Rafael Benítez feels loved but it is hard to forget that 12 months ago he was preparing Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale for a season where Real Madrid ended up winning the Champions League long after the manager’s departure.
1) Benítez battling for top-flight return
Instead Benítez is at St James’ Park, readying Newcastle for the Championship and repeatedly saying he is excited about the challenge that awaits. Nothing short of an immediate return to the top flight will be accepted.
2) Burton and Clough: first stop Forest
A club that in 2009 were playing league matches against Histon and Grays Athletic (in the Conference) is now on a par with Newcastle and Aston Villa. Their extraordinary ascent to the Championship is thanks to the shrewd management of, most recently, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Nigel Clough along with the astuteness of the chairman, Ben Robinson, who has ensured the club with a 7,000-capacity ground lives within its means. Clough, who had managed the club until 2009, returned in December and has been rewarded with an opening-day trip to Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, where he spent nine years as a player and his father won two European Cups and a league title.
3) Northampton run without Wilder
It will be fascinating to see how the Cobblers fare in League One having won promotion at a canter. So much of last season’s title success was down to the manager, Chris Wilder, keeping a winning team focused during a period of unprecedented strife off the pitch but he has left for Sheffield United and Rob Page has come in from Port Vale. Matters in the background have been straightened out but how much of a blow will losing the manager be?
4) Blackpool: bloom or bust?
The Oystons remain in charge, much to the chagrin of the club’s supporters, and such is the discord at Bloomfield Road it is possible to imagine the club dropping out of the Football League six seasons after being in the top flight. Gary Bowyer has brought in plenty of new faces, though, and the squad looks well equipped for promotion. The new manager has said he can control only the playing side of things but must hope matters behind the scenes do not impede his work.
5) The return of Mighty Mariner
It has taken six years for Grimsby to battle their way back into the Football League. If one person deserves to be back on the professional stage more than any other it is surely their emotional mascot. Mighty Mariner hit the headlines last year when he celebrated a winning goal against Eastleigh so hard he literally lost his head, ripping it off and volleying it down the touchline in wild scenes. More, please.
6) Zenga leads Wolves into battle
Seven days before the start of the season and Walter Zenga replaces Kenny Jackett as manager. Now keep an eye on the ins and outs at Molineux: the new Chinese owner, Fosun Group, has links with the super-agent Jorge Mendes. Success or failure this season may depend on how strong those ties are. When the deal was brokered Fosun agreed to invest £20m-£30m over two seasons. But perhaps it is more realistic to expect a number of talented, young loan players from the Mendes stable to help spur an outside push for promotion.
7) ‘Egg and cress’ on Canaries’ menu
When Norwich released their third kit it was variously described as “genius”, a “monstrosity”, “bird poo”, “inspired” and “looking like bus seats”. Divisive, to say the least. But there is no question that it got people talking about the club. The kit is a nod to the “egg and cress” home strip worn by the class of 1992-93 who challenged for the title. A second-tier title tilt would be most welcome this season if Alex Neil’s side are to maintain their status as the ultimate yo-yo club.
8) Xia’s Villa in rude health?
There was fear among Aston Villa’s dazed fans when the new owner, Tony Xia, spoke about rebranding the stadium Lotus Villa Park after the health products he hoped to sell there. But supporters have warmed to Xia over the summer. The Chinese owner has been nothing if not direct, cajoling fans on Twitter to renew their season tickets and promising a revolution and a ruthless trimming of the squad. A likeable owner at Villa? That is one improvement already.
9) Will Will Grigg still be on fire?
Will Championship defences be as terrified of the smash-hit Northern Ireland striker as those in League One were when he propelled Wigan to promotion with 25 goals? And how will Grigg cope with the attention he can expect after a summer in which he was one of the most talked-about players at Euro 2016 thanks to that song? Watch this space.
10) Rowett’s Atlético Brum
Birmingham’s tactically astute young manager has boldly compared his side to Atlético Madrid. “What we are is a destructive team that wants to be better,” he said. Being hard to beat is no bad thing but now Gary Rowett has a little cash in hand it will be intriguing to see just how far his side can go. If the Championship’s Diego Simeone can bolt a little flair on to the front of his well-drilled machine, a promotion push is a possibility.
11) Gunnarsson’s Welsh saga
It seems odd that the beating heart of Iceland’s fantastical journey to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals, Aron Gunnarsson – the nation’s bearded warrior and captain – struggled to hold down a place in Cardiff’s midfield last season. His heroics in France must surely have elevated him up the pecking order this term. Given that he helped slay England, Cardiff fans will think a starting place is the least he deserves.
12) Rotherham stingy under Stubbs
Having ended Hibernian’s 114-year wait for the Scottish Cup, taking on a job in which finishing 20th in the Championship would be progress seemed an odd one for Alan Stubbs. But the former Everton defender is carving out a reputation as a tactically adept coach. Hibs had the joint-best defence in the Scottish Championship last season. Rotherham could do with being equally stingy under their new manager this term to avoid yet another relegation battle.
13) The century’s first £1 player
Bradford City were quick to jump at the opportunity to trigger a ludicrous release clause in the contract of the Blackpool keeper and club captain, Colin Doyle, when the chaotic Seasiders were relegated to League Two last season. But will the former Republic of Ireland international cope with the pressure of the price tag?
14) Judge the Bees’ knees?
When Brentford’s player of the season for 2015-16 suffered a gruesome double leg-break in April there were fears for his career. It would be one of football’s most remarkable comebacks if Alan Judge returned before 2017. “It staggers me to see him doing his running on the anti-gravity machine,” said the head coach, Dean Smith. If Judge returns only half the player he was, it would still benefit Brentford such was his influence in 2015-16.
15) Dons derby: reborn v rebranded
While AFC Wimbledon have met MK Dons before in cup competitions the teams have never been in the same division. Beyond the two League One matches that pit the reborn Wimbledon against the rebranded one, in December and March, Wimbledon will have the added motivation of trying to finish above the club they despise most in the football pyramid for the first time since their rebirth in 2002.
16) Fletcher with a point to prove
In August 2012 Sunderland paid Wolves £12m for Steven Fletcher. Four years later he is at Sheffield Wednesday after joining on a free transfer. Injury and chaos in the running of Sunderland have certainly not helped his progress but at 29, and with much to prove, he may be a very savvy signing.
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