We are now just weeks away from the start of the 2017/18 Championship season with plenty of football to look forward to once again. This is the first instalment of four preview pieces that VAVEL UK will be releasing before the big kick-off in August.
This is the most exciting period of the year for the majority of football supporters with every club aspiring to have a successful season. This piece takes a look at what to expect from Aston Villa, Barnsley, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, Brentford, Bristol City and Burton Albion in the upcoming campaign.
How did they perform in 2016/17?
Following their relegation from the Premier League, many tipped Villa to secure an immediate return to the top flight. However, this did not turn out to be the case as Steve Bruce was left to pick up the pieces following a poor start to the campaign under Roberto Di Matteo which saw Villa end the season in 13th position.
It was a poor season for Villa considering they finished a whopping 18 points adrift of the play-off places despite spending millions in the transfer market on securing the services of the likes of Ross McCormack, Jonathan Kodjia, Scott Hogan, James Chester, Albert Adomah and more. This certainly put Villa in the category of 'underachievers' in The Championship last season.
Two other teams within this group who also suffered a torrid campaign last time out are Birmingham City and Bristol City. Birmingham's owners made arguably one of the worst managerial changes in the history of the league as they replaced Gary Rowett with Gianfranco Zola with the club just one place outside of the play-offs in December. 24 games later, Zola resigned after just two wins during his disastrous spell in charge of the club.
This saw experienced head Harry Redknapp appointed with three games to go and he ensured Blues survived on the final day of the season with two wins out of three. Blues fans were left breathing a sigh of relief in a season which could have been so much different.
It was not quite as close for Lee Johnson's Bristol City but it was still a poor campaign for the Robins. They finished in 17th, just three points above the relegation zone after a number of heavy defeats throughout the season. If it was not for the 23 goals scored by 19-year-old Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham, then the club may have been preparing for a season in League One this summer.
In comparison, Barnsley, Bolton Wanderers, Brentford and Burton Albion all enjoyed successful campaigns for different reasons. Barnsley continued their dramatic success under manager Paul Heckingbottom as they finished 14th and even flirted with the play-offs throughout. The success of the Reds last season despite losing key players such as Conor Hourihane and Sam Winnall to Championship rivals throughout has been underrated by many. They were put among the favourites for relegation before the season kicked off but never really looked under threat at any point.
Similarly to Barnsley, Brentford continued their success under Dean Smith last time out as they finished in 10th place. The Bees played some scintillating attacking football last season, especially once playmaker Jota had returned to the club from Eibar in La Liga. They also had similar issues to Barnsley in regards to being able to keep hold of their star players as Hogan was sold to Villa in January. However, Lasse Vibe stepped up and scored 15 goals in another successful season for the Bees.
One year on from their relegation from the second tier, Bolton made an instant return as they achieved automatic promotion from League One, finishing runners-up to champions Sheffield United. Phil Parkinson did a superb job of reshaping the squad in a short period of time as when he took over, the club was not in the best state. They managed to finish four points clear of Scunthorpe United and Fleetwood Town who were their closest challengers for the final automatic promotion spot.
The achievement of keeping Burton Albion in the second tier by Nigel Clough is one which has been overlooked by many. The resources available to Clough at the Pirelli Stadium simply cannot compete with that of their Championship rivals but he was still able to guide them to a 20th place finish. He even turned down an approach from Nottingham Forest in January, a club which he holds so much affinity towards, to continue his project at Burton and keep the club in the division.
A successful transfer window?
Despite the fact that Villa have not been as active in this transfer market as last summer, does not mean they have added less quality. They stunned the football world when they were able to persuade John Terry to join the club following his Chelsea departure and he is sure to be a superb addition to the squad. Bruce has also added Ahmed Elmohamady, Sam Johnstone and Glenn Whelan to what is already a talented squad at Villa Park this summer. This business has put Villa among the favourites for automatic promotion next season once again.
Barnsley do not have the financial power of some of their rivals in The Championship and have therefore not made any spectacular signings. The addition of Chelsea striker Ike Ugbo on a season-long loan is an exciting one and Reds supporters will be hoping he has a similar impact to that of Abraham at Bristol City last season. However, the club have lost two key players from last season in the form of Marley Watkins and Josh Scowen who have joined Norwich City and Queens Park Rangers respectively, both on a free transfer. A season of struggle could be in the pipeline for the Reds if they do not add some more Championship experience to their squad.
Redknapp is looking to add his own spin to his Birmingham squad ahead of next season. The capture of Brighton & Hove Albion keeper David Stockdale on a free transfer was an impressive one and it is hoped he will help prevent the Blues from leaking as many goals next season. The addition of defensive midfielder Cheikh N'Doye from French outfit Angers also looks a good one and he will provide extra protection to a Birmingham defence that was often left exposed last season. The Blues have also been linked to many other experienced faces such as Ashley Cole, Stewart Downing and Robbie Keane but have not yet struck a deal with any of them. With Redknapp at the helm, many will view Birmingham as outsiders for the play-offs next season.
Bolton boss Parkinson has made several signings so far this summer but the additions of Sammy Ameobi, Will Buckley and Adam Armstrong to his Wanderers squad look to be the most exciting. The attacking trio all have the ability to find the back of the net at this level and should get Bolton supporters off their seats next season. The club's relegation forced many high earners to leave the club and they arguably return to The Championship with a better balance among the squad than last time. Parkinson will be looking to establish the Trotters in the second tier next season.
Brentford made their most exciting of the summer so far this week as 21-year-old Exeter striker Ollie Watkins joined the club for an undisclosed fee. He joined the likes of Neal Maupay and Kamohelo Mokotjo who had already arrived at Griffin Park. If the club can fend off Premier League interest in Jota this summer, then they could be in contention for a play-off push next season under Smith's management.
Following a disappointing season last time out, many would have expected Bristol City to have been far busier in the transfer window than they have been so far. The arrival of Angers striker Famara Diédhiou for £5.3 million is Johnson's biggest signing and is expected to fill the void left by Abraham's departure. The added sale of Lee Tomlin to Championship rivals Cardiff City last week leaves Johnson's side short of options in the final third. If they do not add some more quality to their ranks between now and the end of August, another battle against relegation looks to be the most likely scenario for the Robins.
The budget available to Clough at Burton will be one of the lowest in The Championship. Despite this, the club have still made a couple of decent additions as they look to push on following their survival last season. The likes of Hope Akpan, Liam Boyce, Jake Buxton and Stephen Warnock have arrived at the club and will be hoping to make a positive impact. If the club can also fend off interest in star player Jackson Irvine, then that will be a huge boost ahead of the upcoming campaign as he was influential for the Brewers last season.
Players to look out for
John Terry - Aston Villa:
The arrival of the 36-year-old defender at Villa Park has been one of the most talked about transfers so far this summer. Due to the success he has experienced throughout his career, he will be expected to perform next season in The Championship which will bring an added pressure. However, Terry would not have made the move if he was not up for the challenge of guiding Villa back to the Premier League.
Bruce was delighted with the addition of Terry to his squad ahead of next season. He described the signing as "a real statement of intent from Aston Villa."
Of course, the addition of players of Terry's calibre also puts Bruce under more pressure to achieve promotion next season. The club's owner Tony Xia is unlikely to accept anything less than promotion due to the amount of money he has invested into the squad since he completed his takeover of the club.
Tom Bradshaw - Barnsley:
The 24-year-old striker made the move to Oakwell last summer following a successful spell at Walsall in League One. He scored eight goals in his debut season for Barnsley which is not a bad return for his first taste of football at Championship level.
He will certainly be looking to improve on that tally next season and the Reds could be heavily reliant on his goals due to a lack of options in the final third. Bradshaw has not crumbled under the pressure of having to fill the void left by Winnall who left the club to join rivals Sheffield Wednesday in January. He will be looking to prove that he can flourish just as much as Winnall did as Barnsley's main striker next season.
David Stockdale - Birmingham City:
Blues boss Redknapp used his persuasive skills in the transfer market to lure the 31-year-old keeper to St Andrew's this summer. Stockdale has had spells at Fulham, Rotherham United, Leicester City, Plymouth Argyle, Ipswich Town, Hull City and most recently Brighton in his career but has found himself at yet another new club.
He played a vital part in Brighton's promotion to the Premier League last season under the management of Chris Hughton. He conceded just 40 goals in his 45 appearances for the club and this resulted in him being named in both the English Football League and Professional Footballers' Association Championship teams of the year. It is therefore a surprise that he was not in Hughton's plans for next season but Redknapp wasted no time in securing the keeper's services.
Will Buckley - Bolton Wanderers:
The 27-year-old winger has struggled to settle down in the last few years but may now get the chance to show what he is capable of at the Macron Stadium. He has previously had spells at Rochdale, Watford, Brighton & Hove Albion, Sunderland, Leeds United, Birmingham City and most recently Sheffield Wednesday in his career.
It was his spell at the AMEX Stadium with Brighton where he really showed potential to become a top player. However, his £2.5 million move to Sunderland in 2014 did not work out resulting in three loan spells at Leeds, Birmingham and Wednesday in recent times. Buckley struggled to make an impact in any of the loan moves and will now be looking to get his career back on track at Bolton. He clearly has ability and this permanent move to Lancashire may be the perfect environment for him to flourish once again and show what he is capable of.
Jota - Brentford:
The 26-year-old Spaniard was one of the standout players in The Championship last season despite only joining up with Smith's squad for the second half of the campaign as he returned from Eibar in La Liga. He scored 12 goals in 21 appearances for the Bees in the 2016/17 campaign.
If Brentford can keep hold of the winger this summer by fending off any potential interest from the Premier League then they could have a great chance of reaching the play-offs next season. It has been proven in the past that players of Jota's quality can be the difference between winning promotion and remaining in the second tier. He could be as influential as Wilfried Zaha was in Crystal Palace's promotion a couple of years ago.
Famara Diédhiou - Bristol City:
Despite the hefty £5.3 million fee paid to secure his services this summer, the 24-year-old will still be an unknown prospect in English football which could be to his benefit. When Kodjia arrived at the club from Angers in 2015, he was also unheard of but secured an £11 million move just a year later after being a huge success at Ashton Gate.
Robins boss Johnson will be desperately hoping that Diédhiou can have a similar impact to that of Kodjia and score enough goals to keep the club in the division next season. The squad has not been improved that significantly from last season which could be a cause for concern for the club's supporters.
Jackson Irvine - Burton Albion:
The 24-year-old has been an instant hit at the Pirelli Stadium since his arrival from Ross County last summer. His performances have been very impressive considering he has only recently made the switch to English football and this has raised doubts about whether the Brewers will be able to hang on to their main man this summer.
Despite the club narrowly avoiding relegation back down to League One, it was still a successful season for Irvine on a personal level. He made 42 appearances and scored 10 goals as he became one of the first names on Clough's team sheet. It would be a huge boost to Clough and the club if they could keep hold of Irvine for at least another season.
Young players to look out for
Jack Grealish - Aston Villa:
The 21-year-old has been a controversial figure at Villa Park since breaking through the youth academy in 2012 but if he can finally sort out his act off the pitch, then he could be a huge asset to Bruce's side on it. Despite the fact his attitude has been questionable, nobody can doubt the superb ability that the midfielder has at his disposal.
He has made 60 appearances for Villa so far and found the back of the net just six times. If Bruce is finally able to get the best out of Grealish then he could be a key player in the club's promotion campaign next season whilst getting his career back on track at the same time.
Ike Ugbo - Barnsley:
The 18-year-old striker became Heckingbottom's eighth signing of the summer last week as he joined on loan from Premier League side Chelsea until the end of the season. Antonio Conte wanted the player to go and gain some first team experience in the hope it might work out as successfully as Abraham's spell at Bristol City last time out.
Despite the fact that Ugbo is yet to make an appearance for the Chelsea first team, he still looks to be a very exciting prospect. He has scored over 60 goals during his three-year spell at the club including 23 in 35 matches last season for both the Under 18 and Under 23 sides. He will be looking to carry this prolific form into next season with Barnsley.
Che Adams - Birmingham City:
The 21-year-old striker is one of the most promising young forwards in The Championship and showed glimpses of his potential last season. Birmingham signed the striker last summer from Sheffield United for a fee of around £2 million and it already looks like it was good value for money for the Blues.
Next season is likely to be a big one for Adams as he will be looking to improve on his tally of seven goals in 40 appearances for the Blues last season. However, if it was not for Adams' winning goal in the 1-0 win away at Bristol City on the final day of the season then Redknapp's side would be preparing themselves for life in England's third tier.
Adam Armstrong - Bolton Wanderers:
The 20-year-old striker has joined Wanderers on a season-long loan deal from Premier League side Newcastle United this summer. He is held in high regard by Newcastle and has impressed on the other loan spells he has been on so far at Coventry City and most recently Barnsley.
During his time on loan at Coventry he found the back of the net 20 times in 40 appearances for the club in League One. He then tested himself in the second tier for the first time last season with Barnsley and scored six times in 36 appearances during his time at Oakwell. He will be looking to have his best season yet this time round under the management of Parkinson in the hope that he may be able to force himself into Rafael Benítez's plans for next season.
Ollie Watkins - Brentford:
The capture of the 21-year-old striker from Exeter looks to be Brentford's standout signing so far this summer. There have been some great strikers at Griffin Park in recent years such as Andre Gray, Hogan and Vibe but Watkins has the potential to become the next big goal machine at the club.
It will certainly be interesting to see whether Watkins can make the jump from League Two to The Championship as there is a huge gulf in quality between the leagues. Players have flourished after making the jump previously and Bees boss Smith will be hoping that Watkins can do the same. He found the back of the net 21 times in 68 appearances during his three-year spell at Exeter.
John Brownhill - Bristol City:
The 21-year-old midfielder controversially made the switch to Bristol City last summer following the expiration of his contract at Preston North End. Many Preston supporters were disappointed that he did not stay at Deepdale as they were aware of his potential to become a top player in the future.
Brownhill did not make the impact he would have liked to have made at Ashton Gate in his debut season but he still picked up 27 appearances in what was a poor campaign for the Robins and scored once in the process. He will be looking to kick on next season and try and reach his full potential under the management of Johnson.
Matt Palmer - Burton Albion:
The 22-year-old midfielder is still held in high regard by everyone at the club and is seen as an important part of Clough's plans going forward. He has made 140 appearances for the club since breaking through the youth academy in 2012 and has scored nine goals during this time.
He did get sent out on loan to Oldham Athletic in 2016 on a one-month loan deal, but this is the only period in which he was seen as surplus to requirements at the Pirelli Stadium. He has since gone on to become a key player for the club and is only going to improve with age.