Chris Powell's Flat Cap

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Chris Powell’s Flat Cap League One Season Preview – Part Four

Part Three


Scunthorpe United

Given the nature of the unexpected successes that occurred throughout English football last season, it’s not unsurprising that the occasional relative overachievement went without the attention it deserved. 

And not nearly enough attention has been given to Scunthorpe United for their efforts in 2016. The Iron losing just three league games in the entire calendar year, which included a period of two months without a permanent manager, with only goal difference meaning that ultimately promoted Barnsley were able to claim the final play-off spot ahead of them.

A devastating near miss, especially given the realisation that repeating such a challenge will be a tough ask, but an incredible relative achievement all the same for a club of Scunthorpe’s stature. Their resources and perceived quality of their playing staff, despite enjoying success and a period in the Championship under Nigel Adkins, comparatively much smaller to many other clubs in the division.

And an achievement made even more incredible considering the position the Iron were in when they dismissed Mark Robins in January. Andy Dawson and Nick Daws given the reigns on a temporary basis with the club in 16th, and the Glanford Park side only two places higher when Graham Alexander was appointed with nine games of the season remaining.

The Scot’s overseeing of seven wins in that period the main reason why Scunthorpe were able to get so close, and why there is a degree of confidence among the club’s supporters. The success of Alexander, who has been able to keep most of the side together and make a handful of useful additions, in the closing stages of last season meaning there is an excitement to see what he can achieve in a full campaign.

To challenge again, whether successfully or to just fall short, would be seen as an unexpected overachievement by the wider footballing public. But such is the momentum and optimism created in the final months of last season, you can understand why there’s a belief around the club that it’s possible.

The Manager – Graham Alexander

It might have taken just over two months for Scunthorpe to get round to finding a replacement for Mark Robins, but it was certainly worth the wait.

Not only because Dawson and Daws did a commendable job in the interim, but the appointment of Alexander has proven a very promising one. Seven wins from his nine games in charge, including scoring six without reply against Swindon along with defeats of Burton Albion and Sheffield United, providing belief that the former Fleetwood boss could achieve something special at Glanford Park.

Of course, there is a danger of getting carried away. Nine games not the largest sample size, and competing throughout the duration of a season against perceived stronger opposition a tough ask. You can’t expect or demand a win percentage above 75% to be maintained.

But there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a sensible amount of belief in Alexander after such an impressive showing in the final weeks of the previous campaign.

Transfer Business

Activity has been minimal over the summer at Glanford Park, but that not necessarily a bad thing. Key players retained and the additions made of quality.

No real surprises among or disappointments among those who have departed, given that Andrew Boyce, Niall Canavan, and Gary McSheffrey all spent the final part of last season away from Glanford Park.  Sean McAllister, who made just 11 league appearances in the previous campaign though was the club’s Player of the Year in 2013/14, completing the list of players allowed to depart.

In their place come midfielder Sam Mantom, who impressed for Walsall in their promotion-chasing campaign, the versatile Josh Morris, who struggled for game time at Bradford last season but played 45 League One games while on loan with Fleetwood, and attacking midfielder Duane Holmes, who was wanted by Charlton and arrives with plenty of potential and promise.

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But quite possibly the best news among it all is that forward Paddy Madden, always likely to be linked with moves away having scored 20 time last season, remains a Scunthorpe player.

The Squad

You could make an argument for there needing to be a touch more depth and individual talent in order to compete over the duration of a season, but there’s enough quality in Scunthorpe’s squad to suggest their run of form towards the end of the previous campaign was no fluke.

That true from back to front. Luke Daniels, who once spent time on loan at Charlton without making an appearance, an excellent goalkeeper, with Joe Anyon experienced enough to offer a useful replacement.

The defensive line, too, appears strong. Former Huddersfield defender Murray Wallace and the experienced David Mirfin likely to form the centre-back partnership, with Jordan Clarke and Conor Townsend likely to claim the full-back positions ahead of Scotts Wiseman and Laird. Youngster Charlie Good providing a central alternative, but maybe some more cover required.

Less of a concern about depth in midfield, given that the new arrivals add quality to what is already in place. Skipper Stephen Dawson, the experienced Neal Bishop and former Rangers man Jamie Ness among those that Mantom, Morris and Holmes will be attempting to get ahead of.

Morris and Holmes, however, more likely to be deployed out wide, and provide competition to winger-cum-forward Luke Williams, and Hakeeb Adelakun, who featured regularly under Alexander.

While in attack, Madden could be supported by Dutchman Kevin van Veen, who returns to the club having spent the second half of last season on loan at SC Cambuur. Former Leicester striker Tom Hopper, who scored eight times last season, and Williams providing the most obvious alternatives.

A few question marks over the lack of depth at the back, but otherwise a very tidy unit.

Fans View: Max Bell (@UseTheLeftWing)

The momentum you had in the final part of last season was so strong that it was only on goal difference that you found yourselves finishing outside of the top six. Was that run of form simply just an unexpected run of form, or a display of the genuine quality you possess?

In truth, it was a bit of both. There can be no doubt that the level of quality required for such runs is within the players – because not only were we excellent throughout it with no luck involved; but it wasn’t the only time throughout the season we showed flashes of such quality.

But ultimately, if you’re still in the relegation zone in October and getting thrashed 5-0 by Blackpool in January (this is not a joke: that actually happened), then you’ve clearly got problems with consistency and only have yourselves to blame if your season’s hopes and dreams fall just short.

The job Graham Alexander, with a nod towards the Dawson/Daws double act, has done is a mightily impressive one. What does he need to do this season in order to allow Scunthorpe to challenge for a top six place again?

It was a certainly a surprise when the Daws / Dawson double act was brought to an abrupt halt – with them already having been promised the job until the end of the season, although all of our bets had already been paid out by unusually reasonable bookmakers, so Iron fans were philosophical!

That said, Alexander’s win ratio plus the associated quality performances and relationship with the fans, has undoubtedly earmarked the decision as an extremely popular and beneficial one thus far – hopefully giving everyone a great platform ahead of this season.

You’ve not been too active in the transfer market. Subtle additions to the midfield, and that’s about it. But is that all that was really needed?

In truth, probably not. I think most Iron fans would probably have preferred to see us strengthen defensively. Whilst we did undoubtedly improve under Alexander, it’s safe to say that we’re not sold on our ability to defend well over the course of a whole season – and certainly don’t have enough depth at Centre-Half. Despite Mark Robins’ actual attempts to sell him last season, without lynchpin David Mirfin steadying the ship, we often resemble a rather bad Sunday league side at the back.

The return of well-liked striker Kevin van Veen from his loan spell in the Dutch Eredivisie is certainly welcome though, and should help us have a rather more fluid option up top – especially if Alexander persists with his popular and successful 442 from last season. Unless the ambiguous midfielders recruited are going to be wingers though, our lack of options out wide may well curtail that at some point sadly though.

Paddy Madden and his goals. Where would you be without them?

Desperately trying to sign a striker no doubt! The hard-working and effervescent Irish striker is not only an effective goalscorer – but an absolute vital lynchpin of the side, despite being ridiculously shunted out wide for large spells of last season.

Perhaps not too unsurprisingly popular, with just one international cap to his name – if he can keep scoring following the inevitable retirement of Robbie Keane and co, a return to the Republic of Ireland’s senior squad may yet be back on the cards at some point for him too.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

An excellent question! If Alexander can nail our long-standing inconsistency problems and start this season like we ended the last one, then the Top 6 is a definite and realistic target. Unlucky to miss out on 74 points when a mere 68 would have got us in the season before – you just hope that complacency hasn’t snuck in over the Summer, especially given our relative lack of movement in the transfer market.

But for once, I’ll be brave and stick my neck out. 5th.

Summary

In a relatively strong place after their run of form at the end of last season. Could push for a play-off place, but will certainly be among the chasing pack. 10th

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Sheffield United

A fifth successive failure to escape from the third tier, an incredible run of failure for a club of Sheffield United’s size, and this a serious contender for the most painful.gerg

At the very least, it wasn’t too far off the first unsuccessful attempt to return to the Championship in 2011/12, which saw rivals Sheffield Wednesday beat them to the second automatic promotion place before a penalty shoot-out defeat to Huddersfield Town was suffered in the play-off final.

For not only did the Blades stutter to 11th place, their lowest finish since 1982/83, but they had to deal with Wednesday receiving nationwide plaudits as they reached the Championship play-off. That the Owls suffered defeat to Hull City not much of a sweetener, but at least meaning the inflicting of further punishment was avoided.

Nor was there a cup run, with semi-finals of the FA Cup and League Cup incredibly reached in the two campaigns prior to last season, to soften the blow of league disappointment. Nigel Adkins’s sacking, despite being seen as the man who would finally return the Blades to the second tier upon his arrival at Bramall Lane, inevitable and unavoidable.

So step forward the latest man to attempt to complete what is becoming an impossible job, irrespective of the fact the Blades, in status and quality, seemingly remain above this division’s standards. Chris Wilder departing a stable job and a promising project at Northampton Town to attempt to guide his hometown club out of the third tier.

And in appointing Wilder, who also made over 100 league appearances as a player for the Blades in two spells, a slightly different approach has been taken. A manager who has impressed in League Two, and has personal momentum behind him, recruited, rather than one that had departed a Championship club, like Adkins and Nigel Clough before him.

An approach that Blades supporters will be desperate makes a difference, and finally sees them return to the Championship at the sixth attempt.

The Manager – Chris Wilder

There have been appointments to seemingly get excited about at Bramall Lane since United’s drop to League One, so it would appear naïve for supporters to lose themselves in the idea that Wilder is the perfect man for the job of finally getting his hometown club out of the third tier.

That a few doubts can be listed, therefore, is understandable. Wilder has never led a club of this size, and with this expectation, before, and the persistent failure that the Blades have endured means a sense of caution is unavoidable.

But there is no denying that there are reasons to feel optimism in what the 48-year-old can achieve in the red and white half of Sheffield. His managerial ability, his understanding of the Blades, and the nature of his appointment all offering encouraging signs to supporters trapped in what has been a continuous cycle of barely believable disappointment.

Wilder stolen from the cusp of Charlton’s clutches. Possibly because the Addicks wouldn’t offer the assurances he wanted, but his attachment to Sheffield United definitely a decisive factor in his decision. Regardless, his commitment to the Blades undoubted, and his desire to bring success to the club likewise.

His chances of bringing success to the club, which for now equates to taking them back to the Championship, appear high. His efforts at Northampton exceptional, leading superbly in a time of crisis before overseeing a cohesive and organised side to an emphatic winning of the League Two title, and the talent displayed at Sixfields transferable to Bramall Lane. There’s a reason why the Blades needed to beat off other large League One clubs to appoint him.

A reason why there is faith in this appointment, despite five previous seasons of disappointment.

Transfer Business

It’s not just the appointment of Wilder that sees positivity outweigh an expectation of disappointment at Bramall Lane, but the activity the new boss has overseen in the transfer market. An attempt made to halt that habit of underperforming.

First, the outs. In addition to the disruptive influence of Jose Baxter, inconsistent and often frustrating performers, such as Jamal Campbell-Ryce, Jay McEveley and Ryan Flynn, are among those allowed to leave.

The decision to terminate the contract of the universally disliked Dean Hammond also applauded, while players that haven’t lived up to reputations – Kieron Freeman, Paul Coutts and Martyn Woolford among them – occupy the transfer list.

In their place comes some tidy additions, who either have experience of performing at this level or the promise and potential to do so.

Arrivals who can play in the centre of defence plentiful, with the consistent James Wilson, signed from Oldham, and Jake Wright, with well over 200 appearances for Oxford to his name, likely to form United’s new pairing. Competition provided by 22-year-old Jack O’Connell, who joins from Brentford.

Left-back Chris Hussey, who arrives with a decent potential having performed solidly for Bury in recent seasons, likely to be the third fresh face in United’s back four. Developing an understanding the issue faced, but certainly no lack of quality.

Further forward, Mark Duffy joins from Birmingham having impressed on loan at Burton Albion last season, while John Fleck, unquestionably one of the best playmakers in the division, has been snatched from Coventry City. Certainly more consistent in their efforts than those allowed to leave.

And if frustration existed from centre-back Kyle McFadzean and forward Alex Revell opting for Burton and Northampton Town respectively ahead of the Blades, then the signing of prolific forward Leon Clarke has addressed that. A prolific partnership with Billy Sharp on the cards.

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The Squad

At times last season, it was the goals of local lad Sharp alone that provided hope and solace to supporters of the Blades in another season of disappointment. The boyhood fan scoring 21 times.

And while forwards don’t traditionally make for good captains, there seems no better man to lead United in the coming campaign than the 30-year-old goal-scorer. His talismanic influence, mentality, and connection with the club meaning Wilder had no doubt in awarding Sharp the captaincy for the coming campaign.

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He’ll lead a very strong looking squad, which begins with goalkeeper George Long. The 22-year-old three shy of a century of league appearances for the Blades, and has the mentality and qualities of a much older shot stopper.

Long will stand behind a very different looking back four to the one seen last season, with right-back John Brayford the only member of it likely to have kept his place from last season. O’Connell and Wilson seemingly the leading contenders to start in the centre, and Hussey brought in from Bury to be first choice left-back.

Kieran Wallace and Freeman, with all but Woolford of those transfer listed taking part in pre-season, in addition to the versatile Chris Basham providing cover in the full-back positions, while trialist Alex Davey looks set to join Wright as alternative centre-back options.

Options relatively strong in midfield too, with Couts and James Wallace, both transfer listed but seemingly in Wilder’s plans if pre-season is anything to go by, adding extra depth. Logic suggests that Basham and impressive youngster Louis Reed will compete for the deeper role behind Fleck.

Stefan Scougall, suited to the role that Fleck is likely to play but also capable of playing out wide, another midfield option, having been welcomed back into United’s ranks after spending the final part of last season on loan at Fleetwood.

His best chance of playing probably does come on the wing, though numbers in the wide areas are helped by striker-by-trade Matt Done and exciting forward Che Adams’ natural ability to play there. One of that cohort likely to start on the opposite flank to Duffy.

While in attack, there are numerous options for United’s new boss to utilise, including Done and, more likely, Adams should he wish to deploy them centrally. But there no reason why the Clarke-Sharp partnership shouldn’t be a success, with the former’s strength and hold-up play perfect for the latter to make the most of.

Mark McNulty and 19-year-old Dominic Calvert-Lewin, despite both spending last season on loan at League Two Portsmouth and Northampton respectively, provide further alternatives.

And with Wilder insisting he will look for loan signings to provide further depth, that it appears quite a healthy unit.

Fans View: Ross Gregory (@ross_sufc)

Is Chris Wilder the man to finally get you out of this division?           

I believe Chris Wilder could be the man to get us out of this division. He is looking to bring exciting, attacking football to Bramall Lane which has been lacking with previous regimes, he knows the club inside out and knows what our club means to the supporters.

What does he need to do differently to previous managers to make sure you perform consistently for the duration of the season?

The big difference will be the high pressing game that he is looking to implement into the team. Under previous regimes, we have sat back and invited teams onto us, so I believe taking the games to teams from the off could be the big difference if we are to be successful.

There’s been a great deal of change to your squad over the summer. Underperformers removed, and some tidy additions made. How would you assess your transfer activity, and your squad overall?

Our squad is looking very promising. The addition of John fleck in midfield is a real positive as we have missed that creative midfielder our side, we have taken a few gambles on players such as James Wilson and Chris Hussey but with Wilder’s man management I believe they could do well. With Billy Sharp and Leon Clarke with 40 goals combined last season at this level we could score for fun.

A boyhood fan as manager, and a boyhood fan as captain. How important is Billy Sharp’s leadership, and his goals, going to be to your promotion efforts?

Billy’s Leadership will be absolutely huge for us, he is a blade through and through and lives, eats, and breaths the football club. His goals as always will be a key factor in our season once again and I’m sure other players will thrive off Billy’s passion and love for this football club.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I think we will be in the top 6 with the players we have but it will be a tough battle for the automatic promotion spots as always.

Summary

Well placed to achieve promotion. I wonder what exciting way they’ll find to bottle it this year? 1st

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Shrewsbury Town

Supporters of clubs facing relegation from the Championship often make light of what awaits them in League One with a self-pitying chant of “que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Shrewsbury”.rwherwhrwhwehew

But for a period, it seemed as if supporters of Bolton, Charlton and MK Dons would not be able to act upon their half-tearful tune. Shrewsbury Town, having been promoted to League One at the conclusion of the previous campaign, were in danger of an immediate return to the fourth tier right up until the penultimate weekend of the season.

In fact, with six of their final eight games resulting in defeat, it was largely the incompetence of those around them that allowed Micky Mellon’s side to remain in League One. Safety itself confirmed when Shrewsbury’s defeat to Peterborough with a game to go was matched with losses for the shambolic Doncaster Rovers and Blackpool.

Their 20th place finish a job done of sorts, and made more bearable by an impressive run to the fifth round of the FA Cup, but certainly not a comfortable and convincing one. Mellon himself stating that safety was achieved in a way he was “not at all happy about”.

The task for the Shrews this campaign, therefore, is to allow supporters of clubs facing relegation from the Championship to start singing about trips to New Meadow with confidence some weeks prior to its conclusion. A more comfortable consolidation of their third tier status required, with Mellon looking to end the club’s yo-yo years.

And steps have been taken to increase the chances of that occurring. Eight players with League One experience, and respectable ability at this level, snapped up prior to pre-season beginning as a new Shrewsbury unit is shaped. Maybe not quite “the Harlem Globetrotters” as Mellon puts it, but the Shrews have certainly given themselves a chance of being more competitive this campaign.

The Manager – Micky Mellon

A season flirting with relegation hasn’t at all damaged the confident demeanour of Shrewsbury boss Mellon.

Nor has a period of uncertainty over his job, resulting in the need to have his future confirmed by chairman Roland Wycherley, done his bullish character any harm. The 44-year-old, who led the Shrews to promotion prior to last season’s semi-struggle, adamant a successful rebuilding of his side would be overseen the moment his position was secured.

Adamant, too, that a side that featured 37 players last season will be far more successful, competitive and cohesive this campaign.

“I want us to have a really good pop at the teams at the top end of the league and the aim is to get closer to them. That’s where I believe the club wants to be,” said Mellon during the summer. “I want to try to fill this stadium more and I want to be managing and coaching kids of a good age of massive energy and great power as a team people are proud of watching.”

That sort of energy and enthusiasm towards improvement, while bosses of bigger clubs tentatively touch on the subject of promotion, can only offer encouragement.

Transfer Business

An attempt to avoid flirting with relegation again has been made with a very productive summer of transfer activity for Shrewsbury.

The only real disappointment being Nat Knight-Percival’s decision to reject a new contract at the club and instead join Bradford City. The centre-back’s departure coming alongside ten others, released or allowed to leave the club. Matt Tootle, Jermaine Grandison, Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro, Zak Whitbread and James Collins among them.

In their place come players who have all impressed to one degree or another at League One level in recent seasons, all signed on two-year contracts.

Adam El-Abd, signed following his release from Bristol City, a no-nonsense centre-back who spent time last season on loan at Swindon Town and Gillingham, and could form a partnership with Olly Lancashire, snapped up after his departure from Rochdale.

The full-back positions also strengthened with a fee paid for Bury’s young right-back Joe Riley, and former Leicester City and Manchester City left-back Ryan McGivern one of three players signed from Port Vale. Attacking midfielder Louis Dodds, who made more than 300 appearances in all competitions, and forward AJ Leitch-Smith, having scored 11 times last season, the other two recruited following Vale’s rather odd clear-out.

Elsewhere, there’s now plenty of competition in midfield, with the wonderfully bearded Gary Deegan, a more combative central man, arriving from Southend, while the creative Antoni Sarcevic and Jim O’Brien, both capable playing behind the front man or out wide, join from Fleetwood and Coventry respectively.

Few risks, few gambles. Just solid League One additions for a club looking to consolidate. Roland Wycherley, seemingly a better Roland than Charlton’s one.

The Squad

The high turnover of players, and the possibility of trouble being had in gelling a unit together, made much easier by the fact a core of players remain at the club from last season.

First choice goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler agreeing a new deal with the club, along with regular left-back Junior Brown, while the experienced Mat Sadler and young Dominic Smith provide alterative defensive options. Another centre-back probably needed, though.

Unquestionable depth, however, to be found in the centre of midfield. Aby Ogogo featuring 42 times last season, the talented James Wesolowski hoping to rebuild his career after a leg break that saw him miss almost the whole of last season, and one-time Scotland international Ian Black providing plenty of competition for places in addition to the new recruits. So much so that former Leicester midfielder Richie Wellens has been transfer listed.

Decent option in the forward positions, too. Shaun Whalley’s presence providing another wide player for Mellon, alongside Sarcevic, O’Brien and Dodds, while Tyrone Barnett’s appearances in pre-season games having returned from a loan spell at Southend United suggests he has a Shrewsbury future, and will compete for places in attack with Andrew Mangan and Leitch-Smith. Certainly a need for one more forward should Barnett depart, however.

Nonetheless, there’s a reasonable amount of quality in Shrewsbury’s squad. A squad added to, rather than an entirely new one created.

Fans View: Liam Northwood (@liamnorthwood96)

Despite flirting with relegation for much of last season, does strong support still exist for Micky Mellon? His own confidence would suggest so.  

I believe most of the fan base are definitely still 100% behind Mellon. Last season showed that he can sometimes be quite weak tactically which cost us points, but hopefully he has learnt from those mistakes to give League One a much better go this time around. I am definitely behind him to try and improve the team and himself as a coach.

You’ve made some very impressive signings, all of them with a history of performing at this level. Is Mellon’s desire to push towards the top six a realistic ambition as a consequence of those additions, or is stability the aim this season?

I have been very happy with the majority of our new signings. I haven’t seen a few of them play as much as others, but this summer’s recruitment has been much better than the previous L1 season. To be honest, I would be happy with a solid mid table finish this season and then hopefully continue improving on that. After last season, anything above 16th would be a successful season. If we can push for the play offs, that would be an extra bonus.

Any concern that gelling this new side together may prove difficult, or does the fact that most were brought in before pre-season started provide enough time to put together a cohesive unit?

With Mellon in charge, I’m not really worried about the amount that have been signed. We went back up from League Two a couple of years ago with about 16 new players and they all gelled together quite quickly. Hopefully this will be the same and we can have a quick start. It also helps that some of the new players have played together before, such as Dodds, Leitch-Smith and McGivern at Port Vale.

Despite the positive additions, are there any of those that have departed who you’re particularly disappointed to see leave?

When Nathaniel Knight-Percival rejected a new contract to join Bradford, I was quite disappointed. I considered him our best defender and although our defence conceded a lot of goals last season, he was the best of a poor bunch. He was brilliant before he suffered a long term knee injury, and last season he was still trying to get over that.

Sullay Kaikai’s loan spell also ended with him returning to Crystal Palace. We will definitely miss his goals as he single-handedly kept us in the division. Hopefully we have replaced him well.

Finally, where will you finish this season?

I am going to go for a solid 13th placed finish.

Summary

Strengthening of squad should see them comfortably clear of the bottom four. Maybe even looking towards the top half. 12th

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Southend United

It something of a relief that Southend’s League One status was all but assured before the end of February in their first campaign back in the third tier since 2009/10.

For the final period of last season was a relative disaster. Possibly a consequence of motivation being lost with little to play for, while uncertainty over the future of manager Phil Brown probably didn’t help, but winning just two out of their final 13 games inexcusable whatever the cause. A drop from the outskirts of the play-offs to the bottom half.  

Nonetheless, even five consecutive defeats as the season drew to a close isn’t enough to get away from the fact that it was a case of job done for the Shrimpers. Their mid-table finish commendable, and relegation never at all flirted with. Frustration in the end of season form, rather than outright outrage.

The issue for Southend, however, is that emulating last season and achieving a comfortable mid-table finish appears a much harder task this time around. If momentum being lost as a result of the end of season form isn’t necessarily an issue, given that it’s something that can be addressed during pre-season, then the departure of several key players certainly is. The squad arguably weaker.

So much so that looking to build on their 14th place finish might not be a realistic ambition. The conclusion to last season, a question mark or two over Brown and the breaking up of his squad meaning that avoiding any sort of flirtation with relegation would be a success of sorts for the Shrimpers this campaign.

The Manager – Phil Brown

Clarity over Brown’s future as Southend boss, having been linked with Bolton Wanderers for much of the second half of last season, is undoubtedly welcome at Roots Hall. The clarity itself, that is, and not necessarily that Brown remains in charge.

For though there is respect for the job that the former Hull boss has done, and a healthy number of fans that remain supportive, a sense of disappointment existed among some that his move to the Macron never materialised.

That end of season form, in an addition to Brown being a character that’s very difficult to like when things aren’t quite going to plan, meaning a section of Southend support wouldn’t have at all minded if he had made a move to Bolton, and the Shrimpers were given the opportunity to make a new appointment.

Nonetheless, Brown’s relative success at Roots Hall means he deserves a degree of support, and there certainly isn’t a desire to force him out or that he oversees failure this season.

Instead, there is hope that confirmation over his future will see him be able to coordinate an improvement in the Shrimpers, and see them compete successfully in the third tier once again.

Transfer Business

As a manager with a little bit of fan pressure on your back, I’m not entirely sure that handing a trial to Nile Ranger after losing a number of first-team players is the best thing to do.

Nor is referring to Ranger, who hasn’t played since 2014 after going AWOL at Blackpool, as a “good lad” and speaking with some positivity about his footballing ability. The whole point of a trial, obviously, to have a look at a player, but considering signing such a controversial figure having seen key members of last season’s side depart isn’t exactly the boost Southend supporters were after.

For among the many manageable departures, with Gary Deegan (Shrewsbury Town), David Worrall (Millwall), and Cian Bolger (Fleetwood Town) among the eight players allowed to leave the club without much of a fight as Brown seeks to take the club forward, are some more disappointing exits.

Particularly losing 23-year-old goalkeeper Daniel Bentley and 21-year-old playmaker Jack Payne for no more than compensation. Bentley snapped up by Brentford, and Huddersfield signing Payne.

And an attempt made to re-sign Noel Hunt, who was released at the end of the season but Brown remained in discussions with the Irish forward, proved unsuccessful. The former Reading man rocking up for a trial at Portsmouth while Southend’s offer remained on the table.

The frustration increased by how slow Southend have been to secure replacements. The five who have arrived – goalkeeper Mark Oxley (Hibs), right-back Jason Demetriou (Walsall), centre-back Jakub Sokolik (Yeovil), winger Jermaine McGlashan (Gillingham), and forward Simon Cox (Reading) appear decent additions, but the squad remains lacking in strength and depth.

The Squad

Unquestionably weaker than it was last season, but there are certainly worse squads in this division.

At the very least, despite losing their first choice goalkeeper, there are squads in the division with greater concerns between the sticks. Oxley taking the number one jersey, but Ted Smith has England youth caps and Paul Smith has a wealth of experience.

Options in defence not too bad either, with Adam Thompson likely to be competing with Sokolik for the centre-back spot alongside the experienced Adam Barrett, who is closing in on 300 league appearances for Southend over two spells. Demetriou and the dependable Ben Coker, despite possessing arguably the worst haircut in professional football, in pole position for the full-back slots, with John White and Luke O’Neill providing alternative defensive options.

It is, however, hard to get away from the fact that the midfield losses a considerable amount of quality without Payne in it. A situation which isn’t helped by the long-term absence of the creative Anthony Wordsworth, and a hamstring injury sustained by Michael Timlin that means he’s likely to miss the start of the season.

There might well be, therefore, an opportunity for 20-year-old Jack Bridge, who was handed his league debut towards the end of last season. Ryan Leonard, remaining a consistent performer as he enters his sixth season with the Shrimpers, and Will Atkinson, naturally a winger but capable of playing centrally, to dislodge first.

Once Timlin returns, Atkinson is likely to be competing with McGlashan and Stephen McLaughlin for a place out wide. A feeling that both centrally and on the flanks, Brown’s side is a little stretched.

And there probably a need for one more body in attack, irrespective of whether Ranger is awarded a contract or not. Former Charlton forward David Mooney, unimpressive at The Valley but has developed into a useful League One striker, and Cox could form quite the tidy partnership, but not a great deal beyond that.

As is the case in midfield, a possible opportunity for a youngster, after 20-year-old Jason Williams scored seven times in 13 games on loan at Chelmsford City last season, and featured in blue towards the end of the previous campaign.

The squad, therefore, not in a terrible state by any means, but there certainly a need for further depth.

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Fans View: Rylee Doe (@rylee_doe)

Job done last season, but would it have been better for all involved had Phil Brown departed over the course of the summer? He appears to divide supporters.

Not at all, although some fans question Phil’s loyalty there is no doubt over the positives he has brought to us as a club. Even though most of our fans aren’t happy with him constantly on the TV he does bring a lot of publicity to the club. Without Phil we definitely wouldn’t have been able to sign Simon Cox who has already scored a couple of goals in pre season. If Brown did leave there is not a lot of managers who would probably want to come to Southend and do a good job.

What does Brown need to do in order to win back the trust and support of those fans who question him?

I think if he carries on doing his job the right way, getting the right results and making some good signings, our fans will see what a good manager he is. I also think if he stops openly stating his desire for other jobs (Hull, Sunderland and England Assistant) than he will definitely be appreciated by all fans

How much more difficult has Brown’s job been made by the loss of Bentley and Payne over the summer? 

There is no question over the quality of Bentley and Payne however no player is irreplaceable. The two were always going to move on at the end of their contracts and Brown still tried his up most best to keep them. Ted Smith and new signing Mark Oxley, both looked sharp during preseason and will definitely be battling it out for the number one shirt. However with just two fit centre midfielders Brown will definitely be looking for at least 1 more singing for a little more backup to an already small squad.

Though Simon Cox, goal-shy for a few seasons but will undoubtedly prove a threat at this level, is one of several tidy additions. What more does your squad need?

Yes absolutely, as stated earlier Cox has already been among the goals and his partnership with David Mooney seems to be working fine. Nile Ranger has also been signed on a one year deal, and already seems to be saying and doing the right things. One or two more centre backs, a winger, one centre midfielder and a proven goalscorer and I think Southend will be set up for a good season.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

At the moment, with the small squad we have I think mid table will be the expectation but if we make a few more good signings I wouldn’t rule out a playoff push however that is very unlikely. Anything higher than last season’s 14th placed finish and I will see it as a successful season. Up The Blues!

Summary

The lack of depth and maybe a slight in question mark over quality in certain areas makes it uninspiring, while Brown’s powers are waning. Enough to avoid relegation, but this season likely to be a touch more uncomfortable than the last. 19th

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Swindon Town

The last time Charlton Athletic were relegated to League One, it was Swindon Town and their prolific forwards that denied the Addicks an opportunity of an immediate return to the Championship.berbfd

On this occasion, Charlton helping themselves to a prolific Swindon forward at a price believed to be considerably less than the reported £800k has been one of several factors that denied supporters of the Robins an opportunity to dismiss the alarm bells that have rarely stopped ringing since the ball bobbled before Charlie Austin shaped to shoot at Wembley six years ago.

For Nicky Ajose’s goals were a rare positive in a season that can best be described as a messy one for Swindon. The decision to cash in on the 25-goal striker after just one year at the County Ground providing further frustration to a sizeable amount of supporters, unhappy with the manner in which chairman Lee Power is operating.

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Power’s crimes, aside from overseeing a drop from play-off finalists to 15th, including imposing restrictions on local media, bizarrely briefly appointing himself as caretaker boss following the rather harsh dismissal of Mark Cooper, and a failure to strengthen adequately after the departure of a number of key players. On the pitch success seemingly sacrificed in favour of an almost complete focus on financial stability.

But the departing Ajose has called on supporters to get behind the chairman and head coach Luke Williams, irrespective of the sales and last season’s on-the-pitch failings. Power doing things his own way and leading a club that doesn’t have a top six budget in a clever way, while Williams’ style of football, irrespective of the fact it didn’t always produce results, is enough to attract players to the County Ground.

That a departed player, however, has to give a message like that is as big an indication as any that things aren’t quite right at Swindon. The need to replace that departed player, and his 25-goals, a concern, but not a concern as large as the mistrust in the club and the sense of disappointment among supporters.

The Manager – Luke Williams

There were periods under the control of Williams where Swindon impressed last season. Enough periods were enough was shown for Power to award Williams, originally interim boss, with a five-year contract.

A style of attacking football played that resulted in Power calling him “a fantastic coach, the best I’ve come across in 25 years of football”. Probably a touch of hyperbole in that, but a reflection of the fact that the 35-year-old was able to prove his worth in his first job in management.

So too, however, were there clumps of poor form and performances. Six wins in his first ten games in charge, four of those coming against sides ultimately relegated, followed by a run of nine without victory. Williams’ reign far from faultless.

Nothing to prove to Power, it would seem, but maybe still something to prove to supporters of Swindon.

Transfer Business

It’s not just the loss of Ajose that provides frustration to Swindon supporters, or that he was sold to a club in the same league for a relatively low fee, but the fact he hasn’t been replaced.

In fact, despite the Robins’ struggles last season and further eight players departing of various importance, only a handful of additions have been made to the squad.

Goalkeeper Lawrence Vigouroux, who spent last season on loan at Swindon, joining on a permanent basis from Liverpool, John Goddard, a winger with no football league experience, bought having impressed in the National League for Woking, and Conor Thomas, having played just three times last season, signing following his release from Swindon. And that be that.

Meanwhile, Michael Smith (Portsmouth) and Miles Story (Aberdeen) have been allowed to leave the club on a permanent basis having spent much of last season away on loan, while Fabien Robert, having played 34 league games last season, and Drissa Traore, a relative bit-part player, among those released.

At least Jon Obika and Yaser Kasim remain, despite the former rejecting a new contract and the latter attracting interest from elsewhere. Chairman Power insisting that the former Charlton forward will remain at the club regardless of his contract situation, while discussions with Kasim are ongoing.

The Squad

Concerning. Very concerning. Gaps in almost every area of the squad, though at least Vigouroux returns to stand between the sticks.

And the goalkeeper will probably have quite a bit of work to do, given both the lack of quality and lack of numbers available in defence. Raphael Rossi Branco and Jamie Sendles-White the only natural centre-backs at the club, with natural right-back Nathan Thompson probably going to have to play centrally. Bradley Barry, who played 37 times after arriving from Brighton last season, taking the right-back spot, with former Arsenal trainee Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill likely to start at left-back ahead of James Brophy. Minimal experience beyond Thompson and Branco.

The situation not much in a midfield that was largely beefed up by loanees last season. At least in the shape of Kasim, Thomas and Anton Rodgers, there’s three central options with decent Football League experience, but little beyond that. 18-year-olds Tom Smith and Jake Evans, in addition to 16-year-old Jordan Young all used last season and will probably have some involvement this time around.

Not a great deal of quality or depth out wide, either, with hope that new signing Goddard will prove his worth in the Football League. Ellis Iandolo, an 18-year-old who can play on the wing or up top, another option, in addition to Jordan Stewart, who spent the final part of last season on loan at Grimsby and has made just one appearance for the Robins.

Stewart, like Iandolo, can also play up top, where the situation is rather desperate. Obika the only member of this Swindon squad with any sort of goal-scoring record, with Jermaine Hylton, who has one goal to his name in 31 appearances for the club, his alternative.

Weak, inexperienced, and worrying.

Fans View: Gabz Benony (@OneGFB)

Lee Power’s running of Swindon has been, at best, controversial. Can you return to challenging for promotion with him and his strategy overseeing things?

Controversial is one way of putting it! In my years as a Swindon fan I’ve never seen so much friction between fans as Power is causing with his policies. I’m not ruling out the possibility of returning to challenging for promotion with him at the helm however many things will drastically have to change for that to happen.

Having strength and depth in the squad instead of having to rely on teenagers when injuries occur and signing players that have Football League experience would be my starting point. Power always moans that if the fans do not turn up to home games then we cannot make the signings we all desperately want. However why would anyone be willing to pay £25 to watch a team with an average age of 22 persistently foul and attempt to play fancy football with Sunday League mistakes occurring regularly? I can only see attendances dropping once more and people losing interest unless his business model doesn’t change.

Did Luke Williams show enough in the second half of last season to prove he’s the right man for the job, or do you still have doubts?  

From what I’ve heard internally within the club Williams has very much always been the man running things on a day to day basis with him feeding to Power regularly. Personally I haven’t seen enough to be convinced to travel to places like Oldham on a Tuesday night like I would do with no hesitation when managers like Danny Wilson & Paolo Di Canio were at the helm.

How much harder is Williams’ job going to be without the goals of Nicky Ajose? Did they alone keep you away from a genuine relegation battle last season?  

I dread to think what would’ve happened last season without the goals of Nicky Ajose! Williams’ job can potentially be easier if we actually get a replacement for Ajose. What I have seen in pre-season it seems like we will very much be reliant on Obika who is rather injury prone. I’m still surprised that we are yet to sign a striker. That must be the priority I hope.

You’ve not exactly been quick to look to replace the departing Ajose, and your squad overall doesn’t appear to be in the best of states. How worried are you by the state of your side, and are there any fears you might found yourselves in the bottom four?

I’m very worried. It’s got to the stage now where I don’t even check the club twitter account or BBC Wiltshire when on lunch break as I don’t expect any signings. Worst thing is I honestly still expect more departures before the end of the transfer window.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

Honestly, right now I’ll take 20th!

Summary

An incredibly weak squad and an owner insistent on creating controversy isn’t a great mix. 21st

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Walsall

Taking in a campaign in League Two and two further bottom six finishes in League One, Walsall had waited 12 seasons to mount a serious attempt to return to the second tier before last season’s promotion push.wegw

In the first insistence, the outstanding nature of the Saddlers’ achievement to agonisingly miss out on automatic promotion, and consequently suffer a play-off semi-final defeat to Barnsley, cannot be ignored. This a club that have spent just six seasons in the second tier since the end of World War II, rely on clever recruitment and the development of their own to compete, and had to deal with Dean Smith, the long-serving boss that shaped together an impressive side, departing for Brentford halfway through the season.

Without the disruption caused by Smith leaving, the one additional point required to leapfrog Burton Albion into second place would have probably been achieved by his exciting and dynamic side. Replacement Sean O’Driscoll overseeing a period of five wins in 14 league games that ultimately forced Walsall to take the bold decision to dismiss the Irishman and allow Jon Whitney, assistant to Smith and caretaker in the immediate aftermath of his departure, to take the reins. A strong end to the league season not followed with success in the play-offs, and Walsall supporters left to rue what might have been with stability.

And the question of what might have been becomes a more desperate and frustrating one when replicating, and potentially bettering, the success of last season appears an extremely difficult task. Though there have been promising replacements, the departures of key players, particularly Romaine Sawyers and Tom Bradshaw, leaves the Saddlers in a weaker position than they were at the start of the previous campaign.

A campaign that was unquestionable a fantastic achievement, but also potentially a missed opportunity. To make another competitive promotion push in this season, something this slightly reshaped Walsall side will contest that they’re capable of, would be an achievement even greater than last season’s near miss.

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The Manager – Jon Whitney

Whether it be that some coaches are unable to transfer their skills from assistant to top boss, players struggle to respect a man they struggle not to see as the number two, or it simply the case that the assistant is lost without his old boss, appointing from within after a successful boss has been snatched rarely sees the continuation of that success that a certain logic might suggest.

But, despite this being Whitney’s first managerial job, replacing from within proved much more fruitful for Walsall than attempting to find someone from the outside to continue Smith’s work.

O’Driscoll – particularly with draws against ultimately relegated Blackpool and Crewe Alexandra in addition to defeats to promotion rivals Millwall, Wigan and Barnsley – a huge disappointment. Performances and results, though seemingly unable to pick his players up for the play-offs after missing out on automatic promotion, immediately improving once Whitney had been placed in control.

Though those performances and results, eight wins from 12 games prior to the play-offs and an additional victory in a league game as caretaker earlier on in the season, come from a small sample size. While Whitney has certainly done enough to show he deserves a chance, he will, in his first full season as a manger, need to prove he’s up to the task over the duration of a campaign.

But support for Whitney, appointed on a permanent basis having been in interim charge at the end of the season, is high among supporters, and there is a belief that the 45-year-old, who has been at the Bescott Stadium in one capacity or another since 2003, is the right man to attempt to build on last season’s relative success.

Transfer Business

A failure to achieve promotion was always likely to result in a number of Walsall’s key players departing, and that has proven to be the case.

In fact, of those that were likely to depart, only 19-year-old full-back Rico Henry remains. Remaining despite each day bringing about a new rumour of a seven-figure bid from a Premier League or Championship club, with no shortage of interest in the highly-rated academy graduate.

Of the ten permanent Walsall players that started the play-off semi-final second leg defeat to Barnsley, six have departed, with all three of those who came off the bench during the game also leaving the club.

The biggest losses being the extremely talented playmaker Romaine Sawyers, who moves to Brentford, top scorer Tom Bradshaw, signed by Barnsley, and consistently performing full-back Jason Demetriou, snapped up by Southend. A serious amount of top League One-level quality lost.

But that isn’t to say that departures of Paul Downing (MK Dons), Anthony Forde (Rotherham United), Milan Lalkovic (Portsmouth), Sam Mantom (Scunthorpe), Andy Taylor (Blackpool), and Jordan Cook (Luton) won’t also be felt. An almost entirely new squad needing to be built.

The rebuild beginning with young centre-backs George Dobson and Jason McCarthy arriving on loan from West Ham United and Southampton respectively. Dobson lacking any sort of experience, but McCarthy spent most of last season at Wycombe.

Former Walsall loanee Florent Cuvelier, who most recently endured an injury-hit time at Sheffield United, and Joe Edwards, having impressed for relegated Colchester United, arrive to add some steel to a depleted midfield, while the diminutive Erhun Oztumer, a skilful performer for Peterborough, and Franck Moussa, looking to rebuild his career after a torrid time at Charlton, provide impetuous going forward.

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But a great deal more needs to be done to have Walsall’s squad in competitive shape, particularly in attack. Losing out on Jordi Hiwula, who opted to join Bradford City despite spending half of last season on loan at the Bescot, particularly disappointing, though Simeon Jackson, arriving after his release from Blackburn, has a decent record in League One.

The additions promising, but no hiding away from the bashing that Walsall’s impressive squad of last season has taken.

The Squad

Well, erm, there’s not much left of it. At a push, there’s ten who remain from last season, and most of those were not anything like regulars.

In addition to Henry, former Charlton goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, mightily impressive for the Saddlers, defender James O’Connor, and long-serving captain Adam Chambers the only regular starters who are still with the club. Kieron Morris also stays, having played 42 times last season, but many of those appearances came from the bench.

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And it’s the influence of midfielder Chambers in gelling this new side together that arguably makes him, at least in the short-term, the most important retainee. Leadership required from the 35-year-old, who has over 200 appearances for the club.

There could also be a need for bit part players from last season to step up. More football for 21-year-old defender Matt Preston, 21-year-old midfielder Reece Flanagan, and 20-year-old full-back Liam, son of Mark, Kinsella.

Forward Amadou Bakayoko, 20, another who has staked a claim to be involved, with a prolific pre-season.

Regardless, given the success of last season, it all just feels a little underwhelming. Particularly in attack, where there is a great deal of pressure to make up for the goals lost by the various forward departures.

Fans View: Stu Jones (@StuJones94)

Last season. An incredible achievement or a wasted opportunity? The break-up of the squad suggests the latter…

Both really. We were superb for months but just bottled it big time towards the end. We had a couple of results in April which weren’t helpful in the slightest and once we finished third, a lot of people knew our chance had gone with the form Barnsley were in.

The break-up of the squad doesn’t really bother me too much. Even if we’d have gone up, 2/3 of our first team were just about okay in League One and would’ve needed replacing anyway. I was even okay with Romaine Sawyers going. He was an absolute pleasure to watch for 3 years but he was just too technically gifted for League One. He needs to prove himself in the Championship now and show everyone how good he is.

Do the departures over the summer mean you’re going to have to be forced to accept a season without a promotion push, or can you challenge again regardless?

It’s hard to say really. If we start well again then who knows. Anything could happen. It’s a very weird league. Barnsley proved that. Obviously we had a lot of team spirit last year which got us a lot of points, which we might be lacking in this season.

Overall, I think we’ve recruited really well in fairness to Whitney. For example, Cuvelier/Dobson are better than Mantom and McCarthy should be better than Downing. Oztumer too is a class act.

Jon Whitney oversaw some impressive performances and results last season, but are you a little concerned about his lack of managerial experience in the context of an entire campaign?

Yeah I am a little bit as it’s his first go at management. He’s very good at motivating and if his tactics are spot on (mostly) then we’ll have a good season again.

Also, most people are forgetting that the 4/5 very good players we’ve signed have bought into what he’s trying to do after meeting/speaking to Whitney a couple of times.

He did well last year as it wasn’t his squad and we were a bit out of form. I’d expect the likes of Dean Holden, Neil Cutler and John Ward as back room staff to guide him through a hell of a lot too.

After the departures of just about every single player at the club who knew how to put the ball in the net, where are your goals coming from?  

As long as we replace Bradshaw’s goals then we should be fine. Easier said than done but not completely out of the question. Our top scorers in the last four seasons (Bradshaw, Westcarr, Grigg) all got at least 15 in a season. If Cuvelier stays fit, he’ll get as many as Mantom and I’m tipping Morris to score as many as Lalkovic did. We’ve got more direct players this season who are going to create chances and probably shoot as much as they can.

And finally, where are you going to finish this season?

Lower top half I’d imagine. Anything better and Whitney will deserve an incredible amount of credit. I’ll go with 9th but I said exactly that last season so what do I know? (Can’t wait to come back to this naive shite in May once we’ve been relegated.)

Summary

Will undoubtedly struggle to repeat the relative success of last season, but have a structure in place that means they should be comfortable. Should. 11th

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All information correct, or at least it should, as of 29/07/2016. All photos my own, or marked for reuse by others. Thanks for taking the time to read through my League One Season Preview. Sure you don’t agree with all of it, not even sure if I agree with what I’ve written myself, but a decent amount of effort has gone into it so appreciate every minute set aside to take a glance through it. 

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Chris Powell’s Flat Cap Championship Season Preview – Part Four

Part Three


Queens Park Rangers

A rather lethargic second tier campaign, which saw the club slump to 12th in their first season back in the Championship following relegation from the Premier League, is arguably what was needed at Queens Park Rangers. Possibly more useful in the long-term than a push for the top six. qpr-new-crest-2016-1300

For it has encouraged a change in philosophy at a club that had been held back for several seasons by unenthusiastic journeymen on large contracts. Harry Redknappitus, or something like that. A balancing of the books and future development now taking prominence.

A change beginning midway through last season, with the appointment of a relatively young manager who had shown signs of potential in the lower leagues. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink not overseeing immediate transformation at Loftus Road, with results and performances remaining indifferent, but his shaping of his squad since then has given the R’s a more youthful and encouraging side.

In truth, a focus on creating a younger and more progressive side does not guarantee immediate success or improvement. But the attempt to improve in such a manner is certainly the right path to take for QPR, who have largely shunned long-term thinking during their period of bouncing between the top flight and the Championship.

A season, therefore, where success is not guaranteed, but you feel the club is moving in a more positive direction overall.

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The Manager – Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink

It took Hasselbaink eight league games for him to pick up his first win as QPR boss after arriving from Burton Albion in December, and only seven of the 27 league games he oversaw were won, but there is no desire to write off the former Burton boss’ chances of success at Loftus Road.

For enough was shown during his time in charge at the Pirelli Stadium to suggest Hasselbaink remains a promising appointment for the R’s. Particularly that results were gained in a stylish fashion with a relatively unfancied side.

Things didn’t quite go to plan for the former Chelsea and Charlton forward in his first six months in charge, not least with winter signings Abdenasser El Khayati and Conor Washington failing to live up to their potential, and there will undoubtedly be pressure on him to succeed in the early weeks of the campaign.

But after a summer working with this side, and adapting it to the style of football he wishes to play, is the time to make a true judgement of whether Hasselbaink is right for this job. A summer, too, that will have allowed individuals to improve and seen promising signings made.

That, however, has not stopped Hasselbaink suggesting that expectations can’t be too high in the coming season.

“We want to be competitive and challenge. The big aim is to get promotion but we can’t be crazy and stupid,” he said.

Improvement and development, both in terms of results and becoming more in tune with Hasselbaink’s philosophy, the overriding goal.

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Transfer Business

A certain type of player leaving the R’s this summer, and a certain type joining. Quite literally out with the old, and in with the (slightly) new(er).

To lose the old wasn’t necessarily consistently a positive. Disappointment that long-serving club captain Clint Hill and injury-hit midfielder Alejandro Faurlin, both with cult hero status at Loftus Road, were among those to be allowed to leave the club, but it seen as the right time for them both to move on.

Also frustration to be had in Matt Phillips moving to West Brom, with the impressive Scottish winger joining the Premier League club for £5.5m, though an acceptance existing that retaining him would have been difficult. A player that possess top flight quality.

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Fewer tears shed, however, as Armand Traore, Rob Green and Samba Diakite joined forgettable Charlton loanee Yun Suk-young in being released by the club, while Leroy Fer (Swansea) has left permanently and Sandro will probably join him before the end of August.

The exit of underperforming players on large wages, in addition to the money made from the sale of Phillips and the departure of Charlie Austin in January, giving the R’s a power, presence and pounds in the transfer market.

Power, presence and pounds that have been used relatively wisely, with the club seemingly moved on from the days of spending overinflated sums on average players.

Jake Bidwell, who arrives from Brentford, and Jordan Cousins, signed from Charlton, the greatest sign of that. Young players who have already proven themselves at this level, and have shown great commitment and determination at their previous clubs. Both wearers, Bidwell regularly and Cousins on occasions, of the captain’s armband at their previous clubs despite being 23 and 22 respectively.

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Joel Lynch another addition who, though at 28 lacks the young and promising tag, has proven his worth in this division and has characteristics that make him appear committed and determined. A little injury hit, but an excellent performer at centre-back when fit for Huddersfield.

A move also made for 25-year-old Poland international Ariel Borysiuk. Signed from Poland’s premier club, Legia Warsaw, and awarded the number seven shirt at Loftus Road despite being a combative midfielder, there is promise of quality.

A need for more, most certainly, with Patrick Bamford and Alex Pritchard linked, but that these are the sort of names that the R’s are being linked with, and not a 37-year-old journeyman who last had a good season in 2012, is promising in itself. A different direction most certainly being taken.

The Squad

It quite refreshing that in looking through QPR’s squad, it’s those with potential that stand out, rather than wondering how much Samba Diakite is being paid a week.

That true even in the goalkeeper position, where Alex Smithies, despite having over 250 league appearances to his name and already proving himself as an excellent Championship, has time to get better at the age of 26. Matt Ingram, 22, his understudy having impressed for Wycombe Wanderers and he, with just shy of 150 league appearances, not short of experience either.

In the centre of defence, there is the option to use Steven Caulker, who has returned to the club after his rather disastrous loan spells at Liverpool and Southampton. Celtic allegedly interested, however, and Grant Hall, who made a decent impression having arrived from Tottenham last season, skipper Nedum Onuoha, and new arrival Lynch all likely to be ahead of him. Another centre-back probably needed should the man once capped by England depart.

Bidwell and James Perch likely to claim the full-back positions, and depth will improve once the long-term injured Jack Robinson returns. The 22-year-old, who has impressed in the Championship previously during a loan spell at Huddersfield, suffering a set-back over the summer.

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It homegrown players, in the shape of the largely untried Darnell Furlong and Cole Kpekawa, who currently provide cover at right and left-back, and so another full-back with proven quality wouldn’t go amiss.

Young players who still need to prove themselves also to be found in the centre of midfield, though with a larger layer of proven quality above them. Ben Gladwin yet to make an impression having arrived from Swindon last summer, and in fact spent parts of last season back with the Robins alongside homegrown Michael Doughty.

They’ll provide cover to Cousins, Borysiuk, Massimo Luongo, and the more experienced Karl Henry, who are arguably all above them in the pecking order. Former Watford man Daniel Tozser, who appeared 17 times last season, also an option.

Two of those likely to sit behind Tjaronn Chery, with the attacking midfielder enjoying an excellent first season at Loftus, scoring ten times and showing real quality.

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Chery the R’s most creative and threatening attacking midfield option, particularly with wide options a little stretched. Junior Hoilett’s future uncertain and Jamie Mackie injured. Abdenasser El Khayati and Conor Washington, under real pressure to prove himself after failing to score having arrived from Peterborough in January, probably going to find themselves as the starting wingers initially.

It leaves Sebastian Polter, who appears to be Simon Makienok but German, competent, and without a nice dog, as Hasselbaink’s central forward man. It up top and out wide where options are seriously lacking, to the point that Jay Emmanuel-Thomas appears to have been given another chance, and a real need to strengthen before the start of the season.

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Fans View: Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire

Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink’s arrival at Loftus Road last season didn’t quite result in the upturn of form that many were hoping for. Regardless, have you seen enough during his period in charge to feel a sense of optimism, or are you a touch concerned?

I was a little tentative to the appointment but I’ve full support and faith in Jimmy and the staff. The club have begun to take a long term view and therefore expectations have been scaled back accordingly; performances under JFH last year weren’t always thrilling nor majorly progressive but supporters realise it’s not a quick fix.

A great deal of us felt a little disconnected from our club during the disastrous spending sprees however there’s hope and light at the end of the tunnel and I see JFH guiding us down the right path. So yes, optimistic, relatively unconcerned but realistic about what QPR will offer in the coming 12 months.

In both recent departures and arrivals, in addition to Hasselbaink’s appointment, it appears that the club is taking a slightly more pragmatic and long-term approach than in recent years. In other words, not simply allowing Harry Redknapp to blow the wage budget on a 34-year-old journeyman. The right way to go?

Absolutely. I remember crying my eyes out when we sold Les Ferdinand, Andy Sinton and co as a kid. I always wished Rangers could push on and compete as a major Premier League club but the slipper just never fit – we’re not suited to be big-spenders and although I’d never criticise the ambition, it was embarrassing and humbling and to see our club taken to the cleaners in front of the whole football population.

QPR have always been about giving local players a chance, finding rough gems and giving players the opportunity to move on to bigger and better things. I’m thrilled by the additions of Joel Lynch and Jake Bidwell this summer and 100% believe it’s the right way to go. Some supporters are getting itchy feet regarding the lack of a striker joining but I’d rather start the season without a forward than chucking cash around willy nilly on a player that’s no interest in pulling on the shirt, as we’ve seen all too often in recent years.

Nonetheless, does the ambition for this season have to be promotion, or are your expectations in the short-term a little lower than that? 

The answer to this is different for many fans. For me, after relegation I just wanted the club to consolidate last season and stay out of the news. Thankfully, we managed to get through 2015/16 without too much drama and it’s now baby steps to rebuild the club on and off the pitch. I think all 24 clubs would want a push to the play-offs but I wouldn’t say we’re targeting promotion – that can come next year.

You appear to be lacking a little in attack. How hopeful are you that Conor Washington, having struggled a little since arriving in January, will prove his worth in the second tier?

Conor’s a strange one. Clearly talented, when he has played we’ve often played him up front on his own – a position and role he’s unfamiliar and unsuited too. Seb Polter is in pole position to start in the lone striker’s role so Conor’s possibly going to be playing wide in a 4-2-3-1 right now, unless JFH decides to play two up front, which we’ve little evidence he will. I’m a little fearful for Conor’s future but I’m certain JFH and the club will have seen how and why he thrived at Posh under Westley and will do their utmost to integrate him into the team.

We are short in attack and it’s an issue that’ll be even more magnetised following Charlie Austin’s departure but I’m confident in the club and JFH to make the right calls regarding transfers. They’ll be looking at options and unless those potentials suit, I don’t see the benefit in buying players in for the sake of it.

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And finally, where will you finish this season?

The side seems strong and solid from goalkeeper, in defence and through midfield. If we can add a bit of sparkle to the attack then I’ve no doubt we’ll be a top-half team. Right now I think an 8th-12th placed finish looks most likely.

Summary

Before anything else, the lack of quality and depth in forward positions needs addressing. But the R’s, though maybe not resulting in immediate success this season, are going in the right direction. A promising mid-table finish, rather than a sluggish one. 12th

17


Reading

Such is the rather uncertain position that Reading find themselves in, a drop from serious play-off contenders at the start of last season to a final position of 17th has almost lost its importance over the summer months.  erherherherher

A drop used to justify the sacking of both Steve Clarke and Brian McDermott. The speed with which both bosses were dismissed disappointing many supporters, particularly in the case of McDermott. Supporters split over the decision to remove him at the conclusion last season, but the overriding feeling being that a well-respected figure around the Madejski, having led the club to the Premier League in 2011/12, had been treated in poor fashion.

And a gamble taken on the next appointment, with former Manchester United defender Jaap Stam given his first job in management. A big name, of course, and one that has spent time as an assistant at Ajax, but that doesn’t prevent uncertainty existing over whether the Dutchman is the right man to lead a club that has been in relative decline since their relegation from the top flight in 2013.

The managerial situation, in addition to the club’s disappointing recent campaigns, ultimately a consequence of a succession of questionable ownerships. Anton Zingarevich’s reign leaving the club in a financial mess, and the Thai consortium that’s followed seemingly searching for new investment.

Financial uncertainty, and uncertainty about the stability of the club in general. Possibly best summed up by chairman John Madejski criticising the owners’ decision to sack McDermott during the press conference to announce Stam while shareholder Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth was on the same table, with those comments criticised by club CEO Nigel Howe. Division within the club, and opposition from outside.

Not to the point where supporters are protesting, particularly given that there has been communication and reassurances, but a stage has certainly been reached where disconnection is growing between club and its fans.

This certainly a position where supporters are increasingly finding it testing to have faith in their club, and not much faith existing that a challenge for a top-six spot, especially with the managerial appointment a gamble and funds comparatively lacking, will be possible in the coming campaign.

It’s probably all worth it to watch Yann Kermrogant play, mind.

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The Manager – Jaap Stam

Maybe there is an argument that appointing a big name in the world of football as your club’s new boss in relative uncertain times will inject hope, excitement and positivity into supporters.

But the more realistic response to former Netherlands international Stam being named Reading manager is for that uncertainty to increase. Without having led a club before, there is only his reputation as a player and his words to go off in assessing how likely he is to bring success to the Royals. A complete unknown quality.

In fairness, his words are strong.

“As a player I wanted to win as many trophies as I could and as a manager I have the same ambition. I am going to do that with Reading and I am very happy to do that with this club. Hopefully we can get to the Premier League with Reading,” said Stam upon his appointment.

That followed up with a promise of “attacking football” and a “need to be creative”. Strong words, undoubtedly, but with little evidence to support them.

Pressure on the former Manchester United defender, irrespective of how experienced he was as a player, to back up his words and prove himself as a manager.

Transfer Business

If there is one certain positive in appointing a name like Stam, it’s the fact his presence will help to attract players to the club. Both from his home country, and from other English clubs.

Of the Dutch contingent, it’s Roy Beerens that arrives with the strongest reputation, despite only playing five times for Hertha Berlin last season. The 28-year-old winger, who has two caps for his country, failed to make an impact in two seasons with the German top flight club, but was an impressive performer for AZ Alkmaar previously.

Midfielder Joey van den Berg, who “is physically strong enough for the Championship, is technically strong and…has a winner’s mentality” according to Stam, arrives from FC Heerenven with a disciplinary record that Joey Barton would admire, while 22-year-old defender Danzell Gravenberch, interestingly signed before Stam’s arrival on the recommendation of technical director Brian Tevreden, joins from Dordrecht with Dutch youth caps to his name.

There have also been signings from abroad without Dutch connections. French forward Joseph Mendes, who has the pace to also play out wide, arrives from Le Harve with a pretty mediocre goal-scoring record, while Finish goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola arrives from South African side Ajax Cape Town, a club owned by the Ajax of the Netherlands where Stam has worked as a coach.

And from England comes John Swift, who signs on a permanent basis from Chelsea having spent last season on loan at Brentford. The 21-year-old midfield, who had a mixed time at Griffin Park but showed a decent amount of promise overall, replaces Aaron Tshibola, with Reading unable to turn down the £5m offered for their exciting young midfielder.

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Thankfully, Tshibola is the only real loss that has been suffered by the Royals this summer, though there were a few suggesting that the decision to allow Hal Robson-Kanu to leave after his efforts in France might have been a mistake. Anton Ferdinand and Simon Cox also released.

Michael Hector is no longer a Reading player, having spent last season on loan at the Madejski following a transfer to Chelsea, while the somewhat indifferent performing Ola John, Matej Vydra and Lucas Piazon are among those to return to parent clubs after loan spells, but these are departures the club would have prepared for.

The Squad

They’ve got Yann Kermorgant. Yann Kermorgant. Yann Kermorgant!!!!!

No but seriously, Reading have Yann Kermorgant. Nothing else really matters, does it? Apparently so.

Yann Kermorgant

And despite Kermorgant’s presence in attack, it’s probably in midfield where the Royals have the greatest strength and depth. Both centrally, where George Evans, Danny Williams and Norwood will compete for places with Swift and Van den Berg, and out wide, with Stephen Quinn, Garath McCleary, the returning Paolo Hurtado and Beerens available to Stam.

The Dutchman could also deploy Deniss Rakels and Mendes out wide, but they’re likely to be needed up top, with the Royals lacking a little bit of depth in attack. Dominic Samuel, having spent last season on loan at Gillingham, may get a chance in the first-team squad.

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But it’s at the back where Reading’s biggest concern is, certainly in terms of depth. Chris Gunter and Jordan Obita quality full-backs, but nothing in reserve. Captain Paul McShane an experienced centre-back and promise shown by 21-year-old Jake Cooker, but only the inexperienced Gravenberch offers an alternative.

Handy, then that there’s decent goalkeeping options, with new signing Jaakkola competing with Jonathan Bond and Ali Al-Habsi for the starting berth.

Fans View – The Tilehurst End (@TheTilehurstEnd)

I sense, after a succession of questionable ownerships and on-the-pitch stagnation, a sense of apathy among Reading supporters. How true is that?

I think that was certainly the case at the end of last season, another year that promised much and delivered very little. There was a feeling the club was drifting aimlessly without any real direction but the past few weeks have slowly seen optimism return to the Madejski Stadium. Suddenly one of our three co-owners seems to be taking direct interest, there’s a clear vision and the squad is being rapidly reshaped. Of course we’ll need to see it sustained before we totally let our guards down but for now there is a growing sense of cautious optimism.

Does the appointment of Jaap Stam address that, in creating some excitement, or is there more concern that an inexperienced boss is in charge?

Initially a lot of fans were skeptical about a manager with such limited managerial experience but Stam’s been doing well on the media front and has helped bring a bit of a buzz back to the place. Of course we’ve seen other former United legends like Solskjaer flounder so again we’ll just have to wait and see. Whatever happens fans just want to see someone given a proper go after seeing 4 managers leave in the past 3 years.

A number of signings have arrived from Europe, which has had mixed results at other Championship clubs in the past. Are you concerned they might not adapt to the English game, or is this the route Reading have to go down to compete at the top of the division?

I think your second point nails it really. There’s no way we can compete financially with the likes of Villa, Newcastle or even Derby so we have to be increasingly creative and take a few more risks to stay competitive.

I think the key here is that we’ve been signing players with points to prove rather than just mercenary types who are on their way down so they should at least be giving it 100% even if they’re slow to adapt. All fans want to see are players giving it their all so if these new signings do that, we can take a dud or two!

Every little bit of worry and concern is worth it to watch Yann Kermorgant play though, right? 

Well when he puts in performances like he did at The Valley last season! Sadly we didn’t get to see the best of Yann last season but with a full pre-season behind him and a new strike partner or two I’m hoping this will be a good year!

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And finally, where will you finish this season?

I could honestly make a case for anywhere from 1st to 24th but my gut tells me it’ll be somewhere between 6th and 12th. If we get on a good roll and stay injury free anything can happen but if we struggle early and the new signings take longer than we hoped to gel I could just as easily see us sucked into a dog fight. Still, if you forced me to make a pick I’d say 10th.

Summary

An uncomfortable situation off-the-pitch, and an uncertain one on it. Very hard to predict what impact Stam and his signings will make, and despite my doubts I think that with time and patience, it could work out quite nicely. One of the many clubs in this division where if it all clicks, somthing positive will happen. A need, however, for exceptions to be relatively low in his first season in charge. 17th

109


Rotherham United

As Neil Warnock, having overseen an incredible run that kept Rotherham United in the Championship, confirmed he would not be remaining at the club, there was a danger that uncertainty and an element of crisis would replace what appeared to be reassurance and stability. gewgwegewgew

Six points from safety and with just one victory in ten matches after three games of Neil Warnock’s reign, the Millers appeared condemned to relegation at the end of February.

But, as a consequence of the experienced boss’ nous, an 11 match unbeaten run followed that saw Rotherham finish nine points above the bottom three despite losing their final two games of the campaign. The turnaround barely believable, and supporters desperate for Warnock to remain at the New York Stadium.

His departure meaning that Rotherham’s advantage, explicitly the brain of the 67-year-old, had been lost. Not a month after their survival had been confirmed, the threat of relegation in the following season appeared substantial.

Warnock, however, made a key point as he departed the club. “The club needs somebody to commit themselves now to actually take it forward,” he said. The Millers possessing a desire to be ambitious and progressive – not something the Yorkshireman felt he could commit to with him only wanting one more year in management.

It seems, therefore, that the appointment of Alan Stubbs is a more logical one with the long-term ambitions of Rotherham in mind. A young boss, who has shown potential at Hibernian, with the capability of leading the Millers over the coming years.

But so too did Warnock make the point that any thoughts of challenging at the top end of the Championship for Rotherham are “a few years away yet”.

The main thing is consolidating in the Championship, have a steady season where they’re not flirting with relegation and get the infrastructure correct for when they could make a push,” he quite rightly said. Stubbs must first provide stability, before further ambition can be shown.

As a result, this will not be an easy season for Stubbs and his Rotherham side, and achieving Championship survival would again prove a success for a club not yet in a position where it can push on.

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The Manager – Alan Stubbs

It mattered not that Stubbs had failed to achieve promotion from the Scottish second tier in two consecutive seasons with Hibs. His overseeing of the club’s dramatic Scottish Cup win, their first in 114 years, meant his job at Easter Road was one with a great deal more security than many managers could claim to have.

Consequently, even Stubbs himself can see the “risk” involved in moving to Rotherham. A testing job, with the club comparatively weaker than many of the opposition they will face in the Championship, and one that the former Everton defender takes on without the same level of backing he had from Hibernian supporters.

But, with his ambition for the Millers high, the 44-year-old will hope to experience similar backing from home fans at the New York Stadium. That will undoubtedly be the case if he can deliver on what has been said is the ultimate aim – to be “around the play-offs.”

The aim for this coming season, however, is to simply adapt. Stubbs must prove himself in the Championship, and at the absolute very least maintain Rotherham’s status in the second tier.

A need to organise what is truthfully a sub-par group of players to such an extent that they can compete in this division. The “risk” of taking this job reaffirmed by how difficult a task that may prove to be.

Transfer Business

Any potential enthusiasm and excitement created by the arrival of Stubbs certainly hasn’t been supported in the transfer market. A very frustrating summer of recruitment for Rotherham.

The main frustration coming from the failure to sign Wasall forward Tom Bradshaw. The prolific Welshman opting instead for Barnsley, a club likely to be involved in the same relegation battle as the Millers.

The frustration increased by the fact that, at the time of writing, no other forward has been found to fill the rather sizeable gap in attacking options. A situation that exists as a result of Matt Derbyshire, Rotherham’s main forward option last season, heading off to Cyprus, in addition to the much less frequently used Leon Best and Luciano Becchio being released.

An attempt to find an experienced midfielder with leadership qualities, to replace the departed Paul Green, has also been unsuccessful, with target Dean Whitehead opting to remain and fight for his place at Huddersfield.

Two young, more attack-minded, central midfielders have arrived, however, with 22-year-old Will Vaulks joining from Falkirk, and 22-year-old Jake Forster-Caskey, who has regressed slightly in recent seasons having shown early potential at Brighton, arriving on loan.

The signing of winger Anthony Forde, who impressed at Walsall, also made as contracted (Emmauel Ledesma and Jerome Thomas) and loanee (Chris Burke and Andrew Shinnie) depart, while Lewis Price joins as reserve to the experienced Lee Camp having been released by Sheffield Wednesday.

Price replacing the released Alex Cairns and Adam Colin, with a clear out also taking place in defence. Lewis Buxton, who has spent the summer on trial at Charlton, former Addick Frazer Richardson, and Lloyd Doyley, who spent a part of last season training in South East London, among those to be let go.

With Paddy Kenny and Danny Collins also included, in addition to the four loan deals that expired at the end of last season, it all amounts to 17 players no longer a part of Rotherham’s squad, and only four added to it. Not ideal.

The Squad

It no surprise, therefore, that Rotherham’s squad appears a touch weak. At least, with the excellent Camp, the quality between the sticks cannot be questioned.

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There’s reasonable numbers in defence, which was exploited by Warnock at the end of last season with five recognised defenders frequently deployed, but the quality is debatable. Journeymen for as far as the eye can see.

Former Addicks Richard Wood and Greg Halford, having spent earlier parts of the season out on loan, became important players towards the conclusion of the campaign, with Wood determined in defence and Halford acting as a shield between midfield and the backline.

Kirk Broadfoot, a more natural full-back, was often used in the centre, with the experienced Stephen Kelly making a decent impression at right-back, and former Sheffield Wednesday man Joe Mattock a regular at left-back. January signing Aymen Belaid, Tom Thorpe, who returns from a loan at Bradford City, and the versatile Joe Newell providing defensive alternatives.

So too, if required, could Richard Smallwood fill in at centre-back, but he excelling for the Millers as a combative midfielder. Skipper Lee Frecklington often alongside in the centre, with Vaulks, Forster-Caskey and Chris Dawson, who joined from Leeds in January but is yet to make an appearance, providing competition.

But it’s forward positions, both centrally and out wide, where Stubbs’ side appears particularly weak. Danny Ward, the embodiment of a frustrating and inconsistent winger, Newell, and Forde the only senior natural wide men at the club, though Forster-Caskey can fill in and even Halford played wide right once last season.

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While centrally, there’s effectively nothing. Jonson Clarke-Harris set to be out for the majority of the season through injury, which does at least keep him away from penalties. The need for additional strikers desperate.

Fans View: Josey Webb (@Joseywebb)

A part of you must have been resigned to relegation after Charlton’s 4-1 win at the New York Stadium in January. Just how impressive a job did Warnock do, and how disappointed were you not to retain him?

The defeat to Charlton was disappointing, but how easy we made it for them was even worse as it never looked like they were under any sort of pressure. Remember this was a team that had a horrible away record and were below us in the table, to crumble so easily was hugely disappointing.

However, it was still January and with Bolton up next there was still hope. I think the last minute defeat in that game was the one that got alarm bells ringing and it was obviously the final game for Redfearn before we sent an emergency call to Warnock.

I think the job Warnock did was terrific, the players looked down and out, and even though it wasn’t pretty we went on a great run and in typical Warnock style suddenly remembered how to get points.

At first I would have loved to have kept hold of him, but when it started to drag on it felt to me like his heart wasn’t in it so don’t blame him for walking away a hero. He would only have done a maximum of one season so we could have potentially been in exactly the same situation in a year’s time.

Warnock for Stubbs. The best of a bad situation or an opportunity to build something with a young boss in charge?

Warnock did a great job, but we all knew it was a short term fix. Even if he had given us another season, it was still only a quick fix and the sort of players he likes to sign would do a job for him but we need to start looking to build something. I think Stubbs is a good appointment, probably the best of the realistic names we were linked with, but as he has never managed at this level it was always going to be a risk. He seems ambitious so hopefully he can get some way to realising his ambitions with Rotherham.

What does Stubbs need to do to replicate the form under Warnock, and avoid another season-long relegation battle?

Not too much in my opinion, we have a core of players still here that did so well at the back end of last season and he will need to add a little more quality, especially up front. The key thing that Warnock did was give the players he had the belief that they were good enough, so if Stubbs can keep this going he already has some good players available. It will be tough, no Rotherham fan will tell you any different, but if we can stay lucky with injuries (hopefully Clarke-Harris is the only one) and he can find that elusive front man, we could be ok.

You’ve not had much luck in the transfer market. How concerned are you about the state of your squad?

The current transfer policy is so different to that of Steve Evans that most of us have felt frustrated. Over the last few seasons we have been used to seeing a couple of new players every week so it has been a dramatic change. So far though the players we have signed have looked good and it is refreshing to see a more considered approach to try and get the players we actually want. We desperately need at least two strikers, so not seeing one brought in yet has proved frustrating but the club apparently deemed Bradshaw and Gregory not worthy of the price their clubs wanted. I’m not a scout so don’t know how good these players are or will be but hopefully some movement on this front will happen before too long.

The manager seems calm about the state of the squad, even though it does look a little thin, so that is good enough for me. We will see what the next two weeks bring.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I don’t share the optimism of Alan Stubbs that we will finish top 10 but that is ok. Ask any Rotherham fan and most will be happy to stay up again. It would be nice to do things a little more comfortably and start to build and improve. I’m going to go for 18th.

Summary

Will undoubtedly be involved in a relegation battle again. Unsure if they’ll survive this one. 23rd

108


Sheffield Wednesday

In the immediate aftermath of their play-off final defeat to Hull City, the overriding emotion for supporters of Sheffield Wednesday would have been one of disappointment accompanied by a feeling of an opportunity missed. Sheffield-Wednesday-Crest (2)

And why wouldn’t there have been? No reward for an impressive season, the Owls’ first where a serious attempt to return to the Premier League was made since their relegation in 2000, and instead the pain of falling agonisingly short having to be dealt with. Failing to achieve promotion having been 90 minutes away from it always carries a sense of injustice.

But once those reactionary feelings died down, supporters of Wednesday could reflect on an incredible first full season under the control of owner Dejphon Chansiri. His ambition reflected in a rise from 13th to 6th, the push for promotion exceeding the realistic expectations that were in place, and the play-off final defeat providing a platform to build form rather than crushing what was already built.

For the Owls, unlike many who suffer play-off final defeat, head into the new season in a stronger position than they started the last. Carlos Carvalhal with a year of experience in the Championship to his name, a successful and cohesive side maintained that played exciting football last season, and a handful of quality additions made to a squad that wasn’t in need of an overhaul.

The despite of last season not damaging to want Wednesday want to achieve. There no reason why they can’t compete for promotion once again.

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The Head Coach – Carlos Carvalhal

There was an element of uncertainty as Carvalhal arrived at Hillsborough last summer. Something of a gamble by Chansiri to dismiss the well-liked Stuart Gray, who had led the Owls to a comfortable mid-table finish, and replace him with a boss without experience of English football who had been something of a journeyman throughout Europe.

But such is the success that Carvalhal enjoyed in his first season in England, and the attachment he shares with the club and its supporters, it seems strange that there was ever any uncertainty at all.

The Portuguese boss justifying Chansiri’s decision throughout the season, constructing a mightily impressive side that played positive and attractive attacking football on their way to the play-off final.

His achievements not only in bringing about collective success, but getting the best out of players who had previously frustrated. Fernando Forestieri’s reputation sometimes preceding him, but a much more consistent performer than during his time at Watford, Barry Bannan one of the division’s best playmakers having struggled to settled elsewhere, and Gary Hooper a potent threat having underwhelmed at Norwich.

And with a year’s experience of the Championship, it can be suggested that Carvalhal may prove to be even more impressive in this campaign. His understanding of what’s needed to succeed in this division greater, and occasional mistakes less likely.

Mistakes like persisting with that rather questionable coat for much of the season…

Transfer Business

There no doubt that frustration existed towards Wednesday’s transfer activity for much of the summer, but the arrival of Almen Abdi and Daniel Pudil has done more than appease.

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The positive of the general lack of activity in the early parts of the summer being that their relatively successful squad from last season, with its strength in depth in most areas, remains intact. That the impressive Ross Wallace has agreed a new deal the sort of news to match that of a new signing.

And the signing they did make, in addition to recruiting Jake Kean as a reserve goalkeeping option, appears a decent one. Carvalhal never afraid of going direct should it be required, and Steven Fletcher has proven himself to be a real handful for Premier League, and Ligue 1, defences to deal with in recent seasons. Not the best goal-scoring record to complement his other attributes, but his strength, intelligence and ability to bring others into play will certainly prove useful.

But there were grumbles that not enough was being done to build upon the success of last season, especially given the club’s financial resources and their ambition. The attempts to re-sign Pudil effectively becoming something of a rather dull saga, and little else happening.

So to finally secure the left-back on a permanent basis, in addition to his Watford teammate Abdi, has reaffirmed the club’s ambitions, and quietened a handful of supporters that were maybe growing a little uncomfortable with the lack of activity.

The Squad

As proven last season, Wednesday’s side is incredibly talented and well-deserving of their place in the Championship play-offs. But it does lack a little bit of depth in certain positions.

Keiren Westwood one of the division’s best goalkeepers, and has consistent performers Tom Lees and Glenn Loovens stood in front of him to form a solid central defensive unit. Right-back Jack Hunt another impressively consistent member of this Wednesday side, and the signing of Pudil crucial given the lack of other left-back options. A same, therefore, that cover for a very strong and consistent defensive unit is lacking.

Depth questionable at the back, but certainly not in the centre of midfield. So much so that Lewis McGugan managed just 12 appearances last season, unable to dislodge the yellow-card hungry Sam Hutchinson, the creative Barry Bannan or the tireless Kieran Lee. Former Addick Jose Semedo and fellow Portugese Filipe Melo also available to Carvalhal.

Lee also played out wide at times last season, and he may be required on the right of the midfield again should Wednesday play a 4-4-2. The former Oldham man preferred to Marco Matias in that position for much of the season, and even deployed there while Aiden McGeady was on loan with the Owls. Ross Wallace making the left wing his own, and Jeremy Helan not really a serious threat to his starting place. Even with the arrival of Abdi, who can play out wide in addition to the Bannan-role, you’d probably still want another winger.

Nonetheless, the need to improve the depth of Wednesday’s wide options is made less desperate by the fact Carvalhal could deploy the attacking 4-3-3 used at times during the final weeks of last season in this campaign. Fernando Forestieri, Gary Hooper and Lucas Joao forming quite the potent forward trio, with Fletcher and Atdhe Nuhiu also available.

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Fans View: Alexandra O’Neil (@alexandraswfc)

Is the idea that you overachieved last season, rather than failed in the play-off, an important thought to hold going into the new season?

Definitely, no one expected the play-off final after certain performances last season, and the whole experience was surreal. However it has raised the expectations of a number of fans for the coming season

Given those achievements last season, are your expectations higher this season? Will only promotion do?

Of course expectations have gone up, but I think hope has also increased. After years of crap we finally have a solid team with a creative manager. I’d personally be happy with play-offs again, especially with the amount of money being spent by other teams and the calibre of players being signed.

Given how many overseas managers and coaches have failed in the Championship, just how impressive a job has Carvalhal done in turning Wednesday into serious promotion contenders?

Unbelievable. Obviously the investment has helped, but he’s managed to get a team of frees (Bannan), bargains (Forestieri) and players who were already there (Lee, Lees, Westwood) looking like a force to be reckoned with. Being Wednesday’s first foreign manager we were all a little sceptical, but he’s proven he’s got his head screwed on unlike some of the other foreign managers.

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You’ve not done a great deal of strengthening to your squad, the Pudil situation continues to drag on, and it can be suggested you lack depth in certain areas. Is all that a worry, or are you still well-placed to challenge? (Asked prior to the signings of Pudil and Abdi)

A lot of our fans are panicking over these, and I must admit the Pudil saga is one that worries me. However, the best players we signed last year weren’t ours until the end of August, so I’m not too worried. We haven’t lost anyone from our squad, and judging by pre-season a few of the injury prone players from last year are looking strong. We do need additions, but I’m confident in Chansiri and Carvalhal to deliver.

Finally, where will you finish this season?   

5th. We won’t have enough to compete with the relegated teams, and if we don’t add any more quality I can’t see us being near automatics. I’ll live in hope, though.

Summary

Make the handful of improvements to the squad required, and will challenge again. 5th

1


Wigan Athletic

With an ambitious young chairman who understood what was required to revitalise the club, a well-supported boss who showed a commendable amount of managerial talent in his first season in the dugout, and a group of players that have reignited supporter interest at a time when apathy was growing, Wigan Athletic return to the Championship in a much healthier state than the one they were in when they left it.erherherherne erh reh es

For such was the atmosphere around the DW Stadium as the Latics dropped to League One two seasons ago, the belief that the club who spent eight years in the Premier League and won a FA Cup would immediately bounce back was not entirely universal. The unpopular reign of Malky Mackay, with a group of players lacking drive and commitment, leaving behind unavoidable baggage. No longer the nation’s overachievers that continue to defy the odds, but a club regressing at pace.

The answer an almost total squad revolution, with young players and the best League One had to offer making up the bulk of those coming in. Gary Caldwell, a natural leader on the pitch but in his first full season in management, deserving of endless praise for gelling a newly formed unit together, and getting it to play attractive and dominant football. A quite staggering 82 goals scored, and just two defeats after mid-December, en route to lifting the title.

The events on the pitch reflecting the attitude of 25-year-old chairman David Sharpe, taking over from grandfather Dave Whelan, and reversing the notion that the Latics were in an unavoidable state of regression.

In fact, as Wigan return to the second to the second tier, they arrive with a sense that they are a progressing and developing unit. The ethos of last season maintained, with the lure to spend and attract larger names ignored.

Maybe, therefore, not quite in a position where a return to the Premier League can be considered. There will be times where inexperience among their staff and squad will be exposed in the cutthroat nature of the Championship.

But maintaining, and building upon, a young and hungry side gives the Latics an excellent chance of laying a foundation in the second tier from which further development can occur, and supporter interest and attachment can remain high.

Oh, and Will Grigg’s on fire. There, I said it. We all happy now? Good.

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The Manager – Gary Caldwell

A club rejuvenated, a squad revolutionised, and promotion as champions all achieved in Caldwell’s first full season in management. It no wonder that the Scot was named the LMA’s League One Manager of the Year.

For despite failing to achieve Sharpe’s rather ambitious target of achieving 100 points, Wigan’s first season under Caldwell was a huge success and provided further encouragement for the future. The club escaping from the clutches of disaster under his leadership.

Always likely to have the full support of Latics, given that he won the FA Cup as captain of the club, and always likely to make for a good boss, given his strong qualities as an on-the-pitch leader, the impressive campaign in League One has merely cemented a strong wave of support behind the 35-year-old boss. Appointing a previously untried manager on the basis of his connection with a club in relative crisis a gamble, but one that has certainly paid off.

The task at hand for Caldwell to prove his worth in the Championship, and that he can show adaptability and compromise when needed against stronger opponents. His attacking play, utilising the youth and energy in his side, commendable, but greater defensive resolve will be required in periods throughout the coming the campaign.

Something, with the full DW Stadium’s backing, he’s likely to be able to achieve.

Transfer Business

Considered strengthening to a core that will largely have no issue in making the step up from League One to the Championship.

It in the centre of defence and midfield, as bit-part players Leon Barnett and Chris McCann depart, where the main additions have been made. Dan Burn, who has shown promise but so too a keenness to commit horrendous errors in his Football League career, joins from Fulham, while experienced Jake Buxton arrives from Derby with nothing to prove at this level.

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A bit more for 21-year-old playmaker Alex Gibley, snapped up from Colchester United following their relegation to League Two, to prove, but he has shown plenty of class and potential for the U’s, while Nick Powell, whose career has stagnated horribly since his move to Manchester United, has been offered a chance to reignite himself at the club he spent a season on loan at in 2013/14.

Further defensive additions made in the shape of Stephen Warnock, who joins permanently from Derby having enjoyed a successful loan spell in the second half of last season, and Kyle Knoyle, a young full-back signed on loan from West Ham who replaces the departed Reece Wabara.

The loan signing of Liverpool’s Adam Bogdan also made. Easy to scorn at his ability having become the brunt of much mocking following his move to the Premier League club, but his quality at this level shown during his time with Bolton.

Additionally, Emyr Huws return to the club after a very impressive loan spell at Huddersfield last season. A bit of a fall out in the way he left the Latics, but a player whose ability to dictate play in the middle mean it’s worth patching up those differences.

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The Squad

In truth, there have been more complete sides to gain promotion as champions from League One in recent seasons, but that isn’t to suggest this Wigan group isn’t one with plenty of promise and potential. A contrast from the ageing and lethargic squad that took the club down two seasons ago.

No issues with it lacking experience, however, with 41-year-old Jussi Jaaskelainen still going strong between the sticks, and will face competition from new arrival Bogdan. Third choice goalkeeper Lee Nicholls, who spent part of last season on loan at Bristol Rovers, likely to depart.

Competition for places seemingly also resulting in departures at centre-back, too, with Jason Pearce linked with a move to Charlton Athletic despite being a regular from November onwards last season. Craig Morgan and Donervon Daniels the other centre-backs to feature relatively regularly last season, and they’ll provide competition to Burn and Buxton.

Former Manchester United full-back Reece James and new signing Knoyle likely to compete for the right-back spot, with Andrew Taylor, who returns from a loan spell at Reading, offering cover to Warnock.

The defence tidy, but it’s in the centre of midfield where the Latics appear to hold the greatest strength in depth. From the experience of 34-year-old David Perkins to the potential of 23-year-old Max Power. They joined by the combative Sam Morsy, playmakers Gilbey and Huws, attack-minded Powell, and promising youngsters Jordan Flores and Tim Chow.

Good quality in the wide positions, too, with many of Wigan’s wingers having played at this level previously. Michael Jacobs a useful performer for both Derby and Wolves, while Yanic Wildschut, creative and exciting for the Latics, has something of a point to prove having failed to make a great impression at Middlesbrough. Maybe a need for one man option, however, with Ryan Colclough, showing excellent promise having arrived from Crewe in January, the only natural alternative, though Power was deployed on the right at times last season.

Additional cover in the wide positions would also allow Wildschut to play further forward, were options are also a little limited. Craig Davies a useful target man, but a little goal shy in his Wigan career, and caution is needed with Will Grigg, irrespective of his efforts last season, given the fact he’s not played at this level before.

Powell, better suited to an attacking midfield role, providing another forward option, but a winger and a striker and Wigan’s squad is probably complete.

Fans View: Jack Piper (@_JackPiper)

A young owner, a young boss, and a relatively young side reconnecting disillusioned supporters and quickly returning Wigan to the Championship. Though promotion was expected, how impressive has the effort been by all those associated with Wigan in the previous 12 months?

The effort made by everyone last season was phenomenal, given the disappointment of the unexpected relegation, and circus around appointing a largely unpopular choice in Malky Mackay the season before. The challenge was to reconnect with supporters alongside the obvious of promotion back to the Championship. Last season, the effort was there and of course the performances warranted a league title. The most pleasing aspect was however, it felt like ‘our club’ again.

The effort from board level right down to the starting XI was always 100% which was brilliant, as it’s something all supporters really wanted to see from that season, again considering the complete opposite the season before.

Somewhat of a gamble made in appointing Gary Caldwell as boss, but he appears to have proved his worth. How far can he go as a manager, and where can he take Wigan?

Appointing Caldwell as manager was a huge risk and last season was a perfect first season for him, bringing in young, hungry players, installing that exciting brand of passing football and of course winning the league. That was the expectation of many however, given us still receiving Premier League parachute payments, however, when you consider the likes of Sheffield United (who spent more on wages last season) this makes the job Caldwell did look more admirable.

As a manager in general, I think it’s too early to call just yet. Last season, as I say, with the money at the disposal we had the pick of the players in the division, which undoubtably makes his job easier. This season however, with the money somewhat drying up and not being the ‘big fish’ in the league, it will be much harder, I think this is the test for him.

I’m of course hoping Caldwell will be the man to lead us back up to the promised land of the Premier League, however, I think it will take time. This season perhaps could be used as a season to simply bring younger lads in and help them gel to potentially make a push for promotion in next or even the season after.

Regardless, is there a need to keep in expectations in check for the coming season? A need to view yourselves as a promoted League One club, and not a former Premier League club?

I think everyone at the club now views us as a newly promoted League One club, as opposed to a former Premier League side. The squad has completely changed from our last Championship squad, never mind the Premier League! A Lot of players are unproven at this level, which is interesting to keep a look out for, given the success of last season. I think many supporters would be more than satisfied to see us around mid-table this season, anything higher would be considered a fantastic season!

Your transfer activity has largely reflected the idea of you being a club in development again, with bigger names largely avoided and a certain amount of youth or players with points to prove added. How would you assess your transfer activity? 

I would consider the transfer activity as incomplete, I expect to see more faces through the door, as I still think we’re a bit short, especially up front, at the back and on the right wing. To me, Caldwell seems to like bringing young, hungry players in due to the success of last season, and this seems to be something he’s following and sticking to.

Not every player of course will be young, however, they largely have something to prove, rather than them being Marquee signings like in the past we had under Coyle (McClean, Holt etc.) for example. But I think that’s due to the realisation that we’re a side now who’s been promoted from the third division and not an ex-Premier League outfit. As I say though, I do expect more signings to be through the door, I just fear we’re leaving it a tad too late!

And is your squad in general prepared for the step up in quality? In other words, will Will Grigg remain on fire in the Championship, or are defences going to be able to extinguish his threat? (Sorry)

Ha! I certainly hope so! Having watched Will Grigg for the best part of a season he’s nothing more than a finisher, so I think if the players around him can create chances for him, he’ll finish, and the chant will continue! Players to look out for this season will be young Max Power, who I feel was excellent last season, Michael Jacobs, who looked way too good for League 1 last season. Yanic Wildschut at times looked largely the same, however he was hot and cold, so would be interesting to see how he fits the bill in the Championship.

David Perkins, our player of the season, will also be one to keep an eye out for, given the last time he played at this level he was relegated by a poor Blackpool side. I think the most interesting one to look out for will be Nick Powell, following his release from Manchester United, he was brought back to the club. He, without a shadow of a doubt, has the ability, but is more an attitude thing with him. If we can sort that out, like the last time he was here, he’ll be some coup we’ve managed to pull off.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

Finally, I think we’ll finish around 14th this season, no real danger of relegation, but no excitement of a potential back to back promotion. A year in which we’ll look to build on.

Summary

A steady first season back in the second tier, but one where they’ll have half an eye over their shoulders. 19th

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Wolverhampton Wanderers

In an ideal world, the takeover of a football club is a time of encouragement and excitement. A fresh approach, and fresh finances, moving a club forward. One that, in the case of Wolverhampton Wanderers, appeared a little stale and in need of an injection of something last season.  gwegewgewgewgwg

And that will ultimately prove to be the case for Wolves, as Chinese consortium Fosun International, assisted by super-agent Jorge Mendes, purchase the club from Steve Morgan. Huge investment and signings from Mendes’ pool of players seemingly on the agenda.

But with pre-season well underway, the elongated process of the takeover of the club has had a frustrating impact on Wolves’ preparations for the new season.

A manager accepting he will depart at some point, but still in charge while his potential replacement takes the Spain job. Supporters grew frustrated with Kenny Jackett’s decision making and tactics last season in a 14th place finish, but most will admit he deserves better than to simply be keeping the seat warm for whoever is appointed as the new boss. Julen Lopetegui it will not be.

Transfers unable to be completed, and the squad incredibly thin with the new campaign weeks away. Nick Powell, for example, lost to Wigan, and new signings that now can arrive having little time to settle and bed in.

Players bemoaning a difficult and uncertain situation to work under, with Dave Edwards sympathetic towards Jackett and suggesting the delay in the takeover being completed is rather uncomfortable. The timing of this takeover could have been better.

And so it leaves the Molineux club in a difficult short-term position going into the new season. A difficult position that will be addressed with the takeover completed, but Wolves’ pre-season preparation has hardly been ideal.

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The Head Coach – Kenny Jackett (for now)

It’s probably not unreasonable to suggest that the new regime offering their full support to Jackett can roughly be translated to “we couldn’t get Lopetegui so you’ll have to do for now”.

An approach was made to Lopetegui, very highly rated as a coach in the Spanish set-up, which was seemingly one he was interested in pursuing, but the attraction of leading his national team apparently greater than a move to Wolverhampton. He doesn’t know what he’s missing out on.

And so Jackett, whose time at Wolves had appeared to reach something of a natural conclusion at the end of last season, irrespective of any takeover, after a campaign of disappointing results and football that was hard to be encouraged by, will begin the season as boss.

Not that the experienced boss, who led Wolves to an emphatic promotion from League One and had them challenging for the play-offs in the Championship in the season, is necessarily vilified by supporters. There is an appreciation of the work he has done for the club, while also suggesting that he’s done what he can and a fresh face is required.

Hope that possibly the access to Chinese millions will reignite his reign at Wolves, but a greater sense of disappointment that someone else has not been allowed to spend them. A great deal of pressure on the former Swansea and Millwall boss to reaffirm his worth.

As such, you fear that if results aren’t achieved immediately, something that will be incredibly difficult to do in this transitional period, then he will be dismissed rather quickly.

Transfer Business

Jackett’s chances of achieving immediate results made tougher by the delay in being able to make signings that the takeover has caused. Kevin McDonald the only harmful departure, but goalkeeper Andy Lonergan, likely to find himself as a reserve to Carl Ikeme, the only arrival at the time of writing.

But with the takeover complete, the spending begins. At the very least, the utilising of the link with super-agent Mendes, in addition to Fosun International representative Jeff Shi’s apparent connection with Benfica, is well underway.

Pele, a midfielder who spent last season on loan at Pacos Ferreira, Helder Costa, a winger who played 25 times during a temporary switch to Monaco in the previous campaign, and Silvio, a former Portugal international left-back who has been on loan at Benfica from Atletico Madrid for the previous three seasons, all seemingly heading to Wolves.

Links, too, with winger Ola John and forward Nelson Oliveira, which is unsurprising given that they both spent last season on loan at Reading and Nottingham Forest respectively.

A little more surprising that the Portuguese media have suggested Wolves will be spending £20m in order to sign attacking midfielder Anderson Talisca, and beating Liverpool to his signature in the process. A story that does seem a little hard to believe, and one that local Wolverhampton media aren’t particularly keen on.

Additionally, there have been links with players who have already proven their quality at Championship level. Interest apparently in Blackburn winger Ben Marshall and Middlesbrough creative midfielder Adam Forshaw.

An exciting pair, who would be excellent additions along with the relative unknown qualities of those arriving from Portugal, but a desperate need for deals to be completed, and to move on from the stage of simply being links and suggestions.

The Squad

The need to make those signings intensified by the current state of Wolves’ squad. Short of numbers and a little short of quality as a consequence of the lack of activity prior to the takeover being completed.

There is, however, a framework that the new additions will be added to. There not a need for an entirely new squad to be built.

Not least when several of Wolves’ young players have made marvellous impressions in the previous few seasons, particularly in defence. Full-back Dominic Iorfa the most impressive of them, with Kortney Hause and Ethan Ebanks-Landell also proving themselves to be dependable performers in the backline despite their relative youth.

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They joined by homegrown skipper Danny Batth, one who divides opinion among supporters, right-back Matt Doherty, and 19-year-old left-back Sylvian Deslandes, who is the most recent young Wolves defender to show promise.

Mike Williamson’s name would also be among that list, but his injury woes continue having joined the club on a permanent basis in January. With winger Nathan Byrne also able to play at right-back, and Silvio seemingly set to join, options at full-back are fine, but there definitely a need for another experienced centre-back.

A need, particularly after McDonald’s departure, also for greater strength in the centre of midfield, or at least for players who have remained on the outskirts of Wolves’ side to step up. Jed Wallace, who arrived from Portsmouth last season with promise but was ultimately loaned to Millwall, Lee Evans, who spent the entirety of the previous campaign at Bradford City, and George Saville, who also spent time at Millwall last season, among them.

That trio undoubtedly behind the excellent Conor Coady and the hardworking David Edwards, with Jack Price also an option. But it is, overall, a slightly underwhelming pool of central options.

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The same can probably be said for the options available out wide, and it no wonder that Wolves have been linked with a number of wingers. The promising Jordan Graham and Polish wide man Michal Zyro both long-term absentees through injury, leaving one-time Charlton target James Henry, little more than steady, and Byrne, who began to impress towards the end of last season, as the only options available to Jackett.

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Even less depth in attack, though Nouha Dicko’s return from injury, another to be hit by the plague of serious knee injuries that appears to be affecting residents of Wolverhampton, doesn’t appear to be too far away. At present, Joe Mason, who scored three times after his January arrival from Cardiff, and 18-year-old Bright Enobakhare are Wolves’ only recognised forwards.

Some quality within that squad, but the Chinese millions must improve it quite dramatically in order for Wolves to be competitive.

Fans View: Ashley Nixon (@ashleynixon95)

This takeover has the very distinct of one that will either allow you to win the World Cup in six years, or will see your club completely implode in quite farcical circumstances. The general feeling among Wolves supporters appears to be one of excitement though?

I couldn’t have put it any better myself. It’s all rather exciting if you ask me, though. Of course it could all go wrong, of course we could end up identifying as the Wolverhampton Timberwolves in our famous red shirts and in our ground that has recently been renamed the Costcutter Coliseum.

But I would rather this uncertainty than just treading water as a mid-table Championship (sorry, EFL Sky Bet Championship) side. The fans are almost unanimously thrilled about the takeover too. Mainly, because the dynamic duo of Moxey and Morgan were about as popular at Molineux as Kevin Phillips.

Regardless, given the timing of the takeover and the disruptive effect that it has had on pre-season, is this campaign simply one of transition, with caution required towards expectations?

I think that is the case, and that anywhere above 10th place would be fine by me. However, I completely understand the fans’ frustration and impatience in terms of a “long term project”. I can already hear the sound tattoo artists around the Black Country being asked to do portraits of Jeff Shi’s face on people’s backs.

From the outside looking in, I can completely understand why people would expect us to be there or thereabouts. However, it’s going to take time for all of the new players I assume we will bring in to settle into life in the league.

Kenny Jackett, having been on the verge of departing throughout the duration of the takeover process, remains as boss. Are you putting a fiver on him to be the first Championship manager to leave his job this season?

As you well know, I was never Kenny Jackett’s biggest fan. He’s not going on my managerial Mt. Rushmore, put it that way. But I respect him for the way in which he has acted during this whole takeover scenario, with nothing other than class.

To be fair, I will defend him to an extent. Last season he was hamstrung by losing his three best players Dicko, Afobe, Sako (They’re magic, you know) to injury in the case of Nouha Dicko and the other two left the club. Then Jordan Graham and Michał Żyro got seriously injured. So, in short, he massively underachieved last season but you can’t place ALL of that blame on him.

But to answer your question, yes, I think he won’t be here much longer. The new owners have already sounded out Julen Lopetegui and apparently were after ex-Olympiacos manager Marco Silva, so I can’t imagine KJ has too long left. It’s a matter of if, not when.

The Jorge Mendes link seems to mean you’ll be getting every player that Benfica don’t want. As a Charlton supporter, I’m naturally suspicious of players from one club being sent to another. Would you welcome a host of arrivals from Benfica?

Firstly, if I may… I think what is happening to your club is an absolute disgrace. I have been following the whole ridiculous saga (mostly through you, but also the CARD twitter account) and it just makes me sad.

Back to Wolves, I have my suspicions about Mendes. He doesn’t get involved in things if they aren’t financially beneficial to Jorge Mendes. By the way, that’s absolutely fine if it is also beneficial to Wolves. For every Charlton, there is a Watford, I’m sure they would recommend that model.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

That is absolutely the Million Dollar (or 6.6 Million Chinese Yuan) question. I honestly have no idea, if I am being honest. If I had to guess, I would say between 8th and 12th. But anything could happen, which in itself is exciting.

Summary

Something exciting, or at least interesting, is happening in the People’s Republic of Wolverhampton. But in the short-term, given the disruptive impact this takeover has had on pre-season, uncertainty over Jackett’s future, and the likelihood of players arriving with the need to adapt to the English game quickly, caution is required. Could well be among the chasing pack if everything clicks quickly, but that’s unlikely. A transitional season. 15th

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Thanks for taking the time to read through my Championship Season Preview. Sure you don’t agree with all of it, not even sure if I agree with what I’ve written myself, but a decent amount of effort has gone into it so appreciate every minute set aside to take a glance through it. 

Chris Powell’s Flat Cap League One Season Preview – Part Three

Part Two


Northampton Town

If last season throughout English football was a story of unlikely successes, then Northampton Town’s contribution towards that tale cannot be underestimated. Greater against the odds achievements to be seen elsewhere, but no one else can claim a recovery quite like this. 

In November, incredibly managing to remain competitive in the league regardless, the Cobblers were on the brink of oblivion. Administration at the very least, as the Borough Council demanded outstanding loan repayments, but liquidation, a consequence of a winding-up order over an unpaid tax bill that left the club’s bank account frozen, a real possibility. A situation so desperate that manager Chris Wilder was using official club channels to appeal for then owner David Cardoza to sell to Kelvin Thomas.

By May, Northampton had finished the season as champions of League Two. No defeat in the final 24 games of their successful campaign, and just two after the first week of September, giving them a final tally of 99 points. Oxford United, admired by many for the emphatic way in which they were able to brush aside opposition, finishing 13 points behind in second.

The Cobblers, despite being days away from no longer existing at one point, managing to ultimately romp to the League Two title. A barely believable achievement.

But as they prepare for their first campaign in League One since 2008/09, there is a danger that the momentum built from last season has been lost over the summer.

The departure of Wilder, as strong a leader in crisis as success, and key player Ricky Holmes, who contributed 11 goals from the wing, means there’s a sense an element of recovery is required once again. At the very least, the 24-game unbeaten run does not belong to newly appointed boss Rob Page, and it is under a slightly different approach that they will attempt to compete in the third tier.

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The uncertainty that provides, however, hardly daunting for a club that has overcome much greater concerns. The 24-game unbeaten run might belong to a departed manager, but it is a reflection of the strength, togetherness and fight that has been shown by Northampton. Continuing it would be a reflection of the ambition that Thomas has instilled into the club.

The Manager – Rob Page

Without criticism, Northampton could have justified taking a conservative and safe approach when looking to appoint Wilder’s replacement. A managerial journeyman with the experience to assure the short-term goal of consolidating a position in League One would be fulfilled, and any potential backlash from losing such a successful boss avoided.

Instead, owner Thomas and the Cobblers have been arguably bolder and braver, with the hope of greater reward. A man appointed who can lead the long-term project that was seemingly just beginning, rather than one to act as little more than a plaster to the wound left by Wilder’s departure. A reflection of the ambition that has been instilled into the club in the previous 12 months.

For Page arrives at Sixfields with a growing reputation, built upon just shy of two full seasons at Port Vale in which the club were stabilised and relatively attractive football was football. A back catalogue of evidence to support his managerial ability there is not, but enough shown in those two campaigns at Vale Park to suggest the 41-year-old can build up the platform Wilder’s left behind.

At the very least, Page is perfectly in tune with Thomas’ vision for the club. The decision to move to Northampton a “no-brainer”, despite a strong bond with Port Vale and their club’s supporters, as a consequence of the owner’s positivity. An owner and manager heading in the same direction can only be a good thing, and much more meaningful than simply attempting to avoid relegation following a promotion.

Transfer Business

Quite the worry for supporters of the Cobblers when, having lost their manager, their star performer from the previous season departed the club right at the start of the summer. Ricky Holmes, having scored 11 goals in 32 games, sold to Charlton Athletic.

So too had another winger left the club at the start of the summer, with Nicky Adams citing the uncertainty that followed Wilder’s departure as his justification for joining League Two Carlisle, while Northampton had been unable to match the contract offer that Danny Rose received from Portsmouth. A touch of uncertainty in general in the early weeks of the off-season.

It was not, however, the beginning of a crisis or the break-up of their promotion-winning squad.

In fact, the now stable and ambitious club that Northampton are was reaffirmed by their success in signing forward Alex Revell. The Cobblers beating a host of League One clubs, including Charlton, to the signature of the 32-year-old, who impressed at MK Dons during the latter half of last season.

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In former Coventry full-back Aaron Phillips and experience centre-back Gabriel Zakuani, two other impressive players that were attracting attention from elsewhere have also been snapped up by the Cobblers, potential seen in the relatively inexperienced left-back Raheem Hanley and midfielder Jak McCourt, while David Cornell and player-coach Paddy Kenny will provide competition to Adam Smith in goal.

The club’s transfer dealings much more encouraging as the summer has progressed, with a replacement for Holmes found as the latter stage of pre-season was entered. Harry Beautyman arriving from Peterborough.

The Squad

Even given the loss of a couple of key men in addition to the rise in quality of the division that they’ll be playing in, Northampton’s squad is in a reasonable state.

Particularly at the back, which will obviously prove crucial should there be a need to grind out results in order to preserve their third tier status.

Goalkeeper Smith voted into the League Two Team of the Year last season, and rightly so, while you would imagine that Zakuani and Zander Diamond will form the centre-back partnership ahead of him. Cover to be found in the shape of Ryan Cresswell and Rod McDonald, who both featured more than 20 times in the title-winning campaign.

Strong in the full-back areas, too, where ever-present David Buchanan will look to hold off the competition provided by Hanley’s arrival, while you imagine that Phillips will take over Brendan Moloney’s duties at right-back.

There are, however, gaps in the middle. Both in terms of a lack of numbers, and a questionable degree of quality among those that are available. Central man Jason Taylor and winger Alfie Potter, who started eight and 12 games respectively last season, dangerously close to the starting XI.

The situation helped, however, by the versatility of what is available. Lawson D’Ath and Beautyman both able to play centrally and out wide, with one likely to join Joel Byrom in the centre and the other occupying the opposite flank to Potter. Inexperienced signing McCourt also an option, but greater strength and depth in the midfield required.

Another alternative is to play John-Joe O’Toole in the position he started his career in, but Northampton’s Player of the Year made such an impression in attack that that seems counterproductive.

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He joined by Revell, skipper Marc Richards, and Sam Hoskins as the options up top. Plenty of physicality, but not a great deal of pace – maybe another forward who offers something a bit different required.

Fans View – Ben Trasler (@benjohntrasler)

As the threat to your existence grew at the beginning of last season, did you really anticipate you’d be starting the next campaign in League One?

Absolutely not. I think we knew that the talent was there on the pitch but there was a period around November when things looked extremely bleak and bad news was coming out in the local press every day. I recall travelling to Coventry in the first round of the FA Cup knowing that there was a chance that it could be the last time that I’d be watching the club in its current form.

Given we ended up absolutely strolling to a first league title in nearly 30 years not even 6 months later, it’s very easy to forget that every single member of staff at the football club went without pay for a couple of months just before Christmas.

The financial struggles actually ended up creating a very special unique bond between the fans, players and staff and it somehow felt that we quite literally ended up riding on the crest of the wave towards the title. Last season was one that no one involved with the football club will ever forget.

With the departure of Chris Wilder, have you lost momentum from last season, or is Rob Page well placed to continue from where the previous boss left off?

Being a Blades fan born-and-raised, no Cobblers fan begrudged Wilder his move to his boyhood club. However, I think we’re now suffering from that nagging feeling of what could have been.

Following the takeover of the football club, Wilder truly nailed down a winning formula which saw us go unbeaten for the last 24 league games in a season in which we came very close to breaking the 100 points barrier. If we’d have kept the same regime and squad, I think many of us had quiet optimism that we could have had a go at emulating Burton Albion’s achievements in the upcoming season.

Page has been recruited to carry on Wilder’s outstanding work but his record at Port Vale, albeit with a reduced budget, wasn’t outstanding so it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to recreate the same level of success.

At the very least, does the change in management make your expectations for this coming season less ambitious that they would have been? Simple survival enough?

I hope that most Cobblers fans will be sensible enough to understand that the departures of Wilder, his whole coaching staff and a couple of key players means that our expectations should be tempered.

We haven’t been in League One since 2009 and the whole club needs to adapt accordingly. Realistically speaking, we are one of the smaller fishes at this level and a season of survival whilst we adjust to the step up should be our primary objective.

My fear is that an element of support will have become used to winning most weeks (I’m writing this in July and we still haven’t lost a league game in 2016 yet!) and any run of negative results at the beginning of the season may get fingers pointed quickly at Page – who from the outset has taken over somewhat after the lord mayor’s show.

You’ve also lost Ricky Holmes, but made some quite handy additions. Overall, is your squad equipped to deal with the third tier?

Whilst we’ve retained the likes of O’Toole and Smith, losing Holmes is a big blow for us. I’ve been watching the Cobblers for over 20 years and I cannot remember another player with his ability to pluck a match winning moment from nowhere.

In my humble opinion, Holmes was the difference between us and the rest of the chasing pack at the business end of the season with crucial strikes, particularly away from home, turning a lot of draws into wins.

Whilst Page has been sensible to focus his recruitment towards solid players with League One experience in Zakuani, Revell, Beautyman and Phillips, we haven’t signed anyone with either the pace and ‘wow’ factor of Holmes.

We appear to have added depth and robustness in defensive areas but as it stands we are a couple of creative midfielders and a quick forward away from being able to feel truly optimistic.

And finally, where will you finish this season?  

As it stands, I’d be satisfied with a successful fight against relegation and a season of stability in League One following the rollercoaster ride, on and off the field, that was 2015/16. However, a couple of exciting additions in attacking positions before the season opener could persuade me to rethink those expectations.

Summary

Post-season disruptions means thoughts of challenging for a second successive promotion are not at all realistic. Midfield additions could allow them to break into the top half, but consolidation would be a successful season. 13th


Oldham Athletic

As pre-season began for clubs across the Football League, the time when I begin to write this nonsense, no club in League One appeared in a more unprepared state than Oldham Athletic.

On the eve of the club’s first training session, the five contracted professionals and handful of youngsters the Latics had tied down were still yet to receive confirmation of who their new manager would be. John Sheridan, stepping down a division to manage Notts County and escape Boundary Park, leaving on May 27, and no replacement appointed by the start of the July as Steve Evans turned down the club in an uncomfortable position. gwgewgewgewg

A 17th place finish in League One last season probably the biggest sign of stability at the club, with winding up orders, issues paying players and now this extended wait for a new boss creating grand concern.

In fact, it took until July 9 for a boss to be in place at Oldham. Northern Ireland assistant manager Stephen Robinson given the task of rebuilding the rather dismantled Latics. A tough ask, reaffirmed by his first training session effectively being an open trial for free agents as an entirely new squad is put together.

Signings have since arrived, a squad has been formed, and Robinson has had a degree of time to work with his players. Like had been happening at every other League One club for several weeks prior.

So while Oldham will ultimately begin the campaign with a manager and squad in place, you worry that the bizarre start to their pre-season and the need to completely reshape a new side will leave them in for a season of struggle.

The Manager – Stephen Robinson

From the euphoria of assisting your nation’s efforts in the European Championships, to working 18 hour days in an attempt to put together some sort of squad. Robinson has enjoyed, and endured, quite a unique summer.

Having been a well-respected member of Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland unit, Robinson at least arrives at Boundary Park with some reputation and confidence, but this seemingly no job for a man in his first as a boss.

The 41-year-old, of course, thinks otherwise. He believes he’s “more than ready for this job” and also thinks “it’s an exciting time for the football club”. Questionable, given the circumstances.

An entirely new squad needing to be formed, and without it being properly put together halfway through July, time isn’t really on the new manager’s side. At the very least, other League One clubs undoubtedly have an advantage.

Robinson, who can at least call upon the support of Sean O’Driscoll and Ian Baraclough as members of his coaching staff, has a very difficult challenge to quickly gel together a squad ready to compete in the third tier.

Transfer Business

Well, erm, lots, what with the whole five contracted players turning up to the first day of pre-season thing.

First, those released. Goalkeeper David Cornell (Northampton) and defender Theo Vassell (Walsall) snapped up by League One rivals, winger Mike Jones (Carlisle United) and forward Rhys Turner (Morecombe) will be playing League Two football in the coming season, while full-back Joseph Mills (Perth Glory) was also allowed to depart in addition to youngsters Jordan Bove and Jack Truelove.

Then those that departed despite the club making an effort to keep a hold of them. Three of those, in the shape of the versatile Timothee Deng (Bradford City), defender James Wilson (Sheffield United) and striker Dominic Poleon (AFC Wimbledon) finding themselves healthier third tier clubs to join, while forward Jonathan Forte has joined Notts County. A contract offered to defender Anthony Gerrard, but he appears to not be returning.

While goalkeeper Joel Coleman (Huddersfield), midfielder Liam Kelly (Leyton Orient), and forward Rhys Murphy (Forest Green Rovers) all left the club for some sort of fee.

If you also include midfielder Jack Tuohy, whose employment has been suspended after being charged with grooming and child sex offences, that’s a total of 16 players leaving the club this summer, in addition to four loan players – Aaron Holloway, Curtis Main, Timmy Thiele, and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis – whose temporary stays at Boundary Park concluded at the end of last season.

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To replace them arrives eight permanent additions, and four loan signings at the time of writing. More expected before the season begins, but it’s all a bit panicky.

Goalkeeper Chris Kettings joins having been released by Crystal Palace, with Connor Ripley arriving on loan from Middlesbrough and taking the number one jersey, while the experienced Peter Clarke, allowed to leave Bury despite playing 44 times last season, and inexperienced Cameron Burgess, signed on loan from Fulham, improve options in the centre of defence.

Burgess can also play at left-back, a position that also sees Jamie Reckford added to it after his departure from Scottish side Ross County. Right-back Josh Law, able to play in midfield, another arrival from Scotland, as he joins from Motherwell.

More natural midfield options arriving in the shape of Luke Woodland, who has five caps for the Philippines and played seven times for Bradford Park Avenue last season, Dutchman Marc Klok, who joins having spent time at Ross County but was most recently playing for Cherno More in Bulgaria, and Ollie Banks, who made 33 appearances for Chesterfield last season.

Winger Ryan Flynn, who has been a decent performer for Sheffield United in spite of their inability to escape League One, arguably the most impressive signing of the summer, while forwards Lee Erwin, failing to impress at Leeds, and Billy McKay, who has a very good record in Scotland but is yet to score for Wigan Athletic, arrive on loan.

Good luck getting that all together, Steve.

The Squad

In addition to those new signings, there’s the grand sum of six players who featured for the Latics last season who are still with the club. An increase by one on those who reported to the first day of pre-season training given that wide man Lee Croft remains on a month-to-month basis.

And it’s not really as if, Croft included, that first-team regulars are among that number. Youngster George Edmundson, who can play in defence and midfield, featuring twice last season, versatile defender Connor Brown starting just ten games, and forward Jake Cassidy involved from the off in eight.

Experienced right-back Brian Wilson (26) and midfielder Carl Winchester (31) the only two players that remain to play anything like a meaningful role in last season’s 17th place finish. An almost entirely new squad for Robinson to gel together.

And a squad that is by no means complete. Question marks over the strength in depth, and in some cases starting quality, in almost every position of the pitch.

Fans View: Jack Adcock (@jack_Adcock22)

So, erm, this summer has been quite a messy one for Oldham. How on earth did the club find itself in a position where only a handful of contracted players were in place for the start of pre-season?

It has been an extremely turbulent summer for the Latics. After the heroics of John Sheridan to keep us up last season, many felt quietly confident about this coming year. This however was ripped from us when it was announced that he had left to go to League Two Notts County, a move that still baffles me now. From here things spiralled out of control. As always a large number of players were released, most of which were unsurprising and overall accepted. The club however did not make any move to replace these players until a manager was in place, this was a huge error that left us behind other teams

Among those that left, who were you most disappointed to lose?

Whilst looking for a new gaffer and failing with two or three appointments, major players were sold, most notably two first team goalkeepers and our captain Liam Kelly to leyton Orient, the one I was most gutted about.

And even at this stage of pre-season, your squad looks incredibly weak. How fearful are you of relegation?

Robinson has done a good job in building a squad in such a short space of time. Overall coming into the new season under Robbo I am actually surprisingly confident that we will stay up. As well as the usual mid-table and former SPL players, he has brought in one or two top quality players in the form of Ryan Flynn and Peter Clarke giving fans a slight bit of confidence

Given the unstable state of the club, and the need to gel a completely new squad together, is opting for a relatively inexperienced boss in Robinson the right way to go?

He had an impossible task to begin with, but his signings have been positive and in interviews the gaffer has come across great. He’s talked about building a future for the club.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

With a couple more signings and a goalscorer we could even push for a mid-table finish. 16th

Summary

Being so unprepared at the start of pre-season rarely leads to a successful campaign. 24th


Oxford United

Unable to match the consistency of Northampton Town, and as a consequence settling for second place, but Oxford United could claim to be the most attractive and dynamic side in League Two last season when at their best.

At the very least, that the case according to boss Michael Atherton. Admitting that his belief that the U’s were “the best team in division” would upset residents of Sixfields, but confident in his claim as promotion was achieved by scoring more goals (84) and conceding less (41) than any other side in the third tier.

A promotion, and a Football League Trophy final appearance that ultimately ended in defeat to Barnsley, achieved with a fast-paced brand of counter-attacking football. A relatively settled and determined defence, led largely by Johnny Mullins and club captain Jake Wright, complemented in particular by the excellence of top scorer and League Two Player of the Year Kemar Roofe. The consequence of which being that three or more goals were scored on 11 occasions in the league last season, in addition to 15 wins to-nil.

But despite the impressive nature of their performances in achieving promotion, there is a dilemma for Appleton and his side going into Oxford’s first season in the third tier since 2000/01. Can that attractive style of football be replicated against stronger opposition, or is there a need to be more pragmatic to consolidate their position in League One? Not least with key members of that attacking play, in Roofe and Callum O’Dowda, departing.

Appleton, however, will be keen to add further weight behind his claims about the attractive nature of his side.  Keen to show his side can continue to perform in that manner despite the loss of its key wide men, and against tougher opponents.

A battle between philosophy and pragmatism. The winner the one that keeps Oxford in League One, the only thing that will really matter come the conclusion of this campaign.

The Manager – Michael Appleton

It fair to say that prior to being appointed Oxford manager, Appleton’s reputation had suffered a considerable amount of damage. That he needed to take a position in League Two, having previously led three Championship clubs, strong evidence of such.

Credit gained, given that it was during a time of administration and crisis, from his spell in charge of Portsmouth irrespective of the fact relegation was suffered, but that all lost from brief periods at Blackpool and Blackburn in 2012/13. Two wins managed in 12 games with the former, before Rovers strangely decided to snatch him from Bloomfield Road, and ultimately sack him 15 games and 67 days later with just four victories to his name.

But his efforts with the U’s have healed his reputation to such an extent that Manchester United, the club whose youth ranks he progressed through, were allegedly interested in making him their academy boss in January. Whether an approach was made or not, that Appleton could even be linked with such a position a sign of how much his stock has risen since arriving at the Kassam Stadium in 2014.

That rise in reputation not purely the result of Oxford’s promotion, but the manner in which the U’s play and the platform Appleton has provided for young players to impress. To say his side were the best in League Two was slightly misguided and irresponsible, given that they finished second, but it’s a comment he could make with evidence to support it.

From seemingly being overwhelmed in the dugout to leading a side that regularly overwhelmed opponents with attractive and dynamic attacking football. Quite the transformation for Appleton, and he’ll be keen to prove his, and his side’s, worth in League One during this campaign.

Transfer Business

Having played such attractive football last season, there was always going to be interest in Oxford’s key players. Especially those that played in forward positions, and contributed to such brutal counter-attacking football.

But to lose both Roofe and O’Dowda is a huge blow. Roofe, the League Two Player of the Year, sold to Leeds for £3m, and O’Dowda, making 20 of his 38 appearances as a substitute but still scoring eight times and consistently impressing, joining Bristol City for a fee somewhere in the region of £1.2m. There no doubt that United are much weaker without the duo.

The signing of Rob Hall made to soften the blow, who rejected a return to MK Dons in order to join the U’s having spent last season on loan at Stadium:MK from Bolton. Plenty of pressure on the 22-year-old to fill the void left by the departing duo.

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In fact, Oxford’s incomings this summer in general have been fairly promising. Goalkeeper Simon Eastwood arriving with Championship experience gained at Blackburn Rovers as Sam Slocombe departs to Blackpool, while the arrival of Aaron Martin (Coventry) and Curtis Nelson (Plymouth) provide such competition at centre-back that long-standing club captain Jake Wright opted to leave by mutual consent and ultimately join Sheffield United.

Defensive options also strengthened with the signing of full-back Christian Ribeiro from Exeter City, and any disappointment that existed after forward Danny Hylton opted to join Luton Town having been offered a new contract was quickly put to one side with the addition of Wes Thomas, who despite being very much a journeyman striker has a decent reputation at this level, and Kane Hemmings, who arrives having scored 21 times for Dundee last season.

Elsewhere, reputations will look to be built by the midfield dup that the club have signed, with 20-year-old Joe Rothwell, arriving permanently following his release from Manchester United having spent time on loan at Barnsley last season, and 18-year-old Daniel Crowley, who joins on loan from Arsenal having also been with the Tykes for a period last year, part of Appleton’s plans in the coming campaign.

Certainly difficult to overlook the departures of Roofe and O’Dowda, but no denying Oxford have strengthened commendably in other areas.

The Squad

For irrespective of the sales of Roofe and O’Dowda, there is reasonable strength in most areas of Oxford’s squad.

Martin and Nelson likely to form the new centre-back partnership, but Chey Dunkley will have something to say about that. The 24-year-old, previously of Kidderminster, impressing in the latter half of last season.

And in Ribeiro and Joe Skarz, there will be two steady full-backs either side of whatever central pairing is chosen. Little in terms of experienced depth beyond then in the full-back positions, though, so another one or two wouldn’t go amiss. Sam Long, who made just one substitute appearance last season, the only real cover.

Much greater depth in the centre of midfield, where John Lundstram and Liam Sercombe will look to form a formidable partnership once again. Rothwell, Crowley, and Josh Ruffels among those providing more than reasonable cover, and the opportunity to deploy five in midfield if required.

However, there remains a need to add additional wide men to replace Roofe and O’Dowda. Hall should be influential in League One, while forwards Chris Maguire and Alex MacDonald are both as comfortable up top as they are out wide, but another winger most certainly needed.

Maguire, who was comfortable in the Championship with both Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham, they key man in a forward line that also includes new signings Thomas and Hemmings, target man Ryan Taylor, and youngster James Roberts.

Some gaps to fill, but there’s certainly squads in worse states in this division.

Fans View: Nick Hall 

Particularly given that he arrived having struggled in his previous roles as a boss, just how impressive a job has Michael Appleton done at Oxford? 

Outstanding, after a rocky six months he’s shown good knowledge in the transfer market with the team he assembled last season, he’s transformed the playing style to a passing attacking style and he’s established a team ethos with the team wanting to play and win for the club.

Chairman Darryl Eales deserves a mention for turning Oxford back into a fan friendly club, making fans feel part of everything and making Saturdays enjoyable again. Seeing him in the pub and on terraces with fans. We thank them both.

Appleton claimed you were the best side in League Two last season given your attractive attacking style, but is a more pragmatic approach to be expected in order to consolidate in League One this season?

Probably but judging by players who have left and the players brought in they appear to be like for like. I think he’ll keep his flowing attacking style but wouldn’t be surprised if against a handful of teams he’ll maybe opt for a more conservative style.

The losses of Roofe and O’Dowda might well force a more conservative style regardless. Have you had to reset your ambitions for this season following their departures? 

Yes and no. We’ll miss Roofe big time, goals, assists and general play but we knew we wouldn’t keep hold of him so his transfer was expected.

Callum was a good player, brilliant on his day but Appleton rested him a lot last year and we coped without him. The two new midfielders he’s bought in look exciting prospects and we just have to hope our new forwards gel quickly. Robbie Hall will hopefully come back fully fit too. So not disheartened at all.

Despite those losses, you’ve strengthened well, recruiting both experienced League One performers and a couple of promising youngsters. How would you assess your squad in general?

On paper they all look decent players with good stats. In reality who knows. I’d say Appleton appears to have brought in players that strengthen the squad and are a step up in playing ability. I’d say I’m happy with the players in the squad, it just feels a bit light again. He got it right last year so fingers crossed.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

8th 

Summary

Loss of Roofe and O’Dowda means they’ll need to keep one eye over their shoulders, but still have enough about them to have a comfortable first season in League One. 15th 


Peterborough United

The combination of failure, supporter frustration, and the outspoken words of a bullish owner have resulted in this season being an incredibly high-pressure one for Peterborough United.

A 13th place finish, with Posh never looking like challenging for a top six spot beyond the new year, simply not good enough for a club that have frequently flirted with the Championship in recent years. Their lowest finish since promotion from League Two in 2007/08, and it is felt among many supporters that it’s a consequence of owner Darragh MacAnthony’s failings.gwgwgewgewweg

His transfer policy, which sees the Irishman oversee the recruitment of low-cost young talent before selling them on at profit, beginning to frustrate. An achievement to locate these hidden gems, such as Conor Washington who was sold for £2.8m in January, but a feeling existing that they’re not remaining at London Road long enough, nor is the money gained from their sales being invested back into the team heavily enough.

Then there’s an issue over the appointment and dismissal of managers. Two, Dave Robertson and Graham Westley, sacked last season, leaving MacAnthony to call his next appointment “critical”. Former Posh midfielder Grant McCann, having been in charge at the end of last season, given the job despite having limited coaching experience.

And finally comes the claim made by MacAnthony, whose achievements in just shy of ten years in charge of the club have been commendable and only recently has patience with his approach groan thin, in February that the club will be sold if promotion is not achieved this season. One made not out of desperation, but with the genuine belief that Posh can return to the Championship.

Pressure, and an incredibly tough challenge facing Peterborough in this coming campaign.

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The Manager – Grant McCann

Calling the appointment of your next manager “critical”, only to hire someone without any previous managerial experience seems a bizarre decision. At best, MacAnthony’s move to appointment McCann as Posh boss on a permanent basis is certainly brave and bold.

The former Northern Ireland international, who made 128 league appearances for Peterborough, undoubtedly a figure you’d want to have as part of the club’s coaching set up, given his connection to it. The 36-year-old an undisturbed member of the backroom staff while Robertson and Westley were being shown the door.

But whether he’s ready to be the main man is a question that can really only be viewed with a degree of cynicism.

Two victories, by scorelines of 4-3 and 5-1, in the games overseen by McCann as caretaker boss at the end of last season promising, but hardly a large enough sample size to make a proper judgement from. Even Westley appeared a positive appointment for a period.

The success of other former players given their first managerial position at clubs that they have strong affiliation to, including Chris Powell and Neil Harris, offers evidence of appointments such as this one working. But both Powell and Harris served longer apprenticeships than McCann, and weren’t placed under as nearly as much pressure.

For there is pressure on McCann to succeed immediately. But not nearly as much pressure as there is on MacAnthony for McCann to succeed immediately.

Transfer Business

It’s reasonable to suggest that Peterborough’s transfer activity this summer has mixed. The damage done by a few disappointing departures healed with some promising additions made.

The most disappointing loss being that of Erhun Oztumer, with the skilful midfielder joining fellow League One club Walsall. His individual ability and character made him a well-liked player among Posh supporters, and his presence will be missed.

Also a shame for Peterborough fans to see long-serving Gabriel Zakuani depart, irrespective of the fact he was something of a bit-part player last season. The centre-back, who has signed for Northampton following his release, enjoying a special relationship with club and supporters.

But there is no denying that those coming in increase the quality within Peterborough’s squad.

Gwion Edwards, having performed mightily impressively for Crawley over the previous two seasons, arrives at London Road despite the winger attractive interest from other League One clubs, and possibly fills the exciting attacking void created by Oztumer’s departure, while the centre of midfield has been strengthened by the signing of Brad Inman, who performed consistently for Crewe Alexandra irrespective of their relegation though he will miss the start of the season having broken his leg.

Additions also made to the defensive options available to McCann, with an opportunity offered to 21-year-old former Bolton right-back Hayden White, in addition to 6’5 centre-back Ryan Tafazolli, after over a century of league appearances for Mansfield Town, and Andrew Hughes, who made 141 appearances for Newport County, taking the step up to League One having impressed in the tier below.

A chance also given to former Peterborough forward Paul Taylor, who impressed at London Road previously but has been without a club since being released by Ipswich Town in May 2015, and 18-year-old forward Matt Stevens, who joins from Barnet. A need to replace the goals lost by Washington’s January departure to QPR.

Quality improved, but the question is whether these are the sort of additions that suggest Posh can challenge for promotion once again.

The Squad

You could make an argument for a touch more experience being required in this Peterborough squad, but you could make the same argument about any Peterborough side since the beginning of time.

Experience dotted throughout it, though, with former Charlton goalkeeper Ben Alnwick likely to be the man starting between the sticks, while Michael Bostwick, with 155 Posh league games to his name, spent much more of his time in the centre of defence than in midfield last season.

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Though the growing competition for places at centre-back might well mean that Bostwick finds himself in midfield at times this season. Tafazolli, Jack Baldwin, who impressed in the latter half of the previous campaign, and Ricardo Santos, appearing 37 times in the league last season, all options in the heart of defence.

Depth also at right-back, with White providing support to Michael Smith, and Baldwin able to fill in on the left should Hughes struggle in the third tier or Callum Elder, who the club hope to sign on loan from Leicester for a second time, not return.

But it’s in midfield where Posh are arguably at their strongest, to the extent that Inman’s injury is disappointing and not disastrous, and there is seemingly no hope of a future at the club for Jack Payne following his return from a loan spell at Leyton Orient.

In fact, it would arguably provide greater balance to the side should Bostwick play in midfield given the amount of creative central players Posh possess. Jermaine Anderson, who was named the Football League’s Young Player of the Month for November before suffering a season ending injury last term, new signing Edwards, and Callum Chettle, who joined from Nuneaton in January and hasn’t been overwhelmed by League football, among them.

Marcus Maddison and Chris Forrester also come under that category, with both capable of playing out wide. Another area where depth is not exactly lacking, with exciting youngster Leondaro Da Silva Lopes, 11-goal Jon Taylor, and the versatile Lee Angol, who will miss the first part of the season through injury, among the options.

Plenty to choose from in attack, too, but maybe a slight question mark over the quality available. At the very least, there’s an element of needing to prove themselves for almost every Posh forward. Shaquile Coulthirst scoring just twice in 19 games last season, but has potential, Paul Taylor out the game for a year, and Tom Nichols yet to find his feet since arriving from Exeter in January.

Additionally, there’s Aaron Williams, who scored twice in the second half of last season after arriving from Nuneaton, former West Brom youngster Adil Nabi, without a goal having joined in January, and prolific Northern Ireland striker Joe Gormley, who has recovered from an injury that meant his first season at London Road last just four games.

Promise and potential in Posh’s squad in abundance, but whether there’s enough proven quality is questionable.

Fans View: Louie Chandler (@ChandlerLouie)

This could, hypothetically speaking, be Darragh MacAnthony’s final season as Posh owner. From the outside, he appears quite frustrating and financially driven. How is he viewed among supporters? 

There’s no doubt that the majority of our supporters love having Darragh as an owner. We love his honesty and his willingness to communicate with fans. However over the last couple of seasons frustrations have definitely begun to mount. More and more fans feel he needs a reality check, and statements such as the one he made about selling the club if we don’t get promoted do not help at all. Obviously it’s part of his job to whip-up excitement and enthusiasm around the club, but there are definitely better ways to do it.

I don’t have access to the club’s finances so I don’t know in detail what is going on there, but there is definitely a sense that we should be holding onto our key players instead of cashing in on them at the first chance. Selling Conor Washington last season was a real momentum killer, and in complete contrast, keeping Mackail-Smith for the whole 2010/11 season probably meant we were able to go up. His first excuse always seems to be that if we had higher gates we wouldn’t have to sell these players. But then some feel this is Darragh’s way of passing the blame and using the fans as a scapegoat. We also have some of the most expensive tickets in the league which is never going to help.

After he was sacked Graham Westley revealed it was an AIM for the season to sell a player for a big fee! That really wound the fans up.

The appointment of McCann, given his lack of experience, is undoubtedly a bit of a risk. The right man for the job?

I think he is the right man for the job. With the appointment of Grant no-one seems to be massively excited or massively pessimistic. Those who wanted him (like myself) think he’ll do well, but we are aware it may not be instant success. Those who didn’t want him may not think he will do well, but the thought of one of the club’s legendary players leading us to promotion I think is a thought that keeps the hopes raised a bit.

A lot of people felt it was time for an experienced manager, who wouldn’t take some of the players’ attitudes with Steve Evans a lot of people’s first choice. But having had three managers in the last year, I think it’s time we thought a bit more long term. We are not a League One winning side (despite what some fans and maybe the owner may think) and we need patience and stability now more than ever.

Your squad is, in comparison to others in this division, huge, but lacks experience and largely contains players with a degree of promise or points to prove. Any concerns about the make-up of it?

There are definitely concerns about the make-up of our squad. Like you say it is huge, but it is very unbalanced. For example we have seven players to choose from up-front, but only three for the two full back positions.

In midfield we are still very strong. There is some feeling that we lack a ball winner in there, but I can’t see McCann sacrificing a creative asset for that. In Chris Forrester and Marcus Maddison we have two of the League’s most talented midfielders, and in Jermaine Anderson and Leo Da Silva Lopes two of the League’s most promising. We have never been a club to possess too much experience. It’s not something I think is essential though.

I feel we still need a left-back to really tie up our starting XI, but it’s unclear whether we are planning to bring someone in. We were hoping to bring Callum Elder back on loan from Leicester, but he now seems set to go to a Championship club.

Nonetheless, there are undoubtedly some exciting players among those with potential. Who should League One followers be keeping an eye on in particular?

In terms of eye-catching talent our midfield is very exciting. Marcus Maddison is by far our most exciting player and has the ability to score a goal out of nothing. Jermaine Anderson had a break-through campaign last season, until suffering an unfortunate injury early in 2016, but he looks set to carry on from where he left off. The chairman flatteringly compares him to Yaya Toure, which gives you a sense of the kind of player he is.
17-year-old Leo Da Silva Lopes is another one who McCann seems to be a huge fan of, and looks set to start this season, and plays in a similar way to Anderson. In a less glamorous but no less important role Chris Forrester will be mopping up in front of the back four and keep the game ticking over. Up front we have Paul Taylor returning to the club having endured a tricky spell since leaving at the end of the 2011-2012 season, but if he can recapture the form of that campaign he could well be one of the league’s best players.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

It’s difficult to call where we will finish this season. I’ll say first that I’ll be happy to see us pushing for the play-offs, and to have a consistent season. In the past few campaigns we seem to have an unbelievable spell early on before crumbling in the second half. I think all three teams coming down from the Championship will have a good chance of going back up, and look as though they will be significantly stronger than us. Any of our fans who think we should go up this season are a bit naive. But I think we’ll finish 8th or 9th.

Summary

Anyone fancy buying a football club? 9th

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Port Vale

Just as it seemed they had settled comfortably into the idea of being a relatively no-thrills mid-table League One club, Port Vale were dealt a summer of disruption and uncertainty.

Sparked by the unexpected departure of popular manager Rob Page to Northampton, extended by a period of over a month passing before relatively unknown Portuguese boss Bruno Ribeiro was named as his replacement, and made worse by several departures and an apparent cut in the playing budget leaving Vale with just nine contracted recognised professionals at one point. Port_Vale_logo.svg

Easy, therefore, to think the uncertainty and unscheduled change will prove the catalyst for a season of struggle. At the very least, there’s a need to rebuild with a different direction taken following the departure of Page and key members of his squad.

But there are positive voices coming out of Vale Park which suggest the departure of Page, the appointment of Riberio, and the reshaping of the club’s squad does not at all signal the start of concerning times for the Valiants. So much so that nothing less than the top six is being accepted.

The budget available to Riberio doubled by owner Norman Smurthwaite, the signings arriving from both overseas and abroad, and a suggestion that Page’s departure has actually allowed a stable club to move forward.

In fact, Smurthwaite is so confident of promotion that he has a Plan B in place should the club not be in the top six at Christmas. No consideration taken for the time needed to gel a new side together, and for players from abroad to adapt to the English game.

Ambition, some might argue, but so too does there feel a degree of naivety at Vale Park.

The Manager – Bruno Ribeiro

Being told that your new manager is close personal friends with Jose Mourinho, and the Manchester United boss will be utilised if needed, is certainly a nice sweetener having had to wait over a month for an appointment to be made.

And that Mourinho recommended Ribeiro for the Port Vale job makes a slightly concerning managerial record, and an obvious lack of League One experience, less unsettling. You can just about overlook the fact the 40-year-old hasn’t stayed in a job for more than a year on the previous seven occasions he’s held a managerial position when one of the game’s great bosses says he knows what he’s doing.

There’s confidence from Ribeiro, a former Leeds and Sheffield United player, too. “I believe this is a Championship club,” the Portuguese has said rather optimistically, offering a suggestion that he’ll be looking to build upon Page’s mid-table position and push for promotion with the Valiants.

Confidence that’s aided by the apparent advantage gained in recruitment with Ribeiro in charge. Signings made from Europe, out of the radar of other League One opponents, and the loan market exploited.

And with Michael Brown providing assistance, Ribeiro’s lack of experience in English football and knowledge of League One should be nullified. An over reliance on foreign recruits, and an overseas boss going at it without assistance, has failed before regardless of perceived quality and reputation.

But there remains reason to be dubious and suspicious of Ribeiro and the strategy taken by Port Vale. Pressure on the Valiants to make an immediate impression in the first few weeks of the season to calm those concerns.

At the very least, regardless of Mourinho’s recommendation, Vale chairman Norman Smurthwaite has taken a huge gamble on an alternative approach to move his club forward.

Transfer Business

This apparent push for the play-offs is being instigated by a complete overhaul of the squad during the summer, with many steady League One performers departing to be replaced largely by signings from Europe.

The outs including former captain Carl Dickinson (Notts County), forwards Louis Dodds and Aj Leitch-Smith (both Shrewsbury Town), and winger Byron Moore (Bristol Rovers). All regular starters last season, with many others who contributed among the 14 to depart on a permanent basis.

In come 12, signed from clubs in the Netherlands, France, Portugal and Norway. Oh, and England.

Dutch pair Kjell Knops, who joins from MVV Maastricht, and Calvin Mac-Intosch, snapped up from Cambuur, look set to form Vale’s new centre-back partnership. Knops, 28, claims to “known a bit about English football” from watching the Premier League, so he’s all set, while Mac-Intosch, 26, made 14 appearances for the club that finished bottom of the Eredivisie last season.

A trio of Frenchman have joined the club, with Anthony de Freitas and Sebastien Amoros arriving from Monaco, while Quentin Pereira joins from amateur side RC Epernay Champagne. Though de Fretias, now 22, has two France U20 caps to his name and spent half of last season on loan at Portuguese club Varzim, none of the midfield trio have much first team experience.

And it no surprise that a number of players from Ribeiro’s homeland have arrived. Two of them, midfielder Paulo Tavares and full-back Kiko joining from the manager’s former club Vitoria Setubal, while former Sporting Lisbon forward Carlos Saleiro arrives from Oriental with a dubious goal-scoring record.

The overseas influx rounded off with 6’5 Curacaoan forward Rigino Cicilia joining from Roda JC, and Swedish winger Christopher Mbamba signed from Hamarkameratene, who play in the third tier of Norwegian football, apparently.  A need to hope Ribeiro knows what he’s doing, and what sort of player will adapt quickly to English football, with each new addition.

Some experience of the English game has been added with the signings of 22-year-old forward Anton Forrester and 33-year-old former Charlton winger Jerome Thomas. The former possessing potential, the latter should still be able to perform at this level despite his best days being behind him.

But both have question marks over them, with appearances in recent seasons limited. Former Blackburn man Forrester with just four to his name, made on loan at Morecombe last season, since the start of 2014/15, and Thomas, who was without a club for most the previous campaign, playing just six times for Rotherham United having been a forgotten man for several years at Crystal Palace prior to that.

Good luck gelling it all together, Bruno.  

The Squad

You wonder whether what remains of Port Vale’s squad from last season will be pushed to one side, or play an important role in gelling the new recruits together into something functional.

The former seems more likely, especially with midfielder Anthony Grant handing in a transfer request midway through pre-season. The host of midfield signings made by Ribeiro likely to be competing to be first choice for Vale this season.

But Jak Alnwick, brother of former Charlton goalkeeper Ben, certainly likely to continue between the sticks, with no competition sought and Chris Neal released. The 23-year-old impressing to the extent that he won Vale’s Young Player of the Year award at the end of the previous campaign.

Ben Purkiss also likely to keep his place at full-back, Sams Foley and Kelly are decent wide options, and cover to be had in attack with JJ Hooper, a bit-part player last season, not a bad fourth choice option to have should Forrester, Saleiro and Cicilia all fail to deliver.

You can, however, question Vale’s lack of depth at centre-back. The inexperienced Remie Streete and Nathan Smith the only real cover for Knops and Mac-Intosch, with their inexperience of the English game.

Fans View: Bob Hughes (@BobGH)

A summer of huge change at Port Vale, from the relative stability of Rob Page to what appears to be something of an experiment instigated by Bruno Ribeiro and his overseas recruits. Excited, or fearful?

Excited. Rob Page did a decent job but some fans never took to him probably because at times last season we were solid but boring. Bruno has promised good entertaining football to be played out from the back which if it works will be great.

You’ve lost some consistent League One performers over the summer. Irrespective of how the overseas signings perform, how disappointed are you to lose AJ Leitch-Smith and co?

AJ Leitch-Smith had his best season of his career with us and I doubt he will better it with Shrewsbury, the two player’s I’m dissapointed which left are fan’s favourite Louis Dodds and our captain Carl Dickinson.

Which of the new signings are you expecting to make the biggest impact, or is it a case that there’s so much uncertainty about whether they will adapt and perform that it’s hard to say? 

The signing of Paulo Taveres certainly excites me, he’s a 30 year midfielder who was captain of his last club which played in the Portuguese premiership and he was linked with a move to Sunderland two years ago. Pereria and De Freitas the French midfielders have impressed in pre season.

I’m afraid I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of arrogance and naivety in everything that owner Norman Smurthwaite says. What’s the view of him among supporters?

He splits the divide, some can’t stand him and never have a positive thing to say about anything he says or does and others think he can do no wrong. For me he definitely needs to improve his PR skills and sometimes close his mouth but he brought us out of administration and has put millions of pounds into the club plus we’re one of the few clubs which are debt free.

Smurthwaite has promised a ‘Plan B’ if you’re not in the top six by Christmas. Surely that isn’t a realistic target for Port Vale under any circumstance, let alone the first season of a dramatic change? 

None of us know what this Plan B is. I can’t see him sacking Bruno six months into a three year deal, he’ll probably throw more money and maybe think we need more British players if the foreign lads can’t adapt.

Finally, where will you finish this season?

5th, I think it will take the new player’s time to settle but once they do we’ll hit the ground running.

Summary

No denying that there is quality among those signed, but too much change has occurred at once, and incredibly hard to see an experiment like this paying off in England’s third tier. Either way, Smurthwaite is likely to have to turn to this apparent Plan B, probably sooner than he thinks. 17th 


Rochdale

Despite suggestions existing before the season that Rochdale, after an eighth place finish in 2014/15, would struggle to avoid being drawn into a relegation battle in their second campaign back in the third tier, Keith Hill’s side found themselves in the top ten of League One once again last season. 

Level on points with Coventry and Gillingham, who both spent much of the season in the top six, and three above Sheffield United. No real challenge for the play-offs, and Dale actually finishing two places lower despite winning six more points, but the Spotland club worthy of plenty of praise for cementing their place in League One with minimal fuss.

The question is, though, can a club of Rochdale’s size build on two successive top ten finishes, or must they simply accept that attempting to emulate such an achievement for the third season in a row is the best they can hope for?

An acceptance that Dale aren’t necessarily on the same level as bigger clubs in the division, and mid-table security would remain a success, but the achievement of Burton Albion last season can provide hope to clubs like Rochdale.

At the very least, with the creation of a well-drilled unit under Hill’s continued leadership, Dale have done enough in the last two seasons to prevent another campaign that begins with them being tipped for relegation.

The Manager – Keith Hill

With both Blackburn Rovers and Charlton Athletic interested, it appeared for a period during the summer that Hill would not be manager of Rochdale for a tenth season.

Only during one campaign, with the entirety of the 11/12 season spent at Barnsley, since 06/07 has the 47-year-old not spent at least some time at Spotland. The large majority of that time proving successful, and the manager an adored figure as a result.

So for Hill to be beginning another season as Rochdale boss provides a great deal of relief for supporters of the club. Reason to fear that without Hill in charge, their status as a stable and competitive League One club would be lost.

There no denying that Hill’s football isn’t the most attractive, but he has certainly made his Dale side capable of picking up more points in the third tier than many believe they’re capable of. An organised unit, exceeding expectations with the help of an excellent and well-suited leader.

Transfer Business

A clear out of the average, and three promising additions. A relatively quiet summer for Rochdale, with dramatic change not needed to a settled squad.

Of those departing, only centre-back Olly Lancashire, who has joined Shrewsbury, was a regular last season. Ashley Eastham (Fleetwood), Rhys Bennett (Mansfield), and released pair Michael Rose and Tom Kennedy bit-part players, while Grant Holt’s return to Spotland, with the forward leaving to join Hibs, wasn’t quite as successful as many hoped it would be.

With several of those who have left the club being centre-backs, it’s more than useful that that is the area Dale have strengthened the most this summer. Irish defender Niall Canavan, having impressed during a spell on loan from Scunthorpe last season, making his move a permanent one, while 20-year-old Harrison McGahey, with minimal experience but showing potential during his time with Sheffield United, also joins.

Potential also the justification in signing former Manchester United midfielder Oliver Rathbone, who is yet to play first-team football but impressed for United’s U21 side last season, and the loan addition of Wigan Athletic winger Sanmi Odelusi.

Possibly the frustration to be had with Rochdale’s summer activity being that a bundle of proven talent has not been signed to improve a squad that fell just short of the play-offs last season.

But the status of the club, both financially and in terms of size, means it’s difficult for them to compete in the transfer market, and maintaining both the manager and his cohesive squad is encouraging in itself.

The Squad

Even without high-profile additions, the squad, in almost all areas of the pitch, is in a relatively healthy state. Beginning in goal, with long-serving Josh Lillis an excellent stopper.

Only in defence is there an argument for greater depth being required, with a clear out of so many who can play across the backline leaving Dale a little short. Canavan and Jimmy McNulty likely to form the central partnership, with Joe Rafferty and Scott Tanser the only real options in the full-back positions. McGahey provides cover across the backline, but much more than that required.

Far fewer concerns in midfield, where 21-year-old skipper Jamie Allen has plenty of company in the centre. Andy Cannon and Callum Camps, both 20, enjoyed relative breakthrough seasons in the previous campaign, while Matty Lund and the experienced and versatile Peter Vincenti provide proven quality. Summer signing Rathbone another option.

A similar scenario out wide, with options in abundance. It really a competition to see who from Nathaniel Mendez-Lang, Reuben Noble-Lazarus and Donal McDermott will occupy the flank opposite Ian Henderson. Another successful season for the winger, who can also play up top, with 13 goals scored in 39 games.

Additional competition provided by recent signing Odelusi, who can also play as a striker, though it was Joe Bunney who held the often lone central forward spot towards the end of last season. Calvin Andrew and 19-year-old James Hooper providing further alternatives in attack.

Get a few more bodies in defence and they’ve got a very tidy squad.

Fans View: Calvin Calvs (@RAFCCalv) 

Despite a second successive season where you weren’t too far off the play-offs, you appear to remain under the radar. Is that how you like it?

Personally I prefer us being under the radar. It means we don’t get as much attention as the bigger clubs in the league and is usually seen as surprising where we finish in the league.

How important is it to have kept a hold of Keith Hill amid interest from bigger clubs?

I think it is great that Hill is still with us. After being linked with a move away I was a bit worried. If/when Hill does move on I would hope that we don’t make the same mistakes as last time. And that means not bringing in someone that hasn’t managed at this level in the past.

What needs to be done in order for you to improve on the last two seasons and break into the top six?

Improve our defence. Going forward we look very strong. But defensively not as much. I am hoping that we bring in two defensive players before the transfer window closes. I don’t see why we can’t get into the top six, after being so close in the past two seasons, if we do that.

Your squad is relatively strong, but lacks options at the back. How desperate are you for some more bodies in defence?

Like I said I would like at least two more defensive players before the transfer window closes. We’ve only got three centre backs and one of them will probably be playing at left back this season. I also think we should be looking for a new defensive midfielder.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I think we will finish 8th. We will be looking strong for a playoff push but I feel that in the last few months of the season we might drop off a bit but still finish just outside the top six.

Summary

Mid-table obscurity isn’t something Rochdale should feel underwhelmed by, but a lot more settled than other clubs. Strengthen at the back and will again be among the chasing pack. 8th 


Part Four will be out in the next few days. All information, or at least it should be, correct as of 27/07/2016. All photos my own, or marked for reuse by others. 

Chris Powell’s Flat Cap Championship Season Preview – Part Three

Part Two


Ipswich Town

In truth, to be involved in a battle for a play-off position remains something of an overachievement for a club whose inability, or possibly unwillingness, to spend means they cannot compete with other promotion contenders in the transfer market. regergergergerger

But for supporters of Ipswich Town, a sense of frustration that the Tractor Boys appear to be stagnating is replacing any notion of pride that comes with exceeding expectations in a certain context.

In that certain context, the seventh place finish achieved last season is no failure for Mick McCarthy’s side, despite suffering a play-off defeat in the campaign prior to that. A cohesive and unified unit, lacking the individual quality that other sides can boast, competing to a level that they probably shouldn’t be able to.

On the other hand, that Ipswich were four points clear in sixth at the turn of the year but ultimately ended up five points behind is a huge disappointment and frustration. Just seven of the final 22 games of the season won.

A reflection possibly of the faults within Town’s squad, or maybe the faults of a manager who is beginning to have questions asked of him. But more likely a reflection of the club’s refusal to do more to compete. Continuing with a strategy that means they must overachieve, rather than commit to achieving.

This is, after all, the 15th consecutive season that the Tractor Boys have spent in the second tier. And another season where pre-season spending has been limited. Faith in McCarthy’s unified side, with a few relatively low-key additions, maintained as owner Marcus Evans refuses to spend in the manner that other clubs do.

By no means a weak side, or a weak club. But it doesn’t seem strong enough to compete as those that aim for promotion get stronger.

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The Manager – Mick McCarthy

The confidence and self-belief of the experienced boss is one of McCarthy’s greatest strengths. A real aggressive determination that means any question of his ability and authority is quickly beaten away, and no challenge is looked upon with fear.

But that mentality is only adding to the growing frustration among Town supporters, who certainly are not as supportive of their boss as they were 12 months ago. That confidence, in some quarters, now being viewed as naïve arrogance.

In fact, as he was alerted to that criticism once the opportunity to finish in the top six vanished last season, he remained defiant.

“I can’t affect what people say or think after the event, all I can affect is getting the team playing well and winning games and you know what, over three-and-a-half four years, I have done that particularly well,” he said.

But regular attendees at Portman Road have grown frustrated by his decision making, his tactics, and a direct strategy that is tough to watch when results are not being picked up. Appreciation of what he has done during his time in charge undoubtedly existing, but there’s no denying disappointment and groans are top of the current agenda.

Pressure on McCarthy to show something different this season, and to prevent a fragile Portman Road from turning.

Transfer Business

The idea that Ipswich are stagnating, if not regressing, only reaffirmed by their transfer activity this summer.

Few departures, with former Addick Luke Varney and the unused Jay Tabb released, Josh Yorwerth joining Crawley, and Matthew Clarke offered to Portsmouth in order to sign Adam Webster.

But 21-year-old centre-back Webster, who played 27 times in League Two last season, the only real addition that the Tractor Boys have made. Paul Digby also signing for the club, but that coming after he spent the second half of last season on loan at Portman Road from Barnsley.

The inspirational summer of transfer activity that was required not arriving.

The Squad

And so, Town are going to have to make use of the cohesion and structure of a squad that, in terms of individual quality, is becoming comparatively weaker as others make improvements.

Maybe that lack of individual quality is best summed up by the fact that goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski, having made just 23 appearances in all competitions, won last season’s Player of the Year award. The 29-year-old impressive after replacing Dean Gerken between the sticks in the second half of the season.

The back four likely to stand ahead of him is also relatively solid. Tommy Smith and Christophe Berra an experienced and competent centre-back pairing, while captain Luke Chambers and Jonas Knudsen are consistent performers in the full-back positions.

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But there is a slightly concerning lack of depth. Webster’s defensive versatility will prove useful, while Digby can operate at centre-back in addition to a midfield role, but there’s not much beyond that. Piotr Malarczyk was loaned to Southend last season having failed to impress, while the likes of Josh Emmanuel and Myles Kenlock lack experience.

Depth, however, to be found in the centre of midfield, even if the options available to McCarthy are all a bit similar. Giles Coke, who made only a handful of appearances in his debut season at Portman Road probably the most attacking of the senior central men, with Cole Skuse, Kevin Bru, Luke Hyam, Joanthan Douglas and Teddy Bishop all hard-working or combative midfielders.

Though there is hope that young midfielder Andre Dozzell will be able to contribute in the coming campaign. The then 16-year-old scoring on his senior debut against Sheffield Wednesday last season, and providing optimism during a period of frustration.

So too are genuine wide options lacking, with the club largely using loan players in those positions last season. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Ryan Fraser, Ben Pringle and Liam Feeney all no longer with the club, though former Charlton loanee Cameron Stewart has returned having spent the previous campaign at Doncaster and may well be given a chance.

Otherwise, it’s a case of putting central men in unnatural positions, or playing three central forwards in attack. A little bit of depth on that front, with Daryl Murphy one of the division’s most experienced and intelligent forwards, hope that David McGoldrick will have an injury free campaign, Brett Pitman possessing a decent goal-scoring record, and Freddie Sears’ pace making him the man most likely to fill in out wide.

A frustrating number of gaps in the squad this close to the season beginning.

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Fans View: Cameron Laws (@lawseyitfc)

I sense a great deal of frustration among Ipswich supporters. How true is that?

There is certainly quite a depressing mood among the Ipswich fans at the moment. Although we finished 7th last season, we looked half the team we were the season before when we finished in the play offs, which wasn’t helped with key injuries but the style of football on show was nothing short of abysmal. Pre season doesn’t seem to be any different, we’ve been very inactive this transfer window and the majority of fans are certainly beginning to panic, myself included. Obviously we have a select amount of fans who remain positive and believe we can finish in the top 6, but the reality is it’s getting tougher every year and with such a small squad it’s going to be very tough to achieve this.

“The majority of fans are certainly beginning to panic”

Mick McCarthy has done a respectable job at Portman Road, but are fans beginning to turn against him?

Mick does seem to be losing more plaudits by the day. Everyone respects that he came in and kept us from certain relegation, and of course took us to the play offs, but some fans believe he’s taken us as far as he can, he certainly doesn’t help himself when speaking in interviews as sometimes it feels like he’s trying to wind us fans up. I personally feel sorry for Mick as he should be given money to spend in the transfer window as he has proven that he can guide us to a top finish, but his negative tactics have certainly cost us in too many games over the years. Pre-season he’s spoke about trying to play a passing game, so we shall see if this takes affect in the season, he might win some fans back over this way.

Despite beginning to struggle towards the end of last season, you’ve been very quiet in the transfer market. How worried are you about the state of your squad?

Our squad is currently ridiculously small. We’ve got rid of a lot of dead wood over the summer but only signed two players in return. Paul Digby (centre half) joins back after being here on loan from Barnsley, he’s more of a one for the future player. Adam Webster joins from Portsmouth for a record McCarthy buy of £700,000, Pompey fans seem to rate him and he’s a ball playing defender, so looks like a promising signing, but that’s all we’ve done, no trialists or anything. A lot of this comes down to the owner who is reluctant to give out spending money, which is crazy when you look at the rest of the league, it just looks like we’re falling away from everyone. The squad itself is crying out for a winger, but looks like it’ll just be another loan in that department, even Cameron Stewart the outcast is worming his way back in to Mick’s plans because there is no other players.

In recent seasons, promotion-chasing sides have slumped into the bottom half of the division. Nottingham Forest, Blackburn, Charlton, Fulham and Reading to name but a few. Any concern that you might be next?

That’s a tough one, if we keep with this tight budget and hoofball defensive nonsense then we could find ourselves slowly sinking. If we can bring in some attack minded midfielders then we could find ourselves challenging again. I don’t think we’re in danger of finishing as low as Charlton or Fulham, but play offs look a lot further away than they did this time last year.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I can see us finishing 10th. The league is a lot harder this season and like I said earlier 7th flattered us last season. The beauty with McCarthy is he can grind out results for us, but also be very stubborn when he really doesn’t have to be. If he focuses more on us winning as opposed to not losing matches then we could definitely challenge again. Season ticket sales are down and fans are getting impatient, so we need a good start and that could uplift the mood. A bad start and the fans will give up early.

Summary

Ipswich are stagnating while others improve. A real danger that they’ll become the latest club who previously had promotion ambitions to find themselves looking over their shoulders. 18th

5


Leeds United

Pressure on Leeds United to succeed is always intense, but that even more so while Massimo Cellino’s continues to control the club.

For with protests, not universally supported but with enough backing to be taken seriously, against the Italian owner growing and last season proving another chaotic one, there can be little excuse for the Elland Road club not at least showing obvious signs of stability and development in the coming campaign. gergergergergerg

Cellino a man that never needs justification for his actions, probably why there have been so many managerial changes, court appearances and U-turns on strange decisions, but this a point where the seventh manager to work under this reign must prove a success for any sort of supporter trust to be maintained.

The divisive Steve Evans was not welcomed by all and his record, with 14 wins in 38 games to lead Leeds to 13th, was relatively average, but the general feeling that his removal as boss at the end of last season was a little unfair. “A different approach is required”, according to Cellino.

That approach, in fairness, has resulted in quite an exciting appointment being made. Garry Monk faded in his final few months at Swansea City, but played enough impressive football with the Swans to be regarded as an impressive young coach.

One that the club hope will save them money. Awarding partial refunds on season-tickets if there is a failure to achieve a top six finish, something that the club believe shows “a clear statement of our intent to gain promotion”, reaffirming the pressure on Cellino, newly-appointed Monk and Leeds in general this season.

But this is, arguably, the strongest a Leeds side has appeared to be since Cellino’s arrival. Not only given that it is led by a promising coach who plays attractive football, but make-up of the squad is promising. A push for the top six, if Cellino behaves himself, not out of the question.

 

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The Head Coach – Garry Monk

In relative terms, there were few more impressive teams in England during the 2014/15 season than Monk’s Swansea. An eighth place finish in the top flight achieved via attractive football, and wins recorded against the Premier League’s toughest appointments.

It’s that, rather than a run of one win in eleven games last season with the Swans, that is rightfully the focus of Leeds supporters. A belief that the same injection of a stylish brand of football, considered tactical cohesion, and individual development will occur at Elland Road under Monk’s stewardship.

Players, possibly, at Monk’s disposal for that to happen. Leeds’ squad not lacking in young and talented players, who could get on board with a dynamic system.

A slight concern comes from the fact that this is the first job Monk has had away from Swansea, where his cult status meant he was enthusiastically supported. Supporters at Elland Road encouraged with the appointment, but the mood there meaning pressure will quickly mount should there be uncomfortable periods.

The job in general a very high pressure one. Working with Cellino providing an additional sense of discomfort.

But that is, according to the man himself, what he wants. “I want to be challenged and really get my teeth into a big project,” Monk said. “That was the underlying factor throughout the whole process and that’s the reason why I’m here today.”

For all the uncertainty at the club, having Monk in charge in an attempt to build something is encouraging.

Transfer Business

In the most Massimo Cellino action of all time, Massimo Cellino increased expectations by allowing Monk to make some very tidy signings for his Leeds side, before Massimo Cellino brought Leeds fan back down to earth by sanctioning the sale of arguably the club’s best player.

For it was all going quite swimmingly before the excellent Lewis Cook was sold to Bournemouth for £7m. Both in terms of ins and outs.

Italian trio Giueseppe Bellusci, though only on loan, Mirco Antenucci, and Tommaso Bianchi all departing the club having failed to make the greatest impression on Leeds supporters, with the unpopular Scott Wootton released and Casper Sloth returning to Denmark having made just 13 appearances in two seasons.

5

In their place came experienced goalkeeper Robert Green, who will compete with Marco Silvestri for a place between the sticks, winger Kemar Roofe, who was marvellous for Oxford United in their promotion-winning campaign from League Two, and Swedish forward Marcus Antonsson, a scorer of 22 goals in 41 games for Kalmar FF.

Also joining the club was a trio of loan signings, to accompany those three permanent additions. Kyle Bartley, never impressing with the Swans but his versatility across the back line will be useful, and talented young midfielder Matt Grimes arriving from Monk’s former club, while winger Hadi Sacko, who scored twice in 14 appearances on loan at Ligue 2 side Sochaux last season, joins from Sporting Lisbon.

The loss of Cook, therefore, not a total disaster. Particularly given that Grimes, an England U21 international with similar attributes, appears a like-for-like replacement.

But there no denying that the sale of the 19-year-old, adored by supporters given both his ability and his homegrown status, slightly taints a very positive summer of activity.

6

The Squad

Irrespective of Cook’s departure, there is an argument that this is the strongest squad Leeds have had for a number of seasons. At least since the arrival of Cellino, which isn’t much of a compliment, but still. It’s not too bad.

The concerns that do exist not over the quality of the starting XI – with Kyle Barley, Sol Bamba, Liam Copper and Charlie Taylor forming a very decent back four, for example – but in what is beyond it. Young full-back Lewie Coyle began to make an impression last season, while Gaetano Berardi provides adequate enough cover, but a real lack of alternative options at centre-back. The versatile Bartley can fill in, but there’s not a great deal else.

Ironically, despite Cook’s departure, it’s probably in the centre of midfield where the Whites are best stocked. Alex Mowatt another excellent homegrown player, Luke Murphy one that divides opinion but does have over a century of appearances for the club, and impressive January signing Toumani Diagouraga joined by Swansea loanee Grimes. Youngster Kalvin Phillips, who played ten times last season and didn’t look out of place, and Stuart Dallas, better suited to a wide role but can play in an advanced central role, further alternatives.

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Dallas joined by new signings Roofe and Sacko as the main contenders to feature out wide, with Jordan Botaka, who showed signs of promise towards the end of last season having been left out the team for most of it, and Souleymane Doukara, who has had a very indifferent Leeds career, also available to Monk.

Doukara also an option in attack, though Chris Wood, who was relatively successful in his first season at Elland Road with 13 goals, and new signing Antonsson appear most likely to start up top should Monk opt to play two central forwards. Regardless, another striker is needed.

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Address the slight issues up top and at the back, and the Whites have themselves a competitive squad.

Fans View: Josh Fisk (@josh_fisk)

Assuming Massimo Cellino allows him to get on with his job, how good an appointment is Garry Monk, and how important is it that he’s given time?

Regardless of whether he’s given free reign by Cellino, in the here and now its an outstanding appointment and one which we will undoubtedly benefit from. As a big fan of the work Steve Evans did, I was incredibly frustrated when he was let go last summer but the hiring of Monk, thinking realistically, saw us hire the best candidate available to us. His approach to the summer has been excellent, I like the type of players he’s been bringing in and hopefully, if given time, he’ll be a great asset for us.

If he isn’t given time and is sacked in November, it will be a great waste but I think the work he’s done over the summer in terms of player recruitment and changing the mentality of the club will benefit us regardless.

Speaking of Cellino, what’s the general feeling among supporters given quite a positive summer? Is the opposition still there, or are you appeased for now?

Towards the start of the summer I think the fanbase was partially appeased as we were spending money on the type of players that the fans want us to bring in; young, hungry talent from the lower leagues rather than Serie B has-beens. It’s rare for us to go and pilfer a club’s best player as we did with Roofe and potentially Antonsson, but the resentment is starting to re-appear again. Signings have slowed down drastically, the sale of Lewis Cook fuelled obvious outrage and the lack of re-investment of that money since is doing nothing to appease anybody.

Do the additions you’ve made to your squad mean the departure of Lewis Cook can, to a certain extent, be overlooked?

Not yet by any stretch of the imagination. Cook was outstanding for us and despite spending good money on young talent, a lot of the players we’ve brought in are relatively unproven. If the Cook money is reinvested well then his sale may be overlooked slightly, but the fact is that we currently have ten million in unspent money and a gaping hole in the centre of midfield. The next few weeks before the start of the season are enormous for us.

Even without Cook, this is seemingly the strongest squad you’ve had under Cellino’s reign. Any areas that concern you at all?

Whether its the strongest squad we have remains to be seen. The majority of our summer dealings have been good; I’d rather have Bartley over Bellusci and Roofe over Antenucci etc. but the sale of Cook has also left us seriously weak in midfield. We’ve also lost Bridcutt from last season’s squad who was excellent for us. It is rumoured that we will sign him on a permanent this summer but a midfield involving Cook and Bridcutt was over-ran by teams last year. Take Cook out of that equation and I think we still need two central midfielders and one of them has to be a marquee signing. We do have a lot of competition in that position, but the likes of Luke Murphy and Alex Mowatt need to step it up massively in terms of their contribution.

I’d like to see Bridcutt sign, alongside an attacking midfield player who could play centrally and a marquee centre half as an absolute minimum. We could even do with a few more. Rob Green will be a big player for us though.

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Finally, where will you finish this season?

We’re the hardest team to place in any division ever. Considering the strength of the division this year I really don’t see us making the play-offs, and I don’t see us getting relegated. That leaves us in the region of 7th-21st. If we make some quality signings in the upcoming weeks we could be well in the top ten. But as it stands now, especially considering Monk will likely be sacked by Christmas, 12th. 

Summary

I like Monk, but I don’t like Cellino. I like the squad, but I don’t like the lack of depth it has. If Monk is allowed to do his job, and provided with some greater depth, they’ll be among, and might well lead, the chasing pack. 7th

38


Newcastle United

It quite the quirk that it’s taken a relegation for Newcastle supporters, frustrated by Mike Ashley’s constantly controversial ownership and a side underachieving in relation to the money spent on assembling it, to feel positivity and excitement in a club that they have felt a growing sense of detachment from in recent years. wrgrwhtse jtsj sej trsj r

The relegation suffered last season, the damage that resulted in which done long before failing boss Steve McClaren was dismissed, of course merely a side story in this injection of positivity. No supporter at St James’ Park welcoming a return to the Championship, especially after over £80m was spent throughout the course of last season.

The main catalyst being the appointment of a successful and well-liked manager, having had to endure the unpopular reigns of Alan Pardew, John Carver, and McClaren. A manager far too high status to be leading a Championship club, but one convinced to remain in the North East after assurances were given by the club and supporters made their admiration for him clear.

In fact, Rafael Benitez is the first manager for some time that Newcastle supporters have shown any sort of strong bond and connection with. That despite the Champions League winning boss being unable to save the club from relegation, with enough shown in his leadership and improvement in performances to excite the Geordies. Season ticket sales surpassing the total managed prior to the previous campaign.

And the Spaniard, who began last at Real Madrid, has maintained supporter optimism over the summer with impressive signings, the retention of players of quality committed to the Magpies, and the sale of many of those whose quality or attitude could be questioned. The biggest budget in the Championship promised, and it seemingly delivered.

This club doesn’t have the normal feelings you would expect to find around one recently relegated. Such is the strength of this Newcastle unit, even with Ashley overseeing it, anything but an emphatic title win would have to go down as a failure.

The Manager – Rafael Benitez

One of the most scrutinised clubs in the country, constantly criticised for the manner in which they are run, have managed to convince a La Liga champion, Champions League winning and Real Madrid managing boss to lead their side in the second tier of English football. A greater fairytale than Leicester City lifting the Premier League trophy.

And Benitez hasn’t just settled for St James’ Park because his powers are draining, his career is coming to an end, and no other club wants him. Interest from around Europe would undoubtedly have been high in the Spaniard had he not chosen to remain at Newcastle.

More so after managing to get what appeared an uninterested side to perform in the final weeks of last season. Six games unbeaten, including an impressive 5-1 victory over Spurs that featured the sort of attacking football not seen at St James’ Park for some time, not enough to maintain the club’s Premier League status, but certainly enough to get supporters on side and convince Ashley that every step must be taken to convince Benitez to remain.

And with that, the two most difficult tasks that come with leading Newcastle have already been overcome. Backing from the ownership, and backing from supporters. But that isn’t to say Benitez is complacent, and underestimating the need for his side to impress in order to maintain positive support.

“I would like to keep the relationship like this and the only way to do this is to do the right things. I’m not stupid, I know we have to win! We can do all the right things but we have to win,” he said.

The strength of his managerial skills, and the strength of his side, probably means that will be happening more often than not.

Transfer Business

If there was any doubt as to whether Newcastle were the side to beat this season, those doubts have been addressed in the transfer market.

That in spite of a handful of players departing, for they are among the group that were always likely to move on. Moussa Sissoko, if he has his way, likely to be one of a number of players to join Stephen Taylor (released), Andros Townsend (Crystal Palace), Frabricio Coloccini (San Lorenzo) and Papiss Cisse (Shandong Luneng Taishan) in leaving the club.

In their place come expensive but intelligent additions. Defender Grant Hanley, for example, might not be the first name that sprung to mind when Newcastle supporters began considering which players they would like to see their club purchase this summer, but the Scot has impressed in the Championship for Blackburn Rovers and could potentially lead United’s backline.

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Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie, having previously impressed in the Championship and more recently proven their worth in the Premier League, are also excellent additions, with £10m paid to Crystal Palace and £12m to Bournemouth in order to secure their services. Few chances being taken.

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Isaac Hayden another arrival with Championship experience, having spent last season on loan at Hull, and the £2.5 signing from Arsenal is probably one that Newcastle believe they can develop. Though his versatility, given that he can play at right-back and in midfield, might mean he features a reasonable amount this season.

Elsewhere, experienced Spanish right-back Jesus Gamez, quite possibly replacing Daryl Janmatt whose future doesn’t appear to be at St James’ Park, from Atletico Madrid with 290 La Liga appearances, and 24-year-old Belgian goalkeeper Matz Sels joins from Gent to compete with Karl Darlow and, when fit, former Addick Rob Elliot, with Tim Krul another that seems set to depart.

Oh, and they’ve got £25m from Georginio Wijnaldum’s sale to Liverpool, if they fancy spending that.  

The Squad

Not that there’s a desperate need to spend that £25m, given the depth that exists in the squad even when considering a handful may depart before the end of August.

So let’s first of all assess the squad only considering those that will definitely be at the club come September, before we sweeten it with the thinking that some of those who could leave might well remain.

As mentioned above, you’re unlikely to find a club with a healthier goalkeeper situation. Healthier once Elliot gets healthy, which would probably make Darlow third choice. That’s the same Darlow who was outstanding for Nottingham Forest in this division.

Though whoever starts between the sticks probably isn’t going to be that busy. Jamaal Lascelles and Chancel Mbemba competing for a spot at centre-back alongside Grant Hanley, Jesus Gamez almost certain to make the right-back sport his own, and a battle for the left-back spot between Paul Dummett and Massadio Haidara.

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An argument that some competition at right-back wouldn’t go amiss, with Janmaat to be binned and Vurnon Anita much more effective in midfield, but otherwise Newcastle appear well-stocked at the back. Kevin Mbabu, 21, and Jamie Sterry, 20, appearing towards the end of last season and providing additional depth. Oh, and Hayden and Jack Colback can play at the back if some sort of plague attacks the club’s defensive options.

Much like Anita, they’re obviously much better suited to playing a defensive or combative midfield role, with Charlton academy graduate Jonjo Shelvey arguably about to become the Championship’s best creative midfielder. A bit silly that the England international is playing in the second tier, though some cover that possesses similar attributes would be useful in a squad well stocked for defensive central men.

The thought of Shelvey supplying from the middle, while Rolando Aarons and Ritchie do the work out wide, makes me rather pleased that Charlton find themselves in League One this season. Gayle, naturally a forward but often deployed out wide by Crystal Palace, and Sammy Ameobi, who did a reasonable job while on loan with Cardiff City last season, the other wide options who aren’t in any rush to leave the club.

While up top, the highlight is obviously the fight with every experienced Championship centre-back that Aleksandar Mitrovic is going to have. After he’s served his four game ban at the start of the season, obviously. Gayle and Ayoze Perez to partner him, with the possibility of Adam Armstrong providing an alternative, though it seems likely he’ll be leaving the club on loan for the season having impressed at Coventry in the previous campaign. There no harm in adding another forward to the squad, possibly in the Mitrovic mould, should that happen.

Not bad, really. And there will be another deep midfield option if Cheick Tiote remains, options out wide will be greater should any of Yoan Gouffran, Florian Thauvin and Hanri Saivet stay, and Siem de Jong would provide an alternative in both the attacking midfield position and up top should he avoid being sold.

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I can’t think of many other examples where relegation has been followed by a huge increase in positivity among supporters. Is the feeling among Newcastle fans as buoyant, despite relegation, as it appears to be?

It really is. This national view that we demand trophies, Champions League football and everything else, couldn’t be further from the truth. All we ask is a club that tries, not win, but try to compete and this is what this relegation seems to give us. It’s bizarre, but we all see it as a complete fresh start… The dawn of a new era!

Aside from his reputation, what is it about Benitez that has mean an immediate connection with Newcastle supporters was made?

I think it’s because he took an instant liking to us, and well, after Steve McClaren, we would’ve endeared anyone. At his past three clubs (Chelsea, Napoli and Real Madrid), he was never really accepted, especially not at Chelsea or Madrid. In a lot of ways, we’re a similar club to Liverpool, (excluding the actual football side…) so he almost felt at home with us. We’re just incredibly grateful to have him here, we adore him. Just to love him that bit more, he organised a school tournament this summer for primary school kids, purely to connect the club more with our community in the city. They even walked away with Wonga-free home kits!

Have you, in a sense, been needing this relegation for a few seasons in order to force the club to alter its direction?

You’ve absolutely nailed it there. We’ve needed it mainly as a kick up the backside to Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley. They’ve completely changed their stance this summer, Rafa is in charge of transfers, backroom staff appointments and helping improve our youth setup and revamping it completely. Even our training ground has been overhauled because of him, that’s how much power he actually now has!

Also, apart from the mentality of the board, relegation allowed us to rid ourselves of a lot of, what we like to call, “mercenaries”. Your Moussa Sissokos (should be out the door by September 1st!), Gini Wijnaldum and players along those lines. Players that were using us as a mere stepping stone, in their probable bang average careers. I know 90% of the country thinks we want 11 Geordies on the pitch, but we really couldn’t care. Whether they’re from Newcastle, Naples or even Nepal, as long as they give 110%, we’re happy!

You’ve made some very, very good additions, while those that have departed were never likely to remain after relegation, leaving you with a strong squad led by an excellent manager. Apart from Mike Ashley doing something a bit silly, are there any concerns at all?

At the moment of writing this actually, there are rumours of Barcelona coming in for Ayoze Perez for around £15m. This would be a huge blow. He’s someone that could really come into his own next season and annihilate a lot of teams. Apart from that, I think personally, we’re still in need of winger or two to cover Aarons (keep an eye out for him) and Ritchie, an experienced CB and a holding midfield player. Other than that I think we’ve bought really well. Dwight Gayle should bag at least 10-15 goals, Matt Ritchie was pivotal in Bournemouth’s promotion season, Jesus Gamez I think is a fabulous signing along with Grant Hanley. Matz Sels, signed from Gent, I can’t say much about however, I’m not too familiar with Gent, other than Moses Simon is really quick on Fifa…

Can we just have a moment to appreciate Rob Elliot? A proper Charlton lad whose performances last season prior to his injury were very pleasing to see. He’s just great, as a person and a footballer, isn’t he? 

OMG OMG OMG. We love him, we really do, not only a fabulous keeper but a genuinely nice person. He seems like he loves the club, and like I said earlier, that’s all we want!

And finally, where will you finish this season?

My heart says unbeaten over the 46 games, winning most games 6-0 and Mitrovic getting half a dozen hat-tricks. Obviously, it’s not going to be THAT easy. However, I don’t want to tempt fate, but I really think we’re head and shoulders above the rest of the division in both squad quality and managerial quality. This all taken into account, we really should be winning the league. BUT, I’d be more than happy with finishing 6th and going up through the play-off’s, we just need to go up this season. Howay the lads!

“My heart says unbeaten over the 46 games, winning most games 6-0 and Mitrovic getting half a dozen hat-tricks”

Summary

Only real question mark is over whether or not they’ll get 100 points. Wouldn’t be surprised if they reach 1,000 in all honesty. 1st


Norwich City

It would appear that Norwich City are attempting to become this decade’s answer to what West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City were in the last. Better than the Championship, not good enough for the Premier League, and therefore bouncing between the two divisions. erg erw erh erh eh esh

An immediate return to the top flight followed by an immediate relegation back to the second tier. A little more competitive under Alex Neil than they were under Chris Hughton, or at least periods existed where the Canaries played well enough and picked up enough points to suggest survival was possible, but ultimately overwhelmed once again.

It could be argued, therefore, that revolution is required. A complete change in staff, squad and strategy to allow Norwich to compete in the Premier League once promotion has been achieved.

And there will be a need to learn from mistakes should top flight football return to Carrow Road for the 2017/18 season.

But for now, stability provides positivity. Neil, initially under pressure following the end of last season but quickly assured of his position, rightfully given another go at leading the club back to the top flight, with an excellent-looking squad that has lost only those that were never likely to be retained.

A need to encourage and reignite the confidence that has been lost with relegation, but Norwich are once again in a decent position to attempt to make a return to the Premier League. Do Canaries go boing boing?

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The Manager – Alex Neil

As last season came to an end with Norwich relegated, there was no bigger critic of Alex Neil than Alex Neil himself. Admitting that he was “as much to blame, if not more to blame, than anybody else” for the club’s return to the Championship, and that he “made decision that in hindsight probably have not been the right ones at times”.

But with the club, his players and supporters offering support to Neil, the 34-year-old has maintained his position as Canaries boss. An opportunity to replicate his promotion effort in the 2014/15 season having arrived from Hamilton in January 2015.

In fact, there is plenty of faith in Neil he’ll have Norwich challenging for promotion without any signs of a hangover from the previous campaign. The Scot a strong character, the football played under him even during periods of the struggle in the Premier League having a certain energy and style to it, and the core of his squad maintained.

A squad that certainly support him. Upon signing a new contract, Cameron Jerome quick to point out that Neil is “a leader” and “the kind of manager you want to play for”.

Support for the still relatively inexperienced boss also provided by the appointment of Alan Irvine as first-team coach. A manager in his own right at this level, and a calming influence should Neil begin to doubt himself at any point in the coming season.

Transfer Business

Relatively quiet. The positive of which means Wes Hoolahan, among other players who are arguably of Premier League quality, remains.

In fact, the only real departures from Norwich’s squad are Gary O’Neil, who joins Bristol City, and Nathan Redmond, who was always likely to leave having impressed in the top flight last season and Southampton seems the perfect place for him.

The negative of being relatively quiet, however, is obviously that few additions have been made. Just the two at the time of writing, as exciting winger Sergi Canos arrives from Liverpool on a permanent basis having impressed on loan at Brentford last season, while Northern Ireland international goalkeeper Michael McGovern joins on a free from Hamilton to compete with John Ruddy and Declan Rudd for the place between the sticks.

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But all frustration that exists over a lack of new additions will be quickly addressed should the link with Ross McCormack ultimately result in the Scottish striker joining the club. The Fulham forward one of the best strikers in the division, and would give the Canaries an edge in the battle for promotion.

The Squad

Few new additions as such, but Norwich’s squad is bolstered by the return of a number of young players who impressed in the Football League last season.

The main trio being James Maddison, Jacob Murphy, and Josh Murphy. Playmaker Maddison bought from Coventry City in the winter but allowed to finish his season there, winger Jacob Murphy also enjoying a productive spell with the Sky Blues, and wide man Josh Murphy a shining light in a tough season for MK Dons. Unlikely to be room for all three, but they’re certainly nice options to have.

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Particularly given that it’s in attacking midfield positions where the Norwich players most likely to attract interest and potentially depart before the end of August exist. Not only covering for the long-term injury suffered by Matt Jarvis, but a calming influence should rumours regarding Hoolahan and Robbie Brady continue.

One player that seemingly won’t be departing, despite having impressed in the Premier League, is January signing Timm Klose. The Swiss international centre-back committing himself to the Canaries, and intent on helping them get back into the Premier League.

The place alongside him likely to be taken by either skipper Russell Martin or Sebastien Bassong, though you could make an argument for better quality being required in reserve at centre-back. The scarcely used Ryan Bennett, the past it Michael Turner, and youngster Harry Toffolo the other options available to Neil.

No such question marks at right-back, where Steven Whittaker and Martin provide cover to Ivo Pinto, another January signing who has committed himself to the club, while Brady is equally as effective at left-back as in a more attacking position, providing an alternative to Martin Olsson.

And there an abundance of options to choose from for the deeper midfield roles. A slight surprise that Youssouf Mulumbu and Alexander Tettey have not been linked with moves away, Jonny Howson recovering from injury in time to partake in most of pre-season, and even Tony Andreu and Vadis Odjidji-Ofoe, used sparingly since arriving at Norwich with Neil from Hamilton, could be useful in this division.

In more advanced midfield roles, in addition to Brady, Hoolahan, and the trio of returning youngsters, there’s Graham Dorrans, new signing Canos, and attacking midfielder-cum-forward Steven Naismith. The majority of which are versatile enough to play both centrally and out wide. Another area of Norwich’s squad with plenty of options.

While in attack, as the hunt for McCormack continues, Ricky van Wolfswinkel may be given another opportunity with the Canaries. The Dutchman, who spent last season on loan at Real Betis, has played in pre-season friendlies and could provide competition to Cameron Jerome and possibly Naismth.

Whether it be McCormack or not, however, there is a need for another out-and-out striker in Norwich’s squad. Acquire someone to fulfil that role, in addition to another centre-back, and they appear well set to challenge for another immediate return to the top flight.

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Promotion followed by relegation once again. What is it that’s preventing you from becoming a stable Premier League club?

I believe we are aren’t a million miles away from being a stable Premier League club. We were a tad unfortunate to go down last season, losing key games against relegation rivals, dropping points softly and, a point we will never let go, missing Timm Klose for vital games. We made the mistake of failing to invest in the summer transfer window last season, sticking with too many players who weren’t good enough in 13/14. The board appeared reluctant to back the manager due to his inexperience. This led to AN tinkering with tactics too often due to a lack of strength in depth in the squad. If we were to go up again, the manager would need to be backed sufficiently to bring in both quality and quantity.

Does Alex Neil maintain the support of the fans, or is there an unhealthy amount of pressure on the boss going into the new season following relegation?

For the most part, Alex Neil has the backing of the fans. Some fans are still unconvinced by his inexperience and ‘lack of contacts’ in the market, but the majority do not blame him for relegation. He is a young manager, expected to learn from his personal mistakes of last season. As far as I’m concerned, Alex took us from a deadcert midtable Championship side when he arrived to an unlikely promotion story in just half a season. Why shouldn’t he be given the chance to replicate his work this season? Pressure is undoubtedly big on Alex, but that’s football for you – I’m sure he knew it would be when he took the job on.

“He is a young manager, expected to learn from his personal mistakes of last season”

You’ve been relatively quiet in the transfer market, but that does mean that you’ve kept a hold of some players that are arguably Premier League standard. Is your squad good enough as it is?

I’d say we would benefit from a few additions, but we have players who are more than capable at this level. We have been strongly linked with Ross Mccormack of late and he has a great record at this level. We saw from Burnley and Boro last season that splashing the cash on a goalscorer (Gray and Rhodes respectively) can make a world of difference. There’s a possibility we may even bring in another striker depending on our plans for van Wolfswinkel and Lafferty. Other than that, I’d like to see us bring in a central midfielder as we are short in that department and, if we were to lose Brady, possibly look into signing another winger.

Will some of your younger players, particularly the Murphy twins, be given an opportunity this season?

We’ve been excited about the Murphy twins since 2013 after the youth cup success, so there’s very much a feeling of ‘it’s now or never’ surrounding them for the upcoming season. With Redmond’s departure and speculation surrounding Brady, I feel that this is the right time to implement them both. Jacob’s record at L1 level last season was impressive, Josh was extremely popular with the MK Dons fans and both have impressed during preseason. I have had high hopes for these boys for some time and believe they will play a big role for us next season. Other prospects we could see more of in the coming season include ex Coventry lad James Maddison, versatile defender Harry Toffolo and striker Carlton Morris, all of whom have had successful spells away from the club in the last couple of seasons.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

As always, the Championship looks competitive. I think we are a worthy top six side – without getting too optimistic, we can challenge for automatic promotion. I look at Derby, Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday as the big challengers right now, but there’s a lot of business to be done yet.

Summary

It’s not really as if last season’s relegation has rippled the club apart. Will be there or thereabouts. 4th


Nottingham Forest

You know that list of clubs that are probably going to be spending the next few months attempting not to become this season’s answer to Charlton Athletic? Well, Nottingham Forest’s name is probably on it.

In fact, they’ve been flirting with the idea of imploding under the largely unpopular ownership of Fawaz Al-Hasawi for several seasons. The trigger-happy Kuwaiti in the process of selling to a Greek consortium, led by Olympiacos owner Evnagelos Marinakis, but instability and detachment instilled at Forest over the course of the previous four campaigns.egergeherhse ers her

Last season’s 16th place finish, featuring many dire displays under Dougie Freedman and not helped by a transfer embargo the club is finally moving out of, only encouraging a mood of apathy and disappointment.

While frustration and uncertainty was born out of the fact Freedman, who was dismissed in March and replaced on a caretaker basis by Paul Williams, was not replaced until the final week of June by a relative unknown in this country. Frenchman Philippe Montanier, most recently the boss at Rennes and also boasting Real Sociedad on his CV, at least has relatively decent top flight pedigree abroad, but recent appointments of managers in the Championship without English experience have produced mixed results.

And then there’s the issue, which will undoubtedly be resolved but is rather reflective of a club being run in quite a shambolic way, of the City Ground’s capacity being reduced to nil on safety grounds a month before the season’s start. The club having no safety certificate holder in time for the annual review of the stadium.

It all seems a bit, well, unsafe at the City Ground.

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The Head Coach – Philippe Montanier

A promise that “at all costs” Forest will be promoted within two years is certainly nice to hear, but is that really a realistic claim from the club’s new boss?

Montanier, attracted to the City Ground by the club’s history, at least aware that achieving promotion in his first season in charge is unrealistic. Far too much to do in such a short space of time to make this club ready to develop towards becoming anything like the one that the Frenchman would have seen in Europe in his youth.

So the task that Montanier has set himself this season, given his promotion ambitions, is to set a base from which to build. To gel together something of a disorientated squad, to provide reasons for encouragement among disillusioned supporters, and prevent a repeat of previous seasons where Forest have slumped to a dour bottom half finish.

And that to be done irrespective of uncertainty above, as Al-Hasawi looks to sell up. Despite being appointed by the current owner, Montanier becoming the eighth boss under this regime, there’s a greater chance of him being given time to develop a side if not being overseen by a trigger-happy chairman.

The most pressing question, however, is whether Montanier can adapt to management in the Championship. A decent record in the Spanish and French top flights, but will he prove to be more Carlos Carvalhal or Guy Luzon?

With uncertainty and disillusionment at the City Ground, and this appointment a relative gamble, the 51-year-old head coach must make a strong impression, or the promise of promotion in two years will mean next to nothing.

Transfer Business

Regardless of anything else, signing one the Championship’s most dependable goalkeepers without paying a fee is a fantastic bit of work by Forest.

Stephen Henderson, in his performances between the sticks and his shows of character away from the pitch, earning a great deal of respect from Charlton supporters. His shot-stopping abilities marvellous, and quite the leader.

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A considerably greater risk taken in the other signings that have been made by Montanier, despite the restrictions imposed by a transfer embargo no longer in place.

The defence strengthened with the arrival of three players without any experience of English football to their name. Former Poland international centre-back Damien Perquis joins from Toronto FC, current Finland international Thomas Lam, who can play in defence or midfield, signs from Dutch side PEC Zwolle, and young Portuguese right-back Hildeberto Pereira, yet to make a first-team appearance, will spend the season on loan at the City Ground from Benfica. Some promise among the trio, but questions over whether they will adapt to Championship football.

While a fifth addition, Forward Apostolos Vellios, returns to England with something of a point to prove. The 6’4 Greece international, who scored 11 times in 27 game for Superleague side Iraklis last season to work his way into his country’s squad, failed to make an impression with Everton, while his record away from Greece in general isn’t the best.

Elsewhere, a trio of first team players have been allowed to depart, with none of them having that great of an impact last season. Chris Burke and Robert Tesche both spent time out on loan, while Kelvin Wilson managed just 14 games and didn’t quite live up to the expectations, a consequence of injury and poor form, that many Forest supporters had when he returned to the club from Celtic in 2013.

The Squad

There only once place to start with regards to Nottingham Forest’s squad, and that is with the return to fitness of Britt Assombalonga.

The prolific forward, who made four appearances towards the end of last having missed over a year through injury, potentially the difference between Forest floating aimlessly around the bottom half and being able to keep half an eye on the top six.

Particularly when the rest of Forest’s squad is a tad underwhelming. A few gems here and there, but largely mediocre.

It probably beneficial, irrespective of the sense of unknown with regards to the additions, that Forest’s backline has been given a bit of a shake-up. Though Matt Mills, having had an indifferent time at Bolton, enjoyed a very positive first season with his new club, Jack Hobbs and Michael Mancienne are two centre-backs that, despite being relatively dependable Championship performers, have never really lived up to potential or expectations.

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The same can be said about Danny Fox, but maybe not the dependable performer part. With Daniel Pinillos still some weeks away from recovering from a knee ligament injury, and adored captain Chris Cohen seemingly putting his injury struggles behind but more much more effective in the centre of midfield, another left-back wouldn’t go amiss. New signing Pereira providing cover for Eric Lichaj at right-back.

Some useful players for Montanier to utilise in the centre of midfield in addition to Cohen, with Henri Lansbury possessing the creative quality to rival any playmaker in this division and Ben Osborn’s ability and potential acknowledged as he won the Football League’s Young Player of the Month away for January.

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Beyond that is another promising youngster in Jorge Grant, and the experienced David Vaughan, who was an unused member of Wales’ Euro 2016 squad and is very much in the “can still do a job” stage of his career.

However, it is looking increasingly likely that Andy Reid, a player I adored during his time at Charlton and have appreciated ever since, will effectively retire and be retained by the club as a coach. I’m ore than happy to donate some body parts to keep the brilliant bastard ticking over.

Out wide, it seems Jamie Paterson will get another go having impressed on loan at Huddersfield last season, providing competition to promising youngster Oliver Burke, and Jamie Ward, a man capable of frustrating as much as he is putting in match-winning performances. Another wide man wouldn’t go amiss, just for the sake of depth.

And, despite Assombalonga’s return another forward would be handy. Another alternative required in addition to Vellios and Dexter Blackstock, who fulfils a very similar role to the summer signing.

The need for a forward especially true given that Matty Fryatt is yet to recover from an injury that kept him out for the entirety of last season, Lars Veldwijk, having returned from a loan spell in his native Netherlands, is likely to depart, and youngster Tyler Walker is yet to show any genuine signs that he’s ready for the Championship.

Quality in parts, underwhelming in others. Quite a bit more needed if Forest want to be competitive this season.

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The operation that is Nottingham Forest Football Club has never ceased to be quite the messy one under Fawaz Al-Hasawi’s ownership. The prospect of him selling up an exciting one that prevents an amount of apathy from growing, or simply creating more uncertainty?

A bit of both I’d say. Whilst Fawaz’ heart has always been in the right place, it’s been poor decision after poor decision and he just can’t get things right on his own. Marinakis, when the takeover is finally confirmed, brings with him a wealth of experience of running a football club in Europe – he has consistently seen his Olympiakos side win titles in Greece and compete amongst the best in the game on the European stage, so he must know what he’s doing. There are slight concerns over his alleged involvement in criminal activity, but hopefully nothing comes of that and everything can be finalised in the near future so we can fully focus on matters on the pitch for a change.

Uncertainty, too, in the appointment of new manager Philippe Montanier. A decent record in Europe as a boss, but it a rare occurrence that a foreign manager finds the Championship an easy league to adapt to. How do you feel about his appointment?

I’m quite optimistic and I think the vast majority of Forest supporters are too. There are a few clubs who have reaped the rewards of giving a foreign manager a chance, and I’m positive we can be one of them. He comes across as a very cool, calm and collected individual in his interviews. He seems to know exactly what he wants from his players and isn’t afraid to give youth a chance. Antoine Griezmann is one who has offered him praise following their time at Real Sociedad together, so if he’s good enough for him, he’s good enough for us. Let’s just hope he turns out to be more of an Aitor Karanka or Carlos Carvalhal rather than a Felix Magath.

Montanier has stated that his ambition is to get Forest promoted in two seasons. How important is it that, unlike previous Forest bosses, he’s given time to implement his strategy and ideas? 

It’s vital. One of Fawaz’ biggest mistakes as owner has been chopping and changing far too often and it’s clear to see that if we’re to be successful, it has to stop. I’m hopeful that with his experience, Marinakis will have the patience required to give a manager a real go to see the job through, create an identity at our football club and finally get us playing “the Forest way” once again.

Something of a gamble taken, Stephen Henderson aside, in the signings you’ve made. Excited by their potential, or concerned that they’ll struggle to acclimatise to the Championship?

There is a particular element of caution, as you just never know what to expect from international Forest signings. Last season, the likes of Nelson Oliveira, Dani Pinillos and Bojan Jokic were particularly impressive, whereas in previous years the likes of Rafik Djebbour, Djamel Abdoun and Lars Veldwijk have proven you can’t judge the quality of a player purely on YouTube videos. However, I trust Montanier and our director of football Pedro Pereira’s judgement, and feel that so long as we keep a core of players with vast experience of the English game, which it seems we are, then we’ll be fine.

Horribly clichéd, but the return of Britt Assombalonga from injury is effectively a new signing. What sort of difference would he have made last season, and what sort of difference can he make in this one?

He was terribly missed. Whilst we were generally solid at the back under Freedman, goal scoring was our biggest problem and, whilst Oliveira got his fair share, he just wasn’t clinical enough in order for us to mount a play-off push. Britt just brings a certain energy that can’t be matched – both on the pitch in front of goal and off it. If we can keep him fit and build his confidence, he’s definitely got the potential to finally become the 20+ goals a season striker we’ve been crying out for. He really can be the difference between mid-table mediocrity and a possible top six finish.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

You just never know with Forest. We’re one of those clubs that could either make the top six, or find ourselves scrapping to avoid the drop, but despite the last few disappointing years, there’s a fresh optimism on Trentside with this new-look Nottingham Forest set-up so I’m going to say a solid 9th place with a view to pushing on for promotion next year. As long as there are signs of progress, a decent style of play and a couple of wins over Derby, I don’t think there’ll be too many fans with complaints.

“As long as there are signs of progress, a decent style of play and a couple of wins over Derby, I don’t think there’ll be too many fans with complaints”

Summary

Al-Hasawi’s sale will hopefully have the club back on a stronger path, but gamble in appointing Montanier and uncertainty that still exists means caution is needed in this season. Wouldn’t rule out a top-half finish as a consequence of Assombalonga’s goals, but looks unlikely. 16th 

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Preston North End

Pre-season predictions that had newly-promoted Preston North End to be relegated were few and far between, but even fewer expected Simon Grayson’s side to work their way into the top half of the Championship.PNE_FC

For though the structure, organisation and hard-to-beat nature of this North End unit was something most were aware of, the expectation was that it would be just enough for them to secure survival in their first season back in the second tier since 2010/11.

But this largely no thrills side, playing a style of football that would not have pleased the purists and petty hipsters, found a habit of frustrating opponents and winning games. A combination of defensive stubbornness and low-risk attacking play meant only 90 goals were scored in North End games, no side’s games featured fewer, but it bloody well worked.

Only twice did Preston win by two or more goals, and one of those was against Charlton so it doesn’t really count, meaning they recorded 13 victories by a single-goal margin. An impressive 14 clean sheets were kept, with Middlesbrough, Hull, and Burnley all shut out, and no side outside the top six conceded fewer than their 45. Their 11th place finish no fluke, but a deserved reward for a well-organised approach.

The question, of course, is whether such an approach, one that relies on very fine margins, can gain similar rewards for a second consecutive season. Whether teams will have figured out how to overcome Preston’s stubborn resistance. Whether other clubs’ improvement will see the Lilywhites overwhelmed, as they hunt around for clever deals in the transfer market.

At the very least, such an overachievement makes it incredibly difficult for Grayson’s side to improve upon last season. They likelihood being that this campaign will feature more time spent looking over shoulders than optimistically peering up the table.

But that isn’t to say an implosion is likely, and relegation even less so. This tight and determined Preston unit, overseen by a stubborn manager, will prove competitive opposition once again.

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The Manager – Simon Grayson

The theory that existed prior to last season that Grayson, for all his success in League One, wasn’t equipped to deal with the demands of the second tier has been rather impressively disproven. The positive of a top half finish with an unfancied side outweighing the negatives of sackings at Leeds and Huddersfield.

In fact, the 46-year-old boss, in organising a comparatively unspectacular group of players to the point that they were so difficult to breakdown that they could finish 11th, was arguably one of the managers of last season’s Championship. His side, play-off winners in the previous season, doing much more than simply avoiding relegation.

A manager seen as pretty conservative and a little dull has, consequently, earned himself relative cult hero status at Deepdale. Helped by his wonderful building of a cohesive unit.

But to repeat a similar feat this season, or even to remain a second tier side without so much as flirting with relegation, is going to require Grayson to show managerial qualities beyond those offered last season.

Some versatility and adaption probably required, with North End going to find it difficult to play the same resolute style they did in the previous campaign and hope to achieve similar results. Another side to their game needed.

Transfer Business

The somewhat unattractive football that Preston have been known to play has been nullified with the temporary signing of the most adorable dog in the Football League.

Simon Makienok, who failed to impress while with Charlton last season and struggled to impose himself on the division’s centre-backs despite being 6’7, might well frustrate supporters at Deepdale as he did at The Valley, but at least they’ll be exposed to his wonderful pet dog. The Dane, and his dog, have joined on loan from Palermo for the season.

And the theme of Makienok’s signing can also be found in a number of those acquired by North End this summer. Players that have frustrated at previous clubs, but can perform under the right circumstances.

Winger Ben Pringle failing to impress at Fulham, but a key performer over many years at Rotherham, while full-back Tommy Spurr arrives with plenty of Championship experience, but failed to hold down a starting position at Blackburn Rovers. A need for them to be loved and cared for, much like Makienok’s dog.

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Elsewhere, the club have re-signed a number of those that spent periods of last season on loan at Deepdale. Supporters happy to see Anders Lindegaard, who will face competition for the goalkeeper spot from fellow summer signing Chris Maxwell, and winger Callum Robinson return, but the decision to spend what would appear to be a rather large undisclosed fee to sign forward Eoin Doyle from Cardiff City a less popular decision.

The decision not to compete with Bristol City’s contract offer for Josh Brownhill, having impressed on loan at Barnsley last season, also one that supporters have questioned. Another chance deserved at Preston, but maybe not on the terms he was demanding.

At the very least, with the remaining outs, with the likes of Jamie Jones, Neil Kilkenny and Kyel Reid leaving the club, being a simple case of allowing players not good enough for the Championship to depart, the squad is not weaker than it was this time last year.

Whether it has been strengthened enough is another question.

The Squad

Preston’s preparations for the new season took an almighty blow with the news that dependable full-back Calum Woods would miss the entirety of the campaign with a serious knee injury.

A blow not only given how consistent a performer he is, but because it leaves North End quite short at right-back. Spurr can play there, though his main role will be to provide competition to Greg Cunningham for his left-back spot, and so another natural right-back is most definitely needed. Fleetwood’s Conor McLaughlin, a former Preston player, mentioned.

And you could probably make an argument for another centre-back being required, with Paul Huntington the only real competition for Bailey Wright and Tom Clarke, who form a steady pairing.

Better depth to be found in midfield, which is helped by the versatility among several of the options available. Paul Gallagher, Daniel Johnson and Pringle able to fulfil central and wide roles, and all bloody good performers at this level.

More traditional central options to be found in the shape of the experienced John Welsh, Ben Pearson, who impressed after arriving from Manchester United in January, and young Irishman Alan Browne, while Chris Humphrey and Robinson provide alternatives out wide.

While in attack, there is hope that Joe Garner and Jermaine Beckford, with the latter having been injured for much of last season, will be able to reignite the successful partnership the pair had in League One. Stevie May also returning from injury, with Makienok and Doyle providing depth.

The only real concern in terms of numbers, therefore, is in the lack of depth at the back.

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Fans View: Olly Dawes (@MonNightDawes)

A top half finish in your first season back in the Championship. How do you build on that?

It’s going to be very hard, considering we’re not spending much money in the transfer market. The other side of that coin is that we’ve kept almost all of the squad together so we’ll be hoping that continuity helps, whilst Jermaine Beckford’s return is a welcome boost too.

Simon Grayson’s reputation of playing negative and dull football probably prevents him from getting the wider appreciation he arguably deserves. How appreciated is he among Preston supporters?

He’s done a superb job with very little money to spend, so I think he’s very much appreciated here. The football isn’t great at times, but when you’ve had the likes of Darren Ferguson, Phil Brown and Graham Westley in charge beforehand, it’s nice just to win games, regardless of the style of football.

Regardless, is there a worry that he, and this Preston side, might be found out in their second season in the Championship? Will grinding out results work again?   

It’s definitely a worry, but with our limited budget, we don’t really have many other options. Grayson’s sides throughout his career have always been well-organised, so that won’t change this season. North End will keep scrapping and keep fighting with one of the lowest budgets in the division, and hope that it continues to bring results.

“North End will keep scrapping and keep fighting with one of the lowest budgets in the division”

Especially as you’re a little understocked on right-backs, how disruptive and damaging is Calum Woods’ season-ending injury?

It’s such a huge blow for us. Woods wasn’t all that impressive in League One, but he was one of our most consistent players last season, and was playing his best football since signing from Huddersfield. Add in that he could cover at centre back and left back, and it becomes clear just how much we’ll miss him. I’d expect Marnick Vermijl to return from Sheffield Wednesday, but he isn’t as versatile and certainly isn’t as solid defensively as Woods.

Your summer activity has, I would suggest, been okay without being impressive. A few questionable additions, a few tidy additions, and no particularly key players lost. Enough to make your squad competitive again, or does football even matter when you’ve been introduced to Simon Makienok’s dog?

I think solid but unspectacular is the right phrase for our business. We’ve re-signed a bunch of players we had on loan in Anders Lindegaard, Callum Robinson and Eoin Doyle, keeping the squad together, took a punt on Makienok and then added a couple of decent Championship players in Tommy Spurr and Ben Pringle. It’s been nothing exciting, and I’d still want some more pace going forward, but I understand the club’s budget. As for Makienok’s incredible dog, I could only dream of being introduced to it in person.

mak dog

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I don’t think we can realistically expect to match or better last season’s top-half finish. About 14th is where I’d peg us this season.

Summary

Unlikely to finish in the top half again, but should finish clear of trouble. Just. 20th 

f0DH9sne


Part Four will be out in the next few days. All information correct, or at least it should be, as of 27/07/2016. All photos my own, or marked for use. 

Chris Powell’s Flat Cap Championship Season Preview – Part Two

Part One


Bristol City

For Bristol City to cement their image as a developing and progressive club, the consequence of serious investment from owner Stephen Lansdown, there was a real need for them to avoid an immediate return to League One last season. egergreg

To suffer relegation in their first season back in the Championship since 2012/13 would not have created crisis, but there would be no foundation for the Ashton Gate ground improvements and the club’s strong ambitions to stand on.

Those foundations cracking somewhat midway through the campaign, as a run of torrid performances and just one win in 11 left the Robins in the bottom three and saw Steve Cotterill dismissed, but the base ultimately very sturdy come its conclusion.

Relegation not just comfortably avoided under Lee Johnson’s stewardship, with seven of his 16 games in charge won, but impressive and attractive football played to add another layer of opportunity to those foundations. Enough seen in those final weeks of last season to suggest that City can be a competitive force in a full campaign with Johnson in charge.

And with a summer that has seen the club break its record transfer fee to beat a host of other Championship clubs to the signature of Lee Tomlin, who performed so impressively on loan at Ashton Gate last season, the expectation cannot simply be to maintain their second tier status.

That image as a developing and progressive club most certainly cemented, but now it must be proved.

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The Head Coach – Lee Johnson

Ever since taking his first steps into management with Oldham Athletic three years ago, Johnson was always likely to end up in charge at Ashton Gate.

His 174 league appearances only playing a small part in his natural affiliation to the Robins, with the primary reason for it coming as a result of his father’s success as manager of the club. With a promotion to the Championship and a play-off final appearance, though one that ultimately ended in defeat, Gary Johnson’s cult hero status something that meant his son was bound to follow in his footsteps.

And though Johnson Jnr has some way to go before emulating his father’s success or status at Ashton Gate, there is no doubt the 35-year-old has made an impressive start to life as leader of the Robins.

The threat of relegation avoided, and avoided with a style of football played that has provided promise for the future. Defensive solidity, led by the impressive Aiden Flint and a return to 4-4-2 from Cotterill’s 3-5-2, allowing for a more threatening brand of attacking football, which was most certainly helped by the arrival of Tomlin.

So too has there been praise from within for the way that Johnson has begun to promote youth at Ashton Gate, with academy graduate Joe Bryan suggesting that fellow youngsters can now “see a clear pathway”.

The appointment of Johnson in general furthering the idea that City are a club with the potential to progress, and he certainly a boss that can oversee that.

Transfer Business

The air of positivity created by Johnson and his side towards the end of last season has been marvellously maintained by the club’s efforts in the transfer market. A real buzz among supporters as a consequence.

The most obvious reason for that being the signing of Lee Tomlin, returning to the club after being the catalyst for their comfortable move away from the relegation zone during his loan spell last season. Other Championship clubs apparently interested, but £3m spent to lure the skillful playmaker back to Ashton Gate.

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The signing of the more conservative midfielder Gary O’Neil, arriving on a free following his release by Norwich, seemingly as important. Experience, leadership and intelligence added to what is a young and expansive side. His influence certainly useful.

Having signed a 33-year-old, City’s focus on being a developing club full of promise was reaffirmed by the arrivals of 20-year-old Josh Brownhill, who joins from Preston having impressed on loan at Barnsley last season, and 21-year-old Callum O’Dowda, who fits perfectly into Johnson’s system having impressed in an exciting Oxford United side.

Oh, and they’ve signed an Icelandic centre-back from Juventus, which is fun. Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson, who is 23 and has spent the previous two seasons on loan at Serie B club Cesena, seen as one that the Robins can develop.

The Squad

Those signings building on a strong group already in place, which showed its potential on several occasions last season.

Richard O’Donnell making the goalkeeper jersey his own after arriving from Wigan in January, with Frank Fielding providing a more than useful alternative.

And O’Donnell will stand behind the only position where City are arguably weaker than they were last season. Nathan Baker and Aden Flint’s partnership at the back became formidable towards the end of the season as a four-at-the-back formation was more consistently used, but the former has returned to Aston Villa after his loan spell ended. Derby loanee Alex Pearce also heading back to his parent club, meaning youngster Zak Vyner, who made four appearances last season, and new signing Magnusson, may need to step up.

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Depth in the full-back positions, though, with Mark Little and Luke Ayling, who can fill in at centre-back if required, on the right, and Scott Golbourne and Derrick Williams on the left. Ayling and Golbourne, having impressed since his January return to the club, the favourites to be given the starting roles.

Midfield options equally impressive, with the new additions needing to push ahead of Korey Smith, Bobby Reid and Marlon Park for a starting role in the centre, while Luke Freeman and Joe Bryan very handy wingers. Tomlin likely to play between the midfield and attack, but is versatile enough to play in a fixed position if needed.

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And up top, there’s the goals of Jonathan Kodjia, who scored 20 in his first season in English football. Kieran Agard providing support, and Aaron Wilbraham, who will probably have to be used sparingly at 36, provides a very handy alternative.

Quite a talented side, with plenty of potential.15

Fans View: Jordana Vivian (@jordanavivian_)

Having consolidated your position in the Championship last season, has your summer activity proven you are a club that wants to progress beyond celebrating survival in the second tier?

Considering our summer last season consisted of only signing one permanent player mid way through July, this season has already exceeded that. Signing a mixed range of experienced and young up and coming players has bolstered the squad significantly, and I feel the aim this season is for more of a top half finish, rather than a survival battle.
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Among that activity was the permanent signing of Lee Tomlin. How important is it to have him back at the club after impressing last season?

After playing Peterborough a few years ago and seeing Tomlin get sent off for pushing Greg Cunningham to the ground, he had always been seen as a bit of a villain around Ashton Gate. That however changed massively last season and we all saw a side of him that we hadn’t seen of anyone in years. After he patted the club badge at the end of last season, everyone’s hopes were pinned on him signing permanently which he eventually did, and his experience and class can only be a vital factor for our campaign next season.

Lee Johnson has made a marvellous start to life as City boss. What can he achieve with this club?

It’s fair to say that many were underwhelmed by the appointment, however they were proved wrong by some of the football we’ve already seen. The style, quickness and quality has already improved, with also many thanks to assistant John Pemberton, and his activeness in the transfer window has been a breath of fresh air. I fully believe he’s the man to take us forward and echo or even go beyond what his dad Gary did for us.

“Many were underwhelmed by the appointment, however they were proved wrong by some of the football we’ve already seen”

Does this season, given the investments made and money spent, need to include a push for the play-offs, or is it more realistic to demand small steps over a number of seasons?

Expectations are a lot higher than last season, but although play offs may still be just out of reach, a top half finish is definitely realistic and an aim. If Johnson keeps things going and has a solid season next year, a play off push could definitely be on the cards in future.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

10th. 

Summary

Ambition doesn’t always mean certain success, but there’s a chance it might do in this scenario. 9th

10


Burton Albion

The rise of Burton Albion has put many of my efforts on Football Manager, which I happen to be quite proud of, to shame. In a more realistic setting, where financial restraints and status play more decisive roles, the Brewers have incredibly climbed from non-league football to the Championship in eight seasons. fsdrgrsherhers

And unlike with some clubs who have risen up the pyramid at a similar pace, there can be no accusation that Burton have bought their success. The investment of long-standing chairman and local lad Ben Robinson, who has had a connection with the club for over 40 years, sustained and sensible, reaffirming the rather fairy tale nature of this rise.

At the very least, their efforts to achieve promotion from League One last season, with many tipping their relatively weak squad to struggle in the third tier, were quite remarkable. A second successive promotion, and a second successive promotion that was not derailed by a manager doing a marvellous job departing for a Championship club during the campaign. Nigel Clough completing the job that had been started by Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink in getting the Brewers over the line and into the Championship.

In fact, it is consistent clever managerial appointments that have been the backbone of this climb up the divisions. Clough the man that oversaw Burton’s rise through the non-league structure before returning in December, Paul Peschisolido consolidating in League Two when that appeared a testing challenge, and Gary Rowett pushing the club towards League One.

But there is a fear, as Burton prepare for their first season in the Championship, that the managerial expertise of Clough alone will not be enough to make one of the smallest clubs to ever feature in the second tier competitive.

They have, of course, exceeded expectations and done more than simply compete when they were expected to be overwhelmed in the past, but avoiding relegation would arguably be a greater single achievement than anything managed previously.

The Manager – Nigel Clough

It felt fitting that the man who began Burton’s climb up the divisions and towards the Championship was able to complete it. Clough in charge for the final 20 games of last season, having led the Brewers 709 times previously, and doing just enough to get the Brewers over the line on goal difference.

The end to season a little unconvincing and nervy, with just two wins from the final nine games, but that taking nothing away from an incredible overall achievement, and the affection supporters of the Pirelli Stadium club feel towards Clough.

But while that affection remains unrelenting, there has to be a question from the outside as to whether Burton are best placed to compete in the Championship with Clough in charge. His understanding of the club definitely a bonus, but his record in the Championship previously with Derby County is a little underwhelming.

Nothing to prove to the Pirelli Stadium faithful, but maybe something to prove to himself. That he can manage a team in this division, especially one with a squad that requires managerial advantage to be able to survive.

Transfer Business

The chances of Burton competing with other Championship sides in the transfer market even less likely than competing with other Championship sides on the pitch, so the quality of their additions need to be considered in the context of that.

So while the signings made by the Brewers this summer might be a little questionable had they been made by other second tier clubs, that they largely come with experience and some previous evidence of performing at this level is enough to make them decent recruits for Clough’s side. At the very least, they approve it.

Centre-back Ben Turner frozen out by Cardiff City in recent seasons, but has both Premier League and Championship experience. Competition for the signature of Kyle McFadzean came from League One Sheffield United, but the defender did a decent job for MK Dons last season. Chris O’Grady, who joins on loan from Brighton, has a poor goal-scoring record, but can provide a physical presence up top.

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The alternative being 23-year-old midfielder Jackson Irvine, who arrives from Ross County with four Australia caps to his name. A partnership with skipper John Mousinho likely, or possibly new addition Lee Williamson, with Burton thankfully maintaining the majority of their squad from the previous campaign.

A failure to retain Mark Duffy, having been on loan at the Pirelli for the duration of last season, the only real disappointment, though Lloyd Dyer will replace him, with Shane Cansdell-Sherriff, Anthony O’Connor and Robbie Weir players who played some sort of role in promotion but have been allowed to depart the club.

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But is that improvement enough to make this squad competitive in the Championship? It would appear they’re still going to be relying on collective strength, some outrageous fight, and a bit of good fortune.

The Squad

If Burton are to make some sort of impression in the Championship, or at least avoid relegation, then utilising the cohesion and collective strength of the group that brought success last season will prove crucial.

A group that, even in League One, was stronger than the sum of its collective parts. The Brewers not exactly bursting at the seams with quality players.

Jon McLaughlin a reliable performer in goal, but will be playing in the Championship for the first time, while reserve goalkeeper Stephen Bywater is yet to make an appearance having been signed from the Kerala Blaster, who play in the Roger Johnson-approved Indian Super League, in January.

McLaughlin is likely to stand in front of a new-look back four irrespective of the fact that the Brewers conceded just 37 times in the league last season. Phil Edwards, an ever-present at right-back, likely to keep his place, but Turner and McFadzean look set to form Burton’s centre-back partnership, with new signing Ryan Delaney battling it out with Damien McCroy for the left-back spot. Tom Flanagan and Tom Naylor, who featured heavily in League One, alternative defensive options.

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As is skipper John Mousinho, but the signings of Turner and McFadzean means he’ll probably spend most of his time in the centre of midfield, with Irvine or Williamson likely to fill the void left by Weir’s departure. Callum Reilly, Calum Butcher and Matt Palmer, who impressed after returning from a loan spell at Oldham, the other central options.

Slightly less flexibility out wide, however, with the failure to re-sign Duffy more acutely felt irrespective of Dyer’s arrival. The signing of O’Grady will mean he’ll probably partner Stuart Beavon in attack, with Lucas Akins and Marcus Harness, whose appearances were limited last season but did sign a new contract in the summer, competing with Dyer.

Beyond that, though, there is very little in the forward positions. A real need to recruit before the season begins.

Fans View: Dan Tate (@_DanTate)

So, erm, how on earth do Burton Albion find themselves in the Championship? It’s an incredible rise.

I am as surprised as anybody! From watching my team struggle for years in League Two to then suddenly go on a rise like this is incredible. The majority of the credit has to go to Gary Rowett. After the sacking of Paul Peschisolido, Gary brought the togetherness of the whole squad and club together and had a plan. Ever since he took charge our main asset has been our defence and is our focal point, we scraped 1-0 wins a lot, not the best football to watch but got results.

We got to the play-off final with Gary and lost 1-0. I wasn’t too Disappointed as it provided confidence for the seasons to come.

The season after Jimmy (Floyd Hasselbaink) took over and we were all sceptical because of his managerial inexperience. However he carried on the pattern of winning. Promotion to League One was achieved comfortable, and may were expecting a mid-table finish in our first season in that division.

But after another incredible start to the season the fans believed once again. And though many were 50/50 on Nigel Clough coming in after Jimmy departed, I was happy to see him back where he belongs. After a successful first spell with us years ago I was confident he could get us over the line, which he did.

“From watching my team struggle for years in League Two to then suddenly go on a rise like this is incredible”

And how on earth do a club like Burton Albion hope to survive in the Championship?

To survive we need to work as a team, and attract hard working players. And of course Clough has great experience at Championship level so he knows the ins and outs of this league which will be vital to help keep us safe.

Nigel Clough wasn’t particularly successful at Derby County or Sheffield United, but has hero status at Burton. Do his efforts for the club mean he warrants a full season in charge regardless of whether he struggles, or will tough decisions need to be made if results aren’t achieved?

It’s hard to say. Ben Robinson has a great relationship with Nigel and he puts all his trust in him so it will be interesting if results don’t go well what will happen. Clough gets accused of not having a Plan B in games if things go wrong, which was seen a few times last season. However I have my faith in Clough and hope he can see out all the season regardless of what happens.

Your ability to compete in the transfer market is obviously limited, but the signings made so far and the ones that appear to be on the horizon seem to be of reasonable quality, with some experience added to the squad. How would you assess your summer activity?

I am impressed with the signings made so far. We have brought in a lot of experience at Championship level with the likes of Chris O’ Grady, Lee Williamson, Lloyd Dyer and Ben Turner. These players will definitely benefit the more inexperienced players and younger players and hopefully they all gel well together to be successful. I would like to see Clough bring in a more natural goalscorer, someone like Adam Le fondre for example, guaranteed goals wherever he has been at.

Regardless of who is signed, is your greatest strength the cohesion and the determination to defy the odds of what is already at the club?

Most definitely, all the players work for each other and it’s great to see. You look at Leicester last season and Iceland in the Euros, both exceeded expectations with a similar sort of mentality and I hope we can take inspiration from that.

Finally, where will you finish this season?

I think with the signings we’ve made so far, there’s enough quality to stay up. 20th

Summary

Would not at all be surprised if they manage to prove their worth in the division, having proved everyone wrong in the previous two seasons, but it appears a tough ask. 24th

3667002_45ad6bda


Cardiff City

Possibly the best summation of Cardiff City’s 2015/16 season is the fact that they managed to finish in eighth despite winning back-to-back league games only once after September. A constant flirtation with the idea of being competent, but consistency lacking. Cardiff_City_Crest_2015

Middlesbrough, Brighton and Derby beaten, but points dropped against Charlton, MK Dons and Rotherham. A run of five wins in eight, which took in those back-to-back victories, leaving the Bluebirds a place and two points from the top six with seven to play, but just one further victory meaning they were ultimately two places and six points behind. It, as has been the case post their relegation from the Premier League, not quite clicking at the Cardiff City Stadium.

The reign of Russell Slade, therefore, not necessarily a complete failure, but his inability to make his side more ruthless and his overall style of football meaning most Cardiff supporters were never truly won over. No tears shed as the boss was first moved to a backroom position, before heading off to manage Charlton.

Like Slade’s reign itself, however, the conclusion of it hasn’t quite delivered what supporters were hoping for. A conclusion wanted, yes, but so too was a managerial appointment to provide genuine excitement and hope for the coming season. That could deliver where Slade could not.

The appointment of Paul Trollope, therefore, not what most had in mind. An appointment from within of a man who has not led a club since 2010, and is seen by many as a way of the ever unpopular Vincent Tan once again cutting corners in his running of the club.

A reputation of sorts gained from being on Chris Coleman’s Wales coaching staff, but certainly not the sort of appointment that will reconnect apathetic fans, and one that doesn’t appear to provide the Bluebirds with the improvement they require to make a season-long and consistent challenge for the top six.

The only consistencies at Cardiff seems to be frustration and disappointment. A whole heap of pressure on Trollope, Tan and the club to change that.

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The Head Coach – Paul Trollope

It’s quite an odd situation that the most promising aspect of Trollope’s chances of succeeding as head coach of Cardiff has also created a degree of frustration.

For the 44-year-old has spent a large part of his summer concentrating not on improving the Bluebirds and their squad, but as a key and respected member of Wales’ coaching staff. Obviously not an opportunity Trollope was likely to turn away, nor should he have, but you can certainly appreciate why frustration existed.

His importance within the Welsh camp noted, and the experience gained from helping to take them to the semi-finals of the European Championships unmatchable, but the distraction from his duties with Cardiff a little concerning ahead of a season in which there is a desperate to hit the ground running.

A need to settle the uncertainty and doubt over appointing a boss that, though has that positive experience with Wales to call upon, has not led a club on his own since 2010, and was part of Slade’s indifferent reign.

In fact, in saying that “the target is the play-offs and hopefully promotion”, even Trollope himself is aware of the pressure he is under.

Pressure extended by Tan’s comments that “an attractive style of football that Cardiff City fans love” will be played and that there will be a “return to the Premier League” with Trollope in charge.

And, arguably most importantly, there is pressure provided from supporters who need to see an improvement upon the efforts of the man Trollope worked under last season, and for what appears a rather questionable appointment to pay off.

A hope that that time spent with Wales this summer will have provided a positive impact on his managerial ability, rather than left Trollope with too much to do in too little time to make the Bluebirds a competitive force this season.

Transfer Business

Cardiff’s business has been a touch slow, especially considering the summer began with something of a clear out of underperformers on high wages.

Kenwyne Jones, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Al Jazira and has since new joined new MLS franchise Atlanta United, Ben Turner, snapped up by Burton, and Filip Kiss among those to be released, while a seven figure sum has apparently been received in order for flop Eoin Doyle to join Preston permanently.

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Scott Malone, the left-back who has had an indifferent time at the Cardiff City Stadium, also departing to Fulham in a swap deal that sees Jazz Richards move the other way. The full-back someone that Trollope will be aware of, given that he’s been a part of the Wales set-up.

Though he is trumped in the most exciting signing stakes by the arrival of Benin forward Frederic Gounongbe from Belgian side Westerlo. The 6’3 28-year-old score 22 times in 45 games for his former club, and there’s hope his physical presence will mean adapting to the Championship shouldn’t prove too difficult.

Elsewhere, the permanent signings of Danish forward Kenneth Zohore (KV Kortrijk) and Dutch winger Lex Immers (Feyenoord) has been celebrated after they both impressed on loan with the Bluebirds in the second half of last season.

Otherwise, however, it has been something of a quiet summer on the recruitment front for Cardiff.

The Squad

A positive of continuity is that Trollope will already be aware of the strengths and weakness of the players available to him, and have an early indication of how to organise the group effectively.

A group that Trollope will know contains a respectable amount of quality, but lacks a certain amount of depth.

David Marshall continuing between the sticks, despite several years of apparent interest from Premier League clubs, marshalling a back four that is likely to feature experienced and solid duo Bruno Ecuele Manga and Matthew Connolly in the centre, with Richards and former Manchester United left-back Fabio on either side.

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Sean Morrison and Lee Peltier among those providing alternatives, but maybe a little bit more depth at the back wouldn’t go amiss.

Certainly no issues with depth in midfield, where Aron Gunnarsson’s efforts for Iceland during the summer possibly make him a more serious contender for a starting place. Peter Whittingham, Joe Ralls, Kagisho Dikgacoi, Stuary O’Keefe and Tom Adeyemi, who appears to have been given another chance after a loan spell at Leeds United, the long list of options available.

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It’s unquestionably the centre of midfield where the side’s greatest depth can be found, with both options out wide and in attack reflecting those available at the back. Quality initially, but lacking a bit beyond that.

Craig Noone and Anthony Pilkington the sort of wide men whose inconsistencies frustrate, but can perform exceptionally at Championship level, while Immers can be deployed out wide despite favouring a more central position, but youngsters Matthew Kennedy and Kadeem Harris have failed to impress since arriving at the club with potential, with both having relatively unfruitful loan spells in League One last season.

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While in attack, there is a degree of uncertainty as to whether Adam le Fondre and Federico Macheda, both binned by Slade and sent out on loan last season, have a future at the club.

That they both appeared in something of a reserve XI at Forest Green Rovers in pre-season indicates they will need to prove themselves again if they are to remain at the club, but Gounongbe and Zohore being the only other strikers at the club suggests they might be needed.

Regardless, to be competitive this season, greater depth required.

Fans View: Daniel Lewis (@Daniel_Lewis92)

Paul Trollope. Really the appointment that will make up the gap between yourselves and the play-offs, or simply Vincent Tan doing things on the cheap?

When the announcement was initially made earlier this summer, I’d say that 90% of the fanbase was left completely underwhelmed by the decision. To replace Russell Slade (manager) and Paul Trollope (assistant) with Paul Trollope (manager) and Russell Slade (director of football) – near enough a straight reversal of positions – was quite simply bizarre. The other 10% were happy to just see a change of manager, no matter who took over from Slade.  

You can never read too much into pre-season results, of course, but I have already been completely won over by Trollope. He has given younger players hope of breaking into the team, having been completely overlooked during Slade’s near-two season tenure, while also experimenting with a couple of new formations – one of which being a 3-5-2 which worked so well for Wales at the Euros. Still too early to tell at this stage, then, but I believe a stronger play-off challenge is on the cards this time around. 

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The apathy that has existed among supporters towards the club for the majority of Tan’s reign still appears in place. Is the only way that goes is by him selling up?

Since reverting back to blue 18 months ago Tan, to his credit, has remained relatively quiet. That may suggest that he has lost all interest, but his purchasing of other clubs across the globe  FK Sarajevo in Bosnia, KV Kortrijk in Belgium and Los Angeles in the United States – suggests that he is now willing to take a more backseat role and let the professionals do the work on the field. 

As hated as Tan was for large parts of his spell in South Wales – and still is among many who have since stopped supporting the club – he has in the past received some unfair press. At this moment in time he is well on track to being respected by fans once again, though giving Trollope some further funds would of course further helps his cause! 

You appear relatively settled at the back and have decent quality in the centre of midfield, but do your attacking options concern you at all?

Taking a look around the Championship this season, even with the likes of Newcastle United and Aston Villa dropping down, I still believe Cardiff boast the best array of central defensive players. That is largely why Trollope has opted to go with the five-at-the-back system with two wing-backs, who are also well suited to playing high up the field. 

Central midfield, as you say, is also well equipped and no further strengthening is needed there. The fact that Icelandic hero Aron Gunnarsson is unlikely to play too much football over the coming months says a lot. Attacking options last term were scarce to say the least, not helped by the fact Adam Le Fondre and Federico Macheda – two decent players to have at this level – have failed to live up to the hype. Anthony Pilkington was shoved up top for the final third of the season and was rather hit-and-miss, so hopefully Trollope can bring in another new face to help in that department – our promotion hopes may depend on it. 

Overall, what is required for Cardiff to have a decent chance of breaking into the top six this season?

What’s that old adage about the table never lying? Well last season it did! How Cardiff were still in with a shout of promotion come the final fortnight of the campaign I do not know, but had we sneaked into the top six at Sheffield Wednesday’s expense it would have been daylight robbery. A vast improvement is therefore needed to ensure we do not go backwards, with the new man in charge hopefully being the right person to help take us up another level. 

A lot will depend on how the likes of Villa and Newcastle, as well as familiar faces in Derby, Wednesday and Brighton, fair over the next 10 months. Defensively City are ready to mount a challenge for a play-off place, but we must improve when it comes to attacking transitions – particularly at home to the ‘lesser’ teams which too often proved our undoing under Slade. 

Defensively City are ready to mount a challenge for a play-off place, but we must improve when it comes to attacking transitions”

And finally, where do you think you’ll finish this season?

Similar to last season in terms of position, I’ll go with 7th in Trollope’s first season in charge. Unlike Slade, though, I believe the style of football will prove to be far more entertaining which will hopefully help bring supporters back in their droves. Here’s to hoping! 

Summary

Very much unconvinced that appointing Trollope is the stroke of genius some, mostly called Vincent, believe it is, which isn’t to say they won’t be there or thereabouts again. 8th

1


Derby County

Heartbreaking and tiresome for Derby County supporters, a little bit hilarious for the rest of. Two play-off failures, with an impressive capitulation that meant a top six place was thrown away in between, making this season another season where promotion is the only acceptable outcome after those other seasons where promotion was the only acceptable outcome for England’s premier bottlers.Derby_County_crest.svg

But the Rams, always enjoying extended moments throughout seasons where they appear the Championship’s most impressive side before unexplainable losses of form occur, are in serious danger of losing that bottlers tag.

The appointment of Nigel Pearson, the man who laid the foundations from which Leicester City won the Premier League title, gives them genuine cause for optimism untainted by the fear that they’ll ultimately throw away a promising position.

For every dilly ding dilly dong, there were two reminders not to forget the impact that Pearson had on the Leicester side. A man respected by supporters of the champions, and English football in general.

As such, it already feels misplaced to belittle Derby as bottlers. With such a strong manager in charge, they’re creating greater fear than they have in previous season. A greater expectation that they will maintain their best form throughout the course of a season.

But so too can caution be found in the strength of their opponents. The Championship appearing very strong this year, or at least the top sides are an obvious class above the rest.

A need not only for Pearson to drill consistency into his side and make sure they avoid complacency, but also improve the Rams in order for them to keep pace with the best this division has to offer.

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The Manager – Nigel Pearson

With a former England manager and Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid assistant, Derby’s head coaches in their period of impressive bottling have not exactly lacked status or perceived talent.

But the appointment of Pearson gives the Rams arguably their strongest and most impressive boss in recent years. If only because he can lay claim to providing the assist for Leicester to become champions of England.

Part of that assist came from turning a team that had impressively capitulated in a play-off contest, the Foxes’ infamous defeat to Watford, into title winners the following season. The Leicester side that Pearson won the Championship with showing no signs of a hangover, and it performing mightily impressively throughout the 13/14 campaign.

That experience as vital in Derby’s situation that the respect the 52-year-old gained for keeping Leicester in the top flight two seasons ago.

A bonus for supporters of the Rams is that Pearson is joined by Chris Powell, a man well-liked around the iPro following his playing stint at the club, in the Derby dugout. The flat-cap wearer, with Championship experience as a boss at Charlton and Huddersfield, certainly appears a handy number two, and has worked with Pearson previously.

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Transfer Business

Maybe quite oddly, considering a new boss is in charge and the finances available, Derby haven’t been active at all in the transfer market. Nigel Pearson placing faith in the undoubted quality that already exists in the squad he has been handed.

In fact, Derby’s summer has consisted of allowing those no longer wanted to depart, and desperately attempting to hold onto those players of quality that are likely to lead a promotion push in the coming season.

Conor Sammon, Stephen Warnock and Raul Albentosa among those departing, while long-serving centre-back Jake Buxton has joined Wigan Athletic.

Elsehwhere, several bids from Burnley for Jeff Hendrick, who impressed for the Republic of Ireland during Euro 2016, have been rejected.

The Squad

Let’s be honest. This Derby County squad is one that should have worked its way out of the Championship long before this season. Its quality far exceeding many other sides in the division.

Their defence, marshalled by Scott Carson, is a very solid unit. Richard Keogh, despite calamity never being too far away, and Jason Shackell forming one of the best centre-back pairings in the division, while Cyrus Christie and Marcus Olsson are the sort of attacking full-backs that don’t completely ignore their defensive duties.

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The depth in midfield, both in terms of those that like to sit back and more creative individuals, is extraordinary. So much so that losing Hendrick would not be a complete disaster. The Irishman competing with Craig Bryson, Bradley Johnson, Jacob Butterfield, Will Hughes and George Thorne for the three available central positions.

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There’s also quality on the flanks, with Derby’s forward trio containing wingers that are very much direct and attack-minded. Johnny Russell and Tom Ince marvellous, with competition provided from Andreas Weimann, Nick Blackman and Abdoul Camara. All of that creativity making regular goalscorer Chris Martin’s life quite a simple one.

And from a personal point of view, there’s something quite lovely about Darren Bent being coached by Chris Powell. More lovely than the quality in the rest of their squad, obviously.

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Fans View – Grace Charlton (@graceecharlton)

Another season that promised promotion, but delivered a bit of a capitulation. What went wrong last time out?

Last season was a strange one. To start with the results we were getting weren’t a reflection of how well the team were playing, but as we got better results and more wins our performances looked less and less convincing.

After Christmas the performances became more of a problem when we struggled to beat League Two Hartlepool in the FA Cup, however no one would have suspected Clement’s departure even with this dip in form, so when it came in early February it was a shock to everyone.

With no one seemingly lined up for the job, it was down to Wassall to take charge for the remainder of the season and, along with the help of Redknapp, I think he surprised quite a few people with how well he managed a top 6 championship side, but it was never going to end in promotion for us.

The bloke that laid the foundations from which Leicester City won the Premier League is now in charge at Derby. Surely Nigel Pearson’s influence is going to prevent some sort of horrendous capitulation this year?

I’d like to think so, but after watching Derby fail to gain promotion for the past three seasons anything is possible.

With Pearson and Powell on the management team and the newly appointed Idiakez as part of the coaching staff, I’d like to think this season won’t be another disaster for Derby.

However, many people are judging Pearson based on what happened with him at Leicester and the expectations surrounding him and the club are high. Morris needs to give Pearson time to cement the foundations here like he did at Leicester, and the fans don’t need to be on his back if everything doesn’t go perfectly during his first season.

Patience is key with Derby, it will all come into place eventually.

“I’d like to think this season won’t be another disaster for Derby”

What is it that Pearson needs to do get this very talented Derby side to perform for the duration of the season? 

Consistency is the main problem with Derby. The performances aren’t consistent enough and neither are the results. We have a large squad and if he can find a team that can work well together and play well together then that’s all he’ll need to do. Last season we struggled with team selection as there are too many talented players for the positions available and it’s down to finding the right team without rushing into what’s seemingly best on paper and sticking to that.

You’ve not been active in the transfer market, but is there really a need to? This squad is good enough, isn’t it?  

If we don’t get hit with injuries like we did at the start of last season with both Hughes and Bryson being injured in the first game, we should be fine. The squad is big enough and I don’t think we need to add any more players, we’re covered in all positions and with people like Forsyth and Thorne hopefully returning this season we’ve got more than enough.

Many people say we don’t have a prolific goal scorer apart from Martin, but if they’re given the chance, I’d like to think Bent and Blackman could surprise a few people.

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And finally, where will you finish this season?

I’m feeling optimistic about this coming season I think it’ll be top six.

Summary

This is it. Maybe. Possibly. Probably. 2nd

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Fulham

Five consecutive top twelve Premier League finishes, in addition to an appearance in the Europa League final, followed by relegation and two horrendous Championship campaigns, that latest of which seeing the club capitulate to 20thwegwe gweg wg weg

Fulham now undoubtedly one member of a not exactly small group of former Premier League clubs that appeared stable in the top flight only to have since imploded in quite impressive fashion.

Not even the appointment of a competent and previously successful Championship head coach, in the form of Slavisa Jokanovic, could halt the decline of the Cottagers that had been continued by Kit Symons. The Serbian, who won promotion with Watford, winning just six of the 22 league games he oversaw in the second half of the season, with three of those coming against the three relegated clubs.

All this despite Fulham’s squad, particularly given the potent attacking threat of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele, having obvious strengths. A side that should not have been anywhere near the bottom three, with the incompetence of other sides a major factor in them not getting drawn into a relegation battle.

It does, therefore, create this concern that Fulham are in such a state of unstoppable decline that only complete revolution will resolve the club’s issues. The worry that they will provide this season’s answer to Charlton and Bolton not a completely irrational one.

But so too, despite three seasons of struggle and the summer departure of Dembele, must slightly irrational optimism challenge the fear at Craven Cottage. A season that will begin with Jokanovic, whose reputation remains intact and has the support of Fulham fans, in charge, giving him the opportunity to build and progress quickly as he did at Watford.

There must, however, be a strong and obviously encouraging start to the campaign. The mood in West London rightfully fragile, and supporters unlikely to have the patience to deal with signs that suggest another horrendous season.

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The Head Coach – Slavisa Jokanovic

There is an acceptance that the blame for Fulham’s slump to 20th last season does not lie with the manager who arrived just before the turn of the year. The club in a state of decline that encouraged such a fall.

But that isn’t to say there isn’t a strong degree of disappointment with how Jokanovic’s first 22 games in charge of the Cottagers panned out, with much more expected from a boss that led Watford to automatic promotion in 2014/15.

The Serb seen as the man to revitalise Fulham, but half-hearted efforts and horrendous defensive performances continued to occur beyond his appointment. That defensive weakness, with more goals conceded than any other side outside of the bottom three, one of many issues that must be addressed going into the new season.

There remains, however, hope that Jokanovic can bring about improvement to his side.

Not least from the man himself, who demanded that the Cottagers spend this coming season “fighting for a different target”. A demand that his side competes for a top six finish once he has instigated the change required.

At the very least, to see how Fulham compete after a first summer working under Jokanovic provides a certain amount of intrigue.

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Transfer Business

It’s probably not ideal when your head coach is taking to Twitter at the start of pre-season to say that “we need new additions over the next few days to build a competitive squad for the season”.

Especially given the frustration in losing Dembele to Celtic without a fee being paid, in addition to a number of first time players departing. Dan Burn, Jamie O’Hara and Alexander Kacaniklic among those released, goalkeeper Andy Lonergan (Wolves), winger Ben Pringle (Preston) and young midfielder Emerson Hyndman (Bournemouth) sold, in addition to Maarten Stekelenburg (Everton) and Kostas Mitroglou (Benfica) finally leaving the club on a permanent basis.

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But it would appear that indirecting your owner on social media is a new form of 21st century football management. Fulham’s additions since then have been promising.

Particularly pleasing that a defence that conceded 79 times last season has been heavily strengthened. Centre-back Tomas Kalas, who has done a decent job with Middlesbrough over the previous two campaigns, arriving on loan from Chelsea, Belgian full-back Denis Odoi signed from Lokeren, and Jaz Richards sent to Cardiff with Scott Malone arriving in his place.

That in addition to David Button, a goalkeeper who has proven himself to be a solid performer at this level, signed from Brentford, and Austrian centre-back Michael Madl, who impressed while on loan at the Cottage in the second half of last season, making his move a permanent one.

Improvements made in midfield, too, with the composed Kevin McDonald signing from Wolves, and Togo international Floyd Ayite joining from Bastia having scored 14 times in 53 games for the Ligue 1 club. While Sone Aluko, who can also play out wide, appears to be the replacement for Dembele having signed following his release from Hull City.

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The concern, however, is that rumours about McCormack’s future continue. Norwich apparently interested, and his failure to travel with Fulham on a pre-season camp, needing to remain in West London for a spot of treatment, not helping. A desperate need to keep a hold of him in order to challenge in the coming season.

The Squad

McCormack among several in Fulham’s squad that, despite last season’s disappointment, possess undoubted quality and may well improve with a full pre-season and season of Jokanovic’s management.

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Richard Stearman, a natural leader at the back who arrived with a reputation of being among the best centre-backs in the division following his signing from Wolves last summer, one of the many needing to improve after an indifferent season. Tim Ream, Madl and Kalas competing for a place alongside him.

The versatile Kalas also adds to the quality in the full-back positions, providing cover to Ryan Fredericks and Odoi. Youngster Jack Grimmer and new signing Malone offering additional depth.

But it’s in the centre of midfield where Fulham are arguably at their strongest. New signing McDonald joining a wealth of options, which include the evergreen Scott Parker, the creative Tom Cairney, and the exciting Lasse Vigen Christensen.

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A need, however, for greater depth in the wide areas. New signings Ayite and Aluko appear most likely to start on the flanks, but youngster George Williams the only real option beyond that unless Fredericks is deployed further forward.

That arguably the only area of Fulham’s squad with genuine question marks over it, though another forward would be useful regardless of whether McCormack is retained. The potent Scot joined by target man Matt Smith, Cauley Woodrow, who has enjoyed a positive pre-season, and Aluko, should be not be required out wide, as the Cottagers’ options up top.

All in all, it’s a decent squad. Improve the options further forward, and lock McCormack in a box until September, and it’ll be a very good one.

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Fans View: Sam Bowden (@SamBowdenFFC)

Despite a struggle last season, is there excitement over what Slavisa Jokanovic can do at the club with a full pre-season under his belt?

It does finally feel like we have a proper manager in charge which we haven’t been able to say for a few years now, we had an incredibly poor squad last season so I find it exciting what we can do with his own crop of players.

” We have a proper manager in charge which we haven’t been able to say for a few years now”

What does Jokanovic need to instil into this Fulham side in order to have it competing.

We need to find confidence again and some stability and with that the results should come. The quality he has added so far should naturally bring that.

You’ve been active in the transfer market, losing a few first-team players but making some useful signings. How would you assess your squad?

The majority that have gone out the door have been woeful to be honest so it’s been great to get rid of the deadweight. Losing Dembele is obviously a blow and makes it worse the fact he has gone to the Scottish Premier League a move that makes no sense when it seemed a few big clubs were after his signature. The only other loss is Hyndman, a great central midfielder who I had high hopes for but he just seemed too lightweight for the Championship. Bournemouth will make a lot of money out of him one day.

Incomings so far have been promising. Button from Brentford will provide good competition for the number 1 shirt with Betts which will help develop him even more. Kalas on loan from Chelsea should give us some much needed steel at the back but we still need another CB with a proper defensive head on him. McDonald has been a target for quite some time now and from what I remember from the Wolves game last season was that he controlled the majority of the game from midfield and knew how to break up play well. The other signings we have made Malone, Odoi, Aluke and Ayite I don’t know anything about other than they all have pace which is something we have been screaming for now for years.

Especially having lost Moussa Dembele, how important is it to keep a hold of Ross McCormack?

Currently it seems almost certain that he is off which I have already come to terms with, he has basically single-handedly carried us that past two seasons and I will be like many devastated to see him leave but if we can get a big sum of money for him at his age than its good business. I’m just gutted we didn’t get Gayle to replace him.

Finally, where will you finish this season?

Not a clue at the moment as it’s just too hard a league to predict, but we have to be aiming for a play-off place and with the signings we have made and the rumoured players coming in I think that is more than possible.

Summary

A lot depends on whether McCormack can be kept, but Jokanovic can certainly make the Cottagers competitive in his first full season in charge. Among the chasing pack. 10th 

10


Huddersfield Town

Last season was Huddersfield Town’s joint-lowest league finish (19th) since promotion from League One in 2012, with their final points tally (51) the smallest in their four consecutive seasons in the Championship. gergergregerg

And yet, it was a season that offered more reasons for optimism, showed greater signs of progression, and provided a stronger belief that the club were not simply settling for bottom-half obscurity than any other since their return to the second tier.

For the appointment of German born David Wagner, replacing the acceptable but unexciting leadership that many believed Chris Powell to be offering, has rejuvenated a club that were seemingly in danger of simply accepting their role as one of the Championship’s also-rans.

The Wagner Revolution it almost immediately labelled, which might have appeared odd to those on the outside with results not obviously improving. The Wagner stabilisation more accurate.

But results didn’t always match a high quality level of performance. The occasional disappointing displays qualified by the fact that Wagner’s inherited side weren’t quite suited to playing his brand of high-energy and pressing football. A genuine feeling of excitement among regular visitors to the John Smith’s Stadium.

And the excitement has been extended by a summer of positive additions to the Huddersfield squad as Wagner compiles a side capable of playing the ‘gegenpressing’ style inherited from his time working with Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund. Highly rated signings, largely from Wagner’s homeland.

There are of course plenty of examples of clubs recruiting from abroad and those players failing to adapt to the conditions of the Championship. There no guarantee this revolution will result in relative success.

But this a positive revolution, rather than a coup. With intelligent individuals making intelligent decisions for the benefit of the club, and an attempt being made to build a Huddersfield that can compete in the top half of the Championship.

At the very least, optimism and positivity is not misplaced.

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The Manager – David Wagner

Lee Clark, Simon Grayson, Mark Robins and Chris Powell. The managers that had previously led Huddersfield since their return to the Championship had been safe, conservative and hired or fired with a single goal in mind – maintain the club’s status in the second tier.

So in appointing Wagner last November, owner Dean Hoyle made something of a statement of ambition. The Terriers no longer willing to simply accept Championship survival and, given their relative financial limitations, prepared to take an alternative strategy to challenge in the top half of the division. Unquestionably a gamble.

But a gamble that, without getting carried away while results remain indifferent, appears to have paid off. Those indifferent results not the focus of Huddersfield supporters, but the style of football and overall positivity brought to the club by the former Borussia Dortmund reserve team boss.

There is, however, no getting away from the fact that the importance of results cannot be downplayed in Wagner’s first full season of his so-called revolution. With a host of his own signings made, there is a need to turn the positive influence seen last season into points.

Not necessarily pressure, given the support that Wagner has, but an expectation that the German born coach will provide an improvement in results with a side assembled to his liking.

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Transfer Business

In what was always going to be an interesting and exciting summer of transfer activity, as Wagner shaped a side capable of playing his aggressive pressing football, even the most optimistic of expectations have been surpassed with the perceived quality of additions made to Huddersfield’s squad.

So much so that the departure of long-serving, and long-serving occupier of the treatment room, centre-back Joel Lynch, who has joined QPR, is barely a footnote. The only first-team departure of any real significance.

For the focus is on the 12 (T W E L E V E) first-team players that Wagner has brought to the club during the summer. Many of them, as expected, German or with connections to the Bundesliga.

That loss of Lynch made even less significant by the fact Huddersfield’s centre-back options have improved significantly. Michael Hefele, captain of his former club Dynamo Dresden, Christopher Schindler, arriving at the John Smith’s Stadium from 1860 Munich for a club record fee, and Jon Gorenc Stankovic, who joins from Borussia Dortmund with Wagner suggesting “it is not normal” that a player of the 20-year-old’s potential would sign for the club, giving Huddersfield some handy defensive options.

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The left-back position, largely unsuccessfully filled by Jason Davidson last season, has also been improved with a signing from Germany, as former Borussia Dortmund man Chris Lowe arrives from FC Kaiserslautern, while midfielder Ivan Paurevic, a Croatian who previously played for Russian club FC Ufa but has also worked with Wagner at Dortmund, also joins the Terriers.

Elias Kachunga, a forward who struggled to make an impression at Bundesliga side FC Ingolstadt last season despite being the club’s record signing, rounding off the German-related invasion with a season-long loan in Yorkshire. Wagner having faith in the 24-year-old’s natural talents, and hoping he’ll provide competition to Nahki Wells.

So too, however, have Huddersfield improved their squad with what appear to be excellent additions from other English clubs.

Competition for the goalkeeper’s jersey between two young stoppers as Wales international Danny Ward arrives on loan from Liverpool, and Joel Coleman, with 43 appearances in League One despite only being 20, has been snapped up from Oldham Athletic.

And promise and potential is a theme that runs throughout those signed from Premier League and Football League clubs. Not least in midfield, with the need for energy and creativity in Wagner’s pressing and passing style of play.

Jack Payne, having shown marvellous playmaker qualities at Southend, joins on a free, Kasey Palmer, a name familiar to Charlton fans having come through the club’s academy at the same time as Joe Gomez and having a similar reputation, joining on a temporary basis from Chelsea, and Australian Aaron Mooy, signing for Manchester City this summer after impressing for connected club Melbourne City, also spending a season on loan at the John Smith’s. Serious creative quality among that trio.

Signing Rajiv van La Parra, who showed promise during a spell on loan from Wolves last season, on a permanent basis a nice bonus to a very promising summer of activity for the Terriers.

The questions to ask, of course, is whether those signed from abroad will adapt to the English game, whether those with potential will step up, and whether Wagner be able to shape his side into a functioning unit.

But a gamble like this undoubtedly the only way a club like Huddersfield, with certain financial and status restrictions, could hope to make improvement.

The Squad

Given the seemingly endless number (yeah, I know I said 12 earlier, leave me alone) of new arrivals at the John Smith’s Stadium, the importance of those that remain is not to be underestimated.

Especially among the experienced members of Huddersfield’s squad. Tommy Smith, Mark Hudson and Martin Cranie might not be regular starters, but their leadership and influence in creating cohesion will be important.

Jonathan Hogg, irrespective of the additions made to the midfield, more likely to be a regular starter, along with the talented Harry Bunn, the inconsistent Sean Scannell, and the prolific Wells. At least some continuity.

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There are also some hope that Philip Billing, Joe Lolley and Kyle Dempsey, youngsters that played bit-part roles last season but were able to impress when they were involved, will be able to provide more prominent assistance to the side during this campaign.

Fans View: Thrice Champions (@HTAFCPodcast)

What with the Wagner Revolution and all that, is the most excited you’ve been for a Championship season in quite some time?

Definitely since we returned to the Championship, as for the first time since 2012 we have recruited plenty of players and on first look recruited quite well. Forget the marketing of the Wagner Revolution – Chairman Dean Hoyle has returned to the formula which initially got Huddersfield Town fans excited when he initially took over the club… cheap season tickets and backing the manager in the transfer window.

With all of that, it’s the first season since Town’s return to the second tier that relegation hasn’t been at the back of my mind and I suspect many other fans feel the same way. However, I won’t get as carried as way as some when they believe we will be outsiders for promotion!

What is it, aside from the transfers made, that makes Wagner so likeable and impressive?

His beard.

I jest… Wagner has come in with a positive attitude and looks to achieve the best he can with the group of players he has. The previous incumbents always seemed to have an excuse as to poor performances or results and it was usually that other clubs have more money than us. While that was true, it doesn’t exactly instill faith in the team or the club and what Wagner has done has totally reversed that.

Wagner has got us playing fairly attractive football, he wants his side to be as fit as possible and get in the face of the opposition – all qualities that wins over many sections of fans from those who like, as Big Sam would say, ‘tippy tappy bollocks’ to those who are advocates of getting stuck into the opposition. Wagner’s positivity, his ‘terrier philosophy’ and his ambition is what the club needs right now and is what makes him so impressive.

Are there any fears about too much change occurring at once, and those players signed from Germany not adapting to the English game?

Our esteemed Chairman said at the end of last season that we wouldn’t sign more than 3/4 foreign players as not to create a disjointed dressing room – think Newcastle! However, already this window we have signed six from abroad but the difference between those we have signed and many foreign players who join other clubs is that every player we have signed speaks brilliant English and all seem to be buying into the english way of life, well as much as stalking their social media seem to show.

There will always be a worry, though, that signing so many new players may create problems and the team may take a while to gel together. However, given Wagner’s training regime – in which there are double training sessions, training sessions before friendlies and a bonding trip to Sweden – I think the time taken to gel will be a lot less than if an English manager was in charge.

With an influx of players from Europe and relatively inexperienced signings made from England, how important are the senior pros that remain? 

I think the most important players around the squad this season will be Mark Hudson and Dean Whitehead, both of whom I would’ve let go in the summer. Thankfully my football management career is virtual reality.

Wagner has been impressed by Hudson, who signed a new three-year-contract in the summer, the contract covering another year playing and then a transition into coaching. This is a very shrewd deal by the club as Wagner aims to have an English influence in his coaching team so to not rock the apple cart and help make Wagner’s transition into English football easier, as seen by his initial appointment of former Liverpool coach Mike Marsh, who has now departed to the England set up and the recent appointment of Andy Hughes from Crystal Palace.

Dean Whitehead is equally as important. An integral part of Chris Powell’s side, his style of play had to quickly adapt to the ‘terrier identity’ that Wagner brought in – essentially gegenpressing. Whilst Whitehead has the nous and the ability on the ball, his legs aren’t what they used to be so it would’ve been understandable if he had left. Rotherham offered him a deal but he has chosen to stay and fight for his place, yet I see him struggling for game time. Nevertheless, this experience and nous to pass on to the younger players and new imports will be vital as the club aims to develop this season.

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Overall, regardless of whether this revolution is a success, do you applaud the club for being brave enough to take a slight gamble in order to move forward?

Again, I’d urge many to forget the word revolution, it’s marketing hype. This is a transition and one that has been long overdue. Huddersfield Town cannot compete with many in this division financially which means attracting the right players and better players will always be extremely tough. To compete with those who come down to the Championship with tens of millions in parachute payments, those who spend £35million on players and still don’t get promoted, you have to think outside the box.

Chris Schindler aside, Town have not really spent that much money and by raiding Germany and looking abroad for talent we will be getting more value for money as well as players who won’t be on the same kind of wages as their English counter parts. Is it brave? Yes. Is it necessary? More so. Clubs like Town can’t survive in the division without thinking outside of the box.

“Is it brave? Yes. Is it necessary? More so”

And finally, where will you finish this season?

12-14th. Fans expect more currently, as do other clubs fans who are looking at how many players we have signed, but this for me is a year of transition. Yes if we click we may be a surprise package but there are still deficencies in our squad which will hold us back and there are still players in our squad who aren’t good enough.

For me the major issue is not having a striker who can aerially or physically duel with Championship centre-halves. Questions also still remain over the likes of Sean Scannell and if they can provide the goals from midfield needed to catapult Town up the table too.

Summary

This is very different to other complete overhauls, given that the head coach is in charge and he’s had a season to see what’s needed in the Championship. Think there needs to be an elment of caution, but quite excited to see what can ultimately be achieved. 11th


Part Three to follow in the next few days. All information, or at least it should be, correct as of 26/07/2016. All photos my own, or marked for reuse by others. 

Chris Powell’s Flat Cap League One Season Preview – Part Two

Part One


Chesterfield

Having reached the play-offs in 2014/15, admittedly exceeding all expectations and punching well above their perceived weight in doing so having won promotion from League Two in the previous campaign, last season was quite the decline for Chesterfield. 

Ultimately finishing a relatively comfortable seven points above the relegation zone, and not actually spending time in the bottom four, but large parts of the season were spent little more than a point above the drop zone. The reasons for which more obvious than simply the notion of any potential play-off hangover that might have followed the defeat to Preston North End.

Manager Paul Cook, overseeing a League Two title win, a sixth place finish in the third tier, and boasting an impressive win percentage just shy of 45% during his three years in charge, leaving to join Portsmouth as one of many departures that derailed the Spireites’ development.

Dean Saunders, hindered by the sales of Gary Roberts, Sam Clucas and Tendayi Darikwa without over £2m in transfer fees being reinvested, losing 11 of his 19 games in charge, and steady if unspectacular improvement under replacement Danny Wilson required to cement Chesterfield’s League One status.

Enough to create optimism ahead of the new season? It depends if you’re defining optimism has a more comfortable campaign, or one where they can compete for a play-off place again.

This squad remains much weaker than the one that achieved a top six finish. The failure to retain top scorer Lee Novak, for example, not helping, and replacing him with the controversial signing of Ched Evans hardly the most encouraging of moves.

But Wilson being in charge, experienced and relatively successful at League One level, for the duration of the campaign means stability and a more stress free season can undoubtedly be hoped for. At the very least, trauma like a run of eight defeats in nine that left the Spireites one point from the relegation at the end of 2015 should be avoided.

The Manager – Danny Wilson

With over 1,000 games as a manager, many of those coming while leading a club in the third tier of English football, there are few bosses in the country, let alone this division, who have a CV as stacked as Danny Wilson’s.

Such experience making him the perfect man for a crisis, and it showing as he addressed the mess left behind by Saunders. Comfortable survival always looked likely from the moment the 56-year-old was given the job on Christmas Eve, as a more organised under Wilson’s stewardship became tougher to beat.

The sort of brain, too, that can deal with the pressure that comes with awarding Evans another chance in football while baggage and uncertainty still remains. Wilson getting the Welshman to play the best football of his interrupted career at Sheffield United, allegedly maintaining a strong relationship as a consequence, and hopeful that this gamble of sorts is more likely to pay off than it would be in different surroundings.

But for all of Wilson’s attributes and achievements, including League One play-off final appearances with Swindon Town and the Blades this decade, he hasn’t led a sign to promotion since claiming second in League Two with Hartlepool United in 2006/07. Just one further promotion, though an impressive one as he took Barnsley to the Premier League in 1996/97, in a 22-year career.

A man that can certainly stabilise the Spireites, but a combination of conditions at the club and his own record suggest emulating Cook’s success of two seasons ago is unlikely.              

Transfer Business

There is, unfortunately, only one place to start. Chesterfield’s decision to sign Evans after a four-year absence from football.

That four year absence meaning there’s a question of whether he remains the player he was at Sheffield United, prior to his prison sentence, before the moral dilemma is even considered. At the very least, it’s a brave call for Chesterfield to face a possible heavy backlash should Evans’ re-trial not go as is seemingly predicted.

In the less mucky waters of the club’s other transfer activity, it’s been a case of a clear out of those no longer required, and signings largely made on the basis of promise or potential.

Forwards Emmanuel Dieseruvwe, Byron Harrison and Jordan Slew depart with a combine total of one goal to their collective names in 46 appearances, Chris Herd returns to his native Australia to play for Perth Glory having been in and out of the side last season, while Drew Talbot moves on to Portsmouth having made well over a double-century of appearances for the Spireites.

In their place come 26-year-old Kristian Dennis, a forward who scored freely for Curzon Ashton, Stockport County and Macclesfield Town in non-league football, 25-year-old full-back Paul McGinn, a regular for Dundee in the previous two seasons, and 24-year-old Jon Nolan, who was part of Grimsby’s promotion-winning side.

Winger Reece Mitchell, 20 and yet to make a first-team appearance, also joins the club having turned down a new contract at Chelsea to sign for Chesterfield, while goalkeeper Ryan Fulton, who spent part of last season at Portsmouth, arrives on loan from Liverpool to provide competition to long-standing stopper Tommy Lee.

But maybe just a touch of frustration still existing that the money made from big-name departures last season has not been reinvested in the squad again. Frustration that only increased with Novak opting for the Addicks over a return to Chesterfield.

The Squad

It’s certainly not got the quality of the squad that took Chesterfield into the play-offs two seasons ago, but there’s a reasonable amount of ability within the side nonetheless.

The defence reasonably solid. New signing McGinn likely to earn a place at right-back, experienced duo Sam Hird and Ian Evatt form a competent centre-back partnership, and supporters will be hoping that Daniel Jones, a very good left-back with attacking qualities at this level, will avoid injury in the coming campaign. Liam O’Neil and Charlie Raglan, who both possess a degree of versatility, providing cover both centrally and in the full-back positions.

O’Neil can also play in a deep midfield role, giving Wilson plenty of central options, though many of them still need to properly prove themselves at the club. Captain Gary Liddle effectively assured of his place, with Dion Donohue, a bit-part player in the previous campaign, Dan Gardner, who spent part of last season on loan at Bury, and Angel Martinez, returning from a long-term injury, among those competing for a place in the middle in addition to new signing Nolan.

Decent options in the wide areas, too, with 20-year-old Connor Dimaio signing a contract extension after arriving on a short-term deal from Sheffield United in the winter. Jay O’Shea and Gboly Ariyibi possibly ahead of him in the pecking order, while new signing Mitchell provides another alternative.

As does Bermudan forward Rai Simons, who has agreed a new deal having performed well under Wilson’s stewardship, but is far greater suited to a central striking role. A position, which will see a partnership with Sylvan Ebanks-Blake formed, he is likely to compete alongside Dennis and Evans for. Ebanks-Blake, who proved himself to still be effective last season after a number of goal-shy seasons, most certainly the leader of Chesterfield’s attack with Novak no longer around.

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Some points to prove among this squad, undoubtedly, but it’s not in bad shape for one that was involved in a relegation battle last season. A bit of strengthening at the back is the only realistic demand you could really make.

Fans View: Demetri Loizou (@demetri_loizou) 

A play-off place two seasons ago, and a relegation battle last year. Is finishing somewhere in the middle of those two extremes Chesterfield’s realistic goal for this campaign?

I hope so! Last season was painful, witnessing the decimation of what really was a fantastic squad put together by Paul Cook. If we could have kept it together for another year I’ve no doubt we’d have won promotion (many of our players from that year are now at a higher level). However, it is what it is and we football fans have to put up with it. Wilson’s made about five signings this summer but we still lack talent in central midfield. Without that last piece of the jigsaw, I am fearful.

“Last season was painful, witnessing the decimation of what really was a fantastic squad”

Danny Wilson is an experienced boss who has a decent record at this level, and did a commendable job in steering the Spireites clear of trouble in the latter half of last season. Does he have the full support of Chesterfield fans or will that only be achieved with a competitive effort during this campaign?

He has our support. We know his hands are tied to a certain extent and most of the shortcomings on the pitch have arisen because of the austerity imposed by the board. Many expected him to leave after keeping us up and allow Chris Morgan to take over, but he’s stuck around. I think he’s very steady but not spectacular, which might well be what we need at the moment – but not forever. He’s better than Dean ******* Saunders.

Over £2m was made in player sales last summer, but there has yet to be any real investment in the squad. A sensible call, to provide financial stability, or a frustrating lack of ambition?

The owner wants his money back. I think it’s pretty clear he wants to sell up and get out. We made £2m but we only just broke even. Something is seriously wrong at the club. Both our sets of supporters might know something about inept chief executives. I think the owner pulled the plug a year too soon; he cut off his nose to spite his face and as a result has suffered for it, along with the rest of us.

In other questionable recruitment decisions, is signing Ched Evans, especially prior to his retrial, the correct call?

It’s a gamble. We have gambled on a Not Guilty verdict, but (as the argument goes) it needed to be done before the re-trial otherwise little old Chesterfield would be at the back of the queue. And of the case itself, the momentum does seem to be in Evans’ favour. From what I know of the incident, there’s no argument from me that he is a bad egg, but I’m not sure if he’s a guilty one. I hope for nothing more than for justice to run its course, whatever the result.

Charlton supporters will be keen to know what they can expect from Lee Novak. A useful signing for a club with promotion ambitions?

Wonderful striker. He took a short while to settle in here, but his talent is obvious and abundant at this level. A shame we couldn’t keep him. In a good team he might shine even more.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

Anywhere in the bottom half. Hopefully top half of the bottom half.

Summary

A considerably less stressful campaign. 14th

Chesterfield_v_Aldershot


Coventry City

From the opening weekend of last season until their 33rd game, Coventry City occupied at least a play-off spot.

Sixth not simply held by the skin of their teeth, but the top two flirted with for the majority of that period. The Sky Blues, an organised unit under Tony Mowbary which utilised the threat loanees Adam Armstrong and Jacob Murphy offered on the break, serious promotion contenders. wgwgwrgrwgerw

Serious promotion contenders for the first time since their relegation to League One in 2012, and a distraction finally offered from the continued uncertainty that has marred the Sky Blues for a number of years. Despite a continued attempt by rugby club Wasps and Coventry City Council to make the football club appear like squatters in a home that was primarily built for them, you could find undemoralised home supporters at the Ricoh Arena on a Saturday afternoon. A rare sight.

But by the conclusion of the season, not even a run of four victories from five was enough to inject any sort of hope and optimism into the rightfully beleaguered fans of this club. A play-off position, with three wins in the calendar year prior to that mini-revival, spectacularly thrown away, and there no distraction positive enough to turn attention away from the genuine concern that the football club of Coventry is being forced out.

Having fought so hard to return to the city while sharing with Northampton Town in 2012, there’s now a suggestion that moving to a new ground on the outskirts of the city, outside of the jurisdiction of Coventry City Council, is best for the football club. An outcome that doesn’t exactly look likely, but nor does finding another ground within Coventry or remaining at the Ricoh. The Council in support of making Wasps the city’s main sporting attraction, which has resulted in the Sky Blues being tenants at the Ricoh on unfavourable terms, both financially and symbolically.

All this while Coventry, a club whose status suggests they should be playing above League One level, have to rebuild from last season’s disappointment while struggling to compete in the transfer marker under the ownership of the Sisu group.

Coventry’s chances of progressing, or even replicating the sort of challenge made for a top six place last season, limited further by the continuing sense of uncertainty and discomfort not having a real sense of belonging to a home ground provides.

The Manager – Tony Mowbray

That Coventry were forced to deny rumours of Rotherham United making an approach for their manager in May, irrespective of their disappointing end to the season, is a reflection of the respectable job that Mowbray has done in charge of the Sky Blues despite being unable to maintain a place in League One’s top six.

For not only is there an acceptance that managing a club in the uncertain position that Coventry find themselves in is a tough ask, but the former West Brom and Middlesbrough boss did, for a large part of the season, have his side playing a brand of football more threatening and exciting than anything else seen at the Ricoh in recent seasons.

That, however, does not mean Mowbray should escape without criticism for last season’s capitulation. In the same way the continued success he had with his counter-attacking football, led by loanees no longer at the club, was impressive, his inability to find a way to stop the rot once it had started was infuriating for supporters of Coventry. The respect gained during the more promising period of the season not entirely lost, but certainly damaged.

It means the Mowbray starts the season with a reasonable amount of pressure on him to prove he can organise a much-changed, and arguably weaker, Coventry side to compete once again. And compete with a backdrop of uncertainty and impending crisis.

Transfer Business

This summer, given the apathy, disappointment and uncertainty that exists around Coventry, was quite an important one. At the very least, a need to create some sort of hope and positivity ahead of the new season.

But the club’s transfer activity has been quite disappointing, and has probably had the opposite effect. Key players departing, and the replacements less than impressive.

John Fleck’s move to Sheffield United, especially considering he’s joined a club in the same division as the Sky Blues, probably the most frustrating. The diminutive playmaker providing consistent quality in the middle since arriving from Rangers four seasons ago, and his class and creativity will be greatly missed.

As will the tenacity of Roman Vincelot, with the midfielder sold to Bradford. The Sky Blues much weaker in the middle.

But few tears shed over the likes of Marc-Antoine Fortune, Darius Henderson and Stephen Hunt departing, Joe Cole failed to make the impact many hoped he would do, and Jim O’Brien always likely to leave having spent the end of last season on loan at Scunthorpe.

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Some concern, however, over an almost complete clear out of defensive options. Allowing the aging Reda Johnson and Peter Ramage to leave, neither featuring a great deal in the previous campaign, makes sense, but letting Aarons Martin (Oxford United) and Phillips (Northampton Town) join other League One clubs is a little odd.

Particularly with no defensive signings made deep into pre-season. Few signings made at all, in fact, despite sanctioning the departure of so many.

18-year-old winger Jodi Jones, who has shown plenty of potential at Dagenham & Redbridge and spent the final weeks of last season on loan at the Ricoh, making his move a permanent one probably the most exciting signing Mowbray has been able to make.

Former Addick Marvin Sordell no longer a signing to excite, while fellow forward Kwame Thomas joins from Derby County without a senior goal to his name in 32 appearances. Neither likely to emulate the impact that Newcastle United loanee Adam Armstrong had last season, who has returned to his parent club having scored 20 times last season.

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Speaking of loanees, experienced midfield Chris McCann has joined the club on loan until January having signed a permanent deal with new MLS franchise Atlanta United. The 28-year-old will maintain fitness with the Sky Blues ahead of his move to America and, having won the league with Wigan last season, will hopefully make an impact in what is both a youthful and rather weak-looking side.

Oddly, though, the loan can’t be confirmed until August 1, when the contracts Atlanta have awarded become official. Coventry supporters will be hoping that a few more deals will be announced before McCann is pictured holding a City shirt.

The Squad

It almost certainly in defence where the greatest need for strengthening is required, though Jordan Willis’ return to fitness is a huge boost.

The 21-year-old versatile defender missed most of last season after sustaining an ankle injury in August, but it only he with any sort of experience in the centre-back position. Cian Harries, 19, made his first-team debut on the final day of last season, but a gamble to rely on a teenager in the heart of defence.

Options in the full-back positions, however, slightly less concerning, with right-back and skipper Sam Ricketts an almost ever present last season, and left-back Chris Stokes having arrived from Forest Green Rovers. Ryan Haynes, having returned from a loan spell at Cambridge United, provides back-up on the left, but another right-back wouldn’t go a miss.

Maybe Coventry could ask their goalkeeper to persuade his brother to join the club on loan. Reice Charles-Cook, brother of Charlton’s Regan, the Sky Blues’ first choice stopper for the majority of last season.

Charlton’s Charles-Cook can also play in the centre of midfield, another area where the Sky Blues lack depth, even after McCann’s arrival. Bulgarian Vladimir Gadzhev, who signed towards the end of last season following a successful trial, and Andy Rose, who has impressed having joined from Seattle Sounders in January, the main options.

Also a chance, possibly, for 19-year-old Jack Finch. Potential shown in a handful of appearances during the 2014/15 season, but the midfielder didn’t play a single first-team game last season.

A young winger stepping up would also be useful, with Jones and Ruben Lameiras the Sky Blues only real options out wide at present. Kyle Spence, with the 19-year-old having impressed during pre-season, might well provide competition, but another winger surely needed.

While in attack, a partnership between forwards that spent time on loan at Charlton during the 13/14 season looks likely. Marcus Tudgay linking up with Sordell, with support provided from Kwame Thomas and, no relation, George Thomas.

Like Kwame, however, George doesn’t have a senior goal to his name, and greater proven potency is probably required in attack.

Greater proven quality probably required all over, with it appearing that the Sky Blues will be relying on a number of youngsters to make the step up this season.

Fans View – Charlie Harris (@_CharlieHarris)

You’ve obviously experienced plenty of disappointment in recent years, but where does last season’s capitulation rank among it all?

Out of all the seasons I’ve witnessed I’d probably put last season as the absolute worst, even topping the relegation season from the Championship. It’s just the absolute crushing disappointment of actually thinking that we may finally do something, only for us to completely collapse when we took the advantage.

You’re effectively being forced out of your home by the City Council and a rugby franchise. Is the future of the club under threat?

I would say so yes, no-one really knows how things are going to turn out for us at the moment. Wasps owning the Ricoh basically puts a glass ceiling over us as a club, we’ll never be able to own the stadium in our own city because Wasps have a 100 year lease, and without ownership we’re severely restricted in how much we can earn from playing there. Without access to decent revenue it’s hard to see how the club can progress at all.

“Wasps owning the Ricoh basically puts a glass ceiling over us as a club”

Off-the-pitch uncertainty undoubtedly having an impact on recruitment and retention of players. How concerned are you about the state of your squad, and how much weaker is it without last season’s loanees?

At the moment, the squad is extremely weak, there is no doubt about it. However, I’m relatively optimistic that Mowbray will be able to bring in some decent recruits. The loan signing of Chris McCann is already a positive sign, and shows the quality of player that Mowbray can attract to the club. Marvin Sordell is a bit of an underwhelming signing as his career seems to be falling off a cliff at the moment, but there is obviously some sort of player in there given his early career.

The main issue with signings is the slow speed in which we bring players in, not the overall quality.

Last season’s loan players will be missed, but I trust in Mowbray’s ability to utilise the loan market to its full strength.

How much pressure is on Tony Mowbary, or is there an acceptance that his job is a difficult one in the circumstances?

It’s difficult to say really, and it depends on who you ask. There are certain members of the fan base who wanted Mowbray out last March when our collapse was becoming apparent but more level headed supporters know that Mowbray is doing a pretty good job given the circumstances and the financial situation that the club finds itself in.

There is a concern over Mowbray’s ability to sustain a challenge over a whole season seeing as he has history with both us and Middlesbrough of horrific second half of the season collapses, but hopefully that will be addressed this season. If it’s not then I’m not confident that Mowbray will still be in charge here come May.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

It’s hard to say at the moment, with a few signings we could push for the play-offs but with the current squad I’m not sure we’d finish top half. 18th.

Summary

An unpleasant situation off-the-pitch, which isn’t going to provide any assistant on it. 20th. 

901396_e751a015


Fleetwood Town

The last time the football club that played their home games at Fleetwood’s Highbury Stadium failed to improve upon their league table position from the previous season, that club were known as Fleetwood Freeport and had slipped from 5th in the North West Counties League Division One in 2000/01 to 14th a year later. download

Last season, therefore, the first that Fleetwood Town have failed to improve upon their finish in the campaign prior to it. The drop from 10th in League One to 19th, and a season-long flirt with relegation, largely the consequence of a change in strategy.

Not a change in strategy designed to hurt the club. Quite the opposite, in fact. But chairman Andy Pilley’s desire to make the club self-sufficient, as appose to investing large and potentially irresponsible sums to move the Cod Army forward at pace, was always likely to have a short-term negative impact on the chances of success on the pitch.

A sense existing that this as far as a club of Fleetwood’s size can realistically progress, and making the club sustainable a more realistic ambition. The breakdown of Jamie Vardy’s potential move to Arsenal denying Fleetwood cash, through a sell-on clause, that might have altered those short-term ambitions slightly.

At the very least, without the playing budget offering Fleetwood an advantage over the larger clubs in the division, simply remaining a League One club, and one that is financially secure, would again be an overachievement of sorts.

Especially given that with less than two weeks to go before the season begins, boss Steven Pressley has opted to resign. His departure making all pre-season planning effectively meaningless.

A difficult season awaits for the Cod Army.

The Manager – Vacant

Managing Fleetwood is no longer the job it once was. The boss at Highbury doesn’t have access to a pool of financial resources comparatively larger than what is available to divisional opponents, with there now a need to be wiser, grittier and overall a more determined leader. The job requirements having more in common with managerial roles at other clubs arguably punching above their weight.

There can, therefore, be few complaints about the job Steven Pressley did after taking over Fleetwood in October 2015. Unspectacular, but a mission accomplished. A side that lacks the quality of others in the division organised in such a way that it was able to pick up enough points to avoid the threat of relegation that lingered throughout the entirety of last season.

And even if opposition to Pressley did exist, there can only be an acceptance that the timing of his resignation is a damaging one. Stability lost prior to the season beginning.

The question, of course, is who can Fleetwood appoint that will do a better job? Who’s willing to work under the financial restraints they now have, and with a relatively poor squad?

A young and inexperienced boss most likely.

Transfer Business

A summer of high turnover at Highbury, and not just in the dugout, in a manner that reflects Fleetwood’s financial pragmatism and relative status.

Some of the departures disappointing, but arguably to be expected. The impressive Tyler Horny-Forbes, a 20-year-old attacking full-back, unlikely to stay at the club after Brighton showed interested, goalkeeper Chris Maxwell, Player of the Year in 2014/15 and a regular between the sticks, snapped up by Preston, and creative midfielder Antoni Sarcevic, who scored the goal to take Fleetwood into League One and has made over 100 appearances for the club, joining fellow League One club Shrewsbury.

Additionally, centre back Marcus Nilsson has departed despite the club exercising an option to extend his contract this summer having impressed at Highbury since arriving in February. The Swede, who has one cap for his country, joining Stabeak for an undisclosed fee. A deal “which suits both parties” according to technical director Gretar Steinsson.

Whether that means further additions to the ones already made can now happen remains to be seen. A number of steady performers at this level joining the club that improve the overall strength of Fleetwood’s squad.

Important, too, that the disappointing departures have been replaced. Alex Cairns and Chris Neal, signed from Rotherham and Port Vale respectively, to fight it out for the number one jersey, full-back Michael Duckworth, having impressed in League Two, joins from Hartlepool United, and Ricardo Kip, a 24-year-old Dutch midfielder who scored 24 times in 117 games for Almere City, will look to provide a creative influence.

Elsewhere, centre-backs Cian Bolger and Ashley Eastham arrive with decent reputations from Southend and Rochdale, young defender-cum-forward Aaron Holloway signed from Wycombe having spent time on loan at Oldham last season, and a third goalkeeper, 22-year-old Matty Urwin, arrives from AFC Fylde.

Urwin not the only signing made from a non-league club this summer, with a relatively risk-free gamble taken on two young forwards. Both Ashley Nadesan, who scored 99 goals in two seasons for Horley Town, and Dion Charles, with 18 goals to his name at AFC Fylde in the previous campaign, will do well to avoid the obvious Jamie Vardy comparisons.

The Squad

Pressley’s departure particularly concerning given the need to shape together what remained of last season’s side with the new additions. The squad a little bit untidy.

Bolger and Eastham likely to form a new centre-back partnership, ahead of Joe Davis and long-serving captain Nathan Pond, but Amari Bell, who played 44 times at left-back last season, will attempt to maintain his place in the side despite the arrival of Duckworth.

Some doubt, however, as to whether the man that started regularly at right-back last season will remain. A desperate need to retain full-back Conor McLaughlin, with the Northern Ireland international rumoured to be sought by both Leeds United and former club Preston North End. The versatile Victor Nirennold the most obvious understudy.

Understudies lacking in the centre of midfield, though, with Nick Haughton providing the only real cover for former Addick Eggert Jonsson and new signing Ricardo Kip. A better situation out wide, helped by the versatility within the squad, as natural winger Jimmy Ryan is supported by McLaughlin and Duckworth’s ability to play further forward, in addition to forwards David Ball and Bobby Grant.

Devante Cole and Ashley Hunter provide two further forward options to whoever the new boss may be, in addition to new signing Holloway, while it remains to be seen if Nadesan and Charles will be given an immediate opportunity in the first team.

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Pressley’s resignation seems incredibly bizarre from the outside. The decision itself, but more so the timing. What’s the feeling among Fleetwood supporters?

To be honest, it has been coming. Most fans wanted him gone end of last season. He just wasn’t good enough.

What sort of boss do you need to replace him – an experienced one who can steady the ship, or a young manager who can build something?

I’d prefer a young manager with experienced back room staff. We need to get rid of most of the current back room staff from Alexander’s reign.

With the club much more considered in its spending than it was a few seasons ago, how difficult is it for Fleetwood, irrespective of who is in charge, to compete in a division well above their perceived status?

It’s obviously going to be difficult because we are a small team compared to some teams in the division and can’t compete financially.

You’ve had quite the turnover of players this summer, with useful-looking additions and relatively heavy losses. Has it made your squad stronger or weaker?

Just the same as last season. Not enough height or a player who looks like he is going to score 15+ goals a season. Think we might have a season like last year.

I must ask about Eggert Jonsson, who put in one of the worst performances I have ever seen by anyone in a Charlton shirt during a brief loan spell in 2012. A steady performer for yourselves?

Personally I think he is being a good player for us. Looked a bit dodgy start of season when he played centre back but since being moved to holding midfield he has made that position his own.

Finally, where will you finish this season? 

Around 17th. 

Summary

Not entirely sure that a manager resigning with less than two weeks to go until the season starts at a club who were struggling to compete anyway is ideal. 23rd

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Gillingham

Last season concluding with frustration and disappointment at the Priestfield Stadium as Gillingham, who were seriously flirting with the idea of a return to the Championship for the first time since their last second tier appearance in 2004/05, ultimately threw away what appeared for much of the campaign a play-off position that was theirs to lose. gwgwegewgewgew

Two victories in their final 15 games seeing the Gills drop to ninth. A finishing position that was just punishment for that end of season capitulation, but one that didn’t necessarily reflect how impressive they were prior to it.

Bold and brash attacking football, the consequence of manager Justin Edinburgh instilling confidence and cohesion into a group of young players that few predicted to challenge prior to the season getting underway, ultimately undermined and exposed as May approached, but not to the extent where the positivity created could be overwritten.

That capitulation, for example, not meaning that the Gills begin this campaign without the confidence and self-belief to attempt to mix with those clubs that carry a greater status in this division.

The circumstances heading into this season undoubtedly a little different, with Edinburgh’s side possibly lacking the element of surprise that they had for large parts of the previous campaign, but still possessing much of the quality that allowed them to match and outshine opponents that were perceived as stronger. At the very least, the impressive Bradley Dack still leads an energetic, pacey and potent attacking threat at the time of writing.

A harder challenge to compete on this occasion, and to make sure that they compete for the entirety of the season, but not one that is impossible.

The Manager – Justin Edinburgh

Despite falling away at the last, Edinburgh’s reputation had still grown considerably come the end of the campaign. A result of taking a side he had led away from the prospect of relegation in the previous season on a serious promotion challenge that lasted a sizeable proportion of the campaign.

Not just the fact that Edinburgh’s side competed with serious intent for a play-off position, but the way in which it was done earning the 46-year-old plenty of plaudits. Only champions Wigan Athletic, the always free-scoring Peterborough United, and a potent Millwall side scored more times in the league than Gillingham.

The former Newport County boss getting the best out of League One Player of the Year Dack, who was supported well in forward play by the exciting Emmanuel Osadebe, Reading loanee Dominic Samuel, and relatively potent Rory Donnelly, among others. Edinburgh giving his side the freedom to play an attacking brand of football.

A brand that will undoubtedly be allowed to be replicated in the coming season, but with the sort of adaptations that will prevent the form at the end of the previous campaign becoming more permanent. Edinburgh still relatively young, and therefore still learning, in managerial terms, and will need to show he and his side have learnt from that slump.

Transfer Business

A positive summer for the Gills, and not just because Dack remains locked away deep in the bowels of Priestfield.

In fact, it is the departure of John Egan, with the impressive centre-back joining Brentford, which provides the only real disappointment to supporters. Egan replaced by Deji Oshilaja, who returns for a third loan from Cardiff having made a strong impression in the previous two last season.

Oshilaja joined by a number of additions that provide a reasonable amount of excitement, or at least increase the quality available to Edinburgh.

Interestingly, there’s quite a heavy Charlton connection among those signed. Winger Lee Martin, who did a decent job while on loan at The Valley in the horrendous 2010/11 campaign, joins having not quite managed to maintain a permanent place in Millwall’s starting XI, the ever-popular and Roland Duchatelet-hating Scott Wagstaff arrives from Bristol City, with League One a tier the wide man can excel in, and a bit of coup to get one-time England left-back Paul Konchesky, who played 34 times while on loan at QPR, to agree a deal with the club.

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Elsewhere, midfielder Billy Knott, who has proven himself to be a decent performer at this level, arrives having been released by Bradford City, central man Mark Byrne has been snapped up after he impressed in League Two with Newport County, and 6’4 forward Joe Quigley joins on loan from Bournemouth, giving him an opportunity to play league football for the first time having spent time at non-league Woking last season.

Experience and quality signed, with a chance offered to 19-year-old Quigley. A positive summer of activity for the Gills indeed, though there is certainly an argument for more being needed.

The Squad

That argument the result of their squad looking a little stretched in certain areas. One of the many sides in this division where the starting XI looks promising, but you fear for them should they encounter injuries.

That probably most true at the back. Even in the goalkeeper position, there’s no senior backup to Stuart Nelson.

Minimal competition for places in the backline itself, with Bradley Garmston’s need to prevent Konchesky from claiming his left-back position the only real battle. The versatile Aaron Morris providing cover to centre backs Max Ehmer and Oshilaja, and Wagstaff could fill in for Ryan Jackson at right-back, but that’s not an ideal scenario. More options in defence needed.

A completely different story in midfield, where the options are plentiful and impressive. Byrne and Knott competing with Josh Wright, Jake Heesnthaler and Morris.

While it is in the more advanced midfield positions where the Gills are at their strongest. Emmauel Osadebe, at just 19, raising almost as many eyebrows as Dack did last season, while Martin and Wagstaff provide additional quality. Knott, and youngster Elliott List, providing alternative options if required.

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But up top, there are concerns. Quigley untired, the goals drying up for Cody McDonald, and Luke Norris unpopular among supporters. Rory Donnelly, despite scoring just ten times last season, Gillingham’s most potent threat. A more natural goalscorer required.

And though Edinburgh has spoken of signing another forward, who is capable of running off the shoulder of another, it would appear the Gills are currently better suited to playing a formation that accommodates five in midfield. The major benefit of which would be allowing Dack a degree of freedom.

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Last season. One of promise, or ultimately a disappointing capitulation and a missed opportunity?

Without doubt the latter. We had been inside the top six for each and every one of the first 33 games, and let it slip right at the end where we failed to win any of our final 8 matches. We were 17 points clear of eventual play-off winners Barnsley towards the end of February, that highlights how drastically we capitulated.
At the very least, it would appear that Justin Edinburgh has made you more competitive and brought a better standard of football to Priestfield. Support still there for him?
The backing is certainly still there for him. We were virtually unstoppable in the first half of the season, and he played a huge role in that. That said, we only won four games in 2016, so should the new campaign begin with a continuation of that form, then people may perhaps start asking questions.
“We only won four games in 2016, so should the new campaign begin with a continuation of that form, then people may perhaps start asking questions”

Does all hope of competing again this season vanish without Bradley Dack, or are you much more than that?

Well Justin Edinburgh has stated this week that there’s been no approach for him this summer, and it’s looking rather likely that he’ll still be here when the season begins at least, and perhaps even beyond the transfer window. Last season we were far too reliant on him, but our transfer business this summer should take away some of the load, or fill the void should he move on.

I’m sure you’ll be delighted to hear that Scott Wagstaff is as Charlton as they come, and someone well-respected among Addicks. How would you assess your transfer activity overall? You still look a little short in a couple of areas…

Wagstaff was one of three I put on a wish list the day after last season finished, and us Gills fans are delighted to have him! Our business in terms of personnel has been excellent so far, but as you say, we are still short in areas.

Wagstaff, along with Mark Byrne, Billy Knott and Lee Martin are all excellent additions to our midfield options. Paul Konchesky (another ex-Addick) is a real coup for us at the back, and his experience will be worth its weight in gold. That said, we are still threadbare in defence, as we currently only have one fit central defender, with no cover to either full-back. Edinburgh claims he’s working on two or three more signings, so I don’t believe our business is complete as of yet.

Finally, where will you finish this season?

Anything above last season’s 9th place would be welcomed. However, if Edinburgh can bring in a couple of quality additions at the back, then another play-off push is certainly not beyond us. I’ll side with my heart and predict an ambitious 5th.

Summary

An argument that greater depth is required, but new additions can help Gillingham find the form shown in the early parts of last season. 5th

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Millwall

Defeat to Barnsley in last season’s play-off final was an obvious disappointment for Millwall, but it certainly wasn’t a sign of failure. That there was such disappointment, a consequence of supporters reconnecting with their club, meant the season could be claimed as a success of sorts despite the heartbreak at Wembley. regergergergergerg

For the disconnection that grew while Ian Holloway led a largely unlikeable group towards relegation from the Championship has been replaced by a strong bond with Neil Harris and his cohesive cohort of Lions. A bond shaped by the manner in which a club legend gelled together a hard-working group of players, and strengthened by their relative overachievement of reaching the play-off final in a season that began without expectation.

But going into the second full campaign of Harris leadership, the unavoidable consequence of increased trust and relative success is the birth of expectations. Expectations, with a strong base from which to build upon, that aren’t unrealistic. The manager with a year of experience in the dugout to draw upon, his tight squad undamaged, and those added to it over the summer increasing the individual quality available.

The Barnsley defeat disappointing, but not damaging. Not to what Harris is attempting to build, and not to the confidence and faith in Millwall among the club’s supporters.

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The Manager – Neil Harris

There’s something particularly special about your club being led not only by someone who perfectly understands the ethos of it, but by someone who is submerged within that ethos. Harris the perfect representative and leader of the Lions.

And not just because of his record-breaking 138 goals as a player, in addition to holding the sort of positive fight and gritty determination that’s required to be accepted among The Den crowd. Harris’ managerial efforts last season proved him to be much more than simply a figurehead. The 39-year-old a very fine coach.

The refreshed squad, replacing a disjointed and unimpressive one, of young talent and more experienced pros whose commitment couldn’t be questioned gelled together impressively under Harris’ stewardship. Not too dissimilar to the impact Chris Powell had in his first full season in charge at The Valley.

A hard to beat attitude adopted, with just three league defeats suffered in 2016, but that isn’t to say the Lions weren’t capable of playing attractive attacking football when the situation allowed. The confidence instilled in forwards Lee Gregory (scoring 27 goals in all competitions), Steve Morison (19), and Aiden O’Brien (13) among Harris’ greatest successes.

And the danger of the defeat to Barnsley resulting in some sort of capitulation going into the new season? It’s going to take much more than a play-off final defeat to knock the self-belief, confidence and determination of a man who has overcome testicular cancer.

Transfer Business

There were two objectives at the start of this summer for the Lions – add some additional quality to a very stable base, and don’t let Lee Gregory escape from the dark room he’s being kept him.

And as the season approaches, it seems like that those objectives have been achieved. A disappointment to lose Mark Beevers to Bolton, given that the centre-back played 52 times in all competitions last season, but this has otherwise been a decent summer of activity for Millwall.

Beevers aside, the outs not damaging. Carlos Edwards’ days as a footballer, unfortunately, numbered, Lee Martin and Ed Upson not major parts of last season’s successful side, and John Marquis never living up to the early promise shown.

The ins useful, especially in the fact they replace those that have departed. Shaun Hutchinson, capable of playing at centre-back and in midfield, struggled to make an impression at Fulham but still appears a very decent signing at this level, winger Gregg Wylde was mightily impressive for Plymouth Argyle last season, and fellow wide man David Worrall arrives from Southend having been an important part of their side in recent seasons.

And most importantly of all, interest in prolific forward Gregory has been minimal. Barnsley said to be chasing the former Halifax man, but the Tykes ultimately signing Tom Bradshaw. He remains in his dark room, for now.

The Squad

It was the collective strength of a well organised Millwall side that allowed them to compete last season, but that isn’t to say the Lions are lacking in individual quality.

Particularly not between the sticks, where young goalkeeper Jordan Archer kept out David Forde for the majority of the campaign and won the club’s Player of the Year award in addition to the League One Player of the Month for February.  Not a bad effort for his first full season at the club, having been released by Tottenham.

There will, however, have to be an alteration to the backline that stands in front of him, given the departure of Mark Beevers. New signing Hutchinson the most likely to partner Byron Webster, but youngster Sid Nelson, who has already worn the captain’s armband despite being just 20, and the considerably more experienced Tong Craig, a veteran of armband wearing throughout his career, will provide useful alternatives.

So too is there a reasonable amount of strength in depth in the full-back positions, helped by the emergence of 20-year-old right-back Mahlon Romeo, and some excitement over 18-year-old left-back Noah Chesmain. Shaun Cummings, the versatile Joe Martin, and Northern Ireland international Shane Ferguson, who can play further forward if required, the more senior options.

The signing of Wylde probably means that Ferguson will start at left-back, and combine down the flank with the summer arrival from Plymouth. Ferguson presence giving a feel of there being plenty of depth in the wide positions, with Worrall, promising but frustrating youngster Fred Onyedinma and fellow academy graduate Aiden O’Brien, who made a huge impression last season, also available.

That, of course, assuming that Harris opts to play a basic 4-4-2 this season. Three in attack occasionally deployed last season, with Gregory (18 goals) and O’Brien (10) either side of Steve Morison (15). Potent.

To play such a formation would probably require the addition of an extra body in attack, with academy graduates Jamie Philpot and Alife Pavey the only options available in reserve, and possibly another body in the centre of midfield, though Hutchinson can be moved further forward.

Quality in the centre of midfield, though, with Shaun Williams consistently performing since his arrival from MK Dons, Nadjim Abdou still not sick of playing for the Lions after 321 league appearances, and the emergence of the slightly more creative Ben Thompson, 20, another plus point from last season. Onyedinma, who can play centrally, another option.

And whatever formation they choose to play, it’s likely to be incredibly organised and really well drilled. Annoyingly, there’s not too many holes to be found in this Millwall side.

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A club legend leading a cohesive and committed squad, with a healthy number of homegrown players amongst it all. Despite previous campaigns in the Championship and last season’s play-off disappointment, is this a good time to be a Millwall fan?

Well the easy answer is of course that it’s always a good time to be a Millwall fan! Seriously however, it is certainly an interesting time in the club’s rebuilding process. Last season represented very much an unexpected surge into the play-offs after the serial disasters that were the late period Kenny Jackett, Steve Lomas and the unmentionable clown Ian Holloway. Relegation and the clear-out of the accumulated mercenary dead-wood, meant an enforced faith in the traditional Millwall virtues of home grown youth and a no-nonsense attacking style.

As the season wore on, the initial consensus that mid-table respectability would be a good season, gave way to a gathering hysteria that the play-offs were reachable (even top two in our wilder moments – of which there were plenty). As always at The Den, the volcanic support that fuels such adrenalin rushes as the two Bradford play-off games can spill over into mayhem. But if you don’t like roller-coaster rides, my advice is to avoid the big dipper…

“Relegation and the clear-out of the accumulated mercenary dead-wood, meant an enforced faith in the traditional Millwall virtues of home grown youth and a no-nonsense attacking style”

The job that Neil Harris has done in not only forming a useful side but reconnecting supporters with their club can even have some applause from a Charlton fan. Begrudgingly. No chance of hidden faults being exposed in his second full season in charge, is there?

I think our biggest fault last season really wasn’t very hidden at all. We were a full on, traditional English side, full of running, maximum effort and with enough steel to scratch draws from defeats and wins from draws. Well certainly against three-quarters of League One anyway. Our problems came where teams passed and moved around us. Pace kills – and we lacked a Plan B as the cliché has it. We’re hoping that our Plan A is good enough to get past the remaining quarter of sides we couldn’t beat last season.

You’ve maintained the core of your side, and kept Lee Gregory in a dark room, while making some useful additions. Are you in a strong place to challenge again?

Absolutely. Lee Gregory would be a 25 goal loss if he is indeed lured to the glittering bright lights of Rotherham, but we do have strikers in reserve in the wily old soak Steve Morison and the young Irishman Aiden O’Brien. If the promise of Fred Onyedinma, Jamie Philpott and Kris Twardek come good. Make no mistake however, retaining Gregory might be the difference between a promotion run and another developmental season.

Regardless, it isn’t uncommon for teams who suffer defeat in the play-offs to struggle in the following season. Are there any concerns about a ‘hangover’?   

The only hangovers at Millwall were the ones on the Sunday morning after that Barnsley defeat. There is a real sense of promise at The Den and both the players and fans can’t wait to get stuck into a far more southern League One. I fully expect this optimism to last until the end of August when our expectations may have to be managed…

How much are you looking forward to continuing your unbeaten record against Charlton?

The Charlton hoo-doo is a strange beast. Like you, I have seen SE London ‘classico’ games where Millwall didn’t deserve to earn their bus fare home, let alone take three points away. But somehow someone crosses, it hits someone’s aris, a Charlton defender swings and misses and the ball deflects in off the cushion of Katrien’s sofa that just fell into the six yard box. I think it exists entirely in the minds of the Addicks and you should seek hypnotherapy to banish the mental loop. What was the question? Oh yes, of course we look forward to it. Who wouldn’t?

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I hope top two. Apart from the obvious reason, I can’t abide the plastic corporate hell that is Wembley. I think we will however finish in the top six. Anything less will be a failure.

Summary

Emulating, and potentially bettering, last season isn’t exactly going to be a simple task, but the retention of a cohesive group with promising additions provides a reasonable amount of hope that it can, in fact, be bettered. 2nd (Sorry)

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Milton Keynes Dons

That it was their first season in the Championship, and the comparative strength of the opposition, provided no excuse. By their own admission, MK Dons’ immediate return to League One amounts to a huge failure. gwegewgwegew

Enough mistakes were made to suggest relegation, in part, was self-inflicted. The money received from the sale of Dele Alli, both in the opinion of Karl Robinson and Pete Winkelman, not spent wisely enough. Three points clear of the relegation zone with eleven games to play, but failing to win any of those remaining fixtures. Leads thrown away against Fulham, Wolves and Brentford in that final block of fixtures, and Robinson’s management questioned.

The immediate return made even more frustrating by the fact three unsuccessful League One play-off campaigns, two of which were overseen by Robinson, occurred in the six seasons that preceded the second place finish in 2014/15. Something that had required a great deal of perseverance and determination to achieve immediately lost.

As such, there is a great deal of pressure on the Milton Keynes club to achieve this season. Pressure, having admitted failings and chairman Winkelman suggesting Robinson’s job was not completely safe over the summer, that they have placed on themselves. Pressure that may be tough to deal with, without the advantage that fellow relegated clubs Charlton and Bolton have in terms of status, and other League One clubs have in terms of financial clout.

But they do, unlike the Addicks and the Trotters, have stability. Winkelman and Robinson, who have been able to get this club to challenge for promotion from League One before, will be leading the Dons once again, despite the murmurings from themselves that they wouldn’t be.

They know this club, they know it’s capable of achieving, and they’re fully aware of the mistakes made previously. They’ll be determined to respond to the disappointment of last season.

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The Manager – Karl Robinson

The third-longest serving manager in the Football League remains so by the skin of his teeth, and not just because he turned down an approach from Leeds United in May. The Elland Road club rejected after Robinson’s current employers had had a think about his future.

It took Winkelman just over a week from suggesting that the 35-year-old’s future was not certain to confirming he would lead the club in League One, but that dismissing the boss was considered implies Robinson has something to prove.

Once seen as one of the most exciting young managers in the Football League, not least for his assistance in developing Alli, his reputation has been somewhat damaged after a tough season in the Championship. The wider footballing community no longer as convinced of his ability, Dons supporters no longer as committed to their boss of almost six years, and the club evidently possessing a touch of an uncertainty.

You worry a slow start will result in Robinson panicking, and making more mistakes. The normally patient Winkelman ultimately losing faith in his man, who he has insisted on praising while suggesting his future wasn’t guaranteed, and dismissing him. Adaptability, given Robinson’s insistence on playing an attractive brand of football, may be needed, with a focus on results.

The real pressure, arguably, on Robinson rather than the club itself.

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Transfer Business

The summer activity that the Dons have conducted has only increased the pressure on both Robinson and his chairman, with the squad left in a flimsy state as the season approaches.

Robinson himself has admitted that “there is a slight fear because the number aren’t where we want them to be” and that he’s “coming across a lot of closed doors” in his attempts to correct that. Rob Hall, for example, turning down a return to MK in order to join Oxford.

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The lack of numbers largely a result of a number of first-team players departing. Forward Alex Revell, quite oddly, not offered a new deal and joining Northampton, winger Carl Baker rejecting one and heading to Portsmouth, while both centre-back Kyle McFadzean (Burton Albion) and Lee Hodson (Rangers) have been sold.

And with Jordan Spence, Matthew Upson and Anthony Kay all being released, it comes as some relief that the Dons have managed to make a couple of defensive additions. Centre-back Paul Downing arriving from Walsall having been a regular in their promotion push last season, and right-back George Williams, who began his career in Milton Keynes, returns to the club having been released by Barnsley.

But with midfielder Ed Upson, a steady if unspectacular performer for Millwall, the only other addition, Robinson’s group lacks both new quality and depth.

The Squad

In fairness, there’s a relatively strong starting XI available to the Dons, which contains a number of long-serving players.

Goalkeeper David Martin standing in front of a back four that is likely to consist of Williams, Downing, Joe Walsh and club captain Dean Lewington. Martin with 249 league appearances for the club, and Lewington boasting an impressive 515 after an ever present campaign last time out.

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Darren Potter and Ed Upson likely to form the central midfield pairing, with Samir Carruthers and the fit again Ben Reeves, both relatively versatile in the sense they can play anywhere across the middle, the leading candidates to start out wide. Both Carruthers and Reeves into their fourth season with the Dons, and Potter is eight games away from a double century of league appearances.

While in attack, Nicky Maynard, who agreed a new deal at the end of last season, and Dean Bowditch, more effective in a wide role but players available probably demanding he plays centrally, would appear the leading candidates to start in attack.

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The problem is, there’s so little in reserve in every area of the pitch. Even in reserve to Martin, with young goalkeeper Charlie Burns all that’s available.

At the back George Baldock, who can also play in the middle, offers an alternative at right-back, but there’s no reserve centre-backs with any sort of experience, while winger Daniel Powell is the only real cover in midfield. Youngster Giorgio Rasulo, who impressed on loan at Aldershot last season, may well be given a chance.

And another chance, potentially, for the previously forgotten pair of Simon Church and Tom Hitchcock to make an impression. Former Charlton man Church returns after a productive spell at Aberdeen, while Hitchcock is yet to score for the Dons since arriving in the summer of 2014 and has been out on loan on three occasions.

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In fact, it’s probably in attack where the greatest strength in depth is available to Robinson. That in itself quite worrying.

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After flirting with promotion for so long, you would have thought that you’d have been prepared for the Championship. What went wrong, and are you in a weaker position now than two seasons ago?

The season started poorly and never picked up. Our chief scout Andy King died and it took its’ toll on the whole club.  It destroyed our recruitment process.  We relied so heavily on loans, especially in forward positions and we couldn’t get another gem like Patrick Bamford, Benik Afobe or Will Grigg.  We spent no money and brought in seven or eight players, five of whom were gone by January. We also lost our ability to win games against our closest rivals, losing 4-0 to Rotherham at home a prime example, which pretty much condemned our fate.

Is pressure mounting on Winkelman and Robinson, and do they have to return you to the second tier at the first attempt?

The majority of our fanbase have not known anything other than Winkelman and the Winkelman/Robinson combination does work well, especially when you compare it to some other combinations up and down the league. I don’t think there is any pressure and what pressure there ever has been in the past, they’ve dealt with fantastically and bounced back. I think this season will be our best chance of bouncing back and after that it may be difficult to hold on to our best players, people will soon go back to seeing us as a stable League One club again.

“This season will be our best chance of bouncing back”

Was there both frustration and pride in watching Dele Alli for Tottenham and England last season, knowing that the money received for him was not reinvested wisely?

We all knew Dele Alli wouldn’t be our player for long. Any MK Dons fan who begrudges someone who gave us what he did success because of how the club has reinvested the price tag he earned for himself playing for our club is ludicrous.  Any time he does another miraculous thing on the pitch, we’re mentioned.  He’s helped put our club on the map, he’ll be part of what history our club has forever and he still gives the club great publicity whenever we’re brought up.  It’s inevitably frustrating that the money hasn’t been reinvested, but it’s not the first time (Sam Baldock, Sheyi Ojo, George Williams). It’s becoming the norm, but it doesn’t affect how I see his career at all.

There’s a decent, long-serving, core to your squad, but little beyond that. Are you concerned about the state of your side?

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about the depth. two centre backs, central midfielders, one striker and one winger in the whole squad is a worry, but that’s what happens when loan players go back and your squad is decimated every 12 months.  Robinson is adamant he just wants players who will improve the group and keeps missing out to Championship clubs, but eventually (and very soon) he’ll have to just concentrate on getting a squad that can actually take to the field every Saturday, because whatever recruitment process is in place clearly isn’t working.

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Begrudgingly, I’ll ask a question about AFC Wimbledon. What do they mean to you, and what are your thoughts about playing them in league fixtures?

The move should never have happened, let’s get that straight.  But it did. They’re hypocrites. When they got promoted last season, they were a club that’s come through the football pyramid in no time at all. When they got Liverpool at home in the FA Cup, they were the club that won the cup in 1988.  Why can’t they just make their mind up? They’re utterly obsessed with every move we make and simply can’t move on.  It was an option to move Wimbledon FC and give them an opportunity to still follow the club if they wished, or the whole club ceased to exist and nobody have a club at all it, it was done with good will, but it was still totally wrong.  They abandoned their club two years before the move, yet it’s always someone else’s fault but theirs. If they’re the real Dons, someone please explain how AFC Wimbledon and Wimbledon FC were playing in the football pyramid at the same time.  Strange bunch.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I think the league this year is really weak.  In previous seasons there’s always been a big fish in the pond, Leeds, Southampton, Norwich, Sheffield Wednesday, Wolves etc. This year it’s wide open, but I think we’ll be play-offs.  At the moment, the squad is too weak in numbers to push for anything more, few injuries and we’re in big trouble.

Summary

Start to the season important. If Robinson can find his way again, and gel together a competitive squad, then they’ve got a reasonable chance of recovery. Early struggles, or issues with injuries impacting a small squad, and you worry about their ability to recover in a competitive league. 6th

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Part Three will be out in the next few days. All information, or at least it should be, correct as of 26/07/2016. All photos my own, or labelled for reuse by others. 

Chris Powell’s Flat Cap Championship Season Preview – Part One

Irrespective of Charlton Athletic’s relegation from the second tier, my interest in the Championship was never likely to diminish. A league of real quality, with interesting narratives at either end of the table, which was a pleasure to be a part of.

A league where the mantra that anyone can beat anyone really is true. Charlton recording wins over promoted Middlesbrough, play-off winners Hull, and Wembley runners-up Sheffield Wednesday.

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Wednesday among those that will need to avoid complacency as they once again push for promotion to the Premier League. The Owls part of a slightly smaller group of genuine top six contenders this campaign, but a group that contains exceptional quality.

Newcastle United well placed to make an immediate return to the Premier League, Aston Villa and Norwich City requiring recovery but will have ambitions to challenge following their relegations, and Wednesday, Brighton and Hove Albion, and Derby County are well set to compete again after play-off disappointment. Of that six, it’s only Villa’s spot that appears genuinely vulnerable.

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The quality of those most likely to be in the top six makes it incredibly difficult for those who would need to exceed expectations to break into it. But they are not lacking in number and, with last season belonging to the underdog across England, inspiration is not lacking.

Those who will look to achieve irrespective of financial restraints, such as Birmingham City, who require improvement having disappointed last season, with Fulham and Leeds among them, and those with fresh optimism, to be found at Huddersfield Town and Bristol City, need not be overawed.

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So too, however, will the ambitious clubs become twitchy should they start poorly, with even those who look set for a season near the foot of the table, Rotherham United with newly promoted Burton Albion and Barnsley to name three, possessing aspects which make them dangerous. A desperation to avoid becoming this year’s answer to Charlton, with the unsettled Blackburn Rovers among those best placed to emulate such a disastrous campaign.

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But only so much can be gained from a brief overview. Over four parts, all 24 Championship sides will be previewed in depth, with the assistance of a supporter from each one to either back up or crush or my own personal views.


Aston Villa

To say there is renewed vigour and fresh optimism at Villa Park after a summer of change might not be entirely accurate.

A more positive atmosphere, undoubtedly, as protesting supporters have seen their demands for the club to be sold met following a gutless relegation from the Premier League. Chinese Businessman Dr Tony Xia replacing the incredibly unpopular Randy Lerner as Villa owner, with the promise of financial injection and on-the-pitch recovery. New-Aston-Villa-Badge

The appointment of Roberto Di Matteo as manager, a more competent figure than the four bosses that unsuccessfully attempted to make a feeble Villa side competitive in the top flight, also welcomed by the majority of supporters. The expectation being that the Italian, who won the Champions League with Chelsea, will oversee an immediate return to the Premier League.

But to expect the immediate return of vigour and optimism among supporters, disconnected with their club for large parts of last season, is maybe a little unrealistic. An element of suspicion, and an unavoidable prediction of failure, always likely after a campaign that saw just three league victories, 27 goals scored, and embarrassingly half-hearted performances from a number of those wearing Villa colours. A number that still remain.

There is a need, therefore, for Villa to begin the season strongly. For the doubts and concerns, that exist largely as a result of last season and not what has explicitly occurred over the summer, to be immediately eased. For Di Matteo and his side to show the quality and fight that was absent for the entirety of last season.

Only then can the beleaguered supporters of Aston Villa begin to believe that this drop to the second tier is temporary, and a revival is underway.

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The Manager – Roberto Di Matteo

A Champions League winning manager taking charge of a club with a European Cup to its name in the second tier of English football. That all sounds quite fun, doesn’t it?

At the very least, Di Matteo’s CV, including success at West Brom and Chelsea in addition to a mixed time at Schalke, is one that offers encouragement that the Italian will be able to return Villa to the Premier League at the first attempt.

Not notoriously an instigator of attractive football, but the style in which Villa will play is hardly the club’s most pressing concern. His strong leadership qualities the most encouraging factor.

Di Matteo’s main task to provide a side that supporters can feel a degree of attachment to, and can respect. A need to instil determination and cohesion in a squad, still featuring many of those that offered minimal fight last season, which requires serious rejuvenation.

As such, despite the encouragement that appointing a manager of Di Matteo’s reputation offers, there is no getting away from the difficulty of the challenge that the Italian faces. A complete change of ethos and mentality required from the one that left supporters disillusioned from their club and side last season, and the new boss the man that needs to oversee that change. Di Matteo himself aware that this is a rebuilding job, and that “the only way is up”.

At the very least, there is more faith in Di Matteo among Aston Villa fans than there was in the hopeless Tim Sherwood and the overwhelmed Remi Garde. A challenge he is more capable of overcoming than the ones Villa’s Premier League coaches attempted to deal with.

Transfer Business

There was an expectation that this summer would see a rather drastic squad revolution, with those who underperformed or showed questionable attitudes quickly let go to be replaced by fresh talent that would help reengage Villa supporters.

That, however, hasn’t quite happened. The out of contract Kieran Richardson and Charles N’Zogbia allowed to leave, but many of the unpopular members of the first-team squad have proved harder to shift. A particular surprise that an Indian Super League side hasn’t come in for Joleon Lescott.

Carlos Sanchez, Brad Guzan, Idrissa Gueye, Micah Richards, Scott Sinclair, Jordan Veretout, Leandro Bacuna, Libor Kozak, and Carles Gil forming the long list of players that either need to be removed or want to depart, but remain contracted to the club midway through July. That they’re yet to depart undoubtedly having an impact on incomings.

But so too have there been positive retentions, with Jordan Ayew saying he is “in no rush to leave” and that he wants to help the club “qualify back to the Premier League”. The 24-year-old a rare Villa player to impress last season, with seven league goals.

And the new signings that have been sanctioned have also been encouraging. Not least the signing of Tommy Elphick, captain of Bournemouth during their rise up the leagues, pushing Lescott further down the centre-back pecking order.

In addition to Elphick’s experience comes the potential of 21-year-old Aaron Tshibola, with £5m spent on the midfielder who has impressed at Reading, and highly rated Italian goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, with a fee in the region of £4m parted with to sign the 21-year-old from Hellas Verona.

But arguably the fresh face that has provided the biggest boost to Villa supporters this summer is an old one. The ever popular Stiliyan Petrov, who retired from football in 2013 having gone through successful leukaemia treatment, taking part in pre-season at the age of 37 in a bid to make a return to the game. Ultimately not awarded a playing contract, but the sort of encouraging and inspiring story that beleaguered fans required.

The Squad

Especially given that they will be playing in the tier below the Premier League, there is some undoubted quality in what will be left of Villa’s squad once the unwanteds are removed

Joining Elphick in the centre of defence is likely to be one of Ciaran Clark, who impressing for Ireland this summer, or Jores Okore, a well-liked figure but has had his Villa career blighted by injuries, and further depth is provided by Nathan Baker, who returns from an impressive loan spell at Bristol City.

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Baker, capable of playing at left-back, also provides an option among a number of full-backs that should still be at the club come the end of August. Alan Hutton and Joe Bennett have both done decent jobs during loan spells at Championship clubs, while Aly Cissokho, having spent part of last season on loan at Porto, has featured during pre-season and will probably be the starting left-back if the in demand Jordan Amavi cannot be retained.

Gary Gardner, another that has done a reasonable job during Championship loan spells, may feature in the centre of midfield, along with Ashley Westwood, young Australian Jordan Lyden and Aaron Tshibola, while game time in the Championship might prove useful for exciting but seemingly brainless winger Jack Grealish.

And in attack, there’s Rudy Gestede, who was marvellous in this division for Blackburn Rovers. A partnership with Ayew at Championship level is, well, a bit scary.

There are, however, two huge issues for Di Matteo. The first being one that’s relatively simple to resolve. The lack of squad depth should be sorted once all those who aren’t wanted around Villa Park vanish, making way for new additions.

The tougher test of the Italian’s management ability will be getting the best out of a group that had their confidence mauled last season, and certain individuals that showed questionable attitudes throughout the campaign. Supporters to lift, and players to rejuvenate.

Not least somewhat disgraced former club captain Gabby Agbonlahor, who has gone from well-liked local hero to part of the problem.

The forward, who has proven in the past that he possess some ability, resigned as skipper towards the end of last season having admitted to being out drinking following the confirmation of Villa’s relegation. There were also questions about his fitness, his weight, and his general ability and attitude as a footballer.

But he has promised to “give 100%” in every game, and that these are “exciting times” for the club. Which is nice, probably.

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Is it a simple case of Dr Tony Xia’s takeover reconnecting supporters with a club they were disillusioned with last season, or does apathy remain?

The apathy felt by most was of course partly due to the dire performances on the pitch. However it was the lack of communication between Randy Lerner and the fans that caused many people to lose interest over the past few seasons.

In just 2 months, Tony Xia has connected with fans through social media and interviews more than Randy Lerner did in his entire 10-year tenure.

The connection between the fans in the Holte End and the club itself is what makes Aston Villa great, and with season ticket sales soaring it would seem that Tony Xia and his board have already taken great steps into reuniting the club and its fans.

“Tony Xia has connected with fans through social media and interviews more than Randy Lerner did in his entire 10-year tenure”

Roberto Di Matteo seems a promising appointment, but how difficult a challenge does he face in injecting confidence back into the club and immediately returning it to the Premier League?

I have never seen group of men, let alone professional footballers, look as dejected and unmotivated as Villa’s players last season. The stadium got emptier every week, and anger became apathy. Di Matteo faces an incredibly tough task of ensuring the players are united with a shared vision.

Unity is absolutely vital amongst any football squad, and with rumours of cliques in the Villa dressing room last season, reuniting a split group of players by any means possible is compulsory – whether that means selling the bad eggs or not, it is absolutely vital if we have any chance of an immediate return to the Premier League.

At the time of writing, some of those who showed rather questionable attitudes last season remain at the club. Another chance for Joleon Lescott and friends, or do they quickly need selling, and has their retention had an impact on your ability to strengthen?

The actions of Joleon Lescott both on and off the pitch were simply inexcusable last season, and keeping him at the club would only scupper any plans to reunite the fans with the club.

The likes of Brad Guzan and Micah Richards must see the door too. Their performances and complete lack of ownership of the situation last season were nothing short of a disgrace, and in an incredibly competitive league like the Championship, we cannot risk retaining them on the basis of them making a miraculous U-Turn this season.

Di Matteo has outlined the need to sell players before we buy. We have a huge squad and that cannot bode well for team unity, therefore the quicker they are out the door, the quicker the recovery process continues. 

Can a season of stability and transition be accepted, or is it a case of anything but promotion is a complete failure for Villa?

Contrary to popular belief, there are some talented players amongst the rubble. The likes of Jordan Ayew, Jack Grealish and Jordan Amavi have potential to be the best in their position in the league, along with the arrival of a much needed new spine to the team in Gollini, Elphick and Tshibola.

Despite last season, the general consensus amongst most Villa fans is that anything beneath the play-offs is a failure. Tony Xia has outlined his desire to return to the Premier League immediately with no transition period – only time will tell whether his desires become a reality.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

If we can utilise the talent hidden within our squad, as well as sustaining unity throughout the club, next season will see Aston Villa come on leaps and bounds.

One thing is for sure, though – the likes of Lescott, Richards and Guzan must leave and also gaps within the squad must be filled, such as the lack of a competent right-back and a creative player to play the final ball, if we are to achieve Xia’s desire of an immediate return to the Premier League.

With positive early movements in the transfer market, the appointment of Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Clarke and Tony Xia’s promise to continue adding to the squad, I feel that a minimum of play-offs is expected this season. 5th

Summary

New ownership provides stability, and will ultimately allow Villa to progress to the sort of position a club of their size should be in, but maybe not right away. Should be able to do enough to secure a play-off place, though. 6th

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Barnsley

A side that many could see the potential in, but not one that appeared to have the immediate qualities required to compete even in the third tier. Barnsley spending much of the first half of last season in and around League One’s bottom four, and were 21st on Boxing Day. Avoiding a drop to League Two seemingly the immediate ambition, rather than considering a return to the Championship. greheherhjtsn

So it is some achievement for the Tykes to have worked their way into the Championship for the coming season. A deserved reward for a spectacular second half to last season, uninterrupted by the departure of boss Lee Johnson to Bristol City.

The 24 league fixtures that followed Boxing Day featuring 16 victories, with the additional bonus of a Football League Trophy win at Wembley, to allow Barnsley to snatch a top six spot on goal-difference. The side that Paul Heckingbottom had adopted unquestionably the best of the four that competed in the play-offs, and showing their quality again at Wembley with a 3-1 win over Millwall.

That nature of their promotion, however, means doubts about whether they can contend with the challenge that the Championship offers are to be expected. And not just because of the very season of two halves nature of their campaign.

Those performances towards the end of the season, and particularly in the play-offs, assisted heavily by a number of loanees no longer with the club. Lloyd Isgrove, Ashley Fletcher and Josh Brownhill among those who impressed, and will be missed. Potential in those recruited to plug the gaps, not least in the shape of Tom Bradshaw, but Championship experience possibly lacking.

A question of experience also with regards to Heckingbottom, who begins his first full season as a manager. At the very least, the 38-year-old might well need to show some adaptability, with the attacking style deployed last season in danger of being exploited by stronger teams in this division.

Nonetheless, while those doubts cannot be ignored, if Heckingbottom’s side perform as impressively as they did on their way to promotion, there is every chance enough Championship scalps can be claimed to secure their status in the second tier.

Head Coach – Paul Heckingbottom

There no doubt that Heckingbottom, having led the Tykes to a Football League Trophy title and an impressive promotion via the play-offs playing attractive attacking football, would have his position as head coach made a permanent one come the conclusion of last season.

There no doubt that this the reward Heckingbottom, having replaced Johnson on a caretaker basis following his move to Bristol City, deserved, and one that both supporters and players wanted. “It is everything you need from a manager and personally, I get on fantastically with him. We gave each other a lot of respect and everything is a great fit,” said winger Adam Hammill upon his permanent appointment.

There no doubt that Heckingbottom’s relationship with the club’s hierarchy is a positive one, and a contributory factor towards the club having clear ambitions to continue progressing with a young squad.

“We have a clear vision of how we want to continue to improve the football club and (owner) Patrick Cryne and the rest of the board have already demonstrated to me their commitment to achieve this. It is this united front between everyone who loves the football club that is one of our strengths and one of the reasons why I am so excited for the season ahead,” commented Heckingbottom having signed his full-time contract.

The sort of positivity and enthusiasm you would expect after such a successful and enjoyable three months in caretaker charge. A belief that the club is developing.

But so too must there be caution. At the very least, in his first full season in management, there cannot be an expectation for Heckingbottom to be completely faultless as he attempts to compete with the Tykes in the Championship.

A tough ask, regardless of last season’s achievements.

Transfer Business

Beating another club likely to be involved in the same relegation battle as yourselves to a promising signing makes the value of that addition worth double.  

And so Barnsley’s signing of 23-year-old forward Tom Bradshaw, who also interested Rotherham United, from Walsall is a huge one. The Welshman the scorer of 17 goals last season, and replacing the threat lost by Ashley Fletcher’s loan spell coming to an end.

A number of other clubs, including Charlton Athletic and Peterborough United, also beaten in order to sign playmaker George Moncur from Colchester United. The West Ham academy graduate mightily impressive during a period of struggle for the U’s and, like Bradshaw, should have the quality to make an immediate impression in the second tier.

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A tougher ask, though, for many of Barnsley’s other additions to make the same sort of immediate impact in a division that they lack experience in. Andy Yiadom, the right-back a consistent performer for Barnet for a number of years, and forward Stefan Payne, a player I have seen play several times for Dover Athletic who deserves his chance in the Football League, the most likely to have first team roles, but there’s no denying it’s a huge step up in quality for the pair.

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Regardless, along with Wrexham’s Kayden Jackson and West Ham United’s loan journeyman Elliott Lee, they’re relatively risk-free additions that suit Barnsley’s mantra of development, and become part of a squad that has, apart from those whose loan deals expired, not lost any regular first-teamers.

There does, however, remain a need to replace two of those lost loanees. A winger or two needed before the start of the season to plug the holes left by Josh Brownhill, with the natural centre-mid who can also play out wide joining Bristol City despite Barnsley’s best efforts, and Lloyd Isgrove, who has returned to Southampton.

The Squad

It is the youthfulness and potential of Barnsley’s squad that created something so exciting last season, and, alongside its cohesion that allowed for some excellent football to be played, remains its greatest strength.

That probably best displayed by the fact that the ever-present leader of their defence was 22-year-old Alfie Mawson, and that the Tykes go into the new season without a player over the age of 28 in their squad.

Talent in this relatively young group right the way through it. Goalkeeper Adam Davies, extremely young for a stopper at 23, impressing throughout last season, Conor Hourihane and Marley Watkins, both 25, often dictating in midfield, and Bradshaw’s partnership with 24-goal Sam Winnall, also 25, is an exciting one.

But there is no denying that a lack of Championship experience may ultimately harm this Barnsley unit. Age not the issue, but the fact that so many players are playing their first proper season in the second tier. Only Aidan White, the sparingly used Lewin Nyatanga, and Hammill have it to any sort of degree.

Potential and promise, with undoubted talent, amongst this side. But you do fear, against sides with bundles of Premier League and Championship experience, that faults may be exposed. Their collective cohesion, and the direction of Heckingbottom, incredibly important.

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You can’t have imagined you would be answering questions for a Championship Season Preview last December. How on earth did you pull off such a remarkable climb up the League One table?

The only people that are surprised are the people outside of Barnsley. Our squad was a young team of inexperienced but individually brilliant players which they showed when we entered that particular zone. It was like we were in a corridor of confusion. Once we gelled we started to play cosmic, nobody could touch us, not even Stuart Hall.

Is it simply a case of sneaking 21st place and maintaining your second tier status this season?

We’re not going to ‘sneak’ anywhere. Our game thrives on keeping in the possession zone, breaking the lines and attacking. We are under no illusion that it will be tough. This year’s Championship could read like a Premier league from any give year but we aren’t just in it to make up the numbers.

“This year’s Championship could read like a Premier league from any given year but we aren’t just in it to make up the numbers”

Paul Heckingbottom’s achievement last season cannot be downplayed, but this will be his first full campaign in management. Is there a worry that he might ultimately be overwhelmed?

Absolutely not. The lad is from Barnsley, what is there to be overwhelmed about by a bunch of overpaid nancy boys prancing around in skinny jeans with their head’s buried in Pokemon Go?

Your squad has plenty of individuals with potential, as do those you’ve signed, but are you concerned about a lack of proven Championship quality available to you?

Our philosophy is a strong one. We have to develop players into Championship contenders if we are ever going to compete. But proven Championship quality is an irrelevant phrase. In the season we went down we signed a Celtic first team player, a player from Arsenal that had played in the champions league, and neither of them were much cop. They were journeymen that were happy to go through the motions for a pay cheque and we don’t need that kind of player.

Our players are hungry, and hungry to perform at higher levels. So maybe they won’t commit their entire career to Barnsley Football Club, but if we give them a shop window then before you know it they’ve spun and slid their way into a bigger club and we’ve done financially well.

How important are Tom Bradshaw’s goals, and preventing Rotherham United from having them, going to be to your chances of survival?

He’s not scored owt yet. A team is made up of many players. I like the lad and I think he’ll do well, but preventing a team that is expected to be in and around the same position as us by the bookies, from having him will have zero bearing on our season.

Finally, where will you finish this season? 

16th if we can exploit the promotion.

Summary

Momentum from last season means this exciting and youthful group are not to be underestimated, and might well be able to surprise a few, but avoiding relegation regardless of the circumstances must be considered a relative success. 21st

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Birmingham City

If you had offered a comfortable tenth place finish to Birmingham City supporters prior to the start of last season, there would have been few complaints. A play-off push, with finances restricting the club’s ambitions, seemingly unlikely, and a top-half finish enough to count as a relative success.hrgergerhreh

But the manner in which the Blues effectively slumped to their final position in the Championship meant a promising and positive campaign had a disappointing conclusion. Gary Rowett’s admired overachievers winning just one of their final 12 games, and falling from one point outside the top six to ultimately eleven points away.

Finishing with 63 points in tenth meant that, rather bizarrely, there was no change from the previous season. Watchers of the Blues, however, would have seen improvement for much of the campaign as they flirted with the play-offs and showed signs that Rowett had given them a strong identity until the final weeks of the season. The final league table rather harsh on the Blues, and not quite reflective of their overall efforts.

Reflective instead of the fact Rowett’s group just lacked a touch of quality to accompany their cohesion and organisation. A touch of quality that, rather worryingly, hasn’t necessarily been added to Birmingham’s squad.

The concern, therefore, that while the Blues will once again be able to compete under Rowett’s guidance, they won’t have enough to kick-on and make a season-long push for the top six. Stability with the potential for further success becoming frustrating stagnation.

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The Manager – Gary Rowett

The reputation of Rowett is such that there will surely be concern among Birmingham supporters should a Championship manager of a club with strong and genuine promotion ambitions depart their role throughout this coming season.

For the 42-year-old, still young and with the potential to develop in managerial terms, has made incredibly strong impressions on a wider footballing audience in both his job at Burton and his current role with the Blues. Overachieving with small and budget-restricted squads, getting his sides to play intelligent football, and a very strong facial hair game – Rowett one that many applaud.

So too, despite being unable to prevent the slight capitulation in the closing weeks of last season, does the former Charlton defender possess confidence and desire. Believing that the previous campaign remained something of an overachievement, but still asking the question of “what can we do to get better” to his players and staff both as it ended and as pre-season began.

Had a manager without support and respect made comments like that, you would feel patronised as a supporter. But with the faith and trust that is in Rowett, in brings promise that greater intensity, effort and consistency will be shown throughout the coming season.

Losing Rowett would mean losing that drive, or it at least becoming damaged. A real need for the Blues to keep him away from prying hands.

Transfer Business

Irrespective of the need for Rowett to add quality to his very stable base, it comes as no surprise that transfer activity has been minimal for the Blues this summer. A consequence of financial restrictions, and a messy ownership given that the club remains in the guilty hands of Carson Yeung.

Full-back Ryan Shotton joins permanently having impressed during a spell on loan from Derby last season, the relative goal-shy and very much injury-hit James Vaughan now a full-time Blue having spent more than half the campaign at St Andrew’s on loan from Huddersfield, and combative midfielder Robert Tesche arrives from Nottingham Forest.

At least those that have departed – Neal Eardley, Lee Novak, Mark Duffy, David Edgar, Wes Thomas and Mitch Hancox among them – were players whose contributions to the first team were minimal. No big departure, such as Demarai Gray’s January move to Leicester City, this summer.

But a delve into the loan market, as has been done on numerous occasions in recent seasons with some reward, likely before the season begins. A need to find this season’s Jon Toral.  

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The Squad

It is through organisation, structure and cohesion that Birmingham’s relative success in periods of last season was built. A squad playing beyond the standard many thought they were capable of as a consequence of how well drilled they were.

The importance of ever-present captain, and former Addick, Michael Morrison not to be underestimated in that. Charlton’s decision to hand the centre-back to the Blues becomes increasingly more bizarre as his cult status at St Andrew’s continues to grow. As he was at The Valley, a real fan favourite.

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And as was the case during his time at Charlton, Morrison is part of a side that’s collectively stronger than the sum of its individual parts. Particularly at the back, with Jonathan Grounds, Jonathan Spector and Shotton likely to be part of a surprisingly solid unit, protecting Tomasz Kuszczak. The concern being that depth, as is the case throughout the squad, lacking.

It’s probably in the centre of midfield where the Blues are best equipped, and also have a great deal of versatility. Maikel Kienfenbeld, David Davis and Tesche the more defensive options, Stephen Gleeson somewhere in between, and Diego Fabbrini a wonderful playmaker who can play behind the striker.

Wide options not too bad, either, with youngsters Viv Solomon-Otabor and Koby Arthur, in addition to Andrew Shinnie, returning from a loan spell at Rotherham, providing support to David Cotterill and Jacques Maghoma. Maybe one more needed to ease the pressure on the youngsters.

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But it’s in attack where Birmingham’s greatest concern can be found. Clayton Donaldson a marvellous forward, with a superb ability to hold up the ball in addition to a potent nature in front of goal, but little beyond that. Vaughan struggling with form and injury in recent years, and Nicolai Brock-Madsen struggling to impress last season.

The questions, therefore, are is there enough depth, and who will step up to provide the individual quality that was sometimes missing last season to turn draws into wins?

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Was last season, overall, one of positivity and overachievement, or ultimately a bit of a disappointment?

I think in the end we were all a bit disappointed. At the start of the season, we would have bitten your arm off for a top half finish, but with such a great first half to the season, to peter out as we did and to put in some really shoddy performances just wasn’t the Blues we’d seen in the first half of the season.

It was disappointing because we knew we could do better. But the same happened to Cardiff and Ipswich, so you could say there is a gulf in class between teams such as Derby and Sheffield Wednesday, who can go at it almost all season, compared to teams like us just below them.

What do you need to make a season-long challenge for the play-offs? Is it simply a case of finances that allow you to be more competitive in the transfer market?

Finances do play a big role yes. If you look at Wednesday, they are a strong team who built up a very good challenge, just failing at the last hurdle. They have good players, great names; a solid championship side. Ultimately, there’s only so much the Stephen Gleesons and Paul Robinsons of this world can do. To be in with a real chance we do need to be in a position to spend money. You can build a good squad with solid foundations and a cracking team spirit on little money, but to get them over the line is tough, as we saw last season. I think money is vital to buy players who are just that little bit better to challenge for the play offs and beyond.

“Ultimately, there’s only so much the Stephen Gleesons and Paul Robinsons of this world can do”

On the transfer market front, you’ve been a bit quiet in adding to your squad. What further additions do you need?

I think everyone has been fairly quiet so far, probably a knock on effect of the Euros. Thankfully we retained our players, and got in Robert Tesche who did brilliantly for us when he was here previously. We need more bite up front: our problem last season was lack of goals, and while Clayton Donaldson is a solid centre forward, he can’t do it on his own all season. I’d say that’s the priority, but we’re also lacking a partner for Morrison in defence.

How concerned are you that a bigger club will come in for Rowett, and what impact would that have on a side that seems to rely heavily on his leadership to compete?

Not overly. There were whispers about Derby wanting him but I can’t say there was any truth in it. Ultimately it would be a shame if he left, but I think he’s really on to something here, and he seems like a man who won’t leave until he sees a job through, whether that’s simply improving on last season, or getting us into the play offs – if we get promoted or not. Obviously when a good manager leaves it has an effect on those he leaves behind, but at the moment it’s not something that needs thinking about – hopefully not for a while either!

Can we take a moment to appreciate Michael Morrison? He’s great, isn’t he?

Let’s take all the moments. He’s superb. As mentioned, he really needs a partner and he’ll flourish even more. Having one of Robinson or Jonathan Spector alongside him isn’t the best partnership, but it’s seen us through last season. I’d love it if we could sign a really decent player to partner him, and see him grow even more as a player.

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And finally, where will you finish this season?

This year will be strong, no doubt about it. Newcastle, Wednesday, Villa, Derby; the list goes on. I would say if we weren’t challenging for the play offs I would be disappointed. That has to be the aim. You always have to look to improve and now that we have some money to spend – albeit not tens of millions – we should be able to maintain a season long campaign and mount a real play off push. She says!

I’d be happy with 7th. I want 5th or 6th. It’s probably asking too much, but you just never know in this league…

Summary

Rowett will keep them stable, but need a way of becoming more competitive in the transfer market to truly compete. A slightly less successful season might well force it. 13th

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Blackburn Rovers 

There are highly competitive auditions taking place to see which club will fulfil the role of last season’s Charlton Athletic in this coming Championship campaign. regregregerg

Blackburn Rovers one of a handful of former Premier League clubs, with the sort of infrastructure and foundations that should make challenging at the top end of the Championship plausible, whose owners have failed to the point that a struggle at the bottom seems more likely, with supporters disillusioned and detached.

And it’s Rovers who appear in pole position to claim the unfashionable crown worn by the Addicks last season. If only for the fact that the unrest among supporters of the Ewood Park club threatens to match the displeasure voiced at The Valley.

Opposition to the Venkey’s group always strong, and growing stronger in the previous half-year as a consequence of the manner in which Paul Lambert departed. The Scot wanting to push for a play-off place, the club not willing to commit to such a goal with funds lacking, and an apparent unfixable division between manager and ownership existing.

A situation made worse by the unpopular appointment of Owen Coyle. Not the man seen to improve on another disappointing season on the pitch for Rovers, who stuttered to a 15th place finish and never so much as flirted with the top six.

And should there not be immediate improvement on the pitch, something that doesn’t look that likely with Coyle’s ability as a manager questionable and his squad comparatively weak, a poisonous atmosphere at Ewood Park appears likely.

Another difficult and uncomfortable season seemingly awaits for supporters of Rovers.

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The Manager – Owen Coyle

Responding to the appointment of a new manager by creating a petition with the intention of having him removed isn’t exactly the greatest of starts.

And, in truth, opposition from Blackburn supporters to Coyle being named their news boss is understandable. A consequence of the fact he’s managed at three of Rovers’ Lancashire rivals, but the more pressing concern resulting from a managerial record that hasn’t been impressive since departing Burnley for Bolton in January 2010. Relegation overseen with Wanderers, an unimpressive half-season spent at Wigan, and his reputation not recovered during a spell with Houston Dynamo.

At the very least, it’s not an appointment that makes the most of Lambert’s departure. There’s no real argument that Coyle is more qualified for the job than his fellow Scot, and Blackburn’s chances of being a competitive outfit this season haven’t increased with him taking on the role.

There is, therefore, a great deal of pressure on Coyle to win over a set of supporters who, for legitimate reasons, are short of patience. A promising start needed, or that petition will end up being passed around Ewood Park during a game.

Transfer Business

A clear out of very average players and a couple of tidy additions was never going to be enough to create excitement, and always going to mean that a feeling of disaster would follow if a key player was to leave.

So the sale of Grant Hanley, in this climate of disillusionment among Blackburn supporters, was never going to be welcomed. The club skipper joining Newcastle, and becomes the third key player, after Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes, to depart in three transfer windows.

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There should, therefore, be quite the transfer kitty available to Rovers, with additional funds coming from the clear out of unneeded players. Chris Taylor, Lee Williamson and Chris Brown among the relatively large list of players released over which few tears will be shed, while Tommy Spurr and Matthew Kilgallon also depart having played bit-part roles last season.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Uncertainty over whether Shane Duffy, linked with Celtic, and impressive winger Ben Marshall will agree new deals, while the respectable signings made earlier on in the window appear less so after the loss of Hanley.

Danny Graham, having scored seven goals while on loan from Sunderland last season, has joined permanently, fellow forward Anthony Stokes, well-liked by Celtic and Hibs supporters, arriving having last played in England in 2009, and winger Liam Feeney, involved in Bolton’s relegation last season but possessing enough quality to deserve to maintain his own Championship status, signs having spent time on loan at Ewood Park in 2014. Not a penny paid.

The squad also bolstered by the loan additions of young West Ham left-back Stephen Hendrie, and 20-year-old Manchester City midfielder Jack Byrne, but it’s not enough to suggest Rovers will be competitive this season.

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The Squad

Remember when you used to look at Blackburn’s squad, see Rhodes and Gestede, and be full of fear? This Rovers side feels a lot, lot weaker than it was a few seasons ago.

Graham and Stokes, the only first-team forwards at the club, not on the same level as previous partnerships, but at least their supply is still decent enough. Feeney and Marshall joined by Craig Conway and Elliott Bennett, though the former Norwich winger has been linked with a move to Ipswich.

Some quality in the centre of midfield, too, with Northern Ireland international Corry Evans competing for places alongside Jason Lowe, Hope Akpan, and Danny Guthrie.

But the same cannot be said about the backline, where the reality of Hanley’s departure is seen. The defensive unit in a horrendous state. Elliott Ward, injury-hit in recent season, the only experienced cover, while Lowe may be required to fill in at full-back should Adam Henley or Henrie suffer injury.

At least in Jason Steele, Rover possess a competent goalkeeper. He’s probably going to find himself busy this season, and especially if Rovers cannot bolster their defensive options.

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Fans View – Carly Brown (@carlybrownn)

Is it reasonable to say that apathy and disillusionment is the overwhelming feeling among Blackburn fans going into the new season?

Most definitely. When things seem to be getting a bit better something always seems to go wrong.

Given the unpopular nature of his appointment, how much pressure is Owen Coyle under to immediately prove himself?

I’m still shocked at the appointment myself. He certainly does have a lot of pressure on him and if the season starts badly, then who knows how the club will be shook up.

“I’m still shocked at the appointment”

Should Coyle not start well, and the disillusionment that exists grows, can you see a scenario where there are constant protests against the ownership?

I could very much see it going back to the days of the Steve Kean and Venkys protests. Coyle knew what he was taking on when he took the role and how the fans feel so he has got to prove himself immediately.

Are you concerned at all that, with other Championship clubs improving and yourselves losing star player after star player in the previous three transfer windows, this season may end in relegation?

It has definitely crossed my mind. Keeping Ben Marshall is important. Coyle has completed some promising signings so far securing Danny Graham for example but we still do not have any stand out players that could push us up the league.

And finally, where will you finish this season? 

17th

Summary

Leading contenders to be this season’s Charlton. 22nd

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Brentford

Important lessons were learned at Griffin Park last season. Namely that overwhelming a club with a strategic formula that disrupts and ultimately breaks up a winning unit probably isn’t a great idea, and that no philosophy, regardless of what evidence there is for it, should override common sense. gregreger

True, there were reasons beyond owner Matthew Benham’s decision to fully implement his statistics-orientated strategy that meant Brentford were unable to challenge for a top six spot last season. Andre Gray and Moses Odubajo unlikely to be retained under any circumstances, personal problems meaning Jota required a loan move to Spain, and opponents were stronger and wiser to the threats that the Bees posed.

But there is no denying the overriding negative impact that Benham’s philosophy, supported by how well it had worked at the Danish club he oversees, FC Midtjylland, had on a side that managed to achieve a top six place in 2014/15.

Marinus Dijkhuizen, appointed to help implement the strategy but sacked before October, no replacement for the adored Mark Warburton, whose controversial departure was a consequence of him not being able to work under the conditions that were to be imposed on him. Losing Warburton remains an unforgivable error.

Recruitment, overseen by directors of football Phil Giles and Rasmus Ankersen, Flawed. The majority of those signed from Europe on the basis of statistical analysis – Phillipp Hofmann, Marco Djuricin, and Konstantin Kerschabaumer among them – failing to adapt.

Several sales, such as Stuart Dallas’ to Leeds United and Toumani Diagouraga’s January move to Elland Road, questionable and seemingly unnecessary. A successful Brentford team that had seemingly built a platform from which to progress further frustratingly broken up.

Nonetheless, at least owner Benham has come to accept that dictating an English club via his statistical philosophy is neither practical nor likely to lead to success. Too late, of course, to prevent the damage already done, but an acceptance made quickly enough to place the Bees back on the right sort of track before crisis ensues.

That Dean Smith, the former Walsall boss appointed in November and ultimately overseeing a commendable final position of ninth, now leads the Bees the greatest sign of that. His coaching ability respectable, his power greater than that of statistics, Giles or Ankersen, and this summer’s work in the transfer market much less of a gamble.

A challenge for the top six a tough ask, but at least a degree of stability and sensibility has replaced statistics at Griffin Park.

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The Manager – Dean Smith

Smith certainly more Warburton than Dijkhuizen, but Brentford’s boss still has plenty of work to do before winning over supporters entirely at Griffin Park.

For prior to that run of seven wins from the final nine games of the season came a period of ten defeats from 14. The football atrocious, and serious questions asked of Smith, not least after the loss at home to Charlton. The application and effort of his side not nearly enough.

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And so those wins towards the end of the season were desperately needed. To provide supporters with some encouragement, and increase the suggestion that Smith is indeed the right man to take the Bees forward have taken a large step backwards in the previous 12 months.

It means Smith, who laid the foundations from which Walsall challenged for promotion in League One last season, can look ahead to this season with a degree of confidence. Increased by the fact he has a full pre-season with the players to properly instil his beliefs into them.

A promise that his side will “have more of an understanding of what myself and Richard (assistant O’Kelly) will be after” once this campaign begins.

Hopefully creating a platform from which the positive end to last season can be continued, rather than the disappointing efforts prior to that becoming more prominent again.

Transfer Business

Regardless of the justification, that they both only had one year remaining on their contracts and so it was more beneficial to cash in on them, it comes as a frustration to Brentford supporters that their first choice goalkeeper and captain have been sold to rivals.

Former Charlton goalkeeper David Button joining Fulham, and Jake Bidwell allowed to join QPR. The pair near ever-presents in recent seasons, but the Bees unable to agree new deals with either of them. The financial gain taken over keeping them for the coming season and allowing them to run down their contracts.

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The departures, however, made much more acceptable with quality replacements. Goalkeeper Daniel Bentley, possessing both quality and potential at 23, arriving from Southend, while another left-back has been promised by boss Smith.

Other promising additions also made to the squad, who have performed exceptionally at League One level and deserve a chance in the Championship. Attacking midfield Romaine Sawyers, who was Smith’s star man at Walsall, and centre-back John Egan, who featured in the League One Team of the Year having impressed for Gillingham, joining the Bees following the expiry of their previous contracts.

But it wouldn’t be a transfer window without Brentford at least making one quirky signing. Danish youth international forward Justin Shaibu arriving HB Koge, to link up with what is being referred to as Brentford B. Right-o.

The Squad

The predictable ‘like a new signing’ quote has already been made by Smith, but having a number of players available for the majority of this season after recovering from long-term injuries certainly improves the strength in depth of Brentford’s squad.

Andreas Bjelland, the centre-back a club-record signing last summer, has taken a full part in pre-season after a knee ligament injury, creative midfielder Lewis Macleod, with just one Bees appearance since arriving from Rangers in January 2015, fit for the new season, and forward Scott Hogan, impressive after making his return in the final weeks of last season, appears to have finally overcome the injuries that have plagued him since arriving from Rochdale in 2014.

And similar will be said when Alan Judge returns, but that not expected until the new year as the Irishman recovers from a broken leg sustained in April. The winger a huge loss, having scored 14 times last season and been nominated for the Championship Player of the Year.

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Such is the influence of Judge, Brentford will undoubtedly be a much weaker side until he completes his recovery, but there are options available to replace him. Konstantin Kerschabaurner the man that filled in at the end of last season, while MacLeod and Sawyers can, if required, fulfil his role. Creative midfielders who can play out wide or centrally not really an area where the Bees lack options, with the experienced Sam Saunders another that can be called upon.

More traditional central midfield options also available in good number to Smith, with Alan McCormack, Jack Woods and Josh McEarchran, hoping to prove himself after a disappointing first season at Griffin Park, among them.

Depth to be found in the centre of defence, too. Bjelland could form a partnership with Hardlee Dean, but Maxime Colin, Egan, and Yoann Barbet provide alternatives. Such depth allowing the Bees to play a three-at-the-back formation at times during pre-season.

Playing 3-5-2 also prevents the situation at full-back from being too damaging, but that isn’t to say it should be ignored. Some question marks over the quality of right-back Nico Yennaris despite improvement shown last season, while inexperienced Tom Field is the club’s only left-back at the time of writing. Greater strength required.

And another striker wouldn’t go amiss, either. Lasse Vibe, ending the campaign with 14 goals, began to show signs of adapting to the English game towards the end of last season, while Hogan scored seven times in seven games after his return, but Philipp Hofmann is the only other recognised striker and the German failed to impress last season.

In general, the Bees are looking for players to make immediate impressions following long injuries and players with question marks over them to prove their worth to give them a competitive squad. A bit more depth, and certain quality, probably needed.

This a long way from the cohesive unit of two seasons ago.

Fans View – Toby Maxtone-Smith (@TRMaxtoneSmith)

Matthew Benham’s gamble, particularly given the break-up of a very successful and appreciated team, evidently didn’t pay off last season. Have you found it difficult to regain trust in him, and effectively ‘move on’, as a result?

As a Brentford fan himself and a man who has pumped huge amounts of money into the club, Benham will always have the trust of our support, and yes, it’s very easy to move on. The break-up of the 2014/15 team was very sad, but part of it was inevitable: we are still a very small club at Championship level and, to put it bluntly, most of them wanted to leave.

That said, the mistakes we made could have been spotted from a mile off. We bought too many players from abroad at once. Some failed to make any impact, others had to wait a long time before showing their best form. We weren’t great last season, but we did still finish ninth, so it was hardly a disaster.

“Benham will always have the trust of our support”

Performances and results were very much mixed under Dean Smith. Did you see enough, particularly in the final weeks of last season, to feel positive about him?

Yes, I think so. Around February and March we were truly awful, even managing to lose at home to Charlton, but we played some really good stuff towards the end of the season. The return of Scott Hogan after nearly two years out was a godsend – he scored seven goals in 172 minutes of football. Other players such as Nico Yennaris, Konstantin Kerschbaumer and Yohan Barbet showed some excellent form as well.

Dean Smith seems like the right type of manager for our squad of players. He brought through lots of good young players at Walsall and he knows English football well.

Directors of football Phil Giles and Rasmus Ankersen, whose work has been indifferent at best, remain in place at Griffin Park. Would removing them have had a greater impact in convincing supporters that lessons from last season have been genuinely learned and accepted? 

I’m yet to see the point of having a Director of Football, let alone two. It seems to me that the position is basically a meddlesome version of a Chief Scout. Giles is the stats man, and Ankersen is basically a rather irritating, smarmy, salesman type. I don’t mind incorporating statistics into researching players, but I really do not understand what Ankersen adds.

The justification being that both Button and Bidwell had less than a year left on their contracts, but how frustrating is it for them to be sold to your rivals? Does positive recruitment, in the form of Bentley and Sawyers especially, ease that frustration? 

Both are replaceable – indeed we have already replaced Button with Dan Bentley, whom many called the best young keeper below the Championship – but it still hurts.

Bidwell is nothing more than a steady Championship left-back, but at the age of just 23 he had played an incredible 211 games for the club and had been made captain. I thought he might go on to break our appearance record. Again, we can and will replace him, but it was gutting to see him go to QPR.

Only two regular starters from our promotion season, Harlee Dean and Alan Judge, are still at the club.

Alan Judge’s performance at The Valley in November was probably the best I saw by an opposition player all season. Do your chances of success this season depend on him making a quick and full recovery from his leg break, and remaining at the club thereafter?

Seeing the performances without Judge towards the end of the season made me much more confident we can survive without him. I think some had been relying on him too heavily and realised they needed to step up in his absence. But he is obviously a superb player and having him back will be a big bonus.

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Finally, where do you expect the Bees to finish this season?

I expect us to improve, but I also expect the league to improve massively, so I’ll say 10th.

Summary

More likely to challenge for the top six than be drawn into any sort of relegation battle, but difficult to see them competing. 14th

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Brighton and Hove Albion

If we are to ignore the league table for just a moment, and rank teams on a combination of the context of their achievements and quality of their performances when at their best, then it is fair to suggest that Brighton and Hove Albion would be in contention for being last season’s most impressive side. erberberber

Not only rising from 20th in 2014/15 to being denied an automatic promotion place on goal-difference, but doing so with a mightily attractive style of football. Chris Hughton’s side’s passing play, with a potent end result that meant 72 goals were scored, admired and leading to just five defeats throughout their league campaign. That there was ultimately no reward for the Seagulls a cruel conclusion to a season where enough was done to deserve more.

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Cruel, but not entirely unjust. Their initial 21-game unbeaten run tainted by ten draws, and a draw on the final day of the season with Middlesbrough meaning it was they who beat Brighton to the final automatic promotion place.

That potent attacking football, making the Albion frequently unplayable, occasionally absent, as it was in the play-off defeat to Sheffield Wednesday. Too easy to suggest a hangover from the disappointment of missing out on second place, but a rather sluggish effort over the two legs not reflective of their performances for much of the campaign.

But with an impressive squad, ruthless more often beyond January and strengthened this summer, still intact, Hughton still leader, and the Seagulls still seemingly carrying the same threat that they did for large parts of last season, there is an expectation that they will once again make an impressive challenge for automatic promotion to the Premier League.

The concern, of course, is whether Brighton’s confidence is in a fragile state following the disappointing climax to the previous campaign. Teams that miss out on promotion in such agonising fashion have been known to relatively struggle in the next season. At the very least, despite the positive impressions they made on watchers of the Championship last season, there’s a need for Hughton’s side to prove their quality again.

This, however, a well-run, ambitious and progressive club with a playing unit to match. A similar, and possibly ultimately more successful, challenge to last season much more likely than this side stuttering.

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The Manager – Chris Hughton

Hounded out of Carrow Road after results and performances failed to impress Norwich City supporters, and a testing first six months at the Amex not totally convincing Brighton fans. It fair to say that Hughton’s reputation as a manager was not exactly strong going into last season.

So to end that season with the LMA’s Championship Manager of the Year title to his name was some achievement for the Irishman. A reward for instilling an exciting, attacking brand of football upon his Brighton side that so nearly resulted in promotion to the top flight.

Of course, personal awards don’t feel as joyous without the collective achievement to match, but it would be unfair to use Brighton’s failure to reach the top flight to taint Hughton’s efforts in the previous campaign. The 57-year-old instigating a complete turnaround of fortunes for a Seagulls side that had spent a year flirting with relegation, and lost the tag they had of being an attractive footballing side.

That reflected in Brighton owner Tony Bloom’s decision to award Hughton with a new four-year contract irrespective of the end-of-season disappointment. Faith from the Seagulls hierarchy and supporters that he can continue to offer excitement on the pitch.

“There is no doubt he is one of the best and most skilful managers in the country,” offered Bloom as his manager signed his new deal. “We are delighted to be going into next season with Chris at the helm as we aim to realise our ultimate aim of reaching the Premier League.”

Hughton’s reputation going into this season certainly much stronger than it was going into the last.

Transfer Business

It takes something to retain cult hero status at Brighton despite moving directly to Crystal Palace and gaining it there, but Glenn Murray has just, just, about managed it.

At the very least, he’s regained it by moving back to the club he scored 53 times for in 118 league appearances. The 32-year-old Bournemouth forward spending the season on loan at the Amex, replacing the now departed Bobby Zamora, who played the role of returning hero last season.

Murray, particularly with the Cherries, found the Premier League a tough ask, but his quality at this level is unquestionable. His goals, though I’m sure Brighton fans won’t want to be reminded, taking Palace into the top flight.

And with 33-year-old Steve Sidwell, who spent the second half of last season on loan with the Seagulls from Stoke City, also signing, a bit of short-terminism has been taken to add experience to a squad that hopes to challenge for promotion again this season. Such experience covering for the losses of the adored Inigo Calderon and Gordon Greer, who no longer have the required quality to play for a promotion-chasing side.

A balance between knowledge and youth, however, has been maintained by the signings of Ben Hall, a 19-year-old centre-back from Motherwell, and Tyler Hornby-Forbes, a mightily impressive 20-year-old full-back signed from Fleetwood Town. The future in mind with the recruitment of that pair, and their first team chances may be limited this season.

The Squad

Depth, quality, and they’ve got Dale Stephens. There’s so much to like about Brighton’s side, and so much that makes it incredibly strong. Dale Stephens mostly, but other, less important stuff too.

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David Stockdale an incredibly reliable goalkeeper, protected by a young centre-back pairing in Lewis Dunk and Connor Goldson that impressed more and more as last season progressed. But centre-back one of two positions where Brighton lack real depth, with Uwe Hunemeir the only alternative to the starting pair.

The other position being left-back, with no natural cover for Gaetan Bong. In captain Bruno, Liam Rosenior, and Hornby-Forbes, the Seagulls do have an abundance of right-backs, so it would not be unreasonable for one of them to fill in if required.

Few question marks about the strength in depth in midfield, however, with Stephens and Beram Kayal forming one of the best central pairings in the division with plenty of options in reserve. In addition to Sidwell, there’s the robust Rohan Ince, who remains at the club despite spending time on loan at Fulham last season, Dutch holding midfielder Danny Holla, and Irishman Richie Towell, a prolific goalscorer for Dundalk but has made only one appearance for the Seagulls since arriving in January.

An abundance of quality out wide, too, especially with Solly March soon to return from injury and also in contract negotiations with the hope interest from Southampton will be fended off. The 22-year-old showing the sort of ability and potential in previous campaigns to attract Premier League clubs.

He’ll be competing for a place out wide with Anthony Knockaert, whose individual ability took an already impressive Brighton side to the next level after he joined from Standard Liege in January, Jamie Murphy, who impressed in his first season in the Championship having signed from Sheffield United, and Czech Jiri Skalak, who looked promising in the handful of appearances he made in the final part of last season.

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Kazenga LuaLua, who will be denied his bi-annual match-winning performances against Charlton in this campaign, and Elvis Manu, looking to improve upon a tough first season in English football with neither Brighton nor loan club Huddersfield impressed, also available to Hughton.

While in attack, Glenn Murray may ultimately play second fiddle to Tomer Hemed and Sam Baldock. The latter warming himself to Charlton supporters last season by applauding their protesting efforts after he scored against them.

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And with further depth in attack provided by Murphy and Skalak’s ability to play up top, it’s really only at the back where you would say Brighton need a few more bodies. A strong squad, that’s perfectly in tune.

Fans View – Sam Wilson (@MrSamWilson)

What lessons can be learned from your heart-breaking failure to achieve promotion last season, and how can you go one better in this campaign?

We needed to be more clinical last season. There were some crucial points dropped, even on our 21 game unbeaten streak, when we could and should have taken all three points and it would have been the difference between promotion and heartbreak.

This time we need more squad depth; when the likes of Kayal and Stephens were unavailable our performances really suffered. It’s crucial we keep the key personnel and build on that starting point.

Irrespective of the fact you fell just short, how impressive a job has Hughton done to lift the club from flirting with relegation to a season-long promotion challenge?

Hughton has done a wonderful job. Not only did he turn things around but he vastly exceeded expectations. He got us playing exciting football and, after shaking up the player recruitment team, made a number of shrewd signings that really added to the mix. Most notably the snapping up of Knockaert in January reignited our season when we had started stuttering.

“Not only did he turn things around but he vastly exceeded expectations”

Quite unique that a player has managed to maintain a decent reputation at Brighton despite gaining cult status at Crystal Palace. Despite his best days possibly being beyond him, how excited are you to have Glenn Murray back?

I’m delighted. Gus Poyet got many things right but his handling of Murray was a big clanger. Glenn was our top scorer, he completely suited our style and his contract was up; instead of giving him a moderate and fair pay rise, we opened the door for someone else to snap him up. It just happened to be Palace; it’s not like Murray went out of his way to leave for our rivals and cries of ‘JUDAS’ were uncalled for. We then spunked £2.5m on Mackail-Smith who didn’t suit the system at all.

Last season Zamora came back and made some big contributions but age and injuries meant his appearances were limited. Glenn should fill his role but be involved much more often. He could be crucial.

He’s one of only a handful of additions made to your squad, but it seems so strong that a swarm of signings were hardly needed. How would you assess your side?

We are in decent shape but we do need to strengthen but by adding to, rather than replacing, key players so that we have good options available for any situation. Another defender or two, another midfielder and a quick striker and we’re good to go.

Charlton supporters are incredibly grateful for your help in our protests last season. It must feel great to support a developing club, which you can have such a strong connection to?

We know from experience what having terrible owners can be like and how destructive they can be. It’s important that fans from all clubs are willing to show solidarity whenever a fanbase is being walked all over. It could be any club in that position.

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We’re very lucky that our owner these days is a Brighton fan that is also patient and willing to back the club.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

The Championship gets tougher every year. Consensus seems to be it will be Newcastle and one other in the automatic spots… It could be us, but more realistically I think we’ll be in the playoffs again. 5th

Summary

A need to turn a few of last season’s draws into wins, but they’ll come close again. 3rd

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All information, at least it should be, correct of 26/07/2016. Photos my own, or marked for reuse by others. Part Two will be out in the coming days…