Universally recognised as the most competitive, unpredictable and chaotic division in Europe, the EFL Championship begins on Friday.
New-boys Luton Town host Middlesbrough, now under the stewardship of Boro icon Jonathan Woodgate in his first managerial role, to raise the chequered flag for 46 rounds of jostling in the race to reach the promised land: the Premier League.
Nineteen of the 24 sides who comprise the 2019/20 Championship have competed in the Premier League since its inaugural season in 1992. Bristol City, Brentford, Luton, Preston North End and Millwall are the only teams not to have drunk from that font.
It’s a division like no other with drama and plotlines to rival Hollywood guaranteed – ‘Spy Gate’ anyone? – so, in an attempt to make sense of it all, we’ve taken a closer look at six of the most intriguing storylines before the madness gets underway.
How are Frank Lampard’s Derby going to cope without Frank Lampard?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll know Frank Lampard has made a triumphant return to Chelsea, succeeding Maurizio Sarri. What you might not be aware of is the identity of the man who has succeeded him at Derby: Philip Cocu.
After the success of Lampard’s brief tenure with the Rams – losing in the Play-Off Final to Aston Villa – Derby have made another high-profile appointment, albeit Cocu arrives with far more frontline managerial experience.
Success in the Netherlands is rarely a measurable barometer for players or coaches. Frank de Boer lifted the Eredivisie four times with Ajax before failing miserably at Internazionale and Crystal Palace. Now he is rebuilding his reputation in Major League Soccer at Atlanta United.
Like his countryman, Cocu took a similarly bold step after leaving his homeland by joining Fener. But he won just three of 15 Turkish Süper Lig games, leaving the record 28-time champions in the relegation zone.
Can Marcelo Bielsa keep a lid on the crazy to get Leeds promoted?
There are few manager-club unions which seem a better fit than ‘El Loco‘ and Leeds United. The Argentine tactician is brilliant but combustible while the Whites have been trying to escape the Championship for nine years without success, always finding new and interesting ways to fail.
Last season they very nearly did it and were top as late as the 32nd matchday following a 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers. Three defeats in their final four meant it was the play-offs and Derby got the better over two legs, progressing to Wembley with a 4-3 aggregate win having been 2-0 down at one stage.
Bielsa has decided to stay. Which means he is starting a second season at the helm for the first time since leading Marseille between 2014 and 2015. He promptly resigned after a single game of the new campaign.
Leeds haven’t been hugely busy this summer but the Jacks are back. Namely brilliant young winger Jack Clarke on loan from Tottenham Hotspur following his £15million switch while Jack Harrison returns on loan for a second season too. Wolves attacker Hélder Costa also ripped up Championship defences two seasons ago.
Will managerial rookies Woodgate and Parker enhance or ruin their legend status?
While the Premier League is a closed-door to young coaches, the Championship is the ideal proving ground for the managerial game’s bright young things. Scott Parker becomes Fulham boss on a full-time basis while ex-Middlesbrough favourite Jonathan Woodgate succeeds Tony Pulis.
Both appointments are bold and although Parker has the benefit of ten games at the helm in the Cottagers’ dismal Premier League campaign, he lost seven. The West Londoners were hell-bent on appointing the former midfielder, though, and armed with Aleksandar Mitrović who surprisingly signed a new deal, as well as new additions Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert, the Whites won’t lack firepower.
In the North East, Woodgate could not be a starker contrast to the man he’s replacing. After Pulis’ unique style of play failed to yield promotion and bored fans to tears, the former centre-half has been promoted from within and is charged with implementing a more attractive, possession-focused style of play in his first managerial role.
Oh, and he’ll have ex-Tottenham team-mate Robbie Keane as his No.2
Will David Wagner 2.0 prove half as successful as the real thing?
Huddersfield Town have been on a rollercoaster ride in the last few seasons. Promoted via the Championship play-offs with a negative goal difference in 2016/17 they remarkably avoided relegation in their maiden Premier League campaign. Things came crashing back down to earth last term as they finished bottom of the pile winning just three games.
Popular boss David Wagner left by (genuine) mutual consent on January 14 and was duly replaced by the latest former Borussia Dortmund II coach, Jan Siewert. The German was on a hiding to nothing in the remaining 15 games he oversaw and almost achieved exactly that, winning once, drawing twice and losing 12.
The Terriers will hope, then, to rediscover their bite this season and that their gamble on Siewert – who follows Wagner and Norwich City boss Daniel Farke in coaching BVB’s second string – pays off after a lengthy bedding-in period which did little to convince Town fans of his credentials.
Is Neil Warnock the Championship’s greatest ever boss?
Written off from the outset, Cardiff City were only relegated by two points in the end. Their failure to pick up draws (four all season), a nine-game wait for their first win and the Emiliano Sala tragedy were all big factors in their eventual relegation by such an agonising margin.
Warnock will want a title tilt this season in what is surely his final role – though he’s promised as much plenty of times before. The end of Víctor Camarasa‘s loan spell will be felt while Aaron Gunnarsson, Kenneth Zohore and Bruno Ecuele Manga were mainstays two seasons ago. However, Warnock has recruited well and in former Boro defender Aden Flint he has the most ‘Neil Warnock player’ imaginable.
With eight promotions in a coaching career which has spanned almost 40 years and 17 posts, the 70-year-old is the Godfather of the English Football League.
He’s thrice guided teams to the Premier League – Sheffield United (2006), Queens Park Rangers (2010) and Cardiff (2018) – and would love nothing more than extending his record by delivering a second promotion with the Bluebirds.
Is Birmingham City‘s ‘Caretaker Head Coach’ the future?
Caretakers or interim managers are nothing new. But appointing one June 18, before pre-season has even begun, is unheard of. But following Garry Monk’s controversial sacking, Pep Clotet has stepped up from the role of assistant to take the top job – only his third and second in England.
Clotet lastest fewer than six months at Oxford United last season, winning just 33.3 per cent of his games with the U’s before getting the bullet and gave little indication he was cut out for management in his time at the Kassam Stadium.
Trillion Trophy Asia, Birmingham’s controversial owners, will hope that appointing the Spaniard – who is reportedly a fine training ground coach – will breed continuity after Monk and Clotet helped the Midlanders stave off the threat of relegation following a points deduction last term.
And if it doesn’t work out? He was only the caretaker anyway…