So here we go again.
Sometimes, it's easy to feel sorry for the hardy perennials of the Premier League who sometimes give their faithful supporters either a bit of a fright or a faint glimpse of glory, only for mediocrity to rise again and leave you with that feeling akin to leaving a gorgeous roast dinner with all the trimmings half finished...you just feel under-nourished somehow.
No such worries in the Championship of going without all your food groups. It is by far and away and beyond a shadow of doubt the barmiest, most unpredictable crackpot division since the very dawn of time. And I've said many times on talkSPORT that I love it and hate it in equal measure. That mesmerising 30 seconds or so at Vicarage Road in the play off semi between Watford & Leicester encapsulates the incredibly fine margins that exist away from Scudamore's watch on his cartel...and he supports Bristol City. You'd have thought etc etc...
Most of my life has been spent watching Birmingham City play in what my Villa mates have lovingly termed 'the duffers league' or 'the fizzy pop trophy' in recent years...although those texts dried up for a time late on last season!! :)
Anyway, as a consequence of this diet of lower league scrimmaging, I think all Blues fans - perhaps save for the recent younger generation of supporters who've seen mostly Prem seasons - have a sort of perverted love for the Championship, and I suspect a great many other sides who spend quality time there feel very much the same.
But why? Well, just witness last season's final table after 46 games. Leicester City snuck back into the playoffs on the final day, having looked at one stage like automatic promotion fodder, then more cannon fodder as they went on a disastrous post-Xmas run, only to beat rivals Forest in Nottingham and leapfrog the Trees and nearly-men Bolton to claim 6th spot.
But the Foxes only ended up 14 points clear of Peterborough United, who themselves had, at one point, saved themselves from the drop by leading at Crystal Palace on final day, only to succumb to the eventual play-off winners late on and finish 22nd to be relegated back to League 1. And almost every single one of the 24 clubs was utterly unsure of their destiny in late April, if you please.
You wouldn't bet against another complete random set of results, managerial meltdowns and heart stopping moments this time around. And that is why the Championship continues to pack the supporters in in such a way that leaves most other 2nd tier leagues on the Continent scratching their heads as to why such numbers turn out here compared to their meagre efforts, with the possible exception of the Bundesliga 2. in Germany.
Even with the ever-increasing parachute payments afforded to those who drop out of the Prem, rarely do you see the 3 that came down running away with things to make an instant return - only West Ham of the last 9 teams relegated have managed to get themselves back up at the first attempt...and that was in a Playoff final, not via a record points/goals/clean sheet total. Look at the fate of Wolves last season, dropping through the leagues when the favouritism tag was well and truly thrust upon them at the get go, and Blackburn Rovers very nearly joining them, but for Jordan Rhodes' priceless goals.
So Wigan, Reading & QPR know all too well that last year's lofty status means nothing. So where's my money going? Well, I rarely bet, but here's some thoughts that you can take as you find them.
Nottingham Forest; The phrase 'never go back' could well be consigned to history if Billy Davies does what I suspect he will this season, and lead Forest back into the land of milk and honey . And having returned midway through last season after the disastrous McLaren and McLeish reigns (I'm excusing the excellent Sean O'Driscoll whose services should have been retained), Davies oversaw a very strong finish with a young side.
The petro-dollars of the Al Hasawi family at the City Ground have been spent thriftily thus far on bringing in experienced heads to join the crop of promising youngsters that Davies inherited. The manager's apparent paranoia against local media and his approach to press conferences where those asking questions are filmed and logged for future reference is rather disconcerting, but he no longer has to worry about any Transfer Aquisitions Committee to veto his ideas and desires so the way is clear for his vision of Forest to come through. I expect a Top 2 challenge from a team whose manager will not want a repeat of the heartache inflicted by Blackpool in the playoffs a couple of years ago, and is likely to remind everyone of that slip up at regular intervals this season.
PLAY OFF PLUNDERERS?
Leeds United; So the Ken Bates era is over and thus one sideshow that has antagonised Leeds fans in recent years is no longer an issue. They also have a bright, calm, intelligent manager in Brian McDermott and his knowledge and savvy at this level I believe will lead to a concerted charge for a Top 6 finish.
The capture of Luke Murphy from Crewe - a player who could quite easily have made a 2 division jump in the same way that his former midfield partner Ashley Westwood did in joining Villa - is, at £1m, excellent business and, as so often, the manager has coveted a former charge of his at Reading in Noel Hunt to bolster forward options. I've always rated Ross McCormack's verve and skill, and last season's FA Cup hero at Oldham, Matt Smith, is another potential goal getter although unproven at this level. Not quite enough for Top 2 in my view, but about time Leeds made the post-season lottery.
MID TABLE MEDIOCRITY?
Middlesbrough; Not many teams appear becalmed at this level - certainly not to the extent that some Premier League sides seem to be - and Boro legend Tony Mowbray has a difficult job in utilising the clubs excellent academy products without a huge amount of experience in support if those. That said, he's been after Dean Whitehead for yonks, and the ex Stoke midfielder's arrival will please him greatly. But with Whitehead, Jonathan Woodgate and Stuart Parnaby as senior squad men, they should steer clear of trouble, but I can't see them making as strong a start as they did last season
Derby County; At 4 years and nearly 200 days at the time of writing, Nigel Clough is easily the longest serving manager in the Championship. And with good reason, despite the evidence showing that The Rams have become somewhat becalmed at this level under his stewardship. Clough had much to do at the board's behest upon his arrival; move out big names on unsustainable wages and utilise academy products as far as possible. This he has done by degrees and still Pride Park is pretty much full and pretty much fully supportive of his methods for every home game. You could argue that such loyalty deserves some modicum of success, and there are one or two smart looking signings like Johnny Russell up front from Dundee United & right back Adam Smith on loan from Spurs to replace Cardiff bound John Brayford, but it would take a Herculean effort from other rising young stars like Will Hughes & Callum Ball to see Derby making a play-off push. Few would begrudge Clough that sort of season were it to materialise.
SURPRISE PACKAGE (Challengers)?
Millwall; Steve Lomas is a very driven individual. Having had the pleasure of working with him on talkSPORT a number of times over the years, he always struck me as being no-nonsense and full of ideas to move coaching forward, even when at part-timers St Neots in Cambs during his time on-air with me. To get St. Johnstone into Europa League qualification twice in succession before taking the job in South Bermondsey deserves huge credit on his part. Credit too for his summer recruitment policy at Millwall, both on and off the pitch. Richard Chaplow, Steve Morison and Scott McDonald are just 3 of a host of recent captures, whilst the arrival of Mick Harford to the coaching staff leaves you wondering where the good cop is in the 'good cop/bad cop' management set up!
Steve won't mind me saying that - he likes a touchline ban, as shown by his time in Perth. Perhaps an ex West Ham midfielder will consider his next outburst if it meant sitting amongst Millwall fans yet to be convinced as to his qualities as a manager purely due to his provenance. Come the end of the campaign, I think those STH's who questioned the appointment will be cutting themselves a slice of humble pie and devouring every scrap. Top 10 for me.
Yeovil Town; For a number if years in my cub reporter days, I watched Walsall under both Ray Graydon and Colin Lee fly in the face of popular opinion and survive at Championship level. Indeed I remember one Boxing Day afternoon where the Saddlers beat Cardiff at Ninian Park to go 6th in the table. That was as good as it ever got and the subsequent loss of form in the New Year saw Lee lose his job, Paul Merson take the reins and Walsall sank without trace.
For me Yeovil can take great heart from those obdurate years Walsall spent punching above their weight. So many similarities...the unfashionable tight ground (Bescot was only expanded to 11k from 6k capacity during the several yrs of Championship occupation) the recruitment on a budget, the unknown quantity plus the likeable nature of both clubs from a visiting reporter's point of view. But I'm getting too personal...
Garry Johnson comes across as a jolly soul, and is no doubt terrific company. But there's an inner steel about him that's earned him progress against the odds in his coaching career, and I expect that characteristic to show itself again this season here. Paddy Madden should adjust well to continue goalscoring at the next level up and that alone is critical to the Glovers' hopes. I imagine that many of the 'haves' in this league will find a trip to a parochial ground with limited facilities to be more daunting than they might expect.
SURPRISE PACKAGE (Strugglers)?
QPR; It's hard to feel sorry for Harry Redknapp, a man who has managed with some distinction for many years and is probably so well off that he never needs to work again. The 'drug' of football keeps Harry coming back for more, but he returns to a division where he didn't see out the season last time he encountered it when boss at Southampton.
His demeanour this summer at QPR - a club beset by a number of players siphoning money at an alarming rate who gave little impression last year that they were up for a scrap - has not been that of a manager relishing the prospect of Saturday/Tuesday football for the next 9 months. You also sense that the old guard of Shaun Derry and Clint Hill would be preferable to guide the squad through this season rather than relying on Loic Remy, Estaban Granero and the like to lead from the front.
Karl Henry is an interesting arrival from Wolves. He was targeted by Molineux faithful more than most as the old gold and black withered on the vine last season, so he has much to prove to the many doubters. Whilst there is great latent talent in Junior Hoillett and the maverick Adel Tarrabt, I just don't see the togetherness that a squad would require at this level. Not that they'll emulate Henry's Wolves and achieve successive relegations...they'll just not be quite at it when it really counts in my view.
AND MY LOT?
Well who blooming knows at St Andrew's these days? An owner currently on trial in the Far East for alleged money laundering; an acting chairman acting like an unruly child in his very public spat with a prospective buyer that he clearly has no time for; so called 'preferred bidders' that continually fail to materialise or show the colour of their money and, with the owner's assets frozen, a constant requirement for boss Lee Clark - as with his predecessor - to sell off the family silver (Curtis Davies & Nathan Redmond this window and big wage earners like top goal getter Marlon King available on a free to any takers).
Then there's the likeable, committed yet savagely expensive Nikola Zigic, whose contract, senselessly drawn up without a relegation clause, enters its final year with the giant Serbian picking up a fair chunk of the clubs gate receipts every week and seemingly no one willing to take him or said salary to another club. It's not that we're lumbered with a lumbering striker...on his day, Zigic can be utterly unplayable at this level, but his motivation was publicly questioned by Clark last year, a move some thought risky about a player much loved for scoring in 2011's League Cup win alone. As a senior player, never mind wage earner, Zigic has to be more consistent and set the tone for the ever increasing crop of academy youngsters around him.
And those youngsters show promise, like full back Mitch Hancox and midfielder Callum Reilly. This summer's batch of loans, frees & Bosmans includes Matt Green whose goals fired Mansfield to promotion and the promising forward Andrew Shinnie (already dubbed "Shinniesta" in the stands) amongst their number.
I have absolutely no idea what to expect from Birmingham this year, save for the likelihood of a 3-5-2 system that I expect from a good few teams this year, given the success Hull City and, to an extent, Watford achieved with such a formation. I take no stock in pre-season results - and nor should you about your team. It's just about the least accurate way of evaluating your team's chances. You can spot patterns of play and most of the likely starters, but that's about it. Which makes the 'Moyes out' brigade look particularly funny to me when they've appeared on Twitter this past week.
And there's another thing - only a 3rd of Championship managers have had at least a year in the job, and the aforementioned Nigel Clough at 4+ yrs is almost 2 years ahead of second longest survivor Tony Mowbray. It's another example of the volatility that exists in a division that takes no prisoners, asks no quarter and gives you a proper kick in the teeth just when you think you've win with the last kick of the game. But it hooks you in and keeps on delivering great stories week in week out.
I can't wait for the uncertainty to begin.