Second-tier teams scramble for share of Premier League riches
LONDON (Reuters) - The annual scramble for promotion to the Premier League begins on Friday after a summer of frenetic hiring and firing by the 24 teams in England's second-tier Championship.
Each is intent on securing the golden ticket of entry into the world's most lucrative league with almost 100 million pounds ($132.10 million) on offer to even the team that finishes bottom.
Sunderland banked that check last season when they lost their top-flight status after 10 years. The Black Cats are one of seven Championship teams under new management, with Simon Grayson handed the dubious task of seeking instant success in a job with an average lifespan of less than a year.
Former Russia national manager Leonid Slutsky is the most high-profile new manager at another relegated club, Hull City, while Portugal's Nuno Espírito Santo has swapped Porto for one of England's most famous old names, Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Both have shown the importance of football networking, with Slutsky using his friendship with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to negotiate the loan of two of the Blues' most promising young players, Ola Aina and Michael Hector, while Santo has brought in Ruben Neves for a club-record 15.8 million pounds and loan signing Willy Boly from his former club.
Wolves were the only one of the division's 24 teams to make a profit in 2015-16, the last season when accounts are available. But their summer dealings suggest their Chinese owners Fosun International are prepared to plunge into the red to secure promotion after five years out of the top flight.
Relegated Middlesbrough have spent even more aggressively, with new manager Garry Monk lavishing 30 million pounds on three new strikers - Britt Assombalonga, Martin Braithwaite and Ashley Fletcher - plus 10 million more on sundry others.
Boro are favourites to make a quick return to the Premier League, along with former European Cup holders Aston Villa under new captain John Terry.
"Forget Lukaku going to Manchester United, Villa signing John Terry on a free is the deal of the summer," said their former striker Dean Saunders, now a TV pundit.
Villa are banking on experience with Terry, a five-time Premier League winner with Chelsea who will partner the much travelled Chris Samba in defence.
"It's an exciting new chapter for me," Terry told reporters on Tuesday. "In front of 45,000 here every week is what I want to be doing and competing at the very top. Our ambition is to get up."
Two other signings, Ahmed Elmohamady and Glenn Whelan, have both won promotion to the top flight, as has manager Steve Bruce - a record four times.
Other big-name teams with impeccable top-flight credentials include double European Cup holders Nottingham Forest, traditional powerhouse Leeds United, who changed both manager and owner over the summer, and two-time top-tier champions Derby County.
But last season's success of Huddersfield, who won promotion under rookie German manager David Wagner via the play-offs, suggests no team should be ruled out. Norwich City have followed the Terriers' example in appointing a former Borussia Dortmund II coach, Daniel Farke, as their first foreign manager, while another promotion favourite Fulham have done well to hang on to their promising youngsters like Ryan Sessegnon.
Of the outsiders, Sheffield United will carry the momentum of last season's League One title win into the division, where they will face neighbours Wednesday in the league for the first time in five years.
Lesser-known Brentford provide an intriguing model of how to succeed on the cheap. The west London side have a wealthy backer in Matthew Benham, who as a professional gambler knows how to buy players cheap and sell at inflated prices - perhaps the perfect profile for success in a league where so many are betting on better futures.
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(Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Hugh Lawson)