The intelligent punter's guide to the Championship 2015-16
Who will win the race for the Championship? Should you back favourites Derby, or will Forest finally come good?
By Neil Clark
The new Football League Championship season kicks off at 7.45pm on Friday, with Brighton taking on Nottingham Forest at the Amex Arena in Sussex.
As we said 12 months ago the Championship is the league where anything can happen and usually does. In the Premier League there are only three or four teams that can win the title, but the Championship is much, much harder to call, with a large number of teams likely to be in contention for the title and for promotion.
The competitive nature of the division was again demonstrated last season, when 25-1 shots Bournemouth were crowned champions.
Nevertheless, if we bear in mind certain key factors, we can tilt the percentages in our favour, and successfully negotiate the minefield that the second tier of English football represents.
Favourites have a poor record
The last favourites to win the title were Kevin Keegan's Man City in 2001-2. In fact, you've got to go back to 2009-10 for the last time the title was won by a team with single figure odds. Even each-way bets are dangerous, only four favourites have made the top three since 2002, the most recent being West Ham who were third at 5-1 in 2011-12. The average SP of the last ten winners is 14.4-1.
Pay attention to last year's play-offs
The Championship winners for the last three seasons had all been defeated in the previous year‘s play-offs. So it's probably a wise move to include at least one unsuccessful play-off team from 2014-15 - ie Middlesbrough, Brentford and Ipswich - in your each-way betting portfolio.
Newcomers to the league may be overrated
The stats show it's very hard for a team coming up from League One to win the Championship or even finish in the top three. The only two teams that have managed it in recent years are Norwich and Southampton, and both sides had recent Premier League experience. Teams coming down from the Premier League tend to be over-rated by the bookies: 26 of the last 33 sides to have gone down from the top division have failed to make the Championship's top three the following year.
Pick one rank outsider in your portfolio
Almost every year there is at least one big-priced team which finishes in the top three and it's often a team that has radically improved on its position in the Championship the year before. Last year for instance Bournemouth won the title at 25-1, in 2013-14 Burnley were runners-up at 80-1; the same price as third-placed Crystal Palace in 2012-13. Hull were 80-1 when they finished third in 2007-08 and Watford were 100-1 shots when third in 2005-06. It therefore seems sensible to include at least one long-shot in your portfolio.
Back teams that just escaped relegation for the drop
If you fancy a bet in the relegation markets then take a close look at last season's league table. The teams that finished in 19th and 20th in 2013-14, Millwall and Blackpool, both went down last season- while in 2014, Barnsley, who finished 21st in 2012-13, went down with newly promoted Doncaster and Yeovil. In such a competitive league a team that did well the previous season, but which sells key players can also represent value in the relegation market, last year Wigan were 33-1 to go down and finished second from bottom while Brighton at 20-1 for the drop only avoided it by six points.
Now let's take a closer look at the 24 teams and their prospects for the new season, listed in alphabetical order:
BIRMINGHAM CITY. Best odds: 66-1.
After a poor start, the Blues recovered really well under new boss Gary Rowett to finish 12th. Finances are still a problem but given their improvement in the second-half of last season, they could be surprise play-off contenders.
BLACKBURN ROVERS. Best odds: 33-1.
Didn't do as well as expected last season, when they finished 11 points away from a play-off place. Gary Bowyer's team seem to have lost momentum, and their cause has not been helped by a transfer embargo. Mid-table may be the best they can hope for.
BOLTON. Best odds: 66-1.
They became hard to beat when Neil Lennon took over in October, but then regressed again towards the end of the season. The return to fitness of talented striker Zach Clough is a big positive, but some key players have been sold in the summer and a season of struggle could be on the cards.
BRENTFORD. Best odds: 12-1
Promoted from League One in 2013-14 The Bees had an excellent campaign last year, when they only missed out on promotion in the play-offs. Manager Mark Warburton, who did so well at the club, has departed but new boss Marinus Dijkhuizen has strengthened the squad and they're likely to be buzzing around in the upper echelons of the division again.
BRIGHTON. Best odds: 33-1
We predicted that the Seagulls would go backwards last year and so it proved, as they went from fourth to fifth from bottom. Manager Chris Hughton's CV in this division is impressive: he won it with Newcastle in 2009-10 and guided Birmingham to fourth in 2011-12. He'll do really well to emulate those achievements this season, but he's made some interesting signings and should be able to guide his team away from trouble.
BRISTOL CITY. Best odds: 28-1.
The Robins ran away with League One last season and they could be this season's Brentford, a newly promoted side, full of confidence and goals who make a bold bid for promotion before eventually just falling short. Supporters will take heart from the fact that the last time the Robins were promoted to the Championship, in 2007-08, they finished fourth, and the 9-2 odds on them making the play-offs could be a decent bet.
BURNLEY. Best odds: 14-1.
Sean Dyche's team were far from disgraced in the Premier League last season, but their chance of a speedy return will not be helped by the loss of Danny Ings, whose goals propelled them to promotion in 2013-14. The last time they were relegated from the top flight, in 2009-10, they finished eighth the following season and it could be a similar scenario again.
CARDIFF. Best odds: 33-1.
Joint favourites for promotion last year at 8-1, but as we predicted the bookies had overrated their chances and in the end they could only finish 11th. There was some stabilisation under Russell Slade, who took over in October but more players have moved out than moved in over the close season and a play-off push is likely to be beyond them.
CHARLTON. Best odds: 80-1.
The Addicks rallied well to finish 12th last season under Guy Luzon, and they have strengthened over the summer. The play-offs will most probably be beyond them, but they should be good enough to hold on to a mid-table berth and avoid being dragged into a relegation battle.
DERBY. Best odds: 6-1.
They were the joint favourites last season but after topping the table in late February they fizzled out really poorly in the last third of the season and in the end they didn't even make the play-offs. They've got a stronger squad this time, but while it's very hard not to see them challenging for the title, their current odds don't look over-generous given the competitive nature of the division.
FULHAM. Best odds: 25-1.
Relegated from the top flight in 2013/4 the Cottagers were as short as 9-1 in the betting 12 months ago but endured a terrible start under Felix Magath, before finding patchy improvement under new boss Kit Symons to finish 17th. The old guard have been cleared out, but while they've got plenty of promising young players and are likely to do better than last term, they'll probably need another year before they can realistically push for promotion.
HUDDERSFIELD. Best odds: 100-1.
Since returning to the Championship in 2012, they've finished 19th, 17th and 16th, showing they've found a worrying niche among the teams not good enough to push into mid-table and towards the play-offs but with just enough to avoid being involved in relegation matters. Chris Powell, who guided Charlton to ninth in 2013, is likely to lead the Terriers a few places up the table. They can score goals and that firepower should keep them clear of the drop-zone.
HULL. Best odds: 10-1
Relegated last season, they've sold James Chester, Robbie Brady and Tom Ince and with owner Assem Allam saying he might also sell the club, Steve Bruce faces a tough task to get the Tigers back on the promotion track. That said, like all Bruce teams, they'll be defensively solid and as long as the manager stays, they are unlikely to drop below mid-table.
IPSWICH. Best odds: 20-1
The Tractor Boys lost out in the play-offs last season and with manager Mick McCarthy having strengthened his attack, which already boasts last year's Championship top scorer, Daryll Murphy in its ranks, they should be challenging for a play-off berth again. Given the record of teams beaten in the play-offs, you could say that at current odds, they are worth an each-way interest as they could be under-rated by the bookies.
LEEDS. Best odds: 33-1
Ex-Wigan boss Uwe Rosler in the latest man in the hot seat at Elland Road. Chairman Massino Cellino, sacked three managers last season and given the instability at the club, it's hard to see them challenging for promotion in fact, it's easier to see them being involved at the other end of the table.
MIDDLESBROUGH. Best odds 6-1
Currently vying for the title of favourites with Derby in the betting and not hard to see why. They finished fourth last year and reached the play-off final, and some shrewd judges regarded them as the best team in the division. Stewart Downing has arrived from West Ham for £5.5m, but Patrick Bamford, who netted 17 times when on loan last season has left and whether or not they will go up, or just come up short again, is likely to depend on whether they can sign a new striker.
MK DONS. Best odds: 66-1
Karl Robinson's newly promoted team scored for fun last season finding the net 101 times in the league and also four times against Manchester United in their famous League Cup victory. It will of course be much harder this year. A season fighting relegation looks the most likely outcome. but supporters will draw some hope from the stat that only three of the last 21 teams promoted to the Championship have been relegated the following season.
NOTTM FOREST. Best odds: 33-1
They had a great start last season under club legend Stuart Pearce, but it all ended in tears as Pearce was sacked after a poor run of form in February and Dougie Freedman took over. There was an immediate improvement but then their form nosedived in the final weeks of the season as they lost six of their last eight games. Their overall direction of travel is downwards they've finished 8th, 11th and 14th in the last three years and looking at the trends, a season of struggle is a real possibility.
PRESTON. Best odds: 50-1
Simon Grayson's men return to the second tier after four years away and should hold their own this season. They were ten points clear of the fourth team in League One last season and gave Manchester United a real fright in in the FA Cup. The Lilywhites' chances of steering clear of trouble have been greatly enhanced by the signing of striker Jermaine Beckford, who scored a hat-trick in Preston‘s play-off win against Swindon in May, on a permanent two-year contract.
QPR. Best odds: 16-1
Relegated after just one season back in the Premier League, boss Chris Ramsey has been rebuilding his squad over the summer, clearing out the high-earners and bringing in some lesser known names as well as proven Championship performer Jamie Mackie, part of the Rs 2010-11 title winning squad. It's hard to weigh up their chances as anything could happen, but the likeliest scenario is that they'll be in the top half of the table and making a push for the play-offs in the second half of the campaign when their new signings have settled down.
READING. Best odds: 33-1
Taking Arsenal to extra time in the semi-final of the FA Cup was the undoubted highlight of an otherwise disappointing campaign, but Steve Clarke, who only took over in December, is a good manager with Premier League experience and with the squad having been improved over the summer, the Royals should do better in the league this term.
ROTHERHAM. Best odds: 200-1
The Millers finished fourth from bottom last season, and even though they have made new signings, it's hard to see them improving in their second season back in this league. Relegation looks the likeliest scenario.
SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY. Best odds: 25-1.
Last season they were very well organised but goal shy and managed just 16 goals at home. They finished in mid-table obscurity but this year they've got a new manager Carlos Carvalhal and a more entertaining style of play has been promised. Marco Matias, who netted 17 goals for Nacional in Portugal's Primeira Liga last year, has been signed and if the Owls can start to score more goals, (they thrashed St Mirren 5-0 in their latest pre-season friendly), a push towards the play-offs looks likely.
WOLVES. Best odds: 18-1
Missed out on the play-offs by goal difference in a very promising first season back in the second tier, and Kenny Jackett's side, who have been promoted to the top flight twice in the last 12 years, could represent a bit of each-value to make the first three.