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Season Preview Part 4 31/07/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
1 comment so far

Yes, still in Ethiopia as you read this. No, won’t have updated with big signings over the last few days. Whatever I’m doing now, it doesn’t involve thinking about Ipswich.

IPSWICH TOWN

INS: Paul Anderson (Bristol City, Player Exchange), Jack Doherty (Waterford, Undisclosed), Christophe Berra (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Free), Dean Gerken (Bristol City, Free), David McGoldrick (Nottingham Forest, Free), Daryl Murphy (Celtic, Free), Cole Skuse (Bristol City, Free), Jay Tabb (Reading, Free), Frederic Veseli (Manchester United, Free), Ryan Tunnicliffe (Manchester United, Six Month Loan)

OUTS: Jay Emmanuel-Thomas (Bristol City, Player Exchange), Michael Chopra (Blackpool, Free), Andy Drury (Crawley Town, Free), Lee Martin (Millwall, Free), Arran Lee-Barrett, Patrick Kisnorbo (Leeds United*, End of Loan), Aaron McLean (Hull City, End of Loan), Guirane N’Daw (St.Etienne, End of Loan), Richard Stearman (Wolverhampton Wanderers, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: Reece Brown, Alec Chamberlain

THEIR EX-ORNS: Scott Loach

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: The first Town win over the ‘orns in eons at the start of the campaign, arguably the season’s lowest point (and also Town’s last win for two and a half months), and a return to form with a routine win at Portman Road in February

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Loach
Hewitt     Chambers     Smith        Cresswell
Anderson            Skuse          Hyam               Tabb
McGoldrick      Murphy

VERDICT: After a succession of inept managerial appointments, Ipswich finally made a sensible-looking decision in appointing Mick McCarthy to the hotseat in November as Paul Jewell’s side nosedived towards League One.  They had won only one of their opening thirteen games – a game which had proved misleading for both of the sides involved.  McCarthy’s impact was immediate and decisive, dragging Town into a solid mid-table finish.  Buoyed by this, and by a summer of typically pragmatic McCarthy signings, Town fans are looking upwards rather than downwards, excitedly clinging onto the knowledge that from the new manager’s arrival to the end of the season their side had one of the best records in the division (fourth, according to a messageboard – I’ve not checked.  Not the best record from the start of November though, we know whose that was…).  Ipswich certainly have a stronger squad, options throughout and a lot of the flaky guff has been offloaded; much as when QPR appointed Neil Warnock, McCarthy’s approach might be just what Ipswich need.  Not enough though, for me… not enough to challenge anyway.  If next season’s division is anything like as tight as last’s then everyone’s got a shout of at least a play-off place, of course, and Ipswich certainly fall in that category but upper mid-table feels more likely.  Impressive as Ipswich’s run was, a momentum-fuelled run of form, albeit over half a season, isn’t the same as sustaining it for the duration.  Tenth.

LEEDS UNITED

INS: Luke Murphy (Crewe Alexandra, £1,000,000), Noel Hunt (Reading, Free), Matt Smith (Oldham Athletic, Free)

OUTS: Patrick Antelmi, Paul Connolly, Monty Gimpel, Patrick Kisnorbo, Sanchez Payne, Paul Rachubka, Jordan Snodin, Davide Somma, Steve Morison (Millwall, Season Loan), Habib Habibou (SV Zuilte Waregem, End of Loan), Leigh Bromby(retired)

OUR EX-WHITES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nigel Gibbs (Assistant Manager), Neil Redfearn (First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two memorable games for different reasons… a 6-1 demolition as we took advantage of Leeds’ reduced numbers at Elland Road and a heartbreaking defeat at the end of the regular season when we gave up for half an hour and paid the price.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Kenny
Peltier           Lees        Pearce          Byram
Green
Austin                                      Murphy
McCormack
Smith                 Hunt

VERDICT: In what has been a relatively static transfer market in the Championship this summer (barring the odd exception), Brian McDermott’s predicament at Leeds looks particularly awkward.  The Leeds boss took over in April and would probably have wanted to take a broom to a rather old, stale looking side… but the eleven listed above isn’t a world away from the team that ended an underwhelming and slightly flattering thirteenth – seven points from both play-offs and relegation.  The manager has confessed that future transfer activity is dependent on shipping players out, surely a move to invite offers for the considerable amount of dross left on the playing staff…  but Leeds fans will be concerned that a move from the vultures circling around exciting left back Sam Byram is more likely (and certainly more profitable).  Pre-season has seen McDermott fielding a narrow midfield diamond that ought to make the most of the players that he has in the centre of the park – only the injured El Hadji Diouf and the universally unpopular Luke Varney offer any width – but the formation asks a lot of the full backs and hasn’t looked successful in pre-season.  The squad is physically strong and powerful, I can’t see Leeds being bullied out of too many games, they won’t be facing relegation… but they’ll be further than goal difference from the top half of the table this time around.

LEICESTER CITY

INS: Zoumana Bakayogo (Tranmere Rovers, Free)

OUTS: Jermaine Beckford (Bolton Wanderers, Undisclosed), Joe Jones (Yeovil Town, Free), Conor Brennan, Jide Maduako, Steven Smith, Karlton Watson, Richie Wellens, Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Will Keane (Manchester United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Danny Drinkwater

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Suffice to say that our recent record of exciting clashes with the Foxes, particularly at Vicarage Road, shows no sign of letting up.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Schmeichel
de Laet        Whitbread         Morgan     Konchesky
Knockaert        James                King               Dyer
Nugent          Wood

VERDICT: A side that we became all too familiar with towards the end of last season have undergone a quiet summer with the side expected to start the campaign looking very similar to that which we faced three times in April and May.  The outcome of the play-off semi-final could scarcely have been tighter… but whilst Leicester were tough and competent, they were unspectacular.  We were quite comfortably the better side over the three games, whatever the drama of those last few seconds.  Nor are City invulnerable to injuries, with the quality of the cover questionable in several areas.  Another pitch at the play-offs isn’t impossible but City’s form wasn’t fantastic for much of the second half of last season and mid-table – with the potential for managerial upheaval that this might entail – seems more likely.  Ninth.

MIDDLESBROUGH

INS: Dean Whitehead (Stoke City, Free), Jozsef Varga (Debrecen, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Nick Bailey (Millwall, Free), Scott McDonald (Millwall, Free), Stephen McManus (Motherwell, Free), Julio Arca, Andre Bikey, Kieron Dyer, Merouane Zemmama, Christian Burgess (Hartlepool United, Six Month Loan), Sammy Ameobi (Newcastle United, End of Loan), Josh McEachran (Chelsea, End of Loan), Ishmael Miller (Nottingham Forest, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BORO: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Defeat at home in October as Boro came from behind in the wake of Matěj Vydra’s ultimately overturned red card, the striker scoring both goals as the Hornets grabbed an important win as Boro began to slide in January.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Steele
Varga        Williams      Woodgate      Friend
Carayol     Whitehead      Leadbitter    Ledesma
Emnes       Jutkiewicz

VERDICT: There’s something a bit Eeyore about Middlesbrough.  Something so miserably resigned to it’s lot that anything resembling excitement only lasts as long as the first  major setback.  Before we dug in to secure an excellent win at the Riverside in January Boro were fourth with a game in hand, ostensibly in with a decent shout… but it was no huge surprise that their form disappeared over the edge of a cliff.  They would go on to lose ten and win just three of their final sixteen games from that point, and were probably grateful that the campaign didn’t last a week or two longer.  For all Tony Mowbray’s craggy, likeable candour the place had an air of desperation about it even then.

The summer shuffling has so far seen a fair number head for the exit, including the highly salaried McDonald and McManus, the last debris from Gordon Strachan’s disastrous spell in charge.  Coming in… precious little so far – the forward line, as with so many, looks particularly short – although with Boro as ever having a fair few kids bubbling under you’d still fancy them to have enough, if not to impress then at least to just about muddle along.

How like them (he added, after a long silence).

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Season Preview Part 3 30/07/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
6 comments

Time for a bit of explanation. As you read this, all being well, I’m in Ethiopia… this was written in advance, which is why if Charlton signed Pelé yesterday or something it’s not reflected in the guff below. Clear? Good.

CHARLTON ATHLETIC

INS: Mark Gower (Swansea City, Free), Richard Wood (Coventry City, Free)

OUTS: Danny Haynes (Notts County, Free), John Sullivan (Portsmouth, Free), Scott Wagstaff (Bristol City, Free), Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls, Free), Ricardo Fuller, Salim Kerkar, Yado Mambo, Matt Taylor, Jonathan Obika (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan)

OUR EX-ADDICKS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Dyer (Assistant Manager), Johnnie Jackson, Chris Powell (Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Victory with ten men at the Valley courtesy of an Almen Abdi pearler, and a chaotic New Year’s defeat at the Vic after wholesale team changes.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Hamer
Cort            Dervite          Morrison
Solly                      Hughes                            Wiggins
Pritchard                     Jackson
Piggott                 Kermorgant

VERDICT: Chris Powell’s Addicks finished a creditable ninth in a very tight division last season on the back of their League One title the year before, but it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to emulate that position this time around.  Athletic had been looking a little bit dicey until a strong late run but since then departures have decimated their forward line with Ricardo Fuller, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Danny Haynes and the on-loan Obika all departing and no replacements coming in at the time of typing.  In Hamer, Solly and Pritchard there’s some young talent in the side… but a lot of the key players, including Kermorgant, Jackson and Hughes, are the wrong side of 30 and many are out of contract next summer.  A big challenge to Chris Powell’s managerial credentials then; he won’t have had to cope with a challenge quite like this before.  Bottom half for me, and could struggle if they don’t seriously strengthen up front.

DERBY COUNTY

INS: Johnny Russell (Dundee United, £750,000), Craig Forsyth (Watford, Undisclosed), John Eustace (Free), Lee Grant (Burnley, Free), Chris Martin (Norwich City, Free), Adam Smith (Tottenham Hotspur, Season Loan)

OUTS:  John Brayford (Cardiff City, £1,500,000), Frank Fielding (Bristol City, £200,000), Gareth Roberts (Bury, Free), Ross Atkins (Alfreton Town, Season Loan), Conor Doyle (DC United, Three Month Loan)

OUR EX-RAMS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: John Eustace, Theo Robinson, Craig Forsyth

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 5-1 mauling at Pride Park in the wake of Martin Taylor’s departure and a victory in February which saw Matěj Vydra’s last goal of the regular season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Grant
Smith          Keogh       Buxton       Forsyth
Hughes      Hendrick      Bryson        Ward
Sammon    Russell

VERDICT: 18th, 14th, 19th, 12th, 10th.  Nigel Clough’s league finishes in four and a half years in charge at Pride Park.  It’s progress, if you squint at it, and in the context of a limited budget and of having inherited from Paul Jewell an overpaid squad that had finished the previous season with eleven points it’s all the more favourable… just as Ray Lewington’s achievement in keeping our heads above water in his time at the club isn’t reflected by the league tables of the period.  But it’s nonetheless pretty remarkable that he’s still there, at a club whose supporters perhaps aren’t entirely free of the level of some might say misplaced expectation that comes from following a club like Derby.

Thing is, there are quite a lot of “clubs like Derby”.  Clubs from fair-sized cities who could certainly support top flight football and perhaps had a spell in living if not quite recent memory when they were really quite successful.  The problem is that these extraordinary achievements are taken as a benchmark, as something perhaps to be expected, anything less a disappointment whatever the context.  So for Nigel Clough to be hanging in there in the face of such modest steps upwards is to Derby’s credit.  You rather hope they do well. Or at least, rather them than one or two others.

And further progress is far from out of the question.  The squad has certainly more depth than it’s had for a few years and there are plenty of youngsters pushing on in the wake of the likes of Jeff Hendrick and Will Hughes.  The centre of defence is still a problem and County have been susceptible away from home; the midfield has plenty of talent but little real width and new boy Russell will need to get the goals that are expected of him – neither Sammon nor Chris Martin is prolific.  Short of the best sides in the division, then, but certainly with a shout of sneaking into the play-offs with the help of a prevailing wind.  Should be looking up, not down.

DONCASTER ROVERS

INS: Mark Duffy (Scunthorpe United, Undisclosed), Harry Forrester (Brentford, TBC), Marc de Val Fernandes (Real Madrid, Free), Dean Furman (Oldham Athletic, Free), Luke McCulloch (Manchester United, Free)

OUTS: Jordan Ball, Patrick Mullen, Neil Sullivan, Gary Woods, Martin Woods, Cameron Howieson (Burnley, End of Loan), Ian Hume (Preston North End, End of Loan), Emile Sinclair (Peterborough United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-ROVERSReece Brown

THEIR EX-ORNS: Harry Forrester

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A goalless draw at the Keepmoat two seasons ago and a 4-1 mauling a month later on New Year’s Eve which saw Michael Kightly net a late beauty and Marvin Sordell score his last league goals for the Hornets.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

?
Quinn          McCombe         Jones           Spurr
Cotterill         Furman            Forrester        Duffy
Coppinger          Paynter

VERDICT: Despite the endless streams of transfer rumours, speculation, “sources suggesting” and derring-do that fills the pre-season, one consideration that’s surprisingly frequently overlooked is the plight of season preview writers.  Quite how I’m supposed to formulate any kind of prediction or verdict on a side who may (or may not) be subject to a takeover and thus may (or may not) be about to embark on a shopping spree and who we didn’t get to see last season is beyond me.

Either way, some sort of recruitment must surely take place between now and the end of August.  As I write this on Thursday evening (yes, it’s been complicated…) Rovers have no goalkeeper (Neil Sullivan having finally hung up his gloves and Gary Woods also released) and precious little in attack or defence – where I’ve list above an out-of-contract-and-as-yet-unsigned Tommy Spurr at left back and an injured James McCombe.  In the circumstances, Rovers fans can be forgiven for being a bit jumpy despite reassurances coming out of the Keepmoat – especially when manager Paul Dickov, an odd appointment at this distance, brought a second former Oldham charge, Jean-Yves M’Voto to train with the squad only for the big defender to opt instead for near neighbours Barnsley.  Dickov has claimed a moral victory, that M’Voto wasn’t worth the extra money that Barnsley offered… he may know something that we don’t, but his clear conscience won’t win him many points when the action starts.

As it stands, Rovers have a tidy and well-populated midfield but very little else.  With the squad as it stands, even on the safe assumption that a keeper or two is drafted in from somewhere, they’ll go down.  So everything depends on who and how quickly they manage to bring in… the Irish takeover mooted the names of Shay Given and Richard Dunne, the latter now at QPR, whilst Norwich’s Leon Barnett is another mentioned in dispatches.  Either way, as we found out last season, even great signings will take some time to get going.  Rovers are looking lower mid-table at best, but that’s a lofty ambition as it stands.

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

INS: Jake Carroll (St.Patrick’s Athletic, Undisclosed), Adam Hammill (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Undisclosed), James Vaughan (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Daniel Carr (Dulwich Hamlet, free), Martin Paterson (Burnley, Free), Jon Stead (Bristol City, Free)

OUTS: Scott Arfield (Burnley, Free), Tom Clarke (Preston North End, Free), Lee Novak (Birmingham City, Free), Josh Windass (Accrington Stanley, Free), Alan Lee, Chris Atkinson (Tranmere Rovers, Six Month Loan), Jermaine Beckford (Leicester City*, End of Loan), Neil Danns (Leicester City, End of Loan), Theo Robinson (Derby County, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TERRIERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jonathan Hogg, Ross Wilson (Director of Football Operations)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two memorable wins; the pivotal game of the season which saw a change in formation, first starts for Hoban and Hall, a first start of the season for Deeney and a 3-2 win, and a 4-0 in January in which Huddersfield put up resistance but were eventually unpicked by Cristian Battocchio’s goal of the season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Smithies
Hunt          Gerrard        Lynch           Dixon
Southern       Clayton
Scannell                      Paterson                         Hammill
Vaughan

VERDICT: Huddersfield just about clung on last season thanks in part to a very good start;  they survived despite a twelve match run without a League win which concluded with that Cristian Battocchio goal at Vicarage Road.  That games was Simon Grayson’s last in charge, and Mark Robins subsequently arrested the slide which in a tight division had been more than enough to redirect the Terriers’ attentions from the top end of the table to the relegation zone, safety only secured after the musical chairs on the final day.  Having secured James Vaughan to a permanent contract over the summer and added reasonably well the squad looks deeper than last season’s;  there’s not enough quality in the first eleven to suggest a promotion challenge and you’d worry about the middle of the defence, dominated by big lumps that prefer a scrap to pace or being passed around, but it would probably take a bad year with injuries for Huddersfield to be troubled by relegation again.

Season Preview Part 2 29/07/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

Part Deux.  Next lot up tomorrow.

BOLTON WANDERERS

INS: Jermaine Beckford (Leicester City, Undisclosed), Robert Hall (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Connor Wilkinson (Millwall, Undisclosed), Alex Baptiste (Blackpool, Free), Gary Fraser (Hamilton Academical, Free), Marc Tierney (Norwich City, Free), Hayden White (Sheffield Wednesday, Free)

OUTS: Marcos Alonso (Fiorentina, Undisclosed), Kevin Davies (Preston North End, Free),   Rob Lainton (Bury, Free), Joe McKee (Morton, Free),Alex McQuade (Shrewsbury Town, Free), Sam Ricketts (Wolverhampton Wanderers, Free), Jack Sampson (Morecambe, Free), Gregg Wylde (Aberdeen, Free), Adam Blakeman, Ben Dennis, Lewis Fielding, Ben Hampson, Gary Fraser (Partick Thistle, Six Month Loan), Jay Spearing (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TROTTERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Chris Eagles, Marvin Sordell

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two competitive 2-1’s to the home side, Lloyd’s goal scant consolation at the Reebok with Vydra’s brilliance deciding a close game at Vicarage Road.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Bogdan
Baptiste         Knight         Wheater      Tierney
Lee         Holden        Medo       Eagles
Ngog        Beckford

VERDICT: Dougie Freedman’s decision to quit fourth placed Palace for struggling Bolton last season looked an odd one on the face of it, almost as odd as Bolton pushing the boat out for a contracted manager who’d only had eighteen months at the helm at Selhurst where he’d lost as many games as he’d won.  Perhaps his perception was that Palace were overachieving whilst Wanderers were only going to improve.  He was clearly proven correct on the second score and arguably the first also.  Much as Palace earned their win in the play-offs, they’d done a fair job of trying to balls up their top six place; a ten point cushion in early March had only dropped to four (from Bolton) by the end of the season, ten games and only one win later.  Going into 2013/14, Freedman’s Bolton look a strong and confident side;  the summer recruits have been solid, and in Stuart Holden, if he stays fit, they have a fine player in a very strong midfield who was prevented from contributing for much of the last two seasons through injury.  Centre-back remains an issue, as does Wanderers’ iffy away form – only four wins away in the League last season.  Perhaps most significant of all is the pressure that Bolton and Freedman will be under, the former in the second year of parachute payments with a drop in income if they don’t go up , the latter working under the pressure of expectation for perhaps the first time in his managerial career.  There are a number of strong sides in the division that will expect to compete for automatic promotion and they ain’t all going to swing it.  Nonetheless, with strength in depth the Trotters look good for a top four finish, automatic not out of the question.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Mohamed Coulibaly (Grasshoppers, Free), Ian Harte (Reading, Free), Elliott Ward (Norwich City, Free)

OUTSFrank Demouge (Roda JC Kerkrade, Free), Jonathan Meades (Oxford United, Free), Charlie Sheringham (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Matt Tubbs (Rotherham United, Six Month Loan), Steve Fletcher (retired), Danny Seaborne (Southampton*, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A League Cup tie ten years ago, the first game in the wake of the death of Jimmy Davis, settled by Scott Fitzgerald in injury time.  Prior to that, two single-goal wins in the Division Two title season, 1997/98, the second of which saw Steve Palmer start in goal.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Allsop
Francis             Elphick          Ward                  Daniels
Ritchie            Arter          O’Kane           Pugh
Grabban         Pitman

VERDICT: Another of the more surprising developments of last season was that in October of Eddie Howe leaving Burnley – mid-table in the Championship – to return to Bournemouth,  then in the League One relegation zone.  Bournemouth are Howe’s home town club… nonetheless, he must have had a sense that something good was about to happen at Dean Court.  What was as remarkable was what did happen next… on the back of four consecutive defeats the Cherries beat Orient the next day, only their second victory of the season, and embarked upon a run of 21 league games that saw one defeat and three separate spurts of five consecutive wins.  Then they lost five on the hop.   Then they won eight on the hop, before missing out on the title by virtue of two points dropped at Tranmere on the final day.   All or nothing then… but whilst Bournemouth are a bit of an unknown quantity it’s difficult to predict anything other than mid-table consolidation for next season.  There’s quality in the side, particularly in the midfield where Pugh and Arter have both attracted admirers.  Up front, Brett Pitman had a patchy time at Bristol City but he too is “back home” and can probably be relied on for a few goals – although despite Bournemouth’s status as League One’s leading scorers it’s not altogether obvious who will share the load with the maverick striker.   Too much to struggle.  Not enough to challenge.  Fifteenth.

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

INS: Adam Chicksen (Franchise FC, Undisclosed), Matthew Upson (Stoke City, Free)

OUTS: Stephen Dobbie (Crystal Palace, Free), Ryan Harley (Swindon Town, Free), Anton Rodgers (Oldham Athletic, Free), Gary Dicker, Marcos Painter, Vicente, Wayne Bridge (Manchester City*, End of Loan), Dean Hammond (Southampton, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Liam Bridcutt, Will Buckley, Will Hoskins, Tomasz Kuszczak

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Defeat at Vicarage Road in Nathaniel Chalobah’s debut courtesy of a Craig Mackail-Smith penalty, and a stonking victory at the Amex including that goal.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Kuszczak
Bruno            Greer           Upson         Calderon
Bridcutt        Crofts
Lua Lua            Orlandi            Buckley
Ulloa

VERDICT: I should confess that I was more worried about Brighton than Palace.  Before the games.  Brighton were the side with a bit of fire in them, on something resembling a run of form, and with a striker in Ulloa to provide the end product that might not quite always have been there previously – even if, as others pointed out, Albion were kind of doing what we were doing, but not as well.  As it turned out Brighton fizzed briefly but were then comprehensively outplayed and beaten by Palace… the stuff that’s come out since suggests that a lot of the drama was backstage, but whatever.  Brighton’s season fizzled out.

Since then Poyet has left and the Camp Nou-schooled erstwhile Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Óscar García has come in.  Changes to the playing staff have been minimal at the time of writing… Upson, the senior recruit, spent half of last year on loan in Sussex anyway.  There’s still a good month before the transfer window closes of course, but as it stands it’s difficult to see Brighton doing any better than last season’s not quite good enough.  Poyet may, by all accounts, not have been the most pleasant bloke to work for but he got his team playing well. García will have achieved something if he emulates his predecessor but there are too many bigger, stronger squads in the division for Brighton to have any more than a fair-to-middling shot at reaching the play-offs again.  Eighth.

BURNLEY

INS: Scott Arfield (Huddersfield Town, Free), Alex Cisak (Oldham Athletic, Free), Tom Heaton (Bristol City, Free), Joseph Mills (Reading, Free), Daniel Nizic (Sydney FC, Free), Ryan Noble (Sunderland, Free)

OUTS: Adam Evans (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Free), Wes Fletcher (York City, Free), Lee Grant (Derby County, Free), Alex MacDonald (Burton Albion, Free), Chris McCann (Wigan Athletic, Free), Shay McCartan (Accrington Stanley, Free), Martin Paterson (Huddersfield Town, Free), George Porter (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Joe Jackson, Brian Jensen, Dane Richards, Jon Stewart, Aryn Williams

OUR EX-CLARETS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Sean Dyche (Manager), Tony Loughlan (First Team Coach), Ian Woan (Assistant Manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A pair of draws, the latter of which after a see saw match at Vicarage Road in which an injury time Sam Vokes equaliser cost us three points.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Heaton
Trippier            Mee            Shackell         Lafferty
Stanislas       Marney         Arfield        Wallace
Ings           Austin

VERDICT: On the face of it the Clarets have traded down over the summer, having lost the excellent Grant, skipper Chris McCann and professional irritant Martin Paterson, and with Charlie Austin’s future still up in the air at the time of writing.  Like many others, Burnley are being painfully cautious in the transfer market but we know from experience that Sean Dyche has done a more than decent job in similar circumstances in the past.  No surprise to look at the team above and quickly assess that the back four ought to be more than solid enough; with the incoming David Jones – effectively switching shirts with Wigan-bound McCann – in place as enforcer Dyche is once again setting his side up to be solid first, with anything else a bonus.  A sensible priority, since if Austin does leave it’ll be for less than they might expect to pay to replace him, given the well-publicised failed medical at Hull.  The squad’s not particularly deep either, but you’d back Sean to have them solidly but unspectacularly bottom half.

Season Preview Part 1 28/07/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
2 comments

OK.  Here we go… four today, four more tomorrow.  And so on.

BARNSLEY

INS: Dale Jennings (Bayern Munich, £250,000), Chris O’Grady (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed), John Cofie (Manchester United, Free), Christian Dibble (Bury, Free), Jean-Yves M’Voto (Oldham Athletic, Free), Lewin Nyatanga (Bristol City, Free)

OUTS: Matt Done (Rochdale, Free), John Rooney (Bury, Free), Stephen Foster (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Rob Edwards, Marlon Harewood, Lukas Lidakevicius, Toni Silva

OUR EX-TYKES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 4-1 tonking in December including a brace from Troy and a tricky finish from Mark Yeates, and a 1-0 defeat at Oakwell where our understrength midfield wilted under Barnsley pressure.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Steele
Crainie        M’Voto   Nyatanga
Perkins           Etuhu
O’Brien                      Mellis                   Golbourne
O’Grady         Dagnall

VERDICT: It’s becoming a bit of a tradition that, conscious of the proliferation of previews such as this at this time of year and notwithstanding the eagerness with which folk will devour them in anticipation of next weekend’s kick-off, the need to start the preview feature with an eye-catching stand-out piece on Barnsley is a something of a challenge.  Barnsley isn’t the fixture that many go looking for on the fixture list in mid-June, bluntly.

But I’m developing an affection for the Tykes, characterised as much by the thoroughly competent going-over with which they punished our below par performance at Oakwell as by their willingness to roll over at our place in December.   There are no pretensions about Barnsley, they’re either busting a gut, making the most of what they’ve got, or they’re unapologetically rubbish.  That particular spell of rubbishness at the end of 2012 cost Keith Hill his job, and it will be interesting to see how David Flitcroft goes with a full season.  There’s many a manager who’s done very well initially simply by virtue of not being the last bloke, but struggled a bit when it comes to progressing beyond that.  I’d like the candid Flitcroft to do well, and in switching to 3-5-2, increasingly popular in the Championship it would seem, he’s at least not playing it safe.  The squad looks stronger on balance, and deeper, but there aren’t nearly enough goals there for a top half finish.  Injury disasters aside I’d have the Tykes a bit more comfortable than last time round, but no cigar and no guarantee of safety either. Sixteenth.

BIRMINGHAM CITY

INS: Tom Adeyemi (Norwich City, Free), Neal Eardley (Blackpool, Free), Matt Green (Mansfield Town, Free), Olly Lee (Barnet, Free), Lee Novak (Huddersfield Town, Free), Darren Randolph (Motherwell, Free), Andrew Shinnie (Inverness CT, Free), Scott Allan (West Bromwich Albion, Season Loan), Kyle Bartley (Swansea City, Season Loan), Dan Burn (Fulham, Season Loan), Shane Ferguson (Newcastle United, Season Loan)

OUTS: Curtis Davies (Hull City, £2,250,000), Foday Nabay (Fulham, £200,000), Nathan Redmond (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Steven Caldwell (Toronto, Free), Fraser Kerr (Motherwell, Free), Jack Deaman, Keith Fahey, Morgaro Gomis, Graham Hutchison, Pablo Ibanez, Akwasi Asante (Shrewsbury Town, Short Term Loan), Amari’i Bell (Nuneaton Town, Six Month Loan), Jack Butland (Stoke City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Marlon King, Paul Robinson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two comfortable wins, including Matej Vydra and Almen Abdi’s first goals at Vicarage Road, and a 4-0 demolition job at St.Andrews in March

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Randolph
Burn                Mullins             Robinson
Eardley         Burke           Lee          Ambrose      Ferguson
Novak          Zigic

VERDICT: Nobody should need reminding of quite how lucky we’ve been in terms of the owners that fate has dealt us.  We’ve had a few of our own to compare and contrast over recent seasons after all.  But as Blues owner Carson Yeung enters a third year with his assets frozen in the wake of money laundering allegations and successive trial postponements, City serve as yet another case study leaving us grateful for (“the football is delicious…”) the Pozzo Family.  In that three year period since relegation as League Cup winners City have finished a strong fourth and a credible twelfth… but layers are being stripped away over time.  The nature of their recruitment over the summer speaks volumes  – a base of tough, solid scrappers but an awfully large number of punts on lower division maybes.  Some of them might come off, but Lee Clark needs rather more than some of them.

Googling to look back at the history of the Carson Yeung story reveals headlines two years ago predicting that Brum would be the next Pompey, the basket case of the time.  This summer for Blues is actually rather more reminiscent of Coventry’s two years ago when, in losing their best players (including, significantly, Marlon King) and patching together replacements they set themselves up for a relegation campaign – and it’s significant that they went down despite making a decent fist of it.  Lee Clark has lost Curtis Davies, Nathan Redmond and Jack Butland (effectively), whilst Marlon King and Peter Lovenkrands are amongst several who have been asked to find new clubs and Robbo, a Watford legend but one that looked past his best in Leeds’ defence at Elland Road eighteen months ago, has been appointed captain.  Lee Clark did well to claw a top half finish last season.  He’ll do well to stay clear of the bottom three this time.


BLACKBURN ROVERS

INS: Alex Marrow (Crystal Palace, Undisclosed), DJ Campbell (Queens Park Rangers, Free), Simon Eastwood (Portsmouth, Free), Alan Judge (Notts County, Free), Matt Kilgallon (Sunderland, Free), Chris Taylor (Millwall, Free), Todd Kane (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Martin Olsson (Norwich City, £2,000,000), Chris Dilo (St.Mirren, Free), Micah Evans, Nuno Gomes, Reece Hands, Ryan Humphreys, Danny Laverty, Jamie MacLaren, Danny Murphy, Osayamen Osawe, Peter Wylie, Anton Forrester (Bury, Six Month Loan), David Goodwillie (Dundee United, Six Month Loan), Nuno Henrique  (Arouca, Loan), Jack O’Connell (Rochdale, Six Month Loan), David Bentley (Tottenham, End of Loan), David Jones (Wigan, End of Loan), Colin Kazim-Richards (Galatasaray, End of Loan), Grzegorz Sandomierski (Genk, End of Loan), Cameron Stewart (Hull City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-ROVERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Lee Williamson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: An injury time defeat at Ewood Park in October and a bad tempered Forestieri-fuelled victory at Vicarage Road as the season closed.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Kean
Kane            Dann           Hanley         Henley
Lowe           Marrow
Judge                   Rochina                    Taylor
Rhodes

VERDICT: It’s odd how some clubs appear to have a core character.  Something against which any managerial changes, changes in status, changes in means or playing staff can only constitute a temporary resistant force such that when these are removed, the club gravitates back towards its natural state as if held to it by a rubber band.  Rovers were a top flight side for a long time…  a good twenty years, give or take a brief and always temporary drop back down in 1999.  For very little of that time were they any less than staple mid-table fare, strong enough to give anyone a game but not every week.

In comes a Venkys-shaped spanner and all of that has been ripped to shreds.  Blackburn’s fate always looked the least predictable of last season’s relegated sides (or so we thought… I’m not sure anyone saw Wolves’ cataclysm coming) but for the coming season it’s quite the opposite.  Blackburn have reverted to pre-Jack Walker type… stolid, blunt and mid-table.  Gary Bowyer’s managerial credentials have yet to be tested, but with a far from reliable board behind him he’s going to need to be some manager if the side is to challenge.  Squint at our Forestieri-inspired demolition job at the end of last season and the brutal, aggressive Leon Best could easily have been Steve Livingstone or Simon Garner of old.  Some messageboard correspondents are even whispering that the goals of  Jordan Rhodes are all that are separating Rovers from a relegation scrap.  I can’t see that, there are some genuine basket cases in this division this season (see below), but they won’t be troubling the promotion picture either.  Twelfth.

BLACKPOOL

INS: Michael Chopra (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Steven Davies (Bristol City, Undisclosed), Bobby Grant (Rochdale, Undisclosed), Gary MacKenzie (Franchise FC, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Alex Baptiste (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Paul Bignot (Grimsby Town, Free), Stephen Crainey (Wigan Athletic, Free), Neal Eardley (Birmingham City, Free), Ashley Eastham (Rochdale, Free), Tiago Gomes (APOEL, Free), Kevin Phillips (Crystal Palace, Free), Ludovic Sylvestre (Caykur Rizespor, Free), Alex Addai, Gerardo Bruma, Matthew Challoner, Adda Djeziri, Elliot Grandin, Jamie Menagh, Gary Taylor-Fletcher, Curtis Thompson, Chris Kettings (York City, Season Loan), Matt Derbyshire (Nottm Forest, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SEASIDERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Craig Cathcart, Michael Chopra

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: We lost leads in both games against the Seasiders last season, with late goals in the two games ultimately costing us three points in total and the charming Paul Ince celebrating his first win as Blackpool boss with customary good grace at Vicarage Road.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gilks
Broadfoot        MacKenzie         Cathcart          Harris
Osbourne      Ferguson
M.Phillips         Grant                 Ince
Chopra

VERDICT: Sometimes you don’t need to be paying a lot of attention to get a bad feeling about something.  Take Blackpool.  Ian Holloway, it’s easy to forget, was at the helm at Bloomfield Road as recently as November… in body at least, if not in spirit.  In truth he cut quite a subdued character in his final months at the club, with reports from within suggesting that “we hadn’t really done much training” in the weeks prior to his departure.  And when someone with the chirpy, salt-of-the-earth enthusiasm and lack of cynicism which characterises “Olly” loses his joie de vivre, something must be up.  Enter Michael Appleton… but only briefly, two months, thirteen games, eight of them drawn.  And then off again, of his own accord.  Given that Appleton had stuck things out for twelve months at Portsmouth, this didn’t send a great signal either.  And then the charming, self-effacing Paul Ince arrived in February, Dad of the star player in a fashion that emulates grass roots cub scout team football management.  Despite the inspirational presence of Ince Jr, the Seasiders continued to hover around lower mid-table, finishing five points (if several places) clear of the drop.

Since when Blackpool have hit the always pivotal second summer since relegation with the consequent impact on budgets, something that chairman Oyston has apparently been observing attentively.  Rumours earlier in the summer had Ince being the fourth successive ‘pool manager to offer his resignation, this one refused.  The squad has been decimated by summer departures, including those of a number of senior players – but not, at the time of writing, Ince Jr – with Ince Sr grumpily bemoaning his lot as sides made up largely of trialists have struggled in pre-season. At a difficult transition stage with an unremarkable team, this season would be a challenge to an otherwise stable, well-run club.  You’d question whether either of those terms applies to the Seasiders. I’d be astonished if Ince Sr lasts the season; either way, Blackpool have a survival scrap on their hands.  Relegation.

Watford 2 Granada 0 (27/07/2013) 27/07/2013

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
21 comments

1-  Gah, pre-season’s rubbish, isn’t it?  Half-arsed loafing around, “it’s all about fitness at this stage”.  Everyone gets a run out, result doesn’t mean anything.  After the anticipation of the summer the wind is taken out of your sails by this thing that looks like football but isn’t quite… was this what you’d been pining for for weeks whilst trying to make do with minority sports?  So difficult to read anything into it, has no bearing on how things are going to turn out, you learn nothing and leave the stadium vaguely bored and feeling a bit silly to have wasted an afternoon on it, let alone looked forward to it.

Ha.

2- Let’s talk about the new boys first of all, since they were surely a big motivation of attendance for a very respectable near-5000 crowd (we’ll get to that).  Iriney was the first to make an impression, snarling into a tackle within 30 seconds of the start and giving away the first of surely a large number of free kicks at Vicarage Road.  This one was harsh, but there was no denying that this was a different kind of exotic import.  A pivot comfortable with the ball, twisting away from trouble and into space effortlessly, spreading play with a first-time pass to a bouncing ball, and very comfortable to be without it, delighted to be without it, combative.  And in the referee’s ear for 45 minutes.  Just what the doctor ordered.

Next to make himself known was Gabriele Angella, a monstrous centre-back who can head the ball further than I can kick it.  Disciplined defensively, he combined the Lloydy thing of standing up and standing up and just taking the ball with the Fitz Hall thing of being a big hard bastard and the Marco Cassetti thing of being composed to the point of this-is-just-too-easy-boredom on the ball. Just a pre-season friendly, yeah yeah yeah.  But… bloody hell.

And then Fabbrini. Sorry for using Pro-evo as a reference point too frequently, but it kinda works… you know when you have a player with maximum ratings for control and awareness and balance such that he basically can’t be knocked off the ball and glides through tackles despite falling over with a player hanging off his shirt?  That.  His goal was a marvellous, gorgeous thing, shuffling away from close attention just outside the area left of centre and fashioning just about enough space to pile a shot into the top corner with the poise and accuracy of a golfer chipping onto the green.  Roberto in the Granada goal didn’t move. Majestic.

The other new boys were merely very good.  McGugan was lively and positive and confident.  Faraoni, agile and quick and athletic with a hell of a pass on him.  Acuña, tidy but quiet… until he found a pass to slip in Anya for a composed second.  Reece Brown… perhaps an odd signing at this stage, but comfortable enough here, big and strong.

And the others.  The old new guys, and the old, old guys.  Deeney, a monster, unplayable.  Forestieri, impish and irrepressible.  Anya, roaring down the left in the second half, a force of nature.  Battocchio, on in the second half and bursting down the right and looking and holding and feinting and holding and playing the most perfect cross in for Forestieri to scissor a shot top corner, a fine stop from sub keeper Karnezis – the only fine stop of the afternoon in truth – keeping him out.  Murray, in and involved.  Smith, a good 45 patrolling in Iriney’s position.  Only a pre-season.  But wow.

3- And this was far from a stroll in the park.  Granada’s attack limited them last season and they didn’t put enough pressure on our defence… but they were tough and competitive and organised and very up for it.  It never quite got nasty but it was certainly lively, Deeney, Fabbrini and Iriney all receiving close attention.  Two weeks behind us in preparation they may be but they’re still a top flight Spanish side and they looked it.  Iriney’s replacement, Chilean Manuel Iturra (and refer here for a reliable listing of their lineup) looked very much the part, Diakhité and Mainz in the centre of defence were tough and defiant and had to be. No rolling over here, I don’t remember a more competitive pre-season game.

4- If there’s a grumble it’s that the club underestimated the level of interest, or underaccommodated for it.  The queues for tickets were halfway up Occupation Road forty minutes before kick-off, and the Rous Stand heaving as we entered ten minutes later.  Folk were trickling in long after kick-off.  Sometimes being anally retentive and pre-ordering tickets for a pre-season game has its advantages.  Only one refreshment kiosk was open leaving folk sweltering in the heat…  difficult to judge, difficult to get right perhaps.  But a bit of a shame.  Not that it stopped half a dozen noisy Granada fans from making themselves known and enjoying themselves… rarely has a queue for a hot dog been as noisy or flamboyant.

5- There’s been a deal of bitching and whining from elsewhere over the summer, ever since the futility of that there loophole thing being closed became apparent.  “I thought they were under a transfer embargo”.  “I think they’re a disgrace”.  “the football authorities have got no balls”.  “Udinese feeder side”.  “Udinese B”.  “They’ll just move back to Udinese if they’re any good”.  “They’re not really your players”.  “You’ve abandoned your academy”.  And my personal favourite, “Watford don’t really exist any more”.

A lot of people are going to have a miserable, outraged season on this evidence.  Bless.

Come on!

Farewell, Captain Eustace 02/07/2013

Posted by Ian Grant in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

Club Captain. It doesn’t always mean very much, that. It’s often just conferred upon the senior professional, the latest in line; a ceremonial position with accompanying rights to drive cattle through the training ground on a Monday and suchlike. Truth is, there aren’t many who really warrant the accolade: to be a leader on the pitch is rare enough, to somehow encapsulate an ethos away from matchday and out of the spotlight is an altogether different matter, to convince others to embrace that ethos is still another. You can’t learn any of that. You’ve got it or you haven’t, and it’s up to others to decide.

In many ways, the most revealing moment of John Eustace’s Watford career came on a day when he was wearing an opposition shirt, loaned to Derby and back at Vicarage Road as a temporary Ram for the final game of the 2008/09 season. (In passing, chuckle knowingly at the thought that playing against his employers might somehow have compromised his competitive appetite. With some, maybe. With Eustace, no bloody chance.) Derby were rubbish, beaten comfortably; Eustace scored a late consolation, celebrated with the visiting fans and then acknowledged the rest of the ground with a cupped ear and a large grin.

But the final whistle was most telling. At that point, exiled by Rodgers in favour of younger, less combative models, the chances of further appearances as a Hornet were pretty slim; there was no need for more than polite greetings, nods and handshakes with former colleagues. But the reception he received from the Watford players was extraordinarily warm, beyond cordial: he was obviously missed, clearly looked up to by more than just one or two. The truth, when you thought about it, was that John Eustace was very much Club Captain even though he wasn’t actually at the club

As he leaves Watford Football Club to pursue options for extending his playing career, I invite you to consider how different it might all look without his influence. There have been four seasons since May 2009, of which three have involved young managers and bare-bones budgets and the fourth and most recent has involved a slightly older manager with a disparate, potentially transient squad. And I put it to you that throughout a deeply challenging period in our history, John Eustace has been the most vital and cohesive and consistent figure, the key to it all.

Much has changed during those four years. But this much hasn’t: that three different managers have been able to depend on a culture within the playing staff of hard work, professionalism and togetherness, with room for a bit of a laugh at the right time. That culture comes from leadership by example; it comes from within the dressing room itself.

It was abundantly and suddenly clear under Malky Mackay that we’d achieved continuity from the management right down to the youngsters. Even as an outsider, you could see where everyone fitted in, and how quickly anyone not subscribing to the central ethos would be forced to shape up or piss off. It’s not just about teamwork, about fighting for a common cause; that’s just the Hollywood adaptation. It’s about something much more subtle and fragile: a general tone, a shared work ethic; it’s about everyone turning up to work every day with the right attitude.

That structure is only possible if the manager is generous and trusting enough to let his senior figures, the leaders, have their voice and take their share of responsibility. But those leaders need to be generous and trusting in turn, and so on down the chain. There’s a place for being a bit terrifying, certainly, but it takes more than that, especially in modern football. Leadership requires mutual respect, not just shouting.

Of course, that professional culture hasn’t all come from John Eustace. But would it have been as durable without him, I wonder? Would it have survived three very different managers and countless soap opera ownership shenanigans? Would the dressing room have remained as cohesive, the training ground as hard-working? Would incoming players have been assimilated – or rejected – so quickly and effectively? We’ll never know, but I’ll hazard a guess…

All of which sidelines his contributions as a player unfairly…except for the fact that his contributions as a player were born of his personality as much as his considerable footballing talent. In the determination to adapt himself to different midfield roles – dismissive of the idea that he and Jonathan Hogg were incompatible, for example – there’s the same appetite for a challenge which greeted every fifty-fifty. If these things matter, he was technically a holding midfielder, certainly in the post-injury phase of his career that we’ve witnessed: combative, powerful, obstinate, quietly constructive rather than especially creative. But he had more in his armoury than that, particularly a keen and eager eye for goal when his role allowed it; always dangerous at corners, he won Goal of the Season for a brilliant overhead in 2010/11.

In the referee’s ear incessantly, he so evidently relished every aspect of the competitive scrap that you can fully understand his reluctance to end his playing career at this point. Assuming that he isn’t some kind of tactical buffoon, he’ll make one hell of a manager…but that can wait. There’ll be no shortage of offers when he does finally chuck his boots into the cupboard under the stairs.

So, there he goes. He was Club Captain from the moment of his arrival, even when others wore the armband, even when he was out on loan elsewhere. It’ll take some considerable time – and quite a force of personality from someone – before he isn’t Club Captain any more.

We’ve all seen some players come and go over the years, hundreds upon hundreds of them for good and ill and everything in between. I challenge you to think of more than half a dozen whose mark has been quite as deep as that left by John Eustace. And then tell him. To his face.