Robson signals Albion's intent to bounce back

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The Independent Online

English football's second tier is well used to being told its play-off final is the most valuable and vital game within these shores. Much less familiar is the notion of the Championship taking attention away from the Premiership for its opening fortnight rather than just a week.

Quite how prepared teams are for this weekend's kick-off and the extra spotlight is debatable. Just as many nations parted company with coaches following the World Cup, so no fewer than 10 Championship clubs have changed managers this summer while three others have men approaching their first full season.

Good luck, then, to the likes of Geraint Williams, recently appointed at promoted Colchester United, Phil Parkinson, who jumped ship for Hull City after attaining the dizziest heights Layer Road has ever known, and Jim Magilton, the managerial novice at Ipswich Town.

By comparison, Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson have bulging CVs, and resources remain considerable at Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion.

Only once in five seasons have Albion neither gone up nor down and their ambition was underlined yesterday when they rejected a £2.5m Manchester United bid for Tomasz Kuszczak. With Zoltan Gera's transfer request rejected out of hand, most of the significant player traffic around The Hawthorns has been inward.

Robson has turned to experience in John Hartson, Chris Perry and the Swiss international keeper Pascal Zuberbühler. But securing Curtis Davies on a four-year contract, with the captain's armband as bait, could prove his most important move.

"Anything less than the play-offs is unacceptable," the manager said. "Of course, a successful season would be winning the league with 100 points. Our first aim, though, is to make sure we're in the top six. With what we have, anything less just isn't good enough."

Bruce has lost Jermaine Pennant, Emile Heskey, Mario Melchiot, Chris Sutton, Stan Lazaridis, Nico Vaesen and Kenny Cunningham, but restocked with the £3m former Cardiff striker Cameron Jerome, the Colchester midfielder Neil Danns and the Republic of Ireland and ex-Tottenham Hotspur full-back Stephen Kelly. Bruno N'Gotty is also at St Andrew's, where he might soon link up with another Bolton Wanderers old boy, Radhi Jaidi. The teenage Arsenal midfielder Fabrice Muamba has arrived on loan.

Albion and Birmingham are fancied to buck the trend of six successive relegated Premiership sides failing to win immediate promotion - a task Sunderland might find too much too soon, given chairman-manager Niall Quinn's lack of recruiting time. And can Leeds do without Rob Hulse what they spiritedly achieved with him last season?

With Mick McCarthy still playing catching-up following the departure of no fewer than 12 players, including Paul Ince, Kenny Miller and Joleon Lescott, Wolves may have to settle for rebuilding, but the sights of Leicester City and a freer-spending Coventry City will be higher after heartening revivals.

Further north, Paul Simpson has seen Preston North End's dependable defence ravaged. His two successive promotions with Carlisle United made him the chosen man to replace Billy Davies, who achieved consecutive play-off qualifications, but the chances of more success at Deepdale have receded with the defection of Tyrone Mears, Claude Davis and Chris Lucketti to the Premiership and the probable loss of Youl Mawene for the season.

Billy Davies, now at Derby, has resumed his lower-division stalking by pursuing Southend United's Freddy Eastwood as a potential partner for his £1m signing from Luton Town, Steve Howard.

Derby open tomorrow against Southampton, who will have £2m Grzegorz Rasiak to share with manager George Burley the flak that fans usually fire at old boys. Rudi Skacel (£1.6m from Hearts), Kelvin Davis (£1m from Sunderland) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (undisclosed fee from Manchester City) have also pitched up at St Mary's.

The fixture list in the two lower divisions is spiced up by Accrington Stanley's presence for the first time since 1962. Their opening-day trip to Chester has the backcloth of a looming Carling Cup home game with Nottingham Forest, who start their second season in League One at home to Bradford.

Finally, a word of encouragement for Accrington Stanley's John Coleman - Billy Davies, Kevin Blackwell and, in particular, Adrian Boothroyd were relatively unknown in management 12 months ago. Now look at them.

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