x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Premier League on the minds of all English Championship sides

The second tier of the English football competition kicks off on Saturday with 19 teams aiming for a return to the top flight, writes Richard Jolly.

Queens Park Rangers have assembled an expensive side, perhaps even challenge the unofficial record for the biggest wage bill in the Championship, which was set by Newcastle United in 2009/10. Paul Gilham / Getty Images
Queens Park Rangers have assembled an expensive side, perhaps even challenge the unofficial record for the biggest wage bill in the Championship, which was set by Newcastle United in 2009/10. Paul Gilham / Getty Images

The juxtaposition was merely one of many remarkable examples of ignominious failure. A group of players whose former employers included Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs were expelled from the elite and condemned to join Barnsley, Bournemouth, Doncaster and Yeovil.

And so, after a nightmare season, a rude awakening in the English Championship begins on Saturday for Queens Park Rangers. After the delusions of grandeur, the grim reality.

Yet Saturday's opponents, Sheffield Wednesday, are both a club with a more glorious history and one in a similar boat: if the Premier League represents the pinnacle for the Championship clubs, 19 of them have reached it only to be turned back.

Rangers return to the second tier with £48 million (Dh266.6m) of parachute payments, spread over four years, to cushion the landing. If it sounds an extravagant amount, the chances are that they will make another sizeable loss. Given their lavish spending, they may challenge the unofficial record for the biggest wage bill in the Championship, set by Newcastle United's 2009/10 team. QPR must hope they get value for money.

The prize Crystal Palace secured when they won May's play-off final against Watford had an estimated worth of £120m. Promotion has never been more profitable, a reason why the Championship is so competitive. The majority of clubs kick off believing a play-off place is at least feasible, and given the succession of outsiders who have gone up in recent seasons - Palace and Hull City last year, Norwich City in 2011, Blackpool in 2010, Burnley in 2009 - who can blame them?

Yet the burden of expectation rests squarely on QPR's shoulders. They have taken a familiar approach of trying to buy their way to success; after a £5m bid for Celtic's Gary Hooper failed, they made the Burnley striker Charlie Austin the division's biggest summer signing.

The other newcomers are Richard Dunne, Danny Simpson and Karl Henry, two of them former Championship champions, and Steve McClaren, a former England manager reduced to joining Harry Redknapp's coaching staff.

To some, it is a surprise that Redknapp, 65, remains. He spent the final few weeks of last season denigrating his players' ability and attitude.

It wasn't the obvious way to prepare for a promotion bid, even if it did help deflect some of the blame, but it does pose the question of how he motivates them now. Djibril Cisse and Jose Bosingwa have been paid off, Park Ji-sung loaned out and Christopher Samba sold, but while Julio Cesar and Loic Remy are expected to go, most of the underachievers remain.

Continuity is a more encouraging theme for others cast aside from the Premier League. Reading retain the majority of the team who won the Championship two seasons ago and have a manager, in Nigel Adkins, who was promoted that year with Southampton. The element of intrigue is provided by their new left-sided partnership, Wayne Bridge and Royston Drenthe, both accustomed to more glamorous surroundings.

In contrast, it is all change at Wigan Athletic. The FA Cup winners lost manager Roberto Martinez, top scorer Arouna Kone and eight other players, with more to follow.

Enter Owen Coyle, charged with rehabilitating his own managerial career by steering them back to the Premier League, despite the complications of a Europa League campaign. The former Norwich captain Grant Holt has joined to lead the attack.

Coyle has also made eight other additions to a radically remodelled team, with Scott Carson, in goal the day McClaren's time with England unravelled, the most eye-catching.

If the initial focus is on the teams relegated from the Premier League, it is worth remembering that their immediate predecessors fared poorly.

Last season, Bolton Wanderers began slowly, Blackburn Rovers flirted with relegation and Wolves went down for a second successive year. The Championship tends to reward solid, consistent teams with ample experience of the second tier.

They offer reasons to back Nottingham Forest, Leicester City, Brighton & Hove Albion and Bolton.

Whoever the favourites, however, there is no doubt who the underdogs are. Yeovil Town were a non-league club a decade ago and their average gate last season barely topped 4,000.

They represent the antithesis of QPR.

As the Football League celebrates the 125th anniversary of its foundation, it can do so in the knowledge that polar opposites exist in a division of evenly matched sides. It all adds to the intrigue.

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