Rickie Lambert of Southampton

Shooting for the promised land

by Stuart Vose

Up-and-comers assembling for promotion push.

The Npower Championship is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most competitive leagues as the race to reach the Barclays Premier League hots up.

Fan interest in the top flight has never been higher – and everyone wants a slice of the pie.

Reading, Southampton and West Ham will play in the world’s biggest league next season, with the latter having returned to the fold after just a season away.

They tread a path which 24 other clubs dream of following as the new Championship season gets under way.

Of that double dozen, exactly three-quarters have figured in the Premier League for at least one season since its inception in 1992.

Ten clubs possess grounds with capacities in excess of 30,000, with the leading two – Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday – boasting room for almost 10,000 more.

Ambitious Brighton, meanwhile, expect to have a capacity of more than 30,000 by the end of the season with an expansion of their Amex Stadium home currently in progress.

But the beauty of the Championship is its competitiveness. Blackpool came from nowhere to win promotion in 2010 after Burnley had done the same a year earlier.

It’s not simply a case of the usual suspects in English football’s second tier.

A look down into League One is revealing as well, with five former Premier League clubs now slugging it out in the third division, including a Portsmouth outfit who won the FA Cup in 2009 before falling on hard times.

They are living proof of how hard clubs can fall should the dream turn out to simply be a mirage.

Nonetheless, a whole host of clubs will be looking to shoot for the stars this season, including Blackburn, Bolton and Wolves, all of whom were relegated from the Premier League last time around.

They’ll be joined by Cardiff and Birmingham – losing play-off semi-finalists last season – plus Blackpool, who fell to West Ham in the final at Wembley.

A number of Championship clubs have attracted new owners, including Forest who were recently taken over by Kuwaiti businessman Faraz Al Hasawi.

And the talent levels on the pitch are constantly increasing, with legions of former Premier League players and aspiring youngsters peppering squads up and down the division.

Doubtless there will be a wild card thrown into the mix too with an unexpected promotion contender haring into the shake-up from left-field.

Those harbouring promotion ambitions will doubtless by heartened by the performance of recently-promoted clubs, with all three sides who went up in 2010-11 avoiding the drop.

Two – Swansea and Norwich – finished in comfortable mid-table berths, shocking their share of top-flight heavyweights along the way, while QPR scraped to safety by a single point on the final day.

Gone, seemingly, are the days when at least two of the promoted clubs were relegation fodder. The Championship has bite and there are a dozen sides or more who will be thinking that maybe, just maybe, this could be their year.