Life in the Championship has begun with sobering defeats for relegated Aston Villa and Newcastle United.
Villa were beaten by a late Fernando Forestieri goal by Sheffield Wednesday in a tight affair at Hillsborough whilst the Magpies suffered a defeat by the same score-line at Craven Cottage on Friday night. These opening-days results are a clear indication that the season ahead will be demanding and not for the faint-hearted.
Both clubs have endured busy transfer windows with many ins and outs.
Villa’s squad was in desperate need of a shake-up after a disastrous, toothless relegation campaign last year. The club have since released Charles N’Zogbia and Kieran Richardson and have sold Brad Guzan, Idrissa Gueye and Ciaran Clark respectively. Two notable incomings are centre-back Tommy Elphick and the impressive £12m spend of Ross McCormack from Fulham.
New Villa boss Roberto Di Matteo has experience of League 1 and the Championship from his time in charge of MK Dons and West Bromwich Albion and this experience will stand the club in good stead for the season ahead. He will be aware of the discipline and battling qualities needed for the challenge facing them.
The Villa team in particular suffered a real disconnect with the fans last season and one of the biggest tasks Di Matteo will face will be to get the club’s fans back on side; to use their large home support at Villa Park to galvanise rather than revolt against Villa’s young side.
One of Newcastle’s remarkable acquisitions was the announcement of manager Rafa Benitez on a full-time basis after his short period at the helm towards the end of last season; an appointment made after 25,000 supporter signatures were signed in a petition by the Newcastle Chronicle asking the ex-Liverpool, Chelsea & Real Madrid manager to stay.
A host of other incomings have arrived at the club as they look to secure an immediate return to the Premier League. Former Bournemouth winger Matt Ritchie (undisclosed), Grant Hanley (undisclosed), Dwight Gayle (undisclosed), Jesus Gamez (undisclosed) and midfielder Mohammed Diame (£4.5m) have all been acquired. The inconsistent Georginio Wijnaldum has astonishingly been sold to Liverpool for almost double the £14.5m Newcastle paid for the Dutchman a year ago and France’s Moussa Sissoko also looks set to depart (expectedly for a similar fee) as Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal have shown keen interest.
The defeats in last weekend’s fixtures will be a warning to both that this is a league not made for the egos, finesse and grace prominent in the Premier League but for consistency, battling, grit and physical endurance required in the arduous slog of a schedule that is the Championship.
The Football League calendar features regular Tuesday and Saturday fixtures and those teams with thinner squads and players out of form often suffer as a result. Furthermore, large fan-base clubs will face different challenges on away travels compared to in the Premier League. Clubs of the more modest size (Burton Albion or Barnsley for example) will treat games against a former Premier League big-boy like Villa and Newcastle as essentially a cup-final with all the more motivation to cause an upset.
Both need to get last weekend’s defeats out of their system as swiftly as possible and the first six weeks of the season will be a big indicator as to which of these relegated clubs will have the fire-power to mount a serious promotion challenge.