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Jul 31, 2013

Feel the drama

Never mind the quality, feel the drama. While others have competing claims to be the best league in the world, last season the Championship served up utterly implausible entertainment time and again. Consider the final day of the campaign: looking to seal promotion to the Premier League, Hull went behind to Cardiff, gained the lead and had an injury-time penalty to rubber-stamp their elevation. They missed it, Cardiff got a spot kick of their own and equalised, leaving Hull with a 15-minute wait while rivals Watford's chance of going up automatically was effectively ended when their 17-year-old, third-choice debutant goalkeeper was chipped by Leeds' Ross McCormack.

Throw in a play-off semi-final between Watford and Leicester that was just as extraordinary and a final where a borrowed 39-year-old scored one of the most lucrative goals in football history — on-loan Kevin Phillips was the man to earn Crystal Palace the £120 million golden ticket — and the Championship stretched credibility time and again.

So perhaps it as well that the division now welcomes those specialists in the ludicrous, Queens Park Rangers. One way or another, they are guaranteed to provide stories this season. The probability is that there will be no halfway house: Rangers, equipped with players whose CVs and salaries suggest they should never have been relegated, will storm back to the Premier League or descend acrimoniously into the lower reaches of the Championship. Adel Taarabt, Esteban Granero and Loic Remy remain but the process of dispensing with expensive misfits has begun. Rangers have fewer Champions League winners and more Championship winners. Farewell Jose Bosingwa and Djibril Cisse; hello Karl Henry and Danny Simpson.

Reading, who have kept the majority of the team who won the division two years ago and have promotion expert Nigel Adkins in charge, might be a safer bet to excel. Wigan have had an extensive overhaul, with eight signings and a new manager, Owen Coyle, but participation in the Europa League makes their task harder. Especially as last year proved that the Championship can be a tough environment for those who drop down from the top flight.

Bolton finished seventh, Blackburn 17th and Wolves were relegated. The cliché that anyone can beat anyone is true: Peterborough defeated champions Cardiff home and away, only took 25 fewer points than second-placed Hull and went down to League One.

It is a reason that perhaps three-quarters of the 24 clubs start off thinking they can reach the play-offs. Even without the Championship's player of the year, Matej Vydra, beaten finalists Watford should challenge; so, too, Bolton and Nottingham Forest, who rallied in the second half of last season. Sooner or later, Leicester's serial underachievers ought to realise their potential while Brighton's slick football could bring a reward. Then there are Blackburn, big spenders last year, and Leeds, the division's biggest club. And Middlesbrough, who always start the season superbly and fade. And Ipswich, where Mick McCarthy has a magnificent record in the Championship. And the quiet success stories that are Charlton and Derby. And so on.

Perhaps the most intriguing cases are the newcomers from League One. Bournemouth's ambition was apparent when they brought Real Madrid to Dorset for a pre-season friendly. There are stories that a consortium will inject £20 million into Doncaster and transform them into big buyers, even if the current squad is lacking in stardust.

But the others are the ultimate underdogs. Yeovil's average attendance last season was just 4,070. Their wage bill was under £1 million — what QPR pay Remy alone every three months — and now they are competing in a division populated by former Premier League clubs. In a league that supplies incredible stories, perhaps the most unlikely, and certainly the most heartening, would be for Yeovil to survive.

Team to watch: QPR. If many couldn't take their eyes off Rangers last season, it was because their campaign was a car crash. Manager Harry Redknapp spent the last few weeks blaming the players in an accomplished blame-shifting exercise, even if many of them deserved every brickbat that came their way. Rangers will have one of the biggest wage bills ever assembled in the Championship but, as last year showed, expenditure is no guarantee of success.

Other team to watch: Blackburn. Last season was notable for the five managers, the 39 players, the global advisor, the boardroom allies (Derek Shaw and Paul Agnew, who were nicknamed 'Shagnew') and the embarrassing sense of failure. If, realistically, this year can't possibly be as eventful, this is Blackburn, where logic has been conspicuous by its absence in recent years.

Player to watch: Royston Drenthe. From Real Madrid to Reading, it is not the normal career trajectory, but the hugely gifted Drenthe has rather squandered his considerable potential. In a Royals team populated by solid citizens, he is Adkins' wild card.

Owners to watch: GFH Capital. Principally to see if they actually have any money. Leeds' new owners — a Middle Eastern equity group — trumpeted the signing of Crewe's Luke Murphy as a triumph but the reality is that Brian McDermott's squad has scarcely been strengthened. The one reason to praise them so far is sacking former owner Ken Bates, who had stayed on as president. Leeds were a selling club under Bates, a major reason they have not returned to the Premier League, and while they have a promotion-winning manager, the team boasts rather less pedigree.

Manager to watch: Oscar Garcia (Brighton). A former Barcelona player, Garcia was brought in after his predecessor, Gus Poyet, was sacked while on air as a television pundit during the Confederations Cup. Brighton play a Spanish-style passing game and Garcia, who led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Israeli title, has impressive credentials. Nevertheless, his appointment was a surprise.

Manager not to listen to: Billy Davies (Nottingham Forest). For a manager with an impressive track record — Davies has reached the Championship play-offs five times, winning them once — the Scot certainly has some unusual methods. He held his post-match press conference for the final game of last season before kick-off, thus rendering its contents utterly irrelevant, and seems to believe he has enemies everywhere. It is a shame, given his coaching skills, but he is a reason Forest have the potential to excel or implode.

In the goals? The battle to be the Championship's top scorer should be closely contested with Jordan Rhodes, Charlie Austin, Troy Deeney, Grant Holt and Adam Le Fondre among the candidates. Austin, who almost joined Hull in the summer, struck 28 times for Burnley and Rhodes two for Huddersfield and a further 28 amid the mayhem at Blackburn. Deeney began last season in prison and ended it with 20 goals for Watford. Reading's Le Fondre rivalled Edin Dzeko and Javier Hernandez for the title of the Premier League's most potent substitute while the talismanic Holt has swapped Norwich for Wigan to spearhead the Latics' promotion challenge.

Going up? Whether or not their respective clubs do, there are players who will be seen in the Premier League before long. Blackpool's Thomas Ince turned down an £8 million move to Cardiff, strikers like Rhodes, Austin and Watford's Troy Deeney attracted plenty of interest, and rising stars like Leeds right-back Sam Byram and Leicester's Anthony Knockaert could move on too. Plus some players could make a swift return to the top flight, possibly in other colours: Wigan's James McCarthy, Shaun Maloney and Callum McManaman or QPR's Julio Cesar and Remy.

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