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Watford 2 Middlesbrough 1 (30/08/2022) 31/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
12 comments

1-  The thing is, it isn’t like anywhere else.  Other places…  homes, schools, where you work… might have similar long standing but nowhere has this permanence in significance and role.  None of it looks like it did when I first came in 1980, not even the now-more-green-than-brown stuff in the middle.  There are no longer busses visible trundling along the top of the northern end of the ground.  There’s no longer a hotchpotch of bits of stand and terracing down the east side, nor is there any longer a place where you can swap panini stickers (is there?). The Shrodells Stand has long gone, as has the Watford Observer Clock (though – spoiler alert – only as far as the Museum’s excellent commemorative exhibition).

But it still serves the same purpose, a century on.  It still has what my daughters might call the same “vibe”, though vibe is a grossly inadequate word.  And for all that you’ll have been through a full gamut of emotions in your time here from boredom to irritation to anguish to exuberant joy if you’ve been to Vicarage Road as often as once, the constancy is provided by the fact that it’s a place of safety, a home from home.  A happy place.

I’m invited into Horizons in the GT stand as part of the celebrations;  Daughter 2 is my plus one, eyes popping at the food and the drink and the people not to mention the local royalty from Luther Blissett to Ann Swanson doing the rounds.  We’re later seated, unusually, at the front of the Upper GT from where we see the fireworks, the smoke, the flags, the yellow red and black. The first of the many local heroes re-introduced to the crowd – the legendary Lloyd Doyley and the significant return of Aidy Mariappa.  “Chariots of Fire” serenades the final warm up, a perfect echo of yesteryear for those old enough to remember.

Most supporters think that their club is the most special.  Everyone else is wrong.

2- So of course we’re absolutely pathetic as the game begins.  Just miserable.  Like we’d just been at an all-nighter, stumbling around with our head in a fog, shaking lager cans in the hope of half an inch of tepid Kestrel as Middlesbrough bundled down our right and Ryan Giles – that’ll be Ryan Giles with a “watch me, I’m trouble” sticker on his forehead – is in a crossing position from where Hassane Kamara should be except that he’s still asleep under the pile of coats on the bed upstairs and so Francisco Sierralta lurches over.  Consequently his head isn’t on the end of Giles’ cross where you’d expect it to be, Daniel Bachmann (6 foot 3 and an arm’s length) is still raving silently to the beats behind his hooded eyes and his flail is beaten to the ball by 5 foot 10 Rodrigo Muniz, who admittedly has something of Yáser Asprilla’s bounce about him.  Asprilla, of course, is sipping Ribena through a straw whilst watching Spongebob Squarepants on the TV, nestled in between the loaded ashtrays.  Boro don’t care, they’re one-up and their sizeable support – who sang throughout Mapps’ interview but were decent enough to respect the minutes’ applause for Vince McNeice, Sammy Chung and Tommy Carpenter – are making a racket.

3- Not so the home stands, who are quickly deflated.  But this Watford team is frustrating, not rubbish.  Like a machine with loose connections that will sometimes clunk and groan but when everything whirrs and the cogs align it suddenly looks fearsome.  Impressive.  The trigger for what evolves into a quite dramatic improvement is first Hamza Choudhury and then, and more persistently, Edo Kayembe surging out of midfield with the ball.  We look vastly more threatening with one of the two driving the ball forward rather than both sitting static… one of the duo will surely take a step back when Imrân Louza returns but here, suddenly, they look a pairing that can see us on the front foot rather than “only” protecting whatever’s behind them.

It’s one of these surges from Kayembe that sparks the equaliser, which is devastating and fabulous.  His ball finds João Pedro down the left who looks less like a precocious kid and more like an experienced pro with every game;  here he cuts in between two defenders and feeds Sarr with a crisp pass on the penalty spot.  Sarr sidesteps a challenge to open the goal up in front of him and rolls the ball past the helpless goalkeeper.  In contrast to our hapless start, suddenly we look effortlessly, matter-of-factly much much better than our opponents.  In a flash, both the main men have shown their Premier League quality and you kinda hope that nobody’s watching.

But JP is pretty relentless for the rest of the half.  The move that sees him wander from left to right, exchange a couple of one-twos, play through Sarr under pressure and then show for a pass that would have seen us take the lead had his strike partner seen it is Maradona-like…  absolutely in charge and running the game.  Kayembe’s enjoying his sudden liberation also, one turn on the run to flummox an opponent is almost balletic from the least balletic figure on the pitch.  As on Saturday, pulling level sees us revelling in the expectation of a gallop off into the sunset but it doesn’t happen before half time, at which we’re level despite another late lash at goal from JP.

4- The interval sees a parade of stars of varying vintages, including Peter Walker, Walter Lees, a remarkably trim looking Stewart Scullion and Kenny Jackett amongst others.  Also a rather awkward huddle of geeks and stattos  being recognised for various contributions to the club’s heritage work, none more awkward than Daughter 2 who, having been exhorted to join the crew, flicks second by second between blushing embarrassment at her out-of-placeness and wide-eyed giddy excitement.

Half time also sees Boro make a change, with the more defensive Dijksteel introduced for Jonny Howson, and the game changes once more.  Whilst never quite plumbing the depths of the first half we again look stodgy, unable to feed our most potent weapons.  The visitors meanwhile look like the promotion contenders heralded pre-season rather than a side floundering near the bottom of the table;  they own a ridiculous number of centre-backs, one of whom – new arrival Matt Clarke – was seemingly on our list of candidates for the left-side slot.  His header gives Bachmann the opportunity to salvage his own evening with a terrific point black save – though a better directed header would have given him no chance.  Muniz tries to beat Bachmann from the halfway line and briefly it looks worrying but only briefly – he’s OK, he’s no Sarr.

But Boro are undeniably the better side again, if never quite banging on the door.  Asprilla’s outing in black and white stripes hasn’t had quite the impact hoped – as an aside we have to be careful not to overuse the teenager in our occasional desperation for some zip from midfield – and Vakoun Bayo is brought on as the spearhead but he looks desperately flimsy, low on confidence.  He gets a chance with a header, a cross from the left it’s a carbon copy of Boro’s opener except for the last bit, from our considerable distance it seems to come off his shoulder.  First the redoubtable Kenzema and then Craig Cathcart go down with injuries and are replaced by Mario Gaspar and debutant Kortney Hause, who looks reassuringly big and steady.  Less so Gaspar, who is doing little to allay anyone’s concerns.  Four minutes of injury time.  Boro fans roar their team on.

5- It’s difficult to quibble with much of Chris Wilder’s post-match assessment.  Boro played well.  They deserved something from the game.  And maybe there was a sense of destiny about it.  Maybe the long ball from the back that saw JP, yet again, execute some extraordinarily controlled acrobatics to lay off was preceded by Tommy Carpenter collecting a cross, rolling out to Vince McNeice who played the ball out wide.  And maybe as Mario Gaspar burrowed infield in defiance of his wobbly start and scuffed the ball goalwards… perhaps it wasn’t a shot, it wasn’t a pass, it wasn’t deflected off Matt Clarke’s attempted block, it was Sammy Chung with a little lay-off to Vakoun Bayo who nimbly flicked the ball past Liam Roberts as George Camsell, Wilf Mannion and the rest watched on helplessly.

If there’s one thing that’s better than an injury time winner it’s a scarcely deserved injury time winner, let alone one that involves two struggling new boys igniting their Watford careers.  Mario’s “assist” may have been clumsy,  awkward, lucky…  but tickets, raffles, the veteran was there to execute it.  We take Ilias Chair’s opener from Saturday and we raise it.  And Bayo’s finish revealed a hitherto unsuspected dexterity.  He celebrated as you hoped he might, buried under a pile of team-mates.

As “Crocodile Rock” rang around the ground, as the Boro fans sloped out, quiet for the first time all evening and as daughter two bounced around the Upper GT with a big grin on her face we were able to reflect on the first great night of the second hundred years.  And that seven games in… it’s far from perfect, there’s things to sort out and we really could do with getting past Thursday night with a full complement… but we’ve faced four of the five teams projected to be our fiercest competition and dropped two points in those games despite our obvious limitations.

A special night.  Again.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Kamara 4, Sema 3, Cathcart 3, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 3, Kayembe 4, Choudhury 3, Asprilla 3, *João Pedro 5*, Sarr 3
Subs: Bayo (for Asprilla, 73) 3, Mario Gaspar (for Sema, 79) NA, Hause (for Cathcart, 80) NA, Gosling, Hungbo, Troost-Ekong, Okoye

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Watford 2 Queens Park Rangers 3 (27/08/2022) 28/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
13 comments

1- Hassane Kamara, then.  Whoever he is.  Sold by Watford to Udinese for £16 million, loaned back for the season.  That’s, like, a fiddle isn’t it?  “How do they keep getting away with this?”.

We’re getting away with whatever we’re getting away with because we’re not breaking any rules, self-evidently.  Else, given the brazen chutzpah of the exercise, the flare that it sends up to alert the readily outraged, we wouldn’t be getting away with it.

You’d sympathise, nonetheless.  Because it does feel…  wrong.  Odd.  Uncomfortable that it’s needed, maybe, perhaps, but that aside uncomfortable that we are getting away with it, or even trying to.

But you don’t sympathise, because fairness and moral rectitude is the last thing that such complaints are actually about.  If such was the focus, the priority, then you wouldn’t be hearing about our convoluted accounting practices at all…  we’d be far back in the queue behind the fact that nation states and oligarchs own (some of) our football clubs. Behind the colossal fiddle that is the Champions (sic) League for all that this battle has long since been lost. Hell, we’d be a long way behind the day’s events in any regular week at the hand of this disgusting government.

What this is actually about is Watford’s ongoing failure to know our place. To get back in our box.  A small club is allowed success, perhaps, for a time, if they qualify as “plucky”.  But not if they struggle against the tide, not if they dig their heels in and certainly not if they try creative means of navigating the odds stacked against them.  Such failure to respect one’s centre of gravity is depriving some properly deserving big city club with, like, a big stadium more deserving success.

2- Though admittedly a quiet, inconspicuous box somewhere seems quite attractive as a prospect now and then, not that you’d admit it.  The wake of an aggravating defeat against Queens Park Rangers being one such occasion.  Losing’s fine of course… well, not fine but certainly part of the tapestry, and a part that we’ve been all too familiar with over the past couple of years that we’ve been able to “enjoy” at Vicarage Road.

This is different though, a different flavour of defeat to last season’s regular diet of inadequacy and helplessness.  This is stomp around scowling and looking for someone to argue with, nobody talk to me for a month frustration.  This is outrage at the unjustness and the AAAAARRRRGHHHH of it all.

Because we are unlucky.  Somewhere in the back of your consciousness there’s a voice saying “yes, but, well we’ve done rather better out of things so far than we’ve deserved, in general, haven’t we?  Gotten a few more points than our performances have merited?  And, you know, if things even themselves out over a season then you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth….”.

Needless to say that if this voice had had a mouth, face and body attached to it as Ilias Chair’s speculative shot took a helpful deflection to take it beyond a wrong-footed (but maybe shoulda, coulda done better anyway if we’re honest?) Daniel Bachmann, it would’ve gotten a punch in the head.   Actually that’s not quite true, first it would have been asked what the hell had happened – so theoretical and abstract was the threat that I was checking out the early scores elsewhere on my phone and needed things explaining to me by suitably glum debutant Ryan – and then it would have been punched in the head.

More misfortune was to follow.  João Pedro was back in the eleven – as was fellow will-he-wont-he soap opera star Ismaïla Sarr – and in a deeper midfield role in an adventurous-looking team selection. Despite the setback he was floating and flitting to marvellous effect early on…  trying a little too hard occasionally, perhaps, but certainly not hiding, certainly not sulking.  His acrobatic response to goalkeeper Dieng’s excitable headed clearance was magnificent, a reflex volley under pressure that cleared the stopper from some distance out and landed between the posts but bounced unfavourably onto the crossbar.

An injury to Manaj had already pushed JP further forward by this stage to accommodate substitute Asprilla;  the Colombian was lively again but we look less effective, our most dominant period of the game stifled.  Manaj’s combative lumpiness had looked a lot more effective with more acute threats dotted around him to profit from it. Later still as we were chasing the game at 3-2 Kayembe’s thunderous equaliser was denied by the cruellest of offside calls – not inaccurate, as was only revealed by later TV replays, but (that word again) unlucky since Sarr had only strayed briefly and irrelevantly offside at precisely the moment that the ball was sent in from the left.  A pedantically good spot from the lino – Sarr can’t not be interfering when standing in front of the keeper.  Minutes later the officials deserved less sympathy as Kamara threw himself at another cross only to be blocked off and bounce onto the turf.  It looked a penalty all day long but all appeals were rejected.

3- So we were unlucky;  for the first time this season significant things went against us leaving us feeling short-changed from a game that we deserved more from.  But it’s not all about luck, nor should we be needing to rely on it.  The visitors were excellent, particularly up front where Ilias Chair, for all his fortune with the opener, was a constant irritant.  QPR’s set-up, one suspects, is one that we’ll face from visitors for as long as we struggle to overcome it:  sit deep, stay in the game, counter-attack.  The first bit is the more challenging, certainly with JP conducting goings on from deep.  By the time Manaj went off two ridiculous passes from the Brazilian had peeled Rangers’ defence apart, first to release the Albanian who belted a shot too close to Dieng, and secondly to find the indefatigable Sema who bundled into space before turning and passing the ball across the face of goal and in at the far post to equalise.

Asprilla caused problems too, and heaven knows the 18 year-old’s trajectory at this early stage looks extraordinary.  But for all that, and for all that QPR’s defence had an excitable element to it – the chaos that preceded the scruffy second equaliser was inelegant, the protests at what can only have been the slightest of contact in Rob Dickie’s back before he fell (and briefly attempted to claw the ball away) embarrassed and desperate – we’re making attacking look rather more difficult than it should.  There is evidence of development – the passing the ball deliberately and carefully across the back was here often interrupted by swinging back the way the ball had come… so, left to middle and a turn and back to left again where players were waiting rather than the endless predictable pendulum from side to side of previous games.  Nonetheless, we look easier to play against than we really should – and watching Ethan Laird gallop forwards on the overlap for the visitors, you rather wonder what the plan is that he was deemed inferior to.  Mario Gaspar surely has many qualities borne of his long experience, but a like-for-like replacement for Kiko he is not.

Meanwhile we looked eminently vulnerable to Rangers’ counter-attack, sharp and incisive as it was.  It wasn’t simply a case of us falling apart – Chair, Willock and the others asked the questions that we weren’t alert enough, disciplined enough to respond to and for all and for all that we didn’t get the rub of the green (see above), Rangers “only” squeezed a one-goal win.  But our promotion two years ago owed a lot to us batting away most of what came at us meaning that our relatively dull goalscoring threat was just about enough.  At the moment we don’t look reliable enough at either end of the pitch.

4- Which doesn’t mean that everything is wrong either.  We have a coach building a side on shifting sands, a number of new signings and bits that don’t quite fit together yet.  We’re missing a key forward, a key midfield and what is likely to be a key defender, all of whom surely close to being available, and if this defeat leaves us in a position that’s more reflective of our performances this season we’re nonetheless only three points off the summit.

Daniel Bachmann has exceeded all expectations so far.  Kayembe and Choudhury might not be the long term midfield but the Leicester man is clearly a ferocious asset whilst Kayembe has shown himself capable as a continuity player.  Not a high bar, but one that we’d have questioned last season – he was decent today, robust and willing to spread the ball around.  For the moment we have JP and Sarr – if either leaves it’ll be for good money with, one presumes, replacements lined up if needed.  It’s not as if we won’t have seen these losses coming.

It would have been nice to go top and nice to thump someone, it’s been a while.  It wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility here – on both equalisers we expected to run away with the game.  That we didn’t achieve either merely reflects that there’s work to do.  But a rebuild demands patience, so throwing toys out of prams at the first defeat – however galling – isn’t a terribly productive way forward.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Mario Gaspar 2, Kamara 3, Sierralta 3, Kabasele 2, Kayembe 4, Choudhury 3, *João Pedro 4*, Sarr 2, Sema 4, Manaj 3
Subs: Asprilla (for Manaj, 31) 3, Bayo (for  Mario Gaspar, 82) NA, Gosling, Hungbo, Hause, Cathcart, Hamer

Preston North End 0 Watford 0 (20/08/2022) 21/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1-  It often strikes me curious that “what the fans think” is treated as something that can be concisely summed up, or even represented as is too often implied both by interviewers and interviewees.  One glance at social media confirms that there are almost as many distinct opinions as there are supporters, any suggestion of consensus is illusory in all but the most straightforward circumstances.

But I think we can agree that last season was pretty horrible.  Not fun at all, even by the standards of relegation from the Premier League at which we, at least those of us of a certain age, are practised.  As for the “why”…  there were lots of factors of course.  Some of which outwith the control of anyone at Vicarage Road;  the environment is ever less forgiving for a less monied club… not impossible, no, Brentford and so forth.  But the fact that there are Brentfords with the temerity to do the job well despite relatively limited resources  AS WELL AS a growing number of opponents with funds that vastly outstrip our own makes it even harder to sustain yourself in the top flight.

The trick, then, might have been not to have gotten relegated in the first place back in 2020.  Again, a rare point of consensus perhaps except… nobody did it on purpose and the criticism of the decisions that contributed to that outcome are simplistic and unforgiving.  The reality is that people who do things make mistakes and – with the exception of the Mogi Bayat story which makes me uncomfortable despite my lack of experience or insight to understand that world – I’ve not seen much evidence that the motivation of the decision makers is somehow inappropriate or undesirable.

That doesn’t make the hierarchy exempt from criticism of course, we wouldn’t be comfortable with a bunch of well-meaning incompetents in charge of the club. Not much evidence of that though really; player recruitment never comes with a 100% success rate and the number of players sold on at a healthy profit suggests that something’s going OK.  The managerial appointments have been less successful, but nobody was complaining about the high turnover when we were doing OK by it. Ten years under the Pozzos has seen six years in the Premier League, two promotions and a late play-off final defeat.  “Above par”.

A lot of the criticism on social media from those without the pressure of having to follow through on decisions that are presented as obvious alternatives to “the same old mistakes”, is profoundly tedious.  Particularly from those whose instinctive, relentless cynicism of many years is suddenly earning them a misplaced celebrity, negativity misconstrued as insight.  I’m conscious that I have a (deliberate) preference for a positive interpretation, glass half full, a “happy clapper”, and will sometimes look daft as a consequence.  But rather that way than the other. 

pne

2- Deepdale is bright and breezy.  The “how to dress” dilemma is normally reserved for the changing of seasons, there shouldn’t be any mystery in August (or February) but the vague portents of heavy rainfall had lead to careful provision for such an outcome.  Totally unnecessary… a relentless sun seemed to hover directly above the centre circle like a drone, pouring itself into every stand and certainly offering little mercy to those sat four rows from the front of the Bill Shankly Kop.  We are grateful for the occasional incursions of the picture book clouds that skitter across the fiercely blue sky.

The team selection betrays a dilemma that would have been difficult to anticipate at the start of last season when, after promotion on the back of a solid defensive record we attempted to re-arm the attack.  Things didn’t go well for Ashley Fletcher, whose recruitment was surely with half an eye on the possibility that we wouldn’t get promoted in 2021, but if he’s the sixth cab off the rank for a newly promoted side (and without the benefit of “less than the sum of our parts” hindsight) you’re surely doing OK.

But all six are unavailable for today’s game.  So too Keinan Davis, deemed “not ready” despite his cameo on Tuesday night and the relative paucity of options.  Cucho, Joshua King, Dennis have all gone, Fletcher’s out on loan and Sarr and João Pedro both injured/”injured”.  It later becomes clear that Sarr is, despite vague hopes that we might hang on until January in the absence of an acceptable offer, definitely on his way and probably to Villa.  Difficult to begrudge him that given his lack of tantrums and significant role two years ago, a fee comparable to what we paid is disappointing given the buy low/sell high model but no more than could be expected in the circumstances.  JP…  we’ll see how that shakes out, but I’d be surprised and disappointed if, having already brought in a good £60-70m in player sales including Sarr but not including clauses and with the Brazilian having five years on his contract we settled for anything less than an extraordinary offer – far north of the figures mentioned – and to hell with what the player wants.  Whatever your thoughts on “the model”, it falls apart completely if we allow gems to bully their way out of long contracts.

So instead we have Rey Manaj and his 1970s banker hair parting making a full debut alongside Vakoun Bayo with Yáser Asprilla dancing around behind them.  Daughter 2, who in fairness has a better idea than me of what a twelve year old actually looks like, rolls her eyes at my suggestion…  but physically intimidating he is not.

3- Preston seem to do a decent line in genial gentlemen of a certain age.  Several are employed on the stewarding staff, several more seem to be having a dry run with a stretcher with another cheerfully strapped to said stretcher.  Preston are the definition of a Proper Club with Proper Supporters, but any bonhomie disappears with the note that they boast a few Proper Idiots, as do everyone else, singing the same songs as everyone else does at the travelling support sizzling in the sun.  “Our support is what you say, my good man?  Why, that’s a new one.  Well done you!”.

“You’re just a sh!t Ben Foster” gets another airing too – maybe it’s a Lancashire thing.  Either way it has the same effect on Daniel Bachmann as it did against Burnley;  the keeper is exemplary from the moment his quick reactions keep out Alan Browne’s alarming early chance.  If the midfielder’s impressive acrobatics had extended to putting his shot either side of the keeper it might have had a different outcome;  Browne is also the source of Bachmann’s most testing moment in the second half, another point blank save which asked rather more of the keeper.  Otherwise the saves that he has to make tend to be from efforts from further out as the home side are kept at arm’s length.

One of those genial gentleman of a certain age has the referee’s whistle, and is at pains to avoid booking anyone for much of the game despite considerable provocation.  Quite how Brad Potts stays uncensored is a bit of a mystery – Ken Sema comes out on top in a scuffle on the halfway line but referee Bond blows for a foul on him as he emerges with the ball.  Potts dives in and takes the Swede out after the whistle has gone but escapes without censure – as does Sema, who despite being the most mild-mannered of the men in yellow blue bounces furiously off the turf and confronts his assailant with a hard stare.  Meanwhile Francisco Sierralta twice kicks Troy Parrott up the arse in the centre circle to similar finger-wagging…  the much vaunted Parrott will have a quiet game, there’s something there about Sierralta looking like a pirate and Parrott disappearing into his pocket/onto his shoulder but I can’t quite get the words right.  Meanwhile I read something on Twitter this week about anger being a secondary emotion;  you’re never just angry, anger is a reaction to something else.  The proponent of this argument has never watched Francisco Sierralta play football.

4- Both sides are better at defending than attacking.  That the game will end without a goal is a racing certainty from the moment I notice that Pete has made that assertion on Twitter early in the first half (thanks Pete) but it’s no worse than a 6 or 7 out of 10 for entertainment as nil-nil draws go.  The limitations of our centre-backs within the desired system has been much discussed but it’s less of an issue here than it might be at home when teams sit deep – Preston aren’t a defensive side, they’re just good at defending.  Cathcart, Kabasele and Sierralta are the equal of most of what’s chucked at them though, and with the relentlessly boisterous Choudhury and the enigmatic Kayembe, who edges closer to the Good Thing side of the line with every pendulum-like game, sitting in front of them we look very solid indeed.

Indeed, for all that the trio that combined so mercilessly for the winning goal against Sheffield United on the opening day are at various stages of being on their way out of the building we look well set up to hit teams on the break, particularly away from home.  The 18 year-old Asprilla – providing yet more evidence of that broken transfer policy – is blossoming before our eyes, spinning like a top through the midfield and pausing only to flick a cross-field pass or to play a one-two.  Preston resort to kicking him up in the air less quickly than others will – the sooner we get him onto João Pedro’s diet the better.

Louza will load bullets as soon as he’s back, and our wingbacks are decent again.  Ken Sema, who has been involved in two of our four goals to date after all, continues to be a perfectly decent option at this level despite his vocal detractors behind us in the stand, but I’m not as convinced as Rob Edwards sounds that playing Hassane Kamara on the right is a viable solution to what looks like a two-from-three problem.  We still get his tenacity, his energy, his saving tackles and his telescopic legs on the right but as he rattles into the box in front of us and is unable to get a cross in with his weaker foot his look of frustration as the jeers ring out is telling.  His positivity is the biggest of his many assets, we should be a little careful with it.

5- So the “problem” is clearly the forwards, suddenly.  It’s not that neither Bayo nor Manaj offer anything – both are good at certain things, but being a reliable finisher isn’t one of them in either instance.  We have no view of our first half attacks from pitch level at the opposite end, but TV replays confirm that Bayo is at least getting into good positions – he’s lively and mobile, and determined enough to bully himself a late chance which he fires into the side netting from an unforgiving angle.  A lot of the time though he’s skipping around rather ineffectually… late to whatever party is going on after the drinks have finished.  Meanwhile Manaj is a decent weapon to have, a good foil perhaps for a more reliable goalscorer with his strength and awareness…  but he should have won the game when an extraordinary Asprilla pass from the left put him through in the second half, to lean back and miss the target altogether when one-on-one unforgivable. 

Both are new, both trying to lay foundations in shifting sands and both will have a role to play but we’ll need more than is on offer here come the end of the window, one way or another.  It’s good to see the likes of Pollock and Forde on the bench, but you’d feel more comfortable if they were there purely on merit rather than out of necessity.  Neither makes an appearance; instead Joe Hungbo gets another cameo.  I love everything I’ve seen of Joe, including incredibly level-headed interviews, but he responds to my gushing enthusiasm to Daughter 2 at his introduction with a pretty forlorn few minutes.  These are salvaged to a degree when, having lost the ball once more he chases back down our right, retrieves possession tigerishly, snaps a quick one-two that will release him into space only for Greg Cunningham to, sensibly enough, take a yellow for his team.

Stuff to do, clearly, on and off the pitch.  For the moment though we’re doing OK…  in a league in which everyone takes points off each other as a rule of engagement unbeaten after five games, three of which away from home and three of which against the division’s more fancied teams, is a very decent place to be.  Any away point is decent, and there’s something to be said for having made (and missed) a couple of clear-cut chances against a side yet to concede a goal.

But maybe I’m just being overly positive.

Yoooorns.

*Bachmann 4*, Kamara 4, Sema 3, Kabasele 3, Sierralta 3, Cathcart 3, Choudhury 4, Kayembe 3, Asprilla 4, Bayo 2, Manaj 2
Subs: Gosling (for Asprilla, 80) NA, Hungbo (for Manaj, 84) NA, Forde, Pollock, Troost-Ekong, Mario Gaspar, Okoye

Birmingham City 1 Watford 1 (16/08/2022) 17/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
4 comments

1- As we’ve discussed before, it doesn’t necessarily pay to think about things too much.  Any Norwich fan would be forgiven for wondering what they’re striving for, what with their last four top flight seasons ending in relegation and the margins for error for promoted clubs getting narrower with every heavily monied takeover in the top flight.  If it’s all about the results, if it’s all about success in the Premier League why bother when this feels such a distant dream?

It’s not all about Premier League success of course.  Far from it.  You’ve got to enjoy the journey and plenty do, else nobody would be watching football outside the top flight.  There are clearly advantages to being away from the top table if you choose to look for them and one of these is a preponderance of midweek fixtures (albeit exaggerated this season by the nonsense of the December World Cup).  

And so here we are, three days after returning from holiday with the opportunity to take in another game.  And if it doesn’t have the sense of occasion that every Premier League game had it’s still a fine, wholesome thing in it’s own right.

2- It really doesn’t feel like the Premier League, though.  I’ve somehow not been to St.Andrews for 20 years but it’s still the extraordinary play-off semi in 1999 several years further back still that is front of mind.  I doubt that Blues fans remember it is crisply (let alone fondly) but it’s as vivid as anything in my head as I gaze down at the Tilton Stand at the far end where it all came to a head.

There’s nothing like the same fervour tonight.  The lower tiers of both the Tilton Stand and the Kop Stand to our right are out of action for safety reasons, further dampening an atmosphere subdued by the club’s plight.  With precarious ownership and finances City have been hovering above the drop zone for an eternity – six finishes between 17th and 20th on the hop will dull even the most blindly optimistic.  St Andrews is quiet and slightly forlorn… though I’m caught off guard by the tatty caravan just inside the turnstile;  we join the queue in the absence of any other source of refreshment just as Nigel from the Rookery passes with a cheery “Hello”.  By the time I realise that this oddity is only serving beer and that City’s plight doesn’t quite stretch to an inability to provide broader sustenance (and very decent sustenance at that) a couple of stairwells upwards Nigel is some way ahead of us in the queue.  I choose to keep a low profile.

3- We’re ten rows from the front in a shallow stand, left wondering whether the occasional raindrops peppering us represent occasional rain, or occasional gusts blowing rain in our direction located as we are just underneath a roof many miles above us.  If you watched the live feed you’ll have had a vastly superior view to us, so this is will necessarily be a mood piece, a mood set by Daughter 2 whose response to kick off is to ask with some urgency why Draco Malfoy is on the left wing for City.  It’s a theme to which she returns repeatedly in astonishment at Norwich loanee Placheta’s super-gelled blonde mop.  “He’s running but… it doesn’t move….“.

City’s team is a classic of the genre.  Old blokes (5 members of the matchday squad aged between 32 and 34), young blokes (five teenagers, three of whom starting) and loanees.  Amongst the old blokes is Troy, of course, and if he’s no longer quite the fearsome warrior of old it’s nonetheless very odd to see him in someone else’s shirt.  He gets a brief, rousing reception from the away end before the Zulu pensioners to our immediate right pipe up with “He left cos you’re sh!t”.  Ironically of course the reverse is true… he left because City are sh!t, but pointing out that your club has become a charity case probably constitutes rubbing it in so we keep our counsel.  “Is this a library?” comes out instead as the mob to our right re-focus on their Horlicks.

None of us would have minded at all had John Eustace rocked up at Vicarage Road in the summer.  We’ll be very happy to learn that Rob Edwards was a better choice and so far so good on that score;  nonetheless, it’s no surprise to see the home side playing their limited hand effectively.  Shamelessly sitting deep and demanding inspiration from a team missing the departed Dennis and the injured/”injured” Sarr, it’s The Sort Of Thing we’re going to need to get used to (and find a more compelling answer to), one suspects.

Actually we don’t do a bad job of countering it in the circumstances.  João Pedro and our own teenage (full) debutant Yáser Asprilla are full of tricks and spins, and Edwards’ reputation for using his wing-backs as predominantly attacking weapons is very evident.  Gaspar and Sema both hold very aggressive positions, and both are excellent throughout (despite a voice behind us, clearly commentating on the game going on in his mind’s eye rather than the game taking place before his actual eyes, twice responds to Ken’s belligerence with a misattributed “well done Yáser!” before berating Sema himself for a perceived failing minutes later).

Pedro fashions the first opening, clipping a cross in from the left that Bayo should have headed on target – indeed, that Bayo should have converted – rather than sending wide.  The first of a number of slightly forlorn feeling moments by our other full debutant, though he is involved again minutes later as one of a large number of deep and useful Ken Sema corners finds Cathcart’s forehead beyond the far post, Bayo flicks on but it’s back off the inside of the post. As an aside, Sema’s good line in corners isn’t matched by his throw-ins which look rather like the chest-passes we were taught during basketball at school, but he’s not penalised. 

We’re far from irrepressible, but we’re doing OK until we’re not.  Here’s City’s big card, and they play it… a quick break down their right, Sierralta’s caught flat footed by Hogan and our side isn’t defending as urgently as City have supported the counter.  Hogan picks out teenager Hall from the byline who tucks the chance away neatly from the edge of the box.  “One-nil to the Library”, celebrate City in a rare outbreak of wit from either set of fans.  They’ll return to type with the traditional inane “WHO?”-ing of subs that was already a thing in 1999 in the second half.

4- Despite being a goal down at the break there’s barely suppressed joy at the unexpected appearance of Ricky Otto as the touchline guest.  My co-editor on WhatsApp is particularly animated:

“Amazing.  He disappeared after embarking on a particularly elaborate dribble against Barnsley in 1998 and hasn’t been seen since.  Delighted that he’s been found safe and well, and wonder if he’s still got the ball….”

Our much discussed need for centre-backs capable of bringing the ball out (has anyone got Ricky’s number?) has been evidenced for much of the game thus far.  Blues are now pursuing their gameplan with understandably increased vigour but we spend rather a lot of time passing it around at the back.  None of the individuals are at fault… Sierralta as a wrecking ball is much needed in this division.  Cathcart and Kabasele are both far more solid than their Twitter assassinations would have you believe but the three together don’t possess the forward momentum that we’re going to need to penetrate a determined rearguard action.

Nonetheless, we’re still much better than City.  Mario Gaspar’s increasingly buccaneering performance nearly resulted in a goal at the end of the first half as he steadfastly refused to backpedal and was consequently involved in a move at three stages increasingly close to City’s goal before prodding a shot, Tommy Smith style, beyond the advancing John Ruddy only to see it cleared off the line.  TV pics reveal that it really was a very close thing but we had no view on this from the far end of the pitch and of course there’s no such thing as “a bit of a goal”.

In the second half however Gaspar is on the rampage again, sharing a neat 1-2 with Asprilla before slamming across a ball that is deflected to the redoubtable Ken Sema.  Sema appears to smash a shot back across the face of goal and into the bottom corner, though kung-fu wardrobe Rey Manaj, on as a well-judged, brutal change of approach to Vakoun Bayo, appears to have gotten (and certainly claims) a decisive touch.

Troy comes off before the end, and the away end relaxes at what had felt a horribly possible denouement disappearing out of view.  Instead it’s Blues’ butt-cheeks clenched for the final minutes as the prospect of Villa loanee Keinan Davis claiming a winner on debut loomed.  It doesn’t happen – more to come from Keinan, instead it’s the relentlessly positive Joe Hungbo that catches the eye, not least with a vicious free kick that Cathcart flicks over at the near post.  Squeezing more minutes in for him feels like something that ought to happen.

5- The game ends.  Troy treads a fine line in walking halfway to the away end and applauding, acknowledging the Watford acclaim without going full Roy Hodgson.   Rob Edwards meanwhile leads his team to the front of the stand, where Kenzema makes sure that his shirt goes to the couple brandishing a Sweden flag in the second row.  

Edwards’ take is about right.  Any away point is a good one, particularly when coming from behind but… coulda.  Maybe shoulda.  Definitely coulda.  It will come, pieces are still shifting in and out. It will come.

The walk back to the car in the drizzle is long, extended by stewards blocking certain routes and by the warren of increasingly congested roads around St Andrews.  We trudge in silence as we approach the post-match analysis in the car, before Daughter 2 pipes up.  “I actually like the rain.  Sun is too hot to walk in”.

That’s my girl. 

See you at Deepdale.

Yoooorns.

Bachmann 3, *Gaspar 4*, Sema 4, Kabasele 3, Sierralta 2, Cathcart 3, Choudhury 4, Kayembe 3, Asprilla 3, Bayo 2, João Pedro 3
Subs: Menaj (for Bayo, 55) 4, Gosling (for Asprilla, 76) NA, Davis (for Kayembe, 88) NA, Hungbo (for Sema, 88) NA, Troost-Ekong, Ngakia, Okoye

Watford 1 Sheffield United 0 (01/08/2022) 02/08/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Match reports.
19 comments

1- I was in a band at school.

There were many bands…  an ever-evolving morass of entities with rotating membership and varying levels of competence, musicianship and ambition.  The Rosslyns were lead by Kieron, who wrote the lyrics, sang the songs and played guitar, abetted by Howard’s musical genius.  I played bass guitar, functionally, dutifully.  We recorded stuff mostly in Kieron’s bedroom on the best equipment we could afford aged 16, which wasn’t much.  I remember it as being both tremendously intense, and intensely tremendous.  (Both Howard and Kieron wrote for BSaD occasionally, incidentally, sometimes together).

Some 32 years later, we got a record deal.

2- It feels like longer than 32 years since Watford won at home.  Actually it’s only been eight months or so, but there’s clearly something in the warm, sticky air this evening, discernible above the familiar and welcome hubbub of  Vicarage Road on match day.  There’s so much that’s normal and gladly so…  the queue snaking out of Fry Days, groups of both denominations stopping and chatting in this odd social environment, like a local that stretches the length of the street, all the foot-traffic gently rolling in the same direction.

And yet. Like an episode of Doctor Who when something passes quickly in front of the camera to distort an otherwise tranquil scene to let you know that Something’s Up… we emerge from Wiggenhall Road and cross towards the newsagent for the first lucky chocolate of the season.  Emerging around the corner from Fearnley Street, shrew-like, awkward, nervous and stilted in his movement is Dave Bassett, the ghost of Christmas past… he shuffles past unnoticed and ostensibly unharassed.  Weird.  Then there’s the clamminess of the evening… yes it’s the first day of the season and sunshine is traditional but this is sticky.  This doesn’t feel right at all.

Rob Edwards’ first competitive team selection is confirmed before we’re in the ground, and there’s no mistaking the oddness now.  Both Sarr and Dennis in the starting eleven is…  certainly unexpected.  We didn’t think they’d both still be here by this stage, let alone starting together.  And the subsequent thought process is slow and careful…  we know that high on our long list of failings last season was not realising, not capitalising upon the strengths of our forwards.  We know that both want to leave and that the club probably need/want to sell even if they won’t scupper their long term business model by accepting less than they’ve deemed appropriate and thus appearing bulliable.  We also know that this is a forward line that should have been strong in the Premier League but that Rob Edwards would be insane to contaminate the start of his tenure by fielding uncommitted players with all the repercussions that would have on and off the pitch.  He doesn’t come across as insane.

Jesus, we might actually win this…

3- An albeit understrength United side represent the first of three strong challenges at the start of the season, all to be faced on Sky and under floodlights.  (This one, incidentally, will be the only one BHaPPY reports on, since West Brom and Burnley will be viewed, with any luck, from a bar in Greece).  There’s plenty of experience in the side, and whilst their attacking threat is largely contained they will end the first half level in score and in merit having fashioned three attempts on target…  a low drive from Berge whose deflection could have caused a bigger problem for Bachmann than it did on a less favourable day, a cute shot from Jebbison that Bachmann, if never really troubled by, has to push over and a weak shot from Ndiaye after he was played through on the left. “In the Premier League that would have been a goal”, murmurs a voice behind me.  He’s right, but we’re not in Kansas any more. (As an aside, I’m disappointed to find no evidence of Ndiaye being related to one-time Southend forward Sada Ndiaye, who the Roots Hall announcer awarded man of the match to in the 3-0 win in 1997 in which Peter Kennedy scored a hat-trick).

At the other end… there are occasional whispers of last seasons concerns.  Sarr’s diffidence, Dennis’ selfishness.  More evident however are the tricks and flicks that contributed to that ridiculous “most nutmegs in the world ever” statistic, a stain on our miserable season but far more acceptable in an effective side.  And here we are effective, since for however long it lasts a front three of Sarr, Dennis and João Pedro is completely unreasonable in the Championship. An early clarion call is sounded as Dennis humiliates his marker on our left, spinning onto the escaping ball and leaving his opponent for dead before releasing Sarr to drive into the side netting under attention from a United defender.  From then on the trio attack like sand snakes and if we only manage one on-target attempt ourselves in the first half, a header low into the corner from João Pedro after some good work on the left from Ken Sema which Foderingham makes look easier than it probably was, then it’s clear that United are very aware of the threat and taking precautions.  Paul Heckingbottom will later complain of his side’s lack of risk-taking, but you can understand that tendency faced with this forward line.

4- If the first half wasn’t high on goalmouth action it throbbed with energy and commitment.  No half-hearted feel-your-way-into-the-season, a point’s probably ok fannying from either side.  There was a bubbling volatility throughout, which spilled over when a Cleverley foul provoked some handbags in the United half after which Sierralta and John Fleck were both booked.  Referee Josh Smith has been waving yellow cards around freely and inconsistently without ever being terribly in control of anything, and seemed to have agreed a peculiar throw-in amnesty on the east side of the ground where both Enda Stevens (in the first half) and Ken Sema (in the second) get away with a series of very iffy looking throw-ins.

We start the second half assertively, and United are properly rocking for the first time.  In what appears to be a deliberate strategy in being out of kilter with the rest of the game, the visitors up the shithousery significantly…  balls are being kicked away, niggly provocative little fouls are suddenly in order.  Ndiaye stands on Daniel Bachmann’s toes as a corner lines up, referee Smith delays the kick to warn him and when he proceeds in kind anyway the official shrugs, blows, and runs upfield without feeling the need to explain further.

United’s approach is justified by the tipping of the balance of the game, and by the perfectly accurate suspicion that João Pedro in particular is prone to reacting to such provocation – indeed he’s already on a yellow having foolishly exacted revenge on Enda Stevens for an unpunished hack a minute earlier.  But he’s also United’s tormentor in chief, fuelling the expectation that he’s our likeliest difference maker this season in the long run.  Simultaneously balletic, bold, delicate and hard as nails, he’s the best player on the pitch by some distance.

The Blades’ strategy backfires badly.  Their niggling aggravates the crowd and lights a fire under the Watford team who are now attacking with fervour.  When the goal comes it is nonetheless, almost inevitably, a break at speed as a United attack breaks down – Heckingbottom will fatuously get booked for protesting that referee Smith didn’t anticipate their set play and facilitate it by getting out of the way.  Instead we rattle towards the Rookery;  Kamara has been toiling away on his weaker side but seems to have a freer role in the second half and here pops up left of centre.  He holds off a challenge which leads to his crossfield ball dropping behind Dennis, but the Nigerian reignites the attack and both his pass to Sarr and Sarr’s measured pass into the path of João Pedro are perfect.  The Brazilian slams the ball underneath the advancing goalkeeper and the stadium erupts in relief.

5- Sheffield briefly lose their heads after the goal.  You’d rather have seen a foot on the neck and a second goal than the slick showboating and hurrahing since the visitors are never sufficiently out of it to render this a done deal, coming closest when an Egan header from a set piece is neither fish nor fowl, passing between perhaps inattentive attackers and the far post.  They outnumber us in midfield, effectively, leaving Cleverley and Kayembe, who has perhaps his best game to date in a yellow shirt, to firefight manfully against Norwood, Fleck and Berge – never quite overrun, though the threat is there.  Meanwhile Rey Manaj comes on for an entertaining cameo… built like a building site foreman, he combines a good touch and awareness with an endearing brutality – one box quickly ticked in the quest to be a credible custodian of the number 9 shirt at any rate.

After six largely untroubled added minutes the game ends.  Not without concerns… this is surely the dying embers of last year’s model, what could have been, and yet we only managed one goal for all that.  But a first win for Rob Edwards, getting that monkey off our backs at the earliest opportunity, was priceless and a jammy one-nil would have been just fine.  This wasn’t jammy; we fully deserved it, even if we might not have gotten away with it with an unfavourable wind.

Adding weight to the suggestion of wiser men than me that everything will be alright in the end.  And if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

Yoorns.

Bachmann 3, Kamara 3, Sema 3, Kabasele 4, Sierralta 3, Cathcart 3, Kayembe 4, Cleverley 4, *João Pedro 4*, Sarr 3, Dennis 4
Subs: Manaj (for Sarr, 81) NA, Gosling (for  João Pedro, 87) NA, Bayo, Asprilla, Troost-Ekong, Ngakia, Hamer

Season Preview 2022 – Part 6 29/07/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
11 comments

SWANSEA CITY

INS: Harry Darling (Milton Keynes Dons, Undisclosed), Matthew Sorinola (Union SG, Undisclosed), Nathan Wood (Middlesbrough, Undisclosed), Joe Allen (Stoke City, Free), Archie Matthews (Birmingham City, Free)

OUTS: Flynn Downes (West Ham United, £12,000,000), Yan Dhanda (Ross County, Free), Ben Hamer (Watford, Free), Jacob Jones (Forest Green Rovers, Free), Jamie Searle (Barnsley, Free), Korey Smith (Derby County, Free), Morgan Whittaker (Plymouth Argyle, Season Loan), Nico Defreitas-Hansen, Josh Gould, Finley Burns (Manchester City, End of Loan), Cyrus Christie (Fulham, End of Loan), Rhys Williams (Liverpool, End of Loan), Hannes Wolf (Borussia Mönchengladbach, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SWANS: Ben Hamer

THEIR EX-ORNS: Julian Winter (Chief Executive)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 2-0 1-2
2017-18 1-2
2016-17 1-0 0-0
2015-16 1-0
2010-11 2-3
2009-10 0-1
2008-09 2-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Fisher
    Cabango         Bennett            Darling
Naughton               Grimes         Allen             Manning
Piroe            Paterson

Obafemi

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: Scouring the Championship’s messageboards, a tangential comment that has often popped up this summer is that “Swansea might do a bit better next year”.  The wisdom of those who are more familiar with the Championship than we are is not to be sniffed at… against which a similar consensus view was offered on Stoke City when we were relegated in 2020 (Stoke had just finished 15th and would finish 14th in each of the two subsequent seasons so “a bit better” is technically true I guess).

In any event, unbridled optimism is in short supply on Swans messageboards.  A “how will we do” poll is predicting “a bit better than last year” in as much as there’s any consensus but this has to be assessed in the context of supporters generally yielding an over-favourable assessment of their teams prospects.  Back in the days of BSaD pre-season surveys (like this one) we used to see average predictions across all clubs falling somewhere between 8th and 10th (and dragged downwards by high levels of response from Watford fans in an era or relatively moderate expectations) with anything up to 18 clubs predicting a top half finish.

Swansea do have quality, particularly up front where Joël Piroe has been attracting attention after an impressive first season in Wales.  We were linked with him ourselves in what feels like a rather ambitious reach if genuine;  he’s tended to play behind poacher Michael Obafemi (another linked with the Hornets earlier in the year) with some decent looking midfield options including yet another former Watford target, Matt Grimes.  The problems have been defensively;  Russell Martin’s possession game can look extremely ponderous when executed ineffectively, City’s defence has been overexposed and looks flaky.  Swansea feel as if they’re at a tipping point;  how this season goes will determine whether Martin’s first year is regarded in hindsight as a stepping stone to greater things.  He has done well to bring in quality from lower divisions for relatively moderate fees, but there is a lack of momentum about the whole thing which will get a whole lot worse if Piroe follows Flynn Downes, on whom City made a rapid profit, out of the door.

It could go either way, but given that the Swans finished fifteenth last year and have since signed Joe Allen, a cornerstone of the team that was “destined for better things” last time we were down I’m going to stick my neck out and say fourteenth.

WEST BROMWICH ALBION

INS: Jayson Molumby (Brighton, Free), John Swift (Reading, Free), Jed Wallace (Millwall, Free), Okay Yukuşlu (Celta Vigo, Free)

OUTS: Callum Morton (Fleetwood Town, Undisclosed), Zak Delaney (Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Free), Sam Johnstone (Crystal Palace, Free), MacKenzie Lamb (Peterborough United, Free), Romaine Sawyers (Cardiff City, Free), Quevin Castro (Burton Albion, Season Loan), Josh Griffiths (Portsmouth, Season Loan), Cedric Kipré (Cardiff City, Season Loan), Caleb Taylor (Cheltenham Town, Season Loan), Andy Carroll, Mark Chidi, Kevin Joshua, Leon MacHisa, Daniel Ngoma, Jamie Soule, Aurio Teixeira, Owen Windsor, Matthew Clarke (Brighton, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BAGGIES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2021-22 0-0
2017-18 1-0 2-2
2016-17 2-0 1-3
2015-16 1-0
2009-10 1-1
2007-08 0-3 1-1
2003-04 0-1 1-3
2002-03 1-0
2001-02 1-2 1-1
2000-01 3-3 0-3
1998-99 0-2 1-4
1995-96 4-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Button
Furlong            Ajayi           O’Shea       Townsend
Yukuşlu        Mowatt
Wallace        Swift        Grant
Dike

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: Whilst the Baggies didn’t quite manage however-many-months-it’s-been without a competitive home win last season, there are similarities with ourselves borne of the frustrations of watching a side delivering comprehensively less than the sum of its constituent parts suggests ought to be feasible.  Add to that a rapid changeover of managers – four within the last eighteen months – and you get a mix of frustration and disconnect that is all too familiar.

The most recent managerial switch came in February, when Valérien Ismaël’s brief tenure was concluded and Steve Bruce took over for what turned out to be his first spell at West Brom.  Much as Vladimir Ivić’s Watford side had that “on the slide” feel about it before his departure, so Albion’s tumble from play-off contention to mid-table also rans isn’t deemed to be entirely down to the new incumbent.  Nonetheless Bruce hasn’t won many doubters over.

This is Albion’s second consecutive season in the Championship, but their fourth in the last five meaning that we’ve not faced each other competitively since March 2018.  The trip to the Hawthorns will be our first of the season, the second of four evening kick offs (five including the League Cup) to open the campaign.  Their squad looks strong despite last season’s struggles, and a solid enough defence is now fronted by a midfield fortified with the impressive grabs of John Swift and Jed Wallace.  There’s a reliance on Daryl Dike, injured for the start of the season and much of last, reproducing his Barnsley form more successfully than his former boss managed, but if he does Albion should be contenders for the top two slots.

WIGAN ATHLETIC

INS: Luke Brennan (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Ryan Nyambe (Blackburn Rovers, Free)

OUTS: Adam Long (Doncaster Rovers, Undisclosed), Gavin Massey (Port Vale, Free), Jordan Jones (Kilmarnock, Season Loan), Liam Robinson (Tranmere Rovers, Season Loan), Tom Bayliss (Preston, End of Loan), Kell Watts (Newcastle, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LATICS: Tom Cleverley

THEIR EX-ORNS: Rob Kelly (Assistant Manager)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2014-15 2-1 2-0
2013-14 1-0
2004-05 0-0 2-2
2003-04 1-1 0-1
1999-00 2-0/1-3
1997-98 2-1 2-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Amos
Kerr               Whatmough         Bennett
Nyambe     Power      Naylor   Cousins      McClean
Lang               Keane

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: The whole “yo-yo club” thing is something we’re increasingly familiar with.  There’s little mystery to it, nor to why it’s becoming more pronounced as clubs bounce between the top two divisions with increasing reliability.  More hugely monied clubs in the Premier League means less space for everyone else;  it’s not inconceivable that a Newcastle, say, or a Villa gets sucked downwards but they have a hell of a head start.  Which means that a less monied but well run club can no longer bank on a 15th place finish, say, and will know the score going into the season.  This makes them less likely to gamble on survival and more likely to use parachute payments to help them build more gradually.  That the clubs themselves are blamed for adapting to the new reality is a little bit harsh to my mind, but then boredom at Norwich or Fulham going up and down again is clearly a bigger issue than sportswashing.

There are a growing number of long-term yo-yo clubs between tiers two and three also;  the difference in revenues between divisions is smaller in absolute terms, but just as much a barrier as a percentage of income. Rotherham are embarking on their seventh consecutive season in a new division but Wigan, too fall into this box having won League One last season for the third time in the same seven year window.

Wigan’s situation is a little more complicated of course. In June 2020 a criminally catastrophic takeover saw the club, comfortably fourteenth in the delayed Championship season and financially stable, plunged into chaos as the new owners put the Latics into administration a month later.  Relegation by a narrow margin – following a twelve point penalty – saw the Latics drop back into League One and finish the following season just clear of a second successive relegation but, finally, with new owners.

The current squad was largely assembled last summer and moulded by head coach Leam Richardson into a side that would win a reportedly unimpressive division to return Wigan to the Championship, a promotion that few would begrudge them.  But rather than a wave of optimism, there are concerns at the total lack of squad strengthening – indeed at the time of writing, two weeks before the season, the squad is four men down having lost three loanees and former Hornet Gavin Massey without a new face coming in.  There are murmurs of financial issues and stories of delayed payment to players which, whilst calmly explained away by the club, won’t be making anyone feel any more confident.  The team is physical and experienced but short on pace and on surefire gold dust – it is recognised that the totemic James McClean will struggle to meet the athletic requirements of a Championship wing back at the age of 33 and whilst Will Keane, twin brother of Everton’s Michael, managed 26 goals last season this constitutes more than half of his career total at the age of 29 – five previous seasons at this level have yielded eight goals between them.

Wigan may be planning to harvest the many out of contract players and potential loanees at the end of the window when wage demands recede in panic.  As it stands now, you’ve got to expect a struggle.

WATFORD

INS: Vakoun Bayo (Charleroi, Undisclosed), Rey Manaj (Barcelona, Undisclosed), Luigi Gaspar (Arsenal, Free), Ben Hamer (Swansea City, Free)

OUTS: Moussa Sissoko (Nantes, £1,800,000), Tiago Çukur (Fenerbahçe, Undisclosed), Kiko Femeníá (Villarreal, Undisclosed), Cucho Hernández (Columbus Crew, Undisclosed), Adam Masina (Udinese, Undisclosed), Philip Zinckernagel (Olympiacos, Undisclosed), Derek Agyakwa (Port Vale, Free), Andre Gray (Aris, Free), Dominic Hutchinson (Wealdstone, Free), Joshua King (Fenerbahçe, Free), George Langston (Eastleigh, Free), Maurizio Pochettino (Gimnastic, Free), Rob Elliot, Ben Foster, Nicolas Nkoulou, Peter Etebo (Stoke City, End of Loan), Juraj Kucka (Parma, End of Loan)

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Bachmann
Kabasele            Sierralta             Cathcart
Ngakia                    Louza                 Kayembe             Kamara
Cleverley
João Pedro         Bayo

VERDICT: You can imagine that if we start well on Monday, as in start the game well, maybe nick an early goal then the relief, the catharsis in the home stands might propel us onwards and flatten Sheffield United.  It’s been so long, so long, since we even looked like winning a game at home, the relief would be irrepressible.

That would only last so long though.  We kind of had that sort of situation at the start of last season when the fortune of a home game on the opening day, the first game with a proper crowd post-pandemic saw us flatten Villa in the sunshine but even then we managed to let a fully merited and glorious 3-0 lead slip to 3-2.  A week later we were bullied and well beaten at Brighton.  Cucho’s goal was the happiest point of the season, less than ninety minutes into it.

Ultimately it will boil down to how good we are.  How effective the latest “reset” has been.  There’s been so much talk about the need for stability… but the “how” has only been in focus because the “what” has been rubbish.  Changing managers every five minutes wasn’t a problem when we were getting promoted, or finishing mid-table in the Premier League. Everyone wants stability, but nobody would have chosen to keep Roy on.  Or Claudio.  Or Xisco.  It’s bad appointments as much as quick sackings that have got us here.

That’s a slightly facetious point of course.  The “how” begets the “what” in the end.  Our impatient approach breeds a reactive hiring strategy on the one hand and a mentality in the management on the other and when things go badly, which they’re always going to do for a Watford in the Premier League at some point, you find you have little that you believe in to hang onto.  Roy Hodgson’s conduct at Selhurst Park was pathetic, but he doesn’t do that if he has respect for or feels cherished by the club, the people that employ him.

So… we’ve got as high as we’ve got because of AND despite our strategy.  And now we profess to be trying something different.  Something longer term, something more stable.  Well, hurrah.  The onus falls on all of us though… the club, the support, the team.  Most obviously, “what is Gino going to do if we’re twelfth in October”.  Just as significantly… if we’re going to actually build something, young players and that, it’s going to take longer and there’ll be bumps in the road and so you can’t have your cake and eat it, the support needs to be tolerant.  You can’t demand we build something patiently AND demand instant success.

And the team.   Maybe that’s the acid test.  If the team believe that this is a long-term gig they need to make it work.  They won’t be able to ride something out and wait for the next one.   To this end, without drawing too many conclusions about the players that have left and the players that will stay, you kinda hope that we’ve done a good job with the rooting out of the bad apples, because the attitude for much of last season stank long before Dan Gosling’s forthright interview with Andrew French.  We’ll be able to read so much into how they step up to the plate.

But here’s where we get positive.  Because I choose to believe that Rob Edwards is just as he appears.  An excellent man manager who is focused on making the most of the talent at his disposal, on making the most of ALL of the talent at his disposal.  He’s a young manager but it’s impossible not to warm to what you’ve seen so far.  And maybe the squad is short of this and that and maybe we’re not hard and fast favourites to go straight back up in the way that we were two years ago.  And maybe that’s not the priority just yet.

In the end, analysis of the “how” will only go so far.  I want to be able to believe and I want something to get behind.  I’m optimistic and I want to be convinced.  Jesus, I want to enjoy it again.  It’s bee a good three years since we were in the stadium supporting a winning team, we’ve watched consecutive relegations.

And my god I hope we win on Monday.

Yooorns.

Season Preview 2022 – Part 5 28/07/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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ROTHERHAM UNITED

INS: Cohen Bramall (Lincoln City, Undisclosed), Peter Kioso (Luton Town, Undisclosed), Conor Washington (Charlton Athletic, Free)

OUTS: Alfie Burnett (Forest Green Rovers, Free), Jake Cooper (Altrincham, Free), Jacob Gratton (Farsley Celtic, Free), Michael Ihiekwe (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Freddie Ladapo (Ipswich Town, Free), Angus MacDonald (Swindon Town, Free), Joe Mattock (Harrogate Town, Free), Mickel Miller (Plymouth Argyle, Free), Michael Smith (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Rarmani Edmonds-Green (Huddersfield, End of Loan), Will Grigg (Sunderland, End of Loan), Jordi Osei-Tutu (Arsenal, End of Loan)

OUR EX-MILLERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Rob Scott (Head of Talent ID)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 4-1
2014-15 3-0
2004-05 0-0 1-0
2003-04 1-0 1-1
2002-03 1-2 1-2
2001-02 3-2 1-1
1996-97 2-0 0-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Johansson
Harding          Hall             Wood
Ogbene         Rathbone        Barlaser          Wiles          Ferguson
Washington           Eaves

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: As has been described elsewhere by people who know more about this stuff than I do, there’s a horrible game of “don’t blink first” being played this summer.  Players are out of contract, but nobody’s got any money because of pandemics and stuff.  So players are still out of contract waiting for contracts that probably aren’t coming and because in part there are players out of contract there’s a general reluctance to spend actual money amongst those who haven’t got much of it because sooner or later out of contract players are going to have to lower their demands aren’t they and so why spend money on transfer fees that you probably won’t have to.  And anyway, Man City are bound to have some kids to loan out.

So everyone’s waiting for this kind of frantic supermarket sweep in the closing days of the window, which is a game that isn’t terribly relaxed for anyone but least of all the likes of Rotherham who, newly promoted with a thinnish-looking squad anyway have picked up injuries before the season’s started and had two experienced anchors poached by neighbours and friends Sheffield Wednesday.  This leaves the squad without a physical presence up front, patching things up at the back and short of leadership all round.  The utterly likeable Paul Warne continues to play a straight bat but admits that the squad is, writing ten days before the season starts, a good five players short of being competitive.

Famously, the Millers have spent the last six seasons yo-yoing between the second and third tier (and the two prior to that just a place above the Championship drop zone like an anxious bungee jumper not quite brave enough to take the plunge).  It’s not a given that the run will be extended to seven, but much as there are well-run clubs yo-yoing between the top two tiers unable to bridge the gap to more monied rivals at the top of the tree, so Rotherham need the wind behind them to compete in the Championship and it all seems rather flat and still at the moment.

SHEFFIELD UNITED

INS: Anel Ahmedhodžić (Malmö, Undisclosed), Ciaran Clark (Newcastle United, Season Loan), Tommy Doyle (Manchester City, Season Loan); Reda Khadra (Brighton & Hove Albion, Season Loan)

OUTS: Oli Burke (Werder Bremen, Undisclosed), Luke Freeman (Luton Town, Free), David McGoldrick (Derby County, Free), Harry Boyes (Forest Green Rovers, Season Loan), Harrison Neal (Barrow, Season Loan), Femi Siriki (Rochdale, Season Loan), Lys Mousset, Ben Davies (Liverpool, End of Loan), Morgan Gibbs-White (Wolves, End of Loan), Charlie Goode (Brentford, End of Loan), Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLADES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2019-20 0-0 1-1
2010-11 3-0
2009-10 3-0
2008-09 0-2 1-2
2005-06 2-3 4-1
2004-05 0-0 1-1 0-0
2003-04 0-2 2-2
2002-03 2-0 2-1
2001-02 0-3 2-0
2000-01 4-1 1-0
1998-99 1-1 0-3
1997-98 1-1/0-4
1995-96 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Foderingham
Baldock       Ahmedhodžić        Egan            Clark                Stevens
Berge           Norwood           Fleck
N’Diaye
Brewster

VERDICT: There are some stereotypes are hard to shake.  For instance, it’s not invariably the case that Spurs are showy and flimsy.  There have been plenty of obdurate, dull Tottenham teams in the past.  But when they sign someone that fits the mould, or build a team in that tradition it feels comfortable.  It feels right.  (I’d normally cite the signing of Ginola here but that was 20+ years ago, so I may need to update my “for instance”s at some point).

Anyway, it feels right to see a hard-nosed Blades team that conceded 19 goals in 27 League games under Paul Heckingbottom in the second half of the season stocking up on defenders.  It feels right.  Admittedly United are still playing three at the back (having reverted to this under the new boss) – though I’d be disappointed if they still go in for that fancy gallivanting that was such a feature of the season in which we got relegated.  Jack O’Connell, perhaps the star man at the back that year (again, two centre backs called Jack also fits the stereotype), has been out for two years with doubts understandably rife about his prospects of a return despite evidence of his being back in training.  There’s also cover in the wing back positions in the shape of Jaydon Bogle and Max Lowe, both recruited from Derby two years ago (although Bogle too is out for a while).

This is an experienced and relatively settled looking team – eight of the last Blades eleven that we faced in 2019 are still at the club.  The goal threat resides largely in the fragile Rhian Brewster, that might be a concern… and there are underlying worries regarding infrastructure, investment and ownership (although these things are relative, hellooooo Birmingham).  It was surprising to see Slaviša Jokanović fail so comprehensively at the start of last year in a division in which he has always thrived in the past – this is put in part down to unfulfilled promises regarding investment in the squad.  So…  United should certainly be strong contenders, but being caught up in the churn of the Championship is not beyond the realms of possibility.

STOKE CITY

INS: Dwight Gayle (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Josh Laurent (Reading, Undisclosed), Liam McCarron (Leeds United, Undisclosed), Aden Flint (Cardiff City, Free), Harry Clarke (Arsenal, Season Loan), Gavin Kilkenny (AFC Bournemouth, Season Loan), Will Smallbone (Southampton, Season Loan)

OUTS: Benik Afobe (Millwall, Undisclosed), Alfie Doughty (Luton Town, Undisclosed), Joe Allen (Swansea City, Free), James Chester (Derby County, Free), Steven Fletcher (Dundee United, Free), Tom Ince (Reading, Free), Will Forrester (Port Vale, Season Loan), Douglas James-Taylor (Walsall, Season Loan), Tashan Oakley-Boothe (Lincoln City, Season Loan), Mario Vrančić (Rijeka, Season Loan), Tommy Smith, Taylor Harwood-Bellis (Manchester City, End of Loan), Josh Maja (Bordeaux, End of Loan), Liam Moore (Reading, End of Loan), Jaden Philogene-Bidace (Aston Villa, End of Loan), Romaine Sawyers (West Brom, End of Loan), Abdallah Sima (Brighton, End of Loan)

OUR EX-POTTERS: Daniel Bachmann

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Bonham, Peter Etebo, Ben Wilmot

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2017-18 0-1 0-0
2016-17 0-1
2015-16 1-2
2007-08 0-0 0-0
2005-06 1-0 3-0
2004-05 0-1 1-0
2003-04 1-3 1-3
2001-02 1-2 2-1
1995-96 3-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Buršík
Wilmot             Flint               Souttar
Clarke         Smallbone       Kilkenny      Laurent             Tymon
Powell      Gayle

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: There’s a challenge in writing stuff like this based on limited experience of actually watching the opposition play football (to crown which I only semi-watched the 3-2 win under lockdown two years ago to whatever extent that might have been informative – I was supposed to be on a stats course being run from the States and obviously ended up engaging with neither pursuit to a successful degree).

So… you’re rather over-reliant on opinion gleaned from messageboards, with the inherent bias borne of the suspicion that summer recruitment has been “shrewd” (the most inane of adjectives now used exclusively to describe transfer activity).  I even saw a Cardiff fan predicting darkhorsedom for the Bluebirds on Twitter the other day (no, really).   Depending on your vintage you might remember being excited by the summer arrivals of Diego Fabbrini, Jamie Moralee, Trevor Senior.

Thank heavens, then, for Stoke City who seem to be under no illusions as to what and where they are.   Getting on for three years in, Michael O’Neill’s veneer has worn off as the side has failed to develop;  his team is described as overly defensive and ponderous, there is a limited goal threat and some of the better players in the squad (Powell, Souttar, Campbell) have missed long period through injury. The summer has seen them lose a lot of experience;  there’s talk of the much-sought Keinan Davis coming in on loan but more in hope than expectation.  From this distance City look to be on a downwards slope,  the caveat being that if, as seems inevitable, O’Neill runs out of time there could be a reset.  As it stands whilst you’d expect there to be too much quality for Stoke to actually get relegated, you’re looking at a finish significantly closer to the bottom than the top of the table.

SUNDERLAND

INS: Ali Ajese (West Ham United, Season Loan), Dan Ballard (Arsenal, Undisclosed), Jack Clarke (Tottenham Hotspur, Undisclosed)

OUTS: Lee Burge (Northampton Town, Free), Aiden McGeady (Hibernian, Free), Stephen Wearne (Grimsby Town, Free), Jordan Willis, Arbenit Xhemajli, Nathan Broadhead (Everton, End of Loan), Leon Dajaku (Union Berlin, End of Loan), Callum Doyle (Manchester City, End of Loan), Ron-Thorben Hoffman (Bayern Munich, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLACK CATS: Ashley Fletcher, Danny Rose

THEIR EX-ORNS: Luke O’Nien

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2016-17 1-0
2015-16 2-2
2004-05 1-1 2-4
2003-04 2-2 0-2
2002-03 1-0
1999-00 2-3 0-2
1998-99 2-1 1-4
1996-97 0-2/0-1
1995-96 3-3
1982-83 8-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Patterson
Gooch             Batth            Wright              Cirkin
Neil                   Evans
Roberts            Pritchard            Clarke
Stewart

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: Back in the mists of time before the internet and the Premier League, sources of information about football were a bit harder to come by.  Newspapers, of course, kept up a running commentary.  Football magazines up to a point.  Rothmans.

But for your discerning teenager it was always Panini albums. Snapshots in time that became iconic, defining a child’s understanding of every club in the top division, sometimes accurately and sometimes less so.  Formulaic pen portraits and reliable statistical information, but also a distorted picture due to accidents of time and the variability of sticker distribution.  I remember that in Football 80, the Norwich City badge was “hard”.  I don’t know why I remember this.  My Football 80 album has long since fallen apart (I retain Football 82 onwards for a few years, ditto Fussball 83-88 and most major international tournaments.  These have survived many pillages and clear outs where the likes of Rothmans have not).

I have one Football 80 sticker though, pristine, unpeeled.  John Hawley of Leeds United, which kind of proves my point since Hawley moved to Sunderland in the summer of 1979, presumably just after the Leeds photocall.  Wikipedia suggests that he only played 33 games for Leeds and 25 for Sunderland which is obviously wrong, since in my head he’s a stalwart of both of the era, along in the latter case with Panini veterans Steve Whitworth, Jeff Clarke and Gary Rowell.

Anyway, as you’ll have gathered and without as much as a Panini album to fall back on these days my familiarity with Sunderland’s current lot is limited.  You’ve always got to worry about a team promoted through the play-offs, particularly since Sunderland were one of a mob of sides bundling for position for much of the run-in.  Against that there’s obviously a huge fanbase to mobilise following their first promotion in 15 years and a side that looks full of experience in the second tier.  At the time of writing there is anxiety at the lack of cover for Anthony Patterson in goal and Ross Stewart up front – the latter top scored in the division last season after scarcely suggesting any such prolific streak in a moderate Scottish League career up to that point, it will be hugely significant to Sunderland’s chances how well he adapts to the season’s new challenges.

Sunderland haven’t finished outside of the top and bottom three in this division since 1995;  the smart money’s on them breaking that duck this time, if closer to the bottom than the top.

Season Preview 2022 – Part 4 27/07/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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NORWICH CITY

INS: Gabriel Sara (São Paulo, Undisclosed), Isaac Hayden (Newcastle United, Season Loan)

OUTS: Pierre Lees-Melou (Brest, €2.3 million), Dan Adshead (Cheltenham Town, Undisclosed), Rocky Bushiri (Hibernian, Undisclosed), Matt Dennis (Milton Keynes Dons, Undisclosed), Akin Famewo (Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed), Christoph Zimmermann (Darmstadt, Undisclosed), Josip Drmić (Dinamo Zagreb, Free), Josh Giurgi (Shelbourne, Free), Nelson Khumbeni (Bolton Wanderers, Free), Reece McAlear (Tranmere, Free), Flynn Clarke (Walsall, Season Loan), Bali Mumba (Plymouth Argyle, Season Loan), Przemysław Płacheta (Birmingham City, Season Loan), Christos Tzolis (Twente, Season Loan), Solomon Alidor-Hamilton, Olatunde Okeowo, Aston Oxborough, Lukas Rupp, Billy Gilmour (Chelsea, End of Loan), Ozan Kabak (Schalke 04, End of Loan), Mathias Normann (Rostov, End of Loan), Brandon Williams (Manchester United, End of Loan)

OUR EX-CANARIES: Rob Edwards

THEIR EX-ORNS: Craig Shakespeare (Assistant Head Coach)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2021-22 0-3 3-1
2020-21 1-0 1-0
2019-20 2-1 2-0
2015-16 2-0 2-4
2014-15 0-3
2013-14 2-3
2010-11 2-2 3-2
2008-09 2-1
2007-08 1-1 3-1
2005-06 2-1 3-2
2003-04 1-2 2-1
2002-03 2-1 0-4
2001-02 2-1 1-3
2000-01 4-1 1-2
1998-99 1-1 1-1
1995-96 0-2 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Krul
Aarons           Hanley        Omobamidele     Giannoulis
McLean          Hayden
Rashica               Sara              Cantwell
Pukki

VERDICT: There are teams to whom nothing much happens at all.  Before their relegation out of the Football League this summer Oldham had experienced one promotion and three relegations since the mid seventies.  Derby’s relegation ended a thirteen season stint in the second tier whilst the Canaries’ not so near neighbours and friends Ipswich Town have had one relegation and no promotions in 20 years despite harbouring delusions of grandeur for much of that time.

Not so Norwich City.  Of the last fourteen seasons only four have seen them stay in the same division;  four sojourns to the top flight and one to the third tier and back have left them where they started that run.  Famously of course the last four seasons have been extraordinarily consistent as the Canaries have alternated either side of what appears to be their current centre of gravity somewhere between the top two divisions… 21st, 20th, 21st, 20th in the pyramid structure (with Teemu Pukki top scoring on each occasion).

To the uneducated and less invested the default expectation – with some rather unfair disdain, see rant coming later in this series – seems to be that Norwich will follow protocol and win the division again this season.  Locals aren’t quite so sure… a goal-shy side last term won’t have Emi Buendía to load the bullets for Pukki as they did two years ago.  There’s still quality and depth – the senior squad is huge – but Dean Smith doesn’t have the credit in the bank that Daniel Farke once had.  City should finish top six at least but if they quickly fail to follow form the knives will be out for Smith one suspects.

PRESTON NORTH END

INS: Freddie Woodman (Newcastle United, Undisclosed), Robbie Brady (AFC Bournemouth, Free), Ben Woodburn (Liverpool, Free), David Cornell (Peterborough United, Free), Troy Parrott (Tottenham Hotspur, Season Loan)

OUTS: Tom Barkhuizen (Derby County, Free), Jack Baxter (Stafford Rangers, Free), Tom Bayliss (Shrewsbury Town, Free), Josh Earl (Fleetwood Town, Free), Joe Rafferty (Portsmouth, Free), Connor Ripley (Morecambe, Free), Ethan Walker (Blackburn Rovers, Free), Izzy Brown, Jacob Holland-Wilkinson, Mathew Hudson, Paul Huntington, Oliver Lombard, Joe Rodwell-Grant, Scott Sinclair, Jamie Thomas, Cameron Archer (Aston Villa, End of Loan), Daniel Iversen (Leicester City, End of Loan), Josh Murphy (Cardiff City, End of Loan), Sepp van den Berg (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LILYWHITES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 4-1 1-0
2010-11 2-2
2009-10 2-0
2008-09 2-1
2007-08 0-0
2005-06 1-2 1-1
2004-05 0-2 1-2
2003-04 2-0 1-2
2002-03 0-1 1-1
2001-02 1-1 1-1
2000-01 2-3 2-3
1997-98 3-1 0-2
1996-97 1-0 1-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Woodman
Storey                   Bauer                    Hughes
Potts               Johnson          Whiteman         Woodburn             Brady
Parrott               Riis

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: Preston were promoted to the Championship the season that we went up to the Premier League under Jokanovic and have spent the interim diligently avoiding attention in mid-table – save for one reckless gambol to within two points of the play-offs under Alex Neil.  There’s nothing wrong with being inconspicuous of course – this was a strategy that did us well for several years under the brighter glare of the Premier League lights and North End, as ourselves in the Premier League, have done well to drop anchor with a relatively modest budget.

It’s questionable whether this can continue.  Positive manager Ryan Lowe is a big plus, but the summer signings to date are punts rather than bankers.  Freddie Woodman is probably an exception,  his pedigree demonstrable after two strong seasons at Swansea (though he failed to make Bournemouth’s starting eleven in a half-season loan last year) – but he will do well to match the contributions of Leicester loanee Daniel Iversen over the last year and a half whilst Robbie Brady and Ben Woodburn are both punts in different ways. The side has been heavily dependent on Emil Riis in attack so the highly rated Troy Parrott needs to “work” and the squad isn’t the deepest.  A good season with injuries might see Preston slip into the shadows again and there’s too much quality to seriously struggle you suspect but a lower finish than the 14th that constitutes Preston’s worst since promotion seems quite plausible.

QUEENS PARK RANGERS

INS: Jake Clarke-Salter (Chelsea, Free), Kenneth Paal (PEC Zwolle, Free), Taylor Richards (Brighton, Season Loan), Tyler Roberts (Leeds United, Season Loan)

OUTS: Jordy de Wijs (Fortuna Düsseldorf, Undisclosed), Charlie Austin (Brisbane Roar, Free), Dom Ball (Ipswich Town, Free), David Marshall (Hibernian, Free), Moses Odubajo (Aris, Free), Charlie Kelman (Leyton Orient, Season Loan), Yoanne Barbet, Dillon Barnes, Lee Wallace, Keiren Westwood, Andre Gray (Watford, End of Loan), Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle, End of Loan), Sam McCallum (Norwich, End of Loan), Dion Sanderson (Wolves, End of Loan)

OUR EX-RS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Les Ferdinand (Director of Football), Paul Furlong (U23s assistant coach), Micah Hyde (U18s head coach)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 1-2 1-1
2013-14 0-0 1-2
2010-11 0-2
2009-10 3-1
2008-09 3-0
2007-08 2-4
2005-06 3-1 2-1
2004-05 3-0 1-3
2000-01 3-1 1-1
1998-99 2-1 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Dieng
Dickie              Dunne       Clarke-Salter
Kakay            Amos           Field               Paal
Chair            Willock
Roberts

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: No two situations are identical, admittedly.  You can’t look at Team A and Team B and say “well, they’re basically in the same position” at anything other than a superficial level because when it comes down to it the number of moving parts, the number of considerations, the volume of devil in the detail means that Team A and Team B aren’t quite the same at all.  Both might be strapped for cash, but the numbers, the assets, the ownership might differ in ways that are crucial in the medium term.  The teams might be similar – kind of solid, say, with one or two stars.  But Team A have theirs tied down to slightly longer contracts, whereas Team B’s star likes being a star rather too much.  And so on.

Nonetheless.  It’s not too long ago that we were a bit like the QPR of today.  Struggling manfully against the tide, Malky Mackay or Sean Dyche doing a sound job meant mid-table safety rather than seriously challenging clubs that were much more monied and/or much more stable (and also “Bigger” a lot of the time, that indefinable currency that fans of Big Clubs fall back on when their teams are shit at actual football).  QPR’s circumstances are, again, different… losing money hand over fist they need to find a crown jewel to sell on every year or two as it stands.  Of the current squad, Chris-brother-of-Joe-Willock  is one candidate, the ball-playing centre back Rob Dickie perhaps another but whilst there is talent in the side such that QPR can beat anyone on a good day – they took four points of us as we were promoted in 2021 – there isn’t anything like the depth or the attacking cutting edge to sustain a promotion challenge.

They were “there or thereabouts” last season before slipping back but that was more widely perceived as “reaching”… new head coach Michael Beale – who had some A-list coaching roles before this, his first foray as the number one – would surely regard another mid-table finish as a success after 13th, 9th, 11th in the last three campaigns.

READING

INS: Dean Bouzanis (Sutton United, Free), Sam Hutchinson (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Tom Ince (Stoke City, Free), Shane Long (Southampton, Free), Tyrese Fornah (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan), Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle United, Season Loan), Joe Lumley (Middlesbrough, Season Loan)

OUTS: James Holden (Cambridge United, Undisclosed), Brandon Barker (Omonia Nicosia, Free), Ethan Bristow (Tranmere Rovers, Free), Alen Halilovic (Rijeka, Free), Josh Laurent (Stoke City, Free), Michael Morrison (Portsmouth, Free), Andy Rinomhota (Cardiff City, Free), Lynford Sackey (Bolton Wanderers, Free), John Swift (West Brom, Free), Luke Southwood (Cheltenham Town, Season Loan), Jordan Addo-Antoine, Felipe Araruna, Marc McNulty, Ørjan Nyland, Malachi Talent-Aryeetey, Terell Thomas, Tom Dele-Bashiru (Watford, End of Loan), Danny Drinkwater (Chelsea, End of Loan), Baba Rahman (Chelsea, End of Loan)

OUR EX-ROYALS: Tom Dele-Bashiru, Ben Hamer

THEIR EX-ORNS: Andy Yiadom

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 2-0 0-1
2018-19 2-0
2014-15 4-1
2013-14 0-1 3-3
2011-12 1-2
2010-11 1-1
2009-10 3-0
2008-09 2-2 0-4
2006-07 0-0 2-0
2005-06 0-0 0-0
2004-05 0-1 0-3 3-0
2003-04 1-0 1-2
2002-03 0-3 0-1
1995-96 4-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Lumley
Yiadom                Holmes            Hutchinson            McIntyre
Hoilett          Fornah        Hendrick             Ince
Ejaria
João

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: I went to a school awards do this evening.  Proud Dad moment, definitely but… you know.  You can be a proud Dad and want to support your daughter but still regard and advertised three hours (eek) of polite clapping  with a degree of trepidation.  Add to that the necessity of squeezing two awards nights into one after evening one was postponed by yesterday’s stupid temperatures (writing a week before you read this) and you’ll appreciate the apprehension.

So realising, after 45 minutes, that we were pretty much halfway through the exercise gave the auditorium a huge boost.  You could feel it ripple through the crowd.  Suddenly everyone was applauding extra vigorously and after a mere 75 minutes the thing wrapped up and everyone left with a spring in their step.

And so we get to Reading.  The Royals endured a pretty miserable time last season finishing the season one place above the drop, albeit with a four point margin in the end despite a six point penalty for breaching EFL financial rules.  As the season ended much of the experience in the building headed out of it. Reading have had to rebuild a squad under further restrictions:  no transfer fees, loan fees, salary caps total, individual and average under a head coach in Ince who hadn’t really convinced anyone.

Expectations surely at an all time low.  At which point… things can only get better, and the green shoots of a solid structure pre-season, some halfway sensible signings coming in (albeit injury prone, veterans or kids as you might expect given the restrictions) and Reading fans seem less jaded than I expected.  They’ve got to expect to struggle and have holes to fill in midfield in particular with a very one-paced side as it stands, but the suggestion of a chance of staying up is better than none at all.

Season Preview 2022 – Part 3 26/07/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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HULL CITY

INS: Doğukan Sinik (Antalyaspor, Undisclosed), Ozan Tufan (Fenerbahçe, Undisclosed), Allahyar Sayyadmanesh (Fenerbahçe, Undisclosed), Benjamin Tetteh (Yeni Malatyaspor, Undisclosed), Oscar Estupiñán (Vitória Guimãraes, Free), Tobias Figueiredo (Nottingham Forest, Free), Jean-Michel Seri (Fulham, Free), Nathan Baxter (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: George Honeyman (Millwall, Undisclosed), Keane Lewis-Potter (Brentford, Undisclosed), George Moncur (Leyton Orient, Undisclosed), Tom Eaves (Rotherham United, Free), Richie Smallwood (Bradford City, Free), Harvey Cartwright (Peterborough United, Season Loan), Tom Huddlestone, Di’Shon Bernard (Manchester United, End of Loan), Marcus Forss (Brentford, End of Loan), Liam Walsh (Swansea, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TIGERS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Ozan Tufan, Randell Williams

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2016-17 1-0 0-2
2012-13 1-2 1-0
2011-12 1-1
2010-11 1-2
2007-08 1-0 0-2 / 1-4
2006-07 2-1
2005-06 0-0 2-1
1998-99 0-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Ingram
Jones        Figueiredo    Greaves
Coyle           Seri      Tufan          Fleming
Longman         Sayyadmanesh        Estupiñán

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: I must confess to not having a profound knowledge of the Turkish Süper Lig. The names of the clubs I can do, but I couldn’t tell you much about them, their heritage, their strengths and weaknesses.  I couldn’t locate many more than the Istanbul big three on a map.

But dipping into the Süper Lig on your app whilst scrolling scores is always worth doing.  This is where you find former Premier League players thought lost down the back of the sofa – so for example Leroy Fer is at Alanyaspor, Federico Macheda at Ankaragücü, Yannick Bolasie at Çaykur Rizespor, Mame Biram Diouf at Hatayspor while former Hornets Stefano Okaka, Brice Dja Djédjé and Ally Mallé also lurk.

Since the Tigers were taken over last season by Turkish media man Acun Ilicali this is also where they do a lot of their shopping, or at least where a load of rumours sprout from.  This means that while it all feels rather ambitious – and certainly the ownership of previous encumbents the Allam family is unlikely to be much mourned – it’s difficult to judge from this distance quite how good these players are.

There’s one exception of course – Ozan Tufan, whose arrival must have something of a question mark over it given that this season’s challenges will be less salubrious and more frantically energetic than those which failed to motivate him to an adequate level of fitness, botheredness or velocity in the first half of last season at Vicarage Road.  City meanwhile dismissed Grant McCann, a little harshly but perhaps inevitably, within a week of Ilhan’s takeover and replaced him with former Georgia, Ajax and Rangers front man Shota Arveladze.  There was a bit of a wobble but not enough to threaten the more committed relegation candidates at the foot of the table.  It’s difficult to know what to expect this season – certainly some significant names have moved on in the shape of George Honeyman and Keane Lewis-Potter so there’ll be a bit of bedding in, after which I don’t think it would be a surprise to see City anywhere in the inconsequential regions of the table.

LUTON TOWN

INS: Alfie Doughty (Stoke City, Undisclosed), Carlton Morris (Barnsley, Undisclosed), Louie Watson (Derby County, Undisclosed), Cauley Woodrow (Barnsley, Undisclosed), Luke Freeman (Sheffield United, Free), Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan)

OUTS: Danny Hylton (Northampton Town, Undisclosed), Peter Kioso (Rotherham United, Undisclosed), Sam Beckwith (Maidenhead United, Free), Elliott Lee (Wrexham, Free), Kai Naismith (Bristol City, Free), Corey Panter (Eastleigh, Free), Josh Neufville (Sutton United, Season Loan), TQ Addy, Jake Peck, Jed Steer (Aston Villa, End of Loan)

OUR EX-HATTERS:None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Henri Lansbury, Dion Pereira

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 1-0 0-1
2005-06 1-1 2-1
2002-03 1-2
1997-98 1-1 4-0
1996-97 1-1 0-0
1995-96 1-1 0-0
1993-94 1-2
1982-83 5-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Horvath
Bree                Bradley          Burke              Bell
Clark            Campbell          Freeman
Woodrow      Adebayo      Morris

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: The extraordinary stupidity of Brexit.  The shameless cynicism and cruelty of the Rwanda exercise.  The Police Bill.  The brazen corruption of the awarding COVID contracts.  The arrogant entitlement of partygate.

So no, I don’t “hate” Luton, even allowing for the fact that in the cathartic escapism of football fandom most… many… some would accept that the word hate can be bandied around rather more lightly than in normal life.  “Hate” is reserved for the truly hateworthy.  A low bar is set in football, to facilitate the drama of defining a bad guy to face your good guy. This can become a self-fulfilling kinda thing… there was nothing remotely pleasant about running the gauntlet from Kenilworth Road back to the railway station back in the days when we played each other regularly and that sort of thing feeds the fire but the identity of the bad guy is arbitrary, an accident of geography.  (Not the good guy, obviously.  As most readers will agree the yellow shirt is something genuinely virtuous and to be cherished).

It’s 25 years, near as dammit, since we faced the Hatters in consecutive seasons.  Lots has happened to both clubs since but the current Luton side is surely the strongest they’ve boasted in that time.  If last season’s play-off place saw Nathan Jones’ high-energy pressing side punching above their weight they seem to have capitalised upon their momentum by re-enforcing well and comprehensively.  Signing two forwards from a relegated club (one of whose fathers played several times for the Hornets against Luton many years ago) may suggest questionable pedigree but we’ve been promoted on similar strategies before.  At the very least Luton have given themselves a puncher’s chance of emulating last season’s efforts in this volatile division.  With the club on its most positive footing for many years, they’ll also have the benefit of as united a support as you’ll find anywhere – in contrast to the mood at a club relegated twice in three seasons without a win at home since 2021.  That factor, at least, is somewhat within our control.

MIDDLESBROUGH

INS: Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers, Undisclosed), Liam Roberts (Northampton Town, Free), Ryan Giles (Wolves, Season Loan), Zack Steffen (Manchester City, Season Loan)

OUTS: Djed Spence (Tottenham, £12,500,00 plus add-ons), Toyosi Olusanya (St Mirren, Free), Nathan Wood (Swansea City, Undisclosed), Sol Brynn (Swindon Town, Season Loan), Grant Hall (Rotherham United, Season Loan), Joe Lumley (Reading, Season Loan), Martin Payero (Boca Juniors, Season Loan), Sol Bamba, Lee Peltier, Neil Taylor, Folarin Balogun (Arsenal, End of Loan), Aaron Connolly (Brighton, End of Loan), James Léa Siliki (Rennes, End of Loan), Andraž Šporar (Sporting Lisbon, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BORO: Ashley Fletcher

THEIR EX-ORNS: Uche Ikpeazu

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 1-0 1-1
2016-17 0-0
2014-15 2-0 1-1
2013-14 1-0
2012-13 1-2 2-1
2011-12 2-1
2010-11 3-1
1999-00 1-3 1-1  0-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Steffen
Dyksteel         Lenihan         McNair
Jones        Crooks         Howson     Tavernier      Giles
Watmore         McGree

BLUFFER’S GUIDE:  Fantasy Football.  Just kicking off Year 28 of our office comp at work;  back when we started nothing was on the Internet, we had team sheets sent via snail mail each week.  A summer auction is the main focus, and an evening of much drama and lots of swearing.  Only Paul could be relied upon to keep his cool… while the rest of us were spunking our budgets on strikers (Shearer, Bergkamp, Vialli were the forwards in my first squad) and gambling on exciting new arrivals in the Premier League (at least half of whom would fail miserably) Paul would quietly hoover up dull but effective stalwarts.  He won the league three times before retiring with a little well-earned smugness.

Boro’s team is the sort of side that Paul would have ended up with. Solid and sensible, with an equally solid and sensible bloke in charge.  The defence looks redoubtable, the midfield well balanced and the wing-backs, with the delivery of serial loanee Ryan Giles and the startling Isaiah Jones, carrying the sort of attacking threat that we’ve heard and talked about so much this summer with respect to our own team. Just like Paul’s fantasy teams they’re barrel scraping when it comes to the forwards as it stands, and rumours surrounding the future of Marcus Tavernier (who we were supposed to be interested in three years ago) are a bit of a caveat.  However the hope is that they’ll bring in as many as three forwards before the end of the window (including Cameron Archer, who half the clubs in the division seem to be banking on).  You’d fancy play-offs at worst, with a decent chance of automatic if they’re able to recruit successfully.

MILLWALL

INS: Zian Flemming (Fortuna Sittard, £1,700,000), Benik Afobe (Stoke City, Undisclosed), George Honeyman (Hull City, Undisclosed), Jamie Shackleton (Leeds United, Season Loan)

OUTS: Jayden Davis (Crawley Town, Free), Connor Mahoney (Huddersfield Town, Free), Dan Moss (Woking, Free), Alex Pearce (AFC Wimbledon, Free), Mahlon Romeo (Cardiff City, Free), Jed Wallace (West Bromwich Albion, Free), Joe Wright (Bath City, Season Loan), Kai Garande, Sean O’Brien,  Junior Tiensia, Dan Ballard (Arsenal, End of Loan), Oliver Burke (Sheffield United, End of Loan), Luke Freeman (Sheffield United, End of Loan), Sheyi Ojo (Liverpool, End of Loan)

OUR EX-LIONS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Terry Bullivant (Chief Scout), Paul Robinson (Coach)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 1-0 0-0
2016-17 0-1
2014-15 3-1 2-0
2013-14 4-0
2012-13 0-0 0-1
2011-12 2-1 2-0
2010-11 1-0
2005-06 0-2 0-0
2004-05 1-0 2-0
2003-04 3-1 2-1
2002-03 0-0 0-4
2001-02 1-4 0-1
1997-98 0-1 1-1
1996-97 0-2 1-0
1995-96 2-1

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Bialkowski
Hutchinson            Cooper              Wallace
McNamara                Mitchell         Honeyman            Saville                  Malone
Afobe             Flemming

BLUFFER’S GUIDE:  “No one likes us, we don’t care”.  Maybe.  Liking would be overstating it, but it’s difficult to actively dislike a club employing Robbo on the coaching staff and boasting a reliable stop-off at Borough Market en route to the away fixture, whatever other traditional and dubious associations with the Lions.

Other than a two-year aberration in the top flight in the late, eighties, Millwall have spent nearly sixty years slowly yoyoing between long spells in the second and third tiers.  Gary Rowett’s current side represents a bit of a high water mark, the Lions having finished in inconspicuous top-half positions in the Championship in each of his two-and-a-bit seasons at the club.  The steadily evolving side has been robust and disciplined, more likely to win by nicking a one-nil than by scoring a hatful but this summer has seen a changing of the guard with Jed Wallace, upon whom the Lions had been rather reliant for goals and creativity at times in the past, leaving at the end of his contract and three attacking players brought in in the shape of last season’s loanee and supposed Watford target Benik Afobe, record signing (at a relatively modest £1.7m) and Ajax graduate Zach Flemming and all action midfielder George Honeyman.

Quite how successful that transition is will determine how sustainable Millwall’s push for a play-off place is.  Top six is not impossible, but nor is slipping back into the also-rans if the new signings are unsuccessful.

Season Preview 2022 – Part 2 25/07/2022

Posted by Matt Rowson in Thoughts about things.
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BURNLEY

INS: Luke McNally (Oxford United, £1,800,000), Samuel Bastien (Standard Liège, Undisclosed), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht, Undisclosed), Arijanet Muric (Manchester City, Undisclosed), Scott Twine (Milton Keynes Dons, Undisclosed), CJ Egan-Riley (Manchester City, Free), Taylor Harwood-Bellis (Manchester City, Season Loan), Ian Maatsen (Chelsea, Season Loan)

OUTS: Nathan Collins (Wolves, £20,500,000), Nick Pope (Newcastle United, £10,000,000), Wayne Hennessey (Nottingham Forest, Undisclosed), Anthony Glennon (Grimsby Town, Free), Ben Mee (Brentford, Free), James Tarkowski (Everton, Free), Lukas Jensen (Accrington Stanley, Season Loan), Wout Weghorst (Beşiktaş, Season Loan), Phil Bardsley, Aaron Lennon, Erik Pieters, Dale Stephens, ?Matěj Vydra

OUR EX-CLARETS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Jack Cork, Martin Hodge (Head of Recruitment), ?Matěj Vydra

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2021-22 1-2 0-0
2019-20 0-3
2018-19 0-0
2016-17 2-1 0-2
2013-14 1-1
2012-13 3-3
2011-12 3-2 2-2
2010-11 1-3
2008-09 3-0 0-4
2007-08 1-2
2005-06 3-1 1-4
2004-05 0-1 1-3
2003-04 1-1 3-2
2002-03 2-1 7-4  2-0
2001-02 1-2 0-1
2000-01 0-1 0-2
1997-98 1-0 0-2
1996-97 2-2 1-4

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Muric
Roberts           Harwood-Bellis        McNally              Taylor
Brownhill             Westwood
Cornet                 Twine                  McNeil
Rodriguez

VERDICT: It feels a horribly long time ago now, but there were points not too far from the end of the season where it felt as if we might not get relegated.  With the benefit of hindsight any hope was misplaced, since the brief stiffening of our away form under Hodgson (beginning at Turf Moor) never looked like being converted into performances (and points) at home and couldn’t sustain itself against a difficult away run-in either. But with the home games we had to play, and much as we comprehensively merited our relegation in the end, it wouldn’t have taken very much. Ismaïla Sarr’s miss against Leeds will remain in my head as a point at which it could all have turned without risk of being proven otherwise.

There was a lot of competition for relegation last season, we had to work pretty damn hard to be one of the worst three and in the end it was the Clarets who joined ourselves and Norwich making the drop.  I must confess to having done more reading around Burnley than for most of these other pieces without really understanding where they are financially.  Certainly the immediate armageddon rumoured late last season doesn’t seem to have materialised, but the hole in the budget hasn’t gone away either.  One financial opinion that I found cited leveraged buy-outs as something that can be very good for a club or very bad for a club.  Given the possibility of the latter, given the high stakes being played with you have to wonder how it’s permissible for a previously secure club to risk suddenly being laden with ostensibly unserviceable debt – or for that dice to be rolled on its behalf.

Vincent Kompany actually arriving will have settled nerves but whilst there are few inexperienced  managers with contacts to burn from recent playing days who would be higher on anyone’s list as a new manager, he remains nonetheless an inexperienced manager leaning very hard on those contacts.  The Burnley squad needed refreshing but replacing Sean Dyche’s haggard savvy with a novice for a rebuilding job – Kompany’s talking up of his moderate-looking success at Anderlecht given context feels a bit desperate – and replacing wise old heads Ben Mee and James Tarkowski with albeit talented kids feels optimistic, borne of necessity or otherwise.  Any expectation of being able to plug a financial hole through player sales will have been checked by the state of the transfer market  – England international Nick Pope only fetching  £10m was met with alarm and the expected sale of Maxwell Cornet hasn’t materialised.  The Burnley squad lacks goals though the signing of Twine looks impressive….  it’s possible to see it going very well or very badly indeed for the Clarets.

CARDIFF CITY

INS: Ollie Tanner (Lewes, Undisclosed), Ryan Allsop (Derby County, Free), Ebou Adams (Forest Green, Free), Jak Alnwick (St Mirren, Free), Jamilu Collins (Paderborn, Free), Vontae Daley-Campbell (Leicester City, Free), Callum O’Dowda (Bristol City, Free), Sheyi Ojo (Liverpool, Free), Andy Rinomhota (Reading, Free), Mahlon Romeo (Millwall, Free), Romaine Sawyers (West Brom, Free), Cedric Kipré (West Brom, Season Loan)

OUTS: James Connolly (Bristol Rovers, Undisclosed), Ciaron Brown (Oxford United, Free), James Collins (Derby County, Free), Aden Flint (Stoke City, Free), Marlon Pack (Portsmouth, Free), Will Vaulks (Sheffield Wednesday, Free), Leo Bacuna, ?Sean Morrison, Josh Murphy, Alex Smithies, Isaac Vassell, Chanka Zimba (Newport County, Season Loan), Alfie Doughty (Stoke City, End of Loan), Tommy Doyle (Manchester City, End of Loan), Cody Drameh (Leeds United, End of Loan), Jordan Hugill (Norwich City, End of Loan), Uche Ikpeazu (Middlesbrough, End of Loan)

OUR EX-BLUEBIRDS: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: Graham Stack (Goalkeeping Coach)

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 0-1 2-1
2018-19 3-2
2014-15 0-1 4-2
2012-13 0-0
2011-12 1-1
2010-11 4-1
2009-10 0-4
2008-09 2-2
2007-08 2-2
2005-06 2-1 3-1
2004-05 0-0 3-0
2003-04 2-1 0-3

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Allsop
Romeo         Ng          Kipré           Collins
Wintle            Rinomhota
Ojo           Colwill    O’Dowda
Watters

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: And here’s another club rebuilding, but in rather different circumstances.  Cardiff have seen a large number of contracts expire over the summer and a big overhaul is underway.  The club clearly had targets lined up, as free transfers flooded in in the early weeks of the window;  they briefly looked like being embellished by the slightly incongruous arrival of Gareth Bale, but that’s not how things turned out.

Palace demonstrated in the Premier League last season that a huge clear out of out of contract players can be a helpful thing, but it’s a big ask of Steve Morison, who stepped up from the youth team after Mick McCarthy’s departure, on the back of challenging finances.  Morison will use a number of City’s good kids but isn’t starting from a high base as far as the squad is concerned.  Muddling together a side strong enough to stay up would be an achievement.

COVENTRY CITY

INS: Kasey Palmer (Bristol City, Free), Callum Doyle (Manchester City, Season Loan), Jonathan Panzo (Nottingham Forest, Season Loan)

OUTS: Declan Drysdale (Newport County, Undisclosed), Josh Pask (The New Saints, Free), Jordan Shipley (Shrewsbury Town, Undisclosed), Julien Dacosta (Shrewsbury Town, Season Loan), Jodi Jones, Jake Clarke-Salter (Chelsea, End of Loan), Ian Maatsen (Chelsea, End of Loan)

OUR EX-SKY BLUES: None

THEIR EX-ORNS: None

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 3-2 0-0
2019-20 3-0
2011-12 0-0
2010-11 2-2
2009-10 2-3
2008-09 2-1 3-2
2007-08 2-1 3-0
2005-06 4-0 1-3
2004-05 2-3 0-1
2003-04 1-1 0-0
2002-03 5-2 1-0
2001-02 3-0 2-0
1999-00 1-0 0-4
1987-88 1-0

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Moore
Hyam        McFadzean         Rose
Kane                 Sheaf             Hamer                    Bidwell
O’Hare       Allen
Gyökeres

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: The spate of new stadia built from the mid-nineties to the mid-two thousands were blighted by sponsors’ names.  Easy to be sniffy when you’re not the one having to fund it of course, but I wonder how supporters of Huddersfield Town, say, refer to their home which has been named all sorts of things since its creation and is still the McAlpine in my head.

Coventry’s home was renamed the Coventry Building Society Arena last summer having previously been the Ricoh Arena since its inception.  City haven’t spent the entire interim playing there of course;  they’ve always been tenants, these days to Wasps RFC, and have spent two periods in exile at first Sixfields and then St Andrews in spells that have been emblematic of the difficult ownership of the club by SISU.  City fans would be forgiven not to feel a great affection for the place, despite a deal that saw them return to the stadium last season – the longer term plan seems to be for yet another new stadium.

Despite this fraught backdrop which also saw City drop briefly into the fourth tier in  2017, Mark Robins has engineered a turnaround having improved City’s league position in each of the last five seasons.  Last year exceeded expectations with the Sky Blues spending most of the campaign in the top half, eventually finishing a perfectly acceptable twelfth.  You’d have to worry whether that can continue;  for all that City are by all accounts playing exciting positive football that has generated something of an atmosphere at whatever the stadium is called for the first time Robins will hit a ceiling at some point, and despite his experience management under those circumstances is a different challenge.  City boast a small budget and a small squad in which loans were successful and important last year and which has been further thinned by summer trading at the time of writing.  The first eleven has quality;  the versatile Victor Gyökeres can play anywhere across front line and there’s quality behind him in Ben Sheaf, Gustavo Hamer and the sought-after Callum O’Hare.  City shouldn’t struggle, but matching last season’s finish would be an achievement.

HUDDERSFIELD TOWN

INS: Kyle Hudlin (Solihull Moors, Undisclosed), David Kasumu (Milton Keynes Dons, Undisclosed), Jack Rudoni (AFC Wimbledon, Undisclosed), Will Boyle (Cheltenham Town, Free), Connor Mahoney (Millwall, Free), Yuta Nakayama (PEC Zwolle, Free), Tino Anjorin (Chelsea, Season Loan),

OUTS: Lewis O’Brien & Harry Toffolo (Nottingham Forest, £10,000,000), Pipa (Olympiacos, Undisclosed), Reece Brown (Forest Green Rovers, Free), Josh Austerfield (Harrogate, Season Loan), Romoney Crichlow (Bradford City, Season Loan), Kian Harratt (Bradford City, Season Loan), Jaheim Headley (Harrogate, Season Loan), Kyle Hudlin (AFC Wimbledon, Season Loan), Jamal Blackman, Fraizer Campbell, Carel Eiting, Naby Sarr, Álex Vallejo, Levi Colwill (Chelsea, End of Loan),  Daniel Sinani (Norwich, End of Loan)

OUR EX-TERRIERS: Ben Hamer

THEIR EX-ORNS: Leigh Bromby (Head of First Team Operations), Jonathan Hogg

REPORT ARCHIVE:

Season H A FAC LC OTH
2020-21 2-0 0-2
2018-19 3-0
2017-18 1-4 0-1
2014-15 4-2
2013-14 1-4
2012-13 4-0 3-2
2000-01 1-2 2-1
1998-99 1-1 0-2

POSSIBLE STARTING ELEVEN:

Nicholls
Turton          Pearson             Lees           Ruffels
Hogg        Anjorin
Thomas                Holmes               Koroma
Ward

BLUFFER’S GUIDE: Half-decent in the Championship is a dangerous thing to be.  There are The Likes Of Brentford of course who are steady enough to gradually build year on year (“doing a Brentford”  in the Championship surely soon to be as tired as “doing a Charlton” or “doing a Stoke” were at various stages in the top flight, long ago as each seems).

But a Huddersfield side who staged a credible bid for promotion last year, finishing third and falling to Nottingham Forest in the play-off final (with the added insult of a couple of iffy penalty decisions going against them) may suffer from having reached for the stars and not quite made it.  Most obviously, a side that was more than the sum of its parts is nonetheless ripe to be pillaged;  left wing-back Harry Toffolo and midfielder Lewis O’Brien, most obviously and cruelly were snaffled for £10m by the team who denied the Terriers promotion.  Goalkeeper Lee Nicholls, probably the side’s outstanding player, has signed up for a new deal but Toffolo’s departure with those of loanee Levi Colvill and out-of-contract Naby Sarr earlier exits means Huddersfield will need to replace half of the back line that were – alongside a prodigious threat from set pieces – the basis of the side’s success.  There are good kids coming through, but that’s still a big ask for new boss Danny Schofield, himself a source of variation after the surprise departure of Carlos Corberán.

The other issue with a failed bid for glory is that it builds expectations.  History is littered with clubs, Town’s opponents in the play-off final one such, who were tormented by their high bar for years after it was reached… this high bar can be dangerously treated as “the norm” by supporters rather than the halcyon period that it was.  In reality a top ten finish would be a decent result for Town next season but it might not feel it if they loiter outside the play-offs or start badly. The opening months of the season will be significant.