The Coca-Cola Championship 2009-10 Preseason PreviewBy: Jim | August 3rd, 2009
Well, here we are again. As I write there are five days to go before the big kick-off (and six weeks till the transfer deadline, which means that as soon as I press “publish” these predictions are out of date). What follows are my own, highly partisan, highly flawed and partially-informed views on how the season might pan out for the second tier (ugh) of English football. Fans of other clubs, who feel I have done their team a disservice, or got basic information wrong, are encouraged to vent their spleen in the comments section. Here goes…
It’s been a quiet pre-season so far for the Tykes. This is alarming: Barnsley survived on the last day thanks to a (thoroughly deserved) win at ours and/or Norwich’s complete loss of the will to survive in the last half-a-dozen games of the season. To have added only a journey man sub keeper (David Preece) and York hot-shot Onome Sodje means either there are more to come or the Yorkies are in some bother. There’s some good players in the squad: Jamal Campbell-Ryce is a match for most on his day, Anderson Da Silva is now starting to win the plaudits his accomplished performances on midfield merit, Jon Macken has a pedigree of sorts – and diehard Tykes will make optimistic noises about the return of Iain Hume. But the defence looks threadbare and aging and the midfield easy to play through. A hard, hard slog for the Tykes.
However the season goes for Blackpool, you can rest assured they won’t be out of the spotlight. Their refreshing/irritating/treacherous weasel (take your pick) manager will keep them firmly front and centre of the Championship focus. Underneath it all, though, ‘Pool have struggled for the last two seasons and this will be no different. Shaun Barker is a big loss at the back and there’s a lack of width on the team not compensated for by the bizarre signing of Jason Euell. Up front, Gary Taylor-Fletcher will need to show more consistency and its hard to see McPhee, Burgess and Ormerod doing anything other than playing bit-parts. Ollie has taken sides down more often than he’s brought them up and unless there are gems to come, the sands of time may be running out for the Seasiders.
I’m aware it’s blasphemy for an Argyle fan to admit this, but I actually quite like the Turnips. When I first became obsessed with this wretched game, they were a First Division (that’s Premiership to all you teenagers) outfit, gamely representing the far-flung corners of the country with players like Gerry Gow, Peter Cormack and an aging Norman Hunter. Gary Johnson is probably the best manager in this league – particularly at making the most out of average talent. Having been there or thereabouts for the last couple of seasons, you’d expect more of the same this term. But all does not seem quite right at Ashton Gate – the signings so far have been a mixture of the past it (Paul Hartley), the unproven (Danny Haynes) the could have been but probably now won’t be (Lewin Nyatanga. The dead wood has been cleared out, but there’s just a sense that Johnson feels he has taken the club as far as he can and if a decent Premiership offer came in he’d be tempted. A tread water season.
Like many, I suspect, I shed few tears at the spectacular bottle-job that was the Bluebirds’ end to the season. Dave Jones is the epitomy of ungraciousness: whiny and sulky, just generally lacking in class. How the team will react to their nosedive will be interesting. Roger Johnson has nipped off to Birmingham for an excessive £5 million and it is awfully nice of Sheffield Wednesday to offer Darren Purse a home given that he’s a) knocking on a bit and b) has the mobility of an oil tanker. But Mark Hudson and Anthony Gerrard as replacements? Chopra has signed on a permanent deal, which presumably means his form will desert him. Ross McCormack wants out: so does Joe Ledley and they haven’t gone yet which means that if they do, replacements may be harder to come by. Unlikely to challenge.
Something has gone badly wrong at the Ricoh. It’s probably not Chris Coleman’s fault, but the squad is threadbare, confidence has gone and there remain rumours of serious financial issues surrounding the stadium. Watching us put four past them at Home Park was probably the home highlight of the season – it also tells its own tale. Sammy Clingan and Michael McIndoe (assuming he signs) are competent enough but the loss of Scott Dann and Daniel Fox weakens an already porous defence and without strikers who can score at this level (Freddy Eastwood – ouch) Coventry look like prime candidates for the mantle of This Years Ex-Prem Club To Go Down.
Disappointingly, Palace have chosen to dispense with the retro ‘Peru-style’ white home kit, in favour of the more mundane Barca-imitation red and blue stripes. My enthusiasm for Neil Warnock notwithstanding, Palace’s season may be a similar let-down. Yes, the kids are all right; yes, Freddie Sears on a season-long loan is an exciting bit of business. But Stern John is not exactly the sort of striker to fire a play-off challenge, nor Darren Ambrose the sort of midfielder to set games alight. There’s every possibility Palace’s bright young things could be tempted away (I believe the technical term is “Bostocked”) and if so, even a searing Freddy may not be enough to steady the buffs. Could struggle.
Nigel Clough’s appointment to his dad’s old job last season smacked half of sentimentality, half of desperation, and half (yes, I know) of courage and insight. Clough has learned his managerial trade the hard way, and his success at Burton Albion was justly rewarded with a shot at the big time. And gradually he is building a team to help Rams fans live down the nightmare that was Paul Jewell. There’s a mixture of solid high-end Championship performers (Hulse, Lee Croft, Claude Davis, Kris Commons), enterprising youth (Miles Addison, Giles Barnes) and some signings just wiating to catch light (Luke Varney, Chris Porter, Dean Moxey). Shaun Barker is a solid addition at the back and with Gary Teale enjoying a revitalised second half of last season, as well as Commons, Croft and Barnes, the Rams are not short of creativity. It’s hard to be totally enthusiastic about any club prepared to employ Robbie Savage but Derby are oozing ambition at the moment and are an excellent bet for automatic promotion.
Everyone’s prediction to go straight back down last season – including mine (though I did say it would be nice if they stayed up). Six points from Argyle certainly helped, including a 3-0 humbling of the Greens at Home Park that had us chasing shadows all afternoon. Whether they are prime candidates for second-season syndrome (tm, Colchester United/Luton Town) remains to be seen. The loss of Richie Wellens to Leicester is almost as big a blow as that of Matt Mills to Reading and if Brian Stock’s itchy feet lead him away from the Keepmoat then all of Donny’s pretty passing may not be enough to save them a second time around. Without a striker to call their own (of any note, anyway), they may be overly reliant on glorious 1-0s again. Could be sticky.
Lazy journalists (Tony Cascarino, I’m talking to you) have Ipswich down as serious promotion challengers purely on the basis of their employing Roy Keane. This is delusional. Keane’s brooding management skills fell apart at Sunderland when the money ran out and there’s been little to suggest anything could change at Ipswich. Lee Martin, Colin Healy, Damien Delaney??? are not signings of which Championships are made – if Delaney is the answer to Ipswich’s problems at the back, then Keane clearly didn’t read the question paper properly. Granted Jon Walters hasnt left yet; granted Owen Garvan’s return to form courtesy us could galvanise an otherwise mundane midfield, but relying on Jon Stead to get you goals enough for the play-offs is unwise. Top half, but no more.
Leicester became an awful lot easier to like once Holloway had taken up his pay packet and walked/was pushed/stumbled out the door. Their brief stay in League 1 was, in the main, a serene procession to an inevitable return and, as a bonus, a fantastic opportunity for players like Matty Fryatt to rediscover their form and confidence out of the harsh glare of the Championship. Now factor in the development of a number of *very useful young players (Andy King, Max Gradel and especially Joe Mattock) and you can make quite a compelling case for relegation having benefitted the Foxes a good deal. Traditionally, one side coming up always makes a fair fist of things in this League and all the signs point to it being Leicester: a lot of the dross has gone and Nigel Pearson has made one or two astute and ambitious signings – Richie Wellens still has a lot to offer at this level and Wayne Brown may not be all that quick, but it’s a long way round him. Could be promising.
One of two things will happen to Boro this season. Either, as their fans and most of the allegedly neutral commentators think and hope, they will walk the division without breaking into a sweat, statues of Gareth Southgate will be erected outside the gates and all will be well; or they will totally fail to get to grips with the unpredictable, take-no-prisoners, respecter-of-no-reputation nature of the Championship and be reduced to Alan Pardew-style whinging about how unfair it is that all these nasty lower-league teams gang up on his lovely players and stop them playing. While Boro have too much class – even after the high-profile depatures of Downing, Mido and Tuncay – and too much money not to be ultimately in the mix, promotion is far from assured and Boro fans expecting an easy ride had better get used to it. They aren’t famous any more – and this league, and the one below, are littered with clubs who thought the Prem guaranteed them a living for life. Boro beware.
Hands up all those who are already bored of Newcastle? If the relegation of the Prem’s most soap-opera like club had a downside, it was that we here in the Championship would be saddled with endless pieces bewailing, bemoaning and analysing their fall from grace, with a cynical and tedious presumption that the rest of us give a damn. Having been here before with Leeds, it’s just dull. And, like Leeds, we have to suffer endless solemn pronouncements about how “the best fans in the country don’t deserve this”. Actually, they do. In fact, apart from Leeds, I can’t think of a single group of fans who deserve it *more. Their tendency to idolise former players and managers to deity status is as annoying as it is delusional – especially when you look at these idols. Alan Shearer. Kevin Keegan. Malcolm flipping MacDonald. And this goes way back. I bet even Wor (or however it is you spell it) Jackie was an annoying thug as well. As for their prospects, I confidently expect them to blunder around the mid-reaches of the league with a sort of bewildered expression gradually replaced by petulance and then heart-rending sobbing as the realisation dawns: they’re not in Kansas any more. Too bloody right they’re not.
Forest’s transfer activity has been so frenzied, you wonder whether they’ve been renamed Shopaholics United without anyone realising. Billy Davies may be an objectionably charmless goblin, but he’s a canny objectionably charmless goblin. Which makes some of his signings all the more bizarre. Dexter Blackstock’s stock has fallen faster than house prices; Chris Gunter manifestly wasn’t ready/good enough for the leap to the Prem; McKenna is yesterday’s news; David McGoldrick did precious little at Southampton to suggest he would be worth in excess of a million, which is apparently what Forest paid for him. In short, the squad is full of unfulfilled promise. Davies may well be the man to get that promise out: he is, after all, something of a specialist in getting teams of average players up. But this Forest side? Can’t see it.
Having earned the gratitude of the whole football community for keeping MK down, it now seems appropriate to go back to being rather snobbish about Posh. Their Loadsamoney approach has irritated plenty of clubs higher up the pecking order: it is, as we know, the duty of those lower down the food chain to allow their up and coming stars to be snapped up at the first opportunity by their elders and betters. Wolves in particular have been peeved at Darragh McAnthony’s refusal to countenance a bid for Aaron McLean. It’s not as if McLean is even their best player: some of us (modest cough) were raving about George Boyd while he was still at Stevenage. Darren Ferguson has adopted the “I’ll trust the team who got us up” approach and has played his transfer cards close to his chest, relying on his knowledge of the lower leagues to pick up a few gems. Could be an interesting season for Posh – the Championship may take some adjusting to, but they should be safe enough.
It’s amazing what a period without football will do to a supporter. Following Argyle’s timid and sputtering survival as a Championship outfit, the Suicide Squad were out in force. Relegation was assured; Sturrock was the worst manager since Mick Jones/David Kemp/Mike Kelly/whoever; half the side were useless and the other half belonged to other clubs; administration was a matter of weeks/days/hours away. There was an almost ghoulish enjoyment among some sections of the fanbase at predicting a disastrous season for the Greens. Fast forward three months, and the same supporters are finding plenty of reasons to be cheerful. A succession of promising (let’s put it no stronger than that) signings: Carl Fletcher, Icelandic midfielder Kari Arnason, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Benin international centre-back Reda Johnson have signalled an intent to progress – so too has a conscious change in formation and approach. Word is, at home at least, the ball is going to be played more on the floor. Football, apparently, is coming Home Park. Add into that an apparently reborn Steve MacLean and a penitent Puncheon and you can see why the Green Army are beginning to dare to dream. And if Alans Judge and Gow do indeed arrive, as is rumoured, then who knows what dreams may come?
Internal restructuring helps of course, but not as much as cash. And while the new Board, running things on behalf of a Japanese/American consortium, seem to have a little to spend, Argyle still can’t compete with the ex-Prem and assorted other heavyweights that litter the Championship. The squad is still top-heavy and needs to lose at least four players to stop the sort of haemorrhaging wage costs that crippled us last season. And this is undeniably a tougher league than it was twelve months ago: a revitalised Leicester, a hungry (and talented) Peterborough, Newcastle, Boro, West Brom, plus a Forest side spending money like an African dictator, Sheffield United with quality all through the squad, Derby and Ipswich looking good – this is a tough division this year. All the pre-season promise counts for nothing on August 8 when we run out against our old friend/enemy Neil Warnock.
Grounds then for cautious optimism, but strong warnings against complacency. Argyle will not trouble the top six this season, but ought to be safe enough all things being equal (which of course they never are). They may well be at longish odds to finish in the top half – you might just care to pop a spare tenner on that. It might pay dividends.
Preston North End
Alan Irvine is my kind of football manager: passionate without being annoying, articulate and committed to enterprising and entertaining football. His PNE side outdid themselves last season, and with a little more luck could have faced Burnley in an all-Lancs play-off final. Irvine is too shrewd to let his Lilywhites cry into their beer for long (despite their perennial bridesmaid albatross) and all the signs are that they will be there again come the end of May. Paul Parry’s arrival from Cardiff should go some way to replacing McKenna’s creativity (yes, I know they’re not like-for-like, before you start) and apparently Irvine wants two or three more. Another striker, and PNE could well be in business again.
Queen’s Park Rangers
The WestEnders saga just gets weirder and weirder – a bit like Brookside in its dying days. With all the wealth at their disposal, Bernie and Flav decide on Jim Magilton as their new manager/marionette – a man who won nothing as a player and even less as a manager. A man whose eye for a player can be summed up in agreeing to pay 2.75 million for David Norris. Nothing is certain in this league, save the fact that QPR will have a different manager at the end of it than the one they started with. The Times Championship Predictions (laughably inaccurate and under-researched though they be) have QPR fans crawling all over them in high dudgeon at being predicted to come 18th. Hoops, you’re not going up. Not even going to get close. Expensive signings from overseas and Italian loans – did you not learn your lesson last season? Even a fit Buzsaky cant hide the fact that the squad is average, the defence pedestrian and the attack misfiring. Oh, and the manager’s clueless. Did I mention that?
The first season of the post-Coppell Reading era sees a Royals squad substantially changed from hitherto. Doyle, Kitson, Lita, Hahnemann, Murty, Duberry, Sodje plus a handful of bit-part players have all gone, with only Chelsea young ‘un Ryan Bertrand and Doncaster’s Matt Mills to show for it. Brendan Rodgers’ reputation remains high everywhere apart from Watford, however and if he persuades Tommy Smith to follow him over, Reading may yet mount a challenge. There remains the talent in the squad and Rodgers is clearly capable of extracting it – it seems to be merely a question of precisely how big the Coppell/play-off failure hangover is.
Like Peterborough, everyone loves Scunthorpe for keeping MK down. And now they’ve done their bit for the Championship, they can quietly go back whence they came. Iron fans (some of them) remain sceptical about Adkins’ tactical ability at this level, and the fact that their squad was far more recognisable from two seasons ago than I was expecting speaks a good deal. There’s an argument (called the Charlton argument) that says, now they know how this League works, expect them to make a far better fist of it this time around. Sadly, its not a very persuasive one. No money, uninspiring signings, thanks Scunny, see you in another few years.
Some serious money (most of it one assumes West Ham’s) has been splashed around at Bramall Lane. Ched Evans, Lee Williamson, Bromby, Kyel Reid to name but four have arrived and will only add quality to what is already one of the solidest (is that a word?) squads in this League. Brian Howard got better as last season went on; Henderson, Ward and Sharp make up with Evans a quartet of attacking intent unrivalled at this level and with the £10 million from Spurs for two unproven full backs, one of whom (Kyle Walker) has been immediately loaned back, even if the Blades don’t get off to an immaculate start they have the ability to strengthen when necessary. Champions.
Unfashionable, uninspiring – just the sort of side that ought to do well, quietly getting on with it while the big guns blow themselves up. The trouble is, though, I just don’t see it. Brian Laws is a smart enough manager, though veering on the edge of smug, with a reasonably well-drilled squad of reasonable players. It’s just that, none of them really excite. Marcus Tudgay? He’s OK. Jermaine Johnson? He’s OK. Richard Wood/Marc Beevers? He’s OK. Who’ve they signed? Darren Purse. He’s OK – old and slower than Taribo West, but OK. You get the picture. They’ll be OK. Probably. Just about.
To hear some people talk, watching Swansea last season was like it was 1971 and Ajax were laying all before them. Jordi Gomez, apparently, is Johnny Rep and Neeskens rolled into one and Jason Scotland the living breathing incarnation of Rob Rensenbrink. Hmmm. Be that as it may, the “shock” departure of Roberto Martinez for Wigan (not Chelsea? Really? Really.) along with Scotland also to the JJB (despite Roberto promising he wouldn’t come back for any Swans players) has blown a sizeable hole in their assault on the Premiership, which apparently is their due and just desert (Alan Green says so, so it must be true).
I’m sorry. The truth is, for purely personal reasons, I have a grudge against Swansea which no amount of pretty football can assuage. Having been subjected to the violence of their fans, not just on my own account, but along with a party of primary schoolchildren I was taking on a trip to Home Park, the scars run deep. I hope you’ll forgive my clumsy sarcasm. Even so, with my ruthlessly objective hat on, I still can’t see Swansea repeating their success of last season – and a relegation battle is a distinct possibility, however much Swans fan may protest that “Gorka Pintado is better than Scotland”. Yeah, whatever.
Still sore after a bruising campaign and Brendan Rodgers’ defection to Reading, ‘Orns fans are less than optimistic about the coming season. In Malky Mackay the Watford board appear to have gone for a) the cheapest option b) the option that buys them a little bit of time with the fanbase. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see him lasting the season out: it’s not as easy to win things with kids as it used to be and although Ross Jenkins may be the dogs, it could easily be a gig too far for some of the other youngsters being bandied about as the future of Watford. Malky’s buys amount to Danny Graham from Carlisle and Scott Severin from Aberdeen, which are presumably the best he could get for his money, but if that’s it Watford fans can put the vertigo tablets away as of now.
West Bromwich Albion
The country’s premier yo-yo club, Albion need to shore up their defence if they are to challenge this season. Last time they were down here, they still managed to ship a barrowload of goals and they couldn’t have been more generous to the Prem if the back four had turned out in Santa outfits and wooly beards. Tony Mowbray’s departure for the easy life, or SPL as it’s better known has left Roberto DiMatteo to carry forward the baton and predictably he’s mainly been signing strikers – Simon Cox from Swindon and ex-Pilgrim Reuben Reid from Rotherham. Provided he can keep the rest of the squad together – especially Koren, Brunt and Greening – they’ll always be in with a shout, but that defence – oh dear, oh dear.
1. Sheffield United
2. Derby County
3. West Bromwich Albion
5. Preston North End
7. Leicester City
8. Newcastle United
9. Nottingham Forest
10. Ipswich Town
11. Queen’s Park Rangers
12. Plymouth Argyle
13. Bristol City
14. Cardiff City
15. Doncaster Rovers
17. Peterborough United
18. Crystal Palace
19. Sheffield Wednesday
20. Swansea City
23. Coventry City
24. Scunthorpe United