The Championship: A new season kicks off, so who will be this year's Blackpool?

Middlesbrough start as Championship favourites, but the last campaign's surprise promotion has spurred a hungry chasing pack. Paul Newman previews the contest

As the new Championship season opens tonight, you can be sure that many a manager will be delivering the same message to his players: if Blackpool can do it, then so can we.

The unlikely achievement of Ian Holloway's team in winning promotion to the Premier League last season proved that the division is now the most competitive in the land. For several seasons now it has been a league in which no results can be taken for granted.

This year the division looks more open than ever, although Middlesbrough, having spent freely over the summer, will be hoping their big guns can blow all their rivals out of the water. Money can talk at this level, as Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion showed last season by bouncing back to the Premier League at the first attempt, having held on to most of their players.

Of this year's relegated trio, only Burnley have managed to keep their squad largely intact. They have also brought in new blood, while Hull City and Portsmouth have watched many of their best players leave.

As for the other newcomers, Leeds United and Norwich City will be hoping to maintain the momentum from their successful promotion campaigns last season. For Millwall, survival will be an achievement. Nottingham Forest, Leicester City and Cardiff City – who all finished above Blackpool – will put their faith in the men who took them into the play-offs, while Reading will fancy their chances on the basis of last season's end-of-term form.

As for a team to follow Blackpool's example, how about Doncaster Rovers? The Yorkshire club have just spent £1m on a player for the first time in their history and in Sean O'Driscoll have one of the brightest young managers in the country.

Barnsley

Manager: Mark Robins (appointed September 2009)

Title odds: 100-1 Last season: 18th

Key signings: J Shackell (Wolves, £700,000), J McEveley (Derby), D Arismendi (Stoke, loan), G Lovre (Groningen), J O'Brien (Motherwell), L Dickinson (Brighton) J M Neumann (Estudiantes).

Overview: Robins has done a major rebuilding job over the summer. The Serbian Goran Lovre and the Uruguayan Diego Arismendi could form an exceptional if unlikely midfield alongside the Argentine Hugo Colace, who was a key performer last year. The former Norwich City defender, Jason Shackell, who will captain the side this season, will bring Premier League experience to a back line that looked suspect on occasions last term.

Look out for: Jim O'Brien's surging runs down the wing.

Prediction: Should be good enough to keep clear of trouble.

Bristol City

Manager: Steve Coppell (appointed April 2010)

Title odds: 20-1 Last season: 10th

Key signings: K Cissé (Reading, £400,000), D James (Portsmouth), N Hunt (Bolton), D Stewart (QPR) Albert Adomah (Barnet), S Vokes (Wolves).

Overview: There is no better manager at this level than Coppell, who is a master at getting the most out of his players. The departures of Bradley Orr and Paul Hartley to Queen's Park Rangers and Aberdeen respectively have been setbacks, but the signing of David James is a statement of intent, while Damion Stewart's experience should help stabilise a defence that leaked 65 goals last season, more than any other team in the top half.

Look out for: The Mali international Kalifa Cisse's midfield class.

Prediction: Play-off contenders.

Burnley

Manager: Brian Laws (appointed January 2010)

Title odds: 11-1 Last season: 18th (in the Premier League)

Key signings: R Wallace (Preston, estimated £1.9m), L Grant (Sheffield Wednesday, estimated £1m), D Marney (Hull, £500,000), C Iwelumo (Wolves, £500,000).

Overview: Steven Fletcher has gone to Wolves, but Burnley have retained most of those who served in the Premier League last season and strengthened their squad with experienced Championship performers like Ross Wallace, Dean Marney and Chris Iwelumo. A good start will be essential and the fixture list has come up with some tough early tests, including August fixtures against three of last season's top seven: Nottingham Forest, Leicester City and Swansea City.

Look out for: Wallace, a goal-scoring midfielder with a sweet left foot.

Prediction: Play-offs or better.

Cardiff City

Manager: Dave Jones (appointed May 2005)

Best odds: 20-1 Last season: 4th

Key signings (all pending League approval): T Heaton (Manchester United), D Drinkwater (Manchester United, loan), J Koumas (Wigan Athletic, loan).

Overview: Cardiff have been hampered by continuing financial problems, which have led to a transfer embargo. This factor may thwart Jones's plans to build on an excellent 2009-10 season, which ended in defeat to Blackpool in the play-off final. Two summer recruits from Manchester United, Tom Heaton and Danny Drinkwater, plus Wigan's Jason Koumas cannot be registered until the embargo is lifted. Rivals are sniffing around the likes of Peter Whittingham and Michael Chopra.

Look out for: Whittingham's eye for goal.

Prediction: Mid-table – or better if money problems can be resolved.

Coventry City

Manager: Aidy Boothroyd (appointed May 2010)

Title odds: 50-1 Last season: 19th

Key signings: L Carsley (Birmingham City), G McSheffrey (Birmingham City), L Jutkiewicz (Everton), R O'Donovan (Sunderland), C Platt (Colchester United) Richard Keogh (Carsley United).

Overview: With Clinton Morrison having left for Sheffield Wednesday, one of Boothroyd's priorities has been to strengthen an attack that averaged barely a goal a game last season. Lukas Jutkiewicz has arrived from Everton, while Gary McSheffrey, who was born in Coventry, and Roy O'Donovan have rejoined the club where they began their careers. Lee Carsley, another former Coventry player, returns after spells at Everton and Birmingham.

Look out for: Sammy Clingan's dead-ball prowess.

Prediction: Another season in the lower reaches.

Crystal Palace

Manager: George Burley (appointed June 2010)

Best odds: 66-1 Last season: 21st

Key signings: O Garvan (Ipswich Town), A Dorman (St Mirren), A Barrett (Southend United), D Wright (Ipswich), L Price (Derby County), V Shumulikoski (Preston North End).

Overview: Narrowly avoided going out of business in the summer after a consortium of businessmen put together a rescue deal. Several experienced players left during close season, with departure of captain Sean Derry to QPR particularly significant. Squad looks weak but Burley, assisted by the former Selhurst favourite Dougie Freedman, is still recruiting. Last season's leading scorer, Darren Ambrose, provided the biggest boost to the new management team by signing a three-year contract.

Look out for: Ambrose's long-range shooting.

Prediction: Mid-table at best.

Derby County

Manager: Nigel Clough (appointed January 2009)

Title odds: 40-1 Last season: 14th

Key signings: J Bailey and J Brayford (both Crewe, combined £1m), T Cywka (Wigan), G Roberts (Doncaster).

Overview: James Bailey, a midfielder, and John Brayford, a versatile defender who played under Nigel Clough at Burton, have joined from Crewe, while Gareth Roberts, a Wales international full-back, has come in from Doncaster. Clough has taken time to make his mark and the Derby faithful are likely to grow restless if there is not a marked improvement this season. Robbie Savage, 35, will captain the team again.

Look out for: Rob Hulse, who is a centre-forward in the traditional mould.

Prediction: Mid-table.

Doncaster Rovers

Manager: Sean O'Driscoll (appointed September 2006)

Title odds: 66-1 Last season: 12th

Key signings: B Sharp (Sheffield United, £1.15m), G Friend (Wolves), S Gillett (Southampton).

Overview: O'Driscoll, the Championship's second longest-serving manager behind Dave Jones at Cardiff, has performed wonders at a club that was playing in the Conference seven years ago. Rovers more than held their own last season, their first year back in English football's second tier for half-a-century. Made the first £1m purchase in their history in the summer by signing Billy Sharp, who scored 15 goals on loan last season.

Look out for: Brian Stock's playmaking.

Prediction: Top 10, but not quite good enough for the play-offs.

Hull City

Manager: Nigel Pearson (appointed June 2010)

Title odds: 22-1 Last season: 19th (in the Premier League)

Key signings: N Solano (Leicester), J Harper (Sheffield United).

Overview: Said to have debts approaching £30m and have denied reports this week that they are about to go into administration. The departures of many of last season's Premier League squad – Geovanni, Bernard Mendy, Dean Marney, Stephen Hunt, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, George Boateng, Kamel Ghilas and Boaz Myhill among them – have left Pearson, who moved from Leicester in the summer, with a huge task.

Look out for: Solano, who could be a ray of KC sunshine in a gloomy summer.

Prediction: May be dragged into relegation struggle.

Ipswich Town

Manager: Roy Keane (appointed April 2009)

Title odds: 20-1 Last season: 15th

Key signings: M Kennedy (Cardiff City), M Fulop (Sunderland) £75,000), C Hourihane (Sunderland).

Overview: Respectable finish last season after appalling start, when they went 14 matches without a win. Keane will expect to do much better this time. Alex Bruce and Owen Garvan have left recently (for Leeds and Crystal Palace respectively), while Mark Kennedy, Conor Hourihane and Marton Fulop have been the only arrivals so far. May be short of an old head or two to guide their talented youngsters.

Look out for: Connor Wickham, a teenage striker with a big future.

Prediction: Play-off potential.

Leeds United

Manager: Simon Grayson (appointed December 2008)

Title odds: 18-1 Last season: 2nd (in League One)

Key signings: B Paynter (Swindon Town), K Schmeichel (Notts County), L Sam (Charlton Athletic), P Connolly (Derby County), N Collins (Preston North End).

Overview: After three years in League One the former Premier League giants finally secured a return to the Championship, although Grayson's men faltered alarmingly in the second half of last season. Jermaine Beckford, leading scorer for the past three years, has joined Everton, so Leeds will look to Billy Paynter, signed on a Bosman deal, for goals after his move from Swindon, where he scored 29 times last season.

Look out for: Luciano Becchio, who combines tireless effort with goal-scoring ability.

Prediction: Mid-table.

Leicester City

Manager: Paulo Sousa (appointed July 2010)

Title odds: 16-1 Last season: 5th

Key signings: T Kennedy (Rochdale), L Crncic (Atalanta), M Vitor (Benfica, loan)

Overview: Sousa, formerly in charge at Queen's Park Rangers and Swansea City, took over after Nigel Pearson's surprise departure to Hull City. Last season's squad has remained largely intact and Sousa predicts promotion within two years. The team are likely to play a more expansive brand of football under their Portuguese manager, but will his style be more effective than that of Pearson, who had two excellent years in charge? Showed promising form in pre-season friendlies.

Look out for: Matty Fryatt's penalty-area prowess, which has brought 44 goals in the last two seasons.

Prediction: Top 10, contending for play-off place.

Middlesbrough

Manager: Gordon Strachan (appointed October 2009)

Title odds: 13-2 Last season: 11th

Key signings: K Thomson (Rangers, £2m), S McManus (Celtic, £1.5m), N Bailey (Charlton, £1.4m), K Boyd (Rangers), A Halliday (Livingston), T Kink (Gyori ETO).

Overview: At this rate they will soon be called McMiddles-brough. Gordon Strachan has continued his policy of shopping north of the border, with Kevin Thomson, Stephen McManus and Kris Boyd joining the Old Firm exodus to Teesside. Boro have been spending their parachute money freely in the hope of regaining their Premier League status. They need to improve on last season's patchy form, but Strachan looks to have recruited wisely.

Look out for: Nicky Bailey, a dynamic goal-scoring midfielder.

Prediction: Automatic promotion.

Millwall

Manager: Kenny Jackett (appointed November 2007)

Title odds: 50-1 Last season: 3rd (in League One)

Key signings: J Henry (Reading, £200,000), S Mildenhall (Southend United), K Lisbie (Ipswich Town, loan), D Carter (Preston North End, loan).

Overview: League One was highly competitive last season and Millwall, who beat Swindon in the play-off final, did well to be promoted ahead of bigger rivals like Charlton and Southampton. Jackett has moulded a useful team out of limited resources and has recruited again over the summer. However, the league is a step-up in class and his squad may prove short on quality.

Look out for: Steve Morison, a former non-League striker with a work ethic as healthy as his appetite for goals.

Prediction: Relegation candidates.

Norwich City

Manager: Paul Lambert (appointed August 2009)

Title odds: 18-1 Last season: 1st (in League One)

Key signings: S Jackson (Gillingham, £600,000), A Surman (Wolves, £500,000), E Ward (Coventry City). J Ruddy (Everton).

Overview: Club-record season ticket sales of 20,550 show the levels of expectation after last year's astonishing turnaround following a 7-1 defeat at home to Colchester on the first day. The top scorers in League One last season, Norwich have added to their firepower by signing Simeon Jackson, who scored 17 goals last year in a struggling Gillingham team. Former stalwarts Gary Doherty and Paul McVeigh have left.

Look out for: Andrew Surman, a skilful midfielder who has earned England Under-21 recognition.

Prediction: Mid-table.

Nottingham Forest

Manager: Billy Davies (appointed January 2009)

Title odds: 9-1 Last season: 3rd

Key signings: R Majewski (Polonia Warsaw, £1m), R Bertrand (Chelsea).

Overview: Forest are one of the promotion favourites, but rumours of an uneasy relationship between manager and directors persist after a quiet summer on the transfer front. Davies was frustrated at the failure to strengthen his squad in January's transfer window and the only signing so far this summer has been that of Radoslaw Majewski, who was on loan last season. Cardiff City have rejected Forest's offer for Peter Whittingham.

Look out for: Lee Camp, whose consistent goalkeeping was a key factor last season.

Prediction: Automatic promotion or the play-offs – provided Davies stays.

Portsmouth

Manager: Steve Cotterill (appointed June 2010)

Title odds: 28-1 Last season: 20th (in Premier League)

Key signings: S Jordan (Burnley), I Sonko (Stoke City, loan).

Overview: A ball has not been kicked yet, but Portsmouth recorded their first victory of the season yesterday when a High Court judge rejected HM Revenue & Customs' appeal against the Company Voluntary Arrangement which will allow the club to come out of administration. Nevertheless, more players could follow Tal Ben Haim and David James, the latest men to leave Fratton Park, and Cotterill will have to rebuild as the season progresses.

Look out for: Aaron Mokoena, who could be the defensive linchpin – provided he stays.

Prediction: All depends on finances, but don't rule out a relegation scrap.

Preston North End

Manager: Darren Ferguson (appointed January 2010)

Title odds: 50-1 Last season: 17th

Key signings: C Morgan (Peterborough, £400,000), W Brown (Leicester City), P Hayes (Scunthorpe United), D Russell (Norwich City), D Gray (Manchester United, loan).

Overview: The club's financial problems appear to have been resolved, but Ross Wallace's departure for Burnley was a setback. Ferguson has been strengthening his squad and hopes the signing of Craig Morgan and Wayne Brown will shore up a defence that conceded 73 goals in the league last season. Paul Hayes will bring some creativity to the attack, while Jon "The Beast" Parkin will again provide the muscle.

Look out for: Andy Lonergan, whose form in goal could be crucial to survival hopes.

Prediction: Relegation candidates.

QPR

Manager: Neil Warnock (appointed March 2010)

Title odds: 12-1 Last season: 13th

Key signings: A Taarabt (Tottenham, estimated £1m) ,P Kenny (Sheffield United, £750,000), B Orr (Bristol City), S Derry (C Palace), C Hill (C Palace), L Clarke (Sheffield Wednesday).

Overview: Sean Derry and Clint Hill followed Warnock from Crystal Palace, but Darren Ambrose's decision not to join the trail was a blow. Paddy Kenny and Bradley Orr bring more know-how to a squad stacked with experience, while the signing of Adel Taarabt will add to Warnock's attacking options. However, the loss of Lee Cook with a knee injury is a setback.

Look out for: Akos Buzsaky, an artist in midfield.

Prediction: Top 10.

Reading

Manager: Brian McDermott (appointed January 2010)

Title odds: 12-1 Last season: 9th

Key signings: A Griffin (Stoke City, £50,000), M Williams (Scunthorpe).

Overview: Reading were relegation candidates under Brendan Rodgers last season, but McDermott quickly turned their fortunes around and by the end of the campaign they were in form befitting promotion contenders. Pre-season victories over Wycombe, Wolves and Southampton have underlined the confidence of a squad that is largely unchanged from last season. McDermott says he will remain committed to playing attacking football.

Look out for: Jimmy Kébé, a flying winger who added goals to his game last season.

Prediction: Play-offs or better.

Scunthorpe United

Manager: Nigel Adkins (appointed December 2006)

Title odds: 200-1 Last season: 20th

Key signings: M Collins (Huddersfield, £50,000), C Dagnall (Rochdale), R Grant (Accrington), E Nolan (Preston, loan).

Overview: Defied gravity by avoiding relegation last year, but loss of strikers Gary Hooper and Paul Hayes, to Celtic and Preston North End respectively, could be a huge blow. The Iron, nevertheless, have a habit of unearthing goal-scorers and will hope that Chris Dagnall and Bobby Grant can make the step up in class. They will need to given that Scunthorpe had the worst defensive record in the division last year, conceding 84 goals.

Look out for: Cliff Byrne, whose whole-hearted defending epitomises the Scunthorpe spirit.

Prediction: Relegation.

Sheffield United

Manager: Kevin Blackwell (appointed February 2008)

Title odds: 20-1 Last season: 8th

Key signings: L Britton (Swansea), D Bogdanovic (Barnsley), S Simonsen (Stoke), R Kozluk (Barnsley), S Walton (Plymouth, loan), N Nosworthy (Sunderland, loan).

Overview: Have finished outside the division's top 10 only once in the last eight seasons, when they spent a year in the Premier League. Blackwell has made astute signings in Leon Britton and Nyron Nosworthy, but long-term injuries to Darius Henderson (hamstring) and Simon Walton (cruciate ligament) have hampered his plans. Goalkeeper Steve Simonsen replaces the long-serving Paddy Kenny, who has gone to QPR.

Look out for: Britton, who is an inventive midfielder.

Prediction: Mid-table.

Swansea City

Manager: Brendan Rodgers (appointed July 2010)

Title odds: 25-1 Last season: 7th

Key signings: S Donnelly (Aldershot Town), N Taylor (Wrexham).

Overview: Finished only one point behind Premier League-bound Blackpool last season despite scoring fewer goals (40) than any team in the division. Paolo Sousa, who has joined Leicester, has been replaced as manager by Rodgers, who will hope for better times than he enjoyed in brief spells at Watford and Reading. Most of last season's squad are staying, though the loss of Leon Britton will be keenly felt.

Look out for: Ashley Williams, key figure at heart of a rock-solid defence.

Prediction: Bottom half, potential relegation candidates.

Watford

Manager: Malky Mackay (appointed June 2009)

Title odds: 125-1 Last season: 16th

Key signings: R Gilmartin (Walsall), T Aldred (Carlisle United).

Overview: Since losing their Premier League status Watford have finished sixth, 13th and 16th and it will be no surprise if the slide continues. With little money to spend, Mackay is having to put faith in a crop of talented youngsters. He is also hoping to bring in loan players, having been delighted last season by the contributions of Arsenal's Henri Lansbury and Manchester United's Tom Cleverley.

Look out for: Danny Graham, whose goals helped keep Watford afloat last season.

Prediction: Relegation candidates.

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