Friday, 6 August 2010

A Football League Preview: Max Smithson looks at the potential winners and losers in the Football Leagues this season

As big of a football fan as I admit that my knowledge on the leagues below the Premiership is somewhat limited. Thankfully though, guest writer Max Smithson is on hand to give us a tour of the lower tiers of English football. He previews a Championship campaign that looks certain to fascinate and League One and Two seasons that promise to be as close and entertaining as ever...

The Football League season kicks off tonight at 7.45pm as League One champions Norwich City take on Watford in the rebranded npower Championship. It is the start of another season that, as always, is destined to provide endless drama, tension and excitement for fans up and down the country.

After an abysmal performance by England at the World Cup, I am glad that I am not watching a team full of overpaid and underperforming prima-donnas in the Premiership. Instead, I can marvel at the passion and unpredictability of the lower leagues.

Having watched Championship and League One football for the past six years following Leeds’ well documented fall from grace, I have come to appreciate the talent on offer and the down-to-earth attitude of fans at this level. Away from the unrealistic expectations, armchair fans and inflated egos that plague England’s top division, experiencing the lower leagues has been a truly refreshing experience.

Most previews of sporting events tend to offer an opinion as to who the winners and losers will be, a prediction of the varying fates of the different teams. With the Championship, this is a near impossible task, even for the most experienced Football League experts.

None of the sides relegated from the Premiership last season can be considered big clubs likely to go straight back up like Newcastle and West Brom were last season. This means that we are preparing for one of the most open Championships in recent years.

Portsmouth and Hull City may be liable to struggle this year due to their financial situations but if some of their better players stay around, they may be in with a shout. As for Burnley, they are in a great position financially and have a good squad of players; however, I feel they will struggle to achieve anything due to Brian Laws inadequacies.

The bookies favourites for the title are Middlesbrough due to heavy investment from the Teesiders but after an anonymous first season in the division after relegation in 2009, I am apprehensive towards their credentials to mount a title challenge. However, with Gordon Strachan having had a close season to make the team his own and rid the side of Gareth Southgate’s negative mindset, they should not be ruled out.

Last year’s deservedly beaten play-off finalists Cardiff City appear to have been written off by the bookies with odds of 20-1 available, probably due to their financial troubles. But after their transfer embargo was lifted yesterday, some decent signings before the window closes coupled with the retention of Michael Chopra and Peter Whittingham may put them back in the frame for promotion.

Billy Davies will be looking to recapture the winter form which saw Nottingham Forest storm into the promotion spots before losing out in the play-offs to eventual winners, Blackpool. If they can improve their side, they may well become more consistent, enabling them to return to the league that their support merits.

I feel Bristol City, Ipswich Town and Doncaster Rovers could improve on solid seasons last year to possibly push for promotion, especially a Bristol side containing the exciting Nicky Maynard and is managed by Steve Coppell who knows exactly what is required to win promotion.

Promoted pair Leeds United and Norwich also have promotion ambitions having brought very capable sides up from League One. Grant Holt, Chris Martin and Wes Hoolahan are likely to provide goals for the Canaries and a pre-season change in formation for Leeds could prove fruitful if Robert Snodgrass has a quick return to fitness and Luciano Becchio can become more prolific up front.

Many people have been talking about Neil Warnock’s QPR side as contenders with the very skilful Adel Taarabt in midfield but without some investment in a quality striker, Patrick Angyemang is unlikely to provide the necessary firepower to propel them up the table.

Having threatened at promotion in recent years, the likes of Swansea, Sheffield United, Preston and Derby, in my eyes, are destined for a season of not much more than staving off a relegation battle which is likely to include Scunthorpe, Millwall, Watford, Coventry and Barnsley. Having said all that it would be in keeping with Championship tradition for them to contradict me completely.

Looking briefly below the Championship. In League One, I believe Southampton will absolutely dominate this league with Leeds and Norwich no longer around. They have probably the best two strikers in the league with Rickie Lambert and Lee Barnard as well as a host of other quality players behind them to shoot them into the Championship. Their stars are also unlikely to leave due to what appears to be a healthy financial position after exiting administration in 2009. Other contenders are likely to be Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday, although the latter has failed to score in pre-season.

League Two should also prove interesting with Rotherham look likely to go one better than their play-off final defeat to Dagenham in last year, especially if they can keep hold of Adam le Fondre. Peter Taylor’s Bradford are being favoured by the bookies and Oxford and Stevenage will want to build on successful seasons in the Conference last year. Wycombe and Gillingham will also expect to bounce back strongly after relegation last season.

Football League fans have a huge amount to look forward to between now and the end of May. Whether it be a relegation battle, a promotion push or a visit to one of the two new grounds at Morecambe and Chesterfield, the only certainty is that we will keep coming back for more.

Thought, comments and opinions please...

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