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Season Preview 21/22 – Midtable
Tuesday, 3rd Aug 2021 07:41 by Clive Whittingham

LFW’s annual semi-serious look ahead to the Championship season in waiting continues with the seven sides the bookies see as being midtable – in actual fact it’s a collection of clubs accelerating in markedly opposite directions.

Stoke 20/1 (title odds)

Last Season: Following Mark Hughes into a club is like following the wrong guy into the toilet cubicle of a suburban Indian restaurant. It’s a long and unpleasant clean up process, best left to somebody else, and Stoke’s predicament was exacerbated by Gary Rowett spending the initial parachute payment trying to engineer an immediate return to the land of milk and honey and stuffing it up. Nathan Jones didn’t help much either. The Potters are now in a bit of a pickle. Their accounts for 2019/20 show a Championship record pre-tax loss of £88m. Eighty eight million pounds. That’s not the existential threat it might be, as long as the club remains backed by its long time owners the Coates family – Denise took home just the £469m from their Bet365 business last year, which is nice work if you can get it. It is, however, a problem when it comes to FFP, even with the relaxed rules and merged season workarounds the league is trying to cover for the Covid year without crowds. Michael O’Neill inherited an ageing squad, chock full of high earners and previous managers’ mistakes, and cannot spend his way out of it. Hauling in Steven Fletcher, John Obi Mikel and James Chester the previous summer did nothing for either problem and lo and behold, in a truncated Championship season of just seven months, by the time they reached Loftus Road in December literally everybody in the squad was injured. Most damagingly, sparkling young striker Tyrese Campbell had been ruled out for the season that week. Stoke ground out an utterly unwatchable 0-0 draw that night, one of nine they were involved with across a forgettable campaign, and while O’Neill retains support after his initial turn around job post Jones, and will to a certain extent be able to point to his injury list and ask ‘what did you expect?’, there are rumblings about just how negative his team can be.

Ins >>> Sam Surridge, 23, ST, Bournemouth, £5.5m >>> Ben Wilmot, 21, CB, Watford, £1.9m >>> Mario Vrancic, 32, CM, Norwich, Free >>> Jack Bonham, 27, GK, Gillingham, Free

Outs >>> Nathan Collins, 20, CB, Burnley, £12.6m >>> Bruno Martins Indi, 29, CB, AZ Alkmaar, Undisclosed >>> Liam Lindsay, 25, CB, Preston, Undisclosed >>> Lasse Sorensen, 21, CM, Lincoln, Undisclosed >>> Badou Ndiaye, 29, CM, Aris Saloniki, Undisclosed >>> Kevin Wimmer, 28, CB, Rapid Vienna, Free >>> Jordan Cousins, 27, CM, Wigan, Free >>> Ryan Woods, 27, CM, Birmingham, Free >>> Moritz Bauer, 29, RB, UFA (Russia), Free >>> John Obi Mikel, 34, CM, Kuwait SC, Free >>> Sam Vokes, 31, CF, Wycombe, Free >>> Benik Afobe, 28, CF, Millwall, Loan >>> Peter Etebo, 25, CM, Watford, Loan >>> Blondy Nna Noukeu, 19, GK, Crawley, Loan

Manager: Michael O’Neill Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight.

This Season: Stoke have done a reasonable job of shifting the mountains of dead wood that weigh down their squad this summer. Only Jordan Cousins was out of contract, he’s gone to Wigan, but 12 others have been cut one way or another, including setting Ryan Woods loose a year early on a free transfer, and swallowing another loan for Benik Afobe. A tidy sum has also been pocketed for Nathan Collins which releases some of the financial pressure, and apparently enables them to spend £5.5m on Bournemouth striker Sam Surridge, which is roughly £4.2m more than Bournemouth striker Sam Surridge is worth, and £4.9m more than I thought Stoke had to spend. Next summer will be a different matter, the club has more than a dozen out of contract in summer 2022, most of them over 30, and on paper you’d keep none of them bar mercurial talent Nick Powell. What happens in the meantime hinges on the fitness of a squad that was battered last season, with Tyrese Campbell priority one, two and three for the medical team. Ben Wilmot looks a smart replacement for Collins on a tight budget. Campbell, and giant centre back Harry Souttar, lead a charge of promising prospects from an U23 side that impressed at Premier League 2 level last season, but there are still swathes of expensive, past-it stodge in front of them as it stands. Failure to give the bright young things adequate opportunity, while churning out uninspiring performances with senior players long past their best and soon to come to the end of deals, won’t endear O’Neill to the returning natives who are not known for keeping their feelings to themselves.

Local Knowledge – @HarveySCFC_ “Last season was great until Christmas when we lost Tyrese Campbell through injury, then our season fell off a cliff in the New Year. I think O’Neill has done well, hopefully he can build on the positive foundations he’s built during his tenure so far.

“I’m delighted with our summer business so far. Although I’d have loved to have kept Nathan Collins, £12m in the bank has allowed us to lay-off all the dead wood and bring in some quality players like Ben Wilmot. We’ve also signed Jack Bonham and Mario Vrancic on frees, Vrancic in particular will be crucial for Stoke this season. Everybody apart from Campbell (who’ll be back late August all being well) is fit and ready to start the season.

“I’ll say top ten, I don’t think we’ll walk the league nor do I think we’ll be rock bottom.”

What We Said Last Season: 11th Actually finished 14th, -3.

Prediction: 12th All the chips on Tyrese.

Barnsley 22/1 (title odds)

Last Season: If you enjoy football through the medium of scatter graphs, and don’t mind two days off work and a night in the Premier Inn Blackburn for a 3-0 midweek defeat at Ewood Park if the xG stats were in your team’s favour, then there wasn’t enough baby oil left in Boots to get you through last summer’s season previews of Barnsley. The club’s Chinese-American Pacific Media Group owners, who shook hands with Moneyball’s Billy Beane in a service station one time, have adopted exactly the sort of forward-thinking, analytical driven recruitment model required to progress out of a salary capped league into one where every club happily, rabidly loses money hand over fist, and compete in it. They appoint unheard of European managers from off the beaten track who are all, almost instantly, successful and pursued immediately by other bigger, richer clubs too lazy or timid to give them a go in the first place. They sign only players aged under 26 who fit with their algorithm and then have no choice but to give them gametime at this unforgiving level to sink or swim – again, their success rate is impressive, and they soon attract interest from others too bone idle to do similar groundwork themselves. All of this made them a hot tip, possibly as high as the play-offs, for the trendy @analytics types, despite only dodging relegation the previous year through a convoluted set of circumstances in the final two games. The Art Howe and Grady Fuson types all nodded knowingly when the Tykes failed to win any of their opening seven league games, and manager Gerhard Struber upped and left for New York Red Bulls. It’s like we’re a farm system for the New York Red Bulls I’m sick of it.

In came Valerian Ismael, and what happened next was rather remarkable. Barnsley’s policy of only signing children, and Ismael’s ideal that football should never be played at anything less than a million miles an hour, proved a perfect match. They were a bracing watch, dividing opinion - the match thread on LFW’s post their victory at Loftus Road ran for days about whether this was an exciting new form of the game sent to change the world, or the worst thing anybody had ever seen including their parents’ funerals. All ten outfield players tore around in a dust cloud, a la every U7s team you’ve ever seen. The ball was never allowed to touch the ground without being seized upon, no opponent permitted more than a single touch of it without being killed to death, space was no longer a thing with the defence pushed up to where the midfield usually is and the goalkeeper stationed where you usually find the centre backs. It was like playing football under a grill, the vast majority of the league couldn’t cope with it at all, and in the end the only really surprising thing about it was that it wasn’t enough to dispatch Swansea from the play-off semi-final.

Ins >>> Aaron Leya Iseka, 23, CF, Toulouse, Undisclosed >>> Obbi Oulare, 25, CF, Standard Leige, Undisclosed >>> Josh Benson, 21, CM, Burnley, Undisclosed >>> Devante Cole, 26, CF, Motherwell, Free

Outs >>> Conor Chaplin, 24, CF, Ipswich, Undisclosed >>> Michael Sollbauer, 31, CB, Dresden, Undisclosed >>> Alex Mowatt, 26, CM, West Brom, Free >>> Luke Thomas, 22, RW, Bristol Rovers, Loan >>> Jack Aitchison, 21, CF, Forest Green, Loan >>> Patrick Schmidt, 22, CF, Ebsjerg (Denmark), Loan

Manager: Markus Schopp Developed youth for Red Bull Salzburg and Sturm Graz before leading unfashionable TSV Hartberg to a record high finish in the Austrian Bundesliga and first ever Europa League campaign. The fact you’ve never heard of him hasn’t mattered at Barnsley before.

This Season: There’s a pretty obvious narrative here. Valerian Ismael has been poached by West Brom and taken star man and long-time LFW fave Alex Mowatt with him. Daryl Dike has gone back to Disney Land. In their stead, the untried, the untested, the unproven. Expect to read a lot of “will struggle to hit the heights of last season” hot takes about players and manager who “may take time to adapt” to whatever mystical rigours the Championship holds in the minds of people who trumpet this league as some sort of elite European competition rather than a dog slog. Perhaps this will be true. Ismael’s style of football was unique, and at times unplayable, any attempt to replace it with a trendy play out from the back method could spoil the secret sauce. Mowatt was fabulous. But Barnsley have retained the vast majority of the team that took them to the play-offs in the spring, and that you haven’t heard of the new comers only makes them more terrifying. Barnsley lose managers, players, and now executives as other clubs seek a bit of what’s driving their ascent, and it doesn’t seem to bother them. Daniel Stendel, Gerhard Struber and now Ismael are all replaced swiftly, and when CEO Dane Murphy was picked off by Nottingham Forest earlier this summer they named his successor the same day. Compare that to the protracted flapping around trying to find somebody to manage West Brom, Fulham, Swansea and others this summer…

It’s a club with a clear style and ethos, a brilliant recruitment programme, and a very firm idea of where it wants to go and how it’s going to get there. As Covid bites into budgets, Brexit chews into the available pool of talent, and past ignorance of FFP laws catch up with a slew of past big spenders, it’s clubs like Barnsley who I think are going to excel in this bleak new world. Maybe they will fall off slightly this season, maybe Luton won’t live up to the title of this year’s surprise package, but I struggle in good consciousness sit here believing what I believe, writing what I write, and then saying the top six will just be the three relegated teams, Mick McCarthy’s Cardiff, Neil Warnock’s Middlesbrough and Chris Hughton’s Nottingham Forest.

Local Knowledge – @JoeBeardsall “Last season was incredible for us Barnsley fans. We came into the season with one of the lowest budgets in the league, only stayed up by fifth skin of our teeth the season before and we didn’t win in our first six league games but still finished 5th in the Championship. It was the stuff of dreams. Although we were obviously gutted to not finish the job and reach the Premier League we were all massively proud of what our team achieved.

“If you had asked me on the day Barnsley were knocked out of the playoffs by Swansea if we had missed our golden opportunity to reach the Premier League I would’ve said yes but that’s because I’m so used to Barnsley having a decent season then selling all our key players but that hasn’t happened this time. Yes, Dike returned to Orlando City after his loan deal and we have lost Alex Mowatt to West Brom but those were two players we fully expected to lose. We’ve kept our main stars and added quality so I see no reason why Barnsley won’t be challenging again this season.

“Its extremely difficult to judge an overseas manager before a competitive ball has been kicked in the Championship season but the players seem to have taken an instant liking to Marcus Schopp. I’m slightly concerned that he plans to tweak our style and play out from the back because that hasn’t worked for Barnsley in the past in the Championship and it’s led to errors in defence and more goals conceded. That said, from what we have heard, he’s an advocate of aggressive pressing from the front and that was key to our success last season so that is a massive positive. I’m hoping he will take the positives from Valérien Ismaël’s style and build from there.

“It’s really hard to call how Barnsley will do this season. I’m fairly confident we won’t be in a relegation battle because we’ve kept the majority of our key players who finished fifth last season but another playoff push would also be a big ask, especially considering we have a new manager. My head tells me mid table but my heart says we will finish in the top six again.”

What We Said Last Season: 15th Finished 5th, +10.

Prediction: 8th

Reading 28/1 (title odds)

Last Season: Once a Jake Bidwell penalty miss away from League One, now suddenly here Reading were shooting off up to the top of the table like a frog up a pump, catching all season previewers cold with seven wins and a draw from the first eight matches. If we may show our working out, Reading has looked like a disaster waiting to happen for sometime. They have been maintaining a 205% wages to turnover ratio without getting promoted long enough for some Derby/Sheff Wed style FFP pain to head their way, and all they’ve had to show for it is finishes deep into the bottom half of the table, and that near miss with relegation that we peskily assisted them out of. They’ve rattled through CEOs and directors of football, famously appointing Mark Bowen as the latter and sending him out to hunt for a new manager only for him to appoint himself to the role. Having humoured that for a while, they then abruptly decided in the middle of a shortened pre-season last summer to change direction entirely again, ditching Bowen for unknown Veljko Paunović. These things are hard to write, the Royals’ direction of travel looked as clear as day.

That all said… good team. We weren’t to know bright young things Tom Holmes and Tom McIntyre would come quite as good as they did, nor that Josh Laurent would finally fulfil all that potential he had at QPR, but throw in Michael Morrison and Liam Moore’s experience and physicality alongside them at the back with Bayern Munich-bound left sider Omar Richards and a midfield that also included Rinomhota, another superb youngster in Michael Olise, pound for pound the buy of last summer in Ovie Ejaria, and a strike force of Joao and Puskas, and that’s a very decent side at this level. In the end you couldn’t help think their gradual drift from that lightning start to the point that they didn’t make the play-offs at all was in fact an enormous missed opportunity rather than any sort of over achievement.

Ins >>> Niente.

Outs >>> Michael Olise, 19, AM, Palace, £8.3m >>> Omar Richards, 23, LB, Bayern, Free >>> Sam Smith, 23, CF, Cambridge, Free >>> Sam Walker, 29, GK, Kilmarnock, Free >>> Sone Aluko, 32, ST, Released (training with Derby) >>> Sam Baldock, 32, CF, Released (also training with Derby, lucky devils)

Manager: Veljko Paunović First time since 2016 Reading have kept the same manager for a full season.

This Season: Just how much of a missed opportunity it will prove to be will start to be known this season. Richards has gone to Bayern with no transfer fee received, a bitter blow for a club that has been walking an FFP tightrope for sometime and is another that has spent this summer under one of the EFL’s mysterious ‘soft transfer embargoes’. The £8m received from Palace for prodigious youngster Michael Olise will keep the wolf from the door, but weaken the team, and you feel he’ll be worth twice that in no time at all. There have been no additions to a team that limped home with one win from its final 11 fixtures last season, and an already thinned out squad has lost Yakou Meite to a long term injury pre-season – though talented QPR scourge Jon Swift could return after a nightmare 2020/21. Talent remains, Ejaria chief among it, and there are other teams in vastly more difficult positions than theirs, but a midtable finish is probably the best they can hope for. Mind you, we said that last year too.

Local Knowledge – Simeon Pickup “Last season was miles better than expected but still a huge disappointment in the end. We'd anticipated scrapping in the bottom half of the table, so to start so quickly and not suddenly fall away took us all by surprise. The first half of the season underlined the fact that, for the first time in years, we had a talented young squad, harmony in the dressing room and a bright manager capable of sculpting a winning side. So to see those play-off hopes die out with a whimper was a big shame, and it took away from what had been an impressive season. In the end, the small size of the squad, the manager's unwillingness to rotate key first-team players, a lack of tactical variety and the inability to bring sign anyone in January due to FFP – Reading were the only side to make no signings in that window – all contributed to us falling away. Still, that season deserves to be looked back on as a decisive step in the right direction. Reading have a lean and talented group, the connection between club and fans is strong (a million miles from the rage when we abruptly got rid of our manager and CEO on the eve of 2020/21) and the pathway from academy to first team is probably the best it's ever been.

“Whether we regard 2020/21 as a missed opportunity will probably depend on what happens this season though. Either it was a brief spurt of success built on sand, or the foundations truly were laid down for this club to once again consistently be one of the strongest in the division. We won't be able to put a team that talented together for a while, that's for sure. Michael Olise is the obvious example: he's arguably the best player our academy has ever produced, and I'm surprised that no Champions League club came in for him, but he'll end up at that level anyway. Omar Richards earned fewer plaudits last season but his next career step, being snapped up by Bayern Munich at the end of his contract, shows just how good he was. There's certainly a strong element of last season being a missed opportunity, but there were mitigating factors like squad size and financial restrictions that made it an easier pill to swallow. The bigger sense of frustration is that we've been unable to get any financial reward for the talent we've brought through. Olise would have gone for a transfer fee rivalling the £20m+ Birmingham City got for Jude Bellingham had there not been an £8m release clause in his deal, while Richards would have fetched a fair chunk too. To see £30m-£40m of talent leave for a fraction of that is galling, especially given what those funds would do for this FFP-stricken, transfer-embargo-suffering club.

“As of just over a week to go until the start of the season, the only way the squad is shaping up is it’s getting smaller. An already reduced squad has lost three loanees, ten players being released, two more being sold and another (Yakou Meite) being sidelined with an ACL for the long term. To compensate for all that we needed a good seven to nine signings, ideally coming in as early as possible to get settled in. However, a transfer embargo from the EFL, who failed to give any clarity on our situation until late July, meant no one could come in. Every reasonable Reading fan would accept that we need to be punished for FFP breaches (we lost £90m in three years!), but tying our hands behind our backs to such an extreme extent – and leaving us in the dark for so long on whether we'd get any leeway – leaves fans wondering how well we'll be able to compete next season. Without additions we're without a senior left back, back-up right back (first choice Andy Yiadom is injury prone) or wingers (we don't have any), not to mention lacking depth across the rest of the squad bar centre back and in goal. The academy can contribute players to an extent, but given that the oldest crop is generally under 20 and has little to no senior experience, they can only do so much.

“This season will be a painful slog for sure. Even with a few more players coming in, which should happen as things stand, we need injury-prone players to stay fit, academy lads to be dependable parts of the first team and the manager to improve on his rotation and tactical variety. Assuming we have some success with those factors but not a clean sweep, we'll manage a respectable mid-table finish.”

What We Said Last Season: 17th Finished 7th, +10.

Prediction: 14th Been wrong before though.

Milllllllllllllll 30/1 (title odds)

Last Season: In our defence we fancied about 13 Championship clubs to be relegated last year and were really only ever sure about Norwich at the other end (we had Forest fourth by default) but even so Millwall making the top six didn’t feel like that much of a stretch. They’d taken perennial LFW striking favourite Tom Bradshaw and paired him with perennial LFW midfield favourite Ryan Woods. Add to that the striking additions of Kenneth Zohore, who one would have thought well out of their price range, and Spurs wunderkind Troy Parrott to be serviced by the terminally underrated Jed Wallace and this felt worthy of our attention. Gary Rowett feels like a nice fit there, and although Bartosz Bialkowski plays like a QPR season ticket holder whenever we hone into view he has been highly acclaimed in the other 44 games each season at both Ipswich and The Den. As ever, LFW’s Samba Diakite Player Of The Year Memorial Millstone weighed heavy. Their home struggles without a crowd in Bermondsey to police any potential Marxism infiltration should have been easy to telegraph – only four teams won fewer than their seven home matches and they actually reached the middle of February with just one. Less obvious was that well populated forward line faltering quite as badly as it did. We expect this of Billy Smart’s Amazing Non-Scoring Striker Jon Dadi Bodvarsson (one in 52 apps, against QPR natch), but Zohore (two), Matt Smith (three), Bradshaw (four) and Parrott (none) didn’t make double figures between them. They coughed into life briefly in the spring after a ten-match winless run through the winter, but finished with four defeats and a draw in the final six with the only win coming against hapless Bristol City, a 3-0 home defeat by Swansea, a 4-1 at The Den against Bournemouth, and a 6-1 loss at Coventry on the final day.

Ins >>> George Saville, 28, CM, Boro, Undisclosed >>> Scott Malone, 30, LB, Derby, Free >>> George Long, 27, GK, Hull, Free >>> Daniel Ballard, 21, CB, Arsenal, Loan >>> Benik Afobe, 28, CF, Stoke, Loan

Outs >>> Shaun Williams, 34, DM, Pompey, Free >>> Shane Ferguson, 30, LM, Rotherham, Free >>> James Brown, 23, RB, St Johnstone, Free >>> Frank Fielding, 33, GK, Released

Manager: Gary Rowett Process enthusiast.

This Season: Welcome to the annual LFW’s overrating of Millwall’s chances. For the last two seasons we’ve tipped Wwawwll for a tilt at the top six, last year so confidently we effectively made them Smooth Jimmy Apollo’s Lock of the Preview. I like the manager. I think he did well at Burton, had a very similar situation to this one on the cusp of the play-offs at Birmingham when he was jettisoned and the club has never made it back to that part of the table again, erred when spending money at Stoke (shit happens) and shouldn’t be judged on a tricksy spell at Derby because, well, Derby. His style of football, ethos, preferred formation, how he talks about the game, fit really well at Millwall. I’m often quite impressed with their recruitment – they frequently sign players I wouldn’t have thought they’d be able to afford, and others who I’d have got quite excited had QPR the same move. George Saville back in from Boro with a healthy profit on the original sale banked looks typical of that. There are existing players here who, without feeding into the tired old ‘noone likes us we don’t care’ rhetoric, would feature more prominently in divisional team of the year thinking if they played for a more fashionable club that gets more TV time – Jed Wallace and Jake Cooper chief among them. And there’s the intimidation factor of their home ground.

Now, it should be said that Millwall haven’t been particularly close to making the top six in any of the last three seasons, and let us down again in 2020/21. The manager came under some pressure during a winless run of ten games, and an adjacent sequence of two wins in nine. Plenty of that eye-catching recruitment has fallen flat – Ryan Woods never sparkled here as he had at Brentford, Troy Parrott was an outright flop, and that collection of strikers they assembled last season barely made double figures between them. Two clubs at this level have already been burned for serious wedge falsely believing that Benik Afobe has either the fitness or the ability to lead a Championship line for a full season. The midfield is functional, but lacks creativity. And for all the talk of ‘let em all come daghn to the Den’ Millwall over the last three seasons have won seven, ten and seven of their home league games respectively – it’s not a fucking medieval castle. Mark Warburton’s QPR, with ten points from 12 and ten goals scored in four games, have shown what can be accomplished against them when you stick to the football and ignore the bluster and bullshit.

Nevertheless, as usual, we do quite fancy them again. Certainly a good deal more than the bookies seem to.

Local Knowledge – Lucas Ball (@LucasBall2211) “Last season was still positive given the circumstances despite the pre-season hopes of a top-six finish. We had multiple injury crises throughout the season as well as a couple of covid outbreaks so to finish in the top-half was still a success. A few young players emerged and other, more established players developed their games. We also adapted to a new system that suits us better, in my opinion. There was disappointment with some of the loan signings not working and it once again left us needing to fill a gap in attack this summer.

“A few called for Rowett’s head after a really poor run from October to December last season where we won just once in 15 games, but I can honestly say I believed we should have stuck with him and think that opinion has since been vindicated. He's arguably the most tactically astute manager we've ever had and has the pulling power with players that we wouldn't have signed under previous managers. Under Rowett, we've pushed on both on and off the pitch and have really established ourselves as a mid-table or higher Championship side, which is a huge achievement for a club of our stature and budget. The job he's done since taking over has been very impressive.

“Scott Malone signing on a permanent deal is a great piece of business - he was immense last season and even had his own goal of the season competition after netting some brilliant strikes. His energy is crucial in getting us up and down the pitch from left wing-back and he's got that quality to produce a moment of brilliance be it a cross, pass or scoring himself. George Long arrives to provide competition for Bartosz Bialkowski after Frank Fielding's release and seems to have done well in pre-season. Bialkowski is certainly the number one still heading into the campaign, but Long harbours big ambitions and believes he can play at the top level so will be looking to dislodge the Pole. Dan Ballard impressed last season at Blackpool in League One and has been one of the standout performers in pre-season, with even Rowett surprised at how well he has performed and how quickly he has settled in. The Arsenal loanee adds depth at centre back and it will likely be between him and Murray Wallace with regards to who plays in the back three - most of the time - with Shaun Hutchinson and Jake Cooper. Benik Afobe has scored goals at this level before and Rowett will be hoping to get the best out of him after a tough time at Stoke and away from football. He will likely lead the line with Jed Wallace once the season starts and could be the 10-15 goal striker that we so badly need to push for the Play-Offs. Our lack of goals from midfield was a concern last season and George Saville has been brought in to try to combat that issue. He knows the club well with this being his fourth spell and offers both quality and energy from midfield. He'll be looking to replicate his last full season with us at this level where he netted 10 league goals. We're still looking for another attacker but that would be reliant on the likes of Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Ben Thompson leaving, with deals hard to come by with League One sides. I'd love to see us go back in for Josh Windass given he can play as a #10 and up front, which would also offer some much-needed creativity - though another bid seems unlikely at this stage.

“I think we'll be there or thereabouts when it comes to the Play-Offs. We've added quality in a number of positions and also seem to have found a way to score from set pieces which could add a good number of goals to our tally this season. It's just about adding goals from open play which hopefully we can do - especially if we get another attacker in following some departures.”

What We Said Last Season: 6th Actually finished 11th, -5.

Prediction: 7th

Blackburn 33/1 (title odds)

Last Season: A cautionary tale for those getting all soapy tit wank about QPR’s apparently impressive business this summer – a year ago much of the division was casting admiring glances Blackburn’s way. Along with Morgan Gibbs White at Swansea and Troy Parrott at Millwall they had secured the peak of the Premier League loans with Liverpool’s ex-Fulham starlet Harvey Elliott – though in Elliott’s case he did turn out to be some kind of baller while the other two struggled. He combined beautifully with Adam Armstrong, who finally went on the potential-fulfilling run of 29 goals in a season that he’d often threatened. They had Bradley Dack to return from injury, Barry Douglas who’d previously been promoted at Wolves and Leeds and looked good doing it, Daniel Ayala as a reasonable stab at tightening a leaky defence, Ben Brereton finally starting to come good now he’s decided he’s Chilean, and Sam Gallagher, who looks good in his Insta holiday snaps if nothing else. Thomas Kaminski was a great addition in goal. Watch out world the Jamaicans are coming.

And, sure, when it clicked, it was lovely stuff. They scored five each against Wycombe, Huddersfield and Birmingham, four away at both Derby and Coventry. Elliott figured heavily in the end of season awards thinking, Armstrong is being targeted by Southampton with a £20m price tag on his head. The failings were not without mitigation – Rovers and Stoke fared worse than anybody else for injuries in the truncated season, at times without a dozen first team players. But overall, a big disappointment, and a grave underperformance for this squad of players on paper. An unfortunate 1-0 loss at QPR in January sparked a run of six defeats from seven which eventually stretched to one win from 15 games. Tony Mowbray had plenty of credit in the bank for the way he brought a shambolic club back from League One, and often for just coming across as a bloody decent bloke, but the jungle drums have been beating for a while now, and so they should when you take that team and finish fifteenth with it.

Ins >>> Niente

Outs >>> Charlie Mulgrew, 35, CB, Dundee Utd, Free >>> Amari’i Bell, 27, LB, Luton, Free >>> Corry Evans, 30, CM, Sunderland, Free >>> Elliott Bennett, 32, RW, Shrewsbury, Free >>> Brad Lyons, 24, CM, Kilmarnock, Free >>> Stewart Downing, 35, LW, Released again >>> Lewis Holtby, 30, CM, Released

Manager: Tony Mowbray Might not be a bad horse to back in the sack race, if Forest are going to continue this act of being all normal.

This Season: For a while now, the numbers haven’t added up at Blackburn. On an average pre-Covid gate of just under 14,000, with some of the Championship’s cheapest ticket prices, the only player they’ve sold for significant money in the last four seasons was goalkeeper David Raya for £3m to Brentford, and yet serious wedge has been spent on Gallagher, Brereton and others. They lost £22m for the 2019/20 season, and that figure cannot have done anything but got worse in the whole year without crowds. Just 3,000 season ticket sales had been sold for the new campaign as of last week, which even if they’re all at the most expensive £499 rate is still just £1.5m (even QPR were bringing in £5.6m a season through the gate before plague struck). Those chickens (yes we’re going to use the rooster picture again) have come home to roost this summer with one of the EFL’s mysterious soft transfer embargoes in place. Rovers have released seven, lost all of last season’s eye-catching loans, and signed nobody. Making Sheff Wed’s inconsistent winger Adam Reach your main summer target, and then losing out on him to West Brom, doth not bode well. They’re haggling with Southampton over the cost of Armstrong, but the Saints are now making noises about looking elsewhere and Rovers have to sell before they can buy. Sheff Utd were linked with Joe Rothwell, who flatters to deceive but always plays well against QPR, earlier in the summer. Mowbray, whose post match press conferences were those of a man who should have his shoelaces confiscated even last season, said this week that even were they to get the £20m they want for Armstrong investment back into the team will be limited. A betting company that has put some money into the club in the form of sponsorship asked for some players aged over 25 to take part in the promotional photographs, and Rovers only had two in the dressing room to take part. Having spurned what looked, on paper, like a terrific chance to push for the top six last season, this is looking an altogether tougher prospect for Rovers this year.

Local Knowledge – @IanHerbert “Once more Rovers toy with our affections like a 70’s rock lothario promising his wife that he will remain faithful on his upcoming World tour. From a position where Rovers seemed perennially to be just a couple of wins away from the play-off spots, the all-too inevitable crash arrived right on time to eliminate hope in even the most optimistic Roverite. Defeat at the hands of Rangers at the beginning of February triggered a dreadful run incorporating just a single win in 15 games. Relegation picked up its binoculars and spied a potential victim on the horizon. Relative respectability was assured only following a couple of consecutive 5-2 home wins at the tail end of a dismal season. A finishing position of 15th ultimately was flattering and disappointing in equal measure.

“Mowbray is in the last season of his current contract. The term “current contract” is used advisedly as it is not impossible to see the current owners sanctioning an extension despite the mounting evidence. The club is stale from top to bottom, the manager is but one element of the malaise that afflicts the whole operation. He is though, of course, the most visible and his demeanour is increasingly world-weary even by his standards and the overwhelming sense is that his time was up some time ago. Whether it is the FFP challenges that prevent Mowbray’s premature dismissal and pay-off, or his close relationship with CEO Steve Waggott; the net result is a club that seems to be limping towards oblivion.

“The Rovers squad that ended the season has lost eleven players. At time of writing we have signed nobody; though rumours abound that Rothwell will be leaving soon and another former Middlesbrough player, Adam Reach will be incoming. It is a fact that due to a little-known Football League bye-law, Rovers must at any point, in any given season, always have at least four former Middlesbrough players on the books to make Tony feel at home. Releasing Stuart Downing has created a vacancy, Reach for the stars you might say.

“To put it bluntly… I see this season going badly. The deadline is still a month away, who knows, Rovers might still bring in half a dozen superstars and storm the league; but in all probability, the first instinct next season will be to look down the table rather than up. Hard to see a finish higher than last season. Hard to see a finish comfortably clear of relegation. Hoping for 15th, expecting 18th, fearing 22nd.”

What We Said Last Season: 14th Actually finished 15th, -1.

Prediction: 20th Preston, Bristol City, Huddersfield and Blackburn all look vulnerable to any sort of form from the newly promoted sides. Take Armstrong out of this team, as it seems like they have to, and fail to replace adequately and this is shaping up to be a struggle.

Birmingham 40/1 (title odds)

Last season: Everything we expected and more. Everything any club that hands the keys over to a manager who hates the sport, the players that play it and the people who pay to watch it, should have expected and more.

To be fair, you can’t say Aitor Karanka’s approach and methods haven’t evolved and changed. Originally he repaid his best bum chum Jose Mourinho for helping parachute him into jobs he’d never otherwise have had a sniff of by doubling down on “Mou’s” philosophy that a team in possession is a danger to itself. As the years have gone on, possession of the ball isn’t the only thing Karanka has contrarily decided his team must learn to live without. Scoring goals, it seems, also a little bit too obvious and mainstream for him – an idea first toyed with when he tried to do a whole season at Middlesbrough with a flat back nine and Alvaro Negredo. Winning games, too, a bit of an eye-roll for Aitor these days, because, sure, I guess if you wanted to be conventional and boring about it you could try and climb a league table that way, but it’s not exactly challenging yourself is it?

And so off Birmingham set, without the ball or a desire to ever get it back, without scoring goals or any ambition to ever do so, and without winning any game of football against anybody under any circumstances. There were some early 0-0 draws for the Karanka Wanka Banka, achieved with about 7% of the ball, against Swansea, QPR, Coventry and Millwall, the likes of which he would once have been able to masturbate himself into such a frenzy over only little tired puffs of air would emerge from the tattered remains of his brutally abused, heavily abraded helmet. But soon even he, and his team, lost interest in that, and settled instead for long, inglorious winless runs of a dozen games or more stretching over many weeks, with only the occasional accidental flop over the line against some pitiful rabble like Sheffield Wednesday to breathe life into the patient. They were unwatchable, even for Birmingham, and even for Karanka. I sat through their 1-0 defeat at home to Luton, it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. It made Miranda look like Seinfeld. It was so dreadfully, unmercifully, aggressively dire you can’t help but conclude he’s doing it on purpose through some deeply ingrained hatred of the sport and everybody involved in it.

QPR’s outrageous act of charity at St Andrew’s kept the miserable ballsack in work for another fortnight, pushing Birmingham still closer to what was at that point an inevitable relegation. Lee Bowyer’s subsequent impressive rescue job when the club did belatedly admit defeat – a decision met with elated, piss-taking goal celebrations by the long suffering players – rather slipped under the radar. There were more dramatic stories developing at Rotherham and Derby, and a widespread ‘well durrrrr’ realisation that you’ve probably done beer shits after a dodgy king prawn jalfrezi and bottle of corked red that would provide more inspiration to a football team than Aitor Karanka, and literally anybody in the world bar Paul Hart could have taken on that job and improved matters. Nevertheless, Bowyer won five and drew two of the last ten, which probably deserved more acclaim than it got outside St Andrew’s.

Ins >>> Jordan Graham, 26, LW, Gillingham, Free >>> Ryan Woods, 27, DM, Stoke, Free >>> Chuks Aneke, 27, CF, Charlton, Free >>> Dion Sanderson, 21, CB, Wolves, Loan >>> Juan Familia-Castillo, 21, LB, Chelsea, Loan >>> Tahith Chong, 21, RW, Man Utd, Loan >>> Matija Sarkic, 24, GK, Wolves, Loan

Outs >>> Steve Seddon, 23, LB, Oxford, Undisclosed >>> Jon Toral, 26, CM, Crete, Free >>> Josh Dacres-Cogley, 25, RB, Tranmere, Free >>> Agus Medina, 26, CM, Ponferradina (Spain), Free >>> Mikel San Jose, 32, DM, Amorebieta (Spain), Free >>> Ivan Guzman, 30, RB, Ceuta (Spain), Free >>> Dan Crowley, 23, AM, Released >>> Andres Prieto, 27, GK, Released

Manager: Lee Bowyer Sitts you’re too intense.

This Season: Since foolishly ditching Gary Rowett when in the top half of the division, Birmingham’s managerial appointments have been one obviously fucking stupid idea after another: Zola and Redknapp ruinous; Clotet and Karanka frauds; Steve Cotterill’s gold chain; Gary Monk’s favoured agents… You only need look at that above list of summer departures, where they’ve gone, and how much was received for them, to see this has been a club appallingly mismanaged for many seasons now, and on more than one occasion they’ve been incredibly fortunate to escape relegation. They would absolutely have gone down last year had they not belatedly made the switch to Lee Bowyer, and will now be infinitely better off for having a manager who’s not actively trying to destroy them. The calamitous CEO who oversaw this horror show, Xuandong Ren, has also crawled back under the rock from whence he came. Not that Bowyer is afraid to chuck a player or three under the bus, as Marcus Maddison found out at Charlton, and while he won universal praise for the job done in trying circumstances at The Valley it’ll be interesting to judge with hindsight how much of that was driven by his old school “if he does that once more he’ll never play for me again” schtick, and how much was a canny recruitment mission led by our own Steve Gallen. Still, he feels like a good fit, and the summer ins so far, while not buttering many parsnips, show potentially shrewd use of the Premier League loan market at least. Will struggle to progress significantly under this ownership, and lost 4-0 to West Brom in their final friendly, but look much better set for 2021/22 than they have for sometime.

Local Knowledge – @MatthewBlue1875 “Well the win against Brentford on the opening day of the season definitely set expectations far higher than they needed to be. The team struggled for consistency under Karanka. He constantly chopped and changed the team and the season was littered with individual errors and bad football. His instructions confused players and he drained them of all their confidence as he shrugged and threw them under the bus in his post match interviews. With around ten games left and hovering around the relegation zone it had clearly got to the point where the players couldn't take it anymore and a collective decision was made that a few senior players would go above the CEO's head to another director to tell him that Karanka needed to go. He was gone the next day and a few days later Bowyer was installed. The turnaround was nothing short of exceptional, 17 points from eight games saw us fly to safety with relative ease with two games to spare.

“It's probably a bit cliché, but Bowyer just gets the club. He'd wanted the job before, but didn't get it. An ex player, a cup winner with the club, someone the fans will get behind and back. Things have looked much brighter since he came in. He got the team back to basics to keep us up, solid defence and creating plenty of chances. Now he wants to try to move things forward with a more progressive style of football with a team that is more comfortable on the ball and keeps possession. It won't happen overnight, but the right things are being put place for it.

“Recruitment has been interesting. Business started fairly early, bringing in Ryan Woods, he's the type of player Blues have lacked since Barry Ferguson left 10 years ago. A clear sign that Bowyer wants the team to improve ball retention. We've dipped into the lower leagues to add goals and creativity with Jordan Graham and Chuks Aneke on free transfers. Tahith Chong on loan from Man United has caused a bit of a stir. I think the physical side of the Championship might be a problem for him, but there's no doubting the kid has talent. Elsewhere we've brought in defender Dion Sanderson from Wolves and wingback Juan Castillo from Chelsea both on loan. Neil Etheridge was hospitalised with Covid, so we've also brought in Wolves keeper Matija Sarkic to cover. There's still talk of one or two more being added, most likely a striker and maybe a midfielder, but the squad is looking a little bloated right now and players will need to be moved out before the window closes. We certainly look more attacking than we have done for a long time. Business has been sensible, they've not done anything daft and we look stronger for it.

“I'm looking forward to this season. A lot feels right about things on the pitch, at least. I'm optimistic we will make a good go of things and I don't think we'll be anywhere near the bottom three. I predict a slow buy steady start, a flirt with the top eight for a few weeks and dropping off to a comfortable mid-table finish come the end of the season. Twelfth.”

What We Said Last Season: 20th Finished 18th, +2.

Prediction: 11th This comes with the caveat that we always tend to inflate whoever has signed Ryan Woods five or six places, and for the last few years that’s been bollocks.

Luton 40/1 (title odds)

Last Season: God-fearing, chip-on-both-shoulders Nathan Jones was no more a fit for Stoke City than softly-spoken Graeme ‘who cares about the result as long as the boys are enjoying themselves?’ Jones was at Kenilworth Road. It made sense for the former to return to the club he’d won two promotions at, and the latter to go back to offering a soothing word of encouragement or arm round the shoulder to young lads struggling to express their true feelings, just in the nick of time to save Luton from relegation in 2019/20. As we’ve seen, most pointedly with Barnsley, staying up in that first season post-League One is an enormous hurdle to clear and having done that Jones went about quietly (you’re more likely to see reasoned political debate on television than a Luton Town match) continuing his remarkable run of finishing higher in each of his now five seasons in charge of the club. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, Leicestershire’s premier wedding venue, starred on loan in midfield as the Hatters Red Octobered it all the way up to twelfth in the table, with a chunky nine away victories thrown in along the way. That included a collection of seven victories through March, April and May to finish up with.

Ins >>> Admiral Muskwe, 22, CF, Leicester, Undisclosed >>> Carlos Mendes Gomes, 22, RW, Morecambe, Undisclosed >>> Fred Onyedinma, 24, RW, Wycombe, Undisclosed >>> Allan Campbell, 22, DM, Motherwell, Undisclosed >>> Amari’i Bell, 27, LB, Blackburn, Free >>> Cameron Jerome, 34, ST, MK Dons, Free >>> Henri Lansbury, 30, CM, Bristol City, Free >>> Reece Burke, 24, CB, Hull, Free

Outs >>> James Collins, 30, ST, Cardiff, Free >>> Matty Pearson, 27, CB, Huddersfield, Free >>> Kazenga LuaLua, 30, LW, Genclerbirligi (Turkey), Free >>> George Moncur, 27, CM, Hull, Free >>> Ryan Tunnicliffe, 28, CM, Portsmouth, Free >>> Corey Panter, 20, CB, Dundee, Free >>> Brendan Galloway, 25, LB, Released >>> Tiernan Parker, 19, GK, Released >>> Jack Chambers, 20, CM, Released >>> Harry Isted, 24, GK, Released

Manager: Nathan Jones Never knowingly walked past a church, or an argument.

This Season: It’s Luton’s turn to get the scatter graph and analytics geeks purring into their summer previews with what looks a very impressive upgrade of last season’s squad. Having gone out and hired Jay Socik, who started the whole pesky trend with his Baldes Analytic Twitter account, they’ve made a number of seemingly very good signings, and Cameron Jerome, on a tight budget. Most notably bringing ex Wycombe loanee Admiral Muskwe back on permanent shore leave from Leicester, and adding the sought after Allan Campbell from Motherwell which will help negate the loss of Dewsbury-Hall. Carlos Mendes Gomes was the star of a surprise promotion push from perennial League Two strugglers Morecambe last season. James Collins is a big miss having led the line here for years, and Jerome doesn’t strike me as much of a replacement, but having already snared impressive Walsall target man Elijah Adebayo last January and added Gomes, Muskwe and Onyedinma to the attack besides that shouldn’t matter greatly – expect pace, width and outright awkwardness from this side going forwards. The defence looks ropey, Reece Burke coming in from Hull does little to convince me otherwise, but Jones has improved his league finish every season he’s been in charge of the Hatters and there’s little reason to suggest he won’t better last year’s twelfth and continue that run. To be honest, the bigger surprise was finding out Henri Lansbury and Kazenga Lua Lua are still only 30.

Local Knowledge – @LutonTownFans “Last season was really positive for us. The first priority for the club each season is to make sure we stay in the Championship and we did that with ease and were never in any danger. Our twelfth place finish meant we improved on our previous season’s position for the fifth season in a row.

“There’s been a big turnover of players this time round and Nathan Jones has made a conscious effort to lower the average age of the squad and bring in players that he describes as having pace, power and athleticism, which we had been lacking. The forward line has had the biggest changes with Carlos Mendes Gomes (winger from Morecambe), Fred Onyedinma (winger from Wycombe), Admiral Muskwe (striker from Leicester) and Elijah Adebayo (striker from Walsall in January) all being signed for fees and being helped out by the experienced striker Cameron Jerome who we picked up on a free. Their attributes bring a different look to our forward line compared to what James Collins offered, so hopefully making up for losing his goals won’t be a problem. In midfield we have brought in Allan Campbell from Motherwell who was highly thought of in Scotland for a fee and the experienced Henri Lansbury on a free, who will hopefully fill the Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall (KDH) void left after his return to Leicester after a season long loan. In defence, centre-back Reece Burke has been added from Hull, along with left-back Amari’i Bell from Blackburn, both on a free. Both of these signings are regarded as being better than the outgoing players we had in those positions.

“I think the general feeling is that the squad is stronger as a whole this season. Of the players who have departed from last season, only KDH currently feels irreplaceable, as he is Premier League quality. Club captain Sonny Bradley and our longest serving player Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu both signed new contracts, which was also fantastic news for both the quality and continuity of the squad with having had such a big turnover of players this season.

“With so much change it’s difficult to predict if it will all gel, but my hope is that we can improve on our 12th place finish of last season and continue the season-on-season progression and I expect we’ll be somewhere in that mid-table region. Nathan Jones will also have exceeding last season as a target with possibly an outside shot of the play-offs, such are his expectations. Ultimately anything above 22nd place each season until we get the new stadium can be considered a success.”

What We Said Last Season: 19th Finished 12th, +7

Prediction: 9th Could easily be this year’s Barnsley. Several bookies have them at 80/1 which is ludicrous.

Links >>> Contenders >>> Midtable >>> Strugglers

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enfieldargh added 10:54 - Aug 3
Love these appraisals of the runners and riders in this league

Discounted Barnsley this year but the review has turned them into a sounder rabid dog in a darkened alleyway waiting to pounce


enfieldargh added 10:56 - Aug 3
Wounded rabid dog

JamieHastings added 18:04 - Aug 3
Jesus. Karanka's helmet...

simmo added 22:35 - Aug 3
I think at least 1 team in this piece will make the playoffs and I wouldn't be surprised if 3 or 4 make top 10. We agree every year that Millwall will be close but I think them, Luton and Barnsley will bloody a good few noses again this season.

We're in for a good and tough match first game against the former!

Antti_Heinola added 10:24 - Aug 4
I cannot believe Cameron Jerome is not 43.

GroveR added 12:39 - Aug 4
Who's this furrin lad Niente everyone seems to be in for and does 'Arry know about him?

stevec added 07:56 - Aug 5
Luton’s League One, Two and Scotland signings should be ringing the alarm bells, no way will they finish top half.

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