Last season my predictions weren’t too bad – other than my Premier League guesses, that is, where the only real insight I showed was predicting Blackpool (at the time of writing mid table) to get relegated. I’m not counting my prediction that Manchester United would win the league as being anything big. But lower down the leagues, I did OK: not many predicted Peterborough going up from League 1 and Stockport (also safe at the time of writing) going out of League 2.
So let’s see if I can repeat things this year…
I’m not going to spend too long on the most tedious league in the world, otherwise known as the Premier League (or at least its top half). Suffice to say I think Man Utd will be champions again, with Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea running them closest. Of these big sides, perhaps Chelsea are the most in danger of slipping out of the magical top four, to be replaced by Arsenal. Chelsea might have the game’s bright young manager in Andre Villas-Boas, but it may take him a season or two to get the best out of his team.
At the bottom, I think QPR and Swansea will struggle. Neither side has signed great players in the close season. The former should take a warning from my home club, Leicester City. About ten years ago we were thrashed 0-5 at home by Bolton on the opening day – on the way home everyone was predicting we’d go down, and sure enough we did: without even a fight. Both these new sides need to turn things around quickly if they don’t want a lack of confidence to bed in.
The other newly-promoted side, Norwich, will do OK. They have a clever manager in Paul Lambert, who has seen them through two promotions. A lot have talked about Blackburn going down, but I think they’ve got just enough (ageing) quality to see them through. Wigan will once again struggle, as may Wolves. And a surprise name in the bottom six could be Everton, who at the time of writing seem in financial dire straits.
Let’s look at The Championship. The pre-season favourites were West Ham and Leicester. I expect the former to be automatically promoted, but not the latter. Leicester have brought in too many players too quickly, and the side is unbalanced. They should make the play-offs, though this may only be due to a good second half to the season. The other side automatically promoted will be, I think, Birmingham. They have managed to hang onto some good players, and their manager Chris Hughton is another intelligent figure who recently went up with Newcastle.
As well as Leicester in the play-offs, expect to see two newly-promoted sides: Southampton and Brighton. There has been a tradition in recent seasons of sides promoted from League 1 doing well as soon as they come up, and this looks set to continue. Some of last year’s play-off sides, namely Cardiff and Nottingham Forest, will be hoping for the same this year, though neither looks as strong as then. They could be 6th or thereabouts come the final day of the season, along with Leeds. The side I expect them to need to beat is Reading, who seem to sell players but keep coming back. An outside bet? Millwall.
At the bottom things are going be tough for some of the big names: Coventry is one I expect to really struggle, along with Watford. It’s difficult to see sides with smaller budgets like Barnsley and Doncaster avoiding a relegation battle too.
There are still quite a few big names in League 1, all of whom will be wanting out. I tip Charlton and Sheffield United to be automatically promoted, with Sheffield Wednesday in the play-offs. Preston and Huddersfield should also be in the top six, along with maybe Bournemouth. Other teams there or thereabouts on the final day will be Notts County, and my outside bet Tranmere. And who knows, maybe Stevenage will continue their good run as the football league’s new boys?
Always a tough league at the bottom due to the four relegation places, the new boys will find life tough, so aside from my outside tip of Stevenage for promotion expect to see Chesterfield, Wycombe and Bury close to the foot of the table. By February I expect one of them will be marooned far from safety. They could be joined by Oldham – not so long ago a top flight side but now perennial strugglers at this level – Rochdale and Exeter.
In League 2, my favourites for promotion are Bristol Rovers and Swindon. Shrewsbury showed a lot of promise last year, and Port Vale, with Micky Adams back as manager, will be hoping for a top 7 finish – if their problems off the field get sorted. We may also see the newly-promoted sides in the mix – the unloved Crawley are ambitious, and most will be hoping that the much loved Wimbledon can get promotion – though this may be a season too soon for them. A surprise at the bottom last year was Northampton Town – I expect better this year, and they could make up the play-off positions. Other than that, Dagenham will be keen to get back into League 1 quickly; Oxford and Rotherham should also be in the mix.
The first name when looking at the bottom of the table is Barnet – they always seem to be in the bottom three or four, but this could be the year they slip back out of the league. A big name with big money troubles is Plymouth – Peter Reid’s a good manger, but if players aren’t being paid…Also expect to see Hereford, Aldershot, Cheltenham and Burton down there.
So, let’s see which 25% of my predictions are right come May!
Saul Pope is the author of ‘New Holland’, a mystery novel set in Russia and published by Espresso Books. He also writes for the football magazine ‘When Saturday Comes’.