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 third 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 pieces takes a look at what to expect from Middlesbrough, Millwall, Norwich City, Nottingham Forest, Preston North End and Queens Park Rangers in the upcoming campaign.
Sam France takes a look at what to expect from Middlesbrough, Jamie Josyln looks at Norwich City and Jack McGraghan looks at Queens Park Rangers whilst Sam Straw looks at Millwall, Nottingham Forest and Preston North End.
How did they perform in 2016/17?
After three exciting, successful years under Aitor Karanka, Middlesbrough fizzled into insignificance in their first top-flight season for seven years. Initially looking a good bet for a lower mid-table finish, the wheels came off in a disastrous January transfer window which saw Boro miss out on all three of their primary transfer targets: Jesé Rodriguez, Gerard Deulofeu and Bojan Krkić.
An exasperated Karanka left under a cloud and Boro were relegated with a whimper. Álvaro Negredo was shorn of service and while the continued excellence of Boro boy Ben Gibson was a highlight, a chronic lack of creativity in midfield meant interim boss Steve Agnew was unable to stop the rot.
What had appeared an exciting season with the ambitious arrivals of Negredo, Victor Valdés and Viktor Fischer eventually dissipated into one of the most forgettable Premier League campaigns in recent memory. Their final goal tally stood at 27 – two fewer than Golden Boot winner Harry Kane.
Two other teams within this group who also suffered a torrid campaign last time out are Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers. Forest had finished lower each year under the ownership of Kuwaiti businessman Fawaz Al-Hasawi and reached a new low this season as they avoided relegation to League One on the final day of the season.
The 3-0 win against Ipswich Town at The City Ground saw the Reds avoid relegation by just two goals as both Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City also won.
The main positive Forest fans could take from last season is that it marked the end of the five-year Al-Hasawi era. He sold the club to Greek shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis and a brighter future is now in prospect for the Reds.
Marinakis had a huge say in appointing Mark Warburton as manager, and if it was not for Warburton's appointment, Forest may well have been preparing for life in the third tier.
QPR supporters also endured a difficult campaign last time out as despite getting off to a winning start with two victories over Leeds United and Cardiff City, the R’s form soon took a nosedive and they won just three of the following 14 league matches.
This disappointing start led to the sacking of manager Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who was also embroiled in a storm over the Daily Telegraph’s investigation into footballing corruption with the club sat 17th in the league.
Former boss Ian Holloway returned for his second stint in West London but couldn’t manage to improve their form, with the R’s sat 19th come the turn of the year. Inconsistencies continued to show in the second half the season, with an impressive away win at Reading and a point away to league winners Newcastle United cancelled out by defeats to Burton Albion and relegated Blackburn.
QPR themselves narrowly escaped the drop after being dragged into a relegation battle following a run of six straight defeats, but their 2-0 win at Nottingham Forest in the season’s penultimate fixture spared them from the drop down to League One leaving them two points above Blackburn in 22nd come the end of the campaign.
In comparison, Millwall and Preston North End both enjoyed successful campaigns for different reasons. Two years on from their relegation from the second tier, Millwall made a return as they achieved promotion from League One, beating Bradford City 1-0 in the League One Play-Off Final at Wembley in May.
Neil Harris was already a legend with Lions supporters from his playing days but this promotion has made him even more of a popular figure at The Den. He has done a superb job since taking over at the helm and will be looking to establish his side in The Championship next season.
One of the biggest stories to take from Millwall's promotion was the contribution of 33-year-old striker Steve Morison. He is a fan's favourite having returned to the club for a second spell and his winning goal at Wembley will be remembered fondly for many years to come. The Lions will be looking to cause an upset away at Forest on the opening day of the season.
Preston North End also enjoyed a successful season as they finished in their joint highest league position of 11th since they finished 6th in The Championship in the 2008/09 season. This just underlies what a superb job Simon Grayson had done at Deepdale with relatively limited resources. Despite eventually finishing mid-table, North End actually flirted with the play-offs on numerous occasions throughout the season, even as late as around Easter.
However, Grayson arguably had his squad massively overachieving and they did not have the quality to go on the kind of run needed to reach the top six come May.
Despite their success last season, North End fans will be worried about the upcoming campaign following Grayson's departure after four-years at the club to join Championship rivals Sunderland. However, they will be hoping that new manager Alex Neil can build on the foundations which Grayson has put in place during his time at Deepdale.
Norwich City got off to a really good start last time out after relegation from the Premier League in 2015/16. Alex Neil’s side looked strong favourites for an immediate return to the top flight for a second successive Championship campaign after they only lost two of their opening 13 league games.
Unfortunately for City fans their form then went in the opposite direction, as they would only win three of their next 13 league games towards the end of 2016, a run which included losing five games in a row.
Neil managed to relieve a bit of the pressure from the fans off himself, as Norwich lost only one of their first eight league games in 2017, winning five of these fixtures to keep themselves in touch of the playoff positions.
Another winless run followed though and after a 5-1 hammering away to Sheffield Wednesday the Norwich board decided enough was enough and sacked Neil, placing Alan Irvine in charge until the end of the season.
Irvine would deliver six wins in the last 10 games, but Norwich had too much ground to make up and finished in eighth position, 10 points off a playoff spot.
A successful transfer window?
After Boro Chairman Steve Gibson’s stated desire to ‘smash the league’, new boss Garry Monk has been backed to the hilt with a raft of impressive signings. Nottingham Forest’s goal machine Britt Assombalonga has arrived for a club-record fee, Toulouse captain Martin Braithwaite joining him for close to £10 million.
Alongside Patrick Bamford and Rudy Gestede, Boro now have an arsenal of goalscoring talent capable of blowing Championship defences away.
Jonny Howson and Cyrus Christie have arrived to add more Championship-hardened steel, with Darren Randolph coming in from West Ham to battle Connor Ripley and Dimi Konstantopoulos for the goalkeeper’s shirt.
Boro have recouped some of their transfer outlay with the sales of Jordan Rhodes, Bernardo Espinosa, Cristhian Stuani and Viktor Fischer among others, while at time of writing Gastón Ramírez looks also to be on his way out.
Boro are still in need of reinforcements in attacking midfield but spending is likely to continue, while the club are determined to keep hold of Ben Gibson and Marten de Roon.
Millwall do not have the financial power of some of their rivals such as Middlesbrough in The Championship and have therefore not made any spectacular signings. The likes of Conor McLaughlin, Jed Wallace, Calum Butcher, Gregg Wylde and Shaun Hutchinson have already arrived at The Den this summer from Fleetwood Town, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Burton Albion, Plymouth Argyle and Fulham respectively.
The main objective for Lions boss Harris this summer will be keeping hold of their main striker, Lee Gregory. Reports have suggested that Gregory had handed in a transfer request to force a move to Rotherham United but with no deal yet completed, Harris may still have some hope of persuading him to remain at the club.
There’s been a lot more outgoings than incoming players so far this summer at Norwich, as new manager Daniel Farke builds the squad he wants following his arrival from Germany. It’s perhaps no surprise then that three of his five signings so far have come from his home country.
Defenders Christoph Zimmermann and Marcel Franke have arrived for low transfer fees along with Bosnian central midfielder Mario Vrancic from Darmstadt. The other two arrivals are both left sided options; with full back James Husband and winger Marley Watkins joining from Championship rivals Barnsley and Middlesbrough.
Certain players who have left the club will be hard ones to accept for the fans, with some long term servants of the club moving on as well as two goalkeepers being let go including once England international John Ruddy.
The most significant sales have been Jacob Murphy moving to Newcastle United for around £12 million and Jonny Howson joining a promotion rival in Middlesbrough for £6 million.
These players will be hard to replace, but Norwich have added a bit of depth in the loan market through the signings of midfielder Harrison Reed from Southampton and keeper Angus Gunn from Manchester City. In terms of player recruitment there will need to be more familiar faces coming for this window to be considered a success you feel.
Warburton is looking to add his own spin to his Forest squad ahead of next season. Previous manager Philippe Montanier made a number of poor additions last season such as Damien Perquis, Hildeberto Pereira, Lica, Thomas Lam, Nicklas Bendtner, Patjim Kasami, Ross McCormack and more who have mostly already left the club.
Due to the amount of departures, Warburton has been able to make a number of his own additions this summer, with more still expected to arrive. He has already added Jason Cummings, Barrie McKay and Daryl Murphy to his squad who have arrived from Hibernian, Rangers and Newcastle United respectively.
They are all players who will offer something different to Forest's attack next season and they will be needed following the £15 million sale of last season's top scorer Assombalonga to Middlesbrough last week.
Preston North End made their most exciting signing of the summer so far last week as 21-year-old Manchester United midfielder Josh Harrop joined the club for an undisclosed fee. He joined the likes of Kevin O'Connor and Declan Rudd who had already arrived at Deepdale from Cork City and Norwich City respectively.
It has not been the most successful transfer window for Preston so far and there is no doubt that Neil will be looking to recruit further before the season kicks off in under two weeks time.
The R’s have had a rather uneventful summer window, making just two signings at the time of writing. Barnsley midfielder Josh Scowen joined the club on a free transfer alongside Tottenham U23’s midfielder Charlie Owens.
Scowen was an ever-present figure for the Tykes last season, making 41 league appearances while scoring twice and recording three assists.
There have not been many players departing West London during the window either, meaning Holloway will have largely the same squad as last season to choose from. Defensive midfielder Karl Henry’s contract was allowed to expire while loanee Ravel Morrison returned to Serie A side Lazio, although he has now signed for Championship rivals Birmingham City.
Due to their lack of activity in the transfer window it’s hard to see QPR sitting any higher than the bottom half of the Championship this season, with another season of struggle looking likely at Loftus Road.
Players to look out for
Ben Gibson - Middlesbrough (by Sam France):
If Boro do keep hold of Gibson, it will be a statement of intent and an ominous sign for the rest of the division – he and Daniel Ayala, also still at the club, formed the meanest defence in the football league when the club was promoted two seasons ago and Gibson has only improved since then.
They also boast an incredibly impressive midfield, around which Garry Monk will hope to build an efficient, expressive, promotion-winning team. Adam Clayton, Marten de Roon, Jonny Howson, Grant Leadbitter, Adam Forshaw and Adlène Guedioura will do battle for two or three central midfield spots, with all six exceptional at this level – whoever Monk picks will have to be at 100% throughout the season to keep their starting spot, and that is hugely encouraging for Boro fans.
Lee Gregory - Millwall:
The 28-year-old striker has impressed at The Den since joining the club from Halifax Town in 2014. He has scored 42 goals in 114 appearances for the Lions so far and has established himself as one of the best players at the club. His first season at Millwall came in The Championship in the 2014/15 campaign and he stood out as a bright spark in the team which was eventually relegated from the division. He scored nine goals in 39 appearances that season.
He has also performed well in Millwall's two campaigns in League One since. He found the back of the net 15 times in the 35 appearances he made for the Lions this season and was a key player in their play-off success. He will be looking to continue his fine form in the second division next season and ensure that the Lions compete better than they did last time.
Nelson Oliveira - Norwich City (by Jamie Joslyn):
Oliveira looks to be the player to watch out for this year for Norwich after an indifferent first season in East Anglia. It took until December for Oliveira to grab his first league goal for Norwich, but his strike rate was pretty decent after that as the former Benfica striker finished with 11 league goals making 2016/17 the most productive season of his career.
Cameron Jerome was the only player with more goals for the Canaries last season and he has been linked with a move away all summer so the team will look to Oliveira for goals again. The Portuguese international played less than 30 games last season so if he can avoid injury this campaign then he could easily have a 20 goal year based on last season’s strike rate.
Zach Clough - Nottingham Forest:
It is set to be a big campaign for the 22-year-old midfielder at The City Ground this season. He joined the club in the January transfer window from Bolton Wanderers for a fee of around £2 million. He made a good start to his Forest career under the management of Gary Brazil and scored a couple of goals in his first few games. He scored four goals in total for the Reds and played a key part in their survival.
Clough will be looking to improve again this season and ensure that he is regularly featured in Warburton's starting line-up. He does have a lot of competition with the likes of Chris Cohen, David Vaughan, Matty Cash and Ben Osborn all fighting for a place. Warburton has also stated that he is looking to add further additions in midfield with the likes of Gary Gardner and Jackson Irvine linked with the club.
The Reds are also set to sign Olympiakos midfielder Andreas Bouchalakis on loan after a successful trial. All of these additions are going to make Clough's route into the starting line-up more difficult but he will be up for the challenge.
Josh Harrop - Preston North End:
It will certainly be interesting to see how the 21-year-old midfielder performs at Deepdale following his arrival from Manchester United. He clearly has talent, shown by his first goal for United in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on the final day of last season. He also finished top scorer for United's Under 23 side as he found the back of the net 10 times.
The main worry Preston supporters will have will be in regards to whether Harrop can deal with the demands that Championship football brings. However, there is no better place for young talent to learn to deal with the physicality of the game than in the second tier. He also has a very supportive manager in Neil who will help guide him throughout the season in order to continue his development.
Alex Smithies - Queens Park Rangers (by Jack McGraghan):
The former Huddersfield goalkeeper was the only player to start every single league game for the R’s last season, and with good reason. Smithies may have had to play behind a shaky defence, but on several occasions he was the reason that his side weren’t beaten comfortably with his penalty saves in particular earning the club vital points.
Ahead of what is looking like another tough season, Smithies will need to be on top form once again for Holloway’s men if they are to improve on last season and avoid being dragged into a relegation battle.
Young players to look out for
Adama Traoré - Middlesbrough (by Sam France):
Though it is unclear whether Traoré will remain at the club with Premier League sides interested, Monk will be hopeful of convincing the Barcelona academy graduate to stay and continue the development his career solely requires. Still only 21, Héctor Bellerín and Kyle Walker were just two of the players who found out the astonishing physical prowess which Traoré possesses, and his dribbling statistics were comparable with some of the best players in the world.
With final product and a footballing brain still lacking, a season in the Championship could be the making of him. Intensely frustrating for times at fans, there is a world-class talent begging to be unearthed – Karanka improved him, but Monk will hope to turn his limitless potential into a mountain of goals and assists.
Fred Onyedinma - Millwall:
The 20-year-old midfielder has recently come on to the scene at Millwall in the last two-years and is now regularly featured within Harris' starting line-up. He gained valuable experience during a loan spell at Wycombe Wanderers in the 2014/15 season and this has aided his development massively.
He has now go on to make a total of 82 appearances for the Lions so far and has scored seven goals in the process. He made 42 appearances last season as Millwall secured promotion back to the second tier via the play-offs.
He will be looking forward to having a full season in The Championship after only managing to make a handful of appearances the last time the club found themselves in the second flight.
James Maddison - Norwich City (by Jamie Joslyn):
Maddison is one of a few promising youngsters at Norwich, but with him now no longer a teenager this season should be the one for him to break into the Norwich first team. The Norwich hierarchy clearly has a lot of faith in his abilities as well as he has just signed a new four-year contract with the club.
Maddison has been allowed to grow by Norwich as a player with a couple of loan spells at his old club Coventry City and Aberdeen in Scotland since Norwich bought him in February 2017. He finally made his league debut for the Canaries in April against Preston North End and capped the occasion with a goal off the bench. Big things are expected out of the creative player and this season should be the one for him to show City fans what he can do.
Ben Brereton - Nottingham Forest:
The 18-year-old striker is regarded as one of the brightest young talents outside the Premier League after impressing in the Forest first team last season. He was given his chance to impress by Brazil and then Warburton also included him in his starting line-up for the remainder of the season. He found the back of the net three times in the 18 appearances he made in his debut season in The Championship.
He also played a key role in the England Under 19 team this summer at the Under 19 European Championship. He found the back of the net three times in the five appearances he made in the competition.
His performances have attracted interest from Premier League sides but he decided to commit his long-term future to Forest by signing a new four-year deal this summer.
Callum Robinson - Preston North End:
Preston finally signed the 22-year-old forward from Aston Villa last summer after two successful loan spells at Deepdale. However, last season was by far the most successful season in his career so far. He found the back of the net 10 times in 38 league appearances and also scored the opening goal against Arsenal in The FA Cup.
Robinson, like everyone else connected with the club, will have been disappointed to hear of Simon Grayson's departure to Sunderland. However, Neil will be looking to build on Grayson's success next season and get Preston pushing harder for the play-offs. Robinson is likely to be a key part of these ambitions.
Ryan Manning - Queens Park Rangers (by Jack McGraghan):
The 21-year-old Irishman didn’t appear in the QPR squad until the 24th game of the season, but his performances earned him a new contract in January which was then further extended to 2020 in July.
The midfielder made his debut for the Republic of Ireland’s U21 squad in March after becoming a key member of the R’s squad and certainly has ambition, telling the club website following his contract extension that he wishes to “get back to the Premier League” with the West Londoners within the next three years.