On the eve of Fulham’s Championship opening fixture, the HammyEnd team preview the next nine months – looking at who’s going up, who’ll make the play-offs, who could go down and who will star for Fulham
Who’s going up?
Dan Crawford: I would hope that Fulham would be in the picture, but predicting automatic promotion is still a leap of faith without further defensive reinforcements. The Championship has a number of dangerous sides, but you have to look at the likes of Leeds, under the management of Marcelo Bielsa, and West Brom as having the quality to maintain a promotion push over the course of a long season. Neil Warnock’s Cardiff won’t be far away either.
Frankie Taylor: Even if the Fulham back line is porous, you’ve got to think that in Anthony Knockaert, Ivan Cavaleiro and Aleksandar Mitrovic, we’ve got enough fire power to outscore most teams. One thing being seldom said is Fulham should return to a state where they dominate possession thus giving opposition attacks fewer opportunities to score through starvation of the ball alone. Leeds will be up there but Bielsa’s sides tend to run out of gas come the end of the season, are they deep enough? I’m not sure. I think Cardiff are better now than two seasons ago, they’ll be one to worry about whether the football is pretty or not and would be my tip to come back up. Middlesbrough have enough in both boxes but I wonder about their creativity on a consistent enough basis and they may be forced to settle for a playoff spot. Huddersfield still retain a few good players and could be an outside bet for promotion.
Max Cohen: Along with Fulham, I think Leeds United and Bristol City will join us in the Premier League in 2020/21. Leeds will benefit massively from keeping Bielsa, and Bristol City being led by Lee Johnson could be a decent shout to sneak up via the play-offs.
Alan Drewett: As always, the Championship is going to be very competitive and there will be a lot of clubs who consider themselves serious prospects for automatic promotion. I do think Leeds will recover from the disappointment of last season and earn promotion, but I’d back West Brom to win the league. I think the appointment of Slaven Bilic could really make the difference between promotion and more heartbreak for the Baggies.
Who’s going down?
Dan Crawford: I think it might be tricky for Charlton to survive, with the turbulence of a toxic boardroom situation, loss of key players and a lack of additions threatening to undermine an excellent young manager in Lee Bowyer. You’d worry about whether Luton have the quality to survive at a higher level, too, whilst the likes of Birmingham and Reading might be worried as well.
Frankie Taylor: I have Charlton-supporting relatives and I live down the road from the training ground so I keep an eye on their goings on. Most hoped promotion would mean the club would finally change hands but, alas, Roland Duchatelet not only remains owner but continues to cut finances with Charlton losing out on players to League One sides. They have a lot of fight and they will work, but they will not have the ability. Luton are much the same, will be an awkward game and a real battle, but do they have the quality over 46 games? I do think there’ll be a ‘shock.’ Birmingham and Reading could both be looking over their shoulder with Wigan potentially due a return to League One.
Max Cohen: I think Barnsley, Reading, and Blackburn could all be in a massive struggle against relegation and could be going down. Reading’s signing of Charlie Adam just about sealed it for me!
Alan Drewett: There are many teams who could struggle this season but I am going for Reading, Birmingham and Millwall. The loss of Che Adams and Gary Monk would have hurt Birmingham as both were pivotal in the Blues’ relative success last season. I think it is just a matter of time before Reading go down to League One, to be honest. They have not been the same team since they lost to Huddersfield in the play-off final three years ago.
Who do you fancy for the play-offs?
Dan Crawford: Bristol City have been bubbling around the play-off spots for the last couple of years. They have a progressive manager in Lee Johnson, play some excellent football and have made some solid additions over the summer, including acquiring the former Fulham defender Tomas Kalas. They have a method of developing excellent young talent too – and should certainly be in the shout come the end of the season.
Frankie Taylor: Some good clubs are going to miss out, I do think Fulham and Cardiff return to the Premier League through the automatic and if that’s correct, you’ve got four spots between the likes of Derby, Middlesbrough, Leeds, West Bromwich Albion, Huddersfield and Stoke. Brentford are could perhaps be deemed as outsiders with the current retaining of Neal Maupay (and more shockingly Said Benrahma) plus adding Christian Norgaard and Pontus Jansson gives them serious strength allover the pitch strength.
Max Cohen: I reckon Derby, Middlesbrough, Bristol City, and West Brom will battle it out in the play-offs, with the Robins emerging victorious at Wembley.
Alan Drewett: I’ll go for Cardiff, Derby, Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough. I’d pick Cardiff to win promotion. They have kept largely the same squad, with a couple of additions, and love him or loathe him, Neil Warnock has an astonishing promotion record.
Where will Fulham finish?
Dan Crawford: I’ll go for the top six. There are still concerns about our defence, especially as no new arrivals have come in over the season, and there’s a nagging doubt about whether Scott Parker has the tactical acumen to prosper in the Championship. But holding on to Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic is huge and adding Knockaert and Cavaleiro makes the Fulham front three look a mouthwatering prospect. We do appear in danger of becoming a bit of Keegan side, which will be entertaining at the very least.
Frankie Taylor: I do think the title is there to be won. Ultimately, I’ll accept second or a playoff promotion but I’m not sure I can see beyond the spine of Alfie Mawson, Tom Cairney and Aleksandar Mitrovic with a sprinkling of Joe Bryan, Anthony Knockaert and Ivan Cavaleiro and think that Scott Parker has to push for the title.
Max Cohen: Fulham will finish second and enjoy the sweet salvation of automatic promotion, luckily avoiding the play-off nerves of years past. For me, the strikeforce of Mitro, Cavaleiro, and Knockaert is miles above Championship quality and will be our biggest asset. Defence is shaky by Premier League standards but should do a job in the second tier, but holding midfield is a big area of concern we need to address if we do want to storm the league and finish top two.
Alan Drewett: I’m predicting a 12th placed finish. The last twelve months have been bitterly disappointing with errors made from top to bottom. I don’t think we have done enough in the transfer window as of yet and I worry about our defence. It’s the same defence that was on the end of a heavy defeat most weeks last season. I would have also liked to have seen additions made to the centre of the midfield, which looks a bit threadbare if we lose one of our three key performers.
Who will be our player of the season?
Dan Crawford: Mitrovic was simply unplayable during his last spell in the Championship and was arguably the difference between promotion and missing out. No Championship defender will relish the contest against such a physical and imposing number nine and Mitrovic should be a potent goal threat. I’ll also be hoping that Cairney can recover the sort of form that fired Fulham’s promotion push.
Frankie Taylor: Tom Cairney will undoubtedly be the heartbeat of our possession play and has shown himself to be one of the best playmakers to play in the division. Knockaert has already been a Championship Player of the Year but, Aleksandar Mitrovic is 41 games and 27 goals away from hitting playing 100 games and scoring 50 goals for Fulham, if he does that, Fulham will be promotion. Of course predicting the club Player of the Season is more difficult, if Alfie Mawson stays fit, maybe he can follow in Tim Ream’s footsteps by being player of the season at centre back.
Max Cohen: Aleksandar Mitrovic will be player of the year on the back of a 25 goal-plus season. Back in 2017/18, he destroyed Championship defences with ease – think Richard Stearman cowering in fear while Mitro flexed his muscles in glee. And that was in the span of less than 20 matches, in a totally new team, without the benefit of a full preseason. Imagine what he can do in 46 matches.
Alan Drewett: I think if Cairney stays fit, he is the best midfielder in the division. He is vital to our style of football and can control the game with ease. He has three excellent attackers in front of him and they will no doubt thrive from his assists.
Who will be our young player of the year?
Dan Crawford: There are a number of candidates here. Steven Sessegnon has a real opportunity to nail down a spot at right back, whilst Luca de la Torre could become Cairney’s understudy in the number 10 role. I’m also hoping for a big season from Matt O’Riley, whose talent deserves far more than the seven senior games he has played to date. He’s been one of the stars for Fulham’s under-23 side in recent years and has a chance to fill in for the senior side’s midfield triumvirate over the course of the season. Hopefully, his class will help O’Riley stake a claim for a regular spot.
Frankie Taylor: Steven Sessegnon has a position to win and is most likely to nail down a starting position. I still get irritated that Luca de La Torre was legitimately man of the match against Millwall in the League Cup last season and didn’t play a single minute again for the first team. I think they both have the best opportunities to contribute on a consistent basis but would edge it towards Steven Sessegnon.
Max Cohen: I’ll choose American midfielder Luca de la Torre, who I think is getting overlooked a bit this summer by fans clamouring for Matt O’Riley’s introduction. With our central midfield options looking weak, I would expect de la Torre to play a large role. Stuart Gray certainly agrees, and even said during a recent interview that he considers the American one of Fulham’s finest prospects, along with Steven Sessegnon.
Alan Drewett: I’m going for Steven Sessegnon. I think this could be his breakthrough season and he has all the qualities to become an integral part of our back four. Steven has been very patient – he could have had a run last season – and he is clearly highly rated at Motspur Park. I hope he gets his chance and, if he does, I’m sure he will take it.
What are you most looking forward to this season?
Dan Crawford: It seems strange to pinpoint a day right at the end of the season at this point, but the trip to Wigan will be fantastic. It’s a terrific away day, with some great places to visit, and will be made all the better if there’s something riding on the game.
Frankie Taylor: I know this might not age well, but from a fantasy point of view, it’d be great to see Fulham hold up the Championship trophy at Craven Cottage. I always enjoy the London derbies but particularly under the floodlights. Queens Park Rangers, Brentford, Millwall and Charlton are four fun games to look forward to this season.
Max Cohen: The best thing about being back in the Championship is the authenticity. No clueless pundits, no fake fans, and no more being subject to ridicule from supporters of ‘big clubs.’ We’re back in the most exciting league in the world, and pencil in Luton away on Boxing Day as a top day out.
Alan Drewett: This is a good question. It would have to be the local derbies. Playing QPR and Brentford adds extra needle to a long and exhausting season and the games are always full of goals and excitement. It is always good to get one over on your neighbours as well.