Season Preview 2019/20 – Contenders
Monday, 29th Jul 2019 08:18 by Clive Whittingham
LFW’s annual semi-serious run-down of the 23 teams QPR will be facing in the league this season starts with the seven clubs the bookies believe will be competing for promotion.
Leeds United 9/2
Last Season A Leeds season so Leeds they’re literally making a documentary about it to examine the phenomena. Take Us Home, narrated by Russell Crowe (no, really), is a six-part series coming to Amazon Prime later this year and will, inevitably, be five hours of wanking off Marcelo Bielsa and talking about how massive Leeds United are followed by a final episode where it all crashes down around their ears. That, in a nutshell, was Leeds’ 2018/19.
As usual, they won the league in August. Turn it in lads, pack up and go home, we’re all done here. Scarves were twirled in the air, parts of the ground previously closed and abandoned were suddenly filled by people who swore they’d been there all along, every game was on the television, only three of the first 17 in the league were lost and the final one of those, at West Brom, was immediately responded to with a seven match winning streak leading into Christmas. This was, frankly, a procession. No shit - they’d somehow managed to tempt the pre-eminent coach of his generation, an inspiration to Pep Guardiola and others, to come and have an Indian summer in God’s own country. Of course it was a procession. Even Leeds, even Leeds, couldn’t fail to wipe the floor with the Championship with bloody Marcelo Bielsa in charge. Wasn’t even a fair fight your honour.
Anyway, the newly swelled masses settled in for a second half of the season that was spent mostly baiting Sheffield United. Having a dedicated channel on Sky Sports meant Leeds almost always went first on any given weekend, and each victory was greeted with the smug certainty of punters who knew they were onto a sure thing – “over to you Blades”, “pressure’s on”. They had more hashtags than they knew what to do with. So carried away did they get that neither they, nor an enraptured media, really seemed to notice that they’d started to lose. Hull won 2-0 at Elland Road, Nottingham Forest beat them 4-2 at the City Ground, they lost 2-1 away to a dreadful Stoke team who everybody else beat and when Norwich came to Yorkshire they were shown what an actual quality promotable team looked like as the Canaries declared at 3-1. In February they contrived to lose 1-0 to Queens Park Rangers, a team that won only three matches in the entire second half of the season, a team that lost a record 11 home games across the season, a team that on the night took the whole of Leeds on with one man – Luke Freeman – and won anyway.
And so these sort of mishaps continued. Birmingham did the double over them – Birmingham. Sheffield United, apparently not really troubled by the “over to you” narrative, won 1-0 at Elland Road. Leeds, in stoppage time, still faffing about with intricate passing in their own box, Noel Whelan screaming into the Radio Leeds mic “what are we doing? What are we doing?”. Leeds went 1-0 up at home to Wigan who had a man sent off in the first half, and lost 2-1. On and on it went. Sheff Utd – “over to you Blades” - lost twice in the whole second half of the season. Leeds lost nine, including a final day 3-2 set back at Ipswich who, honest to God, I could have beaten with a team assembled from the regulars at the Crown and Sceptre.
They then became the only team in the history of the play-offs to hold a 2-0 aggregate lead in the second leg as the home team and lose anyway, melting into the ground in a manner not seen since Chernobyl blew up when their much-vaunted “played in the Champions League”, “played for Real Madrid”, “can’t believe we’ve got him” goalkeeper Kiko Cassilla went full Ademole Bankole on them. No drill. Four two they lost in the end. Pontus Jansson, after a season of shithousing, a season of cheap shots, a season of Twitter wind ups, and referee abuse, and opposition fan baiting, and silly dances, went and sat very quietly by the advertising hoardings on the far side of the field.
Ins: Ben White, CB, Brighton, Loan >>> Helder Costa, RW, Wolves, Loan >>> Liam McCarron, CF, Carlisle, Undis >>> Jack Clarke, RW, Spurs, Loan >>> Jack Harrison, LM, Man City, Loan
Outs: Jack Clarke, RW, Spurs, £9.9m >>> Pontus Jansson, CB, Brentford, £5.54m >>> Samu Saiz, AM, Girona, £2.25m >>> Caleb Ekuban, CF, Trabzonspor, £900k >>> Lewie Coyle, RB, Fleetwood, Loan >>> Sam Dalby, CF, Watford, Free >>> Paudie O’Connor, CB, Bradford, Free >>> Hadi Sacko, RW, Denizlispor, Undis >>> Jay Roy Grot, CF, Vitesse, Loan >>> Aapo Halme, CB, Barnsley, Undis >>> Tyler Denton, RB, Stevenage, Undis
Manager: Marcello Bielsa Absolute box office. For all the schadenfreude about Leeds’ latest choke, the only reason that squad of players were anywhere close to promotion was because of the manager. A midtable Championship team, with a couple of outstanding talents at opposite ends of their careers in Jack Clarke and Pablo Hernandez, with a suspect defence and a collection of dodgy goalkeepers, taken to the very brink of the Premier League by a once in a generation coaching talent. It’s a shame he’s with Leeds, but it’s a privilege to have him in this division and watch how his team goes about it. He needed an interpreter to do press, and could have used that as an excuse to do quick, generic interview answers. Or, nah. Settle yourself in for prolonged dissections of Championship football in a foreign language. When Frank Lampard – previously spotted largering it up in a Heathrow airport bar on 9/11, still tight as arse cheeks with his best mate John ‘did you think I called you a fucking black cunt?’ Terry – suddenly got all moralistic about a geezer watching his training session from a public footpath, Bielsa admitted it outright, and justified it by saying they knew so much about Derby anyway that it didn’t really matter. When Derby pushed it, he held a two-hour PowerPoint seminar laying out exactly what they knew about Derby for the whole division to see. Master trolling. The Rams, though, would have the last laugh. Bielsa’s moral compass is as unhinged as his mind. Praised universally for allowing Aston Villa a sportsmanship walk-in goal to correct what was, at worst, a grey area misjustice mainly caused by the comedy stylings of Stewart Attwell in an end of season dead rubber… LFW can’t help but notice that when Kemar Roofe deliberately punched in a late winner in a game that did matter against Nottingham Forest no such charity was forthcoming. Nevertheless, love him. Absolutely love him. Supremely jealous that Leeds have him.
This Season: And that’s really the thing isn’t it? This whole scenario hangs entirely around the neck of Marcello Bielsa. I’m amazed he’s stayed on, it really felt like shit or bust last season and the manner of the bust I felt certain would send him on his nomadic way. Leeds activated an extension in his deal and if he’s genuinely happy with that, and committed to staying, they will inevitably be a threat again, particularly with the division significantly weaker than it was last season. Every bookmaker has them favourite, if Bielsa were to up and leave tomorrow (and he has form for it) they’d get layed more than Jordan. Bielsa’s genius did only take them so far though, and the squad still has all the same weaknesses it did last season at the time of going to press. Their goalkeepers have been problem children for years. Liam Cooper got found out at the business end of last season and Pontus Janson has left which means the centre of their defence remains a concern – much will be asked of Brighton loanee Ben White. Kalvin Phillips was enormous for them last season, but is being linked with moves. Patrick Bamford endured a torrid end to the season, mixing gilt-edged missed chances with faux trips over his own violin strings, but will be relied upon again with Roofe in the absence of any striker additions. Helder Costa is a statement of intent, but he’s another wide attacking player who doesn’t score anywhere near as many as he should, often through lousy finishing (cue hat trick against QPR). Is it enough, with all the baggage Leeds come with anyway, and all the mental scars they gathered in May, to push them over the edge this time? I have my doubts.
Fan Opinion: Nico Franks “Helder Costa is a great signing and somewhat makes up for the disappointment of missing out of Dan James midway through last season. Ben White looks decent and will hopefully turn out to be a younger, less egocentric version of Pontus Jansson, whose departure was inevitable. Returning Man City loanee Jack Harrison seems to have improved since the end of last season and Jack Clarke has been generously gifted back to us from Spurs by Poch as a present to his football Dad, Marcelo Bielsa.
“It's been a long time since we've started a season as favourites and with the same manager in the dugout in August as the one who was there in May. So, we're in unchartered territory in many ways. Far and away the most important thing will be holding on to Kalvin Philips - aka the Yorkshire Pirlo - as he's central to Bielsa-ball and has quietly turned himself into one of the best players in the league.
“One scenario is that all the reasons we missed out on the second automatic place last season - our inability to finish mixed with dodgy defending - will be exposed earlier and more severely, with Beilsa deciding to call it a day before Christmas. Alternatively, young prospect Ryan Edmondson will be the 25+ goal striker we desperately need to get us over the edge, we'll win every game 5-4 and romp to a 100+ point season.
“Very few managers have got teams promoted in their first season in the Championship - if Bielsa had done it last year it would have been insane - and both Farke and Wilder needed one season before they could get Norwich/Sheff Utd up. Bielsa did far better than they did in their first seasons, so ipso facto, WGUAFC.”
Prediction: 3rd. Win the league in August, lose the play-offs in May.
Last Season There was a school of thought that said Fulham would actually find this Premier League malarkey a bit of a doddle. Because, so the fairytale went, Fulham were more of a Premier League team than a Championship one, even though the Championship was where they temporarily resided. They had the gruff of voice and stylish of style Slavisa Jokanovic in charge and played in threes through the thirds and all that sort of trendy muck. They had Tom Cairney, who Newcastle wanted, and Ryan Sessegnon, a miracle working 12-year-old for whom Fulham had to turn down twice daily bids of a bazillion pounds a time from Tottenham Hotspur. They had Mitrovic up front, and although he’s a bit of a wild child he’s friends with Jokanovic so that was all certain to be fine. And you know perhaps, perhaps, if they’d believed all that guff themselves and kept faith with the team that got them there, they might have been alright. Instead, they closely studied Queens Park Rangers’ brutal assault on the Premier League under Tony Fernandes years 2011-2014 and concluded: “this guy’s making all the right moves”. That gorgeous little promoted team was torn up. All the players arrived. All of them. Each more expensive than the last. None of them in a position that needed filling, nor with any idea how they all might fit together in a team. Alfie Mawson for £20m. Andre Anguissa for £23m. Jean Serri for £25m. When it was all clearly going very badly wrong, they doubled down. When you’re signing Ryan Babel in January, it’s time for the old Championship Manager hard reset. Where was a close friend when Fulham so desperately needed an intervention? They were relegated. Easily. With loads to spare. Proving, once more, the old Chinese proverb: great pain awaits fool who attempts Premier League football with Dennis Odoi at centre half.
Ins: Anthony Knockaert, RW, Brighton, Loan >>> Ivan Cavaleiro, CF, Wolves, Loan
Outs: Jean Michael Seri, CM, Galatasaray, Loan >>> Ryan Babel, RW, Galatasaray, Free >>> Lazar Markovic, RW, Released >>> Berti Schotterl, GK, Released >>> Andre Anguissa, CM, Villarreal, Loan
Manager: Scott Parker Cards on the table, I used to bloody love Scott Parker. Living on a university halls corridor made up of QPR, Ipswich, West Ham, Arsenal and Spurs, united by a love of watching perennial Monday Night Footballers Charlton punch the top flight on the nose, led by the boy that used to be in the McDonalds advert, meant I saw a lot of him early in his career. He scored his first senior goal against QPR in a televised Friday night game. Of course Charlton weren’t so nearly enraptured with upper midtable Premier League finishes as we were as neutrals, ditched Alan Curbishley under the Taken Us As Far As He Can Act of 1997 and have been an absolute free-falling basket case ever since. Parker moved onto Chelsea in their early hoarding days and if you’ll forgive me one Chelsea story from behind the scenes… Back then Jose Mourinho would ask a different player each week to deliver the final address to the team in the changing room at 14.50 before they went out. Parker, who rarely started, got a turn at this at Newcastle in the League Cup where Chelsea had, and have since, always struggled for a result. His speech, and the manner of its delivery, was Al Pacino Any Given Sunday material, taking aback monied senior professionals of many caps standing and making the hairs stand up on the back of the ball bag of anybody who was there to hear it. Chelsea won. Parker would go on to play for Newcastle, and later for West Ham when the sheer number of old soaks who reckon they used to stand on the Chicken Run (must have had a capacity of 750,000 that thing) working in the media got him the Football Writers’ Player of the Year fully ten years after he should have won it the first time if anybody ever noticed Charlton Athletic. His penchant for inspirational team talks continued at Upton Park. England the national team, like England the country, realised what they had on their hands all too late. His 18 caps against Phil Neville’s 59 is a national footballing disgrace, perpetuated by the lazy bias that if you play for Man Utd or one of the big clubs you must be good and if you don’t you must be shit. Gareth Southgate is better, but you still see players who weren’t ever given a look in at Southampton move to Liverpool and suddenly command a call up without playing a game.
This Season: Whether all of that misty-eyed nostalgia is enough to make Scott Parker a successful manager of Fulham straight off the bat remains to be seen. His un-smiling, un-frowning face and deadpan, emotionless answers in public remind me of the penguin from Wallace and Gromit, and he appears to have got the job on the back of three quick-fire wins achieved in meaningless matches at the end of last season when it was long since over – Cardiff, Bournemouth and Everton a less-than-formidable trio of victims followed by a 4-0 home defeat to Michael Ashley’s Sporting Goods Emporium on the last day. There’s a bit of Darren Moore about it, and having kept faith with him last season West Brom then shit the bed at the oddest possible time, firing him for the run in with no obvious replacement. Don’t put that past a Fulham owner who talks a good game but generally delivers an expensive pile of slop. Their transfer strategy last season was pure-QPR, and that takes some getting over as we know. Their problems at centre half remain, principally because Dennis Odoi remains and Alfie Mawson is once again crocked before the season has even begun, but so to do Tom Cairney and Mitrovic and in the weakest Championship for years that might be enough for a team with maximum parachute payment to scramble back. Joe Bryan, recruited last summer from Bristol City, is tremendous at this level and goalkeeper Marek Rodak impressed on loan at Rotherham last season, making more saves than any other stopper in the division. Remember, even that farcical QPR side of Kevin Doyle, Ravel Morrison, Armand Traore, Joey Barton, Tom Carroll, Will Keane, Mobido Maiga, and a barely half-arsed Harry Redknapp got promoted straight away. Just don’t do what we did and fuck it up all over again second time around.
Fan Opinion: Konk “Last season’s big problems were the business overseen by Tony Khan, our DOF/owner's son, and a bit of bad luck with injuries. It wasn’t helped by the play-offs and World Cup, but we left everything to the last minute and made five signings on deadline day. Our whole defence needed overhauling after promotion as we lost the hugely influential Fredericks (West Ham), Targett (returned to Southampton) and it was highly questionable that Ream and Odoi would be able to adjust to the Premier League. We signed an injured Alfie Mawson, who never looked happy/fit and Calum Chambers ended up playing well in CM after being something of a liability at CB. We weren't able to play a settled defence due to poor injuries and form and Jokanovic was sacked after 12 games with us having gained five points and conceded 31 goals. It wasn't necessarily looking like he could keep us up, but I'd have stuck with him and given him this season. Ranieri was a disaster - tried to play a far more direct game, but didn't have the players to carry it out. By the time he was sacked, it was too late to salvage the season. Marquee signings like Schurle and Seri lacked heart and application, Anguissa massively underdelivered given what we paid for him and neither new keeper - especially Fabri - looked an improvement on Bettinelli.
“Getting Cairney and Mitrovic to sign new contracts this summer was huge - both are brilliant at this level. Signing two exciting players in Knoackaert and Cavaleiro on loan with the option to buy, means that we certainly shouldn't struggle for goals, but I would be a lot happier if we could sign a CB with pace, a RB and possibly a LB. If Anguissa goes, then we will need a DM to come in. Looks like Ryan Sessegnon will be off to Tottenham - sad to see him go, but the rumoured £20m will be a big help with FFP. A lot of people are making us favourites, but with an inexperienced manager and a wobbly defence, I'm not completely convinced. However, given our attacking options, I would be very disappointed if we didn't make the top four, and at this stage in the Transfer window, automatic promotion doesn't look implausible. I'll tempt fate, be bold and go with 2nd.”
Prediction: 4th. Weaknesses remain, particularly in defence, but if that can be tightened up and Mitrovic and Cairney are indeed going to stay and play then you’d have to fancy them for top four bare minimum.
Cardiff City 10/1
Last Season Neil Warnock openly admits these days that he prefers managing in the Football League, with eight promotions to his name, than the Premier League, where they find him a bit old school of football if rather radical of eyebrow. Forced, once more, by his own brilliance, to give the top flight a go regardless, he immediately set about building Cardiff’s Championship title winning side of 2019/20 by using the Premier League television dough to cherry-pick the best of the division the Bluebirds had temporarily left behind. Bobby Reid from Bristol City, Alex Smithies from QPR, Greg Cunningham from Preston, one or the other of those Murphy boys from Norwich… To pass the time until then, like some sort of weird 12-month pre-season, they bumbled around the Premier League in much the same way they’d tackled the Championship the year before – pumping balls into the penalty area and having Sol Bamba and Sean Morrison shout at people. This was surprisingly effective – Fulham, Brighton, Wolves, Southampton, Leicester, Southampton again and Bournemouth all came a cropper. Only the worst ten minutes of refereeing since Rob Styles was loose in the wild denied them a famous home win against Chelsea. But they were never likely to be good enough, and the season was tragically marred when a January attempt to paper over the cracks with the big money capture of Argentine striker Emiliano Sala from Nantes ended with the player and the unlicensed pilot of the illegitimate flight the club had arranged to get him to Wales dead at the bottom of the English channel. While fans displayed banners proclaiming him forever a Bluebird regardless, the club set about classy litigation about whether you still have to pay a transfer fee for a corpse at the bottom of the sea. The episode raised questions about Cardiff’s, and Warnock’s, conduct and relationships with agents, and Harry Redknapp’s old chum Willie Mckay in particular. The season ended with Mckay’s two sons, who for some reason were both on Cardiff’s playing staff last season without ever once hinting at anything close to the ability required to play in the Premier League, being quietly released to Chesterfield and Airdrieonians on free transfers.
Ins: Aden Flint, CB, Middlesbrough, £4m >>> Will Vaulks, CM, Rotherham, £2m >>> Joe Day, GK, Newport, Free >>> Curtis Nelson, CB, Oxford, Free
Outs: Kenneth Zohore, CF, West Brom, £8m >>> Bruno Manga, CB, £1.8m, Dijon >>> Aron Gunnarsson, CM, Al Arabi, Free >>> Jack Mckay, CF, Chesterfield, Free >>> Stuart O’Keefe, CM, Gillingham, Free >>> Kadeem Harris, RB, Sheff Wed, Free >>> Paul Mackay, CB, Airdrieonians, Free >>> Rhys Healey, CF, MK Dons, Undis
Manager: Neil Warnock Promoted previously with Scarborough (Conference champions 1986/87), Notts County (Third Division play-off winners 89/90, Second Division play-off winners 90/91), Huddersfield (Second Division play-off winners 94/95), Plymouth (Third Division play-off winners 95/96), Sheff Utd (Championship runners up 2005/06, stand up Jags, everybody look at Jags), QPR (Championship winners 2010/11) and Cardiff (Championship runners up 2017/18) he is a serial winner in the divisions below the top flight. Remarkable really, for a man who dresses himself like he’s going to spend the day at the bus station writing numbers and destinations in a little notebook and drinking tea from a flask. He’s also successfully reinvented himself, and the style of his teams, to adapt to the modern game and modern players and remain successful while those he used to lock horns with in the 1990s and 2000s have mostly fallen by the wayside. He does, however, remain the absolute master of dead cat football politics – Cardiff lost 13 of their last 19 games last season and dropped out of the FA Cup away to Gillingham, but nobody noticed because they were too busy talking about Uncle Neil’s opinion on the Brexit. He’s Cardiff’s biggest asset, but there’s just a little niggle that the Emiliano Sala tragedy, and the subsequent fall-out in which Warnock’s relationship with football agents came spilling out to Jason Puncheon’s certain delight, may just have him pining wistfully for that Cornwall farm again. Headers. Tackles. Tarbs. Sharon. Jairmi Macki.
This Season: Cardiff come back to the Championship with a stronger side than they left with just over a year ago, albeit one a little light up front with Kenneth Zahore away to West Brom and Gary Madine lacking basic ability. Bobby Reid was signed on the back of one prolific season at Bristol City having switched positions from wide midfield to attack and will need to find form again. But Warnock has Blackburn Junior Hoilett at his disposal as opposed to QPR Junior Hoilett and Gavin Whyte potentially coming in from Oxford on the other wing feels like a good match. Bruno Manga has been tremendous for the Bluebirds and will be missed, but Aden Flint is a superb addition alongside Morrison despite a disappointing spell at Middlesbrough. They also have two outstanding goalkeepers for this level. I’m struggling to see what the problems might be to be honest. Even the poor quality of the strikeforce will be offset by the amount of goals bullied in by Morrison and Flint at set pieces. If Warnock’s interested, if the hangover from the relegation isn’t too bad, and if the club is able to move on from the Sala tragedy, then they’ll be best placed of the three relegated teams to go back.
Fan Opinion: @NotOfficialCCFC “Obviously being relegated from the Premier League meant the season was technically a failure. To be honest though, having only spent £28m in the summer, compared the likes of Fulham spending over £100m, I think narrowly missing out on survival by two points is nothing to be ashamed of. With the tragedy regarding Emiliano Sala, the season felt cursed. We had a number of major refereeing decisions go against us as well, though most teams do. Overall, I feel we just about lacked the quality needed to survive.
“I feel our transfer business so far has been pretty astute. Goalkeeper Joe Day and centre back Curtis Nelson joining for free from League Two and League One sides respectively may seem to some a lack of ambition, but these are just the type Warnock pulls from nowhere and turn out to master-strokes. Two new boys that I’d expect to slot into the starting XI, Will Vaulks from Rotherham joining as a replacement for Aron Gunnarsson, and Aden Flint. The latter being the most Neil Warnock signing you could imagine. Both of whom seem to have slotted in seamlessly. Young winger Gavin Whyte from Oxford also appears to be an imminent addition. Warnock’s number one target is that of a ‘big money’ striker, and after selling Kenneth Zohore for £8m, seems a must. The mystery striker he’s after does look to be on his way in before the end of the window, even if his identity is not yet known by us fans. All in all I’m happy so far with our business.
“As you at QPR will know, there aren’t many better suited to getting a team back to the promised land than Neil Warnock. We’ve kept the majority of our promotion winning side from two seasons ago, and last season added the likes of Bobby Reid, Josh Murphy among others, plus obviously this summer’s signings. I feel we’ll be striving for automatic promotion once more, but the difference between us getting into the top two, and finishing in the play-offs, will be the quality of striker we add to our ranks in this final week-and-a-half of the transfer window. I expect us to definitely be there or thereabouts.”
Prediction: 1st. If Warnock’s still interested, with Flint on board, money to spend, and several quality Championship players signed last summer coming back with them, I fancy them to push for automatic.
West Brom 11/1
Last Season Although the Baggies had been relegated from the Premier League in a bit of a state after several years of post-takeover mismanagement and decline, they had finished their doomed top flight campaign with three eye-catching wins against Man Utd, Newcastle and Spurs under caretaker manager Darren Moore. The giant ex-centre back, a bit of a legend in those parts as a player, was quite rightly given the chance to continue the momentum and feel-good factor in the division below as permanent boss and with Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle up front serviced by Matt Phillips and Harvey Barnes on the wing he immediately declared his intention to simply outscore the Championship and crash back in through the front doors of the top flight backwards, on a motorcycle, with the petrol tank ablaze. QPR were quickly dispatched 7-1. But West Brom’s season could be defined succinctly as Before Barnes and After Barnes. The ginger winger, 80% leg, on loan from Leicester with an accent more suited to a Wolverhampton taxi driver, was such a complete cut above everything else in the division that he elevated an already decent West Brom team to heights few others could match. His one-man rescue of a point from 2-0 deficit in the final five minutes at Sheff Wed was poetry. Leeds were beaten 4-1. The Baggies won 2-1 at Bramall Lane. And then, naturally, he was recalled in January. West Brom tried to replace him with Bakary Sako among others, but it was never quite the same again and the inability to defend properly started to be more of an issue without a miracle working winger to salvage situations. The faith of the home crowd in centre back Ahmed Hegazy remains, to this day, unfettered, despite all the evidence before them. As automatic promotion slipped away, Moore was unceremoniously sacked, which seemed pretty harsh anyway and when it turned out they had no idea who to replace him with started to look suicidal. They limped through to the end under the caretaker managership of Jimmy Shan (me neither), adding Michael ‘Meathead’ Appleton to the staff at the eleventh hour, but were in truth well beaten by Villa in a play-off semi-final that ended with the weirdest line-up of penalty takers for a shoot out ever assembled. Even the Boiler mascot took one.
Ins: Kenneth Zohore, CF, Cardiff, £8m >>> Darnell Furlong, CB, QPR, £2m >>> Semi Ajayi, CB, Rotherham, £1.5m >>> Filip Krovinovic, AM, Benfica, Loan >>>
Outs: Salomon Rondon, CF, Yifang (China), £16.8m >>> Craig Dawson, CB, Watford, £5.4m >>> Jay Rodriguez, CF, Burnley, £5m >>> Kyle Howkins, CB, Newport, Free >>> Alex Palmer, GK, Plymouth, Loan >>> Gareth Barry, CM, Released >>> Tyrone Mears, RB, Released >>> Bo Myhill, GK, Released >>> Wes Hoolahan, AM, Released >>> James Morrison, CM, Released
Manager: Slaven Bilic When he joined the coaching staff for the back end of last season I thought Appleton was a shoo in for this one, which made Slaven Bilic even more of a surprisingly left field choice than he already was. Looks like a man who went out for a swift half after work and woke up 14 hours later slumped against a Biffa Bin with his trousers round his ankles. Sounds like a man who saw things during a war. A superb television pundit, and a very good season at West Ham to his name before Karen Brady’s “greatest stadium migration in the history of sport” took hold, but this feels like a risky one to me. One of those that’s either going to go brilliantly or crash and burn.
This Season: Since Dan Ashworth left The Hawthorns for the FA (and now Brighton), the Baggies have gone from a model club held up to others as an example, to a bit of a basket case. They’re another suffering at the hands of a well-meaning but at best naïve and at worst clueless owner from the Far East. And they’re also on the cusp of joining the group of clubs that spaffed their parachute payments up the wall without returning to the big time and have to settle in for a prolonged period of austerity and medicine taking as a result. To avoid this, they really need to be promoted this season, and as it stands it’s hard to envisage them even making the six. They were never the same once Harvey Barnes had left last season and a further chunk of goals – 45 between the two of them – has walked out of the door this summer with the departures of Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez. Kenneth Zahore feels like an uninspiring replacement, a sign of exactly how little you get for your money when buying strikers these days, and a weird way to suddenly splash £8m having spent all summer keeping things tight as a mouse’s ear. Semi Ajayi went from the worst player we’d ever seen at Loftus Road in 2017 to one of the best in 2019 for Rotherham and might be a tidy acquisition, as will Darnell Furlong if they can get him tied down and beat it into him that he’s a centre half not a full back. But all in all they don’t look much of a threat.
Fan Opinion: Dr Matt Graham “Overall, last season had lots of positives, but also some major failings both on and off the field. For example, sacking Darren Moore after a poor return of form in the New Year, but then failing to identify a replacement and ultimately settling on coach Jimmy Shan after weeks of searching wasn’t great optics, even if Shan did very well. The loss of Harvey Barnes was more of a blow then I anticipated at the time - his pace, creativity and goals were sorely missed after Leicester City recalled him; why we didn’t have a clause preventing recall is baffling. But in the end, the squad wasn’t quite good enough (the first XI was on paper was incredibly strong, but the fringe players and some of the loans less so, which really told by the end of the season), and the attacking threat we carried masked a relatively weak / stodgy midfield and a defence that was prone to lapses; the 3-2 losses against Middlesbrough and Bristol City epitomised these frailties. But the Albion came ever so close to achieving promotion, and the play-off semi-final defeat on penalties (which were abysmal) against Aston Villa was an agonising way to end the season. In the end it was small margins such as the soft penalty given and decisions such as the sending offs of Gayle, Brunt, and Robson Kanu (on the last day of the season) that really told, because in that second leg at the Hawthorns, Villa were on the ropes for the opening stages. So close, but yet so far.
“The summer has started slowly, but begun to pick up in the past few weeks after new manager Slaven Bilic publicly demanded that the board stepped up its recruitment drive to fill the enormous gaps in the squad. The initial stages of the summer weren’t great: a plethora of players departed with all six loan signings going back to their parent clubs, an admission by the board that we couldn’t afford to retain Dwight Gayle, and the none too surprising sales of Craig Dawson (Watford), Salomon Rondon (Dalian Yifang) and Jay Rodriguez (Burnley) to get them off the wage bill along with the loss of highly rated youngsters from our academy Louie Barry (Barcelona) and Morgan Rodgers (Manchester City), all created a sense of impending gloom among supporters. The challenge of replacing the 46 goals that Rodriguez and Gayle scored between them, as well as half the squad is a huge rebuild and without being too dramatic will shape the future of the club for the next few seasons. However, we have started to do business with the signings of some good young players such as Filip Krovinović (Benfica), Semi Ajayi (Rotherham) and Darnell Furlong (who from the sounds of QPR supporters on social media is a steal for the Albion), as well as the uninspiring acquisition of Kenneth Zohore (Cardiff). The squad still needs at the very minimum one more defender, a couple of midfielders particularly with pace, and two strikers. Therefore it has been adequate, but with a lot more still required to make the team competitive before the season starts.
Prediction: 8th. Hard to see them even doing as well as they did last season given the goals that have gone out of the team. If the money recouped on sales this summer is reinvested in a serious way then maybe, but it feels like years of post-takeover mismanagement may be catching up with the Baggies and they risk missing the six altogether this time.
Stoke City 12/1
Last Season Doomed from the very moment LFW tipped them to win the league in this preview a year ago. They looked to have done everything right, appointing a highly rated Championship manager and using their parachute payment to bring in the sort of Tom Ince, Benik Afobe, and James McClean types that have made careers out of being too good for this league and not quite good enough for the one above. With some very talented Premier League players, including England goalkeeper Jack Butland, sticking around, and Ryan Woods added from Brentford this looked a sure thing. But we should have known. We of all people should have known that a hangover from Mark Hughes isn’t just any hangover. A Mark Hughes hangover isn’t four cheeky beers from the Spar on the way home on a hot night sort of hangover. A Mark Hughes hangover is three bottles of moody red during a long sit at the back of a flat-roofed, suburban Indian restaurant. It takes some getting over. You’d be surprised. The relegation hits you hard early doors, and you think that’s it all done. But no, there’s more suffering to come. Further visits required. Damp toilet roll. Pores oozing. It gets everywhere, like a virus, and it takes some time to expunge. Stoke, as it turns out, were hideous. Easy to defend against, easy to score against, easy to play against. Whoever would have thought we’d ever be writing that about Stoke City? Most crucially they were slow. Biblically slow. Seasons of The West Wing zipped by quicker. Gary Rowett, probably surprised at just what a shitshow he’d walked into, talked with a chip on both shoulders like the whole thing was anybody’s responsibility but his, despite the mega spend, and was sacked halfway through. Anticipated new manager bounce under Nathan Jones proved more of a wet fart. They regressed quickly to the bottom half of the Championship and stayed there throughout. Mark Hughes dropped straight into a new Premier League job at Southampton, and fucked that up as well.
Ins: Tommy Smith, RB, Huddersfield, £4m >>> Liam Lindsay, CB, Barnsley, £2m >>> Lee Gregory, CF, Millwall, Free >>> Adam Davies, GK, Barnsley, Free >>> Nick Powell, CF, Wigan, Free >>> Stephen Ward, LB, Burnley, Free >>> Jordan Cousins, CM, QPR, Free
Outs: Erik Pieters, LB, Burnley, £900k >>> Charlie Adam, CM, Reading, Free >>> Josh Tymon, LB, Famalicao, Loan >>> Harry Souttar, CB, Fleetwood, Loan >>> Darren Fletcher, CM, Released >>> Jakob Haugaard, GK, Released
Manager: Nathan Jones A spikey Welsh bible basher you can’t help but admire. Firstly, because while bigger names with less experience have been able to walk into top jobs amidst a waterfall of media fawning and zero difficult questions, Jones really has served an apprenticeship as a coach. He worked with Charlton’s U21 team, then moved to Brighton where he was a mixture of first team coach and/or assistant manager to Oscar Garcia, Sami Hyppia and Chris Hughton. His first managerial job came in League Two at Luton – a difficult job where history raises expectations above what should really be possible to achieve with their budget and facilities. He lost to Blackpool in the 2016/17 play-offs but openly stated they were going all out for a league title in 2017/18 and achieved that before setting them well on course for a double promotion straight through League One in 2018/19. He left for Stoke before seeing that job through, but is Luton’s best ever manager when judged by points per game. And secondly, because of the style of football his teams play. The tempo is as high as the press, they commit more men to the attack than you can fit in the Kenilworth Road away end, the wing backs are certainly more wing than back, the midfield diamond glints in the sun and the goals tend to flow. In 2017/18, only Man City scored more than them across the Football League, and the promotion season included an 8-2 home win against Yeovil, 7-1 against Stevenage and 7-0 against Cambridge. In theory, he’s exactly what a tired, staid, dreary Stoke side need. And he’s got God on his side, apparently, which is a tidy signing.
This Season: That second season outside the top flight is a crucial one. Get back now, or prepare for the sort of financial purgatory we’re stuck in, Middlesbrough and coming into and West Brom have awaiting them. There is, however, much to do at Stoke, who underperformed expectations more than any other Championship side last season. For Nathan Jones to enact the raucously entertaining, consistently high scoring and ruthlessly successful system and style he used at Luton will require a total overhaul of this ageing, plodding team and seven summer additions have already been made. They’ve picked up two of the well-scouted stars of Barnsley’s excellent 2018/19, including goalkeeper Adam Davies which perhaps suggests they may cash in on England’s Jack Butland in short order. Lee Gregory and Nick Powell look like a perfect mixture of aggressive physicality and cute forethought in attack – whether either is prolific enough to carry a promotion campaign remains to be seen but getting the pair of them for £600k in the current market is exceptional business. It’s the wing back positions I’m most interested in. James Justin and Jack Stacey were both key to the way Jones’ Luton side went about things, and have been sold for a collective £10m by the Kenilworth Road outfit this summer. Will he go down that road again, and if so with who? Keep an eye on our old charge Jordan Cousins if he can stay fit – Jones used him as a right wing back when he had him in the youth set up at Charlton. If QPR’s luck stays true to form, the toothy git will end up captaining England to 2022 World Cup glory. Ryan Shawcross’ horrifying leg break in the final pre-season friendly against Leicester is a blow.
Fan Opinion: Wizards of Drivel Podcast “It’s fair to say that last season didn’t go how Stoke wanted. A lot of faith was put in retained players from the Premier League, and the consensus was that Stoke would be pushing for promotion at the first time of asking. The reality of the Championship would then hit us hard on the opening day, when we were given a real good run around and beaten 3-1 by Leeds. It would be an uphill battle from there, and whilst there were some decent moments, last season was generally a write off from November onwards. Gary Rowett’s tenure in charge of the team was treated to the same early enthusiasm. Having turned us down in January of the previous season, (to stay with Derby, who at that time were pushing for promotion), it was felt that we had got a manager in charge who was in his career ascension. A failure to prepare us adequately for the league, a team who didn’t seem to be motivated, and a war against the fans would inevitably lead to Rowett’s sacking.
“His replacement, the god-fearing Nathan Jones has been given a surprisingly high level of patience from the board and fans alike. The early write off last season meant that even with results not being particularly stellar with Jones in charge towards the back end of last season, we have all been willing to buy into the “work in progress” that is Stoke under Nathan Jones, and generally accepted that this season is where the real work begins. Seven players have come into Stoke. Three stalwarts of our Premier League side have gone, with those who have no place in this coming season’s squad being asked to train away from the team. Jones is looking to cultivate a positive atmosphere within the squad, something so sourly missing last season, and so far, from preseason it seems to be working. You can take what players say in official club interviews with a pinch of salt, but there is seemingly a huge difference this year, with players actively talking about their love for working with one another.
“The big thing is how this transposes into competitive football in the Championship. Preseason results have been positive, with the squad being undefeated (we still must play Leicester at the time of writing, so that could change). Jones’s diamond formation is now working well, and whilst we are by no means the finished article, it would be fair to say that the general expectation is that Stoke do better than their 16th place finish last season. Promotion is the inevitable aim for the board, but there is recognition that we won’t suddenly batter the league. For the fans, whilst there will never be a consensus, a finish in the playoffs would be a positive campaign. Anything more would be a bonus, but I don’t think we are about to make the same mistakes of last season and underestimate the Championship.”
Prediction: 7th. Nathan Jones’ Luton side played fiercely attacking football with two influential wingbacks who have both been sold for big money. Whether Jordan Cousins and Stephen Ward can be those boys for Jones at Stoke is doubtful. They’ll go better than last year, but miss the six.
Last Season A season so typical of the modern Brentford they should have a YouTube montage of it in the About Us section of their official website. At times, mostly at home, they were simply sensational with Neal Maupay enjoying a breakout year as a hot striking property at this level and Romaine Sawyers finally graduating from a player perceived as promising but lazy into a slick creative Championship force. They won their first five home games of the season, scored five at Griffin Park on three separate occasions (Rotherham, Blackburn, Hull) and put the rounds of the kitchen through Preston, QPR, Leeds, Stoke and Sheff Wed on their own patch. But at others, mostly away, they were soft as grease. They won only twice on the road all season, despite being the best team anybody had played, with plenty of their usual late goals conceded and leads thrown away tropes into the bargain. A mid-season managerial change didn’t help, with Aston Villa impressed enough by three consecutive Justice League title wins to tempt Dean Smith to Villa Park and Thomas Frank losing eight and drawing one of his first ten games. But, typically, they kept faith with him and had come good by the end of the season. Also no surprise to see other clubs with far bigger budgets but nowhere near the innovation and forward thinking of the Bees, lazily come and pay enormous money for players they’d picked up for a pittance in the very recent past. That includes £22m for centre backs Chris Mepham and Ezri Konsa, so ropey in a 3-2 loss at Loftus Road last December. That money, and more besides, will be the foundation of a genuine promotion push in 2019/20.
Ins: Pontus Jansson, CB, Leeds, £5.54m >>> Mathias Jensen, CM, Celta Vigo, £3.4m >>> Christian Norgaard, DM, Fiorentina, £3.1m >>> David Raya, GK, Blackburn, £3m >>> Ethan Pinnock, CB, Barnsley, £3m
Outs: Romaine Sawyers AM, West Brom, £3m >>> Ezri Konsa, CB, Villa, £11m >>> Daniel Bentley GK, Bristol City, £1.98m >>> Lewis MacLeod, CM, Wigan, Free >>> Yoann Barbet, CB, Free, QPR >>> Moses Odubajo, RB, Sheff Wed, Free >>> Jack Bonham, GK, Gillingham, Free >>> Josh McEachran, CM, Released
Manager: Thomas Frank As a purveyor of attractive, innovative football but no trophies while at Brondby, Frank was the perfect choice for Brentford when they looked to replace Dean Smith last October. Frank had already been working at Griffin Park as a coach and conduit between the first and B team but struggled to start with, losing eight of his first ten games. A switch to a back three took time to settle but the Bees won ten and lost just three of 17 through the spring and then finished the campaign with three straight victories.
This Season: It’s lazily reported as a Moneyball approach, but as Mark Warburton said recently, Matthew Benham’s approach to running Brentford is so much more than that. There’s a strong feeling that this pioneer of football analytics may just see 2019/20 as an enormous opportunity for Brentford to move into their new stadium at Kew Bridge as a Premier League team. Firstly, as we keep saying, the Championship looks weaker this year than it has for some time. The likes of Brighton, Newcastle and Villa are long gone. Leeds are heavy favourites, despite having much the same team that failed last season. Two of the three relegated teams have come down in varying degrees of chaos. Bigger, richer, recent Premier League sides who should be threatening – Stoke, West Brom, Middlesbrough, Swansea – are starting to feel the FFP pinch while also possessing squads in need of radical overhauls. Others – particularly Derby, Birmingham and Forest – who have spent big trying to get to the big time and missed out, cannot now do so again to the same degree. The profit and sustainability rules are starting to dominate the division, and into that vacuum could easily come Brentford who have been quietly topping up their current account with big money player sales for sometime and managed to extract £22m for the two centre backs destroyed by Nahki Wells at Loftus Road last December over the last six months. With that, plus money for Scott Hogan, Romaine Sawyers, Ryan Woods, Daniel Bentley and others, they’re rather going for it, with Pontus Janson the most expensive and high profile of a clutch of very shrewd additions you just know have been scouted to within an inch of their lives. They’ll need to keep Neal Maupay, or replace him effectively and quickly, but if they do they could easily go close this season. It’s hard to imagine them ever having a better chance.
Fan Opinion: Billy Grant, Beesotted “Last season was disappointing. Started brilliantly with a 5-1 win at home to Rotherham. Then played Stoke off the park at their place. However, little did we know that the unnecessary defensive fuck up in that match between Bentley and Mepham - coupled with the inability to win away - was to become the theme of our season.
“After two months of some brilliant football, we had some good wins at home against the likes of Forest, Wednesday and Wigan. But we still hadn’t won away. Up at Leeds, we were minutes away from a victory which could have changed our season. Up pops a certain Pontus Jansson (otherwise known as fucking Pontus Jansson) with a late equaliser to send Leeds fans into raptures and leave Bees fans grizzling.
“Little did we know that match would be the beginning of the end of Brentford as we knew it. Within days head coach Dean Smith had left for Villa. Brentford took an age to settle under new head coach Thomas Frank. We won only one solitary game until we beat Bolton just before Xmas losing them all - including our game at Loftus Road.
“The new year saw some brilliant football. Some emphatic home wins including 5-1 against Hull. 5-2 against Blackburn. And dare I say it - the 3-0 win against QPR. But away from home it took us until March to get our second away victory up at Boro - the first being at Rotherham. Our third and final away win wasn’t even gratifying. We were given a bye after the season had ended because Bolton were a no-show in our fixture up at their place.
“I’ve been absolutely gobsmacked by the business done this summer. Brentford are known for finding relatively unknown players for £1m or so. Developing them for a couple of years. Selling them on. Then reinvesting part of the profit. Roll on summer 2019. In comes “fucking Pontus Jansson?” (This time with a question mark as the transfer confused us all) from Leeds (didn’t go down too well in Yorkshire) to make a huge statement to all. A player who wasn’t 21 years old with a potential resale value of ten times his fee in two years time. This was someone who potentially could steady our leaky defence whilst captaining the side to victory on tricky awaydays like Barnsley and Luton. And at a fee reputed to be £4m, he’s a record signing too.
“Also bringing in keeper David Raya from Blackburn (£3m). Central Defender Ethan Pinnock (£3m) from Barnsley. Defensive midfielder Christian Nørgaard (£3m) from Fiorentina via Thomas Frank’s old club Brondby. And attacking midfielder Mattias Janssen (£3.5m) from Celta Vigo, that’s some window so far. We’ve also lodged a £6m bid for forward Bryan Mbuemo from Troyes but don’t think he’ll make the move - having turned down Southampton earlier in the season.
“The best part of it. We’re not having to sell our (not even built yet) stadium to fund the purchases. Our business so far has all been done on the sale of three players last January - Chris Mepham (£15m) to Muff. Ryan Woods (£6m) to Stoke. And Nico Yennaris (£4.5m) to Bejing Guoan. But the window isn’t shut yet. And we realise losing Maupay. Benrahma. Watkins. And/or Sawyers could be a huge blow. So we’re sitting tight.
“Before we signed Jansson and I would have said the usual. Top half. Maybe top 10. Just missing out on playoffs. But our action in the market indicates we’re going somewhat to correct the errors that saw us play great football but roll over far too often over the years. Defence has always been an issue. Fix that, we can even afford to score less goals. We were three wins away from playoffs last season and we couldn’t win away for toffee. It all depends on if Maupay stays for me. He was brilliant last season. Works so hard. Lots of teams in for him. But if we could convince him to stay. Even till Christmas. That would be a huge boost. If Maupay stays, definitely top six. I would go for fourth. If he goes. Hard to say. Depends who comes in. But being optimistic, scrape in the playoffs. 6th. And what a send-off for Griffin Park that would be eh?”
Prediction: 5th. Play-offs certainly, where I think they might come up just short. But who knows, they’ve certainly got a squad that could go very close in a weakened league.
Last Season We all know the Tony Pulis trade off. You’ll hate him, and the team he puts together, and the effect it has on your life. You’ll come to dread matchdays, you’ll look forward to Monday mornings at work to escape from the drudgery of watching your own team, you’ll find football intensely boring. You’ll sit there, in the freezing cold, and the soaking wet, on a Tuesday night, trying to muster enthusiasm for a club you’ve passionately loved your whole life as its current incarnation pumps long balls towards auxiliary striker Aden Flint in order to salvage a 1-1 draw at Bolton which Pulis will later hail as a brilliant point, stoicly won, that will be absolutely vital come the end of the season. You’ll hate yourself and what you’ve become, you’ll lie awake at night. But, for it all, you will win. You’ll win games, and leagues, and promotions, and relegation battles, and whatever else it is your accountant desires. He is pragmatism, personified, wrapped in a Matalan tracksuit, under a baseball cap that pre-dates stuff in the Victoria and Albert Museum, yawping incessantly at Jon Walters. Go on Jon. Go on Jon indeed. But what happens when you’re all boring, and pragmatic, and Pulis, and still crap? Well, we’re about to find out. Middlesbrough, now two years and two squandered parachute payments out from their last Premier League appearance, sat through 18 months of Pulisball as a means to an end, only without the end. With some justification they cried foul at Derby and Villa’s dodge of FFP, and the full fallout from a highly suspect six months of transfer activity under Garry Monk when the parachute money was at its peak is still to come. But that sound, that sound right there, is of the boat leaving, and it feels very strongly like Middlesbrough might have missed it.
Ins: Tomas Mejias, GK, Nicosia, Free
Outs: Aden Flint, CB, Cardiff, £4m >>> Stewart Downing, LW, Blackburn, Free >>> John Obi Mikel, CM, Trabzonspor, Free >>> Andy Lonergan, GK, Released >>> Dimitrios Konstantopoulos, GK, Released
Manager: Jonathan Woodgate Boro have bad recent experience of giving popular hometown boys the managerial reigns here, with Tony Mowbray heartbreakingly unsuccessful at the club where he’s revered as a playing legend. With parachute payments in decline and budgets needing to be cut, this looks a tough job for anybody, never mind a rookie. And Woodgate never really did strike me as the sort of player who would make that transition successfully. Who would have thought, in the halcyon days of criminal trials for kicking Asian lads up and down Leeds high street, that one day Bowyer and Woodgate would be facing off as managers at this level? Funny old game.
This Season: Boro are one season further down the line than West Brom, and two behind our good selves, in relation to declining parachute payments and FFP grappling. Little wonder chairman Steve Gibson has led the complaints against the farcical sale and lease back fudges at Sheff Wed and Derby. A summer of high earners being shovelled out and no new additions coming in (at press time) is the new normal on the Riverside. Like us, they’re in for Todd Kane, with midfielder Jonny Howson currently filling in at right back during the pre-season. It’s difficult to imagine they’ll be as miserly at the back as they were under Pulis - 41 conceded last season, just 17 at home – which means they desperately need to score more goals. Time for Britt Assombalonga to start justifying that pricetag.
Fan Opinion: James Boothby “The appointment of Woodgate came as a surprise to no-one, it was rumoured long before the end of last season. Reaction was mixed when first announced - came across as the cheap option and he was a coach under the Pulis regime so was tainted with that. He has said all the right things since taking charge though, and promised a more expansive, attacking style of football (not hard!). How that turns out will all depend on how we end the transfer window however. The vibe around the club appears to be a lot better this season, players seem to be enjoying training and the friendlies have been encouraging - although plenty of work till to do.
“Not been too much transfer business to speak of so far - incoming anyway. Aden Flint has left after a pretty disappointing year - and his style of play is not what Woodgate is looking for in his CBs. We now want to try and play out from the back whilst Flint is a more old fashioned CB. Our loan players have all gone back, and Mikel’s short term deal ended so the squad is looking pretty thin. With Braithwaite also expected to be sold to Leganes, we definitely need to strengthen. We have no real recognised wingers, need full backs and look light up top. No real rumours of incomings so far but Woodgate is confident of getting players in. A good opportunity for the kids in the Academy though, and a number have impressed in pre-season. Hayden Coulsen at left back looks to have a chance of breaking through, along with Connor Malley in midfield.
“It feels like a rebuilding season. First 11 is strong, although maybe not suited to the way Woodgate wants to play. A couple of good signings could really make or break the season but I'm expecting a mid-table finish this season.”
Prediction: 9th. Marginally better to watch but no better than midtable.
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