Competitive English football is back this weekend, as what is arguably the most exciting league in Europe starts up again. The Championship – English football’s second tier – was nothing short of exhilarating last season. The race to avoid relegation, the fight for playoff spots and clamor for automatic promotion went right down to the closing stages of the final games. And if those final day thrills were not enough, then the epic conclusion to the Watford vs. Leicester Playoff Semi-final saw one of the most dramatic finishes to a game in football league history.
That long and illustrious history will be celebrated this weekend, with this campaign representing the 125th year of competitive action. It all began back in 1888 when the then Aston Villa chairman William McGregor hatched a plan by which “10 or 12 of the most prominent clubs in England should combine to arrange home and away fixtures every season”. A few months later, the league was set up with twelve founding members. Preston North End were the inaugural winners of the competition, having gone through the entire season unbeaten.
It is a landmark anniversary that has not gone unnoticed by the higher ups ahead of this weekend’s opening round of fixtures. In a classy touch, the league organizers have set up fixtures in which a collection of the founding members will be up against each other again 125 years on. Burnley’s Turf Moor stadium was one of the initial venues back in 1888, and they will host fellow founding member Bolton Wanderers at the same venue in an all Lancashire clash. Derby County will also host Blackburn Rovers at Pride Park in recognition of the anniversary.
Here’s the full list of this weekend’s Championship fixtures ahead of the big kick off:
Saturday, August 3:
7:15 ET Burnley vs. Bolton
10am ET Barnsley vs. Wigan
10am ET Birmingham vs. Watford
10am ET Bournemouth vs. Charlton
10am ET Doncaster vs. Blackpool
10am ET Leeds vs. Brighton
10am ET Middlesbrough vs. Leicester
10am ET Milwall vs. Yeovil
10am ET Nottingham Forest vs. Huddersfield
10am ET QPR vs. Sheffield Wednesday, shown live on beIN SPORT (USA)
10am ET Reading vs. Ipswich
Sunday, August 4:
11am ET Derby vs. Blackburn, shown on delay at 1:30pm ET on beIN SPORT (USA)
Despite the obvious sentiment behind the anniversary celebrations, there will be no time for niceties when the opening ties are underway. Last season, perhaps more than ever, showed us that every point and every goal counts in this remarkable division. It is such an open league, and any team who can put a decent run together could find themselves in with a very real chance of making it to the promised land of the Premier League.
The standard of football is constantly on the rise too and has seen a huge upturn in the competitions popularity. As the Premier League sides continue to splash out on big money signings, talented players who are seemingly surplus to requirements have trickled down into the second tier. Not to mention, with starting berths at a premium in the Premier League, some of the countries top young talents have developed their skills as part of successful Championship. Just look at last season, where Wilfried Zaha, Tom Ince and Nathaniel Chalobah –some of the countries most exciting young prospects – all played key roles for their sides promotion pushes.
Who’s going to challenge at the top this season?
Well, it looks as wide open as ever. Harry Redknapp and his QPR outfit are the bookies favorites, whereas Nigel Adkins and his Reading side also look well placed, especially with the new Royals boss having already achieved promotion with his previous club Southampton. Last season’s defeated Playoff finalists Watford also have the quality within their ranks to go one better this time around; Gianfranco Zola is seemingly happy persisting with the club’s controversial but nonetheless effective, transfer policy.
Other likely contenders include Bolton Wanderers, who are set for a good campaign after manager Dougie Freedman steered the Trotters to a very strong finish last season. Nottingham Forest will also be there or there about, especially with fans favourite Billy Davies at the helm once again. Like Adkins, the Scot has experience of getting a team out of the division and that can only help Forest in their quest to get back to the big time.
FA Cup holders Wigan could also bounce back at the first opportunity, with new boss Owen Coyle desperate to re-establish his own reputation. Leeds United will also have their best chance in recent years with Brian McDermott at the helm. The former Reading chief is a very astute, experienced manager who knows the division inside out. And how to get out of it.
Which players are going to shine?
With Zaha having moved on to Manchester United, the general consensus is that Blackpool’s Tom Ince now stands alone as the Championship’s best player. Having turned down a move to Premier League side Cardiff City, he looks set to spearhead the Seasiders push for promotion this season. Father and manager Paul Ince, whilst having admitted being resigned to losing his star-man to a Premier League side sooner or later, will welcome a full season of the flying winger putting opposition defenses through the ringer.
In perhaps the biggest coup for any Championship side this summer, Reading have signed former Real Madrid and Everton winger Royston Drenthe. Tipped for big things at the start of his career, Drenthe’s questionable attitude has often trumped over his undoubted ability. If Adkins can get him focused, then the former Dutch international will be far too good for a large chunk of players at Championship level. How Drenthe performs could ultimately determine how the Royals promotion charge pans out.
Elsewhere, QPR have signed the prolific Charlie Austin from Burnley after a move to Hull City collapsed. He will be hoping to better his impressive 25 goal haul from the last campaign. Blackburn Rovers’ £8 million man Jordan Rhodes will also be looking to build on another superb season of goal scoring after netting 29 times in the last campaign. Expect those two to be vying for the Golden Boot over the course of the season.
So, time to stick my neck on the line. Here are my tips for promotion, relegation and top goalscorer this season:
Promotion: Reading, QPR, Bolton
Relegation: Yeovil, Millwall, Doncaster
Top Scorer: Charlie Austin
Enjoy the weekend’s games!
Have you fallen in love with the Championship after last season’s drama? Who do you think will be in the promotion and relegation picture come the end of the season? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball