It’s easier to get out of a Hulk Hogan headlock, than it is to get out of the Championship.
You can try tickling the Hulkster, stamping on his toes, or even pleading with him for mercy but in English football’s second tier it’s impossible to escape the grip of battle.
From August to May, no one gives an inch; no one rolls over. You just have to grit your teeth and hope that over an unrelenting 46-match slugfest, rival teams won’t have as much stamina, talent and bloody-mindedness as you do.
Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday. Scrap after scrap. Don’t let anyone convince you that promotion from the Championship isn’t always hard earned. So, who’ll prevail in 2014/15?
The honest answer is anyone’s guess in this league, but I do have a sneaky feeling we may see one of the promoted sides in the season opener this Friday - and it’s not Cardiff City.
BLACKBURN ROVERS - 17.00 to win the Championship
Yes, the mess that was Blackburn Rovers appears at last, to have been untangled.
The clueless Venky’s are still in charge, but since appointing the understated Gary Bowyer in May 2013, the befuddled chicken specialists have taken a back seat and let their manager get on with his job without too many nonsensical and unnecessary distractions.
Ending last season on a 12-game unbeaten run Rovers found a healthy groove too, and with a young, driven squad at his disposal Bowyer’s step-by-step approach appears to be gathering pace.
Although frustrated at their share of Premier League parachute payments being halved this year, they do have the consolation of a forward line with real firepower.
In Jordan Rhodes the side boasts a guaranteed 25-goal machine, and the Blue and Whites won’t solely be reliant on the Scot this season either. Alongside him, the giant Rudy Gestede has been on fire since joining in January - and the pair are now supported by Luke Varney and Chris Brown, as well as promising midfielders, Craig Conway and Tom Cairney.
Gary Bowyer reminds me of Nigel Pearson. He’s a football man who doesn’t attract headlines. Under him though, Blackburn play decent football, they’re well drilled, and importantly they’ve also given downbeat Rovers fans some hope to cling on to. Ewood Park’s a happier place to be, and as long as they keep their main men fit, I can see the smiles getting even wider this term.
NORWICH CITY - 11.00 to win the Championship
I also have a strong fancy for Norwich City. While I’m convinced Neil Adams was the easy rather than right option to lead the Canaries forward, the club has retained most of its star turns this summer – and that means they have the strongest squad in the division.
The spine is especially robust. From John Ruddy to Russell Martin to Jonny Howson to Gary Hooper there’s quality and experience from back to front, and around them I see major competition for places all over the pitch. They have a lot of players who didn’t let themselves down in the top flight.
Home form will be the key. Remarkably, the Canaries conceded fewer goals in front of their own fans than Everton, Spurs and Manchester United last season. So, in front of sell-out crowds at Carrow Road they should make it a fortress.
With money to spend, a large squad to pick from, and a manager that’s popular in the city, I think Norwich may indulge in a spot of bouncebackability this year.
WATFORD - 17.00 to win the Championship
Keep your eye on Watford too.
The fact that they’ve not yet sold Troy Deeney tells you all you need to know about their ambition. How many Championship clubs would reject a £7.5million bid for one of their players?
Whether he stays or not remains unknown, and given the steep interest he Hornets may at some point have to let their coveted front man go. However, grateful at the way Watford stood by him after a prison term and excited at the prospect of teaming up with Matej Vydra again, don’t be surprised if Deeney opts to stay at Vicarage Road until January to see how it goes.
When Gianfranco Zola prematurely gave up the ghost at Watford, I feared for them but Italian boss Beppe Sannino has settled the ship nicely. While his group is still a League of Nations (there are players of 15 different nationalities in the squad) Sannino hasn’t ignored the local market. New boys Heurelho Gomes, Gabriel Tamas, Lloyd Dyer and Craig Cathcart are all players of pedigree with experience of English football, and their signings make sense.
When Crystal Palace went up in 2013 it should have been Watford, yet player for player I think the current side is better than the one who froze in that play-off final. Providing they can develop a more solid defence I believe they have a realistic shot at promotion.
So, those are my three fancies.
If I closed my eyes and stuck three pins in a list of the 24 contenders I’d likely come up with a forecast that was just as easy to argue for and against; it’s that type of division.
All we do know with certainty is that whoever makes it into the 2015/16 Premier League will have worked damn hard for it. Who’s your money on? Bet now