Kevin Phillips scores for Birmingham in season opener

Former West Brom striker Kevin Phillips snatched an injury time winner against Sheffield United for his new club Birmingham City during the first game of the Championship season. The 35-year-old came off the bench and with seconds remaining he scored on the turn to earn his side a 1-0 victory.

Overall, Sheffield United will feel hard done by. They deserved at least a point from this game. In fact, they almost got it after Kevin Phillips had struck. Jon Stead hit the post immediately after, but the ball fell to safety and it wasn’t to be for the Blades.

To face Birmingham at St Andrews first game of the season was certainly a difficult task for Kevin Blackwell’s men, but they can take a lot of heart from their performance. In terms of football betting, they are still one of the promotion favourites in my view.

As for Birmingham, it will just be a relief to get the first win under their belts following relegation from the Premier League. They now have something to build on. Perhaps early season nerves can now be put to bed. They travel to administration threatened Southampton next and will fancy their chances of making it two wins out of two.

One thing for sure is that they have an excellent Championship striker in Kevin Phillips. He has a couple of seasons left in him yet at this level and there are not many Championship clubs that would turn down his services. He helped West Brom to promotion last season with 24 goals and I wouldn’t put it past him doing the same with Birmingham this season.

Alex McLeish has a lot of strikers at his disposal this season. James McFadden, Marcus Bent, Gary McSheffrey, Gary O’Connor and Kevin Phillips were all involved against Sheffield United. However, it is the latter – who was the match winner today – that I expect to be their main man as they look to bounce back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

Will Birmingham win the Championship?

Last season’s Coca-Cola Championship race was closer than ever.  After Watford sprinting off to what seemed like an uncatchable lead, they began to leak goals and points come the Autumn.  And by Christmas it seemed like no one team was able to keep the lead.

Whether seen as a very tight exciting league or a scrappy league without any real outstanding talent, the addition of the three relegated Premiership teams – Reading, Derby & Birmingham, along with the three teams promoted from League One – Swansea, Nottm Forest & Doncaster, it looks likely to be another close call between many teams pushing for Premiership promotion who, with a few bad results, turning their sights to a relegation battle.

So who are my favourites for Premier League promotion?

I expected QPR to have made a few top signings by now, thinking their owners are gagging for promotion; and the appointment of Ian Dowie as manager may turn out to be a level headed choice, but it certainly isn’t going to attract any big name stars.

I’m not sure what is happening at Reading, though it looks like they are going to lose Nicky Shorey to the Premiership, along with striker Dave Kitson, who will be a big loss.

Both Derby & Birmingham are my favourites for promotion.  Not only have they added to their squads but both have relatively new managers that appear to have written off last season before it had finished, so as to concentrate on gaining promotion this season and starting afresh.

Both teams are going to be lead by strong attacking options.  Derby have splashed out on the striking partnership of Rob Hulse (from Sheffield United) and Nathan Ellington (loan from Watford), while Birmingham will have quality striking options as they have brought in Marcus Bent (Charlton) and Kevin Phillips (WBA) to fight for places with James McFadden, Cameron Jerome and Garry O’Connor.

Birmingham look like they have the strongest squad in the league, especially with the additions of Lee Carsley (from Everton) and the Dutch under-21midfielder Kemy Agustien on a season-long loan from AZ Alkmaar.

The Coca-Cola League season 2008/09 begins this Saturday at 12.45 when Birmingham take on Sheffield United and have the chance to go top from the very start.

Derby Must Be Favourites For Promotion To The Premier League

With the start of the Championship season less than three weeks away, there is much discussion as to who will be fighting for promotion this time around. As ever, you would be brave to bet on Championship football, given the unpredictability of the last couple of seasons. However, one team who are almost certain to be there or there abouts are Derby County.

That is my opinion anyway. It is never easy to bounce straight back to the Premier League, but the amount of signings Paul Jewell has made cannot go unnoticed. The have brought in Martin Albrechsten, Kris Commons, Rob Hulse, Nathan Ellington, Przemyslaw Kazmierczak, Jordan Stewart, Ruben Zadkovich, Paul Green, Liam Dickinson, Paul Connolly and Steve Davies. They also have former Reading midfielder John Oster on trial and are by far the busiest team in the Championship this summer.

Considering these players are being added to a squad which already contains players such as Giles Barnes, Robbie Savage, Gary Teale and Emanuel Villa – Paul Jewell is certainly putting together a strong set of players. The former Wigan boss has admitted that he wants at least two players fighting for each position. If this becomes a reality – like it is shaping up to be – the biggest challenge for Jewell will be keeping all of his players happy.

After the abysmal attempt at Premier League survival last time around, a good start to the season is crucial for Derby. They start with games against Doncaster, Bristol City, Southampton and Barnsley, meaning they will fancy their chances of topping the table come the end of August to ignite their promotion push.

So, who else will push Derby for promotion? Well, Reading and Birmingham will be fighting it out for an instant return. However, in my view, Birmingham are extremely unpredictable and Reading, having lost Dave Kitson and John Oster could struggle early on. A lot will depend on who they buy with the £5.5m they received for Kitson from Stoke.

Elsewhere, I think that Sheffield United will be strong. They finished the season excellently and will look to continue this at the beginning of this season under Ian Blackwell. Greg Halford and Sun Jihai have been brought in and I expect them to occupy a play-off spot.

Then, of course, there is the likes of Wolves, Watford, Bristol City and Crystal Palace that will be looking to go one better after just missing out last season. It is set to be another fascinating season that’s for sure. Bring on the 9th August.

James McFadden for Celtic?

Showing his undisputed ‘loyalty’ to Birmingham City, James McFadden has apparently said that he wants to leave the club because of their relegation to the Championship. In case you hadn’t guessed – I was being sarcastic about the loyalty part.

James McFadden signed for Birmingham City in January for £5m from Everton, but despite scoring four times for his new club – they were relegated on the final day of the Premier League season. Now his agent, Wille McKay has said that the striker is seeking a move away from St Andrews.

This sort of thing annoys me. It is an example of everything wrong with football today. When James McFadden joined Birmingham City, there was a very good chance they were going to be relegated and he knew that. He also probably knew that if this happened – he would choose to move on. Despite this, he signed a three-year-contract. This leads me to ask – what is the point in a contract in football these days? It doesn’t commit you to the club anymore; it just means the players have a guaranteed income until they get a better offer elsewhere.

The same applies in the Cristiano Ronaldo saga. He is contracted to Manchester United until 2012, but if Cristiano Ronaldo wants to leave, the football odds suggest he will get his wish.

As for James McFadden, he is being linked with a move to Celtic with his agent claiming that he wants to play football at the ‘highest level’ possible. This transfer saga seems remarkably similar to that of Kenny Miller early this summer.

James McFadden moved to Birmingham for first team football – which he will undoubtedly get at St Andrews this coming season. Despite this he is being linked with a move to a Scottish Premier League club, where is far from guaranteed anything other than a comfy seat on the bench. He should just stay where he is and score plenty of goals for Birmingham in the Championship. That way, three things could happen –

James McFadden could get snapped up by a Premier League club in January.
Birmingham could get promoted and he will be playing in the Premier League, as a regular starter next year.
He could bide his time and if Birmingham are still in the Championship next summer – consider a move then.

If one thing is for sure, it is that James McFadden is a big player for the Blues this season. Looking at the promotion odds will tell you that Alex McLeish’s men are one of the favourites and the former Motherwell striker is a big reason for that.

I guess it is a case of ‘wait and see’ with regards to James McFadden’s future. Birmingham chairman David Gold is confident the player will stay, but as we all know – player power is a strong force in football these days.