Much was made at the start of the season that Fulham were amongst the early season favourites for the Championship crown this year.
In fact, many of us stated our displeasure at not being able to continue going about our business in the under-the-radar, ruthless fashion that epitomised last year, but such is the way of the world. Eventually, when you become a good footballing side, the world sits up and takes notice.
However, it’s not been the start that many of us dreamed it would be. In fact, it would be fair to say that very few of the early season favourites have got off the line in the way that they might have wanted. Here, we take a look at the original Championship favourites, and analyse their starts in comparison to that of the Whites.
We’ve also included their current title odds. You know when it comes to betting on football, William Hill is the one to look out for.
Aston Villa – 8/1
Wolverhampton Wanderers – 2/1
Sheffield Wednesday – 25/1
Fulham – 10/1
Middlesbrough – 14/1
Boro started the campaign as joint-favourites for the title alongside Aston Villa, and with Newcastle taking the Championship crown last year through a combination of holding onto their best players and adding depth, you can see why they were tipped.
On paper, Boro probably have the most fearsome squad in the division. Britt Assombalonga, whilst an injury risk, is a goal guarantee, and in a team with the providing power that Boro have through the middle, you’d be a brave soul not to at least have him in contention for the golden boot.
Add to that the Norwegian powerhouse Martin Braithwaite, who banged in 11 for Toulouse in Ligue 1 last season, and is really yet to feature; Rudy Gestede, who adds aerial prowess and Championship nous; and the youth and exuberance of Ashley Fletcher, formerly of West Ham United, and you have striking options that every single team must look enviously at.
Behind them lies the solid and experienced core of Grant Leadbitter, Adam Clayton and Adam Forshaw, linking with the summer additions of potential difference-makers Jonny Howson and on-loan Chelsea starlet Lewis Baker, through the middle.
On the wings, Adama Traore is a class above the Championship, and Marvin Johnson, who has made the step up from League One as if it was the most natural thing in the world. If they suddenly stop firing, Boro can call on Stewart Downing and Adlène Guedioura, both heavily experienced and internationally capped.
Then, at the back, Boro currently have the 2015/16 Defender of the Year, George Friend, sitting on the bench, waiting patiently for a chance behind former Manchester United man Fabio Da Silva. On the other flank, the highly rated Cyrus Christie continues to impress, especially going forward; and in the heart of the back four, Ben Gibson has stayed with his boyhood club despite links to numerous Premier League destinations; with Dael Fry, Ryan Shotton and Daniel Ayala all providing solid options for partnering him.
Behind them all is the heavily experienced Republic of Ireland No1 Darren Randolph, who made the step down from Premier League level despite impressing for West Ham last year. His deputy, the very capable Dimitrios ‘Dimi’ Konstantopoulos, is no stranger to promotion campaigns either.
With all that said, Boro started the season with a loss to Wolves, who demonstrated their own Championship credentials with a gritty 1-0 win at Molineux. In their first 10 games, Boro have lost three, drawn three, and won four; which leaves them on 15 points, eight points off the leaders and five off second place.
Their latest two games, however, have been the draw at Fulham (where even they will admit they were lucky to get a point) and a defeat to Norwich, where they toiled and toiled in front of goal after James Maddison’s exquisite early opener for the Canaries. Boro will say that they were unlucky not to score, but five shots on target out of 21 is simply not good enough at this level.
It’s clear, though, that Boro have immense depth and talent within the ranks, and it would still be a major surprise should they fail to be there or thereabouts come the end of the season. After a solid, if unspectacular, start, the Teessiders will want to put together a good run of results now to get themselves into the frame before the busy Christmas period.
Aston Villa – 8/1
Villa were many people’s pick for the title this year, with the suggestion that the Villans might finally be ready to mount a charge after huffing and puffing last season without showing any consistent form. There can be little doubt that, alongside Boro, their squad amounts to one of the most impressive in the division, with a depth, especially across the midfield, that few can equal.
The already mighty trio of Championship stalwart Henri Lansbury, Icelandic international Birkir Bjarnason and Fulhamish favourite Conor Hourihane were supplemented this summer by seminal professional Glenn Whelan, set-piece specialist Robert Snodgrass and Spurs youngster Josh Onomah; to add to a central midfield sectioned already backed up by the seasoned veteran Mile Jedinak.
The mix of experience, talent and youth in that central rank should be enough to mount a charge on its own, but the wing spots are firmly held down by the mercurial Albert Adomah, who has rediscovered his scoring touch; and the brilliant, if frustrating enigma of Jack Grealish, who has had the temerity to take the 10 shirt this season, and is making it his own.
Up top, fit again Jonathan Kodija leads the line, and looks back to his fearsome best, ably supplemented by Scott Hogan, who will continue to score goals regularly, and the youthful flair of Keinan Davis and Ryan O’Hare, with the former especially already writing his name firmly into first-team contention.
Without Kodija, Villa often looked toothless, but the emergence of Davis has Villa fans excited, and so it should. The 19 year old has very little experience but is a massive physical handful and playing up top with Kodija, he creates oodles of space for the Ivorian to exploit.
The Villans struggled somewhat defensively at points last year, and attempted to put that right with the marquee signing of former Chelsea and England captain John Terry. Whilst the big centre-half lacks pace, there can be no denying that he has the experience and leadership qualities to help Villa plug the gaps. Terry won’t play every game, but, dislike him as much as we do, is a massive signing around the camp and will help to bring out the best in others.
Elmohamedy is a good signing to replace the departed Jordan Amavi, and his ability to whip a ball into the box has already been proven this season. James Bree is more than good enough for this level and was probably the best right back in the division when he was at Barnsley. As he gets more and more comfortable at Villa, he will only continue to improve.
Deputising for them both is the seemingly ageless Richie De Laet, who remains the only player ever to win a Premier League and a Championship winners medal in the same season, and in the mix also is Wales international Neil Taylor, who despite gaining the hatred of the entire Irish nation for breaking Seamus Coleman’s leg with a horror challenge back in the spring, is actually also a very capable left back.
Another slow starter, Villa lost two and drew the other of their opening three games, but have since gone on a seven match unbeaten run, and have now begun to put teams to the sword. They’ve won by three or more in their last two home games, and ground out a solid win over Nottingham Forest at the City Ground in between them, with 9 points from 3 propelling them to 16 overall and a place outside the playoff zone.
Whilst it’s too early to be looking at the table with any genuine thought, Villa are now in the right places to kick on and pick up the slack on the leaders, and with the run of form they’re on, you wouldn’t bet against it. They play Bolton next, and whilst you’d expect them to win that, they then face a tricky treble – Wolves away, Fulham at home, and a never-easy Birmingham derby at St. Andrews.
If Villa take 8 or more points from their next four, the signs are there that this could be a good year to be a Villan.
Wolverhampton Wanderers – 2/1
The new rich kids on the block have started the season as we all expected – blisteringly. Jorge Mendes’ revolution at Wolves, turning them into a continental powerhouse with a distinctly Portuguese flavour, is already paying dividends. An opening day victory over promotion rivals Middlesbrough was enough to make everyone sit up and take notice, and follow-up wins over Hull City and Derby County showed that it was more than mere fluke.
Aside from a sobering defeat to current leaders Cardiff City, and this week’s 10-man loss to high-flying Sheffield United, Wolves’ start to the season has been nigh-on perfect – they sit just three points off the summit. With the nature of the squad that has been assembled at Molineux, however, there are very few people surprised by the fact that Wolves are already flying.
With 17 new players coming in over the course of the summer, however, there was clearly work to be done in making the squad gel, and manager Nuno Espirito Santo must be commended for pulling the side together so quickly. Experienced stopper John Ruddy was picked up when he was bizarrely let go by Norwich City, and he keeps the sticks.
In front of him, Portuguese defender Roderick Miranda has slotted into a versatile back three alongside club captain Danny Batth and either the highly-rated young Conor Coady or on-loan Porto man Willy Boly.
On the right of a low midfield four, another Fulhamish favourite, Matt Doherty bombs up and down in a right-wing-back role which could be made for his attacking prowess, whilst the Scottish left-back, Barry Douglas, exiled for years across Eastern Europe and Turkey, provides a similar attacking outlet.
In the middle, the Championship’s most expensive player ever, Ruben Neves, sits alongside Romain Saiss or Alfred N’Diaye, who is himself on loan from La Liga and Europa League side Villarreal. Neves, who became the youngest ever captain in a Champions League tie when he skippered his boyhood club Porto last season, is an incredible talent, and Neves has the ability to go right to the very top of the game.
Questions were asked if he was capable of making the switch to the physicality of thr Championship when he signed for Wolves, but he has displayed his quality almost immediately, with two long-range strikes already making the headlines; although it is his range of passing which has caught the eye of the Championship purists.
The pace and skill of Diogo Jota (no, not that one – this one is on loan from Atletico Madrid so he’s also pretty handy) and Ivan Cavaleiro sit behind the big man, Leo Bonatini; although it’s not like they’re looking short of depth in this area either. Young winger Bright Enobakhare has started the season in Bright fashion (sorry) and they still have last season’s player of the year Helder Costa to return to full fitness.
It’s still early days, and there’s a lot that could still go wrong. Neves, being the heartbeat of the team, could get a season-ending injury or decide he doesn’t like Wolverhampton in January, but that’s not something anyone wants to see (West Brom fans aside). We’re yet to see if a series of bad results could derail the Wolves Portuguese-fuelled-train, but it would take someone of strong convictions to bet against them being at least in contention come the end of the season.
Sheffield Wednesday – 25/1
There can be no doubt that after a thumping 4-2 home loss to newly-promoted local rivals Sheffield United, followed by a drab 1-0 loss to Birmigham City, Carlos Carvalhal is a man in trouble. Not enough to lose him a job, you’d hope, but the unrest at Hillsborough is hard to keep a lid on when things aren’t going your way.
Put simply, Sheffield Wednesday are a massive club, and although the Owls sit mid-table and are trickling along, the promises of being in the Premiership for this, their 150th anniversary season, have not been fulfilled and with the squad they have at their disposal, there’s a feeling that only automatic promotion would be good enough this season.
We spoke at length last season about how much depth Wednesday had in their striking department, and little has changed in that regard. Steven Fletcher and Gary Hooper, two excellent players at this level, still lead the line. Championship gun-for-hire Jordan Rhodes has had to be patient with a spot on the bench; Lucas Joao and Atdhe Nuhui are in squad rotation and they still have Fernando Forestieri to come back from a prolonged injury.
In fact, the Owls were so confident in their ability to score goals that they let Sam Winnall, a man who scored 14 league goals last season (albeit only three for Wednesday) go out on loan to a team some might consider play-off rivals, Derby County, in a deal that saw Jacob Butterfield coming the other way.
Butterfield is a good Championship player, but you have to wonder if Winnall might have a valuable option as the goals dried up and with Forestieri stricken until at least Christmas. That said, with the firepower Wednesday have at their disposal, and with the returning Lucas Joao looking capable of being a real handful at this level, it is surely only a matter of time before the Owls find their groove again.
Behind the strike force lies the creative spark of Barry Bannan, who our friends at Not The Top 20 Pod rate as potentially the most underrated player in the Championship. The aforementioned Butterfield often sits beside him in the midfield, with Adam Reach and Ross Wallace providing the width, ably supplemented by Kieran Lee, George Boyd, and Marco Matias.
At the back though, they have been leaking goals and with No1 Kieren Westwood out for a little while, back-up keeper Joe Wildsmith has been called into action. The keeper sprang to infamy last year by wearing the No2 shirt, and in any case, that’s not the kind of headlines you want your goalkeepers to be making.
In front of him, the names also don’t scream defensive confidence either. Club captain Glenn Loovens was hardly a beacon of consistency during his time at Celtic, and whilst Tom Lees has plenty of Championship pedigree, one wonders whether it was potentially an area that should have been strengthened over the summer if a real challenge was to be mounted.
Jack Hunt, Daniel Pudil and Joost van Aken are not names that particularly jump out as examples you would use of good Championship defenders, although Hunt has remained a mainstay of the Wednesday team for some time.
In essence, Wednesday should still be more than capable of being in and around the playoffs, even with an average start, but only if they can get the parts back in full working order. Hooper, Rhodes and Fletcher alone should be able to fire the Owls’ season into gear, but the mounting pressure at Hillsborough suggests that further unrest might only be around the corner if things don’t start to look up relatively soon.
Fulham – 10/1
Fulham are always happiest as plucky underdogs, so the worries should have begun as soon as the bookies made the Whites one of the favourites for promotion this season. There were plenty of things to be pleased about, however. Tom Cairney and Ryan Sessegnon had signed new contracts with the club, two new strikers had come in and the worrying lack of midfield depth in the case of injuries had been addressed.
Things were potentially not quite what they seemed, however. When Fulham lined up against Norwich City on this first day of the season, the crowd was one of hopeful expectation. But Cairney seemed off the pace, and the false 9 system employed with such success at points last season was exasperating at times. Fulham’s all-too-familiar habits, of spurning chances and then losing concentration at a key moment, came back to bite.
The squad looks better than last year on paper. The big losses were Scott Malone, Sone Aluko, and Chris Martin, who despite being almost universally disliked for his antics, was actually quite a good player for Fulham for 90% of his loan spell, and whose hold up play Fulham fans are just starting to realise, was useful in that it sat nicely with much of what was good about the Whites last season.
The Malone hole has been filled ably by the young Ryan Sessegnon, who despite his defensive frailties, appears to have developed physically over the summer and now looks far more capable playing either position on the left hand side. Aluko’s departure split opinion, but the void has three new players to fill it – Sheyi Ojo, on loan from Liverpool; Jordan Graham, on loan from Wolves; and Yohan Mollo, the French maverick.
In Fonte and Kamara, Fulham now have two different options in the front line. Rui Fonte is all class, deft flicks and clever runs – a real purists’ player and one who Fulham fans have already taken a shine to. Kamara is the exact opposite – Bull in a china shop vibes, but with the presence of mind, pace and power to unsettle defenders, and now, we’ve seen, to score goals as well.
Since the Norwich game, Fulham have bobbled along, playing OK most of the time, with a peak (Ipswich away) and a trough (Burton away) being punctuated only by moans of frustration from fans about not being able to put games away, and having no Plan B against sides willing to sit back and absorb pressure.
This week for the first time, Fulham showcased their ability to do something different, starting Rui Fonte behind Aboubakar Kamara in order to try and negate the prolonged absence of skipper and talisman Tom Cairney. It worked, and it didn’t work. Fulham won the game, but in the process lost the slick, incisive passing football that Whites fans have come to know and love.
Kamara is undeniably a weapon, but his direct approach means that we lose the back-to-goal build up play which ties defences in knots and which made Fulham such a difficult side to play against last season. In doing so, we lost our hold on possession, which showed in the differences between the game against Middlesbrough at the weekend and the one versus Forest last night.
That said, a win kept Fulham in touching distance, and there is distinct hope that another win on Friday night would keep the Whites in the peloton of the chasing pack. With Cairney yet to return, if Fulham can stay in touch until the skipper is back firing, then there is every reason to believe another late surge could push Fulham into the hallowed land of the playoff spots.
A lot then rests on the shoulders of Rui Fonte, Oliver Norwood and, dare I say it, Aboubakar Kamara. If any combination of the three can at least keep things ticking over until Cairney’s long-awaited return to the starting lineup, then there’s every chance that Fulham can stay in touch, as well as developing a second plan to the swashbuckling, possession-based style of last season.
The early pace-setters are amongst those fancied, such as Wolves, kind of fancied, such as Leeds United, and outside bets, such as Cardiff City and Sheffield United; but it’s important to remember that we’re still only 10 games in. The difference between Fulham in 11th and Cardiff in 1st is still only 9 points, and until the breakaway really happens, it will be too early to call.
The Championship is perhaps the most competitive league on Earth, and as Dom often says, there’s not really any point looking at the table before November. We do anyway, but the teams listed above all have the squads and capabilities of mounting a title challenge as long as they don’t leave it too late.