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Jul 31, 2006

Championship preview 2006/7

Coca Cola Football League Season 2006/7
Championship | League 1 | League 2

Barnsley

Last season: 5th (League One, promoted)
Manager: Andy Ritchie - Paul Hart's former assistant achieved what the more experienced manager could not and earned promotion in his first full season in charge.

In: Michael McIndoe (Doncaster, undisclosed), Sam Togwell (Crystal Palace, undisclosed), Michael Coulson (Scarborough, free).

Out: Scott Flinders (Crystal Palace, undisclosed), Chris Shuker (Tranmere, free), Barry Conlon (Darlington, free), Matt Carbon (released), Stephen McPhail (Cardiff, free).

Surprise play-off winners, Barnsley have since endured a summer of frustration. Michael Chopra, a transfer target in attack, went to Cardiff, to be joined by Stephen McPhail, playmaker in the Tykes' promotion-winning midfield.

Talk, meanwhile, of bringing Geoff Horsfield back to Barnsley is just that. However, on the plus side, Michael McIndoe offers set-piece excellence from the left flank. Sam Togwell, another newcomer, should bolster the midfield.

Barnsley's style of play suggests they are well-suited to a higher standard of football, but there is a lack of Championship experience and Ritchie could need to make some late additions to his squad to avert a relegation battle.

Key man: Michael McIndoe - Scotland B international winger whose left foot invariably attracts descriptions such as 'cultured' or 'educated'. Both a scorer and a creator of goals - and he will need to be.

One to watch: Sam Togwell - A graduate of Crystal Palace's successful youth policy, he should stand a better chance of first-team football at Oakwell.

Must do better: Paul Hayes - Quick and lively, but struggled to find his shooting boots in League One. How will he fare in the Championship?

Prediction: It will be a successful season at Oakwell if Barnsley are in the Championship for a second consecutive campaign.


Birmingham City

Last season: 18th (Premiership, relegated)
Manager: Steve Bruce - Maintained his dignity in relegation last year, if not his reputation. Will hope to complete an interview this season without mentioning his injury list.

In: Cameron Jerome (Cardiff, £3million), Neil Danns (Colchester, £850,000), Stephen Kelly (Tottenham, £750,000), Bruno N`Gotty (Bolton, free).

Out: Emile Heskey (Wigan, £5.5million), Chris Sutton (released), Stan Lazaridis (Perth Glory, free), Nico Vaesen (Lierse, free), Chris Cottrill (released), Sam Alsop (released), James Dormand (released), Kenny Cunningham (Sunderland, free), Muzzy Izzet (retired).

All change at St Andrews but, after the purge at the end of last season when nine players were released, Birmingham's wealthy board have backed manager Steve Bruce. Enter Cameron Jerome - a proven finisher in the Championship - as Emile Heskey, a serial misser of Premiership chances, departs, though Jermaine Pennant and his supply line from the right flank could prove a greater loss.

Neil Danns, a regular scorer for Colchester, joins a midfield desperately short of goals but bids for Gary McSheffrey have been so far repelled. It all makes Birmingham the Championship's biggest spenders and, thus, the logical favourites to go up.

But that depends upon how quickly a team that rarely scored and struggled to take three points, especially in the early months of the season, discovers a winning habit. Besides the few who acquitted themselves well last time around - such as Damien Johnson - it requires those who didn't, or were impeded by injuries, to excel again. If Mikael Forssell, David Dunn, Matthew Upson and co. gel, Birmingham will be hard to stop. But relegated teams often find the Championship an unwelcome culture shock.

Key man: Cameron Jerome - Birmingham's four seasons in the Premiership were notable by the absence of a prolific goalscorer. Jerome, who managed 18 in the Championship last season, could finally be the regular scorer they require.

One to watch: Matthew Sadler - Left-back has been a problem position for Birmingham but the young defender has done enough to suggest he could be the answer to Bruce's difficulties.

Must do better: Mikael Forssell - Recovering from a cruciate injury takes time, but Birmingham had hoped for rather better than three goals in 27 games last season.

Prediction: Anything could happen. Potential champions who could just as easily end up in mid-table wondering where it all went wrong.


Burnley

Last season: 17th
Manager: Steve Cotterill - Discovered that the grass isn't always greener elsewhere after short stints at Stoke and Sunderland so committed his future to Burnley recently.

In: Steve Jones (Crewe, free), Andy Gray (Sunderland, £750,000), Alan Mahon (Wigan, £200,00), Stephen Foster (Crewe, free).

Out:

Steve Cotterill's two seasons at Burnley have followed a similar pattern; committed but minuscule squad launch surprise play-off challenge until top scorer and sole striker is lured elsewhere in January, leaving them to play out time until the end of the season.

Now Andy Gray, Cotterill's costliest buy, is expected to be the main provider of goals though, in Steve Jones, he may have a partner. Signing Alan Mahon - a coup for the Clarets - ensures more creativity in a midfield where Cotterill has more options than usual.

Excellent at home but ineffectual away last time around, Burnley need more than three wins on their travels for Cotterill's industrious overachievers to trouble the top six. And they need to keep Andy Gray.

Key man: Alan Mahon - Raised expectations at Turf Moor with a series of classy performances on loan last year. At £200,000, looks a bargain.

One to watch: Chris McCann - Progressed from fragile winger to powerful midfielder last season. If the teenager continues to develop at the same rate, he will prove a real asset.

Must do better: Micah Hyde - Ended last season on the transfer list. With plenty of midfielders at Turf Moor, he needs to impress Cotterill more if he is to play.

Prediction: If Cotterill can keep his squad together and their key players remain fit, Burnley could be an outside bet for a top-six finish.


Cardiff City

Last season: 11th
Manager: Dave Jones - Helped restore Sam Hammam's ambition to make Cardiff a top-flight team. Expectations will be higher this time around, however.

In: Glenn Loovens (Feyenoord, free), Roger Johnson (Wycombe, £275,000), Michael Chopra (Newcastle, free), Stephen McPhail (Barnsley, free), Kevin McNaughton (Aberdeen, free), Malvin Kamara (MK Dons, free), Nick McKoy (MK Dons, free), Mark Howard (Arsenal, free), Luigi Glombard (Nantes, free), Kerrea Gilbert (Arsenal, loan).

Out: Cameron Jerome (Birmingham City, £3million), Neil Cox (Crewe, free), Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu (Gillingham, free), Tareq Khalil (Bournemouth, free).

Their prospects may rest on one transfer and, despite 18 goals last season, it is not the sale of Cameron Jerome. Jason Koumas, the West Brom refusenik, provided Cardiff's inspiration last year with 12 goals and an ample supply of assists.

With him, a promotion push is feasible. Without, Jones' squad, despite an influx of new faces, does not stand out. Jerome's replacement is Michael Chopra, the shorter, sharper foil to target man Steve Thompson. At least Stephen McPhail lends his gifted distribution skills to the midfield.

Elsewhere, Glenn Loovens has completed his move from Feyenoord to join the redoubtable - but rather bad-tempered - Darren Purse in defence and Jeff Whitley ensures Cardiff will be similarly combative in midfield. But will they have the creativity to challenge?

Key man: Michael Chopra - Jerome scored 18 times last season, and no other striker got more than five. His boots will not be easy to fill.

One to watch: Joe Ledley - The versatile youngster established himself in the side last year. Could do likewise in the Wales team now .

Must do better: Paul Parry - Spent much of the season on the bench and is seemingly yet to convince Dave Jones of his worth.

Prediction: With Koumas, credible challengers for a top-six finish. Without, mid-table.


Colchester United

Last season: 2nd (League One, promoted)
Manager: Geraint Williams - Loyal assistant promoted to the top job after Phil Parkinson moved to Hull.

In: Jamie Cureton (Swindon, free), Johnnie Jackson (Tottenham, free).

Out: Neil Danns (Birmingham City, £850,000), Stephen Hunt (Notts County, free), Liam Chilvers (Preston, free), Tony Thorpe (Stevenage, free), Sam Stockley (Wycombe, free).

In one sense, Colchester were too successful for their own good. Promotion to the second tier in English football for the first time in their history has come at a cost with goalscoring midfielder Neil Danns and manager Phil Parkinson becoming targets for wealthier clubs.

Their best chance of survival seemed to be based on the personnel who had won promotion maintaining the momentum generated in the process. That is no longer an option. Instead, Tottenham's Johnnie Jackson joins to take over from on-loan Spur Mark Yeates on the left wing.

Although the much-travelled Jamie Cureton is now at Layer Road, it is imperative that 17-goal Chris Iwelumo can find his form at a higher level. In League One, Colchester's neat and tidy football attracted plaudits, but that might not be enough in the Championship.

Key man: Greg Halford - now Danns is gone, the versatile Halford is Colchester's prized asset. The strapping youngster has played in defence, midfield and attack in his brief career.

One to watch: Johnnie Jackson - A bit-part player in his Spurs career. Now he has the chance to become a first-choice on the left of midfield.

Must do better: Marino Keith - It would be harsh to criticise any of the players who won Colchester promotion, but the Scottish striker needs to succeed somewhere to avoid carrying on as a football nomad.

Prediction: A swift return to League One.


Coventry City

Last season: 8th
Manager: Micky Adams - Former City defender overseeing a turnaround of fortunes at the Ricoh Arena. Looking for a new target now his old sparring partner Dennis Wise has gone to Swindon.

In: Wayne Andrews (Crystal Palace, free), Mikkel Bischoff (Manchester City, free), Elliott Ward (West Ham, £1million), Colin Cameron (Wolves, free), Andy Marshall (Millwall, free), Jay Tabb (Brentford, free), David McNamee (Livingston, free).

Out: Dennis Wise (released), Richard Shaw (Millwall, free), Clayton Ince (Walsall, free), James Scowcroft (Crystal Palace, £500,000).

Bottom in November, Coventry were transformed into the great entertainers and play-off outsiders, in part by Micky Adams' reversion to the past. Dennis Wise and Don Hutchison, both in the veteran category, reinvigorated Coventry and though the former is now gone, Colin Cameron provides yet another experienced goalscoring midfielder.

That Gary McSheffrey, often on the left wing, top-scored, said much about their attacking intent. That Coventry repelled Birmingham's bids for the highly-rated McSheffrey bodes well for the Sky Blues.

But Adams' side conceded six more times than bottom club Brighton on their travels, which explains the arrival of two central defenders. Elliott Ward, who has excelled in the Championship for both West Ham and Plymouth, and Mikkel Bischoff give Adams options there, with Matt Heath and Robert Page the alternatives. But clean sheets are needed.

Key man: Elliott Ward - Squeezed out at Upton Park by a surfeit of fine central defenders, he should have a pivotal role at the Ricoh Arena. Better defending is required.

One to watch: Jay Tabb - Young midfielder who impressed in Martin Allen's Brentford team. Now stepped up a division.

Must do better: Wayne Andrews - Never established himself in the team in either the Premiership or the Championship at Crystal Palace. The departure of James Scowcroft - to Palace - could be the chance he needs.

Prediction: Could be in the shake-up for a top-six finish.


Crystal Palace

Last season: 6th
Manager: Peter Taylor - Developer of young talent with an enviable record of promotions from lower divisions, but failed in his biggest job to date (Leicester).

In: Leon Cort (Hull City, £1.25million), Carl Fletcher (West Ham, £400,000), Scott Flinders (Barnsley, undisclosed), Mark Kennedy (Wolves, free), James Scowcroft (Coventry, £500,000).

Out: Andrew Johnson (Everton, £8.6million), Fitz Hall (Wigan, undisclosed), Sam Togwell (Barnsley, undisclosed), Wayne Andrews (Coventry City, free), Aki Riihilahti (released), Glenn Wilson (released), Tony Popovic (Al Arabi Qatar, free), Mikele Leigertwood (Sheffield United, undisclosed), Emmerson Boyce (Charlton, £1.75 million).

Simon Jordan's relationship with Iain Dowie ended in writs as well as play-off defeat. So, for the final year of their Premiership parachute payments, former Palace player Peter Taylor is in charge.

His transfer budget is healthy but, he will have a much-changed defence with Emmerson Boyce and Fitz Hall gone, and the task of replacing Andy Johnson. So far, Taylor has only added the versatile James Scowcroft to the attack, suggesting the responsibility will lie with Clinton Morrison and Dougie Freedman, though he has bid for Carl Cort.

Mark Kennedy adds to the contingent of wingers, though Palace may have cause to regret the absence of Jobi McAnuff's speed and skill if he leaves, while the dominant central defender Leon Cort has followed Taylor south from Hull. At Leicester, Taylor's signings attracted opprobrium, but much rests on how he spends the proceeds from Palace's sales. If he gets it right, they could be hard to stop.

Key man: Clinton Morrison - 13 goals represented a reasonable return to Palace last year. With Johnson gone, more may be necessary to take Palace up.

One to watch: Tom Soares - The midfielder became a regular for Palace last year and Taylor has already called him up for the England Under-21s.

Must do better: Jon Macken - Made a negligible impact in his first season at Selhurst Park. Will Johnson's sale be the boost he needs?

Prediction: Should be in the top six, at the least, but a new manager and his selection of signings need to prove they can win automatic promotion.


Derby County

Last season: 20th
Manager: Billy Davies - Turned 'no doubt about it' into his catchphrase at Deepdale, turned Preston into a play-off team two years running and then turned his back on them for Derby.

In: Steve Howard (Luton, £1million).

Out: Jeff Kenna (released), Pablo Mills (Rotherham, free), Kevin Poole (released).

Derby flirted with disaster last year, dropping from 4th to 20th, but it is hard to fault their response. Luring Billy Davies, the technocrat with a habit of unearthing bargains in the lower leagues, promises better times at Pride Park.

But Davies' first move has been to sign Steve Howard, a target man to provide the attack with a focal point, and an acknowledgement that Gregorz Rasiak was never replaced. The talented Ryan Smith, should he complete a move from Arsenal, will help the supply line. A lack of goals from the forwards - Tommy Smith, with eight from the wing, fared best - was one shortcoming last year. A terrible away record - consisting of just two wins, with 40 goals conceded - was another.

The loyalty of the outstanding Inigo Idiakez is one boon to Davies but, though the new manager is trying to give his new charges a chance to prove themselves, he may struggle to emulate his achievements at Preston with the squad he has inherited.

Key man: Steve Howard - Eleven, largely unsuccessful strikers, were tried last year. If the £1 million signing can display his Luton form, rather fewer will be needed this time.

One to watch: Lewin Nyatanga - Was briefly Wales' youngest international. Davies' record of improving young players bodes well for the defender.

Must do better: Seth Johnson - Will never justify the transfer fee Leeds paid, but should be establishing himself as one of the foremost midfielders in the Championship.

Prediction: It may take a year of consolidation before Davies can target promotion.


Hull City

Last season: 18th
Manager: Phil Parkinson - Took Colchester into the uncharted territory. Now given the responsibility of doing likewise at Hull, never a top-flight team.

In: Dean Marney (Tottenham, undisclosed), Sam Ricketts (Swansea, £325,000), Michael Turner (Brentford, £350,000).

Out: Leon Cort (Crystal Palace, £1.25million), Robbie Stockdale (Tranmere, free), Kevin Ellison (Tranmere, free), Scott Wiseman (Rotherham, loan).

Phil Parkinson, untried at Championship level, inherits a squad with greater quantity than quality who always appeared destined for 18th place last year. It represented consolidation then, but chairman Adam Pearson's eventual aims are higher.

Like his predecessor Peter Taylor, Parkinson's initial forays into the transfer market have been for the youthful, mainly from the lower divisions. Dean Marney, the one signing from the Premiership, might be the answer to the problem right-midfield position, but the defence is hampered by Leon Cort's move to Crystal Palace.

Parkinson has six strikers, plus Nicky Barmby, but Hull lacked a regular partnership and a cutting edge, as just 24 goals at home and a top scorer (Stuart Elliott) who usually played on the left wing suggests. Without more quality in the final third, anything above mid-table is unlikely.

Key man: Boaz Myhill - The goalkeeper was one of the Championship's best-kept secrets last year, and rather busier than Hull would have liked.

One to watch: Sam Ricketts - Left-sided player who was called up to the Wales squad when still in League Two. Venturing into the Championship for the first time, he could combine well with Elliott.

Must do better: Nick Barmby - Injury brought a premature end to his season, but never quite exerted the influence he is capable of. Another with responsibility for improving a measly goals tally.

Prediction: Parkinson's task will be the same as Taylor's - keeping Hull up. Any more could be a bonus in his first year.


Ipswich Town

Last season: 15th
Manager: Jim Magilton - Long-serving and increasingly immobile midfielder promoted to replace Joe Royle. Will intelligent distribution prove a guarantee of intelligent management?

In:

Out: Kevin Horlock (Doncaster, free), Dean McDonald (Gillingham, free).

Jim Magilton's is no easy job. With excellent gates and a recent record of reaching the play-offs, the demands are high, yet last summer's exodus means his squad is unexceptional.

It does, however, boast a healthy contingent of youngsters, of whom striker Danny Haynes may prove the most promising. Injuries restricted the proven forwards Nicky Forster and Sam Parkin last year, and Ipswich's prospects of a top-half finish may depend on their fitness.

Defending, often an Achilles heel at Portman Road in recent seasons, is another priority. Although Fabian Wilnis excelled across the back four last season, they still shipped 66 goals.

Key man: Lewis Price - The Wales international took over from Kelvin Davis in goal, and tends to be kept occupied there.

One to watch: Danny Haynes - Teenage forward who showed his pace and became a local hero with a fine derby display against Norwich.

Must do better: Sam Parkin - Hindered by injury, but struggled to justify his price tag in his first season at Ipswich. That most of his goals came away from home hardly endeared him to the Portman Road crowd.

Prediction: With both the manager and much of his team on a learning curve, the consistency required for a play-off push may prove elusive. But they should have enough to stay in the division.


Leeds United

Last season: 5th
Manager: Kevin Blackwell - Neil Warnock's former assistant would have emulated his long-term boss last year but for play-off final defeat. Continual references about how far Leeds have come in such a short period of time are starting to jar, though.

In: Sebastien Carole (Brighton, free), David Livermore (Millwall, undisclosed), Kevin Nicholls (Luton, £700,000).

Out: Danny Pugh (Preston, £250,000), Michael Ricketts (Southend, free), Simon Walton (Charlton, £500,000), Jermaine Wright (Southampton, free).

Having cracked under pressure in the final third of last season and then in the play-off final, Leeds - and Kevin Blackwell - have much to prove. Back among the big spenders and with ample experience of promotion elsewhere, they have to show they can restore top-flight football to Elland Road.

Despite a chronic lack of pace, Leeds' defensive record was excellent last year, but no one in the top six scored fewer than their 57 goals. Yet Rob Hulse (now sold to Sheffield United), Robbie Blake, David Healy and Richard Cresswell formed a strike quartet that were the envy of most managers outside the top flight. An inability to form a regular partnership or to play to the strengths of Healy and Blake hardly helped; it made them all the more reliant on Hulse and now he is gone.

The return to fitness of Steve Stone and the addition of Seb Carole mean right midfield may no longer be the position Blackwell struggles to fill but, with creativity often lacking, the other newcomers in midfield are the competitive pair of Kevin Nicholls and David Livermore. Both have done well in the Championship in the past, but they may not be what Leeds need.

Key man: Robbie Blake - But only if they play through him. Leeds' most creative player needs the ball played to his feet and not over his head; Blake, in turn, should not be deployed as a right winger.

One to watch: Seb Carole - The quick Frenchman excelled at Elland Road while playing for Brighton last year. His pace and skill should make the right flank a much more profitable avenue.

Must do better: Sean Gregan - Not the most popular player with the Elland Road faithful, and was painfully slow at times last season. The pacier Matt Kilgallon looked altogether more accomplished.

Prediction: With their squad and resources, another top-six finish is the least they should target. There will be expectations of automatic promotion. But if the flaws revealed at the end of last season are not rectified, they could miss out altogether.


Leicester City

Last season: 16th
Manager: Rob Kelly - Quietly-spoken former journalist who emerged from the shadows to rescue Leicester from the relegation battle last year. His reward was the job on a full-time basis.

In: Gareth McAuley (Lincoln, free), Andy Johnson (West Brom, free), Josh Low (Northampton, free), Darren Kenton (Southampton, free).

Out: Joey Gudjonsson (AZ Alkmaar, free).

It is entirely in keeping with Rob Kelly's low-key approach that his summer signings are free transfers, two from the lower leagues. It may also be an acknowledgement that Leicester no longer rank among the favourites.

Andy Johnson could shoulder most responsibility of the newcomers, charged with replacing Joey Gudjonsson, whose fierce competitiveness made him the club's player of the year last time around, though Josh Low should add much-needed width.

Darren Kenton brings pace to defence, but Leicester should be at their quickest in attack with Iain Hume, Matty Fryatt and Elvis Hammond. One of the trio - probably Fryatt - has to take David Connolly's mantle as the leading scorer if Leicester are to swap the lower half of the table for a top-12 finish.

Key man: Iain Hume - Showed speed and skill in flashes last year, but perhaps needs to be more clinical.

One to watch: Matty Fryatt - Outstanding goalscorer in League One, but yet to prove he is as effective at the higher level.

Must do better: Danny Tiatto - Still the club captain, but very much a bit-part player last year as younger players made the most of his absence.

Prediction: Should find it easier to escape relegation, but would be something of a surprise if they figured in the play-off shake-up.


Luton Town

Last season: 10th
Manager: Mike Newell - Scourge of agents and traditionalist whose team entertained last year.

In: Adam Boyd (Hartlepool, £500,000), Richard Langley (QPR, free), Lewis Emanuel (Bradford, free).

Out: Enoch Showunmi (Bristol City, free), Steve Howard (Derby, £1million), Kevin Nicholls (Leeds, £700,000).

The good news for Luton is that Mike Newell, seemingly a candidate for every available Championship job, has stayed. The bad is that Kevin Nicholls, the driving force in midfield, and Steve Howard, the focal point of the attack, are gone. Carlos Edwards, more for his World Cup exploits than his fine Luton form, seems to be a target, too.

Only Howard, so far, has been replaced, just as the proceeds of the £3 million sale of Curtis Davies remain almost untouched. It places more pressure on the supporting cast, though Howard was by no means the only contributor as Luton scored 45 goals at home last season and Adam Boyd, taking over from Howard, has excelled in the lower leagues.

So expect good football. Summer signing Richard Langley will help with his distribution. But, lacking the surprise factor of last season and two of their major players, Luton may find life tougher this time around.

Key man: Ahmet Brkovic - Chipped in with eight goals from the flanks last year. His contributions could be still more important without Howard.

One to watch: Kevin Foley - Young right-back who is another attracting the attention of the scouts at Kenilworth Road.

Must do better: Richard Langley - Something of an underachiever in recent seasons. Will Luton be the place where he finally realises his potential?

Prediction: Without replacing Nicholls and Howard, it is hard to see them in the top 10 again. Newell will do to secure a mid-table finish; they could be embroiled in the battle at the bottom.


Norwich City

Last season: 9th
Manager: Nigel Worthington - A popular figure for much of his long stay at Carrow Road, but not after Norwich's failure to mount a challenge for promotion last year.

In: Lee Croft (Manchester City, £600,000)

Out: Jason Jarrett (Preston, undisclosed).

After a season that promised much and delivered nothing, Norwich enter their final year of parachute payments with the choice of either gambling on a promotion push or economising to prepare for an extended stay in the Championship.

Nigel Worthington's attempts to find a powerful forward to pair with Rob Earnshaw have failed so far, so much of the revenue from the sale of Dean Ashton is still available; £600,000 of it will go for Manchester City midfielder Lee Croft. But, with few arrivals at Carrow Road, the onus is on mid-season signings such as Dickson Etuhu and Carl Robinson to provide a stronger spine to the team.

Away form, an old failing for Norwich, was a problem; only two teams conceded more on their travels. Without greater consistency further back in the team, it will be hard for Earnshaw and Darren Huckerby to provide the inspiration to return them to the Premiership.

Key man: Robert Earnshaw - As he has proved before, he has the ability to get 20-25 goals in the Championship. Norwich need to supply the ammunition for him.

One to watch: Dickson Etuhu - Lacks nothing in terms of power or presence, but has flattered to deceive in recent seasons. It is time to deliver.

Must do better: Robert Green - Originally picked for England's World Cup squad, but it can't have been on the basis of his Championship form.

Prediction: They have the potential to take a play-off place but, with opposition to Worthington among the crowd and a failure to find another striker and a defender this summer mean Norwich could just as easily end up among the also-rans.


Plymouth Argyle

Last season: 14th
Manager: Ian Holloway - No one mangles the English language with quite such aplomb. His garden must be a sight to behold after QPR put him on gardening leave for months.

In: Sylvain Ebanks-Blake (Manchester United, £200,000), Barry Hayles (Millwall, £100,000).

Out: Micky Evans (Torquay, free).

Tony Pulis' stay was brief, but he transformed a relegation dogfight into mid-table obscurity. Now Ian Holloway, another with a preference for direct football, returns to his native south-west to take over.

Unsurprisingly, he has left an excellent defence untouched. Indeed, Plymouth only conceded 46 times last season, less than promoted Watford, though Pulis' negative mindset contributed to that. The industrious David Norris has also committed his future to Home Park, so Holloway's major tinkering has been in attack.

And it needed to be. Plymouth scored just 39 goals last year with captain and central midfielder Paul Wotton leading the way with eight. Enter strikers Barry Hayles and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, at opposite ends of their careers. Without more goals, it is hard to envisage anything other than a battle for survival.

Key man: Barry Hayles - Tasted relegation at Millwall last year, but has the pedigree and record to prosper at Plymouth.

One to watch: Sylvain Ebanks-Blake - Some deemed surplus to requirements by Manchester United enjoy long careers elsewhere; others vanish without trace. Which will it be?

Must do better: Bojan Djordjic - Was only an infrequent presence in a team which, Akos Buzsaky excepted, is short on creativity.

Prediction: Solid foundations to the team, but the success of the strikers may determine whether Plymouth are hard to beat or battling the drop.


Preston North End

Last season: 4th
Manager: Paul Simpson - Successive promotions at Carlisle have earned him a chance further down the M6, ending a tradition of Scots in charge at Deepdale.

In: Jason Jarrett (Norwich, undisclosed), Danny Pugh (Leeds, £250,000), Kelvin Wilson (Notts County, undisclosed), Sean St Ledger (Peterborough, £225,000), Liam Chilvers (Colchester, free).

Out: Chris Lucketti (Sheffield United, £300,000), Claude Davis (Sheffield United, £2.5million), Gavin Ward (Tranmere, free), Tyrone Mears (West Ham, £1million).

Preston have yet to master the play-offs, so Tye Mears, Claude Davis and Chris Lucketti made it to the Premiership by other means. Billy Davies opted to go to Derby leaving his successor Paul Simpson to construct a new defence around Youl Mawene and the veteran Graham Alexander.

After only conceding 30 goals last season, it is surely unrealistic to expect such standards of excellence again. Simpson at least has the considerable consolation that the coveted David Nugent is content to stay at Deepdale, though he needs more support from his fellow strikers.

Davies' legacy is a largely youthful squad with plenty of potential. Simpson, in signing Danny Pugh, Liam Chilvers and Sean St Ledger, seems to be following a similar policy in the transfer market but it will be tough to emulate his predecessor and complete a hat-trick of play-off appearances.

Key man: David Nugent - There is no disguising his importance to the Preston cause in what may prove his final year outside the Premiership.

One to watch: Simon Whaley - Followed Nugent from Bury to Preston. Versatile, quick and with an eye for goal.

Must do better: Danny Dichio - Whatever else he does, this is a centre forward who failed to score in 33 league games last season.

Prediction: Billy Davies is a hard act to follow. Simpson may have to settle for mid-table.


QPR

Last season: 21st
Manager: Gary Waddock - A QPR favourite who offers the prospect of better football at Loftus Road, despite a mediocre end to the season.

In: Damion Stewart (Bradford, free), Adam Czerkas (Kolporter Korona, loan), Egutu Oliseh (La Louviere, free), Armel Tchakounte (Kitchee FC, free), Nick Ward (Perth Glory, free).

Out: Dean Sturridge (Kidderminster, free), Richard Langley (Luton, free).

A largely unprofitable March and April did not stop QPR promoting Gary Waddock to succeed Ian Holloway, whose style of football may be deemed more suitable for the lower divisions.

Despite an eclectic bunch of rather cheap signings, he will operate with basically the same squad. The benefit is that it still includes Danny Shittu, the giant centre back whose uncompromising displays have attracted attention. The downside is that an ageing forward line requires rejuvenation and, as Marc Nygaard (9) was the most successful, a prolific scorer.

Waddock also needs to ease a reliance on Gareth Ainsworth to create while proving an end-of-season slump was not a sign of things to come.

Key man: Danny Shittu - QPR's leader in defence. He could be rather overworked this season.

One to watch: Shabazz Baidoo - Lively young striker who was normally used as a substitute last year.

Must do better: Stefan Moore - Came from Aston Villa in search of first-team football, but did not really make the most of it.

Prediction: If Waddock can ally a greater emphasis on passing with the spirit and resilience that were trademarks of Holloway's team, mid-table. If not, they may be among the strugglers.


Sheffield Wednesday

Last season: 19th
Manager: Paul Sturrock - Wore a kilt for the final game of the season to celebrate staying in the Championship. It hardly bears thinking about what he might do if they were promoted to the Premiership.

In: Wade Small (MK Dons, undisclosed), Madjid Bougherra (Gueugnon, free), Kenny Lunt (Crewe, free), Yoann Folly (Southampton, undisclosed).

Out: Drissa Diallo (MK Dons, free), Craig Rocastle (Oldham, free), David Lucas (released), Ritchie Partridge (Rotherham, free), Jon-Paul McGovern (MK Dons, free), Patrick Collins (Darlington, free).

Hampered by the absence of Steven MacLean for virtually the entire campaign, Sheffield Wednesday's first season back in the Championship rapidly became a battle for survival. With the Scot available to partner Deon Burton or Marcus Tudgay, the hoards at Hillsborough may want more.

Sturrock has not made the headlines for his summer signings - indeed the powerful central defender Madjid Bougherra and central midfielder Kenny Lunt were cornerstones of a relegated Crewe side - but he has strengthened.

More eye-catching was the move for Scott Carson, but Sturrock has admitted defeat in his bid to get the Liverpool man back on loan, so a goalkeeper should be a priority. Wednesday's defensive record was respectable last season but their prospects of improving upon 19th place depend upon whether they can be more potent in the final third.

Key man: Steven MacLean - Wednesday scored a mere 39 goals last season when MacLean was restricted to just four starts. The Scot is the only player in their squad with the potential to score 15 on his own.

One to watch: Chris Brunt - The Northern Ireland international winger has a penchant for the spectacular and should get better still.

Must do better: Glenn Whelan - The former Ireland Young Player of the Year has struggled to adapt to Championship football and will have to show a great deal of improvement if he's to make Paul Sturrock reconsider putting him on the transfer list.

Prediction: Should nudge their way quietly into the safety of mid-table.


Southampton

Last season: 12th
Manager: George Burley - Did what many others tried and failed to do by outlasting Rupert Lowe. A consistent record of reaching the Championship play-offs wherever he goes.

In: Gregorz Rasiak (Tottenham, £2million), Rudi Skacel (Hearts, £1.6 million), Jermaine Wright (Leeds, free), Bradley Wright-Phillips (Manchester City, undisclosed), Marcelo Sarmiento (Club Atletico Racing de Cordoba, loan), Pele (Belenenses, undisclosed), Kelvin Davis (Sunderland, undisclosed), Rudi Skacel (Hearts, £1.6 million)

Out: Darren Kenton (Leicester, free), Paul Smith (Nottm Forest, free), Yoann Folly (Sheffield Wednesday, undisclosed)

Optimism, often in short supply at Southampton over the last couple of seasons, has returned along with Rupert Lowe's departure. A fine finish to last season helped, along with the evidence that George Burley's plans are taking shape.

Signing Gregorz Rasiak was the biggest single step. Together with Ricardo Fuller's re-emergence as a threat, it means Southampton could boast a prolific strike partnership; they certainly did not last year.

Bradley Wright-Phillips, another of the summer signings, and the promising Dexter Blackstock offer strength in depth in attack. Rudi Skacel, who has belatedly followed Burley south from Hearts, strengthens the supply line.

Burley has wasted little time in making his mark on the rest of the squad.

Kelvin Davis is the belated replacement for Antti Niemi while the back four could see the unlikely alliance of Pele (a Portuguese defender) and Jesus (Alexander Ostlund's nickname). If Michael Svensson and Matt Oakley can rediscover their Premiership form and Gareth Bale and Nathan Dyer continue their encouraging progress, it bodes well.

Key man: Gregorz Rasiak - For much of last season Southampton's top scorer was a central midfielder they had already sold. Now Rasiak, who scored 16 times for Burley at Derby two seasons back, could provide the leader the forward line requires.

One to watch: Gareth Bale - Became Wales' youngest ever international at 16. A composed left back, he, Martin Cranie and Nathan Dyer are the brightest prospects of the Southampton youth system.

Must do better: Jermaine Wright - Has excelled for Burley before, but there are doubters on the South Coast after his loan spell at Saints last year.

Prediction: Should be a force to be reckoned with. Another play-off place for Burley cannot be ruled out; they could achieve even more.


Southend

Last season: 1st (League One, promoted)
Manager: Steve Tilson - Has made management seem simple with back-to-back promotions. If his success continues, will he be tempted elsewhere?

In: Michael Ricketts (Leeds, free), Simon Francis (Sheffield United, free), Steve Collis (Yeovil, free), Steven Hammell (Motherwell, free).

Out: Carl Pettefer (Oxford, free), Mark Bentley (Gillingham, free), Duncan Jupp (Gillingham, free), Wayne Gray (Yeovil, free), Shaun Goater (released), Bart Griemink (released), Andy Edwards (released).

Southend made light work of League One, cruising through it at the first time of asking. Now a nucleus of League Two players find themselves in the Championship.

Their presence there owes much to Freddy Eastwood, who scored 23 times last year. Much rests on the former Grays Athletic forward, prolific in every division he has played in over recent seasons. The same comment cannot be applied to his new strike partner, Michael Ricketts.

Simon Francis is another arrival to one of the division's smallest squads. Though captain Kevin Maher, centre back Adam Barrett and goalkeeper Darryl Flahavan have excelled at lower levels, the Championship will present the stiffest test yet to Southend's winning formula.

Key man: Freddy Eastwood - Two seasons of league football have produced 42 goals. Other clubs have already taken note; still more will do if he can translate that form to the Championship.

One to watch: Jamal Campbell-Ryce - Right winger with pace in abundance who was a late addition to the side in their League One campaign.

Must do better: Michael Ricketts - A category generally reserved for Ricketts. It is now more than four years since he displayed his best form consistently.

Prediction: Continuity has served them well, but it may prove a division too far for some of Tilson's players. Staying up would be an achievement.


Stoke City

Last season: 13th
Manager: Tony Pulis - The great entertainer returns for a second spell of low-scoring games. A boon to insomniacs everywhere.

In: Vincent Pericard (Portsmouth, free).

Out: Ed De Goey (released).

Exit the comedy double act of Johan Boskamp and Jan de Koenig, re-enter Tony Pulis, the Red Adair of relegation battles. This time, however, his objectives are higher, with chairman Peter Coates talking about promotion.

That would require more attacking football than Pulis usually advocates. It is made tougher because, of Stoke's two major threats last year, the temperamental Sam Bangoura is showing a reluctance to return to the Britannia Stadium while Paul Gallagher, only on loan, is back at Blackburn. Vincent Pericard, the former Juventus man signed from Portsmouth, will provide a forceful presence in attack.

Particularly in the shape of Carl Hoefkens, Boskamp signed well, so Pulis' is a strong defence, but, if a record of 10 away wins and only seven at home last season is anything to go by, in a schizophrenic side. It makes it harder to predict how they will fare though, under Pulis, relegation is unlikely to be a possibility.

Key man: Carl Hoefkens - Provided a touch of class and some ferocious long-range shots in a solid defence last year. Pulis will do well to keep him.

One to watch: Vincent Pericard - A bit-part player elsewhere, but set to be Stoke's main striker. Brings pace and power and, when playing for Pulis at Plymouth, goals.

Must do better: Peter Sweeney - Gifted winger who made a negligible impact in his first season at the Britannia Stadium.

Prediction: Should score and concede less and probably end up in mid-table.


Sunderland

Last season: 20th (Premiership, relegated)
Manager: Niall Quinn - Charismatic cult hero on Wearside. Should be safe from the sack, if only because he's doubling up as chairman at the moment.

In: Kenny Cunningham (Birmingham, free).

Out: Andy Gray (Burnley, £750,000), Joe Murphy (Scunthorpe, free), Gary Breen (Wolves, free), Martin Woods (released), Kelvin Davis (Southampton, undisclosed) , Julia Arca (Middlesbrough, £1.75 million).

Fresh from one of the worst seasons in living memory, Sunderland need a rapid change to their fortunes under a new regime. Niall Quinn, popular as his appointment is, is untried in management.

The vast majority of his squad failed dismally in the Premiership but have proven themselves in the Championship. Their prospects, however, may depend on how quickly they can shed their losing habit and remember how to win against inferior opposition.

At least all have a point to prove. In the case of Jon Stead, Kevin Kyle and Stephen Elliott, it is that they can score the goals to inspire a promotion push. Kenny Cunningham, recruited to add experience and leadership on the pitch, and Quinn have a major job to make Sunderland contenders again. But they responded superbly to their previous relegation from the Premiership, so it is not impossible.

Key man: Tommy Miller - Has proved himself a regular scorer from midfield in the Championship in the past. Sunderland would benefit from seeing that form again.

One to watch: Grant Leadbitter - A young midfielder who acquitted himself well at the end of last season.

Must do better: Jon Stead - Though obviously, an alternative answer would have been 'most of them'.

Prediction: Hard to call. They much of the side that dominated the Championship two years ago and Quinn's arrival could provide the lift the club needs. Equally, it is not impossible that they could miss out on the play-offs.


West Bromwich Albion

Last season: 19th (Premiership, relegated)
Manager: Bryan Robson - As 'the Great Escape' fades from the memory, Robson's relegation with a third different club has replaced it. Some sympathise with his hard luck stories, while others feel Robson's management contributed to demotion.

In: Chris Perry (Charlton, free), John Hartson (Celtic, undisclosed), Pascal Zuberbuhler (FC Basle, free).

Out: Geoff Horsfield (Sheffield United £1.2million), Andy Johnson (Leicester City, free), Lloyd Dyer (released).

For a club unable to stay in the Premiership, West Brom have spent much of the summer repelling bids from top-flight clubs for their players, whether Curtis Davies, Tomasz Kuszczak, Zoltan Gera or Nathan Ellington. Whether that creates a strong squad or an unhappy camp remains to be seen.

On paper it bodes well, but the length of their relegation hangover may determine how West Brom fare, and whether dissatisfaction with Robson grows. His first summer signing, Chris Perry, joins a defence where Paul Robinson has signed a new contract and the precocious Davies is the new skipper.

Further forward, getting John Hartson to the Hawthorns is a coup. Robson found it hard to settle on a strike partnership last year, but the Welshman's strength and Ellington's speed suggest they could be the two candidates to top score. With Gera, Jonathan Greening and Nigel Quashie in midfield, there is no guarantee the talented Richard Chaplow will start; it is a squad to envy, but no guarantee of success.

Key man: John Hartson - Few defenders will relish a battle with him, and Ellington could be the beneficiary. West Brom's search for a regular scorer may be over.

One to watch: Richard Chaplow - Hardly featured since his signing from Burnley. Relegation could benefit him, if not Albion.

Must do better: Diomansy Kamara - A sequence of horrendous misses is a reason why West Brom didn't stay up.

Prediction: Potential champions who, like the other relegated teams, have to prove themselves in a new league to prevent an anti-climactic year way off the pace.


Wolverhampton Wanderers

Last season: 7th
Manager: Mick McCarthy - Exceptional in the Championship and execrable in the Premiership. Spent the World Cup branding Russian referee Valentin Ivanov 'a wally'. With some justification, admittedly.

In: Gary Breen (Sunderland, free), Guilherme Finkler (season-long loan, Juventude), Jay Bothroyd (Charlton, free).

Out: Colin Cameron (Coventry City, free), Kenny Miller (Celtic, undisclosed), Joleon Lescott (Everton, £5million), Seol Ki-Hyeon (Reading, undisclosed).

The severing of Wolves' increasingly fractured relationship with Glenn Hoddle could have been timed better, but it still allowed them to appoint Mick McCarthy before the start of the season, even if not with much time to remodel the squad.

And it is a weaker group, hampered by the loss of Kenny Miller's verve and Seol Ki-Hyeon's skill in attack, Mark Kennedy's fine left foot in midfield and Joleon Lescott's composure at the back. Paul Ince, too, has decided his future lies elsewhere after being passed over for the manager's job.

Gary Breen, McCarthy's captain at Sunderland, resumes their Irish connection at Molineux and Jackie McNamara will return from months on the sidelines, but unless Jay Bothroyd can provide a cutting edge, Wolves may be unrealistic to expect anything other than consolidation.

Key man: Gary Breen - McCarthy will look for leadership from his compatriot in the new regime; Wolves will look to him to replace the excellent Lescott.

One to watch: Mark Davies - Teenage Welsh midfielder who showed himself to be a fine passer last year. Almost an inside-forward, he could figure on the right or in the centre.

Must do better: Tomasz Frankowski - Hoddle opted to sign him instead of Izale McLeod. After 17 games with no goals, Frankowski played himself out of Poland's World Cup squad.

Prediction: Underachieved last year when they were among the favourites to go up. Will need to overachieve to even reach the play-offs now.


Coca Cola Football League Season 2006/7
Championship | League 1 | League 2

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