Championship Preview: Big Pressure On The Big Three

It goes without saying there is a big pressure on any side relegated from the top flight to bounce back at the first time of asking. In recent seasons the amount of pressure across relegated sides has varied, largely based on whether they retain the same first team players or face a mass exodus. In the cases of Newcastle a few seasons back and West Ham last season the pressure was obviously more intense, they kept hold of the majority of their main players and strengthened as well. Sides like Birmingham, Portsmouth and Reading have been on the other side of the coin and faced heavy first team losses, be it strong outside interest or through torrid financial issues.

Going into the new Championship season, kicking off in just seven days, all three of last year’s relegated sides are heading in like the Newcastles and West Hams before them, having kept hold of the majority of the first team squad and strengthened as well. Throw into the mix the historical background of each club, the size and number of recent years in the top flight, and respective managerial pressure, and I can’t think of a relegated trio as under pressure before kick off as these three teams for quite some time.

Seeing Bolton sat within the Championship table stills feel a bit odd. Following on from the mixture of boredom and dismay suffered during the spells of Sam Allardyce (to an extent), Sammy Lee and Gary Megson, Owen Coyle gave the club a huge boost following his controversial appointment in 2010 from bitter rivals Burnley. With healthier league finishes, significant cup progression and a much improved brand of football in the subsequent couple of seasons, the future looked very bright. The way events transpired on the final day of the Premier League last season really did make Bolton’s relegation a shock, and I’m sure the clubs fans still can’t really comprehend it, considering the way the path looked to be paved less than a year before. Having added proven players and leaders to the squad, defender Matt Mills and central midfielder Keith Andrews, and with players who excelled when fit in the top flight, the returning midfielders Stuart Holden and Chung-Yong Lee, the squad looks to have a very strong shape to it. Striker Marvin Sordell will feel like a new signing for the club, with a great record at this level during his time at Watford and fresh off the back of an impressive all-be-it brief run out for Team GB at the Olympics I am looking forward to seeing him this season. The decision to not regularly deploy Kevin Davies last season was a contributing factor in Bolton’s downfall, so how he and the ex-Liverpool striker David N’Gog, ultimately a flop at Premiership level, fare in this division will be intriguing. Owen Coyle has had the experience of getting Burnley out of this division in his first full season with the club, so the expectation will be at all time high come kick off against, of all opponents, Burnley next Saturday.

Blackburn were favourites of mine to get relegated last season, and unlike my other favourites, Wigan and Swansea, they were the ones that unfortunately sunk. The farcical running of the football club has been extremely well documented, as has the major uproar and unrest from supporters. Whilst I’ve always respected the way manager Steve Kean has conducted himself through the media, the results since his controversial appointment speak for themselves. That said, I don’t think he was helped by the departures of strong defensive duo Ryan Nelson and Chris Samba during last season. It’s been a very interesting pre-season for the club so far, my expectation of many players leaving and the lack of attraction because of the clubs disarray meaning very few coming in have been unfounded. Whilst the club has lost their two best players from last season, striker Yakubu to China and winger Junior Hoilett to QPR, the club have managed to bring in proven Premiership and international quality in the form of Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu, Leon Best and Nuno Gomes. Defensively the likes of Scott Dann and Bradley Orr have been through promotion-clinching Championship campaigns recently under Birmingham and QPR respectively, and combined with retained seasoned Blackburn players like David Dunn, Morten Gamst-Pederson and Gael Givet, the team looks all set to be very strong for this level. With the talk of strikers Colin Kazim-Richards and Jordan Rhodes coming in, things look set to improve further, and on that basis Steve Kean will absolutely have to hit the ground running and get consistant performances from his side.

Unlike their relegated counterparts, Wolves begin life in the second tier with a new manager in the form of Norwegian Ståle Solbakken. As manager of FC Copenhagen he won the league title on five occasions during his time at the Danish club, so whilst being an unknown managerial entity in this country, he certainly arrives with a strong pedigree. Of all the relegated sides, I honestly thought Wolves would suffer the biggest potential exodus of first team personnel, the likes of Steven Fletcher, Matthew Jarvis and Jamie O’Hara in my opinion being very strong, game-changing footballers, all more than capable of playing in Premier League sides. Michael Kightly is certainly another played I would include amongst those, and if he stays fit I think Stoke have completed some great business signing him. Apart from Kightly the rest of the squad has been retained, and crucially the vast majority were a part of Wolves Championship winning campaign of three years ago. The lack of signings thus far suggests Solbakken is comfortable with what he’s got, which makes sense, so the challenge and pressure is on him to get the best out of an already proven squad at this level. Personally I am looking forward to seeing Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, a goal machine with Wolves previously at this level and effective winger Adam Hamill get an opportunity again at this level, I believe given the chance both players could be significant for the midlands club this season.

Collectively these three sides possess the same common denominators in terms of managerial pressure, having proven players in abundance and a bigger reputation and history to protect. With the Championships record in recent seasons for newly-promoted sides becoming quick promotion contenders, and the likes of Nigel Pearson, Neil Warnock and Gianfranco Zola  back to fight again from a fresh slate at the start of the season, the pressure will be on right from the off, and it’s set to be a very interesting campaign.