Watford’s bid for an immediate return to the Premier League got off to a promising start as they opened the Championship season with a 1-0 win against Middlesbrough on Friday.
The Hornets were relegated on the final day of last season after five years in England’s top flight.
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But they are among the favourites for promotion this term and Craig Cathcart’s early goal at Vicarage Road ensured they made a winning start under new Serbian boss Vladimir Ivic.
“It is a good start, a clean sheet and we won the game so we can be satisfied,” Ivic said.
After a close-season break lasting just 38 days, the English Football League has returned for a campaign that promises drama and despair in equal measures.
The coronavirus-delayed finish to last season saw Leeds, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham reach the Premier League after a thrilling promotion race and play-off battle.
With promotion worth an estimated £160 million ($204 million), clubs will be more desperate than ever to go up as football faces up to an uncertain future off the pitch.
Fans are still locked out of stadiums due to the pandemic and some teams are teetering on the edge of financial ruin as a result.
Against that troubled backdrop, Watford were especially keen for a convincing start.
They were without several injured players including Troy Deeney, Ismaila Sarr and Gerard Deulofeu, but Cathcart opened the scoring as he headed home from Ken Sema’s cross from a short corner in the 11th minute.
Neil Warnock remains in charge of Middlesbrough after saving club from relegation when he took over on a caretaker basis towards the end of last season.
Middlesbrough nearly grabbed an instant equaliser when Ashley Fletcher’s deflected shot flashed just past the far post.
But Warnock was left to bemoaning the sloppy winner.
“Sunday League goal, what can you say?” he said. “I don’t expect to concede them at any stage of the season. It is just elementary.”
– ‘My blood is yellow’ –
The rest of the Championship’s opening round of matches take place on Saturday, with Norwich in the spotlight as they head to Huddersfield looking to bounce straight back to the Premier League after last season’s relegation.
Daniel Farke’s team could only manage a one-season stay in the top tier and finished a woeful 13 points adrift at the bottom.
Of their key players, Norwich have only sold Jamal Lewis so far and Farke is confident they can repeat their promotion success of two seasons ago.
“My blood is already yellow and for that I am keen to bounce back with this club,” he said.
Huddersfield are beginning a new era under Carlos Corberan, who served as Marcelo Bielsa’s assistant at Leeds.
Bournemouth, who were relegated after five seasons in the Premier League, are also starting life under a new manager.
The Cherries host Blackburn in Jason Tindall’s first match since succeeding Eddie Howe.
Ryan Fraser, Callum Wilson, Aaron Ramsdale and Nathan Ake have left but promotion is a clear target for Tindall.
“That is our aim, it has to be. We are ambitious. That is what I want to achieve, it is what the players want to achieve, it is what the club wants,” he said.
Sheffield Wednesday begin what could be a difficult season after their 12-point deduction with a trip to Cardiff.
Having won two Premier League titles and a Champions League crown, the most decorated new addition to the Championship is John Obi Mikel, the former Chelsea midfielder who has joined Stoke.
Wycombe will play their first ever match in the second tier when they host fellow promoted side Rotherham.