Chris Powell's Flat Cap

Home » Season Previews » Chris Powell’s Flat Cap Championship Season Preview – Part One

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.

15

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.

4

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

2


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.

4

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.

17

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.

1

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.

19

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

BumV0BCIEAAXkcL


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.

19

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.

22

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.

54

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.

61

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.

12

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.

10

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

11


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… 

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