Phil Smith: My Championship predictions and how Sunderland are likely to fare

Grayson has a big task ahead of him
Grayson has a big task ahead of him
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Ten years since Niall Quinn was left bemoaning a ‘world class’ Stern John goal, Sunderland are about to start another Championship campaign.

The Black Cats can ill afford another start like that one, a 2-1 defeat to Coventry the start of a woeful run that seemed disastrous then but sadly is rather commonplace now.

Grayson’s side this time around are one of the league’s biggest mysteries. The Premier League squad has largely stayed together, so will the quality shine through at a lower level or will the long-term problems persist?

It is one of the most diverse and exciting Championship line-ups in memory, so here are some themes to be looking out for...

To go up...

Given that his pre-summer budget was said to be £1 million, Steve Bruce has done rather well to recruit John Terry, Chris Samba, Ahmed Elmohamady and Glenn Whelan.

They were far from a cohesive unit last season but it is impossible to look past them this time. They have goals, pace, craft and experience.

Middlesbrough have spent heavily and will be strong this season, though their raft of expensive recruits up front don’t have the consistent goalscoring records their fees perhaps demand.

Fulham will be tough to stop this year, with one or two canny additions supplementing a squad of superb talent.

They could well edge out Monk’s side to the top two.

Play-off contenders

Sheffield Wednesday have had an underwhelming summer in the market but their attacking depth makes them guaranteed contenders.

Wolves will be the team watched most closely, a manager and a number of players with Champions League pedigree brought to the club by Jorge Mendes.

They should challenge, while Cardiff could surprise after a good summer.

Norwich have revived a stagnating squad and if Nelson Oliviera fires, they will be tough to stop.

To struggle...

QPR were lucky to survive last year and their business does not suggest better times are around the corner.

Bolton Wanderers continue to struggle financially and as such have not been able to do a great deal of strengthening.

Burton have their work cut out again but Liam Boyce is a good signing up front.

Birmingham could yet struggle as their squad adapts to life after Gary Rowett. Marc Roberts is a fine signing but elsewhere they look one-paced.

Manager of the year...

Paul Heckingbottom built an outstanding counter-attacking side that has been picked off by the vultures above.

Keeping them up this year, which he has the talent to do, would boost his burgeoning reputation further.

Top scorer...

Jonathan Kodjia has a superb record and will not be far off.

Kenneth Zohore of Cardiff is a good outside bet, having revived his career under Neil Warnock. The Dane is quick, strong, good in the air and has a wicked left foot.

Player of the year

Brentford are quite rightly a hot tip to surprise this year, mainly because of the sensational form of Spanish attacking midfielder Jota last season.

He will be high in the assists tally this season and not far off with goals scored, either.

Conor Hourihane’s move to Aston Villa was not the initial success many expected but he was the heartbeat of an over-acheiving Barnsley side before that, and playing alongside Whelan will give the space to show off his talents.

And Sunderland?

A play-off push, despite the Celtic debacle, remains a possibility but it is dependent on two key factors.

In defence, a centre-back with real authority is an absolute necessity.

In attack, another 10 to 15 goals need to be found, while Aiden McGeady and Lewis Grabban will have to fire if Sunderland are to have any regular attacking threat in Grayson’s counter-attacking model.

The Black Cats are not as far away as they looked last weekend but currently they don’t look to be challengers, either.