Saturday, August 6, 2011

2011-2012 Football League Championship Preview

The Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Durham Bulls and Columbus Clippers are the three best teams in the International League of Triple A. They will be competing for the Triple A National Championship and it's anyone's guess who will win.

But imagine if they were competing to play in Major League Baseball next season and take their cuts at the Yankees, Red Sox and all the rest of the "the show."

Ignoring the impracticality of this, it would make for gripping theater and a monumental financial windfall for whichever team(s) won promotion to MLB. And that's why the Football League Championship is worth following.

Of the twenty four teams, the top two win automatic promotion to next season's English Premier League and the clubs finishing third through sixth compete in a promotion playoff with the winners of two two-legged aggregate ties (3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5) facing off in a playoff final at Wembley Stadium in London for the third and final promotion spot. It's worth about $50 million to get promoted and in an English football climate that is even more dominated by money than sports in America (look at the rise of Manchester City, for one glaring example), the race to get promoted is even more heated. Granted, the other side of that coin is that the teams who finish in the bottom three of the standings get relegated down to League One.

Last year, Middlesbrough were the preseason favorites to win the league. They were the lone side from the three 08-09 EPL relegation fodder to not bounce straight back up (Newcastle and West Brom were the other two.) They brought in famed Scottish manager Gordon Strachan and bought a bunch of highly rated Scottish players, most notably Kris Boyd. I bought the hype like everybody else, somewhat against my better judgment, and got burned for it. They sank to as low as 20th at one point before finishing a disappointing 12th. Luckily, I nailed Queens Park Rangers winning automatic promotion (even if I had them below 'Boro) and hit on two of the three relegated teams (Preston North End and Scunthorpe United), missing the shock Sheffield United drop in favor of Barnsley. It's always tough to predict this league - NO ONE had Norwich City winning automatic promotion and less than no one had relegation-favorite Blackpool winning the playoff - but I'll give it a shot nonetheless.

2011-2012 Football League Championship
Newly Relegated - West Ham (20th in EPL), Blackpool (19th), Birmingham City (18th)
Newly Promoted - Brighton & Hove Albion (1st in League One), Southampton (2nd), Peterborough United (4th, won playoff)
Last Season's Table - Queens Park Rangers/Norwich City/Swansea City/Cardiff City/Reading/Nottingham Forest/Leeds United/Burnley/Millwall/Leicester City/Hull City/Middlesbrough/Ipswich Town/Watford/Bristol City/Barnsley/Portsmouth/Coventry City/Derby County/Crystal Palace/Doncaster Rovers/Preston North End/Sheffield United/Scunthrope United

1) West Ham United - One of the two big favorites this season alongside Leicester City, the Hammers should go straight back up. Blackburn should've never let Sam Allardyce go and Newcastle's Kevin Nolan is my pick for Championship Player of the Year. Abdoulaye Faye from Stoke is the kind of bruiser who will thrive under Big Sam and Bolton's Matty Taylor is a nice signing as well. And the longer they keep Scott Parker, Matthew Upson and Carlton Cole, the better.
2) Ipswich Town - Paul Jewell was put in to an impossible situation at Derby a few years ago when the Rams tanked in the Premier League. Here, he has a team that started red hot last season before a horrible run of form and a needed managerial switch. He's a good manager with some great signings that aren't getting enough respect. Michael Chopra is a proven star at this level, Lee Bowyer is the kind of tough veteran leader this streaky team needs. Add in a proven Premier League keeper in Fulham's David Stockdale and I'm calling the Tractor Boys to follow in their archrival Norwich City's footsteps in finishing second for auto-promotion.
3) Leicester City - It'll take a little time for the all-star team to gel and there will be rough patches when things don't click, but we're looking at the division's Manchester City. Keeper Kasper Schmeichel from Leeds, center back Matt Mills from Reading (whom they paid 5.5 million for, beating out my Wolves in an extremely rare case of a Championship side beating a Premier League side for a rated player), midfielder Michael Johnson from Manchester City and striker David Nugent from Portsmouth are major acquisitions for each level of the outfit. Add in highly respected former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and there's just no way this club is missing the playoffs, at the very least.
4) Nottingham Forest - Like Eriksson, Steve McClaren's a former England manager albeit much less highly respected. He takes over the playoff regulars Forest, who lost some players in the offseason but Jonathan Greening was a nice pickup who's worked with McClaren before. One of the league's biggest and best sides, they should end up with a shot at promotion in May yet again and the call is that this is their year to get lucky in the playoffs and finally return to the league which they belong.
5) Reading - Brian McDermott is one of the most underrated managers in England and at some point, a bigger club needs to snatch him up. Maybe it'll be Wolves if things go south under Mick - we've done lots of business with the Royals in the past. Anyhow, they've lost Matt Mills to Leicester but have so far retained super striker Shane Long. But besides all that, this is a club that, like Forest, is always in the playoff hunt and after last year's second half failure against Swansea at Wembley in the final, they'll be hungry to take one step further this season.
6) Southampton - Money, money, money. The Saints were relegated and in administration a couple of years ago before a Swiss businessman bought them and now they're up from League One and able to throw cash at players like Chelsea's Jack Cork. A sleeping giant that has finally been awoken, here's my pick of the newly promoted sides to make the most noise and pip the last playoff spot.
7) Middlesbrough - Okay, so the Gordon Strachen experiment failed. But Tony Mowbray did a great job of righting the ship and the team caught fire down the stretch last season. Still one of the bigger clubs in the division, they'll fight for playoff positioning.
8) Birmingham City - I just don't see one of the perennial yo-yo clubs bouncing right back up with all the turnover and turmoil surrounding the club. But Chris Hughton was a big catch at manager, having handled a similar (but not nearly as financially dire) situation at Newcastle a couple of seasons ago and their defense and overall quality should remain tough enough to stay in the playoff hunt at the least.
9) Blackpool - It CANNOT be overstated how big of a loss Charlie Adam is for them. He was their heart and soul. DJ Campbell and Luke Varney are really tough losses as well. But Gary Taylor-Fletcher's still there and most importantly, Ian Holloway will continue to play his unique brand of attacking football that should have the Tangerines sniffing around for playoff glory again.
10) Cardiff City - They've made no secret about the fact that they're rebuilding, firing Dave Jones in favor of Malky Mackay and letting their top three strikers, Craig Bellamy, Michael Chopra and Jay Bothroyd go. They were banking on going up each of the past two years, they failed in the playoffs both times and now it's back to the drawing board. They're still strong enough for a top half finish, though.
11) Hull City - Will the Manchester United youngsters work out? In a weaker year at the top, the Tigers would probably be able to make a playoff push but not this one. Plus, it's impossible to ignore that dreadful home form, which has continued with a 1-0 loss to Blackpool to open the season.
12) Brighton & Hove Albion - This year's Cinderella story. The high flying champions of League One finally have a home for the first time in over a decade and what fancy new digs it is. They're throwing cash around, most notably 3.25 million pounds at Craig Mackail-Smith from Peterborough to further boost their offense. This season's Blackpool? Not sure there's a Charlie Adam to make it all go but they should be a breath of fresh air and could finish top half of the table.
13) Burnley - Extremely inconsistent last year, they finally sacked Brian Laws (what an atrocious hire that was) and finished a little outside the playoff places. Still a small club that was a huge surprise to go up a few years ago, they've lost Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears to Bolton as old manager Owen Coyle is picking them dry. Their league position will show it.
14) Leeds United - Started off last year fairly well, then got red hot and soared in to the automatic promotion places...and then absolutely collapsed down the stretch to miss out on the playoffs. They played wide open, high scoring football...but now their star goalie starts for Leicester and they subtracted more than they added. The most historically high profile club in the Championship, they feel due for a slip before a big push for promotion a year or two from now.
15) Derby County - I've always felt like this squad is an underachiever and with all the signings they've made this summer, they should make a bit of a push up the table. Not getting Luke Varney back from Blackpool is disappointing but Jamie Ward is a nice signing from relegated Sheffield United and Jason Shackall is a big capture from Barnsley. Maybe it's his last name but I keep expecting Nigel Clough to take these guys back in to the playoff hunt. We'll see.
16) Portsmouth - They were a MESS last season and a popular pick to suffer back-to-back relegations but stabilized and stayed up comfortably. Losing David Nugent hurts but bringing in Luke Varney is huge. They're just trying to tread water while their richer South Coast brethren have their sights set on prosperity.
17) Millwall - One of the shocks of last season, the relegation favorite Lions nearly made the playoffs on the back of terrific home form at The Den and Steve Morison's 15 goals. The latter are at Norwich, promotion buddies from last year who were able to make it back-to-back promotions. They'll continue to be tough at home but they're just too small to replace a player of Morison's caliber right away. Man, those are going to be two intense games with West Ham, though.
18) Bristol City - One of the "it" teams going in to last year because of the David James signing, people failed to realize that his best days are behind him and that a team is more than its keeper. If they lose Nicky Maynard they're in big trouble but James is still good enough to keep them up.
19) Watford - A team I picked to struggled last year and surprised, their star manager Malky Mackay is now at Cardiff. Their superstar striker, Championship leading scorer Danny Graham is now a part of Swansea's Premier League push. They could definitely go down but I think they'll have just enough to stay up. Chris Iwelumo (former Wolf!) is a nice signing.
20) Doncaster Rovers - A popular pick to go down but they can't be as injured as they were last season. They were 12th a couple of seasons ago and everyone seems to have forgotten that. It'll be close but they're a feisty club, forcing a replay against my Wolves in the FA Cup last year, and they'll find a way to survive.
21) Crystal Palace - Why not escape three years in a row and become this division's Wigan of sorts? They're always going to be financially strapped and in relegation dogfights and losing Neil Danns to Leicester hurts badly, but they've got a nice development system that keeps them afloat.
22) Coventry City - I hate to pick a fellow West Midlands side to go down as the area staying strong is good for all of us, but they were absolutely pillaged in the offseason losing eight players, including stalwarts Marlon King, Keiren Westwood, Lee Carsley and Aron Gunnerson. They'll join Walsall in League One (if the Saddlers themselves can stay up.)
23) Barnsley - I was wrong about these guys going down last year but I'll pick on them again. Their new manager's credentials are that he got Rochdale out of League Two for the first time in 41 years. Big whoop. A good chunk of their signings are from Rochdale as well and that's not going to cut it in this league, particularly with Jason Shackall off to Derby.
24) Peterborough United - They're punching above their weight again. They should have never beaten Huddersfield Town in the League One playoff final. They scored the most goals in the Football League last season but their top scorer is off to Brighton. They struggled the last time they were here and they'll probably have the leakiest defense in the league. Not sure there's much hope for them to stay up.

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