The 2021/22 Sky Bet EFL campaign is upon us, with supporters set to return to stadiums across the country when the first of the league fixtures take place this weekend.
Here's what we have in store...
Out with the old, in with the new.
Predicting how the Sky Bet Championship will unfold in any particular season is always a precarious task, so suddenly do the sands shift at any given moment in this most fluid of divisions. It's been all change indeed, with only nine of the managers who began last season’s Championship campaign set to start this one.
To add even more intrigue at the top, the three sides relegated from the Premier League - Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United - as well as those Clubs who lost in the Play-Offs in May – Swansea City, AFC Bournemouth and Barnsley - have all changed managers this summer.
Interestingly, Scott Parker has swapped relegated Fulham for last season's Play-Off Semi-Finalists Bournemouth, while Valerien Ismael has made the opposite switch, leaving Barnsley for West Brom. What unites them is the thirst for promotion at their respective Clubs. Automatic promotion will be all but demanded at Dean Court and The Hawthorns.
It will surely also apply in West London where Marco Silva has been granted another tempting managerial opportunity in English football, succeeding Parker at Fulham and must surely this time translate positive publicity into success on the pitch.
The man who preceded Parker at Craven Cottage, Slavisa Jokanovic, is also back in the Championship with relegated Sheffield United. Will he transform United’s busy football into the fluid, technical play he favours, or fuse the two together to lead the Blades to promotion?
Along with Parker and Jokanovic, five other managers have led at least one club into the Premier League, a sign that Championship owners are banking on past performance translating into future gains.
Between them, Neil Warnock (four Championship promotions), Mick McCarthy (two), Chris Hughton (two) and Nigel Pearson and Tony Mowbray (one) have taken 10 different Clubs into the top flight. The only certainty is that they cannot all add to their tallies this season.
Warnock has invested wisely at Middlesbrough this summer, plundering relegated Wycombe and Rotherham to bring in striker Uche Ikpeazu and midfielder Matt Crooks, respectively.
Hughton’s organisational skills have already improved Nottingham Forest, while McCarthy will hope his Cardiff City side can replicate the form they displayed after his arrival in mid-season rather than their end-of-campaign swoon.
Pearson’s impact at Bristol City was less apparent last season, but having laid the foundations for Leicester City’s astonishing Premier League title success in 2016, it is easy to see his appeal.
Swansea City and Barnsley will hope to emulate their 2020/21 Play-Off campaigns under new bosses Russell Martin and Markus Schopp, respectively, but have sold some key players.
Reading, Queens Park Rangers, Millwall, Luton Town and Stoke City will look to build on last season’s improvements, while Lancashire rivals Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End have become entrenched in mid-table in recent seasons.
Three more to look out for are Wayne Rooney’s Derby County, Lee Bowyer’s Birmingham City and Huddersfield Town, whose first season under Carlos Corberan didn’t quite deliver on the style of his mentor Marcelo Bielsa.
Elsewhere, Coventry City will make a return to their city after a lengthy absence and look to go well, with manager Mark Robins a great believer in young players.
That leaves the promoted trio of Hull City, Peterborough United and Blackpool, all of whom will add a tingle of excitement and interesting questions on their return to the Championship.
After the 2019/20 campaign when they tumbled from the top half to relegation in a matter of months, can Hull reclaim their previous status as promotion challengers?
Will the Peterborough United model of buying hungry young players work in the Sky Bet Championship and allow Darren Ferguson’s men to consolidate their place in the higher division?
And can Neil Critchley continue his impressive body of work in restoring Blackpool’s reputation as an upwardly mobile club?
All will be revealed soon.
Of all the Sky Bet EFL divisions for the 2021/22 season, League One promises to be the most open.
In many ways that could replicate the last campaign which saw Oxford United spend Halloween at the foot of the table and still make the Play-Offs, Burton Albion stay up despite being eight points adrift of safety on 2 January and Steve Cotterill mastermind a Shrewsbury Town revival from his hospital bed while enduring a long bout of COVID-19.
It became a division in which momentum propelled teams forward, while halting slides proved problematic. Judging by the composition of this season’s League One, the same could be true again.
Of the relegated sides from the Sky Bet Championship, Sheffield Wednesday’s vocal travelling support will be a welcome sight at Clubs which missed live crowds last season. Manager Darren Moore also knows the division, having left Doncaster Rovers for Hillsborough midway through the campaign.
Rotherham United have been here before having been relegated or promoted in each of the past five seasons. That sequence suggests another promotion push, and the Rotherham blueprint will surely inspire Gareth Ainsworth’s Wycombe Wanderers to believe they can make an immediate return to the Sky Bet Championship.
The primary concern of Lincoln City is the health of manager Michael Appleton in his battle with testicular cancer. The man himself will no doubt be focusing on at least reaching the Play-Offs again. Don’t mention that ambition to Sunderland AFC supporters, who have seen their side make them in two of the past three seasons only to falter on each occasion. Having guided the club to a first Wembley success since 1973 in the Papa John’s Trophy, manager Lee Johnson knows that automatic promotion is the main ambition on Wearside this season.
Oxford will want to avoid a repeat of last season’s start, while for Portsmouth and Doncaster, under new permanent managers Danny Cowley and Richie Wellens, respectively, it is about ensuring they do not endure another springtime swoon, which saw both Clubs fall away from the Play-Off positions.
Paul Cook has made a number of astute signings for Ipswich Town this summer, notably former AFC Wimbledon striker Joe Piggott and midfield playmaker Scott Fraser from MK Dons. The Tractor Boys will also be hoping that star quality rubs off from new shirt sponsor and Ipswich fan Ed Sheeran.
For Cook at Portman Road, read Nigel Adkins at The Valley. Having narrowly failed to guide Charlton Athletic into the Play-Offs, Adkins has spent the past two months re-shaping his squad.
Serial promotion-winning managers Simon Grayson and Steve Evans mean that Fleetwood Town and Gillingham, respectively, should contend for the Play-Offs. Grayson has taken four Clubs – Blackpool, Leeds, Huddersfield and Preston – up to the Sky Bet Championship, while Evans led Boston United and Crawley Town into the Sky Bet EFL and also has successive promotions with Rotherham on his managerial badge of honour.
In terms of the promoted Clubs, Bolton Wanderers arguably look best placed to mount a promotion challenge, while fans of Cheltenham Town, Cambridge United and Morecambe may settle for consolidation in the third tier of English football.
Last season saw reasons for optimism at Crewe Alexandra, Accrington Stanley and MK Dons, although it is too soon to know what impact losing manager Russell Martin to Swansea will have at Stadium MK.
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Leam Richardson will look to build on fine second-half form at Burton and Wigan Athletic, respectively, while Ryan Lowe will be aiming for greater consistency from his Plymouth Argyle side.
That leaves AFC Wimbledon, who must make up for the loss of Pigott, the club’s leading scorer in two of the past three seasons, and Shrewsbury, whose players will surely find inspiration from the redoubtable and indefatigable Cotterill.
The key word as we approach opening day in Sky Bet League Two is uncertainty. From a quartet of relegated Clubs all looking to bounce back, to two newcomers from the National League for whom the first month could shape their seasons, there is much to ponder.
This could be the tightest of all three Sky Bet EFL divisions, so while consistency will help, a run of three or four wins at any stage of the season could equate to a giant leap up the standings.
That is what both Port Vale and Bradford City managed in the second half of the 2020/21 campaign. Trouble was, each club started off from too lowly a position to translate a late surge into a run to the Play-Offs.
Under Darrell Clarke, Vale will be looking to re-capture the momentum that saw them pick up 25 points from a possible 27 in the spring. If Clarke’s decision to leave Walsall for Vale Park was a surprise, so was that of Derek Adams whose extraordinary transformation of Morecambe from perennial strugglers to Play-Off Final winners was followed almost instantly by his departure for Bradford City.
The Scot is known for placing an emphasis on fitness, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bantams make a fast start.
Salford’s football royalty owners are looking to Gary Bowyer to secure a first-ever EFL promotion, while Tranmere have turned back to Micky Mellon, who led the club into Sky Bet League One three seasons ago.
In the past five seasons, at least one relegated club from the previous season has secured an instant return to League One. How will West Country rivals Swindon Town and Bristol Rovers fare?
The fortunes of Rochdale and Northampton Town are also shrouded in mystery with rookie managers Robbie Stockdale and Jon Brady in charge at Spotland and Sixfields, respectively. Forest Green Rovers have a new boss, too. Rob Edwards has taken over at The New Lawn.
For Mike Flynn at Newport County and Matt Taylor at Exeter City, the task is not so much being new to their Clubs as having to piece together a new team each season.
The downside to Flynn’s uncanny ability to bring in the perfect loan players is the need to keep replacing them, as he did in 2020/21 when leading The Exiles to the Play-Off Final. A special mention must go to the remarkable Kevin Ellison who begins his 21st EFL campaign at the age of 42.
Taylor’s challenge at Exeter is maintaining a strong league position while losing promising young players. Joel Randall, who moved to Peterborough this summer, was the latest prodigy to leave.
Oddly, Matt Taylor v Matt Taylor will be a managerial touchline meeting this season when Exeter face Walsall, who have named the former Portsmouth wing-back as their new boss.
There were enough positive signs for Carlisle United, Crawley Town, Harrogate Town and Mansfield Town last season to offer optimism about the new campaign.
Stevenage made genuine progress under Alex Revell after almost dropping into the National League in 2019/20. By contrast, Leyton Orient have taken the opposite route by enlisting 880 games of managerial experience in appointing Kenny Jackett.
Keith Curle cannot quite match Jackett, but Oldham Athletic will still benefit from his presence on the touchline, while Mark Cooper takes his knowledge and tactical acumen to Barrow, albeit without departed striker Scott Quigley.
Meanwhile, Scunthorpe United and Colchester United will seek to re-establish themselves in the top half of Sky Bet League Two.
That leaves Sky Bet EFL newcomers Sutton United and Hartlepool who will each be hoping to make positive starts to life in the Sky Bet EFL.
Let the games begin.