Tuesday, June 26, 2012

New kids on the block

Euro 2012 has given Lloyd and Lanterne Rouge of Football League blog The Two Unfortunates the opportunity to enjoy a well-deserved breather - but, with things pretty quiet on this front too, we seized the opportunity to ask Reading fan Lanterne Rouge what we can expect from the Royals and the two other clubs who last month waved the Championship goodbye to return to the top flight, West Ham and Southampton.

Alan Pardew must have taken a sharp intake of breath on three separate occasions in recent months, for the trio of clubs that are joining the EPL bun fight for the final year before the TV money goes stratospheric were all once stewarded by the Londoner.

Perhaps more than any other club, the public image West Ham United enjoy is at odds with the way they are portrayed in the press. To the Fourth Estate, they are those jovial bunch of cheeky Cockney caperers, the anvil on which World Cup victory was forged and a national treasure; to the rest of us, this is profoundly mystifying.

With the so-called Academy of Football’s grant long since rescinded by the Inner London Education Authority, the blunt-edged nature of the Hammers’ tactics was even more palpable in 2011-12 – unsurprisingly given the arrival at the helm of Mr Sam Allardyce. Indeed at one point the big man himself called into question the myth of the club’s reputation as a foundation school for the finer arts.

But West Ham did show remarkable nerve in seeing out a nervy run-in after Reading had come to Upton Park and sailed to a 4-2 victory at the end of March. In particular, a tough Blackpool side were defeated in the play-off final at Wembley and there is no question that the ex-Toon boss has fostered a resilience that was absent under previous managers Avram Grant, Gianfranco Zola and … er … Alan Pardew.

The visit of the Irons on 10th November will, therefore, be pregnant with the revenge impulse as both Pardew and Allardyce look to put one over former employers. Big Sam has never been one to avoid the transfer market, however, and it’s likely that his squad will sport a very different sheen from that which ended the season victorious.

Kevin Nolan will be most familiar of course – he again enjoyed a successful campaign slumming it in the Championship, but he’s two years older and seemingly two years angrier than the man who swept all before him as a Magpie in 2009-10. Ahead of Nolan, the Hammers possess a clutch of strikers seemingly recruited to secure promotion before worrying about anything else and given the limited impact Sam Baldock and Nicky Maynard had in Football League waters, it’s unlikely that they, nor those twin Freddies, Piquionne and Sears, will feature much from August.

But Carlton Cole, despite a mediocre season by his standards, should be relishing a return to a league where a dozen goals constitutes a good return while mid-season recruit Ricardo Vaz Tê has a chance to confirm the immense promise he showed at Bolton as a teenager – he could well be the East Londoners’ trump card while they try to do extra business.

The midfield is peppered with experienced but far from long-in-the-tooth players and the ever bubbly Mark Noble will continue to be vital, while Matty Taylor, Jack Collison and Gary O’Neil are joined by an astute acquisition in Mohamed Diamé – his robustness will help offset the reputation the claret and blue have for flimsiness and will allow Allardyce not to repeat the questionable experiment of deploying James Tomkins in the water-carrier role.

Tomkins will start in central defence but Abdoulaye Faye has moved on, necessitating the purchase of a new central defender. Jonas Olsson is the latest rumoured target although such is the Swede’s dependability that a bigger club than the Hammers may come calling. Nor do the club look particularly well served in the full back positions – a group of excellent youngsters including Daniel Potts (son of stalwart Steve) are unlikely to be blooded this early – while Robert Green has also moved on.

So it’s a ragbag squad perhaps a little too full of the personnel who were found wanting under the Grant regime. Expect wheeler-dealing aplenty down the Boleyn Ground this summer.

From this vantage point, Southampton look expertly placed to "do a Norwich" and therein may lie their chief problem – Premier League clubs (including Newcastle) will be much readier for the promoted trio this year, especially when their star player and top scorer, Rickie Lambert, so closely resembles last year’s journeyman success story Grant Holt.

Nigel Adkins has been shrewd, however. The whistle-through-the-teeth £7 million – yes, £7 million – disbursed for elegant Burnley hit man Jay Rodriguez signals a determination not to stand still and both Lambert and Billy Sharp will feel the breath of the younger man at the napes of their necks.

The Saints also possess a midfield creator who it’s highly likely WILL be more than good enough for the top echelon; most observers feel that Adam Lallana has what it takes to make his second divisional step up in the space of a year with ease. Ditto Jack Cork, a wonderfully poised screening midfielder from the Chelsea production line and a man who has waited patiently for his chance at the top table.

After that though, things get muddier -  Morgan Schneiderlin has the tenacity to do a job in the way Norwich’s less heralded worker bees did last season but the lumbering Brazilian Guly Do Prado and perpetual bench warmers Steve de Ridder and Richard Chaplow are unlikely to feature heavily. Rangers’ forgotten man Steven Davis may plug a gap as the vultures circle over the Gers’ carcass.

The Hampshire men’s most talented defender is left-back Danny Fox, but then again he often lacks concentration and is much more effective going forward. Jos Hooiveld and José Fonte have served the club well and although this is the club where Francis Benali and Claus Lundekvam appeared in the Premier League year after year, reinforcements will be sought, as they may be for Danny Butterfield and Kelvin Davis, a classic line goalkeeper.

So at first glance it’s perhaps a surprise that Saints have spent so much of the available cash on Rodriguez – much work still needs to be done.

Champions Reading clinched an unlikely title after critical victories over their key rivals in the run-in, but the whimper with which they went down in a final-day reverse at Birmingham perhaps underlines the surgery that needs to be done.

So dominant were the Royals on being promoted previously in 2006 that Steve Coppell stayed loyal to those who had achieved so spectacularly, keeping the wage bill to sensible limits and being rewarded handsomely with an eighth-place finish.

This time, however, the summer has been dominated by the protracted takeover of Russian-backed Thames Sport Investment, which, having recently been rubber stamped, has seen its first, sensational results in the mooted signing of Pavel Pogrebnyak, a free agent after leaving Stuttgart and the author of six goals in eight games on loan to Fulham last spring.

In many ways, the varied reports of the wages being afforded to the Muscovite could make or break Reading’s prospects - £35,000 a week would be more than the Berkshire club has ever paid a player but would be in tune with the going rate; £65,000, currently being denied, would be a grotesque over-estimation of the club’s natural size and potentially lead to all manner of problems in terms of dressing-room jealousies and even a Portsmouth-style situation a few years down the line.

In January, Jason Roberts kickstarted the Royals’ promotion push but misses the first two matches through suspension and isn’t getting any younger. Elsewhere, the squad is woefully sort of top-flight experience and although 'keepers Adam Federici and Alex McCarthy and midfield dynamo Jem Karacan will surprise a few, there are severe question marks over the rest of the XI’s ability to compete.

Reading have relied on an expansive formation making liberal use of wing play in recent years, a style that may perhaps come back into vogue following Euro 2012 and it may actually be young Welsh international Hal Robson-Kanu who makes a greater impact than club captain Jobi McAnuff and the speedy Jimmy Kébé as the nights draw in, but Pogrebnyak, if his signature is secured, will be far from the only newcomer to the Madejski.

At the moment, hungry up-and-coming players from the Championship would appear to be the chief items on the shopping list – Garath McCleary has already joined from Nottingham Forest while the Biscuitmen are being heavily linked with underrated Watford centre back Adrian Mariappa as well as a man Newcastle fans will know well, Sébastien Bassong.

Thanks to Lanterne Rouge for his thoughts.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good, accurate article. Rare.

7:43 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

Thanks. But if you're saying that's a rarity round these parts, then do feel free to point out inaccuracies rather than sitting stewing on them.

1:36 pm  

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