Football: First Division: Forest rely on chequebook to bounce back: Expectations for close-season signings are riding high in the lower-division clubs as a new season dawns. Phil Shaw on the promotion hopefuls

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The Independent Online
THE NEW sponsors would have us call it the Endsleigh Insurance League First Division. With nearly half the 24 clubs coming from the Central TV area, it might as well be the Midlands Alliance.

The abundance of derbies is good news for club bank balances and Sunday armchair fans. Managers, mindful of how such matches often mock the form book, will be less enthusiastic. But even in what looks the most open, competitive division of all, it is hard to see beyond the East Midlands when assessing promotion potential.

In a summer of unprecedented trading, Nottingham Forest have led the way in a bid to get straight back up. Frank Clark has laid out pounds 4.4m - half of it on the striker Stan Collymore - to strengthen their spine. If Stuart Pearce and Neil Webb avoid injury, it should pay off although he may have to splash out again on a goalkeeper.

The chequebook is no guarantee of success, as Derby found last season. Arthur Cox, whose only recruit this time has been Forest's Gary Charles, is confident his young side can translate the ability Derby showed in away games into the bank of home points that normally ensures promotion. Few rivals, certainly, can match the class of Paul Kitson and Mark Pembridge.

The beaten play-off finalists Leicester are not in the same league financially, but if Julian Joachim can handle the publicity and pummeling he is bound to receive, they should secure a top-six spot again. Likewise Portsmouth, though even with such a proven predator as Lee Chapman they will miss Guy Whittingham's goals; plus Crystal Palace who, crucially, have retained Chris Armstrong and promise a passing game.

Steve Bull is so convinced that Wolves - reinforced by pounds 2.2m worth of newcomers led by Geoff Thomas - will complete their climb from the Fourth that he is ready to bet half his salary on it. A year ago such recruitment might have clinched it; now the play-offs may be the best Graham Turner can hope for.

While the same is likely to be true of West Brom, Ian Hamilton, Kevin Donovan and Co promise to be eminently watchable. Intriguingly, Keith Burkinshaw is to ditch Ossie Ardiles's 'diamond' formation and use a libero as an attacking weapon.

Barry Fry's Barnet-on-Sea, Southend, will be equally entertaining with a no-frills 4-2-4. Bolton could be more sophisticated dark horses once Andy Walker is fit to exploit the probings of the gifted Jason McAteer, while Stoke should hold their own if they can keep Mark Stein.

Sunderland have bought Phil Gray, Andy Melville, Ian Rodgerson and Derek Ferguson in an overdue attempt to emulate Newcastle, but all were involved in a car crash last week and Terry Butcher's plans could take time to gel. Birmingham, who have added that elegant defender Chris Whyte, may need to invest more of David Sullivan's millions to make an impact.

It is hard to envisage how Tranmere can improve on May's near-miss, or to picture a relegation battle not involving Watford, Luton, Charlton, Oxford, Bristol City and Peterborough.