LIFTING THE LID: Ahead of the new Championship season getting underway this weekend, we sat down with Wayne Routledge – a man who won the title twice as well as the play-offs – to discuss his predictions for the upcoming campaign.
League winner: Norwich
We all know the Championship is an extremely difficult league to get out of. To get out of it, you need to look to the ones who know how to do it, which points firmly in Norwich’s direction. They’ve done it before; the bulk of their squad has been there and know what they’re doing, so if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Norwich. Dean Smith is also huge for Norwich. The knowledge factor with him having done it before, as well as his squad; pairing those two things together, Norwich are on to a good thing.
Back Norwich to win The Championship at 6.5 here
Promotion: Middlesbrough and Sheffield United
The two teams that come to the forefront of my thoughts are Middlesbrough and Sheffield United.
Chris Wilder is an excellent manager at this level. His Middlesbrough team has played good football that’s very difficult to play against, especially with how the full-backs and centre-backs overlap each other. Last year was a good marker for them, and if they can get a 15 or 20-goal striker in their squad for this season, I think they’ll go very close.
Sheffield United have that firepower. They have Oli McBurnie, Rhian Brewster and Billy Sharp, so they have goals in their squad and goals win games, so that’s why I think those two might be the best equipped to go up.
The Premier League experience and the financial power these teams have compared to the other sides will be different. Norwich have come down with the parachute payment; Middlesbrough have an owner who funds the team generously, and it’s not long since Sheffield United came down from the Premier League. Finances and resources are significant factors in the game.
Relegation: Rotherham, Wigan and Reading
It’s very difficult for teams coming up to stay up given their resources and how the league plays out. I know we say anybody can beat anybody in the Championship, but for the ones that come up from League One, it’s notoriously difficult. I’ve gone with Rotherham, Wigan and maybe a surprise pick in Reading to go down.
With Rotherham and Wigan, it’s down to their budgets and how hard things are for a newly promoted team. With Reading, I think it’s the overhaul of the squad. We all know they’ve had problems, obviously having the deduction of points last year, and unless Paul Ince can get them going at the beginning of the season, I think it will be a challenging year for them. And inevitably, if they don’t, I think it could lead to them getting relegated this year.
Biggest underachievers: West Brom
We always see West Brom as that team that is a bridge between the Premier League and the Championship, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done for them to get back in the Premier League. I think Steve Bruce has a job on his hands, especially with the particular style of football they’ll be playing. I don’t know if it’s conducive to going back up, so that’s definitely a work in progress at West Brom.
Top scorer: Teemu Pukki
I think it goes back to Norwich again and Teemu Pukki. He guarantees you goals at this level. It’s like Aleksandar Mitrovic. We saw what Mitrovic did in the league last year and what Pukki did in the previous one, so I think we’re looking at Teemu Pukki. However, I will put my neck on the line and say I believe Rhian Brewster is primed for a good year at Sheffield United. That’s also why I think they have a good chance of getting promoted this year. If he comes back firing, he’s a very talented player and can definitely score goals at this level and above.
Best bet of the opening weekend: Norwich to beat Cardiff
I just think Norwich are too strong with all the squad under a full pre-season. Cardiff will be at home and the fans will be expecting them to put up a battle and give them hope for the season, but they’ve had a big overhaul again, so Steve Morrison has quite a few new faces in there. I expect Norwich to go there and do the job, so if I were to say a score, I’d say 2-0 Norwich.
Cardiff v Norwich odds here
Lay of the weekend: Rotherham against Swansea
I didn’t watch Swansea last week. I know it wasn’t a vintage performance, but they got the job done against Charlton in a pre-season friendly. I expect this to be a challenging game for Rotherham because Swansea will keep the ball and suffocate them, and on the opening match of the season, it’s usually hot and tiring. That is not what you want. You don’t want to be chasing the ball around. Eventually, it will open gaps up, and with players like Joël Piroe and Michael Obafemi at the top end of the pitch, I’d expect Swansea to score some goals. I’d go for a 3-1 Swansea win there.
Rotherham v Swansea odds here
Huddersfield against Burnley
I do think that Huddersfield v Burnley will be the most likely to be a draw. I think that will be 1-1. It’s a tough one for Burnley as the opening game. We’ll see how Huddersfield will come out as the manager has not long walked out the door, but they do have continuity there, and off the back end of last year, they have a point to prove. They lost Lewis O’Brien and Harry Toffolo, but they’re going to have a point to prove against a team coming down in Burnley; we’re going to see where they are. I think they’ll be at loggerheads, and I’ve gone for a 1-1 draw.
Huddersfield v Burnley odds here