By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Chelsea great Frank Lampard could hardly have chosen a tougher entry route into a managerial career he hopes will one day rival his playing days -- the English Championship.
Lampard will take charge of Derby County for the first time in a competitive game on Friday when his side travel to Reading -- the first of 526 matches involving 24 clubs in England's second tier.
Many of them, including Derby, will harbour genuine hopes of returning to the promised land of the Premier League.
With only two automatic promotion places on offer and another escape route offered through a four-team playoff, the Championship has become one of the most gruelling and unpredictable leagues in Europe.
It truly is a survival of the fittest.
Lampard, who signed a three-year contract in May having ended his illustrious playing career with New York City, will have his work cut out.
Derby finished sixth last season under Gary Rowett, falling in the playoff semi-finals to Fulham.
Achieving a similar position would be an impressive achievement for Chelsea's all-time record goalscorer.
Not only will Derby have to contend with the three clubs relegated from the Premier League with lucrative parachute payments -- Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City -- there are a host of other clubs like local rivals Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Leeds United and Aston Villa all desperate to get back to where they feel they belong.
"I am under no illusions, I know I will be judged on results, style of play," the 40-year-old Lampard told Sky Sports. "With 46 games in 40 weeks, the judgement will come in thick and fast."
It is 10 years since former English champions Derby were in the Premier League -- one of the reasons Lampard said he was persuaded to take the job.
"It was sold to me, and it wasn't a hard sell because of the size of the club," he said.
"I know that it has been 10 years outside of the Premier League, but when I actually first drove to Derby I was struck by the passion and intensity of the fan-base in this city, what it means to every fan here.
"Of course promotion is the target, every club in the Championship has the same target. But we will go step-by-step. We want to maximise everything out of the team."
Lampard will soon discover the intense rivalry with Nottingham Forest who have not been in the top flight since 1999 but who are being tipped as promotion favourites this season.
Forest, bankrolled by Greek shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis, have spent 25 million pounds on players in the close season including midfielder Joao Carvalho and winger Diogo Goncalves, both signed from Benfica.
Stoke, now managed by Rowett, signalled their intention make an immediate return to the top flight by signing Tom Ince from Huddersfield Town for 12 million pounds after snapping up Ireland international James McClean from West Brom.
Whatever lies in store for Derby, Lampard will receive a priceless managerial education as he vies with the likes of vastly-experienced bosses such as Middlesbrough's Tony Pulis, Villa's Steve Bruce, Steve McLaren at Queens Park Rangers and Marcelo Bielsa, who is the latest to try and revive Leeds United.
"It is imprudent to promise something that you can't be totally certain of," former Argentina national coach Bielsa said when taking over at Leeds in June. "But at the same time it would be impossible not to be dreaming about taking Leeds back to the Premier League."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)