Championship Season Preview: Fulham to force their way back to the top flight

Marco Silva Fulham manager
Can Marco Silva bring Fulham back to the Premier League?

Mark O'Haire has delivered five successive seasons of profitable Championship tips for us so we asked the Football League expert to share his thoughts on the coming season.

"Fulham kick-off their latest Championship renewal with 19 players on the books boasting promotion-winning CVs and it would be a surprise to see the capital club conclude the campaign outside of the top-two positions."

Picking the winner of the ultra-competitive Championship is normally a thankless task. But could the tide be turning?

Last season the top three in the ante-post betting all achieved promotion - the first time such a scenario has played out in the EFL - whilst the pre-season jollies have dotted up in each of the past two campaigns with Leeds (5/1) taking top spot in 2020 and Norwich earning gold back in May.

The Canaries' recent success means 11 (48%) of the past 23 favourites or joint-favourites this century has foraged a way to the promised land, suggesting the likes of recently-relegated Fulham 6.05/1, West Brom 6.511/2 and Sheffield United 7.06/1 command maximum respect ahead of their returns to the second-tier.

Bournemouth 10.09/1 are also bound to have their backers after going close to an immediate bounce back last term. In fact, such is the quality at the aforementioned quartet's disposal, it's very difficult to disagree with the market's forecast with everyone else likely to be playing catch-up in 2021/22.

Cottagers to finish top of the pile

Fulham 6.05/1 understandably take the honours at top of the Outright Winner market. The Cottagers may have seen many of their Premier League personnel depart yet Marco Silva can still call upon a frightening array of seasoned second-tier options.

Aleksandar Mitrovic, Tom Cairney, Michael Hector and Harrison Reid have all proven they're too good for this level, and that's just scraping the surface. Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa is still available after an eye-catching last campaign, and Harry Wilson has been added to the mix.

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Almost every position is covered with quality and, despite criticism following a mediocre reign at Everton, Silva's spells at Watford and Hull suggest he's still a very capable coach. The Portuguese should inject much-need dynamism into Fulham's play with a front-foot approach utilising the club's supreme firepower.

Fulham kick-off their latest Championship renewal with 19 players on the books boasting promotion-winning CVs and it would be a surprise to see the capital club conclude the campaign outside of the top-two positions.

The Cottagers are primed for a serious assault on promotion and are backed to take top honours.

West Brom 7.06/1 haven't finished outside of the top-six in any of their most recent eight second-tier seasons and have already set their sights upon an immediate bounce back to the top-flight. Appointing highly-rated Valerien Ismael from Barnsley should ensure Albion are amongst the podium places.

However, it may take time for the Baggies to get up to speed under their new coach's preferred playing style, and that gives Fulham the edge.

Forest the top-six selection

Mick McCarthy (Cardiff), Neil Warnock (Middlesbrough) and Michael O'Neill (Stoke) should all ensure their respective clubs are competitive, difficult to beat and inside the reckoning for a top-six finish. Millwall are solid and stable under Gary Rowett, whilst Luton appear underrated following an eye-catching summer.

QPR boasted the league's third-best points return in the second half of last season and have realistic hopes of cracking the business end of the table, although I'm anticipating a decline in standards from play-off pair Barnsley and Swansea despite memorable campaigns in 2020/21.

And so, could the conditions be right for an overdue challenge from Nottingham Forest? The Tricky Trees approach the new season with little attention or expectation, as well as a welcome quiet summer on the recruitment front. That's given respected boss Chris Hughton the breathing space to work with a streamlined squad.

Languishing at this level since 2008/09, the underachieving East Midlanders haven't reached the top-six since 2011 but there were signs Forest were moving slowly in the right direction after Hughton's arrival.

The Reds' supremo hasn't finished outside of the top-four in his last three full seasons in the Championship and should give this group a really solid platform.

Should Lewis Grabban get back amongst the goals on a more consistent basis, I like Forest's prospects of making the top-six at [15/8].

Royals and Rovers to suffer the drop

Derby's disastrous past 12 months has put the Rams on a ruinous road ahead of 2021/22. Wayne Rooney's charges are in no fit state to avoid another distressing campaign and the cash-strapped club begin the campaign with a suspended three-point penalty and transfer embargo hanging over their shoulders.

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The financial uncertainty and current restrictions have ravaged the County roster with over 10 senior players departing in the summer without any new additions arriving to bulk up a shockingly short squad. The situation is so severe, Betfair is not even offering odds on Derby's demotion to League One.

Instead, I'm focusing my attention fancy prices in the Relegation market with both Blackburn 9.08/1 and Reading 10.09/1 causing concern.

Having overseen three successive seasons of progression, Tony Mowbray's time at Blackburn looks bleak. A promising five-month spell last term fizzled out from February and Rovers concluded the campaign entrenched in the bottom-half due to 10 defeats in in their final 20 Championship fixtures.

With finances tight around the Lancashire club, plus a transfer embargo restricting the Ewood Park club's recruitment prospects, there's a despondent mood around the Lancashire outfit. No new faces have yet to arrive, 11 players departed, and Mowbray has been left with a scratch squad in pre-season.

Star 28-goal striker Adam Armstrong has been heavily linked with a move away and his departure would leave an insurmountable void, whilst key asset Bradley Dack still recovering from serious injury.

A long season could be on the cards for Blackburn and 9.08/1 quotes on relegation are simply too big to ignore.

Elsewhere, Reading are also unable to add to their squad after breaching profit and sustainability rules. The Berkshire boys are therefore in the midst of a difficult off-season that's seen two of their leading lights - Omar Richards and Michael Olise - move onto pastures new without being replaced.

To make matters worse, powerful forward Yakou Meite is sidelined for the majority of the season and the squad appears alarmingly thin.

The Royals made a record-making start to life under Veljko Paunovic last season, taking 22 points from a possible 24, before averaging only 1.26 points per-game in their final 38 fixtures with tactics boffs suggesting the Serbian supremo was found out after January.

It wouldn't take too much for Reading's downturn to descend into something more serious and 10.09/1 is a few ticks too big given the current climate.

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