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Adios Smudger 27/08/2009

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
28 comments

Well that took a while… but finally it’s all over. It’s been an awfully long time coming, but a chapter has closed, a new one begins. Eight years since Pompey lost to Palace at the end of the season sparing the Eagles from relegation to the third tier, eight years since my co-editor spat into his beer “why do bloody Portsmouth always manage to f*** things up?”, we finally have closure. It would appear that Pompey have, finally, decisively, not f***ed up.

It’s a peculiar passage of events that sees the departure of our standout player, our one reliable source of wit and invention and safest source of goals, result in so many Watford fans chuckling themselves silly as pictures appear of yer man in his new shirt.

Such has been the impact of Brendan Rodgers and Reading’s magnificently ham-fisted handling of the whole saga. A good proportion of Watford’s support appeared to treat his departure to Berkshire with more generosity than I found myself able to, but this relative goodwill was soon dissipated by Rodgers’ attempts to first unsettle our star player, and then to pinch him on the cheap. Having derided an offer of £1.6m from Cardiff as Watford manager at the start of the year, Rodgers saw fit to offer £750,000 barely six months later, presumably with a straight face.

Sheffield United obliged by weighing in with a more sensible £1.8m within days, setting Reading’s bid in its proper context… terribly convenient from our point of view, particularly as Smudge turned them down. Since then Reading have shown a distinct lack of both class and intelligence… drawing out the exercise by slowly upping their offer, giving us maximum opportunity to talk up a bidding war whilst antagonising further by Rodgers claiming that Smith “wanted to join Reading”, despite not having been given permission to speak to him. One wonders whether Reading have such a thing as a press officer, such is the unmonitored and counterproductive garbage which Rodgers continues to produce…

I don’t need to tell you what happened next. Reading finally do what they really should have done earlier in the summer and make a sensible offer. And with comic timing, Pompey steal in with a better one, a Premiership offer. There are safer ships in the top flight than Pompey, but obviously Reading weren’t as tempting as Rodgers believed. I won’t have been the only one killing themselves laughing at the mental image of the awkward press conference that Smith blew out at the Madejski Stadium, or punching the air when he finally confirmed his destination.

All of which, as already suggested, rather clouds the fact that we’re somewhat stuffed without Smudger. Our one source of creativity, comfortably our most dependable player, Player of the Year for two years (and one could argue a case for him deserving the Premiership season award also), he’s a massive loss. We’ve lost iconic players in the recent past to a similar sense of desolation… King, Helguson… and recovered. But it’s difficult to see the attacking verve suggested by the last couple of performances and much of last season being sustained in Smudger’s absence. It’s also difficult to imagine that any Watford supporters wish him anything but the best with his new club… few footballers are simultaneously so ferociously effective and instantly likeable as people.

Reading follow this up by signing Jobi McAnuff; it’s tempting to suggest that this is a double whammy, they’ve been done twice in two days, particularly having given him a long contract and presumably on wages not less than the reported £13k a week he was on with us. It will be interesting to note whether the electric form and hitherto unsuggested level of consistency McAnuff achieved at the end of last season really were down to his new manager; Watford supporters will now be cheering rather than deriding every diffident performance but if Jobi’s savage showings against former club Palace are any guide, we shouldn’t expect one of his limper outings against us in September.

As for Portsmouth… just when they’d manage to earn forgiveness for the crimes of May 2001, they whack in a bid for Mike Williamson. At the time of writing that offer has been knocked back, along with Williamson’s disappointing transfer request, but it’s all pointing in a horribly inevitable direction.

A stern test of all of the new manager’s ability awaits. It looks like a rocky road ahead… we can but hope that our friends at the Madejski continue to provide comic relief.

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Watford 2 Blackpool 2 (22/08/2009) 23/08/2009

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
14 comments

1. After a relatively quiet start, a really tremendous game of Championship football, culminating in a breathless, nerve-wracking final twenty minutes of end-to-end mayhem. None of which should distract the coaching staff from taking a clear, sober look at the reasons why we didn’t win it…and that isn’t to ignore the part played by an enterprising Blackpool side with chances a-plenty, merely to recall that there was a point when it looked like we were going to put them to the sword. And it was exactly then that we conceded a scrappy, incomprehensible-from-the-other-end, oh-for-heaven’s-sake equaliser. That kind of nonsense will get us into a lot of trouble if we’re not careful.

2. A very enjoyable home debut for young Tom Cleverley, not least because of his complete refusal to be bullied or intimidated by the physical stuff that came his way. One walloping challenge under the Rous in the second half was something that many would’ve thought better of, preferring to keep all of their limbs intact; he won that and many others too, scrapping wholeheartedly throughout. And that’s the point about sending your players down to this level: you find out whether they can stand up for themselves, whether they can turn that training ground talent into something tangible.

Oh, and I’ll always love a wide player who’s prepared to make a lung-bursting run to the far post to get on the end of a cross from the other side. A splendid moment, that one, as you realised that Tommy Smith’s cross wasn’t just going to whistle through an empty penalty area, Danny Graham having been drawn wide in the build-up. More of that, please.

3. Of the recent acquisitions, it’s Scott Severin who continues to struggle. The post-Premiership conundrum was neatly summed up by a very decent cameo from John Eustace, who did the basic stuff rather well and added some of his old-fashioned, oddly slow-motioned bootery too. The absurdity is that you have to buy players to replace those you can’t afford to keep…and yet you might have to keep them anyway if nobody else wants to pay their wages, in which case you didn’t need to replace them. Regardless, it’s hard not to like Eustace…and it would’ve been even easier if that last-ditch drive had drifted into the roof of the net rather than against the underside of the bar. It was a game good enough to deserve an ending like that.

4. And it contained some of our best attacking football for a considerable time. A delight to watch four intelligent, bright players moving so well around the final third: Danny Graham as the fulcrum for it all, Tommy Smith darting into the spaces around the centre forward, Tom Cleverley and Don Cowie offering a genuine threat from the flanks. We were mobile, positive and really rather lovely to watch, and we should’ve made it count for more. It was that kind of afternoon, I suppose, summed up by Don Cowie’s one-two with Tommy Smith and glorious chip from twenty yards, hitting that spot on the underside of the crossbar for the first time. That would’ve been goal of the season, right there.

5. Of course, there was more than a hint of sadness as you watched those four link together so beautifully and so effectively. We won’t get to see that come to fruition: the meal’s been served up, the silver cover’s been lifted from the plate, we’ve picked up our cutlery and inhaled the mouth-watering aroma…but the waiter’s about to come along and tell us that we’ve been given someone else’s meal by mistake. Your bread and water is on its way, sir.

There are lots of things to say about Tommy Smith’s second spell with the club, but the key one is this: that he’s been an utter credit to himself. It seemed like a curious move at the time, but he’s made it work better than anyone could’ve imagined. The player who always struggled for a defined, established role as he emerged from the youth set-up – neither productive winger nor reliable goal-scorer, often lost in the grey areas in between – is now so influential that he can career around wherever he bloody well likes, making his mark above and beyond that defined role. I’ll freely admit that I hadn’t ever been convinced by Tommy Smith; no malice, no real criticism to make, just a feeling that there’d always be someone more useful, if less talented, ahead of him in whatever queue he’d lined up in. He’s changed all of that…and he’s done it himself, by force of will as much as anything else.

You’ll be sorely missed, Tommy.

Nottingham Forest 2 Watford 4 (18/08/2009) 19/08/2009

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
10 comments

Five thunks from a hugely enjoyable evening at the City Ground:

1- My first game of the season after an eventful and often stressful summer… and this was just what the doctor ordered. A wonderfully open, chaotic second division game of football, with just enough individual excellence and collective calamity to ensure the full attention of all in the stadium throughout (save the many early Forest departees, natch). I’d been apprehensive, based on reports of unconvincing Watford performances and Forest’s impotent dominance of West Brom but we looked far better than advertised… Forest being far less than a sum of their parts only tells half the story. Poor teams don’t score four times away from home against anybody.

2- That said… the crucial factor in this game could scarcely have been more evident had Tommy Smith been followed around by a luminous pointing finger sporting the caption “the difference between the two sides”. If this is to be Smudger’s last outing for the Hornets then what a way to go… one magnificent strike of his own, a sublime piece of skill to set up Graham’s opener, a fine header the scraps of which Mike Williamson capitalised on and a composed tee-up for Tom Cleverley as we won the game on the break were merely the consequential details of a virtuoso performance. You can’t help but hope he’ll stay, despite evidence to the contrary, but good luck Tommy wherever you end up.

3- Tom Cleverley… nimble, clever, confident. Did drift out of the game, particularly in the first half, and seemed to struggle with his defensive positioning, particularly after switching wings to accommodate McAnuff’s injury, but this looks like a good’un to enjoy, however long his spell with us lasts.

4- Mike Williamson. Colin Foster. Again. That’s all. Would be nice to have another tall bloke in the side, mind… it shouldn’t be a mystery who we’re trying to hit from set pieces, even for Billy Davies.

5- On this evidence, Forest look like providing some comedy entertainment for however long it takes them to get their shit together. Competent but impotent and tetchy, not abetted by a notoriously impatient home support there’s quite a lot wrong with this side despite prodigious summer outlay. Two cases in point… first, you don’t equalise on half time at home to roars of acclaim, dominate most of the second half and still lose by two goals. Second, when you’re chasing a game, the ball’s bouncing in a crowded penalty area and nobody’s challenging Scott Loach for the ball, you’ve got a problem.

Watford 1 Doncaster Rovers 1 (08/08/2009) 09/08/2009

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
26 comments

1. Fizzle. It should, of course, be remembered that there have been less auspicious starts than this to very auspicious seasons; we all crave answers, but these early season games often raise still more questions instead. It was a bit of a non-alcoholic beer of a match: the same fizz as the bottle’s cracked open, but some bite missing from what’s inside. This tight, well-drilled Donny side – atypical of the Championship in terms of their patience, but not in terms of their organisation – should remind us how badly clubs without financial clout require stability and continuity. That process has to start somewhere, auspicious or otherwise.  There’s plenty of hard work ahead.

2. For the two debutants, a mixed afternoon. Danny Graham was excellent, visibly growing in confidence after Tommy Smith’s cross-shot dribbled his way for a Scott Fitzgerald-style tap-in; a centre forward can’t ask for much more than that in their first game. Even as the service dried up in the second half, he showed an encouraging combination of work-rate and touch, a bit like Darius Henderson with the volume turned down.

In midfield, Scott Severin also had a fine game: he clearly has the ability to pick out a pass and to pop up in convenient places at convenient moments. However, technical problems meant that he was a couple of seconds out of sync with everything else, as if beamed in from another continent via a ropey satellite link. You hope that he’ll come up to speed quickly: there are times when you can afford one or two failures in the transfer market, and this decidedly isn’t one of those times.

3. Elsewhere, it was hard to avoid the impression that selling Tommy Smith would be utterly disastrous, much as you’d try to take it on the chin like a grown-up if it really had to happen. For without him, there’s just a whole bunch of fairly pedestrian huffery-puffery: Don Cowie’s limitations would be severely exposed if he were required to become a creative force; Jobi McAnuff is much too prone to days like these, days when nothing goes right, days when he’d find a winning lottery ticket in the road and get hit by a bus as he picked it up; Will Hoskins still looks like a decent player and plays like a decent looker. Smith, on the other hand, add so much energy and so many ideas, bringing the game to life by trying to make something happen every time he picks up the ball. Heaven knows what we’d do without him, frankly.

4. The good news, Danny Graham aside, is that the defence looked like something you might be able to rely on for more than ten minutes, something that might not require constant, fretful attention. Mike Williamson picked up where he left off: willowy, elegant, Foster-esque for those who still hold that memory dear. Bar one slip in the first half, superbly covered by Ross Jenkins, Jay Demerit was all power and muscle alongside him; they complement each other superbly.

It’s not to everyone’s taste, I know, but I rather like Demerit’s insistence on attempting to play implausibly ambitious defence-splitting passes from deep within his own half; the memory of those deathless early games under Brendan Rodgers, when it appeared a crime to even think about trying to score without constructing an elaborate forty-seven pass move first, is still fresh enough to treasure a bit of good old fashioned up-and-over.

5. Is it not time that someone tackled the issue of time-wasting substitutions? Given that the number of allowed substitutes and substitutions continues to grow, I imagine that we now spend the equivalent of a full ninety minutes every season watching players – theirs and ours – amble towards the touchline like sulky teenagers being dragged around the clothes shops by their mums on a Saturday afternoon, barely able to put one foot in front of another for sheer ennui. I hereby propose the following simple measures:

  • If you’re not ready to make the substitution – fourth official lined up, player stood on the halfway line – when the ball goes out of play, tough toffee. That also applies to instances where the player being substituted finds that they’re suddenly and temporarily deaf and blind, unable to hear the call of the touchline and unable to find their way home.
  • Between them, the four officials on duty ought to be able to count to twenty-two. Why should several thousand people have to wait for one player to wander off, shaking the hands of everyone along the way and applauding all around, before the other one enters the field of play and the game re-starts? Send ’em on and get on with it.

Lecture ends.

Season Preview 2009-10 02/08/2009

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

Let’s be absolutely clear.  If you want a well-thought out, well-researched, balanced preview based on rational consideration, perhaps peppered with wit, anecdote and insight then you’re in the wrong place altogether.  If, however, you’re after a half-baked load of tosh, cobbled together in spare minutes in between trips to the hospital to visit my infant daughter (a month early of all things, yes she’s fine thanks) and in the middle of the night when I really needed to be sleeping, read on.  Just don’t say I didn’t warn you…

BARNSLEY

INS: David Preece (Odense, Free), Onome Sodje (York City, Free)

OUTS: Heinz Muller (FSV Mainz 05, £600,000), Diego Leon, Kyle Letheren, Dennis Souza, Marciano Van Hoemoet

OUR EX-TYKES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Martin Devaney

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Steele

Hassell             Foster                Moore            Kozluk

Campbell-Ryce      Colace           De Silva          Devaney

Macken              Bogdanovic

VERDICT:
An unconvincing escape from relegation last term has been met by the rationalising of a squad that, at the time of writing, looks painfully thin, particularly in defensive positions. The Tykes’ messageboards are not happy places, with Simon Davey’s star seemingly on the wane; one pundit suggests that the only way Barnsley will escape a relegation battle is if they’re so far bottom that any sense of fight is long-since extinguished by easter. There’s quality in the side – Jamal Campbell-Ryce was amongst our more impressive opponents last term – but a tough season ahead nonetheless; relegation candidates.

BLACKPOOL

INS: Billy Clarke (Ipswich Town, Free), Jason Euell (Southampton, Free)

OUTS: Shaun Barker (Derby County, £1,000,000), David Fox (Colchester United, Free), Stuart Green (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Ashton Bayliss, Marlon Broomes, Franceso Carratta, Claus Jorgensen, Matt Kay, Jermaine Wright

OUR EX-SEASIDERS: Danny Graham

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Rachubka

    Coid             Baptiste                 Edwards                Crainey

Taylor-Fletcher       Southern            Vaughan             Clarke

 Nardiello             Burgess

VERDICT:
I’ve still not really decided about Ian Holloway. It’s tempting to pigeonhole him as either the ultimate backs-to-the-wall sows-ear manager, skilled at making the best of any situation, or as a hapless fool whose ready soundbites earn him more credence than his results merit. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but in Blackpool he’s taking on a task that might see him definitively classified as one or the other. One defeat in ten at the end of the season doesn’t disguise that the Seasiders are amongst the more modest sides in the division; a bad season, bad luck, bad managerial appointment, bad injuries that others might get away with will send Blackpool the way that Rotherham and Crewe have gone before them after a couple of years of defying gravity. It won’t necessarily be this season, but Barker is a loss and the side lacks goals. Relegation candidates (though I said that last year, what do I know?)
 

BRISTOL CITY

INS: David Clarkson (Motherwell, Undisclosed,) Dean Gerken (Colchester United, Undisclosed), Danny Haynes (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Lewin Nyatanga (Derby County, Undisclosed), Andre Blackman (Portsmouth, Free), Paul Hartley (Celtic, Free)

OUTS: Dele Adebola (Nottingham Forest, Free), Izzy Iriekpen (Hamilton Academicals, Free), Scott Murray (Yeovil Town, Free), Jennison Myrie-Williams (Dundee United, Free), Chris Weale (Leicester City, Free), David Noble, Peter Styvar (Skoda Xanthi, Season Loan)

OUR EX-ROBINS: Sean Dyche

THEIR EX-ORNS: Lee Johnson, Gary Johnson (Manager), Keith Millen (Assistant Manager)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Basso

Orr           Carey            Fontaine        Nyatanga      McAllister

Elliott                       Hartley

Clarkson

Haynes                    Maynard

VERDICT:
City’s summer recruitment should see them maintain their position in the top half of the division; the capture of Hartley was impressive, and if Clarkson is an unknown quantity then he and City’s other additions do provide depth to an increasingly convincing looking starting eleven. Will need a prevailing wind to make the play-offs, but that’s not an unrealistic ambition.

 CARDIFF CITY

INS: Michael Chopra (Sunderland, £4,000,000), Mark Hudson (Charlton Athletic, £1,075,000), Paul Quinn (Motherwell, £300,000), Anthony Gerrard (Walsall, Undisclosed), David Marshall (Norwich City, Undisclosed)
 
OUTS: Roger Johnson (Birmingham City, £5,000,000), Darren Purse (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Darren Dennehy (Hereford United, Six Month Loan)
 
OUR EX-BLUEBIRDS: Jobi McAnuff
 
THEIR EX-ORNS: Michael Chopra, Neal Ardley (Academy Manager), Terry Burton (Assistant Manager), Paul Wilkinson (Reserve Team Manager)
 
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Marshall

Quinn      Hudson        Gerrard         McNaughton

Burke          Ledley         McPhail         Whittingham

McCormack          Chopra

VERDICT:
Some significant ins at Cardiff, but significant “outs” also – one confirmed and a couple rumoured at the time of writing. Thing is, whilst new recruits might work out there’s by their nature a greater element of uncertainty than with the established faces heading out of the door – even (or perhaps particularly) in the case of Chopra after his sabbatical in Sunderland. Combining this with the “new stadium” thing leads me to think that Cardiff’s promotion challenge will be rather more theoretical and peripheral this time around. Tenth.
 

COVENTRY CITY

INS: Sammy Clingan (Norwich City, Undisclosed)

OUTS:Daniel Fox (Celtic, £1,500,000), Scott Dann (Birmingham City, Undisclosed), Robbie Simpson (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Liam Francis (Redditch Town, Free), Andy Marshall, Michael Mifsud, Kevin Thornton

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: John Eustace

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Westwood

Wright        Turner           Ward        Hall

Bell       Gunnarsson       Clingan       Doyle

Eastwood         Morrison

VERDICT:
With undue optimism emanating from the West Midlands about Cov’s prospects this time last year, I must confess to a degree of satisfaction at having stuck by Cov’s natural magnetic pull towards seventeenth. This season the suggestion is the opposite… those who travelled to the Ricoh Arena at the end of last season saw a desperately poor side, irrespective of a flattering two-goal lead, who were rather fortunate that the season didn’t last a month or so longer. Since then they’ve lost two of their “big four” in Danny Fox and Scott Dann without replacing them (Fox’s last act for Cov to get himself red carded against us) and City suddenly look strong relegation candidates. Seventeenth anyway, obviously.
 

CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Darren Ambrose (Charlton Athletic, Free), Stern John (Southampton, Free), Matthew Wright (Swansea City, Free), Freddie Sears (West Ham United, Season Loan)

OUTS: Rhoys Wiggins (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Carl Fletcher (Plymouth Argyle, Free), Scott Flinders (Hartlepool United, Free), Paul Ifill (Wellington Phoenix, Free), James Scowcroft (Leyton Orient, Free), Shefki Kuqi, John Oster

OUR EX-EAGLES: Jobi McAnuff

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Speroni

Clyne      McCarthy       Fonte           Hill

Carle          Derry           Danns

Sears         John           Moses

VERDICT:
Having finished the previous season so strongly, Palace’s 2008/09 campaign must have seemed a bit of a damp squib. Warnock has performed some necessary surgery by cutting loose some dead wood – which I’d be reassured by – although signing other people’s dead wood (Stern John, Darren Ambrose) might not seem too inspiring. Sears of course could be the exception, and he along with Palace’s impressive crop of kids should certainly see Palace comfortably mid-table again, even if the likes of Victor Moses and Nathaniel Clyne continue to attract attention.
 

DERBY COUNTY

INS: Shaun Barker (Blackpool, £1,000,000), Dean Moxey (Exeter City, Undisclosed), Lee Croft (Norwich City, Free), Jake Buxton (Burton Albion, Free), Saul Deeney (Burton Albion, Free), Ben Pringle (Ilkeston Town, Free)

OUTS: Emmanuel Villa (Cruz Azul, £1,700,000), Liam Dickinson (Brighton & Hove Albion, Undisclosed), Tyrone Mears (Burnley, Undisclosed), Lewin Nyatanga (Bristol City, Undisclosed), Mile Sterjovski (Perth Glory, Free), Andy Todd (Perth Glory, Free), Paris Simmons, Lewis Price (Brentford, Season Loan)

OUR EX-RAMS: Nathan Ellington, John Eustace, Danny Graham, Tommy Smith

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jordan Stewart

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Bywater

Connolly        Addison          Barker          Moxey

Croft             Green              Savage         Commons

Varney           Hulse

VERDICT:
Now here’s an odd one. It’s not as if Clough Jr isn’t used to living in his father’s shadow; he played under him for almost a decade at Forest, and has since cut his teeth in management in the Midlands with Burton Albion. It’s just that… taking the seat at a club that Dad guided to unthinkable success is rather bold. He will inevitably be compared, and how can he hope to be compared favourably given more entrenched obstacles to success than those Brian countered nearly 40 years ago. You’ve got to respect his transfer policy… a solid defender from Blackpool, cherry-picking from the lower divisions, bold enough to cut his losses on Ellington and yet… are players from Ilkeston and Exeter really going to cut it at this level? One of the more interesting watches of the season. Nearer the top than last time, I’d guess. Beyond that, not a clue.
 

DONCASTER ROVERS

INS: None

OUTS: Richie Wellens (Leicester City, £1,300,000), Gordon Greer (Swindon Town, Free), Jason Price (Millwall, Free), Tomi Ameobi, Darren Byfield, Gareth Taylor

OUR EX-ROVERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Steve Brooker, James Chambers
 
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Sullivan

O’Connor          Mills         Hird          Chambers

Spicer         Shiels           Stock           Woods

Heffernan           Hayter

VERDICT:
Donny took a while to get the hang of it last time, but ended the season very comfortably despite a modest goalscoring record that included an astonishing 16 at home. Goals will be the problem again, at a guess, and I suspect that Donny will be hoping that Forest bugger off and leave Matt Mills alone sooner rather than later. Whether they can emulate last season rather depends on a solution to the goalscoring thing, one suspects – Billy Sharp mooted at the time of writing – but on last season’s evidence it will take extreme poor fortune with injuries for Rovers to struggle.
 

IPSWICH TOWN

INS: Colin Healy (Cork City, Undisclosed), Damien Delaney (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Lee Martin (Manchester United, Undisclosed), Troy Brown (Fulham, Free), Shane O’Connor (Liverpool, Free)

OUTS:Danny Haynes (Bristol City, Undisclosed), Jordan Rhodes (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Dean Bowditch (Yeovil Town, Free), Chris Casement (Dundee, Free), Billy Clarke (Blackpool, Free), Dan Harding (Southampton, Free), Tommy Miller (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Ivan Campo, Jai Reason, Matt Richards, Kurt Robinson

OUR EX-BLUES:None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

R.Wright

D.Wright        MacAuley        Balkestein         Delaney

Walters          Norris       Healy       Garvan         Martin

Stead

VERDICT:
Well… I’d be a little worried, frankly. Roy Keane, for all that he got Sunderland promoted, didn’t seem to leave with the best wishes of his former charges; his strategy thus far at Portman Road has been to adopt the same approach to recruiting his countrymen as characterised his time in the North East, whilst jettisoning what appeared to be promising players quite cheaply – Haynes, Clarke and particularly Rhodes. Maybe there’s a grand plan. I dunno. Can’t see Ipswich challenging with what they’ve got at the moment though, and where they finish kinda depends on the outcome of what looks like an inevitable mid-season crisis. Not that I’d tell Roy Keane that to his face.
 
 

LEICESTER CITY

INS: Richie Wellens (Doncaster Rovers, £1,300,000), Danny N’Guessan (Lincoln City, Undisclosed), Astrit Ajdarevic (Liverpool, Free), Wayne Brown (Hull City, Free), Robbie Nielson (Hearts, Free), Chris Weale (Bristol City, Free)

OUTS: Joe Cobb (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Lee Cox (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Free), Barry Hayles (Cheltenham Town, Free), Patrick Kisnorbo (Leeds United, Free), Billy McKay (Northampton Town, Free), Ryan Beswick, Marc Edworthy, Paul Henderson, Bruno N’Gotty, Billie Kee (Accrington Stanley, Six Months Loan)

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Wayne Brown

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Weale

Neilson       Hobbs          Tunchev          Berner

Oakley           King         Wellens            Dyer

Fryatt           Howard

VERDICT:
What popular opinion records as a side rather unfortunate to have gone down in the first place looks reasonably well equipped for a season of “consolidation” back in the second tier. It’s hard to see them pulling up any trees, but there’s enough there to drop anchor for a season. Fifteenth, and comfortably enough so.
 

MIDDLESBROUGH

INS: Mark Yeates (Colchester United, Undisclosed), Danny Coyne (Tranmere Rovers, Free)

OUTS: Stewart Downing (Aston Villa, £12,000,000), Ross Turnbull (Chelsea, Free), David Knight (Darlington, Free), Mido (Zamalek, Season Loan)

OUR EX-BORO: Danny Graham

THEIR EX-ORNS: Adam Johnson

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Jones

Hoyte          Huth          Wheater           Grounds

Yeates          Digard          Arca            Johnson

Aliadiere          Emnes

VERDICT:
Whilst the contorted, unlovable monstrosity that is the Premier League is such that it’s almost difficult to feel for any side getting relegated, I’m finding myself sympathising with Boro’s predicament more than ever seemed possible under Bryan Robson’s leadership a decade or so ago. There can’t have been many other Premier League sides to have fielded ten or eleven local(ish) lads as Boro did last season, and having a manager who was born on Vicarage Road is no bad thing either. Of the relegated sides, despite the loss of Downing and, presumably, Tuncay Boro look amongst the best equipped to go straight back up. If someone is going to tonk the hell out of the division, as sides that can tie consistency with quality tend to do, rather Boro than any of the other realistic candidates. Promotion, anyway.
 

NEWCASTLE UNITED

INS: None

OUTS: Obafemi Martins (VfL Wolfsburg, £9,000,000), David Edgar (Burnley, Tribunal), Michael Owen (Manchester United, Free), Claudio Cacapa, Peter Lovenkrands, Mark Viduka

OUR EX-MAGPIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Harper

Beye         S.Taylor        Bassong          Kadar

R.Taylor      Nolan           Barton         Duff

Ameobi         Carroll

VERDICT:
Snigger.
 

NOTTINGHAM FOREST

INS: Chris Gunter (Tottenham Hotspur, £1,700,000), Dexter Blackstock (Queens Park Rangers, £1,600,000), Paul McKenna (Preston North End, £750,000), Paul Anderson (Liverpool, £250,000), Joel Lynch (Brighton & Hove Albion, £200,000), Lee Camp (Queens Park Rangers, £150,000), David McGoldrick (Southampton, Undisclosed), Dele Adebola (Bristol City, Free), Radoslaw Majewski (Polonia Warsaw, Season Loan)

OUTS: Hamza Bencherif (Macclesfield Town, Free), Ian Breckin (Chesterfield, Free), Paddy Gamble, Liam Hook, Adam Newbold, Tom Sharpe, Emile Sinclair, Richard Tait, Ryan Whitehurst, Mark Byrne (Rushden & Diamonds, Six Months Loan), Joe Heath (Lincoln City, Six Month Loan), Brendan Moloney (Notts.County, Six Month Loan), Shane Redmond (Burton Albion, Six Month Loan), James Reid (Rushden & Diamonds, Six Month Loan), Matty Thornhill (Brighton & Hove Albion, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-FOREST: Will Hoskins

THEIR EX-ORNS: None
 
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Camp

Gunter          Chambers         Morgan            Lynch

Anderson          Moussi          McKenna         Tyson

Blackstock             Earnshaw

VERDICT:
I don’t like Billy Davies. I’m probably being unfair, but hey this is my column, where else can I be wilfully irrational? Davies comes across as peevish and miserable, the sort of bloke with a chip on his shoulder whose motivation in all he does is to be able to turn around to all those who are Out To Get him and shout “See? See? Ha!”. So I don’t like him. But Forest’s board certainly seem to, and have backed their man royally as Forest have set themselves up as the big spenders of the division. It would be ironic if their near-neighbours act of appointing Clough Jr as manager finally rid Forest of one of their greatest problems – the shackles of the spectre of Clough Sr’s achievements looming over the City Ground. Top half. Probably more. Hope not, though.
 

PETERBOROUGH UNITED

INS: Toumani Diagouraga (Hereford United, Undisclosed), Danny Mills (Crawley Town, Undisclosed), Tommy Rowe (Stockport County, Undisclosed), Lee Frecklington (Lincoln City, Free), Krystian Pearce (Birmingham City, Season Loan)

OUTS:Mark Tyler (Luton Town, Free), Chris Westwood (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Craig Braham-Barrett, Liam Hatch (Luton Town, Season Loan), Alfie Potter (Oxford United, Season Loan), Scott Rendell (Torquay United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-POSH:None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Toumani Diagouraga

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lewis

Martin          Morgan         Zakuani           Williams

Whelpdale    Diagouraga           Lee          Boyd

Mackail-Smith     Mclean    

 VERDICT:
Another side managed by a son of a famous father, the Posh are the fashionable selection as dark horses; in Mackail-Smith, Mclean and Boyd there were over 50 goals last season, and with England U21 keeper Joe Lewis between the sticks you’d certainly expect Peterborough to have more than enough to survive. How much more than that though is difficult to predict; after two consecutive promotions, a steadier season might be in order. I’ll go with twelfth.
 

PLYMOUTH ARGYLE

INS: Reda Johnson (Amiens, Undisclosed), Kari Arnason (AGF Aarhus, Free), Carl Fletcher (Crystal Palace, Free), Bradley Wright-Phillips (Southampton, Free)

OUTS:Jermaine Easter (Franchise FC, Undisclosed), Emile Mpenza (Sion, Free), Graham Stack (Hibernian, Free), Roudolphe Douala, Dan Smith

OUR EX-ARGYLE:None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Carl Fletcher

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Larrieu

McNamee       Seip           Johnson           Sawyer

Summerfield         Fletcher        Duguid         Clark

Barnes           Mackie

VERDICT:
Argyle’s final placing perched above the relegation zone needs to be viewed in the context of the five point margin that separated them from relegated Norwich. Nonetheless, two wins in their last ten didn’t suggest a side ready to push on; relegation candidates.
 

PRESTON NORTH END

INS: None

OUTS:Paul McKenna (Nottingham Forest, £750,000), Simon Whaley (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Chris Neal (Shrewsbury Town, Nominal)

OUR EX-LILYWHITES:Tamas Priskin

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lonergan

Jones         Mawene          Chilvers       Davidson

Sedgwick        Nicholson         Chaplow           Wallace

Elliott           Parkin

VERDICT:
Big respec’ to Alan Irvine for opting to resist West Brom’s approach to stay on at Deepdale. Reason to be cheerful for the Lilywhites, despite another failure to progress through the play-offs. One of the more likeable sides in the division, I find myself looking at Preston every summer and thinking “well you can’t see them doing that well again”. So I’m going to fight off my instinct and go for another play-off challenge for Preston, although the loss of McKenna is a grave one.
 

QUEENS PARK RANGERS

INS: Alejandro Faurlin (Instituto, £3,500,000), Alessandro Pellicori (Avellino, Free), Adel Taarabt (Tottenham Hotspur, Season Loan)

OUTS:Dexter Blackstock (Nottingham Forest, £1,600,000), Lee Camp (Nottingham Forest, £150,000), Damien Delaney (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Jake Cole (Barnet, Free), Jordi Lopez (Swansea City, Free), Zesh Rehman (Bradford City, Free), Chris Arthur, Samuel di Carmine, Danny Maguire, Liam Miller

OUR EX-RANGERS:David Kerslake

THEIR EX-ORNS: Lee Cook, Heidar Helguson, Gavin Mahon

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Cerny

Ramage          Hall        Gorkss           Connolly

Routledge      Rowlands       Faurlin         Balanta

Helguson         Vine

VERDICT:
A year ago I made the mistake of suggesting that Rangers’ owners were being responsible and intelligent in directing their investment modestly and measuredly. Hey ho. Twelve months and two managers later Rangers appear to be anything but a sensibly run club; it’s notable, too, that Jim Magilton’s track record doesn’t suggest an in-depth knowledge of the Italian second division any more than Iain Dowie’s did a year ago. Bottom half.
 

READING

INS: Ryan Bertrand (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS:Kevin Doyle (Wolverhampton Wanderers, £6,500,000), Alan Bennett (Brentford, Free), Michael Duberry (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Scott Golbourne (Exeter City, Free), Marcus Hahnemann (Wolverhamtpon Wanderers, Free), Gary Frewen, Tom Hateley, Leroy Lita, Graeme Murty, Sam Sodje, Damien Spence

OUR EX-ROYALS:None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Dean Austin (Assistant Manager), Nigel Gibbs (Coach), Brynjar Gunnarsson, Karl Halabi (Physiologist), Frank Lampard (Sort of Consultant), Brendan Rodgers (Manager)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Federici

Rosenior       Cissé          Pearce          Bertrand

Tabb        Harper        Matejovsky

Kebe         Long           S.Hunt

VERDICT:
Well… what’s to say really. As regards Rodgers we’ve been there, done that on this site already, so there’s no value in going there again. As for the side… a much-needed clear-out seems to be underway but in the last season of parachute payments rebuilding the side involves challenging decisions for all concerned. Of greatest interest will be whether we see the Royals adopt the directionless, soul-sapping crab-football that characterised Rodgers’ first month or two at Vicarage Road, or the more incisive and effective variant that resulted in our climb to mid-table. Either way, few in Hertfordshire will be rooting for the Royals, fewer still if Rodgers continues his ham-fisted approach to “negotiating” with us for our players through the media. The real shame, lost in the detail, is that fate has left Nigel Gibbs at the same club, someone not worthy of the vitriol that’s likely to be directed at his colleagues. Top half, but that’s all.
 

SCUNTHORPE UNITED

INS: Rob Jones (Hibernian, £350,000), Michael O’Connor (Crewe Alexandra, up to £225,000), Josh Wright (Charlton Athletic, Free)

OUTS: None

OUR EX-IRON: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None
 
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Murphy

Byrne        Jones          Crosby          Morris

Sparrow    O’Connor       McCann         Woolford

Hooper         Hayes

VERDICT:
I must confess to not expecting to see Scunny back up here so soon. After one season in the second tier following the departure of Brian Laws and his replacement with ex-physio Adkins, and with bigger hitters jostling for promotion from the third tier a spell back in the lower reaches seemed more likely. Still… here they are, and owed the gratitude of anyone with half a brain for blocking the promotion of the Franchise (lots of “Gowonn Scunny!” from around the country in May, I’d guess). Still got to fancy them to struggle again now they’re here though.
 

SHEFFIELD UNITED

INS: Ched Evans (Manchester City, £3,000,000), Lee Williamson (Watford, £500,000), Leigh Bromby (Watford, Undisclosed), Andy Taylor (Tranmere Rovers, Undisclosed), Ryan France (Hull City, Free), Kyel Reid (West Ham United, Free), Keith Treacy (Blackburn Rovers, Six Month Loan), Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur, Season Loan)

OUTS: Adam Chapman (Oxford United, £15,000), Kyle Naughton (Tottenham Hotspur, Undisclosed), Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur, Undisclosed), Jamie Annerson (Rotherham United, Free), Nicky Law (Rotherham United, Free), Ben Starosta (Darlington, Free), Ugo Ehiogu, Sun Jihai, Mamadou Seck, Danny Webber

OUR EX-BLADES: Jon Harley, John-Joe O’Toole

THEIR EX-ORNS: Leigh Bromby, Sam Ellis (Assistant Manager), Darius Henderson, Lee Williamson
 
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:
 

Kenny

Bromby        Kilgallon          Morgan          Taylor

Cotterill          Howard          Williamson     Reid

Henderson       Evans

VERDICT:
Not quite the Watford old boys’ eleven that seemed likely for a while, but more than a few familiar faces up at Bramall Lane nonetheless. They should be there or thereabouts again, even if £3million seems an extraordinary amount to spend on a striker with limited first team experience. They’ll need to finish top two to go up though you’d fancy, as Blackwell once again suggested that he doesn’t have the bottle to take the Blades up via the play-offs and frankly I just can’t see them doing that. Top six, probably, but that’s all.
 

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY

INS: Darren Potter (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Undisclosed), Tommy Miller (Ipswich Town, Free), Darren Purse (Cardiff City, Free)

OUTS:Kenny Lunt (Hereford United, Free), Sam Liversidge, Liam McMenamin, Wade Small, Steve Watson

OUR EX-OWLS:None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Grant

Buxton         Purse           Beevers           Spurr

Johnson      McAllister     O’Connor        Gray

Tudgay          Sodje

VERDICT:
I have to confess to having been astonished at Wednesday’s comfortable mid-table finish last season, but buoyed by a number of talented home-grown lads (particularly at the back) and by some intelligent investment they did OK. They’ll be confident going into the new season also – Darren Purse is a magnificently pragmatic recruit, an experienced, hard-nosed bastard to provide what the kids might not be able to, and Tudgay committing himself to the cause despite, ostensibly, having the option of a top flight move suggests that the Owls aren’t the basket case that they appeared to be a year or two back. They’ll do well to challenge the play-offs, but shouldn’t struggle either.
 

SWANSEA CITY

INS: Nathan Dyer (Southampton, £400,000), Stephen Dobbie (QUeen of the South, Free), Jordi Lopez (Queens Park Rangers, Free)

OUTS: Jason Scotland (Wigan Athletic, £2,000,000), Chris Jones (Grimsby Town, Free), Owain Tudor-Jones (Norwich City, Free), Matthew Wright (Crystal Palace, Free), Dennis Lawrence

OUR EX-SWANS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

de Vries

Rangel           Monk           Williams          Tate

Britton      Bodde     Pratley      Gower      Dyer

Pintado

VERDICT:
All bets are off as far as the Swans are concerned. Playing some very fine football under an apparently very decent manager, said manager and at least two of the crown jewels have upped sticks to Wigan and you’d have to worry about the Swans in the season ahead. Paolo Sousa was a fine footballer but as yet is unproven as a manager (although his spell on the Loftus Road ice rink probably shouldn’t count against him), and I’m far from convinced by Nathan Dyer. Could struggle.
 

WEST BROMWICH ALBION

INS: Simon Cox (Swindon Town, up to £1,900,000), Youssouf Mulumbu (Paris St.Germain, £200,000), Reuben Reid (Rotherham United, Undisclosed)

OUTS:Sherjill McDonald (Germinal Beerschot, £650,000), Kim Do-Heon (Suwon Bluewings, £350,000), Paul Robinson (Bolton Wanderers, Season Loan), Jared Hodgkiss, Carl Hoefkens, Pedro Pele

OUR EX-BAGGIES:Nathan Ellington

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Carson

Zuiverloon     Barnett     Olsson          Cech

Brunt         Greening        Mulumbu      Koren

Cox         Beattie

VERDICT:
It should go without saying that Albion, whichever division they’re in, will continue to reinforce their national ranking 20th-and-a-half. The squad they’re left with should certainly be strong enough to challenge, the one real wild card being manager Di Matteo whose recruitment on the basis of one OK-but-no-cigar season with the Franchise looks a little bit of a punt from this distance. You’d still fancy the Baggies for play-offs at worst though.
 

…and finally…

 

WATFORD
 
INS: Jure Travner (NK Celje, Undisclosed), Danny Graham (Carlisle United, Tribunal), Scott Severin (Aberdeen, Free)
OUTS: Lee Williamson (Sheffield United, £500,000), Leigh Bromby (Sheffield United, Undisclosed), Theo Robinson (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Stuart Searle (Franchise FC, Free), Al Bangura, Steve Kabba, Mart Poom, Andrei Stepanov, Gareth Williams
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

 

Loach

Mariappa     Demerit       Williamson       Doyley

Smith         Severin       Jenkins      McAnuff

Graham       Priskin

VERDICT:

Given that it’s relatively easy to write a few glib, if not necessarily accurate, lines about the prospects of every other team in the division, even those (the Posh) that we’ve not played for twelve years (yes, really), how can it be so difficult to capture the outlook for the team that matters the most and is simultaneously the side that I ought to know most about, as much as I know anything?
It’s somewhat inevitable that opinions are influenced by the tail end of the previous season; hence last season’s doom-laden script that foretold far worse than even the first half of last season delivered. And hence, despite the departure of Rodgers, it’s hard not to be upbeat about our prospects going into the new campaign as the core of the squad, loanee Cork and exile Williamson (L) aside, remains largely intact.
Two major sticking points, of course. One is that it’s not August 31st yet, and much as it’s gratifying that Smith, McAnuff, Priskin et al are still on the roster, it would be a brave man indeed who put money on that still being the case when the window closes. The number of wingers that we’ve had on trial or been linked with in the press points in a certain direction.
The other is the manager. Mackay will enjoy near-unanimous support from the Vicarage Road stands, we’ll all be unreservedly rooting for him. But whilst we’ve made a fashion of picking young, debut managers, Mackay deals with a more challenging situation than either of his predecessors; Boothroyd was given financial backing that Mackay can’t and won’t expect, and Rodgers inherited an essentially strong if lopsided squad. Mackay’s responsibility is more comparable to that of Lewington… keeping the boat moving forward whilst chopping down the mast for firewood and flogging off the sails to pay for food. The astonishing lack of regard in which Lewington’s achievement is widely held suggests that this is a thankless task, particularly for a young manager.
On the plus side, we seem to be doing well as far as producing kids is concerned… off the top of my head I’m looking forward to seeing more of Kiernan, Hodson, Gibson, Sordell and Bryan, and that’s without needing to mention the still young but increasingly established Ross Jenkins. It’s been a while since there were so many kids coming through with a degree of expectation rather than hope on their shoulders, and that we might be using them because we need to doesn’t make the prospect of their development any less enticing.
It’ll be easier to call come the end of August, quite obviously. But for now… things could look far worse. Bring it on.