THE football pre-season might seem shorter every year, but for the 2,000 brave souls making the trip to Ashton Gate this afternoon, it couldn't return soon enough.

Once again, the contingent following Ipswich Town is an impressive tally, made more so by the fact many would have rised and shined at 5am.

This will virtually be repeated every other week with the club always boasting fine travelling support - and one must hope this is repeated at Portman Road also.

Much will depend on how Ipswich start the season. I had the pleasure of interviewing a number of Town's title-winning heroes who won the old Division Two 20 years ago this season (see today's EADT and Evening Star for the full anniversary feature).

The likes of Kiwomya and Stockwell recalled how they started that victorious season in front of less than 10,000 fans at home. By the time John Lyall's men were parading the championship trophy around FPR, that number had trebled.

So win football matches and the fans will return. Simple really. Well no, not this season, not in the Championship.

The second tier of English football is surely the most competitive in the country. Throw in two ex-England managers and another who has perenially been linked as well as one boss who won the Championship just two years ago, to name but a few, and the challenge facing Paul Jewell is clear.

The gaffer himself said that any one of 15 teams is eyeing a play-off spot and that is probably being conservative.

There is abundance of good , hard-to-beat sides fighting it out for promotion to the Premier League. But as Hull and Blackpool showed last night, they might be solid, but they are not all spectacular (bar Gary Taylor-Fletcher's fantastic volley of course).

On any given day, any of these play-off hopefuls sides are beatable. Sadly, the same can very much be said about our Town.

The exception, in my humble opinion, is Leicester City and West Ham.

The race for the play-offs, I predict, will be the toughest one ever. But the battle for automatic promotion could be over before a ball is kicked. We all know money talks in football and nowhere has it been more louder than the King Power Stadium.

Leicester have bought big, in terms of finance and number, and they have bought well. Don't give me this talk that they might not gel. Sven has gone out and bought players who know this division inside our and I would be staggered if they don't dominate the division akin to Newcastle two years ago.

West Ham should follow suit if they can keep the majority of the side who should start against Cardiff tomorrow. But that remains an if.

As for our beloved Blues, Paul Jewell has carefully assembled a squad capable of challenging. He has addressed many of the key problems and I still expect three or four new signings, permanent or otherwise, before the Championship loan market shuts in the middle of September.

But a good start is vital, not just for promotion aspirations but to reward the dedicated Blue Army, today and for the rest of the season.

My Championship predictions:

Winners - Leicester City

Runners-up - West Ham

Play-offs - Ipswich Town, Cardiff City, Blackpool, Nottingham Forest

Relegated - Coventry City, Peterborough, Doncaster Rovers