2017/18 Championship Previews: R-Z

VAVEL UK takes a look at Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Sunderland and Wolverhampton Wanderers with the new season kicking-off next Friday.

2017/18 Championship Previews: R-Z
(Photo: Getty Images / Sam Bagnall)

Following on from teams M-Q in the Championship, the final part of VAVEL UK's 2017/18 season previews looks at how Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Sunderland and Wolverhampton Wanderers will fare this season.

So with the season kicking-off on Friday evening, let's take a look at how the final five teams are shaping up ahead of another 46 fixtures.

How did they perform in 2016/17?

Reading

Jaap Stam's first season as manager of the Royals got off to an inconsistent start with the club unable to put together a run of form that would take them into the top six with defeats against Wolves, Aston Villa and Brentford holding them back.

Stam was able to rectify this towards Christmas however, and the club would drop no lower than fifth in the league table following the 15th game of the season. Occasional blips in the form of heavy defeats away to Preston and Norwich showed, but Reading's winnng habit saw them to a third place finish come the end of the season.

Defeating the form side Fulham in the semi-finals of the play-offs saw Stam's organised side going into the final against underdogs Huddersfield, and a cagey affair at Wembley led to a penalty shootout that saw David Wagner's men beat the odds to clinch promotion at the expense of the Royals.

The club have kept their faith in the former Manchester United defender following a largely successful first season at the Madejski Stadium, rewarding the Dutchman with a contract extension that keeps him at the club until 2019.

Sheffield United

Spending their sixth consecutive season in League One, Sheffield United got off to a less than desirable start under Chris Wilder as they failed to win any of their opening four games while losing three.

The Blades turned their fortunes around drastically after their slow start however as they lost just three of their remaining 42 games and went on a 15 and then later on a 16-game unbeaten streak as they stormed to the League One title.

Sheffield-born striker Billy Sharp netted 30 league goals alongside eight assists as Wilder became a hero at the club he supported as a boy, securing their Championship return for the first time since 2011.

Sheffield Wednesday - Sam Straw

Wednesday supporters have enjoyed two exciting years under the management of Carlos Carvalhal but last season again ended in bitter disappointment. The Owls lost in the Championship play-off semi-finals to Huddersfield on penalties, with the Terriers going on to secure their place in the Premier League at Wembley. However, there are many positives to take from the Owls finishing in the play-offs for two consecutive years.

Carvalhal has transformed the club from a lower mid-table side, to a serious contender to secure promotion to the top flight. Many improvements were made to Wednesday’s squad last season with the likes of Jordan Rhodes, Adam Reach and Sam Winnall all arriving at Hillsborough.

Despite the club’s success in the last few years under Carvalhal, there remarkably was some speculation regarding his future. He has been backed heavily in the transfer market by the club’s hierarchy and there was speculation that they might look for a new manager to take the club forward. However, this proved not to be the case as Carvalhal signed a contract extension at the club weeks after their play-off heartbreak. 

Sunderland

Following yet another great escape at the end of the 2015/16 season at the expense of local rivals Newcastle United, Sunderland fans were looking forward to a stable future under a manager who had endeared himself to the fans in Sam Allardyce.

What Black Cats fans didn't bank on though was Allardyce leaving for the England manager's job and being replaced by former Manchester United boss David Moyes.

Moyes had been Chairman Ellis Short's first choice for several years, and the Texan finally got his man ahead of the 2016/17 season with Black Cats fans hoping their perennial relegation struggles would be over. Unfortunately for the Wearsiders, Moyes' reign was nothing short of disastrous as he guided the club to the joint worst-ever start to a Premier League season with a pitiful two points from their opening 10 games.

Despite talisman Jermain Defoe and young goalkeeper Jordan Pickford's best efforts the Black Cats finished rock bottom of the Premier League with just 24 points, sending them down to the Championship for the first time since the 2006/07 season.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wolves impressively managed to work their way through three different managers last season with Walter Zenga, Rob Edwards and Paul Lambert all taking the reigns during an ultimately disappointing season for the club.

The biggest news of the season was the signing of Benfica winger Hélder Costa for a then club record fee of £13m. The 23-year-old went on to become a key player for the club, scoring 12 goals across all competitions in addition to 11 assists as he showed fans at Molineux exactly why Wolves shelled out for his services.

Following a 15th placed finish manager Lambert was relieved of his duties by the board and was replaced by Porto boss Nuno Espírito Santo ahead of the new season.

Can the Royals overcome the disappointment of last season's play-off final defeat to return to the top-flight?

A succesful transfer window?

Reading

Keeping key players has been the main priority for Reading during the summer window and players that have left the club have been swiftly replaced for a low cost by Stam.

Goalkeeper Ali-Al Habsi and midfielder Danny Williams have both departed for Al Hilal and newly promoted Huddersfield respectively, and have been replaced by Sunderland keeper Vito Mannone and Ajax U21 midfielder Pelle Clement ahead of the new season. Lewis Grabban returned to parent club Bournemouth following the conclusion of his loan spell with the club, although he has now joined Sunderland, and has been replaced in the shape of Icelandic striker Jón Dadi Bödvarsson who joined from Wolves.

Stam knows his players well from last season and has clearly looked to keep his squad in shape rather than risk unsettling his promotion hopefuls by signing players in bulk, and Reading look fully capable of breaking into the top six once more this season even without big money signings.

Sheffield United

It's no secret that promoted clubs must recruit well if they are to survive in a league as notoriously tough as the Championship, and Wilder has recruited in numbers ahead of the new season.

Former Blades striker Ched Evans has rejoined the club after a spell at Chesterfield while Wilder has completed the signings of Richard Stearman, John Lundstram, Nathan Thomas, Enda Stevens, Jamal Blackman and George Baldock all on low cost deals.

With four of Wilder's signings either defenders, or in Blackman's case a goalkeeper, it seems that the Blades are looking to remain tight and organised at the back rather than look to go in all guns blazing as some teams have tried and failed to do in the past.

It will come as no surprise to United fans to see their club in a relegation battle upon their return to the second tier, and their survival could well depend on how quickly their new signings integrate themselves into the side.

Sheffield Wednesday - Sam Straw

Due to the amount of quality Carvalhal has added to his squad during his time at the club, there is no need for Wednesday to spend big in this transfer window. However, they are still looking to make some improvements ahead of next season. Their only signing of the summer so far comes in the form of midfielder George Boyd who joined on a free transfer from Premier League side Burnley. He is a player with vast experience at this level and will without doubt be an astute addition to Carvalhal’s squad.

Wednesday did have a very big squad last season and this has seen many players leave Hillsborough this summer. The likes of Vincent Sasso, José Semedo, Modou Sougou, Claude Dielna and more have all left the club already.

Carvalhal will still be looking to make some more additions before the end of the transfer window. Wednesday are well stocked with attacking options but still need to add more cover in central defence. There is a severe lack of centre backs in the squad with only Sam Hutchinson, Glenn Loovens and Tom Lees to choose from, so this is an area that Carvalhal will definitely looking to strengthen before the window slams shut. 

Sunderland

Following the club's relegation and the resignation of manager Moyes, Sunderland fans weren't filled with hope when they discovered that the club would have almost no money to operate with in the transfer as they did in January.

The mood was dampened further with the news that star man Defoe could leave for nothing at all due to a clause in his contract, while the £30m fee received for Pickford would go towards balancing out the club's debts rather than acquiring new players.

New boss Simon Grayson has moved quickly to recruit a number of players on a shoestring budget, signing Aiden McGeady, Jason Steele and James Vaughan for a total of under £2m while Tyias Browning, Brendan Galloway and Lewis Grabban have all joined on loan.

Sunderland's squad could still change with players such as Jeremain Lens and Wahbi Khazri facing uncertain futures, but with or without them the Black Cats are likely to spend a season in mid-table as they search for some long overdue stability following years of change on Wearside.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

Wolves managed to shock European football fans by breaking their transfer record for the second time in six months to sign highly rated midfielder Rúben Neves from Espírito Santo's former side Porto for a fee of £15m.

The signing of Neves was followed by a loan deals for fellow Porto defender Willy Boly and Atletico Madrid forward Diogo Jota, while Espírito Santo recruited Norwich pair John Ruddy and Ryan Bennett on free transfers in addition to several other defensive signings.

Wolves have certainly been one of the Championship's most active clubs in the summer transfer window and their acquisitions could see them mount a promotion challenge this season, with their side looking infinitely stronger than the one that finished 15th last time around.

Wolves pulled off one of the shock signings of the summer with the acquisition of Rúben Neves 

Players to look out for

Reading - Tiago Ilori

Former Liverpool man Ilori signed for the Royals on a permanent deal in January and missed a large chunk of last season due to an ankle injury, meaning now is the perfect time for him to make his mark in the centre of Stam's defence.

The Portugal U21 defender is still only 24 years of age and has yet to reach the prime of his career, so expect him to continue improving under the watchful eye of ex-defender Stam should he remain injury free.

Sheffield United - John Fleck

The Scottish midfielder was the number one source of creativity in the Blades' side last season with an impressive 17 assists to his name alongside four goals. Fleck played in 44 out of 46 league games last season and will need to retain that level of consistency in performance and fitness if Wilder's men are to survive their first season back in the Championship.

Although it is unlikely that the 24-year-old will repeat the statistics of last season, United need their key midfielder to make a name for himself in the second tier rather than disappear into his shell as so many promising players have done upon stepping up a league or two.

Sheffield Wednesday - Sam Straw - Jordan Rhodes

The 27-year-old Scottish striker has struggled in recent years to find his previous prolific goal scoring form. He rarely featured at the beginning of last season for Middlesbrough which saw him loaned out to Wednesday with a view to a permanent deal which has now been completed. However, he only managed to score three goals in 18 appearances for the Owls last season.

Despite the fact he did not have the best season last time out, which ended with him being criticised for not taking a spot kick in the shootout against Huddersfield, he still does have the potential to regain his form in front of goal. If Rhodes can find the goalscoring touch he had at both Huddersfield and Blackburn Rovers, then he could be a huge player for Wednesday next season. 

Sunderland - Duncan Watmore

The 23-year-old winger became a fan favourite on Wearside after breaking into the first-team following a move from Altrincham in 2013 due to his pace and direct style of play, even if he does lack the final product at times. Watmore is at his best when running at defenders, with his directness causing Premier League defenders a few problems while he was an unknown quantity although he began to be found out at the top level after becoming a regular fixture in the side.

Watmore is set to return from a long-term injury that kept him out of most of last season a few weeks into the new campaign, and will be looking to impress his new manager amidst competition from new signing McGeady and the returning Lens should he not leave the club before the window shuts.

Wolverhampton Wanderers - Hélder Costa

The former Benfica winger began last season on loan with Wolves, but his performances earned him a big money move to the club in January as they broke their transfer record to secure his services on a permanent basis.

An impressive tally of 12 goals and 11 assists in his first season in England could have been improved upon were it not for an ankle injury to keep him out of the final eight games of the season, but Costa will be looking to better that this season in a much improved Wolves side under new management.

At 23 years of age there is no doubting that Costa has yet to approach the best years of his career, and if he has another season like he did last time around then his manager could face a tough task keeping hold of him if the club fail to return to the Premier League.

Will Jordan Rhodes regain his goalscoring prowess this season?

Young players to look out for

Reading - John Swift

The 22-year-old midfielder was an ever-present in the centre of the park for the Royals during last season's promotion push, and is likely to be a key figure again as the club look to go one further and return to the Premier League for the first time since the 2012/13 season.

Swift made 42 appearances in all competitions last season, chipping in with nine goals and eight assists from central midfield which is an impressive tally for anyone to hit let alone a player who is yet to reach the prime years of his career.

The departure of Williams to Huddersfield means that Swift now has to become the man his team-mates look to in midfield, and if he embraces this role then fans can expect him to have another succesful season at the Madejski Stadium.

Sheffield United - Jack O'Connell

The 23-year-old suffered perhaps the most out of all United players during their poor start to the 2016/17 season, with the newly signed centre-back arguably to blame for two of the club's three defeats in their opening four games.

He could have easily retreated into his shell with his own fans beginning to write him off after just a few games into his career at Bramall Lane, but instead he turned his fortunes around to become one of the division's top centre-backs, as well as a mainstay in the Blades' defence as they marched on to win the League One title. Stepping up a division is undoubtedly a tough challenge for O'Connell, but it is one he must rise to if he is to make a name for himself in English football.

Sheffield Wednesday - Sam Straw - Adam Reach

Wednesday have a very experienced squad and therefore Adam Reach is one of the youngest players to look out for at 24-years-old. The former Middlesbrough winger made a significant contribution to Wednesday last season and is likely to want to improve his performances even further for this upcoming season at Hillsborough.

He scored twice in 31 league appearances for the Owls last season, both of which were important goals. His first goal came in dramatic fashion away at Preston late on in a 1-1 draw which immediately made him a favourite with the Owls’ fanbase. As one of the club’s most natural wingers, he is likely to play a big part in their upcoming season. 

Sunderland - Joel Asoro

The 18-year-old Swede is a highly rated talent in the world of European football, with Premier League side Arsenal reportedly showing interest in him last season as he cut a frustrated figure in the Sunderland under-23 setup. Asoro has made no secret of his desire to play more first-team football, stating that he "can’t just play under-23 football all the time" if he wishes to improve and forge a career at the top level of European football. 

The European Golden Boy nominee is a striker with bags of pace in his locker and despite being limited to the occasional substitute appearance by Moyes last season now has a new manager to impress in Grayson, who may have no other option but to turn to the 18-year-old with his transfer budget limited.

Wolverhampton Wanderers - Rúben Neves

If you had told Wolves fans that they would complete the £15m signing of a 20-year-old midfielder who became the youngest-ever captain in Champions League history at the age of 18, they probably would have laughed in your face.

But that is exactly what Espírito Santo did when he raided his old club Porto for the highly rated Neves during the summer transfer window, signalling his intent to take Wolves back to the top-flight for the first time since 2012.

Neves, who told the club's official website upon signing that Wolves "can do good things this season", now has a chance to make his mark on English football as he has done in Portugal as a defensive midfielder who is an efficient tackler as well as being confident on the ball in the centre of the park.

The 20-year-old will undoubtedly go on to much bigger things than the Championship during his career, so fans should watch as much of Neves as they can as he could well be one of the league's biggest stars next season.

Joel Asoro is one to watch should he be afforded the first-team football he desires.

Championship