We are now just days away from the start of the 2018/19 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 on Friday night between Reading and Derby County at the Madejski Stadium.
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, Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Brentford and Bristol City in the upcoming campaign.
How did they perform in 2017/18?
After picking up just seven points from their first seven games, Steve Bruce's side did not get off to the start they would have wished for. However a run of seven wins post-Christmas, the start-of-season favourites climbed up the table, reaching a high of second place.
Unfortunately for the Villans, that stint in second place lasted just one day and they remained in play-off spots for the remainder of the season. The joy of a play-off semi-final success over Middlesbrough was short-lived when Villa fell short after an embarrassingly defensive first-half set up in such a big game, losing 1-0 to Fulham in the play-off final at Wembley.
Despite the fact they came close to relegation in the 2016/17 campaign, Bristol City stood by manager Lee Johnson and came close to reaping the rewards last season. The Robins were in and around the top six throughout majority of the season, before tailing off when it really mattered. However, it was still a very successful season for the club. The highlight for the club's supporters will have undoubtedly been the famous 2-1 win over Manchester United in their Carabao Cup quarter-final clash at Ashton Gate.
Brentford enjoyed a moderately successful season, finishing a respectable ninth, six points off the play-off places. This mainly came down to excellent home form at Griffin Park. The Bees only lost twice all season at Griffin Park, once to Nottingham Forest in their opening home fixture and to now Premier League side Cardiff City. What ultimately cost Brentford a place in the play-offs was the amount of draws that they took. They drew 15 times throughout the season and if they changed a couple of those draws, especially to teams near the foot of the table in Sunderland and Reading, they could be preparing for life in the Premier League.
Two teams within this group that suffered torrid campaigns last time out are Birmingham City and Bolton Wanderers. For everyone associated with Birmingham, last season was another season to forget. Another below-par campaign resulting in another last day battle for survival. Blues’ season witnessed three managers, Harry Redknapp, Steve Cotterill and Garry Monk and was a very disappointing year yet again. It was the second-successive year that they had to confirm their Championship status on the last day of the season and the third time in four years; this year they will be looking to put those past wrongs right for the supporters who have had to endure a lot over the last seven years.
Monk was tasked with saving Birmingham from relegation in the last 11 games which included some tough opponents such as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bristol City and Fulham. His side managed to pick up 16 points from those final games which included a dramatic 3-1 victory over second-place chasing Fulham on the final day to secure survival.
In comparison, Bolton came about as close to relegation as they possibly could have done. Phil Parkinson has done a good job at the Macron Stadium with very limited resources. They had to rely on a dramatic late 3-2 win against Nottingham Forest on the final day of the season to secure their survival, and condemn both Burton Albion and Barnsley to relegation. Overall, it was a poor season for the Trotters and they largely relied on the influence of forward Sammy Ameobi throughout.
One year on from their relegation from the second tier, Blackburn made an instant return as they achieved automatic promotion from League One, finishing runners-up to champions Wigan Athletic. Tony Mowbray was unlucky not to keep Rovers in the Championship when he took over towards the end of the 2016/17 season, narrowly missing out on survival on the final day. However, since then, he has done a superb job of reshaping the squad and has ensured that they have returned to the second tier as a much better side.
A successful transfer window?
As it stands, Jack Grealish, James Chester and Jonathan Kodjia are all still Villa players, which is excellent news for the fans. On the other hand John Percy, of the Telegraph, recently revealed that Villa were under a transfer embargo until days ago which will have been the reason that as of yet no players have been signed for the club.
The Sun also reported that Villa's new owners are working with super-agent Jorge Mendes, which could see Atletico Madrid goalkeeper André Moreira sign on a season-long loan. With Mendes now looking for players, it would not be a surprise to see a few more coming in before the end of the window.
Birmingham have only been able to bring in one player thus far, Danish left-back Kristian Pedersen from Union Berlin. Although, there is some uncertainty whether the Dane is registered to play due to the Football League placing the club under a transfer embargo for violating Financial Fair Play rules. This came as a result of Redknapp’s spending spree last summer. As there has been no comment from the club or the Football League, supporters are concerned on the lack of depth the squad has so close to the seasons opener this weekend.
They have struggled to offload the players deemed surplus to requirements including David Stockdale, Tomasz Kuzsczak and Jonathan Grounds. Monk is wanting rid of his current two senior keepers but has not yet been able to bring in a replacement.
The club had made offers for Ipswich Town’s Bartosz Białkowski but he ended up signing a new contract with the Tractor Boys. With not long left to go until the window closes with the much earlier deadline this year, it remains to be seen whether Blues and the Football League can come to an agreement which will allow the club to press on with their transfer business.
Blackburn do not have the financial power of some of their rivals in the Championship and it therefore might not be a surprise that it has been a quiet summer at Ewood Park. Jacob Davenport's arrival from Manchester City for an undisclosed fee remains the only incoming at the club so far. However, the club were very active in the transfer market this time last year, with the likes of Bradley Dack, Ben Gladwin, Dominic Samuel and more all coming in. This means that they will undoubtedly be a much stronger outfit than the last time they competed in the second tier.
Following a disappointing season last time out, it comes as no surprise that Bolton have been relatively busy in the transfer window this summer. However, due to the financial limitations at the club, the majority of their business has been restricted to free transfers.
The arrival of Sheffield United striker Clayton Donaldson is arguably the club's biggest signing, and will be expected to fill the void left by Gary Madine's departure in January. The likes of Jason Lowe, Erhun Oztumer, Pawel Olkowski, Marc Wilson, Jack Hobbs and Josh Magennis have also arrived at the club as Parkinson looks to avoid a repeat of last season.
Brentford for many years now have sold their best players and they have managed to get by, by signing gems from the lower leagues in England and abroad. This season, they have sold again by allowing Florian Jozefzoon to join Derby County, who has been a big player for the Bees in recent seasons and could therefore be a massive loss on the wings.
Brentford have also sold defender John Egan to Sheffield United, which is a little bit of surprise, considering he was made captain ahead of the previous campaign and featured 34 times for the Bees in the Championship last season.
Brentford have signed a few of their players from across the channel. They have replaced Egan, with the signing of Julian Jeanvier from Reims. The other French signing for the Bees, is young Algerian striker Said Benrahama. They have also brought a very talented midfielder in the form of Ezri Konsa from Charlton Athletic.
There might be a slight cause for concern at Ashton Gate ahead of the new campaign, mainly due to two significant departures from the club this summer. 25-year-old striker Bobby Reid, who found the back of the net 19 times last season, has joined newly-promoted Cardiff City for around £10 million. In addition to this, Aden Flint was also allowed to join Championship rivals Middlesbrough for a significant fee on a four-year deal. They were two vital players for the Robins last season and it remains to be seen how they cope without them.
However, they have spent a reasonable amount of money themselves so far in this transfer window. The likes of Adam Webster, Andreas Weimann, Mo Eisa, Jack Hunt and Marley Watkins have all arrived at the club for significant money and Johnson will be hoping that they can make the desired impact.
Players to look out for
Jack Grealish - Aston Villa
The 22-year-old winger has been linked with a move away from the club all summer but with reports coming out recently claiming that the owners do not want to sell, this could be a huge season if he stays at B6.
After spending the first four-and-a-half months of last season on the sidelines, the Brummie-born midfielder found himself a vital part of the team following his return. His goals and assist statistics from last season are not the greatest but his game is so much more than that.
A much more mature player than the one that has been criticised in recent years, Grealish will arguably be the best player in the division next season and will be so important if Bruce's side will look to challenge again.
Jota - Birmingham City
After a disappointing first year in Royal Blue, there is a feeling that this year is that of Jota’s, who looked to become more assured of his abilities towards the end of the season under the leadership of Garry Monk. There is no question of the Spaniard’s ability after he scored 12 goals in the second half of the 2016-17 campaign for Brentford having spent the first half of the season on loan at Eibar.
The 27-year-old is undoubtedly one of the top talents in the Championship with his quick-feet and creative abilities. Monk wanted the player when he was Middlesbrough boss and Jota appears to enjoy working with the young manager, so with a whole pre-season behind him he could be raring to go to rediscover the form he had at Brentford.
Bradley Dack - Blackburn Rovers
The arrival of the 24-year-old midfielder from Gillingham last summer was seen as a very astute piece of business by the club, mainly due to the fact that he had shown he could already deliver at that level. He was signed for an initial fee of £750,000 and he was certainly worth the money as he scored a total of 18 goals and also racked up nine assists throughout the season to help Rovers secure automatic promotion. That is a very impressive return for a midfielder, no matter what level they are competing at.
The big question will be whether he can step up to the Championship, having never played at that level in his career. However, he is still a relatively young player with plenty of improvement still to come and under the management of Mowbray, he will be given the opportunity to flourish.
Sammy Ameobi - Bolton Wanderers
Without the contribution of the 26-year-old winger last season, the Trotters would most likely be preparing for life back in League One. He scored a total of four goals whilst picking up two assists, but it was his power and pace going forward which made him the main threat for Parkinson's side. He will be looking to improve his performances further this season.
It is perhaps slightly surprising that a rival Championship club has not been interested in trying to lure Ameobi away from the Macron Stadium this summer. Due to the financial situation at the club, he could have perhaps been available for a relatively low fee. However, as it stands, he remains at the club and is likely to be a very important player once again in the upcoming campaign.
Alan Judge - Brentford
After impressing in the 2015/16 campaign, Judge has had a torrid time with injury. Missing the 2016/17 season must have been hard and the Irishman only returned midway through last season and failed to really leave his mark in the campaign. Now with a full pre-season under his belt and the departure of a seasoned attacking player in Jozefzoon, this could be his time to really step up and give Brentford that creative spark that went missing in a number of games last season.
Judge, in that impressive 2015/16 season, notched up 14 goals and that level of goals could be the difference between finishing in mid-table and making the play-offs once again.
Joe Bryan - Bristol City
It comes as somewhat as a surprise that the 24-year-old left-back is still a Bristol City player with just days left until the season starts, due to the amount of interest there has been in him this summer. He was one of the Robins' standout players throughout last season and it is therefore no surprise that he has been linked with numerous Premier League sides.
The likes of Newcastle United, West Ham United, Burnley, Everton and also Championship side Leeds United, have all been linked with Bryan so far. However, the club are said to value the left-back at around £6 million and this valuation is yet to be matched. The player is said to favour a move to the Premier League so could yet leave the club before the transfer window slams shut next week.
Young players to look out for
Andre Green - Aston Villa
A product of the academy, the 20-year-old winger started off last season fantastically, being the stand out Villa performer in most games he played in. Unfortunately for him, he was plagued with serious injuries which kept him out from September until the end of the season.
Three goals in the final two pre-season games, including one peach against Dynamo Dresden, shows that Green is ready for the season ahead. If given the chance, the 20-year-old could definitely be an important cog to Bruce's side this season.
Isaac Vassell - Birmingham City
Having spent a year at St Andrew's already, the young forward will come across as a new signing to Birmingham having missed a lot of last season through injury which he sustained in the home game against rivals Aston Villa at the end of October.
It was such a blow for him and the club as he was growing in confidence, becoming more effective in the games he played with intense pressing thanks to his raw pace. The 24-year-old has been working hard ever since the injury to return to the pitch and he is very close to a return and it will be interesting to see how he fares under the guidance of Monk.
Jacob Davenport - Blackburn Rovers
The 19-year-old midfielder remains Mowbray's only signing of the summer, having joined for an undisclosed fee from Premier League side Manchester City. Davenport was clearly going to struggle for first team opportunities at the Etihad Stadium, meaning that it was an easy decision for Pep Guardiola to allow him to leave the club on a permanent basis.
Despite the fact that Davenport never managed to make an appearance for City's first team, he still looks to be a very exciting prospect. He does also already have some Championship experience under his belt, having made 17 appearances for Burton Albion last season under the management of Nigel Clough. He will be hoping that he can use this experience to his advantage in the upcoming campaign.
Josh Vela - Bolton Wanderers
Due to the high average age of Bolton's squad, Vela is one of the youngest players at the club, despite being 24-years-old himself. The midfielder was a very important player for the Trotters last season, establishing himself as a first team regular. His influence in midfield was vitally important and he is likely to be another ever-present figure again this season.
He made over 30 appearances for the club last season, and has now managed that feat for the previous three years. He will be hoping that he can continue to be as fortunate in regards to staying fit so that he can help ensure that the Trotters do not have to suffer from another battle against relegation.
Ezri Konsa - Brentford
A very talented youngster, who was apart of England’s Under 20 World Cup winning squad in 2017 and since making his debut at the Valley in 2016, Konsa made 86 appearances for the Addicks before being bought by Brentford this summer.
His new boss Dean Smith, is very pleased with the signing commenting on Konsa’s almost limitless potential. Smith said: “We are really pleased to have completed the signing of Ezri. He was much sought after and we are very happy that he has chosen us to continue his development. It is a really exciting signing for us because of his age, potential and attitude."
Josh Brownhill - Bristol City
The 22-year-old midfielder really established himself as a first team regular under the management of Johnson last season, missing just one Championship game. The Robins have plenty of options in midfield with the likes of Marlon Pack, Korey Smith and Jamie Paterson and more to choose from, but Brownhill was able to retain his place in the starting line-up due to a number of impressive performances.
He is a box-to-box midfielder that certainly likes to get forward and help out as much as he can at both ends of the pitch. He managed to find the back of the net a total of five times last season, and this is likely to be something that he is looking to improve on this time round. If the Robins are to have another successful season, Brownhill is likely to play an integral part in it.