Championship 2023-24 preview: the contenders, hopefuls and strugglers

Automatic promotion contenders

The transfer window not closing for another four weeks means those relegated from the Premier League remain ripe for picking. It is, for example, hard to imagine James Ward-Prowse, Kelechi Iheanacho or Wilfried Gnonto waking up on 2 September in the second tier. And yet, with the cushion of parachute payments, it is easy to see Leicester, Leeds and Southampton overpowering the rest. Daniel Farke has been here before with Norwich, but Leicester look best equipped.

The landscape will change significantly, but perhaps least so at Leicester, where Enzo Maresca, a suave Italian who spent last season helping Manchester City to the treble, is the face of a much-needed rebuild. Leicester’s early business has seen them revamp their spine, with Conor Coady, Harry Winks and City loanee Callum Doyle among the arrivals. A 36-year-old Jamie Vardy, into the final year of his contract, is set to lead from the front.

Southampton kick-off the season at Hillsborough on Friday with a bloated squad but an exciting style under Russell Martin. Leeds, with new owners and a new manager in Farke, who won this title two years ago, also have a number of players to offload. Middlesbrough under Michael Carrick, who took over last October, look the most likely to challenge that trio having retained talisman Chuba Akpom, but Boro may still be a striker shy of competing.

Playoff hopefuls

The success of Luton and the manner in which Huddersfield, Barnsley and Swansea have gone close in recent years is a reminder that it is possible to mix it on the basis of smart thinking, coaching and scouting. Could this be Millwall’s season? They have not finished below 11th in Gary Rowett’s four seasons but faded when it mattered last season. They look stronger this time, with the Scotland striker Kevin Nisbet, who had a prolific goalscoring record back home, the pick of their summer signings.

Playoff finalists Coventry will miss the je ne sais quoi of Viktor Gyökeres – and Gus Hamer could also depart – but they have made some sensible additions and if Ellis Simms and Callum O’Hare, due to return around September from a serious knee injury, can replicate the form they have shown in this division, the former for Sunderland, then they have a chance. Tony Mowbray will also be quietly confident of mounting another challenge, especially if his side can avoid another injury crisis.

Swansea could challenge if they retain – or adequately replace – Joël Piroe and Matt Grimes, but need a left-back and are light on numbers. Valérien Ismaël and Carlos Corberán previously came close to promotion via the playoffs and that appears their best hope, with tough assignments at Watford and West Brom respectively. Norwich also look too workmanlike to trouble the top two.

Kevin Nisbet playing for Millwall

Kevin Nisbet could offer a goal threat for Millwall after moving from Hibs. Photograph: Andrew Fosker/Shutterstock

It all feels a bit vanilla at Stoke and they could join Hull and Blackburn treading water in mid-table. Bristol City have strengthened in defence and Jason Knight adds zest but much will hinge on the future of Alex Scott and how they replace him if the teenager moves on. The fizzy 20-year-old Tommy Conway, Scott’s housemate, could build on a fine breakout campaign.

After four years away Ipswich return to the division with plenty of confidence, fresh from scoring 101 goals en route to reaching a club-record 98 points. Such lofty numbers will be hard to match this time but they are well-drilled under Kieran McKenna and the step up could suit. The same could apply to Plymouth, who have brought back Bali Mumba and Morgan Whittaker on a permanent basis and signed the former Arsenal Under-21 captain Julio Pleguezuelo from FC Twente, the first Spaniard to join the club. But Plymouth must adequately replace Niall Ennis, who has bolstered Blackburn’s attack.

Relegation candidates

It turns out it was not bluster when the Cardiff chairman, Mehmet Dalman, predicted season-ticket sales would rocket on the back of an exciting summer signing. Cue the arrival of the Wales captain, Aaron Ramsey – and his eldest son, Sonny, who has agreed to join the academy when he turns eight. Erol Bulut has never managed outside Turkey and feels a risky appointment. Cardiff struggled to score last season – only relegated Wigan scored fewer goals – but will hope Ramsey can create for Karlan Grant, Yakou Méïté and Ike Ugbo, a trio of shiny new forwards. Huddersfield also struggled in that department but supporters will have faith that Neil Warnock can find a more regular way through after his heroics last season.

Preston struggled for goals last season but have re-signed Will Keane, added striker Layton Stewart from Liverpool and attacking midfielder Mads Frøkjær-Jensen is an intriguing addition from Odense, but there is a nagging sense Preston may struggle to push on. Rotherham have plenty of experience but look light on star quality after Chiedozie Ogbene departed, while Wes Harding has joined Millwall. Sheffield Wednesday and Queens Park Rangers look susceptible to the drop after a summer of sweeping changes.

The feelgood factor upon promotion at Wednesday has vanished and the recruitment there and at QPR feels a little underwhelming. Birmingham have been marooned in the second tier for the past 12 years – longer than any other club – and the new owner, Shelby Companies Limited, named with Peaky Blinders in mind, has stabilised a club finally looking up rather than down. There is a sense of liberation at St. Andrew’s, with Lee Buchanan among the exciting new faces.

Three youngsters to watch

Archie Gray, Leeds, 17 Son of Andy, grandson of Frank and great nephew of Eddie Gray, all of whom played for Leeds and Scotland, the England Under-17 midfielder with the club in his genes has been on the lips of supporters since being named on the bench against Arsenal as a 15-year-old two years ago. Archie, who joined Leeds as an under nine, signed a professional contract in March and has been given plenty of minutes in pre-season. His younger brother Harry, a forward, is also highly rated in the Leeds academy.

Luís Hemir Silva Semedo, Sunderland, 19 Jobe Bellingham, listed in this segment last year, is the obvious youngster to keep an eye on at the Stadium of Light but a striker was a necessity for Sunderland and the Portugal Under-20 forward, signed from Benfica on a five-year contract, has stirred excitement. Known as Hemir, the rangy forward of Cape Verdean descent scored 28 goals in 61 games for Benfica B. Has shown glimpses of quality in pre-season but Mowbray has acknowledged Hemir needs to get up to speed.

Liam Delap, Hull, 20 It has not quite happened for Delap – yet. Pep Guardiola gave Delap, who joined Manchester City from Derby in 2019, his Champions League debut last year but the striker has not really kicked on as envisaged. Delap, capped by England at youth level, spent last season on loan at Stoke, where his father, Rory, worked as first-team coach, and then Preston, but found the going tough and scored four goals in 37 appearances. Could a third loan to the second tier provide liftoff?

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