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Wigan Athletic 0 Watford 2 (17/03/15) 18/03/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
13 comments

1- In less heady times, perhaps in following a less bloody-minded body of Hornets, I might have paid greater attention to portents.  Logistical arrangements were slow to materialise.  Once made, getting out of work and then out of the house took forever…  being interrupted, then forgetting things, having to go back inside, not being able to get on with it.  On hooking up with my travelling companion in plenty of time we took a leisurely break at Kidbrook a theoretical 20 minutes from Wigan and left there at 5 to hit an M6 traffic splurge.  Comparing notes with other travellers by phone we opted to leave the motorway for a scenic route, only to sit stranded on a stationary back-road some 15 minutes later watching the free-flowing M6 fly past beneath us.  By the time we reached the “Marquee Club” much later in the evening, a well-conceived but ill-executed away fans’ bar at the ground serving Guinness-flavoured water and no food, we might have been apprehensive about what the fates were trying to tell us as regards this particular Potential Banana Skin.  Had we been following a different team, a different vintage.  Hell, last season’s vintage.  The contrast between the mardy indolence that reached its nadir against Huddersfield in May and what we’re seeing now is extraordinary.

2- Slav’s unshakable emotional detachment and his (team’s) ongoing success at pulling these things off is lending him a mystique;  it’s getting to the point where one searches for the genius in his selections rather than evaluating them anything like objectively.  “Ikechi in goal, Lloyd up front and Billy Hails in midfield you say?  Hmmm, yes, I can see that…”.  This one harked back to Rotherham in a formation that screamed “keeping it solid”;  a 3-5-2 featuring five defenders, actually, plus one sitting and one destructive midfielder.  On a horribly scruffy pitch, the set-up contributed to a stodgy first half of few chances.  As the only attacking player in the midfield Adlène Guedioura was simultaneously the man most likely to dig something out and the man most likely to give the ball away, which his responsibility for the final ball contributed to him doing frequently.  His was nonetheless a terrific contribution throughout, although our early control of the midfield was relinquished somewhat when his early booking tamed the ferocity of his harrying and chasing.  There seemed more menace about our own attacks – perhaps only when viewed with background knowledge – the best of which coming when Deeney’s diving header to a left-wing cross was pushed wide by Al Habsi, but Wigan were more than in such game as there was; Bong and Ojo threatened down the left, Kim was lively in midfield and some early free kicks from dangerous positions gave more credence to Slav’s selection decisions (behind the goal we nodded wisely).

3- They were horribly blunt though.  They didn’t look like a bad football team, certainly not a team otherwise worthy of a place in the bottom three, but there wasn’t much of a goal threat – you felt that if a goal came for the home side it would be through attrition, the crushing of the game towards our penalty area resulting in a deflection in the wrong direction rather than a deliberate, conscious act (Malky Mackay, after the game, wasn’t the first manager to identify our finishing as “the difference” between the sides, as if the art of goalscoring is somehow an aside, or an unfair advantage afforded us by our forward line rather than the point of the exercise).  The mood, in contrast to our own, was painfully gloomy – a relentless and occasionally effective drummer in the stand to our left offset this a little, but the emptiness of the wonderfully steep stands told its own story.  Meanwhile despite a goalless first half there was no suggestion of dissent in the away end, no “we should be beating these”.  The inner confidence extends beyond the pitch… there’s a trust there.

4- Another of Slav’s surgical changes was applied at half-time and we came out minus Motta, plus Forestieri and now 4-4-2 with the Argentine at the front of the midfield to wreak havoc behind the forwards.  It was designed to open up the game and in doing so it allowed us to showcase our superiority, since whilst Wigan continued to have possession and territory and whilst we perhaps wouldn’t want to rely on nervous finishing to preserve a clean sheet against a better side we were far more potent.  This was made to tell nine minutes into the half, when the immediately vital Forestieri received the ball as we broke, dragged backpedalling defenders away from the left flank whence he released Guedioura who sent in an evil cross which Deeney crashed in at the far post.  On the subject of stock goals, it was all but a tribute to a favourite stock goal of yore with Guedioura in the Neal Ardley role and Deeney as Heidar Helguson, piling ball and defender goalwards… with the exception that Guedioura’s incredible delivery had been with his weaker foot as he eagerly pointed out to the bouncing mob behind the goal.

We were immediately in our element;  Wigan had no choice but to push forward in search of an equaliser and we broke on them joyfully like schoolchildren released for break on a summer’s day.  We should have extended our lead… Joel Ekstrand came mighty close to doing so, picking up a loose ball to the right of the goal, cutting past his marker and firing narrowly wide across the face.  Forestieri and Vydra both had chances, and Boyce had to clear from under the bar after a deflected Guedioura shot wrong-footed Al Habsi.  At the other end Wigan had far from given up and our defending was fuelled by sheer willpower – Guedioura and the outstanding Hoban performing the two most dramatic of a large number of blocks achieved by throwing bodies in the path of the ball.  A degree of comfort was earned by Forestieri whose lung-bursting run to reach an escaping ball down the wing was rewarded when Boyce allowed him into the penalty area before sticking out a tired leg and bringing him down.  Boyce lay prone in dejection, Forestieri in happy exhaustion.  Deeney belted the penalty past a static Al Habsi, on which his teammates charged in from the halfway line where they’d waited to a man to guard against a potential breakaway.

5- This wasn’t the best game we’ve watched this season nor the most spectacular scoreline but the triumph was in making it look like a routine victory.  To the outsider its unremarkable, team near the top beats team at the bottom.  So what.  Anyone who’s watched the division for any length of time knows it’s not that simple… and yet we keep digging out these wins.  The car journey home was noisily exuberant, fuelled by my iPod’s shuffle function which captured the mood perfectly, spitting out Pump it Up, The Littlest Rebel, Jean Genie and The Temple of Love.

Bellowing our way through the fog our minds’ eye is a blur of images. Tommie Hoban dummying his marker on the left and cutting inside past two more markers on his right foot. That’s a centre-back, that is. Daniel Tözsér coming off the bench in another Slav masterstroke, instantly sucking control of the midfield to his feet and swinging in his vicious bending free kicks (you can all but hear the “oh f*** this” from Wigan’s backline). Those bodies flying in front of the ball at our end. And Odion Ighalo, not involved in the last few games through injury and probably deprived a cameo here by the immaculate Cathcart picking up a knock, riding to the away end on Daniel Tözsér’s back, punching the air whilst Forestieri screams his joy into the night sky. This is a team with spirit and quality and wit and menace. Anyone preventing us getting promoted will have to go some, and will have earned it. Tonight we not so much sidestepped a banana skin, as my travelling companion suggested and repeatedly demonstrated on the way back to the car, but trod on it square on and carried on in indifference.  Next?

Watford 4 Reading 1 (14/03/2005) 15/03/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
13 comments

1- There’s no reasonable way to describe the context without doffing our cap to happenstance.  Reflecting on the role that chance has played in our season it’s natural to feel bitter about Gabriele Angella’s sending off at Bournemouth, about Wes Hoolahan buying a penalty for Norwich, and so on, and so on.  Consistent with the “we only get s**t refs” chant, it’s easier to bring to mind instances where things have gone against us.  Indignation burns deeper, perhaps.  So let’s be clear that the perverse preciousness of Champions’ League television schedule regulations did us a huge favour.  That was evident when the implications of Reading’s draw with Bradford – that the replay would have to be this Monday – became clear, and was underlined in big fat marker pen when they announced a starting line up with nine changes, four debutants and very few senior picks.  You’d kinda hope that we’d have beaten Reading’s senior team whatever the circumstances; taking the Cup replay out of the equation you’d have been left with a side that have underwhelmed but are probably safe from relegation, the Royals were never going to be the most driven of opponents, but this one fell for us.  As if to provide further emphasis, “no we really don’t give a crap about this one”, one of those debutants was Slovenian Jure Travner whose Watford career under Malky was only memorable for his never quite making the first team.  So… yes, this fell for us.  The fact that Reading’s league season is all but done and dusted and that they could afford to do this doesn’t make the scheduling of their replay for Monday any less inappropriate.

2- For all of which, Reading’s scratch side were some way short of terrible.  Limited, sure, lacking anything like our threat in front of goal however many goals Yakubu, looking a very old 32, has scored in the top flight.  But organised and competent.  We weren’t gifted any goals, they all needed crafting and were each elegant, sculpted things.   It started after a minute, Abdi passing the ball into the net after being prised through by Troy Deeney.  Abdi, the one concern from the day, appeared to aggravate his injury in the move and departed soon after, his replacement Forestieri playing in Vydra at the end of the half and setting up Deeney after the break.  Steve Clarke identified our clinical finishing as the difference, bemoaning the harshness of the scoreline but the visitors never came as close as Motta did with his wicked dipping volley that crashed off the bar, or as Forestieri did with his scissor kick that forced Andersen into a quite brilliant low save low to his right.  Our finishing was great.  The rest of it wasn’t bad either.

3- And it was all perhaps rather too comfortable.  Abdi’s early goal averted the threat of impatience in any failure to take the lead in A Game We Ought To Win, but at three up the atmosphere became drowsy, our football slowed down and Reading weren’t ready to just lie down and see the game out.  If our squad lacks anything, as has been discussed ad nauseam, it’s a big lump in central defence.  Zat Knight, who briefly looked as if he might be that man, had little competition in the air from our lot, and fear of his threat forced a succession of corners, as if we were happy to sacrifice another set piece in preference to allowing the big defender to get a header on target.  Eventually they took advantage, Jem Karacan on his return from injury picking out the top corner  after a scruffy clearance…  and briefly there was a concern, we couldn’t seem to snap out of it and the visitors were in the ascendancy.

4- Until they weren’t.  The change in shape, Angella coming on for the fading Vydra as we switched to 3-5-2, seemed to hand us back the joystick immediately and Forestieri rounded off what had become a masterclass with a drilled left foot finish, a well-earned goal and a celebration that screamed catharsis.  Relegated to the role of fourth-choice striker Nando’s performances of late had not suggested a happy camper, petulance and laziness creeping back into his game.  After last Saturday’s incident with Bakary Sako, which was neither as violent as his reaction made it look nor as ludicrous as an unhelpful camera angle and lazy “analysis” suggested you had to fear in which direction his season was going to go.  Slav came out fighting, defending his striker’s conduct late in the week and then had the confidence to thrust him back into the fray early in the game in the mischief-making hole vacated by Abdi.  He took some time to warm up but ultimately delivered what was comfortably his best, effective and infectious performance of the season, punctuated not just with a goal but with two “assists” borne of combining his quick feet with a cool head and the right ball.  Well done Nando, and well done Slav.

5- Much of the focus off the pitch was on Nic Cruwys, who remains in hospital following the horrific, anachronistic attack in Wolverhampton last weekend.  I’ve nothing particularly new to add to the many heartfelt and appropriate things that have been said elsewhere, but it’s worth echoing those sentiments anyway.  Our thoughts are with Nic and his family.  Many references in the aftermath to the “Watford family” and the wider “football family” in the context of, in particular, the vast amount of money raised via Ollie Floyd’s online collection.  My wife snorts at the suggestion that the Watford family fosters an almost religious sense of belonging, a very real family; she disputes it.  She’s wrong, of course, not that she’ll ever admit it.  The best of that has been on show this week and to their immense credit the club and the players have reinforced that too, not to mention supporters of other clubs who have donated to the fund and shared their disgust.

I’d like to close by mentioning a departed family member, Guy Judge, a one-time BSaD contributor and very nice man who lost his battle with cancer on Saturday morning.  A significant empty seat at the family table, he’ll be sorely missed.  All the best mate.  You ‘orn.

 

Watford 0 Norwich City 3 (21/02/2015) 22/02/2015

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
30 comments

1- I’ve been staring at a blank screen for half an hour.  I’ve even been distracted by bloody Jonathan Ross, of all things.  Not fun, this.  Not fun at all.  It doesn’t matter that there is stuff to say, this isn’t a search for inspiration or a dredging up of five thunks.  That can be difficult too… but this is just purgatory.  Reliving five goal wins is fun, joyful.  There wasn’t much to enjoy this afternoon, not much to take pleasure in.  You want to forget about this one?  Head home and think about something else?  Yeah, me too.  We’d all been looking forward to this, on the back of three unlikely wins from challenging positions this had been another chance to test ourselves against one of our fellow contenders.  Nervous tension all week, nervous tension for much of the game as the noise of the crowd was sucked inwards by the gravity of the occasion.  Now… I feel let down.  Not by the team, or the manager, or the referee.  But by myself.  Why such an emotional investment in something so brittle, so unreliable, so meaningless.  Screw this.  Bastards.

2- Much of the game was very well balanced, a tug of war between two sides carefully, cautiously restricting their trading of blows to a congested midfield.  Each side had spells in the first half, but chances were few;  early on Layún picked out Deeney with a nine iron from deep in the midfield… a difficult ask, the ball coming over Deeney for him to head out of the air but not quite low enough, over the bar.  An early encouraging move, we were keen to get behind Norwich’s high line quickly but this was to be as good as it got for the Hornets. City’s approach to defending revolved around preventing us having any possession in the final third, this largely achieved by Tettey and Johnson hounding down the space in midfield to hurry our attempts at penetration with Russell Martin and the monstrous Bassong, who looks as likely to return to the Hornets  any time soon as John Barnes, Ashley Young or Clements, sweeping up much of what came through.  On the few occasions when we did get hold of the ball in and around their box our we were able to do the things we’re good at and City looked vulnerable, get-attable.  Late in the first half some snappy passing released Abdi; Johnson was befuddled and brought him down in panic, he got a yellow and the “shield” Tettey followed him into the book for his protests.  Abdi’s free kick took a nick and went over but this was a positive way to end the half.  Neither side had been on the canvas, but we were probably ahead on points… and with everyone above us losing or already condemned to defeat, the mood was positive.

3- Much has been made of the limited number of chances that we made throughout, but our defence had looked solid and Norwich’s compact shape cost them in terms of the number of bodies they were able to commit forward. Frankly, if anyone was going to score it was us but you would have been reckless to put money on that for all of our attacking riches.  So…  the award of the penalty was both unexpected on any number of levels and absolutely fundamental to the outcome; like ourselves City had barely had any controlled possession in the final third but Hoolahan put his head down and ran, and then fell over.  The referee gave the penalty, Gomes went the right way and got down well but the kick was right in the corner.  It hadn’t looked like a penalty, and the Hornets’ frustration with an official whose control on the game had been fingertip since the first whistle nearly boiled over.  We’d nullified City’s threat, there seemed no prospect of them scoring and the decision to award the penalty changed the game; newly invigorated, the visitors had no cause to deviate from the sit-deep-and-break approach that so many have tried before, if rarely as effectively.

4- The point is, of course, that frustrating as the apparent injustice was it’s par for the course.  Not in the sense that we have any more bad decisions go against us than anyone else – much as it feels like it sometimes – but in the sense that stuff happens and you’ve got to deal with it an awful lot better than we did for the rest of the game.  If City were lucky to get the break then they didn’t half build on their luck, whereas the Hornets lost all shape and discipline.  Yes, Cameron Jerome’s follow up was a brilliant piece of opportunism and skill, dropping a shot over the stranded Gomes from outside the box but we were already far more ragged at that stage than at any earlier stage.  Subsequently we could have conceded a third before we did… Heurelho Gomes’ miraculous save to the incredulous Johnson’s thumping header low down to his left would have provoked a standing ovation in a less glum environment before City wrapped things up and compounded our misery by pulling off the move that Layún and Deeney had attempted earlier in the game, Grabban applying the finish to a ball from deep on the right.  We have spent the last few weeks digging out victories from improbable positions, watching with growing respect as Slav’s switches in tactics have made us stronger.  After going behind there was none of that… no sign of any fightback, nothing added by any of the substitutions.  We fell apart, and concluded a shapeless mess.

5- It was good to see Slav acknowledge this in his post-match comments… that the real problem lay not with a bad refereeing decision, however consequential, but with our response to it.  Slav’s dispassionate, analytical assessment of games as something that he observes rather than participates in jars a little to an English ear accustomed to observations made in an aggressive first person plural, but there’s great reassurance in him both drawing sensible conclusions and not hiding behind any bullshit.  Much earlier in the season we were complaining about our side being less than the sum of its parts, being a collection of talented individuals without a common purpose.  He’s applied corrective surgery and it’s questionable whether any of our three recent wins would have been achieved in similar circumstances in September or October.  You’ve got to trust his ability to recover from this also.  Because that’s the value today, if anything…  this was, in many respects, a Premier League defeat;  so much good work undone by one moment – of this case of bad luck, it might as well have been quality – following which things ran away from us resulting in a scoreline that was simultaneously both harsh and fully deserved.  If we do go up, that’s going to happen against better opposition than Norwich.  If we can’t cope with the fallout from that, if we’re not strong enough to recover mentally and take it out on the next mob then we need to stop kidding ourselves that we’re equipped for the top flight.  Tuesday night at home is a godsend, and will be interesting.  Today was disappointing, but needn’t be disastrous.  There’s a load of games to go.

Cardiff City 2 Watford 4 (28/12/2014) 29/12/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports, Thoughts about things.
9 comments

1- Context, as ever, is important. Interpretation of this game and of the reaction to it cannot be divorced from the horror show on Boxing Day, nor should it be…  in the wake of that one a number of supporters will have opted against the trip to Wales (hello, Dave) and it says quite a lot that a single defeat, however depressing, had such a profound impact on the general mood on the back of three wins.  Fascination was the motivator for me, the consideration that saw me heading down the M4 in brilliant winter’s sunshine despite my original lift (hello, Dave) wussing out a day earlier amidst insistence that his own decision was nothing to do with Boxing Day.  Fascination at how Slav would send us out, at what sort of reaction we’d get from the Wolves game less than 48 hours earlier.  Nothing can or should be taken for granted in this division, and however disappointing Wolves was nobody could argue that we don’t boast an array of weapons, that we weren’t capable of changing it up.

2- I was feeling considerably less smug about my decision at around 3:40 than I am now, with the Hornets a goal down and not looking terribly like changing that situation.

IMG_0720We’d started brightly enough but Cardiff’s goal, a flick from that eternal irritant Le Fondre to a fine Whittingham free kick after a non-existent foul by Munari had knocked the air out of us like a damp fart.  We looked laboured and bereft of both leadership and ideas…  and I was nested amongst the grumpiest and least tolerant of the travelling faithful, this not improving my mood or making the trip to Wales seem any less foolish.  Juan Carlos Paredes, having been spared the broom that swept six team changes into the starting eleven, was the subject of much vitriol after giving the ball away several times early on… he looked forlorn, but in fairness was often merely the man at the end of passing moves having freed himself on the right to receive a pass but with nowhere to go and little movement in front of him.  He got better. Guedioura was the source of much of what positive inroads we had managed, and he gave us the lead out of nowhere, volleying home Munari’s cross after Forestieri had somehow  contrived to miss an easier chance.  A couple of minutes later we were ahead, Ighalo getting his head onto Pudil’s wicked cross.  Half time, a little dazed and confused, we were ahead.

3- There’s always a tendency to dwell on one’s own circumstances, to look at your team’s performance in isolation and to regard the opposition as mere props. You can take the reverse too far, of course… paying the opposition too much respect, worrying overly about  what they might try.  But it took our scoring to bring into focus that, Whittingham’s deliveries aside, Cardiff really didn’t have that much about them.  Not only that, but there was a simmering resentment in the largely silent home stands.  The red shirt thing, an embarrassment which should serve to emphasise once again quite how lucky we are to have foreign owners who nonetheless respect our club and tradition, is only the most visible facet of an football club that feels thoroughly wrong and unhappy, from the obtrusive revolving collar of electronic adverts high in the stadium to the fragile, one-dimensional team.  In individual games we’ve been in a similar position at home as sides have started off nervous and gradually worked us out and realised that we’re not all that.  Cardiff were not all that at all, and the game changed completely on our equaliser.

4-There’s a danger in reading too much into the second half.  After all, as we’ve just discussed, Cardiff are a side with their own problems and we know that we’re a good side when we’re in the lead against a side that’s letting us play, who then have to chase the ball particularly in front of demanding home support.  Bearing which in mind, it’s difficult to overstate the degree of our second-half superiority of which a 4-2 final score was a far from flattering summary.  Cardiff were punch-drunk, completely overrun in midfield and incapable of getting as much a period of possession let alone a foothold in the tie;  Guedioura remained the architect and with much more movement around him was less prone to disappearing into rabbit warrens than he had been in the first half.  He made the scoreline more comfortable by clubbing a venomous shot into the top corner from over 25 yards; David Marshall didn’t move.  The other stand-out performance was that of Odion Ighalo, who played the target-man role to the tee.  Magnificent with his back to goal, holding up play, stretching out an indiarubber leg to seize and smuggle off possession.  He sashayed his way past three challenges on the left of the box before forcing a save from Marshall, and later perhaps should have scored when sub Deeney escaped on the right and squared, Marshall denying the Nigerian again with a brave stop.  Nonetheless, a hugely charismatic and effective performance from Ighalo, which asks serious questions about team selection for next Sunday.

5- So Slav came into this game under a bit of pressure. Wolves, in case this point hasn’t been made clearly enough, was a shambles, and the head coach, appointed from nowhere in odd circumstances, has failed to make a strong impression in his TV interviews giving a convincing impression of a distracted and slightly self-conscious schoolteacher.  Nonetheless he’s not pulled any punches in his press conferences and today made what turned out to be a blinding selection decision in making such a brutal set of changes.  He might cite the need to freshen the side up as a key consideration… from the stands it looked more like a no-bullshit response to a lamentable performance.  Either way, suddenly, we have a situation where Deeney, Vydra, Anya and Tözsér, four key senior players, need to play their way back into a winning side, the end of Guedioura’s loan notwithstanding.  Competition for places, of all things, and the sort of competitive advantage that this squad ought to offer.  The Chelsea game, perhaps, slightly unfortunately timed, we could do with building on today without that distraction.  Either way, for all that today’s circumstances fell well for us the Hornets and their manager took full advantage and if both can build on this success this squad could yet fulfil its potential this season.

Watford 4 Huddersfield Town 2 (30/08/2014) 31/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
10 comments

1- It’s half past eight in the evening.  Sofia, five, has made her “competitive debut” today.  Now, with Watford shirt pulled over her Princess Sophia top and left hand on hip she is swinging her yellow/red/black garland vigorously around her head with her right hand, marching around the living room and leading her sister in a rousing rendition of “Tro-oy Dee-ney, Watford’s number nine!” as their mother rolls her eyes from the sofa.  Three and a half hours or so earlier Sofia was gazing open mouthed in happy bewilderment at the jubilation in the Rookery in the wake of Almen Abdi’s glorious clincher.  There had been questions before the game, more were raised during the ninety-plus minutes and we’ll get to those, I suppose.  But for the moment revel again in that fabulous final half hour or so, which in the manner of a cup-tie blew away all concerns, quibbles, tactics, formations.  Primal, ferocious and utterly captivating entertainment.  Who could fail to be carried away by it?

2- The visitors took the game to Watford from the off, persistent and aggressive in attacking positions.  Whilst they had their own failings – often the same failings as ours and within the space of minutes as we’ll discuss – their application won’t have done caretaker Mark Lillis’ case for the permanent position any harm, irrespective of the result.  Debutant Jack Robinson briefly looked like a threat with a series of monstrous throw ins that reached the far post – time will tell whether he’s a Dave Challinor or a Leigh Bromby, the trajectory didn’t look flat enough to me whatever the power.  In any case when we broke, as we are wont to do, we looked capable of making hay with the Terriers defence being peeled apart relative easily.  Hardly a resilient rearguard then, much less so in the face of a perfect through ball from Daniel Töszér, a perfect run and touch from Troy and a cool finish to give the Hornets the lead.  Better defences than this would have been shredded by that, almost a waste of a brilliant goal – save them for tougher challenges to come.  The half was more open than the half-time scoreline suggests – each side had a goal ruled out for a marginal call – and if the bedlam of the second half was hardly heralded it never felt done and dusted.  The other detail worth mentioning is ref Neil Swarbrick making it clear that he wasn’t going to be afraid to issue cards, you rather felt that in a game that was frantic (if never dirty) we wouldn’t end with 11 v 11 and so it proved.  As it turned out, we finished the first half slightly the better off in this regard as Munari and Vaughan picked up similarly harsh bookings for aggressive aerial challenges.  Vaughan’s caution is always going to limit his physical impact… Munari, however, limped off before the break.  The Italian was terrific during the opening period in which the Hornets were ultimately the better side, his loss perhaps a factor in the turning of the tide thereafter.

3- A pause to mention Troy since before today each game has felt a bit like a bonus, to varying degrees.  Perhaps the last time we’ll see him in yellow, enjoy it while it lasts.  He was always going to be lauded from the rafters and rightly so, but it’s a landmark moment in so many ways.  I don’t remember a recent instance of a talisman, a key player attracting serious attention, being retained.  Arguably not since John Barnes was attracting enquiries in the mid-eighties has such interest in the main man not concluded with the player’s departure.  And yes, I know he went in the end and maybe Troy will too but not now.  A big statement, both from the club and the player, and demonstration of the Pozzos refusal to be pushed around, to give ground.  Since the announcement, just a few days, Troy has visibly taken on the mantle of captain with relish…  Beppe has suggested that he was always a leader, always a de facto captain in the dressing room but there have been periods, games, where we’ve needed Troy and he’s faded in the past.  His tremendous interview in the Watford Observer screams of attitude, a new skipper wanting to talk his charges into a robustness that wasn’t always evident last season.  All power to him.

4- The second half was crackers.  Sean Scannell – whose version of the current fashion for big beards makes him look like a drummer from an early nineties grebo band – sent in a wicked low cross which provoked the confusion between goalkeeper and defender that it was designed to, this capitalised upon by Bunn.  Building on the theme of the consecutive events reflecting each other at either end of the pitch Town conspired to present Almen Abdi, vivacious and mischievous, the opportunity to regain the lead within minutes.  Reports from Yorkshire complain of a foul on Bunn in the build-up but replays suggest that this is fanciful… a collision that would only have been awarded to conservatively protect the defending team and no excuse for the inept defending that followed.  Inability to mark from set pieces was the next theme, James Vaughan pulling clear for a free header at the far post about ten yards out completely unmarked. A textbook attempt back across the goal but without the power was the result, Gomes tipped it round expertly but shouldn’t have had a chance.  From the corner Wallace was similarly vaguely marked and took advantage.   Breathless stuff now, you couldn’t take your eyes off it and Sofia certainly didn’t even if the relentless questions kept coming.  After Munari’s depature (“will he be ok?  How do you know he’s ok?”) the subject of most fascination was Tamas’ departure (“why was he naughty?”).  I like Gabriel Tamas, but there’s something incorrigible about his brand of defending that doesn’t involve holding back on consideration of minor details like being in the penalty area, or having just been booked.  We then had our own go at implausible excuses by arguing that the ball was out of play before the Romanian clobbered Bunn, as if that made it OK, before Huddersfield generously did their own bit of leaving a man free at a set piece, Keith Andrews having time to perform his Ice Bucket challenge before Almen Abdi’s arcing corner reached his forehead at the far post.

5- The rest was all about attitude and very little to do with ability.  That’s encouraging in it’s own way, we know we’ve got the ability, that’s not news.  We know we can turn over opponents who give us space or make stupid decisions (hello, Leeds), that’s not news either, give us an inch we’ll take 1.609 kilometres and molte grazie.  But this was a backs-to-the-wall situation against an opponent who were very much more competent and threatening than their league position suggests, the very definition of The Sort Of Game We Would Have Lost Last Season and so to come through it with such flying colours is hugely positive.  The crowd played its part, a frantic, furious atmosphere that was part chicken and part egg but well done to the 1881 in any case for their part.  As for detail… significant that whilst we rode our luck on occasions Huddersfield’s screw only tended to get them as far as the edge of the penalty area, many of those shots on target optimistic long-range efforts perhaps aimed at assessing quite how safe Gomes’ handling was.  All three substitutes played big roles here;  Andrews a less mobile, less intimidating option than Munari but an organiser and leader, calling the shots as we faced the alamo.  Tommie Hoban, slightly harshly the fall guy as Joel Ekstrand came back in to the starting line-up, slotted in comfortably at first right back and then on the right of a three as we shuffled formation, one stunning interception a psychological body blow to the visitors as a rare clear chance was denied.  Finally, Juan Carlos Paredes came on at right-wing back and telegraphed the final goal before it happened, a warning for Huddersfield but as in our game at Loftus Road last season the visitors could do nothing but continue to chase a crucial goal and Paredes played a part in the move which Abdi finished expertly.  In terms of attitude, then, this couldn’t have presented a clearer contrast to Tuesday night.  Whether it’s a case of omitted players being “disgruntled” or merely the first team being too good, too professional to let their frustrations affect their performance this one goes on the shelf with Rotherham as a hugely valuable and unlikely three points. And, naturally, Sofia wants to come again.  I haven’t the heart to tell her that they’re not all like this…

Season Preview – Part 6 08/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Final instalment… currently on my way AWAY from Watford on holiday…  the existence of Bolton reflections depends on whether the other bloke gets up from Hastings or not…

SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY

INS: Tom Lees (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Ryan Croasdale (Preston North End, Free), Sam Hutchinson (Chelsea, Free), Paul McElroy (Hull City, Free), Dejan Kelhar (Red Star Belgrade, Free), Keiren Westwood (Sunderland, Free)

OUTS: Michail Antonio (Nottingham Forest, £1,500,000), Danny Mayor (Bury, Undisclosed), Adam Davies (Barnsley, Free), Reda Johnson (Coventry City, Free), Miguel Llera (Scunthorpe United, Free), Taylor McKenzie (Notts County, Free), Anthony Gardner, Arron Jameson, Jermaine Johnson, David Prutton, Martin Taylor, Benik Afobe (Arsenal, End of Loan), Leon Best (Blackburn Rovers, End of Loan), Damien Martinez (Arsenal, End of Loan), Adedeji Oshilaja (Cardiff City, End of Loan), Andelko Savic (Sampdoria, End of Loan)

OUR EX-OWLS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 1-0 home defeat in December, Gianfranco’s last game in charge, and a 4-1 win for the second successive season at Hillsborough which featured that Deeney dink.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Westwood
Palmer           Loovens         Lees             Mattock
Lee              Hutchinson
Maghoma            Maguire             Helan
Nuhiu

VERDICT: Another club who have been hanging on for a mooted foreign takeover and have been somewhat in limbo for much of the summer.  I’m advised that there are plenty of exciting signings lined up for whenever Hafiz Mammadov does take the reins and releases a much vaunted transfer budget (and prompts an influx of players from his other club RC Lens).  If that does happen, and even if the signings ARE impressive, Wednesday will be late to the party and that’s difficult to claw back even if, as under Gianfranco two years ago, all the pieces fall into place as quickly as can be hoped for.  If it doesn’t, then despite the sharp recruitment of Westwood and Hutchinson, who should form a sound midfield pairing with Kieran Lee, the Owls are in a precarious position as it stands.  Too reliant on the slowly improving Nuhiu up front, far from watertight at the back, the midfield is more than adequate and Wednesday far from the worst side, or even the worst three sides in the division.  But not so far that injuries to the wrong players wouldn’t be a serious problem.  I think the safest thing to say here is that Wednesday won’t go up and probably won’t go down…  but if Mammedov’s takeover doesn’t come through, it could be a tight thing.

WIGAN ATHLETIC

INS: Oriol Riera (Osasuna, £2,000,000), James Tavernier (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Don Cowie (Cardiff City, Free), Andrew Taylor (Cardiff City, Free), Andrew Taylor-Sinclair (Partick Thistle, Free), Emyr Hughes (Manchester City, Six Months Loan)

OUTS: Adam Buxton (Accrington Stanley, Free), Jean Beausejour (Colo Colo, Free), Stephen Crainey (Fleetwood Town, Free), Jordi Gomez (Sunderland, Free), Danny Redmond (Hamilton Academical, Free), Markus Holgersson, Jordan Mustoe, Jack Collison (End of Loan), Nicky Maynard (Cardiff City, End of Loan), Josh McEachran (Chelsea, End of Loan), Nick Powell (Manchester United, End of Loan), Ryan Tunnicliffe (Fulham, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LATICS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Don Cowie, Rob Kiernan, Andrew Taylor

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A slightly fortunate 1-0 win in September courtesy of a Cristian Battocchio strike and a 2-1 defeat in March

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Carson
Perch      Ramis         Boyce       Taylor
Watson
Cowie                  McArthut            Maloney
McManaman
Riera

VERDICT: Remarkable club, Wigan.  Eight largely solid years in the top flight and a remarkable cup win into the bargain and yet persistently under the radar.  Unsurprising in some ways, perhaps… Wigan is famously the smallest town to have hosted Premier League football, the Latics were a non-league club as recently as 1978 and hardly have the sort of fanbase that is going to focus a media broadcaster’s mind.  Nonetheless, they were more than just chancers passing through the top flight… eight years is a long time. Even last season, newly relegated, they slipped quietly into the play-offs on the back of a strong second half to the campaign, once again made the semi-finals of the Cup and enjoyed their first European campaign to boot.  Coming into the new campaign, Wigan are one of a number of clubs with strong, deep squads.  At the time of writing the eleven above can be backed up with a perfectly credible eleven of Al Habsi, Tavernier, Barnett, Rogne, Espinoza, McCann, Fyvie, Huws, McClean, Fortuné, Waghorn.  In defence and midfield they’re as strong as anyone… only up front are they perhaps more limited, although target man Oriol Riera has shown up well pre-season.  If Grant Holt can be shifted off the pay roll – a three year deal always looked a bit daft for a chunky then-32 year old – there may be strengthening in that department too.  But what sets the Latics apart from many of their rivals – perhaps ourselves included – is that they have a manager whose quality and knowledge of English football is beyond reasonable dispute, having shaped the Brentford side that was promoted last year and turned Wigan’s slow start to the season around.  Nothing is certain – the Latics already have a grotesque injury list to contend with for one thing – but they did OK in the top flight without ever having a striker top 12 goals for a season.  No stand-out contender for the title, but Wigan are my bet.

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS

INS: Connor Hunte (Chelsea, Free), Tommy Rowe (Peterborough United, Free), Rajiv van la Parra (Heerenveen, Free)

OUTS: Michael Ihiekwe (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Cieron Keane (Notts County, Free), Jordan Cranston, George Elokobi, Tim Jakobsson, Kristian Kostrna, David Moli, Robbie Parry, Jamie Reckord, Jamie Tank, Sam Whittall, Jake Cassidy (Notts County, Six Month Loan), Kortney Hause (Gillingham, Six Month Loan), Zeli Ismail (Notts County, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-WOLVES: Keith Andrews

THEIR EX-ORNS: Tony Daley (Head of First Team Athletic Performance), Joe Gallen (Assistant Head Coach), Kenny Jackett (Head Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-1 victory at the Vic featuring a Christophe Berra red card, and an expensive 1-1 draw at Molineux courtesy of a late Bakary Sako equaliser.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ikeme
Ricketts           Batth         Stearman       Golbourne
McDonald        Price
Henry                  Jacobs                  Sako
Dicko

VERDICT: Ironic, really, that after a turbulent few years that saw two relegations, countless bad signings and any number of managers, the man who steadied the ship at Molineux is Kenny Jackett, one-time protégé of the man hounded out of Wolves eighteen years ago to our ultimate benefit.  Perhaps time to let bygones be bygones on that score… I found myself feeling sorry for Wolves when the odious Dean Saunders took over as manager at the start of last year, so I think I must be getting there.  Anyway.  Always rather difficult to make judgements about teams coming up… how they’ll fare, what sort of side they are but no great surprise to see the stats behind Wolves’ promotion.  Scored more goals than anyone else in League One last season, racking up over 100 points and seventeen points clear of third place, but the stand-out stat for me is the 31 goals conceded in 46 games which is frankly silly, but entirely in keeping with what you’d expect from a Kenny Jackett side.  With that sort of momentum and confidence you’ve got to expect Wolves to start well, beyond which they’ll be trusting to luck to a certain extent… Kevin McDonald bosses the midfield but Wolves are heavily dependent on him, and for all of last season’s goals you’d be slightly worried about the striking options.  You wouldn’t bet against Jackett making a success of his first opportunity with this sort of platform though;  it takes some doing to sideline the number of senior players that Jackett has excluded (including Kevin Doyle, Jamie O’Hara, Roger Johnson and Stephen Ward) and to maintain the sort of success that he has. Certainly play-off contenders with a prevailing wind.

WATFORD

INS: Essaïd Belkalem (Granada, Free), Craig Cathcart (Blackpool, Free), Lloyd Dyer (Leicester City, Free), Heurelho Gomes (Tottenham Hotspur), Juan Carlos Paredes (Granada, Free), Gabriel Tamas (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Keith Andrews (Bolton Wanderers, Season Loan), Odion Ighalo (Udinese, Season Loan), Gianni Munari (Parma, Season Loan), Daniel Tözsér (Parma, Two Season Loan), Matěj Vydra (Udinese, Season Loan)

OUTS: Javier Acuña (Olimpia, Undisclosed), Reece Brown (Barnsley, Undisclosed), Bobson Bawling (Crawley Town, Free), Kurtis Cumberbatch (Charlton Athletic, Free), Marco Davide Faraoni (Udinese, Free), Albert Riera (Udinese, Free), Daniel Wilks (St Mirren, Free), Gary Woods (Leyton Orient, Free), Manuel Almunia, Marco Cassetti, Fitz Hall, Ross Jenkins, Lucas Neill, Nyron Nosworthy, Essaïd Belkalem (Trabzonspor, Season Loan), Samba Diakité (QPR, End of Loan), Alexander Merkel (Udinese, End of Loan), Park Chu-Young (Arsenal, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gomes
Angella          Tamas          Hoban
Paredes                          Tözsér                             Dyer
Abdi            McGugan
Deeney           Vydra

VERDICT: Well we’re not short of options, are we? We’re not the only team in the division where you can name a second eleven that would more or less hold it’s own… but my word.  In terms of depth and cover – if not necessarily the strongest eleven –  there’s probably never been a stronger Watford squad.  You get the impression that the Pozzos have decided that this is the year;   the options we have are outrageous and in the addition of pace (Dyer, Vydra, Ighalo), that sitting midfielder role (Tözsér, Andrews) and second tier experience (Dyer again, Andrews again, Cathcart, Tamas) some of last season’s key deficiencies have been addressed.  The Deeney saga feels far from over of course… you have to suspect that whatever current attitudes to our asking price are (and you can piss right off Redknapp with your “he’s a player we like….. no, nothing happening there” routine you cheap punk), two or three games without a goal before the end of August for any of the multitude of top flight clubs linked with Troy might alter their stance somewhat.  Either way, the Pozzos and the club have played a blinder… the auction for Deeney’s services has been going on all summer, Watford have maintained a firm stance whilst keeping Troy himself – and credit to him too – on side and positive.  If he goes – and I fear he probably will – it’ll be for a shedload of cash and good luck to him.  We’ll be left, as it stands, with Vydra, Ranégie, Ighalo, Forestieri and Fabbrini as attacking options with supporting roles, perhaps, for the likes of Jakubiak.  Even without a(nother) replacement for Deeney, that’s a hell of a forward line.  And if Deeney DOES stay… the mere possibility of a fit-again Abdi, Deeney and Vydra in tandem again is terrifying on it’s own.

The biggest question, perhaps, as with so many of the more fancied clubs in the division this year, is over the manager and his ability to cultivate a successful team out of these extraordinary riches.  Everyone at Watford would want him to do well, I think… he’s got us all on side, says the right things, commands trust and affection.   The end of last season still dawdles in the memory though, like a nasty stain on the carpet that still glares at you through whatever you position above or around it to conceal it.  Beppe said all the right things throughout, and particularly in the wake of our harsh defeat at Loftus Road.  The miserable performances that followed were not those of a side singing from the same hymn sheet and the Huddersfield performance on the final day reeked of deep chasms within the dressing room.  Not a team playing for their manager.  Not a team playing at all, really.

Faces have changed since, hopefully we’re better off for it but the nature of any season is that things won’t always run smoothly, and Sannino might need to convince the audience that he’ll be the one calling the shots and righting the ship if and when we have a wobble.  If he does so, it could be a hell of a season.  And either way, as ever, it won’t be dull.  You orns….

Season Preview – Part 5 07/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Yeah, thanks Forest.  The evening before your preview bit goes up.  Nice.  What’s wrong with waiting a couple of days, honestly?  (That sell-on for Britt worked a treat tho, didn’t it?)

NORWICH CITY

INS: Lewis Grabban (AFC Bournemouth, Undisclosed), Kyle Lafferty (Palermo, Free), Gary O’Neil (QPR, Free)

OUTS: Robert Snodgrass (Hull City, £7,000,000), Carlton Morris (Oxford United, Six Month Loan), Ricky van Wolfswinkel (St.Etienne, Season Loan), Johan Elmander (Galatasaray, End of Loan), Jonas Gutierrez (Newcastle United, End of Loan), Joseph Yobo (Fenerbahce, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Mark Robson (First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: 15 of the last 17 games between the two sides have featured 3 or more goals, most recently the extra-time League Cup defeat last season.  Prior to that our most recent League encounters were a vibrant 2-2 at Vicarage Road in April 2011 and a televised 3-2 on the first day of the same season which saw Troy Deeney debut from the bench.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  Ruddy
Martin     Turner      Bennett      Olsson
Bennett        Howson       Hoolahan      Redmond
Grabban     Hooper

VERDICT: Some clear parallels between here and Cardiff really…  a squad not strong enough for the top flight but looking plenty well equipped for the Championship, question marks about quite who they’ll be able to hang on to and who will get a more attractive offer from somewhere else and further question marks over the ability of a manager – the inexperienced Neil Adams in this case – to pull it all together and reverse the club’s downward momentum. Unlike Cardiff, the Canaries have been relatively restrained in the summer transfer market to date;  Grabban comes in for a reportedly large fee… City won’t have been the only takers for a striker who nearly went to Brighton this time last year, but a player with one albeit very successful season at this level is hardly a rock-solid bet.  Kyle Lafferty meanwhile returns to the Championship after six years spent with Rangers, Sion and Palermo.  Two forwards who won’t have come cheap, then, not to mention an awfully optimistic sniff at Troy Deeney… but hardly a statement of intent from a side who have lost arguably their most reliable creative spark over the summer.  Could go either way then…  a good start and the large Carrow Road crowd could propel City straight back up.  A wobbly opening and it could all unravel.  I’ll split the difference and say fourth.

NOTTINGHAM FOREST

INS: Britt Assombalonga (Peterborough United, £5,500,000), Michail Antonio (Sheffield Wednesday, £1,500,000), Michael Mancienne (SV Hamburg, £1,000,000), Lars Veldwijk (Excelsior, Undisclosed), Danny Fox (Southampton, Undisclosed), Matty Fryatt (Hull City, Undisclosed), Louis Laing (Sunderland, Undisclosed), Roger Riera (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Chris Burke (Birmingham City, Free), David Vaughan (Sunderland, Free), Karl Darlow (Newcastle United, Season Loan), Jack Hunt (Crystal Palace, Season Loan), Jamaal Lascelles (Newcastle United, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Karl Darlow (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Jamaal Lascelles (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Matt Derbyshire (Rotherham United, Free), Darius Henderson (Leyton Orient, Free), Gonzalo Jara (Mainz 05, Free), Marcus Tudgay (Coventry City, Free), Rafik Djebbour, Simon Gillett, Jonathan Greening, Ishmael Miller, Guy Moussi, Radoslaw Majewski (Huddersfield Town, Season Loan), Kévin Gomis (Nice, End of Loan), Lee Peltier (Leeds United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-FOREST: Lewis McGugan

THEIR EX-ORNS:  Britt Assombalonga, Jimmy Gilligan (U21 Coach), Henri Lansbury

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 1-1 draw early last season featuring a Lewis McGugan free kick, and a collapse at the City Ground leading to a 4-2 defeat despite Gabriele Angella’s extraordinary Goal of the Season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Darlow
Lichaj      Lascelles       Hobbs         Fox
Burke       Lansbury          Vaughan          Paterson
Fryatt        Assombalonga

VERDICT: Will you miss Billy Davies?  Nope, me neither.  Enough already.  In comes Stuart Pearce, a figure as guaranteed to unite the Trent End behind him as is possible to conceive seventeen years after a thankless six-month spell in charge in which he presided over relegation from the top flight.  Meanwhile an odd winding-up order case over an unpaid tax bill – disputed by Forest – is plodding through the courts and may be resolved and dismissed to no further concern by the time you read this… but isn’t the only whisper of financial disquiet, with stories earlier in the summer suggesting that bonuses hadn’t been settled.  So it was odd to see the Lascelles/Darlow deal, two crown jewels around whom vultures had been circling, sold and then loaned back by Forest with the proceeds apparently reinvested in Britt (not that we should be complaining too much, “rising to £8m” would see our cut “rising to £3.4m”) and Antonio.  Echoes of Ian Holloway’s trick of selling Zaha to United, except that here there appears to be a straight line between the sales and the purchases.  Feels a bit shit-or-bust from Forest, but that’s not to say it won’t work.  Then there’s Pearce himself tho, and the lingering concern over to what extent his appointment is emotional and to what extent justified by his managerial ability.  Time will tell on all counts.  Finally there’s a chronic injury list to cope with – not really what you want going into a season…  the back four looks badly hit.  I’m going for a wobbly start and a strong finish but in any event, with so many unknowns a big margin of error needs slapping across any predictions.  Play-offs, but watch this space.

READING

INS: None

OUTS: Adam le Fondre (Cardiff City, £2,500,000), Daniel Carrico (Sevilla, £1,500,000), Jobi McAnuff (Leyton Orient, Free), Matt Partridge (Dagenham & Redbridge, Free), Stuart Taylor (Leeds United, Free), Kaspars Gorkss, Mikele Leigertwood, Wayne Bridge (retired)

OUR EX-RS: Uche Ikpeazu

THEIR EX-ORNS: Stephen Kelly

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-3 draw at the Madejski in August featuring a late equaliser – ours on this occasion – and a 1-0 defeat at the Vic in January that featured the only goal conceded in Beppe’s first nine home games.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  McCarthy
Gunter        Morrison        Pearce        Obita
Karacan            Williams
McCleary          Guthrie       Robson-Kanu
Pogrebnyak

VERDICT: There’s a rather telling feature of that little summary above as I write this.  Chances are, Nigel Adkins suggests, that this odd characteristic won’t have changed all that radically between now and you reading it in a week or so’s time.  You’d be forgiven for not having noticed… after all, nothing happening is by definition not as eye-catching as something happening, be it a painfully drawn-out transfer saga or the dismantling of an entire squad.  I hadn’t noticed either, and I’ve been keeping track of this stuff.  But that Reading haven’t signed anyone is no coincidence of timing with deals poised to go through, no indication of satisfaction with a squad that has lost considerable experience since May (including Adam Le Fondre, to pay off the tax man if the local paper is to be believed).  Reading have been in financial limbo due to an ominously protracted takeover that appears to have stalled at the stage of the assessment of whether the Thai billionaire concerned is a a “fit and proper” person.  That Reading’s first signing under him is claimed to be that of Anton Ferdinand from his Thai club calls that into question straight away. Until that situation is cleared up Adkins has no funds with which to build up a squad that fell short last time and look far from strong candidates this.  A test of the manager’s abilities for sure, not a gamble I’d be happy taking in all honesty…  he has been quoted as conceding that automatic promotion might be a bit optimistic as it stands, but frankly even without taking into account yet another chronic August injury list he’ll be doing well to get his side to a top half finish as it stands.  And to last the season, perhaps, unless those making the decisions have more faith in him than I have.  There are plenty of good kids coming through, by all accounts, and too much quality for the Royals to struggle, but it’ll be a rare dull season for the Berkshire side.  Fourteenth.

ROTHERHAM UNITED

INS: Jordan Bowery (Aston Villa, Undisclosed), Ryan Hall (Franchise FC, Undisclosed), Richard Wood (Charlton Athletic, Undisclosed), Febian Brandy (Sheffield United, Free), Kirk Broadfoot (Blackpool, Free), Matt Derbyshire (Nottingham Forest, Free), Paul Green (Leeds United, Free), Scott Loach (Ipswich Town, Free), Frazer Richardson (Middlesbrough, Free), Mat Sadler (Crawley Town, Free), John Swift (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Nicky Adams (Bury, Undisclosed), Lionel Ainsworth (Motherwell, Free), Danny Hylton (Oxford United, Free), Michael O’Connor (Port Vale, Free), Kayode Odejayi (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Scott Shearer (Crewe Alexandra, Free), Wes Thomas (Birmingham City, Free), David Worrall (Southend United, Free), Claude Davis, David Noble, Danny Schofield, Mitch Rose (Crawley Town, Three Month Loan), Dan Rowe (Wycombe Wanderers, Six Month Loan), Nicky Walker (Wycombe Wanderers, Six Month Loan)

OUR EX-MILLERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS:  Scott Loach, Mat Sadler

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 0-0 draw at the Vic nearly ten years ago and a 1-0 victory at Millmoor later the same season courtesy of a Heidar Helguson goal against the already relegated Millers that proved vital in preserving our own divisional status.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Collin
Richardson   Wood          Arnason      Skarz
Agard            Green        Frecklington    Pringle
Revell        Derbyshire

VERDICT: After nine years outside the second tier the Millers are back with a new stadium, a different manager and a different ethos altogether.  Tempting to write them off altogether on the back of being the third team promoted behind Big Club Wolves and persistent door-knockers Brentford and sinking anchor after consecutive promotions is a big ask.  Nor has their prolific recruitment drive over the summer been entirely convincing… a lot of bodies, a lot of second tier experience but largely fringe players- a bunch of players previously short of the mark.  There are exceptions… Paul Green stands out as providing some grit and experience, record signing Bowery is about potential rather than know-how.  But it’s not an intimidating roster.  However many of these players are squad members;  the existing squad has the quality that got it promoted in Revell, Pringle and Arnason, and a bit of bloody-mindedness.  That bloody-mindedness is only enough if matched with quality… if you start losing games and go under that spirit disappears and you have nothing.  But if Rotherham get off to a good start they could stay up comfortably.  No more than that, but it’s a possibility.  Sixteenth.

Season Preview – Part 4 06/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Broken the back of this now.  Downhill to Saturday…

IPSWICH TOWN

INS: Bartosz Bialkowski (Notts County, Undisclosed), Balint Bajner (Borussia Dortmund, Free), Kevin Bru (Levski Sofia, Free), Alex Henshall (Manchester City, Free), Jonathan Parr (Crystal Palace, Free), Cameron Stewart (Hull City, Free)

OUTS: Aaron Cresswell (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Carlos Edwards (Millwall, Free), Scott Loach (Rotherham United, Free), Frederic Veseli (Port Vale, Six Month Loan), Paul Green (Leeds United, End of Loan), Frazer Richardson (Middlesbrough, End of Loan), Johnny Williams (Crystal Palace, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUES: Reece Brown, Alec Chamberlain

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A ship-steadying 1-1 draw at Portman Road in Beppe Sanino’s first outing in December, and a 3-1 triumph at Vicarage Road dominated by Daniel Tözsér

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Gerken
Hewitt     Chambers     Smith        Parr
Anderson            Skuse          Hyam               Henshall
McGoldrick      Murphy

VERDICT: The coming season included, Town have only spent two of the last twenty campaigns out of the second tier and there’s little reason to believe that they will be leaving it in either direction in May.  Defensively they look very solid, despite the loss of Cresswell whose attacking contributions might be more sorely missed.  The midfield, however, does not scream “promotion” at you…  in Adam Henshall, who has impressed pre-season, and Cameron Stewart McCarthy has added wide options that the team perhaps lacked, but these are still punts and maybes rather than a promotion-looking squad.  As you were, then;  plenty solid enough to earn enough points to stay up, not enough magic dust to maintain anything but a theoretical challenge.

LEEDS UNITED

INS: Gaetano Berardi (Sampdoria, Undisclosed), Tommaso Bianchi (Sassuolo, Undisclosed), Marco Silvestri (Chievo, Undisclosed), Stuart Taylor (Reading, Free), Zan Benedicic (AC Milan, Season Loan), Souleymane Doukara (Catania, Season Loan)

OUTS: Ross McCormack (Fulham, £11,000,000), Tom Lees (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed), Michael Brown (Port Vale, Free), Paul Green (Rotherham United, Free), Lee Peltier (Huddersfield Town, Free), Danny Pugh (Coventry City, Free), Luke Varney (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Marius Zaliukas (Rangers, Free), Jamie Ashdown, El-Hadji Diouf, Adam Drury, Jack Butland (Stoke City, End of Loan), Jimmy Kébé (Crystal Palace, End of Loan), Cameron Stewart (Hull City, End of Loan)

OUR EX-WHITES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Nigel Gibbs (Coach), Dave Hockaday (Head Coach), Neil Redfearn (First Team Coach)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-3 draw at Elland Road in December in which we lost a two goal lead and claimed a late equaliser, and a comprehensive win over a shambolic Leeds side prompted by Almen Abdi’s remarkable first goal of the season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Silvestri
Byram           Wootton        Pearce          Warnock
Cook
Austin                                      Bianchi
Murphy
Smith                 Doukara

VERDICT: What the bloody hell, honestly?  I mean…. really.  Just nonsense.  Chaos.  Mark Twain once famously observed that it is no wonder that reality is stranger than fiction, since fiction has to make sense.  Leeds United haven’t been the most stable football club over the last ten years or so; the relatively recent introduction of the authoritarian Cellino, the bizarre appointment of David Hockaday as head coach merely accelerate this process, as if the soap opera had been awarded a new director with a brief to pep things up a bit in pursuit of waning audience figures.  It’s hard not to be sceptical, but the reality is that we don’t know much about the imports that Cellino has brought in (and failed to send back).  What we do know is that Leeds were far from impressive for the second half of last season – their visit to Vicarage Road in April was pathetic – and since then they’ve lost not only their captain and best player but a good deal of experience besides.  The defence is fllimsy, the midfield narrow and not suited to supplying the intimidating Matt Smith, described as the only one of last summer’s signings that really “worked”.  Thus far Cellino’s investment appears quite frugal, given which Hockaday will be doing well enough to match last season’s fifteenth place.  A relegation scrap looks inevitable as it stands.

MIDDLESBROUGH

INS: Kike (Real Murcia, £3, 000,000), James Husband (Doncaster Rovers, Undisclosed), Emilio Nsue (Real Mallorca, Undisclosed), Tomas Mejias (Real Madrid Castilla, Free), Kenneth Omeruo (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Marvin Emnes (Swansea City, Undisclosed), Lukas Jutkiewicz (Burnley, Undisclosed), Curtis Main (Doncaster Rovers, Undisclosed), Matthew Dolan (Bradford City, Free), Jayson Leutwiler (Shrewsbury Town, Free), Stuart Parnaby (Hartlepool United, Free), Frazer Richardson (Rotherham United, Free), Jake Fowler, Birger Meling, Cameron Park, Lewis Sirrell, Matthew Waters, Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea, End of Loan), Danny Graham (Sunderland, End of Loan), Jozsef Varga (Debrecen, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BORO: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-2 draw at the Riverside in November courtesy of the concession of one of them there last minute goals, and a 1-0 victory in February which featured two remarkably stupid red cards.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Mejias
Bennett        Ayala       Omeruo        Friend
Whitehead           Leadbitter
Nsue                   Tomlin                    Adomah
Kike

VERDICT: Another one that’s kinda hard to call, with Boro public about still having work to do in strengthening a squad that lost a number of significant players (particularly loans) at the end of last season.  A right back and a striker are deemed priorities to replace Jozsef Varga and Danny Graham, whose situation has, writing on Sunday afternoon, gone rather quiet… and it’s an open secret that Boro will continue to exploit Aitor Karanka’s relationship with Jose Mourinho by taking further loans from Chelsea in addition to centre-back Kenneth Omeruo.  Difficult to judge the quality of the signings, too… although you’d have to say that a lot is being asked of Kike, the stand-out striker in the squad, as it sits at the moment.  Significant, too, that whilst Karanka made Boro a lot more solid this has not been a team that creates a flood of chances;  prior to Karanka taking over Boro’s games had featured 3.2 goals on average, under Karanka this dropped to 2, tighter at both ends with a significant improvement in fortunes only evident in a strong finish that saw 6 wins in the last 8.  There’s quality in the Boro squad, but with the earlier caveats about squad building a given it’s hard to see them challenging.  The side is lopsided, lacking cover in key positions and overloaded in others… and there’s little evidence of flexibility in Karanka’s approach if his preferred 4-2-3-1 isn’t working.  Mid-table without threatening would be my bet, with the potential for another management change if things aren’t going well mid-season.

 

MILLWALL

INS: Lee Gregory (Halifax Town, £250,000), Matthew Briggs (Fulham Free), Carlos Edwards (Ipswich Town, Free), Ricardo Fuller (Blackpool, Free), Magaye Gueye (Everton, Free), Byron Webster (Yeovil Town, Free)

OUTS: Liam Feeney (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Andy Keogh (Perth Glory, Free), Shane Lowry (Leyton Orient, Free),  Jack Smith (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Liam Trotter (Bolton Wanderers, Free), DJ Campbell (Blackburn Rovers, End of Loan), Ryan Fredericks (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Owen Garvan (Crystal Palace, End of Loan), Steve Morison (Leeds United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LIONS: Lloyd Dyer

THEIR EX-ORNS: Matthew Briggs, Danny Shittu

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A remarkable 4-0 victory on Boxing Day in Beppe Sannino’s first home game, helped along by a Danny Shittu red card, and a 2-2 draw at the New Den in April – thanks to another last minute goal

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

  Forde
Edwards     Webster      Beevers      Malone
Bailey        Williams
Martin            McDonald           Woolford
Gregory

VERDICT: Holloway knows how to do this, you’d have thought. It took him a while to have an impact at Millwall…  the appalling run that prompted Steve Lomas’ removal (culminating in the Lions’ shambolic defeat at Vicarage Road in Boxing Day) didn’t really abate until the closing weeks of the season, but four wins and four draws in their last eight games pulled them clear of trouble.  They’d been bottom at the end of March.  So now…  now Holloway is in charge of a squad with one of the smaller budgets in the division, perfectly placed to foster the backs-against-the-wall nobody-fancies-us thing that he’s done before.  Not to challenge I don’t think… not yet, anyway.  And not so secure that a bit of bad luck couldn’t land them in trouble.  At the time of writing they look horribly precarious up front, relying on a thus far ineffective Scott McDonald, veteran Ricardo Fuller and Lee Gregory, plucked from non-league with Halifax.  Gregory could prove a find, but you wouldn’t want to have to rely on him as much as Millwall seem to need to at the moment.  Telling that Holloway is desperately talking McDonald up, as if he knows that he’s not much choice but to rely on a striker who only netted three times for the Lions last season.  Nonetheless, the players coming in look largely sensible – not players who will transform the squad, but players that will help keep the Lions up.  Probably.

Season Preview – Part 3 05/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Another midfielder.  Lumme.  Meanwhile….

CHARLTON ATHLETIC

INS: George Tucudean (Standard Liége, Undisclosed), Igor Vetokele (Copenhagen, Undisclosed), Zak Ansah (Arsenal, Free), Tal Ben Haim (Standard Liége, Free), André Bikey (Panatolikos, Free), Kurtis Cumberbatch (Watford, Free), Johann Berg Gudmundsson (AZ67 Alkmaar, Free), Stephen Henderson (West Ham United, Free), Franck Moussa (Coventry City, Free), Yoni Buyens (Standard Liége, Season Loan)

OUTS: Diego Poyet (West Ham United, Undisclosed), Richard Wood (Rotherham United, Undisclosed), Ade Azeez (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Jordan Cook (Walsall, Free), Dorian Dervite (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Cedric Evina (Doncaster Rovers, Free), Kevin Feely (Newport County, Free),Danny Green (Franchise FC, Free), Ben Hamer (Leicester City, Free), Danny Hollands (Portsmouth, Free),  Bradley Pritchard (Leyton Orient, Free), Andy Hughes, Harry Lennon (Cambridge United, Six Month Loan), Astrit Ajdarevic (Standard Liége, End of Loan), Anil Koc (Standard Liége, End of Loan), Jonathan Obika (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), Davide Petrucci (Manchester United, End of Loan), Marvin Sordell (Bolton Wanderers, End of Loan), Yohann Thuram-Ulien (Standard Liége, End of Loan)

OUR EX-ADDICKS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Johnnie Jackson

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A portentous 1-1 draw against an unremarkable Addicks side in September and a lamentable 3-1 defeat at the Valley in the dying throes of the season that featured Albert Riera’s rather graceless final contribution in a Watford shirt.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Henderson
Solly              Ben Haim        Morrison               Wiggins
Gudmundsson         Buyens             Jackson              Harriott
Tucudean                 Vetokele

VERDICT: A summer of upheaval at the Valley, with a lot of players moving in and out, another new manager and another influx of players from Standard Liége, one of four European clubs owned by Addicks’ boss Roland Duchâtelet.  It’s natural to draw comparisons with our ownership structure, and will be interesting to see how the Charlton model develops in parallel.  Whilst there are clearly similarities, the scouting network and ethos that underpins the Pozzo model does not seem to be in place here – or rather, it’s difficult to see how Liége, as currently the senior side in the group, could support what is clearly the central plank of “our lot”‘s success.  Where there are clear parallels between ourselves and the Addicks is in the player turnover that we’ve seen in the last couple of seasons.  Gianfranco Zola, of course, got the Hornets a hair’s breadth from promotion after a summer of similar upheaval but even given the quality of the players that were brought in that was a hell of an achievement.  To match that the Addicks would need similar quality, a similarly solid starting point and similar success in blending the components together, each of which would have to be questionable.  Given the unknown nature of many of Charlton’s signings a big margin of error needs to be put around any prediction…  top half isn’t impossible, but with a lot of untested components in key positions (including in the manager’s seat and virtually the entire forward line), and young bucks rather than experienced leaders remaining from last year’s side a relegation scrap is far from beyond the realms of possibility.

DERBY COUNTY

INS: Cyrus Christie (Coventry City, Undisclosed), George Thorne (West Bromwich Albion, Undisclosed), Alefe Santos (Bristol Rovers, Compensation), Alban Bunjaku (Sevilla, Free), Ivan Calero (Atlético Madrid, Free), Shaquille McDonald (York City, Free), Jonathan Mitchell (Newcastle United, Free), Zak Whitbread (Leicester City, Free), Leon Best (Blackburn Rovers, Season Loan)

OUTS:  James Bailey (Barnsley, Free), Callum Ball (St.Mirren, Free), Ben Davies (Sheffield United, Free), Adam Legzdins (Leyton Orient, Free), James O’Connor (Walsall, Free), Ross Atkins, Valentin Gjokaj, Michael Hoganson, Patrick Bamford (Chelsea, End of Loan), Andre Wisdom (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-RAMS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: John Eustace, Craig Forsyth, Eric Steele (Goalkeeping Coach), George Thorne

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-2 reverse at Vicarage Road in October, the first of the five consecutive home defeats that preceded Gianfranco Zola’s dismissal, and a 4-2 defeat at Pride Park in which Marco Cassetti was dismissed, a damp squib following our stirring performance at Loftus Road.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Grant
Christie         Keogh       Buxton       Forsyth
Hughes      Hendrick      Bryson
Ward         Martin     Russell

VERDICT: For so  much of the season the most assertive, intimidating, impressive side in the division.  A bit of a wobbly start, but once they got going it was only a question of whether they’d quite have enough to take them straight up rather than finishing third.  They didn’t, as it turns out, but were understandably everyone’s favourites going into the play-offs.  Right up until the moment when a late, late goal denied them at Wembley.  Still…  once the initial disappointment was out of the way there was much to look forward to.  The squad still looked excellent, the boardroom stable and intelligent, the signings impressive and the manager amongst the most respected in the division.  What could possibly go wrong….?

The parallels between Derby now and us a year ago only extend so far, of course, but our 2013/14 season should act as a warning for Rams fans not to start counting their chickens just yet.  Teams will be worried about Derby, and will have a better idea of how to stop them… apart from anything else, most clubs will go to Pride Park (or whatever) knowing that a point would be just fine thanks and treat the game as such.  Expectations will be sky high – more so in Derby, whose players have to cope with the Big Club thing to a greater extent than ours ever do.  Most of all… extrapolating is dangerous.  Derby’s form for two thirds of the season was remarkable… extending that form into this campaign would be all the more so.  That said… there’s a lot that’s impressive about this Derby side and it would be a huge surprise if they weren’t at least serious challengers for automatic promotion.  The midfield trio look particularly strong… our apparent pursuit of Jeff Hendrick always felt hopelessly optimistic, even before George Thorne’s horribly unfortunate injury – an excellent signing, that – removed McClaren’s potential conundrum in this area in picking three from an excellent four.  Lee Grant is a top keeper and there’s strength and leadership across the pitch.  Perhaps cover in certain areas is weak – centre-back most obviously, leaving Derby vulnerable to particular injuries or losses of form.  Nonetheless, one would expect them to be there or thereabouts.

FULHAM

INS: Ross McCormack (Leeds United, £11,000,000), Nikolay Bodurov (Litex Lovech, Undisclosed), Thomas Eisfeld (Arsenal, Undisclosed), Adam Taggart (Newcastle Jets, Undisclosed), Kay Voser (Basel, Undisclosed), Adil Chihi (Cologne, Free), Tim Hoogland (Schalke 04, Free), Shaun Hutchinson (Motherwell, Free), Konstantinos Stafylidis (Bayer Leverkusen, Season Loan)

OUTS:  Ashkan Dejagah (Al Arabi, Undisclosed), Pajtim Kasami (Olympiakos, Undisclosed), Sascha Riether (SC Freiburg, Undisclosed), David Stockdale (Brighton and Hove Albion, Undisclosed), Derek Boateng (Rayo Vallecano, Free), Matthew Briggs (Millwall, Free), Damien Duff (Melbourne City, Free), Brede Hangeland (Crystal Palace, Free), John Heitinga (Hertha BSC Berlin, Free), Kieran Richardson (Aston Villa, Free), Steve Sidwell (Stoke City, Free), Mahamadou Diarra, Neil Etheridge, Georgios Karagounis, Darren Bent (Aston Villa, End of Loan), Lewis Holtby (Tottenham Hotspur, End of Loan), William Kvist (VfB Stuttgart, End of Loan)

OUR EX-COTTAGERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Alex Kacaniklic, Marcello Trotta

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 3-3 draw early in 2006/07 in which Ashley Young’s brace wasn’t enough to take the points with Heidar Helguson amongst the visitors’ scorers, and a less eventful 0-0 at Craven Cottage later in the campaign in which Tamas Priskin saw red late on.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Stekelenburg
Hoogland             Hutchinson      Amorebieta       Stafilydis
Kacaniklic      Eisfeld        Parker          David
McCormack    Rodallega

VERDICT: As strategies go, investing in experienced players always felt like a bit of a gamble.  Not really sustainable that, not even in the top flight and certainly not for a smaller top flight club like Fulham who, for all that they’ve done astonishingly well to spend 13 years in the highest tier were always only a bad appointment or an injury crisis away from a relegation scrap.   There were some very good top flight sides at Craven Cottage over the years too, of course, but the side that was relegated featured too many old players, past their best.  Not only does that cost you in terms of industry if not maintained carefully, it leaves you without a leg to stand on if and when you do make the drop.  I like Magath a lot but he’s got his work cut out here, effectively needing to formulate a new team from the debris of their relegation.  It helps somewhat that there are finally some kids emerging from what hasn’t been the most prolific production line in recent years, but whilst Magath has already shifted a lot of older players (Riether, Sidwell, Duff, Hangland, Karagounis, Diarra, Heitinga and Boateng are all the wrong side of 30) it’s interesting that he’s chosen to splash that eyecatching £11m (albeit “only” £7m up front) on Ross McCormack, who will be 28 before the end of the month.  If he gets them promoted it’ll be well worth it however old he is, but whilst he dragged a sorry team in his wake for much of last season he’ll need an awful lot more from his teammates to challenge.  The quality in the squad – including some impressive-looking recruits elsewhere – means that going straight back up is far from impossible, but there are a good number of strong teams in this division with less reinvention to do.  Seventh, after an iffy start.

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

INS: Joe Murphy (Coventry City, Free), Lee Peltier (Leeds United, Free), Radoslaw Majewski (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan)

OUTS: Chris Atkinson (Crewe Alexandra, Free), Peter Clarke (Blackpool, Free), Paul Mullin (Morecambe, Free), Keith Southern (Fleetwood Town, Free), Calum Woods (Preston North End, Free), Ian Bennett, Cristian Lopez, Anton Robinson

OUR EX-TERRIERS: None

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

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-1 win in Yorkshire in October in what was to be Gianfranco Zola’s last win in charge, and the grotesque, miserable capitulation on the final day of the season.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Smithies
Peltier        Gerrard       Lynch
Smith                 Hogg          Clayton            Dixon
Majewski
Vaughan             Wells

VERDICT: Just as it’s dangerous to extrapolate from a good end to a season and assume world domination in the following campaign (helloooo Ipswich), you can read too much into a poor end to a campaign.  For one thing, if an already bad run keeps trundling, changes are likely to be imposed from above with a view to arresting that decline.  Nonetheless, There’s cause to be a little concerned for Town fans on the back of 5 wins in their last 22 (including against our ghastly shambles).  Wells and Vaughan looks like a forward line that’s got enough about it to guarantee survival if nothing else, but the notoriously injury-prone target man has only once, by the age of 26, managed 30 appearances in a season and without him Wells has looked isolated in front of a pedestrian midfield whilst the defence is vulnerable to pace. There are a few kids coming through, but it’s significant that the Huddersfield messageboards are already nervously looking around for three weaker teams.  A tough season in store for the Terriers.

Season Preview – Part 2 04/08/2014

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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Mondays, eh?  Four more, four more tomorrow.

AFC BOURNEMOUTH

INS: Callum Wilson (Coventry City, Undisclosed), Dan Gosling (Newcastle United, Free), Junior Stanislas (Burnley, Free)

OUTSLewis Grabban (Norwich City, Undisclosed), Shwan Jilal (Bury, Free), Ryan Allsopp (Coventry City, Six Month Loan), Mohamed Coulibaly (Coventry City, Season Loan), Matt Tubbs (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Andrew Surman (Norwich City, End of Loan), Richard Hughes (retired)

OUR EX-CHERRIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A deceptively comprehensive 6-1 mauling last August in which Troy Deeney scored the first WFC hat-trick at Vicarage Road since 1996/97, a routine League Cup win a couple of weeks later and a 1-1 draw at Dean Court that saw Gabriele Angella dismissed.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Camp
Francis             Elphick          Cook         Daniels
Ritchie            Gosling        O’Kane           Pugh
Wilson     Kermorgant

VERDICT: After a bit of a wobble towards the end of 2013 the Cherries finished the season strongly, landing up in an encouraging tenth spot.  Another strong season then for a side that, from the outside, looks upwardly mobile.  Hereby hangs the challenge perhaps… after two seasons of success and optimism, how will the Cherries cope if their progress stalls a little?  There are challenges there…  the loss of Lewis Grabban was perhaps inevitable, in Callum Wilson Eddie Howe seems to have procured a sensible replacement but the newcomer will be doing well if he matches Grabban’s contribution and as such tenth might be an upper bar on the team’s aspirations this season.  That and second season syndrome, with teams no longer as surprised by the stiffness of the challenge from Dean Court (or whatever), might test the character as much as the ability of the Dorset side.  Little doubt about the former though, and if the Cherries might find themselves a rung or two further down the table than last season they’re far too good to be involved in any nonsense down the bottom.  Twelfth.

BRENTFORD

INS: Scott Hogan (Rochdale, £750,000), Andre Gray (Luton Town, Undisclosed), Alan Judge (Blackburn Rovers, Undisclosed), Moses Odubajo (Leyton Orient, Undisclosed), Daniel O’Shaughnessy (Metz, Free), Marcos Tébar Ramiro (Almeria, Free), Alex Pritchard (Tottenham Hotspur, Season Loan)

OUTSClayton Donaldson (Birmingham City, Free), Farid El Alagui (Hibernian, Free), Shaleum Logan (Aberdeen, Free), Luke Norris (Gillingham, Free), Liam O’Brien (Dagenham & Redbridge, Free), Scott Barron, Will Grigg (Franchise FC, Season Loan), Martin Fillo (Vikoria Plzen, End of Loan), George Saville (Chelsea, End of Loan), Marcello Trotta (Fulham, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BEES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Bonham, Toumani Diagouraga, Richard Lee, Bob Oteng (kit man), Mark Warburton (manager)

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A brace of victories in our successful 1997/98 season comprising a 3-1 victory at Vicarage Road in which Lars Melvang scored, and a noisy, dramatic 2-1 triumph at Griffin Park that featured one of those Johnno goals.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Button
O’Connor             Tarkowski          Craig          Bidwell
Odubajo       Douglas         Forshaw           Judge
Hogan       Gray

VERDICT: It’s been a while since we’ve faced Brentford competitively, albeit plenty of ex-Orns have passed through Griffin Park in recent years.  It seems unlikely that many of the Bees’ current crop of former Hornets will be regular first choices next season however, and as ever with newly promoted sides it’s difficult to judge quite how well they’ll do – both based on lack of familiarity with the players, and on not knowing how they’ll make the step up.  There’s a lot to be said for a club that responds as positively as the Bees did to what must have been choking disappointment eighteen months ago as one of those ex-Hornets, Marcello Trotta, hit what would have been a title-winning penalty against the crossbar in the dying seconds of the regular season only to see Doncaster escape downfield, claim the title and condemn Brentford to the play-offs (in which they lost).  We had a similar disappointment and saw at first hand the impact that it can have.  So… the Bees aren’t to be taken lightly;  consensus is that there’s a lot of pace about the side and a few gems in the likes of Bidwell, Tarkowski and Forshaw (should the Bees resist former manager Rösler’s advances).  There’s not an awful lot of higher level experience however, and that might cost the Bees, particularly up front where the loss of Donaldson means upheaval.  Brentford should stay up, but not much more.  That would do, one suspects.  Nineteenth.

BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION

INS: Chris O’Grady (Barnsley, Undisclosed), David Stockdale (Fulham, Undisclosed), Aaron Hughes (QPR, Free), Nzuki Toko (Grasshoppers, Free)

OUTS: Leonardo Ulloa (Leicester City, £7,000,000), Matthew Upson (Leicester City, Free), Peter Brezovan, Will Hoskins, Tomasz Kuszczak, David Lopez, Andreas Orlandi, David Rodriguez, Jeffrey Monakana (Aberdeen, Six Month Loan), Keith Andrews (Bolton Wanderers, End of Loan), Jesse Lingaard (Manchester United, End of Loan), Stephen Ward (Wolverhampton Wanderers, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SEAGULLS: Keith Andrews

THEIR EX-ORNS: Will Buckley

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A televised draw at the Amex in October, and a 2-0 victory at Vicarage Road which saw the debuts of Park Chu Young and Samba Diakité…

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Stockdale
Bruno            Greer           Dunk         Chicksen
Toko       Crofts
Lua Lua            Ince           Buckley
O’Grady

VERDICT: Brighton made the play-offs last season.  Easily forgotten, since it was purely a function of being closest to the last chair when the music stopped – in stark contrast to a year earlier when Albion had indisputably been one of the top six sides in the division.  This time they were merely the best of a bunch of very similar sides, deserving sixth place by virtue of the accrual of more points than all but five others in the division, but interloping fifth formers at a sixth form party and soon heading home with their tails suitably between their legs, pissed on half a can of supermarket lager.  Out goes Oscar Garcia, in comes Sami Hyypia.  Out go Leo Ulloa and Matthew Upson, both to Leicester, Tomasz Kuszczak, and Gus Poyet’s army of Spaniards.  In came… to date, Chris O’Grady and Aaron Hughes (edit… and David Stockdale.  Still trading down tho for me…).  You can see where this is heading.  For all that Albion made the play-offs they didn’t score a lot of goals – only six in the division scored fewer and nobody above 17th. Now minus Ulloa Albion’s goal threat looks very limited.  Nor, for all Hyypia’s pedigree as an on-pitch leader for Liverpool and Finland does the new boss have  a great track record to fall back on – initially the unqualified partner in a two-man management team at Leverkusen, he was sacked within twelve months of taking over as sole boss.  There’s still quality in the Albion side, and at the time of writing still time to invest some of that Ulloa fee, but they’re going to need to strengthen in several positions.  As it stands, a relegation scrap looks far more likely than another tilt at the play-offs.

CARDIFF CITY

INS: Guido Burgstaller (Rapid Vienna, Undisclosed), Adam le Fondre (Reading, Undisclosed), Kagisho Dikagcoi (Crystal Palace, Free), Javi Guerra (Real Valladolid, Free), Federico Macheda (Manchester United, Free)

OUTS: Fraizer Campbell (Crystal Palace, £800,000), Steven Caulker (QPR, Undisclosed), Don Cowie (Wigan Athletic, Free), Andrew Taylor (Wigan Athletic, Free), Simon Lappin, Tommy Smith, Jo Inge Berget (Celtic, Six Month Loan), Kevin McNaughton (Bolton Wanderers, Season Loan), Ben Nugent (Yeovil Town, Six Month Loan), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United, End of Loan), Craig Bellamy (retired)

OUR EX-BLUEBIRDS: David Hughes

THEIR EX-ORNS: Martin Hodge (Opposition Analyst), Jordon Mutch

RECENT ENCOUNTERS: A 2-1 defeat in Cardiff in October 2012 which saw the home side grab a last minute winner against nine men after Nathaniel Chalobah and Daniel Pudil had been dismissed, and an inconsequential 0-0 draw the following April.

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Marshall
John               Hudson             Cala                Fabio
Noone               Mutch            Whittingham               Daehli
Guerra          Le Fondre

VERDICT: For all that Malky’s departure upset some at Vicarage Road, there can surely have been few who didn’t sympathise with the manner of his departure from Cardiff.  Who your boss is make such a huge difference to how palatable any job is;  Mackay had to endure Bassini at Watford (and who can blame him for factoring that consideration into his decision to move on) only to find himself working under an increasingly erratic, hands-on Vincent Tan at Cardiff.  Few tears shed in West Herts – or anywhere – when City had their relegation confirmed.  Moving into 2014/15, it’s not unusual to look at a relegated squad and see an intimidating depth that just isn’t present in most squads in the Championship.  Despite high profile departures – those already undertaken and those mooted – this is certainly the case with City, particularly in attacking positions where Kenwyne Jones, Federico Macheda, Joe Mason andNicky Maynard are competing with the two named above.  If there’s a concern it’s further back… Solskjaer’s first six months in charge were characterised by a gung-ho attacking approach and a soft underbelly that saw him concede 42 goals in 18 League games;  his midfield is narrow and the full-backs push up asking an awful lot of the centre backs, an area where City aren’t strong.  We know from painful experience how galling it is to bash your head repeatedly against a limited but organised rearguard action only to be undone on the break…  and there’s some scepticism as to how well equipped Solskjaer and team are to correct this failing.  In the top flight his personality, attacking instinct and the context of the Premier League got him a lot of slack, he won’t get such slack this time around. Given the quality in the squad it’s inconceivable that City won’t challenge, but my money’s on a wobbly start, a departure for Solskjaer with City off the pace in October and a resurgence under a new boss towards the end of the season.  Could end any number of ways, then.  Play-offs my bet.

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