Chris Powell's Flat Cap

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Fans View: Dan McPherson (@Dan_Mcpherson7)

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?

1

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.

Fans View: Ryan Wilson (@Ryan170193)

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.

14

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.

37

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.

17

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.

6

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.

3

Fans View: Isaac Johnson (@IsaacJohnson95)

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 

1


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.

7

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.

18

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.

4

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. 

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