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Season Preview Part 3 10/08/2012

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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For a horrible night, this lot disappeared into the ether.  No, in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t have mattered but I’d rather burn up a load of time on something that actually makes the blog.  Anyway… my co-editor helped recover this situation and so we continue…

CARDIFF CITY

INS: Kim Bo-Hyung (Cerezo Osaka, £2,000,000), Heidar Helguson (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Jordon Mutch (Birmingham City, Undisclosed), Etien Velikonja (NK Maribor, Undisclosed), Joe Lewis (Peterborough United, Free)

OUTS: Anthony Gerrard (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Kenny Miller (Vancouver Whitecaps, Undisclosed), Tom Heaton (Bristol City, Free), Jon Parkin (Fleetwood Town, Free), Paul Quinn (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Aaron Wildig (Shrewsbury Town, Free), Alex Evans, Jon Meades, Jordan Santiago

OUR EX-BLUEBIRDS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Neal Ardley (Academy Manager), Richard Collinge (Medical), Don Cowie, Heidar Helguson, Martin Hodge (Opposition Analyst), David Kerslake (Assistant Manager), Malky Mackay (Manager), Joe McBride (First Team Coach), Iain Moody (Head of Player Recruitment), Jordon Mutch, Andrew Taylor

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two 1-1 draws last season, each concluded with a late equaliser from the away side.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Marshall
McNaughton         Turner            Hudson                  Taylor
Cowie        Gunnarsson      Whittingham        Kim
Mutch
Velikonja

VERDICT: Various developments in football in recent(ish) years have provoked pondering over what it is that we actually support. Is it the entity, the club itself, the company, the brand? Irrespective of where it plays, for example? And if not, then what? The badge? The name? Or the whole thing, the collective, the community?

The colours, in the grand scheme of things, are not in themselves vital. They’re important, of course, they’re part of our memories and associations, the stuff that loyalties are built off. But clubs have changed colourschemes before and the world didn’t collapse… we became the Hornets in the summer of 1959 and the following season saw our first Football League promotion, a cup run and Holton and Uphill scoring a millionty one goals.

It’s what the decision to switch from blue to red – or rather the imposition of this condition – indicates that’s the problem. The times when most clubs, even second tier clubs, were owned by local businessmen feel like a long time ago; when overseas takeovers happen – we should know – the line about respecting the values and traditions of the club is almost a given. Cardiff’s new owners have pissed all over that. You can argue that year upon year of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul whilst seemingly holding out for a promotion bail-out created the situation that led to City not being able to turn this preposterous condition down. But City fans have still every right to be pissed off.

Meanwhile, Malky Mackay has recruited yet more familiar faces, and if the signing of Jordon Mutch was a surprise, the capture of H is almost heartbreaking. There’s going to come a time when his little black book is going to run out of names, of course, and it will be interesting to see how City’s recruitment policy fares then; for the moment, City have loads of options in midfield and up front, and if the full back positions still look a little wobbly defensively you’d fancy Cardiff for another play-off tilt at worst.

CHARLTON ATHLETIC

INS: Lawrie Wilson (Stevenage, Undisclosed), Jordan Cook (Sunderland, Free), Salim Kerkar (Rangers, Free)

OUTS: Gary Doherty (Wycombe Wanderers, Free), Conor Gough (Bristol Rovers, Free), Freddie Warren (Barnet, Free), Mikel Alonso, Jason Euell, Tosan Popo

OUR EX-ADDICKS: None

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two wins as Charlton went down in 2008/09, the first under Aidy Boothroyd at Vicarage Road in August in a match settled by Tommy Smith, the second under Brendan Rodgers at the Valley in April in which Grzegorz Rasiak scored the Goal of the Season as the ‘orns came from behind.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Hamer
Solly                Cort         Morrison       Wiggins
Stephens          Hollands           Jackson
Haynes               Kermorgant                    Cook

VERDICT: Always hard to make judgements about teams coming up of course; the last couple of years have seen sides galloping through to successive promotions, or at least putting significant pressure on the top of the table. The comprehensive margin of the Addicks’ promotion last season suggests that they are best placed to take the division by storm this time, but frankly I can’t see it. There aren’t enough goals in the side, the squad is thin and the summer strengthening looks limited at the time of writing. There is clearly a decent side there – right back Chris Solly is highly sought after, and others such as former Watford target Rhoys Wiggins have good reputations but there’s relatively little experience at second tier level.  Fourteenth.

CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Joel Ward (Portsmouth, £400,000), Peter Ramage (Queens Park Rangers, Free), Aaron Wilbraham (Norwich City, Free), Aaron Martin (Southampton, Season Loan)

OUTS: Nathaniel Clyne (Southampton, Tribunal), Darren Ambrose (Birmingham City, Undisclosed), Sean Scannell (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Jake Caprice (Blackpool, Free), Anthony Gardner (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Lee Hills (Stevenage, Free), Calvin Andrew, Charlie Holness, Nathaniel Pinney

OUR EX-EAGLES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: Two of last season’s lowest points; a painfully easy 2-0 win in October and an incongruous hammering at Selhurst Park in February.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Speroni
Ward       McCarthy         Martin           Parr
Williams         O’Keefe                Jedinak          Moxey
Zaha               Murray

VERDICT: Palace started well last season, but only won six games in the League from late-October (when they sat third); we won 14 in the same period.  They didn’t register a win in their last nine, and the balance of players in/out as it stands doesn’t look great.  Clyne has been about to leave for a while, but a star turn has nonetheless been replaced by a steady if versatile Joel Ward.  Ambrose and Scannell may not have delivered consistently (I’ve expressed my reservations about Darren Ambrose already in the Birmingham piece) but both nonetheless created chances and scored goals, whilst in Gardner an experienced stopper has been lost.  Expecting replacements to match the contribution of the departees is optimistic… and Palace were hardly setting the world alight in any case.

That said the impressive Palace production line continues to turn out first team players – Stuart O’Keefe is established in midfield, 18 year-old starlet Jonathan Williams will get more game time and should the Eagles continue to resist offers for Zaha the only question will be where Dougie Freedman chooses to play him – he’s the squad’s only senior winger, but his contribution might be needed in the centre.  Freedman has done reasonably well in the transfer market too, Mile Jedinak and Jonathan Pore being the two big successes of last summer.  On the face of it, Palace should stay up but you worry about the resilience of the set-up if things start to go wrong.  The squad is thin, very young and reliant on a couple of key players.  Freedman has, as isn’t unusual, been extremely cautious and defensive when put under pressure.  I’ll back Palace to stay up again, but it wouldn’t take a lot…  we could have done with playing them a bit later in the season, frankly, when our squad has bedded in a bit, and theirs may be exposed.

DERBY COUNTY

INS: Paul Coutts (Preston North End, Undisclosed), Michael Jacobs (Northampton Town, Undisclosed), Richard Keogh (Coventry City, Undisclosed), James O’Connor (Doncaster Rovers, Undisclosed). Michael Hoganson (Newcastle United, Free)

OUTS: Jason Shackell (Burnley, £1,100,000), Miles Addison (AFC Bournemouth, Undisclosed), Chris Maguire (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed), Ryan Connolly (Sligo Rovers, Free), Paul Green (Leeds United, Free), James Severn (Scunthorpe United, Free), Aaron Cole, Chris Jones, Callum Ball (Coventry City, Season Loan), Lee Croft (Oldham Athletic, Season Loan)

OUR EX-RAMS: John Eustace

THEIR EX-ORNS: Theo Robinson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A smash and grab win by Derby at Vicarage Road that was more disciplined away performance and less travesty of justice than some accounts recorded, and an Alex Kacaniklic-inspired triumph at Pride Park in February.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fielding
Brayford     Keogh       Buxton     Roberts
Coutts      Hendrick      Bryson        Jacobs
Ward           Robinson

VERDICT: The Rams finished last season with a virtually identical record to ourselves, same points, same GD, twelfth instead of eleventh by virtue of six fewer goals scored.  Expectation is perhaps higher at Pride Park however, and patience with Nigel Clough’s steady building is running a little thin.  The bizarre sale of Jason Shackell to Burnley may prove to have been a tipping point; with the talented but injury prone skipper Shaun Barker out for the entirety of the forthcoming season it seems an odd decision and has been greeted as such.  Recruiting Coventry’s player of the season Richard Keogh won’t hurt, but Keogh was POTS in a relegated side and will be doing well if he matches Shackell’s contribution.  With Paul Green heading back to Yorkshire with Leeds, Derby look horribly short of nous and experience.  Some decent young players – Coutts and Jacobs were both sought after, Hendrick and O’Brien looked terrific at Vicarage Road a year ago – but not enough goals, and not enough cover.  Won’t be involved in the relegation scrap, but won’t be finishing top half again either in what could be a pivotal season for Clough, long-term plan or otherwise.

Season Preview 2010-11 01/08/2010

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

Here we are again, after a summer hiatus. Yes, we should have probably done something on the World Cup but were frankly too busy watching it. In summary: England, rubbish. Germany, excellent. Vuvuzelas, fantastic. Video Technology, inane. Holland, shameful. Spain, worthy winners. That’s it, done and dusted.Right. Proper football…

BARNSLEY

INS: Liam Dickinson (Brighton & HA, £150,000), Jeronimo Morales Neumann (Estudiantes, Undisclosed), Jason Shackell (Wolves, Undisclosed), Jim O’Brien (Motherwell, Tribunal), Goran Lovre (Groningen, Free), Jay McEveley (Derby County, Free), Diego Arismendi (Stoke City, Loan)

OUTS: Daniel Bogdanovic (Sheffield United, Free), Michael Coulson (Grimsby Town, Free), Simon Heslop (Oxford United, Free), Rob Kozluk (Sheffield United, Free), Darren Moore (Burton Albion, Free), Anderson de Silva, Mounir el Haimour, Jon Macken, O’Neil Thompson (Hereford United, Loan)

OUR EX-TYKES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Martin Devaney

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Steele

Hassell Foster Shackell McEveley

O’Brien Colace Lovre Hammill

Hume Neumann

VERDICT: Mark Robins converted Barnsley from a side that looked destined for the drop to an inconspicuously solid mid-table outfit quite effectively last season. “Solid, mid-table” might not be the sexiest of monickers but it’s a deal more attractive than certain alternatives as we know – I’d take “Solid, mid-table” this season with both hands, frankly. A revamp of the side has seen five six-footers brought in at the time of writing, so no reason to expect Barnsley to be any softer touches this season than last; however with Andy Gray in the Nathan Ellington role of highly paid makeweight the Tykes look short up front. Robins has stated his intention to sign a striker, but even a successful recruit would be burdened with considerable responsibilty; interpretation of Michael Boulding’s return, offering to play for nothing in search of a contract, has been focused on Barnsley’s implied desperation in re-signing a veteran who failed to convince a division below the first time round. Robins has recruited, in loan-signig Diego Arismendi from Stoke, an example of what will surely be this season’s fashion accessory, a player from a smaller South American state (Uruguay here) but overall lack of firepower and a lot of chopping and changing throughout the side make it difficult to see Barnsley finishing above halfway.
  

BRISTOL CITY

INS: Kalifa Cisse (Reading, Undisclosed), Damion Stewart (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Albert Adomah (Barnet, Tribunal), Nicky Hunt (Bolton Wanderers, Free), David James (Portsmouth, Free)

OUTS: John McCombe (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Bradley Orr (Queens Park Rangers, Undisclosed), Frankie Artus (Cheltenham Town, Free), Paul Hartley (Aberdeen, Free), Lee Trundle (Neath Athletic, Free), Brian Wilson (Colchester United, Free), Stephen Collis, Ashley Kingston, Tristan Plummer

OUR EX-ROBINS: Sean Dyche

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

James

Hunt Carey Nyatanga McAllister

Campbell-Ryce Cisse Skuse Adomah

Haynes Maynard

VERDICT:
It’s thirty years since Bristol City were in the top flight; I know this; because even at the age of seven I had an instinct that Gerry Gow and co in Football 80 felt like a bit of an anomaly. A city that size, and a club as well-poised as City with a decent-ish top-half second-tier team makes their attractivenes to Steve Coppell understandable; he now has an opportunity to once again turn a half-decent bunch of players into a more than half-decent team.

City returned to the second tier three years ago with a run to the play-off final fuelled in part by the previous season’s momentum, and abetted by a weak division (we were shocking for half the season and still finished sixth). Since then, consecutive tenth-placed finishes have concealed a squad that has been built up in depth; if City can hold on to Maynard, don’t rule out a strong challenge for the play-offs this time around.

 
BURNLEY

INS: Chris Iwelumo (Wolves, £500,000), Dean Marney (Hull City, £350,000), Lee Grant (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed), Ross Wallace (Preston North End, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Steven Fletcher (Wolves, £6,500,000), Robbie Blake (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Joey Gudjonsson (Huddersfield Town, Free), Steven Caldwell, Ben Hoskin, Stephen Jordan, Adam Kay, Jonathan Lund, Nicky Weaver

OUR EX-CLARETS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Clarke Carlisle, Chris Eagles

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Grant

Mears Carlisle Bikey Fox

Elliott Marney McCann Wallace

Iwelumo Patterson

VERDICT:
On the face of it, Burnley have done it what might be perceived as “right”. Or, prudent anyway… blessed with what can only have been a slightly unexpected windfall, they’ve spent quite carefully, built relegation clauses into such new contracts as were offered, spent a big wedge on Stephen Fletcher but sold him on for a profit. Tick, tick, tick. One’s almost tempted to hope that they do well, which would be a novel experience and a theme that might repeat itself further down this preview. Can’t say I’m overly convinced by Brian Laws though, and one senses that there’s still an element of needing to justify his existence following his slightly surprising appointment in succession to Owen Coyle. Wallace and Grant are terrific signings, Iwelumo functional but effective; like many of his new colleagues, he’s been promoted from this division before. Burnley will be up and around the top six again, and this time this won’t be a surprise to anyone.

 CARDIFF CITY

 INS: Tom Heaton (Manchester United, Free), Daniel Drinkwater (Manchester United, Loan)
 
OUTS: Mark Kennedy (Ipswich Town, £75,000), Josh Magennis (Aberdeen, Free), Darren Dennehy (Barnet, Free), Warren Feeney (Oldham Athletic, Free), Joe Ledley (Celtic, Free), Aaron Morris (Aldershot Town, Free), Tony Capaldi, Peter Enckelman, Riccardo Scimeca (retired)

OUR EX-BLUEBIRDS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Michael Chopra, Neal Ardley (Academy Manager), Terry Burton (Assistant Manager), Paul Wilkinson (Reserve Team Manager)
 
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Marshall

Matthews Hudson Gerrard McNaughton

Burke Rae McPhail Whittingham

Bothroyd Chopra

VERDICT:
Just as every season seems to see the Bluebirds strengthen their squad despite an apparently perilous financial situation, every summer that they fail to get promoted leaves one wondering whether this is the year that it all goes pear-shaped and chickens come home to roost, so to speak. And kick the Bluebirds out of their nests or something (better abandon that analogy now – Ed). At the time of writing a transfer embargo is preventing Dave Jones from adding to his squad… an embargo first put in place due to money owed to the taxman, then kept in place due to non-filing of annual accounts. With Charlton and Motherwell making angry noises about money owed in respect of Mark Hudson and Paul Quinn’s transfers last summer, Cardiff’s ability to defy logic and recruit looks like being tested to the full.

All of which looks like challenging Jones’ motivational skills somewhat… should he hang around long enough to have to cope with it. City were arguably the most impressive visitors to Vicarage Road last season, but Joe Ledley has already moved on – and denied City a “development fee” by moving to Scotland and therefore abroad, and much of the side are out of contract next summer. Getting performances out of those that remain, approaching end of contract or otherwise, will be a very big ask if the transfer embargo lasts until the end of August. It’s difficult to conceive of an outcome that would be entirely surprising.
 

COVENTRY CITY

INS: Lukas Jutkiewicz (Everton, Undisclosed), Richard Keogh (Carlisle United, Undisclosed), Clive Platt (Colchester United, Nominal), Lee Carsley (Birmingham City, Free), Roy O’Donovan (Sunderland, Free), Stephen O’Halloran (Aston Villa, Free), Gary McSheffrey (Birmingham City, Free)

OUTS:Ashley Cain (Mansfield Town, Free), Marcus Hall (Northampton Town, Free), Clinton Morrison (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Adam Walker (Nuneaton Town, Free), Elliott Ward (Norwich City, Free), Dimi Konstantopoulos, Stephen Wright, Curtis Wynter

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: John Eustace

THEIR EX-ORNS: Aidy Boothroyd

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Westwood

Keogh Wood Crainie McPake

Bell Gunnarsson Carsley McSheffrey

Eastwood Jutkiewicz

VERDICT:
Right, so this is the bit where I talk about Coventry then. Yup. OK. Coventry. Play in Sky Blue. Easy away trip. Always finish inconspicuously bottom half. End. Right. Palace. What, did I miss something? Oh yes…

Cov will be the first visitors to Vicarage Road on August 14th, and there’s only one man that that particular game will be all about. Less than two years (yes, really) since departing Vicarage Road, Aidy Boothroyd is back, and at the helm of a side who seem in need of the whopping great big broom that his relentless positiveness will constitute after a grim spell under the increasingly charmless Chris Coleman. Skimming City messageboards is like entering a time warp, with familiar-feeling references to obscure triallists, trips to forge links with exotic partners, and plenty of discussion of Boothroyd’s personality which is likely to split City fans as it splits everyone else. From a safe-ish distance, it will be interesting to watch and observe whether Boothroyd can recreate the dramatically effective surgery he performed on our side in the summer of 2005 (based on what appears to be a more limited budget), or whether the grim lack of variety that tarnished his third season at Watford and reportedly followed him to Colchester becomes a recurring trend. Boothroyd is without doubt a hugely talented manager; our time under him was anything but dull. My reservations are perhaps best summed up by the uncomfortable memory of him planting himself at the centre of the players’ celebratory melee at Cardiff after beating Leeds, wresting the trophy from Gavin Mahon. No grace, no letting the players enjoy their moment. The centre of attention, a man in love with his own image and reputation, sharing a grating tendency to refer to himself in some sort of detached commentary with his successor at Vicarage Road. City will hope for less of that and more of the inspiration that propelled us to promotion in 2006. In any event, Coventry won’t be dull this time around, even if their football is. Top half.
 

CRYSTAL PALACE

INS: Adam Barratt (Southend United, Free), Andy Dorman (St.Mirren, Free), Lewis Price (Derby County, Free), David Wright (Ipswich Town, Free)

OUTS: Jack Randall (Aldershot Town, Undisclosed), Danny Butterfield (Southampton, Free), Nick Carle (Sydney FC, Free), Shaun Derry (Queens Park Rangers, Free), Johannes Ertl (Sheffield United, Free), Clint Hill (Queens Park Rangers, Free), Michael Ablett, Hakeem Adelakun, James Comley, Matt Lawrence, Matthew Wright

OUR EX-EAGLES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Dean Austin (coach)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Speroni

Clyne McCarthy Barrett Wright

Ambrose Dorman N’Diaye Danns

Lee Andrew

VERDICT:
Palace dodged a bullet by the narrowest of margins in May. Much reflection at the time focused on the fact that but for a ten point deduction, Palace wouldn’t have been in that predicament… and prior to it, they were on the edge of the play-offs and looking upwards. Well, weren’t we all, at some point, in a reliably chaotic division. I don’t hold with the “but for the ten point deduction “thing either… Palace were deducted ten points for going nto administration, meaning they spent money – or committed to spending money – that they didn’t have. They’ve been suffering the consequences, and on the back of the sales of Moses and Fonte, and with George Burley’s stock unrecognisably lower than when he was leading Ipswich to unheralded heights a decade ago, I can’t see Palace finishing above halfway. The first choice midfield doesn’t look bad, but unless a reliable striker can be found Palace could be looking at another relegation struggle. And no mitigation or excuses this time.
 

DERBY COUNTY

INS: Dave Martin (Millwall, £200,000), James Bailey (Crewe Alexandra, Undisclosed), John Brayford (Crewe Alexandra, Undisclosed), Tomasz Cywka (Wigan Athletic, Free), Gareth Roberts (Doncaster Rovers, Free)

OUTS: Paul Connolly (Leeds United, Free), Jay McEveley (Barnsley, Free), Henrik Ojamaa (Alemannia Aachen, Free), Lewis Price (Crystal Palace, Free), Gary Teale (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Mike Dudley, Alex Forde, Lee Hendrie, Jermaine Johnson, Graham Kelly (Bray Wanderers, Loan)

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

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Bywater

Brayford Anderson Barker Roberts

Cywka Green Savage Bailey Commons

Hulse

VERDICT:
It’s not often that a side with Robbie Savage in the middle of it can have been accused of keeping a low profile… but beyond not winning away for ages until an effective (Savage-inspired) away performance at Vicarage Road in December, one struggles to recall how Derby actually did last season. I mean… I can look at the league table and see that they finished seventeenth and think “okay”, and I guess that feels about right, suitably anonymous. But I don’t remember noticing them very much. All of which might not bode well for Clough, whatever his ancestry, at a place thats perception of its status has always felt rather out of step with reality. Is the softly, softly gradual building that Clough practised at Burton really going to cut it with the less patient Derby faithful? Is it going to cut it in the Championship, which drifts further away from the Premiership with every season like a rowing boat set loose from its mooring? Looking at the signings, for a second summer running you can’t help but feel that Derby would do well to stick by their man: Gareth Roberts looks as sound a purchase as Shaun Barker did a year ago, and picking up kids from Crewe has generally done people OK, as Savage and Hulse would testify. There’s a distinct lack of grandstanding in the signings, nothing to pander to the masses, just very sensible. The side is short of options up front, and perhaps a little creativity… and I’ve always had my doubts about Stephen Bywater. No assault on the play-offs for the Rams. But I would expect Derby to do better this season than last. Fifteenth, then…
 

DONCASTER ROVERS

INS: Billy Sharp (Sheffield United, £1,150,000), George Friend (Wolves, Free), Simon Gillett (Southampton, Free), Josh Payne (West Ham United, Free)

OUTS: Lewis Guy (Franchise FC, Free), Paul Heffernan (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Sean McDaid (Carlisle United, Free), Gareth Roberts (Derby County, Free), Ben Smith (Shrewsbury Town, Free), John Spicer (Notts County, Free), Charles Fisher

OUR EX-ROVERS: None

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

Sullivan

Chambers Martis O’Connor Friend

Coppinger Stock Woods Oster

Hayter

Sharp

VERDICT:
So Donny Rovers have spent a million quid on a player? The world’s gone mad, I tell you. And actually, a million quid to sort of stand still, given that Sharp spent last season at the Keepmoat on loan. Not a criticism, mind… I don’t doubt that if we thought we had a cat in hell’s chance of securing Tom Cleverley for the same outlay we’d be moving heaven and earth…

There’s not a lot to sat about Donny really. The first team looks a bit iffy at the back, but basically more than good enough to hold it’s own in the division, and to beat just about anyone else on a good day. But the squad is painfully thin, and the loss of Roberts at the end of his contract to a side with deeper pockets demonstrates that running to stand still is what it’s all about for Donny really, until Sean O’Driscoll finally tires of the limitations, gets a better offer and hops it. At which point Donny will probably appoint some muppet like Peter Taylor and slip back whence they came. Mind you, I said that about Blackpool last season. Thirteenth.
 

HULL CITY

INS: James Harper (Sheffield United, Free), Nolberto Solano (Leicester City, Free)

OUTS: Stephen Hunt (Wolves, £3,000,000), Steven Mouyokolo (Wolves, £2,500,000), Boaz Myhill (West Bromwich Albion, £1,500,000), Dean Marney (Burnley, £350,000), George Boateng (Skoda Xanthi, Free), Yann Ekra, Geovanni, Nathan Hanley, Ryan Kendall, John Leonard, Bernard Mendy, Darragh Steele, Kamel Ghilas (Arles-Avignon, Loan)

OUR EX-TIGERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Duke

Solano Zayatte Gardner Dawson

Garcia Olofinjana Cairney Halmosi

Fagan Cousin

VERDICT:
Looking at things at the end of last season, the prospect of two basket cases coming down from the top flight did feel rather reassuring, from the point of view of a side who, if we’re honest, will be doing more of the staying up than of the chasing the play-offs. Somehow, however, Hull’s financial calamity doesn’t appear to be quite at the level of Pompey’s, despite suggestions of cataclysmic holes in the budget from returning Adam Pearson. For one thing, at the time of writing, they still have a bloody good side at this level, even if they manage to convince someone to take on Jimmy Bullard at the asking price. Strength in depth, too… the likes of Harper, Kilbane and Caleb Folan don’t make the line-up above, whilst good things are being said about young striker Mark Cullen. They perhaps need a bit more up front to be chasing the top two, but should be in and around the play-offs if wholesale departures aren’t on the cards. Still don’t like them, though. Phil Brown takes a lot of getting over.
 

IPSWICH TOWN

INS: Mark Kennedy (Cardiff City, £75,000), Conor Hourihane (Sunderland, Undisclosed)

OUTS:Alex Bruce (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Liam Trotter (Millwall, Free), Ed Upson (Yeovil Town, Free), David Wright (Crystal Palace, Free), Pim Balkestein, Richard Wright, Kevin Lisbie (Millwall, Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES:David Kerslake

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tamas Priskin

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Murphy

Peters MacAuley Delaney Kennedy

Walters Norris Leadbitter Civelli

Wickham Priskin

VERDICT:
I have to confess to being surprised that Roy Keane’s still there. Actually, my surprise runs deeper than that… I think I was surprised when Ipswich started climbing into mid-table last season. It had felt like a disaster on an inevitable and unspectacularly tragic route, like a soap opera plot that’s telegraphed and then drawn out so’s one ends up thinking oh just get on with it.

I don’t think I’ve changed my opinion. Ipswich don’t look like a side destined for greatness at the moment; it’s not a bad side, and the emergence of Connor Wickham is a big plus. More than good enough, then, to trot along in mid-table, occasionally convincing themselves thaty’ve a shot of the play-offs without actually ever having a shot of the play-offs, generally clear of the scrap at the bottom. I can’t see Roy Keane hacking that though, I can’t see him as patient enough, or tolerant enough. This Ipswich team is good enough to finish about tenth. But I’m going to put money on a great big upheaval in the middle of the season, after which pretty much anything could happen.
 

LEEDS UNITED

INS: Alex Bruce (Ipswich Town, Undisclosed), Neill Collins (Preston North End, Undisclosed), Federico Bessone (Swansea City, Free), Paul Connolly (Derby County, Free), Billy Paynter (Swindon Town, Free), Lloyd Sam (Charlton Athletic, Free), Kasper Schmeichel (Notts County, Free)

OUTS:Jermaine Beckford (Everton, Free), Casper Ankergren, Rui Marques, Andrew Milne, Tom Elliott (Rotherham United, Loan)

OUR EX-WHITES:Danny Graham, David Kerslake

THEIR EX-ORNS: Leigh Bromby

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Schmeichel

Connolly Kisnorbo Collins Bessone

Sam Howson Kilkenny Snodgrass

Paynter Becchio

VERDICT:
So. Leeds are back, then. And if the last time we met, at Cardiff in 2006, was a decisive game for us, it was all the more so for United. Relegated the following season, they spent three years in the third tier and promotion hardly propels them back into the division with much momentum; a nine-point lead over Norwich at the turn of the year was whittled away as United’s form collapsed in the wake of the eye-catching Cup victory at Old Trafford. Ultimately they slipped into second place almost apologetically; with Beckford gone and player-of-the-year Patrick Kisnorbo out until Christmas – one of several already on the injury list – Leeds don’t look altogether convincing. Leeds will probably be OK, and might make it up into mid-table if they make a reasonable start, but my guess would be that they’ll struggle badly early on, and pull themselves away from the bottom three towards the end of the campaign. Nineteenth.
 

LEICESTER CITY

INS: Tom Kennedy (Rochdale, Free), Alie Sesay (Arsenal, Free), Miguel Vitor (Benfica, Loan)

OUTS: James Wesolowski (Peterborough United, Undisclosed),
Wayne Brown (Preston North End, Free), Billy Kee (Torquay United, Free), Nolberto Solano (Hull City, Free), Harry Worley (Oxford United, Free), Astrit Ajdarevic, Robbie Burns, Alex Cisak, Stephen Clemence, Carl Pentney, Levi Porter, Yann Kermorgant (Arles-Avignon, Loan)

OUR EX-FOXES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Chris Powell

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Weale

Morrison Hobbs Vitor Berner

Gallagher King Wellens Dyer

Fryatt Howard

VERDICT:
Here’s the thing. Leicester were relegated to the third tier in 2008 despite not being all that bad. On gaining promotion straight back up again, they got themselves into the play-offs despite not being all that good. With Nigel Pearson having made the apparently high-risk hop across to Hull, Paulo Sousa is now in charge at the Walkers’ Stadium. Paulo Sousa who, fine player though he was, has managed to get to his third managerial appointment in this division without leaving much of an impression on anyone other than those directly impacted. Perhaps not even them. Other than looking Mediterranean, swarthy and kind of distracted in TV interviews, as if conducting the conversation whilst trying to remember whether he’d paid the milkman. So… Leicester have a first team that’s comfortably good enough to finish in the top half of the table and, therefore, to finish in the play-offs in this most evenly balanced of divisions. My money’s on not, though; Sousa’s appointment at Swansea a year ago was similar in the sense that here was some very good raw material and a side ready to push on which didn’t really do so. The conversion to Sousa’s passing game might also be less comfortable at Leicester than it was at Swansea. Inconspicuous, then. Twelfth.

MIDDLESBROUGH

INS: Kevin Thomson (Rangers, £2,000,000), Stephen McManus (Celtic, £1,500,000), Nicky Bailey (Charlton Athletic, £1,400,000), Tarmo Kink (Gyori ETO, up to £1,000,000), Andy Halliday (Livingston, Undisclosed), Kris Boyd (Rangers, Free)

OUTS: John Johnson (Northampton Town, Undisclosed), Emmanuel Pogatetz (Hannover 96, Free), Jeremie Aliadiere, Chris Killen (Shenzhen Ruby, Free), Chris Riggott

OUR EX-BORO: Danny Graham

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Jones

Hoyte McManus Wheater Taylor

Robson O’Neil Thomson Bailey

McDonald Boyd

VERDICT:
One has to worry when a manager relies so heavily on recruiting from his recent charges and contacts. Whilst, logically, the manager in question would have had direct experience of working with many such recruits, and much as the players’ willingness to link up again with their erstwhile boss can’t be a bad thing… you kind of lose the mystery. A player with no obvious connection is plucked out of the blue and you can kid yourself that this is our demon scouting network in action. Someone has been “spotted”… identified, watched, evaluated, selected, club approached, player approached, deal done, sorted. Then you see the guy play of course and the illusion of a crack recruitment network goes up in smoke… but at least the illusion was there, if only temporarily. Since arriving on Teesside last October, Gordon Strachan has recruited five former Celtic charges (including the since departed Chris Killen), as well as two from Rangers and one from Aberdeen. I guess Strachan was successful enough at Celtic Park for his judgment to be relied upon but, goodness, does the man not fancy a bit of variety? It’s like moving house and steaming all the wallpaper off the walls to take with you.

They’ll win the league at a canter, mind. Admittedly I thought the same a year ago; I’d happily be proven wrong again, since Middlesbrough’s status as the division’s big spenders by an enormous distance sets them up as targets to be shot at. But they weren’t that far away from the play-offs in the end last year despite being a bit rubbish. The keeper might be a worry, the defence not infallible, but there are so many options in midfield and up front (Lita, Arca, Miller, Flood, Kink are senior options in addition to those listed) that it’s difficult to see them doing anything other than running away with it.

MILLWALL

INS: Shaun Batt (Peterborough United, £300,000), James Henry (Reading, Undisclosed), Steve Mildenhall (Southend United, Free), Tamika Mkandwire (Leyton Orient, Free), Liam Trotter (Ipswich Town, Free), Kevin Lisbie (Ipswich Town, Loan)

OUTS:Dave Martin (Derby County, £200,000), Adam Bolder (Burton Albion, Free), Jason Price (Carlisle United, Free), Ali Fuseini, John Sullivan (Yeovil Town, Loan)

OUR EX-LIONS:Sean Dyche

THEIR EX-ORNS: Kenny Jackett, Jack Smith, Darren Ward

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Forde

Dunne Ward Robinson Craig

Henry Trotter Abdou Schofield

Morison Harris

VERDICT:
It’s supposed to be healthy to do things that you’ve not done before. Everyone should do something every day that constitutes a new experience, or so the theory goes. This season, a good number of Watford fans of a certain vintage will find themselves rooting for Millwall, an experience unfamiliar enough to jolt anyone out of whatever rut they’re in. Of the three ex-Watford managers that we appear scheduled to come up against this season, Kenny Jackett is the only one beyond any criticism or reproach; thirteen years after his difficult season in charge of us, he’s managed to take a side into the second tier.

It’s difficult to call quite how well Millwall will do, but in the experienced Harris and prolific Morison the Lions have goals, which should put them at an advantage over at least three other sides come May. One has to suspect that the squad is a little thin, although Jack Smith is someone that I would have liked us to hang on to, dependable and versatile if never quite nasty enough. Got to worry a little if Darren Ward’s propensity to head the ball straight upwards isn’t prohibiting him from getting a starting berth, although there is in fairness reasonable competition for places at centre-back. Safe, but not much more.

NORWICH CITY

INS: Andrew Surman (Wolves, £1,200,000), Simeon Jackson (Gillingham, £600,000), Andrew Crofts (Brighton & Hove Albion, Undisclosed), David Fox (Colchester United, Undisclosed), John Ruddy (Everton, Undisclosed), Elliott Ward (Coventry City, Free), Steven Smith (Rangers, Free)

OUTS:Michael Spillane (Brentford, Undisclosed), David Stephens (Hibernian, Undisclosed), Rhoys Wiggins (AFC Bournemouth, Undisclosed), Gary Doherty (Charlton Athletic, Free), Danny Kelly (Barnet, Free), Damon Lathrope (Torquay United, Free), Phil Roberts (Arsenal, Free), Jamie Cureton, Darel Russell, Paul McVeigh, Tom Adeyemi (Bradford City, Loan), Cody McDonald (Gillingham, Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES:Malky Mackay

THEIR EX-ORNS: Anthony McNamee

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ruddy

R.Martin Ward Nelson Drury

Crofts

Hughes Surman

Hoolahan

Jackson Holt

VERDICT:
Oh bloody marvellous. Just splendid. Just what the doctor ordered. Or not.

I know that it’s not logically feasible for everyone to play their first game of the season at home. But it kind of should be. Perhaps there could be a vote amongst second-tier clubs and the least popular (ummm, hello again Leeds) could play away in game one, a single game played on the opening Saturday; the following midweek could see the hosts in game one travel away to a side who then travel away themselves the following Saturday in game three and so on. This way, everyone except Leeds gets to start the season at home, the only slight inconvenience (and that’s merely a matter of perspective) being that the season needs to start as soon as the last one ended to fit everything in.

Failing that, we should be at home and bugger everyone else. And if we ARE away from home, we certainly shouldn’t be travelling to the newly promoted Third Division champions, annual holders of the “probably a bit unlucky to have gone down in the first place, bloody hell look at them now” mantle. Brimming with confidence, a big crowd behind them, AND on the telly, AND before we’ve sorted our loans out. They’ve even got bloody McNamee to come off the bench and be inconsequentially tricksy on the wing when the game’s already finished. Hrrmph.

Norwich will do pretty well. Ruddy’s an unknown quantity, but was solid enough to be signed by Everton at one point. I’ve always thought Elliott Ward was a bit rubbish, but then he’s not a definite starter. Lots of goals up front in Holt, Martin and new signing Simeon Jackson. Tidy, well balanced midfield. Chasing the play-offs, at the very least.

NOTTINGHAM FOREST

INS: Radoslaw Majewski (Groclin Grodzisk, £1,000,000)

OUTS: James Perch (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Jean Biansumba, Tony Diagne, Danny Elliott, Jordan Fairclough, Tim Hopkinson, Sean McCashin, Shane Redmond, Carl Sibson, Matthew Sykes, George Thomson, Max Wright, Mark Byrne (Barnet, Loan), Joel Garner (Huddersfield Town, Loan), Brendan Moloney (Notts.County, Loan)

OUR EX-FOREST: David Kerslake

THEIR EX-ORNS: None
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Camp

Gunter Wilson Morgan Chambers

Tyson Majewski McKenna Cohen

Blackstock Earnshaw

VERDICT:
It’s hard to imagine Billy Davies ever presiding over a happy camp. Had Forest won promotion in May… well you just can’t picture the man’s face with a smile on it. A valedictory sneer, perhaps, with a knowing glance at the voices in his head.

But Forest didn’t win promotion, and since the memorable semi-final defeat to Blackpool appear to have imploded somewhat. Third place slightly flattered their squad last time around, and with no new signings at the time of writing (beyond the previously loaned Majewski), with gaps in the squad (particularly at left back), a miserly production line and with as many rumours about further departures as about players coming in, the City Ground feels like a far from happy camp. This is all exacerbated by the fact that it’s taking place at Forest, for whom “Delusions of Grandeur” might as well be a club motto. Might all get worse before it gets better. Tenth.

PORTSMOUTH

INS: Ibrahima Sonko (Stoke City, Loan)

OUTS:Nadir Belhadj (Al Sadd, Undisclosed), Florent Cuvelier (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Papa Bouba Diop (AEK Athens, Undisclosed), David James (Bristol City, Free), Lennard Sowah (SV Hamburg, Free), Luke Wilkinson (Dagenham & Redbridge, Free), Jamie Ashdown, Angelos Basinas, Tal Ben Haim, Steve Finnan, OJ Koroma

OUR EX-POMPEY:None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tommy Smith, Danny Webber

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

???

Wilson Sonko Mokoena Hreidarsson

Smith Brown Hughes Ritchie

Nugent Webber

VERDICT:
Erk. Where to start, really. We’ve been in a vaguely similar position to Pompey a couple of times, most obviously in 2002… overburdened with an unmotivated squad that we couldn’t afford to pay and basically needed to ship out as soon as. I vaguely remember an analogy along the lines of keeping a boat moving forward as people saw down the mast for firewood, bang holes in the hull and eat the sails. Or something.

But only vaguely similar, and to a less dramatic, precarious degree. I could come out with some statistic about quite how few players Portsmouth have at the present time but I’d be guessing, and in any case the situation is ill-defined and seems to change by the minute. With senior professionals (including Tal Ben Haim, reputedly earning £35k/week) on semi-official leave of absence in pursuit of mututally beneficial moves to other clubs, with David Nugent, once discarded, now the man on whom all hopes are pinned, with a court hearing addressing HMRC’s appeal against Portsmouth’s CVA this coming week and the prospect, of another points deduction if things go badly… suffice to say that it’s hard to see Pompey pushing for a quick promotion. The Premiercentric lads in my office don’t agree… Pompey are almost top flight establishment now; yeah, ok, money problems, but still too good for Scunthorpe and Barnsley and that, surely?

Not for me. The first team ought to survive, as it stands now (although one assumes that a goalkeeper’s on the agenda, with the previously released Jamie Ashdown widely anticipated) but there’s no cover. At all. A second relegation for my money, with or without a points deduction. Whilst Harry Redknapp continues to charm the pants off everyone at Tottenham, which makes me feel rather uncomfortable.

PRESTON NORTH END

INS: Craig Morgan (Peterborough United, £400,000), Andreas Arestidou (Shrewsbury Town, Free), Wayne Brown (Leicester City, Free), David Gray (Manchester United, Free), Paul Hayes (Scunthorpe United, Free), Matthew James (Manchester United, Loan)

OUTS:Neill Collins (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Ross Wallace (Burnley, Undisclosed), Liam Chilvers (Notts County, Free), Michael Hart (Hibernian, Free), Chris Sedgwick (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Youl Mawene, Veliche Shumilikoski, Neil Mellor (Sheffield Wednesday, Loan), Eddie Nolan (Scunthorpe United, Loan)

OUR EX-LILYWHITES:None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lonergan

Jones St.Ledger Brown Davidson

Mayor Coutts James Treacy

Hayes Parkin

VERDICT:
Is it permissable to state that I’m yet to be convinced by Darren Ferguson? I know he did extraordinarily well at Peterborough, I know who his Dad is, I know that he’s perfected that on-the-edge-of-irritated air that suggests that his plane of thought is several levels above that suggested by his interviewer… but, I dunno. A big broom to Preston’s squad, fine. But announcing that a large number of in-contract players are no longer required and effectively writing them off during a summer when there’s not really been a lot of player movement always felt like a big risk. Wallace is a big miss, a number of senior squad players have gone… one assumes that the United loanees are quality, but we know that Wayne Brown is both a bit rubbish and, apparently, a bit of a pratt. Preston finished last season poorly, have very little up front… relegation candidates.

QUEENS PARK RANGERS

INS: Paddy Kenny (Sheffield United, £750,000), Jamie Mackie (Plymouth, Undisclosed), Bradley Orr (Bristol City, Undisclosed), Leon Clarke (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Shaun Derry (Crystal Palace, Free), Clint Hill (Crystal Palace, Free), Jordan Hibbert (Unattached)

OUTS:Damion Stewart (Bristol City, Undisclosed), Ed Harris (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Angelo Balanta (Franchise FC, Season Loan), Rowan Vine

OUR EX-RANGERS:David Kerslake

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Kenny

Orr Connolly Gorkss Hill

Buzsacky Derry Faurlin

Mackie Helguson Clarke

VERDICT:
What looks like a sea-change at QPR… after a parade of short-lived managerial appointments who appeared to have to contend with considerable boardroom involvement in team affairs, Colin pitches up… and whatever else one might accuse him of, it’s difficult to picture him tolerating a situation that he’s not completely in control of.

On the basis of which, one has to regard QPR quite seriously this season. Warnock has always been one to bring a bodyguard of trolls with him when he moves club, so no surprise to see Paddy Kenny, Shaun Derry and Clint Hill pitch up, the latter two in particular likely to give Rangers a bit of nastiness and afford protection to the likes of Faurlin and Buzsacky. Heidar is also likely to flourish under Warnock, one suspects – Colin’s arrival probably stuffed the mooted agreed transfer in the summer – but QPR are probably a little short up front as it stands. Still solidly top half though; they’ll be chasing the play-offs at worst for me.

READING

INS: Andy Griffin (Stoke City, £250,000), Marcus Williams (Scunthorpe United, Free)

OUTS:Kalifa Cisse (Bristol City, Undisclosed), James Henry (Millwall, Undisclosed), Marek Matejovsky (Sparta Prague, Undisclosed), Oliver Bozanic (Central Coast Mariners, Free), Andy White (Gillingham, Free), Liam Rosenior

OUR EX-ROYALS:None

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

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Federici

Griffin Mills Pearce Williams

Kebe Tabb Sigurdsson Howard McAnuff

Church

VERDICT:
Twelve months on, and Reading are no longer realistic candidates to be “the new Luton”. Indeed, hilarious as Rodgers’ collapse under the weight of too many sideways passes was last season (steady… Swansea preview still to come…), the prevailing attitude towards the Royals is surely closer to sympathy than antagonism.

Although in fairness, it doesn’t look as if they need much sympathy. Under the unpretentious guidance of Brian McDermott (and his assistant, whoever that might be…) Reading racked up forty points from the last twenty games of last season, which is promotion form that should see them start this one on the front foot. Whilst attacking options are perhaps a little thin there are plenty of goals in the midfield, and Marcus Williams is a very good signing to supplement a solid defence, marshalled by Matt Mills. I’m also lead to believe that Andy Griffin’s embarrassing disaster at Vicarage Road in April isn’t typical of the veteran full back.

Of perhaps greater concern is the suggestion that players might move on before the end of August as yet another club looks to balance the books. The “McAnuff to QPR” rumour has been around all summer, whilst top flight clubs are surely watching Sigurdsson. Looking good so far though… edge of the play-offs would be my guess.

SCUNTHORPE UNITED

INS: Bobby Grant (Accrington Stanley, up to £260,000), Michael Collins (Huddersfield Town, Undisclosed), Chris Dagnall (Rochdale, Free), Jim McNulty (Brighton & Hove Albion, Loan), Eddie Nolan (Preston North End, Loan)

OUTS: Gary Hooper (Celtic, £2,400,000), Paul Hayes (Preston North End, Free), Grant McCann (Peterborough United, Free), Matt Sparrow (Brighton & HA, Free), Marcus Williams (Reading, Free), Peter Winn (Stevenage Borough, Free), Ben May, Kenny Milne, Jake Picton, Josh Lillis (Rochdale, Loan), Ian Morris (Chesterfield, Loan)

OUR EX-IRON: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None
POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Murphy

Nolan Mirfin Jones McNulty

Forte O’Connor Wright Woolford

Thompson Dagnall

VERDICT:
Laziest prediction of the close-season? Scunthorpe for relegation. After all, Scunny are a lower division side playing above their station. Analyse their playing staff? Don’t be silly, it’s Scunthorpe, they’re rubbish. Ask any fan of any team expected to struggle to name the three sides that will finish below their side and the response will start “Well Scunthorpe, and…”. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

Nonetheless, Scunny are clearly going down. A squad that was barely good enough last season lost a number of players at the end of contracts, most significantly Paul Hayes and Marcus Williams, and have since sold the impressive Gary Hooper. Whilst we’re hardly in a position to criticise as regards trawling the lower divisions for signings, Scunny’s new recruits will need to go some to match the contribution of Hooper and Hayes last season in particular, 28 goals for starters. Probably not a good sign, either, that the more optimistic voices on Scunthorpe messageboards cite the potential for rivals to enter administration and incur points penalties as United’s likeliest route of escape. There are certainly sides you’d rather go down, although Nigel Adkins won few fans with his rather one-eyed take on the draw at Glanford Park last season. Preference doesn’t come into it of course – Scunny are going down.

SHEFFIELD UNITED

INS: Daniel Bogdanovic (Barnsley, Free), Leon Britton (Swansea City, Free), Johannes Ertl (Crystal Palace, Free), Steve Simonsen (Stoke City, Free), Nyron Nosworthy (Sunderland, Loan), Simon Walton (Plymouth Argyle, Loan)

OUTS: Billy Sharp (Doncaster Rovers, £1,150,000), Paddy Kenny (Queens Park Rangers, £750,000), Liban Abdi (Ferencvaros, Undisclosed), Justin Haber (Ferencvaros, Undisclosed), Jordan Stewart (Skoda Xanthi, Undisclosed), Ian Bennett (Huddersfield Town, Free), Henri Camara (Atromitos, Free), James Harper (Hull City, Free), Glen Little (Aldershot Town, Free), Gary Naysmith (Huddersfield Town, Free), Kyel Reid (Charlton Athletic, Free), Sam Wedgbury (Macclesfield Town, Free), Jon Fortune, Derek Geary

OUR EX-BLADES: None

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

Simonsen

Lowton Morgan Nosworthy Taylor

Montgomery Ertl

Ward Britton Yeates

Cresswell

VERDICT:
There’s not an awful lot to say about United. A little bit thin on options at the back, but otherwise a squad packed with second-tier experience that ought to be pushing the play-offs at worst. They won’t, though. In all honesty it’s difficult to reconcile Kevin Blackwell with anything going right. I find myself surprised every time I see him interviewed after a United win, as if even a single victory challenges my mental image of the man in charge. Perhaps I’ve got things slightly out of proportion. Very difficult to see him masterminding promotion though. Somewhere between eighth and tenth.

SWANSEA CITY

INS: Neil Taylor (Wrexham, £40,000), Scott Donnelly (Aldershot Town, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Federico Bessone (Leeds United, Free), Leon Britton (Sheffield United, Free), Marcos Painter (Brighton & HA, Free), Daniel Sheehan (Salisbury City, Free), Guillem Bauza, James Burgin, Kieran Howard, Besan Idrizaj (Deceased)

OUR EX-SWANS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Brendan Rodgers

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

de Vries

Rangel Monk Williams Tate

Cotterill Pratley Lopez Gower Dyer

Dobbie

VERDICT:
Another summer change of management for the Swans; last season’s incumbent Paulo Sousa had City treading water on the edge of the play-offs, missing out on a play-off spot to Blackpool at the death. He’s since jumped ship to Leicester, his post mortem largely revolving around criticism of the defensive approach he introduced… a difficult adjustment in the wake of the expansive style preferred by Roberto Martinez.

So quite what they’ll make of the new man is anyone’s guess. Messageboards occasionally trot out the Mourinho thing (someone’s been doing research, since it’s inconceivable that Rodgers himself would have highlighted his employment history) and there’s an underlying trend of cautious optimism… and relief that he isn’t Paulo Sousa.

Which strikes me as a little short-sighted. Seventh place isn’t bad going for a side that had just emerged from twenty-something seasons in the lower divisions, there’s certainly scope for things to get worse. The Swans have a reasonably large squad but, in common with many others, aren’t flush with cash. Already short on options up front, Blackpool continue to sniff around last season’s loan Stephen Dobbie and are reportedly on the verge of signing full back Angel Rangel, impressive at Vicarage Road last season. One of Rodgers’ Watford’s most convincing performances came against Swansea at Vicarage Road, but putting him in charge of a squad with a surfeit of ball-playing midfielders, largely Martinez’s squad, feels like a dangerous thing. Reports from pre-season friendlies already infer nice passing but little penetration. Too much quality to struggle, but bottom half nonetheless.

…and finally…

WATFORD

INS: Tom Aldred (Carlisle United, Undisclosed), Rene Gilmartin (Walsall, Nominal)

OUTS: Jon Harley (Notts.County, Free), Will Hoskins (Bristol Rovers, Free), Richard Lee (Brentford, Free), Jordan Parkes (Barnet, Free), Lewis Young (Burton Albion, Free), Jay Demerit, Billy Gibson, Jonathan North, Mat Sadler (Shrewsbury Town, Loan), Jure Travner (St.Mirren, Loan)
 


POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Loach

Hodson Mariappa Taylor Doyley

Bryan Eustace McGinn Cowie

Buckley Graham

VERDICT:
I think the first thing to say is that one has to be very happy with what we’ve got. John Eustace, for starters… his re-signing in the wake of interest from (and a rumoured departure to) Leeds was the fist-punching “cmoooon” moment of the summer. Of the players that have gone… Demerit deserves to be lauded in the annals of Watford’s history but needed a move, Harley was a decent option but no more than that, Richard Lee would have been nice to keep but understandably wants games… in Gilmartin we’ve recruited a replacement, and I’d trust our recruitment guys, frankly, given their recent record. And the kidz… the kidz are alright. Much as we are in a position where more of them have been getting a run than might previously have been he case, we have a much larger number of plausible options than I ever remember us having, at varying stages of development from the established (Loach, Jenkins, Hodson) to the breaking through (Bryan, Bennett, Sordell) to those on the very edge who most of us have at best heard about (Mingoia, Murray, Massey, Whichelow). It’s great stuff, and much as they won’t all make it, this characteristic of bringing kids through surely makes ANY club more likeable. Even at the top level, where one suspects that Manchester City’s apparent abandonment of what was arguably the top flight’s best production line in favour of a blank chequebook hasn’t endeared them to many, whatever else it does.

The problem at the moment of course is what we haven’t got. Which would be… well, all sorts of things. Depth. Experience. Physical presence. Creativity in midfield. Goals. A leader at the back (although Mariappa may develop into the answer here). You won’t find many objections on these pages to the club’s stated intent to live within its means but if this is the downside, if this is the consequence, it’s a bitter pill. Malky has suggested that he’s looking at bringing in four or five, and as such this is the wrong time, an unfair time, to judge the squad. Those four or five are going to need to hit the ground running mind; a few of them, undoubtedly, will be loans and as such might not be expected through the door for another month or so. Getting experience on loan isn’t particularly easy either, H was an exception; and before the loans do get here we’ve got a difficult looking opening run, starting next Friday.

Malky didn’t have the easiest set of circumstances to deal with on his first season in management. Rookie managers rarely do, of course… but to my mind he did extraordinarily well, the brush with relegation as the season ended notwithstanding. We’ve got a good man in charge, a fact that might be shrouded to the rest of the world by the resources he’s working with. We’ve got good people running the club, a great recruitment team, a terrific bunch of kids. We badly need our experienced players to stand up… we need everything we’ve got to be working, or it’s going to be a real struggle.

 


Still. Football. Brilliant. Bring it on.

End of Term Report Part 5 24/06/2009

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

Right then.  Getting into the high teens… could be a bit trickier from here on in.  Still, I managed a paragraph on Stuart Searle, how hard can the rest be?

18. Theo Robinson

Yet another one who prompts a puzzled look.  Back in August, back in the pub before Crystal Palace when everyone predicted a far gloomier (not to mention less turbulent) outcome, we didn’t appear heavy on striking options.  Theo Robinson came off the bench, did OK, and we expected to see more of him.  He’s been one to watch for a while, the unexpected introduction at Loftus Road, aged 17, gave him that label and even his loan at Hereford, where lukewarm reports suggested that he struggled when the ball and goal weren’t in front of him, did little to dissuade that.  As it is, we’re once again looking nervously forward at a difficult season, wondering where the goals might come from, but this time we know that Theo won’t be part of it.  Critics might suggest that he hasn’t had a chance, which is true… but that successive managers haven’t given him a chance says something.  It may be that like Steve Brooker or Wayne Andrews he’ll drop down a level or two and grow back to this division with experience.  It seems he was never going to get that experience with us.

Next Season: Swindon, it would appear, not inappropriately.  We had higher hopes of McNamee and Jerel Ifil, too.

19. Lionel Ainsworth

Deary me.  There was a time when Ainsworth looked like a good catch, an exciting signing.  It didn’t last terribly long.  As we splashed out half a million quid I read a Derby messageboard where the sort of outraged idiot you find on every messageboard exclaimed “Watford just signed Ainsworth for half a million!  typical!  another one we’ve let go too early! “.  Somewhat premature, as judgments go… that Derby had let him go for free just three months before we signed him from Hereford should have said something.   

Next Season:  Ainsworth was arrested and charged with affray in March;  Huddersfield have just splashed out on Robbie Simpson from Coventry… another right-winger.  Ainsworth’s career has some recovering to do.

20. Al Bangura

It’s fair to say that Al’s career isn’t hitting the heights that his first full season suggested.  It’s easy to forget just how significant he was in the promotion campaign… not just a charismatic youngster with a bit of promise, he was reliably and frequently employed to slam the door behind away victories before the victims had realised that their pockets had been picked.  In the memorable semi-final win at Selhurst Park it was Bangura’s half-time introduction for Big Doris that swung the balance and ultimately the tie.  Since then… what little action he’s had has emphasised his limitations rather than his ability. 

Next Season: If there’s scope for a rehabilitation then you’d expect an erstwhile teammate to encourage it.  I hope it happens… there’s a real asset there to be rediscovered.

21. Tommy Smith

There’s not a lot to say here that you don’t already know.  Player of the Season for the second year running, scoring at a previously unsuggested rate and our most reliable creator to boot.  It’s no surprise that other clubs want him.  What surprises me are the occasional arguments that Smith’s age should somehow put him top of a list of assets to be realised, should such be the necessity.  The reality is that whilst we’ve enjoyed similarly talented players in the recent past, it’s difficult to think of many whose obvious affiliation to the club and the area mean that we can probably depend on him not to swan off in search of the best offer going as a matter of course when his contract expires.  That’s a big plus. 

Next Season:  Yer man down the road at Reading would appear to have prioritised Smudger as a target.  One can only hope that he’s disappointed.

22. Will Hoskins

There’s a lot to be said for Will Hoskins.   Industrious, persistent, clever.  And yet… he’s still not quite convinced.  And it’s been a few years now, note… two-and-a-half, I make it, and it’s not as if he was a completely untried youngster when he came here.  Lee Williamson, signed at the same time, took time to establish himself too but finally did so, even if Brendan Rodgers decided that he could do better.  If Hoskins hangs around, this has got to be make-or-break at Vicarage Road.

Next Season:  With Rasiak gone and scope for others to leave, one might expect Hoskins to be in the front line of those to take advantage.  However he was the higher profile Rotherham recruit at the time of his signing, and one might imagine that if Lee Williamson’s wages ultimately proved prohibitive then a manager who dropped Hoskins from his starting line-up during his earlier caretaker spell might be looking to move him on.  You’d need a buyer first, mind.

End of Term Report Part 3 20/06/2009

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
7 comments

Rejuvenated and invigorated by kind words of encouragement, we press on….

8- John Eustace

One of the several unpredictable developments of the season was the exclusion and subsequent loaning out of John Eustace. A year ago, Eustace would have probably been cited as the most convincing of the previous January’s recruits, but it seems a long time since both sets of fans derided Rob Styles’ final red card at Vicarage Road as he saw red against Stoke.  By the time Brendan Rodgers discarded Eustace in December his detractors in the stands were growing in number, the widely held belief that his “legs had gone” drawn from performances lessening in authority.  Despite which… Eustace’s showing on returning with an otherwise uninterested Derby side at the season’s end added weight to the suspicion that, wage-bill considerations aside, this was someone who might still have a role.  He’s not even thirty, for goodness’ sake.  Seriously.

Next Season: Minus Jack Cork, probably, and Lee Williamson, definitely, there could still be a role for Eustace.  My guess is not, though.

9- Tamas Priskin

The ugly duckling finally matured into a swan last season, albeit a swan who still got caught offside too often and retained a tendency to aggravate with his diffidence.  The impeccable finishing that had previously been hinted at became a trademark, however, and “dink!” became a text message that conveyed goal, goalscorer and a mental image of the latest developments with supreme efficiency.  The goal against Chelsea, amply decorated by Lloydy’s outside-of-the-foot through-ball and Ashley Cole’s accompanying expression of anguish, was arguably the moment of the season.

Next Season: An asset who would fetch a decent fee, and one of several candidates to be swanning his way to Berkshire.  Kinda hope we hold onto him though… there’s more to come from Tamas, and you can’t teach finishing like that.

10- Grzegorz Rasiak

A very different animal to the previous incumbent of the no. 10 shirt, Rasiak managed to look an effective striker, poacher and line-leader without ever either defining the way we played or imposing himself on games in the fashion of Darius Henderson.  The laziness which Southampton fans in particular grumbled about was never really in evidence, although that Rasiak probably considered himself to be playing for a contract may have been a factor here.  Not someone I’d have associated with spectacular goals before his arrival he nonetheless managed several, not least the Goal of the Season at Charlton, and a memorable curled effort against Palace in the cup… in the end, despite the turbulence of his environment, Rasiak did pretty much what he’d been brought in to do, no more and no less.

Next Season:  Would have been nice to see him back, but that seems to be off the menu;  Malky, in any event, only started him once in four games in his caretaker spell.  Leicester?

11- Jobi McAnuff

Perhaps the most evident beneficiary of November’s managerial change, McAnuff had been a source of frustration and disappointment under Boothroyd. His one outstanding game in four or five epitomised the capricious winger stereotype but at a price tag that demanded far more.  Under Rodgers, suddenly, we had the player that we thought we’d signed in the summer of 2007… potent, consistent, aggressive, and often as big a threat as Tommy Smith;  on occasion (whisper it) even more so.  Like Lee Cook before him alas – although in very different circumstances – we may have seen the best of McAnuff just as he packs his bags.

Next Season:  Having already stated – via his agent – that Rodgers was the only reason for staying at Vicarage Road, his departure seems somewhat inevitable.  A great loss, too, which we wouldn’t have been saying a year ago.  Reading would seem to be candidates, tediously enough.  Sheffield United, too.

12- Lloyd Doyley

If Lloydy has never really exercised the boo-boys at Vicarage Road then there have certainly been a vocal minority who have decried the abilities evident to the rest of us, simultaneously sticking a flag in the same sort of tedious aesthetic high ground that Ipswich and West Brom fans claim to occupy, to the derision of everyone else.  This season, and not before time, Doyley finally seems to have claimed his rightful cult status.  He’s not the perfect footballer, quite evidently… he’d have been in the Premiership long since were that the case.  But he’s a bloody fine defender, a very decent footballer, and long may he man the Vicarage Road barricades.  There are still detractors, naturally… a few will doubtless crawl out from their joyless crevaces in response to this posting.  But last season’s conversion to left back finally swung the debate decisively.  I just want to be there when he finally gets that goal…

Next Season:  More of the same.  Thank goodness.

Helping Hands 2008/09 01/06/2009

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
4 comments

 

As last year, I’ve ploughed through the match reports (and what little I remember) to summarise goals created, “assists” in common parlance, during the season just gone.  There’s obviously a degree of subjectivity here, and differing possible definitions of what constitutes an “assist”… the Official Site’s assists table awards far fewer assists in total, and appears to disagree with me on the sources of our first two League Cup goals in particular.

But here’s the roster as I tallied it, for what it’s worth.  Note that a few goals haven’t had assists allocated to them, these are listed at the foot and the picture might change a little with the extra information.

You’ll draw your own conclusions, particularly in comparing to last year’s table;  a few things jump out to me.

Jobi McAnuff, first of all.  He managed one assist in 2007/08.  Admittedly he’s taken over much of the responsibility for corners from Jordan Stewart this time around, but I’ve counted a cross flicked-on to feed the goalscorer as an assist for the “flicker-on” only, else McAnuff’s tally would have been still higher.

Interesting also that what was by popular concensus our most successful central midfield pairing of the season yielded one assist between them – that by Jack Cork against Southampton;  he’d played for the Saints in the reverse fixture earlier in the season.

Lee Williamson had a bit of an up and down season, falling out of favour having been amongst our most trustable individuals under Boothroyd.  That said, his last assist came in that same win at Southampton, a good five months before he moved on loan to Preston.

The other point worthy of note is the length of this list.  Lee Hodson set a record in coming on against Derby County, becoming the 39th player employed in first team action this season and breaking the record set in the 2006/07 Premiership season.

  Assists Apps Gls Assists vs
Smith 12 48+1 17 PlA h, ShU a, CaC h, WW h, WW h, SwC a (LC), QPR h, ToH h, BrC h, SwC h, ChA a, DC h
McAnuff 10 39+6 3 IpT h, Bar a, BrC h, CrP h (FAC), CrP h (FAC), Bpl a, Bpl a, ChA a, CaC a, CoC a
Rasiak 7 14+11 10 Bpl h, CrP h (FAC), WW a, CrP h, NoF h, CoC a, DC h
Priskin 5 38+5 14 PNE h, DoR h, CoC h, DoR a, Sot h
Hoskins 4 21+18 6 Rdg h, SwC a, Bur h, Bar a
L.Williamson 4 30+8 3 IpT h, WHU h, Bur h, Sot a
Harley 4 37+6 1 Sot a, Bpl h, QPR h, Bur h
Ward 2 9 1 Bur a, Sot a
Cowie 2 10+1 3 CrP h, ShW h
Eustace 2 14+3 2 Bpl h, BiC a
Doyley 2 40+3 0 NoF h, Che h
Mariappa 2 45+2 1 ScU h, DoR a
Gibson 1 0+1 0 BrR h
Henderson 1 0+6 0 Dar h
Bridcutt 1 5+4 0 NoC h
Poom 1 7 0 ChA h
O’Toole 1 15+13 8 Rdg h
Cork 1 20+1 1 Sot h
Bromby 1 24+4 0 NoF a
Bennett 0 0+1 0  
Hodson 0 0+1 0  
Kiernan 0 0+1 0  
Stepanov 0 0+1 0  
Sodje 0 1 0  
Robinson 0 1+3 0  
Young 0 1+3 0  
Bangura 0 1+4 0  
Parkes 0 2 0  
Cauna 0 2+3 1  
Francis 0 2+4 1  
Rose 0 3+4 0  
Ainsworth 0 4+6 0  
Hoyte 0 9+1 0  
Lee 0 10+1 0  
Sadler 0 17 0  
M.Williamson 0 17 1  
Jenkins 0 36+1 1  
Demerit 0 37+1 1  
Loach 0 37+1 0  

Unaccounted for:

Hoskins’ goal vs Cardiff (H)
Smith vs Bristol City (A)
Jenkins vs Birmingham (A)
Smith vs Norwich (H)
Priskin’s second vs Burnley (H)
Beevers’ own goal vs Sheffield Wednesday (H)

Watford 3 Derby County 1 03/05/2009

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
46 comments

Five thunks from the closing day win over the Rams

1- OK, so final day of the season, not much to play for (save finishing above Palace, always nice…).  But given that… what a very fine way to end the campaign.  Nigel Clough’s assertion that the first goal was pivotal was probably fair enough – the game was wide open from the start – but the implication that the Rams were worth something woefully optimistic.

2- As for the Hornets… a melancholy aftertaste on the conversation that must have taken place on hundreds of walks out of the ground.  “How many of that lot will we see next season?”.  Loach, Lloydy yes.  Cork, presumably, no.  The rest… all open to debate, varying degrees of maybe.

3-  Lee Hodson.  Good work, sir. Puts boot through the ball?  Tick.  Overlaps like a loony?  Tick.  Encouraging.

4- Who would have taken a penalty in the second half?  Lloydy, maybe the popular vote.  But would you have denied regular taker Smith on what may be his last appearance for us?  Or what about Rasiak’s hat-trick?  He’d have been the first Watford player on this ground since 1997 to score one…

5- Would Nigel’s Dad have ever played Robbie Savage and John Eustace in the centre of the same midfield?  Hmmm.  And did anyone else notice Rob Hulse throughout?

Charlton Athletic 2 Watford 3 (07/03/2009) 07/03/2009

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
28 comments

Five thunks from our first win at the Valley since 1990…

1- In common with his predecessor’s more successful periods, Rodgers increasingly suggests that he knows what needs changing at the interval.  We’ve seen tactical switches in previous games… today, one assumes, it was just a much needed kick up the backside that provoked a sterling second-half performance…

2-  …and a fightback which really shouldn’t have been necessary.  Letting the limited Addicks back into it was sloppy at best – overconfident at worst, as a half-time protagonist not unfamiliar with these pages suggested.   Mike Williamson in particular displayed previously unsuggested absence of concentration.

3- Charlton are as dead as a dodo, displaying so many characteristics of a relegated side… plenty injuries, inability to hold a lead, glum silence rather than anger in the stands, inability to change a game (three like-for-like changes).  We’re not safe yet, but we don’t look like that.

4- Some blinding goals for the Golden Boys.  Make sure that you catch Rasiak’s if you weren’t there.  Or even if you were.  Wallop.  And Priskin’s wonderful winner… my brother’s celebratory text informing a friend of developments contained a single word that said everything.  Dink.

5- What a wonderful bloody racket from the travelling support.  Keep this up and we’ll risk ruining a hard-earned reputation for decorum and restraint…

Watford 4 Crystal Palace 3 (24/01/2009) 25/01/2009

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
30 comments

Five thunks from the cup win over Palace

1- Better.  Again.  Far from flawless (see below) and against encouragingly limited opposition, but improvement nonetheless.

2- That said… what a distastrous tranche of substitutions.  O’Toole for Rasiak… you can see what Rodgers was thinking, block up the midfield and slow the game down, but it didn’t work – we just fell back and invited pressure.  Bridcutt for Hoskins was just bizarre – McAnuff’s most positive outing for a long time was scuppered by him being asked to do a job for which he was unsuited.  And Kiernan for Hoyte, who had bottled Ifill up all game, was a calamity.  Why have Bangura on the bench if not to close down a game when at 4-1 up?

3- No Smith, Priskin, Williamson.  The positive spin would be that we were saving legs for Tuesday night… but with Theo Robinson going to Southend on loan and Liam Henderson already at Hartlepool that left us with no forwards on a seven-strong bench.  Hmmm.

4- Refereeing.  Palace fans were unhappy at their share of the decisions, but unfortunately that’s what happens when a Colin team meets a fussy referee.  And what a classic of its genre this Palace team is, Shaun Derry, as ever, antagonist in chief.  That said, we did get a couple of genuinely bizarre decisions but largely inoccuous ones – and after a decade or more of watching us face Colin’s niggly nonsense I’m not inclined to lose any sleep over this one.

5- Some quite terrific goals all told;  the first owed a lot to defensive ineptitude that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the other end of the park, the third could also have been better defended although it was finished well and suggested a long-missed stock move.  But the second and fourth were marvellous breakaways, truly exhilarating.  Good stuff.

Barnsley 2 Watford 1 (15/11/2008) 16/11/2008

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
27 comments

“So Pete shouts out ‘Sean Dyche, you’re the least gay footballer in history’. And Dyche turns around and says ‘I dunno, your mate’s quite good looking….'”.

Meldrew is clearly proud of the implied compliment.  Dave’s Mum’s car bounces happily onwards towards Barnsley.  The intention of all four of the car’s passengers is to have a good day out, and not to permit any goings on on the pitch to obstruct this objective as far as is possible.  To the same end, certain topics upon which the car’s passengers differ in opinion somewhat have been banned from the agenda.  The subject, instead, is the formulation of a team of Watford players past and present based on recitable anecdotes.

The relaxed atmosphere persists all the way to Yorkshire, and by the time a hostelry has been relieved of several pintsworth of Guinness (me, Meldrew and Dave), a couple of vodka and oranges (Anna) and a red bull and vodka (Meldrew again) it is cemented in place.  “If we see Michael Parkinson interviewing Dickie Bird…” promises Meldrew, “we’ll come back here and I’ll buy you all a pint before we go back”.

Malky had named the same starting eleven that had seen off Swansea in the week.  Having conjured up that most elusive of targets, a clean sheet, in that game it was of particular interest to see whether our defensive play had improved significantly.  Within minutes it became evident that no steel wall had been erected, no leadership conjured up, as a ball whipped across from the lively Jamal Campbell-Ryce found its way across the box with the minimum of attempted interference.  A more concerted Barnsley attack to the cross, and we’d have been behind very quickly.  So the pattern was set for the opening exchanges.

That’s not to say that teenager Ross Jenkins, touted as the much-needed shield to the defence on the Official Site, didn’t do his part.  His first half was hugely impressive, retaining the ball well and on more than one occasion snapping into a challenge that neither left the opponent with the ball nor threatened to take the opponent’s leg off at the knee.   Nor, of course, has our attacking threat dissipated, and its worth noting here that whoever comes in to sort this lot out does have stuff to work with.  There’s not a lot wrong with our attacking play really… you wouldn’t say that we’d be challenging for promotion again with a bit of leadership in defence, but comfortably mid-table wouldn’t be beyond us. 

So after another another worryingly easy-looking Barnsley attack ended up with Lee blocking with his legs, we were up the other end and both Williamson and then Harley had fierce looking shots blocked by a massed Barnsley rearguard.  Back towards us again, and Campbell-Ryce, nominally playing on the right flank but actually wandering around all over the place and bringing problems with him, found Jon Macken in space; the former Preston striker’s shot beat Lee but rebounded at the crossbar.

So whilst we possessed some attacking threat, the start of the first half was Barnsley’s and as so often recently, far from deflating the home side’s attacking intent with a show of resilience our defending continued to look nervous and tentative.  Doyley, for the most part, coped surprisingly well on the left;  always hard for a wide player to operate on the “wrong” flank of course, but with Doyley’s attacking impact kinda limited anyway you could see the thinking here and but for one lovably embarrassing moment when the weight of touch on a well-intended cut inside offerred the ball to his opponent, Lloydy did OK.  So too Leigh Bromby, so often at the centre of any defensive calamities but not today, for the most part reliable and competitive.

But alas Jay Demerit.  Reports from Swansea had spoken of reawakened leadership in the team captain, and good performances in both games.  Today he had one of those matches where every decision he makes seems in error, a determination to do something outweighing the need to do the right thing.  “Get your chequebook out Mackay”, bawled Meldrew, in a final attempt to suppress frustration with humour.

As the half wore on, however, and having rode our luck a little we began to punch our weight.  Williamson, ably abetted by Jenkins, took hold in midfield and suddenly we were pushing Barnsley back.  Priskin, as ever an unsummarisable tombola of diffidence, indolence and elegance, was already getting stick behind us for not looking awake enough on the halfway line as we defended a corner, which seemed a little harsh.  From the corner, a good break from Smith found Harley on the gallop.  His pass inside found Williamson who, having failed to get the shot onto his right foot, came respectably close with a low drive with his left.  Shortly afterwards McAnuff slipped a ball inside to Priskin who turned his defender and slammed a fierce shot towards the near post which Muller did well to get down to.

As we gained in belief and purpose Jenkins was twice involved, once getting on the end of a far post corner to head over, and then feeding Harley to crack in a drive which appeared to come off the woodwork.  We were on top now, but should have expected what came next.

Fortunately the chance came to Kayode Odejayi, a striker who, goals against us and Chelsea last season  notwithstanding, positively reeks of lack of confidence.   Demerit’s error and Odejayi is clean through, running straight at Lee down the centre of the pitch from the halfway line. Discussing previous encounters at Oakwell on the way up we fondly remembered Paul Furlong dragging Gerry Taggart the same distance to score an unmerited but badly needed last minute winner in 1994.  Furlong never missed one-on-ones.  Odejayi isn’t Paul Furlong though, and Lee did well to stick out a glove and paw away his dinked chip.

Nil-nil at the break, and though we’d ridden our luck at the start of the half we were now very much in the game.  Indeed, the Tykes were there for the taking.

And take them we did at the start of the second.  The ferreting Smith sent an ambitious ball out to the right flank; McAnuff did well to cushion a header back to Mariappa from the touch-line, before receiving the ball back and advancing on Malky’s old mate Rob Kozluk.  Smith ghosted into the near post, and directed McAnuff’s accurate low ball into the inside netting of the far post with a neat touch off the inside of his heel.  A lovely goal all round.

We could have done with shutting the game down at this point, but instead it opened up completely.  Lee made another fine save at his near post, before good work from Smith saw Harley take a shot with his weaker right foot that flew narrowly wide.  Malky brought on Rasiak for Priskin.  And then it all went to pot…

By this point, albeit the game was open, we were on top.  The better side.  In the ascendancy.   But you can’t legislate for defensive stupidity.  Fittingly, the ubiquitous Campbell-Ryce was involved in the move down the right that saw a ball work its way across the box to unmarked sub Miguel Mostto.  Without pausing to ponder where his defence had gone, Lee came charging out and made the Peruvian striker’s decision for him. 

Immediately, it seemed, the game had been turned on its head.  A corner led to a scrap in the box and Barnsley, sniffing blood, hit our defence, reeling, shellshocked, and badly in need of five minutes’ respite but not getting it, with a second, Foster prodding past a hapless Lee.

On the pitch, we rarely looked like recovering the game.  From a winning position we’d given Barnsley the initiative and they weren’t about to relinquish it, barely giving us a sniff for the last twenty minutes.  Hoskins came on for Harley and buzzed around enthusiastically, our best chance of grabbing a point back coming to him after a carefully worked move across the box but he fired narrowly over.  O’Toole came on for an exhausted Jenkins, who hadn’t as much tired in the second half as gone to bed and hidden under the duvet.  A fine, fine prospect, beyond doubt, but still a prospect.

Off the pitch, the mood in the away end had turned predictably.  Meldrew unleashed his hysteria at Richard Lee and later remonstrated at the “hateful” McAnuff for apparently accepting the team’s fate.  With startling idiocy, a “Simpson out” chant emerges from the back of the stand.  The club’s up for sale lads, don’t you read the papers?

And that was that.  The afternoon had one more shock in store… a light shower on the motorway on the way up had caused Dave to employ his headlights; bright sunshine on the way into Barnsley meant that he had neglected to turn them off.  No jump leads in evidence, so once the crowd had cleared, with some help from the local constabulary, we bump-started the car on the sloping track down the centre of the visitors’ car park towards the ground.  As Dave bounced away in second gear into darkness, rolling away from our push, it was difficult not to fear for an ugly conclusion against the brick walls of Oakwell below.  Instead, the engine kicked in, Dave rolled the car around and we jumped into our seats.  By the time we were out of Yorkshire, with further precautions having been enforced so as not to keep the mood low, we were in better spirits.  By the time Meldrew was bemoaning the state of his love life (“it’s like going out with bloody Ian St. John”) on the way back into Watford the rest of us were in stitches and the stupid five minutes that had threatened to ruin a perfectly enjoyable day left long behind.

And there’s a crude analogy there of course.  Much as it was hugely frustrating to have a perfectly accessible three points chucked away by more asinine defending, much as there’s plenty for the new guy to do when he comes in, this isn’t beyond salvation by any stretch.  We’re not a car crash yet.  Whilst it’s natural to focus on the problems that are costing us point after point, that will continue to do so and may well relegate us unless they are sorted, there’s an awful lot that remains right with the team.  The problems aren’t a mystery, nor are the solutions.  Getting there might require painful decisions to be taken, but there’s a long way to go yet.

 Lee 2, Mariappa 3, Demerit 2, Bromby 3, Doyley 3,  McAnuff 3, *Williamson 4*, Jenkins 3 (O’Toole NA), Harley 3 (Hoskins 3), Smith 3, Priskin 3 (Rasiak 2)

Anecdote eleven:  Coton, Doyley, Harrison, Dyche, Terry, Thomas, Spring, Johnson, Holden, Ngonge, King

Watford 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 (25/10/2008) 25/10/2008

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
17 comments

Not for the first time since August, it’s tempting to look at the stark contrasts between this season and last. Expectations dramatically lower, certainly. Sixth from bottom after this game, as opposed to sixth from top in May. By and large, playing our better stuff – and certainly picking up more points – at home; our away record was a proud thing last season, but merely loitered in the back of the mind of those who didn’t get to many away games.

There was no way this game loitered in the back of anything. No awkward youth this one, leaning with his back against the wall sipping a can of Kestrel as the party meandered on in front of him. This was the guy off his face by ten’o’clock, getting everyone dancing before snogging some girl’s face off in the kitchen, climbing onto the garden shed and falling through the roof before falling asleep on top of a couple of bags of compost. So… ugly and disgraceful in many ways but impossible to ignore. And very very far from dull.

That’s not to say that ig’s sideways “that was straight out of last season” comment a minute or so in was in any way inappropriate; at that stage a very long and uncomfortable afternoon seemed in prospect. Such had been the fear before the match had even kicked off, in fact, with Darren Ward’s enforced absence and Jay Demerit’s worryingly persistent injury leaving us with four defenders who’ve hardly been models of consistency this term. And, crucially, not a six footer in the back five. Quite who this big rugged Watford side that I keep reading about in the national press are I struggle to imagine.

It was slightly surprising to see Lloyd Doyley line up in the centre initially, with Mariappa at right back; for ten minutes following the farcical opening goal, he demonstrated what the thinking had obviously been, sticking closer to Sylvan Ebanks-Blake than a pair of cycling shorts. The damage was already done though… an aimless hump down the centre had found Ebanks-Blake springing higher than his marker, the ball had flicked on for Iwelumo to apply the most innocuous of touches as Richard Lee came flailing out at him. The ball bounced pathetically, apologetically into the net. From our point of view, there wasn’t a lot that wasn’t wrong with that goal.

Vicarage Road was very quiet. Actually, considering their massive following (appropriate, given that they’re such a massive club), even Wolves weren’t exactly giving it large only getting vocal when a linesman made the mistake of flagging them offside direct from a throw-in. An incidental error as it turned out, Wolves had contrived to waste the chance before the flag was noted.

We were grappling for a foothold, just trying to stay in the game. The thankless task of competing with Iwelumo for high balls was given to Leigh Bromby – who probably came off second best overall, but competed furiously despite the odds being stacked against him by a much larger opponent. Not unreasonably in the circumstances Wolves seemed to identify a big lump down the middle towards Iwelumo’s head as being a fruitful strategy, and it wasn’t long before Mariappa and Doyley were switched, the slightly taller Mariappa supporting Bromby in the face of the onslaught. Another ball came in, Stephen Ward’s header across the face really didn’t go very far wide at all…

But I’m going to skip to the point now, the conclusion of the narrative. Because whatever this Watford side’s problems, and there are obviously a few, a lack of character and guts really isn’t one of them. Another contrast to last season – maybe even the largest – what a thoroughly loveable team we’re currently watching.

Twenty minutes in and we’ve equalised. It’s not quite true that it came out of nowhere, this was an open game from the start and such forays as we’d managed had provided encouragement. Some furious industry from Smith and relentless pulling and teasing and ferreting from Hoskins – who must be a complete pain in the arse to mark – had suggested a weak underbelly and in particular a lack of confidence in dealing with crosses either on the part of keeper Ikeme, whose knees visibly trembled every time a ball came over, or on the part of his defence in his capacity in this respect. As with so much, Smith on the right was the instigator, a ball in knocked loose in the box and big Greg is Johnny-on-the-spot to tap in an improbable equaliser.

Game on, and no mistake. Shortly afterwards  Rasiak released Hoskins, who is developing a pleasing knack of looking like he might forge a decent partnership with whoever he plays alongside, on the left of the box and the young striker displayed some new-found confidence by opening his body up and attempting to chip Ikeme who had wandered off his line. Hoskins’ touch was much too heavy and the lob went well over to scorn from behind the goal, but we’ll take missed chances like that any day of the week if he keeps getting in positions to miss them.

Wolves came back at us… Iwelumo – again – met a cross from the left and sent his header narrowly wide. On the break, though, we put together the move of the half – some neat play from O’Toole saw him make space to feed John Eustace in the centre circle; the skipper advanced on a retreating Wolves before sending an astonishing ball into the path of the charging Harley with the outside of his boot. Harley hit his cross first time and it looked as if the gamble hadn’t paid off – the ball went very deep and we were about to bemoan the lack of a touch when time was available. How quickly one forgets the value of a big target in the box – Priskin has his qualities, but he wouldn’t have risen as Rasiak did to crash a header off the underside of the bar. It looked unfortunate from our distance; Hoskins seemed primed to snap up the rebound but his shot deflected over.

Implausibly we were in this, but our gusto hadn’t solved the rather large problems at the other end. The largest of our rather large problems was Chris Iwelumo, whose ongoing scrap with Leigh Bromby, each trading arms around shoulders, nudges and tugs of shirts, frequently presented situations that were impossible to officiate. On one occasion, Iwelumo bundled his way into the box after committing and receiving any number of dubious challenges, his tumble into a heap once past the white line worthy of twice the derision that it received.

Five minutes later however Iwelumo was treated more generously, again exchanging arm locks with the persistent Bromby and being given the verdict, this time ten yards outside the box. A wide wall was lined up and Richard Lee’s view was obscured as David Jones sent an extraordinary left footed shot curling around the outside of the wall and inside the wrong-footed keeper’s near post via a late glove.

The half ended with a frank exchange of views on the merits or otherwise of John Eustace, Waldorf behind us lamenting the captain’s contribution in defiance of the pass of the half and the only real leadership in a yellow shirt. Joons, to my right, reacting rather sensitively in defence of a player for whom he has confessed unnatural feelings – albeit he had called the impending moaning before it actually transpired.

And such was the general mood, despite a decent round of applause at the break for a stout attempt to make a fist of it. It felt like we’d again let in a goal at a crucial time, and that a procession awaited in the second half.

Ha. As at Southampton, when David McGoldrick’s weak penalty gave us a kick-start, it helped that we got an early free kick on the left about ten yards further back from the spot where Jones had hit his goal from twenty minutes or so earlier. Mick McCarthy’s head almost exploded in incredulous remonstration and a coffee cup appeared to go flying as Neal Collins was penalised for his latest exchange with Rasiak. Tommy Smith curled in a decent inswinger and Wolves completely failed to defend it, John-Joe O’Toole the first of several yellow shirts waiting in line at the far post to bundle home. Bedlam in the stands; in the dugout, the Wolves staff start to sweep up the widely spread fragments of McCarthy’s head and shove them back onto the stump of his neck like play dough onto a lollipop stick.

An aside about John Joe here. It will have been evident to many as early as the trip to Coventry a year ago this week that this was a midfielder who attacks the box as well as Tim Cahill. His goals, in the absence of pretty much every striker we fielded last season, have been a blessing, but they may cost us too. For the goals alone will attract the scouts… but for the goals, it might have taken them a little longer to spot a potentially outstanding midfielder.

Often his all round game doesn’t quite come together. His lofted passes can appear aimless, his energy rather randomly distributed. On other occasions, as today, he’s simply fabulous, his composure, touch and awareness in tight situations enabling us to retain possession far better than we have done for ages. And as I say, we might have gotten away with him for a bit… if it weren’t for those pesky goals.

Game on. Again. And if the first half was a matter of us battling our way back into the game, now we were giving as good as we got. Rasiak was continuously involved, and though Boothroyd had warned of lack of sharpness and match fitness after his long absence there was little sign of it here. The first of several chances to go begging came via the Pole but Ikeme snatched his ball from the head of Harley.

The next was altogether more dramatic. Yet another penalty – in our favour this time, and in fairness a bit of a soft one. As we’ve seen and discussed, however, you can’t afford to knock back the breaks that fate gives you… except we did. There was a distinct lack of clamour for the ball, Will Hoskins briefly discussing with Tommy Smith and Jon Harley, with form from the spot at previous clubs, noticable by his absence. Smith’s run up was greeted with a slightly nervous bellow of encouragement from the Rookery, whose cheers disappeared into their navels as Smith’s shot flew straight down the centre and several feet clear of the bar.

And ten minutes later the gravity of the miss was rammed home. The ferociously irrepressible Kightly was at the centre of it, both Bromby with a slack pass and Mariappa with a bizarre loose touch could have done more to prevent it; Michael Gray whose previous incursions from the left had been stymied by his lack of right foot made no mistake this time and grabbed the crucial third.

Aidy Boothroyd made a double substitution immediately, already planned in search of a winner and now designed to chase a point. Off came the industrious Harley – our only defensive cover – for McAnuff, to muted grumbles, but much more aggressive dissatisfaction greeted the removal of Hoskins in favour of Lionel Ainsworth.

Hoskins had been terrific, and grows more likeable with every game despite the relative lack of goals. But he’s been doing the thankless chasing, ferrying and pressurising job for several weeks, often twice a week and sometimes in the absence of any attacking alternatives or relief. Twenty minutes’ rest was perhaps overdue.

And a little surprisingly, with McAnuff on one side and Ainsworth on the other we began to look menacing (and I never thought I’d find myself saying that about Lionel Ainsworth) and enjoyed our only spell of dominance of the match. McAnuff cut inside from the left to fire in an evil cross that Neal Collins threw himself at to head wide. On the other flank, Ainsworth got clear of two markers and found O’Toole on the edge of the box who killed the ball’s momentum with his first touch and, still in the air, poked it goalwards with his second. Great stuff, only Kevin Foley on the line to head clear prevented the roof coming off the Rookery. We couldn’t have afforded to replace it anyway…

Minutes later some fine composure from Smith saw him beat two markers to make space for a shot… alas, if he’d been able to kick the ball hard he’d have spent his career as a Premiership striker. The blocked shot fell to McAnuff who must have thought he’d scored but that man Foley flew in from nowhere again to block. Genuinely breathless stuff.

Midfield was a complete scrap by now, and we were grateful for Eustace’s more belligerent supporting act to O’Toole’s endeavour. Not that this spared him from another volley of nonsense from Waldorf behind us, Joons controlling himself just long enough to witness the captain, with comic timing, lift another extraordinary pass into Ainsworth’s path on the right flank. His wicked cross nonetheless managed to wander across the penalty area evading the onrushing targets it was aimed at.

I’m making it sound like the alamo – it wasn’t, not really. Wolves countered, and at least once looked to have scored a fourth but for some good fortune and some bloody-minded defending. The ref, meanwhile, having courted occasional displeasure from each set of supporters but generally having made a decent fist of the whole thing (as far as it’s possible to placate and give order to a raging hurricane) finally began to lose it a bit; one particular altercation that ended with Collins shoving Rasiak two-handed onto his backside after the ball was dead right infront of the ref (but  was left uncommented on) was particularly perplexing. And then we all went home.

Preposterous stuff all round really. In the end we were probably a bit unlucky not to get something; even that crumb of comfort in defeat seemed a long way away in the second minute. In the end, our lack of physical presence – and leadership – at the back probably did for us again. Wolves, meanwhile, look a strong side, but far more fallible defensively than Cardiff did on Tuesday, albeit to the same end.

And back to the conclusion which was wedged somewhere in the middle of the first half. How much fun. Again. Seven home league games in, we’ve already enjoyed several times the excitement that the whole of last season served up. And frankly at the start of the campaign, most of us would have taken that, nineteenth or otherwise.

Lee 3, Doyley 2 (Henderson NA), Bromby 3, Mariappa 2, Sadler 3, Smith 4, Eustace 4, *O’Toole 4*, Harley 3 (McAnuff 3), Rasiak 4, Hoskins 4 (Ainsworth 3)