The season preview revisited – Column
Sunday, 30th May 2021 18:55 by Clive Whittingham
Tying up all the loose ends from 2020/21, we rather bravely look back to last summer’s season preview and predictions to see who we called right and what we got wrong.
1st Norwich (we said.. 1st, =)
What we said: The relegated teams are always, immediately, the bookies favourites to go straight back when in actual fact there have been just as many Stoke, Huddersfield and Sunderland examples of further plummeting as there have of successful returns. Fulham were the 21st bounce back since the Premier League began 27 seasons ago. Norwich have been relegated four times in that period and this is the third in succession they’ve kept faith with the manager who both got them there and brought them back – it didn’t work out well sticking with Nigel Worthington and Alex Neil and it remains to be seen whether Daniel Farke bucks that trend. I’m always suspicious of a team’s ability to take a horrid losing run and relegation and turn it into a promotion-winning season simply through having a summer off. Norwich’s losing run was particularly barbaric, just five league wins all season and then that weird 12-straight losing streak to finish when they returned from lockdown like they’d already given up – two scored, 26 conceded. And their summer has been way shorter than normal, barely six weeks to get it out of their system. But having wallowed around on top of a pile of money like Scrooge McDuck for the last 18 months they’re now quids in at a time when the rest of the sport is on its knees. Eleven signings have been made, more than any other team in the division, capped this week by former Middlesbrough stalwart Ben Gibson who looks a superb addition. Kieran Dowell we’ve always loved since he destroyed us at Forest a few years back and he impressed at Wigan last year. My Chemical Hugill might miss three in every four sitters but he’s a canny addition if Celtic Pukki turns up again this season rather than Norwich Pukki.
Our prediction: 1st Despite everything we’ve said, given that this was the plan all along, and the state of the rest of the league, it’s difficult to make a case for them not pissing this if Brentford lose their two star men.
What happened: 1st, = They did indeed absolutely piss it. Pukki remains Norwich Pukki, just the 26 goals this year which with a record of 67 in 125 starts seems to go under the radar slightly. Max Aarons became Ben Godfrey, Emi Buendia became the best player in the division, Todd Cantwell spent a lot of time on the floor, and they won the league with 97 points, ten clear of third, and just seven defeats all season.
2nd Watford (we said 3rd +1)
What we said: I’ve got Watford down as third in the table, for three reasons. Firstly, they’re bringing a very talented squad of players down with them. For so long Watford has been about Troy Deeney and Troy Deeney about Watford but its Luis Suarez (not that one) who scored 19 goals at Real Zaragoza last season along with Liverpool scourge Ismaïla Sarr who hold the key this time. Secondly, the Pozzo family may run a weird manager-rotation system, but their scouting, recruitment and connections are second to few and they’re not in this to own a Championship football club. They’re not conventional, but they get results. Last time at this level they went through Giuseppe Sannino, Billy McKinley, Oscar Garcia and Slavisa Jokanovic in a single season, but still won promotion in second and I can see something similar occurring again here. Glenn Murray looks a typically pragmatic, let’s just get the job done and get out of here, sort of addition. Thirdly, it looks a dreadfully weak Championship this season. I fancy Sheff Wed, Wycombe, Rotherham, Huddersfield, Luton, Coventry, Barnsley, Reading, Birmingham and maybe ourselves to struggle but can only really pick out Norwich, Brentford and Millwall as teams I think will have a good season for sure. Watford might end up going straight back by accident. But there’s a lot to distrust about them. There will, inevitably, be further departures, with Abdoulaye Doucouré on the verge of joining Everton and influential Deeney seemingly approaching the end of a long and winding Watford road. There are, as I say, already reports about the manager’s future before a ball has even been kicked and if a fractured dressing room was a problem last season then a truncated close season and umpteenth managerial change isn’t going to have healed that overnight.
Prediction: 3rd But I don’t trust them much.
What happened: 2nd +1 Watford conceded just 30 goals all season which built their platform for an immediate return. Not quite “going up by accident” but that troublesome, political dressing room reared its head to Vladimir Ivic’s cost and third looked pretty spot on until Brentford’s wobble and their extremely consistent run of form post QPR home defeat under the latest leftfield appointment Xisco Munoz got them home.
3rd Brentford (we said 2nd -1)
What we said: With the Maupay, Konsa and Mepham money banked there was a feeling that last season was Brentford “going for it”, with the Pontus Jansson signing from Leeds especially seen as a signal of intent. The Trite Sky Sports Commentary Facts machine churned out, repeatedly, some line about “the Bees’ famed analytics department crunched the numbers and worked out their chance of promotion was 50/50 if they kept hold of their players”. Right boss, we’ve analysed every piece of data we’ve got, looked at all other 23 teams in the league, dug into all the possible outcomes and best and worst case scenarios, and we reckon our chance of promotion is… 50/50. Have a day off mate. Having missed out they’ve shown no signs of letting up for 2020/21, spending seriously big money on first Charlie Goode, a 25-year-old centre back who’s already had two knee blow outs and was playing for Northampton in League Two last season, and a fee that could rise as high as £10m for Ivan Toney, who’s never played regularly north of League One. They do so safe in the knowledge that Said Benrahma’s value hasn’t been affected as much as it should by him taking a drone on holiday to film him having a haircut, and that Championship player of the season Ollie Watkins is in high demand. Brentford want the thick end of £50m for the pair which is putting off West Ham, Aston Villa and others but it’s win win for the Bees. If they stay for one more season their team would be a frightening prospect and easily the best anybody will face all season – for real this time, not just in an imaginary justice league. If they go, then it’s yet more money to spend on picks from a recruitment and scouting department doing as good a job as any in world football at the moment.
Our prediction: 2nd Pending departures between now and the end of the window. They’ll have to cope better with no longer being the underdog than they did in July though.
What happened: 3rd -1 Benrahma and Watkins did get their moves and once more Brentford carried on regardless. Second looked on for much of the season, with a 22 game unbeaten run at one point and Ivan Toney smashing the division to bits (albeit that 33 goal total does include a rather eyebrow-raising 12 penalties), but a spring wobble meant the play-offs again. Bournemouth’s decision to try and time waste their way through the thick end of 120-minutes of semi-final football did for them in the semis and Swansea were blitzed in the final. A first top flight campaign in 74 years awaits.
4th Swansea (we said 10th +6)
We said: I’m not sure I could watch Swansea play in Steve Cooper’s style every week, certainly not without the company of a good book, but they made the play-offs last season whatever anybody says about him and them, and that’s four places better off than the much-praised Potter managed with a bigger parachute payment. So much of Cooper’s appeal seems to be his connections and reputation from his spell in the England youth set up and the possibilities that opens up to the club in the loan market. They’ll do well to get anywhere close to the quality of Gallagher and Brewster again – noticeable how Charlton went from midtable pre-Christmas to relegated after it when Gallagher was moved to South Wales by his parent club – but Wolves’ Morgan Gibbs White could be a good start. From incredibly promising beginnings he’s rather been putting the lifestyle into footballer’s lifestyle of late and many in the West Midlands have lost patience after his involvement in one of those super spreader lockdown parties. Lynn, these are sex people. I like all the signings they’ve made, in truth, but a prolific striker will be required to maintain last season’s performance and they were utterly shambolic at Newport in the cup at the weekend.
Our prediction: 10th
What happened: 4th +6 A second consecutive season of underestimating the Swans (we had them thirteenth when they made the play-offs the previous year) but still no promotion as they once again fell foul of Brentford in the knock-outs. There’s something about these modern progressive managers that makes them over-think their big occasion when it arrives, the Swans made personnel and system changes for the Wembley final and were blitzed in the first half before reverting to the shape they’d been in for the majority of the season for as long as it took Jay Fulton to get sent off.
5th Barnsley (we said 15th +10)
We said: This Season: We’ll talk a lot in this section about the ever-widening gap between the Championship and League One. Barnsley, like Luton, have got over the hurdle of staying up in their first season. That’s not all they’ve got going for them. Their young squad of players has another year of Championship experience, and is bringing form, momentum and confidence into the new campaign after the barnstorming end to 2019/20 just six weeks ago. Struber has impressed, and had been linked with Watford. Their stats and data-driven approach to recruitment makes them an absolute darling of the trendy analytics community and xG nonses, who nod sagely and talk about how shrewd it is whenever they pick up 18-year-old Goran Los Austriavic from Rapid Vienna’s Lithuanian feeder club for a bag of Cadbury’s Chocolate Buttons. I’ve seen them rated as high as sixth in some previews and it’s rare to find anybody tipping a club that has yo-yoed between this division and the one below, and would have gone down last season but for the Wigan scandal, being relegated this year. There are clearly worse teams than Barnsley, and we haven’t put them in our bottom three either, but last season’s top scorer Cauley Woodrow is being linked with Boro, Derby and others while Alex Mowatt is also being tipped elsewhere. Right winger Jacob Brown went to Stoke for £2m today. Lose those two and their attempt to extrapolate form from an intense do-or-die block of nine games in June and July out over an entire season may be more challenging than many are making out.
Our prediction 15th
What happened: 5th +10 Woodrow and Mowatt stayed, Struber left and Valerien Ismael took a team that won none of its first seven league games into the play-offs with an opinion-splitting blow torch-style of football that much of the division struggled to cope with. Swansea beat them in the semi-finals but Ismael was the manager of the season by a street. Maybe the Xg nonses had a point.
6th Bournemouth (we said 9th +3)
We said: Bournemouth have already brought in £60m in player sales this summer with Nathan Ake going to Man City and Aaron Ramsdale continuing to yo-yo between Dean Court and Bramall Lane. Callum Wilson will almost certainly follow once the haggling with Aston Villa and Newcastle has got closer to the £20m + Matt Ritchie that Bournemouth are after. Baby-faced David Brooks will be next, once the Premier League wakes up to the fact he’s by far the best player the Cherries have got. There’s also been some blood letting of big earners, and old stagers who’d perhaps been kept around a little too long – Andrew Surman, Charlie Daniels, Simon Francis and Jordon Ibe have all gone on frees, the latter just three years after costing the club £17m. With that, the parachute payments, and the rich owner who bankrolled their last Championship promotion campaign, Bournemouth should be flushed enough to make a decent fist of an immediate return, but there have been no new arrivals as yet (pending that potential Ritchie swap deal) and horror stories of £80m still being owed in back transfer fees are doing the rounds. They look, like Stoke, Sunderland, QPR and others before them, like a club that never entertained relegation as any kind of a remote possibility and failed to put the requisite contingency planning in place. We know how that tends to go.
Prediction: 9th I’m probably completely wrong, it’s happened before, but I don’t fancy them, and think I might even be pretty generous predicting top half.
What happened: 6th +3 Although Bournemouth did better than we predicted, making the play-offs, much of what we thought of them was true. They impressed nobody for the majority of the campaign, replacing caretaker manager Jason Tindall with caretaker manager Jonathan Woodgate two thirds of the way through, and rather gatecrashed the play-offs with a seven-match winning run out of the blue through February and March. Spent most of their semi-final with Brentford trying to waste time and deserved everything they got. Posted a £60.1m loss in their accounts.
7th Reading (we said 17th +10)
This Season: 2020/21 was to be the first full one in charge for the Mark Bowen-Mark Bowen director of football-manager dream team and they quickly moved to pick up Josh Laurent, who’d been a star of the QPR youth team when Mark and Spark were paying Ji-Sung Park the debt of a third world nation to play in the Loftus Road midfield ahead of him. Ovie Ejaria also returned permanently for a fee of just £3.5m – an extraordinary bit of business, tremendous value, Championship deal of the summer by a mile.
We spoke earlier about Huddersfield perhaps unwisely deciding a truncated summer of just six weeks, with no income coming through the turnstiles, was a great time to start chucking babies and bath water around, ripping up the whole plan and starting all over again. Well, if you’ll just hold Reading’s beer for a moment, they decided to do likewise, but halfway through that pre-season. A “strategic review” was held (love a good strategic review) which concluded that manager Mark Bowen and director of football Mark Bowen should merge back into the single Mark Bowen because, frankly, one’s e-fucking-nough, and that single entity should get back into the “business of winning professional football games” from his old position in the boardroom. They neglected to agree this with him, or even tell him about it, prior to announcing it, naturally, and so he was left to take charge of a pre-season friendly with Spurs having already been effectively sacked, while his team then jetted off to Portugal after the game to meet his successor.
CEO Nigel Howe was also shipped out. Bit too safe, bit too competent, bit too ‘knows what he’s doing’ and that sort of thing. Owner Dai Yongge has given the job to his mate Dayong Pang instead – totally unqualified for it but fucking good on a night out, you should hear his Lady in Red. Here’s a course with some chest hair. Bowen’s replacement as manager was initially meant to be Aleksandar Stanojevic who’d previously managed one of Yongge’s other clubs in China – of course - but when he turned it down they just picked another page at random in the Belgrade phone book and ended up with, checks notes, Veljko Paunovic instead. His career so far includes stints in charge of the Serbian national youth sides, impressively winning the 2015 World Cup at U20 level, and 100 games with the Chicago Fire in MLS.
Much like Birmingham, this looks a poorly run club with just enough quality in the team and poor quality rivals around to never quite fall through the trap door. Wouldn’t take much though.
Prediction: 17th Built like a steak house. Handles like a bistro. Out of control.
What happened: 7th +10 Seven wins from the first eight games threatened to make us look very stupid indeed but they lost the next four in a row, and finished with one win from 12 to miss the play-offs entirely which, with the talent they have across the midfield in particular, has to rank as a missed opportunity however chaotic the summer had been.
8th Cardiff (we said 5th, -3)
We said: Would I want to pay to watch Neil Harris football every week? No. But then, would I want to pay to watch Steve Cooper football every week? Also no. Belting it down the field, smashing people about, taking every free kick and throw in quickly and just heaving it in behind to turn the full backs around, pumping balls ever higher into the air while the throngs cry MIIIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL. Not for me Clive. But then, Harris worked on one of the division’s lowest budgets at Millwall, and while he’d clearly come to the natural end of his time there when he departed, he’d previously enjoyed long winning runs and pushes towards the play-offs at the expense of other better financed and resourced clubs with supposedly far superior teams on paper. There can be a rather snobbish attitude to modern football, that if you’re not pisballing about with split centre halves and short goal kicks then you’re not doing it properly, and if you beat a team that is doing that by heading a couple of goals in off set pieces then somehow it’s a hollow success, and the moral victory belongs to the other side. Well you play like that if you must Gary/Steve/Barry but Jean-Paul and I will stick to our ethos over here thank you very much indeed. The fact is quite a lot of the football that’s supposedly pure of the driven snow can be utterly tedious to watch while Harris has shown over a long period of time that he can turn out a well-drilled, well-coached, effective Championship team, albeit not one that’s going to win many friends. Given what he inherited, the shortcomings of which were brutally exposed at Loftus Road in January, I thought his second half of the season was remarkable, and with a couple more additions to join Kieffer Moore and Arsenal starlet Jordi Osei-Totu I think they’ll go really well again.
What happened: 8th -3 Well, they did go well, and didn’t miss the play-offs by much, but only once they’d ditched Harris after seven losses in eight games (culminating in QPR’s latest win in South Wales) and put their trust in Big Mick McCarthy who won seven of his first eight and didn’t lose until game ten. Ultimately had left themselves a bit too much to do to make the six. Spending north of £4m to borrow Liverpool’s Harry Wilson for a while… not a conspicuous success.
10th Middlesbrough (we said 8th -2)
We said: Warnock’s “come in to help Steve out until the end of the season” has, shock horror, turned into “I’m going to have one last crack at it, oooooo I’m like Red Adair me” and most of Boro’s prospects this season hang on the extent of the Neil Warnock Effect. They’ve shifted a number of big earners from an exorbitant wage bill, but Ayala, Friend and Shotton were all regulars in a defence that had already lost Ben Gibson and Aden Flint in recent times and it remains to be seen whether injury prone Grant Hall, part of a QPR defence that’s shipped 70+ goals a season for three years in a row, is the stellar free transfer addition and leader-in-waiting they believe him to be. He remains Boro’s only signing so far, despite a steady stream of links to players who’ve gone elsewhere, including QPR targets Charlie Goode, Rob Dickie and Luke Amos. How many of those links were genuine and how many were simply agents and lazy hacks sticking Middlesbrough into stories because both club and manager are rather prone to a trolley dash I’m not sure – certainly Amos never rang true as a target. He seems relaxed, and there will inevitably be more arrivals, but a legitimate question was raised during the week about why a player would move himself up to the North East when he knows the manager is likely a one-season thing and then who knows what beyond? Besides the obvious of course.
Prediction: 8th And that’s five or six places higher than I’d be predicting with any other manager.
What happened: 10th -2 A significant improvement on Woodgate’s 2019/20 which wasn’t a million miles away from ending in relegation, but lacked sufficient ability, particularly in attack where £22m-worth of Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher have now been released on free transfers, to trouble the top six. Essentially gave up on the final two months of the campaign.
11th Millwall (we said 6th -5)
We said: Rowett, much like Gary Monk, has been threatening to be a big breakout managerial success in the Championship for some time. Erudite, thoughtful pundits with notable early success on their CVs, they’ve both since done well in certain places, and less well in others, failing having spent money at Stoke and Middlesbrough respectively, both getting chewed up and spat out by the farce that is Birmingham City. While Monk looks to have landed himself in a fine mess at FFP-afflicted Sheff Wed, Rowett looks and sounds like a perfect fit for Millwall. The budgetary restrictions are well known but Millwall have a good, solid team, well drilled and aware of its strengths and weaknesses, that didn’t need major surgery but had perhaps just been underperforming a bit. There’s some talent here too, Jed Wallace chief amongst it, and in a truncated summer that other clubs have found tricky to recruit in, Millwall look to have done extremely shrewd business, albeit mostly on loan. I love Woods, as if that wasn’t obvious enough already, and would walk over broken glass in my bare feet to get him to Loftus Road. If they get the extremely promising youngster bit of Troy Parrott’s reputation rather than the difficult to handle gobshite then theirs is a varied, difficult to mark attack which will cause teams problems – Matt Smith’s 15 goals in 23 starts and 21 sub appearances looks remarkably like the record we bombed him out to get Hugill and Wells in on loan for.
Prediction: 6th I like them,and I think they’ll be in the six. Manager suits them. Recruited well.
What Happened: 11th -5 Perhaps not a surprise, but the lack of crowds hurt Millwall more than most. Only Rotherham, Derby, Forest and Birmingham won fewer home games than Wall’s seven. Troy Parrott didn’t score at all, and spent the second half of the campaign doing the same for Ipswich – part of an eye-catching collection of strikers (Parrott, Keneth Zahore, Matt Smith, Tom Bradshaw, Jon Dadi-Bodvarsson) who scored just ten goals between them in the league all season. Won two of 19 league games from the end of October to the end of February.
12th – Luton (we said 19th +7)
We said: Like Barnsley, they’ve cleared the substantial first hurdle of coming up and staying up. Jones said the club’s League One budget would have been so miniscule he’d have ended up playing himself such was the “embarrassing” level of wage they’d be able to offer potential new signings. Summer transfer activity has focused primarily on their leaky defence, with Tom Lockyer a clever free transfer pick up from Charlton, though they’ll suffer for not having Cameron Carter-Vickers back from Spurs following his impressive loan spell in the second half of last season. Jones’ attempt to force the midfield diamond and wing back system that had worked for him so well at Kenilworth Road onto a Stoke squad without the personnel to execute it cost him his job there, and he’s moved quickly to secure specialist wing back Rhys Norrington-Davies on loan from Sheff Utd to prevent that happening again. In a market where Ivan Toney fetches up to £10m it’s amazing there isn’t more chat about striker James Collins, who returned to action with a hat trick against Norwich in the League Cup last week after 14 goals in a struggling side last term. One would think/hope Sluga can’t possibly be as daft this season as he was last, and Jones will surely tighten the defence up to a certain extent, which should be enough for survival.
What happened: 12th +7 Luton continue to be one of the more unheralded success stories of the new data-driven recruitment techniques – Bedfordshire’s premier wedding venue Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall the latest big hit as the Hatters continue their record of finishing higher in the league year-on-year through Nathan Jones’ time in charge of the team. Jay Socik, the man behind the pioneering Blades Analytics scial media account, has been made head of recruitment analysis under Mick Harford. Smart club doing smart things, we undersold them significantly.
13th Preston (we said 12th -1)
We said: Preston have not had a good 2020 so far. They won only two of their final 12 matches either side of the lockdown and fears they may have stagnated will not have been eased by a summer transfer window which so far shows no new additions. They beat Mansfield 4-0 in the cup at the weekend, and former Oxford man Ryan Ledson has hinted in lockdown that he might finally be finding the form that got him noticed in League One in the first place which would be a marginal gain on last season. Likewise Tom Bayliss, signed to great fanfare and promise from Coventry a year ago but remarkably only used twice from the start and twice from the bench since. Preston, like QPR, have suffered in the striker market, unable to turn Bristol Rovers’ Billy Bodin, Exeter’s Jayden Stockley or Motherwell’s Louis Moult into another Hugill or Robinson-type success story and taking uncharacteristically silly punts on David Nugent and Scott Sinclair as a result. They’ll need an existing squad member to step up in attack, or a new option to materialise in the permanent or loan market in the next month, if they’re to avoid the drift at the end of last season to turn into a permanent midtable malaise in 2020/21.B
What Happened: 13th -1 We were pretty much spot on with this one. Ryan Ledson did indeed finally step up to the level, taking the club’s Player of the Season award, but overall this was a squad coming to the end of its cycle and requiring a significant refresh. Bodin has been released, Stockley ended up at Charlton, Scott Sinclair top scored with nine, Darnell Fisher and Tom Davies got cut-price moves elsewhere and Alex Neil paid for a run of three wins from 18 with his job. Won the last four to put a kinder gloss on the finish.
14th Stoke (we said 11th -3)
We said: Having loaded themselves up on exactly the sort of flawed, ageing, big name, high earners from Kia Joorabchian’s client log that Mark Hughes so loves, been relegated, and spent the last two years trying to shift them and draw the wage bill down, Stoke have now spent this summer bringing in James Chester (31), Steven Fletcher (33) and Jon Obi Mikel (33) to inject some hungry, youthful enthusiasm into their team.
What Happened: 14th -3 Another we’re claiming as a successful call, three places off our prediction and nursing a biblical injury list of more than a dozen first teamers for much of the campaign including exciting young striker Tyrese Campbell whose knee disintegrated in December. Posted a loss in excess of £90m in their latest set of accounts, down to a mere £43m once “exceptional items” were removed. Jordan Cousins is the only senior man out of contract this summer but 20 deals are 12 months from expiry, including 13 over 30s and star man Nick Powell. There’s a reckoning coming.
15th Blackburn (we said 14th -1)
We said: In the same way the Connor Washington transfer caused QPR problems long after the player had failed and moved on, Blackburn are rather hamstrung by the ongoing underperformance of two players who represent significant outlay in the transfer market. Unlike Washington, who was bought from the division below after one hot streak at Peterborough, Ben Brereton and Sam Gallagher looked like reasonable, if rather over-priced, punts having both played well at this level before and, in Gallagher’s case, enjoyed a productive season on loan at Ewood Park. Neither has fired though: Brereton has only started 14 games and come on as a sub that many times again, scoring twice, while Gallagher scored seven times in 44 appearances last season. With Danny Graham’s Indian summer now over it’s left Rovers heavily reliant on the enigmatic Bradley Dack, who they need to come back good and strong from a season ending knee injury, and Adam Armstrong, finally fulfilling his undoubted potential but now being linked with moves back upstairs, even potentially back to boyhood club Newcastle. With the money, some £12m of the money, spent, the Covid-19 pandemic biting into club finances, and FFP limits already being pushed close, new arrivals have been thin on the ground for a squad that looks short. Tony Mowbray really needs more than a couple of those four players to stay, play, and play well if a terminally leaky defence isn’t to get them into a few difficulties in 2020/21. Do like Lewis Travis though.
Prediction: 14th-ish again Personally I much preferred this lot when they were chucking live roosters at each other.
What Happened: 15th -1 Although we called this one right, subsequent to the preview Blackburn went on a late recruitment drive that brought in the division’s young player of the season Harvey Elliott from Liverpool and previously outstanding left back Barry Douglas among others. At that point, and with Adam Armstrong really hitting his straps with 29 goals, we quite fancied Rovers for a top six push but a combination of underperformance and injury kept them where we felt they would be originally. A run of one win from 15 through the back half of the campaign leaves Tony Mowbray under pressure going into 2021/22.
16th Coventry (we said 18th +2)
We said: Coventry are not only back at the Championship level after eight years away, they’re back in the second tier just two years after playing in the fourth. That rapid ascension is challenge one, and challenge two is hitting the ground running in this new league having not played any competitive football at all since March 7. In their favour is a proper length of summer and pre-season which other teams have not had – they played Glasgow Rangers in their first pre-season friendly in July. Kyle McFadzean didn’t look like a Championship centre half during his previous crack at this level with Burton, but there’s been plenty of transfer activity to prep them for arrival and a recruitment department that hasn’t got too much wrong of late had the Twitter analytics accounts moistening at the tip over the arrival of Brighton centre back Leo Ostigard on loan following a successful stint at St Pauli in Germany. Gustavo Hamer to stiffen the midfield and Marcel Hilbner for the wide areas have also drawn knowing nods from the sort of people who know who Gustavo Hamer and Marcel Hilbner are. Tyler Walker found himself buried by the never ending avalanche of big money new arrivals at Nottingham Forest and will welcome a run at a Championship season as a club’s main man. And, of course, the issue of playing in front of tiny crowds, miles from home, at St Andrew’s isn’t nearly as big a problem for them now nobody’s got any fans at their home games. Robins another unfashionable manager doing great things almost completely unheralded in the wider footballing world.
What Happened: 16th +2 Looked in very serious trouble at one point, perilously close to Rotherham who had multiple games in hand and a home game with Cov to come, but that turned out to be one of five wins from the final eight matches which saw them survive with plenty to spare and land almost exactly where we expected. Played some very nice football in a back three formation, with Gustavo Hamer one of the finds of the season. Could go very nicely back at the Ricoh in 2021/22 with that important first survival hurdle cleared.
17th – Forest (we said 4th, -13)
We said: It’s the first time in ten years that Forest start a season with the same manager they started the last, and given how last season ended, and his overly negative tactics in the lockdown, there’s more chance of me managing them after Christmas than him unless this goes very well very quickly. Another half a dozen players have already been brought in, four of them past 30, the youngest is 26. It’s their year. Again. Of course it’s their year.
Prediction: 4th Followed by some sort of gloriously convoluted two-legged play-off semi-final catastrophe.
What Happened: 17th -13 The most Foresty Forest season that ever did Forest. Brought in another 14 players, swelling the bomb squad further and adding things like Loyal Taylor’s £30k a week and 100% of Luke Freeman’s Premier League salary to their wage bill. Got involved in a bitter dispute with the league over not being allowed to bring in Kamil Grosicki as number 15 after the deadline. Lost the first five, won one of the first ten and three of the first 20 to kill the season upon its arrival. Lamouchi was indeed immediately sacked, replaced by Chris Hughton who set about drawing his way out of the relegation trouble they’d landed themselves in. Along with Derby they were our biggest miss prediction wise and, frankly, I’m annoyed with myself because if you read the write up we knew exactly what they were prone to doing and called them fourth anyway.
18th Birmingham (we said 20th +2)
We said: I feel like we give Birmingham a kicking in this preview every year and it’s done with a heavy heart because we’ve made a lot of good friends there over our prolonged Championship stay, and their trip to W12 has become one of the highlights of the season down the Crown and Sceptre. But it’s difficult to look at them and not conclude that under the ownership of Trillion Trophy Asia this is a very poorly run football club. The evidence is everywhere. Football finance expert Kieran Maguire points out that between 2016 and 2019 Birmingham spent £109m in wages on an income of £74m, before you even start to factor in outlay on transfer fees. Jude Bellingham’s big move to Dortmund this summer keeps the wolf from the door but they have breached FFP on more than one occasion, and breached the transfer embargo forced upon them by those rules. One points deduction has already been metered out. They change managers frequently, hopping from one style and ethos and one classic Championship trope to the next – Rowett to Zola to Redknapp to Cotterill to Monk to Clotet. We called their twentieth place finish last season, just two points north of the relegation zone, absolutely spot on in this column last year.
This summer, having talked last year about a more progressive, attractive, forward thinking style of play under Pep Clotet, they’ve once again changed manager and once again gone in completely the opposite direction with Aitor Karanka. He did, fair play, get Middlesbrough promoted from this league once upon a time. But his attempt to keep them in the Premier League with a flat back ten and Alvaro Negredo up front - and the football his teams play in general - was unwatchable. His mini-Mourinho ethos of being a danger to yourself with the ball and on the attack is now so outdated it’s not even working for the actual Mourinho any more. Not only that but he’s proved such a prickly character in his previous jobs – his relationship with the hierarchy at Nottingham Forest collapsed six months into a three year deal and he asked to be released from his contract – that he even managed to fall out with his own players and the “dream chairman” Steve Gibson at Middlesbrough to such an extent that he walked out and didn’t attend a game at Charlton away with Boro pushing for an actual promotion. Throwing him in here, with problematic CEO Xuandong Ren already under pressure from supporters over recruitment of players and managers and interference in team affairs, looks like a recipe for three months of dirge on the pitch followed by a less than amicable Christmas parting.
Brum were unbeaten in 13 when they drew at Loftus Road in February, but that owed much to the form of loan striker Scott Hogan who scored in that 2-2 draw and finished with seven goals in 16 league outings. He has not returned. They finished last season without a win in any of their final 15 games, losing eight and drawing three of the final 11 fixtures and, as we keep reiterating, those sorts of runs are difficult to snap out of over the course of a normal close-season, never mind a truncated six week break. Having allowed Lee Camp, Connal Trueman and David Stockdale – presumably traumatised by the exams crisis, hello to both regular readers – to depart they come into Saturday’s game without a senior goalkeeper. Andres Prieto has been signed as a number two, and will step up, but a protracted chase of multiple targets, including Charlton’s Dillon Phillips and our own Seny Dieng, has come up blank so far.
They will, in our opinion, once again be relying on the incompetence of others.
Prediction: 20th Off on the b of the bang with Huddersfield Town in the race to appoint Mick McCarthy manager for a rescue job.
What Happened: 18th +2 Aitor Karanka, as predicted, continued to give the impression that he hates the sport and everybody within it, leading an obviously unhappy group of players through a miserable winter in which they won just two of their 17 home games. Having belatedly admitted Karanka is useful only for putting patients under for major surgery without the use of an anaesthetic they were able to tempt former player Lee Bowyer from his firefighting job at Charlton, and however shambolic things are and remain at Birmingham it’s nothing compared to the nonsense he had to put up with there. Subsequently climbed away to safety.
19th Bristol City (we said 13th, -6)
We said: A protracted search for a new manager led them through interviews and links with Championship perennials Chris Hughton and Alex Neil, a leftfield suggestion Steven Gerrard was on his way, and a conspiracy theory that the Cowley sisters had been trying to engineer a move here from Huddersfield, hence their surprisingly abrupt sacking in West Yorkshire. With City talking up a new direction of travel, with a focus on youth, and improved style of play, the only surprise was that the grifter’s grifter Pep Clotet didn’t get involved somewhere along the way. Weeks this went on for before they appointed Lee Johnson’s coach Dean Holden into the full time role instead, which had the sorts who keep a spare pile of bed sheets on retainer should an angry message need putting across at short notice arise reaching for the black poster paint.
As is customary in these scenarios, helpful bits and pieces started to leak out about the process to make the Holden appointment seem like absolutely, definitely not just the cheap option. Ooooooh you should have sat in on Hughton’s interview. Dreadful it was. Dreadful. Bored the crap out of people. Holden had indoor fireworks at his, and some vague promise about promoting youth and playing faster, more attractive, attacking football, while presumably not advocating for this approach when he was coaching the team previously.
I don’t know, it just feels like City have been on the cusp of something for a while and missed the boat. The threat of Diedhiou leaving amidst ongoing contract negotiations to be replaced by Chris Martin lingers after they agreed to pick up his McDonalds tab from Derby. Joe Williams looks a shrewd pick up from stricken Wigan but Alfie Mawson will need to find his first injury-free season in four to stiffen a defence that’s suffered from a talent drain of Flint, Webster and Kelly in recent years. They’ve got players I like, but as we said with Bournemouth we’re never likely to put too much faith in a club promoting an existing assistant or coach to manager. Having tipped them for second last year when they ended up twelfth, maybe they’ll reverse it this year and make us look daft again – wouldn’t be the first time.
What Happened: 19th -6 Much like Preston, a squad that had knocked on the door of the play-offs for a few seasons without breaking through hit the downward slope of its cycle, though in Bristol City’s case it felt more like a cliff edge. The summer flip and flop over managers ended with Dean Holden, which smacked of a cheap option, and when this notoriously streaky side hit a seven match losing run that included a 6-0 at Watford he was toast. Nigel Pearson coughed the team into life with a couple of victories, but QPR’s 2-0 victory at Ashton Gate was as comprehensive as you’ll see and Millwall keeper Bartosz Bialkowski commented publicly that they were one of the worst, most disinterested teams he’s ever seen at this level when Wall’s 4-1 win at The Den contributed to no wins at all from City’s final ten games of the season. Pearson has the job permanently regardless, 11 senior players have been released, and substantial rebuild awaits.
20th Huddersfield (we said 21st +1)
We said: There are three traits you often see in Championship football clubs who’ve fucked up, know they’ve fucked up, and are trying to extricate themselves from the enormous hole they’ve dug for themselves by rebelling against English football’s received wisdom. All are in play as the division returns this weekend.
And then there’s Huddersfield, for whom a survival they were lucky to achieve after two years of solid shit was tainted by the way in which it was attained. Pragmatic, effective, Championship channel-ball has been replaced by new fangled Johnny Foreigner think tank, this time in the form of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds coach Carlos Coberan whose only previous number one jobs have been in Saudi Arabia and Cyprus. I smell the sticky finger of an agent poking around in here somewhere. Expect much sucking of teeth and fretting about the apparently many varied complex intricacies of this dog league from learned scholars Don Goodman and Danny Higginbotham as they shuffle their feet and shake their heads and bemoan the lack of opportunities in the game for hard working British coaches like Paul Hurst and Aidy Boothroyd.
This looks a tough job for anybody. Huddersfield have essentially been a bad team playing very poorly and losing most weeks for more than two years now. But is this shortened close season, with a transfer window open deep into the new campaign, money scarce without crowds and declining parachute payments, really the time to embark on a complete overhaul of team, squad and style with a left field appointment? In a week’s time are we expecting 30-something centre backs Christopher Schindler, Tommy Elphick and Richard Stearman to suddenly turn into ball players? Perhaps Town will be rewarded for taking a radical approach to solving their problem, or more likely punished further for taking a huge risk handing a job that even the most experienced managers at this level would struggle with. If you nailed me to the wall and made me bet on it, I’d say four of these experiments go wrong for every one that goes right, and they’re in the shit.
Prediction: 21st Another narrow escape, ground out with three wins and a draw in their last eight fixtures under new manager Mick McCarthy.
What Happened: 20th +1 Pretty much as we expected, though they missed the Mick McCarthy boat and did manage to stick with Bielsa-bud through to the bitter end. Trying to solve the problem of not having players who could do as the new coach wished by adding everybody’s favourite owl-eyed hot mess Richard Keogh to the back line was a fairly predictable accident waiting to happen – they won only three times after the turn of the year, a run that included a 7-0 at Norwich and 5-2 at Blackburn. Ultimately grateful for the shambles at Derby and Sheff Wed, and budgetary restrictions at Rotherham and Wycombe or they’d have gone.
21st Derby (we said 7th, -14)
We said: Derby have a few things going for them this season. They have Rooney from the beginning this time, and as much as we take the piss and question the legitimacy of the deal that got him here, they were a far better team with than without last season. The crop of youngsters that emerged last season, with Sibley the headline act among them, are another year and set of Championship appearances wiser than they were last season and there are others – Festy Ebosele, Eiran Cashin, Archie Brown, Jahmal Hector-Ingram – chomping at the bit. And it looks a weaker league than last year. QPR’s five permanent signings is, relatively, a lot with 17 of the teams signing fewer than that, two of them (Bournemouth and Preston) yet to sign a player at all and Middlesbrough, Cardiff, Huddersfield, Watford, Reading and Bristol City making just a couple of additions or less. Almost every club in the division has sold and released more players than they’ve brought in. Derby’s form in the second half of last term suggests an improvement on tenth in this environment should be well within their grasp.
Prediction: 7th Three caveats: it’s pending additions to the attack; we’d written it before the two departures this week; they were already only that high partly because we just don’t like anybody else this season.
What Happened: 21st -14 Our biggest miss by a mile. There were no further additions to the attack, and they attempted to do a full Championship season with on oversized Colin Kazim Richards alone up front. The youngsters who’d impressed at the end of the previous season either regressed, vanished from view, or were sold. The team stopped playing for Cocu because they wanted Rooney in charge, which when it came to pass simultaneously robbed the team of its most influential player while installing a novice manager with little idea what he was doing. They were ok when Krystian Bielik was fit, but he never was, and never has been. All of the “Melnomics” which Derby fans previously rejoiced “had the Championship on strings” started to come home to roost with a succession of alarming financial results, court rulings, player fire sales and increasingly dodgy failed takeover results. The entirely predictable outcome of the employment tribunal resulting from sacking Richard Keogh but keeping Mason Bennett and Tom Lawrence was another £2.7m down the plughole. With 20 minutes of the season left they were relegated, and few owners, clubs, managers or sets of players would have deserved it more. An absolute state.
22nd Wycombe (we said 23rd +1)
We said: Budget and resources, along with ongoing suspicions about whether their patented style of play will wash in the higher league, make them an obvious pick for the bottom three. Bigger, more well resourced, promoted teams from League One than them have struggled to stay in this league over the last few years as the gap between second and third tiers have become a chasm. But Wycombe did not look uncompetitive, nor a long ball side, in drawing at Brentford in the League Cup last weekend and any team taking this fixture lightly will be given the bloodiest of bloody noses. High press, high energy, physical, fast, determined and awkward.
Joe Jacobson could play left back for most clubs in this league and the thought of QPR facing his set piece delivery is frightening. I saw Wycombe five times last season and centre back Anthony Stewart was the outstanding player on the pitch each time, particularly the play-off semi-final second leg against Fleetwood Town and then again against Oxford at Wembley. Heads it, kicks it, smashes people up, and stands in the right place at the right time. Every. Single. Time. He was rewarded with a two-year contract extension, I’m astonished more clubs haven’t had a look. David Wheeler, never given a fair crack of the whip in the right position at QPR, will also be keen to show what he’s about at this level.
If Wycombe can be strong at home, and maintain the high press energy on the road through a gruelling season, they could do enough to post a total and ask serious questions of clubs whose budgets dwarf theirs but common sense, management and club ownership are lightyears behind.
What happened: 22 +1 On top of everything else Wycombe had to overcome, they lost their first seven league games of the season and took until round nine to register a win. From there they accumulated 43 points, relegated by just one, and were technically still in with a shout right down to the final day. They were beaten 5-0 at Blackburn early, 7-2 at Brentford subsequently, but other than that were an awkward, obstinate, committed opponents. They won six and drew two of the final ten games and had the season gone on a week longer, or they’d got to grips with it a week sooner, would have survived at the expense of a hapless Derby outfit.
23rd Rotherham (we said 22nd -1)
We Said: Too good for League One, not good enough for the Championship, and it’s highly possible that could prove to be the case once again for the South Yorkshire side. The summer additions lay bare the budget they’re working to and the challenges of that, though Chelsea’s perennially loaned goalkeeper Jamal Blackman could be a good shout if he can get himself fit – Rotherham had Fulham’s Marek Rodak on loan in goal last time they were at this level. One of the more remarkable footballing turn arounds in recent Championship history was how Semi Ajayi went from one of the worst centre backs we’d ever seen on a ground once graced by Gus Caesar when Rotherham lost 5-1 at Loftus Road in 2017/18, to one of the best in a 2-1 win in 2018/19 and he was promoted to the Premier League last year with West Brom. Rotherham might be bringing another star in waiting in that position with them this time in the form of Michael Ihiekwe who made the League One team of the season at centre half alongside our own Rob Dickie.
The key to their survival will lie in the away form. They simply must, find a way of putting even occasional points on the board away from their tidy New York Stadium. Their win at Loftus Road in 2018/19 which cost Steve McClaren his job at QPR was, infamously, not only the solitary away win they managed in the entire season, it was also the only one they’d managed in three years having finished their 2016/17 season with zero away victories. Committing more men to the attack on the road will help – two new wingers are among the summer additions – and a prolonged period of playing in silent grounds behind closed doors could by very good for Rotherham indeed in this respect.
We’re going to put them in our predicted bottom three – a team with this budget in this league is always going to find it tough and their previous form makes it an obvious pick. But, as we’re going to say with Wycombe and Sheff Wed who are both also favourites to drop for obvious reasons, there’s a lot of drek at the bottom of this league, several clubs lucky to stay up last year after off-field collapses at Charlton and Wigan, several clubs that have been appallingly run for years and may be ready to Hull City it off the side of a cliff. It’s probably their best chance for a while of playing Championship football for keeps this time around.
Prediction: 22nd. But there are plenty of others well in the mix this time.
What Happened: 23rd -1 Better and more competitive than previous seasons at this level – exemplified by six away wins for the campaign compared to one on the road in two years combined previously in the Championship. Ultimately hamstrung by a series of Covid and bad weather postponements which left them with a mountain of games in hand, most of them, extremely winnable, but no time at all to fit them in. Killed by a fortnight in which they had four consecutive home games against QPR, Birmingham, Middlesbrough and Coventry but won one and lost three. A real victim of circumstance.
24th Sheff Wed (we said 24th, =)
We said: Wednesday last year like Huddersfield this were a handy outside bet for relegation for the season preview writers, and had the 12 point deduction been applied when it surely should have been then that’s exactly what happened. Colossal amounts of money were thrown at a Championship promotion attempt early in Dejphon Chansiri’s reign as chairman but the boat was missed during Carlos Carvalhal’s time in charge with play-off defeats to Hull and Huddersfield. It’s since been a sorry tale of loss chasing, desperately trying to come up with ever more convoluted ways to support the bulging wage bill of a hopelessly lopsided and injury prone squad and dodge the league’s FFP rules. They did the Derby Country-patented sale and leaseback of the stadium, and then tried to put it in an earlier set of accounts to get round the league rules, resulting in the points deduction. Supporters were offered the chance to buy a four-figure, three-year Premier League season ticket in advance, non-refundable and active only if and when the club ever gets to the top flight. There were lifetime memberships, and names in special books, and plaques on seats offered, if supporters would only just chuck another grand or two the club’s way. Come up to Eccleshall Woods at dusk on a Thursday, do an Irish jig in a designated clearing and wait for a man to approach, he’ll offer you a box which you must pay £500 to see inside, and it might be something nice but probably not, and you can then choose to keep that or swap it for a second box held by a troll at the end of a rope bridge - upon payment of a further £250 and the correct answering of three questions on the life and times of Roland Nilsson – which will contain either five consecutive seasons of Champions League football or a signed Atdhe Nuhiu jockstrap from that time he snuck a 25-yard banger through a tear in the fabric of reality at Loftus Road. All a bit Geoffrey Richmond at Bradford City for my liking this, and we know how that ended.
“Wouldn’t take much for this go all graphite on the roof” was our conclusion of their 2019/20 prospects and with 12-point penalty belatedly now in place, it’s time to wake the local executive committee. As discussed, there’s a whole lot of sludge at the bottom of the Championship this season, and if you had to pick a year to start behind the pack this might well be it. Wednesday only need to make it to 60 points to escape. They must overcome not only the mental element of starting so far behind, but also the fact that a player willingly walking into such a situation is probably exactly the sort of care-free, mercenary gobshite who doesn’t give a single fuck how Sheffield Wednesday do this season as long as he gets paid, which is exactly what you don’t need when you’re trying to extricate yourselves from a tight spot. And lo, so arrived Josh Windass, Elias Kachunga, and Chelsea’s perennially on loan, constantly injured, Izzy Brown. Kenneth Zohore has also been linked. Chey Dunkley looks a good pick up in a problem position from Wigan though, in fairness. Much of the transfer activity has been about shifting out ageing, injury prone, expensive failures from previous aborted promotion attempts. Steven Fletcher, Fernando Forestieri and Sam Winnall all departing at once represents a huge chunk of salary, but also leaves them with the artist formerly known as Jordan Rhodes as their only striker. And remember, since the turn of the year, Wednesday have no more looked like a team capable of reaching 60 points at this level than a fucking space rocket.
Prediction: 24th: Though we may just be being lazy and taking the easy way out with the points deduction. If there ever such a thing as a good Championship season to be starting -12 points it’s probably this one.
What Happened: 24th = Everything you would expect and more. The fighting spirit of the players they did haul in perhaps bast exemplified by a record of 22/22 defeats when conceding the first goal. Izzy Brown was, indeed, absent for most of the proceedings. Garry Monk was sacked, replaced by Tony Pulis for 20 minutes or so, who was then replaced by Neil Thompson for an extended caretaker spell, then Darren Moore from Doncaster, and then Jamie Smith when Darren Moore fell in. Somehow, for a glorious five minutes on the final day, and only after the points deduction was halved on appeal, they were safe, but they turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 defeat to a dreadful Derby side and fulfilled our pre-season prediction.
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Letters from Wiltshire #48 by wessex_exile
“And now the end is near, and so we face the final curtain…regrets, we’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention”. Not quite right Paul Anka, probably more than a few, but otherwise a fair assessment of where the U’s are today. It’ll be interesting to see how we perform with the relegation monkey finally off their back – I’m not expecting miracles, particularly with Tranmere needing at least a point to guarantee making the play-offs, but they’ll certainly be more nervous than we will be, so can we make that count? This will be my last blog of the season, and not yet sure what I may or may not do for next season, but suggestions are always welcome.
Letters from Wiltshire #47 by wessex_exile
Here we are, at the penultimate game of the season, and our last game in front of the cardboard U’s faithful at the JobServe. It has been a long, difficult, and definitely strange season, which frankly I’ll be glad to see the back of. That’ll we’ll be here again in August is definitely going to be something to celebrate, but I suspect we’re facing a summer of significant rebuilding both on the pitch, and possibly off it too. I won’t be the only one, but the biggest oddity for me has been being able to watch every single game – not always easy viewing, but something I’ve never done before, and probably never will again. But it doesn’t really make up for not being there in person, the long train journey away-days, meeting fellow U’s and other supporters, and of course sharing a beer or three. Fingers-crossed we can return to the terraces in 2021/22.
Letters from Wiltshire #46 by wessex_exile
That was quite a week for us all then. In the space of four short but remarkably tense days we have gone from having to take shoes and socks off to check how many more points we need to guarantee survival, or whether we would even achieve it, to breathing a huge sigh of relief knowing we’re almost there. But close of play this afternoon, whether by our own actions or the failure of others, I am sure survival will be confirmed. Of course, Tuesday night not only all but guaranteed it, it also virtually condemned local rivals Southend United to non-league football for the foreseeable. Looking at the host of fully professional former football league sides currently battling it out for the two promotion slots out of the National league (including Hartlepool, Torquay, Stockport, Wrexham, Chesterfield and Notts County), it is not going to be a walk in the park for Southend to return any day soon.
Letters from Wiltshire #45 by wessex_exile
Tonight, Colchester United face Southend United in what may not necessarily be the most important game of our respective histories (though it’s certainly very close), but is almost certainly the most important Essex derby ever. However this season pans out, by the end of it there’ll either be only one team in Essex, or worst case scenario, none at all. If the U’s win, then Southend will be 9pts behind with just three games to go, and a minimum of a -12 goal difference to overturn if they want to overtake us. Certainly mathematically possible, but that would rely on a remarkable turnaround in their form, form that they’ve shown precious little sign of achieving so far this season. The stalking horse is Grimsby, with their game in hand, who have rather belatedly shown an improvement in form, so their match against automatic promotion chasing Morecambe tonight is equally important, particularly if we want to avoid the unthinkable, with both Essex clubs dropping out of the league.
Letters from Wiltshire #44 by wessex_exile
So here we are, as the nation mourns the passing of His Royal Highness, Duke of Edinburgh, the U’s face the first of two season-defining moments, with our late kick-off match at home to Walsall. Before then, no doubt many will have been focused on events elsewhere, not least the early kick-offs for Grimsby (at home to promotion-chasing Bolton Wanderers), and particularly Essex rivals Southend United, who faced a tricky visit to Exeter City – still very much in the hunt for at least a play-off spot. As I finalise this blog, I know that Grimsby have beaten Bolton 2-1, and Southend earned a credible 0-0 draw in the West Country. More to the point, the U’s will know this too. Whilst I can’t help but feel that will ought to be to our advantage, it surely must also put additional pressure on a squad whose confidence is paper-thin. We must hope that Hayden Mullins, assisted by Paul Tisdale, get their heads right, and send the lads out this evening fired up with self-belief.
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