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LFW Season Preview 08/09 - Promotion Pushers
LFW Season Preview 08/09 - Promotion Pushers
Monday, 30th Jun 2008 22:26

The likes of Birmingham City, Ipswich Town and Wolves you'd expect to see here but to tell you the truth we only really agree on QPR and Sheffield United and had a hard time finding six or seven teams we did think would do well.

Birmingham City
Last season – 19th in the Premiership and relegated: One of the odd things about Birmingham’s descent from the Premiership last season was the sense of inevitability about it from early on. Although the side spent most of the season either outside the drop zone or looking closest of the bottom three to safety, there was a continually strong feeling that, behind the scenes, it was all going tits up. Weird struggles in the boardroom, with the owners enthusiastically embracing the concept of doing one with a bundle of used fivers in their back pockets and then finding there weren’t any fivers, an uninspiring manager change (you’ve got to be underperforming if the previous bloke goes to Wigan and outshines you), and rumours of player discord all contributed to a feeling that the Mighty Blues were on their way to the Championship. And now here they are, with what would look like a fantastic squad if only they weren’t all desperately heading for the door.

Bookies’ prediction: 1st – Shortest odds to win the league 5/1 (Ladbrokes), longest 13/2 (Betfred)

The manager: Somebody really should have told Alex McLeish that good reputations can be spoiled very easily by managing bad Premiership clubs, but he had to have his taste of the big time. McLeish did his managerial apprenticeship in Scotland, after playing centre back for Aberdeen for three centuries. His reputation waxed as he led Rangers, the poorer Glasgow ones, to two McMickey Mouse championships and five Scottish cup wins in five seasons. He then took on the Scotland job and came within a gnat’s chuff of winning a place in the Euro-2008 finals, via a basic tactic of defending like mad and hoping for a break away. This worked against France, who they beat 1-0 in Paris but was never going to cut it against the masters of the tactic and Italy duly knocked them out.

McLeish’s arrival at St Andrews in November 2007, along with his assistant Roy Aitken and Andy Watson, was followed by a win at Spurs but things didn’t look good and McLeish bought three players to strengthen the squad in January. James McFadden’s arrival from Everton promised goals but, while spectacular, there weren’t many of them. Argentinean Mauro Zarate arrived on loan, but wasn’t really used until March, after which he looked very good at times.

McLeish is still there at the start of this season, and has received the chairman’s backing, but you have to wonder if he realised what might happen when he jacked in Scotland because he’d always wanted to try his hand in the Prem. The Championship might suit him in some respects, but he’d better do well if he is to either survive the season or discover the escape hatch to another job.
Survival chances: 4/10

The squad: To say this squad looks reluctant to be with us is to understate things. Two players, Frank Quedrue and Olivier Kapo, didn’t even turn up for the first day’s pre-season training, earning themselves a rap on the knuckles from McLeish and both have since left. Striker James McFadden appears almost Ronaldo-esque in his efforts not to notice the door marked exit and winger Sebastian Larsson is being courted by Premiership clubs. If they reach the end of August with the Mighty Blues it’ll be a miracle. McLeish says he has signings in mind and has already signed 34-year old striker Kevin Phillips on a free from West Brom. Phillips won promotion last season and showed no sign that age is finally catching up with him. He has the natural gifts and striker’s instinct to score 20-plus a season and doesn’t necessarily need the service.

It’s always a bit daunting to look at a squad just down from the Prem, because most of us will have spent the previous year listening to some prat on Sky hyping them all up because they play in the greatest league in the world. Even so, there are some quality names in there and they’ll be worth watching when Rangers play them in October. Liam Ridgewell has a touch of class about him and seemed destined for great things until Martin O’Neill packed his bags for him a year ago. He is a mobile defender who likes to play the ball, which might not mean that he’s best-prepared for the Ben Burgess kicking him in the arse moment but he should have enough in him to do well.

In the midfield, Stuart Parnaby, Lee Carsley, Damian Johnson are all decent players at this level, if leaning a little on the perspiration instead of inspiration side. Where Birmingham may lack badly next season, especially if last season’s player of the year Larsson goes, is in a bit of guile in the middle. Up front, Cameron Jerome offers his brand of quick, thick and big, alongside Phillips. Worryingly for Mighty Blues fans McLeish has also picked up Charlton’s Marcus Bent – perhaps that manager’s mark should be 3/10.
Likely Star Player: Kevin Phillips (striker)

Ins and Outs: Winger Daniel de Ridder (Wigan, free) strikers Olivier Kapo (Wigan, £3.5m) and Mikael Forssel (Hannover, free) are the departures so far. Franck Quecrue, Artur Krysiak, Krystian Pearce and Richard Kingson have all been released. Kevin Phillips (West Brom, free), Marcus Bent (Charlton, £1m), Lee Carsley (Everton, free) and midfielder Kemy Agustien (Alkmaar, loan) are the new faces but they’re in competition with our good selves for Palace midfielder Ben Watson.

Head-to-Head: Birmingham did the double over us last time we played, in 2006/7, when we were pretty awful and they were on their way up. That’s better than the previous season we played, in 2000/01, when the two sides served up a couple of 0-0 draws. We travel to St Andrews first this season, on October 4 in a lunch time Sky match, and then end the month by hosting them on Tuesday October 28th – pity that such attractive fixtures will not take place at 3pm on a Saturday.
QPR 0 Birmingham 2
Birmingham 2 QPR 1

Prediction: Birmingham may be second favourites but they don’t look that convincing to me. If anything they look made for being a classic Prem side that comes down not really believing that they belong where they find themselves and who will become completely demoralised once they get turned over by somebody like Donny or Swansea on a cold Tuesday night. In other words, a bright start, an awful run after about nine games and then, with the new manager and a couple of sensible signings on board in January, a recovery.
Verdict: Top half, may just recover enough to make the play-offs
- DP

Bristol City
Last season – 4th We got this one completely wrong last season, predicting a struggle against relegation. With Rangers fans disappointed at only getting a point there in the first game it was pretty clear we weren’t alone, but Gary Johnson’s side then showed what they were capable of. City spent almost the whole season fighting for an automatic promotion place, ending up falling away to fourth late on. That disappointment was followed by a brilliant play-off win over Palarse and then a poor performance at Wembley, which saw them fail to make it past Hull City. With, for me, the stand-out performer of the last campaign, Nick Carle, going to Palarse in the close season, are we looking at a nasty combination of post play-offs hangover and second season syndrome this time round?

Bookies’ prediction – 11th (16th last season) – Best odds to win the league 18-1 (Bet365), worst 28-1 (WilliamHill)

The manager: This campaign will be an interesting test for Gary Johnson, because he’s enjoyed an almost unblemished record of achievement. Last season was the best so far for him, taking his newly promoted side almost to the Premiership, to the obviously astonished delight of Robins fans. This time around he hasn’t been able to do much to add to his side yet, but expectations will be high, both among the fans and at board level. A clever manager with a knack for getting teams to work hard as well as play for each other, Johnson managed Yeovil, once the beloved of our Alec Stock, into the League in 2000/01 and then up into League 1 in 2005. He then moved to Ashton Gate and brought the Robins up to their current position in only a couple of season, after their years of under-achievement.

Johnson’s done everything now except run a Premiership team. In his heart of hearts I’d guess even he was surprised by how well things went for him in 2007/8 and it’ll be interesting to see if he still has the stomach for a lesser season this time around. One thing that must be certain is that chairmen elsewhere will now be keeping an eye on him, although for him to leave his beloved West Country will probably take a substantial step up. He’ll need some cosseting this season, if he’s not to start thinking of moving on.
Survival Chances: 9/10

The squad: Johnson smashed the club’s record signing fee when he paid Crewe £2.25m for striker Nicky Maynard last week. What that means for Lee Trundle, last year’s £1m player, who knows. Johnson has also strengthened his midfield with the £300k signing of Ipswich midfielder Gavin Williams. Williams is one of those playmaker types who never seems to set the world alight but £300k seems a pretty cheap price for someone who will be a decent squad player.

Amongst those that shone last season Michael McIndoe, a tricky winger, is still there, as is keeper Adrian Basso, who I thought was class in 2007/8. Blackburn are reportedly sniffing around right back Bradley Orr, and he would be a loss to the Robins, but otherwise the squad should hold together. No doubt Dele Adebola will be unleashed at least twice a season, when he scores his obligatory goal against Rangers.

Definitely leaving are Nick Carle, a classy Australian midfielder who I thought was the pick of the Brizzle players whenever I saw him. He is now at Palarse. Also, shambling ogre Enoch Showunmi will be plying his trade as a centre forward at Leeds from now on, having completed last season on loan at Wednesday.

Likely Star Player:
Nicky Maynard – Striker

Ins and outs: Gavin Williams (Ipswich, £300k), and Nicky Maynard (Crewe, £2.25m) are the additions so far but City pulled out of a deal to sign Michael Mifsud from Coventry and Emeb Meteab both at the eleventh hour. Nick Carle (Palace, £1.2m), Darren Byfield (Doncaster, free) and Enoch Showumni (Leeds, free) are the big name departures and Martin Slocombe was released at the end of the season.

Head-to-Head: We did alright against Brizzle last season. We were disappointed with the first day’s 2-2, but we had to equalise twice as first Dexter cancelled out Johnson’s strike just after the half hour and then Stewpeas got us a point just after they’d scored in injury time. At home, in February, we were majestic, sweeping them aside 3-0 thanks to some wonderful interplay between Vine, Buzz and Dave. Dave scored twice and the Wizard of Rs once.
Bristol City 2 QPR 2
QPR 3 Bristol City 0

Prediction: Johnson will have his boys working just as hard from this August as he did last year, but I can’t help thinking it’ll be a bit tougher this time. The rest of the Championship will know what they’re up against and they’ll be ready. In addition, no matter how well they train in pre-season, the only way we’ll know how the players will get over the little lapses of confidence that can follow a disappointment like the play-off final is when they play and there should be at least some hangovers.
Verdict: Mid-Table, flirting with the play-offs
- DP

Crystal Palace
Last season –5th Palace lost in the play off semi final against Bristol City at Ashton Gate and were unfortunate to do so after missing a penalty that would have taken them through. That they made it to the end of season knock out was a massive surprise because when QPR comprehensively outplayed them at Selhurst Park in October both the Eagles and Rangers were deeply entrenched in a relegation battle and it was the Hoops that looked the team more likely to go shooting off up the table. That draw was Palace’s eighth game without a win and Neil Warnock appeared to have his work cut out keeping them in the league, never mind pushing for the play offs, after replacing Peter Taylor. They won at Colchester the following week though, and then against Preston, and then at Loftus Road, and they just kept on winning. Sheff Wed, Plymouth, Coventry, Sheff Utd, Wolves and Bristol City were all beaten over the Christmas period and in the end, with four wins from their last five games and only one defeat in their final 12 matches Palace were many people’s favourites for the play offs and it was a surprise not to see them at least in the final. Warnock’s reputation restored after a disappointing end to his time with Sheff Utd, and Palace back on everybody’s radar with a multitude of quality young players coming through the ranks.

Bookies’ prediction: 6th (last season 11th) shortest odds to win the league 10/1 (StanJames) longest 14/1 (Skybet)

The manager: Neil Warnock worked so hard for so long to get Sheffield United into the Premiership but ultimately it was down to him more than anybody else that they blew a terrific chance to stay in the top flight. Comfortably in mid-table at the turn of the year they suffered a dramatic collapse in form and were relegated on the final day of the season after a home defeat against Wigan. The Blades bleated, with some justification, about West Ham’s conduct and pathetic let off but at the end of the day they hadn’t given a toss about West Ham until the last ten days of the season when it occurred to them that they might be the ones to suffer the most and had Warnock spent more time on his team than blaming Bentiz and Ferguson for selections they made against United’ rivals then they may have stood a better chance. Two weeks before the end of the season United went to an out of form Aston Villa side that had nothing to play for and surrendered meekly to a 3-0 defeat with Warnock steadfastly sticking with a negative one up front formation. His reputation built up over many years with Plymouth, Notts County, Bury and United took a hefty battering and it needed his friend Simon Jordan (can you imagine? Not a pair you’d want to share a table with on a long train journey) to get him back into the game at Crystal Palace. It seemed like a thankless task with Peter Taylor leaving behind a poor team playing poor football but after four defeats to start Warnock quickly identified that Palace’s strength lay in the academy set up and over the coming months, as Palace showed championship winning form to make the play offs, the likes of John Bostcok, Sean Scannell, Victor Moses, Lee Hills, Ben Watson and Tom Soares came to the fore. By the time they were surprisingly beaten in the play offs b Bristol City they were the most attractive side in the division and Warnock’s reputation was restored. Second season syndrome beckons after a number of key departures but Warnock should stand a better chance than most of his predecessors of surviving Jordan’s trigger finger. Survival chances: 8/10 – never before have we given such a high rating to one of Jordan’s managers!

The squad: There’s been some key departures from Palace this summer and the squad looks to be lacking in several key areas. Chief among Warnock’s concerns must be the strike force with top scorer Clinton Morrison turning a new deal down seemingly with the intention of signing for QPR only to end up on trial at Coventry trying to earn a deal. He may yet return but I can’t see it and that leaves only Dougie Freedman, who spent the end of last season on loan with Leeds, Shefki Kuqi and James Scowcroft for Warnock to pick from up front. As a trio it’s hardly inspiring – age, waist line and combined weight all far in excess of the amount of goals they’re likely to contribute at this level, that’s if any of the three of them can actually get fit to play 20 games next season.

Two star performers from the midfield last season are also on their way with John Bostock joining Spurs for a scandously, farcically low fee set by a league tribunal/kangaroo court and Ben Watson turning down an extension to his contract and heading for Birmingham/QPR/Forest. These are massive losses to palace but they still have Moses on the wing who had me salivating whenever I saw him last season and in the middle the new look partnership of Neil Danns (ex Colchester and Birmingham) and Nick Carle (Bristol City’s best player last season) has an attractive and tough look about it. Warnock may yet have been smarter than we give him credit for.

Likewise at the back where although the departure of the division’s outstanding centre half last season Mark Hudson looks like a blow he’s never played like that before and is unlikely to do so again any time soon and Patrick McCarthy doesn’t look too bad a replacement although hardly inspiring. Goals, or the lack of them, are bound to be the big issue though – Warnock has been sniffing around Michael Mifsud and they certainly need somebody. Anybody. There may yet be more gems lurking in their academy of course – if QPR need any encouragement to get such a set up back at Harlington Palace’s success with kids last season should be a firm kick in that direction.
Likely Star Player: Victor Moses, tricky, pacey and exciting winger

Ins and Outs: Outstanding shot stopper Daryl Flahavan (Southend, free) is joined through the entrance by Nick Carle (Bristol City, £1m) defender Johannes Ertl (Austria Vienna, undisclosed) defender Patrick McCarthy (Charlton, undisclosed) and defender Jose Fonte who made his loan from Benfica permanent this summer. Going out are Mark Hudson (Charlton, free), Jeff Hughes (Bristol Rovers, free) Lewwis Spence (Wycombe, free), John Bostock (Tottenham, ridiculous £700k), Mark Kennedy (Cardiff, free) and Tony Crag (Millwall, undisclosed). Teddy Sheringham’s son Charlie was one of four players released.

Head-to-Head: Rangers absolutely annihilated Palace at Selhurst Park. It was almost embarrassing at times, like a cat with a mouse, but after spending the second half running through on the goal and missing the inevitable Clinton Morrison goal two minutes from time nicked a point for the home side and they could even have won in stoppage time. As I infamously said in the match report, linked below, these teams were clearly heading in opposite directions. I was right, but not in the way I intended. By the time Palace came to Loftus Road a month later the Warnock revival was in full swing and the 2-1 scoreline flattered the losing side.
Palace 1 QPR 1
QPR 1 Palace 2

Prediction: I’m wary of writing off Palace after doing so last year after our first meeting and being made to look stupid. They have some outstanding young players at Selhurst Park and a wily, experienced manager to guide them but as I sit here in August, with three weeks of transfer window still to go, the players leaving out weigh those coming in both in quality and quantity and they need a goalscorer desperately. A 3-2 pre-season defeat at Dagenham doesn’t bode well.
Verdict: Further additions required but right them off at your peril

Ipswich Town
Last season – 8th Like Jim Magilton chasing a transfer target Ipswich spent last season telling everybody they were aiming for the play offs, flirting with the top six, threatening every now and again to seal a spot, and ultimately missed out to more ruthless clubs and experienced managers. They were consistently good to watch as always but despite home form worthy of league champions (15 wins and seven draws from 23 games) it was long after Christmas when they finally wn away for the first time, at Sheffield Wednesday, and they only managed three road successes all season in the end. That meant that they were essentially winning one weekend then losing the following and that made it difficult to build the sort of run necessary to push on for the top six. With the players and facilities at their disposal missing the top six altogether could well be seen as an underachievement but Magilton is given plenty of leeway in Suffolk by fans who recognise the substantial rebuilding job he’s done since taking from Joe Royle. Patience will wear thin if they don’t do better this season.

Bookies’ prediction: 8th (last season 14th) shortest odds to win league 12/1 (VictorChandler) longest 16/1 (various)

The manager: Jim Magilton was an unlikely, and cynics would suggest very cheap, option as manager when he got the job following Joe Royle’s departure two summers ago. His former team mates describe him as unlikely managerial material but he’s impressed many with the job he’s done at Portman Road so far – building an exciting, young side our of the wreckage that Joe Royle left behind following several failed tilts at promotion. Magilton was a stylish central midfielder in his day playing for Ipswich and Southampton with reasonable success before taking up the management reigns alongside the more experienced presence of coach Brian Klug – amazing how the Ipswich and Grimsby fans pronounce that name differently. For me Magilton has done a very sound job at Ipswich but it’s a bit of an acid test this season. Their rate of progress under him suggests a play off campaign is upon them and looking at the squad of players available that’s the least they should expect. They must sort out their away form from last season and Magilton would do well to learn to keep his mouth shut a bit more when it comes to transfer deals – Ipswich have been linked with the thick end of 50 players in the last 12 months and Magilton has had something to say about just about all of them. A six month long chase of David Norris proved successful in the end but an equally protracted pursuit of David Nugent is yet to bear fruit – perhaps less careless talk and more cards close to his chest may prove a more successful approach in future. Likely to last the season, but expect the natives to be restless this time next year if they don’t make the six.
Survival chances: 7/10

The squad:Ipswich had a reasonable side to start with this summer and while the loss of reserve keeper Nick Colgan, boo boy target Gary Roberts, midfielder Gavin Williams and ageing Sylvain Legwinski may not seem like the end of the world these departures do start to add up. The biggest loss for me is experienced centre half and captain Jason De Vos – he was still their outstanding defender when we played them last season and with Alex “my Dad played for Man Utd so I must be good” Bruce the other centre back at Portman Road there’s a massive amount of pressure on new boy Gareth McAuley. He’s a good signing I think but as far as I’m concerned any defence with Bruce involved in it is likely to take on water under minimal pressure.

Kevin Lisbie once made me look very stupid by scoring a hat trick against Liverpool for Charlton shortly after I’d declared him a “short arsed waste of space” and despite his impressive haul of goals in a poor Colchester side last season I’m still not a fan but I’m obviously wrong – if he bags 17 again this season as he did last that will look a shrewd signing. Another player I’ve been proved wrong about is Jon Walters who, despite having a backside as big as my car, was one of the league’s outstanding players last season and has attracted premiership interest this summer – an injury at the back end of the campaign and Ipswich’s keenness to keep him should make sure he starts the season with them.

They look short of midfield options although Norris and Sumulikowski are worth looking out for – as are young forwards Danny Haynes, all pace and flair, and Jordan Rhodes, a goal scoring machine at youth and reserve level and only a Matt Connolly fist away from opening his senior account against QPR last season. After his career stagnated a move back to Ipswich could be just what Richard Wright needs and even if he doesn’t rediscover his previous Portman Road form the Town fans can console themselves with the fact that he’s not Stephen Bywater.
Likely Star Player: Jon Walters (attacker) if he stays fit and stays with Ipswich he’s the man to watch.

Ins and Outs More leaving than arriving. Nick Colgan (Sunderland, free), Gary Roberts (Huddersfield, free), Gavin Williams (Bristol City, £300k) Jason De Vos (retired), Sito Castro (released) and Sylvain Legwinski (released) have left. Gareth McAuley (Leicester, £1m), Kevin Lisbie (Colchester, free), Richard Wright (West Ham, free) and Dutch defender Pim Balkestein (Heerenveen, undisclosed) are the new arrivals although Ipswich continue to be linked with the world and his wife, most notable David Nugent.

Head-to-Head The mini revival with Mick Harford in caretaker charge saw QPR draw 1-1 with Ipswich at Loftus Road thanks to a well taken equaliser from Marc Nygaard at the Loft end – his last goal for the club. Sylvain Legwinski’s 25 yard opener was worth the entrance fee alone. At Portman Road QPR stood firm against heavy Ipswich pressure and were indebted to the woodwork, Lee Camp and some inept officiating after Matt Connolly punched a header from Rhodes out from behind the line to keep the score deadlocked. Points shared, Rangers fortunate on both occasions.
QPR 1 Ipswich 1
Ipswich 0 QPR 0

Prediction: I think Ipswich will make the top six, but they’ll need another signing or two to do it and their defence without De Vos is a massive worry – West Ham scored five at Portman Road earlier this week. Difficult to beat at home and unlikely to do as badly on the road again, expect the play off heartbreak specialists to be at it again in May 2009.
Verdict: Play offs but ultimately unsuccessful
- CW

Queens Park Rangers
Last season: 14th QPR were the last side in the country to register a win, waiting until October and a home match with Norwich City on Sky to do it. John Gregory had been sacked as manager by that point following a 5-1 defeat at West Brom and although Mick Harford impressed as caretaker with that win against the Canaries and a further success at Charlton the new mega rich board of Flavio Briatore, Bernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal went for former Siena and Udinese boss Luigi De Canio despite his lack of English skills. De Canio was said to be close to the sack after a lacklustre start to his time in W12 but a 2-0 midweek win at Burnley earned him a stay of execution and when seven new players were signed in January the team commenced a climb up the league that ended at 14th but could have been so much better had they not conceded a lead 15 times and six last second goals over the course of the season. Showed great potential with thumping wins against Stoke, Bristol City and Watford after Christmas.

Bookies’ prediction: 2nd (last season 22nd) shortest odds for the title 6/1 (Victor Chandler) longest 8/1 (Ladbrokes)

The manager:Iain Dowie certainly wasn’t everybody’s choice as manager when the much loved Luigi De Canio mysteriously left straight after the end of the season. Dowie was of course a player with the likes of Luton, West Ham and Palace before retiring to coach at QPR and then manage at Oldham. The team he built at Boundary Park made the play offs but was beaten in the semi final by QPR and Dowie moved on the season after to Crystal Palace. At Selhurst he did what Warnock did there this season, only went one better and won the play off final against West Ham. Only a final day draw at Charlton relegated Palace after they made a decent fist of the top flight but Dowie left in controversial circumstances and it’s all been down hill since then. His time with Charlton was a disaster and while he kept Coventry in the league and had them comfortably clear of the bottom three midway through last season he was sacked with question marks over his methods and yet another difference of opinions with a chairman. QPR represents something of a last chance for Dowie who will surely have to dip down the leagues to find his next job if this doesn’t go well – doubts over who is picking the signings and the team at QPR will no doubt persist through the season and the natives will be restless if QPR don’t start well and maintain that.
Survival chances: 5/10

The squad: QPR go into the campaign with an interesting mix of permanent English signings and foreign loan players – it’s virtually unrecognisable side from the one they started the season with this time last season and nobody, not even Iain Dowie, seems to know who will be starting on the opening day. After a protracted transfer Blackpool’s Kaspars Gorkss has been added to the back four to partner Fitz Hall who signed last January from Wigan and that gives the defence a solid look – 66 goals against last season needs addressing. The midfield has been flooded with a lot of tippy tappy foreign attacking midfielders of which Real Madrid’s Daniel Parejo and Genoa’s Emmanuel Ledesma look the pick. Martin Rowlands was player of the year last season and is a likely starter, as is returning hero Lee Cook who has returned from Fulham after an unsuccessful year in the Premiership. Up front QPR look very short of goals with Di Carmine failing to impress in pre-season and neither Blackstock nor Agyemang showing any kind of form or confidence in front of goal. A goal scorer must be a priority before the deadline.
Likely Star Player: Daniel Parejo (midfield) well he’s from Real Madrid isn’t he?

Ins and Outs: Radek Cerny (Spurs, free), Kaspars Gorkss (Blackpool, £250k plus two players), Peter Ramage (Newcastle, free), Emmanuel Ledesma (Genoa, loan), Matteo Alberti (Chievo, £300k), Daniel Parejo (Real Madrid, loan), Sam Di Carmine (Fiorentina, loan), Lee Cook (Fulham, loan) are the new signings. Jake Cole (Oxford, loan), Zesh Rehman (Blackpool, loan, part exchange), Daniel Nardiello (Blackpool, free, part exchange), Matt Pickens (released), Stefan Bailey (Grays, free) and very shortly Simon Walton (Plymouth, £700k) are the departures.

Prediction: Tough one – so many young and unproven players, many of them from abroad, mean that QPR could collapse altogether or win the league with 100 points and 100 goals. That’s me sitting on the fence there because I’m really scared about getting this wrong. In my heart of hearts I don’t think we have the goals in the team as it stands now to support the bookies odds, but I think there’s enough quality in our side to give us a really good shot at the top six.
Verdict: Play off push

Last season – 18th in the Premiership and relegated: Reading got a spectacular dose of second season syndrome after being everybody’s favourite giant killers in 2006/07. Steve Coppell, as he did with success in the first season, steadfastly refused to add to his team except on the odd occasion and when he did the signings struck me as not being good enough for the league. That transfer policy and the loss of Steve Sidwell to Chelsea without replacement proved to be too much for the Royals to cope with and they finished the season in turmoil – without a win or a goal in their last six matches and with players refusing to play for the reserves and generally behaving badly. They beat Derby 4-0 on the final day although that hardly counts as a match and it was all too late by then anyway. Coppell paid the price for poor transfer activity and a lack of decisive action in the second half of last season when things were so obviously falling apart around his ears. Still they might have the good grace to field a proper starting eleven in cup competitions now they’re back with us mere mortals.

Bookies’ prediction: 3rd, longest odds for the title 9/1 (Ladbrokes), shortest odds 15/2 (Bet365)

The manager:Steve Coppell continues to tread a familiar path from his time at Crystal Palace – promotion to the Premiership and relegation straight back again. He is of course the man who famously walked out o Man City after ten minutes because of the stress of the job and his dour expressions and attitude make you wonder just how on earth he inspires anybody to do anything other than kill themselves. Still he’s shown with Palace, Brentford, Brighton and Reading that he’s capable of building a very good team outside the Premier League and getting it promoted. It’s probably for that reason that he’s still in a job this summer but with plenty of money sloshing about and again no real transfer activity you could be forgiven for thinking he’s losing interest or resigned to his fate. Rumours abound that he’ll be gone after ten games if things don’t improve for the Royals.Survival chances: 4/10

The squad: For the third season in a row Reading are pretty much going with what they finished with last season, although just like last summer they’re minus a key player. In 2007 Steve Sidwell went to Chelsea, this year Dave Kitson has gone to Stoke and while his loss will be keenly felt in the Reading attack the £5.5m they robbed Stoke of for his services looks a magnificent piece of business on paper. They just don’t seem to want to spend it though do they? No additions of any real meaning so far and just the two departures, Kitson and reserve keeper Graham Stack. That means you’ll probably know all the Reading threats pretty well – Kevin Doyle was hot property this time last year but didn’t do so well last time out, Shane Long is a similar player from a similar part of the world. In midfield Steve Hunt and James Harper are attracting interest from elsewhere but will be decent assets if they stay. Bobby Convey is a winger I quite like. At the back lumbering hulk Michael Duberry is always good for a goal at the wrong end while Andre Bikey will provide a physical presence at both ends of the pitch if Reading manage to hold onto him. Marcus Hahnemann is capable of being the division’s top keeper.
Likely Star Player: Marcus Hahnemann (keeper)

Ins and Outs Nobody in yet, Dave Kitson (Stoke, £5.5m) and Graham Stack (Plymouth, free) have left. John Oster, John Halls, Aaron Brown, Ulises De la Cruz and Glen Little were all released and looking at Reading’s squad a couple of them could probably have come in quite handy.

Head-to-Head: No game last season of course and Reading beat QPR twice in the promotion season two years previously. A late header from Ivar Ingimarsson sealed a 2-1 win at Loftus Road and a very generous late penalty gave Graeme Murty the chance to break his duck for the Royals and win that one by the same scoreline. QPR are without a win against Reading in eight attempts stretching back to 1997 and our first chance to rectify that we’ll be screened live by Sky in October.
QPR 1 Reading 2
Reading 2 QPR 1

Prediction: I think there’s a lot of problems at Reading. They’d all fallen out with each other by the end of last season and Steve Coppell looked like a man that had given up by the end. Their form was very poor at the end of last season and that will be hard to turn around with no new arrivals yet. They do have some quality players, and money in the bank, which should mean a half decent season but they’re not one of my six at the moment and I think they’ll have a different manager this time next year.
Verdict: Upper mid table
- CW

Sheff Utd
Last season – 9th Never before has LFW ever got anything quite so spot on as our assessment of Sheff Utd before the start last season. They had the players, the crowds, the money and the set up to walk away with the title. But they had Bryan Robson and were consequently screwed. Incredibly they were actually looking over their shoulders halfway through the season and the only surprise in the end was the length of time it took the board to swallow their pride and sack the useless, sour faced, miserable, beer swilling, clueless oaf and get somebody in who knew what they were doing. Fans were running onto the pitch to throw shirts at “Captain Marvel” as early as October and the club with one of the top three squads in the league was 16th and just seven points off the drop zone when he finally got the push. Surely the managerial career of one of the worst bosses this country has ever seen is now at an end.

Kevin Blackwell isn’t exactly a brilliant manager but he’s Alf Ramsey compared to Bryan Robson and Sheff Utd actually strung enough scores together, eight wins from their final 11 matches, to have a slim chance of the play offs going into the final week but the damage had already been done by Robbo and they missed out.

Bookies’ prediction: 4th (last season 5th), best odds for title 10/1 (various) worst 12/1 (Ladbrokes, Coral)

The Manager: Kevin Blackwell made his name as a coach with Neil Warnock at Bramall Lane as they reached cup semi finals and the play off final in the same season. His first managerial appointment came at Leeds where he led them to the play offs in 2005/06 but following a 3-0 defeat against Watford and poor start to the following campaign he was sacked, Leeds were relegated anyway, and he turned up at Luton as a replacement for Mike Newell but fell victim to that club’s implosion midway through last season – sacked by the administrator of all things. He did a superb job of turning Sheff Utd around last season and might have wrestled them into the play offs had he taken over a fortnight earlier – stands a good chance of taking them their this time.
Survival Chances: 7/10

The squad: United have lost Rob Hulse to Derby and used the money to buy Darius Henderson from Watford – I’m not a great fan of either player really, the key to their season is the fitness and form of James Beattie. It’s criminal really that he’s not in the Premiership and it’s only his attitude and uncanny ability to pick up a hamstring injury whenever the going gets tough that’s keeping him at this level. Managed 22 goals last season despite his usual sabbaticals and should be able to better that this season in a successful Sheff Utd side – although expect whichever Premiership teams are struggling in January to sniff around him. Further back Carney, Hendrie, Gillespie and Tonge are about the best midfield four the league has to offer and with Halford and Sun Jihai added to a defence that already includes Kilgallon and Ehiogu in front of Paddy Kenny it’s hard to see past them this season to be honest.
Likely star player: James Beattie

Ins and Outs: Coming in Darius Henderson (Watford, £2m), David Cotterill (Wigan, undisclosed), Sun Jihai (Man City, free), Greg Halford (Sunderland, loan). Going out Chris Lucketti (Huddersfield, free), Paul Gerrard (released), Geoff Horsfield (released), Ahmed Fathi (released), Rob Hulse (Derby, £1.75m) and Luton Shelton (Valerenga, £1m).

Head to Head: Sheff Utd took four points from QPR last season, Patrick Agyemang gave the R’s the lead at Bramall Lane in January but defensive calamities allowed the Blades to turn it around in the second half and keep Robson employed for another couple of weeks. Ultimately they probably would have been better off losing to us and getting rid of the useless tosser sooner. At Loftus Road with Blackwell in charge Angelo Balanta opened the scoring but the ever detestable Chris Morgan got a deserved equaliser 15 minutes from time.
Sheff Utd 2 QPR 1
QPR 1 Sheff Utd 1

Prediction:They’ll definitely be in the play offs as far as I’m concerned and could well be a good bet for the top two if Beattie stays fit and firing.
Verdict Great chance of promotion.

Wolverhampton Wanderers
Last season – 7th They may only have missed out on the play offs by one goal after finishing level on points with sixth placed Watford but this represented another season of under achievement for Wolves and after a brief sojourn into the Premiership under Dave Jones they’re now firmly back in the habit of under performing and disappointing. Last summer as usual they were much fancied with Freddy Eastwood and Matt Jarvis added to an already exciting attacking line up that included Andy Keogh and Michael Kightly.

However with crusty old Gary Breen still being heavily relied upon at the back and bizarre tactical decisions and team selections from McCarthy letting Wolves down in the play offs in 2006 and McCarthy it was a surprise to see him only adding strikers and wingers to his line up. Consequently they were beaten three times at Molineux in their first six home games, including a humiliating cup exit at the hands of Morecambe, and never looked like posing much of a threat after that. A dire run of four defeats and four draws from eight league matches over Christmas had them down in 12th and although McCarthy then did the best bit of transfer business of the season picking up Sylvain Ebanks Blake from Plymouth for little over £1m it still didn’t address their key issues.

A run of two wins from eight games running from February into March left them 11th and five points off the play off pace and the 3-3 draw with QPR at Molineux in April summed up the problems – one of the best attacks in the league with all the goals, creativity and flair you could ever want but very little elsewhere. Ebanks Blake, Keogh, Eastwood, Kightly and Jarvis may be fit for a higher stage, but the likes of Craddock, Breen and Collins are barely good enough for the league below this one.

Bookies prediction: 5th (last season 3rd) best odds for title 9/1 (Skybet) worst 14/1 (various)

The Manager: Mick McCarthy forged his reputation at Millwall in the 1990s where he led a team containing star names like Kasey Keller and Alex Rae to league and cup success, snaring the Premiership scalps of Arsenal and Chelsea in the process. A successful but ultimately controversial spell in charge of the Republic of Ireland followed but after a bust up with Roy Keane at the 2002 World Cup, and with the Irish side clearly in decline, his days looked numbered for some time before he eventually got the push. His return to club management came at Sunderland where he had to follow the mythical figure of death Howard Wilkinson into the hot seat and was therefore excused the final 17 matches of the Premiership season – Sunderland didn’t win any of them and finished with a record low points total which has since been “bettered” by Derby and is set to be smashed to pieces this season by Stoke.

When Sunderland started the following season poorly, Rangers drew 2-2 at the Stadium of Light in the opening week you may recall, the pressure started to be applied but he turned things round and promoted them as champions that season. However he again struggled back in the Premiership and with ten games to go and the side 16 points adrift again he was sacked. In his next role he enjoyed a rare position as a Wolves manager under no pressure from the fans after a wholesale clearout of the club’s star players. He made the play offs against all expectations but last season big things were expected and the crowd started to get on his back in the second half of the season. The knives will be out if they under achieve again.
Survival Chances: 5/10

The squad: McCarthy has responded to the problems Wolves had last season by signing another two strikers, Chris Iwelumo from Charlton and Sam Vokes from Bournemouth, and another midfielder, David Jones from Derby. Consequently the team looks top heavy and over subscribed. Wolves will have further problems if their outstanding player from our visit last season Seyi Olofinjana gets his way and leaves the club this summer. He holds the midfield and does it better than anybody else at this level – he’ll be hard to replace, particularly if McCarthy tries to replace him with another striker or a winger. With Jay Bothroyd already in tow it’s hard to understand the signing of Chris Iwelumo – both bog standard forwards at this level with a goals per game record of your average centre half. McCarthy has seven strikers to choose from, all of whom will be expecting first team football, and a repeat of his arguments with Freddy Eastwood from last season seems inevitable with one or a combination of Bothroyd, Iwelumo, Vokes, Ebanks Blake, Keogh, Elliott and Ward.

McCarthy has gone down the Jim Magilton route of chasing one of Leicester’s defenders from last season – surely if Richard Stearman and Gareth McAuley were any good Leicester wouldn’t have been relegated but time will tell. One time QPR target Karl Henry does a good ob in midfield, although is roundly jeered by his home fans whenever he passes a ball sideways, while George Elokobi is the world’s fattest footballer. As ever Keogh and Kightly will be the stand out players and should get them up round the play offs but little else.
Likely star player: Andy Keogh and Michael Kightly

Ins and Outs: Chris Iwelumo (Charlton, undisclosed), David Jones (Derby, free), Richard Stearman (Leicester, undisclosed) and striker Sam Vokes (Bournemouth, undisclosed) are the new faces. Freddy Eastwood (Coventry, £1m), Seyi Olofinjana (Stoke, £3.3m), Gary Breen (released), Martin Riley (released) and three kids out on loan leave Molineux.

Head to Head: Two draws between the two sides last season, but the game couldn’t have been more different. At Loftus Road a lack of cutting edge from both sides, and a ridiculous refereeing display from Fred Graham who’d apparently left his whistle and cards in the bog before the match, meant a 0-0 draw was always the most likely outcome. At Molineux both sides had discovered their shooting boots and fought out a 3-3 draw. Buzsaky, Blackstock and Leigertwood put the R’s in front three times but Wolves kept fighting back and got their final equaliser seven minutes into five minutes of advertised stoppage time after a defensive pile up in the six yard box.
QPR 0 Wolves 0
Wolves 3 QPR 3

Prediction:The main problem Wolves have at home, apart from McCarthy’s team selections, is their own fans’ attitude towards them. It doesn’t take much, or very long, for the Molineux crowds to turn on their own players and that’s not conducive to good football. For our game last season the way the Wolves fans turned this way and that – booing and worshipping their own players often within the same move – was laughable. Until they get over themselves and give their players a break they’ll go nowhere, the one season they actually expected nothing and got off the players’ backs they over achieved and made the play offs. Last season expectations were back up, the atmosphere at home games did more favours to the away sides and they under achieved. Again. Even if the Wolves fans do finally, miraculously, get over over themselves and cut their team some slack with McCarthy in charge they’re always going to drop points through poor team selection and tactics.
Verdict: Narrowly squeaking in or missing out on the play offs but ultimately still a Championship side this time next year.
- DP

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