Saturday, August 08, 2009

A whole new ball game

(aka the second part of our Championship preview, the first part of which can be found here)

Foxes fans have no doubt spent the summer sighing with relief that they didn't do a Leeds and find their first season outside the top two divisions had turned into another one. That they returned to the Championship at the first attempt was largely thanks to a host of factors they still have in their favour: a wealthy backer (Milan Mandaric); a manager who seems to have hit his stride (former Newcastle assistant Nigel Pearson); a rookie centre-back who's made his loan deal from Liverpool permanent in the wake of winning the Supporters Club Young Player of the Season (Jack Hobbs); and a free-scoring striker who notched hat-tricks in successive games last season (Matty Fryatt). But not all is rosy in Pearson's garden: club captain Stephen Clemence missed the entire promotion season through injury and is still not recovered, while England U21 left back Joe Mattock has ruffled feathers by saying he wants out on the eve of the season.

How good of our fellow North Easterners to keep us company on our journey through the relegation trapdoor. Of the many reasons why we weren't able to put the gas masks into storage, the prime one was probably the fact that the Smoggies mustered just 28 goals in their 38 fixtures last term. Stewart Downing has flounced off to Villa, taking his preposterous claims to a place on the left side of England's midfield with him, but Gareth Southgate is as amazed as the rest of us that Tuncay remains at the club - surely not beyond the end of August, though. Podgy multi-million-pound strike pair Afonso Alves and Mido began pre-season where they left off in May - AWOL - leaving Southgate looking like a supply teacher unable to control his pupils. Boro have however been the beneficiaries of Reading's mystifying decision to release Leroy Lita, while David Wheater and a productive youth set-up should stand them in good stead for an assault on the title. Get off to a bad start, though, and Steve Gibson's patience with Southgate might finally run out.

Nottingham Forest
Forest's experience last season should serve as a warning to any fans of East Midlands neighbours Leicester who've got grand ideas now they're back in the Championship. Expectation levels became disengaged from reality and the Tricky Trees only narrowly avoided returning from whence they came. Not that they've abandoned grand ideas as a result - quite the contrary, their ambitious summer recruitment programme suggests a determination to compete at the right end of the table. No fewer than five loan signings have been made permanent, including full-back Chris Gunter (unlucky to get barely a sniff of action at Spurs) and former Southampton and QPR blaxploitation porn star Dexter Blackstock, while Billy Davies' capture of former charge Paul McKenna (not that one) from Preston could prove inspired. No doubt the "Scabs" chant will be dusted off and directed at the home fans when we pay a visit to the City Ground in October, but there'll be rather more affection in the away end reserved for Forest's assistant manager - one David "Ned" Kelly, whose 1992 goal against Pompey saved us from sliding into the third tier for the first time in our history.

If Nigel Clough sometimes thinks he has it tough living in the formidable shadow of his famous father, then at least he has the consolation of knowing Old Big 'Ead's achievements are all in the past. Spare a thought, then, for Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson, whose even-more-red-faced dad is still alive, well and collecting trophies in the same way that Jose Enrique plays for us - regularly and without much effort. A poor man's Darren Fletcher with a mediocre playing career at Man Utd, Wolves and Wrexham behind him, Fergie Jr pitched up as manager at London Road in January 2007 and guided his new side to promotions in successive seasons. Among the players at his disposal for the forthcoming campaign are England U21 'keeper Joe Lewis, goal machine Craig Mackail-Smith and Tom Williams, who has been signed by Posh no fewer than six times in his career (three loan moves subsequently made permanent) and who is married to perhaps the WAG to end all WAGs, glamour model and I'm A Celebrity... star Nicola McLean.

While Peterborough - two hours or so straight down the East Coast Main Line - promises to be one of the easiest away day trips of the season, we're not looking forward to the trek over to Pasty Country (though at least the fixtures computer has been kind and not scheduled it for a week night, or Boxing Day, as usual). It's a bit grim out west if you're a Pilgrims fan, too. Long gone are the likes of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, David Norris, Akos Buzsaky and Peter Halmosi who nearly helped the Pilgrims into the play-offs, and Paul Sturrock's second spell in charge isn't proving as successful as his first. The Scotsman's attempts to rehabilitate fallen stars in the form of Emile Mpenza and Simon Walton failed, and it was largely thanks to an on-loan duo from Blackburn, Paul Gallagher and Alan Judge, that Argyle stayed afloat last season. Judge is back, again on loan, and with new signings Bradley Wright-Phillips and Icelandic international Kari Arnason lining up alongside up-and-coming talent like Ashley Barnes, they should have just about enough to beat the drop again.

The phrase "there or thereabouts" might well have been invented with the Lilywhites in mind, were it not for the fact that they're all too often thereabouts rather than actually there - which must have made it all the more galling to see near neighbours Burnley scrape their way into the Premier League in May. The eternal play-off contenders have a canny manager in Alan Irvine, who is doing a good job of taking after his mentor at Everton, David Moyes, a man who knows a thing or two about achieving success at Deepdale. But if they're to join the Clarets in the top flight (or, more likely, replace them), then they'll need to overcome the considerable blow of losing Paul McKenna to Forest and to ensure Ross Wallace supplies the ammunition for their triumvirate of unnervingly square-jawed strikers Stephen Elliott, Neil Mellor and Jon Parkin to capitalise on.

In many ways the league's biggest enigma, QPR are a pie in which no fewer than three exceedingly rich men - Bernie Ecclestone, Flavio Briatore and Lakshmi Mittal - have their fingers. When they took charge two years ago, Hoops fans could have been forgiven for anticipating a major very-little-expense-spared shopping spree, but it never materialised - and still hasn't. While there are undoubtedly some decent players at the club, certainly at Championship level - 'keeper Radek Cerny, flashy winger Wayne Routledge, mercurial attacking midfielder Adel Taarabt (on loan from Spurs) and a familiar face in Peter Ramage - there isn't the real star quality that you might expect from a side with such illustrious benefactors. Even more puzzling was the appointment of Jim Magilton as Paulo Sousa's replacement - a man sacked by Ipswich for failing to live up to the far more modest demands of the Tractor Boys' hierarchy. How long before Messrs Ecclestone, Briatore and Mittal tire of their toy and move onto something else?

There aren't many clubs in the Championship who can claim to count among their playing staff someone of whom Petr Cech, one of the Premier League's most assured 'keepers, is genuinely scared. OK, so that isn't purely because of Stephen Hunt's abilities as a footballer, but the Irishman's certainly a useful asset at this level. For the second successive summer the Royals have flogged their star striker to one of the nouveau riche top flight new boys - Dave Kitson repaid Stoke's £5.5m investment with precisely no goals, so Wolves will be hoping for a rather better return on the £6.5m they shelled out for Kevin Doyle. If the Royals' attacking edge has been dulled, then at least the centre of defence looks more robust thanks to the arrival of Matt Mills from Doncaster. The feeling persists, though, that this is a club on the slide - something Steve Coppell implicitly acknowledged when he quit in the wake of May's play-off exit - and third will be beyond them this time around, particularly under an unproven manager in Brendan Rogers.

Where to start? Well, with the obvious, I suppose: as last season's League 1 Play-Off Final winners (3-2 over Millwall), Scunthorpe are probably favourites for the drop. Naturally they'll be hoping their stay in the second tier is rather longer than it was last time around (a single solitary season), and that the bouncebackability that helped them regain their Championship status at the first attempt translates into resilience in adversity this year. No doubt it's my ignorance that's to blame, but scanning the squad list doesn't throw up any vaguely familiar names other than that of Northern Ireland international midfielder Grant McCann, once of West Ham. Not to worry, though - my guess is that over the course of our two meetings a few of their players will helpfully take the opportunity to introduce themselves by scoring...

Sheffield Utd
There's always talk of imposing quotas on clubs, but I hadn't realised that Sheffield Utd had introduced one of their own - that at all times there must be two players called Kyle on their books. Manager Kevin Blackwell signed up dyslexics' son Kyel Reid from West Ham and then, realising he now had three, was delighted when Spurs swooped for Kyles Naughton and Walker to indulge their fetish for right full-backs, but offered to loan Walker back to them. The Blades squad, which already included former Aston Villa workie ticket Lee Hendrie and pensionable once-of-this-parish midfielder Gary Speed, now also boasts beak-nosed winger Glen Little, a pair of players on loan from Blackburn ('keeper Mark Bunn and winger Keith Treacy) and £3m striker Ched Evans, who, finding himself 167th in line for a starting place at Man City, has made the move to South Yorkshire to partner lanky Darius Henderson up front. Their most colourful character is rotund 'keeper Paddy Kenny - the man who once had his eyebrow bitten off in a brawl with a friend who had slept with his wife begins the season suspended after failing a drugs test. The Blades shouldn't need to resort to illicit methods to secure automatic promotion.

Sheffield Wednesday
Over on the other side of t'Steel City, the team whose blue and white striped shirts sometimes make them look like those cheap off-licence carrier bags are experiencing something of a renaissance under Brian Laws. Two eyecatching new free transfer signings in the close season are ex-Mackem and Monkeyhanger midfielder Tommy Miller and central defender Darren Purse, once upon a time rumoured to be interesting Arsenal when he was at Birmingham. Wednesday's defence - which includes the young prospects Mark Beevers and Tommy Spurr - boasted the best home record in the division last year, but the real star is Marcus Tudgay, who won both the PFA Fans Championship Player Of The Year and Sheffield Wednesday Player Of The Year awards and who remains with the club despite a summer bid from Burnley. Opening day opponents Barnsley will need to be wary - the striker scored all of 30 seconds into Wednesday's last campaign. Or they could just hope he suffers another injury like the one sustained in 2006, when he missed the start of the season after standing on broken glass at a barbecue...

When I say Swansea were last year's surprise package, I'm not talking about the sort of surprise package we'd like to leave under ASBO's car. The danger, of course, is that expectation levels in Wales' second city will have gone through the roof as a result, and that this season they'll be less like a surprise package and more like a Christmas parcel containing pair of trousers hand-knitted by your gran. Roberto Martinez has been lured to Wigan by Dave "Dignity" Whelan, taking Spanish loanee Jordi Gomez and Trinidadian striker Jason Scotland (or is that Scottish striker Jason Trinidad?) with him, to be replaced by Paulo Sousa, the man given the boot by QPR for divulging state secrets or something. Martinez's legacy is a sizeable Spanish contingent - including highly-rated rhyming left-back Angel Rangel - to which the Swans have added a new Jordi, Jordi Lopez, over the summer. Convicted burglar Nathan Dyer has also been recruited (from Southampton), but the Swans' slim chances of repeating last season's 8th place rest largely on whether influential Dutch midfielder Ferrie Bodde decides he still does like to be beside the seaside.

Losing your key target man just a day before the start of the season could hardly be considered ideal preparation - but that's what's happened to Watford, who've seen Tamas Priskin jump ship to Ipswich. Even with ex-Smoggie Danny Graham having joined Tommy Smith earlier in the summer, the move leaves the Hornets extremely light up front. Rookie manager Malky Mackay - installed after Brendan Rodgers did one to Reading, much to the disgust of the fans - has at his disposal a tough American captain (Jay Demerit), a lively Jamaican international winger (Jobi McAnuff), a one-time Chelsea star (Jon Harley) and a goal-shy full-back named after one of those bits of lace pensioners insist on putting underneath everything (Lloyd Doyley), and has also followed Bristol City manager Gary Johnson's lead and signed up an experienced Scottish central midfielder, Aberdeen's Scott Severin. But an arduous struggle for survival looks likely, and there could be a sting in the season's tail for the Hornets.

West Brom
Lastly but not leastly, the side most people - myself included - are tipping to finish as champions. The reasons are several: they know exactly what it takes to win the division, having done so two seasons ago; with the exception of Paul Robinson and loanees Marc-Antoine Fortune and Ryan Donk, they've retained the squad that won them plaudits in the Premier League last year despite suffering relegation; they have arguably the best 'keeper in the league in Scott Carson, as well as a midfield quartet (Robert Koren, Jonathan Greening, Chris Brunt and James Morrison) and an array of strikers (Ishmael Miller, Luke Moore, Roman Bednar, Craig Beattie and ex-Swindon hotshot Simon Cox) that are the envy of the division. Spanish midfielder Borja Valero and the superbly named Gianni Zuiverloon need to start living up to their sizeable price tags, and new boss Roberto Di Matteo may find Tony Mowbray a tough act to follow, but the odds on the Baggies boing-boinging back up at the first attempt are good.


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