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It’s August and that means the footy finals are approaching, and better still the English and European football seasons are just about to kick off.
As ever the Football League beats the Premier League to the punch by kicking off a week early.
This year, thanks to the new BeIn Sports deal on Fox Sports, the three lower divisions are even easier to follow than ever with live televised games that are part of the Fox Sports package, not an extra fee.
Thanks to poor 2015-16 seasons from two fallen giants in the shape of Newcastle United and Aston Villa, the Football League has some feature teams. Along with Norwich City, these big clubs were relegated from the EPL last season and all are favourites to use their giant parachute money advantage to bounce back at the first attempt.
Those who dismiss the Football League as inferior don’t know what they are missing. There’s 72 clubs all with unique and interesting stories, and here’s 10 of the more interesting things to look out for the season ahead.
Is it straight back up for the relegated EPL sides?
It certainly looks likely for Newcastle United. Having been here as recently as 2009-10, when they easily won the Championship title, they know what to expect and how to win this division and have recruited accordingly in the off season.
Their best players were always going to move on, but the replacements have previous experience in this division, or are young and hungry; a change from the general attitude of the side in the EPL last year.
Norwich too have become sort of a Yo-Yo club, going back and forth from the EPL and Championship. Their manager Alex Neil took them up two seasons ago, and with a solid squad and the assistance of the parachute money will no doubt be strong again.
Aston Villa is the only worry of the three that came down, as they surrendered so meekly at times in the EPL last season. Where Newcastle and Norwich looked capable of surviving at times last season, Aston Villa looked doomed very early in the piece. And if players weren’t up to the fight of relegation, how do they expect life any easier in the rough and tumble Championship.
A new owner and manager will be a good amount of change to start with, but a big change of their playing roster or their attitude is required if they expect to back in the EPL next season. Very few seasons sees all three go straight back up, and Aston Villa look the odd one out this season.
Can anyone else challenge them?
The short answer is yes, but it is getting harder.
The Championship is always a tight, tough affair, and there’s always the chance of surprises. This season is a lot harder than previously, with the giants from the EPL that have come down.
The first place to look is last year’s unsuccessful playoffsides. Brighton and Sheffield Wednesday should be strong again, as both have strengthened over the off season. Derby County have brought in former Leicester manager Nigel Pearson to attempt to stop the recent seasons of near misses for one of the Championship’s strongest squads.
Further down there’s a bunch of teams who promise and hope for a return to the EPL to relive glory days of varying distances, but inevitably land just short of the playoffs or in the midfield. Most have billionaire owners who have looked to get into the EPL the cheaper way by coming through the second division.
Nottingham Forest could be one of a plethora of dark horses wit their new ownerships connection with Greek side Olympiakos. Although being one of a portfolio of clubs has mixed success – see Watford good and Charlton bad.
Every year one wonders if this is the year that Leeds United finally make it back to the EPL. They have finally signed a manager that makes sense. If only the owner shows the same quality. With seven managers in his short time as owner, one wonders when, not if, Massimo Cellino will fire former Swansea manager Gary Monk.
Ipswich Town have a squad that is slightly better than last season in which they started the season with a lot of hope, and finished seventh. Birmingham City too was thereabouts in 2015-16 and looks to be thereabouts again this season. But you could make an argument for many clubs – Wolves, QPR, Preston North End, or Huddersfield.
One dark horse club occasionally bolts early and hangs on to the playoffs (like Brighton last season), so the early games will be key for the sides not expected to challenge. A good early start means you’ll be able to attract better players when it comes to top up later in the season.
Championship becomes a home for Champions League winners and talented managers
Very few second division leagues in the Europe can boast a manager who have tasted Champions League success, and this year’s Championship features two former winners of the biggest prize in European Club Football in Rafa Benitez and Roberto di Matteo.
It is a testament to how the EPL is going when managers of great reputation and reasonable results settle for the Championship for their next job. Garry Monk and Nigel Pearson both had very reasonable records in the Premier League, but both are hoping they can rebuild their career and their club by returning them back to the Promised Land.
With the Premier League looking for more and more exotic managers from far away places or the very, very best from around the world, the Championship might find themselves being the division of choice for English or aspiring managers in the years ahead.
How will the promoted Championship sides fare?
There is an interesting batch of newcomers for 2016-17, featuring a former FA Cup winner, a former Championship regular, and a team who have reached new heights.
Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup in 2013, and were playing in the Europa League the next season, but just a season later were relegated to League One. Thankfully for them, they bounced back at the first opportunity as Champions, and that winning momentum can carry through to more winning as seen with teams like Norwich and Southampton.
Barnsley looked an unlikely promotion candidate halfway through last season, losing eight consecutive games and an embarrassing exit in the FA Cup to Non League Altrincham. They turn it around with a nine game winning streak, won the playoffs from sixth place and took a Football League trophy with them. You would think a mid table finish would be quite the achievement, a little further down looks likely.
The final side arriving is Burton Albion for their first adventure in the second tier. The Brewers made it back to back promotion last season after rising from the fourth division.
Their manager is Nigel Clough who has managed in this division before with Derby County, like his old man Brian.
He actually left Burton in 2009 when they were on the edge of promotion from non-League. To take over Burton’s promotion season last year when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbank left for QPR was a just reward for the hard work he previously put in.
Burton might just hold on, but it could end up like Yeovil Town a few years back who found their ceiling in the Championship.
Will the proposed revamp of the Foootball League get up?
The Football League dropped a bombshell in May when they announced a proposal to expand the Football League to 80 teams and four divisions below the Premier League.
While the decision won’t be voted on until June 2017, it requires a 90 per cent majority to get through, and early noises show that a good number of smaller, lower division teams will be against it.
Their argument is that they will suffer more from a loss of four home games over the year, and they are right. Finances are tight when you can only get a few thousand through the gates at each game.
The reduced number of games has an advantage in my opinion, the loss of four home games could be offset by the fact that most of the games would now be played on the weekend and holidays instead of attempting to get through the fixture list with a pile of games on a Tuesday night.
Less games means the teams might take Cup competitions more seriously. Currently the cups seem to be a low priority, especially the League Cup where most sides are competing with how few first teamers they can put out.
The Football League could also try and negotiate a fairer deal from the EPL, where the Football League’s lower tier teams get a fairer share of the cash cow it has become, rather than fluffing the pillow for some poorly run relegated sides.
The new Football League trophy to include EPL Academy sides
As an alternative to a fifth division full of B Sides, the Football League Trophy for only League One and Two sides have been revamped this year to accommodate EPL academy sides.
All of the big teams were invited, but in the end just 10 EPL sides took up the offer, with the biggest names being Chelsea, Everton, West Ham, Leicester, and Southampton. The rest made up of Championship side’s academies.
The new format sees 16 groups of four play home and away before knockout stages. One interesting new twist is the points scoring system. Three wins for a win and one point each remains for a draw, the difference is that the game will go to a penalty shootout if drawn, and the winner of the shootout receives another bonus point. Something new to keep an eye for.
League One Purgatory
Every year the question is asked, is this the year Sheffield United finally breaks out of the third tier? This is now the sixth season the Blades face life in the third tier, and despite some great Cups runs that showed just how capable they are, they still remain stuck in League One.
Maybe it is because they are the biggest side, with the biggest following and all teams step up when they play them which has made life tough. But after five seasons, the novelty of having Sheffield United may have started to wear off.
They aren’t the only former EPL side or former FA Cup winner in League One. 1987 FA Cup Winners Coventry City find themselves in an extended period in League One. Bradford City too were once in the top flight.
They have been joined this season by Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic. Both of these teams were regulars in the EPL not long ago, but now join the illustrious list of fallen big sides. The warning to them lies with Sheffield United if they think it will be easy to go straight back up this season.
League One has seen its fair share of big clubs over the last decade. Norwich and Southampton dropped down to the third tier before recovering back to the top division. Even new EPL champions Leicester won the League One title in 2009 en route to the Championship and Premier League glory.
League Two Hell?
Less than decade ago, Portsmouth were winning the FA Cup, but in a lesson of how not to run a Football club, they find themselves starting their third season in the fourth tier. After almost being completely wiped out due to finances, they moved to fan ownership and last year’s achievement of making the playoffs was a good step on their road back through the division.
Will they be able to kick on? It looks good, and with the division’s biggest ground capacity they’ll have loads of support.
Blackpool are in the running for worst run club in the Football League, some prize given the eccentrics at the helms of some other clubs like Leeds United and Cardiff City in recent years. The owners are seemingly more interested in themselves and how they can further annoy their loyal supporters.
Having plummeted through League One in one attempt, will they be the first team to earn a triple relegation all the way out of the Football League?
AFC Wimbledon in League One
In 2003 Wimbledon FC became Milton Keynes Dons, and at the same time a new team was created as AFC Wimbledon. While Milton Keynes inherited a new team, deposited straight into the third division, AFC Wimbledon started from scratch in the ninth tier of the English Football pyramid.
For the first time this season the two sides meet in the same division. The two teams have met in cups before, with the last meeting final coming down in the favour of AFC Wimbledon, but the season long competition takes the rivalry to a new level.
But it is not all about the Dons clash, the rise of AFC Wimbledon is a great story all by itself. A team starting from scratch, with no home ground in Wimbledon, rises from the ninth tier to the third is a little over a decade is a great sporting story. A movie about the story is in the works.
WYCOMBE WANDERERS DID HIT ADEBAYO AKINFENWA UP
One of the more interesting stories of the final weeks of the Football League season, was the rise of AFC Wimbledon through the playoffs to League One. At the heart of their success was the biggest man in world football, Adebayo Akinfenwa, aka The Beast.
He asked managers to hit him up on What’s App moments after scoring the final goal of the playoff final, when he divulged that he had been released by the Dons.
Unfortunately none of the A League clubs took a fancy to the larger than life striker, but thankfully Wycombe Wanderers answered the call, which means he’ll terrorising more League Two defences this season. The weekly highlights of Wycombe games will be worth viewing.
Promoted – Newcastle, Norwich, Derby
Relegated – Brentford, Barnsley, Bristol City
Promoted – Sheffield United, Millwall, Charlton
Relegated – Fleetwood, Chesterfield, Port Vale, Oldham
Promoted – Portsmouth, Luton, Accrington Stanley, Wycombe
Relegated – Newport, Crawley