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Watford 2 Birmingham City 2 (28/08/2011) 28/08/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
38 comments

Five thunks from a deceptively chilly Vicarage Road…

1- Let’s deal with Jonathan Hogg first.  An odd place to start perhaps, given that debut or otherwise these thunks are supposed to reflect the whole game…. but certain qualifiers need to be bedded in early.  So…  he looks a very tidy little player, in short.  Competitive, aggressive, very composed on the ball with a fine range of passing  and suggestions of leadership and will-to-win also.  All good.  Discipline… well, with the additions of Dickinson and Iwelumo we’d perhaps already written off the fair-play trophy for this season, but if Hogg’s to be a fixture then he too will be adding to the yellow card tally… indeed, he was perhaps lucky to stay on the pitch when, having been booked after the event for one silly late challenge he went through the back of Jonathan Spector in the centre circle, provoking the closest to a bit of spirit that the game had seen to that point.  I’d missed the earlier booking I must confess, which casts the second incident in a whole new light… a hack in the centre circle is one thing, a hack whilst on a yellow is just silly.  Nonetheless…  a guardedly positive, encouraging debut from Hogg.

Which doesn’t alter the fact that he’s yet another deep-sitting midfielder.  He’s a different sort of player, admittedly, to Jenkins;  we’ve not just swapped one version of a destructive midfielder with another one.  But in a season which has been characterised thus far by some tentatively positive stuff tending to flounder when it reaches the final third, we really could have used someone who was going to support the forwards.

Unfortunate timing, perhaps.  We’d been looking for an attacking midfielder, crying out for one, but one of the mantras of the recruitment policy – assuming that we still adhere to this policy – is that we’ll take the opportunity to recruit good young players whenever they come up, irrespective of position.  And, so, well, see above.  But what that leaves you is a side with two deep central midfielders, two full-backs who defend reliably but aren’t the best going forward, and a lot being required of your attacking wide players….

2-…so if, as in the first half, your wide players appear to be completely off their game, you really aren’t going to score many goals.  Or create any chances.  We’ve looked alright at times this season.  Better than our results might suggest, anyway.  And even then we’ve not created much, whatever shot-stats might suggest.

So the first half of today’s game was a turgid embarrassment.  As suggested above… Yeates had a bit of a stinker, he’s been gradually losing impetus since the opening day at Burnley; Forsyth  scrapped gamely but was altogether less effective than he has been, occasional aerial clatterings (of Stephen Carr, who he should really be beating in the air in any event) aside.  As such, what attacking play we did put together dribbled into irrelevance in the final third as yet another mediocre side (see thunk 4) realised quickly that by defending deep against us you had us pretty much negated (we could probably do with a big target man in our armoury in such situations…).  With Sordell and Weimann horribly isolated, the only goal we looked like we might score would have resulted from Forsyth connecting accurately with a deep cross from the right.  That’s looked like it might happen in every game so far, but hasn’t yet.

Instead, Birmingham scored.  And it’s worth noting that whilst only West Ham have embarrassed us defensively thus far, we’re nonetheless far from solid enough to accommodate our lack of goal threat at the other end.  Static defending from a set piece cost us that one, and we were rather fortunate not to go in two down as the referee generously ruled in our favour after Loach appeared to misjudge a left-wing City cross under challenge that found its way past him and was converted at the far post.

3- The second half, then, was an improvement, but only in the way that a splitting headache is preferable to your head actually splitting open.  We started very brightly, no small relief in the cheers from the Rookery, ready to seize upon any encouragement in front of them.  Hogg was immediately in front of the play (although he reverted to type and was pinging balls around from deep positions by the middle of the half), we were on the front foot, and if we still didn’t look terribly like scoring there was at least an urgency to our impotence.  Defenders took the lead where others were struggling, with Dickinson, Taylor and Doyley all carrying the ball into offensive positions.

In the end, though, our goals didn’t come from a build up of pressure.  If Sean Dyche was right to highlight a second half improvement, I don’t share his satisfaction with the outcome; the first goal was a brilliant strike, carved out of nothing and finished decisively by Sordell with his left foot.  A Premiership finish.  The second, rendered necessary by Birmingham’s breakaway goal after Eustace’s error, practically their first attack of the half, was again dug out by Sordell; Myhill’s terrific save to the striker’s fierce shot was converted mercilessly and adroitly by Martin Taylor, gambling as a centre back doesn’t, often.  In the circumstances of an injury time equaliser it was wildly celebrated, perhaps even deserved on the balance of play, but that shouldn’t conceal the fact that the team isn’t creating chances from open play.  Marvin ain’t going to keep us up on his own.

4- If West Ham looked like a Premiership side on sabbatical, Birmingham have stunningly quickly reverted back to the shapeless, characterless mid-table non-entity that they were for much of the nineties.  Many of these players were in the Premiership last season but you wouldn’t know it… if they weren’t as utterly abject going forward as Derby, they lacked the Rams’ defensive resilience.  Admittedly, there are players to come back and a fully fit Marlon King alone should give the side enough to hide in mid-table, but the contrast with our last opponents at Vicarage Road was surprisingly stark given that it was City, not United, who only went down on the final day.

5- The positive – and of course there are some, the biggest positive then – is the spirit that saw us come back from behind not just once but twice.  If there are things wrong with the team (still), there’s a lot right as well.  Anyone watching Match of the Day 2 on Sunday night will need no reminding what a side with no belief looks like.  We’re clearly very far from that state of affairs, and Carl Dickinson will enjoy his very deliberate, very thorough post-match exercise for as long as that level of application is shown, whatever our results and limitations.

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Watford 0 West Ham United 4 (16/08/2011) 17/08/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
40 comments

Five thunks from a sobering evening at Vicarage Road

1- Let’s get the obvious bit out of the way first, shall we?  Obvious… but necessary, relevant, important.  Of all the sentiments provoked by last night’s game, the most striking was the chill echo of the futility of Premier League fixtures. During any number of games in each of our seasons in the top flight since football was invented in 1992, we’d look plucky and promising and positive and not really terribly like scoring and then concede.  And then look plucky and positive and get our heads up and keep playing and not really look like scoring and maybe concede again, maybe not.  This is what a game between a newly relegated Premier League club and anyone else was supposed to look like.  In the same way that the grotesque barriers to entry provided by cushion-upon-cushion of TV money should mean that any oiks who find their way up come back down with their tails between their legs, a side like West Ham, a top flight side in terms of their squad and recent history, ought to be much too good for your average second tier side.  The insurance policy of being able to afford salaries that others can’t compete with ought to work for relegated Big Teams as well (and heaven help them if it doesn’t, come the end of the season).  West Ham were much better than us, in short, for reasons that weren’t entirely within Sean Dyche, Chris Iwelumo or anyone else’s control.   Although not conceding early against that midfield probably would have been an idea.

2- There are issues with our attack, quite clearly, and we’ll come to that.  But whilst we were always going to miss the 31 goals that headed towards Wales with Graham and Cowie, the 24 assists that they supplied last season (not to mention the 7 provided by the sorely missed McGinn) are as keenly felt.  For all that each of our midfielders can claim to have had a decent first half, for all that we buzzed around quite purposefully, it’s not as if Sordell and Iwelumo had a whole load of chances to miss.  Perhaps more tellingly, the same was true on Saturday in a game where, unlike last night, we dominated possession.  Yeates is putting good balls in from set pieces, Sordell has prized open a few openings for himself, but our football is yielding almost nothing from open play.  Suddenly creating chances, so painfully easy last season, looks the hardest thing in the world.

3- Chris Iwelumo.  If football were played exclusively with the chest, we’d have the best player in the world on our hands.  As it is… well it’s not really working just yet, is it?  Part of the problem is clearly down to fitness, and if you’re feeling a bit cynical here and doubting the validity of this explanation one need only reflect, as ig did during yesterday’s game, that a player who has built a reputation and a very successful career at this level through his aerial prowess doesn’t look like that when he’s fully fit.  So… there’s more to come from Big Chris, and as Sean Dyche indirectly acknowledged afterwards there’s little to be gained from not playing him if what he needs is games.  More than that, though… it’s not really clear how we want to play at the moment.  Most of us must still instinctively expect to see Danny Graham pulling away from a defender as we break, looking for the run.  Iwelumo’s not going to do that… but endless balls into the channels aren’t really going to be his thing either.  Nor is Marvin Sordell playing as if he’s alongside a target man… dropping deep, working incredibly hard, but not looking for knock downs.  Perhaps, admittedly, because he realises that they’re not coming at the moment.  Lots to sort out here then.  None of which excuses cheering the substitution of a new signing, however abject you rate his performance.  You’re not playing Football Manager now, you can’t just stick him on the transfer list and bring in someone else*.  We can’t afford for Iwelumo not to do well for us, and this level of stick at this early stage is ludicrous, pathetic, pitiable and, frankly, plain stupid.

4- If you’re looking for new and original things to be concerned about, I’ve a few.  Martin Taylor has never been as embarrassed at this level, not even when labouring through a lack of match sharpness in his first few months at the club.  One can only wonder whether the presence of two central defenders on the bench suggested an injury concern.  Not sure what I hope there, really.  Two… Marvin Sordell, dragging his leg uncomfortably, heavily behind him as he left the pitch at the back of the pack following a heavy challenge late on.  Don’t even think about it, Marvin.  Third.. second half.  Only two-down I think (only!).  And Scott Loach has gathered the ball and is looking for options, looking for a target.  And everyone’s got their backs to him, nobody wants it.  We’re not at that stage already, surely?

5- Reasons to be cheerful?  Some positive, committed stuff from both Dickinson and (particularly before the break) Forsyth down the left.  Lloyd Doyley still refuses to sell himself when facing an attacker… some might complain of backing off, frankly I’d rather have a defender who forces his opponent to make the decision rather than making for him.  His discipline got us out of a hole more than once last night.  Sordell has grown since last season.. stronger, more aggressive, and if our forward line isn’t working yet and if he isn’t always making the right decisions then at least he looks determined to take responsibility, to play a more senior role.  Christ, he’s only 20.  Mark Yeates puts in a vicious corner, not everyone is going to be as big and organised as West Ham at set plays.  And we won’t have to endure Kevin Nolan’s rather tiresome whingy Scouser thing again this season.  You’re on a big fat wedge you miserable bastard, at least look as if you’re enjoying yourself.

* Actually you probably can’t do that on Football Manager any more either – haven’t allowed myself to go there for a very long time.  Shudder.  I have a life now, you know.  Kids.  Begone…

Watford 0 Derby County 1 (13/08/2011) 14/08/2011

Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
20 comments

1a. For all the excitement of the season’s first home game, and with it a bunch of new kids to pick on or befriend, it takes about ten minutes for a certain weary familiarity to set in. Derby hang around the division like one of those odd jobs – the wonky cupboard door in the kitchen, the bit of painting in the spare room, the wisteria in need of a trim – that would only take half an hour but that you never quite get around to sorting out. In the latter case, the wisteria growing up the front of our house has got so carried away by the summer’s heady blend of sunshine and rain that anyone standing on our front steps for longer than a minute or two is liable to become so entwined that they may never escape. And that’s your introductory metaphor.

1b. (And, yes, I’m fully aware that they probably feel much the same about us.)

2. Let’s peel away the layers…on the surface, a disappointing defeat to opponents who, for much of the ninety minutes, appeared too vulnerable in key areas to last the distance without conceding. Derby spent much of the contest merely dodging away from the ropes…apart from Jamie Ward, who seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time playing the ginola somewhere on the lush green (for now) turf. They weren’t up to much…and then they scored a fine goal…and then they weren’t up to much again.

When you lose a game like that some time in January or February, probably on a wet Tuesday night, then you can usually shrug it off as an annoyance, an occupational hazard; you’ll do the same to someone else soon enough and chuckle knowingly. Early on, however, the desire to piece together a picture of the season means that you tend to read into it rather more than it deserves…

3. Underneath the surface, then, was a game that the result doesn’t even begin to reflect. A game in which the victors managed only one meaningful effort on goal, having been penned in for long periods by a rather laboured but nevertheless generally effective Watford performance. In which the Jenkins-Eustace midfield was both the strength (a robust, bossy underlining of our superiority) and the weakness (lack of ingenuity meaning that the superiority counted for too little). In which, if you run through the key incidents in your mind, there were at least half a dozen moments where nothing much except good fortune, perhaps aided by defensive heroism, prevented the ball ending up in the Derby net.

So, we didn’t do a lot wrong. Indeed, you can pick out some hopefully significant positives: whenever we did manage to spread play out wide, particularly to Mark Yeates on the right, you could feel the Derby defence start to wobble. The most notable difference is the extra threat from Craig Forsyth, unfortunate not to crown a couple of positive first half runs; goals will result from getting crosses into the box, of that there is no doubt. Even during a less dominant second half, there were chances – for John Eustace, for newly-arrived Gavin Massey with a free header – that we’d hope, perhaps expect, to stick away. This really wasn’t one of those one-nil defeats, best forgotten right away.

4. Another layer down, though, you can find cause for concern…even though drawing too many conclusions from a couple of games would be deeply unwise. Because there really wasn’t enough guile to go with the physical dominance; it was an attacking performance that screamed out for the angles created by a Cowie or a McGinn (or a Graham, but we’ll get to that), the bright sparks who can shape the space for others to play in. The Derby defence teetered when we spread play into wide areas, but we did so only occasionally; for the rest, we were looking for a moment of inspiration from a less than inspired but thoroughly industrious core, searching for diamonds amid the engine room coal.

That might be enough sometimes. It should’ve been enough yesterday, in all honesty. But we’re short of that extra dimension, of the bit that the opponents’ manager hasn’t thought of and the opponents’ plan can’t prevent. We’re short of what Stephen McGinn gave us in his all-too-brief spell of playing behind the strikers last season, of what Prince Buaben gives us in, so far, our imagination…even of what Marvin Sordell might give us if we can channel him into a defined role with a compatible partner. Or of what we need to be looking for from another new face.

5. Which brings us, not for the first time and perhaps not for the last either, to the inestimable Danny Graham. For it was he that we missed most of all: his restless movement, his second-sight awareness, his willingness to make unfashionable runs, his empathetic touch when playing in colleagues. Inevitable, of course…we weren’t ever not going to miss all of that, nor could we ever hope to replace it even if we’d spent every last penny received from Swansea. Chris Iwelumo has a thankless task…and a squad number that he probably should’ve passed on.

Given all of that, it’s desperately hard not to single Iwelumo out…and a little unfair until he’s fully match-fit. But there were two first half moments which made you want to drive to south Wales and bundle Danny Graham into the boot of your car. One, where Sordell retrieved possession in the centre circle and tricked his way past an opponent…and Graham is instantly on his bike (and possibly flagged offside) where Iwelumo is still standing with his back to goal. Two, where Jenkins makes a positive move from the right, plays it into the big fella and charges into the box for the return ball…which is clumsily over-hit in a way that our last number ten never clumsily over-hit anything. Or so it seems now, looking back.

For all its solid midtable-ness, last season was a high watermark that’ll be hard to reach again. It’s a lot to live up to. Yesterday’s exertions didn’t make the task look any easier. Perhaps Tuesday’s opponents – something other than last season and last season’s stars to define ourselves against – will be exactly what we need….

6. Happy birthdays, Pat and Joe.

Burnley 2 Watford 2 (06/08/2011) 07/08/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
6 comments

Five thunks from the season opener at Turf Moor…

1- Sometimes the season opener can be a bit of a low-key affair, the lingering air of a pre-season friendly at a slowish pace in blazing sunshine.  Whether the rain that emptied over east Lancashire at regular intervals was a factor in flushing out any summer laziness or not, this was a full-throttle return to football.  Watford fans in the ground will have endured apprehension, anxiety, dismay, euphoria, excitement, more anxiety, disappointment, relief within the course of the 90 minutes;  Burnley fans something similar, if not necessarily in the same order.  A splendid afternoon’s entertainment all in all, no half-measures here.

That’s not to say that we started on the front foot.  Immediately and throughout the home side displayed an intent to play around us rather than through us, getting the ball very wide as often as possible with Wallace and Elliott delivering countless balls into the box. our ongoing survival owing as much to luck as to good defending.  Actually, rather more to luck if we’re honest, although Mariappa stood out as taking credit from the first half rearguard.  Our opening goal, when it came, was not completely unheralded;  if Iwelumo and Sordell had been playing rather too far apart we had nonetheless managed to fashion openings or suggestions of openings rather easily, suggesting more to come.

So, if the half-time score didn’t quite constitute daylight robbery we were perhaps rather fortunate to be ahead.  No cause for complaint for the home side though… it’s about rolling with the punches and taking your chances after all.  We then started the second half like a train, vivacious, bold.  A second goal, could have been, should have been more before rocking in the face of a Burnley fightback. No meek surrender this, though;  if we could easily have been two down at half time and not complained, our rearguard action in the second half was gutsy and inspiring if not entirely sufficient to protect the three points.  Plenty to love in this latest incarnation of the Watford side.  I have no voice on Sunday morning.

2- Most dramatic of the transformations in yellow over the course of the game was that of Carl Dickinson, long awaited Answer to the Problem at left back.  He started the game with a heavy touch, and proceeded to play as if his laces were tied together for the first half hour.  Not just a little suspect, but almost farcically vulnerable, giving the ball away, iffy backpasses, caught in possession.  The guffaws of Portsmouth messageboards on his signing echoed loud. Then, late in the first half before the goal, he got his head to a cross from the left having tucked inside diligently to protect the far post.  Not spectacular defending, but solid, competent, and almost certainly goal-saving.  He grew from there;  a second half challenge on Elliott snapped decisively, confidently… no more tentativeness.  By the end of the game, with Watford trying to kill the clock, he picked up the ball on the left flank inside his own half and, clearly completely shattered, pegged it up the left flank towards the away end.  Two markers followed him all the way chasing, jostling, trying and failing to regain possession.  One made a forlorn attempt to muscle Dickinson off the ball as they approached the touchline.  He failed, bouncing off.  Dickinson turned on his final adversary and cracked the ball at him, which rebounded off for a corner.  Dickinson turned to the away end in triumph, his transformation complete.  Splendid theatre, a triumph for bloody-mindedness.

3- Two stock moves to look out for, two new weapons in the armoury.  You’ll have noticed that there’s rather more height in the side now than there was last season… Iwelumo, Dickinson, Forsyth all extra targets at set pieces.  So it was that Martin Taylor was unmarked beyond the far post… let’s just say that again, Martin Taylor.  Unmarked. Honestly….  to meet a Mark Yeates free kick from the left in the second half.  With Iwelumo attracting the markers like flies, the ball reached Taylor whose perfect header was back across goal and destined for the far bottom corner until the man on the post did his job, if only barely.  It felt like a practised piece.  Two… Craig Forsyth in general.  Pre-season outings had suggested a willing, tidy, gutsy left-sided option. He’s also bloody huge, if Peter Crouch huge rather than Devon White huge, and is going to give any number of right-backs a really hard time… balls from the back found him on the left like a beacon, and until he tired on the hour he didn’t lose a single one.  Burnley right-back Kieran Trippier will not have slept well.  Forsyth’s goal was just reward… a splendid move down the right, a bold run and cross from Sordell and Forsyth’s on the far post, running into the path of the ball to head the cross expertly inside the far post.  Already an asset.

4- Of the other new boys…  Yeates hadn’t contributed much for the first half hour, but came to life in the final third, and was increasingly at the centre of our best period after the break.  Willing to run at people but also happy to cross with either foot, his best moment just below us was a trick and shimmy that took him between two markers (one of them Trippier, again) and into the penalty area to roars of appreciation from above.  Iwelumo, the target of half-hearted cat-calls from the home stands, did exactly what you’d expect… won headers, occupied defenders, provided knock-downs.  We need to be better at profiting from his aerial dominance.

5- Entertainment in the home ranks was provided by The Artist Formerly Known as Bikey, rechristened Andre Amougo over the break.  Never has there been a footballer so comprehensively better better at reacting to things than anticipating them.  Particular highlights were a ridiculous first-half shot from all of 35 yards that lacked direction if not venom, and a second half encounter with the official which had echoes of Di Canio’s dismissal at Hillsborough in 1998 as he was booked for a cynical foul on Sordell.  Fortunately for Burnley his partner Ben Mee, a loan signing from Manchester City, looked far more composed.  The Clarets will be OK, and looked more potent on Keith Treacy’s second-half introduction, but this is somewhere that we never get any points.  A very decent start to the season, dropped lead or otherwise.

Season Preview 2011-12 Part 6 04/08/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

Nearly through now folks, thanks for sticking with it…

READING

INS: Mikele Leigertwood (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Bongani Khumalo (Tottenham Hotspur, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ben Hamer (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Matt Mills (Leicester City, Undisclosed), Scott Davies (Crawley Town, Free), Ivar Ingimarsson (Ipswich Town, Free), Julian Kelly (Notts County, Free), David Mooney (Leyton Orient, Free), James Rowe (Forest Green Rovers, Free), Abdulai Bell-Baggie, Danny Joyce, Carl McHugh (Dundalk, Loan)

OUR EX-ROYALS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nigel Gibbs (Assistant Manager), Brynjar Gunnarsson, Jobi McAnuff

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two mundane draws, in contrast to recent seasons’ Rodgers and Attwell-induced excitement. Troy Deeney (our place) and Andi Weimann (theirs) were the Watford goalscorers in two 1-1 ties.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Federici
Griffin        Pearce        Khumalo         Harte
Kebe      Leigertwood      Karacan       McAnuff
Long          Hunt

VERDICT: Ultimately disappointment for Reading last time round after another late surge took them into the play-offs at the expense, entertainingly enough, of Leeds United.  I can’t have been the only Hornet imploring the Royals to go long (that’s long, small l, not Long, big L) as they fell dramatically behind at Wembley;  Swansea rocked and creaked as soon as we started lumping balls into the box at Vicarage Road last season, falling just short of an unlikely comeback ourselves.  The Royals got two goals back, both from corners, but didn’t have a big man to aim for and fell just short.

Since then centre-back Mills has departed and Shane Long looks likely to follow – prolific strikers are too rare a thing for someone not to take a punt, West Brom and West Ham having been linked with an interest so far.  Given these departures, and the loss of loan players, Reading look significantly weaker with a fairly old first team – although in the likes of Robson-Kanu, Cummings and McCarthy there are younger players on the fringes of the first eleven.  The Royals look vulnerable defensively, with a lack of cover at centre back as I write and Ian Harte in particular, never the quickest in his younger days, increasingly exposed by a tricky winger.  There’s too much savvy in that management team to allow Reading to struggle, but I can’t see a play-off challenge again.  Mid-table.

SOUTHAMPTON

INS: Jack Cork (Chelsea, Undisclosed), Steve de Ridder (De Graafschaap, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Tony Garrod (Farnborough, Free), Callum McNish (Exeter City, Free), Anthony Pulis (Aldershot Town, Free), Sam Argent, Ryan Tafazolli

OUR EX-SAINTS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: David Connolly, Jack Cork

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Aidy Boothroyd’s last win, a 3-0 triumph in Hampshire during which Jack Cork turned out for Southampton, and a 2-2 at home in which the Saints equalised late, Cork was playing in yellow and Andrej Stepanovs set a record with the shortest Watford career in history.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Davis
Butterfield         Fonte          Martin          Harding
Chamberlain         Cork          Chaplow         Lallana
Lambert          Connolly

VERDICT: There’s no guarantee, of course, that a drop into the third tier after a long spell in the top two divisions will see a side bounce back in rude health within a year or two.  Any number of counter-examples exist;  Oldham Athletic for one, who after 24 years in the top two divisions boasting a couple of FA Cup semi finals and a League Cup final defeat to Forest dropped into the third tier for what might have been a brief sojourn in 1997.  They’re still there.

The Saints, however, have overcome the combined obstacles of relegation, administration, near-bankruptcy, a points deduction and Alan Pardew to return to the second tier at the second time of asking.  The Saints’ saviour was Swiss benefactor  Markus Liebherr, who passed away at the start of last season without seeing his investment result in promotion. Southampton may have made a limited number of (nonetheless impressive) additions this summer, but spent heavily over the eighteen months prior to promotion.  The side looks well-balanced, supplemented by a famously prolific youth policy and if a centre-back is recruited as planned they look to have decent options in every position.  That’s not to say that we won’t continue our fine recent run against them – six wins, a draw and 22 goals scored against the Saints in seven games since the 2003 FA Cup semi – but they should have enough to finish comfortably mid-table.  Eleventh.

WEST HAM UNITED

INS: Matt Taylor (Bolton Wanderers, £2,200,000), Kevin Nolan (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Abdoulaye Faye (Stoke City, Free), Joey O’Brien  (Bolton Wanderers, Free)

OUTS: Manuel da Costa (Lokomotiv Moscow, £1,300,000), Demba Ba (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Radoslav Kovac (Basel, Undisclosed), Luis Boa Morte (Larissa, Free), Kieron Dyer (Queens Park Rangers, Free), Anthony Edgar (Yeovil Town, Free), Holmar Eyjolfsson (VfL Bochum, Free), Danny Gabbidon (Queens Park Rangers, Free), Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City, Free), Thomas Hitzlsperger, Lars Jacobsen, Filip Modelski, Adam Street, Matthew Upson, Jordan Spence (Bristol City, Season Loan)

OUR EX-HAMMERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Andy Rolls (Physiotherapist)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: After an extraordinary 21-game winless run against the Hammers spanning 22 years, we’ve won each of the last three encounters 1-0. Most recently, Hayden Mullins’ own goal gave us a Carling Cup victory three years ago.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Green
O’Brien             Faye           Tomkins          Ilunga
Barrera        Collison       Nolan           Noble          Taylor
Cole

VERDICT: It would, most impartial observers would agree, be quite funny if West Ham didn’t get promoted.  It’s not that the Hammers stand out as the most unpleasant of our contemporaries;  whatever your particular prejudices I don’t suspect that, this coming season, you’d struggle to find three of this season’s opponents that you’d wish relegation on, or a plague of frogs or something similar.  As a friend pithily observed earlier in the week, “What a disgusting division we are in”.

The unholy trinity are a notoriously difficult circus act to warm to, of course (even if one of them does appear on The Apprentice and must therefore be “well cool”).  And you’ve got the whole Olympic Stadium thing, difficult not to sympathise with Orient in those circumstances given that rules limiting relocation to another club’s patch seem to carry a “unless you really want to” waiver.  And there’s all those years of indistinguishable 1-0 defeats. But in particular,  the strategy embodied by the decision to award Kevin Nolan, 29, a five-year contract.  At a reported £65k per week.  Good grief.  Nolan’s a fine player by our division’s standards, played a big role in Newcastle’s cake walk two years ago, but that’s a crazy, reckless contract for a top flight club to offer.  Almost contemptuous.

West Ham are going to be promoted, quite clearly.  For a blueprint, see QPR last season;  a side that was always reasonably pretty but lightweight and occasionally flimsy appointed against type in Neil Warnock. An odd fit, intuitively, but a perfect one as it turned out;  Warnock brought in his trolls to give QPR a tough spine, a bit of nasty.  Allardyce is a similarly incongruous appointment for West Ham, not obviously a West Ham sort of manager at all.  But he’s already brought in some grit (particularly, as won’t have escaped your notice, former charges from Bolton, although Matt Taylor was recruited by Gary Megson six months after Allardyce’s departure)… and the squad he inherits suddenly looks so strong that you wonder how they managed to be relegated at all, even if one assumes the departure of Scott Parker.  Joey O’Brien in particular will prove a corking signing if he is over his injury problems, Jack Collison is back from the injury that all but ruled him out of last season, and there are, as ever, good kids all over the place.  Up there with Leicester, everyone else a long way behind.

And finally…

WATFORD

INS: Carl Dickinson (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Craig Forsyth (Dundee, Undisclosed), Chris Iwelumo (Burnley, Undisclosed), Mark Yeates (Sheffield United, Undisclosed), Prince Buaben (Dundee United, Free), David Mirfin (Scunthorpe United, Free)

OUTS: Danny Graham (Swansea City, £3,500,000), Will Buckley (Brighton & Hove Albion, £1,000,000), Don Cowie (Cardiff City, Free), Nathan Ellington (Ipswich Town, Free), Liam Henderson (York City, Free), Mat Sadler (Walsall, Free), Tom Aldred (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Six Month Loan), Rob Kiernan

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Loach
Doyley        Mariappa          Taylor         Dickinson
Yeates           Eustace         Buaben        Forsyth
Iwelumo         Sordell

VERDICT: So. The most important bit, then.  And as ever, the hardest bit to write, given that, firstly, it’s far less acceptable to present glib generalisations in this section;  secondly, a far greater consciousness of the many pros and cons to weigh up;  thirdly, my two-year old daughter is in mid-tantrum having not napped during this hot, humid day and is slapping me as I type.  Ignoring her so far…

A summer of ups and downs, it’s fair to say.  You might argue there have been more downs than ups, more significant ones.  I dunno.  Perhaps so.  But Graham was always going to go, and Mackay’s move wasn’t a huge surprise much as it was disappointing.  The loss of Don Cowie was a bolt from the blue, and Julian Winter’s departure depressing and alarming in equal measure.  On the pitch though… Cowie’s the one, the one that doesn’t fit the mould.  Selling Graham, and to a lesser extent Buckley, surely fits the plan… buy them young and talented, bring them on, sell them on.  Graham had outgrown us, Buckley will need to get his shit together to an unprecedented extent to make £1m feel like a bad deal.  If we think it’s a good model (and I think it’s a great model) then you bite the bullet when the time comes.

On the upside, retaining Dyche was a huge plus on several levels.  One might argue that he was always going to accept a manager’s job having been offered it, but if Mackay really felt the need to bail out rather than merely moving his career on, as he saw it, then one might have expected Dyche to jump ship also.  He didn’t, so we keep a man who was clearly no wallflower in the previous management structure, has a long-standing knowledge of the club and who sounds as if he’s been dining on exhausts.  Big tick.  Another to commit himself to the club was John Eustace, a massive plus and testimony again to the way things were going.  Eustace clearly had options, Derby publicly pursued him and he still lives in the midlands.  He stayed, so we retain our leader on the pitch.  Perhaps the biggest signing of the summer.  Others extended or signed new contracts, Thompson, Massey…  tick, tick.  Not to be taken for granted.

And then the recruits.  We’ve not had a mass influx like this since Aidy Boothroyd’s  dramatic first summer in charge, and if we don’t obviously have a goalscorer to replace Graham or as complete a midfielder as Don Cowie, we’re surely stronger throughout the squad for numbers.  There’s a trend too… it’s not so very long ago, the first half of Malky’s first season before Martin Taylor’s arrival, that we didn’t have a six footer outfield and were looking a little lightweight, much as we moved the ball well.  No danger of that this season, with Iwelumo, Mirfin and Dickinson in particular all providing some physical presence that the side has previously been short of.  It’s difficult to compare ins with outs on the whole;  the outs were known quantities, the ins by definition are not.  But as far as it goes… Iwelumo and Dickinson in particular look great catches, filling big and (in Dickinson’s case in particular) long-standing holes in the squad.  The others all give us options in areas we needed options.  Tick, tick, tick.  The kidz… Jenkins, Thompson, Sordell, Whichelow, Mingoia, Bennett, Hodson, Deeney, Bryan, Oshodi; youngsters with a season’s worth more experience in or around the squad.  This will make them better players.  Murray, Massey, Isaac, Assombalonga, Bond, Mensah maybe aren’t too far behind.  We’ve lost some key men, sure.  But we’re breeding our own, and these guys need space to grow.  We maybe need a striker as it stands, but I don’t look at our squad and think “christ, how are we going to get through this”.  How mant of that first list of kids do you look at and think “he won’t make it” ?  People will have their own opinions on individuals… but not many,  I’d guess.  That’s a hell of a reflection on how we bring on our youngsters (even if, admittedly, Deeney was brought in from outside).

How will we do?  Do you know, I almost don’t care.  No, that’s not true.  I want us to win every game we play, I rock up as we all do at Vicarage Road, Turf Moor, wherever, desperate for us to beat whoever we’re playing.  But we finished fourteenth last season, and it was brilliant.  There’s a fallacy, rolled out whenever an administrator or chairman is defending decisions that lead to overspending, which goes that pressure comes from fans who “always want to watch their team win”.  Yeah, they do.  But “watching their team” is more important, when it comes down to it.  I really enjoyed watching our team last season.  The number of kids we’ve got coming through, not just paying lip service to bringing kids on, is brilliant.  With that comes a patience with players on the part of the support – not everyone of course, there’s always an idiot.  But people are supportive of the kids they’ve brought through.  They’re part of our fabric, to a greater extent.  I love that.

For what it’s worth, I think we’ll do just fine.  We’re not going to win the league, clearly.  OK.  But I don’t think we’re going to struggle either.  That line up above doesn’t look like one to mess with to me, and there’s cover now, players in every department with experience.  Our players, our experience.  Bring it on.

That’s it.  See you at Turf Moor…

Season Preview 2011-12 Part 5 03/08/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Tuesday.  The longest day of the week.  Cleaning the kitchen on a Tuesday evening.  Not a highlight.  Football on the radio from next week.  Thank the stars.

 

MILLWALL

INS: Darius Henderson (Sheffield United, Undisclosed), Ryan Allsop (West Bromwich Albion, Free), Thierry Racon (Charlton Athletic, Free), Jordan Stewart (Skoda Xanthi, Free)

OUTS: Steve Morison (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Theo Robinson (Derby County, Undisclosed), Andy Frampton (Gillingham, Free), Ashley Grimes (Rochdale, Free), Marc Laird (Leyton Orient, Free), Neil Harris (Southend United, Free), Danny Schofield (Rotherham United, Free), John Sullivan (Charlton Athletic, Free), Kiernan Hughes-Mason, Pat O’Connor

OUR EX-LIONS: Sean Dyche

THEIR EX-ORNS: Hameur Bouazza, Joe Gallen (Assistant Manager), Darius Henderson, Kenny Jackett (Manager), Jack Smith, Jordan Stewart, Darren Ward

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 6-1 tonking at the New Den at the start of last season during which Millwall had obviously lost a bet and were forced to play the entire game without defending a set piece. Then a less spectacular but nonetheless impressive 1-0 win at home in March, with Ross Jenkins and Don Cowie teaming up in central midfield.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Forde
Dunne         Robinson           Ward          Stewart
Henry      Mkandawire       Trotter        Bouazza
McQuoid       Henderson

VERDICT: The Lions come to us in late September, and rarely can a visiting side have as closely embodied an episode of  “This is your Life”.  With Jack Smith contesting the right-back spot with long-serving Alan Dunne, it’s conceivable that half of Millwall’s side (not to mention the management team) could be ex-Orns (although admittedly this would involve both Hameur Bouazza being fit and Darius Henderson being free from suspension, so perhaps unlikely).  Stewart is back in the country after a year in Greece at  Skoda Xanthi, half of which alongside Nathan Ellington;  Bouazza had an even briefer spell in Turkey before signing for the Lions last January and Big Doris spent most of last season injured, returning to fitness just in time to get himself memorably sent off on his return to Vicarage Road.

The focal point as far as summer dealings was concerned saw Steve Morison depart Millwall for Norwich;  Henderson is ostensibly his replacement but is a very different sort of striker, and significantly less prolific.  A side that didn’t score a lot of goals last season now looks particularly vulnerable up front, but we know that Henderson is a weapon whenever he’s fit and available and the promising McQuoid should benefit from playing alongside him.  In any case, the side is set up not to concede – despite our romp at the New Den in August, only QPR and Swansea conceded fewer over the course of the league season last term.  This is Millwall’s “difficult second season” of course after a momentum fuelled 9th place last term;  without Morison’s goals it’s hard to see them above halfway but in Henry, Trotter and Mkandawire there’s too much quality for the side to struggle.  Thirteenth.

NOTTINGHAM FOREST

INS: Jonathan Greening (Fulham, £600,000), George Boateng (Skoda Xanthi, Free), Andy Reid (Blackpool, Free)

OUTS: Dele Adebola (Hull City, Free), Julian Bennett (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Mark Byrne (Barnet, Free), Rob Earnshaw (Cardiff City, Free), Paul McKenna (Hull City, Free), Nialle Rodney (Bradford City, Free), Nathan Tyson (Derby County, Free), Kelvin Wilson (Celtic, Free)

OUR EX-FOREST: Sean Dyche, Tony Loughlan, Ian Woan

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A draw at Vicarage Road, with Lewis McGugan’s long-range effort squaring after Jordon Mutch’s header had given us the lead, and a 1-0 reverse at the City Ground thanks to a Marcus Tudgay goal.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Camp
Gunter         Morgan         Chambers        Cohen
Greening          Moussi
Anderson             McGugan                  Reid
Tudgay

VERDICT: On the face of it, a sacking was harsh.  Faced with the evidence, the track record.  Play-offs in consecutive seasons, albeit ultimately unsuccessfully, and these in only the second and third years back in the division after three years in the third tier.  An unbalanced, unfair decision from a club that retains a sense of its own significance that’s rather out of kilter with reality.  But the manager was Billy Davies.  Given which, the only question to ponder is how he lasted so long.

Forest become a somewhat less odious proposition with Davies’ departure;  into his seat comes Steve McClaren, a man with an eclectic CV.  Assistant to Jim Smith at Derby, Alec Ferguson (when DID he become Alex?) at Manchester United, then Middlesbrough, England, Twente Enschede and VfL Wolfsburg.  And now the City Ground, where if his track record keeps up its zigzagging form he’ll do well – certainly an interesting watch in the season ahead. Forest have a problem up front as it stands; Dexter Blackstock would be the main man, one suspects, but is still some way off returning from a cruciate ligament injury sustained last November.  There are options in Tudgay, Garner and Findley, but each is either unsuited to a lone striker role, or just not going to be a regular source of goals.  On the other hand, a team that shipped only 50 goals last season isn’t going to be any easier to break down with two of Jonathan Greening, George Boateng and Guy Moussi sitting in front of the defence;   Boateng and Greening may not have the legs but in this formation they won’t really need them.  Much will be asked of the full-backs, but otherwise the attacking three do most of the running around.  Forest don’t have the depth to compete for automatic promotion – although Steve McClaren’s track record at Boro would suggest that he’ll give rather more of an opportunity to his new side’s emerging talent – but are as well positioned as anyone to claim a top six spot (again) in what could be a wide open play-off race.

PETERBOROUGH UNITED

INS: Nicky Ajose (Manchester United, Undisclosed), Craig Alcock (Yeovil Town, Undisclosed), Paul Jones (Exeter City, Free), Ryan Tunnicliffe (Manchester United, Loan), Scott Wootton (Manchester United, Loan)

OUTS: Craig Mackail-Smith (Brighton & Hove Albion, £2,500,000 + clauses), Charlie Lee (Gillingham, Undisclosed), Chris Whelpdale (Gillingham, Undisclosed), Arron Davies (Northampton Town, Free), Rene Howe (Torquay United, Free), Seth Nana Ofuri-Twumasi (Northampton Town, Free), Dominic Green, Ronnie McCrae

OUR EX-POSH: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: We provided the Posh with two of their eight victories as they were relegated fifteen months ago; a 2-1 defeat at a frozen London Road in the December, and a lifeless 1-0 reverse at Vicarage Road.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Jones
Alcock         Zakuani         Bennett        Basey
Boyd         Tunnicliffe        McCann          Rowe
Ajose          Tomlin

VERDICT: At first glance, this ought to be the easiest outcome to predict.  The Posh were promoted through the play-offs in May having finished some thirteen points off automatic promotion, and eight points behind Huddersfield Town side that they vanquished in the play-off final.  You won’t find me criticising the play-off system, United won the game and deserved promotion, but it’s not as if they ripped up all in front of them in the division below;  in the play-off final Posh’s parlous defence (only relegated Bristol Rovers shipped more in the League) creaked and wobbled before the dam broke at the other end.  That they got promoted despite that defensive record was, of course, down to an extraordinarily prolific attack that averaged three goals a game at London Road (!!!).  37 of the 106 league goals departed, however, with first Aaron McLean in January and then Craig Mackail-Smith this summer; replacements as yet have come, inevitably, from Fergie Sr, but whilst there can be few better sources for loan deals than United this isn’t a strategy that was ultimately sufficient for either of the sides with who Fergie Jr started the last two seasons (although he left both Posh in 2009/10 and Preston in 2010/11 before the turn of the year).  Posh have since failed to convince fairly modest targets in James McClean and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing.  I’m not convinced by Fergie Jr despite another promotion, but I’m not sure that relegation’s a done deal – much as they’ve struggled to recruit and lost a very key man, there’s some quality in the side in winger Boyd, midfield general McCann and the hugely promising Bennett at centre-back.  They’re fighting gravity though and staying up, if not impossible, will be an achievement.

PORTSMOUTH

INS: Greg Halford (Wolves, £1,000,000 + clauses), Luke Varney (Derby County, £750,000), Stephen Henderson (Bristol City, Undisclosed), Jason Pearce (AFC Bournemouth, Undisclosed), David Norris (Ipswich Town, Free)

OUTS: Michael Brown (Leeds United, Free), Nadir Ciftci (Kayserispor, Free), Daryl Flahavan (AFC Bournemouth, Free), David Nugent (Leicester City, Free), Marlon Pack (Cheltenham Town, Free), Billy Goddard, Pete Gregory, Richard Hughes, Perry Ryan, Danny Webber

OUR EX-POMPEY: Carl Dickinson, Ian Woan

THEIR EX-ORNS: Guy Whittingham (First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-2 defeat at Fratton Park which swung one way then the other, and a 3-0 victory on New Year’s Day featuring Andrew Taylor’s ridiculous goal, which didn’t.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Henderson
Ben Haim      Halford        Pearce              Rocha
Norris        Mullins         Ward
Lawrence               Kitson                   Varney

VERDICT: Another summer, another shady foreign owner for Pompey.  Still precarious financially – was it ever otherwise?  Is it credible that they boasted five current (at the time) England internationals a couple of years ago?  It’s not that you don’t sympathise with the support… going through the mill is bad enough, going through the mill when a character like Gaydamak (going back an owner or two) is involved just emphasises how impotent an individual supporter is.  It’s a little harder to sympathise when the root cause is such criminal overspending though, even though the Fratton faithful weren’t the ones controlling the purse strings.  How could that sort of squad at a club with Pompey’s (lack of) infrastructure ever have been considered credible in the longer term?

Steve Cotterill’s strategy appears to have been to trust to quality over quantity… Pompey got through last season with a bizarrely small squad, but a first eleven that looked pretty decent.  Not much has changed over the summer in that respect… ins and outs appear to roughly balance each other out and the lopsidedness remains – four centre backs across the back line, and a distinct lack of goal threat versus a decent looking midfield.  The first eleven, if they stay fit, won’t be anywhere near a relegation scrap, but going in with a squad of this size season on season does feel rather like playing russian roulette.  Sooner or later you’re gonna be unlucky with injuries;  if that happens to Pompey, they’re screwed.  Could plausibly finish anywhere in the bottom half.

Season Preview 2011-12 Part 4 02/08/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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What a scorcher yesterday?  It’s got to last until Saturday of course, first day of the season has to be a hot one.  It’s The Law.

IPSWICH TOWN

INS: Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Arsenal, £1,500,000 + clauses), Michael Chopra (Cardiff City, £1,500,000), Aaron Cresswell (Tranmere Rovers, Tribunal), Lee Bowyer (Birmingham City, Free), Nathan Ellington (Watford, Free), Ivar Ingimarsson (Reading, Free), David Stockdale (Fulham, Season Loan)

OUTS: Connor Wickham (Sunderland, £8,100,000 + clauses), Troy Brown (Rotherham United, Free), Tom Eastman (Colchester United, Free), Gareth McAuley (West Bromwich Albion, Free), Rory McKeown (Kilmarnock, Free), Ian McLoughlin (Franchise FC, Free), Josh Meekings (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Free), David Norris (Portsmouth, Free), Luciano Civelli, Pablo Counago, Brian Murphy, Alan Quinn

OUR EX-BLUES: Alec Chamberlain, Tony Loughlan

THEIR EX-ORNS: Michael Chopra, Nathan Ellington, Tamas Priskin

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two wins last season, obviously. Two goals in two minutes were enough at Vicarage Road in October; Danny Graham scored two in a 3-0 tonking at Portman Road in March.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Stockdale
Edwards   Ingimarsson     Delaney        Cresswell
Drury             Bowyer     Leadbitter        Martin
Emmanuel-Thomas
Chopra

VERDICT: Cards on the table, I find it very difficult to be objective about Ipswich.  Perhaps more difficult than I find it to be objective about our lot, although you may beg to differ. Just so’s you know.  But I can’t believe I’m the only one aggravated by the misplaced but persistent sense of entitlement (from fans of a side who, with 23 of the last 25 years spent at this level, are as close to Second Division fodder as it gets).  Or particularly vexed by the fact that they snuck ahead of us at the death last season, irrelevant as that was in the grand scheme of things.  Or cussing out loud at the predictably presumptuous bollocks on Ipswich messageboards that greeted the rumoured bids for Marvin Sordell (rumours which, accurate or not, will only have served any Ipswich interests by being in the public domain).

Ipswich have been recruiting heavily over the summer, and whilst there’s no doubt that experience can help an awful lot in getting a side out of this division one has to wonder about the wisdom of a policy that’s quite so focused on older players, particularly in a season where there are at least two very strong candidates for automatic promotion places.  Bowyer, Ingimarsson, and even the slightly younger Chopra and Ellington are unlikely to be better players in a year’s time, and will all be on a healthy wedge.  Nor, it must be said, are all the new signings the safest of bets… Ellington we know all about, as does Paul Jewell of course having managed him at Wigan and not quite lasted long enough at Derby to take him off our wage bill permanently.  Chopra is a poacher of course, but from recent photos Town appear to have bought quite literally twice the striker that played for us on loan eight years ago.  Emmanuel-Thomas has been trumpeted but made little impact at Cardiff and has never quite found his best position, despite his imposing physical bulk.  Stockdale is a coup, but available on a 24 hour recall by his home club Fulham.  Bowyer is a provocative character, to be diplomatic, although admittedly this has rarely prevented him from being a first pick in whichever side he’s been signed to.  The fact is that it’s unlikely that they’ll all bomb out, so much as I’d like to predict what would be a disastrous bottom half finish, I suspect that’s unlikely.  Seventh it is, then.  And that’s not a prediction that’s dished out lightly. Quite where that leaves them in a year or so is somewhat open to question.

LEEDS UNITED

INS: Andy Lonergan (Preston North End, Undisclosed), Michael Brown (Portsmouth, Free), Paul Rachubka (Blackpool, Free)

OUTS: Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester City, Undisclosed), James Baxendale (Doncaster Rovers, Free), James Booker (Guiseley, Free), Bradley Johnson (Norwich City, Free), Neil Kilkenny (Bristol City, Free), Richard Naylor (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Shane Higgs

OUR EX-WHITES: Carl Dickinson

THEIR EX-ORNS: Leigh Bromby, Neil Redfearn (Reserve Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: We were bullied out of a 1-0 defeat at Vicarage Road at the start of the season; Lee Hodson’s goal and Danny Graham’s splendid assist for Andi Weimann took us within a whisker of a win at Elland Road before Troy Deeney’s late own goal.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lonergan
Connolly       Kisnorbo          O’Brien          Parker
Snodgrass         Brown           Howson         Gradel
Nunez
Becchio

VERDICT: Of all supporters, you’d have thought that Leeds United fans might not dismiss prudence out of hand.  Few have fallen so far, so dramatically and so absolutely in recent years.  Six years from the Champions’ League (sic) semi-finals to the third division, and any number of other bizarre associated statistics.  Now, I’m no fan of Ken Bates, wouldn’t wish him on anybody.  And admittedly I’m not the one watching the team but… but…  having spent three years in the third tier, to get promoted and finish seventh, OK, missing out must have been a disappointment but really.  Not that bad, in the grand scheme of things.  And whilst there was certainly a feeling of a squad reaching the limits of its capability last season, it’s a source of some surprise that quite so many voices on Leeds messageboards are rallying against Leeds’ wagecap, using words like “ambition” and “competing with West Ham” and “disgrace”.  Really?  Do none of you remember Peter Ridsdale?  Seth Johnson being offered a stupid amount of money per week, asking for an evening to discuss a move from Derby with his partner and being offered another £10k/week by phone on the way home as a “clincher”?  Really?  ‘Cos there’s no straight line relationship between investment and success, how could there be?

There are certainly gaps in the Leeds side.  Full back positions don’t look the strongest, with injury-prone Ben Parker meaning that the left side is a particular issue.  With Becchio and Somma starting the season injured, goalscoring might be a problem in the short term.  On the other hand, United are probably better off after the exchange, effectively, of Michael Brown for Bradley Johnson…  Brown is a nasty bastard, but that’s less of an issue if he’s in your team and he’s something that United badly needed even if at 34, he’s not a long-term fixture.  Kisnorbo’s return to fitness, apparent testimony to which suggested by the two-year deal he signed over the summer, is a massive plus assuming he recovers his sharpness, a leader at the back.  So…  Leeds look solid enough, if short in several departments of a challenge for automatic.  Definitely in the top-half mix, possibility of a play-off shout.  Which given Leeds’ recent history, should be more than enough.  You don’t get bonus points for “bigness”, after all.

LEICESTER CITY

INS: Paul Konchesky (Liverpool, Undisclosed), Matt Mills (Reading, Undisclosed), Lee Peltier (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Kasper Schmeichel (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Sean St.Ledger (Preston North End, Undisclosed), Neil Danns (Crystal Palace, Free), David Nugent (Portsmouth, Free), John Pantsil (Fulham, Free), Michael Johnson (Manchester City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Jack Hobbs (Hull City, £850,000), Ashley Chambers (York City, Free), Craig King (AFC Telford, Free), Michael Lamey (Wisla Krakow, Free), Luke O’Neill (Mansfield Town, Free), Aman Verma (Kettering Town, Free), Robert Ambrusics, Nathan Hicks, Jorrin John, Ben Milnes, Robbie Neilson, Ricardo, Adi Yussuf, Conrad Logan (Rotherham United, Six Month Loan), Tom Parkes (Burton Albion, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-FOXES: Mark Yeates

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Danny Graham’s dramatic late winner sparked our crazy run in December; a see-saw game at the Walkers Stadium in April saw Marvin Sordell score twice off the bench but the ‘orns flag badly in the second half as the home side won 4-2.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Schmeichel
Peltier            Bamba            Mills        Konchesky
Danns         Abe           King
Vassell                      Nugent                  Gallagher

VERDICT: I still maintain that the pies were the big giveaway.  When we visited their place in April… the pies.  In a nice cardboard finger-insulating holder.  The sort of small detail that suggests that a club has got its shit together.  Yes, yes, I know they’ll have contracted out the catering.  You’re missing the point.  This isn’t a catering contract that’s been put out to the cheapest, tightest deal, where the unused pies are heated up again if you’ve got a midweek home on the Tuesday… this is aiming for quality.  Of course, drawing any other conclusions from Easter Monday’s encounter is quite difficult;  lots has changed since then.  Including the name of the ground:  what was the Walkers is now the King Power Stadium.  I can’t imagine, incidentally, that it’s very easy to warm to a stadium named after a sponsor, something slightly impersonal about it and I’m surprised that more of the stadia carrying sponsors names haven’t evolved a rebel alternative name independent of sponsorship for use by sane people.  Not my problem, I suppose… anyway, finding a new sponsor with the initials KP is obviously tremendous.  Next up:  The Kettle Chips Arena, presumably.

On the pitch, Easter Monday’s game featured half a dozen loan players no longer at the club, and a good few more who won’t be first choices in the coming season.  What was instructive was the venom with which Leicester came at us in the second half;  not suggestive of a manager struggling to adapt to the second division after experience in loftier climes.  Significantly, whilst you won’t need me to tell you that Leicester have been doing a bit of shopping over the summer, what’s interesting is that the purchases are, with a few exceptions, not top-flight hand-me-downs, players who might not adapt.  No Ramon Vegas here.  Schmeichel, Mills, Danns, Nugent, St.Ledger are all top, proven players at this level.  Konchesky has played in Div 2 before, too.  No grandstanding here, just a lot of very pragmatic, very solid signings.  Evidence of Eriksson’s previous life, too… Gelson Fernandes was hotly tipped to join at the time of writing, and former Man City team mate Michael Johnson, if he recaptures anything like his pre-injury form, will be an excellent signing on his own.  They perhaps look a bit short up front as it stands, but strikers are clearly still on the shopping list with bids for Nicky Maynard having been rejected, and Leroy Lita, Robbie Keane and Shane Long also linked.  Will be interesting to see if Steve Howard is retained after all this recruitment, as a very large mascot or something…. in all seriousness, two players for each position still leaves City with a large number of players apparently out of contention, a list that could be worth scouring.  As for City’s chances this season?  You know that even if an injury crisis hits, or neither of the options in a position work out, that loans or January signings will plug the gap.  The pies have it.  Champions.

MIDDLESBROUGH

INS: Luke Dobie (Everton, Free), Curtis Main (Darlington, Free), Malaury Martin (Blackpool, Free)

OUTS: Didier Digard (Nice, Undisclosed), Kris Boyd (Eskisehrispor, Free), Willo Flood (Dundee United, Free), Andrew Taylor (Cardiff City, Free), Julio Arca, Maxi Haas

OUR EX-BORO: John Eustace, Josh Walker, Mark Yeates

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Danny Graham’s early goal set us galloping towards a 3-1 home win at the start of the season; at the Riverside in March, Boro came from behind to seal a 2-1 win thanks to an Andrew Taylor goal.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Steele
McMahon       Bates           McManus         Bennett
Robson        Bailey         Williams         Zemmama
Lita         McDonald

VERDICT: Last season for Boro was one of two halves.  The first, featuring Gordon Strachan making a complete pig’s ear of it to an unprecedented and extraordinary degree, really could have lasted a little longer.  Had we been able to buy Andrew Taylor, as we surely would have if Strachan had only made it to January, then I fancy we’d have finished significantly higher than fourteenth.  It wasn’t just Taylor’s ability, of course, but the balance that he brought to the side… being able to pin teams in via a left-footed threat from that flank made all the difference.  But Strachan didn’t survive, and Tony Mowbray is clearly not a complete idiot, bringing yer man back (although Taylor’s spell under Malky clearly did Cardiff no harm at all in the longer run).  And under Mowbray Boro recovered to finish top half (just about), with a run of form that should see them well set this time around.

Not sure it’s going to work like that, though.  Mowbray has been promoted from this division before, playing open football that might have failed to pay dividends in the top flight but has generally been more than enough for Division Two.  Much as he’s got the added credits of legend status on Teesside from his playing days, this situation is a little trickier .  In particular, he’s living with the legacy of long contracts issued to the wrong players under his predecessors… a similar situation to that inherited by Keith Millen at Bristol City (and with parallels to what Ray Lewington had to cope with post-Vialli here) but more so.  Despite, as I write, having already stripped bigger earners from the wage bill this summer, Boro need to shift more players before they can start recruiting in anger again… and as we know only too well, when you’re in that boat people are much more likely to offer to take the players you’d rather hang on to than the big salaries that aren’t performing.  Perhaps alarmingly given Mowbray’s sides’ traditional tendency to ship goals, he’s hardly inheriting the most solid of backlines; the imposing presence of McManus is not, seemingly, a remedy for the side’s vulnerability at set pieces, whilst first-choice keeper Steele misses the first couple of months of the season with a wrist injury.  Going forwards, Boro scored a lot of goals in the second half of last season but none of Emnes, Lita or McDonald are guaranteed to be at the Riverside come the end of August and none have proven a steady source of goals over time in any case.

Boro have too much quality to struggle badly again, I suspect… there are kids coming through to supplement what looks an OK first team.  But they won’t finish above halfway again.  The goal this season, surely, realistically, must be to stay in the division long enough to outlast the legacy of earlier recklessness.

Season Preview 2011-12 Part 3 01/08/2011

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
9 comments

“TELL ME WHY I don’t like Mondays, TELL ME WHY I don’t like Mondays….”.  Oh, hello Palace.

CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Kagisho Dikgacoi (Fulham, £400,000 + clauses), Jonathan Parr (Aalesund, Undisclosed), Mile Jedinak (Genclerbirligi, Free), Glenn Murray (Brighton & Hove Albion, Free)

OUTS: Adam Barrett (AFC Bournemouth, Undisclosed), Neil Danns (Leicester City, Free), Claude Davis, Kieran Djilali, Alassane N’Diaye (Southend United, Season Loan)

OUR EX-EAGLES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-2 defeat at Selhurst which we dominated in every aspect bar the crucial one, and a 1-1 draw in the fog at Vicarage Road in which Andi Weimann scored his first goal for the Orns.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Speroni
Clyne       McCarthy       Holland         Moxey
Marrow
Jedinak                  Dikgacoi
Ambrose
Murray         Scannell

VERDICT: In discussing this season’s fixtures over the last few days, it was reflected that with Burnley (A) being the season opener and thus, unusually, worth looking forward to, and with Middlesbrough being on the telly in an equally rare attack of helpfulness from schedulers, Crystal Palace away feels like the hardest away trip in the fixture list next season.  That reflects, in part, the ludicrous complexity and sapping duration of a trip to Croydon, not to mention cost both of travel and of the reliably overpriced tickets for the Arthur Wait stand.  It also reflects the notorious microclimate of drizzle that surrounds Selhurst Park.  But it’s more than that.

There’s something inherently grubby and unpleasant about Palace.  Not evil or malicious… just persistently disagreeable.  Like a smell of damp, or a watered down pint.  They dodged a bullet last season for the second year in succession and have since lost Neil Danns and loan signings Anthony Gardner and James Vaughan, while Darren Ambrose continues to be linked with former boss Warnock at QPR.  The signings of Dikgacoi and Jedinak will toughen up the midfield, but the Eagles are short of options at centre-back and I’m not convinced by Glenn Murray as a source of goals – his strike rate of 1 in 2 has been earned in the lower divisions, and comes with accusations of being languid and occasionally uninterested.  One has to wonder why it’s taken him until 27 to reach the second tier.  So… on balance, the Eagles should be strong candidates for the drop, but the knowledge that they’ll stay up is only partly fuelled by the number of good kids they’ve got coming through.  Palace will stay up because that’s what they do.  Twenty first.

DERBY COUNTY

INS: Craig Bryson (Kilmarnock, Undisclosed), Frank Fielding (Blackburn Rovers, Undisclosed), Adam Legzdins (Burton Albion, Undisclosed), Chris Maguire (Aberdeen, Undisclosed), Theo Robinson (Millwall, Undisclosed), Jason Shackell (Barnsley, Undisclosed), Jamie Ward (Sheffield United, Undisclosed), Nathan Tyson (Nottingham Forest, Free)

OUTS: Luke Varney (Portsmouth, £750,000), Ben Pringle (Rotherham United, Nominal), Arnaud Mendy (Macclesfield Town, Free), Chris Porter (Sheffield United, Free), Greg Mills, Robbie Savage (retired), Miles Addison (Barnsley, Six Month Loan), Ross Atkins (Burton Albion, Season Loan)

OUR EX-RAMS: John Eustace. Ha.

THEIR EX-ORNS: Theo Robinson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 4-1 tonking at Pride Park that featured Matt Whichelow’s exquisite first goal for the Orns, and a 3-0 levelling of the scores in January in which Martin Taylor was dominant.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fielding
Brayford       Barker        Shackell       Roberts
Bailey
Bryson        Ward        Maguire
Tyson            S.Davies

VERDICT: While everyone else chilling out in the post-season dead zone in May Nigel Clough was getting to it in the transfer market, completing or agreeing a good number of signings by the middle of June.  Whether the motivation was to make the most of a limited transfer pot or to steal a march on competition for players’ signatures the result is a large squad, high on options but limited in star quality.  Defensively the side looks very solid with the first choice back five pretty formidable, but you’d have to worry again about whether the side will score enough goals.  In midfield there appears to be a multitude of options with at least ten senior candidates, two of which newly-signed Scotsmen (this summer’s Division Two fashion accessory).

A number of players appear to be persona non grata, with squad numbers not issued to several and another, winger Lee Croft, seemingly finding his way back in from the cold.  Derby also seem to perpetually struggle with injuries, which may merely be a trick of the light caused by a large squad – someone’s going to be injured.  Altogether it doesn’t feel like a very happy camp, although perhaps I’m being unduly influenced by the fact that Nigel Clough doesn’t smile very much.  Anyway… difficult to see Derby shipping too many, but they’ve finished below halfway in each of the last three seasons and I can’t see them doing better this time.  Further away from trouble than last year’s nineteenth, but no cigar.

DONCASTER ROVERS

INS: Tommy Spurr (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed), Kyle Bennett (Bury, Tribunal), James Baxendale (Leeds United, Free), Rachid Bouhenna (Sedan, Free), Chris Brown (Preston North End, Free), Richard Naylor (Leeds United, Free), Ryan Mason (Tottenham Hotspur, Six Month Loan)

OUTS: Waide Fairhurst (Macclesfield Town, Undisclosed), Ryan Burge (Port Vale, Free), Wayne Thomas (Atromitos, Free), Byron Webster (Northampton Town, Free), Steve Brooker, Dennis Souza, Dean Shiels (Kilmarnock, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-ROVERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: James Chambers

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two draws last season… a 2-2 at the Vic in August when two stunning goals from sub Marvin Sordell turned the game around before a late Donny equaliser, and a 1-1 in February that saw John Eustace pick up a red card and Stephen McGinn suffer his crushing ligament injury.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Sullivan
Chambers       Friend          Naylor          Spurr
Coppinger       Stock           Woods         Bennett
Sharp          Hayter

VERDICT: Smaller clubs that do well at this level tend to end up facing a conundrum.  Firstly there’s the fact that for the likes of Donny, merely treading water at this level, if not an absolute ceiling to their ambition, constitutes no small achievement.  Secondly, that you’re going to have to end up rebuilding a side with that handicap… the side that got you up and got you stable may have been good enough but inevitably the cream of that crop will move on and you’ll need to replace them without the budgetary freedom of the teams you’re competing with, and with the knowledge that the players you sign will be aware that the chances of you building a side capable of promotion are slim.  Rotherham, Colchester and Crewe all foundered at this stage after a decent season or two.  Sooner or later, also, you’re going to be hit by the sort of crippling injury situation that bigger squads would be better able to ride. Such appears to be the situation at Rovers at the moment;  the likes of Matt Mills, Gareth Roberts and Ritchie Wellens have moved on since promotion, and the side goes into the new season with Brian Stock, Martin Wooods and James Chambers out with long-term injuries.  A twelve game winless run at the tail end of last season looks like being extended to 13 given that Rovers open with the debut game at Brighton’s new place – there’s a nice symbolism about that, given the sides’ not-too-distant shared woes  and Fans United fixture, but I’m sure Rovers would rather the honour of being the ground’s first competitive visitors went somewhere else.  Difficult to predict anything but relegation for Rovers this season, sadly.

HULL CITY

INS: Jack Hobbs (Leicester City, £850,000), Joe Dudgeon (Manchester United, Undisclosed), Corry Evans (Manchester United, Undisclosed), Dele Adebola (Nottingham Forest, Free), Adriano Basso (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Free), Paul McKenna (Nottingham Forest, Free), Robbie Brady (Manchester United, Six month loan), Peter Gulacsi (Liverpool, Season Loan)

OUTS: Nolberto Solano (Hartlepool United, Free), Tijani Belaid, Matt Duke, Craig Fagan, Anthony Gardner, Liam Cooper (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Mark Cullen (Bury, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-TIGERS: Mark Yeates

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A poor nil-nil at their place in August, and an exhausted 2-1 defeat at ours in April. August and April, how’d that work then? I’ve mentioned before that the Germans somehow get by with flipping the fixtures of the first half of the season to form the fixtures for the second? Oh. I have.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gulacsi
Rosenior         Hobbs          Chester         Dudgeon
Koren        McKenna          Evans          Brady
Fryatt         McLean

VERDICT: Hull are probably the most mid-table side in the division.  There’s no department that looks weak… but there’s nothing that makes you think, “bloody hell, they’ll do something” either.  So… without knowing much about Gulacsi, the first choice defence looks reasonably solid.  And yet… Jack Hobbs is a fine reactive defender, bold, aggressive.  But he needs someone alongside him to tell him where to be really, a bit Jay Demerit in that respect.  Nor is there much cover in the centre in particular.  Midfield…  plenty of experience, a few options with the likes of youngster Tom Cairney and perhaps Seyi Olofinjana also competing for position.  All a bit narrow though, isn’t it?  Robert Koren’s a decent midfielder but he’s not a winger; the closest thing to a viable wide midfielder would appear to be Zinedine Kilbane but at 34, he’s hardly going to be beating his man too often even if selected.  Up front… the obligatory four strikers, with Dele Adebola and Jay Simpson providing options.  Hardly intimidating options though, and a lot is invested in Fryatt.  Then there’s the Jimmy Bullard thing.  That one felt ridiculous at the time, no less so with the benefit of hindsight.  We’ll get on to Kevin Nolan with West Ham in a few days’ time…. On balance, Hull won’t do any worse than last season, but it’s a squad that says “solid” rather than exciting.  Ninth.