Yes! The English Football League kicks off this weekend and about bloody time too. Since the World Cup Final, we have been forced to get our fix watching preseason friendlies - the football equivalent of a starving dog chewing on a rubber bone.
Triallists have been and gone, multiple substitutions have been made whilst fans up and down the country have furiously bashed away at their keyboards speculating about tremendous signings/abysmal signings/lack of signings/relegation-confirming player sales (delete as applicable).
So, what does the next nine months of glorious English Football League action have in store for us? Here are our predictions:
1. Championship Winner - Aston Villa
Despite Thierry Henry circling Villa Park in his Renault Clio in recent weeks, Steve Bruce has kept his job whilst the financial doom and gloom of losing the play-off final has disappeared with new majority shareholders injecting some cash.
Bruce has form in getting out of the Championship and is a popular figure in the game who will no doubt use the loan market effectively. Also, Villa are already ahead of the game having somehow escaped a huge points deduction for this monstrosity of a signing announcement:
2. League One Winner - Sunderland
Come on, surely no one outside of Newcastle can begrudge Sunderland fans some respite from the last two seasons of abject misery and despair? It’s been all change at the Stadium Of Light this summer with new owners taking on the now debt-free ‘sleeping giant’.
Scottish managerial rising star Jack Ross is in charge and has an excellent budget at his disposal which he appears to be spending wisely on young hungry players who resonate with the 23,000 season ticket holders. Keep an eye on the hardest-working footballer of all time, Luke O’Nien, and striker Charlie Wyke.
3. League Two Winner - Lincoln City
Danny and Neil Cowley have done a fantastic job in resurrecting The Imps: promotion to the Football League; an incredible FA Cup run; a first-ever trip to Wembley to win the Checkatrade Trophy and they reached the play-offs last season too.
I fully expect them to go one better this season and blast their way to the title with their direct and high-tempo style of football. A strike partnership of Matt Rhead and John Akinde will bully and flatten many a defence this season. It won’t be pretty, but I predict it will be very effective.
4. Player To Watch: Eberechi Eze (QPR)
The QPR youngster has been the talk of Shepherds Bush this summer after some eye-catching displays for The Rs at the end of last season following an electric loan spell at Wycombe Wanderers. New coach Steve McLaren has little choice, it seems, but to give youngsters a chance due to the lack of funds and an upcoming transfer embargo, and in Eze, he has a potential match winner on his hands.
With an entire bag of tricks at his disposal, Eze loves to drive forward and make things happen and if QPR fans weren’t excited enough, McLaren has handed him the number 10 shirt made famous by the legendary Stan Bowles.
5. Player to watch: Reise Allassani (Coventry City)
A summer signing for League One new boys Coventry City, Allassani has had a long and arduous road into the Football League after suffering a devastating knee injury shortly after being released by Crystal Palace.
After a year recovering without a club, Allassani had several unsuccessful trials with professional clubs before deciding to drop down to the seventh tier and sign for Dulwich Hamlet. It was the perfect opportunity as he tore up the Bostik Premier Division and his commitment and desire to succeed, along with a hatful of goals for the Hamlet attracted several scouts to South London.
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6. Player to watch: Mohamed Eisa (Bristol City)
After a prolific season terrorising League Two defences for Gary Johnson’s Cheltenham Town, Eisa has moved up to Championship side Bristol City, who are managed by Gary’s son, Lee Johnson. Eisa is another player who had emerged from the depths of non-league, scoring more than a goal every other game for Greenwich Borough before being snapped up by Cheltenham where he broke their record for the most goals scored in a season. Move over Jamie Vardy, there’s a new kid in town.
7. Middlesbrough to get promoted
Another advocate of agricultural but effective football, Tony Pulis has an excellent track record as a manager. Never relegated out of the Premier League and now tasked with returning Boro to the top table of English football, Pulis will be expected to gain promotion this season and in doing so will probably field a team made up largely of centre backs whilst trying to find a player who can take a throw-in by his own corner flag and reach their opponent’s six yard area.
8. Preston to get promoted
An outside bet, Preston North End are definitely moving in the right direction under former Norwich boss, Alex Neil. They finished just outside the play-offs last season with Neil building a team from young and upcoming players. If Preston can land themselves a big striker before the transfer window closes then I would not be surprised to see them get into the play-offs.
9. Plymouth Argyle to get promoted
Argyle manager Derek Adams is a man so terrifically dour, he makes Roy Keane look like the missing Chuckle Brother by comparison. Famous excuses for poor performances over the years have included algae on the pitch and the Argyle kit being ‘too green’. However, he has done a terrific job steering the ship at Plymouth and has secured them in League One.
Last season, a dreadful run of injuries resulted in a terrible first half to the campaign which heaped pressure on the Scot which he dealt with in his usual charming way, insisting that it would all be OK - and he was completely correct, as the players returned from injury, the form turned around and gave the ‘Green Army’ an unlikely tilt at the play-offs. In Graham Carey, Plymouth have a wonderful player and with a little bit of luck, I think they will be in the top six in League One.
10. Portsmouth to get promoted
Fratton Park is a truly brilliant place to watch the beautiful game and Pompey always attract a large and very vociferous crowd. After many years of decline, which saw Portsmouth fall from the Premier League all the way to League Two, there is plenty to sing about again with Kenny Jackett quietly assembling a squad which should trouble the top six in a very competitive League One.
11. MK Dons to get promoted
Whilst most of the football world rejoiced at the relegation of ‘The Dons’ last season, the Buckinghamshire club have licked their wounds and made a tremendous managerial appointment in Paul Tisdale.
The former longest-serving manager in the game is an excellent tactician who has overseen a complete overhaul of the squad, bringing in a mixture of experience and youth which I’m confident he will mould into a winning side. And if a match is a bit of a stinker then MK fans can sit back and enjoy the wardrobe of Tisdale, surely football’s most stylish man.
12. Stevenage to get promoted
Not fancied by many this season but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Hertfordshire club will have a great season in League Two. Rookie manager Dino Maamria has earned his stripes in non-league and also been an assistant to former Boro legend Graham Westley, so he’d have heard a thing or two about winning medals.
Maamria has assembled a squad of experienced professionals who know the division well - and there is an excellent youth academy at Stevenage too.
13. Notts County to get promoted
County fell short in the play-offs last term, despite starting the season like an express train. Manager, Kevin Nolan, would have learnt a lot in his first full season at the club, including how to successfully refer to himself in the third person which is an excellent managerial trait.
He has been well backed by the chairman at Meadow Lane so the fans will be demanding promotion this time around whilst Kevin Nolan will also be fully expecting Kevin Nolan to get County into the top three.
14. Morecombe To Be Relegated
If pies could win you matches, then Morecambe would be Champions League by now. As much as it pains me to type this, I think that The Shrimps ride in the Football League maybe coming to an end.
They have been edging closer and closer to the trapdoor these past few years and only stayed up on the last day of the season just gone. Jim Bentley is the longest serving manager in the top four divisions and has done sterling work in keeping them up year on year but I fear that this maybe a season too far.
15. Where to expect fireworks: Fleetwood Town
Joey Barton managing Fleetwood Town should make for compelling viewing this season. Controversy and disciplinary problems have dogged Barton throughout his career with incidents including stubbing a lit cigar out on the eyelid of a team mate, being convicted twice on charges of violence and being banned from football after admitting breaching betting regulations.
I’m not sure if it will either be a huge success or a complete disaster but one thing I do know is that it will not be dull.
16. Where to expect fireworks: Leeds United
In recent years, ‘manager of the month’ has been more a way of life at Elland Road rather than a sought-after award. Despite the recent instability, the club still boasts a large and rabid supporter base who long for a return to the Premier League.
Despite having one of the most Yorkshire names in football, Paul Heckingbottom was fired this summer and has been spectacularly replaced by Marcelo Bielsa. The fiery Argentine, nicknamed ‘Loco Bielsa’ (Madman Bielsa), has managed the Argentina and Chile national sides along with many top European clubs, including a two day spell in charge of Lazio, and is greatly respected by Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola.
His training methods are famously brutal and he refuses to conduct exclusive interviews but is more than happy to answer every single question at a post-match press conference, sometimes for many hours. Light the fuse and retreat to a safe distance.
17. Where to expect fireworks: Accrington Stanley
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Budgets, buying and selling players, developing the stadium, forthright opinions on those who govern the game, high profile spats with Gary Neville, pricing strategies and how the Checkatrade Trophy might pay for him to build a new bar - it’s all posted on Twitter throughout the day, warts and all.