among the best at this level.

The shortage of quality, peak-age performers is a problem for Stoke and one that could hold them well back from the Play-Off conversation: then again, the Staffordshire outfit will not mind being doubted this season.

Used to being talked up in August only to buckle under the pressure, unfancied Stoke can at least now work quietly, away from the microscope of expectation.

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Bristol City

Having flirted with the Play-Offs for much of Lee Johnson’s reign, Bristol City had the feel of a club with Premier League ambitions and a squad tantalizingly close to realising them.

Since Johnson was dismissed towards the end of an unconvincing 2019-20 campaign, though, City regressed under relative rookie Dean Holden and the more experienced Nigel Pearson was unable to turn the tide.

In fact, at the time of signing a three-year contract, Pearson had just two wins to his name in 12 games, a return that was subsequently extended to two in 14.

It is likely, therefore, that owner Steve Lansdown saw enough in the injury crisis and structural issues that predated the former Watford boss – specifically the controversial reign of CEO Mark Ashton, now at Ipswich – to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The 57-year-old has been given the authority to change the culture at the club and a big part of that is rewarding youthful exuberance, as evidenced by the contracts that were offered shortly after the curtain-closer.

Tactically adaptable striker Tommy Conway, wide livewire Owura Edwards, versatile winger Sam Pearson and defensive left-sider Ryley Towler have all signed long-term deals, following their fellow graduates: persistent poacher Sam Bell, hardworking yet composed midfielder Alex Scott and shot taker turned shot stopper, Harvey Wiles-Richards.

Pearson’s former Leicester players – right-back Danny Simpson along with midfielders Matty James and Andy King – bring guidance for the youngsters, but staying clear of injuries is essential to the realistic goal of returning to the Championship’s middle-eight pack.

The returning Cider Army will be hoping attacking left-back Jay Dasilva, midfield metronome Ádám Nagy, experienced defender Tomas Kalas, selfless presser Andreas Weimann, energetic left-sider Callum O’Dowda, dynamic midfielder Joe Williams and focal point Chris Martin can rediscover full fitness and consistency.

Having ranked exceptionally low on shot data in the last two seasons, largely due to injuries, City need recent investment in the sports science department to bear fruit.

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Cardiff City

Cardiff’s performances, last season, rarely matched up with results.

Under Neil Harris, the Bluebirds put most teams under lots of pressure and took a high-volume of shots, but an overreliance on Kieffer Moore combined with wayward shooting and goalkeeping errors meant the 2020 Play-Off Semi-Finalists were as low as 15th when their manager was dismissed in late-January.

Under Mick McCarthy, the capital club rose to eighth via a six-game winning streak, thanks to clinical finishing from Moore, long-range brilliance from Harry Wilson and Will Vaulks plus great goalkeeping from Dillon Phillips.

It may be hard to envisage McCarthy, old-school in nature, spending his nights tossing and turning in cold sweats over his side’s Expected Goals output, but there is a need for Cardiff to create and deny chances more convincingly, reducing the dependence on individual brilliance at both ends.

After all, loanees Wilson and Sheyi Ojo have left while Moore will at worst be the predictable subject of a late bid from Burnley, if Chris Wood leaves the Clarets, or at best be jaded after a committed Euro 2020 with Wales.

The target man, at his best, is irreplaceable: he can turn an ordinary long ball into effectively a defence-splitting pass, simply because of his height, physically, mobility and hold-up play – not to mention his goalscoring instincts, after hitting 20 in the league last term.

Being a simplistic tactician, McCarthy might struggle to design routes to goal that do not revolve around Moore: Luton recruit James Collins is an incredibly hardworking striker, but he simply cannot carry a side quite like his positional rival.

That is not to say, though, that the Bluebirds do not possess other decent players: Sean Morrison is a commanding centre-back if rarely asked to desert the penalty area in open play, which is likely if the 30-year-old is deployed in the centre of the defensive trio in a 3-5-2.

Ryan Giles, who will play left wing-back, is not afraid to run at opponents and display quality in the final third while on the other flank, the intelligent Perry Ng is hoping to build on his positive impact after joining from Crewe in January.

The more recent acquisition from the Railwaymen is Ryan Wintle, who brings more controlling qualities to the midfield in contrast with grafters Will Vaulks and Joe Ralls.

Moore will be the inspiration if he stays fresh, fit, firing and at the club, but relying on one variable is a dangerous game.

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Hull City

Baring a Stuart Pearce penalty, football cannot have produced too many greater acts of redemption than the one last season from Grant McCann.

The Hull boss presided over a second half of the 2019-20 campaign so horrific that local calls for him to go were louder than those condemning the unpopular Allam regime.

It took immense courage, therefore, for the Northern Irishman to maintain the self-belief to guide the Tigers to the title the following season, his side looking by far the most complete in League One.

George Honeyman, the most advanced of a three-man midfield, brought energy and quality ahead of Greg Docherty and Alfie Jones, who are overdue their opportunities at this level after starring in League One previously for Shrewsbury and Gillingham respectively.

Similar could be said of Jacob Greaves, a left-footed defender just as confident driving into the channel as he is heading balls out of the six-yard box, who kicked on from a loan spell at Cheltenham to start 39 games for the champions.

The theme of players stepping up from the lower leagues will be prominent in Hull’s campaign, with midfield dynamo Andy Cannon signing from Portsmouth to compete with the consistent Greg Docherty and skilful wide man Randell Williams joining from Exeter.

Williams will challenge athlete Mallik Wilks – hard to stop when on song – and canny Brighton loanee Ryan Longman for one of the wide forward positions, but could have trouble displacing Keane Lewis-Potter, with the direct 20-year-old looking an extremely vibrant talent.

Most players stepping up from League One have youth on their side, so Hull have it in them to banish 2019-20’s ghost from McCann’s closet.

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Coventry City

Coventry’s 16th-placed finish in 2020-21 made the achievement of survival in their first season back at this level look more comfortable than, perhaps, it truly felt.

The Sky Blues begun April with a 3-0 defeat at QPR that left them in a tight spot, but a subsequent return of five wins in eight elevated them some 12 points above the dotted line.

The Midlanders’ achievements were primarily down to performances without the ball, evidenced by perfect pressing against Play-Off participants Swansea, Brentford and Barnsley, a credit to aggressive number 10 Callum O’Hare and ball-winner Liam Kelly.

The challenge for manager Mark Robins will be to maintain that structure – with Kelly back in training after injury – whilst introducing elements of the expansive football demonstrated in the 2019-20 League One title-winning campaign.

Such play is harder in this division, of course, so batting off any interest in box office midfielder Gus Hamer will be imperative, but the re-signing of withdrawn forward Bright Enobakhare implies a willingness to compromise tenacity for flair.

Martyn Waghorn could provide the goalscoring knowhow Coventry were lacking last season and, whether or not fuelled by recency bias, there is widespread optimism that Viktor Gyorkeres will build on strong Spring showings.

Similarly, Tyler Walker will be further on in his development and Matt Godden, when fit, will be an excellent fourth contender to start up top in a 3-4-1-2, but other areas could be weakened.

Midfield controller Matty James, aerially dominant centre-back Leo Ostigaard and left wing-back Sam McCallum will be difficult to replace, though assistant Adi Viveash may have worked his magic for the latter position, with the attack-minded Ian Maatsen expected to join on loan from Chelsea.

Nonetheless, Coventry only have four players – Kelly, Hamer, O’Hare and Walker – who could be trusted to consistently perform to midtable standards, while another 12 should neither be placed in that category nor dismissed from it permanently.

The good news is that the Sky Blue Army, back at the Ricoh Arena, will provide vociferous support but, even with the feel-good factor combined with Robins’ excellent management, the Midlanders may be battling the drop once again.

This time, they may stay up with a finish more reflective of their struggles.

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Huddersfield Town

It has been a tough three years for Huddersfield.

A crushing relegation from the Premier League was followed by 18th and 20th-placed Championship finishes, the most recent of which coming under Carlos Corberán.

The Spaniard might argue that his side could have finished much higher because, having headed into New Year in the top half, his side were hit massively by injuries.

Ball-playing centre-back Naby Sarr, attacking left-back Harry Toffolo, loyal anchor man Jonathan Hogg, midfield controller Carel Eiting, energetic wide forward Josh Koroma and speedster Isaac Mbenza all spent significant periods on the sidelines, nudging Town off course.

A pinch of fortune on the fitness front may remedy the Terriers’ 2021 blues, as Corberán seeks a pragmatic balance, based on his summer business.

Shot stopper Lee Nicholls, conservative right-back Oli Turton, no-nonsense centre-back Matty Pearson, technical left-back Josh Ruffels and poacher Jordan Rhodes are not exclusively players who fit naturally into the expansive, attacking, high-pressing strategy that Head of Football Operations Leigh Bromby outlined last summer.

There is likely to be an intent to play the ball down the channel earlier this season, which could make Huddersfield more adaptable, more incisive in opening opponents up, just as easily as it could leave them with a chaotically muddled playing identity.

Levi Colwill, though, looks an excellent acquisition and even at 18, the Chelsea loanee has a huge job of ensuring – amid stylistic tweaks – that Huddersfield do not lose sight of their core identity.

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Peterborough United

Peterborough have had 10 different managers since Darragh MacAnthony took over as chairman in 2006, but the only one to be successful is Darren Ferguson.

“Fergie Jr” has managed three different clubs over the last 15 years, but the only one he’s been successful at is Peterborough.

The outspoken MacAnthony and the fiercely driven Ferguson have a unique working relationship that neither have been able to replicate with anyone else, with the Posh winning four promotions across the Scot’s three stints.

The latest was secured when his side came back from three down to secure a crucial point against Lincoln, thanks to Jonson Clarke-Harris’ dramatic penalty heroics.

Unlike previous Posh poachers, Clarke-Harris has no major resale value and that’s not a bad thing: the 26-year-old looks likely to stay to provide a strong, goalscoring presence.

With fellow forward Sammie Szmodics being so selfless in his movement, the former Colchester man is unlikely to attract attention either, so most eyes will be on fleet-footed Siriki Dembele, who is hoping to work his wizardry in his first season at this level.

A less glamorous participant is aerial specialist Mark Beevers, who will be protected in central defence by two of battler Nathan Thompson, front-foot aggressor Frankie Kent and talented Leicester recruit Josh Knight.

Also new to the building is technician Jorge Grant who, with new-found vigour from his time at Lincoln, is the likely midfield partner to all-action Jack Taylor, with the duo flanked by dependable operators Joe Ward and Dan Butler in either a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2.

Ferguson plans to use his formational flexibility – as well as the versatile nature of numerous players – to overcome any injury crisis that might hit his small squad.

As of late-July, Peterborough’s group only includes around 13 players who would be expected to compete well in the second tier, while a few of the younger ones like defender Ronnie Edwards and left-sider Harrison Burrows could make the jump if pushed.

Keep those 13 plus late signings largely available and the Posh can beat the drop – just.

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It is not too long ago that Preston North End were regular Play-Off contenders, putting credible challenges together in four consecutive seasons.

Gabriel Sutton

Preston North End

The sense of stagnation is rife around Deepdale.

It is not too long ago that Preston North End were regular Play-Off contenders, putting credible challenges together in four consecutive seasons.

That, though, feels like almost a different era: Alex Neil, who delivered midtable results on a bottom six budget, was shown the door in March to be replaced by his former assistant.

Frankie McAvoy delivered an excellent 17 points from eight games in charge, giving owner Trevor Hemmings, who has not paid compensation for a manager for nine years, the perfect invitation to take the low-cost option and give the Scot the full-time job.

Hemmings has sanctioned improvements to the defence this summer, with leader Liam Lindsay, athletic right wing-back Matthew Olosunde and Liverpool loanee Sepp van den Berg all looking solid additions.

The only signing that is not a defender, though is Izzy Brown, who subsequently picked up a long-term injury, meaning North End could rely unhealthily on an aging attack.

Advanced creator Daniel Johnson, versatile forward Sean Maguire, back-to-goal striker Ched Evans, long throw specialist Tom Barkhuizen and goalscoring wide forward Scott Sinclair, at an average age of 29, are past their peak.

There is pressure, therefore, on Emil Riis Jakobsen to improve on an uninspiring debut campaign, though the hardworking, 6’3” striker will justly call for better service.

Providing it could be playmaker Ben Whiteman who, having thrived in League One for three and a half seasons with Doncaster, hopes to embrace his first full season at Championship level, but who provides the midfield insurance?

Ryan Ledson has the tenacity to break things up but had not been billed as the long-term successor to ball-winning stalwart Ben Pearson, now at Bournemouth, because of his instincts to push forward.

The Lancashire outfit could therefore be without a classic destroyer, which may lead to the rest of the team being held on a tactical leash, as McAvoy looks set to employ a conservative 5-3-2. This could be grim.

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Blackburn Rovers

Blackburn had, last season, the best goal difference any bottom half Football League side has recorded since Middlesbrough in 1958-59.

Six of Rovers’ 15 victories came by a margin of three or more goals, while 15 of their 19 defeats had seen the sides separated by a solitary strike, as Tony Mowbray’s side struggled to find elements of their attacking prowess in tight encounters.

The man chiefly to thank for the star showings is Adam Armstrong – quick, nippy and potent – who was the second-top goalscorer in the Championship last season.

‘Arma’ has been linked away all summer, though and would be impossible to directly replace, with none of any payment received for the goal-grabbing Geordie likely to be re-invested in a transfer fee.

Optimism is therefore low at Ewood Park, not least due to the lack of goalscoring potential in midfield, where current options Bradley Dack, Bradley Johnson, Joe Rothwell, Jacob Davenport, Lewis Travis and John Buckley managed just eight between them in the league last term.

There is also a leadership void, with Johnson and centre-back Daniel Ayala unlikely to be fit for a full season; last year, heads went down once anything went against the side and there is no evidence this summer to suggest that will change

In fact, Armstrong’s departure would leave goalkeeper Thomas Kaminski, athletic right-back Ryan Nyambe and all-action midfielder Lewis Travis as the only second-tier players to truly rely on – and even the latter can be injury prone.

With funds limited, Mowbray must once again pin his hopes on young players stepping up from League One and not just technical left-back Harry Pickering, whose arrival from Crewe was agreed back in January.

Committed centre-back Hayden Carter and advanced dribbler Harry Chapman aim to build on excellent loan spells with Burton and Shrewsbury respectively, so either could be relied upon prematurely.

Plus, there are issues at the club internally, with huge cutbacks on staffing likely to compromise the smoothness of the whole operation: a long season lies ahead.

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Derby County

Derby are in decline.

A period of overspending and narrow promotion near-misses in the mid-to-late 2010s was followed by soft sustainability steers, as Frank Lampard then Phillip Cocu were tasked with using the loan market and developing talent from the academy.

Though the Rams reached a Play-Off Final under Lampard, they capitulated in Cocu’s final two months in charge and replacement Wayne Rooney, despite overseeing an initial improvement in performances and results, finished the 2020-21 campaign with one win in the final 15 games.

Derby can be relieved to have beaten the drop via a 3-3 draw with Sheffield Wednesday, but there is no doubting the challenges ahead to become a stable club, let alone one in the Championship.

Due to ongoing off-field issues, the East Midlanders have not made a single signing this summer and Rooney has already stated his view that, unless able to make signings to plug gaping holes like the one at centre-back, this year is a write-off.

On the plus side, off-field strife means opportunity presents itself for teenage talents like left-footed centre-back Eiran Cashin and striker Jack Stretton, who scored three goals in five when on loan at Stockport, to take centre-stage.

Attacking right-back Nathan Byrne and steady midfielder Graeme Shinnie will be the go-to guys, though, as Derby attempt to initially stay within touching distance of 21st – then hope a takeover transpires in time to save their season.

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Odds are correct at the time of posting

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