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Season Preview Revisited – Top Half
Saturday, 8th Jun 2024 11:31 by Clive Whittingham

It’s that time of the year again where we look back at the hits and misses from our season preview – this year we either got your team exactly right to the place, or missed by half the division.

1st — Leicester (we said 1st, -)

Shit we said: A club, squad and team with absolutely no business being here in the first place, and tens of millions of pounds to make sure they’re not here for long. It looks absolutely ripe for a repeat of Newcastle’s cakewalk through this level under Rafa Benitez. To go with their parachute payment is £80m for James Maddison and Harvey Barnes, and while other big-name departures will surely follow it will only provide more treasure to spend, you know on things we like.

Coming in, names. More than £20m has been spent already on Tottenham’s Harry Winks, Everton’s Conor Coady and Danish goalkeeper Mads Hermansen. Between the sticks was a real issue for the Foxes in their first year without Kasper Schmeichel, but problem pair Danny Ward and Daniel Iversen were both outstanding in this league previously with Huddersfield and Preston. Man City’s Callum Doyle, excellent for Sunderland and Coventry on loan, has been brought in too. Dewsbury-Hall was superb on loan at Luton previously, and has two years of Premier League football under his belt since then. More will surely follow.

It’s being overseen by Enzo Maresca, who’s had two separate spells with Pep Guardiola at Man City, first guiding their EDS team to their league title, and then as assistant to their all-conquering team last year. I wouldn’t be expecting many channel balls.

It could be that all those little, finer details problems of a complacent, rudderless club on the drift that manifested themselves in last year’s shock relegation take more getting over than we’re giving it credit for. But, honestly, if this squad doesn’t win promotion this year I can’t wait to see the one that does.

Our prediction: 1st “Leicester should absolutely piss this.”

How it went down: And I guess with 31 wins out of 46 games, 87 goals scored and 97 points attained – seven clear of third despite this unique season with a runaway top four – piss it they did. That was certainly how things started for the Foxes, with just one defeat and 13 wins in their first 14 league games. Steady on lads, leave some for everybody else.

QPR, in the final throes of the Gareth Ainsworth doom spiral, were the last fixture in that run and there were genuine complaints about the LFW Prediction League refusing to take scores higher than 10-0. I guess in many ways that fixture at Loftus Road summed up much of what came next for Leicester through the winter. They won the game in W12 as they’d been expected to, and the goals from Mavididi and Winks were, like the goalscorers, a class well above Championship level. But one of the worst QPR teams in living memory had equalised before half time through Andre Dozzell and were well in the game until he ruined all that with a second half brain fart and mindless red card. At the time it felt like it was becoming too easy for Leicester – this their tenth straight league win at the time – and their eye was off the ball slightly. They quickly lost two in a row against Leeds and Boro and although another long unbeaten run followed there were plenty of wobbles to come through a February/March period of one win in eight (including defeat to QPR in the return fixture) and a run in of six wins from their last 16.

The style of play that made Enzo Maresca so attractive to the Leicester owners in the first place became so stubbornly entrenched, regardless of opponent or game state, that the Foxes became predictable to play against. QPR, Millwall, Plymouth and Blackburn all beat them through the spring. Rarely can a manager winning a league with 97 points have been received so lukewarmly by his own crowd, and for much of the second half of the campaign the atmosphere at home games was dire. Few tears and plenty of eyebrows raised then that it’s apparently been performance enough to walk into Mauricio Pochettino’s job at Chelsea which… well, it doesn’t feel like an appointment with a great deal of longevity in it.

2nd — Ipswich (we said 5th, +3)

Shit we said: In the league below the more relaxed FFP rules lead to two broad approaches.

The first is to basically go nuts on exactly the sort of expensive, lavishly salaried, big name 30-somethings with no sell on value who get you into FFP problems in the Championship in the first place. You might successfully bully the third tier into submission with David McGoldrick, James Collins (both Derby), Aden Flint, Lee Gregory, Michael Smith (all Sheff Wed), or Max Power, Charlie Wyke and Will Keane (all Wigan) but are they going to be good enough in the Championship? And are you going to have the FFP headroom under the more stringent rules to perform an overhaul if not?

The trick is to build a vibrant, forward thinking, modern squad of young-ish players in the more favourable financial climate, find that brilliant manager who fits that whole ethos, and then when you arrive in the Championship you’re just one or two signings away from being ready to compete, and one or two brilliant loans away from even more than that. Of the three promoted teams this time, Kieran McKenna’s Ipswich look best set to follow that model.

Their approach best summed up by the January capture of Nathan Broadhead from Everton – easily the best player on the pitch when QPR played Wigan at Loftus Road last October, a scorer for Wales in Croatia at the back end of the campaign, and certainly not anybody with any business being in League One. He, like Ipswich, knew they wouldn’t be down there for long. Conor Chaplin, a regular magnet for message board admiration whenever we used to play him in Barnsley colours, scored 29 goals last time out including 13 in his last 15 games. Jack Taylor is a fine permanent addition from Peterborough and, like Sunderland, they’ve moved quickly and aggressively to get some young Premier League star dust in the form of Omari Hutchinson (Chelsea) and Cieran Slicker (Man City). While QPR take Dominic Gape on trial, Ipswich have extended the contract of a local favourite called Massimo Luongo. Dom Ball, injured for most of last season, is also here.

It's great to have Ipswich back as one of our better, more local away days, after oh so much slogging backwards and forwards to Preston. But in a year where QPR are frantically scrabbling around trying to find three teams worse than them, having one of the promoted lot coming up in health as rude as this is less than ideal. Cole Skuse punting channel balls for Martyn Waghorn and Freddie Sears to waddle after this ain’t.

Our prediction: 5th “Real potential dark horse.”

How it went down: A horse as light and bright as the one on their badge. Even our fairly punchy prediction that a newly promoted team might pile straight through the division and make the play-offs underestimated the ability of this manager, the team he’d assembled, and the momentum behind them.

In typical style, having spent much of the summer building them up, the general footballing public were keen to talk them down once things got underway. Their start of 11 wins and a draw from the first 13 games would “never last”. The Ipswich hype was “getting out of hand”. The number of goals being conceded, the amount of high-scoring narrow wins they were involved in, couldn’t possibly sustain. Two defeats to Leeds at either end of that run, conceding eight in the process, proved the point – see, castle built on sand. The Twitter called them “Deflection FC”, as the wins kept coming… away at Boro… away at Watford.

They strengthened in January, with Kieffer Moore a terrific addition. After a winter wobble they then won nine out of ten games through February and March. Told they would never last the pace with the three relegated Premier League sides ticking along at a record breaking rate, in the end it was them setting it. Four goals were scored against Blackburn, Preston, Millwall and Rotherham. Six against Danny Rohl’s Sheff Wed. The final win in that sequence, at home to Southampton, was fairly typical – two late goals in a comeback 3-2 success. Russell Martin said his team had scored the more aesthetically pleasing goals, and if Ipswich wanted to win like that it was up to them. Yes. Yes it was.

No sooner had promotion been secured than the talk turned to where Kieren McKenna would be moving to, and just how impossible the Tractor Boys would find it in the Premier League. Fuck off all the way over there, and when you get there fuck off all over again. At a time when the Championship is completely dominated by parachute payments, a team piling out of League One playing Kevin Keegan-style ‘you score three we’ll score four’ football, winning automatic promotion and dumping Leeds in the shit in the process is a feel-good story this sport desperately needs and should be celebrated as such.

3rd — Leeds (we said 7th, +4)

Shit we said: Leeds have new owners – American 49ers Enterprises is a consortium that includes golfers Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas as minority investors.

The new manager is Allo’ Allo’ star Daniel Farke, who has won promotion from this level twice before with Norwich but did so at what was then a settled, well-run club with an astute director of football and a substantial chunk of money to spend from the sale of James Maddison which Farke used to bring half the Bundesliga across to Norfolk with him.

Leeds will have all the grotesque financial advantages the other relegated teams have over the rest of the mere mortals at their disposal but, unlike Leicester who’ve already pocketed a further £80m for petty cash from their own sale of Maddison as well as Harvey Barnes, the Whites have been chucking stuff overboard at sale prices. A number of expensive Premier League flops – Koch, Kristensen, Wober, Aaronson, Roca and Llorente, some £90m worth of purchases – are now or shortly to be all out on loan. Rodrigo, who they spent £27m on just three years ago, has gone to Al-Rayvan (shabba) for just £3m. Wilfried Gnonto could be their cash cow if/when he leaves. If he stays he’ll be embarrassingly too good for this level. But delays in this, and the complications of the takeover, mean summer recruitment so far stretches as far as Ethan Ampadu, shortly to turn 23 and now needing to stop waving around his potential and start fucking after six seasons of first team football all over Europe.

They’ve been well backed into second favourite, as you would expect. But this was a midtable Championship team elevated far beyond its means by a generational youth team graduate in midfield and one of the most innovative coaches that’s ever lived. Without either of them they’ve quickly regressed straight back to what they were before. Simple economics might well push them into contention in Farke’s safe pair of hands, though as with Bielsa to Marsch, Marsch to Gracia and Gracia to Allardyce it’s once more replacing one manager with one style with another whose outlook is almost the complete opposite.

They look stodgy and uninspiring to me at first glance. Most tellingly of all, the locals, who are never short of over confidence when it comes to their team, are far more pessimistic about their chances than the outsiders are.

Our Prediction: 7th “The least inspiring of the relegated teams.”

How it went down: Well we said they’d miss the play-offs entirely, and they ended up a Dan James shot at Wembley away from potential glory having narrowly missed out on automatic promotion, but there was more fact than fiction in our call.

Gnonto, along with Luis Sinisterra, both tried to join last summer’s exodus by refusing to play in an early season defeat at Birmingham. Eventually persuaded to stay, all in the garden looked rosy (and our prediction rather foolish) when they started running down Leicester and Ipswich’s hot start with a 15-game unbeaten streak of their own (13 wins in there, steady on vicar) but when it became clear that four into three wouldn’t go they soon emerged as the most vulnerable.

A final international break that saw Wales eliminated from the Euros on penalties, at home, by Poland, didn’t help. Four of Leeds’ regular starters play for Robert Page’s side, and Dan James missed the crucial penalty in the shoot-out. Joe Rodon and Ethan Ampadu, superb together at the back through the first half of the season, suddenly looked shot – both were absolutely abject in a 4-0 humbling at Loftus Road which effectively ended their automatic promotion hopes once and for all. A glorious night on which Leeds fell apart all over again in W12, but they’d lost to Coventry and Blackburn already before that and drawn 0-0 at home to a Sunderland side that wasn’t much good even when it was arsed.

In the play-off final, as in Shepherd’s Bush, Gnonto was down on the floor clutching this and that after nothing very much within the first ten minutes. It didn’t look like they fancied it at ours, and they looked leggy and half-interested in the final. When the chance of an immediate return by cakewalk was on the cards everybody was keen and bouncing around, as soon as it became a bit more challenging the arse went out of the side. You might think that hilarious, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

As we said, the least inspiring of last year’s relegated sides, and the only one still with us.

4th – Southampton (we said 4th, -)

Shit we said: And so we come to that annual bit of the season preview where we talk about how utterly, stupefyingly boring it was watching QPR against Russell Martin’s teams the year before.

Having played 180 minutes against Rangers without even scoring a goal in 21/22, Swansea did at least manage two, and four points, against our rabble in 22/23. They also rose from the dizzying heights of 15th to 10th. But with a striker of the standard of Joel Piroe, 41 goals in two Championship seasons, and the brilliant Matt Grimes in midfield, was that adequate? It was all just terribly predictable. Ryan Manning produced his best season in Swans’ colours, coincidentally just as his contract was running out and having followed Martin to St Mary’s he’ll now start that process all over again. Harry Darling won a header once every six or seven weeks. There were two separate spurts of seven wins from nine games, and two other spells of one win in ten. Martin talked about the process a lot. They beat Cardiff twice. And finished exactly where we said they would, to the place.

For two years of unsuccessfully trying to execute a goal kick routine where the keeper passes it to a square defender and receives the one two back ten yards further forwards before larruping it downfield anyway, Martin has been given one of the biggest jobs in the division. He inherits exactly the sort of youthful, lightweight, footballing squad he adores, and to that you can add Will Smallbone who was Stoke’s best player on loan in this league last year and Nathan Tella who was similar at Burnley. At the moment he’s also got James Ward Prowse, who’ll surely be the best player in this division by a street if he stays – a £25m bid from West Ham was rebuffed a week before the season. Tella may yet return to Burnley, Ward Prowse will surely move on, Kyle Walker-Peters is talking to Fulham so as well as adapting to Martin’s extremes there’s also that chance of the squad looking substantially different by the end of the transfer window, by which time we’re four games deep into the campaign. There’ll likely be £100m of sales to come here along with parachute payments and £10m of that has already gone on Man City junior Shea Charles. Adam Armstrong was too good for this league at Blackburn, and Che Adams should do nicely back at his level.

It’s the flattest track possible for Martin to prove his precious process works after all. But he’ll also inherit expectations, and a toxic atmosphere among a demanding fan base sick and tired of years of decline at their club. There were boos from the stand as they lost 3-2 to Bournemouth in pre-season.

Our prediction: 4th “I just don’t trust this manager…”

How it went down: For the second year running we called Russell Martin’s team right to the place, but are we right about him? He now has his promotion to stick to critics of his trophy-less times at MK Dons and Swansea, and the Saints’ execution of a potentially difficult pair of play-off fixtures was note perfect right down to the three clean sheets in three matches.

And yet the myriad advantages available to clubs like Southampton at this level (they added £187m in received transfer fees to their parachute payment last summer) means it’s something of a failure to have to do the play-offs at all, let alone get beaten to the automatics by a League One promoted side like Ipswich. Southampton didn’t spend a great deal of that money (relatively) but were still able to add the likes of David Brooks, Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Flynn Downes to a relegated Premier League squad, while Adam Armstrong sticking around was always going to be a guaranteed 20+ goals.

I guess it comes down to whether you like Martin and his football or you don’t. The opening day at Sheff Wed was instructive – half of football eulogising over 500+ completed passes in the first half, 900+ in total (both Championship records) and Martin marching out ahead of his players to do look-at-me triple fist salutes to the away end, but Sheff Wed won none of their first 14 games and Saints needed a late goal from one of their £20m subs to win 2-1. The way he’s spoken about his own past, the way he’s pulled together a fractured club, the way he’s dismissed the St Mary’s Rishi Sunak circus, the club record 20+ game unbeaten run, has won many friends. But the missing out on automatic promotion, the long periods of time you just wish they’d get on with it, the muscle-fit tees and post match celebrations, the chippy interviews when anybody dares to beat them playing another way, still grate.

Ultimately it was job done.

5th – West Brom (we said 13th, +8)

Shit we said: As owner Guochuan Lai’s money has dried up, and the general Chinese attitude to hoarding foreign football clubs has changed, the Baggies are left with an entirely absent owner, who’s in too deep to sell, but no longer wants to fund. In fact, it’s even worse than Lai no longer wanting to fund, he’s actually taking money out to prop up his other Covid-stricken businesses. West Brom paid a £5m loan to Lai’s day job, which he promised to repay but has missed four deadlines to do so and the club’s new auditors have written off in their first report on the situation. From a debt-free, well-run club living within its means, with Dan Ashworth holding court in its matchday programme on how to run football clubs, this lot are now in the shit up to their neck. They have taken out a £20m loan from a US off-the-shelf company with interest payable at 14%. The latest set of accounts also shows a £3m loan with an annual interest charge approaching 80%. The £5m loan to the owner’s business is long gone. Their parachute payments cease imminently. Lai is essentially using the club as a cash point to take out the last of his overdraft, propping himself, and it, up with loans from the sort of companies that advertise in the breaks on This Morning. Gourlay, another club successfully torpedoed, has moved on.

West Brom needed to be promoted in May. Without it the auditors say their only hope of avoiding a financial meltdown is a large amount of player sales for serious money, and they have fetched a reasonable fee from Burnley for Dara O’Shea to keep the wolf from the door this summer. But West Brom had the oldest team in the Championship and spent last summer bringing Jed Wallace and John Swift in on the sort of wages they’d previously only read about in books. Sellable assets here are few and far between. One of them, Daryl Dike, gets hurt more than Kenny from South Park and starts off injured yet again. Thomas-Asante is the only fit striker on the books, with Karlan Grant – only 25 and a player they paid £8m for – now on loan at divisional rival Cardiff. Jeremy Sarmiento, churned out of Brighton’s random football generator, is the only new arrival on loan.

There is talk of a much needed £60m takeover but, conversely, it’s French cryptobro Fred Chesnais behind it and, as Preston and later Derby found out with Chris Kirchner, you can’t pay for football clubs or football players with JPGs of cartoon monkeys. Corberan has proven himself a brilliant manager at this level, capable of achieving against the odds and without the ball. But he walked out of Huddersfield when the financial going got grim and how long he sticks around for in this mess could be a key factor in the direction of travel. He’s the bright light in what is otherwise a complete mess.

Our Prediction: 13th “This time last year West Brom’s manager was their biggest problem, now he’s their biggest asset. Without a takeover here, however, he faces significant obstacles.”

How it went down: Our first big miss of the preview, out by eight places, and given West Brom did get their takeover, preventing the Lai-led Armageddon, it’s reasonable to assume that’s the reason. It wasn’t. West Brom signed five loans and one free transfer, the most successful of whom was Celtic’s enigmatic Micky Johnston, and spent nothing.

While we eulogised throughout the preview about the restorative powers of Carlos Corberan, who got this version of Huddersfield Town to a play-off final, we still managed to underestimate his ability to hoist a distinctly mediocre football team several thousand miles above it’s true, natural level. West Brom, as they showed across a scoreless 180 minutes in the play-off with Southampton, had little business being in the end of season knockouts. They got absolutely annihilated at Loftus Road and escaped with a draw by fair luck and foul means. While we sweat over Marti Cifuentes’ future as a rapid round of managerial merry-go-round dominates the early summer chat, it’s astonishing to me this guy isn’t getting linked here there and everywhere. West Brom, meanwhile, now sans-parachute payments, join idiot scum like us, takeover or no takeover.

And Daryl Dike blew his Achilles out again. Because of course.

6th – Norwich (we said 16th, +10)

Shit we said: Norwich flew out of the gates with the early captures of 33-year-old Ashley Barnes and 31-year-old Shane Duffy. Look, quote it back to me in May if you like, I’m wrong all the time, but these feel like the signings of a team settling in for a long old sit at the Championship table. Fail to get promoted this year and those parachute payments start declining into an FFP ticking clock. Their previous cheat sheet at this level, Teemu Pukki, has left for the MLS after an outstanding return of 88 goals in 210 appearances in yellow.

Stuart Webber and David Wagner did brilliant things together at Huddersfield, and the sporting director’s early combination with another German, Daniel Farke, repeated the trick initially at Carrow Road. But he’s come under heavy fire in recent months after their aborted attempt to spend their way into Premier League survival last time out ended disastrously. Having reunited with Wagner it seems strange that he will now depart “imminently”, although exactly when that will be and what sort of replacement they’ll get is part of an increasingly confused and defensive club communication strategy which is exacerbating strained relationships with a large and loyal fanbase in these parts.

Big money coming in for a Max Aarons type may lead to the sort of squad reinvention Farke was able to perform early in his reign with the James Maddison money, but Aarons didn’t exactly tear up many trees last season either. Perhaps Andrew Omobamidele might be a better bet for a discerning shopper. They’ve also, in theory, got a lot of injured players who missed a poor run of one win in the last 11 games to come back in – though new signing Borja Sainz is already missing the first three months.

There is, simply put, very little to get excited about here bar Gabriel Sara and Marcelino Nunez. It looks like a big stretch even for the top half of the table at this stage, never mind the top six.

Our Prediction: 16th “Been wrong before though.”

How it went down: Wrong again we were, spectacularly so. Here’s big miss number two of the preview, and this one is basically by half a division (don’t worry, there’s more of these to come). Let’s be honest here though, even fucking Norwich have got no idea how they made the play-offs this season and they were predictably roundly trounced by Leeds as soon as they did get there at which point David Wagner was immediately sacked.

Sara (ever present, 13 goals from midfield) is indeed footballing loveliness personified. You’ll get interest in Sainz, a great pick up on a free. Sargent calmly scored 16 goals in 24 starts. But, fuck me, this lot were a grim watch. Choosing to play without the ball is not a Norwich way of going about things - the fans spent most of the first half of the season calling for Wagner’s head and then tolerated him only so long as the top six push held and not a second longer. Signing a whole load of experienced Championship stodge got them so far, but they lost every single one of their ’away fatigued’ games in three-game weeks and Shane Duffy prepared for the play-offs by getting tanked up on a Bank Holiday and driving home (again). Still, at least he was heading home to the right girlfriend this time.

Hope comes in the money they did indeed get for Aarons (£8m) and Omobamidele (£10m, somehow) which postpones their parachute-payment declines, and the arrival of new sporting director Ben Knapper and his trendy Scandi managerial bod, with Stuart Webber disappearing into a distance of oh-so-many Radio Norwich interviews about how all the club’s black players would be in prison if it wasn’t for him.

A play-off team in name only. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

7th – Hull City (we said 15th, +8)

Shit we said: It’s been, as you would expect, a calmer summer than last. Four new arrivals to this point, two on loan and Hull the latest Championship club to try and unlock that apparent potential in Liam Delap who played for Stoke and Preston last year like he’d put his boots on the wrong feet. One would expect more arrivals, particularly in goal where loanee Karl Darlow has elected to go elsewhere permanently, but having spent big on wages last summer FFP will restrict them this. Aaron Connolly’s two goals against QPR in January were nothing to write home about – you’d have fancied yourself for a brace the way Dickie and Dunne played that day – and he only managed six appearances overall, but a permanent move from Brighton is being mooted regardless.

Plenty of positives though. Rosenior, who made such a good impact upon arrival, has had a full summer to work with his troops. Estupinan, Sayyadmanesh and the other foreign imports from 12 months ago are a year in now, know what it’s all about and are ready to go. Meandering winger Dogukan (Catucan’t) Sinik is back for a second swing at things after spending most of his first year back home on loan at Antalyaspor. Jean Serri and Ozan Tufan make a formidable midfield pair, and it’s not unreasonable to hope that an injury list of a dozen players all missing at once won’t recure to quite those extremes again. Jacob Greaves and Ryan Longman are my favourites from the English contingent, the former is only 12 months into a new four-year contract after the Tigers fended off interest in their centre half from Boro and others but is already attracting big money attention from elsewhere again. Former Sheff Utd junior Regan Slater has looked good in pre-season.

Our prediction: 15th “Once again, the hardest call on the coupon.”

How it went down: The big misses keep on coming.

We’ve long debated putting our season preview out on September 1 rather than the last week of the summer, and Hull City’s class of 23/24 is a prime example of why. We’ve found them a hard call for several years anyway but no sooner had we hit send on last summer’s preview they went out and added Jaden Philogene from Villa for £5m and Fabio Carvalho from Liverpool was still to come. QPR lost 3-0 there to a midfield of those two, Seri and Tufan – 120 international caps and £50m worth of talent right there. Ryan Giles, Posh Scott Twine, Billy Sharp, Tyler Morton, Anass Zaroury… all played football here last season – 17 signings by the time they’d finished. Only Chris Willock’s wage demands proved beyond them.

It is now clear Turkish owner Acun Illicali intends to spend, and spend big, until Hull City are a Premier League club once again. Even lifting the Tigers from lower midtable to the cusp of the play-offs was not enough for promising young manager Liam Rosenior to keep his job – too many home draws, complaints about the style of play, and a weird fascination with persisting with poppadom handed goalkeeper Ryan Allsopp come hell or high home defeat saw him lose his job after the final game.

We’ll be tipping them higher next season, and if they don’t match that we can expect them to start rattling through bosses.

8th – Middlesbrough (we said 2nd, -6)

Shit we said: In what looks like a much stronger Championship this year than last, we’ll quickly find out whether Carrick’s immediate and dramatic impact at the Riverside was the start of a new managerial dynasty, or simply extreme new manager bounce from a talented squad that was grossly underperforming for a problematic predecessor. Ryan Giles has gone, and is not returning. Cameron Archer has gone, and is not returning. Is Chuba Akpom going to do 28 goals in 35 games again without them, or go back to being what he’d always been before? He hasn’t played at all in pre-season amidst talk of a transfer.

In goal, a familiar face. Seny Dieng may have been poor for QPR in 22/23, but playing in that team, in that form, behind four centre backs in varying stages of nervous or physical breakdown, cannot have been easy. A fresh start, away from the bright lights of London that shine clearly through his busy Instagram account (“don’t let him out” said Viktor Anichebe under his move announcement), could be good for him and work very well for Boro who flew by the seat of their pants with the somewhat wild Zack Steffen and suffered the many calamitous adventures of Joe Lumley the year before. After 24 months of that it’s perhaps little wonder Dieng is one of three goalkeepers signed this summer already.

There’s a focus on youth, speed and technical in the other recruits. Winger Mogan Rodgers (20) is in from Man City academy, forward Alex Gilbert (19) from Brentford B and defender Rav Van Den Berg (18) from Zwolle. Martin Payero is back for a second swing at the Championship after a year back in South America. More will follow, and their success could depend on how close their new ventures into the loan market get to the impossibly high standard set by Archer.

Our Prediction: 2nd “Fuck it, make me another omelette.”

How it went down: We underestimated the effect of the talent drain – Giles and Archer were big misses, though persuading anybody to part with £10m for Chuba Akpom remains the greatest piece of transfer business of all time – and how long new bodies would take to bed in.

The LFW memorial millstone weighed heavy round their neck initially – no wins from the first seven games. That immediately set you back in a season when the top four ran on take-off power for months. Following it with six straight wins made it look like a repeat of 22/23 was on the cards, but Boro constantly stuttered through the winter and a run all the way through to a League Cup semi-final not only clogged their fixture list but also handed them a significant mental blow when they lost the second leg of that 6-1 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Spoiler alert – we’ll be tipping them highly again. They finished the year with one defeat and seven wins from the last 12 games. Emmanuel Latte Lath, who struggled to settle initially, scored in all of his last six appearances and bagged 11 in the final 12 games. Dutch centre back Rav van den Berg, still only 19, looked one of the best signings in the division.

Could be dangerous next year now everybody’s settled in, but then we’ve said that somewhere before.

9th – Coventry (we said 8th, -1)

Shit we said: It’s a bit of a fool’s errand to base predictions for one club on the performance of another previously, but these previews don’t write themselves. In the last two years a team that made the play-offs against all odds and came up just short subsequently crashed and burned into a relegation battle a year later. Valerian Ismael’s Barnsley revolution cratered into relegation to League One a year later, and Huddersfield were singularly fortunate to survive in 22/23 after an afternoon of buggery from referee Jon Moss in the play-off final left them with an arse like a clown’s pocket. In both cases the team that over-performed had key players poached - Daryl Dike and Alex Mowatt from the Tykes, Harry Toffolo and Lewis O’Brien from the Terriers – without adequate replacement. Coventry, having outperformed all expectations to come within a missed penalty of the Premier League, have this summer finally sold star man Gyokeres to Sporting Lisbon for £18m. And so the obvious conclusion to draw is that they’re ripe for regression.

Barnsley and Huddersfield, however, also both lost the inspirational manager who got them there – Ismael to West Brom, Corberan to Olympiakos. Coventry’s big strength is the calm, methodical, astute and tactically superb management of Mark Robins, and more importantly the perfect fit and relationship he has with this club in particular. He remains. Robins dragged Coventry up from League Two to a Championship play-off final with zero money to spend, two separate spells of homelessness, wildly incompetent ownership and the club lurching from one crisis to the next. Now he’s got a benevolent new owner in Doug King, a revitalised home crowd turning up behind his team in ever greater volume and volume, money to spend from the Gyokeres sale, and a feeling that this is finally a club on the up and on the move.
Perhaps a Robins with money will be the mule with the spinning wheel – nobody knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it – but the summer business doesn’t immediately suggest that. Ellis Simms was electric on loan at Sunderland, and looks a great pick up from Everton for a starting fee only just north of £3m (it rises exponentially in clauses mind). Replacing Gyokeres is like replacing Giambi, I’ve told you guys we can’t do it, but Simms looks a fair stab at the task. If Callum O’Hare can regain fitness, and more importantly still the division’s outstanding midfielder Hamer be kept, this could be an attack that goes again after all. Worth pointing out that while the focus is obviously on the top scorer departing, Cov have also lost the bulk of a defence that kept 20 clean sheets, including influential Man City loanee Callum Doyle who will this year play up the road in Leicester colours and Luke McNally who looked great and is now back with Burnley. Only Birmingham, QPR and Watford have lost more starting minutes from last season’s squads than Cov’s 17,750.

Elsewhere the signings they’ve made look seriously shrewd. Fankaty Dabo’s last touch for the club turned out to be the penalty miss at Wembley. He was taken up into the woods and released, along with QPR legend Todd Kane who’s presumably just waiting by the phone for Sheff Utd to call with that Premier League move. They’ve been replaced by Milan Van Ewijk, a 22-year-old from Heerenveen that half the continent was looking at. This smart scouting of Europe continues with Japanese midfielder Tatsuhiro Sakamoto (luckily he says we can call him “Tats”) from Oostende and Luis Binks, a former Spurs academy player, on loan from Bologna. Good pickups from the free transfer market include Jay DaSilva at left back from Bristol City, and match reporter’s nightmare Joel Latibeaudiere from Swansea. They liked enough of what they saw of Burnley’s Bobby Thomas on loan at fellow play-off sufferers Barnsley last year to give him a Championship go as well. This is good stuff, at good ages – 22, 22, 22, 26, 26, 25, 21. Everywhere you look positions are being upgraded.

The Hamer thing is the big unknown. Out of contract next summer he could walk away for free, but the Gyokeres sale perhaps makes that less of a problem. Keep him, add another couple to this squad, and have Simms perform even half as well as Gyokeres did, and perhaps Coventry might emulate the team that beat them in the final instead – nobody expected Luton to make the six in 21/22, never mind repeat it and go one better in 22/23.

Our prediction: 8th “I had them as low as twelfth in some early drafts, because obviously with Gyokeres gone and the defence broken up they’re going to falter from what was already a significant over achievement. But the more additions they make with that money, and the more I look at what else is out there in the division, the more I’ve come to like them again. If Hamer goes all bets are off, but if he stays I’ve had them as high as fifth.”

How it went down: Hamer did indeed follow Gyokeres through the exit door, and it mattered not one jot. Mark Robins’ calm management and Coventry’s steady climb back to greatness continued apace.

This season followed the patten of the last – a poor summer of friendlies, significant departures and late arrivals, one win from the first eight, three from the first 16, a cup embarrassment at Wimbledon. A climb back as far as the play-off places proved beyond them, but a run right the way through to the FA Cup semi-finals did not. Their 3-2 quarter final win away at Premier League Wolves, a game they trailed in the 92nd minute, was one of the competition’s greatest. It would have been surpassed by a semi-final comeback from 3-0 down to beat Manchester United 4-3 at Wembley in the last second of extra time – but of course we now have to let some gimp with a laptop examine such moments for five or six minutes before deciding whether they can proceed and instead we end up with Man Utd lifting the cup themselves while IShowSpeed wanks himself to death into his GoPro and uses his hospitality pass for the clean-up. Because that’s much better for football, apparently.

If that had happened to us I’m not sure I’d ever go to football again. It’s little wonder City’s play-off push withered on the vine. There are positive signs for next season though. Like Middlesbrough, a couple of last summer’s signings took time to settle and then came on strong – Simms scored two in his first 26 (both against us, natch) then scored 16 in 18 including two hat tricks, Haji Wright got 13 of his 19 goals after Christmas. They banked the thick end of £40m in transfer fees last summer, there’s a Gyokeres sell-on fee coming soon, and interest is building in Ben Sheaf and others.

The momentum rather went out of their season after the scandalous Wembley heartbreak, but this lot will be very well positioned to push strongly come August.

10th – Preston (we said 19th, +9)

Shit we said: While there was begrudging respect for Ben Pearson’s travelling shithouse circus, Daniel Johnson always plays well against us, and Ben Whiteman truly is the one who got away for QPR’s recruitment team, by and large the best Preston players against us in recent years have been loans – Anthony Gordon and his many celebrated birthdays, Cameron Archer, Daniel Iversen, Sepp van den Berg, Alvaro Fernadez etc. When they do good, they use the loan pen; when they do bad, it’s when those loanees don’t come back. Gordon, Archer and Iversen all used the Deepdale springboard to bigger and better things, and the team was worse off without them. Occasionally, such as with Newcastle keeper Freddie Woodman, they are able to fill their positions with a good permanent signing. But more often I seem to sit here each summer and suck my teeth about Preston’s prospects if they can’t either get their Archer-type from the season before back, or find his equivalent. It can feel like borrowing players from the league above, and some very sound managerial appointments, cover up a multitude of other incompetence and corner cutting at a club run by Peter Ridsdale.
That’s the case again this season. They looked to be sagging badly through last winter until Everton’s Cannon turned up and, although the feminist’s friend Ched Evans and Dane Emil Riis are to come back and join the attack after horrendous long term injuries, replacing him or bringing him back looks to be job one, two and three. So much so Ridsdale is reportedly considering sanctioning Everton’s desired loan fee of a cool £1m – this time next year the money’s gone, so is Cannon, and you’re back at square one, but it’s perhaps testament to just how concerned Preston are about what they’ve got without him. Will Keane looks a fairly desperate pick up to me.

There are better signings elsewhere. We’ll see what becomes of their latest £1m Scandi, Odense’s Mads Frokjaer-Jensen, but picking Jack Whatmough up from Wigan amidst a flurry of other suitors, including ourselves, is excellent business on a free. Assuming he can refrain from shagging the club’s podcast host this time that is – we don’t have these problems with Paul Finney.

We’ll place them low down, but as ever two or three loan additions late in the window once Premier league squads are named will quickly change all that.

Our Prediction: 19th “Pending further loan arrivals.”

How it went down: Well, given they then went out and got Calvin Ramsey from Liverpool and Liam Millar from Basel (excellent at Loftus Road) I guess I could sit here and go “see, toldja” despite placing them nine lower than they finished. I’m not going to do that, and not only because having said Will Keane was a ropey signing he then scored a very creditable 13 goals in 32 starts.

I was worried for North End last summer, am amazed they finished as high up the league as they did, and I suspect so are they. This was QPR’s only double, completed without conceding a goal, and they were shocking in both games. The 2-0 win at frozen and silent Deepdale in December looked like being the end of the road for manager Ryan Lowe. The 1-0 at Loftus Road, gifted to us by Freddie Woodman, was part of a run in that saw them lose their last five games without scoring a single goal – Preston haven’t scored since April 9 and have won three of their last 12 games.

Mads Frokjaer-Jensen looks another shrewd bit of Scandi business, and a run of seven wins and just two defeats in 12 after Christmas threatened the play-offs and kept Lowe in his job, but overall the highlight remained the remarkable and wholly unpredictable start of one draw and six wins to begin the season which meant whatever happened after that they were always going to be okay.

I suspect I’ll fear for them all over again in August.

11th – Bristol City (we said 11th, -)

Shit we said: We like Bristol City a lot as a potential big mover up the division this year.

Nigel Pearson is now the third longest serving boss in the league and that stability seems to be soothing for City. The early sale of Semenyo basically enabled preparations for 23/24 to start in January when they brought in Harry Cornick from Luton, Anis Mehmeti from Wycombe, and let Martin waddle off towards our cake stand. The core of the team had aged – Matty James, Andy King, Nahki Wells, Andi Weimann are all at the wrong end of their careers – so Chris won’t be the last gently ushered out to pasture.

They’d clearly planned the first part of their summer well in advance too and flew out of the blocks in the first week of the close season picking up defenders Ross McCrorie from Aberdeen, Haydon Roberts from Brighton, and our own head fuck Rob Dickie who, kindly put, needs a fresh start. City’s centre backs were absolutely woeful in our 2-1 win at Ashton Gate last year, the excellent Nathan Baker has sadly had to admit defeat in his battle with concussion and retire at 31, and their poor runs came when defenders and defensive midfielders were missing so strengthening the depth and starting line up in those areas was an obvious first priority.

Jason Knight is a super capture. The relentless 22-year-old midfielder from Derby already has 20 full Irish caps to his name. An absolute pain in the arse. Slick business.

Much beyond that will depend on Scott. Socks rolled down, playing in the ten role, he made that final game of last season in W12 look embarrassingly easy, like he was playing on the beach back home in Guernsey with his mates. City played everything into, off, and through him on the day. There hasn’t been a player as good as him in this league since Eze, and if he stays in City colours who knows what he and they might achieve. More likely he’s sold, but he was back in the team for the weekend friendly at Portsmouth. The club are, quite rightly, holding out for the £25m, and the Semenyo deal takes the pressure off them to cave for less. Wolves have had a crack at bullying them, and not got very far. Selling him, now or later, is exactly what the model for clubs like us and them requires, and if it is to be this summer then when that happens and what they do with the money will determine the outcome of the 46 games ahead.

Our Prediction: 11th “Really all hinges on what happens with Scott, or the money they get for him. I like them a lot.”

How it went down: Another we got right to within a place, and after finishes of 12th, 19th, 17tth and 14th a top half placing represents progress.

City looked in really good shape to me in August. They’d already banked a big cash sale in Antoine Semenyo which enabled them to fly out of the blocks in the summer transfer window with acquisitions like Jason Knight from Derby who I rate highly, and our own Rob Dickie who in the latest ‘but of course’ moment in this review promptly went on to sweep the board at their player of the year awards. With a good core of experienced Championship campaigners, including Nahki Wells (his kids love that zoo), it only needed the sort of stardust that could have been added when the predicted sale of star boy Alex Scott to Bournemouth went through to push them on even further.

Ultimately, they weren’t as aggressive with that money as I’d expected – perhaps burned by the financial hole they’d dug themselves into over the Covid seasons. Ostrich botherer Nigel Pearson was a surprise managerial casualty having successfully led the rebuild out of those times. Liam Manning, who could well have been our manager but for Honest Mick’s world beating PowerPoint pres, was a progressive poach from high flying Oxford, but they struggled for consistency under his guidance. They’d go on a run of one defeat in eight including a win at Boro and FA Cup triumph over West Ham, then lose four in a row. A second half of the season perhaps best summed up by them ending Southampton’s club-record run of 22 games without a loss in spectacular fashion at Ashton Gate on the Tuesday, then losing 1-0 there to our rabble four days later.

Still, five wins and three draws from the last ten games, including a 5-0 against Blackburn and 1-0 versus champions Leicester, they’ll be one to watch again next season.

12th – Cardiff (we said 20th, +8)

Shit we said: It’s been another summer of amateur air traffic controlling, peering through the tinted windows of mysterious Range Rovers, and enhancing the appearance of your micro-penis by pretending to be a football agent or freelance journalist on Twitter. The subject of the furore this time was Aaron Ramsey, and Cardiff have managed to get it over the line on a free transfer from Nice. They’ve chucked his son into their academy too for good measure, although he’s only seven. Now, if you’ve had the misfortune to see much of Rob Page’s Wales of late – recently dicked 4-2 at home by Armenia – you may be labouring under the impression that Aaron Ramsey’s actually a bit shite these days. Nevertheless, they’re all jolly excited about the prospect of him playing for his hometown team for the first time since 2011, and I guess when we’re out here trying to convince ourselves Jack Colback might not be a terrible idea we can’t really talk can we?

He'll be managed, at least to begin with, by German-born Turk Erol Bulut. At one stage the rumour was Steve Morison was going to come back into the job for a second time and start talking at length about all Steve Morison’s brilliant ideas again, which would have just written itself, but no instead they’ve given us this bad Scrabble hand to try and research. As a player he divided his career between Germany, Turkey and Greece, winning a league and cup with Fenerbahce, and consecutive league titles with Olympiacos. As a manager he’s forged something of a reputation for doing stuff with not a lot – fifth place in the Turkish Super Lig and a Europa League campaign with Yeni Malatyaspor, and then a cup final and more European adventures with Alyanaspor. He was then given the big gig back at Fener, and clocked a win percentage over 60%, but first is first and second is nowhere in that job and with them eventually finishing third in 2021 behind bitter rivals Galatasaray and champions Besiktas he was binned off. He’s used his knowledge of the Turkish leagues to add monstrous Greek centre back Dimitrious Goutas to a defence regaining Jamilou Collins, after his season ended just four games in last time out, alongside Big Dick Ng.

As ever with Cardiff there’s a whole clutch of ins and outs. Another six arrivals to date rather makes a mockery of their “transfer embargo” which forbids them paying a fee for a player until January next year over their fairly despicable attempts to avoid paying Nantes for the late Emiliano Sala. A new look strike force of Karlan Grant on loan from West Brom, Yakou Meite from the disaster zone at Reading, and 24-year-old Ike Ugbo whose career already includes stints with Chelsea, Scunthorpe, Roda, Genk and Troyes, will hope to improve on last season’s 41 goals scored which was the league’s worst total apart from relegated Wigan. Mark Harris has gone and started life at Oxford by running a sword through our pathetic defence at the weekend, they’ve given up on the idea of Max Watters and shifted him to Barnsley, and Gavin Whyte is now with Pompey. Josh Bowler’s ongoing attempts to deliberately transfer himself away from any slim chance of ever playing first team football have been dealt a blow this week with a loan here where he’ll presumably be expected to turn out occasionally wide on the right.

After finishes of 18th and 21st there’s very little love around for Cardiff in this summer’s season previews and predictions. With the Sala tragedy finally settled by Fifa and Cardiff ordered to pay the remaining balance of the transfer, plus the arrival of Ramsey, there’s a good deal of consternation at clubs like ours about how exactly this all fits within FFP. The manager is an unknown quantity on these shores and the owner’s another megalomaniac idiot. But in South Wales, buoyed by the returning Ramsey, there’s actually a deal of optimism around for the first time in a while.

Our prediction: 20th “Not for me Clive.”

How it went down: Inheriting a team that had finished 18th and 21st, with the league’s second worst attack, and a light transfer embargo was some task for Erol Bulut’s debut in the English league even before you get to the fact the chairman’s fucking mental. Star returner Aaron Ramsey, predictably, played only half a dozen times after September 16.

I think to finish midtable with this team, at this club, was a significant achievement by this manager, and I’m not just saying that because we strongly fancied them to go down. The underlying numbers here are abysmal – only Rotherham were lower than the Bluebirds in the end of season xG league table. While that’s obviously all a bit Dean Smith’s Justice League for the tastes of LFW and its audience (hello to both) it does strongly hint at a poor team propped up by an uncanny ability to score from corners – 20 goals from set pieces was by far the league’s best total, and included two defensively shambolic goals at Loftus Road to leach a 2-1 win out of a shocking game in what would become fairly trademark Cardiff style.

Does/can that continue for another season? And will Bulut even be around to try and make it happen? We have strong doubts about both, and will place them low again in August.

Links >>> Season Preview – Strugglers >>> Season Preview – Mid-Table >>> Season Preview – Contenders

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