THE Championship kicks off this weekend, and promises once again to be one of the most open leagues for years. Favourites often struggle, look at Cardiff last year, allowing surprise packages like Norwich to take automatic promotion spots. Hereisthecity.com looks at eight teams who will fancy their chances of reaching the Premier League.
The Hammers have to be among the favourites, with players such as Kevin Nolan and Matt Taylor dropping down a division to join Big Sam at Upton Park, when they could easily play in the Premiership. A question mark remains over how the West Ham fans will react to Allardyce when results don't go their way, but the most ardent of Hammers will realise that this season, more than ever, the term 'its a results business' is of utmost importance.
Sven-Goran Eriksson's Leicester revolution has been continuing apace this summer. Their latest signing is Gelson Fernandes, once of Manchester City, and the man who hit Switzerland's winner against Spain at last year's World Cup. The club is strongly backed financially and are highly fancied to go up. However with management already describing promotion as a 'must' the pressure is on, and a run of bad results early in the season could see the house of cards collapse.
Hull City are a good outside bet to win promotion, investing in youth, and are no more unlikely to clinch a top spot than Norwich were this time last season. Beating Liverpool 3-0 in a pre-season friendly was a good omen, with young players signed from Manchester United and Liverpool's youth teams providing raw talent to go with seasoned professionals.
Fresh from the sale of youngster Connor Wickham, Ipswich have been spending their money wisely and have put together a strong team. Among the signings is Michael Chopra from Cardiff and Jay-Emmanuel Thomas from Arsenal, with hotly-tipped future England international goalkeeper David Stockdale brought in on loan from Fulham. Manager Paul Jewell has been there and done it with Wigan, but still has a point to prove following a disastrous spell at Derby.
Another man with a point to prove is Steve McClaren, the former England manager. He has had a mixed bag since, winning the league title in Holland, but an early sacking from a job in Germany. He has already cast his transfer net out to Holland to bring in two players and has been linked with bringing in youngsters in on loan from Man City. A couple more signings will be needed for the side to really challenge.
On the face of it, Birmingham have a squad capable of walking the division. The reality is that financial and ownership troubles place the club on the brink of catastrophe. How they perform depends heavily on which players they can hang onto by time the transfer window closes. In charge they have the perfect man to manage the firesale, Chris Hughton, who did an admirable job winning this league in similar circumstances with Newcastle.
Burnley are another unfashionable side, like Hull, who have joined the Premiership in recent years only to be sent back down to this level. Manager Eddie Howe is highly rated and led to the side to a recent pre-season victory over Sunderland. Like Forest a lot may depend on how much business is done by time the transfer window finishes, but many of the squad have already had a taste of success, and will want more. They will be looking to build upon a solid if unspectacular season last year.
There is an incredible buzz around the seaside club at present. This season they move into their new Amex Stadium at long last, and are just one step away from the big leagues. In charge is former Chelsea and Tottenham star Gus Poyet, who has got the club playing attractive football and looks to be in it for the long haul. The club have big hopes for striker Craig Mackail-Smith who jumped ship from fellow newcomers Peterbrough. He scored for fun in League One last season and if he can reproduce that they have a big chance of following Norwich in two successive promotions.
image: © Keven Law