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

Sky Bet Championship Season Preview 2015/16 – Part Four

Part Three 


Preston North End

From the tears at Colchester to the triumph in the Capital. Preston’s response to the heartbreak of losing out on automatic promotion on the final day of the season was unexpectedly brilliant.

For nine times had North End been in a Football League play-off. Nine times they failed to achieve promotion. The physiological effect of missing out on a top two spot that seemed as if it was all but theirs would surely make it ten out of ten. PNE_FC

Instead, after breezing past Chesterfield in the semi-final, Swindon Town were blitzed at Wembley. Jermaine Beckford’s hat-trick part of a dominant 4-0 victory that meant the pain of three weeks previously was banished in emphatic style.

That they had to achieve promotion through the play-offs was incredibly cruel, and not just owing to the manner of their final day defeat at the Weston Homes Community Stadium.

Victory would have assured them a stress-free rise to the second tier. Instead, their 1-0 defeat, combined with MK Dons’ 5-1 win over Yeovil, saw them finish third. It was their first defeat in 19 games – they had done more than enough to deserve promotion.

It means that the Lilywhites rise to the Championship on the back of both an impressive season of quality football, and a strong display of mental strength.

And with their squad and resources comparatively limited to other sides in the division, they will need both of those factors to be replicated if they are to enjoy their return to the second tier.

The Manager – Simon Grayson

With four promotions from League One to the Championship to his name, Grayson’s ability to get a club out of the third tier and into the second is undoubted.

But the former Blackpool, Leeds and Huddersfield boss has developed a tag of only being capable of succeeding in that division. His Championship record, especially after disappointing with Huddersfield following their play-off victory in 2012, average.

However, it can easily be suggested that Grayson is a more tactically astute and mentally stronger boss than he was three seasons ago.

Without taking any praise away from his players, to string together an 18 game unbeaten run that ultimately ended in disappointment, then lift his side to the extent that they were able to respond in the play-offs as impressive as they did, is a stunning effort.

Combine that with what will probably be a strong desire to prove himself at this level, and Grayson’s leadership stands to impress this season.

Transfer Business

While there is no denying that Preston were impressive for large parts of last season in League One, there’s certainly a feeling that their squad needed strengthening in order to cope with the rigours of the Championship.

So their minimal activity this summer will be of some concern to supporters of North End. Just five players have been addedat the time of writing, which includes play-off final hero Beckford and Paul Gallagher, who has been on loan at Preston since their unbeaten title-winning season, joining permanently.

They couldn’t, however, lure Sam Johnstone back to the club. The Manchester United goalkeeper excelled while on loan at Deepdale last season but, with doubts over his availability, Preston were forced to move for young Sunderland goalkeeper Jordon Pickford. He joins on a season-long loan.

The Manchester giants have, however, lent forward Will Keane. The 6’2 22-year-old scored three times in 13 appearances for Sheffield Wednesday last season, and has been entrusted with Preston’s number nine shirt.

Greg Cunningham, able to play at left-back and left-wing, arrives after impressing for fellow promoted club Bristol City, rounding off the incomings. Decent additions, but arguably not enough.

At least some solace can be taken from the fact that the key members of Preston’s side remain. Scott Laird, who played 41 times at left-back last season, the only real shock among nine departures.

The Squad

Preston’s first season back in the Championship since 2010/10 will primarily see them rely on those who impressed in the third tier to achieve a stable second tier finish.

It’s a strategy, whether forced or actively chosen, that has worked for many teams in the past, and there are certainly players in Preston’s side who are likely to succeed in the Championship.

Bailey Wright and Tom Clarke form a solid centre-back pairing, Neil Kilkenny and John Welsh provide resolve in midfield, while Daniel Johnson’s influence, with eight goals in 18 games, after his January move from Aston Villa was crucial.

And in attack, Joe Garner will be wanting to prove he is of Championship standard. The forward scored 27 goals in all competitions last season, but has previously struggled in the second tier.

Alas, the squad is a little thin on quality, and numbers, beyond that. Many of Preston’s side will be playing in the Championship for the first time, and there isn’t a position that couldn’t do with either improvement or depth added to it.

North End will not only be reliant on the individuals who impressed last season, but the cohesion, confidence and momentum, gained either side of the Colchester heartbreak, the squad will carry over from their promotion.

Fans View: Sean Marshall (@_legohead_)

When the full-time whistle blew at Colchester, did you think your chances of answering questions for a Championship Season Preview were over?

Yes, definitely, given Preston’s play-off record I believed that the nature of missing out on automatic promotion would be too much for them to overcome, before the game at Chesterfield there had been a fairly long list of big games that the team had failed to appear in and it didn’t seem like there would be much reason why that would change. I certainly wouldn’t have changed what happened though, give me a win at Wembley over automatic promotion any day of the week.

In the sense that the play-off experience has toughened your side up mentally, and given you some momentum into the new season, do you think going through the route you did to achieve promotion will stand you in greater stead for the season ahead?

I think getting the play-off curse lifted was a huge thing for the club but I wouldn’t say it changed too much in terms of the season ahead. Although the management and players will feel extremely vindicated to have proven a lot of people wrong who had basically written them off after the Colchester game, something that could help drive them forward in a league where most will expect us to be bottom half at best.

Arguably the two key men of this Preston side – boss Simon Grayson and forward Joe Garner – have failed to impress at Championship level before. Do you think they will on this occasion?

Really it’s a misconception that Grayson hasn’t succeeded at this level. While he did struggle at Huddersfield a few years ago he was a success at this level with Blackpool and Leeds, keeping Blackpool up on a shoestring budget and nearly getting Leeds to the play offs in their first season up, a position they haven’t been anywhere near since he was sacked. I will be surprised if Garner manages another 20 goal season but he should be a very good player at this level, unlike his time at Nottingham Forest he’ll be utilised in a forward position instead of on the wing and will form a deadly partnership with Jermaine Beckford, the main reason why we got promoted.

Your transfer activity has been minimal. Are you concerned about the state of your squad, and where do you need to strengthen in order to be assured of Championship survival?

One of our big problems over the last few years was that we had a lot of depth, but not very much quality, now it’s really the opposite with more Championship quality players but we’re still a little thin on the sides. With a new goalkeeper and a right back we’re probably a competent Championship team. In a league that’s dominated by parachute payments and rich owners we still don’t have the clout to match the transfer fees being thrown around by some of the bigger clubs in this division. We already have a strong core in place it just needs a few additions throughout the season. I would certainly prefer that to a bloated untalented squad like the team that got us relegated in 2011.

I’m offering you 21st place, finishing above 22nd on goal difference. Would you take it?

I’d like to hope we’re capable of better than that this season but I’d definitely take it. After four miserable seasons in League One I’d prefer not to have to go back again any time soon. Memories of being stranded at the bottom of the Championship are still lingering so even 21st would be a big improvement.

Summary: It’s going to be a proper slog. 21st

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Queens Park Rangers

A squad full of underperforming, unmotivated and overpaid 30-somethings. Gutless and lifeless defeats week after week, with just three wins after Christmas. A tame effort that was never going to be enough to avoid a bottom place finish and relegation.

QPR’s return to the Premier League was disastrous enough to pretend your knees had packed in in order to get out of it. hreherherherherh

And much of the rhetoric in the latter half of last season, as the R’s suffered loss upon loss, was that this was a trend which wouldn’t be reversed. A cancer sweeping through the club, and not just Harry Redknapp’s old boys creating an unhealthy atmosphere in the dressing room.

However, there seems to be an element of positivity seeping into the walls of Loftus Road, especially if you block Karl Henry on Twitter and pretend he no longer plays for the club. Most of the old guard dispatched, most of those who remain are hard workers or consistent performers, and a number of younger, more exciting players have been snapped up.

There remains plenty of concern. Is Chris Ramsey up to it? Are the new additions up to it? Has the disastrous atmosphere at the club actually been reversed?

But QPR certainly seem in a healthier place than many expected them to be in at the start of this Championship season.

The Manager – Chris Ramsey

Giving the job on a full-time basis to a caretaker manager who won just three out of 15 games, and was unable to prevent his side from suffering relegation, seems like madness.

And on the available evidence, it’s not unfair to suggest that Tony Fernandes has made a bizarre decision in appointing Ramsey as R’s boss. Not as bizarre as letting Redknapp roam free, but still a bit of a high-risk gamble.

For Ramsey, hiding beneath his woolly hat, looked a little overawed as his side suffered defeat after defeat. In truth, he didn’t exactly have the resources at hand to make a difference, and any manager would have been fighting a losing battle, but little was shown at all to suggest he’s up to the rigours of management.

Maybe it’s partly down to the respect he gained for working with youngsters at Tottenham. With QPR wanting to develop a younger side, Fernandes might well think he’s the best man for the club. Maybe Fernandes is just bonkers.

Either way, Ramsey will need to prove himself this season. And prove himself quickly.

Transfer Business

Whether it ultimately proves successful or not in the short-term, that this summer has seemingly marked a change in the club’s transfer policy is extremely promising for supporters of the R’s.

For no longer will they be forced to watch half-arsed performances from unmotivated or ageing pros. Adel Taarabt, Richard Dunne and Joey Barton among those moved on, Rio Ferdinand retired, and Niko Kranjcar back at Dynamo Kyiv following the completion of his loan.

It probably helps when the man who specialised in signing those coming towards the end of their career has been replaced by someone who has spent most of their coaching life working in roles that requires appreciation of young players.

And Ramsey has brought in a number of them. Midfielders Ben Gladwin and Massimo Luongo, both signed from Swindon, were among the most impressive performers in League One last season, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has excelled for Bristol City in the previous two seasons and is still only 24, while forward Sebastian Polter arrives from Germany after scoring 14 goals in 29 games for Union Berlin last season.

So too have players been signed whose work rate and effort is rarely questioned. The versatile James Perch a useful addition to the squad, while fans’ favourite Jamie Mackie has returned to the delight of supporters. Tjaronn Cherry, a Dutch attacking midfielder who scored 15 times for FC Gronigen in 2014/15, rounding off what appears to be a successful summer for the club to date.

But with high-earner Steven Caulker heading out on loan to Southampton in recent days, and the Charlie Austin transfer saga seemingly nearing a conclusion, there is sure to be further additions to the squad before the end of the window.

The Squad

The promising additions are supplemented by some genuine good eggs, and some decent players, remaining at the club.

Robert Green’s efforts to keep QPR’s goal difference respectable last season was commendable, Nedum Onuoha a strong defender and the right sort of character to wear the armband, and winger Matt Phillips, who has excelled at Championship level before, impressive during times when the R’s were struggling.

And so too does relegation provide an opportunity to those who were underused, for whatever reason, during the Premier League campaign. The return from serious injury of fan favourite Alejandro Faurlin provides a major boost, the breakthrough of defender Darnell Furlong at the back end of last season was promising, and left-back Jack Robinson, once recovered from injury, will be a useful option after impressing on loan at Huddersfield last season.

Finally, there’s players of quality whose motivation you could possibly question. Will Leroy Fer and Samba Diakite be at Loftus Road come September? It’s unlikely but, while they remain, there is little harm in utilising them if their attitude is correct.

Fans View: @sophqpr

With many of the ageing pros, whose attitude and motivation could be questioned, departing and a number of young or at least interesting additions made to the squad, has positivity returned to Loftus Road?  

I think I speak for the majority of QPR fans when I say that I am very pleased that the club has recognised the importance of signing young and hungry players. We’ve been crying out for change within the squad for a long time and it’s like a breath of fresh air. With these new additions and a transformed squad, I think our fans will be positive ahead of the coming season.

How long does Chris Ramsey have to prove himself the right man for the job, and will he prove himself?

I believe Chris knows our academy better than anyone since he has so much experience working with our younger players and essentially they are the future. You look at some other clubs who have owed some of their success to the players that have come through the ranks, Southampton being an example, with Bale, Walcott, Shaw to name a few. If we can develop our academy and produce some bright prospects, I believe we can move forward, Ramsey can help us do that.

The Charlie Austin transfer saga has dragged on and on. Would you have preferred that he had been sold earlier on in the summer to allow you more time to use the fee gained to improve the squad, or are you still hopeful he’ll be a QPR player come September? 

I’m a realist and we finished last season with me thinking ‘Charlie has been phenomenal this season, he is bound to go to a top six-mid table Prem club’. With an England call-up and 18 goals for us, I thought he would be snapped up and would have moved on early, but it seems that no club has yet met the asking price or the demands that need to be met. Of course, I’d be over the moon if we kept him. Him linking up with our new signing Chery and Phillips could prove to be exciting. So, obviously no doubt, I would love to see him as a QPR player next season! Whether it will happen though or we will have him sold last minute like Remy was, I don’t know.

Once/If Austin has/is been sold, there will surely be some further additions made to the squad. What positions would you like to see strengthened and who would you like to see come in?

Who I would like to see come in, I’m not sure, but we definitely need to strengthen our back line. Some defenders we currently have are injured or too old. We have just signed Perch, but we definitely still need some centre-halves, especially after witnessing how leaky our defence was last season.

Is promotion a must, or would a season of stability after a handful of chaotic years be acceptable?

A season of stability is needed I think and I certainly wouldn’t mind. I would rather we finished mid table or in the playoff spots with a young squad and good backroom staff than get promoted but be faced with a lot of problems once again. A steady, smoother ride instead of a broken rollercoaster would be nice for a change!

Summary: Neither a crisis club nor one that will storm the league. Biggest concern would be about Ramsey’s ability, but will be up there regardless. 7th

112


Reading

Having been so close to a play-off place in 2013/14 that they only found out they had missed out while they were celebrating a top six finish on the Madjeski Stadium pitch, Reading’s league campaign last season was a huge disappointment.

In truth, ownership chaos prior to it getting underway meant expectations had been reigned in a little, and the run to the FA Cup semi-final provided some pleasure, but the underwhelming nature of the Royals’ 19th place finish cannot be ignored. erherherherher

For not only was it their lowest finish since promotion to the second tier in 2001/02, but the club found themselves constantly looking over their shoulder towards League One just two seasons after playing Premier League football.

It means more is expected, and possibly demanded, in the coming campaign.

In a position to challenge for the top six? Certainly not. But supporters will want to see some improvement from their side, Steve Clarke confirm his worth, and new additions make an impact after the disappointment of last season.

The Manager – Steve Clarke

A useful asset to bosses at Chelsea, West Ham and Liverpool, there is no doubt about Clarke’s credentials as a number two. Arguably, he’s one of the best assistant managers in the English game.

But there remains doubt as to whether Clarke can cut it as his own man. A relatively uninspiring spell at West Brom followed by last season’s struggles, although taking over from Nigel Adkins when the club were already in an uncomfortable position, at Reading mean he’s yet to prove himself.

However, with his feet under the table at the Madjeski, Clarke has an opportunity to show his worth as a manager.

By no means is it an easy task, and not even last season’s FA Cup run really creates a platform from which he can succeed, but inspiring a previously underperforming side and leading them to a higher finish will make his managerial CV look a lot more impressive.

Transfer Business

Having made a handful of tidy additions to their squad, Reading’s work in the transfer market has allowed supporters to feel some sense of optimism ahead of the new season.

In truth, a handful of key players have left the club over the summer. Goalkeeper Adam Federici, an impressive performer in over 200 league games for the Royals irrespective of his costly mistake at Wembley, joins Bournemouth, fellow stalwart Adam Pearce joins Derby after just shy of 200 games for the Berkshire club, and Jem Karacan, having struggled with injuries in recent seasons, has been allowed to join Turkish giants Galatasaray.

But in their place come Jonathan Bond and Ali Al-Habsi to compete for a place between the sticks, defender Paul McShane, an underrated performer for Hull City in the Premier League, and attacking midfielder Stephen Quinn, who also impressed in parts for the Tigers.

So too has Portuguese forward Orlando Sa been snapped up after scoring 14 goals in 33 games for Legia Warsaw. The Royals hopeful that the one-time Portugal international will address their lack of goals, with just 48 scored last season.

The Squad

Irrespective of the signings made, Reading’s squad looks a little low on quality and particularly short of numbers.

On paper, Chris Gunter and Jordon Obita flanking two from Michael Hector, Anton Ferdinand and McShane is a decent back four. But, aside from being three parts of a defence that conceded 69 times last season, there’s little cover beyond that.

So too is that true of the midfield. Oliver Norwood and Danny Williams of decent standard in the middle, Hal Robson-Kanu and Garath McCleary excelling for Wales and Jamaica over the summer, and Quinn’s versatility useful. But, again, there is little beyond that.

And the options in attack are fairly underwhelming. Pavel Pogrebnyak unplayable on his day, as he showed at The Valley last season, but his days are as rare as February 29, Simon Cox’s effort cannot be criticised but his scoring record can, and whether Nick Blackman is of Championship standard is questionable.

However, hope can be taken from the fact that a whole host of promising young players are on the verge of breaking into the first team.

Reading’s development side won the U21 Premier League Cup in 2013/14, and many of the players who featured in the two-legged victory over Manchester City will be called upon during this campaign if their squad size remains as it is.

Defender Jake Cooper, highly rated midfielder Tarique Fosu, and forward Dominic Samuel might well be needed to plug gaps during this campaign.

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Fans View: Adam Tucker (@AdamTucker_)

Last season was Reading’s lowest league finish since promotion from the third tier in 2001/02. A sign of a club heading backwards, or just a small blip?

Here’s hoping it’s a small blip. While the league finish was disappointing, the FA Cup run showed the potential within the squad that under performed in league fixtures. Whilst the summer has seen big changes around the place, Steve Clarke has done well in tying down Michael Hector, Jordan Obita and Tariqe Fosu to new contracts, and those three will be vital in the near and distant future for the club.

Was the FA Cup run effectively a bit of run, or something that provides some optimism for this season?

As mentioned above, it showed the potential within the side. While Steve Clarke couldn’t quite get it right in many league fixtures, the cup showed his tactical prowess and his ability to set up a team in exactly the right way to win a game of football. He even almost outsmarted Arsene Wenger, and we were very unfortunate to not leave Wembley that day with a place in the final.

Steve Clarke’s record as a number two is unquestionable, but he’s yet to prove himself as a manager. Is he the right man to lead Reading forward?

If you asked me this immediately after the end of last season I wouldn’t have been so sure, but his influence over signings and enthusiasm has given me renewed hope he is the right man. Due to the league performances last season I am still not completely convinced, but as mentioned above, the cup showed he has the ability.

Only two clubs outside the bottom three conceded more than Reading’s 69 goals last season. Can Ali Al-Habsi and Paul McShane correct your defensive woes?

Our defence already looks a lot stronger this season, barring players remain fit. Anton Ferdinand, who only featured 3 times last season, has been an ever present in pre-season and showed fine form, Michael Hector has had a fantastic summer away with Jamaica, reaching the Gold Cup final. Young Niall Keown has really came to his own this pre-season, adding another option. It’s hard to say on Paul McShane. Whilst he has undoubted experience, he’s only featured once this pre-season due to injury, so it is yet to be seen if he can help build a strong defence, but his and Ferdinand’s experience will be vital in the development of their younger counterparts, Hector and Keown. When it comes to the goalkeeping situation, I see Jonathan Bond as the real solution. While being young he has shown himself to be a very talented goalkeeper, with plenty of room to grow even further, and the experience of Al-Habsi will only be beneficial to his growth. The game time in pre-season would suggest Steve Clarke sees Bond as his first choice. If it’s anything to go by, Bond has started and played the full 90 minutes against Swansea and getting 60 minutes against Espanyol, whilst Al-Habsi has started and played the full 90 minutes against Bristol Rovers and Crawley, having a real moment to forget against the latter.

Although some promising signings have been made, your squad is one of the smallest in the division. How worried are you about the state of your squad, and what further additions need to be made?

The signings have been impressive. Most notably the capture of Stephen Quinn from Hull, an excellent addition at this level and he’s proved he can even cut in the Premier League should we get there. However yes, squad depth is an issue. In multiple positions one injury would leave us bare and searching for options. However the academy, which has been a reliable source of some high quality talent over the years, has carried through some good young players to take the field if they’re needed. None other than Dominic Samuel up front. He enjoyed a very good loan spell at Coventry last season which was unfortunately cut short by injury, and he looks to be a real option to consider for Steve Clarke, especially considering his striking options at the moment are limited to Orlando Sà, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Simon Cox, with Pogrebnyak and Cox really struggling to hit top goalscoring form last season.

Summary: One of a number of sides who could as easily finish just outside the play-offs as they could find themselves in a relegation battle. Depth of squad and uncertainty over Clarke’s ability means I’m inclined to suggest it will more likely be the latter, but could certainly push for the top half if their squad size is bolstered. 20th

109


Rotherham United

On the one hand, it was job done. Rotherham, after back-to-back promotions, defying the odds to survive in the Championship and finish five points ahead of 22nd place Millwall.

On the other, it was far too close for comfort. The Millers, having seemly done enough to secure their safety, were penalised for fielding an ineligible player in the win over Brighton. Farrend Rawson’s loan deal from Derby had already expired. gewgwegewgew

An utterly bizarre and amateur error that saw them deduced three points, and again have to worry about their Championship status. Ultimately pulling clear with Millwall unable to use the newfound hope to inspire them.

Alas, it would appear that Rotherham’s reprieve was only temporary. With resources unable to match the bigger clubs in the division, and a relatively weak squad, the Millers again have a struggle on their hands to remain in the second tier.

The Manager – Steve Evans

After making plenty of friends throughout Leagues One, Two and below, the divisive Evans did not waste the opportunity he was given to warm himself to supporters of Championship clubs.

His berating of referees soon became embarrassing, his aggressive reaction to what he believed were unjust defeats something to loathe, and fielding an illegible player was a great source of ridicule.

But his questionable character does not taint his achievements as Rotherham boss, or lower his status among the club’s supporters. Surviving, if not in the most fluent of fashions, last season only increasing the respect he has around the New York Stadium.

However, even with the platform that one season of survival in the Championship provides, avoiding relegation for a second successive campaign would surely better his previous achievements at the club.

Transfer Business

A criticism labelled at Evans and Rotherham last season was that the high turnover of players had a detrimental impact on the side’s balance, cohesion, and confidence. A staggering 31 signings made, and 42 players used over the course of the season.

Alas, it appears such mistakes have not been learned from. In truth, it is a consequence of 11 players leaving the club over the summer, including Iceland international Kari Arnason and the impressive Ben Pringle, but 11 average-at-best players have been snapped up by the Millers.

Even the most impressive of the new additions come with some baggage. Former Middlesbrough winger Emmanuel Ledesma is certainly a potential match-winner, but his injury record isn’t great.

Nor is left-back Joe Mattock’s, who joins from Sheffield Wednesday alongside centre-back Lewis Buxton and forward Chris Maguire. Their bid for the Spion Kop was, however, turned down.

Away from Rotherham’s raid of the Owls, centre-back Danny Collins and the versatile Greg Halford arrive from Nottingham Forest, young defender Tom Thorpe has been snapped up following his release from Manchester United, and Aidy White provides another option at left-back.

Rawson, who you can only hope has been registered properly, joins on loan again from Derby alongside goalkeeper Kelle Roos, while midfielder Grant Ward has been lent by Tottenham until January.

The task for Evans is to blend the plethora of signings into something balanced and effective, and prevent his loan signing urges from taking over.

The Squad

With the turnover in players being so dramatic, Just 11 members of Rotherham’s squad from last season remain at the New York Stadium.

And one of those, Kirk Broadfoot, will miss the first ten games of the season after receiving a hefty ban for sending sectarian abuse the way of James McClean in a game against Wigan in March.

As such, you expect most of Rotherham’s starting XI to be made up of the players signed during the summer. But there are a number that remain who will still have a positive contribution to make.

Winger and regular Charlton tormentor Danny Ward scored three times in 12 games after joining from Huddersfield in January, Paul Green and Lee Frecklington dependable performers in the middle, and Matt Derbyshire was the club’s top scorer with nine goals.

Regardless, it’s not exactly a squad full of quality that inspires confidence.

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Fans View: Josey Webb (@JoseyWebb)

Apart from not playing ineligible players, what do you think is the key thing Steve Evans and Rotherham will have learnt from their first season back in the Championship?

I think people forget that last season was Steve Evans’ first ever managing in the Championship and he will be the first to say he learnt a lot. Personally I think the main thing I hope they have learnt going into the new season is how to manage their approach to games.

Evans was so use to winning games (he had earned promotion in the three previous campaigns) it was easy to adopt the same attitude in the Championship of going to win games and unfortunately this left us very exposed defensively in certain matches and clubs at this level seldom need a second chance to punish you. We also got out of jail in League One by simply out scoring teams and Evans himself has admitted this week that he has always had the approach of ‘wanting to win 10-9’.

Hopefully this season they will have learnt to be more measured in their play and improve defensively to give us a solid base to work from. I expect us to make it harder for teams to score this season.

 

Given how close you were to the drop, has support for Evans decreased a little, or are Rotherham supporters still as appreciative and confident in their controversial boss as ever?

Unfortunately Steve Evans has had his knockers from day one and there are still certain supporters that are uncomfortable with him being our boss. One thing is for sure though and that is he is a winner and I think the majority of fans are still behind him and had no further expectations last season other than staying up.

Providing he learns from his mistakes, I think he has toned down his touchline antics considerably, then I think people still have the confidence that he is the right man for the job.

There has been some suggestion that Evans constantly moving players in and out of the club was a huge hindrance last season. Are you concerned by the high turnover of players this summer?

Personally I agree with that sentiment and the high turnover last season did have a detrimental effect on our season. I wouldn’t even say it was necessarily the amount of players that were brought in, simply just the scatter gun approach to the transfer activity that looked almost desperate. However, there has been similar patterns in previous seasons that have led to promotion so it can’t be all bad.

The high numbers this season don’t bother me because firstly we have been shipping out a lot of the mistakes from last summer and the signings made this time around look a lot more measured and thought out.

One thing I can say for sure about Steve Evans though is that he is not afraid to admit he got it wrong with a player and get rid if they don’t perform. Hopefully he will have to do that a lot less this season.

Irrespective of the high turnover of players, are there any areas in your squad you think still need strengthening, and who would you like to see come in?

I still think we need a striker and many fans seem to echo those sentiments of wondering where the goals are going to come from. Matt Derbyshire had a great end to the season so hopefully he can continue that on from day one this time but think he will need some support. Danny Ward and Chris Maguire look like they will chip in but I’m not sure if they will be deployed on the wings rather than upfront, so might not get as many as we hope.

In terms of who’s out there that we can afford, I don’t know, I will leave that to the gaffer.

Would survival be a success again or, in your second season in the second tier, do you need to be showing some sign of progression for it to be considered successful?

Listen, in my eyes staying in the division has to be the first priority and as long as we are a Championship team then everyone should be happy with their achievements, especially considering the budgets that some teams have to work with.

I think it will be tougher this year and staying up will be great, however, I think any season where you progress has to be seen as a success, so, for the first time in a while, a mid table finish will do nicely.

Summary: Evans will probably find a way of keeping them in the division, but Rotherham’s relative weakness suggests they’re in a bit of trouble. 24th

108


Sheffield Wednesday

Few supporters in the Football League are guilty of expressing misguided confidence as frequently as those who follow Sheffield Wednesday. The self-proclaimed Massive have, in previous seasons, been unwilling to accept that clubs of smaller stature have managed to inflict defeat upon them and finisher above them in the table.

But, for the first time in a number of years, that almost arrogant confidence might well be justified. In what has been a summer of change at Hillsborough, some of it confusing but most of it incredibly exciting, there is a realistic belief that Wednesday could challenge this season. reherherherherhe

Supplemented by the millions of a Dejphon Chansiri, leader of the consortium that now owns the club, the Owls have had had a squad revamp. The players departed of no real loss, and the players added of some quality.

But so too has there been something of a controversial change of head coach, discontent over an outrageous rise in ticket prices, and the usual doubts that occur when a club is faced with something new and relatively unknown.

But when Wednesday boast about being massive this season, they might well be able to do some from a position of strength.

The Head Coach – Carlos Carvalhal

Given the way the Portuguese coach was appointed, there will be immediate pressure on 49-year-old Carvalhal to succeed in Sheffield.

While it’s fair to say the football Stuart Gray served up was less than entertaining, with no side drawing more games (18) than the Owls last season and no side outside the bottom three scoring less (43), but he had earned the respect of Wednesday supporters.

After all, their 13th place finish last season was the club’s highest since 2008/09, no club outside the top six conceded fewer (49) than the Owls, and Gray had surely done enough to warrant the chance to build upon the platform he had laid.

Alas, Gray was rather unsympathetically discarded prior to pre-season getting underway, and replaced by Carvalhal. A man whose CV is certainly interesting, but not necessary exciting. Fourteen clubs managed, largely in Portugal and Turkey, but with minimal success.

In fact, Carvalhal has not managed for three years, since a stint at Istanbul BB. With experience of the English game lacking in addition to the concerns his inactivity raises, it’s certainly a risky appointment.

Transfer Business

It’s Wednesday’s work in the transfer market that has allowed supporters to place any doubts they have about Chansiri and Carvalhal to the back of their minds, and feel a genuine sense of excitement towards the new season.

Out go a whole host of mediocre or underperforming players likely to be on a relatively high wage. The troublesome Gary Madine, the inconsistent Jacquis Maghoma, and the error-prone Kamil Zayatte among 13 first team players who have departed the club this summer.

And with squad places cleared, in come an array of exciting, or at least intriguing, players largely snapped up from Europe.

There, of course, a handful of additions who have plenty of Championship experience. Scottish Winger Ross Wallace’s free-kicks are worth several points a season, advanced midfielder Lewis McGugan joins having impressed on loan from Watford last season, and right-back Jack Hunt makes Wednesday the fourth club he’s spent time on loan at since joining Crystal Palace in 2013.

But it’s those signed from the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain that offer genuine hope the Owls can push on this season. Darryl Lachman a strong and composed centre-back, Alex Lopez a midfielder who has played over 150 times for Celta, and Marco Matias a forward who scored 17 times in 33 games for Nacional last season.

Vincent Sasso, a French defender signed on loan from Braga, and Lucas Joao, a 6’3 Portugal U21 striker who also joins from Nacional, rounds off a very busy summer for Wednesday and Carvalhal.

The danger, of course, is that the contingent of players without prior experience of England’s second tier will struggle to adapt. But Wednesday fans can be forgiven for ignoring that and feeling a sense of promise created by their summer additions.

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The Squad

On top of those exciting new signings is a solid core of relatively long-serving Wednesday players, most of which are of impressive quality.

Keiren Westwood, who showed his incredible ability between the sticks in two appearances against Charlton last season, was named in the PFA Team of the Year, former Addick Jose Semedo signed a new deal over the summer, while defensive pair Glenn Loovens and Tom Lees also extended their stays at Hillsborough.

So too does the Owls’ squad contain useful operators in attack. Sergiu Bus scored twice in eight games after arriving from CSKA Sofia in January, while Stevie May and Atdhe Nuhiu, although frustrating and inconsistent, often provide a test to opposition centre-backs.

The only real criticism you could have of Wednesday’s squad is that it lacks a little strength in depth in midfield areas. But the versatile Kieran Lee and Jeremy Helan should prevent that from being a serious issue.

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Fans View: Joe Shemeld (@Joeswfc_)

The decision to remove Stuart Gray and replace him with Carlos Carvalhal, particularly at the time it was done, raised a few eyebrows. Was that the correct decision, and was it done in the right way?

I think everyone was shocked when Gray went, especially after the job he’d done for us. We’ll never know what he’d have done with a bit of money to spend (he deserved the chance), but from what we’ve seen of Carvalhal so far he seems a really good appointment. He’s settled in well, the fans have taken a liking to him and we’re playing nice football, we’ll find out if he’s the right man for the job when the season starts.

Also raising a few eyebrows are your ticket prices. What do you make of the situation, and do you think, with it possibly leading to a half-empty Hillsborough, could have a negative impact on the team? 

There’s a fair few people who have been priced out of going to games with the increase in ticket prices, it’s probably been the only down side in the past few weeks we’ve had. It does seem as though the higher prices (£52, £49 etc) won’t be used too often this season, and if the increase means more budget towards the side and improving the club as a whole, then you can see why it’s been put in place.

The transfers you’ve made, and particularly the amount you’ve spent, suggests you could be a force this season. Can you compete for a top six finish this season?

It’s the Championship so who knows! Ipswich last season proved you don’t need to spend a huge amount to be in with a chance of promotion, Burnley the season before that. I think for the first time in years we’ve got a side capable of being around the top 6, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if we’re just outside of it.

Most of your additions have not played English football before, and might well take time to adapt. How important, particularly in the early parts of the season, will the strong core of players you’ve kept at the club from last season be?

I think they’ve started to do their part already to be honest, we had a good bunch of players under Gray who worked hard for each other, from what we’ve seen they’ve continued that with Carvalhal and the new signings are settling in well.

Do you think any areas of the squad still need strengthening and, if so, who would you like to see come in?

I’d take a winger, a left back and possibly another striker. We’re still lacking another option out wide even though we’ve got Wallace and Matias, I’d not mind us looking at Will Buckley but I highly doubt we’d manage to get him. We’ve only got Helan & Dielna who can really play LB and neither of them fill me with confidence, I’d have happily taken Rhoys Wiggins but it seems as though that’s not happening. We’ve got 5 main strikers at the club but I can see May or Laver going out on loan at some point, someone like Dwight Gayle or Glenn Murray who you know can create an impact would be nice to have. (Definitely dreaming!)

Summary: Could go horribly wrong, could go horribly right. There’s an element of the unknown about Wednesday this season, but the additions they’ve made to their squad, and the overall strength of it, surely means they’ll be in the chasing pack. 11th

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Wolverhampton Wanderers

You can dress it up however you want. To be anywhere near the top six was a massive overachievement, the football played throughout the season made it an extremely enjoyable campaign regardless, and to get so close merely provides positives for the coming season.

But there is no getting away from the heartbreak Wolves supporters suffered at the end of what was an impressive 2014/15 campaign. In their first season back in the Championship, they were only denied a play-off spot on goal difference.

The despair felt was not nearly as large as that endured by those who lost in the play-offs. Middlesbrough a game away the Premier League; Wolves four goals away from a chance to compete for a place in the top flight.

But it’s still an amount of despair that could have an impact on Wolves’ chances of success this season.

On the one hand, they may suffer a ‘hangover’ as a result of the disappointment, something which the loss of their key man suggests is possible. On the other, it will be used positively to take the club forward, an idea supported by Kenny Jackett’s brilliance and the quality that remains in their squad.

At the very least, the success of last season means Wolves’ fan expectations, both in quality of football played and league position, have sharply increased. Jackett and his side will be doing all they can to fulfil the ambitions that they have created.

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The Head Coach – Kenny Jackett

Maybe it’s his demeanour that means Jackett doesn’t get praised to the extent that he deserves. The calm, almost old-fashioned, boss is not the darling of football hipsters.

But the 53-year-old’s record is outstanding. Promotion from League Two, a play-off final appearance in League One and a Football League Trophy victory at Swansea, promotion via the League One play-offs and a subsequent top-half Championship finish with Millwall, and an emphatic League One title win with Wolves.

But it’s arguably the success he enjoyed following Wolves’ promotion in 2013/14 that is the most impressive part of his CV. The expectation was a comfortable mid-table finish – few predicted a serious challenge for the top six.

Nor did they expect that manner of football played to be seen at Molineux. Jackett developing a superbly balanced side that accommodated Bakary Sako, Benik Afobe and Nouha Dicko in attack without sacrificing a defensive resolve.

Bettering last season’s success during this campaign, however, would surely become Jackett’s greatest achievement. You wouldn’t put it past it him.

Transfer Business

Those who doubt whether Wolves can better last season’s achievements will point to the fact that the man whose efforts were so crucial to many of their victories is no longer at the club.

The exceptional Sako, who impressed alongside Dicko and Afobe in a potent front three, scored 16 times last season, and regularly provided individual moments of brilliance that few other players in this division are capable of.

Alas, the Mali international opted to leave Molineux at the expiration of his contract, and looks set to join midlands rivals West Brom. His likely destination merely rubbing salt into the wounds his departure opened up.

But it’s not the loss of Sako that is the biggest concern. More worrying is the fact we are less than a week away from the start of the season, and he has yet to be replaced.

While the addition of Jed Wallace, impressive for Portsmouth in League Two, and Conor Coady, excelling for Huddersfield last season, are promising and strengthen Wolves in the centre of midfield, a winger capable of replicating Sako’s influence is needed.

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The Squad

Thankfully, the Sako-shaped hole in Wolves’ squad is not gaping. It remains of reasonable quality.

In defence, Richard Stearman and Danny Batth form a solid centre-back pairing, with young full-backs Dominic Iorfa and Kortney Hause two of the most impressive young players in the division last season.

Wallace and Coady will compete with the likes Kevin McDonald, Jack Price and David Edwards for a midfield birth, while Rajiv van La Parra, although inconsistent, showed flashes of his ability out wide last season.

But the loss of Sako might well mean a change of formation for Wolves, with no obvious candidate to join the prolific Dicko and Afobe in attack.

In fact, that is the major concern about the shape of Wolves’ squad. Strength in depth in forward positions is minimal, and an injury to Dicko or Afobe could be devastating.

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Fans View: Ashley Nixon (@ashleynixon95)

What’s the overriding feeling looking back at last season – disappointment that you couldn’t quite break into the play-offs or delight at a surprisingly high finish?

If you refer back to this time 12 months ago, I said that we would finish in Lower-Mid Table. The fact we came so close is a testament to everyone at the club. Obviously, there’s a little disappointment there, but on the whole I was just extremely proud.

Does the departure of Bakary Sako mean you will have to change the style of football you play, or are there players within your squad that can replace him?

I’m almost certain it will be the former. There hasn’t been an effort to bring wingers in, in fact, there has been a conscious effort to try and ship them out. All through Pre-Season we have been using a 4-1-2-1-2 variant, so I’d expect that to be the direction Kenny takes us in.

In a triumvirate with Sako, Nouha Dicko and Benik Afobe were exceptional towards the end of last season. Do the pair that remain at the club need to repeat that form for you to achieve a top six finish?

Despite describing the signing of Afobe as a waste of money at the time, he’s been absolutely phenomenal, and has become one of an alarmingly high number of players to make me look a tad silly over the past few months. Dicko and Afobe looked absolutely unplayable at times last term, so I think our only remote hope of promotion lies with those two.

While Conor Coady and Jed Wallace are promising additions, you’ve been quiet in the transfer market. What positions still need strengthening, and who would you like to see come in?

Although we appear to be playing a diamond, I’d still like a winger or two just to give us options. That Sako chap is available on a free, isn’t he? We could also do with a backup striker, and probably another centre half.

Overall, are you better or worse placed to finish in the top six this season?  

Worse, I’d say. We’ve lost potentially the best player I’ve seen at the club bar Matt Jarvis, and not really replaced him with anything. I’ll predict anywhere between 9th and 14th.

Summary: Weaker or stronger than they were last season? Will second season syndrome hit? Was last season’s relative success all done to Sako? Questions that will be answered over the course of this campaign. But, with a bit of injury luck and an addition or two in attack, Jackett and his side have enough about them to better last season’s exploits. 5th

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