In the final instalment of our Championship Regional Winner market series, we profile the five clubs in contention for the 'Top North West Club' crown.
It’s a season of change at Turf Moor, as market favourites Burnley return to the Championship for the first time in six years, and under the guidance of a new permanent manager for the first time in a decade!
The Clarets get the new era up and running with a live televised date with Huddersfield Town on Friday night, with Vincent Kompany making his English managerial debut after being appointed as Sean Dyche’s long-term successor in the summer.
The former Manchester City captain has wasted little time in shaping up his squad, undertaking a major first-team revamp and utilising his close contacts in Manchester to prize some of the Citizens’ hottest young talent across the Lancashire border.
Youngsters Taylor Harwood-Bellis, CJ Egan-Riley and Arijanet Muric have all arrived from the Etihad Stadium, whilst Kompany also returned to another of his former clubs, Anderlecht, to capture the services of Josh Cullen – a midfielder who excelled under his guidance in the Jupiler Pro league.
There have been outgoings too, and plenty of them. Nathan Collins left to join Wolves for a fee in excess of £20M, whilst experienced performers such as Nick Pope, James Tarkowski, Ben Mee and Aaron Lennon have also bid farewell.
Whilst there is an undoubted element of intrigue about the Clarets ahead of the new season, it would come as something of a surprise should they not prevail within this five-team Regional Winner market, and establish themselves as promotion candidates in the process.
Take Burnley out of the equation and you could make a strong case for either of the other four sides within this category to come out on top.
But Blackburn, providing they manage to retain the services of influential frontman Ben Brereton-Diaz, for now, appear to serve the biggest challenge to the Clarets – although that would change should the Stoke-born Chilean international complete a switch away from Ewood Park.
New boss Jon Dahl Tomasson has undoubted work to do over the remaining weeks of the transfer window if he is to replicate, or even better, the achievements of a side that went close to securing a top six berth under Tony Mowbray last term.
His most telling piece of business before early September would be retaining the services of Brereton-Diaz, who is their star performer, having already lost the influential Joe Rothwell, Darragh Lenihan and Ryan Nyambe this summer.
If, and it is a big if, they do manage to stave off interest in their prized possession, then he, together with Bradley Dack, who is edging closer to full fitness after a succession of injury ravaged seasons, are likely to hold the key to the club’s 2022/23 fortunes.
Ryan Lowe has galvanised Preston North End since joining the club from Plymouth Argyle last December.
The 43-year-old led the Pilgrims up to League One in 2020, and has been tasked with turning his new club into genuine contenders in the Championship – a project he has already made significant inroads into.
He notched up 39 points from his 25 games in charge after replacing Frankie McAvoy midway through last season – a tally that maintained over a full Championship campaign would had had the Lilywhites on the periphery of the top six.
They may not be on too many people’s lips when it comes to predicting this season’s playoff contenders, but North End, who have been going about the transfer business in a quiet but shrewd manner this summer, most certainly have a chance.
The capture of Ben Woodburn from Liverpool is intriguing, whilst the additions of the experienced Robbie Brady, Manchester United youngster Alvaro Fernandez and Tottenham Hotspur’s highly-regarded frontman Troy Parrott appear equally as impressive.
In Danish ace Emil Riis Jakobsen, Lowe also possesses one of those rare strikers boasting that hugely sought after knack of scoring goals, having notched a career high 20 throughout the 2021/22 campaign.
Michael Appleton will be hoping his second stint as Blackpool boss proves far more successful than his first… having lasted less than four months in the same post almost a decade ago.
The 46-year-old returned to the North West this summer after Neil Critchley surprisingly opted to relinquish his managerial role at Bloomfield Road, in favour of linking-up with Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa.
The news came as a hammer blow to the Seasiders, who had impressed upon their return to the second-tier last season, and looked well set for another campaign of progression under the guidance of their former boss.
However, the lure of the Premier League, and working under Gerrard, proved too tempting for Critchley to resist, and as a consequence paved the way for Appleton to make a return to a club he managed just 11 games for during the 2012/13 campaign.
A little older, and undoubtedly a tad wiser, he returns to Blackpool with a real point to prove, but with a full understanding of the challenging task in-hand, given the monumental success Critchley had enjoyed in the two campaigns previous.
But what would constitute success this time around? Well, as an outsider simply retaining their Championship status for a third term would suffice, but in-house, you feel the bar will be set somewhat higher as Appleton looks to write himself a more positive chapter in the club’s history book.
Wigan Athletic make their return to the Championship still in buoyant mood following their League One title-winning 2021/22 campaign.
It’s been a turbulent couple of years for a club who were Premier League regulars in the not too distant past – suffering relegation down to the third-tier in 2020 and then coming within a whisker of plummeting yet further down the league pyramid 12 months later.
Dropping down to league Two could have had dire consequences given the club’s well-publicised financial issues in recent times, but, thankfully for Latics supporters, there is now a far rosier outlook to the future.
You get the sense that they won’t just be making the numbers up this season neither, as boss Leam Richardson bids to establish Wigan back in the second-tier with the club having failed to keep themselves afloat at this level under Paul Cook, Graham Barrow and Gary Caldwell recently.
Richardson masterminded promotion in the spring largely thanks to free-scoring star striker Will Keane, who bagged an impressive 27 times, and the onus for goals will undoubtedly fall back upon him over the course of the next 10 months.
There appears to be a decent blend of experience and youth within the ranks, with the likes of James McClean, Graham Shinnie and Keane complementing the more youthful Callum Lang, Theo Aasgard and new signing Ryan Nyambe.
By Mark Mothershaw