Thursday, August 06, 2009

A whole new ball game

(aka the first part of our Championship preview)

I think I can safely speak for most fans when I say that this season is set to be very much a leap into the unknown. Here at Black & White & Read All Over, I think we both consider ourselves to be fairly knowledgeable about the beautiful game, but now, faced with the prospect of running the rule over our rivals in what is considered to be a fiercely fought and very open division, that confidence is rapidly waning.

Perhaps our ignorance is understandable - we've had a relatively single-minded focus on the league we were in for the past 16 seasons. Or perhaps, if you're an opposition fan and want to be more critical (and let's face it, there are few who don't), it's symptomatic of at best complacency and at worst downright arrogance. Either way, please forgive the inevitably partial and no doubt ill-informed pen pics which follow, and head over to The Two Unfortunates for more considered, astute commentary.

If it seems a long time since we were rubbing shoulders with Barnsley in the top flight, then that's because it was - twelve years ago. Widely tipped for a season of struggle they may be, t'Tykes can still count on the services of the heroes of their 2007-8 FA Cup victories over Liverpool and Chelsea, striker Kayode Odejayi and former Man Utd understudy Luke Steele; of Jon Macken, who's a reminder that Man City paying over the odds for strikers is nothing new; and diminutive ex-Leicester forward Iain Hume, who sustained a fractured skull and internal bleeding last November and will be keeping a careful eye out for Chris Morgan's elbow when they play local rivals Sheffield Utd.

Now here's a real blast from the past - back when hob-nail boots were de rigeur, breaking a 'keeper's neck was above board, the pre-match meal was a couple of lumps of coal and a pint of bitter, and we actually won those trophy-shaped things. Blackpool were the club we defeated in the 1951 FA Cup Final, and new signing Billy Clarke sounds like a bruising, Brylcreemed throwback to that era, but is actually only 21. A rather more modern football phenomenon is the Latvian sugar daddy president (in this case Valeri Belokon) whose cash has already enabled the permanent signing of Rangers winger Charlie Adam for a club record £500,000. With quote merchant Ian Holloway back in management, expect post-match interviews to be as entertaining as the football - if not more so - but, having failed to keep Leicester up two years ago, we've a suspicion that Holloway's level is at best Championship management, in which case, Blackpool will probably spend much of the year looking down not up.

Bristol City
Pipped by Hull in the 2008 Play-Off Final, City are one of the few sides in the Championship not to have sampled the delights of the Premier League. Gary Johnson has decided the man to help them to change all that is Celtic midfielder Paul Hartley, and certainly the capture of a player with recent Champions League experience is a coup likely to have been met with cider-slurred exclamations of "Gert lush!" in the red half of Brizzle. Another arrival is Welsh international defender Lewin Nyatanga, still young enough to deliver on his considerable promise, while pacy winger Ivan Sproule is a danger man. Two players unlikely to see much action, if any, are tubby striker Lee "Trundle By Name, Trundle By Nature" Trundle and fans' favourite Brazilian 'keeper Adriano Basso, now on the transfer list after rejecting a new contract.

A shocking run-in last season meant that the Bluebirds missed out on the play-offs, which was all the more galling because the difference was one solitary goal - had they lost 5-0 rather than 6-0 at Deepdale, it would have been they who went forward and not Preston. Defensive rock Roger Johnson has since left for Birmingham, to be replaced by Charlton's Mark Hudson and Walsall's Anthony Gerrard (so be warned: if you're out on the tiles in the Welsh capital, don't get caught slagging off Phil Collins - Anthony's cousin may be paying him a visit and might open a can of "self-defence" on you). Comedy will be in shorter supply now that Fulham loanee Eddie "USA! USA! USA!" Johnson isn't around to score at both ends, and they'll need to settle quickly in their new home. But even if Ross McCormack does toddle off to Hull, Michael Chopra is a proven goalscorer at this level (even if he couldn't do it for either us or the Mackems in the top flight), and if both Joe Ledley and Stephen McPhail raise their games then Cardiff are a reasonable shout for the play-offs.

We were sent to Coventry (nowhere near as bad as being sent to Milton Keynes, believe me) in last season's League Cup, and the resulting 3-2 victory was the last game before everything turned to complete shit, so we'll not be looking forward to facing them again. Star players Daniel Fox and Scott Dann, who arrived at the Ricoh together from Walsall in January 2008, have both moved on to Celtic and Birmingham respectively. Whether they can keep clear of the relegation zone depends on a few factors: whether Chris Coleman will get to invest any of the rumoured £6m received; whether Sammy Clingan and Michael McIndoe can bring their craft to bear on the Sky Blues midfield; and whether arguably the Championship's most eccentric strikeforce - a Romani (Freddy Eastwood), a player nicknamed Zorro for wearing a face mask (Leon Best), and someone who qualified to play for the Republic of Ireland because he once had a pint of Guinness and who wears 1+9 on his shirt (Clinton O'Morrison) - can function together.

Crystal Palace
What a combination: Colin Wanker, the man in the dugout who everyone (us included) loves to hate, and Simon Jordan, the flash slick-haired bigmouth with skin the same lurid orange colour as Blackpool's shirts. The Eagles haven't been flying high for some time now, and that doesn't look as though it's about to change any time soon. That said, they've got some useful youngsters, Victor Moses being the pick; Freddie Sears is a very useful addition on loan from the Hammers; and we saw enough evidence first-hand to know that on his day, and given a bit of freedom and a bit of protection, Darren Ambrose is more than capable of piercing defences (hopefully not ours, though). One question: just how stern will Stern John be if he finds his route to the first team blocked by Moses, Sears and Alan Lee?

Saul Deeney? Miles Addison? Giles Barnes? At a quick glance you could be forgiven for mistaking the Derby team sheet for the class register in a boys' boarding school. Inevitably, all of the focus will be on whether Nigel Clough, in his first full season in charge at Pride Park, can really prove himself to be a chip off the old big ruddy-red block by beginning to bring about a return to the halcyon days of the 70s. Barnes has been stagnating for a little while now, and a loan period at Fulham during which he made zero impact did him no favours, so he too has plenty to prove. Striker Rob Hulse and wily ex-Forest attacking midfielder Kris Commons - who won the Derby fans in the best way possible in his first season at the club, by scoring an FA Cup winner at the City Ground - will both be key figures if they're to push for the play-offs. And then there's Robbie Savage, who you can guarantee will be a key figure in some capacity at some stage of the season.

Sean O'Driscoll's side are perhaps the most unknown of the unknown quantities set to face us this season. Having survived the last campaign against the odds, they're unlikely to be afforded the opportunity to rest on their laurels and in fact must be among the favourites for relegation - not least because Richie Wellens and Matt Mills have both moved on for seven-figure fees, though ex-Man Utd midfielder Quinton Fortune has swapped Italy for South Yorkshire. Ever wary of the frequency with which the "Fenton Curse" strikes, we'll need to keep a very close eye on our former youth team players Lewis Guy and James Coppinger. Also worth bearing in mind is that if we run out of attacking ideas against Donny, we could always try a lob from the halfway line - after all, it caught Neil Sullivan out when some chap called Beckham tried it in 1996, and the 'keeper's nearly 40 now and so likely to backpedal even slower these days.

Confession time. By virtue of having several Norwich-supporting friends, I have a natural antipathy towards their tractor-riding brethren south of the border, and so the managerial appointment of one Royston Keane - dog-walker extraordinaire and a man Graham Taylor claimed on Radio 5 was clearly suffering mental problems towards the end of his time at Sunderland because he grew a beard - only sealed the deal. He should feel at home, having already added two more Irish players (Colin Healy and Damien Delaney) to take the number in the squad up to eight, and will also be appreciative of Ben Thatcher's history of violent conduct. Clearing up the crumbs from beneath his old mentor Taggart's table in the form of picking up winger Lee Martin could pay dividends if Keane can finalise the deal for Watford's Tamas Priskin and find the right partner for him - and not walk out in a huff with the job half-done. Animosity towards the figure in the opposition dugout will however be briefly laid to one side the first time we play Ipswich this season, at least, as both sets of fans pay tribute to a common hero, Sir Bobby Robson.

Second half to follow tomorrow.


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