Leeds and Nottingham Forest have been absent from the top table for longer than befits their history but both are targeting promotion as Goal.com examines the second tier
By George Ankers
It promises to be another exciting season in the Championship. It always does.
In many ways, England's second division is the competition that many romantics wish that the Premier League could be. Anyone can beat anyone else on their day, but the best rise to the top over the course of the year. Favourites can be identified before the term starts but expectations are always subverted by just enough to keep it interesting.
With sixth place all that is required for a shot at promotion, almost every team in the second tier will feel that they might be able to pull it together.
In 2012-13, some of the clubs itching the most naggingly to reach the Premier League's land of prosperity are some of the top level's most storied former members.
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It remains a tough ask, however, after a summer of change at Elland Road, with manager Neil Warnock bringing in no fewer than 11 players. The ex-QPR boss is understandably keen to rectify Leeds' abysmal defensive record over the past few seasons and has focused the majority of his signings in that department.
Among the new faces are goalkeeper Paddy Kenny, reunited with Warnock once again, former Portsmouth centre-back Jason Pearce and defensive midfielder Rodolph Austin, affectionately nicknamed 'the Beast', from Norwegian side Brann.
Warnock, however, reluctantly solid talismanic winger Robert Snodgrass to Norwich City after losing the equally key Jonny Howson to the Canaries just six months previously. There has yet to be adequate creativity recruited to replace the pair – and it seems that the Whites will now have to sell more before they can buy – but a solid foundation is at least in place.
On the field, the fans appear quietly supportive of Warnock's philosophy and their chances of success – though a play-off place is seen as more realistic than automatic promotion – but events off it have taken a turn for the worse.
After nearly three months of inactivity on previously announced takeover talks with a Gulf consortium, the deal has bounced between on and off in recent days. The latest reports suggest that it will still go ahead, but Warnock has joked not entirely convincingly about it carrying on into next year.
The board, headed by Ken Bates, are an unpopular group right now and unrest could grow if the takeover does not go ahead or Warnock is unable to strengthen enough for a tilt at the top six. Whether things go well or badly, though, it is likely to be a pivotal season in the revival project either way.
Another ancient footballing dragon finally spluttering out some embers once again is Nottingham Forest. Two-time European Cup winners under Brian Clough, they have been absent from the Premier League since 1999 and had sunk into League One at around the same time as had Leeds.
Last season, Forest endured a tumultuous, tragic time. Former England boss Steve McClaren arrived in the summer but started disastrously and quit, before club owner and devoted fan Nigel Doughty was found dead in February.
Steve Cotterill steered the men in red out of danger just in time but was sacked anyway by the club's new owners, the Kuwait-based Al Hasawi family, who promptly recruited Sean O'Driscoll from Crawley Town, whom he had not yet even managed in a competitive fixture.
The former Doncaster boss is renowned for his expansive, passing football but it may take him longer than one season to stamp his mark on the Reds.
In any case, with promotion the ambition, O'Driscoll followed up his predecessor's January jettisoning of fan favourite Wes Morgan by moving on fellow hero Luke Chambers, bringing in the likes of Danny Collins from Stoke City as well as Daniel Ayala and Sam Hutchinson on loan from Norwich City and Chelsea, respectively, in an attempt to bolster a leaky defence that conceded 63 times in 2011-12.
Moves to secure Wolves' Adlene Guedioura on a permanent deal and the return from injury of attacking midfielder Chris Cohen have pleased fans but the new manager will need to coax the best out of last season's key underperformers – Lewis McGugan, Ishmael Miller and Dexter Blackstock in particular – and the experienced old heads of Lee Camp, Jonathan Greening and Andy Reid.
Optimism abounds at the City Ground, especially after a pleasing pre-season that has included a 3-1 win over Aston Villa, but these sleeping giants will have learned from Leicester City, themselves once fixtures in the top flight, not to expect too much too quickly from a foreign takeover.
The Foxes' Thai consortium spent big last summer under big-name boss Sven Goran-Eriksson and were installed as heavy favourites to go up, but their campaign soon fizzled out and the Swede was gone before long.
This season's transfer activity has been less extravagant, with just a measly six arriving through the doors of the King Power Stadium, but a promotion push is the minimum requirement from the ambitious men at the top of the club.
Zak Whitbread, a central defender unlucky to have been let go by Norwich after some good top-flight performances, is a key recruit as well as £1.7 million Jamie Vardy, signed from Fleetwood Town to provide competition for David Nugent and Jermaine Beckford up front. In Nigel Pearson's second spell in charge, Leicester's strong squad should do better this year, with a top-six finish to be expected.
|Optimism abounds at Nottingham Forest but these sleeping giants will have learned from Leicester City not to expect too much to quickly from a foreign takeover|
The bookies' favourites to go up, though, are Bolton. Owen Coyle has made sweeping changes since their relegation, with now-West Ham goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen, so synonymous with the Trotters, among 15 players to move on.
They have been balanced by some shrewd signings, though, including Keith Andrews and centre-back Matt Mills as well as Arsenal forward Benik Afobe on loan. The latter has made a blistering start to pre-season and will hope to make an impact alongside Lee Chung-Yong and Stuart Holden, both excellent midfielders returning from long-term injuries.
Though Fabrice Muamba has been forced into retirement, everyone at the Reebok Stadium has their eyes on success and, as long as they adapt quickly to their new second-division surroundings, Coyle’s men will be contenders.
Hot on Bolton's heels for a swift Premier League comeback, Wolves fans want a strong challenge but are erring on the side of caution after a turbulent summer.
|7||Ipswich have reached the play-offs more than any team in history - but only made the final once, in 2000|
|11||The Tractor Boys are entering their 11th straight season in the Championship, the most ever without promotion or relegation|
|26.7%||Success rate over past five years for teams relegated from the Premier League winning promotion immediately (four out of 15)|
|27||Goals scored by Southampton's Rickie Lambert to win Championship top scorer in 2011-12, the highest since the division's new branding in 2004|
|50.6||Average points required to finish 21st in the Championship over past five years|
|72.8||Average points required to reach the play-offs in past five years|
|90||Average points required to win the division over past five years|
|39,732||Newly promoted Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough is the division's biggest stadium|
While £2.2m Icelandic striker Bjorn Sigurdarsson and Premier League-linked Rennes midfielder Tongo Doumbia have arrived, the club's three prized assets – Michael Kightly, Matt Jarvis and Steven Fletcher – have been surrounded by speculation all summer.
Kightly's move to Stoke City may not actually be such a hindrance (Wolves hadn't won with the injury-dogged winger in the side since 2009) and Fletcher wouldn't be begrudged a move considering his effort for the side and the profit that it would bring, but if Jarvis were to be sold and the money not reinvested, some discontent could spread – especially if a slow start is made. Luckily, then, the board are digging their heels in over transfer fees with impressive stubbornness. It's asking price or bust if anyone wants to pry the alpha Wolves from the pack.
Pre-season performances have given cause for optimism, and promotion is the only way the season will be viewed as a success, but Wolves supporters are very much taking a wait-and-see attitude to the upcoming campaign.
Blackburn, the third of the relegated sides, are the strangest case in the division. Many, the incredulous fans in particular, had expected manager Steve Kean to be the main departure this summer, but not so.
Star men Yakubu and Junior Hoilett fled for China and QPR, respectively, to be replaced up front by the unlikely combination of Leon Best from Newcastle and former Portugal star Nuno Gomes. Best, though, was immediately struck down with a knee injury and will be out for six months; Huddersfield's Jordan Rhodes is another target, while Steven N'Zonzi and Martin Olsson look too good for the Championship and are likely to exit before the window shuts.
Predictions for Rovers seem dangerous – despite appointing the likes of former player Colin Hendry to a backroom role, communication from owners Venky's is thin on the ground, with their intentions unclear. Apart, that is, from global advisor Shebby Singh's recent spate of unexpected, explosive rants against the likes of Morten Gamst Pedersen, which is not helping anyone.
Kean enjoys minimal support from the stands but a strong start might change that, with most supporters feeling that, though Blackburn had been lucky to go 10 years without relegation from the top-flight, bouncing back must be the aim. The spotlight will be on Ewood Park, but who knows what it will illuminate?
|Blackburn are the strangest case in the division... the spotlight will be on Ewood Park, but who knows what it will illuminate?|
Cardiff City, tearing their hair out after what seems like their hundredth consecutive play-off heartbreak, are back with a controversial new image but the same hopes of going just one step further.
Rebranded in red and black as their Malaysian owners risk sacrificing identity for growth in key Asian markets, Malky Mackay looks set to secure the still-sharp Craig Bellamy from Liverpool alongside fellow striking recruit Heidar Helguson of QPR.
Cardiff's Malaysian owners risk sacrificing identity for growth in Asian markets
Brighton & Hove Albion, meanwhile, could be a decent outside tip. Embarking on their second season in the Championship, Gus Poyet's men secured their highest finish in 21 years by coming 10th last time around and there is a positive vibe that a sustained promotion push could follow, with the Amex Stadium set to be expanded to 30,000 seats and the 10th highest numbers of season ticket holders in the country.
Tomasz Kuszczak and Wayne Bridge have arrived from Manchesters United and City on a free and loan, respectively, shrewd-looking deals to complement former Valencia right-back Bruno and undoubted key man Vicente who, when fit, was Albion's oustanding talent last season.
Young forward Ashley Barnes topped the scoring charts in 2011-12 despite dividing fan opinion but a quality central striker is probably still needed for a realistic chance of promotion. Either way, some exciting football beckons from the south coast club, who had enough about them to beat Chelsea 3-1 in pre-season.
Ian Holloway's Blackpool, having lost out in the play-off final to West Ham, will hope to be up there once again and more of the same is expected in terms of their attractive style.
The maturing presences of young attacking midfielders Tom Ince and Matt Phillips, if Premier League scouts can be deterred for the rest of the month, will be crucial to the Tangerines' development in a competitive division.
Birmingham City, conquered by Blackpool in the play-off semi-final, have lost boss Chris Hughton to Norwich and installed Lee Clark, who departed Huddersfield despite a record-breaking unbeaten streak during 2011-12.
Experienced Championship campaigners like Darren Ambrose (only £250,000 from Crystal Palace) have been headhunted, with Peter Lovenkrands slotting into the front line from Newcastle and West Ham loanee Ravel Morrison becomes the latest bad boy welcomed through the doors of a club who have seen their fair share of them over the years.
The toll of last year's Europa League run is absent this time around but it will be interesting to see how Clark utilises his squad and whether he can glean more from players who performed admirably under Hughton.
Nathan Redmond, excellent on either wing, is a key prospect while Jack Butland should start in goal after impressing for Team GB in the Olympics, but a play-off campaign may depend on how Clark handles the step up from League One.
|The toll of last year's Europa League run is absent this time for Birmingham but a play-off campaign may depend on how Lee Clark handles the step up from League One|
Middlesbrough were Premier League regulars for several years but are now one of several upper-mid-table sides scrapping for the lower play-off places, finishing five points out of the top six last term.
Experienced campaigners such as Grant Leadbitter and returning local boy Jonathan Woodgate are improvements to Tony Mowbray's squad, however, and Dutchman Marvin Emnes is slowly coming into his own up front. If a few extra goals can be found, the Teessiders could muscle their way into contention.
An unsavoury end to Hull City's last campaign saw Nick Barmby sacked for accusing the club's owners of breaking promises over the transfer budget. Steve Bruce was eventually placed as a high-profile and expensive replacement and the budget has duly been discovered.
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Brighton & Hove Albion
Much will be expected of Cameron Stewart. The flying winger struggled with form and fitness through most of 2011-12 but has the pace, ability and potential to possibly shine on a higher level and will be tasked with scoring goals as well as setting up Proschwitz and the ever-prolific Matt Fryatt.
Sheffield Wednesday represent another sleeping giant of the English game, though the newly promoted Owls are still only yawning for the time being and are likely to take at least a season's lie-in before seriously making a charge for the bright lights of the top tier.
Having drawn in unprecedented crowds while down in League One, Dave Jones' side have gained Premier League know-how in centre-back Anthony Gardner and goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, just two of several bargain additions.
It should be a season of easy consolidation for a team who boast healthy amounts of youth and experience, unlikely to reach any heady heights just yet but comfortable mid-table will be the very achievable target.
Charlton's 101 points to win League One were the highest of any professional European league in 2011-12 but their progress this summer has been less rapid. The Addicks are a young side led by a young manager, Chris Powell, and look set to largely rely on last year's somewhat green squad adapting to the Championship.
Useful Algerian midfielder Salim Kerkar, snapped up from Rangers, is probably the most significant addition, but 22-goal hitman Bradley Wright-Phillips will need to bang them in at a rate ever-so-slightly above his previous record in this division to make sure that they score enough goals for a mid-table finish.
Many eyes will be on Watford, whose new owners, the Italian Pozzo family, have already begun exploiting their existing assets of Udinese and Granada to supply incoming boss Gianfranco Zola with an array of intriguing loan signings.
Previous manager Sean Dyche was unlucky to be jettisoned but there is optimism at Vicarage Road for the new era – though how well notoriously skittish ex-Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia's arrival will go down next to quality additions like Czech Republic international left-back Daniel Pudil, borrowed from Granada, is yet to be discovered.
With Watford probably a work in progress, Burnley should join them in the middle of the table. Eddie Howe's men play some decent football but, though they retain Charlie Austin's goals, the £7m received from Southampton for young forward Jay Rodriguez has not yet been fully reinvested. Jason Shackell arrives from Derby, however, as the Clarets' new captain.
County fans did not greet the sale happily and will likely only grow more unhappy when last season's joint-top goalscorer, Steven Davies, departs Pride Park as expected before the summer is out. Boss Nigel Clough has recruited mostly from the lower divisons as cover for the experienced exits but there is plenty of young talent coming through, teenage striker Mason Bennett noted in particular for his potential.
Expectations at Derby are realistic and fans would be happy to see Clough continue his trend of improvement on league position; eclipsing 11th might be difficult with a strong, balanced field, but certainly not out of the question.
|Ipswich have been serial underachievers at Championship level but the Tractor Boys' squad remains a good one. If Paul Jewell can get it together, they could make an impact|
Ipswich have been serial underachievers at Championship level and are now the division's longest-serving outfit, with Paul Jewell having overseen another slightly rocky year of mild disappointment in 2011-12.
The Tractor Boys' squad remains a good one, though, with quality ranging from new goalkeeper Scott Loach and Tottenham loanee Massimo Luongo, who has impressed in pre-season, in midfield to the proven second-tier goals of Michael Chopra. Former Arsenal star Jay Emmanuel-Thomas is one with the potential to explode up front in the near future, but it remains unclear if Jewell is the man to lift the club out of their recent funk. If he can get it together, they could make a real impact.
Huddersfield complete the promoted trio. Boss Simon Grayson knows how the game works at this level and has recruited well, with the battling Keith Southern joining after a remarkable service for Blackpool and quick winger Sean Scannell a very useful addition from Crystal Palace.
The attention is all on Rhodes, who boasts 85 goals in 146 appearances for the club, and the prolific forward may yet stay, which would be a huge boost. Keeping hold of the Scotland international could make the difference between hanging in the league and making a dent in it.
Bristol City, after only just maintaining Championship status last season, are somewhat less buoyed. Derek McInnes has work to do in his first full season to ensure that the Robins don't get dragged into a similar scrap but, while former Manchester United and Liverpool youngsters Tom Heaton and Paul Anderson have joined, star winger Albert Adomah may yet be poached by one of several interested clubs – keeping hold of the Ghana international this month would boost spirits at Ashton Gate.
There is plenty of spirit at Millwall, who pulled away from the dogfight over the drop in the latter stages of 2011-12, but Kenny Jackett, the Championship's most enduring current manager, must ensure that they do better than the previous term's awful start. Pressure will be on striker Andy Keogh to take his 10-goal form from February onwards into the new campaign, or else another tough season beckons.
Crystal Palace could be in real danger. Scannell, Ambrose and Southampton-bound Nathaniel Clyne are all key assets to have been sold from Selhurst Park, leaving big gaps in an already-thin squad. Wilfried Zaha, at least for now, remains to provide pace but will be heavily relied upon and must mature quickly, while Aaron Wilbraham, arriving on a free transfer from Norwich, will be needed to perform more consistently at this level than he has done before.
Dougie Freedman, though, looks an enterprising young manager and may just be able to conjure something solid from his new-look outfit, but a repeat of 17th would suit Palace just fine.
Peterborough are among the favourites to be relegated, though there are some encouraging signs for Darren Ferguson's men. Stars Paul Taylor and George Boyd had both expressed a desire to move on this summer but nobody has yet made a swoop and the potential retention of the duo would be an unexpected plus alongside decent incoming transfers such as impressive former Stevenage midfielder Michael Bostwick.
The Posh, however, were on the end of one or two heavy defeats last season and will need to be on their toes every week to stay competitive. Beating the odds is far from impossible but there will be no easy games.
The departure of Ricardo Vaz Te to West Ham in January proved the killer blow to Barnsley's season and, in the end, only Portsmouth’s points deduction prevented their relegation. With money scarce, no direct replacement has since been found, while boss Keith Hill has taken a gamble on Egyptian striker Mido, who has top-level experience but whose best days seem some distance behind him. The Tykes seem the least equipped of anyone to ensure survival and a long season awaits.
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Contributing writers: Alex Fisher, Jordan Halford, Alex Richards, Matt Scott, Rhys Turrell, James Vause, Alex Walsh, Jake Watson