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Season Preview 2020/21 – Contenders
Monday, 7th Sep 2020 07:08 by Clive Whittingham

LFW’s annual semi-serious run-down of the 23 teams QPR will be facing in the league this season starts with the eight clubs the bookies believe will be competing for promotion.

Norwich 13/2 (title odds)

Last Season: With the James Maddison money pocketed, sporting director Stuart Webber, once of Huddersfield, succeeded in cakewalking the Championship for a second time by once again appointing the manager of Borussia Dortmund’s reserves and turning the club into a mini-German enclave. With the £25m from that transfer boosted by a Premier League television payment, the obscene amount of prize money you’re guaranteed even for finishing last, and subsequent parachute payments should the worst happen, Norwich spent nothing. Zip. One part used Sam Byram, £750,000-work of high cheek bones, and a free from Borussia Monchengladbach, coupled with a couple of further strategic January additions was as far as they went. Initially that didn’t look like it would matter much as Teemu Pukki kept on being Norwich Pukki rather than Celtic Pukki with a hat trick in a home win against Newcastle and another in a 3-2 win against Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Delia banging the pans together bless her. Norwich, though, were miles away, despite the emergence of the previously much-maligned Todd Cantwell as more than simply a novelty haircut. They would win just eight games all season, three of them in the FA Cup and one of those via a penalty shoot-out. Well adrift at lockdown they needed to hit the ground fast and hard for the behind-closed doors fixtures. Sir, shouldn’t we turn on the runway lights now? No, that’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do. They lost their last 12 games, scoring two goals, and conceding 26. Regular readers, hello to both, will know we’re all for the pragmatic approach to a Premier League promotion, but it was hard to think that a team with a modern stadium, training ground development already underway and paid for, and no financial issues, might have pushed the boat a little further out than the dry dock.

Ins >>> Jordan Hugill, 28, CF, West Ham, £2.97m >>> Przemyslaw Placheta, 22, CM, Slask Wroclaw, £2.7m >>> Bali Mumba, 18, DM, Sunderland, £345k >>> Jacob Lungi Sorensen, 22, CM, Esbjerg (Norway), Undisclosed >>> Kieran Dowell, 22, AM, Everton, Undisclosed >>> Danel Sinani, 23, LW, Dudelange (Luxembourg), Free >>> Sebastien Soto, 20, CF, Hannover, Free >>> Matthew Dennis, 18, RB, Arsenal, Free >>> Xavi Quintilla, 24, LB, Villarreal, Loan >>> Oliver Skipp, 19, CM, Spurs, Loan >>> Ben Gibson, 27, CB, Burnley, Loan

Outs >>> Mason Bloomfield, 23, CF, Hartlepool, Free >>> Sean Raggett, 27, CB, Portsmouth, Free >>> Simon Power, 22, RM, Kings Lynn, Loan >>> Rocky Bushiri, 20, CB, Mechelen (Belgium), Loan >>> Carlton Morris, 24, CF, MK Dons, Loan >>> Philip Heise, 29, LB, Karlsruher (Germany), Loan >>> Louis Thompson, 25, CM, MK Dons, Loan >>> Daniel Adshead, 18, CM, Telstar (Netherlands), Loan >>> Sebastian Soto, 20, CF, Telstar (Netherlands), Loan

Manager: Daniel Farke A character from Allo’ Allo’, escaped through a tear in the fabric of reality, rampaging around the Norfolk countryside in search of the candle with the handle on the gateau from the chateau and the portrait of The Fallen Madonna, (with the big boobies).

This Season: The relegated teams are always, immediately, the bookies favourites to go straight back when in actual fact there have been just as many Stoke, Huddersfield and Sunderland examples of further plummeting as there have of successful returns. Fulham were the 21st bounce back since the Premier League began 27 seasons ago. Norwich have been relegated four times in that period and this is the third in succession they’ve kept faith with the manager who both got them there and brought them back – it didn’t work out well sticking with Nigel Worthington and Alex Neil and it remains to be seen whether Daniel Farke bucks that trend. I’m always suspicious of a team’s ability to take a horrid losing run and relegation and turn it into a promotion-winning season simply through having a summer off. Norwich’s losing run was particularly barbaric, just five league wins all season and then that weird 12-straight losing streak to finish when they returned from lockdown like they’d already given up – two scored, 26 conceded. And their summer has been way shorter than normal, barely six weeks to get it out of their system. But having wallowed around on top of a pile of money like Scrooge McDuck for the last 18 months they’re now quids in at a time when the rest of the sport is on its knees. Eleven signings have been made, more than any other team in the division, capped this week by former Middlesbrough stalwart Ben Gibson who looks a superb addition. Kieran Dowell we’ve always loved since he destroyed us at Forest a few years back and he impressed at Wigan last year. My Chemical Hugill might miss three in every four sitters but he’s a canny addition if Celtic Pukki turns up again this season rather than Norwich Pukki.

Local knowledge: Connor Southwell “I think it was a number of factors, to be honest. I don’t think they accepted defeat, but there was definitely an onus placed on those Everton and Southampton fixtures. Mitigating circumstances were in play, but the manner of their performances post-lockdown was incredibly disappointing. There did appear to be a degree of acceptance and it remains to be seen how damaging that is. Eleven fresh faces suggests that any hangover won’t be due to that period, but with such a big squad at present, it does feel delicate. I don’t think it was the right move. A few wins would have steered them away from trouble a la Aston Villa, but it was really damaging for the mood and the perception supporters had. They need to come out of the blocks.

“I think there would be a different approach if we were promoted again. There’s already been an admission from Stuart Webber that they need to recruit a different profile of player. That has been seen in their recruitment to date where they’ve added strength in Jordan Hugill and Jacob Sorensen and pace in Przemyslaw Placheta. There’s an acceptance that revolution won’t work, it needs to be an improvement on the manner in which they claimed promotion two seasons ago. Daniel Farke’s fundamentals won’t change, but I think we’ll see more variation to City’s squad next season. They need to have more faces then simply being a slick possession-based unit. They would definitely do things differently, they will just hope they can get back there to prove their worth, because they weren’t a million miles away from success.

“Farke has retained the faith of the supporters. Although that period post-lockdown was damaging for him. It doesn’t help that supporters haven’t been allowed in stadia, but he has so much credit in the bank for that Championship title-winning season and the development of academy prospects. That said, a poor start and those excuses will start to grate. Especially considering he seemingly has the tools to build a decent Championship side. The problem with pleading for patience and bemoaning injuries is you increase expectation when those elements are no longer in play. He is a great coach in terms of getting his tactical ideas across and I think lessons have been learned, but he will need to construct another great Canaries side or things will turn rapidly. Farke has the full support of Webber and the board so he was never set for the chop. Watford and Bournemouth have opted to change their head coach – City went with culling a significant portion of their squad.

“There’s been a real shift in their recruitment this summer, Hugill, Dowell and Gibson all offer Championship nous to a young squad and also variation. That’s what they lacked in the Premier League. At the moment, they have 33 first-team players on their books and still have the five crown jewels at the club despite Liverpool’s best attempts to prize away Jamal Lewis on the cheap. It’s a very exciting squad on paper but this division doesn’t care much for ego or perceived quality. I think Norwich will be in contention this season but City fans will be deeply disappointed if they don’t achieve automatic promotion.”

Prediction: 1st. Despite everything we’ve said, given that this was the plan all along, and the state of the rest of the league, it’s difficult to make a case for them not pissing this if Brentford lose their two star men.

Brentford 7/1

Last Season: Enjoyed the Moneyball screenplay so much they decided to play it out in its entirety over the course of a calendar year. Initially their promising team was gutted, with Maupay, Konsa and Isringhausen picked off by the big spenders. It’s like we’re a farm system for the New York Yankees I’m sick of it. But they found new guys: Bryan Mbeumo from Troyes a typically astute buy from the EFL leader in analytics, ignored by others for the size of his head, and Pontus Jansson, passed over by rivals for being an obvious arsehole, something of an outlandish outlay for the Bees but for the £40m-odd they’d fetched in in fees over the prior months. Ethan Pinnock proved a great addition from Barnsley, who’d had League One’s best defensive record the year before. Things did not, initially, go well – three wins from the first 11 league games. This better work. Their streak, when it came, couldn’t have been better timed. In 15 games either side of the summer shutdown they lost once and won ten times. Upon the resumption they won seven in a row. They were indeed the best team anybody had played all season, and it was starting to look like Oakland may never lose again. We’re going to 20, we’re going to 20. They streaked so hard and so long at just the right time that they set themselves up with three separate games for the World Series. One win was required from an away game at Stoke who’d been poor for much of the season and already lost nine times at home, a home match with Barnsley who’d been in the bottom three from the first week of the campaign, and the Minnesota Twins at Wembley who Brentford had beaten twice without conceding during the regular season. Now cast as favourites rather than plucky underdogs, they went through 300 minutes of football without leading once, and lost all three games. The line up card is Thomas Frank’s, and Thomas Frank’s alone, and he reverted immediately from brazen public confidence in his team and “100% certainty” they would win to praising the plucky A’s for a magnificent season. He had to let it go, and just enjoy the show.

Ins >>> Ivan Toney, 24, CF, Peterborough, £5.04m >>> Charlie Goode, 25, CB. Northampton, £990k

Outs >>> Dru Yearwood, 20, CM, NY Red Bulls, Undisclosed >>> Kamohelo Mokotjo, 29, DM, Cincinnati, Free >>> Jaakko Oksanen, 19, CM, Wimbledon, Loan >>> Luka Racic, 21, CB, Northampton, Loan >>> Justin Shaibu, 22, CF, Released >>> Nikolaos Karelis, 28, CF, Released

Manager: Thomas Frank Looks like somebody left Yossi Benayoun on a boil wash for too long but, like so many of their players, has clearly been immaculately analysed, recruited and groomed for the role. Brentford don’t get too much wrong, and Frank feels like a perfect fit. That said, I do wonder if he might reflect that his attitude and approach to the end of last season was ill-judged. Media trained-banality is exactly that, but it exists for a reason and in repeatedly publicly stating that he was “100% confident we will win” and that the famed BMW forward line would definitely still be at Brentford next season “because we will be in the Premier League” he managed to take a club in a tiny ancient stadium, that hasn’t been in the top division since the war, and is punching significantly above its weight in a league riddled with big names and large parachute payments, through pure analytics and recruitment, and make them appear arrogant. That takes some doing, and comments by him and some of his players were referenced by Fulham’s play-off final hero Joe Bryan, as well as Hogan Ephraim, Charlie Austin and Jack Collison on social media immediately after the final whistle. After that defeat Frank immediately reverted back to “we did a fantastic season for a club of our size and resource” but I’m afraid that genie had been out of the bottle so long three other genies have lived in there and moved out since. There’s showing confidence in your team, and there’s being a bit of a dick, and he crossed that line a couple of times, motivating the opposition in the process. David Raya kept 16 clean sheets across the season, but the mistake which cost his team the final also rather smacked of over-confidence and being clever for clever’s sake. Expect a more understated, humble approach should the situation arise again.

This Season: With the Maupay, Konsa and Mepham money banked there was a feeling that last season was Brentford “going for it”, with the Pontus Jansson signing from Leeds especially seen as a signal of intent. The Trite Sky Sports Commentary Facts machine churned out, repeatedly, some line about “the Bees’ famed analytics department crunched the numbers and worked out their chance of promotion was 50/50 if they kept hold of their players”. Right boss, we’ve analysed every piece of data we’ve got, looked at all other 23 teams in the league, dug into all the possible outcomes and best and worst case scenarios, and we reckon our chance of promotion is… 50/50. Have a day off mate. Having missed out they’ve shown no signs of letting up for 2020/21, spending seriously big money on first Charlie Goode, a 25-year-old centre back who’s already had two knee blow outs and was playing for Northampton in League Two last season, and a fee that could rise as high as £10m for Ivan Toney, who’s never played regularly north of League One. They do so safe in the knowledge that Said Benrahma’s value hasn’t been affected as much as it should by him taking a drone on holiday to film him having a haircut, and that Championship player of the season Ollie Watkins is in high demand. Brentford want the thick end of £50m for the pair which is putting off West Ham, Aston Villa and others but it’s win win for the Bees. If they stay for one more season their team would be a frightening prospect and easily the best anybody will face all season – for real this time, not just in an imaginary justice league. If they go, then it’s yet more money to spend on picks from a recruitment and scouting department doing as good a job as any in world football at the moment.

Local Knowledge: @Junkyard_Fool “Only the worst kind of nouveau Bees fan who’s only been on board since we stopped being West London’s perennial losers (and there’s a fair few of them inhabiting grotty corners of Facebook groups) could view last season as anything other than a resounding success. Our highest league position since we tumbled out of the top flight after the war, playing free-flowing exciting attacking football, with which we’ve become practically synonymous - the media darlings tag that’s become attached to us is strange though and I can well see how it irks others.

“It’s hard not to view our relationship with the play offs as similar to Spinal Tap and their drummers, and give a David St Hubbins weary sigh and say “the law of averages says ONE day we’ll go up that way” until then though, us and the play offs is like apple pie and cold sick. The reality of losing a Wembley final to your most hated rivals it turns out is, for me at least, not as bad as the dread leading up to it. Such is this weird current world of non-attendance and all that might entail if you only get one season in the Premiership.

“I struggle to get my head round the absolute tsunami of shit that flowed our way from West Yorkshire and SW6 after what seemed like mild, obviously click-bait driven, cliched comments from the manager and players. A certain amount of siege mentality that had pervaded around Leeds may be responsible and obviously gloating from a Fulham fanbase that had by and large been convinced we were going to do them. Interesting to see how much of a football genius Parker is now in their eyes after previously being on a par with Ian Branfoot with many. That said I always wince at any form of ‘talking-up’ by our management, whenever Dean Smith said anything as we threatened to get near the top six we’d go on one of his famous eight losses in ten streaks. While loathe to use the “lost in translation” bollocks, I think there was a degree of continental naivety by the likes of Frank & Marcondes, perhaps it’s just more of the done thing in other leagues.

“Charlie Goode, who you were also in for I believe, I know nothing about. He seems a straight replacement for the departing (on loan) Jeanvier. Ivan Toney is obviously a replacement for Watkins, though more experienced at a higher-level replacement than Watkins was when he signed him. It’s difficult to assess the business until the even longer than normal window closes. We all know Benrahama will depart when someone meets our valuation so there’ll be a vacancy for flair but Mbuemo is more than capable if he can maintain a degree of consistency. Other rumoured targets Raya and Henry could leave us struggling to repeat last season if allowed to depart, but one benefit of the progress we’ve made recently is that the pool of clubs likely to represent a destination gets smaller, really only an established Premier League team can offer anything greater than we represent at the moment (other than a wheelbarrow of cash obviously)

“As I’m reasonably long-in-the-tooth I’m more than happy with Championship football ad infinitum after four decades of the toil of Third and Fourth Division nowheresville, that said the Premier League has to be obtained to keep the momentum of the last few years going, it really isn’t a pipe dream in wanting it now. I think we’ll be top 2, why not?”

What we said last season: Fifth, and beaten in the play-offs. Actually finished third, and lost in the play-offs.

Prediction: 2nd. Pending departures between now and the end of the window. They’ll have to cope better with no longer being the underdog than they did in July though.

Watford 15/2

Last Season: There were a few birds coming home to roost at the bottom end of the Premier League last season. Just as Bournemouth found that the presence of Eddie Howe didn’t make them immune to relegation no matter how many Dominic Solanke’s they spaffed £17m on, so Watford discovered that their happy abandonment of all of British football’s received wisdom wouldn’t ever see them come to any harm simply because of the Pozzo family and their famed network, scouting and recruitment. The Hornets went through three permanent managers, and two separate spells with Hayden Mullins as caretaker. Javi Gracia was binned after they started the season with three defeats. In Eastenders you’re never more than ten episodes away from a dramatic return of Kat Slater, and at Watford you’re only ever three defeats away from Quique Sanchez Flores poking his head round the door. Sure enough, back he came, all smouldering looks and lingering sweat patches. That lasted four months, 12 games and one league win against whipping boys Norwich. There’s been a feeling around for sometime that Watford have never quite been the same since their 6-0 cup final thrashing by Man City at Wembley, and in September Pep Guardiola’s globetrotters beat them 8 (eight)-0. In came, just before Christmas, Nigel Pearson. I know, I can’t actually believe it myself, had to go and re-check Wikipedia to confirm it definitely happened. Still, Watford gonna Watford and at least the wild Romanian wolves would remain unwrestled for the winter. Pearson initially managed to put some results on the board, starting with a 2-0 against Man Utd and followed up against Villa, Wolves, Bournemouth and, most remarkably, 3-0 against Liverpool which was the champions-elect’s first defeat of the season. Stories about a fractured dressing room, with Troy Deeney and the bigger lads on one side, and Gerard Delofeu and the excellent young boys on the other, persisted but it didn’t look like it would matter when they beat both Newcastle and Norwich back to back in July to go all but safe. A 3-1 loss at West Ham saw Pearson, surprisingly, sacked and with Villa staging a late revival Watford found themselves relegated by their ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Man City concessions of the season and then a final day defeat at Arsenal when they were 3-0 down before the game had even really kicked off.

Ins >>> Jeremy Ngakia, 19, RB, West Ham, Free >>> Glenn Murray, 36, CF, Brighton, Loan

Outs >>> Dimitri Foulquier, 27, RB, Granada, £1.8m >>> Jose Holebas, 36, LB, Olympiacos, Free >>> Pontus Dahlberg, 21, GK, Hacken (Sweden), Loan >>> Kwasi Sibo, 22, CM, Ibiza, Loan >>> Cucho Hernandez, 21, CF, Getafe, Loan >>> Heurelho Gomes, 39, GK, Retired >>> Adrian Mariappa, 33, CB, Released

Manager: Vladimir Ivic A Serbian, last at Maccabi Tel Aviv, is the latest man in football’s hottest seat. Tall, imposing, no-bullshit, he’s been compared to former Watford and Fulham boss and fellow countryman Slavisa Jokanovic. He won the Israeli league two years running, losing only once in each season, after Maccabi had previously gone three years without a title. Prior to that he was with PAOK in Greece. Ostensibly he’s signed a two-year contract though The Daily Mail is already reporting dressing room unrest at his methods and speculation within the Watford squad about just how many games he’ll last. I won’t take my coat off, I’m not stopping.

This Season: I’ve got Watford down as third in the table, for three reasons. Firstly, they’re bringing a very talented squad of players down with them. For so long Watford has been about Troy Deeney and Troy Deeney about Watford but its Luis Suarez (not that one) who scored 19 goals at Real Zaragoza last season along with Liverpool scourge Ismaïla Sarr who hold the key this time. Secondly, the Pozzo family may run a weird manager-rotation system, but their scouting, recruitment and connections are second to few and they’re not in this to own a Championship football club. They’re not conventional, but they get results. Last time at this level they went through Giuseppe Sannino, Billy McKinley, Oscar Garcia and Slavisa Jokanovic in a single season, but still won promotion in second and I can see something similar occurring again here. Glenn Murray looks a typically pragmatic, let’s just get the job done and get out of here, sort of addition. Thirdly, it looks a dreadfully weak Championship this season. I fancy Sheff Wed, Wycombe, Rotherham, Huddersfield, Luton, Coventry, Barnsley, Reading, Birmingham and maybe ourselves to struggle but can only really pick out Norwich, Brentford and Millwall as teams I think will have a good season for sure. Watford might end up going straight back by accident. But there’s a lot to distrust about them. There will, inevitably, be further departures, with Abdoulaye Doucouré on the verge of joining Everton and influential Deeney seemingly approaching the end of a long and winding Watford road. There are, as I say, already reports about the manager’s future before a ball has even been kicked and if a fractured dressing room was a problem last season then a truncated close season and umpteenth managerial change isn’t going to have healed that overnight.

Local Knowledge: Richard Segal “Where to start with where it all went wrong. The easy answer is obviously three managers in the year. The huge mistake was the reappointment of Sanchez Flores, the four points from ten games was a total that unfortunately we never recovered from. There were lots of stories doing the rounds about the dressing room, especially after the West Ham match. In my opinion certain people on the board and players seemed to have too much say in team matters.

“I have no idea about the new guy to be honest, being a Watford fan I don't get too attached to managers. His record seems quite good, but as we all know 46 games in nine months will test him.
“It was obvious that after relegation certain players would not be that excited about back to back Tuesday nights away to Preston and Blackburn. At the time of going to press Abdoulaye Doucoure is on the verge on going to Everton, Etienne Capoue is linked with Valenica, Gerard Deulofeu is linked with AC Milan and Troy Deeney is linked with West Brom. I would argue that most Watford fans would be happy with those players leaving if that means we can hold onto Ismaila Sarr. We welcome back Ben Wilmot who spent last year on loan with Swansea, and despite his age I believe Glenn Murray will be useful acquisition. I think midfield is our strongest area, Nathaniel Chalobah, Tom Cleverley, Will Hughes and Domingos Quina will compete there and I would imagine a couple of additions will be in over the next week. Defence could be a struggle, I am not sure what system or personal Mr Ivic will go with.

“I would like to think that the squad is more than capable of the play offs, but the league is demanding and will need to hit the ground running.

“See you down the Crown.”

Prediction: Third. But I don’t trust them much.

Bournemouth 12/1

Last Season: After more than a decade of near constant year-on-year improvement Bournemouth had almost become part of the Premier League furniture, going into a fifth consecutive season of top flight football. Flush with all that television money, and the rich owners that got them there in the first place, they were making signings of serious intent and expense - £89m spent on players in 2018/19, including £25m on Jefferson Lerma. Nathan Ake had cost £20m from Chelsea the year before. They rarely featured in any pre-season tips for relegation, seen as a progressive club packed with hungry young talent and a new-age manager who’d built the club from the ground up and really should get linked with jobs like Arsenal and Spurs far more than he does… In 2019/20, the emperor came out a little under-dressed. A team playing 4-4-2 in a 12,000 seater stadium with Steve Cook, Charlie Daniels, Dan Gosling, Junior Stanislas, Andrew Surman and Simon Francis still getting minutes was not, it turned out, immune from relegation simply because of Eddie Howe. Quite serious chunks of money - £17m for Dominic Solanke, £12m for Chris Mepham, £15m for Jordon Ibe – had been misspent and was about to catch up with them. Remarkably for a relegated team, they got to the middle of November losing only twice (Man City H, Arsenal A) and beat Man Utd, Southampton, Everton and Villa. But a defeat at Newcastle set them off on a run of ten defeats and a draw from 12 Premier League games. Although they completed a double against Villa and Brighton they went into lockdown on a run of three defeats and a draw and came out of it taking just one more point from the first five games behind closed doors. A freaky 4-1 home win against Leicester was too little too late. They were, it must be said, beset by a series of long term injuries to key players for much of the campaign.

Ins >>> N/A

Outs >>> Nathan Ake, 25, CB, Man City, £40m >>> Aaron Ramsdale, 22, GK, Sheff Utd, £18.45m >>> Jermain Defoe, 37, CF, Rangers, Free >>> Artur Boruc, 40, GK, Legia Warsaw, Free >>> Matt Burcher, 23, CM, Accrington, Undisclosed >>> Ryan Fraser, 26, LW, Released >>> Jordan Ibe, 24, RW, Released >>> Charlie Daniels, 33, LB, Released >>> Simon Francis, 35, RB, Released >>> Andrew Surman, 33, CM, Released >>> Brad Smith, 26, LB, Released

Manager: Jason Tindall After 25 years at the club in four separate spells as a player and manager, in which he carted Bournemouth from the brink of bankruptcy and relegation to the Conference to five years of Premier League football, Eddie Howe left by mutual consent following the relegation saying he believed the club needed a change. The club clearly didn’t agree, because they immediately elevated his long-time assistant manager Jason Tindall into the top job. With only one unsuccessful year as player manager of Weymouth by way of experience in the top job I’ve a strong suspicion they may come to regret not making a clean break.

This Season: Bournemouth have already brought in £60m in player sales this summer with Nathan Ake going to Man City and Aaron Ramsdale continuing to yo-yo between Dean Court and Bramall Lane. Callum Wilson will almost certainly follow once the haggling with Aston Villa and Newcastle has got closer to the £20m + Matt Ritchie that Bournemouth are after. Baby-faced David Brooks will be next, once the Premier League wakes up to the fact he’s by far the best player the Cherries have got. There’s also been some blood letting of big earners, and old stagers who’d perhaps been kept around a little too long – Andrew Surman, Charlie Daniels, Simon Francis and Jordon Ibe have all gone on frees, the latter just three years after costing the club £17m. With that, the parachute payments, and the rich owner who bankrolled their last Championship promotion campaign, Bournemouth should be flushed enough to make a decent fist of an immediate return, but there have been no new arrivals as yet (pending that potential Ritchie swap deal) and horror stories of £80m still being owed in back transfer fees are doing the rounds. They look, like Stoke, Sunderland, QPR and others before them, like a club that never entertained relegation as any kind of a remote possibility and failed to put the requisite contingency planning in place. We know how that tends to go.

Local Knowledge: @RobMatLee “Injuries, to an extent, were the problem last season but I think Eddie Howe lost the dressing room, and the players didn't want to play for him anymore. They all seemed entirely broken of confidence, and every time we conceded that was it. I think it was the right time for him to go, anyone else would have gone by Christmas. I would have preferred an external replacement, but I think it’s good for transition, anyone stepping into Howe’s shoes was going to be on a shocker.

“The summer so far has been what we need – we have a large wage bill. Ake was gone regardless, he’s too good. Ramsdale was disappointing, but an excellent bit of profit. Wilson and King too are high earners and at their peak, they won't get a big deal again. I think one winger and one striker is all we need. Interesting that Pughie is back training with us. I think we’ll be top three with Solanke as top scorer.”

@OllyMayFootball: “I think it was the injuries that cost us ultimately, but something was wrong in the camp. It almost seemed the players didn’t have any self belief, or that they thought they would inevitably end up picking up points/ Either way it was just a little too late when we did start to fight.

“Honestly I’m not sure about Howe’s departure. I don’t know what Tindall will achieve, but you always had trust and assurance with Eddie. I think it was time for a change but it’s too early to know if the manager was the change that was needed. Would I have Eddie Howe back at the club if things don’t go to plan? Absolutely. I’m pleased we didn’t rush into a ‘big name’ manager who has been there and done it. Keeping it raw and promoting Jason Tindall will keep the key aspects of Bournemouth’s recent success through playing positive and confident counter-attacking football. If we had opted for the completely new option, I fear some of the core beliefs of the club would have been lost on and off the field.

“The summer has been heart-breaking but expected. We had one of the best squads in the bottom half of the league, if you get relegated, expect half of those players to be staying in the top flight. Ramsdale and Akè were never going to play Championship football - I don’t see Wilson, King, Lerma or Brooks playing for Bournemouth this season either. Going forward we have enough to bounce back up, keeping the ball out of our own net is the issue. It’s very much going to be a ‘we’ll score more than you’ type of season I think, which isn’t assuring. We need to strengthen at the back now that Aké has departed, if we can keep hold of Lloyd Kelly, that will be what we will build our backbone around.

“It’s too early to tell, right now, I’d hope we would be within the top six. We need to be within the fight when it comes down to the business end of the season. I just hope we can be one of the teams pushing for automatics. It heavily relies on this bumper summer transfer window in my opinion.”

Prediction: Ninth. I’m probably completely wrong, it’s happened before, but I don’t fancy them, and think I might even be pretty generous predicting top half.

Forest 14/1

Last Season: A more Nottingham Forest season there has never been. There was a new manager - of course there was a new manager. Sabri Lamouchi, immediately feted as a new Cloughie. There was a clutch of new signings to layer on top of all the other previous clutches new signings - of course there were new signings. There were record season ticket sales, and a whole new collection of ever more enormous flags and banners shouting about the colour of the kit and how they’d been quite good 35 years ago – of course there were… There was a strong start – of course there was a strong start – and just the six league defeats by the turn of the year. In January there was a game in hand, which as we know from Billy Davies’ lap of honour after a 1-1 draw at Loftus Road in QPR’s 2010/11 title winning season, count for seven points each in Nottingham – of course there was a game in hand. When they beat Leeds at home, comprehensively, hilariously, live on Sky Sports Leeds, in February they moved to within spitting distance of the summit but lost the next game 1-0 at home to Charlton – of course they lost their next game 1-0 at home to Charlton. Matt Smith scored a hat trick in a 3-0 Millwall win at the City Ground. Of course Matt Smith… no, too much.

Somewhere either side of lockdown Forest got trapped in the same purgatory Harry Redknapp’s QPR found themselves in once upon a time where you can no longer catch the automatic promotion hopefuls but nor are you in any danger of dropping out of the play-off places and so you just mark time, trying not to lose focus, touch, form and fitness, but also not putting yourselves out in meaningless games. Against ten-man Derby they successfully conceded a 98th minute equaliser to Chris Martin, who hasn’t lasted 98 minutes of anything since he was banned by restraining order from the all you can eat seafood buffet at Belper’s River Garden Chinese restaurant. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, do these sound like the actions of a man who’s had all he can eat?

No matter, still quids in, despite that Harry Arter long range winner for Fulham, the draw with Preston, the draw with Swansea… not a problem. It’s just a little dirty, it’s still good, it’s still good. This was an unassailable position, and the new Cloughie wasn’t going to let anybody assail it through lack of draws, no sirrrrrreeeeeeee. On the penultimate night of the season they were in for another one, a glorious 0-0 at Barnsley, which would have ended the debate. In injury time they went through three attackers against one defender and a goalkeeper and not only failed to score, not only lost the ball to that one defender, but then allowed him to punt it upfield and muster a later winner at the other end. That still didn’t really, have to matter. It’s just a little slimy, it’s still good, it’s still good. On the final night of the season Forest had a home game against a lower midtable Stoke team, with nothing to play for, and they were allowed to lose. Swansea, their nearest challengers, were at Reading and could win and still miss out. As long as there wasn’t a six-goal swing. This was all fine at 75 minutes when Forest were still drawing, all fine at 85 minutes when they were only losing 3-1 and Swansea were up by the same scoreline, and all fine as we entered injury time at which point Swansea scored again, and Forest conceded an own goal. 4-1 each way. It’s just a little airborne, it’s still good, it’s still good. Still, the Garibaldi we wear with pride was made in 1865. So that’s something.

Ins >>> Fouad Bachirou, 30, DM, Malmo, Undisclosed >>> Lyle Taylor, 30, CF, Charlton, Free >>> Jack Colback, 30, DM, Newcastle, Free >>> Tyler Blackett, 26, LB, Reading, Free >>> Miguel Angel Guerrero, 30, CF, Olympiacos, Free >>> Luke Freeman, 28, AM, Sheff Utd, Loan

Outs >>> Matty Cash, 23, RWB, Villa, £14m >>> Tyler Walker, 23, CF, Coventry, Undisclosed >>> Liam Bridcutt, 31, DM, Lincoln, Free >>> Luke Steele, 35, GK, Released

Manager: Sabri Lamouchi It’s the first time in ten years that Forest start a season with the same manager they started the last, and given how last season ended, and his overly negative tactics in the lockdown, there’s more chance of me managing them after Christmas than him unless this goes very well very quickly. Another half a dozen players have already been brought in, four of them past 30, the youngest is 26.

This Season: It’s their year. Again. Of course it’s their year.

Local Knowledge: Jack McCormick, @jack_mccormick “While it’s easy to look at the Stoke match as the worst of the lot, we had been pretty woeful in most matches since the restart. A single point more from any of those would’ve seen us over the line. The biggest theme seemed to be the players falling asleep in added time (we also conceded Fulham’s goal in a 1-0 loss at the City Ground in first-half stoppage time). I’m not sure where that trait came from, considering how solid our defence had been all season — nerves, I suppose. Or a feeling that even Forest should see this one out. Even after we fell away from chasing the top two, playoffs were the least we could expect, weren’t they? It was just the most Forest of Forest things to ever Forest.

“The manager took plenty of blame for his very defensive team selections, none more so than in that loss to Barnsley. Although, had we held onto that point we had in the bag for 92 minutes, nobody would remember the line-up now. The players copped it, for their inexplicable inability to see out a game. Joe Worrall — who had been a giant at the back all season and had barely put a foot wrong before the restart, and who had cleared one off the line two games prior to preserve a point — got a lot of frankly disgusting abuse for giving away a needless free-kick in that Derby match, which they somehow bundled the ball home from. The owners and recruitment team came under the spotlight, for failing to add the quality we needed to pursue the top two in the January window.

“There were crunch talks with the chairman but I think sense prevailed and we are about to — for the first time in a decade — start a new season with the same manager who started the last one. He’s the best we’ve had at the City Ground for a long time so it would have been madness to let him go, even if he did very rightly have a lot of tough questions to answer. The word is the owners have decided to back him with the players he wants this summer (and you can see that from our acquisitions so far) but I imagine that means if we’re not at least in the top six by Christmas he’ll be gone.

“Every summer, the biggest job at Forest is trying to clear out some of the deadwood left over from the previous four or five blokes in the manager’s office. Aitor Karanka, for example, signed about a thousand players in the first January window after he took charge and they’ve mostly been frozen out while we pay their wages. We’re still paying Zach Clough, a Warburton signing who hasn’t played a game for anyone above reserve level since his last run-out on loan at Rochdale in 2018. You get the picture. So far, the players we’ve brought in look like exactly what we need: solid, experienced Championship performers. Luke Freeman you know well, and I’m probably most excited about his arrival. Jack Colback is as good a box-to-box destroyer as you’ll find at this level. Lyle Taylor ran the show in both games against us for Charlton last season. Tyler Blackett is a decent, versatile addition. And all of the above were on frees.

“We’ve just agreed to sell Matty Cash to Aston Villa for around £15m. He’s been terrific for us, especially since being converted to a right-back, but you can’t really turn that sort of money down for a Championship player — and he’s done enough for us to merit a crack at the big time. We probably don’t need to replace him directly as we have ample cover at right-back, but I’d like to see us invest a little of the money in another winger to support the likes of Joe Lolley and Sammy Ameobi. I think we’ll need to bank the rest to see off our old foe FFP for another year.

“Yes it’s our year again. Always. After 22 years out of the top flight — and three very dark ones in League 1 — there is no other option than to be a hopeless optimist. Because, if you face the reality that we can no longer really, truthfully claim to be a ‘big’ club, that we’ve spent longer outside the top flight than in it, that we’re one of only two or three clubs in the entire Football League to have never played at the new Wembley, that we haven’t even made the playoffs for a decade, or that we’re going to have to keep selling our best players every year just to stay afloat, you might just decide to pack it all in. And where’s the fun in that?”

What we said last season: Eleventh. Finished seventh.

Prediction: Fourth. Followed by some sort of gloriously convoluted two-legged play-off semi-final catastrophe.

Stoke 14/1

Last Season: A second season outside the Premier League with the initial parachute payment burned on an aborted return under Gary Rowett. A first full season for chippy Luton alum Nathan Jones. This needed to go well for both, and didn’t for either. Jones’ preference for a midfield diamond and wing backs system was prattled on about so much you’d have thought he invented the bloody thing, but there’s a world of difference between playing that way in League One with James Justin and Jack Stacey and trying to make Stoke replicate it in the Championship with James McClean and Jordan Cousins. They lost 2-1 to QPR at home on the opening day and that result, and 90 minutes of Bright Osayi-Samuel v McClean, should have told them everything they needed to know. They persisted, and won none of their first ten league games through to October and although they then suddenly coughed into life with wins against Swansea and Fulham in a week, they then got back in the losing habit against Sheff Wed and Millwall and Jones was ousted. One thing he couldn’t really legislate for was Jack Butland going from one of England’s most promising young keepers and a £10m target for Aston Villa, to some spiteful Port Vale fan throwing Stoke games deliberately.

Michael O’Neill’s extraordinary performance as Northern Ireland manager had seen him linked with a whole clutch of clubs in both England and Scotland over a period of literally years without anybody ever taking the plunge, and given Stoke’s position in the bottom three of the Championship with an ageing and expensive squad requiring extensive surgery and dwindling parachute payments to do that with, it seemed like an odd destination for such an apparently in demand coach. Let the record show the witness made the drinky drinky motion. Stoke immediately sprang to life under his charge with a 4-2 win at Barnsley, with Sam Clucas scoring twice, one of them from the back of the car park at the Metrodome. They became rather fun, in the same way Mark Warburton’s QPR can be fun. There was a 3-0 v Luton, a 3-2 v Sheff Wed when they scored twice in stoppage time, a 5-2 at Huddersfield, a 5-1 against Hull, 4-0 against Barnsley, hilarious 1-0 v Brentford and infamous 4-1 at Nottingham Forest on the final night. Kevin Campbell’s 20-year-old son Tyrese finished with nine goals and looks a dangerous prospect. But there was also a 4-0 defeat at Derby, a 4-2 at QPR when they’d led 2-0, a 5-0 at Leeds, 3-0 at Wigan and 2-0 at home to a crap Middlesbrough side.

Ins >>> Morgan Fox, 26, LB, Sheff Wed, Free >>> James Chester, 31, CB, Villa, Free >>> Steven Fletcher, 33, CF, Sheff Wed, Free >>> John Obi Mikel, 33, DM, Unattached, Free

Outs >>> Adam Federici, 35, GK, Macarthur (Australia), Free >>> Mame Diouf, 32, CF, Hatayspor (Turkey), Free >>> Stephen Ward, 34, LB, Ipswich, Free >>> Ryan Woods, 26, DM, Millwall, Loan

Manager: Michael O’Neill Whataboutye.

This Season: Having loaded themselves up on exactly the sort of flawed, ageing, big name, high earners from Kia Joorabchian’s client log that Mark Hughes so loves, been relegated, and spent the last two years trying to shift them and draw the wage bill down, Stoke have now spent this summer bringing in James Chester (31), Steven Fletcher (33) and Jon Obi Mikel (33) to inject some hungry, youthful enthusiasm into their team.

O’Neill won many friends in the Potteries after arriving last year though it wouldn’t have taken much to be a breath of fresh air after the dreary, self-aggrandized, hubristic, expensive, unwatchable slop churned out by first Mark ‘business of winning Premier League football matches’ Hughes, then Gary Rowett, and finally Nathan Jones. Hughes this week had the front to say the cause of his demise at Stoke was raising expectations in the first place – he’s got a bigger brass fanny than Kellyanne Conway that bloke. But, nevertheless, O’Neill impressed by getting a team circling the drain playing football, scoring plenty of goals, and winning matches. The defence needs ripping up and starting again and perhaps Harru Souttar, a giant centre half who impressed on loan at Fleetwood last season, may have a role in that. Butland remains a problem child although there’s a rumoured swap with West Ham’s (naturally) Angus Gunn on the table. Stoke under O’Neill, like Northern Ireland under O’Neill, are eminently watchable and that’s not something you could say too readily about either of them before he got there. How he does with a first full season n charge is one of the year’s more intriguing storylines.

Local Knowledge: Wizards of Drivel “Nathan Jones' first crack at a full season with us was highly anticipated but another recruitment mess meant we didn't have the players to play his favoured system, and after two points from our opening ten games he simply had to go. Michael O'Neill came in and massively turned us around, from looking set for relegation to (in the end) a comfortable mid-table finish.

“The short pre-season gives us every right to be optimistic following the high of the Forest win. There's a sense of cautious optimism around the club now. The signings are possibly expensive in the sense of wages but we've not paid any transfer fees and you feel there's a sense of trying to buy on the cheap. However, trimming the fat from a bloated squad remains a challenge. We seriously need some players off the wage bill. Fox is at least a proper left back and that was a much needed area to strengthen. Mikel's experience and ability means he's a promising addition. Jury is out on Fletcher as we've yet to find the missing piece of the puzzle up top.

“O’Neill is widely adored for the recovery we made under him last season. Inexperienced at this level of club management but he certainly seems to have lit a fire under certain players. We'll improve in league position for sure. Many are harbouring play-off hopes but I think we're two or three players off that at the moment. Tenth.”

What we said last season: Seventh. Actually finished fifteenth.

Prediction: Eleventh.

Cardiff 16/1

Last Season: Never likely to do very much once we’d tipped them for the title in this column last year (sorry lads). Neil Warnock often gets unfairly pigeon-holed as a long ball manager when, actually, his teams down the years have played a variety of styles to get the best results from the players available – not a lot of hoof and hope from QPR’s 2010/11 team with the likes of Taarabt and Faurlin to the fore. His Cardiff side, however, was what it was, and the summer arrival of Aiden Flint only served to double down on what was already a fairly bracing approach to the beautiful game. With hindsight it felt like a parting of the ways post Premier League relegation may have been in order and a mixture of hangover and Cardiff simply becoming too one dimensional, too predictable, even by the direct standards they’d set over the previous two years, saw only four wins posted by the end of October at which point Warnock did indeed exit stage left, retiring to his farm in Cornwall at last, as he’d been promising to do for years, final job in football completed, absolutely not to be tempted back anywhere else for any reason. It had got to the stage in South Wales where Cardiff were so unbelievably direct that Millwall stalwart Neil Harris represented something of a young, forward-thinking, revolutionary appointment. The natives were initially sceptical but Harris oversaw a serious upturn, taking the Bluebirds from fifteenth to fifth. Having belatedly woken up to the brilliance of Alex Smithies they won seven of their lockdown games, including a home success against Leeds, to make the play-offs, and gave Fulham a bloody stern run for their money in the semi-final.

Ins >>> Kieffer Moore, 28, CF, Wigan, £1.98m >>> Jordi Osei-Tutu, 21, RB, Arsenal, Loan

Outs >>> Danny Ward, 28, CF, Huddersfield, Free >>> Jazz Richards, 29, LB, Released >>> Matt Connolly, 32, CB, Released >>> Omar Bogle, 27, CF, Released >>> Ciaron Brown, 22, CB, Livingston, Loan

Manager: Neil Harris That rottah turned up to my cousin’s funeral wearing white jeans.

This Season: Would I want to pay to watch Neil Harris football every week? No. But then, would I want to pay to watch Steve Cooper football every week? Also no. Belting it down the field, smashing people about, taking every free kick and throw in quickly and just heaving it in behind to turn the full backs around, pumping balls ever higher into the air while the throngs cry MIIIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL. Not for me Clive. But then, Harris worked on one of the division’s lowest budgets at Millwall, and while he’d clearly come to the natural end of his time there when he departed, he’d previously enjoyed long winning runs and pushes towards the play-offs at the expense of other better financed and resourced clubs with supposedly far superior teams on paper. There can be a rather snobbish attitude to modern football, that if you’re not pisballing about with split centre halves and short goal kicks then you’re not doing it properly, and if you beat a team that is doing that by heading a couple of goals in off set pieces then somehow it’s a hollow success, and the moral victory belongs to the other side. Well you play like that if you must Gary/Steve/Barry but Jean-Paul and I will stick to our ethos over here thank you very much indeed. The fact is quite a lot of the football that’s supposedly pure of the driven snow can be utterly tedious to watch while Harris has shown over a long period of time that he can turn out a well-drilled, well-coached, effective Championship team, albeit not one that’s going to win many friends. Given what he inherited, the shortcomings of which were brutally exposed at Loftus Road in January, I thought his second half of the season was remarkable, and with a couple more additions to join Kieffer Moore and Arsenal starlet Jordi Osei-Totu I think they’ll go really well again.

Local Knowledge: @ThreeBlueBirds_ “Last season was definitely a positive campaign for us considering Warnock’s departure could’ve left us in a very precarious situation. I’m a big fan of Neil Harris, he’s implementing a completely different style to Warnock and is including youth players in his plans. With the addition of Kieffer Moore up front, it shows his ambition.

“Moore is a huge statement of intent, especially considering he starts for Wales. Jordi Osei-Tutu is our only other senior signing so far, but looks a great player from what we’ve seen in pre-season. The squad is strongest in centre midfield and left back, with the depth we have in those positions we don’t need any signings. However, we need another right back and a back up for Lee Tomlin going forward, due to his injury history.

“I think most fans will be expecting us to finish about the same position. I think this year’s league will be just as tough as the last, if we can finish in and amongst the top six places then it’ll be a successful season.”

What we said last season: First. Actually finished fifth and lost in the play-offs.

Prediction: Fifth.

Swansea 22/1

Last Season: A play in three acts. Swansea, under the impressive Graham Potter, had won five and drawn three of their last nine league games in 2018/19 (losing only to QPR, randomly) and new man Steve Cooper initially picked up that momentum and ran with it, winning five and drawing one of the first six league games in 2019/20, including an impressive late 1-0 at Leeds. Sticking 16 points on the board from 18 available to start with was enough to sustain the Swans at the right end of the Championship table through act two despite only occasional, sometimes very occasional, further wins. They won one of seven through September and October, none from six in November and December, one from seven and two from 11 through January and February. Every now and again they’d beat Middlesbrough and Luton back to back, or Cardiff and Wigan, and that was enough to keep in touch given the start they’d made, but in truth they were an odd watch at times, playing deathly slow, possession-based football that often didn’t seem to really go anywhere. Cooper, though, won the World Cup as England U17 manager and his reputation, methods and style suits the Premier League down to the ground when they’re looking for destinations for their hoarded masses of academy grads. Swansea were handed Connor Gallagher by Chelsea and Rhian Brewster by Liverpool for the second half of the campaign, two better loans you’ll rarely see in this division, and they finished with two defeats from the final 15 games, and four wins from the final six to pip Nottingham Forest at the post in remarkable fashion. They beat Brentford in the play-off semi-final first leg too, but a missed penalty to make it 2-0 rather than one from Andre Ayew always looked like a missed opportunity and they were blown away by a superior team at Griffin Park.

Ins >>> Jamal Lowe, 26, RW, Wigan, £800k >>> Korey Smith, 29, DM, Bristol City, Free >>> Freddie Woodman, 23, GK, Newcastle, Loan >>> Morgan Gibbs-White 20, AM, Wolves, Loan >>> Marc Guehi, 20, CB, Chelsea, Loan

Outs >>> Erwin Mulder, 31, GK, Heerenveen, Free >>> Courtney Baker-Richardson, 24, CF, Released >>> Jefferson Montero, 30, RW, Released >>> Mike van der Hoorn, 27, CB, Released


This Season: I’m not sure I could watch Swansea play in Steve Cooper’s style every week, certainly not without the company of a good book, but they made the play-offs last season whatever anybody says about him and them, and that’s four places better off than the much-praised Potter managed with a bigger parachute payment. So much of Cooper’s appeal seems to be his connections and reputation from his spell in the England youth set up and the possibilities that opens up to the club in the loan market. They’ll do well to get anywhere close to the quality of Gallagher and Brewster again – noticeable how Charlton went from midtable pre-Christmas to relegated after it when Gallagher was moved to South Wales by his parent club – but Wolves’ Morgan Gibbs White could be a good start. From incredibly promising beginnings he’s rather been putting the lifestyle into footballer’s lifestyle of late and many in the West Midlands have lost patience after his involvement in one of those super spreader lockdown parties. Lynn, these are sex people. I like all the signings they’ve made, in truth, but a prolific striker will be required to maintain last season’s performance and they were utterly shambolic at Newport in the cup at the weekend.

Local Knowledge: Steven Carroll, SOS Fanzine “Last season was a strange one, we started and finished well but in the middle only picked up 41 points from 34 games and the football was largely uninspiring, one of the worst games was a 0-0 with you in February, 90 minutes I wish I hadn’t had to witness. Overall though it was a very good achievement to make the top six. Although I think it says a lot about the quality of the division

“Cooper’s contacts are undoubtedly a big plus. We’ve secured high profile loans that we probably wouldn’t have got without him and for a club with financial issues that is a big help. I still have some doubts about him as a lot of players were worse last season than the one before. But he did eventually see that we needed to change to playing three centre halves later in the season which suited our personnel a lot more and that was a big reason we made the play-offs so he deserves credit for that

“Squad looks reasonable as things stand. We need another centre half and definitely a striker but as long as no one else goes we’d be in quite a good position. However due to our finances I’m expecting departures - Matt Grimes, Andre Ayew and Joe Rodon the most likely and they’d be big losses. Tough to say how we’ll do until transfer window shuts, as things stand we could be similar to last year, but I think once more business is done it’s more likely to be mid table.”

What we said last season: Thirteenth. Actually finished sixth and lost in the play-offs.

Prediction: Tenth.

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