Sunday, 2 August 2009

Championship Preview

I’m at a loose end and haven’t done any writing for a while, so here’s a Championship preview. It’s a tad epic, sorry.

Barnsley played a lot of good football last season and if Simon Davey had spent more time concentrating on matters footballing, rather than publicly mourning the loss of his star striker to injury, they would have stayed up far more easily than they did in the end. When they came to the Lane, they passed it about a lot and counter attacked well. In Campbell-Ryce they have a tricky, quick winger who’ll chip in with goals as well as creating them but they lack a real goal threat. Onome Sodje from York is not the answer and the loss of the statuesque German goalie Heinz Müller is a real blow. They’d achieve more under a more positive manager in my opinion.
Verdict: Relegation battle.

Blackpool are a poor side who, in my opinion at least, have only stayed up these last two seasons because there have been so many other poor sides in the division. Despite the appointment of Ian Holloway, who I like a lot, I really can’t see where the improvement is going to come from. Their only summer signing of note is the experienced Jason Euell, but you can’t see him being the difference between bottom half and top half of the table and he was hardly pulling up trees at Southampton. Only two Championship sides conceded more goals than Blackpool on their home patch last season, a record which will not be improved by the sale of Shaun Barker to Verdict: Relegation battle.

Bristol City look like being without want-away goalie Adriano Basso, who really impressed me last season. Dean Gerken has signed on a free, but he’s surely not the long term answer, although Lewin Nyatanga should be a useful addition to the City defence. The season before last, City rode the wave of their promotion and were on a high, reaching the play-off final, but last season they seemed to have been found out a little. This season, I can see envisage another backward step, unless they produce a quality ‘keeper from somewhere and add in a regular goalscorer. They will miss the physical presence of Adebola, who notched ten times last term to finish as their second top scorer.
Verdict: Mid-table mediocrity.

Cardiff City came to the Lane for a draw early last season and got it, in a physical, battling 0-0 draw. They looked solid and difficult to break down and they were nailed on for at least a play-off spot, before spontaneously combusting at the back of the campaign. With Heaton going back to Manchester United, they’ve signed the dodgy David Marshall from Norwich, who looked incredibly shaky for the Canaries at the Lane and who formed the backbone of the second worst defence in the league last year. Their other big signing so far this summer is Mark Hudson, the defender from Charlton, the side with the worst defensive record in the league last season! They have some talented attacking players, notably Ross McCormack and Michael Chopra who has made his loan permanent, but look ropey as anything at the back and I can see it being “as you were” for the Bluebirds.
Verdict: Play-off push.

Coventry City would be relegation material if it weren’t for their forward line. Leon Best, Freddie Eastwood and Clinton Morrison wouldn’t look out of place in any of the top sides in this league, but the rest of their side is just really poor. We drew with them early on last season despite having ten men for most of the game and conceding a penalty. They looked so poor, lacking a real cutting edge, despite the aforementioned names and they look even weaker this year, after releasing Mifsud and selling two key defenders, in Scott Dann and Daniel Fox. Similar to Blackpool, they just keep staying up because of the number of poor teams down the bottom end, but with the sides coming up looking a bit useful, they could really struggle this time out.
Verdict: Relegation battle.

Crystal Palace look to me as though they are going to struggle. They were not particularly impressive last season and Neil Warnock had to blood a lot of youngsters. You do wonder how much his heart is still in it, as he often spoke about retiring when he was still with United and a good few years have passed since then, with his side making no obvious progress on the field. Darren Ambrose should be a useful addition, though I’d rate outgoing winger Paul Ifill as better than Ambrose and in Stern John, they have a replacement for Kuqi, but again, I’d rate Kuqi higher than John. It’s going to take something special for them to improve on 15th place.
Verdict: Relegation battle.

Derby County are real dark horses this year. They struggled a bit last season, but they finished us off at their place when we were in our poor spell and when we beat them 4-2 at the lane, we never looked comfortable. How do you score four goals in a game and not feel certain to win? They played a mixed game, going long when needed but looking capable of passing it through you and that style of football is what gets you out of the Championship. I like Clough as a manager and with last season under his belt, his first full season in charge could ruffle a few feathers. With key players returning from injury and a couple of sensible additions this summer (Shaun Barker looks a good signing whilst Lee Croft gives them an extra attacking option) they have the makings of a top six side. They won’t win the league, but 25/1 is insulting and 8/1 for promotion, bearing in mind that includes finishing sixth and winning the play-offs, looks almost tempting.
Verdict: Play-off push.

Doncaster Rovers are a great little club. They really go about things the right way; they try to play good, passing football and I like to see them punching above their weight. In Wellens and Stock, they had a really good midfield pairing last season and if they’d got a 20 goal striker, they’d have been sniffing around the play-offs, I really believe that. They made us look like mugs at Bramall Lane, when we tried everything and couldn’t break them down, before resorting to hoofball – they made us look awful. The 2-0 win at their place flattered us too. The sale of Wellens will hurt them, but they’re never going to be able to turn that sort of money down. Unless they re-invest the money in a striker, the best they can hope for is to stay up again, but I can’t see them spending the sort of money required.
Verdict: Mid-table mediocrity.

Ipswich Town were no great shakes last season and I can’t see what all the fuss is about this term. To have them shorter than Sheffield United in the market is frankly bizarre, as they haven’t signed anyone of Earth-shattering proportion and if you look at the probable first eleven, it’s not going to strike fear into many people’s hearts, that’s for certain. The only striker they’ve got that I rate (Stead) wasn’t picked by Keane at Sunderland and their main strength is their solidity at the back, but big deal, many teams have that (including one Sheffield United). Bizarre. I think they’ll be one of a host of sides to flirt with the play-offs before finishing in an amazingly dull position, like 10th.
Verdict: Play-off push.

Leicester City look set to be the side that get promoted to the Championship and ride the wave, probably finishing in the lower reaches of the top half of the table. Their side is full of players with experience at this level, blended nicely with promising youngsters. N’Guessan is a real prospect and Hobbs has made his loan move from Liverpool permanent. Robbie Neilson and Richie Wellens are useful additions and crucially, they’ve held onto Matty Fryatt. On paper they look a better side than the likes of Coventry and Blackpool and it’s good to have them back at this level.
Verdict: Mid-table mediocrity.

Middlesbrough are too good for this division on paper, but it’s been a long time since they were at this level and you wonder how well they’ll adjust. Aliadiere, Tuncay and Mido are quality, but how will they respond to the lumps they’ll have kicked out of them, the fact that there’s far less time on the ball in this league and the trips to Plymouth and Scunthorpe on a cold, wet Tuesday night? I can see them struggling initially and I’m glad we’ve got them early doors while they’re still getting used to their new surroundings. If they win that opening game, they’ll walk this division. If they struggle and start slowly, questions may be asked, but I’m sure they’ll be winning games by September and I can’t see them finishing outside the top two.
Verdict: Promotion probables.

Newcastle United – it couldn’t have happened to a nicer club. If ever there was a blueprint for how not to run a club, it’s the barcodes. Stuck with a bunch of injury prone and past it mercenaries, with a wage bill the size of a pre-op Langham, they’re going to struggle to get started in this division. I’d back them to go down before I back them to go up and the odds of 6/1 for the title are hilariously short, but can you really see them outside the top ten in the division? Harper, Geremi, Martins… If they get to grips with the Championship, they ought to be running away with the title, but the pressure of expectation and a squad full of sulking prima donnas could spell disaster.
Verdict: Play-off push.

Nottingham Forest look as though they’re really going for it. They were poor last season, but they’ve chucked a few million at it this summer and are completely overhauling the side, bringing in no fewer than eight players. There’s a good blend of experienced Championship campaigners (Dele Adebola, Paul McKenna and Dexter Blackstock) and talented youngsters (Chris Gunter and David McGoldrick) but you can’t just piece together a side like that and expect it to click. They’ll stay up with ease having strengthened, but they might have to wait until next term to have a crack at the play-offs.
Verdict: Mid-table mediocrity.

Peterborough United are not a side I know a huge amount about, as they’ve won back to back promotions to get to this level. I hardly recognise any of the names in their squad and the ones they’ve brought in are mostly alien to me as well. The bookmakers have them priced similarly to the likes of Watford and Sheffield Wednesday, which suggests they have more than a chance of staying up, but they’re a complete unknown quantity, which will catch a few sides out with complacency. Will their players who have performed at the levels below the Championship be able to cut it on this stage? It’s difficult to say, anyone who gives a firm answer either way is basically guessing. I think he lack of experience at this level will be key, but in Ferguson, they have a forward thinking manager who is definitely going places.
Verdict: Relegation battle.

Plymouth Argyle were terribly inconsistent last time out, beating Coventry 4-0, drawing with promoted Birmingham 1-1 and yet losing 3-0 to Doncaster all in the last month of the season. To me, they look set for another struggle unless Sturrock can sort that out. The signing of Carl Fletcher and Bradley Wright-Phillips will improve their squad but the odds of 5/2 about the Pilgrims being relegated about right to me.
Verdict: Relegation battle.

Preston North End did well last season and they will have improved for that experience. They deserved their spot in the play-offs but being brutally honest, they were never going to trouble Sheffield United in that fixture and you would have expected any of the three play-off rivals to have comfortably brushed them aside. They will no doubt be sniffing around the play-offs again, but they have failed to strengthen this summer and have lost the influence of Paul McKenna, who played over 400 times for the club. You would feel that this season should be when they throw a bit of money at it and kick on, but they don’t seem to have done that and in standing still in this league, you’ll soon find you’re going backwards.
Verdict: Play-off push.

Queens Park Rangers were everyone’s favourites to go up last year, after the money men came in. It soon became apparent that they were totally awful and three of Billy Sharp’s tally of four for the season came in one game against them. Boy were they poor. Their side is full of average, journeyman players, such as Rowan Vine, Martin Rowlands, Mikele Leigertwood and Patrick Agyemang, while their new boss is also markedly average – Jim Magilton. They’ve just splashed £3.5 million on some Argentine kid that noone’s ever heard of and I’ll bet as much as you like that by the end of September, he’s fed up of Scunthorpe, Plymouth and Barnsley and he’ll be as much use to them as me.
Verdict: Mid-table mediocrity.

Reading are an interesting one, I don’t know what to make of them. They really pushed the self destruct button last season after a good time over the last few years under Coppell. He admitted himself he couldn’t work out was going wrong. Brendan Rodgers is a highly rated manager and it’ll be interesting to see how he gets on, as the pressure to succeed will be great. I used to be terrified of Reading but in beating them last season, we ended a very long run of poor results against them and I can honestly see the wheels coming off, they just don’t look that good on paper any more. They’re obviously going to be in the play-off hunt, but I don’t see them as the title contenders they once were.
Verdict: Play-off push.

Scunthorpe United will go down, I’m sure of that. They’ll get a few results here and there as anyone can beat anyone is this league, but looking at their side, there are only one or two left from their last campaign at this level and they don’t look any better for all the changes. Blades rejects Forte and Hurst are amongst their better players and League One really is about their level. It’s going to be a long hard slog for the Iron.
Verdict: Relegation battle.

Sheffield United were unlucky not to go up last year really, but sadly we choked on the big stage as we so often do. The truth is, if we’d been more clinical in just one or two games over the course of the season, the play-offs wouldn’t have been necessary anyway. Losing Naughton is a major blow, but the money has allowed us to invest in Lee Williamson and Ched Evans (whose stats don’t make great reading, I will wait and see before I proclaim him the new messiah as some Blades fans have done) and in Kyel Reid and Andy Taylor, we’ve added pace and attacking ability to our left hand side, which has been weak for some years now. These are young lads with potential to develop, which I’m happy with. Ryan France and Glen Little will give us further central midfield and right hand side options, assuming they can overcome their injury problems. Judging by the signings, we’re almost certainly going to play the dynamic 4-5-1 that served us so well last season, as we’ve hardly got any strikers but now have two wingers on each side, with Quinn and France able to play either wide or centrally, and Williamson, Montgomery, Howard and Hendrie all offering different options in the middle. Our strength last year was at the back, but that could be compromised with the sale of Naughton on the right, Naysmith missing the first three months injured and Paddy Kenny facing a ban of up to two years for failing a drugs test. For all the strengthening we’ve done in midfield (which was needed) I feel we’ve gone backwards in other areas and another play-off campaign sounds about right for us.
Verdict: Play-off push.

Sheffield Wednesday are not in the greatest shape. Brian Laws must be praised for the job he’s doing there, as they are punching well above their weight with their resources. They’re skint and their squad isn’t great, but they keep plugging on, threatening to make a late bid for the play-offs and never looking in danger of going down. Hell, they even beat us twice last season, though they were more than just a tad fortunate in the first of those two contests and Tudgay’s winner at the Lane was worthy of winning any match. In Grant, they have a quality young ‘keeper and Wood, Beevers and Spurr are great prospects at the back. The addition of Purse looks a sensible one and if Esajas, Jeffers and Sodje can stay fit, they might surprise a few. But the reality is they won’t - they must be the three most injury prone players in the division. They are going to be very lucky to hang onto all of their best players this side of January as they’re broke and if they don’t get a good start, they could be in trouble.
Verdict: Mid-table mediocrity.

Swansea City were over-hyped last season. Yes they pass it around and play pretty football, but how effective were they really? We were poor against them at their place and not much better at ours, but we had four points off them. They’re a wet dream for the purist, but realists like me need a bit of substance too and just five wins away from home is a shocking return for a side with genuine play-off aspirations. They’ll miss Scotland’s goals and new boss Paolo Sousa is inexperienced, hardly making much of an impact at Millionaire’s Playground FC before being sacked, so I’ve no reason to believe they’ll do anything much at all this season.
Verdict: Mid-table mediocrity.

Watford used to be a real bogey side for us, but now they’re more like our feeder club and I have no fear of them whatsoever. They are rubbish and their negative approach to their time in the Premier League was a real wasted opportunity. They’ve invested nothing in the playing staff over the last couple of years and they play in a crumbling rust bucket of a ground. I’m not sure why we keep signing their players to be honest, because they look for all the world like a struggling Championship side They look certain to lose Tommy Smith too, which would be a major blow to them, as I wouldn’t have a clue where their goals would come from if he left. If he leaves, I can see them going down, but if he stays, they’ll have a nothing season.
Verdict: Mid-table mediocrity.

West Bromwich Albion look the side best equipped to make an immediate return to the top flight after relegation. A sensibly run club, they would have been preparing for this season’s promotion push for the best part of a year. I would have fancied their chances more under Mowbray, as continuity is important and I question whether Di Matteo has the experience to get a side out of what is a very difficult and competitive league. Sure, he did well in his short time at the well-bankrolled MK Dons, but pretty football and money don’t get you out of the Championship. That said, they’ve kept their squad together and they look strong enough to mount a promotion push, with experience at this level (and higher) throughout the side.
Verdict: Promotion probables.

Here's my predicted table. I look forward to seeing how wrong this is come May.

Sheffield United
Newcastle United
Derby County
Cardiff City
Ispwich Town
Preston North End
Swansea City
Leicester City
Nottingham Forest
Bristol City
Sheffield Wednesday
Doncaster Rovers
Coventry City
Peterborough United
Plymouth Argyle
Crystal Palace
Scunthorpe United


TheHat said...

Epic stuff Dom, a very good read. I'm still convinced it'll be WBA that win.

Tinca Tinca said...

WBA for me too.

I also expect Palace to perform far above your expectations it seems.

Great Post

Paul said...

Make that 3 for WBA

moDtheGod said...

WBA looked distinctly average yesterday. When considering my predictions, I was very tempted to stick us in ahead of them but me being me, couldn't bring myself to do it. I'm far happier with our point away to Boro than they will be with their point at home to Newcastle.

It's still obviously ridiculously early, but I'm quite happy with my predictions so far.

George said...

Interesting to read this now with the benefit of hindsight.