TO some, it is an opportunity to ascend to heights few thought possible. To others, it is a chance to reclaim former glories. To all 24 clubs about to embark on the new Championship season, however, the division is merely a means to an end.
Like an airport transit lounge, teams are only in the Championship because they want to get to somewhere else, but there’s always the risk of a lengthy delay before they finally reach their preferred destination.
Often described as the most competitive league in football, the Championship is relentless, unforgiving and fiendishly difficult to predict. For three teams over the course of the next nine months though, it will deliver the keys to the promised land.
As ever, the three sides relegated from the Premier League start as the favourites to make an instant return, but as ever, it is easy to underestimate the difficulty involved in bouncing back at the first attempt.
Last season, QPR were the only relegated team to reclaim their place in the top-flight, and they needed a scrambled play-off win over Derby to do it. The season before, none of the relegated sides won promotion, and Wolves even managed to slide straight through the Championship and into League One.
Indeed, in the last ten Championships seasons, there has not been a single campaign where all three of the relegated sides have gone straight back up. And only on two occasions, did two of the sides make it.
So while the bookmakers might fancy the chances of Cardiff, Fulham and Norwich, the statistics suggest that one or more will be disappointed come next May.
Fulham probably look the strongest of the trio, with any fears over the financial impact of relegation having been allayed by the remarkable decision to spend £11m on Ross McCormack, who topped the Championship goalscoring charts last season despite playing for a below-par Leeds United.
McCormack’s arrival pretty much guarantees goals, and while a number of experienced players have departed over the summer, Felix Magath can still call on the likes of Maarten Stekelenburg, Scott Parker and Hugo Rodallega. Throw in highly-rated England Under-21 striker Cauley Woodrow and defender Tim Hoogland, who moved from Schalke, and you have the makings of a side who should be challenging at the top of the table.
Cardiff finished last season dreadfully under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and with the off-field unhappiness with owner Vincent Tan rumbling on, this could be a difficult season at the Cardiff City Stadium. Federico Macheda and Adam Le Fondre have arrived to boost the attack, but the loss of Steven Caulker at the other end of the field is a big blow.
Norwich haven’t lost too many of their players, although that’s perhaps a reflection of how poorly they performed for most of last season. Lewis Grabban has arrived from Bournemouth to pep up the attack, but boss Neil Adams is still to prove he is capable of handling the step up from his former coaching role.
The history books suggest teams who have come close to promotion before tend to do well at the next attempt, so for me, Steve McClaren’s Derby are the likeliest winners.
Desperately unlucky to miss out to QPR in the play-off final, the Rams have regrouped over the summer and look to have a squad without any major deficiencies.
Having signed George Thorne on a permanent deal from West Brom, Derby were unfortunate to see the midfielder pick up a serious injury, but the likes of Jake Buxton, Will Hughes and Chris Martin are still there, and should be better for having last year’s experience under their belt.
McClaren is doing a fine job of reminding everyone just how talented a domestic manager he is, and as one of the more stable clubs in a traditionally unsettled league, Derby should be there or thereabouts come the end of the season.
Nottingham Forest have rebuilt effectively, although the sale of Jaamal Lascelles and Karl Darlow to Newcastle exposed obvious divisions between new boss Stuart Pearce and the board, while Blackburn’s retention of Jordan Rhodes, the most reliable striker in the second tier, gives them a strong chance of at least making the play-off picture.
Wigan should also be strong again, having finished last season like a train under Uwe Rosler, and here in the North-East, Aitor Karanka has assembled a Middlesbrough squad that should be capable of improving on last season. Another striker wouldn’t go amiss though.
For an outside flutter, Watford make a fair bit of appeal, with the return of Matej Vydra having transformed their attacking options. If they retain Troy Deeney as well, they’ll have the best front two in the division, but even if the in-demand Deeney leaves before the transfer window closes, the rest of the squad looks more than strong enough to mount a viable promotion push.
At the other end of the table, it’s hard to see how Blackpool can survive given the chaos that has engulfed Bloomfield Road this summer.
At the start of last week, Blackpool still only had eight registered players, and while they’ll get a team out to face Nottingham Forest tomorrow, it’ll be a complete mishmash of cast-offs, loan players and free agents who weren’t wanted elsewhere.
With boss Jose Riga seemingly at loggerheads with owner Karl Oyston, it’ll be nothing short of a miracle if the Seasiders survive.
They aren’t the only Championship club resembling something of a circus of course, and Leeds’ seemingly limitless ability to shoot themselves in the foot continues apace.
New owner Massimo Cellino clearly wants to run everything himself – hence the decision to appoint former Forest Green boss Dave Hockaday as head coach – and with McCormack gone, there’s every chance Leeds could slide back down to League One.
The newly-promoted clubs – Wolves, Brentford and Rotherham – all look strong enough to survive, so the final relegation spot could turn into a shoot-out between South London rivals Charlton and Millwall. As things stand, it is the latter who have most to fear.