Season preview part two - the strugglers
Wednesday, 1st Aug 2018 14:58 by Clive Whittingham
The concluding part of our look ahead to this year’s Lancashire and District Senior League focuses on the sludge the bookies think will be scraping around in the bottom half of the league this season – but do we agree with them?
Sheff Wed 30/1
Last Season Fairly disastrous. Having bet big on a first return to the Premier League in 18 years, this was year three of three under the current Financial Fair Play regulations and really needed to end in promotion by hook or by crook. Starting the season with striking options including Fernando Forestieri, Sam Winnall, Jordan Rhodes, Steven Fletcher and Gary Hooper and finishing it in the bottom half of the table with Lucas Jao and Atdhe Nuhui partnered in attack shows how badly things went wrong, although an intimidating injury list must be offered in mitigation. Carlos Carvalhal lost the plot somewhat, trying to tear a £20 note into pieces in a press conference post home annihilation by rivals Sheffield United, then claiming the reasons for his increasingly bizarre team selections would be revealed publicly only at the end of the season. He didn’t make it that far, replaced midway through by unheralded (that’s English football journalism talk for ‘who’s this foreigner we can’t be arsed to research?’) Dutchman Jos Luhukay.
Outs: Jack Hunt, Bristol City, £1.5m >>> Glenn Loovens, Sunderland, free transfer >>> Jordan Rhodes, Norwich, loan >>> Ross Wallace, released >>> Jake Kean, released
Manager: Jos Luhukay Looks like the sort of guy you wouldn’t want hanging round the gates of your kids’ school. Made his name as a manager in Germany during stints with Mönchengladbach, Augsburg, Hertha Berlin and Stuttgart. Prefers a back three with wing backs, which is a bit of an issue at Sheff Wed where they don’t have any wing backs on staff.
This Season: Wednesday may not have made new signings, but the chronic injury list that hampered their 2017/18 season has eased. Fernando Forestieri, in particular, will feel like a new arrival having only made six starts last season (but still scored five goals). He has, however, started 2018/19 by kicking off a 22-man brawl in a pre-season friendly at Mansfield Town last week. The real intrigue will come off the pitch where a three-year gamble to reach the Premier League will surely result in a breach of the new Financial Fair Play rules which are judged over a rolling 36 month period when Wednesday release their next set of accounts. Chairman Dejphon Chansiri has basically admitted as much, and at one stage last year was trying to peddle a scheme cynically marketed as “Club 1867” (to mark the 150th anniversary of the club) that asked supporters to pay between £1,500 and £2,100 for a three-year season ticket which is only valid once/if promotion is achieved. We’ve seen some teams gamble on promotion and win under the new rules – Bournemouth, Wolves – and Sheff Wed will be the first test case, ahead of surely Aston Villa in 18 months’ time, for what happens if you break these rules and then don’t go up. There is no set punishment, a panel will sit in judgement on any breaches with punishments ranging from a slap on the wrist through points deductions up to, in theory, expulsion from the league if the panellists are having a hard time at home.
Fan Opinion: Lovely Jon Hore “We’ve still got most of the squad that made the playoff final only two years ago, so if I was being optimistic I’d say we’ll be top ten. Realistically though at the moment I think a season of mid-table mediocrity awaits. FFP is biting hard, we’re supposed to be in the middle of a rebuild but we haven’t signed anybody. The squad is still chronically short of pace and lacks quality wing backs which is pretty crucial if we’re going to keep playing Luhukay’s preferred three at the back system. There’s undoubtedly quality there, and it will be nice to have Forestieri back fully fit and firing, so I don’t see us struggling as much as last season, but I just can’t see us reaching the level needed to challenge for the top six consistently.”
Prediction: On the pitch, slightly better than last year, kicking around midtable. Off it, another interesting FFP case study approaches with lots of clubs watching on with interest, including our own.
Last Season In a league split equally between those that have but don’t know what to do with it, and those that don’t and are trying to make the best of it, Preston remain the absolute kings of the latter. On an average attendance of 13,774, with no parachute payments, with only two Sky games, with their star striker picked off for West Ham reserves in January, PNE maintained a play-off push through to the final fortnight of the season. They scout youth teams, reserve teams, and particularly the League of Ireland incredibly well. They’re not always pretty to watch, and their 90 minute repertoire of the dark arts in a 2-1 win at Loftus Road exemplified that, but they’re hard to beat, incredibly effective, well coached, well set up and difficult to play against. They finished seventh, two points shy of Derby, and nine home wins to Derby’s 12 let them down, but they only lost five times away which is fewer than promoted Cardiff and Fulham. Nothing sums it up more than Aston Villa paying north of £10m for three strikers inside 12 months but still having to loan Lewis Grabban in, while Preston pick up Daniel Johnson for a few thousand quid from Villa’s reserves and he’s streets ahead of all of them.
Ins: Ryan Ledson, Oxford, £990k >>> Michael Crowe, Ipswich, free transfer >>> Andrew Hughes, Peterborough, undisclosed >>> Graham Burke, Shamrock Rovers, undisclosed >>> Jordan Storey, Exeter, undisclosed
Outs: Greg Cunningham, Cardiff, £3.6m >>> John Welsh, Grimsby Town, free transfer >>> Tommy Spurr, Fleetwood, loan >>> Matthew Hudson, Bury, loan
Manager: Alex Neil Rather lost his way trying to keep Norwich in the Premier League, and then return them to it, but it was he who had led them there in the first place and his achievements at tiny Hamilton Academicals before that, winning promotion to the SPL and then beating Celtic away during a notable start to the following season, should not be forgotten. A good fit for Preston, where he’s continued the fine work done over several seasons by Simon Grayson before him. Moley moley moley moley moley.
This Season: While fully aware of how betting markets like this one works, 33/1 seems unbelievably long odds for a club that were one place and two points off the play-offs last season and have not suffered significant pillaging of their squad. Them and Sheff Utd represent the best value on the coupon for me. Ryan Ledson looks like a lovely, typical Preston, signing to me from Oxford – the kind of player I’d like us to be in for, if we didn’t already have three quarters of a million players for his advanced midfield position. That Pearson-Browne-Johnson midfield triumvirate which bullies and outplays us in equal measure whenever we face them remains in place. A long term injury to Billy Bodin, signed last year with the Hugill money after excelling at Bristol Rovers, is a blow but I still think they’ll be top half at least.
Fan Opinion: @_JamesVickers “This season for Preston is all about picking up where we left off last year and carrying that momentum forward. Last season we narrowly missed out on the play offs after finishing 2 points behind derby in seventh, this year the aim is to go one step further. Our pre season was going as good as it could do up until this week, Sean Maguire (hamstring) has been ruled out for two-three months and Billy Bodin (knee) has been ruled out for six. These injuries happening so close to the start of the season is obviously a massive blow but the good thing is that we still have some time to get players in before the transfer window closes. That being said I think the squad that we have fit and in place is better than it was last season and it is now up to other players to take their chance with both hands and step up to fill the void left by the two long term injuries.”
Prediction: Pushing on unnoticed into the top ten again, could easily trouble the play-offs.
Last Season Dan Burn, Nathan Byrne, Will Grigg, Max Power, Nick Powell… this is a team that should be making light work of League One. And so it did. A second campaign in the third tier in three seasons started with the poaching of serial lower league winner Paul Cook from Portsmouth as manager, and ended with a title and 98 points. They suffered in the Championship the year before from having two rookie managers – Gary Caldwell followed by Warren Joyce – and you get the feeling that they’d have survived had Cook been there in the first place.
Ins: Kal Naismith, Portsmouth, free >>> Christian Walton, Brighton, loan >>> Reece James*, Chelsea, loan >>> Leonardo Da Silva, Peterborough, undisclosed >>> Callum McManaman, Sunderland, undisclosed
Outs: Luke Burke, Fylde, free >>> Sam Stubbs, Middlesbrough, free >>> Reece James*, Sunderland, free >>> Noel Hunt, Waterford, free >>> Andy Kellet, Notts County, free >>> David Perkins, Rochdale, free >>> Craig Morgan, Fleetwood, undisclosed >>> Terell Thomas, Wimbledon, undisclosed >>> Josh Laurent, Shrewsbury, undisclosed
* Different people, honest
Manager: Paul Cook A proper gobshite. Blames everything from the 1983-1985 famine in Ethiopia through to the rise of the far right in Central and Eastern Europe on referees, and spends his spare time loudly and aggressively berating them. Prone to touchline and tunnel bust ups, but does tend to put a winning team together and having won League Two with both Chesterfield and Portsmouth he stormed to a League One title with Wigan last season. Four-year contract in the bank, he’ll now have a crack at the Championship, and its match officials, for the first time.
This Season: They’ve struggled to make signings, and will be hoping that Calum McManaman regains the form he had when he left rather than replicating his Sunderland performances. James Perch has spent the summer back there on trial but now looks set to sign for League One Scunthorpe instead. There’s some conjecture online about whether this is the financial realities of a team just promoted from League One, or whether the Whelen family are being a bit tight with their cash and there are ongoing talks about a £22m takeover by a Chinese/Hong Kong-based consortium. Either way I expect them to be fine. Cook is a good manager, if a difficult one to like, and there are definitely five-ish teams worse than Wigan on paper for me. Also responsible for a highlight of this transfer window – releasing Reece James to Sunderland and replacing him with Reece James on loan from Chelsea.
Fan Opinion: Vital Wigan Forum “Grigg’s ability to be an effective goalscorer will likely define our success I think we will be ok at the back and midfield but if Grigg doesn’t take chances we will struggle. This is likely his last chance to become a championship regular let’s hope he takes it. But there will be more signings no matter who they are though our prospects this year won’t change dramatically.
“I think that there has been a lot of unfair negativity towards the squad in recent weeks. A lot of people wanting to bring numerous signings but haven't we learned this lesson before? I don't think we have had a stable summer window in 5+ years since relegation. The squad last year won albeit a very poor League 1. We weren't always spectacular but we played for each other and worked as a team to grind out results. During the later stages of the season and in the cup run squad players came in and did a solid job for us and there is a very good feel factor around the group. Obviously pound for pound we don't have the same quality as the majority of other teams in the division but we don't have the finances to compete with most of them. What we need is a quiet steady window. A left back is a must and we haven't yet lost any key players. We have a very positive manager and backroom staff and I think that we are in a lot stronger position going into the league than we were under Caldwell. Positivity and momentum can do a lot in football. I am realistic and say that lower mid table would be a good season but I am more than confident that the current squad and staff are capable of achieving that. We need to find stability in this division before looking to kick on and push further up the league pending on how the takeover goes.”
Prediction: A successful struggle.
Last Season Right. Cracks fingers. Having sacked Gary Rowett when seventh, then won two of 27 games under Gianfranco Zola to plunge themselves into relegation trouble in 2016/17, Birmingham City ultimately survived by scraping wins against Huddersfield reserves and a Bristol City team with nothing to play for in the final two games. For this accomplishment, everybody’s favourite brown envelope enthusiast ‘Arry Redknapp was hailed as some sort of all-knowing sage, and promptly given the keys to the city. And the safe. Along with clueless director of football Jeff Vetere, old wobble chops embarked on a typically ruinous summer the likes of which the sport has scarcely seen since that mad three months when Bradford City made Benito Carbone one of the five richest kings of Europe and condemned their club to two decades of lower league purgatory. In all, 14 players were signed, including a life-changing five year contract for Barnsley centre half Marc Roberts, a job-lot deadline day deal with Brentford for Jota, Harlee Dean and Maxime Collin (who Redknapp referred to throughout as ‘the French lad’), and a contract for overweight Brighton goalkeeper David Stockdale so utterly ludicrous that he immediately abandoned his long-fought-for chance of Premier League football to move from Sussex to Birmingham and scrap around in the Championship again, muttering something about prioritising his daughter’s SATs exams as he went. Sam Gallagher was signed on loan from Southampton for a cumulative cost north of £4m, including Birmingham paying not only his £10k a week wage but adding £10k a week of their own for good measure – Gallagher scored seven times in 34 appearances, somewhere in the region of £571,000 a goal. Redknapp insisted throughout that he needed still more players, including during a painful Sky Sports interview after an August loss at Burton Albion – a team that trailed 1-0 at half time that night and yet, despite operating on a League Two budget, turned it round tactically in the second half and won 2-1. When even the Sky Sports reporter crawled out of his ringpiece long enough to point out that Birmingham had already signed more players than anybody else in the league, Redknapp refused to believe it and offered a vague assertion that “Wolves have signed a whole new team… haven’t they?”. Fourteen new players deep, Redknapp insisted it was still the same team that hadn’t been able to produce results for Zola (“a fentastic manager”) but maintained they would come with a late run to the play-offs and eventually win promotion. He was put out of his misery after a September home defeat to Preston, who also operate with one of the division’s lowest budgets, after which he said: “What can you do as a manager? I can’t do nothing. I stand there, what can I do? What can anyone do?” His final press conference included multiple references to injuries, how “difficult/’ard” it was, and that things might have been different had he been allowed to buy Preston’s £8m forward Jordan Hugill AS WELL when he’d wanted to. After this, Birmingham were plunged into the strange and fantastical world of Steve Cotterill and his gold chain, whose already thin grip on reality descended into stuff from Alice in Wonderland by the time he was also sacked in March. Next up, bizarrely given strong rumours of (wait for it, you won’t believe it, post Redknapp…) money problems and Financial Fair Play issues, Garry Monk. Five wins from the final nine games saw them survive again by five points. Redknapp went back to a combination of telling TalkSport how things would have been ok if he’d been given more time and money, and trying not to run his wife over again. By the end of the season the shameless prick said he’d welcome an approach from Ipswich Town.
Ins: Kristian Pedersen, Union Berlin, £2.3m (awaiting league clearance)
Outs: Robert Tesche, Bochum, free transfer >>> Jason Lowe, Bolton, free transfer >>> Jack Storer, Partick, free transfer >>> Andrew Shinnie, Luton, free transfer >>> Cheick Keita, Eupen, loan >>> Paul Robinson, put down
Manager: Garry Monk Football’s Edna Krabappel, a smart woman who makes bad choices. The late collapse in his play-off push at Leeds could easily be put down to Massimo Cellino’s very public pisballing about over the manager’s contract, but having been dismissed by the Swansea club he was revered at prior to that and then getting the push at Middlesbrough after spending the debt of a small African country on strikers, the glowing reputation he enjoys as a smart, modern, forward thinking coach is under severe threat. Why in the name of God he’s decided to risk it further by taking this lot on I have no idea.
This Season: Just for a change, Birmingham look to be in a bit of a mess. Their signing of Kristian Pedersen was held up by the Football League before belatedly being confirmed this week. He is the only arrival so far, with the club and league issuing a statement this week basically all but confirming a transfer embargo is in place due to financial mismanagement. With no arrivals to report, the club website has taken to announcing who will be picking the bins up this season in the style of a new signing announcement. Monk has told both his senior goalkeepers – David Stockdale and Thomasz Kuszczak – that they’re surplus to requirements and made them train with the kids, leaving rookie Connal Trueman as the first (and only) choice as it stands despite having just four appearances on loan at Solihull Moors to his name. Full back Jonathan Grounds has also been shoved off to train with the U23s. Bolton and Rotherham are highly likely to take up two of the relegation spots but as it stands Birmingham look prime fodder for the third one.
Fan Opinion: Matthew Elliott “Given the current circumstances. Transfer embargo and just one signing (Krystian Pedersen) who hasn't even been registered yet due to FFP issues. Six players outcast including our only 2 senior keepers. It's going to be very tough. A paper thin squad with a core of 15 seniors (not including the outcasts) and about 10 youngsters, including a goalkeeper that has never played a competitive league game before. It's not out of the question that we may have to sell some of our better players too. That said, the spirit is good and I think Monk will have us well organised, but it's going to be a very long season. I reckon about 13th or 14th. Anything above that would be great.”
Prediction: One too many flirtations with the bottom three.
Last Season It says something for the distorting effects of Financial Fair Play and ever increasing parachute payments that all three teams relegated from the Championship in 2016/17 bounced straight back from League One at the first time of asking. That included the dreadfully inept Rotherham team beaten 5-1 at Loftus Road in the final throes of the previous season, and Blackburn Rovers who’ve become something of a basket case under years of mismanagement by the Mad Indian Chicken Farmers. With Danny Graham’s ever expanding waistline less of an issue at the lower level, and maverick Gillingham extrovert Bradley Dack cannily secured by ever-likeable manager Tony Mowbray, they eased into second place behind Wigan with 96 points. Blessed relief for their long suffering fans.
Ins: Joe Rothwell, Oxford, undisclosed >>> Jacob Davenport, Man City, undisclosed >>> Kasey Palmer, Chelsea, loan
Outs: Liam Feeney, released >>> Elliott Ward, released
Manager: Tony Mowbray Face like an Aardman Animations character, heart the size of a bucket, Mowbray returned to form last season with a League One promotion campaign that daw 96 points won and 82 goals scored. Mowbray was hot property after successive top four finishes and a European campaign at Hibs, then storming to Championship promotion with West Brom, but lost his way through poor spells with Celtic, Coventry and most damagingly (to him and them) his hometown club Middlesbrough. Good to see a likeable guy who plays football the right way enjoying a bit of a renaissance.
This Season: Like rats, you’re never more than ten feet away from a Chelsea loanee and Blackburn’s capture of Kasey Palmer goes some way to solving the main problems with this Rovers team at this level – where’s the pace, and where are the goals going to come from? Palmer isn’t prolific himself, but starred in Huddersfield’s promotion team and bolsters an attack that paid for relying too heavily on Danny Graham last time they were at this level and will do well to avoid making the same mistake again. A 3-0 pre-season win against Everton gives hope, and I’m excited to see what Dack does at this level for the first time, but overall this looks like a bit of a slog ahead.
Fan Opinion: Ian Herbert, BRFCS.com podcast “Having spent a surprisingly enjoyable and nostalgic season in League 1 (the footballing equivalent of a lads’ weekend away in Blackpool; you remember why it was so much fun as a kid, you enjoy it for what it is, but upon sober reflection later, with a pounding headache and an empty wallet, decide that it’s a relaxing golf trip to the Algarve next time...) it’s very nice to be back in the warm, comforting bosom of the Championship. At time of writing, a strong argument could be made that Rovers squad is weaker than the one that won promotion last season. Largely due to the loss of loanees - especially Adam Armstrong and Harry Chapman - who would willingly be carried shoulder-high from the North East by Rovers fans if it helped to secure their return to Ewood before deadline day. Mowbray has strengthened midfield by signing young Jacob Davenport from Man City & former Man Utd youth player Joe Rothwell from Oxford Utd and with emerging home-grown youth in the form of Lewis Travis, this generates tempered optimism, but we are desperately short of options up front & pace in all departments. The goodwill of last season might therefore evaporate rather quickly. The bookies typically seem to price four or five teams as being more likely to be relegated than us and my head tells me that is probably fair, but my heart still expects three high-quality signings coming in next week and a top half finish nailed-on as a result. We’ll finish 19th.”
Prediction: We agree with Ian, a tough season but enough to survive somewhere around fifth bottom.
Last Season They are what they are, and they like it almost as much as opponents dislike facing it. Newly promoted from League One and with a budget somewhere between Preston and Burton, Millwall stuck to their basic, aggressive, direct principals and, after a nervous start to the season, soon carved out a surprise play-off push. Lee Gregory and Steve Morison start upfront ahead of a tireless four man midfield and a back four built for loosening tongues. The ball goes forward. The ball goes forward. The ball goes forward every time, at every opportunity, without exception. Every broken play, every free kick, every move, every set piece. Every throw in is taken immediately, and hurled as far forwards as they can get it. Defences are turned around, penned in, and bullied. They are regimented, well drilled, entirely comfortable in their own skin, and ceaseless. QPR’s embarrassing attempt to claw a 1-0 deficit back at The Den by going long to Matt Smith for the final half an hour (against fucking Millwall, give me strength), along with Ian Holloway’s behaviour towards the fans of his old club on the night, was the beginning of the end for him at Rangers in the eyes of some board members. It may not be pretty for the purists, but who’s to say that watching a Brendon Rodgers team complete 50 passes to end up back where they started is somehow a more palatable or attractive version of our sport? Still in with a shout of the play-offs with a fortnight of the season left, nobody in the league had really found a way of coping with Millwall come May. A superb return to the second tier from Neil Harris and his side.
Ins: Murray Wallace, Scunny, undisclosed >>> Ben Amos, Bolton, loan
Outs: Harry Smith, Macclesfield, free >>> Krystian Brymora, Hassleholms, free >>> Noah Chesmain, Colchester, free >>> Kris Twardek, Sligo Rovers, free >>> Tim Cahill, retired >>> Harry Toffolo, Lincoln, free >>> Tom King, Wimbledon, loan >>> Jimmy Abdou, Martigues, free >>> Christian Mbulu, released
Manager: Neil Harris Bloody loves Millwall, and they love him. Like a rough couple celebrating 20 years of marriage in a flat roofed pub. Whether you find their style of play palatable or not, to be pushing the play-offs last year after only just returning to the league, and operating on one of its smallest budgets, was a fine achievement.
This Season: Same story for a lot of teams – small budget, no parachute payments, FFP to comply with, in a league where some teams can spend £12m on one player. Millwall have brought in Murray Wallace from Scunthorpe which could be a decent move, but missed out on Ben Marshall who went to Norwich for £1.5m instead. Harris was publicly supportive of goalkeeper Jordan Archer last season but he was a weak link for me and they’ve tried to address that by bringing in Ben Amos. They’ll do well to recreate last season’s play-off push but their intimidating playing style will continue to trouble teams so they shouldn’t be in any trouble.
Fan Opinion: James Blewett “I think it will be a mid table finish for us this season. Last season was a huge pleasant surprise with us finishing eighth but I think Lions fans are wary of second season syndrome. Other clubs will know what to expect and we have had a frustrating and underwhelming transfer window (so far). We really need to strengthen up front and need more depth all round. Having said that, overall Millwall fans are pretty positive. Gates were up 35% last year and we have sold record numbers of season tickets. Can't wait for the whole soap opera to start again.”
Prediction: Lower mid-table.
Last Season Since being, quite reasonably, denied their request to take ownership of the community built and owned KC/KCom Stadium for a nominal amount in order to build a highly lucrative retail park on the adjacent car park entirely out of the goodness of their own hearts, Hull’s ruling Allam family have set about maliciously antagonising the city and asset stripping its football club. For the Premier League relegation season 2016/17 – a campaign they started with barely enough players to fill a bench – they recorded a £35m profit. Quite where that, and the subsequent parachute payment for last season, and the substantial transfer fees received for the likes of Robert Snodgrass and Harry Maguire, has gone is anybody’s guess but it’s nowhere to be seen in the club or the team. Russian manager Leonid Slutsky added a comic element to proceedings in the first half of the season, but your heart bled whenever he talked about how long he’d waited for a chance in the English game because to place any sort of faith in the shitehawks running City into the ground is to surrender any hope whatsoever. He was replaced with Nigel Adkins midway through a season which was played out in front of an average gate of 15,566 and frequently more than half the stadium empty. Among the disgusting, frequently petty, antagonising of the rugby league club that shares the stadium, the local council, the local population, and the disabled sports teams that used the adjacent sports hall until the Allams ripped the floor out of it overnight, they’ve also abolished concession tickets. They’re scum. Subhuman scum. Hull were fortunate not to join the equally farcical Sunderland in dropping straight through this division into the one below, but while they’re still being leeched upon by this ownership that demotion feels like ‘when’ rather than ‘if. The Football League watch on, and do absolutely nothing about it.
Ins: Reece Burke, West Ham, £1.5m >>> Jordy de Wijs, Eindhoven, £360k >>> David Milinkovic, Genoa, £260k >>> George Long, Sheff Utd, undisclosed >>> Todd Kane, Chelsea, loan >>> Eric Lichaj, Forest, undisclosed
Outs: David Meyler, Reading, free >>> Michael Dawson, Forest, free >>> Greg Luer, Woking, free >>> Sebastien Larsson, Solna, free >>> Allan McGregor, Rangers, free >>> Greg Olley, Gateshead, free >>> Max Clark, Vitesse, free >>> Moses Odubajo, released >>> Abel Hernandez, released
Manager: Nigel Adkins Stock was sky high when he went from physio to promotion winning manager at tiny Scunthorpe, then took Southampton back to the Premier League, but failures at Reading and Sheff Utd left him scratching around for a job and having to suckle at the withered teet of Assam Allam. Once asked a journalist in a press conference what the biggest room in his house was, then told him it was the room for improvement (the guy had said living room).
This Season: It’s another summer where the club’s more talented, experienced players have drained away. Max Clark is the latest youth team prospect to walk away from the club, something the owners don’t seem to be able to stop happening, possibly because they don’t give a shit about Hull City any more. In their place, a few cheap token gesture type signings. Nigel Adkins is a likeable bloke, and has done some good jobs in his time at Scunny and Southampton, but the manager is not the issue here, the owners are, and while the Allams remain in situ, deliberately and maliciously running this club into the ground, it’s hard to foresee anything other than another nine months of struggle.
Fan Opinion: Tigerlink “After losing the likes of David Meyler, Michael Dawson, Abel Hernandez and Allan McGregor over the summer, our squad looks light in terms of experience and quality. We do have some decent lads left but I feel we still need to bring in 2/3 more quality players including a proven goalscorer. Expect a mid-table finish at best and more scaling back by our owners who, having sold our best assets, are unwilling to fork out substantial cash for replacements.”
Prediction: While the Allams remain this is a club only heading in one direction. Will compete with Reading and Birmingham to avoid the final relegation spot.
Last Season Jaap Stam came within a play-off final penalty shoot out against Huddersfield of boring his way into the Premier League in 2016/17, and those of us who thought all along that Reading were a festering beer turd of a team, impossible to watch for more than five minutes without your eyeballs vacating your skull in protest, nearly looked very silly. Well, hello and welcome 2017/18, the season when the Championship mercifully woke up to the idea that Stam was a footballing anti-Christ, and his team was a packet of dog chocolate. They lost 2-0 at QPR on day one and looked fairly rancid doing it. They won three of their first 13 games and then - starting in mid-December - embarked on a run of one league win from 18 games in which they scored one goal or less on 14 occasions. The attendance for a 3-1 home loss to Sheff Utd in February, albeit in heavy snow, was 6,769 in a 24,000 stadium. Stam was sacked. And don’t let the world’s biggest door smack you too hard in the arse on the way out you miserable toss rag. Paul Clement felt like a coup as replacement, but like Garry Monk is starting to feel like one of those managers whose reputation is let down by his results. But for a typically charitable 1-0 donation from QPR in April (including an injury time penalty miss from Jake Bidwell) they’d have been relegated regardless. They also paid £8m for Sone Aluko, which frankly should have resulted in fucking a points deduction.
Ins: Marc McNulty, Coventry, £1.2m >>> John O’Shea, Sunderland, free >>> David Meyler, Hull, free >>> Darren Sidoel, Ajax, free >>> Andy Yiadom, Barnsley, free >>> Sam Baldock, Brighton, undisclosed
Outs: Sandro Wieser, Vaduz, free >>> Deniss Rakels, Riga, free >>> Tennai Watson, Wimbledon, loan >>> Joseph Mendes, Ajaccio, free >>> Jonathan Bond, West Brom, free >>> Andrija Novakovich, Fortuna Sittard, loan >>> Stephen Quinn, released >>> Yann Kermorgant, released >>> Lewis Hall, Northampton, loan
Manager: Paul Clement As the long time assistant to Carlo Ancelotti, Clement has worked with trophy laden teams at Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Which makes him an unbelievably brilliant manager in waiting doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? Hello? Is this thing on? Sacked at Derby while fourth due to some unmitigated bullshit about not doing things “the Derby way” and was never likely to do much good with Swansea once they’d taken Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente away from him without adequate replacement. But he’d have been relegated at Reading last season but for a typically generous offering from Charity Park Rangers in April and really needs a good season here. Doubts abound about whether he is really a great manager/coach once you take all the superstar players away and leave him trying to extract performances from John O’Shea.
This Season: Reading were appalling last season and incredibly lucky to stay up having won only two of their last 17. Hopes that a summer of rest and squad rebuilding, and a first full season with Paul Clement, may arrest the slide have been tempered somewhat by a dire set of pre-season results. This summer they’ve failed to win any of their six friendlies, losing 2-1 at Eastleigh, 4-2 at Wimbledon and 4-0 at home to Palace in the process. Key defender Liam Moore has stuck a transfer request in. They start with Derby at home then Forest away, which looks daunting, but then face Birmingham and Bolton back to back, which will show just how bad a state they’re really in. I do like Marc McNulty though, very tidy signing that I’m quite jealous of.
Fan Opinion: Simeon Pickup “It's hard to see Reading having a particularly good 2018/19 season to be honest. Morale is still very low after a soul-sucking 2017/18 that saw us avoid relegation by the skin of our teeth, and a lack of signings has done little to change that. Although pre-summer talk of a complete overhaul was probably over the top, we certainly needed a few quality incomings to boost the standard of the first team - a goalscorer, a creative player and a defensive midfielder at least. Instead, we've seen three free agents arrive (Andy Yiadom, David Meyler and John O'Shea) whilst Marc McNulty (a £1.5m addition from Coventry City) is an unknown quantity at Championship level. If used properly, they're all potentially very effective transfers - Yiadom adds attacking potential down the right, Meyler balances out the midfield, O'Shea is experienced cover at the back and McNulty should be a source of goals when he's adapted to the second tier. However, simply put, we needed a lot more. A lot of what happens next season will depend on how much Paul Clement can get out of our existing talent. On paper at least, Tiago Ilori, Liam Kelly, John Swift, Sone Aluko and others are very capable, technically gifted, players at this level but didn't show it last season. If the manager can exploit their potential we'll improve noticeably on last season. As things stand, I'm optimistic he'll be able to do that as, in the four months or so he's been at the club, he's shown that he's pragmatic and capable of bringing new ideas to the table. It may take a while for him to bed those ideas in, but he'll manage it nonetheless. With all of the above in mind, I'd predict Reading to start quite slowly but gradually pick up form as we become more confident and organised. In the end we'll finish in mid-table: 12th.”
Prediction: One of three teams (Birmingham, Reading, Hull) fighting it out to avoid the third relegation spot.
Last Season Ipswich actually started quite well, winning their first five games in all comps and scoring a dozen goals into the bargain. Mick McCarthy had been pilloried for a 2016/17 campaign so boring Addenbrookes Hospital had started to use it to medically induce comas and it appeared for one glorious month that he’d finally thrown off the shackles and let his team live a bit, breath the air, feel the grass under their feet, go over the halfway line occasionally. Not so. They promptly lost eight of the next 11, plunging them back into midtable, resigning a long-suffering support base that pays some of the highest ticket prices in the league to a seventeenth consecutive season at this level. They were/are/have been for sometime functional to the point of being unwatchable. Presented with talented Man City youngster Bersant Celina on loan (you may remember him from such 30 yard piledrivers as the one he banged in at Loftus Road in September), McCarthy frequently left him on the bench citing poor work on defence, and when the fans finally flipped their cog with this and engaged in an outright revolt at Burton Albion in October he said in his press conference that the more they moaned the less likely he was to use him – stubborn, backward-thinking, bullshit from the PR school of Marie Antoinette. Going nowhere, and boring the living tits off people to the point where they could advertise free mastectomy’s in the match programme, Ipswich were playing in front of more than 15,000 empty seats at home in the second half of the season. Between January 27 (0-1 at home to Wolves) and March 13 (0-3 at home to Hull) they played five successive home matches without scoring a single goal. Faced with a season ticket renewal deadline, and a toxic atmosphere among those still attending home games, reclusive owner Marcus Evans reluctantly confirmed that McCarthy’s contract would not be renewed at the end of the season. When a 1-0 home win against Barnsley, the first success in seven games, was played out in front of just 13,271 mostly hostile supporters, McCarthy decided he’d had enough and went early.
Ins: Gwion Edwards, Peterborough, £700k >>> Jordan Roberts, Crawley, free >>> Trevoh Chalobah, Chelsea, loan >>> Ellis Harrison, Bristol Rovers, £750k >>> Jonoi Donacien, Accrington, loan (to turn permanent pending a work permit)
Outs: Adam Webster, Bristol City, £3.6m >>> Mustapha Carayol, released >>> David McGoldrick, Sheff Utd, free >>> Michael Crowe, Preston, free >>> Luke Hyam, Southend, free >>> Stephen Gleeson, Aberdeen, free
Manager: Paul Hurst Deserves a chance at this level having broken Grimsby Town’s stubborn resistance to returning to the Football League, then carted relegation favourites Shrewsbury all the way to last year’s League One play-off final. Known for returning to former clubs for players he trusts - the wonderfully talented Jon Nolan has played for him at Grimsby and Shrewsbury and would fit well at Ipswich too. In a way it’s a tough job, with money tight and 16 years of Championship monotony to break. But then, the Ipswich fans arguably just want a bit of excitement putting back in their lives, which shouldn’t be too difficult.
This Season: For all the stick levelled at Mick McCarthy, he did save them from Championship relegation trouble and has always been a steady, stable, reliable pair of managerial hands at this level. The Ipswich fans who drove him into an early exit last season have repeatedly been told “be careful what you wish for” by football journalism’s learned scholars and there’ll be no shortage of people waiting to say ‘I told you so’ should things go tits up for his replacement Paul Hurst. But I’d be willing to bet none of those looking down their noses at Town fans for daring to want a bit more than, oh, I don’t know, playing for seven and a half hours at home without scoring a goal, actually had to sit and watch McCarthy’s Ipswich regularly/at all. It had gone stale, quite clearly, and the time was right for a change – that will still be the case, even if things don’t go well this season. Paul Hurst is one of the outstanding up and coming managerial talents from the lower divisions and it’s right and proper that a Championship team has noticed this and taken a punt on him – again, that will still have been the case, even if he fails here. McCarthy proudly said he’d started on a win and finished on a win, and that was true, but prior to a scraped 1-0 win against relegation haunted Barnsley he’d also been on yet another run of six matches without a win, five of them without scoring a goal. They drew a blank in 17 games last season. Be careful what you wish for? What exactly was this brilliant thing that Ipswich fans had in the first place? They’ve made good signings, and played more decent football in their pre-season friendlies than in the previous two seasons combined.
Fan Opinion: Harry from Bath via TWTD “Ipswich fans often joke about finishing 15th in the Championship. The hinterland of 15th is a place of safety, akin to the Shire in Middle-Earth, not too close to the Mordor of the bottom three, but not so vaunted as to risk the ‘it’s happening again’ chants annually pelted now at the Rams. We have finished in or around 15th under managers as diverse as Alf Ramsey and Roy Keane and we know it can be achieved in a variety of ways, even relying on Jay-Emmanuel Thomas.
“‘Ipswich will miss Big Mick and rue the day they forced him out.’ Go on any Championship forum and look for the ‘Bottom three?’ thread and sure as anything we will crop up alongside Rotherham, Bolton, Reading and (ahem) other teams who may be from London. Talk to any Town supporter and you will hear a different story. Mick was brilliant. He stabilised a chaotic club and built a decent play-off team on a pittance but we knew it was time for a change when he started ripping into the fans - at Carrow Road of all places. Paul Hurst is not the messiah but he is a bit different. Gone are the days of percentage football, set-pieces and heroic 1-0 wins against the odds. We are playing football on the deck without fear and with width and tempo. The catastrophic injury crisis which ripped our midfield apart is being addressed as a structural issue and there is even the danger of a cup run.
“It is joyous to see a team playing with freedom to express themselves. It is all work-in-progress and we know that we are behind the Preston’s and Sheffield United’s right now, let alone the big boys but we can live with this. We may not make promotion or even a top-half finish, but whisper it quietly, this could be our finest 15th placed finish yet.”
Prediction: An improvement on last season, both in league position and style of play, but still midtable.
Last Season Remarkably promoted thanks to the fine work of king pragmatist Phil Parkinson, Bolton arrived back in the Championship in just as big a state as they’d left it the year before. They failed to win any of their first 11 games, including a run of eight straight league defeats through September prior to a first win at the twelfth time of asking against hapless Sheff Wed. Using a midfield combination of Karl Henry and Darren Pratley, which would easily qualify for Shopmobility, they amassed the sum total of one away win in a year, at Sheff Utd of all places – slow handclap Blades. From the start of January to the end of April they won three times in 20 games. They got just good enough for just long enough (specifically the final four minutes of their last game of the season at home to Nottingham Forest having trailed 2-1 heading for stoppage time) to survive regardless, cementing one of the Championship’s worst away days on the calendar for another year at the expense of Burton Albion and their lovely town full of wonderful pubs. Bastards.
Ins: Chiori Johnson, Arsenal, free >>> Joe Pritchard, Tottenham, free >>> Pawel Olkowski, Coln, free >>> Jason Lowe, Birmingham, free >>> Clayton Donaldson, Sheff Utd, free >>> Stephen Duke-McKenna, Everton, free >>> Erhun Oztumer, Walsall, free >>> Yanic Wildschut, Norwich, loan >>> Marc Wilson, Sunderland, free >>> Josh Magennis, Charlton, £200,000 >>> Jack Hobbs, Forest, free
Outs: Chris Taylor, Blackpool, free >>> Filipe Morais, Crawley, free >>> Darren Pratley, Charlton, free >>> Mark Howard, Blackpool, free >>> Jeff King, St Mirren, free >>> Aaron Wilbraham, Rochdale, free >>> Ben Amos, Millwall, loan >>> Jem Karacan, released >>> Chinedu Obasi, released >>> Karl Henry, released >>> Derik Osede, released >>> Jan Kirchhoff, released >>> Dorian Dervite, released
Manager: Phil Parkinson Does well in tight situations, and his current one at Bolton is tight as a mouse’s waistcoat. Promoted to the Championship at Colchester when they were still at Layer Road and had League One’s lowest gates, won promotion from League Two and took Bradford City to the League Cup final, then promoted at survived with Bolton despite the club being in a perpetual state of crisis. Eleven players in this summer and 13 out, he’s trying every possible way to trade, scrap and fight his way out of a situation most managers would be completely overwhelmed by.
This Season: Walsall’s diminutive wondergoal specialist Erhun Oztumer is an eye-catching summer addition but relying on Josh Magennis and Clayton Donaldson for enough goals to keep you up is a road paved with disappointment. You’ll never see Magennis play without a commentator marvelling that he’s made it as a striker despite being a goalkeeper throughout his youth football – you’ll also never see Magennis play without wondering whether he’d have been better off staying there. I think it was Dave McIntyre who wrote that the mark of a badly run club is the long, rambling, egotistical statement on the official website, and rarely a week seems to go by without Bolton’s owners playing out some dispute or other in the public domain. Something to do with a catering contract this week. A pre-season friendly with St Mirren was cancelled when the players refused to play it, claiming they were still owed money from the previous season. This looks a disaster waiting to happen.
Fan Opinion: Burnden Aces “It's been another interesting summer at Bolton, both on and off the pitch - something I'm sure QPR fans will be able to relate to following the recent news of a transfer embargo. In terms of our own dealings, we're all set to announce the £200,000 signing of forward Josh Magennis from Charlton Athletic. This will be our first cash transfer in three-and-a-half years, something that really shows how bad things got for us. As for the rest of our business, names such as Erhun Oztumer, Jason Lowe, Yanic Wildschut, Clayton Donaldson and Marc Wilson could all prove to be good additions, but we're operating with a very miniscule squad due to the sheer number of departures at the end of last season. There's reasons to be optimistic, but there are just as many reasons to be fearful for the next nine months. It really is impossible to predict where we'll go at this stage.”
Last Season Love Rotherham. The place, the people, the cleverly designed and atmospheric new stadium, the pints of beer for under £3, the football club succeeding despite being surrounded on all sides by so-called bigger teams with much larger budgets and support bases – all of whom look down on, patronise and belittle the likes of Rotherham, Barnsley, Donny, Scunny and Grimsby despite being a collective shithouse themselves since the late 1990s. It was nothing shy of incredible that the team that we saw lose 5-1 at Loftus Road in April 2017, with two centre backs who wouldn’t get in the Accrington Stanley Bowles second XI falling over their own feet, bounced straight back at the first time of asking (though it does sound alarm bells about what Financial Fair Play and other factors are doing to the competitiveness of League One versus the Championship). That’s me making a wider point at the expense of a fine achievement by reluctant local hero Paul Warne and his team, who enacted the remarkable turnaround at the expense of fancied Scunthorpe and Shrewsbury in the play-offs. They looked well-managed, well-coached, fit, organised and together as a group in those games. Delight at seeing them back and the chance to get up there and see old friends again lasted as long as it took the fixtures to be released with us scheduled to visit on a Tuesday night in November. Pissflaps.
Ins: Billy Jones, Sunderland, free >>> Zak Vyner, Bristol City, loan >>> Clark Robertson, Blackpool, undisclosed >>> Kyle Vassell, Blackpool, undisclosed >>> Sean Raggett, Norwich, loan
Outs: Jonson Clarke-Harris, Coventry, free >>> Jerry Yates, Carlisle, loan >>> Dominic Ball, Aberdeen, loan >>> Ben Purrington, Wimbledon, loan
Manager: Paul Warne Local hero. Stepped up, reluctantly, from fitness coach to manager after a disastrous start to 2016/17 with Alan Stubbs and then, briefly, Kenny Jackett in charge, Couldn’t halt an inevitable slide to relegation but did well to return them to the Championship at the first time of asking last season.
This Season: Let’s get some perspective for a start, we are not talking about Serie A circa 1994 here, we’re talking about the Championship, where really the biggest challenge is having so many games to play in such a short period of time. Yeh there are teams with big money, and some of them will do very well, but there are just as many who’ve spent big and failed at this level while clubs on the budgets of Huddersfield, Burnley and Preston have been successful. Burton Albion managed to stay in this league for two seasons. It is likely, highly likely, that Rotherham won’t have enough to stay up, though I expect more from them than the shambles they descended to last time. But it’s not the impossible job, as Millwall showed last season after their own promotion. Being completely written off by everybody – including, in a minute, by us – may suit them.
Fan Opinion: Ross Middleton “Based on budget and spending so far (four signings for the grand old total of nothing) we are everybody's (and a fair few Rotherham fans') favourites to go down. However, team spirit and surprise element may take us further than we think. I imagine everyone expects to beat us and may underestimate us on that basis so we could surprise a few. There are definitely far more positives than the last time we were here under Alan Stubbs, no egos etc. We really have a good unit and Paul Warne will only sign players who fit his mantra of "good human beings". We will need a good start (Brentford away, Ipswich home) which may breed confidence. A few more additions (Ryan Yates, Marek Rodak and Richie Towell along with another striker we are told) will add strength to the squad. If I'm honest mate I don't expect much but you never know...”
Prediction: Sadly, also relegated.
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