Sport | Football League season preview
With nearly four weeks since the World Cup final football fans up and down the country are beginning to suffer withdrawal symptoms. Never fear, the Football League is here. The race for promotion starts this weekend, and whether you support Birmingham or Wycombe the excitement of the opening day is one every football fan loves.
The Championship season gets under way a day early, as Blackburn host Cardiff on Friday night in what will be an explosive start to the Football League season. Rovers will be keen to get a good start to their season and push on from their eighth place finish last campaign. Cardiff on the other hand will be hoping to not fall foul of the relegation hangover and bounce back at the first time of asking. With Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes up front Blackburn certainly have the firepower to push towards promotion this season, and Gary Bowyer has created a strong team after years of turmoil at Ewood Park.
All three relegated sides will be hoping for a strong season back in the Football League, and out of the three it seems Norwich may be best placed for the season ahead. With the exception of Robert Snodgrass, the Canaries have kept the majority of the squad together, and added three new signings with Championship quality. Gary O’Neil, Lewis Grabban and Kyle Lafferty all have experience at this level and along with Nathan Redmond and Gary Hooper any team visiting Carrow Road will do so with little optimism. The third relegated side, Fulham, have seen a mass exodus through the summer with a number of high profile players leaving. They will be hoping the signing of Leeds star Ross McCormack will fire them up the table, but with a relatively youthful side Fulham may find it difficult to get out of the division.
Brentford’s first game back in the second tier is a London derby against Charlton, and the Bees will be buzzing after finally achieving promotion after previous playoff heartache. It will be interesting to see whether Scott Hogan can make the step up to Championship football, with the front man playing most of his football in non-league before a prolific season with Rochdale in League 2 last year. He seems a classy enough player at that level and should be able to make the step up. Both teams have been touted for relegation before a ball has even been kicked and will be striving to prove the bookies wrong. Charlton have had all sorts going on over summer, with manager Jose Riga leaving and Bob Peeters coming in to replace him, not to mention the turnover of players. If the Belgian can get his new squad to gel relegation should not be an issue this year.
Two teams with as many off field issues as they have on field issues are Blackpool and Nottingham Forest, who face each other this weekend. The Tangerines’ plights have been clear for all to see, as fielding a whole match day squad could be an issue on Saturday. It was only this week that they finally signed a goalkeeper, with Joe Lewis joining on loan from Cardiff. Needless to say they are favourites for relegation this year, which is a sorry sight for the team that were a joy to watch in their year in the Premier League a few years back. Chairman Karl Oyston is majorly under fire from the fans and we could well see a Tangerine implosion before the end of the season. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly at Forest before this week, with Stuart Pearce establishing a strong looking squad that could well challenge for promotion. That was until Newcastle came sniffing for stars Karl Darlow and Jamaal Lascelles, prompting owner Fawaz Al Hasawi to agree to sell the players apparently without Pearce’s knowledge. Tension now seems to be high at the City Ground which could affect their playoff challenge this year, Pearce is known for his outspoken nature and we could see fireworks before the season is out.
As LS has already covered, Leeds have had a busy off season and will be looking forward to the year ahead. The big questions will be whether the supposed risk to appoint David Hockaday will pay off and with Ross McCormack leaving will they have the goals in them to challenge this season? One team who has plenty of goals in them is Derby, who will be looking to put their agonizing playoff heartache behind them as they aim to go one better this time around. With Chris Martin banging the goals in Steve McLaren looks to have created the perfect combination of youth and experience to challenge for automatic promotion this year.
Over to League 1 now and there is one fixture that stands out from the opening weekend, and that is Sheffield United playing host to Bristol City. Both teams would have hoped for more last season but this year both look to be among the front runners for promotion. Along with a memorable FA Cup run, Nigel Clough transformed the Blades into a well drilled side as they narrowly missed out on the playoffs. The signing of Michael Higdon looks to be an excellent capture with the striker capable of getting at least 15 goals a season. With Clough having his own pre-season and putting his own stamp on the team it would take a brave man to bet against the Blades this season. Bristol City will be buoyed by the news that Sam Baldock has pledged his allegiance to the club for the foreseeable future. The striker netted 23 times last season and with Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and new signing Aaron Wilbraham to partner him up front Ashton Gate should be seeing plenty of goals in the season ahead. These two should be among the front runners in the division this year and Saturday’s lunchtime kick off should be a great start to the League 1 season.
Elsewhere, Leyton Orient will be hoping last season was not just a flash in the pan as they aim to improve on last season’s third placed finish. The addition of Jobi McAnuff and Darius Henderson is a clear sign to the rest of the division that Russell Slade’s men mean business this year. Slade’s old side, Yeovil, return to League 1 after a stint in The Championship, but the Glovers may struggle to acclimatise back into their surroundings, and with their opener against Doncaster things may take some time to get going at Huish Park. The small squad they possess could come into trouble later in the year which may lead to Gary Johnson exploiting the loan market again.
At the other end of the table both Crewe and Notts County will be happy just to be in the division again this year after both escaping relegation by the skin of their teeth last time out. Crewe look set for another hard season as many key players, such as AJ Leitch-Smith and Mathias Pogba have left the club. Max Clayton also looks set to leave Gresty Road with Wolves showing a keen interest, leaving the Alex relying on their youth products yet again, and this year it could finally catch up with them. County on the other hand have boosted their team well, and Roy Carroll in goal could give them some solidarity at the back.
Finally, in League 2 there are so many teams that have hopes of getting out of the division this year. With Bury getting Ryan Lowe back up front the Shakers will be many people’s favourites for promotion. David Flitcroft’s side ended last season well and will be looking to continue that into this. Many people’s dark horses are AFC Wimbledon, with the Wombles signing Adebayo Akinfenwa and Matt Tubbs they look to have one of the best strike forces in the division on paper. Tubbs has scored goals in the lower leagues before and will be looking to do the same again this year.
Promoted sides Cambridge and Luton will both fancy their chances of doing well in League 2 this year. The gap between League 2 and the Conference seems to be fairly small these days and they should have any problems making the step up in division. Luton are among the favourites for promotion as they hope to emulate Crawley who won back to back promotions in 2012. Cambridge had to make do with the playoffs to gain promotion but look to have a strong enough squad to handle the division.
Eyes will be looking toward Wycombe, Morecambe and Exeter for the relegation candidates for the year ahead. Wycombe escaped relegation on the last day of last season and Gareth Ainsworth will need to create some spark within his side to prevent relegation once again. Morecambe were erratic last year with 5-0 defeats being followed by big victories, so some stability needs to be found if the Shrimps are to stave off relegation this time. Exeter are the team most in trouble, with the PFA having to give them a loan for the season ahead, with finances tight at St James’ Park. Paul Tisdale has worked wonders for the Grecians in previous years but off field problems may lead to relegation this year.
It certainly looks to be another great season in the Football League, with so many great sides across all three divisions. There are sure to be plenty of shocks and drama, not just this weekend but throughout the whole season. After just three Saturdays off football fans will have their weekly fix for another nine months, let the football commence!