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Home » Season Previews » Sky Bet Championship Season Preview 2015/16 – Part One

Sky Bet Championship Season Preview 2015/16 – Part One

That their promotion was a fairytale story is something of a myth, but Bournemouth’s Championship title win does provide some inspiration to the 24 sides who will be competing in England’s second tier this season.

For it shows, that regardless of perceived size, promotion is an achievable aim for all in this division. Ambition is needed, an amount of money must be spent, and a clear strategy is required, but it’s something that is within reach for more clubs than it’s not.

But so too does Wigan Athletic’s relegation provide an element of caution, if not fear, to second tier sides. A side who finished in the top six the season before, and were tipped for a repeat, can easily find themselves sucked into a relegation battle.

It means the Championship can be hard to analyse and predict prior to the season’s kick-off. A team few anticipated to be challenging for a play-off place will undoubtedly be up there come May, and a side that many had high hopes for will be struggling down the bottom.

But, once again, I’ve ignored common sense and put my (already minimal) reputation on the line. All 24 teams will be assessed in depth over the course of four parts. The first featuring some of the division’s most intriguing sides.

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Birmingham City

Whisper it quietly, and with every bit of caution possible, but a much sought after sense of normality might well be returning to St. Andrews.

It hasn’t quite made an appearance just yet. While the imprisoned Carson Yeung maintains ownership of the club through the in receivership Birmingham International Holdings Limited, there will remain unease and a feeling that the crisis club tag which has been with the Blues for many seasons now has not yet disappeared. 45101-3025

However, with an exclusivity agreement signed with potential buyers Trillion Trophy Asia, Panos Pavlakis and his fellow directors seemingly running the club well on the ground, and Gary Rowett and his side providing stability on the pitch, things are genuinely looking up for the first time since relegation from the Premier League and a subsequent play-off failure in 2012.

That normality will be celebrated shows the extent of the turmoil the club has been in since. Yeung’s ownership crippling the club and depleting the quality of the squad, St Andrews a near-empty and depressing place, and relegation fears only relieved after Rowett’s appointment last season.

But with normality on the horizon, so too is positivity. Years of regression means the Premier League is not a realistic target in the short-term, but the security a takeover should bring and the relative success Rowett can provide could be the beginning of the end of a period in which vice-president Michael Wiseman believes the club have been merely “existing”.

The Manager – Gary Rowett

When Rowett was appointed as Birmingham manager at the end of October 2014, the Blues were sitting 23rd in the Championship. The momentum gained from Lee Clark keeping the club in the division on the final day of the previous season had long since vanished, and there was a genuine feeling they wouldn’t be so lucky on this occasion.

Especially with a gamble taken to appoint the Burton boss. The step up to the Championship seemed a big one, regardless off the wonders he had worked to make an unfancied side one of the best in League Two.

But a young and ambitious manager was exactly what a club in reverse, and a side playing without confidence, needed. He immediately spoke with belief which spread, he organised a seemingly lost group of players and got them playing more purposeful football, and results started to be achieved.

52 points were taken from Rowett’s 32 league games in charge. The Blues eventually finishing 10th, and were the eighth best team in the division from the 41-year-old’s appointment onward.

It means Rowett has built a very solid platform from which to build upon going into this season.

Transfer Business

Arguably the most important signature Birmingham have and will secure this summer is that of a player that already belonged to them.

For to tie exciting young winger Demarai Gray down to a three-year deal, especially with Premier League Bournemouth circling, is a huge boost for the club.

Of course, should Birmingham remain a mid-table Championship club, then a talent like Gray will eventually depart. But to know the 19-year-old will either contribute towards the Blues on the pitch or demand a large fee and contribute towards their bank balance is extremely reassuring.

Elsewhere, the departure of goalkeeper Darren Randolph to West Ham has been offset by the arrival of experienced stopper Tomasz Kuszczak, who is likely to be first choice ahead of returning academy graduate Adam Legzdins.

Former Burton man Jacques Maghoma has also been snapped up after his release from Sheffield Wednesday. The versatile midfielder was inconsistent at best while at Hillsborough, but a reunion with his former boss, under who he impressed, could result in the 27-year-old rediscovering his best form.

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The Squad

The relative weakness of Birmingham’s squad makes Rowett’s achievements last season all the more impressive.

In fact, the only genuine cause for concern at St. Andrews at the moment is the slight lack of quality and worrying amount of bodies available.

With few first teamers departing, a decent core exists. Michael Morrison played a vital part in the revival after arriving from Charlton last season, while ever-present Clayton Donaldson’s 15 goals were as beneficial as his hold up play and diligent work in attack.

But without the loan players who contributed towards the end of last season, namely Robert Tesche, Diego Fabbrini, and Lloyd Dyer, there are holes to plug in Birmingham’s squad. Particularly in the centre of midfield, with Stephen Gleeson, who has failed to impress after arriving from MK Dons, seemingly the only available partner for David Davis.

The current ownership situation means that player recruitment is likely to be complicated, and the Blues may have to rely again on short-term signings to bolster their squad until the takeover is completed.

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Fans Views: Natalie Whitehouse (@_natwhitehouse)

With a takeover potentially on the horizon, a sense of stability returning, and Gary Rowett impressing as manager, is this the most positive you’ve felt about the Blues in some time?

Definitely. Although I do think a takeover is still a long way off, the feeling around the club as a whole is definitely much more positive than this time last year and Gary Rowett has a lot to do with that.

Regardless of any sense of positivity, how far away from a return to the Premier League do you remain? Is this another season where a mid-table finish will be a relative success?

After Rowett took over in November we managed to finish tenth which, given our awful start to the campaign, was excellent. I’d like to finish there or there abouts again this season. As for a return to the Premier League, that won’t happen until a takeover has been completed and we are financially stable once more, which, as I said above, is further off than we would like it to be.

A number of Charlton supporters, myself included, are still disappointed that Michael Morrison was allowed to leave the club. Just how impressive has been in a Birmingham shirt?

He’s been brilliant and is one of the reasons we did so well last season, no doubt about it. And I think he’d be even better if he had a strong, consistent centre back alongside him and they can get a god partnership going.

Securing the future of Demarai Gray was obviously important, but do you think other youngsters, such as Koby Arthur and Denny Johnstone, could make an impact this season?

Koby Arthur is a really good little player and I’d like to see more of him this season, and he does seem to be in Rowett’s plans. As for Johnstone, we’ve hardly seen him since we signed him, he’s been given a small chance during pre season but I’m really not sure he’s someone who will be playing much for us.

Your squad remains a little short on numbers, particularly in the centre of midfield. How many players do you think need to come in, and who would you realistically like the club to sign?

Yes we definitely need a few more players before the season starts. Thankfully we’ve got a couple of goalkeepers now after the departure of Colin Doyle and Darren Randolph. We need a partner for Morrison, Spector is good but won’t last a season without getting injured. I’ve seen us in three pre season games and what is most striking is our lack of creativity. Ideally we need a midfielder, and I’m gutted we can’t get the likes of Tesche or Fabbrini back, but we need to move on and hopefully secure another signing of their ilk before the start of the season.

Summary: Nowhere near ready to make a return to the Premier League, and need some addition bodies in midfield to make sure they’re not dragged into any sort of trouble, but another season of mid-table stability will be relative success for the Blues. 14th

19


Blackburn Rovers

For the second successive season, inconsistency put pay to any hopes Blackburn had of achieving a top six finish.

For each time Gary Bowyer’s side put together a run of results that left them on the verge of breaking into the play-offs, a series of winless games that knocked Rovers back down the table followed.

And the most frustrating facet of that is, once again, Blackburn finished the season in strong fashion. With their play-off hopes effectively over and the pressure off, only two of their last 13 games resulted in defeat. Not too dissimilar to the 12 game unbeaten run at the of the 2013/14 season.regregregerg

The task for Bowyer and his side, of course, is to find a way of spreading such consistency throughout the season, and to perform at the points in the campaign when the pressure is on and it really matters.

But, with two 20-goal-a-season strikers, a relatively decent side behind them, and previously possessing some degree of weight in the transfer market, the solution to those problems really should have been discovered long before this campaign.

You feel that, with other teams getting stronger and Blackburn beginning to regress, especially with the club restricted by a transfer embargo, their chances of finally breaking into the top six are slimmer prior to the campaign getting underway than at any point since their relegation from the Premier League.

The Manager – Gary Bowyer

That Blackburn’s bespectacled boss remains in charge after a second successive campaign where he fell short of achieving a top-six finish is arguably the greatest showing of the Venky’s newly found sense of patience and sensibleness.

In truth, Bowyer’s reign as Blackburn boss has been a relative success. An unlikely permanent appointment after a brief caretaker spell at the end of the 12/13 season, the 44-year-old has provided stability, done enough to get a Rovers side lacking in depth when compared to other promotion hopeless to compete, and took the club to the last eight of FA Cup last season.

However, the controversial owners of the Ewood Park club might well act if Bowyer underachieves this season. With Premier League football now not played for four seasons, and this the final year of parachute payment support, a return to the top flight needs to be made to avoid the club becoming a permanent fixture among the also-rans of the Championship.

Transfer Business

That the new season is so close and Blackburn are yet to add significantly to a squad that wasn’t quite good enough to achieve a top six finish last season will be of huge concern to supporters of the club.

That especially true considering it has become considerably weaker. Excellent playmaker Tom Cairney has been sold to Fulham for £3m, out-of-contract winger Josh King has been snapped up by Bournemouth, and Jordan Rhodes, at the time of writing, is edging closer to a move to Middlesbrough.

With an amount believed to be around £600,000 gained from Stoke’s sale of former player Steven N’Zonzi to Sevilla, and high earners such as David Dunn and Paul Robinson released, there is surely some money available for Bowyer to boost his squad, irrespective of the FFP transfer embargo that isn’t really an embargo.

The signings of two Frenchman, 6’4 midfielder Sacha Petshi, who joins after a successful trial, and former Caen forward Bengali-Fode Koita, is a start. But more needs to be done, and it needs to be done desperately quickly, especially if Rhodes departs.

The Squad

While there are goals, and men supplying those who score the goals, in Blackburn’s side, they are well within their right to fancy themselves in every game played.

For Ben Marshall and Craig Conway supplying Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes creates one of the most potent attacking forces in the Championship. Keeping all four of them, which looks unlikely, crucial to Blackburn’s chances of relative success this season.

And, in truth, you can certainly form a competent starting XI out of the pool of players available to Bowyer. Jason Lowe and Corry Evans strong in the centre of midfield, Grant Hanley and Matthew Kilgallon a solid enough centre back pairing, and Player of the Year Marcus Olsson provides a real threat from full-back.

But it is beyond the starting XI where things begin to look a little concerning, and just a handful of injuries at present could cause serious problems.

The Rovers low on numbers, and low on quality, in reserve, and may have to rely on youngsters such as promising defender Ryan Nyambe and midfielder Darragh Lenihan, who spent last season on loan at Burton, stepping up.

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Fans View: Carly Brown (@carlybrownn)

After another frustrating season of inconsistency, is this Gary Bowyer’s last chance to break into the top six?

I really don’t see us as a ‘top six’ side and with the squad we’ve got currently it will be difficult. It’s not been easy for Bowyer as we do have a transfer embargo so he is limited on who he can bring in but maybe a new manager could come in and do something special.

Most clubs need just one 20-goal-a-season striker to achieve promotion. Why do you think you failed with two, and what can be done this season to make Rhodes and Gestede’s goals more valuable?

I asked myself this question so many times, having two strikers that both scored 20 goals is amazing. The answer is that we simply conceded too many silly goals and wasn’t strong enough when we took leads in games. We need strong quality CBs that know exactly what they’re doing.

Do you feel you may have to settle for being a mid-table Championship club, and that the Premier League is out of your reach?

It does feel like it unfortunately, the premier league seems along way away now and it would take a lot of changes for us to get back up to there and produce that quality of football.

“The premier league seems along way away now”

Tom Cairney sold for, in the current climate, a relatively minor fee, Josh King snapped up by Bournemouth, and no additions to the squad. Are you concerned by your summer activity?

With the transfer embargo it’s difficult, we’ve signed two players in the past week but they’re unheard of really. Also I can’t see Gestede staying with us or Rhodes for that matter so we’re going to need some replacements but I really don’t know who could replace either of them…

If you could make a realistic addition to your squad, what position would you strengthen and who would like to sign?

Everywhere?! We need a creative midfielder (like Tom Cairney) and some forwards to replace Rhodes and Gestede (if/when they leave). But like I said it will be difficult when we’ve got no money to spend!

Summary: With Rhodes and Gestede, Rovers will always have a chance. Without, it’s a frighteningly weak squad for a side who were in the Premier League not too long ago. The chance to get back in the top flight has seemingly been blown, and the chance of a top-half finish totally dependent on Rhodes and Gestede staying put. Should ultimately be okay, but may be the latest former Premier League club to have a season of worry about the prospect of League One. 18th 


Bolton Wanderers

Bolton are by no means a crisis club. In Phil Gartside, they are overseen by a chairman who has the club’s best interests at heart. In Neil Lennon, they have a manager with a respectable track record, and who was rumoured to attracting the interest of Leicester City earlier in the summer. In the squad, there’s a decent mix of experienced Championship players and promising young talent. grgerbherherhnerhe

The problem, however, is that while other clubs who have taken a hit following their relegation from the Premier League have started to progress again, the Trotters are stagnating at best.

For while an injury crisis played its part, Bolton’s 18th place finish last season was not unjust. Other clubs try different strategies to reach the top flight, invest in exciting talent and boast 20-goal-a-season forward. Bolton’s strikeforce, saved by the loan signing of a player they may not be able to secure permanently, had a combined age of 73.

And in their final season of parachute payments, it seems vital that the club at least show positive signs and improve upon last season if they are to move away from the bottom half of the Championship in the near future.

The Manager – Neil Lennon

It’s arguable that last season didn’t offer a fair reflection of Lennon’s managerial abilities. At the very least, it’s unfair to criticise a manager too harshly for struggling to 18th with an inherited squad that suffered more injuries than a side in a bugged Football Manager save.

And it’s why most Bolton supporters are fully behind their boss, who took over from the failing Dougie Freedman when the Macron Stadium club were seemingly heading towards relegation.

He responded with seven wins from his first 12 games in charge, which included a defeat to perennial strugglers Charlton, giving the Trotters some breathing space in the bottom half of the division. That run possibly more reflective of Lennon’s ability than the struggles during the injury crisis.

Nonetheless, there is no getting away from the fact Bolton won just five games in the 2015 half of last season. A strong start to the season, which isn’t helped with Derby County and Middlesbrough the first two opponents, needed to alleviate any potential doubts about the Northern Irishman.

Transfer Business

Overall, Bolton’s activity this summer appears relatively positive, with underperforming high earners moved on, a couple of tidy additions made to the squad, and room surely for more.

In fact, the only real disappointment among supporters is that Eidur Gudjohnsen could not be kept on, with the Icelander joining Shijiazhuang Ever Bright. Despite his age, the cult hero made a useful impact last season, and most would have preferred him to stick around.

But less tears have been shed over Matt Mills, Jermaine Beckford and Craig Davies leaving the club, who never really performed consistently enough to justify their wages.

Not even the departures of Adam Bogdan, to Liverpool, and Andy Lonergan to Fulham are looked upon with too much disappointment, with former Manchester United youngster Ben Amos coming into replace them.

The signing of versatile defender Derik, a Spain U21 international from Real Madrid, has created some excitement, while Lennon seems like the sort of boss needed to help Gary Madine find some form that he has been unable to show since his conviction for assault.

But there’s certainly a need for further additions, which you would think are possible given the clear out. Interest remains in Adam Le Fondre, with supporters attempting to raise money for the last season’s loan star, and Lawrie Wilson, a fans’ favourite at Charlton, has been on trial.

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The Squad  

Irrespective of the summer clear out, Bolton’s squad contains a sizeable number of players who are little more than average, but likely to be earning a decent wage.

Liam Feeney, Neil Danns and, of course, Emile Heskey, whose reputations have been built on successes away from the Macron Stadium, falling into that category.

But once you shift through the rather uninspiring members of their side, there’s a few gems. Keeping Mark Davies fit is an absolute must, Dorian Dervite’s consistency at centre-back would be valued by any Championship side, and both Rob Hall and Jay Spearing will have returned from loan spells at the end of last season hoping to make a positive contribution for the Trotters during this campaign.

There’s also a couple of decent youngsters in Bolton’s squad, called upon last season during the injury crisis. The most exciting of which is forward Zack Clough, who scored six times in ten games before falling victim to an injury himself.

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Fans View – Jake Vickers (@Jake_BWFC)

Have Bolton, in recent years, ever been further away from the Premier League?

In my lifetime this is the farthest Bolton have been from the Premier League. Immediately following relegation we should have earned a play-offs spot and since then we have never looked like repeating that, with last season being worst.

Do the crop of young players in your squad, particularly Zach Clough, offer some hope that you can progress?

Following the huge investment in the youth system at Bolton it has started to pay off recently. With players such as Josh Vela, Tom Walker, Quade Taylor and the thoroughly excellent Zach Clough breaking through (as well as the signing of Max Clayton) in the last few years the younger players in the senior squad are showing some potential. If we manage to hold on to these it could mean a bright future for the club.

Neil Lennon had a difficult task on his hands last season, taking over after Freedman’s unsuccessful period as boss and was then hit by a barely believable injury crisis. Did you see enough in testing circumstances to make you think he’s the right man for the job in the long-term?

Neil Lennon deserves nothing but praise for last season, he took us over when we were bottom of the league and steered us away from the relegation battle. This was made even more impressive with the huge injury problem, with more than half our senior squad out injured at one point. Neil Lennon is one of the most valuable assets we have and we need to keep hold of him at all costs, ideally he would be our long term manager but I see his future at a higher level.

Neil Lennon deserves nothing but praise for last season”

Is the internet fundraiser for Adam Le Fondre a bit of light-hearted fun, a good case of fan power, or the perfect display of how far you’ve sunk?

The Adam Le Fondre fundraiser can easily be seen as embarrassing. Many fans see it as a joke but it was unnecessary. A lot of clubs are short for money, it isn’t a problem specific to Bolton and there was no need for it to be made.

Apart from Adam Le Fondre, who else would you like to see come in, and where do you need to strengthen?

With the clubs financial situation it’s easily to say who you’d like to sign but many of these targets would be unrealistic. We’ll have to stick to the loan market and free agents. Ideally we would sign a competent RB which would free up Josh Vela into his natural midfield position, and two wingers. Also if it’s not too much trouble I’d love Lukas Jutkiewicz from Burnley (but that’s never going to happen). More importantly I’d like to see us keep the likes of Clough, Mark Davies and Josh Vela.

Summary: Lennon providing a positive impact, keeping key players fit, and young players stepping up will all be needed for Bolton to improve on last season. But with sides improving around them, they may get sucked into the relegation battle. 22nd

11


Brentford

Events at Griffin Park over the previous six months have been incredibly hard for those on the outside to make sense of, and even harder for supporters to come to terms with.

For the logic in parting company with Mark Warburton appears questionable. The highly-rated coach, who guided the Bees into the Championship play-offs against the odds in their first season following promotion from League One, unable to share owner Matthew Benham’s statistical analysis-based vision.gregreger

To create a situation where a popular and talented boss, who continued to work with dignity and managed to maintain Brentford’s top six place even after his end-of-season departure was confirmed in February, can no longer continue in his role appears suicidal.

Not only has Warburton’s managerial ability been lost, but so has the excellent bond he appeared to have with his players and supporters. To an extent, last season’s relative success is almost irrelevant, and the Bees are starting again.

However, the belief Benham has in his statistical analysis system, which brought him financial reward through gambling and football success at FC Midtjylland, as well as his prior achievements at Griffin Park, mean there remains a generous amount of optimism among supporters of the West London club.

The head coach is unknown, but fits the system. A number of the summer signings appear dubious on paper, but all fit perfectly into Benham’s philosophy. The system itself is largely untried in the physical and demanding Championship, but the Bees have reason to believe they can emulate last season’s success.

The Head Coach – Marinus Dijkhuizen

“I think it’s a brave decision to take me” is hardly the sort of comment that you want to be hearing from your newly appointed, and relatively unknown, head coach. Not exactly the sort of statement that inspires confidence.

And, given that Dutchman Dijkhuizen has replaced someone as successful as Warburton, there will be immediate pressure on the 43-year-old to succeed.

However, he boasts a relatively decent record. It was his work at Excelsior, who he led to promotion and then kept in the Dutch Eredivisie on a limited budget, which attracted co-director of football Rasmus Ankersen to appoint Dijkhulzen

Also, and arguably more importantly, he’s fully behind Brentford’s somewhat bizarre statistical model. Dijkhulzen is both excited by the project, and willing to have his coaching heavily determined, and interfered, by statistical influence. He’ll receive texts from stats boffins during games – the model’s mouthpiece first and a coach in his own right second.

It seems employing a coach willing to be, to an extent, a guinea pig in this experiment is the only way Benham and Brentford can succeed.

Transfer Business

Losing Alex Pritchard, after the playmaker returned to Tottenham following the completion of his impressive loan spell, was always going to be a major blow for the Bees, but their quirky transfer strategy has resulted in some interesting additions to the squad.

Akaki Gogia, relatively prolific for Hallescher FC in the German third tier, Ryan Williams, an injury-prone former England futsal international who was released by Morecombe at the end of last season, and Konstantin Kerschbaumer, signed from Admira Wacker in a bid to boost profit from shirt printing sales, all seemingly signed on the basis of their ability to contribute to Brentford’s stats based system.

In fact, it was arguably their most ‘normal’ signing that appeared like a direct replacement for Pritchard. But Josh McEachran’s foot injury that has ruled him out for three months means he’s likely to be pushed down the pecking order by other impressing ahead of him. Nonetheless, while the one-time wonderkid has failed to kick on in recent years, the Chelsea academy graduate will suit Brentford’s passing style when fit and may benefit from some stability having been chucked around on loan from Vicarage Road to Vitesse.

Elsewhere, French centre-back Yoann Barbet and the impressive capture of Denmark international Andreas Bjelland improve a defence that showed the occasional sign of vulnerability towards the end of last season, while Lasse Vibe, who scored 31 goals in 56 games for IFK Gothenburg, and German U21 international Phillipp Hofmann provides competition to Andre Gray in attack.

Their transfer strategy is all a bit weird, but it seems to be working.

2

The Squad

The summer additions mean the Bees are one of few Championship clubs who are well stocked in all departments.

There was initial worry that a lack of forward options would cost them, with Gray and injury-plagued Scott Hogan the only recognised forward options at the club.

While Gray, impressively dealing with the step up to the Championship from the Conference, helped himself to 16 goals last season largely playing as a loan front man, Vibe and Hoffmann were desperately needed.

One of Brentford’s biggest strengths, however, is that there’s goals throughout the side. Especially in the case of impressive playmaker Jota, who notched 11 times in an outstanding first season in English football last time out.

3

Fans Views: Toby Maxtone-Smith (@TRMaxtoneSmith)

What’s the overriding feeling – a longing for Mark Warburton to return, or excitement over Marinus Dijkhuizen, Matthew Benham’s statistical revolution, and the quirky signings you’ve made?

As with all these things, it’s a bit of both. I don’t think any Brentford fan can say they were happy to see Warburton go, but Dijkhuizen looks like being a good appointment. My worry is that, along with Dijkhuizen, we’ve hired so many people in positions above him, including two directors of football and a ‘Head of Football Philosophy’, whatever that is. Dijkhuizen’s only real job is to pick the team and manage tactics.

Alex Pritchard played a vital role in your top six finish last season, and will obviously be a huge loss. Do you think one of your new midfield signings will replace him, or will your style of play be altered to combat his absence?

Pritchard was the best player I’ve ever seen at Brentford, but we’ve made two signings who could play in his position, just behind the striker. They are Konstantin Kerschbaumer and Akaki Gogia (I’d never heard of them either). Both look good on Youtube and came highly recommended from journalists who had seen them play – that’s all I can say. I’d imagine we’ll stick to a 4-2-3-1, but it’ll be tough without Pritchard. There were times last year when we relied on him completely for creativity.

You appear very low on numbers in attack, but there’s a decent amount of depth throughout the rest of your squad. Is a striker or two all you need, in theory, to be competitive again this season?

Not anymore – Philip Hofmann (German U21 international) and Lasse Vibe (top scorer in the Swedish league) joined in the last few days. When the new directors of football came in they said we ‘need a bigger squad’. This worries me quite a lot. If you look at a list of FL clubs by the number of players they used, it is so clear that a small squad leads to success. We used the fewest players in the division last year and I firmly believe that was key to us doing so well.
We will certainly be competitive. We’re stepping into the unknown this season, and there are plenty of reasons it could go wrong. But anyone who knows anything about the players we’ve signed are stunned that we’ve managed to pull them off. We could storm the league; we could finish 10th. But last season was not a flash in the pan.
“We could storm the league; we could finish 10th. But last season was not a flash in the pan”

Warburton and Pritchard aside, most of the figures who impressed last season remain at the club. How important is that, not just in terms of increasing the likelihood of a repeat of last season, but in smoothing the transition period and calming fears?

That’s true, but I expect a few stalwarts to say goodbye. Jonathan Douglas is almost certainly on his way out, and Sam Saunders, Alan McCormack and Harlee Dean may be going the same way. But players like Jake Bidwell and Toumani Diagouraga, one of the best central midfielders in the division last season, remain. They’ll be hugely important in our transition.

Does Benham’s decision to remove Warburton and go down the route he has mean there is immediate pressure for another top six finish to be achieved in order to vindicate his actions?

It seems amazing to say it, given that this is only our third season above League One in 50 years, but yes – I think there is some pressure. But the project is a long-term one, and one average season will not mean the club will say ‘We got it wrong, let’s go back to what we know’. Our approach is here to stay.

Summary: Genius or self-inflicted crisis? It would appear that Brentford’s new strategy is closer to the former than it is the latter. There will undoubtedly be teething problems as players new and old adapt and Dijkhuizen finds his feet, which could set them back, but the Bees will be competitive again. 4th

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Brighton and Hove Albion

For a number of years, Brighton have mixed a successful business model and progression off the pitch with constant improvement on it.

In fact, the Seagulls were one of the most celebrated clubs in the Championship, with many seeing it as only a matter of time before they reached the Premier League. Constant changing of manager largely ignored, and successive play-off failure simply delaying the inevitable. erberberber

However, after several seasons of rapid progression, 2014/15 provided a suggestion that the Seagulls had become complacent. With neither Sami Hyypia and Chris Hughton proving successfully, form lacking among previously important players, and injuries taking their roll, the club slumped to 20th, looking over their shoulder for the duration of the season.

They remain a successfully run club, and a club which can match the ambitions of a group of supporters who have gone from fighting for a ground to watch their side play to hoping Premier League football can be played in their spectacular Amex home.

But the events of last season might mean those top flight ambitions will have to be put hold on for a while, with a minor rebuild required.

The Manager – Chris Hughton

When leading Newcastle United back to the Premier League, and Birmingham City through Europe and into the play-offs, there was a great deal of hype about Hughton.

He didn’t occupy the bedroom walls of football hipsters, but he did gain the respect of most followers of the English game.

In fact, there was outrage when Norwich City opted to depart with Hughton as they plummeted towards the Championship two seasons ago. Attempts from supporters of the Canaries to tell anyone that would listen of Hughton’s flaws proving frivolous.

It meant his appointment was met with excitement from Brighton supporters, and positive acknowledgement from those on the outside. The boss to get the Seagulls back on track, having fallen to 22nd under Hyypia.

If Hughton’s task was simply to keep the club in the second tier, then he fulfilled what was asked of him.

But for many Brighton supporters, not enough was shown in the closing weeks of the season for their excitement to be justified. The football poor, and results even worse. No win from the final seven games of the season worrying.

A big campaign not just for the Seagulls, but for Hughton, he needs to prove himself once again.

Transfer Business

If Brighton’s summer activity is anything to go by, then the warning against complacency that last season offered has been taken on board.

While the unavoidable departure of Young Player of the Year Joao Teixeira, who has returned to Liverpool following an impressive loan spell last season, will hurt the Seagulls, the squad has otherwise been strengthened.

With just Sheffield Wednesday (43) scoring less outside the bottom three than Brighton’s 44 last season, arguably the most important additions come in attack.

Signing much talked about Real Madrid striker Jack Harper seems like a massive coup, even if the Scotland U19 international has limited experience, while Israel international forward Tomer Hemed arrives from Almeria boasting a record of 10 goals in 15 games for his country.

There has also been a move for Finland U21 striker Vahid Hambo, who has scored 14 goals in 13 appearances for Inter Turku. Whether the forward trio will make an immediate impression in England is questionable, particularly with Hambo expected to spend time in the development squad, but the pedigree is there to address Brighton’s problems in front of goal.

At the other end of the pitch, capped Finland stopper Niki Maenappa has joined after playing over 100 times for VVV-Venlo, and will compete with David Stockdale for a place between the sticks.

Elsewhere, right-back Liam Rosenior joins having been consistently performed for Hull City in the previous five seasons, while Cameroon international left-back Gaetan Bong was a rare impressive member of Wigan Athletic’s relegation squad.

10

The Squad

Regardless of the tidy additions to the squad, the Seagulls remain relatively understocked in the centre-back department.

Experienced captain Gordon Greer and the excellent Lewis Dunk, who has attracted Premier League interest, form a formidable partnership, but there is very little in reserve. While Rosenior can play there if required, a centre-back or two is probably needed before the season gets underway.

So too is there a need for a winger or two, with Inigo Calderon, although successfully enough to win Brighton’s Player of the Year, and Jake Forster-Caskey often played in unnatural wide midfield roles last season.

But, with midfield options plentiful, Hughton could look to play a narrower formation. Especially with Andrew Crofts, who missed much of last season with injury, hopeful of being fit enough to begin the campaign, the pool of centre-mids is mightily impressive.

Crofts will compete with former Charlton man Dale Stephens, Celtic midfielder Beram Kayal, the impressive Rohan Ince, Dutchman Danny Holla, and, although he is sometimes deployed out wide, England U21 international Jake Forster-Caskey. The loss of Teixeria might not be too hardly felt.

6

Fans View: Sam Wilson (@MrSamWilson)

Last season was obviously a huge disappointment. Was it just a blip to a club with big ambitions, or a more serious sign of regression?

Somewhere in the middle. We’ve been spoilt since we moved to the Amex and stepped up into the Championship with Poyet and a host of key players that have since left and not been adequately replaced. Hyypia was trying to force a style that didn’t suit our players and it cost him, but it didn’t help him that we replaced the like of Ulloa with cheap options.

Looking at the squad right now I expect us to be midtable; the right business before the window slams shut and we could figure at the right end of the table again.

Chris Hughton has been heavily criticised as Brighton boss so far, both for the quality of football played and the results achieved. How long has he got to prove himself?

I think it was a case of making do and just getting the job done when he came in. As long as we avoided relegation the style was irrelevant. Now that he’s got a full pre-season to work with the squad and bring in new players there’ll be more expected from the side.

A relatively large section of the support were bemoaning the negative style of the side when we reached the playoffs two years running; it’s a results business but even if we’re winning you’ll probably hear mutterings from the crowd if it isn’t with flair. The chairman isn’t one to make kneejerk reactions though, so even if the fans get restless it won’t affect Hughton’s job security.

“Now that Hughton’s got a full pre-season to work with the squad and bring in new players there’ll be more expected from the side”

You struggled in front of goal last season. Can new signings Tomer Hemed, Vahid Hambo, and Jack Harper address that?

They can’t be much worse than Leon Best, that’s for sure. There’s more pressure on Hemed to deliver than Hambo and Harper; they are both currently injured and going into the development squad with the aim of stepping up by the end of the year.

Hemed is having a decent preseason on the goals front but most would agree we still need to sign another first team striker if we aren’t to rely on the impotent Chris O’Grady.

If anything, you could argue that Brighton have too many quality centre-midfielders, with the return of Andrew Crofts further swelling the numbers in midfield. Is there enough quality there to soften the blow of losing Joao Teixeria?

Centre midfield is certainly one of our populated areas of the squad, but there’s a lot of graft without much creativity. The signing of Beram Kayal in January proved to be one of the few bright spots of last season and he’ll be a key component of the team this year. Hughton favours a 4-4-1-1 which means only two of Kayal, Ince, Holla, Crofts, Stephens and Forster-Caskey will play. Forster-Caskey is something of a divisive figure among the fans (perhaps a victim of circumstance as much as anything else) and rumours of a bid from Wolves aren’t necessarily unwelcome.

The squad remains a little short in a number of departments. Where would you like the club to strengthen, and who, realistically, would you like to see come in?

We need a striker, at least one winger and a centre back (two if the club accept a bid for Lewis Dunk).

The club has been heavily linked with Iranian winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh from NEC in Holland. He’s touted at £1.4m and I’d be delighted with that as he’s better than what he have now. We’ve also been linked with Blackburn’s Ben Marshall but I’m indifferent about that. I’m surprised we’ve not gone for old Hughton-favourite Sebastien Bassong at the back, and up front I wouldn’t mind a bid for Adam Le Fondre.

Based on the dealings so far this summer they’ll all be completely unexpected signings out of left-field from around Europe, which is far more exciting than this time last year.

Summary: Better placed to compete than they were last season, especially if key payers stay fit, but questions over Hughton and general quality of squad means promotion an unrealistic target. 15th

8


Bristol City

For the third season in four, the League One title was won by a side who lost just five games throughout the campaign. Bristol City, like Charlton and Wolves before them, relentless in their domination of a competitive division.

And although the Robins were unable to reach the 100 point mark, falling just one short of a century, confidence is at a similar level to those who enjoyed an excellent first seasons back in the Championship after accumulating three figures in League One. egergreg

For both Charlton and Wolves, using the majority of their promotion-winning squads and utilising the momentum they had created, fell just short of a play-off place. The Addicks three points from the top six, while goal difference cruelly denied Kenny Jackett’s men were cruelly denied the chance to compete for a second consecutive promotion.

In truth, suggesting that Bristol City could emulate those achievements would probably be going a little too far. Boss Steve Cotterill has been frustrated in the transfer market, and redevelopment to Ashton Gate doesn’t paper over the fact that the Robins are relatively alien to the Championship when compared to Charlton and Wolves.

But the potent, and often dominant, style of football played in League One means there remains a belief that their return to the second tier will be a relative success.

The Manager – Steve Cotterill

With a confident and strong-minded persona that can often by interpreted as arrogance, it’s reasonable to say that Cotterill isn’t universally adored throughout the Football League.

But the 51-year-old has done an outstanding job at Ashton Gate since taking over in December 2013, halting a seemingly unstoppable decline before building a title-winning squad.

And with a decent Championship record, most recently doing a respectable job in tough circumstances at Portsmouth before moving to the City Ground and keeping relegation threatened Nottingham Forest in the division, the step up should be natural to Cotterill.

Transfer Business

For all the positivity at the club, Bristol City’s summer activity has provided a rare source of frustration for supporters.

It took until July 20 for the Robins to make an addition to their squad. And while that addition was a strong one, with prolific 25-year-old forward Jonathan Kodija arriving from Angers for £2m, departures mean the squad is a little short of numbers.

Forward Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has joined QPR and Wade Elliott has retired, while George Saville and James Tavernier, who had a strong impact while on loan at Ashton Gate, have returned to Wolves and Newcastle respectively.

With Cotterill and director of football Keith Burt said to be targeting players aged 24 with Championship experience, and the club intent on making signings which are value for money, those rules might have to be bended slightly if the Robins are to have a complete squad in place for the start of the new campaign.

The Squad

Thankfully, the core of their squad remains, and, much like Charlton and Wolves did, you would think that a side who dominated League One to the extent it did has enough about it to compete in the Championship.

In fact, the majority of their squad either has Championship experience, or has impressed to such an extent in League One that their opportunity in the second tier is more than deserved.

In the first category, Frank Fielding, Adam El-Abd, and Aaron Wilbraham have all be useful at this level before, in the second, Marlon Pack, Luke Freeman, and Kieran Agard are surely good enough to succeed.

Fans View: Jordana Vivian (@jordanavivian_)

Many recent winners of League One have worked their way into the top half of the Championship in the following season. Do you feel you’re capable of that?

I’d like to think we’d certainly be aiming for that. We’ve got a more than capable squad, as proved by doing the double with the League One title and the Johnstones Paint Trophy last season, albeit a bit thin on the ground, but with more quality than half of the Championship sides including a 18 goal centre half in Aden Flint and runner up League One player of the season Luke Freeman. Having got rid of some of the high earners from last season including Wade Elliott, and most notably, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, we’ve got more room and money in the fund to build further.

In building a well-balanced squad and achieving promotion with relative ease, just how good a job has Steve Cotterill done, and can he be a success for City in the second tier?

When Cotterill was first appointed on a 3 year deal, a lot of people doubted his ability and the length of the contract, when in actual fact an experienced manager at that level with a long backing behind him was exactly what the club needed after a string of failures.

Especially when you consider the ground improvements and the seemingly sensible way that the club is being run in, is this an equally as positive period as the one under Gary Johnson?

I think the whole atmosphere around the club is more positive than under the Johnson era. Under Johnson, the football wasn’t particularly impressive and a lot of it was go 1 goal up in the first half and just sit back under pressure for the whole of the second, whereas you’ll never see that under Cotterill. Our assistant manager, John Pemberton, is more enthusiastic and passionate than our caretaker, and soon to be manager, Keith Millen ever was, and the player seem to believe in Cotterill’s style of play than with anyone else before. Everyone is looking forward to the new stadium being built with the new South Stand looking impressive and with heavy backing of our impressive owner Steve Lansdown, the club can only move in the right direction.

“I think the whole atmosphere around the club is more positive than under the Johnson era”

You’ve been a little slow to get going in the transfer market. Is that a concern or do you trust Cotterill and the owners to have a complete squad in place by the star of the campaign?

Although only signing one player in the transfer window so far makes you a little unenthusiastic, I have no doubt that more signings will follow. With full backing from Lansdown, Cotterill has a fairly big budget, as proved with Kodjia, to sign quality players. As last season proved with Cotterill bringing in players such as Freeman, Aaron Wilbraham, Korey Smith, Luke Ayling and Mark Little, he’ll be looking to bring in similar style players to improve the squad for the season.

With the squad being high in quality but a little low on numbers, where do you need to strengthen and who, realistically, would you like to see come in?

Starting from the back, having released back up goalkeeper Dave Richards in the summer, a replacement will be needed to compete with League One keeper of the season Frank Fielding. Mark Bunn looked on the cards to sign, but decided to join Aston Villa at the last minute, which you can’treally blame him for. Defensively, not a lot of cover is needed, although there are rumours we’re looking for another central defender with Adam El-Abd looking set to leave and Karleigh Osbourne off to Wimbledon on loan. We seem to be quite short of cover in the midfield area as Cotterill prefers a 5-3-2 formation and may need to strengthen, possibly with Bradley Dack of Gillingham for example. Definite cover is needed strike wise with Keiran Agard set to miss the start of the season with injury and Wilbraham turning 36 soon, help will be needed for Kodjia. From a personal perspective, I’d love former City Players Nicky Maynard and Sam Baldock to make a return, or a striker such as Adam Le-Fondre to complete the line up.

Summary: Momentum carried over from last season means a top half finish cannot be ruled, especially if more additions are made to a useful core, but finding their feet in the Championship once again will surely be Bristol City’s objective. 17th

6yfdMcl1


Part Two will be out in the coming days. 

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