Sat, Aug 05, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Relegated Premiership sides fancied to bounce back

LEVEL PLAYING FIELD The Championship begins today with 10 of the 24 teams in the division with new managers and a number with new strikers, both young and old

AFP , LONDON

The Championship, England's second tier of soccer, kicks off its new season this weekend with a trio of relegated Premiership sides looking for an instant return to the top flight.

West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham City and Sunderland are all among the pundits' favorites to be fighting for promotion come May in the league known as the First Division until it was re-branded from the 2004-05 season.

While much overshadowed by the glamour of the Premiership, which returns in a fortnight, the Championship remains a significant contest in its own right -- it is the sixth-richest league in Europe after the top divisions in England, Italy, Spain, Germany and France.

But there is no doubting the goal for the leading teams.

Birmingham will get an instant reminder of their new-found status today as they host Colchester, who were playing non-league soccer 15 years ago and drew an average home crowd of less then 4,000 last season.

While Birmingham have lost the mainstays of last season's strike force to Premiership sides -- winger Jermaine Pennant joined Liverpool for ?6.7 million (US$12.7million) and Emile Heskey fled to Wigan -- they have a strong squad, boosted by the arrival of hot prospect Cameron Jerome from Cardiff.

In contrast, West Bromwich, second from bottom in last season's Premiership, have not lost any major players and have signed up combative veteran striker John Hartson from Celtic.

Manager Bryan Robson has said he is confident but for one factor -- that the Championship contains no fewer than six other teams from the Midlands region of central England.

"There is just a little bit more passion in derby games, which produce a lot of draws," Robson predicted. "It's just the way it works."

The front-runners for promotion seem clear, according to George Burley, manager of fellow Championship side Southampton.

"The bookmakers' favorites are Birmingham and West Brom, and rightly so having added to their squads," he told BBC Sport.

"I think they're probably the two teams that you have to finish above if you want to get promoted," he said.

Sunderland, who travel to Coventry City tomorrow, are a slightly different prospect despite their Premiership-size resources -- their Stadium of Light ground is the division's biggest by some way, holding 48,000.

After a dismal Premiership season, winning only three out of 38 games, Sunderland recently lost their most creative player, Argentinean midfielder Julio Arca.

The club's famously loyal fans have been buoyed by a takeover led by former club favorite Niall Quinn, also now manager on a temporary basis, and the new boss believes their backing is crucial.

"I can't emphasize enough how vital a part our supporters can play in the revival of our fortunes, they are crucial to the rejuvenation of this team," he said.

Much of the division is in a state of flux, with 10 of the 24 teams entering the season with new managers.

Among the other big names are Leeds United, at home to Norwich today, who lost last season's Premiership play-off final against Watford.

In the semi-finals of the Champions League as recently as 2001, Leeds are slowly fighting back from subsequent near-financial meltdown, although still-serious debts have limited manager Kevin Blackwell to a maximum spend of ?750,000 this summer on Luton's Kevin Nicholls.

This story has been viewed 2003 times.
TOP top