The football season begins tonight as newly promoted Norwich City take on Watford at Carrow Road, kicking off what many fans will hope becomes the most intriguing Championship season yet. Every other year, the newly named N-Power Football League Championship is deprived of West Bromwich Albion’s mastery, and as such, opportunities are opened up for many a team.
Although Middlesbrough are the firm favourites to go up, there are certain teams who everyone believes will transcend upwards or come crashing down through the floor. Last season, Ian Holloway’s Blackpool shocked the nation as they ghosted past strong sides in Nottingham Forest and Cardiff City, when a world of doom, gloom and immeasurable trouble was forecast for the seaside club.
The reason for Boro standing as red hot favourites is the manner in which Gordon Strachan has conducted his business. The move from Scotland’s top flight to England’s second flight is often one not considered extremely lucrative in terms of immediate opportunities; however, the results thus far yielded by ex-Celtic midfielder Scott McDonald have been pleasing.
The signing of Kris Boyd (another proven player of great pedigree with Champions League experience) is also a sure sign Middlesbrough’s true ambitions, as they look to go up at the second attempt into the Premier League where (until 2009) they looked right at home. Although now 32 years old, midfielder Barry Robson has also been something of a revelation – but in terms of long term options, there is life after Adam Johnson.
At the back, Matthew Bates and David Wheater continue to grow up together in a defence which is (arguably) becoming more disciplined and resolute with each passing season. Everton have been linked with the signing of David Wheater, and some still believe there is interest, although the arrival of John Heitinga last year has significantly silenced such talk.
After Middlesbrough in the favourites stakes, we have Cardiff – both cash strapped and brilliant at the same time and always in with a shout, just not particularly brilliant at winning the playoffs. It leads some of us to question why several players (though stated as Premier League targets) have never had any serious bids made for them.
One player in particular who catches the eye is Peter Whittingham. In his prime at 25, the pacy winger was included in the 2009-10 Championship “Team of the Year” and recently developed an uncanny eye for goal from midfield. Previously, he has been linked with a return to Aston Villa, although no well documented moves have been made as of yet.
Some betting men (and women) also consider Cardiff’s deadly rivals Swansea City as contenders – where did they come from? It doesn’t matter what side of the fence you are on, Roberto Martinez and Paulo Sousa have successfully performed a major reinvention of a team who used to languish in the depths, with the latter taking The Swans to their best finish in 27 years back in May.
With a new young manager in Brendan Rodgers (already with 17 years experience of coaching at 37 years old), the Premier League may well see its first ever Welsh club. With no standout player but a generally high level of performance, their team spirit is arguably the strongest in the entire league, in which capacity any player could be headhunted for Premier League service within the next couple of years.
How about Roy Keane’s steadily improving Ipswich Town? They are perpetual dark horses for promotion, and despite not having as much of a grip on promotion race proceedings as they once did, their ability to grind out results was evident towards the end of last season. Should Roy Keane keep his current squad (who look – in this writer’s humble opinion – to be well drilled and gelled together), there is no reason that his charges should not make a serious stab at bringing to an end what would be nine years without Premier League football.
Although it is now something of a crime to label anyone a “hot prospect” or “the next Wayne Rooney”, 17 year old Connor Wickham seems to be flourishing under manager Roy Keane’s tutelage. Bright in both the exam hall and on the football pitch, he is an impressive player at international level (England Under-17s), and now ready to break into the Ipswich first team on a regular basis.
After Wickham showed good form in the spring, Tottenham expressed interest in the youngster, bidding £8m (which Keane swiftly refused), and although they are reluctant to increase the bid, their interest allegedly remains unchanged. With a much bandied asking price of £10m, the young talent has the world at his feet, and the right manager to steer him towards potential greatness.
These are my predictions…
What are yours?
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