Jewell can return to top table with Ram raid on 'sweet shop'

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The Independent Online

It is, once again, the perfect antidote to Premier League predictability; the division in which 11 points separated the top eight sides last season and any of 14 can fancy themselves for a top-six place this time around. But though the Championship is a place where dreams are made – the "sweet shop" of the game as Bristol City manager Gary Johnson has described it, full of sides ogling the £60m television deal – it is also shaping up to be a place of dark shadows for some of the managers and clubs who have built reputations within it.

But first, to the top. An easier one to call than who will be in the chasing pack because two of the relegated sides, Derby County and Birmingham City, look in good shape to make a quick comeback. Although the true psychological effect of having gone four weeks short of a year without winning a League game and shipping 21 goals in your last four matches is unknown, manager Paul Jewell – a man who knows about beating a path out of the second tier – has been busy buying players who were not a part of Derby's nightmare. His move to assign all squad players different numbers is another mark of a canny operator.

The £1.75m purchase of Rob Hulse, who has lived on both sides of the Premier League line at Sheffield United, and Nathan Ellington on a season's loan from Watford both look exciting. Ellington wants to show why he was a regular 20-goals-a-season man in the early part of the decade and Jewell, for whom he played a major role in Wigan's promotion to the top flight four years ago, is the man to help him do it. Alan Stubbs looks a sound purchase, too.

It will be an intriguing battle with Alex McLeish's Birmingham. The purchase of Lee Carsley, the new club captain, from Everton, was a wonderful piece of business; the retention of James McFadden and Sebastian Larsson crucial. Kevin Phillips and Marcus Bent are the acquisitions of title-challengers, too. Derby will edge things though, not least because McLeish must adjust to this level.

Life might not be quite so simple for Reading, despite Steve Coppell's decision to stay. There has hardly been an exodus – essentially Dave Kitson to Stoke and Nicky Shorey to Villa – but there's less of a sense of momentum. Play-offs – at a pinch.

The talk of the League are QPR, of course, and Iain Dowie finds himself under the kind of pressure he faced at Crystal Palace in the top flight. Everyone is talking about Daniel Parejo, on a season's loan from Real Madrid and a product of chairman Flavio Briatore's contact with Ramon Calderon. But for all Briatore's talk of working with Real, Juventus and Milan the rest of Dowie's signings have been too modest to suggest any great leap. Don't hold your breath for Rangers.

It is Palace who look the far better bet having reached the play-offs from an abject starting point when Neil Warnock took over last October. Last season's extraordinary crop of youth talent is largely intact while Australia midfielder Nick Carle from Bristol City (Palace's play-off conquerors) looks lively. For his part, Gary Johnson has picked up a real prospect in forward Nicky Maynard from Crewe, for a club-record £2.25m, but City may struggle to maintain last season's momentum, having tailed off in the spring.

Instead, look out for Norwich, a real prospect again under Glenn Roeder who assiduously steered them to safety and is on the offensive with Arturo Lupoli, the former Arsenal player brought in on loan from Fiorentina, Dejan Stefanovic from Fulham and Sammy Clingan from Nottingham Forest.

Speaking of whom, there is a genuine prospect of joy on the Trent – though Forest fans hardly dare contemplate it after three years in League One - with Andrew Cole and record signing Rob Earnshaw allied to a talented bunch of young players. They could finish as high as sixth.

Burnley complete a list of potential new play-off contenders, if they can resolve last season's defensive difficulties, with one of the league's most charismatic managers in Owen Coyle. Wolves will be mixing it again, too, though there is little to suggest that Mick McCarthy's side have what it takes to go up, with Chris Iwelumo in from Charlton Athletic to replace Freddy Eastwood.

Hardly so appetising for the old guard, though. Alan Pardew has lost nine players from Charlton, Madjid Bougherra leaving for Rangers for £2.5m last week, and life is looking equally woeful for Aidy Boothroyd at Watford, with Ellington and Darius Henderson having gone elsewhere in the division.

The same financial strictures will make it a struggle for Coventry, too, despite the huge anticipation accompanying Chris Coleman's first full season. And it is hard to see David Jones, seemingly close to the sack last season, delivering on Cardiff's over-inflated expectations.

Some survival fights are likely – Plymouth, Doncaster and Blackpool will struggle – but with the stakes so high don't bet against a big-name manager or two being cast out of the sweet shop.

The Championship in numbers

*2007-08 Season: 42.37 Home win percentage.

1408 Totals goals scored (at average 2.53 per match).

88 Most goals scored (by West Bromwich Albion).

6 Most clean sheets (by Crystal Palace).

16 Managerial changes.

23 Number of goals by last season's top scorer (Sylvan Ebanks-Blake of Wolves).

9.4 million Total attendance last term (excluding play-offs).

*2008-09 Season:

£2.65m Biggest transfer fee paid (Rob Earnshaw, Derby County to Nottingham Forest).

£5.5m Biggest received (Dave Kitson, Reading to Stoke City).

8 Number of clubs that have not played in Premier League.

9,612 Smallest capacity (Blackpool's Bloomfield Road).

*ALL-TIME RECORDS:

106 Most points in a season (Reading, 2006).

17 Fewest points (Stoke, 1985).

Hot properties Three young players to watch

*Daniel Parejo
Age 19, Queen's Park Rangers

His chairman described the young Spaniard as 'the hottest prospect in European football' after securing him on loan from Real Madrid. Hyperbole, but the 19-year-old scored 11 in 37 games for Castilla and signed off at Real with a goal against SV Hamburg.

*Arturo Lupoli
Age 21, Norwich City

Intriguing loan acquisition by Glenn Roeder. Once part of the same Arsenal set-up as David Bentley. Prolific at youth and reserve level for the Gunners but drifted to Derby and then to Fiorentina who have now loaned him. Arsène Wenger reportedly recommended him to Roeder.

*Lewis McGugan
Age 19, Nottingham Forest

One of a string of talented youth players that manager Colin Calderwood believes will benefit from Andrew Cole and Rob Earnshaw's presence at resurgent Forest. Scored inside five minutes on his debut two seasons ago and back after missing most of last season through injury.

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