Season Preview 2020/21 – Strugglers
Thursday, 10th Sep 2020 22:01 by Clive Whittingham
The third and final part of our look ahead to the forthcoming Championship spotlights the sides the bookies believe are in for a tricky time in 2020/21.
Barnsley 13/2 (relegation odds)
Last Season: Yo-yoed straight back from League One with a bright young team playing a progressive style of football under popular manager Daniel Stendel, and the division’s best defensive record. But they were up against it when the goalkeeper Adam Davies (Stoke) and centre backs Liam Lindsay (Stoke) and Ethan Pinnock (Brentford) left and Wigan picked up striker Kieffer Moore. With Stendel apparently fluttering his eyelashes at Huddersfield he was sacked at the first sign of trouble. For the vast majority of the campaign it looked like it was all too much for the league’s youngest squad. They beat Fulham on the opening day but then didn’t win again until November 30 – 18 matches. To have a run like that on your record and not go down in the end is remarkable.
Austrian Ernst Stavro Blofeld was the man trusted with pulling the situation out of the fire after Stendel’s departure and few managers handled the lockdown situation better. Consecutive victories over Fulham, Middlesbrough and Hull just prior gave them a fighting chance and hinted at the potential of the team when it clicked. The team selection for the first game back at Loftus Road brought all the usual oh-so-hilarious “now show us the real team” responses on social media, but Barnsley had gone for youth, speed and legs after three months stuck at home and it paid off with a goal after seven minutes and a 1-0 win at a bogey ground. There was another win to come against Blackburn but, even with Wigan’s points deduction, only being able to draw with the Latics and then Luton looked fatal. They were down going into injury time of their final home game against Forest, drawing 0-0 and with the away team streaking away upfield with three players against one Barnsley defender and the goalkeeper. Not only did Forest not score, but Barnsley succeeded in winning the ball back, returning it to the other end of the pitch and bundling in a winner through Patrick Schmidt. That took things down to the final night at Brentford where they were fortunate to find another promotion contender in the midst of an enormous choke and won 2-1, scoring a second crucial injury time goal in as many games through Clark Odour. Emotions ran high at full time and you could understand why – even allowing for the scandalous goings on at Wigan without which they wouldn’t have survived, theirs was a remarkable escape.
Ins >>> Michal Helik, 22, CB, Crocovia (Poland) £720k >>> Dominik Frieser, 26, RW, LASK (Austria), £720k >>> Isaac Christie-Davies, 22, AM, Liverpool, Free
Outs >>> Jacob Brown, 22, RW, Stoke, £1.98m >> Mallik Wilks, 21, LW, Hull, Undisclosed >>> Cameron McGeehan, 25, CM, Oostende, Undisclosed >>> Toby Sibbick, 21, RB, Oostende, Loan >>> Samuel Sahin-Radlinger, 27, GK, SV Ried (Austria), Free >>> Dani Pinillos, 27, LB, Released >>> Mamadou Thiam, 25, CF, Released >>> Kenny Dougall, 27, DM, Released >>> Jordan Green, 25, RW, Southend, Loan
Manager: Gerhard Struber You only live twice, Mr Bond.
This Season: We’ll talk a lot in this section about the ever-widening gap between the Championship and League One. Barnsley, like Luton, have got over the hurdle of staying up in their first season. That’s not all they’ve got going for them. Their young squad of players has another year of Championship experience, and is bringing form, momentum and confidence into the new campaign after the barnstorming end to 2019/20 just six weeks ago. Struber has impressed, and had been linked with Watford. Their stats and data-driven approach to recruitment makes them an absolute darling of the trendy analytics community and xG nonses, who nod sagely and talk about how shrewd it is whenever they pick up 18-year-old Goran Los Austriavic from Rapid Vienna’s Lithuanian feeder club for a bag of Cadbury’s Chocolate Buttons. I’ve seen them rated as high as sixth in some previews and it’s rare to find anybody tipping a club that has yo-yoed between this division and the one below, and would have gone down last season but for the Wigan scandal, being relegated this year. There are clearly worse teams than Barnsley, and we haven’t put them in our bottom three either, but last season’s top scorer Cauley Woodrow is being linked with Boro, Derby and others while Alex Mowatt is also being tipped elsewhere. Right winger Jacob Brown went to Stoke for £2m today. Lose those two and their attempt to extrapolate form from an intense do-or-die block of nine games in June and July out over an entire season may be more challenging than many are making out.
Local Knowledge: Joe Beardsall @josephbeardsall “Staying up took incredible effort and determination from all the lads but it’s obvious Gerhard Struber’s leadership played a huge part. His belief that we could achieve what looked impossible at times certainly rubbed off on the players.
“I think the main aim for us in this window is to keep everyone and build on what Struber’s started. We have extended the contracts of some exciting young talents such as Callum Styles and brought back Killian Ludewig on loan again following a successful season with us last year. So far our only brand new signing is Dominik Frieser from LASK Linz. He’s got Europa League football under his belt so hopefully that will help him to quickly adapt to life in the Championship.
“All fans will claim their team are going to do well before a ball is kicked but I do think Barnsley will surprise a few. It looks like a lot of the reasons we were down the bottom have been addressed and fixed leaving no reason why we can’t be challenging further up the table. It would be a big ask for a club of our size and with our budget to get into the play offs but I do think after staying up last season we’re a side full of confidence who believe anything is possible so you never know.
“My main concern is having another poor start. I feel like last year our bad start just put us on the back foot straight away but if we can pick up a few early wins then I think we will be the surprise package. What gives me hope is that we now have a fantastic manager who has the respect of the players and providing no one leaves we should have a settled squad. We have wonderful talents such as Callum Styles who I feel will really step it up this year.”
What we said last season: Eighteenth. Actually finished twenty first.
Last Season: The Blues continue to tick off the many evolutions of cliched Championship escape attempts. There was the big name, fancy, foreign Zola carried in like King Julien by a new owner. That nearly relegated them. There was the money-no-object spending of brown envelope enthusiast ‘Arry Redknapp, who was still carping on about not being allowed to spend £8m on Jordan Hugill from Preston as he was carted out of the place having blown the FFP rules to smithereens. There was good old English Championship pragmatism with Steve Cotterill who, to put it mildly, backs himself, but also, to put it mildly, struggles to command the respect of other human beings while walking around in a gold chain. There were the alleged (by Birmingham) questionable backroom favoured agent dealings of Garry Monk, deepening financial and FFP issues.
When you’ve tried all of those things and they haven’t worked and all you have to show for the outlay are Harlee Dean’s evil staring eyes then it’s time for the blue sky thinking “fresh approach”. It’s time to start talking about youth development and academy players, a more attractive and progressive style of play, a continental system and European recruitment drive, back threes and wing backs and false nines and expected goals and pass completion statistics. And while you’re over there, at the Kool Aid stand, you’ll find a handsome Spanish man leaning against the wall waiting for the latest clueless owner to wander by. That man is Pep Clotet who, despite a managerial record littered with failure, is able to perpetuate the myth that he is some free-thinking, revolutionary football guru, here to save you from all that pre-historic channelball and medieval pumping of airborne service at the head of Lukas Jutkiewicz.
The grifter’s grifter got straight to work. There was a surprise 1-0 win at Brentford on day one, and poor Barnsley, Stoke, Charlton, Boro, Blackburn and Luton teams proved useful early cannon fodder but September brought four defeats in five, November another five game winless run, and December five losses and a draw from six. At the turn of the year Birmingham had won one of 11 games. No team won fewer home matches last season. Clotet’s grand playing style revolution was, like him, a fraud. It was time to get real. Birmingham brought Scott Hogan on loan from Villa, whacked him up front with Jutciewicz, and started Championshiping it right up. But they time they got a 2-2 at QPR in February, the week before lockdown, it was a thirteenth game unbeaten.
They came back from the bizarre summer in isolation in the worst form of the whole division. They took just three points (all from draws) from the nine games behind closed doors, losing six of the last seven. Clotet said he quite fancied taking his suitcase stuffed full of money onto his next project/challenge/victim but would stay until the end of the season out of the goodness of his heart. When they dipped to four points off the relegation zone with four to play he was fucked off to the side early, saying he felt it best to go now to allow the club to “continue to move forward with its vision and strategy”. That vision and strategy initially involved a caretaker stint for Craig Gardner (sweet Jesus) and he presided over defeats to Stoke, Preston and Derby, and a draw at soon-to-be-relegated Charlton. Safe by two points and two places, in the end the main positive was the season didn’t go on a week longer.
Ins >>> Jonathan Leko, 21, RW, West Brom, £990k >>> George Friend, 32, LB, Middlesbrough, Free >>> Jon Toral, 25, AM, Hull, Free >>> Ivan Sanchez, 27, RW, Elche, Free >>> Andres Prieto, 26, GK, Espanyol, Free >>> Adam Clayton, 31, CM, Middlesbrough, Free
Outs >>> Jude Bellingham, 17, CM, Dortmund, £23m >>> Alvaro Gimenez, 29, CF, Cadiz, £2.43m >>> Wes Harding, 23, CB, Rotherham, Undisclosed >>> Kerim Mrabti, 26, CF, Mechelen (Belgium), Free >>> Jake Weaver, 23, GK, Leamington, Free >>> Ivan Guzman, 29, RB, Cornella, Free >>> David Stockdale, 34, GK, Wycombe, Free Connal Trueman, 24, GK, Wimbledon, Loan >>> Fra Villalba, 22, AM, Almeria, Loan >>> Jacques Maghoma, 32, LM, Released >>> Jonathan Grounds, 32, LB, Released >>> Cheick Keita, 24, LB, Released >>> Lee Camp, 35, GK, released >>> Craig Gardner, 33, CM, Retired
Manager: Aitor Karanka Bring a good book.
This Season: I feel like we give Birmingham a kicking in this preview every year and it’s done with a heavy heart because we’ve made a lot of good friends there over our prolonged Championship stay, and their trip to W12 has become one of the highlights of the season down the Crown and Sceptre. But it’s difficult to look at them and not conclude that under the ownership of Trillion Trophy Asia this is a very poorly run football club. The evidence is everywhere. Football finance expert Kieran Maguire points out that between 2016 and 2019 Birmingham spent £109m in wages on an income of £74m, before you even start to factor in outlay on transfer fees. Jude Bellingham’s big move to Dortmund this summer keeps the wolf from the door but they have breached FFP on more than one occasion, and breached the transfer embargo forced upon them by those rules. One points deduction has already been metered out. They change managers frequently, hopping from one style and ethos and one classic Championship trope to the next – Rowett to Zola to Redknapp to Cotterill to Monk to Clotet. We called their twentieth place finish last season, just two points north of the relegation zone, absolutely spot on in this column last year.
This summer, having talked last year about a more progressive, attractive, forward thinking style of play under Pep Clotet, they’ve once again changed manager and once again gone in completely the opposite direction with Aitor Karanka. He did, fair play, get Middlesbrough promoted from this league once upon a time. But his attempt to keep them in the Premier League with a flat back ten and Alvaro Negredo up front - and the football his teams play in general - was unwatchable. His mini-Mourinho ethos of being a danger to yourself with the ball and on the attack is now so outdated it’s not even working for the actual Mourinho any more. Not only that but he’s proved such a prickly character in his previous jobs – his relationship with the hierarchy at Nottingham Forest collapsed six months into a three year deal and he asked to be released from his contract – that he even managed to fall out with his own players and the “dream chairman” Steve Gibson at Middlesbrough to such an extent that he walked out and didn’t attend a game at Charlton away with Boro pushing for an actual promotion. Throwing him in here, with problematic CEO Xuandong Ren already under pressure from supporters over recruitment of players and managers and interference in team affairs, looks like a recipe for three months of dirge on the pitch followed by a less than amicable Christmas parting.
Brum were unbeaten in 13 when they drew at Loftus Road in February, but that owed much to the form of loan striker Scott Hogan who scored in that 2-2 draw and finished with seven goals in 16 league outings. He has not returned. They finished last season without a win in any of their final 15 games, losing eight and drawing three of the final 11 fixtures and, as we keep reiterating, those sorts of runs are difficult to snap out of over the course of a normal close-season, never mind a truncated six week break. Having allowed Lee Camp, Connal Trueman and David Stockdale – presumably traumatised by the exams crisis, hello to both regular readers – to depart they come into Saturday’s game without a senior goalkeeper. Andres Prieto has been signed as a number two, and will step up, but a protracted chase of multiple targets, including Charlton’s Dillon Barnes and our own Seny Dieng, has come up blank so far.
They will, in our opinion, once again be relying on the incompetence of others.
Local Knowledge: Matt Elliott @matthewblue1875 “Last season was a bit of mixed bag. After the sacking of Monk, things just seemed thrown together and whilst there was talk of a plan and some of the recruitment was better it still never really felt like it was going to work. We had the pleasure of witnessing Jude Bellingham break a few records and we had some good moments, but it was mostly average throughout, and of course absolutely woeful after the restart.
“I don't think many people associated with the club expected Clotet to be a long-term solution. His track record suggests he isn't cut out to be a head coach or manager, or certainly not at this level. He seemed to be more of the CEO and DoF's puppet, someone they could influence to do things their way. It didn't work for various reasons and I don't think the relationship was great. Ultimately, I think Clotet appeared to have had enough of things announced he would leave at the end of the season. Everything from there on in was a disaster. The majority of the fans turned against him and he was given the boot a few games before the end of season.
“After the instability and dross we've had served up over the last few years, Karanka is definitely somewhat of an upgrade. The club have this idea that they want to play football, play out from the back etc. Last season they appeared to give up on that pretty early on. Karanka has a reputation for being defensive, but he does like his teams to try to keep possession too. To me it seems a logical appointment. After last season, the first thing the team needed to do was learn how to function and defend as a unit again. If they sort that, most will be happy. The natural worry is Dong (CEO) starts getting involved too much again, they fall out and Karanka walks. Difference here to Clotet is that Dong has wanted Karanka before, he admires him and holds him in high regard. There seems to be a level of trust there that Dong never had with Monk or Clotet.
“Transfer business has been both smart and astute, but there is still work to be done. The club banked a lot of money for Bellingham, but they have been reluctant to spend it. With no fans through the gate and money owed to the owners they needed to be stringent. We've lacked leaders for a while, so Karanka has brought in George Friend and Adam Clayton on free transfers. Players he has worked with before, trusts and ones that will be a positive voice and offer leadership on and off the pitch. He's added a body in the keeper department in Andres Prieto. A keeper that looks very comfortable with the ball at his feet. I suspect there could be another keeper brought in before the window closes though. Leko and Sanchez both offer pace and creativity in forward areas, another desperate need for the team. They've also brought in former fan favourite, Jon Toral, whose last spell at the club was probably the best of his career and while he is still only 25 he can rediscover that form and hopefully improve. There is still work to do, we really need a striker or two to compete with Jutkiewicz, but early signs look good.
“Karanka has signed a three-year deal. This is a project. Even Dong in the Karanka press conference has said they will take their time to get this right. After a few years of being involved in relegation scraps that needs be the approach this season. I just want a season of mediocre consolidation. Anywhere between tenth to fourteenth will suit me fine and I think that's what we can expect before a bit more of push next season.”
What we said last season: Twentieth. Actually finished twentieth. Yay, cake for us.
Prediction: Twentieth. Off on the b of the bang with Huddersfield Town in the race to appoint Mick McCarthy manager for a rescue job.
Last Season: The grotesque mismanagement of the Sky Blues over a period of many years now by the Sisu hedge fund meant few paid much attention to them in the pre-season betting for a campaign that, once again, would be played outside their home city – St Andrew’s in Birmingham playing the role of Sixfields Stadium Northampton in this latest farce. But Cov, under the sure and steady management of Mark Robins who returned for a second spell in 2017, have been progressing back up the Football League ladder for a while, mixing some excellent youth team graduates with a very smart and shrewd recruitment drive. Even in relegation from League One in 2016/17 Robins had taken over and won the FA Trophy at Wembley – our own George Thomas scored a fine winner – and it’s been a swift ascent since then. Sixth in League Two and promoted through the play-offs at the first time of asking (as well as an FA Cup fifth round appearance in a season where Marc McNulty scored 28 times) was followed by an establishing finish of eighth in League One and then last year’s cakewalk to the title. Even without the lockdown and points per game, Coventry were easily the stand out team in the division and hadn’t lost for 18 games when the shutdown came. Six wins from the final seven games suggests they only would have extended their lead in first place given the chance.
Ins >>> Gustavo Hamer, 23, CM, Zwolle (Holland), £1.35m >>> Tyler Walker, 23, CF, Forest, Undisclosed >>> Marcel Hilbner, 25, RW, Paderborn, Undisclosed >>> Julien Da Costa, 24, RB, Chamois Niort (France), Free >>> Callum O’Hare, 22, AM, Villa, Free >>> Ryan Giles, 20, LM, Wolves, Loan >>> Leo Ostigard, 20, CB, Brighton Loan
Outs >>> Jordan Ponticelli, 21, CF, Wrexham, Undisclosed >>> Zain Westbrooke, 23, CM, Bristol Rovers, Undisclosed >>> Jak Hickman 21, RB, Bolton, Free >>> Callum Maycock, 22, DM, Solihul Moors, Free >>> Dexter Walters, 21, LM, Tamworth, Free >>> Bouwe Bosma, 24, DM, Released >>> Charlie Wakefield, 22, RB, Released >>> Junior Brown, 31, LB, Released >>> Reise Allassani, 24, AM, released >>> Jordy Hiwula, 25, CF, Released
Manager: Mark Robins Scored a goal at Nottingham Forest once.
This Season: Coventry are not only back at the Championship level after eight years away, they’re back in the second tier just two years after playing in the fourth. That rapid ascension is challenge one, and challenge two is hitting the ground running in this new league having not played any competitive football at all since March 7. In their favour is a proper length of summer and pre-season which other teams have not had – they played Glasgow Rangers in their first pre-season friendly in July.
Kyle McFadzean didn’t look like a Championship centre half during his previous crack at this level with Burton, but there’s been plenty of transfer activity to prep them for arrival and a recruitment department that hasn’t got too much wrong of late had the Twitter analytics accounts moistening at the tip over the arrival of Brighton centre back Leo Ostigard on loan following a successful stint at St Pauli in Germany. Gustavo Hamer to stiffen the midfield and Marcel Hilbner for the wide areas have also drawn knowing nods from the sort of people who know who Gustavo Hamer and Marcel Hilbner are. Tyler Walker found himself buried by the never ending avalanche of big money new arrivals at Nottingham Forest and will welcome a run at a Championship season as a club’s main man.
And, of course, the issue of playing in front of tiny crowds, miles from home, at St Andrew’s isn’t nearly as big a problem for them now nobody’s got any fans at their home games. Robins another unfashionable manager doing great things almost completely unheralded in the wider footballing world.
Local Knowledge: Dominic Jerams, @SideSammy “Promotion last season was won off the back of a solid defence and the ability to keep possession. While we were generally quite pleasing on the eye, we weren’t exactly free-flowing when it came to creating and scoring goals. It was a team last year that was all about doing enough to win games rather than completely sweeping opponents aside. ‘Supremely competent’ would be the phrase I’d use.
“For the large part, our transfer business has been about replacing players who have left us over the summer. At left wing-back, Sam McCallum has been replaced by Ryan Giles. In midfield, Liam Walsh and Zain Westbrooke have been replaced by, respectively, Gustavo Hamer and Marcel Hilssner. In addition, we managed to secure attacking midfielder, Callum O’Hare, on a permanent deal. Of that bunch, Hamer looks the most promising addition. He seems to be a deep-lying midfield player with a real eye for a pass while also being incredibly aggressive in the tackle. Like much of our squad, he is completely untested at Championship level, but his performances in the Dutch top-flight last year would suggest he should at least be comfortable in this division. More recently, Brighton loanee Leo Ostigard has been added to an already strong-looking defensive unit after some excellent performances in the German second-tier last year. In addition, former Nottingham Forest youngster Tyler Walker adds some much-needed goalscoring support for last year’s top-scorer Matt Godden, whose form was incredibly streaky across the previous campaign.
“Staying up will do for this season. You only have to look at the track record of teams promoted from League One in recent years to understand just how big the gulf between the third-tier and the Championship has become. Still, it’s an exciting time for the club after an extended spell away from this level.”
Last Season: You don’t appoint the long-time assistant of Roberto Martinez for the defensive stability and organisation you think he’s going to bring and Graeme Jones’ Luton conceded a whopping 82 goals on their return to the Championship – only Hull, with their 8-0 loss at Wigan right at the end, went past them on that score with 87. Much was made of them breaking a 25-year club record transfer fee to bring in Croatian goalkeeper Simon Sluga last summer, but he erred badly in an opening night 3-3 at home to Middlesbrough and continued to do so fairly consistently through the rest of the campaign. There are things in the cupboards under your kitchen sink you could fashion a more competent goalkeeping display out of than the two he produced home and away against QPR.
Like Barnsley, they survived partly because of what went on at Wigan, Charlton and Hull, but also because they attacked the block of nine lockdown games effectively as a sort of new mini-season and second chance. Nathan Jones, whose move to Stoke hadn’t worked for him, Stoke or Luton, returned for a second spell in charge and got away wins to nil at Swansea and Huddersfield on the board quickly. Too many draws looked likely to cost them, particularly the 1-1 with us three games from the end which looked a must-win, but they survived by three places and points courtesy of wins against basket-case Hull and on-the-beach Blackburn in the final two matches.
Ins >>> James Bree, 22, RB, Villa, Undisclosed >>> Tom Lockyer, 25, CB, Charlton, Free >>> Jordan Clark, 26, RW, Accrington, Free >>> Rhys Norrington-Davies, LB, 21, Sheff Utd, Loan
Outs >>> Marek Stech, 30, GK, Mansfield, Free >>> Frankie Musonda,22, CB, Raith Rovers, Free >>> Jake Jervis, 28, RW, Seinajoki (Finland), Free >>> Donervon Daniels, 26, CB, Crewe, Free >>> Lloyd Jones, 24, CB, Released >>> Jacob Butterfield 30, CM, Released >>> Callum McManaman, 29, RW, Released
Manager: Nathan Jones Isn’t it.
This Season: Like Barnsley, they’ve cleared the substantial first hurdle of coming up and staying up. Jones said the club’s League One budget would have been so miniscule he’d have ended up playing himself such was the “embarrassing” level of wage they’d be able to offer potential new signings. Summer transfer activity has focused primarily on their leaky defence, with Tom Lockyer a clever free transfer pick up from Charlton, though they’ll suffer for not having Cameron Carter-Vickers back from Spurs following his impressive loan spell in the second half of last season. Jones’ attempt to force the midfield diamond and wing back system that had worked for him so well at Kenilworth Road onto a Stoke squad without the personnel to execute it cost him his job there, and he’s moved quickly to secure specialist wing back Rhys Norrington-Davies on loan from Sheff Utd to prevent that happening again. In a market where Ivan Toney fetches up to £10m it’s amazing there isn’t more chat about striker James Collins, who returned to action with a hat trick against Norwich in the League Cup last week after 14 goals in a struggling side last term. One would think/hope Sluga can’t possibly be as daft this season as he was last, and Jones will surely tighten the defence up to a certain extent, which should be enough for survival.
Local Knowledge: @LutonTownFans “I think a difficult season was to be expected, though it was tough to watch during the period where we lost 11 times away in a row during October-January. On the other hand the last third of the season was actually pretty positive and we ended up fifth in the form table for those 15 games with 27 points. Nathan Jones has done really well so far, hence we’re still in this league. Although our form had picked up prior to his arrival I think he was the only man who could galvanise that squad of players into believing they could pick up enough points during the final nine games. He brought players back in from the cold and lifted the whole group.
“I think we’ve recruited reasonably well and as far as I know have been pretty shrewd in not spending anything on fees for the four we’ve got in so far. Our first signing was Jordan Clark from Accrington - a creative midfielder who normally plays wide. His ‘chances created’ stats in an average Accrington side is very impressive so hopefully that can transfer across to the Championship. In the last week we’ve signed three defenders we desperately needed. Tom Lockyer, James Bree and Rhys Norrington-Davies (on loan). Presumably Lockyer has been signed as we couldn’t pull off a deal for Carter-Vickers who was exceptional. Bree unsurprisingly improved last year when actually played in his preferred position of right back (instead of left back). Norrington-Davies is a left back and Wales Under 21 international signed on loan from Sheffield United. We tried to do a permanent deal, but Sheffield United weren’t having it. He’s apparently attacking and athletic - so everything you look for in a modern fullback.
“Realistically we are looking again for anything from twenty first place or above. I think we’re capable of improving upon our nineteenth placed finish last season. It’ll be a bit of a slog again in the bottom quarter of the table and I just hope we are more consistent at picking up points throughout the entire season so that we don’t spend most of it in the bottom three like last time.”
What we said last season: Nineteenth. Actually finished nineteenth. Yay, cake for us.
Last Season: Not that the Championship is becoming a parody of itself or anything but like Brentford, Forest, Birmingham and others before them in this preview, Reading also embarked on the most Readingy Reading season to ever Reading. They began under the charge of little-known Portuguese manager Jose Gomes, and as usual 194% wages to turnover was no barrier to a late summer trolley dash of undisclosed fees reported at up around the £6.7m mark for Inter forward George Puskas and £4.86m for bang average occasional Sheff Wed goalscorer Lucas Joao. The spectre of Kia Joorabchian looms large in the background. Despite the big money additions up front, and one of the league’s outstanding central midfield partnerships between perennial scourge of QPR Jon Swift and talented Liverpool loanee Ovie Ejaria, there was little to get excited about in a run of two wins from the first dozen league games. Gomes was, obviously, sacked. Can’t believe it.
There so began a protracted search for a new manager led by director of football Mark Bowen. His qualifications for such a role, and Reading’s wiliness to climb into bed with him and Kia after the very public and obvious havoc they’d been part of at QPR, will be something of a mystery to the good people of Shepherd’s Bush. Less surprisingly, Bowen’s ego and arrogance quickly led him to the conclusion that the best man for the job was actually himself, and so Mark Bowen appointed Mark Bowen as manager for the second half of the season. DOF Mark Bowen said: “We’re delighted to welcome Mark as our new manager…” Reading improved, a bit, and their spawny 1-0 win against QPR at the Mad Stad in December was one of four consecutive wins, but they rather pottered through the second half of the season unnoticed, winning as many as they lost and frequently drawing.
Ins >>> Ovie Ejaria, 22, CM, Liverpool, £3.5m >>> Josh Laurent, 25, CM, Shrewsbury, Free
Outs >>> Modou Barrow, 27, LW, Jeobuk Motors (Korea), Undisclosed >>> Danny Loader, 19, CF, Porto, Free >>> Tyler Blackett 26, LB, Forest, Free >>> Adrian Popa, 31, RW, Released >>> Vito Mannone, 32, GK, Released >>> Jordan Obita, 26, LB, released >>> Charlie Adam, 34, CM, Bolton, Free >>> Garath McCleary, 33, RW, Released >>> Chris Gunter, 31, RB, Released
Manager: Veljko Paunovic Consonant please Rachel.
This Season: 2020/21 was to be the first full one in charge for the Mark Bowen-Mark Bowen director of football-manager dream team and they quickly moved to pick up Josh Laurent, who’d been a star of the QPR youth team when Mark and Spark were paying Ji-Sung Park the debt of a third world nation to play in the Loftus Road midfield ahead of him. Ovie Ejaria also returned permanently for a fee of just £3.5m – an extraordinary bit of business, tremendous value, Championship deal of the summer by a mile.
We spoke earlier about Huddersfield perhaps unwisely deciding a truncated summer of just six weeks, with no income coming through the turnstiles, was a great time to start chucking babies and bath water around, ripping up the whole plan and starting all over again. Well, if you’ll just hold Reading’s beer for a moment, they decided to do likewise, but halfway through that pre-season. A “strategic review” was held (love a good strategic review) which concluded that manager Mark Bowen and director of football Mark Bowen should merge back into the single Mark Bowen because, frankly, one’s e-fucking-nough, and that single entity should get back into the “business of winning professional football games” from his old position in the boardroom. They neglected to agree this with him, or even tell him about it, prior to announcing it, naturally, and so he was left to take charge of a pre-season friendly with Spurs having already been effectively sacked, while his team then jetted off to Portugal after the game to meet his successor.
CEO Nigel Howe was also shipped out. Bit too safe, bit too competent, bit too ‘knows what he’s doing’ and that sort of thing. Owner Dai Yongge has given the job to his mate Dayong Pang instead – totally unqualified for it but fucking good on a night out, you should hear his Lady in Red. Here’s a course with some chest hair. Bowen’s replacement as manager was initially meant to be Aleksandar Stanojevic who’d previously managed one of Yongge’s other clubs in China – of course - but when he turned it down they just picked another page at random in the Belgrade phone book and ended up with, checks notes, Veljko Paunovic instead. His career so far includes stints in charge of the Serbian national youth sides, impressively winning the 2015 World Cup at U20 level, and 100 games with the Chicago Fire in MLS.
Much like Birmingham, this looks a poorly run club with just enough quality in the team and poor quality rivals around to never quite fall through the trap door. Wouldn’t take much though.
Fan Opinion: Simeon Pickup @simfrombucks “Last season was frustrating. Given the sheer amount of money spent it should have ended in a push for promotion, but there wasn’t enough strategy behind that investment. We were inconsistent at home, depressingly summed up by the fact that, after we beat you on Boxing Day, we only managed one more win at home. I can take a mediocre season like 2019/20, especially given previous campaigns ended in relegation fights, but to see a lack of real overall progress was frustrating. Yes, we managed to develop some good young players like Michael Olise and Tom McIntyre, but Bowen didn’t do enough to build a system that he could take into 2020/21.
“Your guess is as good as mine as to what’s going on there now. For reasons unknown, we decided to conduct a ‘strategic review’ a matter of weeks before the start of the season, which first meant replacing the highly knowledge and widely trusted CEO Nigel Howe with Dayong Pang – a close confidant of owner Dai Yongge whose credentials aren’t clear. That was followed by a week-long process of replacing manager Mark Bowen – someone I’m aware isn’t too popular at Loftus Road – but that process was chaotic. With Bowen still in his post, speculation took hold that his successor would be Serbian boss Aleksandar Stanojevic, formerly of our sister club Beijing Renhe, and although he didn’t get the job it did go to his compatriot Veljko Paunovic.
“The job was clearly Paunovic’s in the days leading up to a friendly on August 28 at Spurs which Bowen took charge of, before Bowen was too pissed off to talk to the media post-match on record. The team abruptly flew out to Portugal for a pre-season training camp so they could meet Paunovic in person, and he was announced as manager on the Saturday morning – but with no mention of Bowen in the statement as negotiations were ongoing about him returning to his sporting director role. He ultimately decided against doing so. We’ve completely unnecessarily thrown our preparations into turmoil for the sake of appointing a rookie manager and a CEO who apparently has no knowledge of basic negotiations like player trading.
“Just two arrivals at the time of writing: Josh Laurent on a free from Shrewsbury Town and Ovie Ejaria on a permanent from Liverpool. The former was a long-time favourite of Bowen, who knew Laurent from their shared time at QPR. It looked like a shrewd addition to our midfield; Laurent is physically imposing but composed and talented on the ball. Ejaria on the other hand is a real fans’ favourite, capable of unlocking defences with his insanely good close control. Although he lacks consistent end product, he’s got the potential to be a quality Premier League player, and last season’s agreement of a loan deal with a permanent switch at the end of it for around £3.5m is an absolute steal. I wouldn’t be surprised if bids well north of £10m for him in a year’s time.
“We still need reinforcements though, probably around five, particularly in terms of getting cover and competition in at the back, especially if we continue with the possession-based back-three system which Bowen started to develop before getting the chop. I would have loved one of those defensive signings to be Rob Dickie, who came through our academy and should have been given a bigger chance at Reading, but excelled when given an opportunity at Oxford United. We put in a sell-on fee in the region of 20-40%, so you’ve kindly given us a modest cash boost this summer, for which we’re grateful.
“The owners are bound to splash the cash before the end of the window, aided by a certain K Joorabchian. That could well mean we’re left with a top side that walks the league, but there’s an equal chance of it blowing up in our faces and putting us on the road to League One. A safer bet is to say that we’ll have another frustrating season, albeit finishing higher than last term. There’ll probably be another managerial sacking too, knowing us. I’ll go with twelfth.”
What we said last season: Twenty second. Actually finished fourteenth.
Prediction: Seventeenth. Built like a steak house. Handles like a bistro. Out of control.
Last Season: Few teams exemplify the widening gap between Championship and League One as much as Rotherham, who have either been promoted or relegated between the two leagues in five of the last seven seasons. In Gareth Ainsworth and Paul Warne, the League One promotion race has landed two of the most fascinating EFL characters – albeit vastly different – in the higher league at the same time. Warne is often described as a “reluctant manager” after stepping into the role initially as caretaker having previously been the fitness coach. He speaks openly abaaaaaaaght ‘is feelins and that – emotions, self doubt, all that sort of jazz - even admitting recently he was reluctant to ring other managers early in his rein fearing they were somehow “onto him” as a fraud, and that he would be found out. Despite Rotherham’s brave failure to stay in this division in 2018/19, nothing could be further from the truth and the Millers were rewarded for sticking with him after the drop with an automatic promotion in second behind Coventry. A patchy start gave way to long, consistent winning runs through October and November, and again in January and February after nine points from nine over Christmas.
Ins >>> Wes Harding, 23, CB. Birmingham, Undisclosed >>> Mickel Miller, CF, 24, Hamilton, Free >>> Kieran Sadlier, 25, LW, Doncaster, Free >>> Angus MacDonald, 27, CB, Hull, Free >>> Viktor Johansson, 21, GK, Leicester, Free Jamal Blackman, 26, GK, Chelsea, Loan
Outs >>> Jerry Yates, 23, CF, Blackpool, Undisclosed >>> Julien Lamy, 20, LW, Released >>> Joshua Kayode, 20, CF, Carlisle, Loan >>> Laurence Bilboe 22, GK, Released
Manager: Paul Warne Copy and paste that Tony Mowbray paragraph about being one of football’s good guys.
This Season: Too good for League One, not good enough for the Championship, and it’s highly possible that could prove to be the case once again for the South Yorkshire side. The summer additions lay bare the budget they’re working to and the challenges of that, though Chelsea’s perennially loaned goalkeeper Jamal Blackman could be a good shout if he can get himself fit – Rotherham had Fulham’s Marek Rodak on loan in goal last time they were at this level. One of the more remarkable footballing turn arounds in recent Championship history was how Semi Ajayi went from one of the worst centre backs we’d ever seen on a ground once graced by Gus Caesar when Rotherham lost 5-1 at Loftus Road in 2017/18, to one of the best in a 2-1 win in 2018/19 and he was promoted to the Premier League last year with West Brom. Rotherham might be bringing another star in waiting in that position with them this time in the form of Michael Ihiekwe who made the League One team of the season at centre half alongside our own Rob Dickie.
The key to their survival will lie in the away form. They simply must, find a way of putting even occasional points on the board away from their tidy New York Stadium. Their win at Loftus Road in 2018/19 which cost Steve McClaren his job at QPR was, infamously, not only the solitary away win they managed in the entire season, it was also the only one they’d managed in three years having finished their 2016/17 season with zero away victories. Committing more men to the attack on the road will help – two new wingers are among the summer additions – and a prolonged period of playing in silent grounds behind closed doors could by very good for Rotherham indeed in this respect.
We’re going to put them in our predicted bottom three – a team with this budget in this league is always going to find it tough and their previous form makes it an obvious pick. But, as we’re going to say with Wycombe and Sheff Wed who are both also favourites to drop for obvious reasons, there’s a lot of drek at the bottom of this league, several clubs lucky to stay up last year after off-field collapses at Charlton and Wigan, several clubs that have been appallingly run for years and may be ready to Hull City it off the side of a cliff. It’s probably their best chance for a while of playing Championship football for keeps this time around.
Local Knowledge: Ross Middleton “Back like the proverbial yoyo, although this time not passing Barnsley on the way up. Strange season for obvious reasons, we’ll take a promotion any season but it felt strange for the team to be celebrating on Zoom with the manager and the fans not to get to show their appreciation, although it certainly ruffled a few Peterborough feathers. Couldn’t doubt the togetherness of the team and they all played for the manager, who demands the best in fitness, work ethic and human beings really.
“Six players brought in so far – two keepers and two defenders included in that figure so we’re definitely trying to address the mistakes of previous Championship seasons (175 goals shipped in two seasons). Importantly some of the signings we’ve made have Championship experience –MacDonald, Harding and Blackman – and the players that have been brought in have to fit the Paul Warne ethos. I’m quietly confident that with the additions (and a couple more to come hopefully) we can surprise a few, especially with the lack of crowds early part of the season.
“Only time will tell regarding the defence. We now have a large number of defenders and Warne has definitely tried to add quality and experience - excited to see Harding and MacDonald fit in. Up front we are short if we get injuries like we have done in pre-season. Interesting to see how Freddie Ladapo handles the step up but we can’t rely on Michael Smith to score the goals this season, he’ll need some help. The strength we have is in the wide areas with pace and power, Cheidozie Ogbene really stepped up last year and Mickel Miller has come from Scotland to provide the same on the other side. Would be nice to get Dan Barlaser back on loan from Newcastle to supply them.
“I’d like to think that a number of this squad who are still here are better for the experience, the manager certainly is judging by his transfer policy in improving the back line. Young players such as Ben Wiles have stepped up and will only get better. Covid restrictions could help – playing in empty stadiums with no atmosphere may help us in the early part of the season when we go away from home. The togetherness and never-say-die attitude of the squad will remain. However, many changes we make every season the manager demands they fit the ethos of the squad, almost talking them out of signing in terms of the demanding training they will face. I’m more confident than I have been in previous seasons.”
Prediction: Twenty-second. But there are plenty of others well in the mix this time.
Sheff Wed 5/2
Last Season: You’ll recall Wednesday were so desperate for Steve Bruce to come and rescue their 2018/19 campaign that they happily spent a month in January under caretaker management waiting for him to finish watching England’s cricket team tour the West Indies. Bruce repaid them for this show of faith by fucking off to Newcastle on the eve of 2019/20. Garry Monk arrived five games in, with accusations still live from both his previous employers Middlesbrough and Birmingham that he’d been colluding with his own agent to sign clients neither club particularly wanted or needed at a handy mark up. From an ongoing debate about whether Monk - hailed as some sort of modern British supercoach in waiting when he broke through at Swansea - is actually any good or not, now attention turned to the more pressing matter of whether he’s had his fingers in the till. Monk strenuously and aggressively denies the allegations.
Wednesday subsequently pootled along winning one week and losing the next, then started to motor in December with four wins and two draws from six games including a 4-0 success at Nottingham Forest where 2016 Jordan Rhodes suddenly escaped from whatever Josef Fritzl arrangement he’s been held in for the last four years and bagged a hat trick before half time. Christmas wasn’t great but big stiff hard ons all round for an early January 2-0 at Leeds with goals scored on 89 and 90.
However, their 2020 has been pathetic. Either side of lockdown they won only four games of 21 played, two of those against QPR at Loftus Road natch, and conceded five goals on three sperate occasions to Blackburn H, Brentford A (both 5-0) and at Fulham (5-3). Reading, Derby, Preston and West Brom all won at Hillsborough scoring three apiece, and Middlesbrough won their 2-1 on the final day. Only Middlesbrough and Birmingham (six each) won fewer home matches than Wed’s seven – Charlton were relegated with eight and Hull with seven. The Owls were safe by eight points, which made the decision to apply their 12-point FFP penalty the following year, while inflicting Wigan’s admin deduction on them immediately, benevolent in the extreme.
Ins >>> Josh Windass, 26, AM, Wigan, £500k >>> Fisayo Dele-Bashiru, 19, AM, Man City, Undisclosed >>> Chey Dunkley, 28, CB, Wigan, Free >>> Elias Kachunga, 28, CF, Huddersfield, Free >>> Izzy Brown, 23, AM, Chelsea, Loan
Outs >>> Connor Kirby, 21, DM, Harrogate, Free >>> Morgan Fox, 26, LB, Stoke, Free >>> Steven Fletcher, 33, CF, Stoke, Free >>> Fraser Preston, 22, RW, Released >>> Sam Hutchinson, 30, DM, Released >>> Sam Winnall, 29, CF, Released >>> Fernando Forestieri, 30, CF, Released >>> Jack Stobbs, 23, CF, Released
Manager: Gary Monk Hands where we can see them please.
This Season: Wednesday last year like Huddersfield this were a handy outside bet for relegation for the season preview writers, and had the 12 point deduction been applied when it surely should have been then that’s exactly what happened. Colossal amounts of money were thrown at a Championship promotion attempt early in Dejphon Chansiri’s reign as chairman but the boat was missed during Carlos Carvalhal’s time in charge with play-off defeats to Hull and Huddersfield. It’s since been a sorry tale of loss chasing, desperately trying to come up with ever more convoluted ways to support the bulging wage bill of a hopelessly lopsided and injury prone squad and dodge the league’s FFP rules. They did the Derby Country-patented sale and leaseback of the stadium, and then tried to put it in an earlier set of accounts to get round the league rules, resulting in the points deduction. Supporters were offered the chance to buy a four-figure, three-year Premier League season ticket in advance, non-refundable and active only if and when the club ever gets to the top flight. There were lifetime memberships, and names in special books, and plaques on seats offered, if supporters would only just chuck another grand or two the club’s way. Come up to Eccleshall Woods at dusk on a Thursday, do an Irish jig in a designated clearing and wait for a man to approach, he’ll offer you a box which you must pay £500 to see inside, and it might be something nice but probably not, and you can then choose to keep that or swap it for a second box held by a troll at the end of a rope bridge - upon payment of a further £250 and the correct answering of three questions on the life and times of Roland Nilsson – which will contain either five consecutive seasons of Champions League football or a signed Atdhe Nuhiu jockstrap from that time he snuck a 25-yard banger through a tear in the fabric of reality at Loftus Road. All a bit Geoffrey Richmond at Bradford City for my liking this, and we know how that ended.
“Wouldn’t take much for this go all graphite on the roof” was our conclusion of their 2019/20 prospects and with 12-point penalty belatedly now in place, it’s time to wake the local executive committee. As discussed, there’s a whole lot of sludge at the bottom of the Championship this season, and if you had to pick a year to start behind the pack this might well be it. Wednesday only need to make it to 60 points to escape. They must overcome not only the mental element of starting so far behind, but also the fact that a player willingly walking into such a situation is probably exactly the sort of care-free, mercenary gobshite who doesn’t give a single fuck how Sheffield Wednesday do this season as long as he gets paid, which is exactly what you don’t need when you’re trying to extricate yourselves from a tight spot. And lo, so arrived Josh Windass, Elias Kachunga, and Chelsea’s perennially on loan, constantly injured, Izzy Brown. Kenneth Zohore has also been linked. Chey Dunkley looks a good pick up in a problem position from Wigan though, in fairness. Much of the transfer activity has been about shifting out ageing, injury prone, expensive failures from previous aborted promotion attempts. Steven Fletcher, Fernando Forestieri and Sam Winnall all departing at once represents a huge chunk of salary, but also leaves them with the artist formerly known as Jordan Rhodes and an injured Nuhui as their only strikers. And remember, since the turn of the year, Wednesday have no more looked like a team capable of reaching 60 points at this level than a fucking space rocket.
Local Knowledge: Jon Hore, @J_Ho9 A promising start ended abruptly at Christmas and things went off a cliff from there, finishing in a horrible mess of Covid, goals conceded, endless defeats, EFL incompetence and a points deduction. I wouldn’t say the 12 points is definitely fatal because there’s nothing about this league which says we shouldn’t be able to get to 60 points and give ourselves a chance. There’s still a lot of poor teams around who we’ll just need to be a bit more consistent than. It’s going to take a big turnaround in results and attitude from the second half of last season but I think by the end we’d reached rock bottom so the only way is up.
“The squad has had a bit of an overhaul with eight first-teamers released and five coming in so far (all frees and loans). The most eye-catching signing is Izzy Brown who will take some of the creative workload off Bannan, and Chey Dunkley should add some steel and leadership at the back. We’re still absolutely desperate for at least one more striker though.
“I’m not Monk’s biggest fan so I’m hoping rather than expecting him to turn it around, and I’d say most of the fan base share this view. It’s a massive task but he deserves to be given a chance with his squad and the change in ‘mentality’ that he constantly bangs on about. The experience of working under a points deduction with Birmingham should be useful. He’s brought his own coaching team in now as well, so hopefully James Beattie can work a miracle and reverse Rhodes’ transformation from Championship goalscorer to the Tin Man.
“It’s going to be tough and I’m definitely not expecting it to be pretty. We won’t be a free-scoring team so defensively we need to somehow revert to the form of the first half of last season. We’ve got good enough players to do that, and if we can then we’ve got a strong chance of getting to 60ish points and giving ourselves a shot of staying up.”
What we said last season: Seventeenth. Actually finished sixteenth.
Prediction: Last. Though we may just be being lazy and taking the easy way out with the points deduction. If there ever such a thing as a good Championship season to be starting -12 points it’s probably this one.
Last Season: Britain’s own Miracle of Castel Di Sangro as a clun operating on a low League Two budget, just a couple of years after almost dropping out of the EFL altogether, put together a team through extremely smart recruitment and come up with a style of play that suited them down the ground and won promotion into tier two. Gareth Ainsworth, brilliantly described by a Brentford fan last week as a “man going three midlife crises at once”, may have been overtaken as the EFL’s longest serving manager by the arrival of Simon Weaver’s Harrogate Town, but his stock and star continues to rise. The restrictions he has worked within are well known and versed by now – not many managers know the intricacies of their stadium’s sprinkler system, and how to fix it with a wire coat hanger, as he tells the Guardian this week. The story about him and his assistant doing Arsene Wenger and Steve Bould impressions while hanging the nets for training is beautiful.
While the sport in general has revelled in a footballing fairy-tale, there were plenty they left behind in League One mumbling and grumbling. Wycombe’s style of play was clear – their play-off final with Oxford was a match between the division’s best passing team statistically and worst. Those on the sharp end of the treatment spoke about how dire it was to watch but, as we said in the Neil Harris and Cardiff write up, this modern sniffiness about any team that doesn’t split the centre halves and start pissballing about in its own area from goal kicks just sounds bitter and snobby when a more old school and rudimentary approach gets results against it. Wanderers were also eighth in the table when the lockdown came having faded from a top two start with eight defeats in the last 12 games before the world fell apart. A game in hand and points per game elevated them into the play-offs and they voted to curtail the season at that point which drew disparaging remarks from Sunderland and Peterborough who lost out on a top six spot as a result. But without money coming through the gates League One and Two teams had no choice but to furlough squads or face swift bankruptcy – Port Vale, one place and one point away from the League Two play off picture, also voted to end the season. You only need look at the reaction on the pitch at Wembley at full time to see how few fucks Wycombe gave about any of that, and rightly bloody so.
Ins >>> Uche Ikpeazu, 25, CF, Hearts, Undisclosed >>> Jason McCarthy, 24, RB, Millwall, Undisclosed >>> Daryl Horgan, 28, LM, Hibs, Undisclosed >>> Ryan Tafazolli, 28, Hull, LB, Free >>> Giles Phillips, 23, CB, QPR, Free >>> Curtis Anderson, 19, GK, Unattached, Free >>> David Stockdale, 34, GK, Birmingham, Free
Outs >>> Sido Jombati, 32, RB, Oldham, Free >>> Jamie Mascoll, 23, LB, Bolton, Free >>> Craig Mackail-Smith, 36, CF, Released >>> Jacob Gardiner-Smith, 23, DM, Free
Manager: Gareth Ainsworth Air guitar motion.
This Season: Budget and resources, along with ongoing suspicions about whether their patented style of play will wash in the higher league, make them an obvious pick for the bottom three. Bigger, more well resourced, promoted teams from League One than them have struggled to stay in this league over the last few years as the gap between second and third tiers have become a chasm. But Wycombe did not look uncompetitive, nor a long ball side, in drawing at Brentford in the League Cup last weekend and any team taking this fixture lightly will be given the bloodiest of bloody noses. High press, high energy, physical, fast, determined and awkward.
Joe Jacobson could play left back for most clubs in this league and the thought of QPR facing his set piece delivery is frightening. I saw Wycombe five times last season and centre back Anthony Stewart was the outstanding player on the pitch each time, particularly the play-off semi-final second leg against Fleetwood Town and then again against Oxford at Wembley. Heads it, kicks it, smashes people up, and stands in the right place at the right time. Every. Single. Time. He was rewarded with a two-year contract extension, I’m astonished more clubs haven’t had a look. David Wheeler, never given a fair crack of the whip in the right position at QPR, will also be keen to show what he’s about at this level.
If Wycombe can be strong at home, and maintain the high press energy on the road through a gruelling season, they could do enough to post a total and ask serious questions of clubs whose budgets dwarf theirs but common sense, management and club ownership are lightyears behind.
Local Knowledge: @ChairboysCentrl “Last season was remarkable. None of our fans saw it coming - we were thinking mid-table at best - and I doubt anyone at the club did either. We gained in belief as we went along and topped the table at Christmas, having only lost two games at that point. Even when our form waned we were still just about within touching distance of the top two, but I think we as fans were still trying to process it all. It was an utterly crazy season, but after the six years we’d had - going from almost dropping out of the Football League altogether and probably going bust to the top end of League One with a minimal budget - we absolutely deserved our promotion at the end of a miraculous campaign.
“Other teams can cry ‘injustice’ all they like, but in time they’ll come to look back on the points per game conclusion as a minor inconvenience. There were bigger issues at play. I believe we would have made the top six as we were starting to pick up a bit of form before lockdown and had a decent-looking run-in. At the end of the day, shit happens, and to suggest our vote to curtail the season was part of some cynical ploy to take advantage of a serious public health situation is classless and ignores the facts: we, like most clubs in the division, weren’t in a financial position to play the remaining regular season games behind closed doors. It’ll be nice when the new season is up and running and we can stop talking about it (although Wycombe fans pretty much have stopped anyway)!
“Gareth isn’t going to abandon his principles/philosophy. Sure, the style isn’t the easiest on the eye, but it wins football matches. The snobbery towards it is borne out of a frustration about not being able to beat a - to them - tinpot team like Wycombe. We’ll have to adapt it slightly if we want to give ourselves a fighting chance of staying up. The main thing will be to give ourselves a midfield outlet to allow to us to keep hold of the ball a little longer at times - slow things down just a tad in order to give ourselves some respite. If we’re pumping it long quite as regularly as we did in League One and chasing as much when our opponents come straight back at us, we’re going to be knackered.
“Horgan’s a really exciting addition and can tear it up on his day - it didn’t quite work out for him at Preston in his previous spell in the Championship, but I have full confidence that our coaching team will bring out his best on a regular basis. I’ll admit I’ve not had a proper look at Tafazolli yet, but he impressed on his way up the pyramid with Mansfield then Peterborough, and crucially he’s left-footed - which was an absolute necessity for us with Darius Charles, a true hero of 2019/20, unable to play multiple games in quick succession due to a chronic hip condition. Overall, I reckon the squad is four or five players short of completion. We’re up to 20/21 now - I’m sure there will be some overlap with the B team - and still need another senior goalkeeper as we only have one in Ryan Allsop, a back-up left-back, probably two midfielders, and possibly someone else who can play across the front three.
“All I’m going to say is we will finish somewhere in the bottom four...”
Photo: Action Images
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Letters from Wiltshire #26 by wessex_exile
Well, after a piss-poor Xmas period so far for the U’s, culminating in the Roots Hall horror show on Boxing Day, let’s hope the U’s have burned off those festive calories and are raring to go. They’ll certainly have to be at their best against a Cheltenham side aiming to force their way into the automatic promotion places. In other news, we now finally have confirmation that there will be a trade deal in place with the EU once Brexit arrives in 2021. It remains to be seen whether it’s a good deal or not, and more to the point, who for, but at least it’s not the economic uncertainty of no-deal.
Letters from Wiltshire #25 by wessex_exile
A little earlier than usual, but as we approach the end of what has been a most difficult year for everyone, I’ll keep the introductory editorial brief, as I’m sure you will all be very busy in the coming days rescuing what you can from this pandemic-ravaged festive period. I simply wish you all peace on earth, goodwill to all (yes, even our South Essex cousins), and here’s to a happy, prosperous and most importantly healthy 2021 for us all.
Letters from Wiltshire #24 by wessex_exile
Welcome to our last match before Christmas. With South Essex going into Tier 3, by the time we take to the pitch at Roots Hall, it’ll be another behind-closed-doors match. With the Tier 3 boundary creeping inexorably closer, one wonders how long the JobServe will hold out and still be able to allow fans to attend. Robbie is doing all he can to make it possible for supporters to attend, and I confess I’m seriously considering our January 2nd match against Tranmere. In other news, I’m relieved to read that the FA will not take disciplinary action against Colchester United after a shameful minority chose to boo players and officials taking the knee, in the words of the EFL “as they highlight the inequality and injustice experienced by the Black Community”. I noticed a tiny minority chose to boo at our mid-week match at the Abbey Stadium, but I was pleased to hear they were immediately drowned out by the remainder of the 2,000 cheering and applauding. I admit I’m a little anxious about today…
Letters from Wiltshire #23 by wessex_exile
As I’ve been providing updates on the ongoing US presidential election, it is worth mentioning that the Electoral College votes have now been cast, which formally confirms Biden as the new President-elect. Normally a formality, as the losing candidate has usually long-since conceded defeat, but these are far from normal times, and America has far from a normal lame-duck President. Still, at least the threat of members of the Electoral College ignoring the popular vote in favour of an outcome demanded by Trump has failed to materialise. In the UK, new Covid tiers were announced this week, with London going into Tier 3. Colchester stays in Tier 2, but only just, with as far north east as Maldon, Braintree and Chelmsford also moving into Tier 3 – and as if you need reminding, Tier 3 means no supporters at matches.
Letters from Wiltshire #22 by wessex_exile
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat…hence I’m a bit late today, following the inevitable Christmas tree hunt – the decorating will have to wait until later I reckon. In the news, despite my confident assurance several weeks ago that Trump appeared to be grudgingly starting to accept that he had lost the US presidency election, he’s since doubled-down on his baseless accusations of election fraud – without obviously providing a single shred of evidence to back it up (and how could he, there isn’t any). His latest apoplectic tirade, just today, follows the Supreme Court telling Texas just where they can stick their egregious lawsuit demanding that Biden’s victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia be thrown out in favour of Trump. From a global perspective, it is deeply troubling that no less than 126 republican congressional representatives signed an amicus brief supporting the challenge. Trump will leave the White House in January, but they will stay at the heart of the US government, and I don’t think that’s good news for democracy, nor even the rest of the world. Ho hum…
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