Season preview 22/23 – Mid-table
Tuesday, 26th Jul 2022 07:23 by Clive Whittingham
Part two of our annual magnum opus on the coming season’s Championship focuses on the eight teams the bookies can’t really make the minds up about – in several cases, we rate their chances a good deal better than some of the favourites.
Swansea 20/1 (title odds)
Last Season: Swansea City played for 180 minutes against Queens Park Rangers without scoring a goal last season, and the abiding memory of the experience that I’ll take to my death bed was just what a terribly sad waste of 180 minutes of my life sitting through the whole thing was. Think of the other, better, more entertaining, more productive things I could have done with that time. Wallpapering a downstairs bathroom. Having a conversation about where to place a piece of furniture in a room. Seeing how many times I could bounce a ball on the floor in the first 90 minutes, and then trying to break that record. I’ve seen plays more interesting than this Marge, honest to God, plays.
There prevails an attitude that there is a right and wrong way to play football, and if you say anything against a ‘progressive’, young, ethos and culture-driven coach like Russell Martin then you’re obviously a Tony Pulis acolyte who thinks Sam Allardyce would have had the Dortmund job if he’d had a Johnny Foreigner name, and selects their dream candidate for the QPR job from the sofa of the Keys and Gray show. There is a happy medium, I could no more watch Pulis teams than I could GBNews, but equally I have seen more entertaining things come out of GBNews than the Swansea games we suffered through last year.
They spent the final game of the season, almost in its entirety, trying and failing to execute a goal kick where the keeper played a one-two with a wide centre back and picked the return up on the edge of the box. The keeper, Andy Fisher, who had presumably followed Martin from MK Dons specifically because he can do this sort of thing, palpably could not do this sort of thing. Three outcomes occurred on a loop: Lyndon Dykes closed the whole thing down and took the ball off them sparking a panic that would have been a good deal more dramatic had it been a better striker than Lyndon Dykes doing it; they belted the ball straight into touch looking for a wing back; they ended up smacking the ball long down the field anyway, as they could have done from the goalkick, only with less risk and without pissing away another 45 seconds of everybody’s life. It felt like an awful lot of effort to expend on a best case scenario of ‘your goalkeeper will have the ball at his feet 18 yards further forward than when he started’. It was like watching Tommy Cooper magic: keeper, ball, defender. Defender, ball, keeper. Alllaacazar… Whack. Just like that.
And I stand there watching this thinking… is it just me? Analytics accounts creaming their kegs, people falling over themselves to nosh this all off, £8m paid for central midfielder Flynn Downes, and yet there they were, fifteenth in the league. Fifteenth in the league, with a lesser-spotted 20-goal-a-season striker – only Mitrovic, Solanke and Brereton bagged more than Joel Piroe’s brilliant debut season total of 22. They finished the season without a win in six games – a sequence that included blowing a 4-1 deficit at Reading, a 3-0 home lead against Bournemouth, and losing 5-1 at Nottingham Forest. I found the whole thing profoundly odd.
Ins >>> Harry Darling, 22, CB, MK Dons, £2m >>> Nathan Wood, 20, CB, Boro, Undisclosed >>> Joe Allen, 32, CM, Stoke, Free >>> Matthew Sorinola, 21, LB, Union SG (Belgium), Loan
Outs >>> Flynn Downes, 23, CM, West Ham, £9.5m >>> Korey Smith, 31, CM, Derby, Free >>> Yan Dhanda, 23, AM, Ross County, Free >>> Ben Hamer, 34, GK, Watford, Free >>> Morgan Whittaker, 21, RW, Plymouth, Loan >>> Josh Gould, 25, GK, Released
Manager: Russell Martin Just like that.
This Season: Whether it is ‘just me’ and the xG evangelists are right to have a big stiff hard on for this lot this season we’re about to find out. I’ll confess I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid to the point that I think Swansea might be an interesting dark horse this season, but not a lot more than that, and were Piroe to leave then you can hack seven or eight places off our prediction.
I’ve tipped several other more rudimentary, traditional teams – Boro, Sheff Utd – on the basis that they’ll go well “if they get a striker before the end of the window”. Well, here, at Swansea, they’ve already got two. Piroe grabbed the majority of the goals and headlines last season, and there were certainly few better buys at EFL level than 22 goals in 40 starts for a basic £1m than him, but they’ve also brought in Southampton livewire Michael Obafemi for a similar fee alongside him and have Jamie Paterson, very decent at this level, to play behind them as well. I fancy Obefemi and Piroe, in particular, to terrorise this league this season if they stay – a number of those well financed clubs looking for strikers will surely pay a visit here over the next five weeks. Downes has already gone, but good money and a quick turnaround profit was made, which judging by their transfer activity last summer could be very useful indeed. After a few years doing stupid things under clueless American ownership, pick ups like MK Dons’ 22-year-old centre back starlet Harry Darling following Downes, Piroe, Obafemi and Manning previously suggest a return to that canny Swansea recruitment of old – although Andy Scott, who was overseeing that, left midway through last season.
They’ll need a couple more, including a good Downes replacement, even allowing for Joe Allen’s Indian summer. I think they’re soft-centred, and often the balance between culture/ethos and pragmatism is miles out of whack. At times last season they selected Ryan Manning as a third centre back, and along with Ben Cabango and despite the addition of Darling that is a defence that is gettable in the air – all three of them barely win 50% of headers they compete for. But I’m intrigued, and ready to be proved wrong. I’d be tipping QPR for the top six if we had their strikers.
Local Knowledge – Planet Swans @SwansNews “There were some obvious high points (the double over Cardiff) but in large last term always termed to be “a season of transition” after the changes late on in the summer with the changes in management. Our league position determined pretty much where we deserved to be with much work ahead of us when we finished up in May.
“It is fair to say that opinion is more than divided on the manager. There are some who completely ‘trust his process’ and there are some way away from even being close to understanding what they are supposed to trust. What is clear is that he has a vision on how he wants things to work out but he will definitely need the right personnel to make that happen. For large aspects of last season he did not have that personnel but as he brings in more of his own signings then it ‘should’ get closer. For me the next few months will be key to whether his process will be one that ties in with the one that works for the Swans but I am sure what every Swans fan agrees on is whether you are a current Martin fan or not we all desperately want it to work out.
“The business for Downes was good business for us. We are in that position where we have to sell to progress and Downes is an example of that. Most Swans fans will expect Piroe to be another of those statistics by the time we get to the end of August. Joe Allen will be a good capture for us and add an extra level of experience in midfield. We have made a couple of decent signings so far but there needs to be more if we really are to progress so at the moment its nothing more for me other than a bang average window. Ask me again though in September.
“We need at least one more defender. We need to move on the likes of Bennett and Fulton and then we wait and see on Piroe. If he goes with enough time then maybe there is more to be done but until then I expect us to be pretty quiet outside of the usual speculation.
“I’ve seen the suggestions about us being a dark horse but I remain to be convinced. Would love to be wrong but I just don’t see what we have done in the summer as enough to turn us from the side we were from March – May to a side that will push for promotion. Funny old game and all that but I just don’t see it.”
What we said last season: 15th (actually finished 15th - stick we me kids).
Prediction: 10th If Piroe were to leave, stick a seven or eight on top of that nought.
Last Season: A pretty uninspiring 2021/22 to follow a similar grind in 2020/21, 2019/20 and 2018/19, and the main reason remains broadly the same – Stoke cannot get their best team out on the pitch long enough or often enough. There aren’t many better attacking players in this league than Tyrese Campbell and Nick Powell, but they manged just ten and 14 starts last season respectively. Giant centre back Harry Souttar probably thought he’d be lining up a big money move elsewhere by now, but he blew his knee out on an early international duty with Australia to end his campaign. As is proving something of a pattern, a strong start had them in the play-off spots heading into the autumn, and they were one of the better teams to visit Loftus Road last season where they won comfortably 2-0 even allowing for a fine goalkeeping performance and penalty save by Adam Davies. But as injuries bit, so the season tailed off once more, with a run of just two league wins in 16 outings straight after that win in W12 putting paid to any promotion hopes. Stoke used 37 different footballers last season, and only four of them (Joe Allen 38, Jacob Brown 38, Ben Wilmot 31, Josh Tymon 44) managed more than 30 league starts.
Ins >>> Liam McCarron, 21, LB, Leeds, Undisclosed >>> Josh Laurent, 27, CM, Reading, Free >>> Aden Flint (I refuse to believe this guy hasn’t played for Stoke before), 32, CB, Cardiff, Free >>> Dwight Gayle, 32, CF, Newcastle, Free >>> Will Smallbone (stop it), 22, CM, Southampton, Loan >>> Gavin ‘Oh My God You’ Kilkenny, 22, CM, Bournemouth, Loan >>> Harry Clarke, 21, CB, Arsenal, Loan
Outs >>> Benik Afobe, 29, CF, Millwall, Undisclosed >>> Alfie Doughty, 22, LW, Luton, Undisclosed >>> Joe Allen, 32, CM, Swansea, Free >>> Tom Ince, 30, RW, Reading, Free >>> James Chester, 33, CB, Derby, Free >>> Steven Fletcher, 35, CF, Dundee Utd, Free >>> Mario Vrancic, 33, AM, Rikeka (Croatia), Loan >>> Tommy Smith, 30, RB, Released
Manager: Michael O’Neill Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight.
This Season: Stoke did finish last season in reasonably decent nick, with five wins and a draw from their last nine games – although three of those victories came against Blackburn, West Brom and QPR who by that stage were all in varying stages of collapse. The January rescue of Lewis Baker from the Chelsea puppy farm proved a very shrewd move indeed, with eight goals in 20 starts from a deep midfield role marking him out as a potential star of the coming campaign. Our former youth charge Josh Laurent doesn’t look a bad pick up alongside him but in Cardiff’s Aden Flint and Newcastle’s Dwight Gayle on free transfers Stoke are once again committing budget and squad space to a player at the wrong end of his career with zero sell-on value. There’s no doubt they’ve been more unfortunate than basically any other team at this level for injuries in recent times – you’ll always struggle to legislate for your star centre half coming back from international break with a knee joint that looks like Boris and Carrie have had one of their on-expenses Abba parties in it – but equally you cannot pursue a transfer policy of signing players like Flint (32 at time of signing), Gayle (32), Mario Vrancic (33), Phil Jagielka (39), Steven Fletcher (35), John Obi Mikel (35), James Chester (30), Lee Gregory (30) and then complain that your squad lacks fitness and legs through the winter. Gayle, the most recent arrival, has started just 135 games in the last ten years – for comparison Ilias Chair has started 140 since January 2019.
The Vrancic signing is another classic example– a Championship winner with Norwich, and a very astute looking pick up initially as he impressed in Stoke’s early season play-off push, scoring the killer second against QPR in West London in December. But as the long Championship season wore on his influence waned and legs buckled, except he’d already breached the number of appearances required to trigger an automatic contract extension for 2022/23 by the end of which he’ll be 34 and Stoke have had to spend time this summer finding him a loan deal at Croatia’s HNK Rijeka to try and shift the wage.
You have to box cleverer, and in fairness the Lewis Baker deal certainly does, but Stoke will need a lot more like that if they’re to keep the wolf from the door – a £56m loss in their last set of accounts following £87.2m the year before, tempered slightly by the £70m sale of the stadium to the owners a month before that practice was outlawed by the EFL, make this not only an expensive hobby for the minted Coates family, but surely the division’s next drawn-out FFP case waiting to happen.
Local Knowledge – Every Step Along The Way podcast @everystepalong “Last season was just a carbon copy of the previous one. We started really well, were third in November (just like 20/21), then lost our most influential player (just like 20/21) and struggled to create chances when Nick Powell was missing through injury (see most seasons). The season petered out quite quickly and we ended in our now familiar position of fourteenth.
“We’ve let go a whole load of wages and experience whilst then investing mainly in youth - five of the seven signings are under 23, but still bringing in a couple of proven Championship players in Josh Laurent and Dwight Gayle. Cashing in £4m from Burnley’s sale of Nathan Collins to Wolves has given us an unexpected bonus and we’re looking for a LCB and a strong presence up front to round off our summer business.
“We managed to beat the FFP rule changes and sell the stadium to ourselves, Bet365 own us and they now own the ground, and they paid £70m+ for it which has hopefully seen us keep away from any points deductions. The main issue is the wage bill was huge when we got relegated due to handing out new contracts on PL money to half a dozen players and entrusting Gary Rowett with spending £50m+ on Championship players. The last of those have now gone with Joe Allen and his reported £57k a week wages off the books but the damage has been done and MoN has had his hands tied financially since he walked through the door. Due to the timeframes of FFP and the stadium sale we should in fact start feeling more relief on it from next season
“We need a good start. Some fans have started grumbling over the style of play and lack of progress and I’m not sure he would have long before that started to show in the stands should we fail to pick up results or at least show some promise with performances. Personally I see the constraints he’s working under and am prepared to give him this season at least and I believe if we do, and keep key players fit, then we will mount a play off push until late in the season.”
What we said last season: 12th (actually finished 14th, -2)
Prediction: 11th Get fit, stay fit, there’s a steady team here with plenty of goals in its attack. But we’ve said that a few summers running now and they’ve been 16th, 15th, 14th and 14th over the last four seasons.
Last Season: When Sunderland punted QPR out of the League Cup at Loftus Road last November, all the post match talk was about the latest Keith Stroud-supervised catastrophe that had seen Charlie Austin’s late winner incorrectly disallowed for one of the worst offside calls you’ll ever see in the sport. What got lost in that was that for the third season running, Rangers had been knocked out of a cup competition by a League One side, and on this occasion it had denied them a first League Cup quarter final since the 1980s, away to Arsenal as it turned out. Perhaps, as well as the Austin controversy, this was because Sunderland didn’t look or play like a League One side. Big, physical, enterprising, inventive and slick, Lee Johnson’s side looked like an upper Championship team with their back three and approach to that night, and most left the ground in no doubt that they would canter to promotion from the second tier thereafter. Of course what actually happened next, typical bloody QPR, and typical bloody Sunderland for that matter, is they went cliff diving. From losing three of their first 21 games in all comps, the Mackems lost 5-1 at Rotherham next up and quickly strung together six without a win, two wins in 11, and eventually just six victories in 27 fixtures. They were beaten 6-0 at Bolton. Alex Neil, formerly of Hamilton, Norwich and Preston, was brought in to salvage the season post 2-1 loss at Cheltenham, and oversaw an unbeaten run of 16 games through to the end of a season that concluded in the play-off final, at Wembley, when they comfortably kept Wycombe at arm’s length.
Ins >>> Daniel Ballard, 22, CB, Arsenal, £2m >>> Leon Dajaku, 21, CF, Union Berlin, £783k >>> Jack Clarke, 21, RW, Spurs, Undisclosed >>> Aji Alese, 21, CB, West Ham, Undisclosed
Outs >>> Will Grigg, 31, CF, MK Dons, Free >>> Aiden McGeady, 36, AM, Hibs, Free >>> Lee Burge, 29, GK, Northampton, Free >>> Jordan Willis, 27, CB, Released >>> Arbenit Xhemajli, 24, CB, Released
Manager: Alex Neil Moley, moley, moley, moley.
This Season: Like Leeds and Nottingham Forest, Sunderland are one of those clubs for whom no amount of freefall, no amount of farce, no level of humiliation, no number of Netflix clips of them bidding against their own manager to sign a part-used Will Grigg they don’t need for ten times the asking price, will ever quite quell the notion that this is definitely their year because, well, look at the size of the ground for fuck’s sake, and the shiny training facilities, and the number of people who turn up when it’s going well.
Howaaaayyyyyyyytheriverwheretheyusedtobuildthebooooooooats. And dad wor saaaaad.
Roaring up through the play-offs on a 16-game unbeaten run, with hot property Ross Stewart notching 26 goals in the process, has set light to the locals and raised Alex Neil up to some sort of godly status in this corner of the North East. There is zero expectation of a struggle against relegation, and frequently quite the opposite now in these parts – could this be a Sheff Utd/Wolves-style pile straight through the Championship back to the Prem? They’re right that this team as it is should have no problems staying in next season’s Championship, and even if Stewart only does half as well goals-wise at the higher level that’s still a better goalscorer than half the league had last season. We may have hated everything about Neil’s shithousy Preston outfit, but he was working within severe restrictions there and it’s easy to forget the reputation he forged winning promotion and bringing through players like James McCarthy and McArthur at tiny Hamilton before also revitalising and promoting Norwich. Good manager this bloke, and his teams are horrible to play against.
Money spent on a permanent move for Monster energy drinks enthusiast Jack Clarke raises eyebrows – this kid is going to be like a modern day Jermaine Jenas, clocking up multiple moves for millions of pounds and maintaining a stellar reputation while largely contributing fuck all – but to get centre back Daniel Ballard on a permanent deal within budget is one of the signings of the summer.
At least one, and often two, of the newly promoted teams have been relegated straight back from the Championship in each of the last five seasons as the financial gap between the division and League One has widened. The highest a newly promoted team has finished in the last four seasons is fifteenth. That should temper some of the wilder optimism emanating from Wearside. But I’d be staggered if Sunderland are the one to continue that trend this season.
Local Knowledge – Gav Henderson @RokerReport “Promotion was won in the very best way possible - at Wembley stadium, with 50,000 of our own fans in attendance, in what was a dominant display against a team who have given us a few problems during our time in League One. As much as I'd have liked us to have romped home to the league title, gaining promotion in the way that we did was truly epic. We looked rudderless when Lee Johnson got the sack in March, but Alex Neil came in and immediately steadied the ship, and bar a loss to MK Dons at the start of his tenure we were unbeaten right until the end of the season. The only disappointment is that we probably could have gone up automatically had he been given the job sooner, but I'll take what we ended up with every day of the week
“I love Alex Neil and rate him as the best manager outside of the Premier League - he's that good. Some might scoff at that but everything we were told about him before he arrived by Norwich and Preston fans was completely true, and then some. He's totally in control of everything he does and gives everyone around him a huge lift - he commands respect and totally understands the scale of the job he's taken on. It's easy to see why he's always stayed in jobs for a long time, and why he's been successful since entering management.
“I'm really happy with our business so far. Perhaps some of the best and most important moves we've made have been in tying down vital players to new deals, and the acquisitions of Daniel Ballard from Arsenal, Aji Alese from West Ham and Jack Clarke from Tottenham show that we've got a big focus on developing young talent, and that there's a decent budget available to our recruitment team to spend. We're not done yet and I'd expect us to make even more cracking signings as the window progresses.
“I think we might actually surprise a lot of people and finish in the top half. Outside of the clubs with the parachute payments coming in I think the Championship is fair game, and where you finish largely depends upon the aptitude of your manager, the squad he's been allowed to build, and the spirit you have within your team. Right now we're riding on cloud nine and I think that will give us a significant edge over lots of teams, as will our fantastic training facilities, our big fanbase and our large stadium. The potential for Sunderland to be a real force over the coming years at this level is there for all to see, and we just have to strike whilst the iron is hot and grab the opportunity before us.”
Prediction: 16th And I still can’t believe Luke O’Nien hasn’t played for QPR at some point.
Last Season: If you want to know what it looks like when you replace Russell Slade with Paul Trollope with Neil Warnock with Neil Harris with Mick McCarthy, well, let’s just say it took Cardiff City until their fifth game of last season to score a goal that wasn’t a header, and that was an own goal by Bristol City’s keeper Dan Bentley in a home match they subsequently lost 2-1. That was the first of ten defeats suffered in 12 games through the autumn, the last of which came 1-0 at home to QPR in October and if we saw a worse team in the Championship last season that wasn’t Reading than Cardiff that night then I mustn’t have been there for it. Neil Warnock’s team had grown old together, and when you were as unashamedly direct and clumpy as they were in the first place that wasn’t a good thing. Football, even at Championship level, has moved on significantly, and Cardiff have refused to go with it to their considerable cost. The back pairing of Morrison and Flint, once so feared at this level, now so utterly cumbersome as to become a liability. Occasionally a signing like Big Dick Ng and Ryan Wintle from Crewe, or Ryan Giles on loan, and you think ‘ooh that’s interesting, maybe they are awake’. But not enough.
There were, however, enough signs of life to keep the bottom three mostly at arm’s length. Tommy Doyle’s January loan from Man City made an enormous difference – watch out for him at Sheff Utd in 22/23. Steve Morison felt like a risky, inexperienced, left-field choice to step up from academy head to first team manager this soon, but three bunches of victories (three out of four in November; four out of five in February; four out of six through March and April) did the job and he was very keen to talk in great florid depth about how he’d masterminded the whole thing. They were, indeed, an entirely different beast against QPR second time around, with Rubin Colwill, one of several brilliant young players coming through the ranks here, to the fore in a 2-1 win, but I think Morison’s post-match press conference might still be going on now if a cleaner hadn’t eventually plucked up the courage to ask him to lift his feet up while he hoovered.
Ins (deep breath) >>> Ollie Tanner, 20, RW, Lewes, £50k >>> Andy Rinomhota, 25, CM, Reading, Free >>> Mahlon Romeo, 26, RB, Millwall, Free >>> Sheyi Ojo, 25, LW, Liverpool, Free >>> Callum O’Dowda, 27, LW, Bristol City, Free >>> Jamilu Collins, 27, LB, Paderborn (Germany), Free >>> Romaine Sawyers, 30, CM, West Brom, Free >>> Ryan Allsop, 30, GK, Derby, Free >>> Jak Alnwick, 29, GK, St Mirren, Free >>> Vontae Daley-Campbell, 21, RB, Leicester, Free >>> Ebou Adams, 26, CM, Forest Green, Free >>> Cedric Kipre, 25, CB, West Brom, Loan
Outs (we’re not finished yet) >>> Sam Bowen, 21, CM, Newport, Undisclosed >>> Will Vaulks, 28, CM, Sheff Wed, Free >>> Aden Flint, 32, CB, Stoke, Free >>> Marlon Pack, 31, CM, Portsmouth, Free >>> James Collins, 31, CF, Derby, Free >>> Ciaron Brown, 21, RB, Oxford, Free >>> Kieron Evans, 21, AM, Torquay, Loan >>> Leandro Bacuna, 30, CM, Released >>> Josh Murphy, 27, LW, Released >>> Alex Smithies, 32, GK, Released >>> Isaac Vassell, 28, CF, Released
Manager: Steve Morison Sit down quietly and let him tell you where he gets all his brilliant ideas.
This Season: One of the summer’s highlights was watching this half of South Wales work themselves up into a frantic foamy lather over the absolute racing certainty that Gareth Bale was desperate to come here and finish his career slogging through Tuesday night trips to Middlesbrough (yes that is a fixture the EFL has deemed acceptable to have on the Bluebirds’ calendar this year) rather than ease down into retirement on the golf courses of California. Bale, apparently, is the only person within 300 miles of Cardiff who owns a dark Ranger Rover, so whenever one turned up in the club car park the manic circle jerk started in furious earnest – two handers only, this is serious business. All the great Twitter characters were here – the “freelance journalist”, the ”bored intermediary”, the “secret agent”, the Fifa Ultimate Teams boys – and they all knew somebody in Bale’s extended family. Don’t believe them? Have this screenshot from the FlightRadar24 app of a light aircraft moving from somewhere vaguely Spain to somewhere vaguely southern half of the UK. What about that then? Eh? May as well get the monkey heed tattoos booked in now lads, because there’ll be a rush on later.
Bale, and I can’t believe I need to type this, was not coming to Cardiff. I mean, nothing should surprise me about UK group think after Boris Johnson was able to convince people he was one of them and anti-establishment, but still, every now and again, it does amaze me where the internet has taken this place. Who is coming to Cardiff, however, is literally everybody else. If you’re Preston, QPR, Blackburn, Norwich, wondering why you’ve had a quiet summer with few incomings, it’s because they’re all here. All of them. Anybody and everybody of vague Championship standard and approximate age. All of life is here. Morison’s approach to revitalising the sluggish, ageing team he inherited has been to load up WyScout, take three steps back from the computer, produce a machine gun from a holster, and spray the screen with bullets while laughing into the sky. Centre back Cedric Kipre on loan from West Brom makes 12 new arrivals with five weeks of window remaining (12? I was going to do 14 but 12’s alright I guess) – a list that includes two goalkeepers to go with the Dillon Phillips they already have, two right backs, three different central midfielders, two remarkably similar left wingers, and no strikers (apparently they still need a couple of those so hold off printing that squad list just yet). We’re going to need a bigger boat.
There’s some eye-catchers among them. Sheyi Ojo, from Liverpool, at 25, wouldn’t be surprised if that’s one of Beale’s failed Zoom calls. Ollie Tanner from Lewes was all set for Spurs until somebody pointed out his Arsenal-skewed social media focused heavily on all the dreadful things he’d do to Spurs given the chance. The central midfield desperately needed a complete overhaul, and has had one with Vaulks a high profile release, and experienced Championship campaigners Rinomhota and Sawyers added. And there has, to be fair, been a substantial clear out of literal dead weight – the Fourth Road Bridge creaked under the departures of Aden Flint, Marlon Pack and James Collins and they’ve been followed by Alex Smithies, Isaac Vassell, Leandro Bacuna, Josh Murphy, Will Vaulks and others who represent an enormous chunk of salary change.
How you see this all going depends on how optimistic you are on the outcome of heaving a pack of cards into the air. Without a striker, or Max Watters belatedly making the step up, I’d be approaching with a degree of caution and concern. But, hey, the really good news is Aaron Ramsey is talking to Juventus about an early release, so the plane tracker fun might not be over for this summer.
Local Knowledge – Phil Bushby @bushby_p “Last season was bang average and I was glad when it finished. Nice to get a bit of stability and avoid relegation, but the first half of the season was truly dreadful. I think it says it all when a player who joined on loan in January ended up winning player of the year.
“I feel a bit mixed about how Morison handles the players sometimes. But overall I’m positive and it will be interesting to see what he does with all the new players. It’s been a completely bonkers transfer window but necessary. Lots of players had to leave, although personally I would have kept Will Vaulks. After his departure I’m glad Joe Ralls has resigned. The new midfield with Sawyers and Rinomhota combining with Ralls and Wintle looks stronger. O’Dowda, Ojo and Tanner exciting on the wings. Goalkeepers and defence also strengthened. A bit worried about lack of strikers. Perhaps another loan incoming?
“I have no idea who will start the first game against Norwich let alone predict the season. I would be surprised if we got relegated but whether we can do better than mid-table will depend on how this brand new squad comes together with the talented youngsters and the few established players who have remained from last season. The new players have at least enabled a lower wages structure which is necessary for the long term but let’s see if the quality is still there.”
What we said last season; 4th (finished 18th, -14, overrating Cardiff is an annual staple of this column).
Prediction: 19th Watch these fuckers suddenly get good now we’ve finally lost faith in them.
Last Season: Back three, ball on the floor, wing backs… Coventry City look every inch the trendy, modern, Championship team. Forward thinking, good to watch, progressive, players other clubs want to buy. It’s easy to forget this was only their second season back at the level, their first back at the hateful Mega Tesco after another period of nomadic existence, and that they were in League Two as recently as 2017/18 (and only promoted from sixth place in that league that year). Mark Robins has had good and bad spells elsewhere (sacked by now freefalling Scunthorpe in his job immediately before this one), but he fits and works well here across two spells and given his team’s meteoric rise and the style they play in I do find it odd he doesn’t get linked with work elsewhere more often.
The goals for 2020/21 were simple – stay in the Championship, get back to home town field. They accomplished both. A 3-0 demolition by then white-hot QPR at Loftus Road made it three wins from 15 and one win from ten on the road which made things a little dicey, but they wet the sail and cruised into port with five wins and a draw from the final eight games to secure our coveted sixteenth spot. 2021/22, therefore, was about progressing further, and they did that by every metric. While their home record remained relatively static (10-5-8 vs 10-7-6) they picked up three more wins and an extra draw on the road – a sign of a team more comfortable and confident in itself at this level. They were in some ways unfortunate not to do better still, eventually finishing twelfth – QPR beat them home and away but Cov were the better team for the vast majority of both games and came away scratching their heads how they hadn’t taken all the points on both occasions. Even just those two extra wins there would have had them on 70 points level with seventh-placed Middlesbrough, which for me would have been a fairer reflection of the team and how it played through the season. As you would expect in year two, consistency was an issue – they lost 5-0 at Luton and beat Fulham 4-1 in the same week – but they did the double over the champions, and wiped the floor with Sheff Utd 4-1 at home as well. Let themselves down slightly by doing the opposite of the previous year and finishing weakly – three wins from the last 14 – but a dangerous team, worthy of note, and a very satisfactory season.
Ins >>> Kasey Palmer, 25, AM, Bristol City, Free >>> Jonathan Panzo, 21, CB, Forest, Loan >>> Callum Doyle, 18, CB, Man City, Loan
Outs >>> Jordan Shipley, 24, LM, Shrewsbury, Undisclosed >>> Josh Pack, 24, CB, The New Saints (Wales, isn’t it), Free >>> Julian Da Costa, 26, RB, Shrewsbury, Loan >>> Jodi Jones, 24, RW, Released
Manager: Mark Robins Scored a goal against Nottingham Forest once you know.
This Season: There aren’t many better eight-nine-ten combinations in this league than Gustavo Hamer, Viktor Gyokeres and Callum O’Hare. Coventry, though, are trapped in a similar vicious cycle to ourselves with Illy and Willy.
Old school football thinking is you obviously don’t want to sell your best players, and indeed if those three stick around I fancy Coventry to improve again this year and go higher than twelfth. City bought them for just £2.3m combined and now other clubs too rich and lazy to do similar levels of recruitment want to buy them all for five or six times that – Boro among several striker-hungry clubs to have sniffed at Gyokeres who they could have had for £1m just 12 months ago, Fulham have been linked with silly money for Hamer who would have cost them just £1.3m three transfer windows back, and Burnley are locked in a prolonged pursuit of O’Hare with Cov holding out for north of £9m for a player they got for free from Villa’s U21s. To lose one of them, particularly O’Hare whose high press and win back is such an enormous part of Robins’ style and tactics, would be very damaging so close to the season beginning. One of them leaving too close to the September deadline to do anything about could be catastrophic to their chances.
But they need supplementing. There are other good players here – Ben Sheaf, strong boy’s name, big Championship balls; Matt Godden, soft spot, but perhaps that’s just cos he used to play for Brigg Town – but the team is shy in other areas. They need a sale to give them the money to go out and do some other smart recruitment – they were beaten out of the Jake Clarke-Salter signing by QPR, and as we know we’re not exactly flush with cash. But would the damage caused by the loss of one of those key men be sustainable for that medium and long term game? Burnley seem very hot and horny for O’Hare, and if clubs like Boro and Sheff Utd get towards the end of this window without a striker addition I can’t imagine that Gyokeres interest has gone away either. Specifically, their season really hangs on all of that – who stays, who goes, what do they do with any potential funds generated. Speaking more generally, Coventry another club that shows it’s so much more rewarding and sustainable to be the club that buys Matt Phillips from Wycombe, rather than the one who buys him from Blackpool.
Local Knowledge – Dominic Jerams @SideSammy “After a really great start last season, the team just couldn’t find any kind of consistency from about November onwards. The team played at a pretty high level throughout the campaign, and it would only have taken a little better luck with injuries and in front of goal to have turned what was a decent season into a much more memorable one.
“The club’s relatively weak financial position has reared its head this summer, limiting our business thus far to frees and loans. It feels like the club had been hoping for a quicker sale of either Gustavo Hamer, Callum O’Hare, or Viktor Gyokeres to grease the wheels in the transfer market, but it looks like any potential departure will drag a little further into the summer, leaving less time to source replacements and with it not clear how much will actually be reinvested in the squad. The additions thus far are Kasey Palmer on a free from Bristol City. He should be an okay back-up/bench option in attacking midfield, but it would be a concern were he to be a Callum O’Hare replacement.
“After missing out on Jake Clarke-Salter, the club have gone for not one but two left-footed centre-backs on loans. Both Jonathan Panzo and Callum Doyle have the potential to be very good but are also incredibly short on experience. The hope is that we are hedging our bets by signing the two of them, in case one of them can’t handle the level, but defence was something of a weak spot last season and a bigger shake-up with more proven players would have been nice.
“As for what else we need to do, competition at left wing-back for Jake Bidwell looks the most obvious missing piece of the puzzle. I would also like to see at least one other attacking player to come in, to make more of an impact than Martyn Waghorn and Tyler Walker did last season. At the time of writing, it is looking likely that Callum O’Hare may be the one that is off. If that is the case, I could live with that as it looks like we really need the money and O’Hare is probably the most expendable out of the club’s big three assets – with Gustavo Hamer the other member of that group.
“While there is an argument that selling Callum O’Hare could go towards improving the team’s threat in front of goal – O’Hare has never shown any sign of being a reliable finisher – keeping Gustavo Hamer and Viktor Gyokeres could be the difference between a play-off push or dropping into the relegation battle. There just aren’t too many footballers out there – certainly, not in Coventry City’s price range – that can manipulate games like Hamer does or carry a team on their back up the pitch like Gyokeres does. Hamer and Gyokeres are footballers of a quality that any level of money raised by their sale probably wouldn’t be enough to replace them.
“At this stage, I’m feeling more pessimistic than optimistic about this season for Coventry City. For all the promise of last season, the team’s form since mid-November was only just above relegation level. It’s hard to argue that the summer’s transfer activity has addressed the issues in front of goal and in defence that were apparent during the later months of last year, and the team could be further weakened by losing at least one key player before the end of the transfer window. It will be more apparent by the start of September just how strong a position this Coventry City team is in heading into the new season, but it feels like anything much above mid-table would be asking a lot of this team currently.”
What we said last season: 18th (finished 12th, +6)
Prediction: 9th We had Luton ninth last year but said they could be a dark horse, and the same applies here if their best players stick around.
Last Season: A very Moany Towbury season indeed. So much so that Rovers decided they’d seen quite enough thank you very much and binned him off at the end of it – not that they ever actually got round to telling him that mind.
Initially, off they went like a frog up a pump, belying pre-season predictions (yes, alright, us) of a struggle. This was driven in large part by a sudden fulfilment of long-held latent potential by Ben Brereton-Diaz, who scored 21 times before New Year’s Eve having scored 15 times in his whole six-year professional career prior. All it needed was a slight name tweak and to convince him he was a Chilean poster boy. Perhaps a Peruvian passport is all that stands between Macauley Bonne and basic comprehension of the offside law.
Coventry fans will tell you, though, that Towbury teams come down with the Christmas decorations, and so it proved. They did, in fairness, have to deal with Brereton-Vidal getting a medium term ankle injury away at West Brom in mid-February – from 21 goals in those first 29 games for club and country, he played only 15 more games after the turn of the year, scoring three goals and just two for Rovers. At one point they went through a nine-game spell scoring only once – that, naturally, good enough to beat QPR at Ewood Park, but only because David Marshall spaffed it into his own net for them. Their promotion bid floundered on the rocks of four wins in 20 games and an FA Cup defeat at Wigan. A late 4-1 success at chippy neighbours Preston gladdened hearts and minds, and was a nice send off for Towbury after five years and a recovery from League One, but they won only one of their last six at home and failed to score in four of those.
Ins >>> Ethan Walker-Hernandez, 19, LW, PNE, Free >>> Callum Brittain-Gonzalez, 24, RB, Barnsley, Undisclosed
Outs >>> Joe Rothwell-Munoz, 27, CM, Bournemouth, Free >>> Darragh Lenihan-Morales, 28, CB, Boro, Free >>> Ryan Nyambe-Rodriguez, 24, RB, Wigan, Free >>> Harry Chapman-Fuentes, 24, RW, Bradford, Free >>> Bradley Johnson-Lopes, 34, CM, Free, MK Dons >>> Antonis Stergiakes-Espinoza, 23, GK, Panetolikos (Greece), Free >>> Jacob Davenport-Gutierrez, 23, DM, Released
Manager: Jon Dahl Tomasson Pronounced Joan Dale apparently. Good luck with that.
This Season: I’m going to try again with this – I’m worried about Blackburn. Not worried enough to tip them to go down, but I’d be very surprised if they weren’t kicking around having the sort of seasons Bristol City and Cardiff did last year.
Once it became clear their play-off push was over last season a weird inertia seemed to set in. Towbury was obviously not staying, but nor was anybody confirming that publicly, or to him. In the end his contract ran out and he just sort of drifted away. Pretty poor form, given everything he’d achieved there. Say what you want about his football, decision making, complete disregard of the need to defend, but he always comes across as a decent fella. Despite that head start, and links to all the managers we were rumoured to be after and more (their angry little boys on Twitter had a “Daniel Farke’s coming” fantasy wank fest too – lads, the only place Daniel Farke is coming is your mum) it took until June 14 for Jon Dahl Tomasson to be rewarded for his two titles and impressive assault on the Champions League at Malmo with a one-way ticket to Lancashire.
There have been significant departures from last season’s starting 11: Joe Rothwell, often impressive against QPR, now has to babysit Ben Pearson at Bournemouth; centre back Darragh Lenihan is part of an increasingly impressive summer of business done at Middlesbrough, but the underrated Scott Wharton remains; they couldn’t agree terms with right wing back Ryan Nyambe, but God knows what they offered because the 24-year-old has floated around free agency this summer and now looks set to wind up at newly promoted Wigan; Bradley Johnson has mercifully been expunged in the direction of MK Dons, if ever a club and a personality were made for each other. There’s a considerable looming problem with Brereton-Salas – Rovers have exercised a one-year contract extension, but he’s predictably shown no sign in wanting to commit beyond that leaving a club constantly dancing along the FFP tightrope, and only under it to this point thanks to the big money sale of Adam Armstrong, torn between losing their best hope of competing this season now for some valuable transfer funds, or waving their most sellable asset goodbye next year for free. QPR are of course 12 months’ away from the same situation with Chrissy Willock – you don’t want to see your best players leave, but you can’t trade in this climate without significant sales. Rovers have so far added only Barnsley’s Callum Brittain and PNE youngster Ethan Walker to their ranks, and while the transfer activity up the road at Deepdale has been similarly uninspiring they have energised their fan base with a creative marketing campaign that has drawn record season ticket sales, while all Rovers can do is kick the renewal deadline down the road a week at a time hoping somebody, anybody, bites at prices they’ve picked this opportune moment to jack up.
I thought Dilan Markanday for £500k was a terrific bit of business from them in January but he got injured straight away. His return will be like a very tidy new signing. But, still, rather you than me lads.
Local Knowledge – BRFCS.com podcast host Ian Herbert @ianherbert “Sadly an all too predictable end to last season. Why, when we kept renting the same movie did we expect the ending to change ? A director’s cut ? I doubt we’ll have as good a chance to break into the play-offs for quite some time. Up until the January window, our course was set fair, some surprisingly positive results served to re-charge the optimism batteries only for the lack of new faces to cost us dear. The Diaz injury at West Brom effectively ended our season as our attack paid their own tribute to the late comedy genius Ronnie Barker, by transforming from being tough and ruthless to rough and toothless.
“It’s the summer to replace leaders who split the loyalty of their followers down the middle and end up generating in-fighting across their base. Rovers are nothing if not trend setters. Unlike Johnson, Mowbray had not managed to win enough key victories in red wall marginals to secure another term. Neither was he caught in his office being pleasured by Mark Venus though so there is that. His time was up, but my word, it’s quite the poisoned chalice that is being left behind but that is more down to his superiors and ultimately the owners.
“Tomasson is saying all the right things, making all the right moves but he’s been given a squad that has lost half a dozen of last season’s first XI and at time of writing there are no signs of any incoming talent to bed in. Poor bugger is already starting to look puzzled at press conferences. He has a decent track record but I fear that Rovers might turn out to be the chapter in his autobiography where he explains how he learned an awful lot and wouldn’t therefore make the same mistakes when choosing his next job.
“We have a conveyor belt of promising youngsters but they really need to be the icing on the cake as opposed to the sponge base. It looks like the funding taps have been turned off and unless we can secure a substantial fee for BBD then inbound traffic may be thin on the ground. Either way, we are handicapping the new boss by not providing the tools to do the job and even if four or five come in on deadline day, we will by then have played a number of games and quite possibly shaped the tenor of our season by September. We need at least two defenders, a midfielder and if Ben departs, a striker. It’s beginning to take on the demeanour of a careless husband buying the family Christmas presents at the last service station on the way home on Christmas Eve.
“Based on the squad at time of writing - it’s going to be tough. A couple of injuries to the wrong players and we’ll be fielding a crèche. Rabbits need to be extracted from hats…quickly. Let’s keep the faith till the window closes but…”
What we said last season: 20th (finished 8th, +12)
Last Season: “Ninth, but could easily be this season’s Barnsley” was our verdict on the Hatters this time last year, and we were certainly right in the latter case. We talk a lot about the financial, FFP, revenue, P&L, rules of the league, accounts… restrictions that QPR face in trying to compete at the top end of a league dominated by parachute payments – and we’re right. But here were/are Luton, in a far worse ground, with lower gates and revenues, worse facilities, lower wage bill, crashing into the play-offs through the front door thanks to an innovative recruitment department.
Their progress from non-league as recently as 2014, and League Two in 2018, continues apace, and they comfortably maintained their record of finishing higher in the league year-on-year for every season Nathan Jones has been in charge. We also talk a lot about how hard it is for QPR to buy and own good strikers in our situation and this market place – Elijah Adebayo, 24, picked up for a few hundred thousand from Walsall, scored 17 times and is now attracting Saudi blood money interest from Newcastle. (Sorry, it’s facetious of me to call it that, please don’t behead me and throw me on the pile with the other naughty journos, little scamps.) It can be done. It can be done. Those Adebayo-type transfers need to be us more often than they are at the moment. We’re a lot better than we were, but it’s frustrating watching us trying to beg a loan and then being outperformed by Luton Town with a signing like that up front.
They were beaten by Huddersfield in the play-off semi-finals, but that still represented a tremendously successful season at Kenilworth Road. You could solve the south east’s housing crisis setting up new garden cities in the chips on both of Nathan Jones’ shoulders, and his crash and burn with money to spend at Stoke does make me wonder how much of this is him and how much is the data-led recruitment model behind him led by legendary Big Mick Harford, but you couldn’t knock a single thing about him and his team’s performance last season and he was a worthy winner of the Championship manager of the year. Nothing summed them up better than a last-minute 3-2 win over big-spending, parachute-payment receiving Bournemouth at Kenilworth Road.
Ins >>> Carlton Morris, 26, CF, Barnsley, £1.8m >>> Cauley Woodrow, 27, CF, Barnsley, Undisclosed >>> Matt Macey, 26, GK, Hibs, £104k >>> Alfie Doughty, 22, LM, Stoke, Undisclosed >>> Louie Watson, 21, CM, Derby, Undisclosed >>> Luke Freeman, 30, AM, Sheff Utd, Free >>> Ethan Horvarth, 27, GK, Forest, Loan
Outs >>> Peter Kioso, 22, RB, Rotherham, Undisclosed >>> Kal Naismith, 30, CB, Bristol City, Free >>> Elliott Lee, 27, CM, Wrexham, Free >>> Danny Hylton, 33, CF, Northampton, Free
Manager: Nathan Jones He is allowed to celebrate. You are not.
This Season: It will always be difficult for a club operating on this sort of budget to compete at the top end of this division. Just staying in the Championship, with this wage bill, is an achievement. I’ve seen last season described as a ‘flash in the pan’, and clearly with title odds at 25s-28s generally and as long as 33s with some online outlets the bookies aren’t having them at all. They lost Kal Naismith rather abruptly on a free transfer to Bristol City which is a blow – he may have been crap in both games with QPR last season but he played well overall and was a key part of their promotion chasing side.
Cards on the table though, I fancy them again. I fancy them big time. I’m not saying they’ll win the league but Coventry, Blackburn, Stoke and Swansea are among the teams with substantially shorter title odds and to that I just think I must be watching the wrong sport. Perhaps I am, I’m wrong frequently. Naismith, fine, big loss, but I just see Bristol City yet again swallowing a big contract for a 30-year-old with no resale value. Luton recruit far smarter than that. Everything else that was good about them last season is still here – Adebayo up front, brilliant Scottish midfielder Allan Campbell, the rest of the defence bar Naismith. They made the six despite a lengthy injury list, which they’d be unlucky to suffer the likes of again. They’ve moved quickly, in Forest’s Ethan Horvath and Hibs’ Matt Macey, to fix up the problem goalkeeper position where six different lads pulled on gloves last season. While many teams, including ourselves, scrabble about looking for one striker, they’ve added two to the impressive attack they already have – Cauley Woodrow and Carlton Morris may have bombed in a tanking and mismanaged Barnsley side over the last 12 months but if QPR had signed those two for less than £3m last summer you wouldn’t have been able to move down the Uxbridge Road for HMS Piss The League memes. Great pick ups both, as is Alfie Doughty who was hot property (chased by QPR) at Charlton but is cheaper and attainable without that competition after a poor spell at Stoke – where everybody’s career goes to die. They’ve also picked up emperor penguin Luke Freeman on a free transfer – only just 30, and again the sort of signing that would have been heralded 18 months ago and hasn’t been made bad simply because he failed to impress at Sheff Utd.
Look, I hate them, I hate going there, and I hate the fucking shamelessly good-for-the-goose-good-for-the-gander gnome in charge of them, bitching and moaning about how other people conduct themselves while doing exactly the same and worse himself. I’m meant to hate them, I’m a QPR fan. But I love their team, I love their recruitment model, I love the football they play, and I think they’ll go very strongly again. You never see a poor bookie, and I’m wrong all the time, but I think their odds are a fucking joke.
Local Knowledge – Jamie @OakRoadHatter “Even though there was an air of expectation last season about what we could really achieve, even the most bullish Hatter probably wouldn’t have said we’d make the playoffs. In truth, I thought we had the better of the play-off semi-final too - especially the away leg where we were a fit Elijah Adebayo away from putting Huddersfield to the sword. It definitely showed that, whilst we were a very good side when at our best, we were always exposed to injuries potential de-railing what was possible.
“There were some games last year that we showed a little bit of naivety too, so realistically reaching the heady heights of the Premier League would’ve been too soon for us. The big positive is that we managed to completely revamp our squad last summer (it was this “changing of the guard” that made some of us nervous), but we maintained our fantastic record of season-on-season improvement. Now we head into next season in a really good place and a lot of excitement about going again.
“It’s been a really good window so far. Last season the buzzword was all around ‘athleticism’, recruiting players that allowed us to step onto teams with pace and power and do so for 90+ minutes. This summer we’ve added quality to that in all the right places. We’ve tracked Alfie Doughty for a long time so to have someone just as threatening going forwards on the left as James Bree on the right is going to be fun to watch. In goal we needed to really sort our situation out - having sold Sluga last January to avoid losing him for nothing last summer - we relied on James Shea a lot (and subsequently a raft of emergency loans) to see us through to the end of the season. Now with Matt Macey and Ethan Horvath we’ve got two keepers looking to fight it out for that starting spot. But the most exciting business of it all is what we’ve done with our forward line. Managing to keep hold (so far) of star man Adebayo and add real quality in Morris and Woodrow to lighten Elijah’s load was vital. Both additions showed during that crazy Barnsley run-in of 20/21 what they are really capable and I’m really positive of what they can do this season.
“In terms of what’s still to do, it really is just properly replacing Kal Naismith. He was a big player for us, playing an important role on that left side of our back three. If we can amply replace him then it’ll certainly be a 10/10 window.
“Top six definitely has to be our target. After how we did last season, to then strengthen further and have another full pre-season with a group of players that on the most part are nowhere near their ceiling, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t do it all again. Reading into the mentality of the group we have, particularly Nathan Jones and his staff, I wouldn’t be surprised if their quiet internal target is to probe for a top two spot, but that’s just a pipe dream for us fans on the outside. A lot of fans of other Championship teams are certainly taunting the ‘doing a Barnsley’ tag after they reached the playoffs and then got relegated, but if any research was actually done then they’d know that that absolutely will not happen. One of Nathan’s key mantras is “no trapdoors”, so the club is set up in a way that ensures we won’t regress any further than a mid-table spot, which I think most Luton fans would be satisfied with.”
What we said last season: 9th (finished 5th +4)
Last Season: Millwall lost 13 league games last season. Forest, promoted through the play-offs, lost 12. Sheff Utd, Luton, Middlesbrough and Blackburn, who fought over the final play-off place, all lost 13 or more – Boro, in fact, in seventh, lost 16. Millwall also drew 15 times last season. Only Preston, with 16, tied more than that. And there, in a nutshell, is why I always quite fancy Millwall to push for the play-offs in this preview, and why they never quite make it. Difficult to play against, difficult to beat, a right royal pain in the arse, but just lacking that extra little bit of decisive quality and cutting edge in the tight games. Away to Blackburn, a team that finished one place above them courtesy of one goal difference, they drew nil nil with zero shots on or off target – and that during their hottest run of form all season. Although it only finished 2-1 they were absolutely systematically destroyed by Fulham at home early in the season and it always feels like they’re just that little way short of the top teams in this league. They did beat Sheffield United home and away, but against the other seven of the top eight they managed just one win from 14 fixtures.
What is different, and progressing, is the style and look of Millwall. This club, and this manager, are never going to be Russell Martin’s Swansea, and I suspect if any manager tried that maximum-risk-minimum-reward claptrap with the goal kicks more than once here then Selhurst Murph’s Timber and Manly Goods Warehouse would be doing a roaring trade in pitch-forks, torches and lighter fuel. The stereotype, that we love to perpetuate, because we’ve got time on our hands, and 48 match previews to write each season, is well known. There’s going to be Matt Smith or his non-union Mexican equivalent, there’s going to be Jake Cooper, there’s going to be a lot of lads called Wallace, there’s going to be more air traffic than Schiphol, there’s going to be a wheeled cannon, there are going to be long throws (each longer than the last), there are going to be traumatic corners (each more traumatic…), they’re going to cry Miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiilllllllllllllllllllllllllllll an awful lot, there’s going to be some old cunt on a rickety wooden piano giving it “lettum awl come daghn to The Den”. Lettum awwwwwwllllll. Lettum awwwwwwwwlllllllll. Fackin ‘ell Wawll. All of that. Good clean fun. Forty five minutes in a cage out the back afterwards and back to London Bridge in time for last orders if you keep your wits about you and don’t complain too much. That wasn’t true to quite such the usual extent when QPR were absolutely obliterated at The Den as part of five consecutive wins through February. That was a performance built around stretching the pitch width-ways rather than length. Channel balls to turn full backs around and bully them had been replaced with switch balls left and right to make space behind exposed wing backs for Jed Wallace and impressive youngster Danny McNamara. Their first goal on the night was a thing of beauty. If they can show the ambition and bravery to do more of that, more often, rather than shrinking back into the Rowett ideal that 0-0 away from home is always a good result in the Championship, there’s potential here.
Ins >>> Zian Flemming, 23, AM, Fortuna Sittard, £2.3m >>> Benik Afobe, 29, CF, Stoke, Undisclosed >>> George Honeyman, 27, CM, Hull, Undisclosed >>> Charlie Cresswell, 19, CB, Leeds, Loan >>> Jamie Shackleton, 22, RM/RB, Leeds, Loan
Outs >>> Jed Wallace, 28, AM, West Brom, Free >>> Mahlon Romeo, 26, RB, Cardiff, Free >>> Connor Mahoney, 25, RM, Huddersfield, Free >>> Maikel Kieftenbeld, 32, DM, Emmen, Free >>> Alex Pearce, 33, CB, Wimbledon, Free
Manager: Gary Rowett The sort of dad who pins a list of “ground rules” to the fridge.
This Season: That performance against QPR last season was Rowett’s Millwall at its best – it just needs to be that a little bit more, a little bit more often, and they’ll push for the six. What stands in their way immediately is not only that star man Jed Wallace has left for a big pay day at West Brom, but that the readies are going entirely into his pocket (and his agent’s) while Millwall get nothing from a free transfer to invest in the team. I always thought he’d get far more attention if he played for a more fashionable club, certainly worse players have moved for far more money in this division while he’s been at The Den, and to get nothing for him is a body blow.
Millwall have nevertheless spent money on a replacement. Ajax-educated Zian Flemming is a club-record £2.25m arrival from Fortuna Sittard, where he scored 12 goals from midfield last season to aid their survival in the Dutch top flight and made WhoScored.com’s Eredivisie team of the season. If he adapts, quickly, this could be superb business, and actually make West Brom look like the daft ones (again). George Honeyman, too, looks an absolute steal to me - newly-minted Hull blinded by big names and Turkish caps, allowing their second best player last season to walk away while placing their faith in Ozan Tufan who rather disgraced himself at Watford last season. Watch out too for loaned Leeds centre back Charlie Cresswell. At 19 he’ll make mistakes, but Millwall needed a replacement for Arsenal loanee Daniel Ballard who they couldn’t make permanent and while everybody is noshing Sunderland off for landing his signature I suspect in 12 months’ time watchers of this division will rave about Cresswell in the same way – loves to cause panic by stepping purposefully out of defence with the ball, beating the first press, and freeing team mates with the right pass. Big fan. I’ve never rated Benik Afobe but, overall, this is smart recruitment. Clearly there’s an ongoing saga with Danny McNamara, out of contract next summer and apparently keen to make a move to QPR despite playing up his Wawll tendencies previously, but Rangers seem to have gone about that in such a public and cack-handed way that the Lions will likely dig their heels in and risk losing him on a free than do business at low-ball prices.
If he sticks around this is a very promising looking team that could challenge the six.
Local Knowledge – Lucas Ball (@LucasBall2211) “Last season was really promising, even if it was a little disappointing to just miss out on the top-six in the end. We’ve had something of a squad overhaul with loan players departing and the loss of a couple of others - most notably Jed Wallace.
“Wallace was once again our key attacking force despite his injury issues last season and it’s gutting to lose him, but we have some other very good players still and have made some excellent additions. I’ve been so impressed with the business and targets we’ve been linked with. The club have been ambitious and broken the transfer record, while also looking at players who can not only improve us now but potentially make us profit in years to come, a strategy I’ve long been hoping the club would begin to adopt. Much of our season will depend on how well Zian Flemming adjusts to life in England and the Championship - he was brilliant in the Eredivisie for a team that narrowly avoided relegation scoring 12 goals. He is the replacement for Wallace and we need him to hit the ground running. In Benik Afobe, we’ve re-signed a striker capable of scoring 15-20 goals after he hit double figures last season, improving more and more as the campaign went on. George Honeyman is an experienced campaigner at this level and will bring energy, desire and quality in midfield, as well as hopefully some goal contributions from deeper. Charlie Cresswell and Jamie Shackleton have both signed on loan from Leeds, with their rumoured to be an option to buy next summer in the Shackleton deal. Both look like excellent young players and will be determined to either return to Leeds and break into the starting eleven or convince us to take up said rumoured option.
“In terms of more additions, we’re still an attacker - or two - short, depending on the role Gary Rowett views Isaac Olaofe as having in the squad, or whether another loan move is his best option. Ellis Simms and Dwight Gayle are reportedly targets. We could also do with competition at left wing-back for Scott Malone. Another important piece of business would be tying Danny McNamara down to a new contract. I envisage he will sign being a fan and having come through the academy, particularly with QPR’s offers so far being almost disrespectful as Rowett alluded to in the South London Press.
“It’s all about adding more goals without losing our defensive stability. We’ve consistently had one of the strongest defensive records in the division for the last few years but haven’t been able to add enough goals to turn our huge number of draws into more wins. If we can do that - be it from open play or set pieces, or both - then the play-offs are a real possibility. I think we’ll certainly be in the mix again if the quality of our remaining two/three additions match that of our signings so far. I’m backing Flemming to hit the ground running and show other clubs what they missed out on, with Rowett’s presentations proving a huge reason behind why he chose us. If he does that, the thought of him feeding Afobe and Tom Bradshaw, as well as arriving in and around the box himself for shooting opportunities is an exciting one and we could have a real tilt at it. I’m going to say we’ll finish in the top-six with the league being so open but who knows, it is the Championship after all.”
What we said last season: 7th (finished 9th, -2)
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The U'sual Ramblings #3 by wessex_exile
The U’sual Ramblings #3 comes on the back of an imperious victory at Portman Road, our first there since 13th October 1951, when Jimmy Allen’s U’s won 2-0 courtesy of second half goals from Vic Keeble and Fred Cutting in front of 19,275. This was back in the old Division Three South days, and the U’s would finish the season 10th, with our Suffolk neighbours down in lowly 17th place. Needless to say, some of the gloss of Tuesday’s backs to the wall defensive masterclass was tarnished by the behaviour of a mindless minority in the away end, though the CUFC Police twitter account has since confirmed these were not regular day in day out supporters of Colchester United. Let’s hope investigations identify the culprits, and that they never darken our doorstep again. Our reward is a second round home tie against Premier League Brentford, and whilst it won’t be on the TV, assuming Brentford sell out their 2,000 allocation, it should be a decent crowd and an excellent atmosphere at the JobServe.
The U'sual Ramblings #2 by wessex_exile
The U’sual Ramblings #2, and the U’s first home match of the season. Much has been written on our narrow defeat away at Northampton Town last Saturday, not least that if they are the yard-stick for promotion contenders, we can take plenty of credit (and hope) from most of our performance, which really should have earned a point. However, we’ve seen these false dawns before – remember away at Notts County, and at Bradford, in recent years, where we thought we were playing contenders, and they turned out to be whipping boys for most of the season. Still, I don’t expect that of Northampton, so stout hearts faithful…and wasn’t it great seeing Nouble bombing down the wing doing what he does best again!
The U'sual Rambling #1 by wessex_exile
Here we go folks, are we ready for another rollercoaster of joy and dismay? Right now, I’ll probably take an even mix of both if it guarantees a solid midtable finish, but why stop at that. I agree with Durham in his excellent match review, given how well we finished the second half of the season, ignore the bookies perennial struggler tag – we can do this! For the new season, the blog has slightly metamorphosed into The U’sual Rambling, though largely the same format as last season, albeit perhaps less labour-intensive in content. In my case, pertinent for Saturday given I am missing the opener at Sixfields to dog-sit the beautiful (and high maintenance, super ridiculous, energetic etc.) border collie Reggie.
When Monday Comes #37 by wessex_exile
When Saturday Comes and we reach the end of a topsy-turvy season, much of which hasn’t been that much fun if I’m honest, though latterly considerably improved under Wayne Brown. If I can, I always like to do the first and last game of the season, but sadly a trip to Hartlepool just wasn’t on the cards, not if I actually wanted to get home again tonight, so I had to console myself with a pretty enjoyable trip to the JobServe last weekend – not quite the victory the U’s deserved over Walsall, but a great day out anyway. I know it’ll be too late for the Player of the Year awards, but wouldn’t it be nice to see a Freddie Sears hat-trick this afternoon to round off the season.
When Saturday Comes #36 by wessex_exile
When Saturday Comes tomorrow, and I will be on a train heading over to God’s own county for my last U’s game of the season. That should have been last Friday’s trip to the Principality, but as posted elsewhere I was more than happy to be pre-booked to dog-sit Emma’s collie Reggie that night and had to be content with one of Nadine’s ‘downstreams’ on iFollow. Given both the performance and the result, whilst I was sorry to miss it in person, I was more than happy with how Friday night turned out in the end. Tomorrow will be a gathering of the clans for us, with at the last count at least 8, possibly more, of the family gathering for the match. Ironically, I’ll see them all again on Bank Holiday Monday for a family birthday, but I’ll be driving over for that one.
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