Season Preview 22/23 – Strugglers
Wednesday, 27th Jul 2022 07:58 by Clive Whittingham
The final part of our annual Championship season preview looks at those clubs the bookies think most likely to be battling relegation this season – nonsense, in a couple of cases, in our view.
Hull 6/1 (relegation odds)
Last Season: Hull City had two jobs last season.
The first was to stay in the Championship following promotion from a one-year sojourn into League One. This was accomplished by three places and 14 points, a considerable achievement given the team was led from the front by large sack of discarded rubble Tom Eaves – the footballing equivalent of trying to operate the East Coast mainline for a year using only dog pulled sleighs. I’m not sure about Grant McCann, but Peterborough were considerably better with him in charge than they had been with Darren Ferguson, and I didn’t think Hull were anywhere near capable of surviving last season with what they had and yet did so with plenty to spare so… maybe.
The second was to finally enter remission from a decade of the Allams family’s cancerous ownership. It’s widely and erroneously reported that this all goes back to and hangs on fans’ resistance to the batshit delusional idea that a market of 50 million latent Hull City supporters in the Far East could be unlocked and bring untold wealth if only the team were named after an exotic animal instead of its home. In fact the issue was, is, and always had been the stadium the team played in. Built by the council as an asset for the city with proceeds from the sale of Hull’s unique publicly-owned telecoms system, the Allams thought it would be jolly nice if this was handed over to them for a nominal sum so they could set about developing it and the neighbouring rubble car park and home of the annual Hull Fair, “for the benefit of the city”. And, by “for the benefit of the city”, they of course meant sticking a whole load of JD Sports and Sports Direct outlets on a piece of public land and profiting from it. When the city said no the owners pursued an Oyston-style vendetta against their own club and town, asset stripping the team and forcing it down the divisions, allowing the stadium to fall into disrepair, ripping up the floor of a neighbouring sports hall to deprive a host of community disabled teams with a place to play, deliberately undermining and targeting the rugby club that shares the stadium, locking the public walkways into and out of the park the ground sits in because of a "terrorist threat", and plenty more besides. It became beyond petty. A picture of Johnny Whiteley, revered and now sadly departed rugby league legend, was removed from the Johnny Whiteley suite at the ground and replaced with a Steve Bruce mugshot, unless Hull FC agreed to a £20,000 annual fee to have their own memorabilia displayed around their own stadium. It had long since become spiteful.
The way football works, with its chocolate fireguard ‘fit and proper owner’ “test”, getting rid of malignant fucktards like this is very difficult if they don’t want to be shifted. It took Blackpool years of boycotting their own games to get there. The long-overdue, desperately-needed, ecstatically welcomed lancing of one of the EFL’s biggest and persistently oozing boils finally went through with a mid-season sale to Turkish media entrepreneur Acun Ilicali. QPR and Hull City have had an oddly testy relationship one way or another over the years, but there isn’t a football fan in W12 or anywhere else in this country that can’t have been buoyed by this news. There should be no place for people like the Allams in our sport, there should be literal rules against it, and what the Hull City fans have had to endure under their tenure was intolerable and unfair.
Ins >>> Allahyar Sayyadmanesh, 21, CF, Fenerbahce, £4m >>> Dogukan Sinik, 23, LM, Antalyaspor, £3.6m >>> Ozan Tufan, 27, CM, Fenerbahce, £2m >>> Jean Michael Seri, 30, CM, Fulham Free >>> Oscar Estupinan, 25, CF, Guimares, Free >>> Benjamin Tatteh, 25, CF, Malatyaspor, Free >>> Tobias Figueiredo, 28, CB, Forest, Free >>> Nathan Baxter, 23, GK, Chelsea, Loan
Outs >>> Keane Lewis-Potter, 21, LW, Brentford, £17m >>> Richard Smallwood, 31, CM, Bradford, Free >>> Tom Eaves, 30, CF, Rotherham, Free >>> George Honeyman, 27, CM, Millwall , Undisclosed >>> George Moncur, 28, CM, Orient, Undisclosed >>> Harvey Cartwright, 20, GK, Peterborough, Loan >>> Tom Huddlestone, 78, CM, Released
Manager: Shota Arveladze Cannot believe this guy hasn’t at some point had a ten-week spell in charge of one of the “Old Firm” brought to an early end by a mid-July two-legged European exit at the hands of the Romanian Taxi Drivers Union work side.
This Season: You know a Championship football club with money is a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. Nobody knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it.
Hull initially spent their first summer with cash in ten years running round desperately trying to persuade somebody to take it from them – I’d say Scott Twine laughed at them but he seems too polite and well brought up for that sort of disrespect. Pick ups like Nottingham Forest’s bang average Tobias Figueiredo feel very much like scraps left after everybody else has feasted on the summer transfer table. They’ve also – and this shouldn’t be forgotten when wondering whether the Tigers are actually a bit of a dark horse this year – lost their two outstanding and most influential players with George Honeyman a shrewd pick up by Millwall and Keane Lewis-Potter the most Brentfordy Brentford signing since their last one. Jean Michael Seri, a multi-capped Senegal international and £25m buy for Fulham not four years ago, replaces Honeyman but at 30, on a three-year contract, and with his wage at Craven Cottage said to be eye-watering, that’s a bit of an amber warning light for me rather than reason to be cheerful. Likewise £2.7m Ozan Tufan who was at Watford last year and, putting it kindly, was total fucking crap.
The one I’m most fascinated about is Vitoria striker Oscar Estupinan - 25 years old, Colombian international, 15 goals in Portugal’s top flight for an unfashionable team last season. I’ve a dead dog buried at the bottom of my garden that would be an upgrade on Tom fucking Eaves so that shouldn’t be hard for him to achieve, but if he can come in and have a Joel Piroe-style debut season at this level then Hull will not only surprise a few, but they’ll also have succeeded where Boro, Sheff Utd, QPR and others have failed in finding an affordable, available, quality striker in this market. He’s a penalty box player, not a lot to contribute outside of there, but I presume that’s what Borat extra Allahyar Sayyadmanesh (chenquieh) has been brought in to do (at not inconsiderable expense).
Local Knowledge – Nathaniel Whittingham (no relation, it’s just a Hull thing) @NathanielWhitto “The main job last season was to finish twenty first or higher, and we managed that comfortably in the end. Situations on and off the pitch during the last few years of the Allam's reign were fairly dire so finally getting the desired takeover was a brilliant bonus last year and a great relief to everyone. With the points deductions we were actually the fourth worst side last season so we could have done better but 19th was quite respectable given the summer transfer embargo and very poor start.
“The manager would have been a leftfield choice for any other Championship club but the main reason he was appointed was his relationship with new owner Acun Ilicali. He's got a reasonable record in Turkey and Israel, but the few months he's spent here already will hopefully make up for the lack of experience in the Championship ahead of this season. He seems to be keeping the three at the back system Grant McCann introduced before his departure, which a lot of fans are happy with. It's up to him to get the best out of our new players. He will probably be given a lot of time if it doesn't go well initially because he's friends with the owner. Still undecided on him.
“Absolutely fantastic window so far, and hopefully more to come for the required depth for a 46 game season. We've put big money on two players from Fernerbache, winger Sayyadmanesh and midfielder Tufan, but we've also been very astute in signing free agents. Forest and Fulham promotion heroes Figueiredo and Seri didn't require fees, nor did promising loan signing Nathan Baxter who joins for another year. Colombian striker Oscar Estupinan, who scored 15 in Portugal last year, could prove to be one of the best signings of the whole window and is a big coup. The main question is will the new comers, soon to include Turkish international winger Sinik, be able to replace Keane Lewis Potter adequately?
“Our first five opponents of the season include Burnley and Norwich, after those tough fixtures we'll know more about our promotion prospects. If all the new signings gel and play as well as we hope they can, a playoff spot would be possible. Otherwise, a top half finish would still signal progress for a team with many League One standard players in its ranks. Those predicting City will be relegation candidates again are likely in for a big surprise.”
What we said last season: 23rd (finished 19th, +4)
Prediction: 12th Impossible to call. If you tell me now they finish third and go up, I’m not surprised. If you tell me now they finish third bottom and go down, I’m not surprised. More known unknowns and unknown knowns than a round of pass the parcel at Donald Rumsfeld’s birthday party. I’ll stick them bang in the middle and watch with intrigue.
Last Season: Preston started the season with Frankie McAvoy as their manager – and that went about as well as you might expect. Preston started the season relying on the fitness of Izzy Brown and Connor Wickham – and that went about as well as you might expect.
Losing eight of your first 21 games isn’t catastrophic, only winning six of the others is more problematic, and the manager was binned on December 6 after a meek defeat in a local derby with Blackburn. Draws continued to be an issue for North End after his departure – no team drew as many as their 16 across the season. They were eighteenth at that point, which is basically exactly where we had them in last season’s preview if they’d continued on that trajectory.
When you send one of your longer serving players, Tom Barkhuizen in this case, out for a routine Monday morning press call two months into a season and he does this with it, you know everything’s not alright at home. “Thankfully for us, we've got the best 'keeper in the league who keeps us in every game at the moment… We can say we are so many unbeaten and blah, blah, blah but let's be honest, we beat three League One teams in the cup and have drawn six where we could quite easily have got beat in most of them… We scored from a corner and nicked one on the edge of the box which is fair enough, if that's how we set-up to play - to sit off and bore teams to death.” Alright Tom come on, we’ve all had a drink.
Ryan Lowe felt like a much better, modern, ambitious, exciting appointment when he was brought in from Plymouth, and after promotions at Home Park, and Bury under ridiculous circumstances, I suspect a lot of the Championship were quite envious that PNE got in there before they had a chance to bin their own manager off and do the same. There is some cynical doubt that Stephen Schumacher might have had a bit to do with his success to date – he decided not to follow, took the Plymouth job on himself and won 11 of 14 games to begin with before a weird slump in the last half dozen games cost them a play-off spot. But Lowe continued the forward motion of his own career by undoubtedly improving a pretty turgid Preston side which rallied up to thirteenth in the table.
Ins >>> Freddie Woodman, 25, GK, Newcastle, Undisclosed >>> Ben Woodburn, 22, AM, Liverpool, Free >>> Robbie Brady, 30, LW, Bournemouth, Free >>> David Cornell University, 31, GK, Peterborough, Free >>> Troy Parrott, 20, CF, Spurs, Loan >>> Alvaro Fernandez, 19, LB, Man Utd, Loan
Everything that wasn’t tied down >>> Tom Barkhuizen, 28, LW, Derby, Free >>> Josh Earl, 23, LB, Fleetwood, Free >>> Tom Bayliss, 23, CM, Shrewsbury, Free >>> Joe Rafferty, 28, RB, Pompey, Free >>> Connor Ripley, 29, GK, Morecambe, Free >>> Jack Baxter, 21, CM, Stafford, Free >>> Ethan Walker, 19, LW, Blackburn, Free >>> Izzy Brown, 25, AM, Royal Preston Hospital, Free >>> Scott Sinclair, 33, AM, Released >>> Paul Huntington, 34, CB, Released >>> Matthew Hudson, 23, GK, Released >>> Jamie Thomas, 25, CF, Released
Manager: Ryan Lowe Big season for a big prospect.
This Season: North End have already achieved notable success this summer in selling a record 11,000+ season tickets, and there will be in excess of 4,000 of them making the short hop to newly promoted Wigan on the opening day. The Latics return, Burnley’s demise, and the ongoing presence of Blackburn and Blackpool, make this league an absolute slog for the QPR die-hards this year, but it’s chock full of intriguing local derbies if you’re a fan of this lot. When we talk about QPR doing more with what they have at Loftus Road, it’s a bad look, poor economics and dire for our FFP struggles to have an 18,000-capacity ground which we cannot fill for the majority of our games. The cheap tickets in X Block were a decent idea, and terracing back in the Lower Loft for the first time since 1994 is a huge step in the right direction that once the delicate politics of seat moves have been dealt with we need to be marketing the hell out of all over the city and working hard to make sure some atmosphere is built there behind the goal again at last. But there’s an aversion to a lot of other incentives, discount initiatives, advertising and marketing of our product at Loftus Road, and a sort of resigned shrug of the shoulders at the limitations of the place and historical attendances when you point out that we’re only getting 11,000-13,000 most of the time. Preston is not a wealthy area, their team has not been very good for quite a while now, their ground is one of the best smaller stadiums in the league and totally redeveloped but its hospitality lounges and boxes down the side remain unfinished several years on, and yet in a cost of living crisis they’ve shown themselves able to post record season ticket sales through clever and creative marketing and galvanising a home support. It’s one to really take note of and learn from.
On the pitch, they have a significant issue straight away. I absolutely love Ben Whiteman in midfield, gutted our pursuit of him from Doncaster didn’t bear fruit, Daniel Johnson is just good plain and simple, and Ryan Ledson really should get more chat (see chart above in which they all score well), but apart from that their best performers last season, like Everton’s Anthony Gordon before them, were loan players. Brice Samba, Lee Nicholls, Wes Foderingham and others took the plaudits, press attention and honours last season, but perhaps due to their league position and lack of Sky picks there was precious little said outside of Deepdale about Daniel Iversen – he was, nevertheless, one of the division’s best goalkeepers, and he hasn’t come back from Leicester. Nor has Liverpool’s 20-year-old centre back Sepp van den Berg, another who few in the division could hold a candle to during a highly successful 18-month spell here. And, of course, much of the second half revival last season was predicated on the goals and form of the enormously impressive young Villa striker Cameron Archer who got seven goals in 18 starts for the Whites, and 17 in 29 across the whole season, including a famous winner here against bitter rivals Blackpool and another against QPR where he was wholly too hot for us to handle all afternoon. Watford seem confident they lead the chase for him if Villa choose to send him the Championship’s way again.
That is a serious loss of talent and goals for and against, right down the spine of the team. What PNE fish out of this season’s loan market to replace it could be key to their fortunes, and an added problem with that is the early start to our season, and late closing of the transfer window, means half a dozen league games will already have been played before that last week when the Premier League squads are named and the decisions are made about which prospects are going out on loan or not. They have made more headway than most - Alvaro Fernandez came in on print deadline from Man Utd. As did Troy Parrott from Spurs - a high profile capture for Millwall in 2020/21 where he subsequently failed to score at all, he has rebuilt a burgeoning reputation playing as a more withdrawn forward at MK Dons and a role off the excellent Emil Ris Jakobsen, rather than having to play the leading man himself, could fit very nicely. There may also be some reinforcements from within – 18-year-old Mikey O’Neill came on for a debut when we lost there in April and is one of a clutch of youth players they have reasonably high hopes for and are determined to offer more chance to after losing local prospect Tyrhys Dolan to Blackburn.
Local Knowledge – Josh McLoughlin @Josh_McLoughlin “Last season was basically a write off from the start with no one truly believing Frankie McAvoy could improve on anything Alex Neil had done. Any good performances and wins simply papered over the cracks and it was only really when Ryan Lowe joined that our season got going. Our three best players were arguably all on loan - Daniel Iversen, Sepp van den Berg and Cameron Archer and will be hard to replace. A 13th place finish last year was probably surprising given how we started but shows you the Championship isn’t as strong as it has been in the past
“We’ve got plenty of gaps to fill but only a few have been at the time of writing. Freddie Woodman looks to be a great signing on a permanent deal. Highly rated with England youth honours, I’m looking forward to seeing him be our number one for the foreseeable future. David Cornell has been brought in as a solid backup to Woodman. Elsewhere Robbie Brady and Ben Woodburn have joined on free transfers. Brady could be a coup if he can stay fit and Woodburn needs to recapture the form and promise he showed early on at Liverpool. On the fence with both of these as it really could go either way. We look set to bring in Alvaro Fernandez and Troy Parrott on loan from Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur respectively. Both are highly rated and Parrott comes on the back of a decent loan spell with MK Dons. Fernandez won United’s Under 23 player of the season and could fit into our LWB position perfectly
“Lowe has got the fans back on side which is a huge plus after a rocky few years. 11,000 season ticket sales speaks for itself after some very fair pricing. The style of play is much better on the eye and he did a decent job with the squad he inherited. There aren’t huge expectations this season from the fans but with eight local derby games this season, there’s going to be some key moments for Lowe and his side to deliver.
“The fans are back onside so if we get off to a good start who knows? There are much stronger teams in the league and definitely a good six or so that will struggle. So we’ll be comfortably in mid table I think. Defence could be a weak point for us but if Emil Riis can continue his scoring form then we’ll be ok. Again the 8 derby games will be key. Win the majority of them and the fans will be very happy.”
What we said last season: 21st (Lowe rallied them to 13th, +8)
Last Season: Will Keane scored 23 goals in 46 league games!? Fuck me lads how bad has League One got?
That’s slightly, needlessly cruel. Even during his struggles at QPR back in 2014 I always thought there was something there, he just looked like one of those insipid academy kids used to having everything handed to them and prancing about doing flicks and tricks he’d seen on Soccer AM on pristine surfaces in non-competitive games – all good for the SnapChat and the TiketyTok, not so good when there’s a big hairy-arsed centre back trying to boot you into the middle of next week. He didn’t impress at any of Preston, Sheff Wed, Hull or Ipswich for exactly the same reason but has found a real home at Wigan and finally hit his straps, belatedly, at 29, scoring 36 goals in 68 starts for them in the league so far.
Those goals were big part of a charge to the League One title. Obviously Sunderland, Sheff Wed, Ipswich and the like were the pre-season favourites, and Rotherham went off like a train and looked to have the whole thing stitched up, but a succession of collapses and wobbles elsewhere re-opened the door and boy did the Latics make the most of that. A monster unbeaten run of 20 games through the winter in all comps, including knocking Blackburn out of the FA Cup, paved the way for a spring of nine wins and just one defeat from another 14 League One fixtures. One win in the last six was rather a crawl over the finish line but I doubt they care much.
Wigan, as we’re all aware, should never have been relegated from the Championship in the first place. Paul Cook’s side were nicely progressing up the table playing some of the division’s better football when the financial rug was whipped from under them – the EFL, typically, on hand with a swift points deduction, but no other help or jurisdiction against the latest Far Eastern chancer treating one of our clubs like a play-thing. Even in administration, without the points, without people getting paid, Wigan put a hell of a recovery attempt on which included beating Hull City 8-0. It’s not the most alluring trip on a calendar dominated by Avanti West Coast rinsing you of all your cash and providing no kind of service, but it’s wonderful to see them back and for Leam Richardson, who’d assisted Cook, to be the man to lead them to it.
Ins >>> Matt Wonnacott, 18, GK, Torquay, Undisclosed >>> Ryan Nyambe, 24, RB, Blackburn, Free
Outs >>> Adam Long, 21, CB, Doncaster, Undisclosed >>> Gavin Massey, 29, RW, Port Vale, Free >>> Jordan Jones, 27, LW, Kilmarnock, Loan >>> Luke Robinson, 20, LB, Tranmere, Loan
Manager: Leam Richardson
This Season: Now this is an interesting experiment… bar Ryan Nyambe, a very decent pick up from Blackburn, Wigan have signed nobody and lost nobody. They’re going to take the team that won League One, and go with it, hoping it’s talent and togetherness that have taken it this far can move it on to the higher level and consolidate. It reminds me a bit of our Second Division promotion side under Ian Holloway, which essentially only had Georges Santos added to it after promotion. That team struggled at the higher level initially, then went on a remarkable run of nine wins from ten games.
Several of them have been tried at this level before and not overly impressed. Talismanic midfielder Max Power for one. Josh Maggennis, three goals in 18 appearances last season after a switch from Hull, another – he used to be a goalkeeper you know. Keane, of course, like we say. I once thought Gwion Edwards was a superb pick up by Ipswich from Peterborough, but he bombed – gets a second chance now, but has been injured for almost all of the summer. Jordan Cousins, my word, a ghost of this preview’s big calls of the past right there. They’ll need at least some of these to make more of their second (third, fourth, fifth) chances to avoid a struggle.
I’m more excited to see what Callum Lang is all about. Wigan held onto him through administration and Covid, he did more than his fair share of time on loan at Morecambe, Oldham, Shrewsbury and Motherwell, and then bagged 18 goals for the Latics last season.
Professional piss boiler James McClean is still plugging away here, now 33 years old, so we’ll get the dubious pleasure of irate blokes yelling “where’s your poppy” at him in the middle of March again.
And, as with all these previews, the Premier League clubs are still on foreign tours. They’ve got to come back, do another week of pre-season, start their campaign, and name 25-man squads, all while we’re playing seven competitive games before the end of the transfer window. Wigan, like most others, will I’m sure be nudging big time neighbours for a borrow of one or two starlets and rejects and who gets who could go a long way to determining final league placement.
It's going to be tight, but I think there are other clubs in a sufficiently big mess to keep them up.
Local Knowledge - @Elbalson “The club was taken over by Bahraini businessman Al-Jasmi, and his son-in-law Talal al Hammad was installed as chairman. They assembled a good, experienced team in terms of people who had been involved in running football clubs in England before such as Mal Brannigan and have gone from strength to strength. It hasn’t been without some issues which I’d call teething problems, things such as the new ticketing system receiving criticism from some supporters and issues with wages being delayed being reported in the press, however, when you scratch the surface, these are not things that couldn’t be resolved / explained very quickly. In terms of custodians of the club, bearing in mind what happened with the previous regime, they are proving themselves at every step of the way so far.
“The continuity provided from the previous season in terms of Leam Richardson and his team was massive factor in the on-field achievements of the club last season. Starting from a position of only five contracted senior players in July, a massive recruitment drive was required. The club were astute in their signings, bringing in much needed experience with players such as Jack Whatmough and Tom Naylor to create a strong spine to the team, whilst it complemented the smattering of youth players such as Asgaard who stepped up from the academy, and Kell Wattts, a young CB who we loaned from Newcastle. Many players were signed on free transfers or were out of contract. To get them up and running as a team so quickly was testament to Leam and his management team.
“It’s been a quiet summer, however, I see that as a football thing as whole. It’s usually a domino effect with loans etc filtering down once the Premier League clubs confirm their squads, and their youth players head out on loan. We built a squad last summer that we saw as more than capable of promotion to the Championship, just probably didn’t expect it to be as soon as it was. We brought in Ryan Nyambe on a free from Blackburn Rovers, a position we needed cover for and going off the reaction, Rovers’ supporters were disappointed to see him go. He’s effectively replaced Gavin Massey in terms of squad numbers, who was out of contract. In my opinion we still need another CB for cover as Kell Watts from last season has returned to parent club Newcastle and then got himself injured in preseason. Nyambe can play CB apparently, and maybe that’s the plan – versatility. We also played 3 at the back for quite a few games so maybe it isn’t needed at all. It’s whether we’re ok when injuries and suspensions start kicking in?
“I think it will be a long hard slog, but maybe the month off for the World Cup will help. It’s effectively two seasons; August – November, then December to May. It may seem pessimistic and defeatist before a ball has been kicked but 21st and above is the aim, and to be honest, after the last few years, it’ll do.”
@MudHutter We’ve been lucky, undoubtedly. The prospect of the first group of people (former Leganes owners) trying to buy us wasn’t a pretty one. Either that or the fans’ owned club option may well have seen us tumbling out of the league last year like Oldham. So to not only escape relegation in the first year but to then win the league, has been nothing short of astonishing and we have been fortunate to have landed a really good set of owners, after the administrators spent nine months’ pissing about like they do. They’ve been professional throughout, invested money in the right places, built the club back up modestly and the chairman, Talal Al Hammad, seems to have a genuinely affinity with the club.
Last Season: The optimism QPR fans had about our season last summer, carried through to the end of January by the team, made the collapse at the end so difficult to bear that going to games quickly started to feel like a chore again. That long week of Preston A, Sheff Utd A and Huddersfield A was a bigger ball ache than a kick in your actual balls, and few support bases were as glad to hear the final final whistle of the season as us. But if two years of Covid lockdowns taught us anything, it’s how much you miss following your team, even when your team isn’t worth following. The trains, the pubs, the people, the jokes, the feeling of belonging, the sense of common purpose… sure we’ll bitch and moan about the early Euston starts, the Sky moves, the ticket prices, the ongoing railway rip off in this country. But we wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Blackpool fans forced themselves to miss it for years. Given no choice by the ineptness and inaction of the EFL, they set about starving their squatting, convicted rapist owner out of their club by boycotting, en masse, for seasons at a time. As he asset stripped the club and started spitefully forcing it down the leagues, it became a race to the bottom won by the club and its fans thanks to a High Court judgement in favour of Latvian businessman Valeri Belokon who’d been a minority shareholder with designs on taking over the club at the height of its Ian Holloway achievements, and subsequently saw his investment shitcanned by the evil Oyston family.
I’ve asked myself many times whether I’d have been one of the majority of Blackpool fans outside the ground, or one of the minority that still went in. Friendships were strained by that choice, there was awkwardness and ugliness online and at the turnstiles. Perhaps I’ll get to find out if QPR ever make Joey Barton their manager. What I do know is that feeling of stepping back into your football ground, club reclaimed and ready to rebuild, must have been greater than any last minute winner. Under local businessman Simon Sadler and with Bloomfield Road packed to the rafters, Pool’s ascent back up the leagues has been gloriously swift. Third in League One in 2020/21, they were easily the most impressive of the newly promoted teams last season, playing attractive football with a young team under a progressive manager in a white hot atmosphere at home.
Our match up there, played out in a hurricane on a November Saturday night, was one of the most atmospheric I’ve been at in this league for many years, and how QPR escaped from it with a point (other than some favourable refereeing decisions) I’m still not sure to this day. I see a lot of artificial forcing of atmosphere creeping into football in this country at the moment. People see the enormous flag and pyro displays that have long been part of the culture in Poland, Germany and elsewhere in Europe and think ‘I’ll have a bit of that’. I guess Crystal Palace would be the most successful British example and, as I’ve said in the Preston piece, part of QPR needing to do so much more than they currently are doing with what they have at Loftus Road includes working on an atmosphere that, even in a big and entertaining match like Boro at home last season, can be morgue-like. But I also find some of this choreographed flag parade stuff a bit forced, a bit artificial, a bit sanctimonious. When you’ve got groups putting out "Official Statements" online about “this week’s display”, “securing our presence at the remaining games” and “making clear to the club that flag displays must be organic and not official”, or whacking out 1/36 threads on how their latest design came together and where the inspiration came from, my - perhaps slightly grumpy and old fashioned - immediate thought is “have a fucking day off will ya?” The atmosphere at Loftus Road has never been better in modern times than Ian Holloway’s first spell when we came roaring back from from the Second Division, and yes at that point the commercial and marketing efforts around season ticket sales and bringing the fan base together were second to none and better than they’ve ever been since. But, also, we thought we’d lost our club forever, and those people hauled it back out of the ashes – nothing builds atmosphere at games like that, and it was nostalgic to feel it rolling down from the stands at Bloomfield Road last Bonfire Night.
Overall a terrific return to this level, and one the fans thoroughly deserved.
Ins >>> Rhys Williams, 21, CB, Liverpool, Loan >>> Lewis Fiorini, 20, CM, Man City, Loan
Outs >>> Ethan Robson, 25, CM, MK Dons, Free >>> Reece James, 28, LB, Sheff Wed, Loan >>> Oliver Casey, 21, CB, Forest Green, Loan >>> Grant Ward, 27, RM, Released >>> Cameron Antwi, 20, CM, Released
Manager: Michael Appleton Presumably/hopefully not planning to fuck off to Blackburn 25 minutes into the job this time.
This Season: Neil Critchley was, in so many ways, the perfect partner for what was essentially the building of a whole new football club. Practically, coming from Liverpool’s academy he had an in depth knowledge of the prospects dropping out of the puppy farms and was able to attract and build a promotion and Championship consolidation around them – Ellis Simms didn’t return at the higher level but his loss was covered, Josh Bowler was one of the outstanding players in the whole division. Emotionally, he spoke word perfectly about bringing everybody together on the archetypal, cliched “journey”, and would walk around the pitch at the end of games making little love heart gestures at people. AND, THEN, HE, LEFT!
It’s profoundly depressing for the state of the Championship that while Premier League assistants such as Michael Beale come into our league and get top jobs, our managers – and Neil Critchley and Mark Warburton were two of the better ones – can only move up into bibs, balls and cones jobs at that level. Especially so for Blackpool, who probably could have stomached something like the link with Watford coming to pass, but struggle to get their head around how picking up after Steven Gerrard represents a step up.
Now, as everybody knows, when you’re in love with somebody, and they seem perfect, and they’re good with your kids, and they make little heart gestures at you, and it’s going well, and then they suddenly up and leave for some rich tart down the road, there is a course of bereavement and loss you have to go through. The first stage of this is a big fat rebound. What you need now is some fucking tattooed meathead, completely the opposite of what you had previously, who’s treated you like shit at least once before, and reckons he’s changed now but really he’s always been keener on your next door neighbour which you’re fully aware of. Step forward Michael Appleton, a former Preston player, who was forgiven those sins once before by the natives here but ended up being their shortest managerial reign in history when he resigned after 11 games to go and shack up with another Lancashire club – Blackburn Rovers.
He crashed and burned there but has since forged a very good reputation as a coach. At Oxford he promoted them to League One and kept them there, with two EFL Trophy finals to boot. At unfancied Lincoln, on a pitiful budget, he took them all the way to a League One play-off final where they were beaten by Critchley’s Blackpool – remember though, Brennan Johnson on loan in League One was something of a cheat code.
I don’t know. I’m uneasy about this one. The shock of the Critchley departure is substantial – he built this team, he was the inspiration. The better players – Bowler, Keshi Anderson - are yet to be picked off, though four weeks of transfer window remains and there have been no serious incomings either. Gary Madine is popular here, but I’ve seen Championship teams rely on him for enough goals to stay up before and, well, Bolton Wanderers. Appleton does not have enough credit in the bank with the public here if things start to go badly – that raucous home crowd is only a good thing if it’s on your side. Shipping six times in two friendlies at home to the worst Everton team in 20 years and Glasgow Rangers in pre-season doesn’t bode overly well – with the usual caveats about not reading too much into pre-season.
I think this could be a difficult second album.
Local Knowledge – Mitch Cook’s Left Foot @cooksleft “Last season was generally really good. Whilst we weren’t exactly playing total football most weeks, the commitment and discipline was commendable and we claimed some decent scalps. We were rarely outplayed and for while we dared to dream we could go a bit further than midtable. It’s a shame the season fizzled out with some poor performances, not least a really dismal display against Preston, because that put a little bit of a cloud over what was really a terrific achievement. To be safe with quite a long while to go was outstanding really.
“I’d prefer not to talk about Critchley leaving. The blow was particularly painful as the ex-manager had cultivated a really strong relationship with the support and talked in what seemed like genuine terms about being here a long time. Obviously, there’s no loyalty in football, however all but the most sceptically minded of ‘Pool fans fell for all the flannel and thought we’d have him for a while longer - at least till a really decent job came up. That the job that took him from us was to be part of the backroom at Villa wasn’t what we expected. The fact he’s still not spoken about it, not given his reasons or thanked fans for their support leaves us a little bitter after all his proclamations of true love for the tangerine massive.
“My initial response to Appleton was incredulity. It appeared the board were trolling us. However, Appleton 2022 is a different beast from the very defensive and dour man who took over from Holloway. I’ve been cautiously impressed by his methodical, reasoned but firm style and his intent to play football. The former manager had success but we played a very pragmatic way most of the time - the results spoke for themselves, but there was an emerging feeling that we needed to be a little more expansive and that we could see more football from the squad than we saw sometimes. Appleton seems to want to attack a little more and be less fearful of creative players than his predecessor who preferred a workhorse most of the time.
“The legacy of the Oyston regime lingers on and that is probably having an equal impact in terms of investment on the pitch. Despite the Premier League being achieved on a shoestring we never built any meaningful infrastructure and thus the new owners stated goals are to have a new East Stand and swanky training complex in place. Funds have been committed and it seems patience in terms of pushing on will be needed. It’s possible Critchley didn’t have that patience. We’ve certainly had to wait for signings this season. We’ve brought Dominic Thompson from Brentford and a couple of loan signings but in the main, it’s the squad from last year. We’ve still got Josh Bowler (for now) so we can score against anyone if he has a magic day and we’ll not be short of effort, but we do seem short of a few key positions and maybe a little goal-shy. I’m hopeful of midtable and going a little bit better than last year, but also mindful this year could be tough if a few of the players who were more peripheral last year don’t step up under a new system.”
What we said last season: 17th (finished 16th, +1)
Bristol City 7/2
Last Season: Bristol City should be a salutary lesson for clubs - oh, hello QPR, didn’t see you come in there - who believe they can develop players and trade their way up this parachute-payment dominated league. Brentford, of course, are the prime example of how it can and should be done, and Luton are making a great fist of it currently, but so were City for a good while there and factors that should worry us all have rather derailed that mission.
The first, is that sort of mid-range market for £4-8m Championship players has almost died out completely post Covid. I wonder if Boro having some money to spend, and needing a striker exactly like Joel Piroe or Viktor Gyokeres, might ignite things a little bit, or Rangers suddenly having £20m in their back pocket. But, other than the odd very, very occasional panic by somebody like Bournemouth (£4.5m for Kieffer Moore), it just isn’t happening at the moment and City’s model previously was doing very nicely from it - £7m from Boro for Aden Flint, £11m from Villa for Jonathan Kodija, £6m from Fulham for Joe Bryan, £10m from Cardiff for Bobby Reid, £9m from Burnley for Josh Brownhill. Unfortunately for them, and it's the same for us, I’d say the majority of their sellable assets currently fit into that bracket, and have for a few seasons. From £69m-worth of sales between 2018 and 2020, City have taken just £3.69m from the summer of 2020 to now. In this market you either have an Ebere Eze or Jarrod Bowen type the top flight can’t resist – and City got £20m for Adam Webster and £13m for Lloyd Kelly – or you’ll struggle to sell.
The second, and again stop me if this sounds too much like Bright Osayi-Samuel, or Chris Willock, for your taste, but they’ve struggled to get what sellable assets they did have to commit to contract extensions over the alure of being an attractive free agent. You probably could have expected some Kodija-style money for Famara Diedhiou, but he let his deal run down and left on a free for a whopping pay day in Turkey. There has been some bad luck for point three – Nathan Baker looked a very shrewd bit of business to replace Webster, but he’s been out since November with a concussion problem with no set return date and is now into his 30s. Fourth, and read your notes or I’m going to point at Gray/Austin/Johansen again, the money they did receive relaxed them into deviating from the plan, and committing big money to 30-somethings with no sell on value – Nahki Wells the most egregious of those deals, and they’ve been trying to shift him back to Loftus Road almost from the moment they grossly overpaid to get him in the door in the first place. Careless.
All of this has left a team in the doldrums, without financial wiggle room to get things going, and experienced manager Nigel Pearson has been rather pushing piss up hill since he got there. As well as a deeply uninspiring seventeenth place finish the Robins recorded a financial loss of more than £38m in their last set of accounts.
Ins >>> Stefan Bajic, 20, GK, FC Pau (France), Free >>> Kal Naismith, 30, CB, Luton, Free >>> Kane Wilson, 22, RB, Forest Green, Free >>> Mark Sykes, 24, CM, Oxford, Free
Outs >>> Callum O’Dowda, 27, LW, Cardiff, Free >>> Kasey Palmer, 25, AM, Coventry, Free >>> Robbie Cundy, 25, CB, Barnsley, Free >>> Tyreeq Bakinson, 23, DM, Sheff Wed, Undisclosed
Manager: Nigel Pearson The tyranny of the ostrich hunt is unrelenting.
This Season: Those financial set of results, and another summer of zero money received for players, means by the current CEO’s own admission a six-point FFP penalty isn’t out of the question at the point the next set of accounts are filed in February/March time, which should be factored into any Bristol City predictions.
There is, however, some light at the end of the tunnel. Unlike QPR, they did spend money on infrastructure when they had it, so one of the Championship’s best stadiums and a shiny new training ground are now open and in place and the academy is starting to churn out results.
It does mean there’s been nothing spent on transfers this window but City have done a couple of eye-catching bits of business on frees. Right wing back Kane Wilson, a 22-year-old product of the West Brom academy, was named League Two’s overall player of the season in a promoted Forest Green side last year and arrives for nothing. That’s precisely the sort of pick up City need to get back to if they’re to get out of the mire, and given how similar our circumstances are and how desperate we are for a right back ourselves I can’t help but wonder where one earth we were on that one. His arrival means Alex Scott, still only 18 but already with 41 Championship appearances and four goals, will no longer be required to fill in down the right and can move permanently into the central midfield role from which he’s just excelled in England U19s European Championship success. The Guernsey-born playmaker has all the potential to be one of those £20m-must-haves, and in the meantime it’s tremendously exciting for City to have him at the heart of their team this year. Another youth product, Ghanaian Antoine Semenyo, has started to hit his straps and looked unplayable at his best last season. A pre-season injury is less than ideal, but fit and firing he’s going to cause teams an issue, and again it feels like that City model of old creaking back into life again. Andreas Weimann has always been a grossly underrated player at this level for my money too.
Yoann Barbet’s last-second winner at Ashton Gate in December was one of 13 goals City conceded in injury time last season for a loss of 14 points – the worst case being a 1-0 home lead against Forest frittered away to defeat with goals in the 93rd and 94th minutes. Now, I know this is a little bit ‘if my grandmother had wheels she’d be a bike’, and City also scored five injury time goals of their own for considerable points gain including a smash and grab at Loftus Road, but put those 14 points back on and they finish ninth level with Blackburn and Millwall. You wouldn’t think they’ll hamstring themselves quite like that again – a goals against column of 77, even with Daniel Bentley’s ongoing heroics in goal, gets most teams relegated and will surely be improved upon. I don’t like the Kal Naismith signing as much as many seem to, partly because he was crap against QPR twice for Luton last season but also because they’re again committing handsome contracts to 30+ year olds, but the defence needs tightening and that’s a reasonable attempt at doing so.
Local Knowledge – Fev’s Football Analytics @FevsFootball “For me, last season was ‘mission accomplished’. Reduce the squad size, cut the wage bill, and stay in the Championship. Okay, I wanted us to finish higher than 17th, but we were never in a relegation battle, always had enough headroom and never went on a losing / non-winning run that has happened in many of the last five or six seasons. We always found a win, even if stringing them back-to-back was only achieved right at the end of the season. Had we kept key individuals fit, then we could’ve gotten into that middle-eight. As it was, it gave us opportunities to see “Superboy” Alex Scott emerge as well as Antoine Semenyo get a chance through the middle. I’m sure that had we looked in trouble we would’ve brought in more than 33-year-old Timm Klose in January, instead we kept as much budget as possible available for this summer. He was an inspired free transfer as it turned out.
“I honestly don’t think we would entertain a points deduction, I think it was our CEO posturing for support amongst fellow clubs with the EFL. I don’t think we’d have registered four new players if we were under any threat of points or an embargo. We cut somewhere between £10-15m off the cost base last summer.
“In terms of signings, we’ve made four so far: Mark Sykes (24) – versatile Irishman on a free from Oxford United. I don’t mind admitting I was a bit “meh” about this one having watched him last season, but happy to keep an open mind. In pre-season, he’s settled in quickly and I think he will provide energy between the midfield and attack once we are into the season.
“Kal Naismith (30) – on a free also, this one came from nowhere, and I’m not referring to Luton’s comments that they knew nothing about it. I thought he’d have suitors better placed than us, but it seems the lure of a three-year deal and our impressive training ground swayed it. He’s started well in pre-season, the vocal leader we needed (along with Klose who has extended his stay in BS3).
“Kane Wilson (22) – League Two’s Player of the Year has signed for us from Forest Green Rovers amid interest from everyone in the division. It seems locality played a part, and although we will need to pay FGR compensation it’s a good-looking signing, who like the two above has impressed in pre-season.
“Stefan Bajic (20) – a freebie goalkeeper from France, where he spent the last half-season at Ligue 2 Pau, having previously been at St. Etienne. France u21 international and Olympic qualification squad member, who has played with Han-Noah Massengo at u19 level. Signed with a wrist injury so I’ve not seen him yet.
“In terms of outgoings, we’ve moved on Callum O’Dowda and Kasey Palmer, but neither were likely to be first choice, plus they free up wages too.
“I don’t think we are far off being done, but any new signings are probably dependent on moving players on first, whilst trying to fend off any late bids for Scott, Semenyo and Massengo. If I had a wish list, it would be another centre-back and a midfielder. Most definitely there is a sense that the trajectory is upward. We had to go backwards last summer to go forward, even if a fair bit of last season was in first gear. I think we need to progress quickly though, as we need to keep pace with the ambitions and development curves of Massengo, Scott and Semenyo. All three have different contract scenarios. Han’s runs out next summer, but there is a long-standing offer on the table. Antoine’s next summer but club have a one-year option. Whilst Alex’s runs to 2025.
“The positive thing for this season is that Pearson appears to have settled on a 3412 (the system he deployed for much of the second half of last season) and has been able to recruit with the objective of filling the gaps, which were basically a right wing-back, an attacking midfielder and a centre back. We still have a small squad, but as above, Pearson is willing to give youngsters an opportunity. Overall, I see us in that middle group of eight (9th-16th). How far up will depend on keeping the likes of Joe Williams fit and the WSM (Weimann / Wells – Semenyo / Sykes – Martin) axis scoring goals.”
What we said last season: 19th (finished 17th, +2)
Last Season: After former Villa man Albert Adomah had scored and run the length of the field to celebrate in front of a packed away end, and Chrissy Willock had danced around half the home ranks to slam in a game-sealing second for QPR at St Andrew’s last Christmas, one local opined on Twitter that being a Blues fan is all about turning up every week to lose and watch the away fans have a lovely time. Even notoriously travel sick QPR have won five and drawn one of their last eight visits.
I did think 2021/22 might be marginally less of a shambles than what had gone before in these parts. Lee Bowyer carries himself like a bloke who spent his half of the divorce on a failing Wimpey franchise at a suburban bus interchange, but his Blues rescue job the previous year had been impressive. He’d had a very successful stint at the club as a player, and better still had proven fairly adept at dealing with the sort of climate that delivers an average three piss hurricanes straight into your gob each week at Charlton. And for a while there, when Man Utd’s hairy loanee Tahith Chong was in the building with two functioning knees, our unprecedented prediction of them climbing as high as eleventh didn’t seem that far-fetched. They won, rather miraculously, 5-0 at Luton.
It didn’t last. Chong got injured. Returning hometown hero Troy Deeney expanded to such a ridiculous size it starting blocking the sun and causing rickets outbreaks in nearby schools. Bowyer did achieve amidst the chaos at Charlton, but the recruitment was led by Steve Gallen, whereas Craig Gardner is the “technical director” here and is… not as good. And while Bowyer had indeed garnered credit for rescuing them from seemingly certain relegation the previous year, motivating and improving a team previously managed by Aitor Karanka is like following Nadine Dorries into a job – as long as you don’t inadvertently curl out an enormous turd onto your desk that subsequently gains sentience, arms itself and takes over the city, you’ll probably be some form of improvement.
Brum won five of their last 27. They were knocked out of the FA Cup by Plymouth. They conceded four to Blackburn and Coventry, six to Fulham and Blackpool. The latter 6-1 set back at Bloomfield Road really should have been that, and Bowyer seemed to agree judging by his post match press conference, but he and his team limped through to the end with no wins and 17 goals conceded from their final six fixtures.
Ins >>> John Ruddy (my word), 35, GK, Wolves, Free >>> Auston Trusty, 23, CB, Arsenal, Loan >>> Dion Sanderson, 22, CB, Wolves, Loan >>> Przemyslaw Placheta, 24, LW, Norwich, Loan
Outs >>> Fran Villalba, 24, AM, Sporting Gijon, £450k >>> Ivan Sanchez, 29, RW, Valladolid, £90k >>> Kristian Pedersen, 27, LB, Koln, Free >>> Ivan Sunjic, 25, DM, Hertha, Loan >>> Jeremie Bela, 29, LW, Released >>> Connal Trueman, 26, GK, Released
Manager: John Eustace Seemed to be biding his time and meticulously planning his career when he turned down jobs at settled clubs Blackpool and Swansea to stay with QPR as assistant. Was happy to tell fans in the hotel at Swansea last season that he would “wait and see what Warbs does” so he was probably as surprised as the rest of us when he went in as an assistant himself at West Ham and perhaps that has shocked him into grabbing the first thing that came along because this looks like an absolute clusterfuck. The latest charlatans showing up promising to buy the club have put him on notice already so there’s no guarantee he’ll even make the end of August.
This Season: Jesus. Christ. Pull up a chair children.
Bowyer himself seemed certain the game was up post Blackpool humiliation, with a predictably large away following down the side of the pitch making their fully justified anger known to their team and their club. Instead, he limped on through not only to the end of the season, but the first week of July, after pre-season had begun, and just three and a half weeks shy of the new campaign. When finally axed, the official statement said the club had “acted promptly” – gotta love that Chinese approach to public information.
There has been plenty stirring at St Andrew’s this summer, and none of it good. The club is, palpably, obviously, in an absolute catastrophic mess. The whole place looks and smells like the old toilets at the back of The Springbok. Run into the ground by successive abysmally incompetent ownership groups. They will once again start the season with vast swathes of their home ground closed, vague assertions and promises about remediation works and rotting concrete still being trotted out more than three years since anybody last sat in those seats – enough time to demolish and rebuild the stands in their entirety. A “Club Update” published on the club’s official website, talking about how brilliantly pre-season was going, how John Eustace was getting his coaching staff together, a new make of washing powder the kitman was trialling, (oh and by the way there’s been no progress on the ground and we’ve actually pretty much stopped work on it), would have shamed a Russian newspaper. It was like phoning the old ClubCall line and sitting through £17.80-worth of detailed report on the reserves' defeat at Northwood the previous evening to find out the club had gone into administration. A loyal and long suffering support base is being treated like mugs. Brum’s precious category one academy has been stripped of its status and downgraded to category two.
Three weeks shy of the new season the team had 16 players and no manager. John Eustace’s reputation burgeoned enough under Mark Warburton for him to come close to the Blackpool and Swansea jobs prior to this, so maybe he’ll be a masterstroke, but the return of Dion Sanderson on loan – who played for QPR in the second half of last season and frequently gave the impression of somebody who’d had rather too much to drink – being hyped as some sort of enormous coup does not bode well at all. There was, for sometime, almost certainty that Warbs would be taking this job himself, but his old mate Frank McParland loitering in the background sniffing after Gardner’s role seems to have put paid to that. A clueless ownership and rudderless ship will always put enough blood in the water to attract sharks looking to chew over whatever is left of the carcass and Warbs’ subsequent random move to be David Moyes’ bibs, balls and cones man at West Ham only furthers the notion that Davids Sullivan and Gold are once again somehow involved in this club’s annual takeover bid.
The whole shemozzle came to national attention when Laurence Bassini pulled his button mushroom out the back of his favourite Thai ladyboy long enough to appear on TalkSport with a BIG ANNOUNCEMENT to make, which he’ll make in a minute, because that’s what he’s come on to do, to make a big announcement, which is coming, but first, before the big announcement, that he’s here to make, and will be making, he just wants to say something to Simon Jordan prior to the big announcement, which he’s here to make, and will make, once he’s told Simon this thing related to the big announcement he’s going to make in a minute after he’s told Simon something… After a quarter of an hour of that it transpired that he was buying Birmingham, for £30m, or something like that, and then would be buying players, because he owns half of Oxford Street you know, and he’d be winning the league, so he could come back on TalkSport and give it to Jordan, who’s always taken the piss out of him, but wouldn’t be taking the piss now, because of the big announcement, which he did eventually make, but didn’t turn out to be true.
There’s now another, different takeover in the offing, led by former Argentina striker Maxi Lopez, and very professionally made public with an announcement in the stadium car park – Four Seasons Total Landscaping double booked presumably. But what was that I was saying about some blood in the water? Here comes ex-Charlton charlatan Matt Southall as part of the package - presumably sniffing the chance of another couple of white Range Rovers on expenses. As more transpires, it seems this isn’t a full takeover at all, it’s just some chancers buying a chunk of the club, with the existing owner remaining in situ. Two different shady foreign owners, Gardner still out of his depth overseeing the football side, rookie manager… Choose the form of the destructor. Matt Southall as CEO. THE CHOICE IS MADE.
Asked what he thought of his team’s chances, Eustace said simply: “We know it’s going to be very difficult.” Fuck me, you worked that much out did you? Worst episode of Poirot ever. No wonder he’s highly rated.
Local Knowledge – @MatthewBlue1875 “Last season started off nicely, the win away at Sheffield United on the first day of the season gave us all false hope. Unfortunately, it was another season littered with inconsistency, errors, bad team selections, bad tactics, injuries and an extremely moany manager who somehow completely lost the plot after the previous seasons heroics in keeping us up. When Bowyer first came in all he would talk about was keeping it simple. Solid at the back, be brave going forward and get balls into the box. It worked, it played to the team’s strengths and we stayed up. Last season it just felt like he was over complicating things, the tactics were very negative and his team selections and substitutions were confusing.
“By mid January I'd renamed Bowyer the Cockney Karanka. It wasn't working, most of the fans could see it wasn't working. Okay, he maybe didn't get what he wanted in the transfer windows, but for the most part he had the tools to do a better job. I'm intrigued by Eustace. Some think he's a cheap option and they may be partially right, but he's a local guy and despite his allegiance to the dark side, I think it's a good appointment. I've read some very positive stuff on him and he seems to be well regarded as a coach, very forward thinking and wants to play football the right way. He knows the situation he's walked into and he's been upfront and honest about it from the get go. He will need more to work with though, he's got even less to work with than Bowyer had.
“We really need a left back/wing back and a combative centre midfielder as a bare minimum. It's tough because we still need to reduce the wage bill, so we are mostly reliant on very cheap loans to supplement the squad while we continue to try to move a few bodies out.
“Bassini? What a moron. He's out the picture now. I don't think he was ever taken seriously by the majority of fans to be honest. The latest in the spotlight is Paul Richardson and Maxi Lopez, who recently made an unofficial announcement in the stadium car park that they'd exchanged contracts on a staged takeover, starting at 21.6% for full control. It seems a little more legitimate than Bassini, but even this is a little hard to believe. The club needs £30m just to stand still… and the fact that they want to install Matt Southall as CEO is a huge red flag. We'll see what happens, but I'm not convinced by this one either.
“We are a mess. Half open stadium, ownership limbo, haemorrhaging money, small squad with little to no transfer budget, recently downgraded academy... it's not pretty. I feel extremely sorry for John Eustace and his staff. It sounds like he has buy in from the players and there definitely seems to be a siege mentality about the place, but he still needs a couple more players at the very least to make us competitive. We'll do well to stay up, right now I think we are nailed on for relegation, but I might change my mind if we manage to bring some more players in.”
What we said last season: 11th (finished 20th, -9)
Prediction: 24th Birmingham’s last six seasons have seen them finish 19th, 19th, 17th, 20th, 18th and 20th in the Championship. They have been chronically, mismanaged on and off the pitch for the best part of a decade. The EFL has, as usual, stood aside and done nothing. They have had multiple near misses, lucky escapes and last-gasp reprieves. They’ve already had one points deduction. This surely catches up with them now. You cannot go on like this. As ever, it’s the fans who suffer, and it’ll be them left behind to pick up the pieces after these rich chancer cunts have finished pissing about with their club. Stuff like this shames the governance of the sport in this country. It simply shouldn’t be allowed.
Last Season: There’s going to be a lot of repeat ranting here I’m afraid, because Reading have been circling the same drain as Birmingham for the same amount of time. They, too, have had their academy downgraded from level one to two this summer.
Reading, like Birmingham, often seem to survive at this level despite themselves, and while never winning any football matches. Reading, like Brum, also embarked on a run of five wins in 27 matches through the middle of last season: a sequence that included four straight losses in October that began with a 3-2 homer against Blackpool, which they’d led 2-0; eight in a row that featured an FA Cup exit at Kidderminster; and then another three in which they conceded four goals in two of the games. A 0-0 bore draw at whipping boys Peterborough sparked an open revolt from the travelling fans as the players tried to board the coach home – only Andy Yiadom had the stones to come out and speak to them. The only thing more mystifying than sticking with manager Veljko Paunović – a daft appointment to start with – as long as they did was finally binning him after a rare win at Preston.
They were the worst team to visit Loftus Road all season by a country mile. A team made up of the regulars from The Crown and Sceptre would have beaten them. Throw in a six-point deduction for prolonged and sustained financial mismanagement and breach of the league’s P&S rules and it’s a minor miracle they survived – let alone that it was Paul Ince (Paul Ince!!) who oversaw revival enough (four wins from 14 games) to get them there.
Reading, again like Birmingham, but also West Brom, are a proud football club and community asset that was bought by Chinese ownership at a time when it was trendy and encouraged by the Chinese government to do so. As that sportwashing policy has changed, Covid-lockdowns have bitten and the Chinese property market has collapsed, the supposedly limitless supply of free money has dried up, they have been left as mismanaged, financially ruined husks, facing ever escalating punishments for ignoring the P&S/FFP rules of the league for too long. You only have to look at the names involved at Reading – Kia Joorabchian, Junior Hoilett, Danny Drinkwater… exactly the sort of players, people and deals you’d expect to surface at mismanaged clubs like this, sucking up money from owners who don’t know what they’re doing.
You can sum the whole thing up by them walking out of their long overdue EFL hearing into FFP breaches with a six-point deduction and agreed business plan, and literally five minutes later signing Andy Carroll.
Ins >>> Tom Ince (dad runs the team Sunday league nonsense), 30, RW, Stoke, Free >>> Shane Long, 35, CF, Southampton, Free >>> Sam Hutchinson, 32, DM, Sheff Wed, Free >>> Dean Bouzanis, 31, GK, Sutton, Free >>> Jeff Hendrick (stop it), 30, CM, Newcastle, Loan >>> Joe Lumley (I mean it), 27, GK, Boro, Loan >>> Tyrese Fornah, 22, CM, Forest, Loan
Outs >>> John Swift, 27, AM, West Brom, Free >>> Andy Rinomhota, 25, CM, Cardiff, Free >>> Josh Laurent, 27, CM, Stoke, Free >>> Alen Halilovic, 26, AM, Rijeka, Free >>> Brandon Barker, 25, LW, Nikosia, Free >>> Ethan Bristow, 20, LB, Tranmere, Free >>> Luke Southwood, 24, GK, Cheltenham, Free >>> Orjan Nyland, 31, GK, Released >>> Marc McNulty, 29, CF, Released >>> Michael Morrison, 34, CB, Released >>> Felipe Araruna, 26, RB, Released >>> Terell Thomas, 26, CB, Released
Manager: Paul Ince Is a wanker.
This Season: Financially mismanaged clubs in the Championship are ten a penny. Everybody loses money at this level of football. It exists as a chancer’s waiting room – businessmen, frequently from abroad, not rich enough to buy a Premier League club (or savvy enough to develop one) try and buy a Championship club on the cheap and turn it into one by buying Neil Warnock six players. Get there, and you can be Leicester or Wolves. But far more fail, and with the P&S/FFP rules the way they are that failure comes with a prolonged period of blood let and medicine taking. QPR’s CEO Lee Hoos was predicting this years ago, when Sheffield Wednesday were doing their little Carlos Carvalhal worship routine at a Wembley play-off final, and Derby’s Mel Morris still had the EFL “on strings” according to his adoring public. A whole litany of Championship clubs ignoring the rules, betting the house on promotion, and facing dire consequences if they didn’t make it up. For Sheff Wed and Derby that reckoning has come – for Birmingham and Reading, time is surely nigh.
The number to watch for, every time, is the percentage of wages to turnover. A ridiculous number of clubs at this level opposite at north of 100% wages to turnover, including ourselves. If Tony Fernandes was paying the staff at his airline £1.67 for every £1 that came through the door he’d find that ludicrous, ruinous, and stop it immediately, but apparently in football this is fine. When it gets to 200%, however, and stays there for any length of time, then you cannot possibly comply with the rules of the competition you’re playing in. It takes time to work through, there will be hearings and arbitration, there will be “agreed settlements”, you’ll get perverse verdicts, but it catches you eventually.
Reading have been at that 200% mark for too long. It's like they left Diane Abbott in charge of payroll. Already docked points, and put under an agreed business plan, they can no longer afford to keep the good players they have who have previously done just enough to keep their head above water, nor can they add new ones of sufficient quality. Like Birmingham, there is Chinese ownership here, like Birmingham, they have been almost criminally negligent in destroying the asset they purchased – previously in Reading’s case one of the absolute model clubs in the country under John Madejski’s exemplary stewardship. Among the biggest catastrophes here, apart from turning your transfer business over to Kia Joorabchian, is Reading have had serious, significant, talented sellable assets under contract and under their roof and bollocksed up every single one. Omar Richards and Rob Dickie were both here and left for nothing, Michael Olise had a ludicrous release clause of just £8m, once again this summer their entire midfield, all mid-20s, has walked out for free including John Swift one of the best ten players in the league. That should have been £40m-worth of footballer there, a transformative figure. They got £8m for the lot. Under an EFL ‘agreed business plan’ their most high profile summer signing is Jeff Hendrick, and I expended more energy on here writing about that cunt last season than he ever did on the pitch. Joe Lumley will keep goal and, I just, can’t. Mark Bowen is back involved here now too – because of course Mark Bowen is back involved here now. Maybe Jose Bosingwa could make the lunches?
Shane Long is a romantic returner at 35, but six goals in 52 appearances in 2016/17 is by far his best return in any of the last six seasons. He arrives nursing a record of 20 goals in his last 205 appearances, and has scored just twice in each of the last two campaigns. Their only hope here is that Meite and Joao, a dangerous Championship forward line on its day and injured for much of last year, stays at the club, gets fit, stays fit, looks half interested, and scores enough goals to paper the cracks again. Joao will surely attract interest from those clubs with money but short of strikers we wrote about in part one, and is already injured again in any case.
This time, like Birmingham, I don’t see it.
Local Knowledge – Simeon Pickup @SimFromBucks “Last season was bizarre, crazy, painful, erratic, and even weirdly fun at some points on the odd occasion we remembered we could be a good team. Most things that could go wrong did go wrong, whether it was pre-season preparations, performances of players and the manager, and particularly injuries. For a large chunk of the season we were just about managing to get 14 or so senior pros in the matchday squad. Still, until January the sense was that things could pick up when injured players returned in the New Year and a festive bout of coronavirus had died down. Instead, things only got worse on the availability front and we suffered consecutive historical embarrassments by losing 2-1 at Kidderminster Harriers and then being battered 7-0 on our own patch by Fulham.
“The mood around the club throughout January and up to mid-February when Veljko Paunovic stepped aside was the worst I've witnessed. It wasn't just a bit toxic – defeat to Kidderminster had made the club's future seem existentially apocalyptic. Unsurprisingly, it led to a pre-match protest for the club's 150th anniversary game against Coventry City and even to fans surrounding the team bus a few days later after a 0-0 at Peterborough United. At that one we seemed doomed, but Pauno's successor just about did enough to turn the ship around.
“Ince’s arrival was abrupt and bizarre, completely in keeping with the clusterfuck nature of the season until that point. There was even a lack of clarity over his exact status, with the club presenting Ince as an "interim" during an ongoing search for a permanent manager, but it gradually became clear that wasn't true. He had a rocky start in terms of both performances and results. Four matches in, off the back of a 4-0 tonking at Nottingham Forest, it looked like we'd made no substantial improvements since Pauno was in charge. But a second-half fightback at Bournemouth when we drew 1-1 (and deserved all three points in truth) prompted a turnaround.
“It was far from comfortable, despite us securing safety with a few games to go, but Ince instilled enough grit and togetherness (plus a handy knack for important late goals) to get us over the line. There were still concerns though, with fans split on whether he should be kept on. The general sense by the end of the campaign was that he deserved to stay (having got the job done and kept us up), but he probably wasn't the right man in the long run. Away from the pitch though, it seems he had a stern chat with the owner about required changes behind the scenes. Reading have lacked a director of football or proper recruitment structure for a while now, and that was soon addressed by bringing in Mark Bowen (head of football operations) and Brian Carey (director of recruitment). Those appointments have made Reading look like a competently run organisation, and Ince probably deserves credit for them happening.
“This summer was always going to be about a massive rebuilt on limited funds, and to the club's credit, they've done a pretty good job so far. The first six signings seem like solid albeit imperfect additions, and crucially all appear to be good eggs – we need to build the right mentality if we're to stay up, so character is vitally important. Shane Long's arrival certainly went down well among the fans – the classic case of the hero returning after ages away – but Tyrese Fornah is the most exciting signing for me. He's a technically adept but physical deep-lying midfielder who should give us class in the centre of the park. As for Lumley and Hendrick, we'd be foolish to overlook their struggles last season, but there are definitely two good Championship players in there if we sort their confidence. We've actually had some decent successes in recent years when it's come to turning around players with low confidence – Danny Drinkwater really picked up at the end of last season after a torrid time at Chelsea for instance. So I wouldn't rule out either just yet. And anyway, if they had been performing at a higher level previously, we wouldn't have been able to get them in the first place. But sharpening rough diamonds is the kind of thing we'll have to do in the transfer window if we're to get value for money.
“Still, there's plenty more to be done. Reinforcements particularly at left back and in the middle of the park have been needed all summer but not found, and really fresh faces are required in most positions. However, given our lack of funds and the manner of how the transfer window tends to unfold, I could see some new opportunities opening up in August as players become surplus to requirements elsewhere.
“It's a rapidly evolving picture. Not all that long ago, it was hard to look away from a seriously tough relegation fight as the most likely outcome this season. For a while, Reading were failing to bring anyone in or even agree fresh contracts, but still losing key players on free transfers: Josh Laurent, John Swift and Andy Rinomhota will all be missed. We didn't know either if Lucas Joao would be sold or kept on. However, the outlook's gradually started to brighten. Our signings thus far are solid if unspectacular, we've managed to retain the vast majority of players we wanted to keep (although that's including under-23s) and Bowen confirmed Joao won't be sold.
“At the end of the day, we don't have to be a great side to stay up. We need to be a reasonably well organised and well motivated side that can put the ball in the net. Looking at the signings we've managed, as well as the prospect of having both Joao and Yakou Meite finishing off our chances, we're on track to be a side that can grind out points in that fashion. It won't be pretty, but I think we'll be good for 18th.”
What we said last season: 14th (finished 21st, -7)
Prediction: 23rd You can bob, you can weave, you can get lucky, you can escape, you can “negotiate settlements” but eventually it catches up with you. Where Derby and Sheff Wed have gone before, Birmingham and Reading will surely follow, if not now, if we’re wrong, then soon.
Last Season: Like Norwich and Fulham, if Barnsley are going down, then Rotherham must be coming up. The Millers have had four promotions to this level and three relegations from it in the last nine seasons. The Tykes have been up or down five times in the same period, but they have crossed paths just twice since 2005/06.
Rotherham quickly went about furthering their reputation of not being good enough for (or with sufficient budget to compete in) the Championship but way too good for League One but surging clear at the top of the table through the winter. An initial sticky start of three defeats in the first six league matches gave way to an avalanche of wins that eventually stretched to 15 wins, six draws and no defeats through a remarkable 21-game run which eventually came to a close with a 1-0 loss at Accrington on Boxing Day. They only lost one of the next 15, so it didn’t seem to unduly effect them, and an EFL Trophy win against Sutton at Wembley was thrown in for good measure/pleasure but be it pressure, weight of fixtures, nerves, or something else, they rather stumbled over the line in second with just four wins in the last 12 league games – the most crucial of all coming 2-0 at Gillingham on the last day in front of a packed and raucous away end to seal the deal.
Ins >>> Peter Kioso, 22, RB, Luton, Undisclosed >>> Cohen Bramall, 26, LB, Lincoln, Undisclosed >>> Cameron Humphreys, 23, CB, Zulte Waregem, Free >>> Connor Washington, 30, alleged CF, Charlton, Free >>> Tom Eaves, 30, CF, Hull, Free >>> Jamie McCart, 25, CB, St Johnstone, Free >>> Grant Hall, 30, CB, Boro, Loan
Outs >>> Michael Smith, 30, CF, Sheff Wed, Free >>> Michael Ihiekwe, 29, CB, Sheff Wed, Free >>> Freddie Ladapo, 29, CF, Ipswich, Free >>> Angus MacDonald, 29, CB, Swindon, Free >>> Mickel Miller, 26, LW, Plymouth, Free >>> Joe Mattock, 32, LB, Harrogate, Free >>> Jake Cooper, 21, CB, Altrincham, Free >>> Jacob Gratton, 20, RW, Farsley, Free
Manager: Paul Warne Saint in a bobble hat.
This Season: Of course, the first thing that’s happened is a lot of the best players Rotherham had in their promotion season have been picked off by monied rivals too lazy and half-arsed to scout them properly in the first place. Michael Smith scored 25 goals in all comps last season, and got 12 in their Championship relegation season too, but has rejected a new deal to move to Sheff Wed where he’ll be joined by centre back Michael Ihiekwe. Freddie Ladapo, who always really looks the part against QPR, is a handy free transfer pick up for Ipswich after 11 goals. That three of them have gone back to League One, two of them to near neighbours Sheff Wed, and none of them for any money that could be re-invested, must be particularly galling.
Chiedozie Ogbene who impressed wide left last season is under contract though, after the club triggered an extension clause. That’s been enough to put off Swansea City’s interest thus far, though they’ve got Flynn Downes money now and won’t be the only ones looking. Dan Barlasar I liked a lot plugging away in the midfield of a relegated Championship team the season before last, and he got nine goals in 40 starts from the middle of the park last season so watch out for him. Ben Wiles alongside him is getting good press.
Basically, it’s the age old problem. There isn’t the budget here to really compete at this level, and the owner Tony Stewart is quite rightly not willing to put the future of the club in jeopardy by going down the same 170%+ wages to turnover ratio as the rest of the division. He’s right, everybody else is wrong, and the Championship and football in this country outside the Premier League in general if there were more owners like him and Accrington’s Andy Holt. The replacements, thus far, are way below Championship level. As you’ll gather from the Hull write up, I think there are better plays kicking around your local pocket park than Tom Eaves, and we all know exactly what they’re getting in Conor Washington. That doesn’t mean both won’t score against QPR this season of course, but that simply says more about us than them. They were very, very direct when last at this level, and I wondered whether Smith departing might change that, though the Eaves signing suggests probably not. McCart is an interesting one – built something of a reputation as a ball playing defender despite playing in unfashionable Scottish sides that often find themselves under the cosh, which bodes well for what he’ll face here. Alongside him though… Grant Hall – wonder if he deems them worthy of him sticking around for all of his contracted hours?
Local Knowledge – Ross Middleton @RossMid38810197 “Keeping the spine of our team was crucial to last season’s success. Although we’ve lost a couple of main players this summer I always felt we were strong with the main men from the last Championship season. Also, having crowds back was a big thing. Covid football was shit and I think the fans were so enthusiastic to get back that a rocking New York Stadium meant a good start and we never looked back until things started to go a bit wobbly towards the end.
“Tough is an understatement this year. We held on and held on for vice-captain Michael Ihiekwe and top scorer Michael Smith until they decided to stay in League One with Wednesday which left us scrambling for other options. Of course managers and scouting teams say they have loads of targets and a list as long as our arm but it was such a massive blow to lose two main players at once and I really felt for the manager. It's been a peak and trough summer and I think a lot of teams are having trouble recruiting with the early start to the season and Premier League players coming back from tours so the loan market will pick up, but we’ve signed seven new players up to press who will hopefully improve the defence. Injuries have set us back in the forward department, leaving us short up top after injuries to Tom Eaves and Joshua Kayode.
“I’m hoping it will be different in that we pick up a few more wins instead of draws. The last two Championship seasons we’ve nearly stayed up. The 2019 season we drew 18 games and 2021 we went down on the last day, put simply we didn’t score enough goals or put the chances away. The loss of Smith and injury to Tom Eaves could help us become a little more mobile up front and not rely on being direct as much, with Chieo Ogbene (if still here come the end of August) playing more of a forward role. The lack of signings and Paul Warne saying he still needs five more tells me it could be a struggle, but I really believe there will be more points deductions for certain teams and other teams such as Blackpool, Reading and Huddersfield may have poor seasons, so we live in hope.”
Prediction: 22nd I love them, their manager, and their owner. I think it would be good for the division, and football in general, if they could punch up a bit more effectively as Luton have done. And you cannot feel anything other than a barrel load of admiration for the way this manager goes about his business, deals with his players, speaks publicly and represents his club during an ugly period in our country’s modern history. But you don’t survive at this level with that front two in my opinion, sorry.
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The U'sual Ramblings #2 by wessex_exile
The U’sual Ramblings #2, and the U’s first home match of the season. Much has been written on our narrow defeat away at Northampton Town last Saturday, not least that if they are the yard-stick for promotion contenders, we can take plenty of credit (and hope) from most of our performance, which really should have earned a point. However, we’ve seen these false dawns before – remember away at Notts County, and at Bradford, in recent years, where we thought we were playing contenders, and they turned out to be whipping boys for most of the season. Still, I don’t expect that of Northampton, so stout hearts faithful…and wasn’t it great seeing Nouble bombing down the wing doing what he does best again!
The U'sual Rambling #1 by wessex_exile
Here we go folks, are we ready for another rollercoaster of joy and dismay? Right now, I’ll probably take an even mix of both if it guarantees a solid midtable finish, but why stop at that. I agree with Durham in his excellent match review, given how well we finished the second half of the season, ignore the bookies perennial struggler tag – we can do this! For the new season, the blog has slightly metamorphosed into The U’sual Rambling, though largely the same format as last season, albeit perhaps less labour-intensive in content. In my case, pertinent for Saturday given I am missing the opener at Sixfields to dog-sit the beautiful (and high maintenance, super ridiculous, energetic etc.) border collie Reggie.
When Monday Comes #37 by wessex_exile
When Saturday Comes and we reach the end of a topsy-turvy season, much of which hasn’t been that much fun if I’m honest, though latterly considerably improved under Wayne Brown. If I can, I always like to do the first and last game of the season, but sadly a trip to Hartlepool just wasn’t on the cards, not if I actually wanted to get home again tonight, so I had to console myself with a pretty enjoyable trip to the JobServe last weekend – not quite the victory the U’s deserved over Walsall, but a great day out anyway. I know it’ll be too late for the Player of the Year awards, but wouldn’t it be nice to see a Freddie Sears hat-trick this afternoon to round off the season.
When Saturday Comes #36 by wessex_exile
When Saturday Comes tomorrow, and I will be on a train heading over to God’s own county for my last U’s game of the season. That should have been last Friday’s trip to the Principality, but as posted elsewhere I was more than happy to be pre-booked to dog-sit Emma’s collie Reggie that night and had to be content with one of Nadine’s ‘downstreams’ on iFollow. Given both the performance and the result, whilst I was sorry to miss it in person, I was more than happy with how Friday night turned out in the end. Tomorrow will be a gathering of the clans for us, with at the last count at least 8, possibly more, of the family gathering for the match. Ironically, I’ll see them all again on Bank Holiday Monday for a family birthday, but I’ll be driving over for that one.
When Saturday Comes #35 by wessex_exile
When Saturday Comes and the U’s have already given us a fantastic start to the weekend, with a stirring and well-deserved 2-1 victory at promotion-chasing Newport County. Yes, the Exiles had lost the previous three at home and are looking like they are going to bottle their chance for the play-offs, and yes with the U’s now safe technically we had little to play for, but don’t take anything away from this performance. If Wayne Brown is still being ‘interviewed’ for the full-time role as Colchester United manager, then last night was the equivalent of having an excellent incisive question of your own lined up for the interview panel.
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