The excitement of European football, the expectation that breaking the club’s record transfer free twice brings, and the hope of a top half finish.
If you had told a Hull City fan this time last year that their club would be playing Championship football in 2015/16, you would have been laughed down. Their only worry the threat of owner Assem Allam changing the club’s name.
Alas, having finished as runners-up in the 2013/14 FA Cup before a seemingly positive summer, the Tigers hugely underachieved last season. Their Europa League adventure ending before the group stage, many of their signings disappointing in one way or another, and a relatively tame drop to the second tier.
For some clubs who have been relegated when they were seemingly ‘too good’ to suffer such a fate, the impact has been disastrous. Marooned among the Championship also-rans, or soon sliding towards League One.
However, many, including Norwich last season, have recovered almost immediately from a nightmarish relegation campaign. The task for Hull this season is to put 2014/15 behind them, and aim to emulate the Canaries in achieving promotion at the first attempt.
The Manager – Steve Bruce
In the same way it appeared as if Hull were going places last season, so too did it seem that Bruce was building something special at the KC Stadium.
Bruce, who has done a reasonable job at several yo-yo clubs throughout his career, had followed promotion to the Premier League with survival and a remarkable effort to take the club to the FA Cup Final.
But that hard work was emphatically undone last season. Whether it was investing in too many players without Premier League experience that disrupted the balance of his side, injuries to key men, or just simply failing tactically, something went horribly wrong for Bruce.
It has left some, understandably, questioning his position. Will Bruce be able to motivate a side that he failed to last season, and will he be able to find a way to stop Hull entering a rot that many clubs do upon relegation from the Premier League?
Regardless, few managers in the Championship have a CV as respectable as Bruce’s, and even those left unimpressed by the 54-year-old last season will feel some sort of expectation that he can put things right.
Following their relegation from the Premier League, members of Hull’s squad were always likely to attract interest from club’s in the top flight. But to lose two of their key players, who have played for the Tigers long and successfully enough to understand what is demanded by supporters is extremely disappointing.
Solace can be taken from the fact that both James Chester, who heads to West Brom, and Robbie Brady, who joins Norwich City, have commanded large fees. The Welsh centre-back costing £8m, and the Irish winger finally allowed to move for £7m after several bids were turned down.
However, it merely papers over the cracks that losing two key players creates, especially when little has been done at the time of writing in terms of freshening up Hull’s squad.
Former Newcastle full-back Ryan Taylor, with a point to prove after an injury plagued couple of years, and midfielder Sam Clucas, who arrives from Chesterfield with a strong reputation gained from impressive performances in League One and Two, are certainly tidy additions.
But further signings must be made, and the £15m received in transfer fees used wisely, for Hull to make an immediate return to the top flight. Bids for Brentford’s Moses Odubajo and Andre Gray certainly along the right line.
For all the disappointment, consternation, and concern, there remains quality in Hull’s squad that, on paper, is above Championship level.
At centre-back, the experienced Curtis Davies and Michael Dawson will do battle with Harry Maguire, who may now be given a chance having signed from Sheffield United at the start of last season and spent the second half of it on loan at Wigan, while Tom Huddlestone will be among Hull’s midfield options intent on impressing after disappointing last season.
There’s also quality, and goals, in attack, with Nikica Jelavic, Dame N’Doye, and even flop Abel Hernandez likely to be potent in the second tier. That is, of course, if they remain at the club for the duration of the season.
And the possibility of losing players whose reputations are higher than the Championship might lead to another issue for City this season. Players who arrived from abroad expecting to play Premier League football, or those who have played Premier League for much of their career, may struggle to motivate themselves in the second tier.
The young and hungry players in Hull’s squad, such as Maguire, Andrew Robertson, and recent signing Clucas might well prove to be among their most important performers this campaign.
Fans View: Nicholas Smith (@Nicks648)
Last season promised so much. Did you have any fears of relegation before it got underway, and where do you think it all went wrong?
This time last season felt a lot different to now and I must say I was on a wave of optimism for the coming season especially after ‘winning the deadline day’ with the signings of Hernandez and Ben Arfa. Thus, I was looking at mid-table and the bottom three did not even cross my mind.
I feel there were three reasons we slipped into the bottom three. Firstly injuries to the likes of Snodgrass and Jelavic really cost us.
Secondly, I feel Bruce got it wrong with injury management and this meant that injuries reoccurred far too often, leaving us without key players for long periods.
Finally, we quite frankly deserved exactly what we got. We put in extremely poor performances both against Newcastle, Burnley, West Brom and Stoke and we got comfortably beat by all four teams. If you take 2 points off them four all season you are going to be in trouble.
Does faith in Steve Bruce remain, and does he need to achieve an immediate return to the Premier League?
Steve Bruce is the right man for the job because quite frankly there isn’t an available manager out there currently who is better. However, I would say there are a lot of fans currently questioning him on his transfer strategies. Personally, I think an immediate return is unlikely but I prefer to judge come the end of the transfer window.
What sort of boost does the FA rejecting your name change provide, especially after a torrid season?
The name change debacle has dragged on for three years now and with the owners’ tantrums and threat it is quite frankly an embarrassing side show. However, being firmly in the NO camp I was absolutely ecstatic when the FA rejected the name change. Keeping our name is more important than anything else in my opinion, though it is extremely worrying for the English game that the head of the FA Greg Dyke is in favour of it after only hearing the owners’ views on the topic.
A number of potentially key members of your squad have spent most of their career in higher divisions, either here or abroad. Are you concerned about their motivation?
There are only a few players in the squad I have a worry for and they are our three strikers – Jelavic N’Doye and Hernandez. None of them particularly want to be here and the sooner they are sold the better. I, however, think Bruce with the signing of Clucas is trying to build a young hungry squad who will put in effort.
Only two additions have been made to your squad to date. Are you concerned that, after the failure of last season, a lack of fresh faces will lead to a continual decline, and what positions would you like to see strengthened?
Losing James Chester and Robbie Brady is genuinely gutting to myself. They have both developed into exceptional mid-table Premier League players it is thereby only right that they both are allowed to leave to play in the premier league. I think around three more players will leave but I think we are developing a big kitty with nearly £20m gathered from Ince, Chester and Brady.
I wouldn’t say we need mass signings as we do have quality players in positions already like Huddlestone for example on his day he is an exceptional Premier League player never mind a Championship player. Overall I hope we get two strikers and a ‘keeper.
Summary: There are always question marks over a club that has just suffered relegation, and particularly one that hasn’t had much freshening up. But Bruce is no fool and there’s enough quality in Hull’s squad for them to be there or thereabouts. 3rd
With their squad, as many like to point out, put together in exchange for a bottle top and a shiny Panini sticker, injury striking down one half of their potent strikeforce, and the club seemingly nowhere near as well placed as many others in the Championship to challenge, a top six finish for Ipswich last season was an overachievement.
Nonetheless, mixed with a huge amount of pride was some disappointment among Ipswich supporters that their club could not quite get over the final hurdle. And not just because they were defeated by rivals Norwich City in the play-off semi-final.
For the Tractor Boys are not underdogs who welcome their attempts to gain promotion being patronised. Having been trapped in the second tier for what is now a 14th season, there are serious ambitions, irrespective of a comparative lack of spending, to return to the top fight.
And those ambitions, regardless of last season’s semi-final defeat and many contenders for a top six spot growing stronger, remain as large as ever.
The Manager – Mick McCarthy
Few managers are as perfectly suited to a club as McCarthy is to Ipswich. His ability to form a cohesive, balanced and effective side irrespective of the budget available perfect for a club with restrictions on spending, but not on ambition.
And the job the Irishman has done at Portman Road is reflective of that. Progress has been steady, with a ninth place finish sandwiched between comfortable survival from relegation and last season’s play-off campaign, but McCarthy has managed to move the club forward with minimal money spent.
The task for the 56-year-old now is to emulate his achievements at Sunderland at Wolves. In truth, he had larger resources available as he achieved promotion with those two clubs, but Premier League football was achieved with a tight squad, almost absent of marquee players.
Like a number of clubs in the second tier, whose resources are limited or choose to keep their books balanced instead of gambling on promotion, Ipswich have become accustomed to cashing in on a key player during the summer.
And with Aaron Cresswell heading to West Ham a year ago, another exciting full-back has moved onto a Premier League club during this window. Bournemouth parting with £8m for Tyrone Mings.
The departure of the left-back, excellent throughout last season to the extent that Arsenal were said to be interested in January, is evidently a huge loss to the Tractor Boys. His defensive work and threat going forward down the flank will be sorely missed.
But so too does Mings’ sale provide a positive. Not only was young Scottish winger Ryan Fraser loaned to Ipswich as part of the deal, and relatively prolific forward Brett Pitman also swapping Dean Court for Portman Road, but the large fee could potentially be used to take the Tractor Boys forward.
For that to happen, however, owner Marcus Evans would have to abandon his financial control principles. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, an exciting winger who has joined on loan from Arsenal, the only other arrival to date.
While a small squad would be a hindrance for many clubs, it is arguably ideal for Ipswich and McCarthy. A tight group only enhancing the cohesion of his side.
And within that small group is some genuine quality. Christophe Berra and Tommy Smith an incredibly solid centre-back pairing, Luke Hyam and Cole Skuse among a number of dependable midfield options, and the duo of Championship top scorer Daryl Murphy, who has signed a new deal to remain at Portman Road having notched 27 times last season, and David McGoldrick is potent.
It means the Tractor Boys have a strong and cohesive starting XI, one that can compete with any side in the division, but strength in depth could potentially prove an issue should injury strike or during tough periods of fixtures.
That particularly true at the back, where cover in the centre and out wide is extremely limited.
Fans View: Cameron Laws (@lawseyitfc)
Given the play-off semi-final defeat, was last season ultimately a relative success or a failure?
The season on a whole was a definite success, with us being written off by most people throughout the whole season. The second half of the season was quite disappointing given we were in the top two throughout December and looked unbeatable, but after dropping out of the top six after a defeat to Huddersfield in April, we managed to pick up some form again to redeem ourselves.
Regarding the play offs, we were the obvious underdogs and it just wasn’t too be. We were the better side in the first leg and in the first half of the second leg, it looked like we were going to finish the job. Unfortunately one slip up in defence led to the game changing moment of the red card and we were doomed from then. As much as it hurt losing to our rivals, it was a season to be proud of after years of mediocrity.
In turning a crop of relatively average players into an outstanding side, just how impressive a job has Mick McCarthy?
Mick has done a fantastic job. After Paul Jewell was sacked in the 12/13 season we were bottom at the start of November with just seven points. We were all over the place as a football club and the owner Marcus Evans had to make the right appointment to save us from certain relegation. With no money being spent on transfers, we’ve often relied on the left over scraps of other championship clubs. Players like Noel Hunt and Luke Varney for example have been brought in and Mick and Terry Connor have got the best out of them. He’s done a fantastic job to get us where we are in two and a half seasons and hopefully we can go one better next year.
Would you like Marcus Evans to abandon his principles and use the entirety of the Tyrone Mings money in order to find the additional quality needed to mount a successful promotion push?
With the money we received, our MD Ian Milne has come out and said that some of it would be available for use in transfers if needed. Mick has also come out and said he has the money available but will only use it if he needs it, rather than just throwing it anywhere simply because we have it in the piggy bank.
Should you have some strength in the transfer market, where would you like to strengthen and who would you want to sign?
I think the main problem is the defence. We have a back four then it is youngsters with no proper experience. We only actually have one proper full back in Jonny Parr so I think we’re crying out for a right back as our main priority. We were just yesterday linked with 19-year-old Hearts right back Jordan McGhee. I don’t know much about him but he’s made 42 appearances for the Scottish club in two seasons so clearly is highly rated.
With that strong nucleus still in place, supplemented by a handful of tidy additions, can you achieve a top six finish again?
There is no reason why we can’t finish in the top six. Our squad has certainly got stronger than it was last season and with McCarthy’s record in this league I’m confident we can achieve another high finish. Top six is obviously the aim for this season but if we can sort out the defensive errors I see no reason as to why we could potentially push for a top two spot, although that would be a whole another challenge.
Summary: McCarthy is a genius, the loss of only Mings means the harmony of the squad remains, and the subtle improvements make it stronger. They’ll be up there once again. 6th
A head coach appointed seemingly to be the owner’s puppet, before duly being dismissed when it emerged a chap whose previous club was Forest Green Rovers wasn’t good enough. An owner constantly in and out of court, regularly threatening to quit while suspended from football affairs, and generally confusing all. Players signed by the bizarre owner picking up mysterious ‘injuries’ and refusing to play.
By Leeds’ standards, the 2014/15 season was quite a quit one. But by the standards of normal football clubs, it was yet another year of barely explainable chaos. Topped off by the horrendous treatment of dignified head coach Neil Redfearn, suffering a disgusting attack of character by Massimo Cellino before being removed without proper notice in favour of Uwe Rosler and provided with so many hurdles to jump over when given his old job as academy director back that he was unable to take it, the 15th place finish is almost irrelevant.
But beyond the sacking of Redfearn and appointment of Rolser, there has been a relative calm at Elland Road over the summer.
Noteworthy events have been minimal, the signings have been understated but astute, and the period without crisis has led a group of supporters who have learnt to latch onto the smallest crumb of optimism in order to keep themselves sane can argue they have reason to be positive.
Equally, however, the emotionally battered fans of what remains a huge club will be telling themselves that crisis is only around the corner. They have experienced far too many false dawns to get carried away by any sense of expectation.
The Head Coach – Uwe Rosler
There is, of course, still anger at the treatment of Redfearn. And so there should be – there is no way of dressing up the disgusting manner in which Cellino handled his dismissal, effectively insulting Leeds supporters’ admiration towards a man with genuine feeling towards the club.
However, as time as healed, those disillusioned supporters, without abandoning their anger, will have grown to the idea of Rosler’s appointment. A promising young manager, with a point to prove after his first set-back in his short career last season at Wigan.
But, before that, he laid the foundations for the current success at Brentford, transforming their style of football and making them one of the most admired sides in the Football League. Similarly, he postponed the rot at the DW Stadium, taking Latics into the Championship play-offs.
And once everything else is begrudgingly put to one side, there is a belief that Rosler can go some way to putting Leeds back on some sort of track.
Although their activity has been minimal, this summer’s work in the transfer market has been relatively impressive from Leeds.
In fact, maybe it is that controlled activity that makes it so impressive. Lessons seemingly learned after the amount of unwelcome dross that was recruited last season – most of the loanees will not be seen again at Elland Road.
Neither will Billy Sharp, who joins Sheffield United after managing just five goals for the Whites, and Rudy Austin, released after three seasons as something of a Marmite player.
And the incomings are extremely promising. Midfielder Tom Adeyemi arrives on loan from Cardiff with an impressive reputation built on the back of his performances two seasons ago for Birmingham, Ross Turnbull will compete with Marco Silvestri for a starting place between the sticks, and centre-back Sol Bamba joins permanently from Palermo after a successful loan spell last season.
But the most impressive addition comes in attack. Only Sheffield Wednesday scored fewer goals outside the bottom six last season than Leeds’ 50, and Chris Wood, signed for £3m from Leicester, has the capabilities to address that.
While Lee Erwin, a promising young Scottish forward who arrives from Motherwell, has also been added to Leeds’ options in attack, much of the burden will be placed on New Zealand international Wood, who has impressed at Championship level for Birmingham City and Millwall, as well as the Foxes.
In difficult times last season, Leeds’ crop of academy graduates provided both pride and points. A quality group, most of which have been developed by Redfearn, that kept the club competitive and prevented supporters from completely losing faith.
And their decision to remain at the club has provided a huge source of positivity. England U19 international midfielder Lewis Cook, having signed a new three-year deal, singlehandedly increasing supporter belief.
Alex Mowatt broke through with nine goals from midfield last season, left-back Charlie Taylor impressed in the latter half of the season, and Sam Byram, at 21, is now a relative veteran with over 100 league appearances.
In fact, supplemented by Italians Silvestri, Giuseppe Bellusci, and Mirco Antenucci, there is a young feel to Leeds’ squad away from their academy graduates. Captain Liam Cooper is only 23, while Luke Murphy, who signed a contract in the summer on reduced terms, is 25.
Alas, there remains rather large holes in Leeds’ squad. That particularly true in wide areas, where genuine wingers are as abundant as the number 17 under the Cellino regime.
It’s likely that Byram and Taylor will be pushed forward, or striker Souelmane Doukara could be played out wide, but doing so then leaves to further gaps in a squad that has quality but not strength in depth.
Fans View: Josh Fisk (@josh_fisk)
While anger must remain at the way Neil Redfearn was treated, is that side-lined by the hope of success under a promising head coach in Uwe Rosler?
I think so, but it will depend on how we start the season. Redfearn was treated appallingly and should undoubtedly still have a place within the football club, but I didn’t see him as the right man to take us back to the Premiership. Whether Rosler is the man to do it is doubted, but there is a lot of positivity around the place at the minute. Rosler speaks in detail how he wants to improve our fitness, shape and discipline to play an attacking, high-pressing game and his signings on paper have been good. The Chris Wood signing in particular was a real statement of intent and has done a lot for fuelling the optimism that we’ll do well for this season.
What’s the feeling towards Massimo Cellino – a misunderstood genius or a chairman who will continue to manufacture chaos and crisis?
Arguably the latter, but probably somewhere in between. He’s been hiding well behind the scenes so far this summer and seemingly left most of the running of the club to Adam Pearson, our new executive director who has undoubtedly done an excellent job at keeping Cellino’s erratic nature at bay. As a result, we’ve had a very steady summer…and haven’t signed any players over the age of thirty from Serie B!
Lewis Cook signing a new deal was a major boost this summer. How important are the crop of excellent young players at Elland Road, both in providing something to believe during difficult times and giving hope that the club can move up the table in the near future?
As you say, last season, the young players provided something to believe in during difficult times, but this season I hope with their help we can push further up the table. The fact that they’re academy born and bred is refreshing, but the most important aspect of them all is that they are all very good Championship players, now with another season of Championship experience. Byram will almost certainly play in a more attacking role week in, week out which will be exciting, whilst Cook and Mowatt should form an excellent central midfield three alongside Luke Murphy. It isn’t just these players either, the signings of Erwin and Adeyemi reinforce the idea that we’re starting to hopefully a build a younger, hungrier and better squad.
Only Sheffield Wednesday scored fewer goals than Leeds outside the bottom six last season. Can Chris Wood address your problems in front of goal?
Chris Wood is the type of striker we have lacked for a long time, someone who can play up front on his own and hold the ball up, whilst scoring a range of different goals. He’s also good in the air and on paper, is the most complete striker we’ve had for a while. Our main issue with goalscoring is the creation of chances but hopefully the way we play under Rosler will create chances for him. There has been concern over the summer about his fitness having picked up a hamstring injury in pre-season but if he remains fit, I can see him doing very well here. I’d watch out for Lee Erwin as well, he’s young and raw but the two of them could cause problems this season.
With uncertainty still surrounding the club, and the squad lacking in a few areas, how far away are you from a successful promotion push, and what needs to be done for a return to the Premier League to be achieved?
We’re very similar to a number of clubs in this division in the sense that you could see us finishing anywhere from 20th to 6th. I don’t think we’re that far off from a play-off push, although I don’t think we’d win the play-offs if we got there. We’re not ready for Premier League football just yet, but we’re certainly closer having looked at the starting elevens that played the first game of the last two seasons. We now have a young, deep squad with guaranteed starters last season probably looking at a place on the bench this season, which is promising. I think we need four or five players, including two wingers over the course of the next two seasons to mount a serious charge next season, as long as keep the current crop of players as well. I’d take a top ten finish this season, with better more consistent performances throughout.
Summary: Getting there. Leeds still have a seat at the table shared by crisis clubs, but the appointment of Rolser has seen an uncomfortable situation become a promising one, and the squad is as strong as it has been for several seasons. Mid-table likely, but don’t be surprised if they push on. 13th
Milton Keynes Dons
For good reason, it’s tough for many to admire a club whose mere existence is extremely contentious. To praise a club who were born out of the destruction of another goes against the value system that belongs to football supporters.
Although their promotion was only sealed after Preston’s final day slip up at Colchester, their efforts throughout the season, and especially in the final ten weeks, meant Championship status has not been achieved by a fluke.
On 15 occasions were three goals or more scored as over 100 were racked up over the course of the season, just three games were lost between the opening day of the season and Boxing Day, and nine of the final eleven games resulted in victory with a goal difference of +28. A reward for Karl Robinson’s adventurous style of play.
The challenge for the Stadium:MK side, however, is to now prove that they are up to the rigours of the Championship. More will be demanded, blowing away teams will be impossible, and the bigger sides of the division might well inflict similar damage to that the Dons inflicted on weaker League One sides last season.
To survive in the second tier would arguably be a bigger achievement that their second place finish in the third.
The Manager – Karl Robinson
Once one of England’s most highly rated young bosses, Robinson’s reputation took a relative battering in the seasons prior to the one just gone.
Consecutive failures in the play-offs could be excused, but two seasons in a row where the Dons finished some way behind the top six, with ambitions, an infrastructure, and a side that demanded more, could not.
But Robinson made those who had started to question him rethink their views last season. An exciting brand of attacking football resulting in 101 goals scored, an improvement of 31 points on the previous campaign, and a second place finish. All with a squad, containing few marquee players, gelled together superbly.
The promotion not only a personal success for Robinson, but providing a platform from which he can prove his often debated managerial abilities in the second tier.
The chances of MK Dons surviving in their first delve into the Championship have been made slimmer by the loss of arguably their two most important players from last season.
The first is Dele Alli, sold to Tottenham in January and loaned back to Stadium:MK for the remainder of the season. The Football League Young Player of the Year scored 16 goals in 39 league appearances, and Alli’s ability in the middle was vital to Dons’ success last season.
So too were Will Grigg’s 20 goals, who returned to Brentford after the completion of his loan spell and has now joined Wigan Athletic. Dons desperately needing to find a new dictator of play, and a player or two capable of contributing more than 15 goals.
Simon Church, who joins after scoring eight goals in all competitions across two seasons at Charlton, and Dale Jennings, who spent time on loan in Milton Keynes in 2013/14 but has failed to live up to the potential shown at Tranmere than got him a move to Bayern Munich, don’t appear to be the solutions.
Sam Gallagher could be, but expecting a mountain of goals from an injury-hit 19-year-old with just one league goal so far in his short career is arguably wishful thinking.
Cristian Benavente, however, might well provide a positive contribution. The Peru international playmaker, signed from Real Madrid B, comes with the risk that he may not adapt to the English game, but so too is he highly rated by those who have seen him play.
Elsewhere, defenders Joe Walsh, relegated with Crawley Town last season, and Matthew Upson, whose experience will be as vital to any individual contribution, have joined on frees, while Cody Cropper arrives from Southampton to compete with goalkeeper David Martin.
The success the club enjoyed last season, helped by the major contributions from Alli and Grigg, was built on the back of a whole side that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Of course, there were talented individuals among Robinson’s squad. Skipper Dean Lewington remaining as important as ever having been at the club since its controversial birth, Carl Baker providing goals and assists having been snapped up on a free at the back end of September, and Samir Carruthers a threat out wide.
But there are few names that strike fear into the hearts of other Championship clubs, or would attract the interest of sides in this division.
That will be irrelevant if Robinson can again get his side playing an excellent style with perfect balance, but it might well be the case that their lack of quality is exposed by stronger opposition in this division.
Fans View: Harry Wright (@HarryWright27)
Will playing Championship convince a larger part of English football to accept your club, or does that not bother you, with the chance to play at this level purely providing a personal satisfaction?
The abuse we get doesn’t particularly bother me. We get the same old rubbish day in day out and frankly it’s quite entertaining when someone comes up with something original. I would like to think people start to accept the fact we’re here and here to stay. I think as time goes on people are starting to appreciate what we’re trying to do, which I feel is what is needed. We are a growing club and although we may be hard to like, we’re becoming ever harder to ignore.
Having underachieved for a couple of campaigns, were you at all beginning to doubt Karl Robinson before last season’s promotion?
During the 2012-13 season I was fed up of Karl’s constant pathetic excuses for bad performances. After Pompey away one Tuesday night he blamed the fact it was cold on a 1-1 where we missed more sitters than I can remember. If Karl was to have gone however, I don’t think we’d have found someone better to fit our club and the style we like to play. I think any manager of this club will have to deal with the past as well as the young fanbase and rather small budget so I think Karl and MK are a perfect fit and despite the underachievement I think we all know we were going to go forwards before we went backwards, at some point.
Dele Alli was obviously an important part of your success last season. Are you dramatically weaker without him, or do you think you’ll be able to cope his absence?
Dele was once in a generation player for a League One club. I don’t think we’ll see his type again for a while. Carruthers and our brand new signing Aguza may have certain attributes that Alli had but are nowhere near the full package. I just hope others will step up now he’s not here and we can replace his goals adequately or we will struggle.
The loss of Will Grigg could also be detrimental to your chances of survival. Where will your goals come from?
I’m hoping that our new strikers Sam Gallagher and Simon Church step up as strikers here will always get chances due to the free flowing football we play, previously shown with Afobe and Bamford also having good goal ratios here. Ben Reeves will hopefully be back to his best and get a few more than last season with Daniel Powell and Carl Baker always a threat. Benavente may also be crucial in getting the goals we need to ensure a good season.
While momentum carried over from last season might well mean it’s stronger than it appears on paper, your squad seems a little weak. Where do you need to strengthen, and who would you like to see come in?
Four signings this week have definitely helped. A left back may soon be needed because I don’t think Lewington will cut it in the championship. A proven striker is definitely required as Church and Gallagher don’t have prolific strike rates themselves. Karl Robinson is always looking for wingers so if one or two become available we’ll definitely be strengthening there too. Providing one of Carruthers or Aguza step up we’ll be okay in the midfield but I’m not 100% convinced by either of them being tasked with replacing Alli. A quick striker such as Sam Baldock would be good, as would a midfielder well known for his goals to accompany the more defence-minded Darren Potter.
Summary: Certainly have the ability to surprise, but with a relatively weak squad are unlikely to be able to replicate the style of football played in League One against stronger opposition. Won’t be lambs to the slaughter, and will surprise a few sides, but will ultimately struggle. 23rd
The reward for winning the Championship play-off final, as we are constantly reminded, is huge. Not only is a trip to the New York Stadium replaced by a visit to Old Trafford, but winning at Wembley and gaining top flight status significantly bolsters the club’s finances.
And those rewards only increase in size when the relative failings of the losing finalists in the following season are considered. So many start with positivity, believing that they are stronger for the experience, but only three who have fallen at the final hurdle have responded by achieving another top six finish since 2007.
That’s the same number of sides who have responded to final heartbreak with a bottom half finish. With expectations of promotion higher, key players snapped up by Premier League clubs, and Championship opposition strengthening, supporters are frequently left disappointed as their side fails to go one better than the previous campaign.
However, fears of failure following heartbreak are not felt in Middlesbrough. While some might have crumbled after their tame 2-0 defeat to Norwich City at Wembley in May, they appear to have come back even stronger.
The Head Coach – Aitor Karanka
The job that Spaniard Karanka has done at The Riverside since taking over in November 2013 is quite remarkable.
Maybe it is something best explained in the difference in average home attendance from 2012/13 to 2014/15. Not single-handedly, of course, but Karanka’s impact has added an average of just shy of 2,000 supporters to The Riverside’s stands each game, rising from 17,587 to 19,562.
A club that had long been marooned among the Championship also-rans, and mocked for the empty seats and lack of atmosphere on Teeside, have become a terrific force in the division, with many clubs fearing a trip to face Karanka’s side.
The brilliance of the Spaniard has seen Boro transformed into a side who are stubborn at the back while, at the same time, developing an attractive and potent style of play going forward. His contacts and knowledge have allowed for high quality players to be signed who wouldn’t have previously joined club. The improvement he’s made to the club has completely reversed the semi-decline and apathetic atmosphere.
It means that not even last season’s play-off final defeat has led to any questions about his ability to lead Boro forward. That is undoubted.
It took just one transfer to alleviate any doubts Boro supporters, and fans of other Championship clubs, had about their chances of challenging for promotion once again.
For to sign Stewart Downing, a player who won an England cap last season and was seemingly playing his best football since his Aston Villa days, is arguably one of the most impressive transfers ever made by a second tier club.
In truth, it’s something of a gamble. Investing £5.5m in a 30-year-old, even one who holds the club dear as a supporter and academy graduate, seems like a case of do or die. Steve Gibson, one of the most celebrated owners in the Football League, intent on getting his club back to the Premier League.
But the extent to which his signing is a gamble is limited first by Gibson’s successful stewardship of the club, making moves like this possible, and secondly by further improvement to the squad that was already impressive.
And their chances of promotion will only increase should they land Blackburn forward Jordan Rhodes, which they seem set to do sooner rather than later. The prolific striker arguably an upgrade on Patrick Bamford, who returns to Chelsea after a successful loan spell.
In fact, the only key players that Boro have lost from last season are those who have finished their loans. But Kenneth Omeruo, who has been replaced by Tomas Kalas, Ryan Fredericks, who played only a bit-part role last season, and Jelle Vossen, whose departure has been offset by Uruguay forward Christian Stuani’s arrival, shouldn’t be too desperately missed.
With experienced and versatile defender Alex Baptiste joining from Bolton and exciting playmaker Diego Fabrrini signed on loan from Watford, it’s fair to say Boro look even stronger than they did last season.
It’s strong. Very strong.
Particularly in midfielder, where their options are numerous and varied. From the defensive Grant Leadbitter, the box-to-box Adam Clayton, and the creative Adam Forshaw, there’s quality in Boro’s midfielder.
Out wide, Albert Adomah has been one of the best wingers in the division for several seasons now, while Mustapha Carayol will be looking to make an impression after injury woes in the previous campaign.
Further forward, Lee Tomlin, despite lacking the figure of a second tier footballer, showed his class in last season’s FA Cup victory at Manchester City, while Kike’s nine goals understate just how effective and important he was in Boro’s campaign.
And with much of Boro’s success built on a solid foundation, with the least amount of goals conceded (37) in the division last season, they remain strong at back. I’m personally a huge admirer of George Friend, while Ben Gibson’s emergence has been yet another positive to take from the previous two seasons.
Fans View: Adam Benson (@itsbeno96)
There are several examples of sides completely collapsing in the season following a play-off final defeat. Are you confident your near miss can be used positively, and promotion can be achieved this campaign?
I’m very confident it can be used positively as, unlike many sides, we haven’t stuck with the same squad that missed out on promotion. We’ve improved our squad by bringing in Downing, Stuani and hopefully Rhodes.
Many sides become complacent and think the same squad that missed out via the play-odds will go one better, but we’re aiming to go one better with a better squad. We only missed out on automatic promotion by 5 points last year, the main reason was goals. So we’ve aimed to bring in a better forward line to bridge that gap, as well as not losing any of our key players who are here on permanent contracts.
For some time, you appeared to be marooned among the Championship also-rans. Just how impressive a job has Aitor Karanka done to make you a serious force again?
He’s done a brilliant job, he’s managed to galvanise the whole club and change the whole mentality of the club. We were always seen as a very negative fanbase and a very negative club but Karanka has changed that completely and got everyone going in the same direction. He’s also been trusted with Steve Gibson’s money, and has spent it very wisely.
The signing of Stewart Downing is a huge statement of intent, but does the money spent make it a huge gamble?
Not at all, he was one of the most influential players in the premier league last season, so to step down to the championship shows how much Boro means to him, and I can’t see it being anything other than a huge success. His ability should shine through in this division.
At the time of writing, you’re closing in on Jordan Rhodes. Will he and downing be the difference between fourth and first?
Hopefully, yes. We lacked goals at times last year and Rhodes is a natural finisher whilst Downing can put things on a plate for all our forward players. So we’re hoping that when we’re in need of a spark then Downing can provide the creativity and Rhodes can score the goals.
Your squad looks as strong as any in the division, and all but complete. Is there any position that you would like to see strengthened?
Goalkeeper and centre half. Dimi is solid and reliable but it was a bitter blow to see Given stolen off us at the last moment. I’d like to see a goalkeeper come in and provide Dimi with genuine competition. Also we only have Ayala, Gibson and the forever unfit Woodgate at centre half, so we need one or two in that position to provide cover.
Summary: Some teams react better than others to the disappointment of losing a play-off final. Few will react as well as Middlesbrough. 1st
One of football’s biggest mysterious is Forest’s season after season failure to turn promotion-worthy form at the start of the season into actual promotion.
After 30 games in 13/14, they were fifth, and a margin of eight points between themselves and seventh. They finished 11th.
With 37 games gone in 12/13, they were also fifth, but ultimately slipped to eighth. In each of those season, Forest switched from periods where they were unbelievably dangerous to unbelievably dour seemingly at random.
So maybe their failure to at least properly challenge for promotion is not such a mystery. Achieving consistency, however, remains an unsolved conundrum to the City Ground club. Something they will be looking to solve in order to challenge for the duration of this campaign.
The Manager – Dougie Freedman
Having gone done the win-supporters-over-by-appointing-someone-they’re-fond-of route twice without success, chairman Fawaz Al-Hasawi arguably opted to take the complete opposite route in appointing Forest’s next manager.
For the man who succeeded Stuart Pearce was Dougie Freedman. A manager whose CV offered little encouragement, and one who had been sacked by Bolton to the delight of their supporters.
The trotters questioned his tactics, ridiculed his signings, and loathed his supporters. A left-field appointment, and not the sort of left-field appointment that excites.
However, the former Crystal Palace boss managed to reassure supporters of Forest with seven wins from his first ten games in charge. The only defeat in that time one to a resurgent Charlton side, who they pushed all the way.
But no wins in the final eight games of the season have raised the initial questions that were asked upon his appointment. Is he really the man to take Forest forward?
Confidence in Freedman higher than it was when he was first appointed, but there remains an element of doubt about his credentials. He still has something to prove.
Restricted by a FFP transfer embargo, Forest’s activity has not been lavish, but subtle improvements have been made to a squad that wasn’t as far away from challenging as their 14th place finish suggests.
First of all, underperforming high-earners have been moved on in order to free up space in their squad and wage bill. With Jamie Mackie, Danny Collins and Greg Halford let go earlier on in the summer, the mutual termination of Djamel Abdoun and Radoslaw Majewski’s contracts in recent days suggests more additions could be made to the squad.
They would join forward Jamie Ward, who arrives from rivals Derby but with a record impressive enough to quickly forget about his past, defender Matt Mills, who has the unenviable task of replacing Jamaal Lascelles, and left-back Dani Pinillos, a 22-year-old Spaniard who impressed during a trial.
Also snapped up by Freedman is former Charlton goalkeeper Ben Hamer, who joins on loan from Leicester City and replaces Karl Darlow, who heads to Newcastle alongside Lascelles after the pair were bought and loaned back to Forest last season.
Hamer, who was a fan favourite at The Valley and impressed when given a brief opportunity in the Premier League, is not only an excellent stopper, but also adds to what is already a very strong collection of bears at the City Ground.
One of the main factors in Forest’s inconsistency is horrendous fortune with injuries striking down not just key players, but players who they depend on for success.
And their side certainly looks a lot less threatening without Britt Assombalonga. The forward, who scored 15 times in 29 league games last season, will be missing until after the New Year with injury and it is almost impossible to replace someone so potent. Matty Fryatt and Dexter Blackstock decent Championship strikers, but little more than that.
However, the imminent returns of talismanic captain Chris Cohen and the extremely lovable Andy Reid has almost offset the loss of Assombalonga.
Cohen was just six games into a comeback from a lengthy lay-off last season before suffering the third cruciate knee ligament injury of his career, while Reid also sat out the previous campaign after the first six games.
There is, of course, concern the pair won’t be as influential as they once were, with both the mental and physical effects of their injuries holding them back, but it won’t stop Forest fans believing the impact of their return will be huge.
Elsewhere, winger Michail Antonio will again be vitally important after his 14 goals last season, highly-rated youngster Ben Osborn and Henri Lansbury forms a strong midfielder partnership, and there are options at the back with Jack Hobbs, Kelvin Wilson and Michael Mancienne competing with Mills.
Fans View: Isaac Johnson (@NFFClcCy)
With several failed bids for promotion, what needs to change for you to mount a season-long and successful promotion push?
In a word, stability – on and off the field. Since the arrival of the Al Hasawi family at the City Ground, we’ve been through a whole host of managers and players alike and it has so far proven to be sending us backwards with 8th, 11th and 14th place finishes, but that’s where the FFP transfer embargo we currently find ourselves under begins to look like a blessing in disguise.
We’ve been extremely limited in what we’ve been able to do in the transfer market this summer and as a result we’ll find ourselves with a very similar squad of players to the one we had last campaign. The team should be well aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and that can only help us as we head into another long Championship season. In truth, we already had a strong squad and were only in need of keeping our star players and making a few key additions and so far, we’ve done well in both regards.
Despite a strong start, Forest under Dougie Freedman failed to win any of their final eight games of the season. Is he the right man for the job?
I, like many others, was quite sceptical when Dougie was first appointed, but so far he’s done a great job. The end of season form was certainly disappointing, but when you consider the fact that six of our last eight games were against sides that finished in the top nine and that we had nothing to play for, I personally wouldn’t read too much into it. He has masterminded some impressive victories so far and has done well in improving our financial situation whilst enhancing our squad, so I can’t wait to see what he can do with an entire season. He certainly talks a good game; let’s just hope it translates to performances on the pitch.
Despite his age, just how important could a fit Andy Reid be this season?
A fit Andy Reid could possibly be the difference between a top six finish and another bottom half finish; he’s that good, and seems to have gotten better with age. Had it not been for his injuries in the 2013-14 campaign he could have almost single-handedly carried us into the play-offs; it wasn’t until his absence that we lost our way and it was a similar story last season, albeit at a much earlier stage in the campaign. There are quite a few fears about his fitness as he was originally scheduled to return at around Christmas time, but he’s suffered setback after setback and as a result a few fans have been talking about the possibility of him retiring, but the latest news is that he is in light training, so hopefully it won’t be too long until we see him in the Garibaldi red once again.
With Britt Assombalonga out with injury until the New Year, is another forward needed, and where else do you need to strengthen?
We’re desperately short up front at the moment. With Lars Veldwijk loaned back to the Netherlands and Matty Fryatt out until September, we’re left with just Dexter Blackstock and 18-year-old Tyler Walker as our fit strikers. Blackstock himself doesn’t have the best of injury records and we can’t afford to be relying on someone as inexperienced as Walker, so cover is essential.
We’ve passed upon the opportunity to sign Nicky Maynard, but we do still have former Ipswich man Paul Taylor on trial and there’s currently talk from journalist Alan Nixon of us being close to bringing in someone on a season long loan, but who that is exactly is unknown to us supporters. Lukas Jutkiewicz has also been linked, but a deal would only be made if Henri Lansbury was to move to Burnley. I think we’re relatively strong in all other areas in our squad, especially when you consider how good our academy is looking, but maybe another body in the middle of midfield wouldn’t hurt; preferably Gary Gardner on loan from Aston Villa again please!
Does promotion, and winning games, really matter when your squad has such a strong beard game?
It’s rather scandalous that the Football League doesn’t take its players facial hair into consideration, because we’d certainly be up there. Dougie has not long brought in Ben Hamer who, as I’m sure you’re well aware, would vastly strengthen any side’s beard game. When you add what he brings to the solid foundations already in place from the likes of Henri Lansbury, Danny Fox and a few others, we’d be a hairy proposition for any side. We on Trentside can’t wait for November, it’s just a shame that Djamel Abdoun looks to be on the way out!
Summary: Some doubts over Freedman, but there is enough strength in the squad to challenge regardless. Keeping key players fit vital, and will have a chance of a top six finish if they’re there or thereabouts when Assombalonga returns. 9th
Part Four will be released in the coming days