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Season preview part one – promotion contenders
Tuesday, 31st Jul 2018 08:59 by Clive Whittingham

The first part of our preview of the 2018/19 Lancashire and District Senior League sees us focus on the 12 teams the bookies fancy to push for promotion.

Stoke City 5/1

Last Season Ten years of steady Premier League consolidation with occasional cup runs, and one foray into Europe, proved little obstacle to the latest rape and pillage by Meticulous Mark and the Taffia. A drift away from the principals that had got Stoke into the top flight and kept them there in favour of a typical Hughes trolley dash through the Joorabchian-Mart caught up with them in a miserable season of seven wins from 38 games and all the familiar stories about dressing room factions, egos, unprofessionalism and a woeful lack of defensive work in training. Naturally, Sparkless didn’t stick around to see it through, sacked midway through the season he waltzed straight into another cushy number at Southampton where he was able to keep them up courtesy of a scrambled late winner against bottom of the table Swansea in April. Thus the myth that football’s Zapp Brannigan has never been relegated, technically, survives another of his monumental shuttle disasters. You win again gravity.

Ins: Thomas Ince, Huddersfield, £10m >>> James McClean, £5m, West Brom >>> Benik Afobe, Wolves, loan >>> Adam Federici, Bournemouth >>> Oghenekaro Otebo, Feirense, £6.5m

Outs: Lee Grant, Man Utd, £1.5m >>> Xherdan Shaqiri, Liverpool, £13m >>> Kevin Wimmer, Hannover, loan >>> Ramadan Sobhi, Huddersfield, £5.5m >>> Marc Muniesa, Girona, £4.5m >>> Stephen Ireland, released >>> Glen Johnson, released

Manager: Gary Rowett There are several managers in the Championship this season that could really do with a big campaign to sustain their reputations in the game – Garry Monk and Paul Clement chief amongst them. Rowett had good success at Burton, and was harshly treated by Birmingham, but having failed to keep Derby from self destructing at the business end of the season once again and then jumped ship to spend some easy money at Stoke he could do with this going well.

This Season: While Tom Ince wasn’t a success at Huddersfield, nor Bennick Afobe at Bournemouth, and James McClean had been relegated at West Brom, these three are examples of first team Premier League players dropping down to the Championship for big transfer fees and bigger wages. It’s a product of the enormous Premier League TV money and its subsequent parachute payments and could well result in exactly what we’ve seen in League One – more relegated teams bouncing straight back. Stoke look best placed of the three relegated sides to do that, with a strong Championship manager paired up with a club that’s soundly run but got Hughesed.

Fan Opinion: Wizards of Drivel Podcast “I think we should be targeting promotion for sure, and we've got a good squad with some key players sticking around. Etebo and Afobe are good signings, and taking Rowett from Derby was a statement of intent. The only questions is how well it all gels together.”

Prediction: Automatic promotion.

West Brom 8/1

Last Season A club once heralded as one of the country’s best run, shrewdest operations ended up sleepwalking into a relegation they only seemed to realise was happening about two weeks before the end of the season. Bored with almost two years of Pulisball (up there with throat cancer for things you wouldn’t wish on your worst Chelsea fan) they decided to twist in November – his record of keeping teams in the league outweighed by four wins from 22 games. Not an unreasonable idea. Then, in a moment of decision making unparalleled since Hitler’s dad and Hitler’s mum got tanked up on the Riesling and pushed the single beds together for the night, they went for Alan Pards Pardew as his replacement. I mean… I just… No words. Even the fleeting moments of success in Pards’ career have swiftly given way to long losing runs which he has never shown any inclination of how to deal with or solve. Incredibly (and I say that even as somebody who thinks Pards is a fucking dick tip) he managed to win just three of his 21 games in charge, one of those away at Exeter in the FA Cup. He won none of his first ten, and none of his last eight, and he was sacked five games out from the end of the season with the Baggies dead last. They promptly won three of their last five, including 1-0 at Man Utd, under caretaker Darren Moore. James McClean remarked: “No disrespect to Alan, but when we go out on the pitch now we know what we’re doing.”

Ins: Sam Johnstone, Man Utd, £6.5m >>> Kyle Bartley, Swansea, £4m >>> Jonathan Bond, Reading, free >>> Harvey Barnes, Leicester, loan >>> Connor Townsend, Scunthorpe, undisclosed

Outs: Jonny Evans, Leicester, £3.6m >>> Ben Foster, Watford, £2.5m >>> Yuning Zhang, Den Haag, loan >>> James Morrison, released >>> Claudio Yacob, released >>> Gareth McAuley, released

Manager: Darren Moore Won three and drew two of the last six games to take the final Premier League Manager of the Month award and after five years and more than 100 appearances for the Baggies as a player felt like a much needed calming, unifying presence for a club that had put itself through a traumatic season and five months with Alan Pardew. Big difference being the main man for real though, particularly ahead of a 46 game Championship season with a relegated team. Advantages – parachute payments, and would you want to go back into Darren Moore’s dressing room if you hadn’t given it your all?

This Season: Even with the new narrower transfer window, there remains much uncertainty about West Brom. Ostensibly they’ve kept their Premier League squad together, losing only Jonny Evans and Ben Foster – the latter already replaced by a younger model in Sam Johnstone that wouldn’t have been a bad move even if they were still upstairs. But will that remain the case in a week’s time, with the likes of Rodriguez and Rondon surely in their agents’ ears? And even if it doesn’t, is this a squad that’s gone a little stale, been allowed to grow old together, could do with freshening up? And can Darren Moore convert his remarkable end to last season, club legend status, inspirational manner and all round feel good factor into a successful Championship campaign at the first time of asking? The parachute payments make them a threat, but beyond that it would be a brave man to make a call.

Fan Opinion: The Good Doctor Matt Graham “I think we will end up in the playoffs, with fourth being a realistic finish. The Championship is such a tough division and is a graveyard of 'big' clubs that all expected to bounce back at the first opportunity, and we'll do well not to underestimate the competition we'll face. The current squad is actually quite good on paper (despite last season’s abject relegation), and the addition of Sam Johnstone as the new number one looks like a shrewd signing. However, my prediction depends on how quickly Darren Moore adapts to full-time management, whether he can retain the core nucleus of players including Dawson, Hegazi, Rodriguez, and Rondon, and if some of the youngsters such as Field, Edwards, and Leko fulfil their much anticipated promise. West Brom do need to add some quality and depth to the rest of the team in order to get through the long season, with another striker, a play-maker, and a winger top of the list.”

Prediction: Play-offs, but wouldn’t be surprised to see them stick around for longer than this season.

Middlesbrough 9/1

Last Season Relegated from the Premier League after a bold attempt to survive by drawing every match 0-0 fell flat, they attempted to “smash” their way back through the second tier by handing silly money to Garry Monk and buying all the strikers. That included Nottingham Forest’s Britt Assombalonga for shy of £15m to go with the part used Patrick Bamford and Rudy Gestede (previously both very useful at this level) he’d already got. Throw in another £7m for Dane Martin Braithwaite and, most ridiculously, a similar amount of West Ham’s Ashley Fletcher, who’d scored just nine senior goals in his entire career (including eight on loan at Barnsley in League One) and you started to wonder. Monk is fast becoming one of those emperor’s new clothes manager whose handsome reputation bears little relation to the results he’s achieved and with Boro outside the play offs at Christmas he was ditched. Boro then attempted to bore their way up with Tony Pulis in charge but his ‘give the ball to Adama Traore and hope for the best’ approach drew no goals from 180 minutes of play-off semi-final with Aston Villa and so they remain here for a second season, parachute payments declining all the while.

Ins: Aden Flint, Bristol City, £7m >>> Paddy McNair, Sunderland, £5m

Outs: Fabio, Nantes, £1.8m >>> Antonio Barragan, Betis, £900k >>> Tomas Mejias, Nicosia, free >>> Martin Cranie, released

Manager: Tony Pulis Go on John.

This Season: Well, I think we can say with some degree of certainty what this is going to look and feel like. Aden Flint is a great signing, one of the outstanding players at this level last season, somebody who has worked his way up the hard way from Alfreton to the Championship, and a partnership at the back with Ben Gibson (if he stays) is a formidable prospect. They’ll need to have a bit more idea going forwards than simply giving the ball to Adama Traore and letting him run with it, which seemed to be plans A, B and C during a play-off semi-final against a Villa side Fulham subsequently made light work of. They’ll go close, and win 1-0 in games you forget about instantly a hell of a lot.

Fan Opinion: James Boothby “At the end of last season, despite the poor performances in the play offs there was still a fair bit of optimism around, with the expectation we would have a good transfer window and fix the areas that were lacking. At the time of writing though, we have only bought in a couple of players and with Bamford looking to be on his way out look short of creativity and firepower. We have kept hold of Traore so far though which is a huge plus. As it stands, I still see us as play-off contenders - but a good end to the transfer window and at least a striker and wide player in would cement that.”

Prediction: Second behind Stoke. A treat for the neutral.

Forest 10/1

Last Season Fairly standard Forest recipe for a football season this one. First, start with a manager, a team, a system, a style and an ethos in August. Draw comparisons between him and Brian Clough. Talk up the team, the chairman, the manager and the players to such ridiculous levels it seems inconceivable that there would even be a World Cup when it’s clear to all that Matty Cash, Ben Brereton and Kieran Dowell could probably just win the bloody thing by themselves given the chance. Beat QPR at home. When the cake is not quite rising to the very reasonable 100 points and 100 goals level of expectations around Christmas, abandon the whole thing entirely. Appoint a different manager who has entirely the opposite ideas about how to set up a team, approach matches and play the sport from his predecessor. Buy an entirely new team in January to help facilitate this about face. Spends loads of money doing it. See no discernible improvement in results until very close to the end of the season when there’s nothing at stake, allowing the process to start again over the summer. Still, they did have a memorable FA Cup win over the Artist formerly known as Arsenal to cheer.

Ins: Deep breath… Joao Carvalho, Benfica, alleged £13.5m >>> Lewis Grabban, Bournemouth, £6m >>> El Arbia Soudani, Dinamo Zagreb, £2.7m >>> Tobias, Figueiredo, Sporting, £900k >>> Jack Robinson, QPR, free >>> Michael Dawson, Hull, free >>> Costel Pantilimon, Watford, undisclosed >>> Jack Colback, Newcastle, loan >>> Diogo Goncalves, Benfica, loan >>> Gil Dias, Monaco, loan >>> Luke Steele, Bristol City, free

Outs: Jack Hobbs, Bolton, free transfer >>> David Vaughan, Notts County, free transfer >>> Lewis Walters, released >>> Tyler Walker, Mansfield, loan >>> Armband Traore, Rizespor, undisclosed >>> Andreas Bouchalakis, Olympiakos, undisclosed >>> Jason Cummings, Peterborough, loan >>> Eric Lichaj, Hull City, undisclosed >>> Jorge Grant, Luton, loan >>> Chris Cohen, retired >>> Ashkan Dejagah, released

Manager: Aitor Karanka Did, in fairness, get Middlesbrough promoted. But his attempts to stay in the Premier League with a flat back eight, with Gaston Ramirez and Alvaro Negredo offered up as some sort of ritual sacrifice in a different postcode from the rest of the team by way of an “attack”, was dire. It’s Mourinho football for the Championship, and it’s not for me Clive. Though, last time I said that Forest promptly stuck five goals through us.

This Season: Here we are at this season’s exciting round of ‘let’s set fire to the plastics factory and see if we can get out in time’. Sometimes you do – QPR, Bournemouth, Wolves – and sometimes you don’t – Aston Villa, Sheff Wed, Blackburn, Forest several times before. The Wolves comparison has been drawn and may well come to pass, but they had truly outstanding talent in the form of Jota and Neves in particular who had no business whatsoever being at this level of football. Do Forest? And if they do, does a manager that favours a Mourinho approach to possession and shape have the flexibility to let them go and do it to the extent Nuno Santo did? Fascinating season ahead.

Fan Opinion: Jack Mack McCormick “A summer of change; 11 in, plenty being pushed out (including your good friend Armand Traore). Smashed our transfer record and have signed some of the brightest young Portuguese talent thanks to a Wolves-like link with Jorge Mendes. Backed that up with a striker in Lewis Grabban who scored 20 goals in this league last season, and solid Championship experience in the likes of Jack Colback and Jack Robinson (another in a long list of left-footed defenders to have worn both the hoops and the Garibaldi red).

“Those bat-shit mental Kuwaiti owners are long gone and, with Aitor Karanka at the helm – a man who knows what it takes to drag a club into the Premier League – there’s every reason to be optimistic. With the investment in the squad I do think anything less than a play-off spot would be seen as failure. I think we’ll push the top two but might have to settle for winning at Wembley instead.”

Prediction: Play-off defeat, followed by their biennial meltdown.

Leeds 11/1

Last Season Well if you thought Forest were pandering to stereotypes with their 2017/18, my word what to make of Leeds’ hilarious send up of themselves. As per, there was a new foreign owner to get to know, and although he’s re-secured ownership of Elland Road for the club which is commendable and already more than any of his predecessors managed, Andrea Radrizzani presided over a season on the field that couldn’t have been more Leeds United had they been trying to capture it perfectly for a sitcom. There are men who change underwear less than Leeds change managers and over 24 months they managed to get themselves from the comedy stylings of fat wank puffin Steve Evans, through Garry Monk and then former Barcelona midfielder Thomas Christiansen, to Paul Heckingbottom who they had to buy out of a Barnsley contract he’d signed two days previously at considerable expense only to sack him three months later. Blond bombshells Alioski and Saiz combined Soccer AM-style flicks and tricks with bitching, spitting and play acting on a level that even Pepe would think was “a bit much”. Four straight wins in September, and again in December, were treated like the second coming of Christ. Sky showed every one of their games, and most of their training sessions. Kemar Roofe scored eight goals in his last 28 appearances – four against QPR. In the end, this was a team attempting to progress in the Championship with Caleb Ekuban leading the attack, and to say he looks like he won his place in the team in a raffle would be to insult anybody who’s ever bought a raffle ticket.

Ins: Jamal Blackman, Chelsea, loan >>> Lewis Baker, Chelsea, loan >>> Barry Douglas, Wolves, £3m >>> Jack Harrison, Man City, loan >>> Patrick Bamford, Middlesbrough, £6.5m potentially rising to £10m

Outs: Felix Weidwald, Eintracht Frankfurt, undisclosed >>> Jay-Roy Grot, Venlo, loan >>> Marcus Antonsson, Malmo, undisclosed >>> Madger Gomes, Sochaux, undisclosed >>> Paudie O’Connor, Blackpool, loan >>> Pawel Cibicki, Molde, loan >>> Tyler Denton, Peterborough, loan >>> Andy Lonergan, released

Manager: Marcelo Bielsa No I can’t believe it either. Do I expect this to last? No. Am I jealous? Absolutely. Triple training sessions, 3-3-1-3, maverick press conferences, barmy rows… Bielsa is the football hipster’s catnip. A nomadic career which peaked with his spectacular Chile and Athletic Bilbao teams more recently included the sack at Marseille for falling out with the board, a two day stay at Lazio for which they’re still trying to sue him, and a 13 game stint with Lille where he was suspended but only after bombing out the entire senior first team before the season had started. Combustible, brilliant, genius and one of the best stories there’s been at this level for a long time – assuming he’s still there when the season starts.

This Season: I mean who bloody knows? At the moment, as it stands, as I write, the squad is basically the same bunch they had last year, which was nowhere near good enough. They have, at least, tried to address their goalkeeping issue – Lonergan and Weidwald were both up there with Sunderland’s Luke Steele for the division’s worst stopper last season – with the addition of Chelsea loanee (everybody should have one) Jamal Blackman who was on loan at Sheff Utd previously. For a while it looked like they were going to appoint Marcelo Bielsa and then not sign any players, which would have been about as Leeds United as it gets, but from nowhere, and for reasons I cannot fathom, Wolves have let them have the outstanding Barry Douglas for a paltry £3m which is the signing of the summer at this level for me. If Jack Marriott’s arrival at Derby frees Matej Vydra up to bolster their attack, they could go places. Patrick Bamford has also been linked.

Fan Opinion: Ben Phelps “It's been no secret that the Leeds United fans have grown impatient this summer with the lack of signings, however the club’s patience paid off as we managed the bargain of the window by signing Wolves defender and assist king Barry Douglas. He should make a huge impact along with new signing Patrick Bamford and Chelsea loanees Lewis Baker and Jamal Blackman, who all fit nicely into Marcelo Bielsa's system. The Argentine football genius has methodically cycled out dead weight from last season and put a lot of trust in the youth system to fill in the gaps. Expect Leeds to be in the mix of things all season; anything less than a top-ten finish would be an underachievement.”

Prediction: Up and down like a bride’s nightie. They’ll look like champions at one point, crash through the division on a run of defeats at another, work their way through three managers, and finish in the middle somewhere. Bielsa will be combative, entertaining, quotable, and gone by October. Or, you know, a bloody genius again.

Swansea 12/1

Last Season A sad demise for a club that worked its way up through all four divisions and a stadium move to reach the Premier League playing lovely football under several bright young managers. Not an altogether unexpected one though. With American investment and involvement in a boardroom previously tightly controlled by the brains behind the club’s meteoric rise, Huw Jenkins, has come a departure from the values that stood them in such good stead in the first place. A club that mastered the art of appointing managers so that the transition was seamless – Martinez to Sousa to Rodgers to Monk – suddenly started rapid firing its way through a series of weird and wonderful appointments in double quick time. Players used to the stability of the decade before found themselves adapting to the wants of Franceso Guidolin, Bob Bradley, Paul Clement and, latterly, known nutcase Carlos Carvalhal. Allied with a steady talent drain which fatally concluded with the loss of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente without adequate replacement last summer and ultimately you couldn’t help but think that a relegation that could easily have happened a year prior was a much needed opportunity for a reset at a club that’s lost its way and its identity.

Ins: Joel Asoro, Sunderland, £2m >>> Yan Dhanda, Liverpool, free >>> Jordi Govea, Real Madrid, free >>> Barrie McKay, Forest, undisclosed >>> Bersant Celina, Man City, undisclosed >>>

Outs: Lukasz Fabianski, West Ham, £7.2m >>> Roque Mesa, Sevilla, £5.4m >>> Kyle Bartley, West Brom, £4m >>> Ki Sung-Yong, Newcastle, free >>> Adam King, Peterborough, loan >>> Kenji Gorre, Nacional, free >>> Borja Baston, Alaves, loan >>> Leon Britton, retired >>> Angel Rangel, released

Manager: Graham Potter A journeyman player, predominantly with Stoke, West Brom and York, Potter became one of those weird “which English manager…” quiz questions during eight years with Swedish side Ostersund which included promotion from the Third Division to the First, a cup win and a Europa League run that saw them win 2-1 at Arsenal last season before going out on aggregate. His forward thinking, new age methods and the results they achieved sparked the usual interest from the sorts of clubs that like to see themselves as above all of that other nonsense and eventually it was Swansea, who used to be kings of this sort of thing, who bagged him.

This Season: Swansea was once an excellent place for a forward-thinking young manager to come and make an impression, but Graham Potter (like several before him) finds a squad again shorn of its best players without adequate replacement. Parachute payments make all relegated Premier League teams a danger these days but there’s not much optimism around Swansea that they’ll trouble the scorers without series additions.

Fan Opinion: Phil, Planet Swans “After the disaster that was last season’s meek surrender of our Premier League place, there could have been much hope that a serious promotion charge could have been mounted. Unfortunately, the summer to date has seen some big name departures and very little coming in through the entrance to replace them which is draining the hopes of many who were optimistic. It’s difficult to know what to expect from us this season as a result but an immediate return to the top flight probably seems to be the most unrealistic of possibilities.”

Prediction: Top half but not play-offs. Feel like there’s been a decline going on for a while here that will take some arresting.

Aston Villa 14/1

Last Season While the rest of the footballing world looked at the early years of Tony Fernandes at QPR and thought “da fuck they doing over there?”, Aston Villa’s brash Chinese owner “Doctor” Tony Xia gazed upon the wonder of that train wreck and thought “this guy’s making all the right moves”. Villa spent north of £10m on strikers three times in 12 months – Jonathan Kodija, Scott Hogan and Ross McCormack – and still ended up relying on Lewis Grabban on loan to keep a promotion tilt on track. They allowed homegrown centre back Nathan Baker, a very decent player at this level, to leave relatively cheaply to Bristol City, bitching and moaning about Financial Fair Play forcing their hand, then went out and bought Chris Samba – of his seven starts and seven substitute appearances I’d recommend extended highlights of an early round League Cup tie at Colchester as the greatest television comedy since Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights finished. They paid an absolute stinking fortune to have Big Racist John spend three days a week with them while still training with “the Chels”. Among half a dozen right backs in the squad, Micah Richards didn’t play once. They nearly got away with it, the sublimely talented and ridiculously barnetted Jack Grealish combined with Albert Adomah to hoist the team into contention, and Tony Pulis obliged with a typically miserly approach to their play-off semi-final. But a 46 game Championship season had not been kind to Terry, and although warning signs were clearly there when Matt Smith pummelled him into the ground in a 3-1 QPR win at Villa Park towards the end of the season, he was trusted to face Fulham in the play-off final for his big game experience with predictable results. A more one-sided 1-0 win you’ll scarcely ever see, despite the very admirable best efforts of Grealish. Terry, who’d spent the week before the game dictating which Premier League games he would and wouldn’t be willing to play in once the promotion was sealed, was so completely out of his depth that his excellent centre half partner James Chester deserved two appearance fees. Terry fucked off roughly three and a half seconds after the full time whistle. A total financial collapse followed about two minutes later.

Ins: None.

Outs: Jordan Amavi, Marseille, £9m >>> Pierluigi Gollina, Atalanta, £3.9m >>> Carles Gil, Deportivo, £1.5m >>> Gabriel Agbonlahor, released >>> Big Racist John, released >>> Chris Samba, put down

Manager: Steve Bruce For now. Apparently it’s going to be Thierry Henry, which is further through the looking glass than that chicken shit Alice ever got.

This Season: Assuming they can hang onto the excellent James Chester, they will be boosted immeasurably by him not having to babysit that racist relic alongside him any more. If Jack Grealish is fit for a full season he’ll be the best player at this level. But you cannot cite early years Tony Fernandes and then predict anything other than a continuation of the naïve, club ruining descent into absolute catastrophe. Remains to be seen whether new investment secured last week brings any new sanity with it.

Fan Opinion: Tom Skinner “In the middle of July the main hope was just remaining in the division and not plummeting through to League One – which is what happened to Leeds when they lost the play-off final in their second year at this level after relegation from the Premier League. Wish cashflow issues resolved thanks to investment from Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, the need to sell our best players has diminished. With Stoke’s bid for Chester knocked back and the player keen to stay, Spurs’ interest in Grealish wavering and a full pre-season under Kodija’s belt I think Villa could push for the top six again. There’s a host of young talent that won the Premier League Cup and finished runners up in their league knocking on the first team door as well. That’s dependent on finding a solid goalkeeper and Bruce’s turgid, football and lack of inventive, proactive tactics not being repeated again this season. Centre backs are required after Terry and Samba’s departure and a goalkeeper the calibre of Sam Johnstone. The likes of O’Hare, Green, Davies, Hepburn-Murphy, Sulliman and Doyle need to be given a chance in the first team – we relied on loan signings last season, although Snodgrass and Johnstone were very good for us. I think Bruce will get six games and if we’re not near the top he’ll be gone, to the satisfaction of the majority of Holte Enders. I suspect the new owners will be calculated and ruthless with their decision making unlike our previous cryptic, algebraic-emoji wielding chairman. With a couple of additions I think we’ll be in the shake up come May.”

Prediction: Further crashing and burning.

Derby 16/1

Last Season Gary Rowett - successful down the road at Burton, disgracefully sacked when on the cusp of the play-offs at Birmingham, a former Derby player – was the latest man trusted with guiding the Championship’s biggest bottle jobs to promotion. He went for experience, including a January move for Cameron Jerome, but sacrificed speed to do it and Derby were slow and one dimensional even when playing well. Despite the influx of senior players, and a long overdue revival in form for Matej Vydra, they shit out at the end again anyway and lost their play-off semi final against Fulham.

Ins: Florian Josefzoon, Brentford, £2.9m >>> Harry Wilson, Liverpool, loan >>> Mason Mount, Chelsea, loan >>> Jack Marriott, Peterborough, £2m rising >>> George Evans, Reading, undisclosed

Outs: Andreas Weimann, Bristol City, £2m >>> Darren Bent, released >>> Chris Baird, released >>> Jason Shackell, released >>> Charles Vernam, Grimsby Town, undisclosed

Manager: Frank Lampard Big Fat Frank’s Big Fat Derby. The fact Lampard could string a sentence together and actually turned up at his nice school every now and again marked him out as “the brainy one” as a player – in the land of the bald the man with three hairs is king. Whether that will actually translate to being a decent manager as everybody seems to have been rather quick to assume, time will tell. The Mason Mount loan capture shows the potential of his contacts book but this is a tough job, which some very experienced managers have failed in recently despite having good money to spend.

This Season: The signings look shrewd, the two Premier League loans in particular, but there are unknowns. Mount has a fabulous reputation at Chelsea, but can he do it consistently in a tough grown up’s league? We’ve seen, time and again, players molly-coddled through the unfit for purpose EPPP academy system, struggle when actually required to play some proper football. Jack Marriott is hot property, but Peterborough extract big money for strikers who don’t step up very frequently (Mackail-Smith, McClean, Washington). Lampard talks well, and has won everything there is to win in this country as a player, but topping your goal tally up with four deflected strikes in a 7-0 win against Stoke in the middle of a team that cost a billion quid doesn’t make you a brilliant manager in waiting and he’s got it all to prove. There are two knowns: Derby were slow as rust last season, and Derby have bottled it time and time and time again over the last decade. Has the first been addressed with the new signings? And can Lampard come into his own at the end of the season when those little weeks where things don’t quite go for you (think QPR’s 2010/11 defeat at Scunthorpe) have a habit of manifesting themselves into a full blown panic at this club?

Fan Opinion: Ollie Wright, Derby County Blog “In a nutshell, I think we'll do OK and could well make the top six again. There's good experience throughout the side - with a defensive spine of Carson, Keogh, Davies and midfield options including Bryson, Ledley and Huddlestone, there are plenty of steady, reliable pros who are more than able to cope with a long season. Where we were a bit short last season was the all-important "X-factor". Matej Vydra snaffling a lot of his chances masked the fact that the side lacked creativity at times, so Frank Lampard has sought to address that by recruiting Florian Jozefzoon, Harry Wilson and Mason Mount. The latter two opting to choose Derby are particularly strong examples of Lampard's appeal, because there would have been plenty of takers for either of them. Pleasingly, the team will look to play positively again, in a style more akin to that of your new pal Steve McClaren than the negative, defend-first policy of Gary Rowett. The only obvious reason for pessimism is that Lampard, for all his stature as a player, is a rookie manager. Also, there is uncertainty over Vydra's future, which needs resolving. We'll have to see how Lampard handles the gruelling rollercoaster of Championship management, but on the whole, there's plenty of positivity around Pride Park at the moment.”

Prediction: Good for two thirds of the season, followed by their arse falling out in some elaborate, totally unexpected manner around March/April time. Again.

Brentford 18/1

Last Season Lost Jota, Harlee Dean and Maxime Collin to Harry Redknapp’s latest attempt to bankrupt a football club right on the summer transfer deadline, contributing to no wins from the first eight games. Their recovery was impressive enough to have them in play-off contention right through to the penultimate game of the season when they lost at relegation-haunted Barnsley. As ever, while others were lazily spending big to buy players from them, the Bees went out and bagged well-scouted bargains to replace them – Exeter’s Ollie Watkins, Gillingham’s John Egan and scandalously cast aside QPR youth prospect Chris Mephan chief amongst them. You can’t help but stand back and admire. Two caveats… Firstly, they’re not spending nothing. Their last three sets of accounts show losses of £15m, £12m and £1m despite the player sales, and they’ll continue to be propped up by owner Matthew Benham until a move to a new (scaled down) stadium at Lionel Road happens at the end of the year. Second, they lost more points from winning positions than anybody else in the league. There’s an occasional smugness about just how wonderful they are that can creep in and cost them. There was no better example of that than continuing to throw strikers on, chanting about Ian Holloway’s demise and sending out Tweets before full time thanking “the Brentford family for a wonderful evening” before turning 2-0 into 2-2 between minutes 93 and 95 at Loftus Road before Christmas. They’re brilliant, and doing brilliantly, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of professionalism and pragmatic seeing a game out sometimes – even half of those lost points would have had them in automatic promotion contention.

Ins: Ezri Konsa, Charlton, £2.5m >>> Said Benrahma, Nice, undisclosed >>> Julian Jeanvier, Stade de Reims, undisclosed

Outs: Florian Josefzoon, Derby, £2.7m >>> John Egan, Sheff Utd, £4m >>> Konstantin Kerschbaumer, Ingolstadt, £900k >>> Andreas Bjelland, Copenhagen, free >>> Reece Cole, Yeovil, loan

Manager: Dean Smith Perfect fit. Did an underrated, unnoticed, unheralded job in tight circumstances at Walsall. Unnoticed that is, like so many of their best signings, by everybody but Brentford who needed to get back on track after a rare misstep with Marinus Dijkhuisen and have reaped the rewards of promoting Smith to a higher level. Lovely, effective, attractive style of play with a narrow defence and a wide attack.

This Season: Aaaaand they’ve done it again. Good, strong, early business for highly-rated, highly-sellable young talent. Ezri Konsa looked terrific at Charlton last season, while Benrahma comes well recommended. Meanwhile, clubs with lazier/worse scouting operations have pumped the best part of £8m into their coffers for players we were writing about in those tones 12-18 months ago. They’d have made the play-offs last season but for a weird start to the campaign where Birmingham nicked three of their key players right at the eleventh hour of the deadline and they subsequently failed to win any of the first eight. That could easily happen again, with clubs rightly sniffing around the likes of Watkins and Mepham. If the tighter transfer deadline sees them stay put, Brentford should go very strongly indeed.

Fan Opinion: Billy the Bee, Beesotted “Last season we finished ninth, but needed another six points to make playoffs. Not bad for a side who didn’t win a match in their first eight league matches. My attitude to Brentford is very similar to the attitude I took with England this season at the World Cup. England had a solid qualifying campaign and went into the tournament full of confidence but with no expectation. I feel the same with the Bees. I know we’re good enough to beat any team on our day. But what is important is consistency. It’s great ripping the likes of Leeds and Villa to shreds. But will we be able to beat the new Burton or Barnsley when push comes to shove this season?

“Pleased to see we are buying early then offloading the players we don’t need for good money. Florian Jozefzoon and John Egan were great servants for Brentford. But to get £7m for them and then get highly-rated winger Said Benrahama (who I have on very good authority that QPR were chasing) from Nice and Central Defender Erzi Konsa from Charlton for a fraction of the fees we received, we can only be happy with that. Teams have been throwing big money at us to nab ex QPR academy player centre back Chris Mepham (£10m plus has been turned down so far from Bournemouth) and Ollie Watkins. We’ve said they are not for sale. Hoping the window slams shut before Harry Redknapp gets his hand on someone else’s chequebook.

“If we can keep the team relatively intact, I don’t see any reason why another top ten isn’t on the cards. And once you’re a Top 10 team, anything could happen (there were six points between tenth place and playoffs last season).”

Prediction: Pending late departures, play-offs.

Norwich 22/1

Last Season Took one look at David Wagner’s Huddersfield revolution on a tenth of their budget the season before and thought “I’ll have a bit of that”. Hired the Terriers' director of football Stuart Webber, poached Wagner’s replacement as Borussia Dortmund B manager Daniel Farke as boss and promptly signed up half the German second division before sitting back and waiting for promotion to arrive. Despite James Maddison’s best efforts - one of the outstanding breakout talents in the league – they never once threatened the promotion picture. Just eight wins at home – five teams below them managed better including lowly Bolton – and a softness exemplified in a 4-1 loss at Loftus Road were among a multitude of problems. Only three teams scored fewer than their 25 home goals, including the bottom two.

Ins: Ben Marshall, Wolves, £1.5m >>> Emiliano Buendia, Getafe, £1.3m >>> Teemu Pukki, Brondby, free >>> Moritz Leitner, Augsburg, undisclosed >>> Jordan Rhodes, Sheff Wed, loan >>> Felix Passlack, Dortmund, loan >>> Tim Krul, Brighton, free

Outs: James Maddison, Leicester, £22m >>> Josh Murphy, Cardiff, £10m >>> Marley Watkins, Bristol City, £1m >>> Ebou Adams, Ebbsfleet, free >>> Tristan Abrahams, Exeter, loan >>> Yanic Wildschut, Bolton, loan >>> Marcel Franke, Darmstadt, loan >>> Wes Hoolahan, released

Manager: Daniel Farke Farke, who looks and sounds like the refrigerator repair man in a 1980s porno, has it all to prove this year. The comparisons with Wagner, a true one off, are unfair and unhelpful, but inevitable given the similarity in strategies and the swap of the director of football. Norwich should have been a lot better last season for me, and although there have been Financial Fair Play issues linked to declining parachute payments they’ve brought a big wedge in this summer and excuses about first season in a new country no longer apply.

This Season: You can probably tell by now that I’m not overly convinced with Farke. I think he had far more to work with last season in terms of resources and quality players than a bottom-half place showed. That Norwich side should have been pushing play-offs and they looked an absolute shambles at Loftus Road come April. I envisage things getting slightly better this season, but not much/enough.

Fan Opinion: Connor Southwell “This season promises to be an intriguing one for Norwich season. The revolution overseen by Stuart Webber has yet to find top gear, with an underwhelming first season seeing Norwich become mid table fodder. Supporters will be craving more entertainment but also a tangible sign of progression if supporters are to become reenergised again. Realistically, a top ten finish would be progression, but most supporters will want more from a group of players who have had a year to buy into Farke’s system.”

Prediction: Somewhere between tenth and twelfth. Eleventh then? No, you shut up.

Sheff Utd 25/1

Last Season Seven years stewing in League One was finally ended by serial winner Chris Wilder, and having made it back to the Championship for the first time since 2011 the Blades weren’t in the mood to hang around. They were top of the league coming into an unfortunate 1-0 loss at QPR in October and a spectacular 4-2 win at bitter near neighbours Sheffield Wednesday, with young David Brooks imperious, was an obvious highlight. They fell away, and missed the play offs, much to Wilder’s frequent publicly expressed annoyance, but in a league where the promoted teams have struggled to even survive in recent seasons this was a spectacular success. Nineteen league goals in 38 appearances for Leon Clarke escaped through the same tear in the fabric of reality that Patrick Agyemang used to briefly look like a competent Championship striker.

Ins: John Egan, Brentford, £4m >>> Dean Henderson, Man Utd, loan >>> David McGoldrick, Ipswich, free

Outs: David Brooks, Bournemouth, £10m >>> Clayton Donaldson, Bolton, free >>> Chris Hussey, Cheltenham, free >>> Harvey Gilmour, Tranmere, loan >>> James Hanson, Wimbledon, undisclosed >>> Ben Heneghan, Blackpool, loan >>> Ched Evans, Fleetwood, loan >>> Samir Carruthers, Oxford, loan >>> Nathan Thomas, Notts County, loan >>> George Long, Hull, undisclosed >>> Louis Reed, Peterborough, undisclosed

Manager: Chris Wilder Uncompromising, forthright, occasionally quite prickly, but a serial winner wherever he’s been. Won four trophies in 27 weeks as Alfreton manager in his first job, brought Oxford United back into the Football League in his third, won League Two with 99 points at Northampton despite the club collapsing financially and the players going unpaid, then succeeded where so many others had failed in ending Sheff Utd’s five year stay in League One. Looked for sometime like he might plough straight through the Championship last season before falling away. Great manager.

This Season: The money received for Brooks has already facilitated the arrival of John Egan from Brentford and further new arrivals are likely before the window closes. Dean Henderson has been outstanding for Grimsby and Shrewsbury on loan so far, and is (in my opinion) a better goalkeeping prospect than his fellow Man Utd graduate Sam Johnstone who West Brom have just spent north of £6m on. I quite fancy them.

Fan Opinion: George Howson “Last season was a pleasant surprise for us Blades. We hoped that the team which won League 1 at a canter would adapt to the Championship, but a top half finish after challenging for a play-off position was something special. For this coming season, I expect a similar mid-table finish. We've improved in some areas of the squad, with the likes of John Egan signing from Brentford but we haven't spent enough to warrant a play-off position. That being said, with Chris Wilder at the helm and one of the feistiest atmospheres in England at Bramall Lane, top six isn't out of the question.”

Prediction: Proper tilt at the top six.

Bristol City 25/1

Last Season Having kept faith with manager Lee Johnson through a run of two wins in 22 matches and a near scrape with relegation the season before, they were rewarded with a superb breakout campaign that included a play-off push and remarkable run to a two-legged League Cup semi-final with Man City. The move of Bobby Reid into attack proved inspired, more than compensating for the loss of Tammy Abraham, and the addition of Nathan Baker to the defence alongside powerhouse Aiden Flint formed a formidable partnership. With promising youngster Joe Bryan to the fore, City beat Watford, Palace and Man Utd from the Premier League in the cup but ran out of steam, winning only six of the last 22 league games, to fall away from the play-offs. In a season of 54 matches that was understandable, and overall the campaign was a great success. They ran City pretty close too.

Ins: Adam Webster, Ipswich, £3.6m >>> Andreas Weimann, Derby, £2m >>> Jack Hunt, Sheff Wed, £1.5m >>> Marley Watkins, Norwich, £1m >>> Hakeeb Adelakun, Scunny, free >>> Mohamed Eisa, Cheltenham, undisclosed >>> Niki Maenpaa, Brighton, free

Outs: Bobby Reid, Cardiff, £10m >>> Aden Flint, Middlesbrough, £7m >>> Hordur Magnusson, Moscow, £2.5m >>> Gustav Engvall, Mechelen, undisclosed >>> Zak Vyner, Rotherham, loan >>> Arnold Garita, released >>> Luke Steele, Forest, free >>> Scott Goldbourne, released >>> Gary O’Neil, released

Manager: Lee Johnson Squeaky. Nice coats. Given a stay of execution in 2016/17 when many others would have been sacked, made the most of that with a breakout 2017/18 that included a spectacular run to the League Cup final. Here’s his best David Brent impression.

This Season: The losses of Flint and Reid from last season’s team will be keenly felt. Joe Bryan is their other outstanding talent and is also being linked with moves away but they’ve made several very steady looking signings, including Andrea Weimann from Derby and Jack Hunt from Sheff Wed – two players I’ve always rated at this level. They’ve also picked up a couple of wild cards from the lower leagues, with Scunthorpe’s maverick midfielder Hakeeb Adelakun making the most of his contract ending and Cheltenham’s free-scoring striker Mohamed Eise moving into the Championship just a year after he was turning out for Greenwich Borough. Of all the teams in this league this season, City are the toughest to call.

Fan Opinion: Exiled Robin ” This season really feels as if it could be anything for City. If we can get going early, find someone to replace Bobby Reid's goals and play like we did for the first five months of last season, then another promotion challenge is definitely on the cards. If we play like we did after Big Ben struck midnight on the final day of 2017, we could be in real trouble. We've added some good Championship experience but we still look like we need strengthening in certain positions, especially in goal, and Joe Bryan could well still follow Aden Flint and Bobby Reid out of Ashton Gate, so the reality is probably somewhere in the middle - a nice, safe, boring midtable finish would in some ways be lovely after the highs and lows of recent seasons.”

Prediction: No idea, so I’ll sit on the fence and say midtable. If you came to me now from the future and told me they’d won promotion I wouldn’t be that surprised, nor if you told me they ended up in a relegation battle.

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ngbqpr added 10:31 - Jul 31
Brilliant. Laugh out loud moments peppered throughout, then the denouement with David Brent. Love it.

rsonist added 10:32 - Jul 31
"highly-rated winger Said Benrahama (who I have on very good authority that QPR were chasing)"[...] "throwing big money at us to nab ex QPR academy player centre back Chris Mepham "

Living in their heads rent-free as usual. Dunno about that very good authority that thinks we're in for £2.5m wingers these days though.

Hadders added 08:23 - Aug 3
Took me so long enough to read this and the other one, I don't even want to think about how long they took to write. So informative and enjoyable - Clive, you're astonishing. Thanks yet again.

timcocking added 02:04 - Aug 4
" Ten years of steady Premier League consolidation with occasional cup runs, and one foray into Europe, proved little obstacle to the latest rape and pillage by Meticulous Mark and the Taffia. A drift away from the principals that had got Stoke into the top flight and kept them there in favour of a typical Hughes trolley dash through the Joorabchian-Mart caught up with them"

Hughes you utter ###t. Once again, i bet there was no apology, no admission of any fault or blame on Hughes part.

timcocking added 02:07 - Aug 4
club that’s soundly run but got Hughesed

ha, indeed

Hughes and Redknapped should literally be made adjectives(?)

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