How ready are the relegated sides to push for Championship promotion?
Cardiff’s Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Fulham’s Joe Bryan will be battling in the Championship this season. Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

None of the three sides that dropped down to the Championship last season were able to make a quick return – West Bromwich Albion made the play-offs but neither Stoke City or Swansea City were in contention for promotion.

All three were on the rebound following long stays in the top flight, but this year Cardiff City and Fulham return after a single season while Huddersfield Town had two years at the top.

Making the readjustment can be notoriously difficult but with all three squads packed full of players who helped their sides achieve promotion the first time around, are they all in a strong position to challenge with the best sides in the league for a spot back in the big time?

Cardiff City

The most important news of the summer for Cardiff came two days after their defeat of Manchester United in the final game of the Premier League season.

Like a seasoned criminal agreeing to ‘one last job’ before retirement, Neil Warnock has agreed to go through it all again and stay for the final year of his contract in South Wales.

The 70-year-old has earned no fewer than eight promotions in his managerial career, including three from the Championship, and he hailed taking Cardiff into the top flight as his greatest achievement.

The Yorkshireman has never truly cracked the Premier League but he returns to his best stomping ground with a squad fairly well-equipped to fight for a quick return.

Bobby Reid will be the key – he scored 19 Championship goals for Bristol City to earn a move to the Bluebirds but was something of a disappointment last season, registering just five times. 

Warnock has a top-scorer contender in his pocket but he must get the best out of him, something that didn’t seem to happen with Reid as a lone striker. With a host of exciting wide talent ready to let rip in the second tier, including Josh Murphy, Junior Hoilett and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, it’s a tough riddle to solve trying to find a system that will suit them all.

The losses of Victor Camarasa, returning after his loan spell from Real Betis, and Aron Gunnarsson have left a hole in the middle of the park, but the combative Will Vaulks has been picked up from Rotherham and will add steel and energy to the side alongside Joe Ralls.

They have made a statement with the signing of centre-back Aden Flint from Championship rivals Middlesbrough, which will make up for the loss of Bruno Ecuele Manga.

Warnock is familiar with shopping in the discount supermarkets and that hasn’t changed, with defender Curtis Nelson and goalkeeper Joe Day joining on free transfers from Oxford United and Newport County respectively.

With his proven track record of finding little-known talent and transforming them into top players, their progress will be worth watching closely.

Those two may have a first-team opportunity sooner rather than later if some of last year’s more impressive performers are kept within the Premier League.

Filipino stopper Neil Etheridge certainly proved his worth at the top level, as did powerful centre-back Sol Bamba despite his increasing age.

A mention should also go to the Bluebirds’ cult hero Callum Paterson, who doesn’t seem to be on the lips of top clubs but has proved his commitment and ability, whether in midfield or upfront and will have a significant part to play.

Even without any big-money signings in the transfer window, Cardiff already have the right players and the right manager to be aiming for promotion.

Fulham

The Premier League is now a playground for those with unfathomably big wallets, but Fulham found that dishing out the dollars was no guarantee of success in their disastrous return to the top flight.

After achieving promotion through the play-offs, the Cottagers immediately went about dismantling the side that took them up.

Of the 11 players that appeared most frequently in their promotion campaign, only defender Denis Odoi, winger Ryan Sessegnon and midfielder Tom Cairney would make their most frequent line-up last season. 

In the place of their heroes came 12 new players over the summer, at the cost of over £100million.

Massive deals were done for Jean Michael Seri and Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who both flopped spectacularly, and high-profile loan additions like Andre Schurrle failed to sparkle.

They got through three managers as well, with the axe falling on Slavisa Jokanovic before Premier League winner Claudio Ranieri proved incapable of turning the tide.

There were some signs of improvement in the closing stages of the season under Scott Parker, who has now been handed the job full-time.

Wholesale changes make the biggest impact in defence and that was the biggest problem at Craven Cottage last season where, in the absence of a consistent line-up at the back, they conceded a league-high 81 goals.

This should be less of a problem this time around. Alfie Mawson will be quite the centre-back in the Championship if fit and he has Odoi, Tim Ream, Joe Bryan and Cyrus Christie – all proven quality at this level - for company in their defensive ranks.

Seri is gone and fans will hope to see Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen back where they belong, bossing the middle of the pitch, alongside captain Cairney.

Sessegnon is still likely to depart but there is more than enough threat in their attack. No upcoming transfer business could upstage the importance of keeping hold of Aleksandar Mitrovic who, having excelled at Newcastle and in Fulham’s promotion campaign, provides guaranteed goals at this level.

How many will depend on the quality of support around him? Winger Ivan Cavaleiro arriving on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, where he was so devastating in their title-winning campaign two years ago, is a fantastic signing, while Neeskens Kebano and Floyd Ayite are still in town.

Two questions remain. The first is financial: how many more players will need to be cut loose to recoup recent excesses and trim the wage bill while still eyeing promotion?

The second is how prepared their rookie boss will be. Parker has the summer to find his style and work out how to implement that with the talented team at his disposal.

It’s a fantastic opportunity but management is a cut-throat business, particularly in the Championship, and he will need to hit the ground running.

Huddersfield Town

Their shirt shenanigans have generated plenty of publicity over the past week, but are Huddersfield kitted out for an immediate return to the top?

Nobody is talking up their chances too loudly after a wonderful debut Premier League campaign was followed by a truly miserable one.

They picked up just three victories in the whole of last season, with Jan Siewert stuck on just one win in his six months in charge following the mid-season swap with David Wagner.

The Terriers were always conscious not to splash the cash while in the land of riches, allowing Dean Hoyle to pass the club on to lifelong fan Phil Hodgkinson, former owner of non-league Southport, this summer in rude financial health.

Some of last season’s regulars have inevitably moved on, with goalkeeper Jonas Lossl staying in the Premier League with Everton while full-backs Chris Lowe and Erik Durm have returned to Germany.

Perhaps more disappointingly, Tommy Smith, first-choice right-back in their Championship promotion campaign, has been allowed to join second-tier rivals Stoke City.

All of that is a hit to their defence, which conceded exactly two goals a game last season. With that in mind, the arrival of centre-back Tommy Elphick on a free transfer from Aston Villa could prove one of the best pieces of business in the Championship this year.

Perhaps never fully appreciated in the West Midlands, he showed the kind of leadership qualities on loan at Hull City which will be required to patch up his new side. 

However, Town’s problems were, even more, pressing at the other end of the pitch, where they scored a mere 22 goals all year.

Karlan Grant finished as their top scorer despite only joining in January from then-League One side Charlton, and he will surely bag goals in the Championship – with the right support.

Huddersfield have spread their tentacles even wider in the search for that, bringing in exciting forward Josh Koroma after he helped Leyton Orient to promotion from the National League, while highly-rated midfielder Reece Brown has been brought in from League Two side Forest Green Rovers.

Winger Isaac Mbenza signs permanently following his loan spell from Montpellier last season, but they may still need one or two more fresh faces to make a rather flat attack ready for a top-six push.

And of course, much depends on retaining the key players over the last three years – Aaron Mooy ought to be on the radar of half the Premier League but remains in West Yorkshire for the time being, as does skipper and defensive rock Christopher Schindler.

Keeping club-record signing Terence Kongolo, fellow defender Mathias Jorgensen and mercurial midfielder Philip Billing would also help maintain a promising spine to the team.

Hold on to those players, add a little extra up top and Huddersfield will be in the hunt for the play-offs.

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