Southampton are the great imponderable of this Football League season. After 27 years among the élite, relegation came as a shock and while their manager Harry Redknapp has recent experience of the division, having led Portsmouth to promotion three seasons ago, even his team-building abilities have been stretched by the necessary cost-cutting.
With construction work ongoing - the Algerian trialist Djamel Belmadi signed for a month only on Thursday but may play against Wolves today - it may be difficult to make the good start Southampton need. The likes of Antti Niemi (if he stays), Rory Delap, Claus Lundekvam and Matt Oakley provide a decent framework but the attack looks thin, the more so as Marian Pahars will miss the opening month with injury.
Today's match at St Mary's should provide a decent test of Saints' qualities as Wolves are serious promotion contenders. In Carl Cort and Kenny Miller they have a forward pairing which should deliver goals, while Paul Ince leads an experienced midfield. Last season's late form raised expectations, which is a double-edged sword. Glenn Hoddle, the Wolves manager, is certainly taking the positive view. "To say we have a chance of promotion puts us under pressure - but realistic pressure. The players should relish that."
By contrast, Kevin Blackwell has been playing down Leeds United's credentials but his club, on the brink of bankruptcy 18 months ago, have been the big pre-season spenders. More than £2.5m has been invested, the bulk of it on strikers Rob Hulse and Robbie Blake, and the club's chairman Ken Bates, having recouped only £1m on Aaron Lennon, will expect a decent return.
The only other club to have made a seven-figure net outlay (Palace's £2.3m spending having been largely underwritten by the sale of Wayne Routledge) are Sheffield United. Having retained players like Michael Tonge and Phil Jagielka (despite a £4m Wigan bid), the Blades intend a determined tilt at promotion.
Wolves, Leeds and Sheffield United will, though, have to edge out at least one of Norwich and Crystal Palace to gain an automatic promotion spot. None of the relegated clubs bounced back last season, but these two look in good shape to do so. While Johnson's retention is central to Palace's hopes, Norwich have a more balanced team.
Outside of that quintet, Ipswich, Preston, Derby, Reading, Leicester, and probably Southampton can harbour play-off dreams. Had Ipswich, for whom play-offs are usually a nightmare, kept their team together a promotion spot would have been probable. Instead, Joe Royle will be hoping the academy kids live up to their billing and the old hands like Jim Magilton stay fit.
For Burnley, Hull, Luton, QPR, Sheffield Wednesday, Coventry, Hull, Luton, Cardiff and Plymouth a season of mid-table oblivion beckons. The promoted trio would settle for that and while Burnley and QPR fans may have higher aspirations, their teams' squads are too thin for the 46-game Championship.
Coventry might burst out of that group to make the play-offs, Micky Adams knows the division well and they will have the impetus of a new ground, the Ricoh Arena - when they eventually get to play there.
Which leaves us with the likely strugglers. Crewe and Brighton only escaped on the final day last year and so can expect another difficult season. Juan Ugarte's goals may keep the Alex up but one fears for the Albion. Turbulent summers could well be followed by unhappy winters for Millwall and Stoke, while keeping Watford afloat will be a sterner examination of the highly qualified Adrian Boothroyd's credentials than any coaching course.
In League One the focus will be on Nottingham Forest and while Gary Megson has a strong squad, they will have to handle the pressure of being a prized scalp. Competition will come from Tranmere Rovers, Brentford and Hartlepool, perennial challengers Bristol City, relegated Gillingham, plus surging Yeovil and (relatively) big-spending Doncaster.
In the basement Ian Taylor's experience should carry Northampton to promotion alongside John Gorman's Wycombe, with Barnet, Darlington, Lincoln and Boston contesting the remaining places.Reuse content