London: John Terry has pledged to lead Aston Villa back into the Premier League as the Championship season kicks off with a host of big-spending clubs gearing up for a frenzied promotion battle.
After winning 15 major honours in 22 years with Chelsea, Terry had to search for a new club following his release at the end of last season and rejected interest from several Premier League clubs to sign a 60,000-pound-per-week (Dh289,342) deal with Villa.
Terry’s presence in the second tier will keep Villa in the spotlight while Steve Bruce’s side battle to return to the top-flight after a two-year absence.
But the former England star knows he won’t have an easy ride as he plays his first matches outside the Premier League since a brief loan spell at Nottingham Forest in 2000.
Given Villa’s abject failures in recent years and the cut-throat nature of the Championship, the 36-year-old believes winning promotion at a club that finished 18 points adrift of the play-offs last season would rank among the finest achievements of his glittering career.
“It would be really special, it would be up there for me. To step out of my comfort zone was a big decision,” Terry said.
“It’s probably one of the most unpredictable leagues within world football. “We have to go up as champions, if not automatically.
“Does that bring more pressure on you? Probably. Do we like that as a group? Yeah. With the history of this club, it deserves to be back in the Premier League.”
All three teams relegated from the Premier League have undergone painful changes as they try to bounce back at the first attempt.
Garry Monk’s 30-million-pound investment on Jonny Howson, Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga has convinced the bookmakers Middlesbrough are promotion favourites in their new manager’s first season after leaving Leeds.
In contrast, Sunderland are still mired in recriminations, as Darron Gibson proved when the former Manchester United midfielder was filmed in a bar making a foul-mouthed rant about his teammates following a friendly thrashing against Celtic last weekend.
That blow to squad morale was the last thing new Sunderland boss Simon Grayson needed ahead of what may be a trying year following the departures of star striker Jermain Defoe and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
Hull are also under new management, with Russian Leonid Slutsky the fascinating choice to replace Marco Silva following the Portuguese coach’s move to Watford.
Slutsky has been busy in the transfer market, signing Ola Aina, Fraizer Campbell and Michael Hector to off-set the sales of Harry Maguire, Tom Huddlestone and Andy Robertson.
“We now have a core and that is very important,” said Slutsky, who led CSKA Moscow to the Champions League quarter-finals in 2010 and also had a spell in charge of Russia.
It is a testament to the Championship’s pulling power that Slutsky isn’t the only one with Champions League credentials.
Wolves, whose new boss Nuno Espirito Santo won the Champions League under Jose Mourinho at Porto in 2004, have spent a Championship record 15.8 million pounds on Porto midfielder Ruben Neves and also signed Atletico Madrid’s Diogo Jota on a season-long loan.
Harry Redknapp, who managed Tottenham in Europe’s elite club competition, saved Birmingham from relegation last term and believes promotion is a realistic target.
“We’re going to have a go,” he said. “The aim has to be the top six for the season to be a success.”
Fixtures (Kick-offs 6pm UAE time unless stated):
Nottingham Forest v Millwall 10.45pm , Sunderland v Derby 10.45pm
Aston Villa v Hull 8.30pm, Bristol City v Barnsley, Burton v Cardiff, Fulham v Norwich, Ipswich v Birmingham, Preston v Sheffield Wednesday, QPR v Reading, Sheffield Utd v Brentford, Wolves v Middlesbrough
Bolton v Leeds 7.30pm