This time last year many were tipping Wolverhampton Wanderers for promotion back to the Premier League, which is why only the foolhardy should be lumping on 6-1 favourites Queen's Park Rangers as the Championship kicks off this weekend. QPR, like Wolves a year ago, have arguably the strongest squad on paper, but the dressing room is ridden with cliques and populated by players who are overpaid and underperforming.
Some of these earn more than the entire squad at Yeovil, the division's newest club, but the likes of Joey Barton, Loïc Rémy and Julio Cesar are proving hard to shift. As a relegated club QPR do receive a very generous parachute payment but their balance sheet must still give owner Tony Fernandes the shivers, for all his outward ebullience. This is a club which could be the next Portsmouth, or which may bounce back and progress as West Ham have done.
The one advantage QPR have over Wolves a year ago is their manager is an old hand at this level, having won promotion from it with a then upwardly mobile Pompey a decade ago. That Harry Redknapp is still at Loftus Road is slightly surprising and if they start poorly he may seek a new challenge by Christmas. Steve McClaren is already in situ to take over.
This is football's most unpredictable league and QPR are not the only team who could finish anywhere from first to 24th. Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest, for example, are clubs whose squads have the talent to win promotion, but could be undone by combustible owners. In Forest's case the manager, Billy Davies, is also a conflagration waiting to happen and it is hard to imagine the City Ground will be a calm environment even if it proves a successful one.
The division has more plots than an episode of Homeland. As well as the above, how will Brighton, fourth last year, fare after the ugly divorce with Gus Poyet and appointment of a largely untested Spanish coach in Oscar Garcia? Another new manager, Steve Lomas, must win over those Millwall fans who loathe his West Ham background. Lomas is understood to have interviewed superbly, and St Johnstone's impressive start to their Europa League campaign suggests he builds strong foundations, but budgets are tight at the New Den.
The new man at Wigan, Owen Coyle, is rebuilding his own reputation after it took a dent at Bolton and must juggle the demands of the club's debut Europa League campaign with the 46-match Championship marathon.
Over the Pennines Brian McDermott has, like Coyle and Redknapp, won promotion to the Premier League before but it is still unclear whether he will find Leeds United as supportive an environment as Reading was under John Madejski. GFH Capital has made a series of populist moves – cutting ticket prices, forcing out Ken Bates, talking of buying Elland Road back – but it has yet to invest significantly in the team notwithstanding the £1m arrival of the promising Luke Murphy from Crewe.
The last of the five new managers, Paul Dickov, was a surprising choice to take over at Doncaster Rovers, given his exit from Oldham. He will not lack for effort, but it could be a tough season for the newly-promoted club.
That inevitably also applies to Yeovil, who bring football of this grade to Somerset for the first time. Gary Johnson has done remarkably well on a shoestring and must hope Kieffer Moore from Dorchester Town proves as inspirational a purchase as Paddy Madden was last season.
The third promoted club, Bournemouth, are more overtly ambitious. With Russian money behind him, Eddie Howe has been able to bring in a mix of experience and potential with Ian Harte, Andrew Surman and the exciting Mohamed Coulibaly joining an already strong squad.
This is the first year in which the league will be operating Financial Fair Play (using a similar version to Uefa) and punishing clubs who break it. Leicester and Bolton already claim it has restricted them but whether the sanctions, which will only be financial for clubs that have escaped to the top flight – it will be restricted to a transfer embargo for those who stay put – are enough to ensure compliance remains to be seen.
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