The Long Read: 2018/19 – A Pre-Season Stream of Consciousness
The bunting has been swept into a bag for next time. The acrid smell of beer thrown into the air in celebration has been washed away. The last couple of weeks have felt like footballing nomansland. On the one hand, the World Cup feels as though it was simulaneously just in the palms of our hand hands and a million years ago. On the other, though, the club season doesn’t feel as though it should be starting for a few weeks. Yet it all begins again today. Actually, it began last night. That’s how omnipresent it is.
The Premier League has kept a low profile regarding the start of their new season next weekend so far, but it will doubtlessly be ramped up over the course of the next seven days, the nearest to a feeding frenzy that can be managed with an audience of diners who are a little bit full up and might have a degree of indigestion, too. Certainly the markedly low levels of movement in the transfer market have been such that some have speculated that clubs might even have forgotten that the transfer window now closes the night before the first league game of the season rather than at the end of August, as per previous seasons. Again, a late flurry could render the prementioned useless, but at the time of writing… that’s how it feels.
Seven days before the start of the World Cup, the Premier League dropped its neutron bomb, in voting to change the distribution of overseas television money in such a way that will benefit the biggest clubs. Currently, overseas television money is shared out equally amongst all clubs, but with this revenue area growing potentially vast – and who knows where it might end up? – the top six clubs, led by Manchester City and Liverpool, had been lobbying that, as the division’s big draws, they should get a bigger slice of the pie. The rights are currently worth £3.3bn and it seems inevitable that they can only increase from there, and any amount above that already received will, from the start of the 2019/20 season will be distributed according to league position. The best that can be said for this is that it’s entirely plausible that it will make no siginificant difference, that these six can already outspend anybody else in the Premier League should they choose to. But if that isn’t damning with faint praise, I don’t know what is.
For the vast majority of us, of course, this summer’s World Cup finals were a first introduction to VAR. Where people stand on it increasingly feels like a cultural question. This isn’t meant as a loaded statement. I don’t mean Brexit here, or anything. It’s more a matter that people have different visions of the game, and that these broadly fall into one of several categories. There are those who seek perfection, whose idea of the game is as something modern, and as such it has to be right. The other viewpoint sees football through its imperfections, its folklore through plain, old-fashioned human error. Personally, I waver from one side to another in an oscillating motion, and when it broadly gets things right, it does become substantially more difficult to argue with. For now, I sit on the fence, although I do consider its introduction – and, over time, far closer integration into the game – to be pretty much inevitable.
The Premier League
If we’re looking for the scientifically readable in particular, it’s difficult to argue a case that Manchester City won’t win the division for the second season in a row. They scored one hundred and six goals, twenty-two more than Liverpool, who scored the second most with eighty-four. They conceded twenty-seven, also the lowest in the division. They ran up one hundred points, and finished nineteen points ahead of second-placed Manchester United. It’s possible to argue that they haven’t received the praise that they deserve for such a performance, but what many consider “financial doping” may have an influence on stifling appreciation of them. Still, though, having said all of that, they were superb. Again, the evidence of one’s eyes versus the evidence of our hearts.
City’s transfer dealings have been modest, with the arrival of Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City for a club record £60m being the biggest story of the summer. For Leicester City, the move made perfect sense. Mahrez had been instrumental in giving the club something that everybody kind of knew was a glorious one-off. He may have angered some with the way in which he went about trying to fashion his move, but Mahrez continued to get a job done on the pitch, and they got another two years out of him on top of that title win. But Mahrez is already twenty-eight years old, at the upper end of the spectrum at which such vast transfer fees are likely for anyone bar the very, very best. We may well form the opinion that Pep Guardiola has seen something that he can build upon, and quickly, in Mahrez.
Each of the five clubs that were tucked in Manchester City at the end of last season are in a febrile states at present, but for differing reasons. Liverpool are, perhaps appropriately, buoyant. Juergen Klopp is starting to fully impose his character upon his team. The supporters seem to have taken the positives from having reached the final of the Champions League at the end of last season, and the club has been spending. The headline-stealer is Alisson, arrived from AS Roma for £67m, a world record for a goalkeeper, whilst Fabinho, the man with a name that would have been appropriate for a Brazilian pirate radio DJ, has joined from Monaco for £43.7m. The arrival of Alisson is a bold statement to make after Lorus Karius gifted two goals to Real Madrid in last year’s Champions League final. It’s about the strongest move they could have made.
Fabinho is a similarly bold move. He’s already sampled success in a league that is dominated by a giant, having won Ligue Un with Monaco. His career began with Fluminense, before a transfer to Real Madrid, where he played for their second team, Castilla. Promoted to the first team squad in 2013, he made one appeearance before going to Monaco, initially on a year-long loan deal but then on a contract to June 2019. With just a year left on his contract, the deal makes good sense to Monaco, whose only option if they are to avoid being knocked sideways by the jet streams left by Paris St Germain is to spend more money, whilst Liverpool continue to appear to work to the assumption that, if they speculate enough, they will accumulate eventually. Joining these two are Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri, who is exactly the footballer thata you’d expect someone whose first name begins with an “X” to be, and someone who fulfils Klopp’s instinct towards character and volatility to a tee.
Forty-odd miles away at Old Trafford, the mood is rather more sombre. Every time this comes around, it’s easy to start wondering whether too much is made of it, as though it’s just all one huge coincidence. But then it plays out in front of your very eyes. Jose Mourinho has not had a great summer, and the only thing that one can reasonable surmise from this is that it’s difficult to deny the possibility of “third season syndrome” when it seems to be unfolding right before our eyes. Many, many, many pixels have been gainfully employed over the last couple of weeks on this particular subject, so I’ll spare you further opining on the matter, other than to say… do Manchester United have a Plan B, in the eventuality that Mourinho does go the whole Internazionale on them before, say, the end of this season?
Because the signs certainly seem familiar, and this cycle has long-since passed from being tiresome into being fascinating. But what of Manchester United? Again, a quiet transfer window. Indeed, it’s been this quietness that has been most obviously vexing the manager. The arrivals at Old Trafford this summer couldn’t be a more confusing bunch. At the top of the food chain is Fred, who’s cost an undisclosed £52.7m (according to the Mirror) from Shakhtar Donetsk. Mourinho’s description of him, when asked, as “a technical player” doesn’t, however, offer enormous confidence that he even knows what to do with his new bauble.
Elsewhere on the football food chain are Jose Teixeira and Lee Grant. Teixeira arrives from Porto, but considerably more interesting here is Lee Grant. Manchester United have a long and glorious history of eccentric goalkeeper-signing, from the successful – Peter Schmeichel – to the less so – Massimo Taibi, and in this respect the arrival of Lee Grant from Stoke City for around £1.5m-£2m certainly fits the bill. Thirty-five years old, Grant’s career reads like the index page to a journeyman footballer’s autobiography: Derby County, Burnley, Oldham, Sheffield Wednesday, Burnley and Derby County before finally getting a Premier League debut on loan at Stoke City at the age of thirty-three in September 2016. Not long later, he pulled off a Man of The Match performance for Stoke at Old Trafford, in a one-all draw. Was this performance the catalyst for such an unsual signing for Manchester United to be making? They have some fantastic players – consider both Paul Pogba and Romelo Lukaku’s performances during the World Cup finals – but an increasingly antsy-looking manager is looming increasingly large in the background.
In North London, no matter what happens this season, it will be different. Both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have lost a piece of their culture recently. Spurs’ season at Wembley could have been better, and could have been worse. On the one hand, a third-placed finish last season was one place lower than the year before, whilst the club remains bereft of silverware in a decade. On the other, however, they were London’s top-placed finishers for the first time since 1995, and saw off their supposed “Wembley curse” with home Premier League wins against Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, whilst Chelsea were beaten at Stamford Bridge.
There have been neither ins nor outs from Tottenham Hotspur this summer. Indeed, so quiet have things been that the the club’s chairman, Daniel Levy, has started to come in for increasing criticism over Spurs’ ongoing intertia in the transfer market. For all of that, though, the players that have propelled Spurs to the “most likely to but never going to” table have stayed with the club. Mauricio Pochettino remains, although dissecting his previous public utterances for references to his views on what the club should be doing in the transfer market has become something of a side-interest for some Spurs supporters. Most importantly of all, the club will be moving into its new home. Cramped and occasionally vertiginously steep old White Hart Lane has gone. The new White Hart Lane propels Spurs in a new direction as a football club.
At Arsenal, the biggest change is in front of the dug-out. Arsene Wenger bowed out with grace and dignity, and in the end he deserved the reception that he got at the end of a spell that has already redirected the soul of the club. By the end, however, Wenger was at the point – for some, already past it – of tainting the legacy of the good work he did at the club earlier during his time there. Enter, then, Unai Emery. The really bold choice would, of course, have been Mikel Arteta, the romantics’ choice. The gamble. With these amounts of money floating about, though, the safer pair of hands was called upon. Emery is proven – three successive Europa League titles with Sevilla followed by a domestic treble for PSG last season – and clearly capable. But Arsenal will feel different, next season. It was always going to happen, of course, but it still finds a way of coming as a surprise when arrives.
All of which leaves us with Chelsea. Over the last decade and a half, Chelsea have been a perpeual motion machine gone out of control. They won the Premier League, then finished tenth. Then they won it again. Then they finished fifth. Antonio Conte will be missed, but his time at Stamford Bridge had clearly come and gone. Maurizio Sarri is a strong choice. Napoli’s revival under his tutelage was certainly effective, and his style of football is the type that seems likely to entertain fans. And the club currently also has an overflow of talented young academy players who may or may not be capable of restoring their fortunes, whilst the players currently at his disposal seem plaeased with his appointment.
Having said that, however, how much is there to be optimistic about? The football might turn out to be fun, but if it doesn’t improve upon last season’s disappointing fifth-placed finish, then for how long will the supporters feel as though they’re being entertained? The answer, perhaps, would be that Chelsea should consider this a transitional season. Give some of those fin young players a chance, figure out a formation and a way forward that matches Sarri’s stylistic tendencies with the relative attributes of the players. The reality, however, is that too much is at stake for these projects to run on for too long. Maurizio Sarri is not especially young. Chelsea supporters might well be forgiven for wondering what their bright young players might be capable of if given a chance by the new manager. Whether that’ll happen or not, though, is a different matter.
And then, of course, there’s the flotsam and jetsam. The gap between first place and seventh place in the Premier League last season was forty sixth points. The gap between seventh and twentieth place was twenty-three, all of which gives us a taste of calcified nature of Premier League football in recent years, and whilst “doing a Leicester” has, over the last couple of years, become the dream most likely to awaken the average Premier League football club owner with a smile on their face, the likelihood of anyone cracking the top six remains remote. Everton are usually talked up as those most likely to. On the one hand they’ve offloaded Sam Allardyce and Wayne Rooney, two season long experiments on turning back time, and have appointed Marco Silva, who they’d been coveting since prior to Allardyce’s arrival at the club.
On the other, though, Silva remains something of an unknown quality as a result of the nature of his previous jobs. Everton, as ever, could swing anywhere between the brink of European football and the brink of relegation. Richarlison, signed from Watford for a £40m that doesn’t even seem to raise eyebrows any more, and Lucas Digne, technically a former Barcelona player, being the only new arrivals so far. Everton remain a club with structural issues, from a chairman with an itchy trigger finger and a mixed recent track record in terms of his decision making, and a manager who hasn’t hung around much in his previous positions and cannot therefore be trusted to do so should the going get tough or, somehow, another job offer come along.
Burnley were last season’s big Premier League surprise, finishing in seventh place in the final table and earning themselves a place in the Europa League, in which they made a winning start against Aberdeen this week. But was the last season the summit of ambition for A Club Like Burnley? Well, it’ll be a difficult trick to top, and a push at one of the domestic cup competitions feels like a more obvious next step forward than trying to crack the top six. Repeating last season’s achievement will be a challenge, but the club has invested wisely in new training facilities, and the feeling that Burnley are natural underdogs at this level is obviously substantially lower than it was this time last year. The potential distraction of European football might also make focusing on the league more difficult than it might otherwise have been, but it will at least be an adventure for the supporters, while there are obvious existential arguments to be made about what the point of a football club is if it’s sole ambition is to suckle on the teat of the Premier League’s television contract in perpetuity with no other ambition.
At least the Burnley manager Sean Dyche knows that he has everybody around the club on his side, which is more than can be said for the Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez, who occupies an unusual place in the ongoing war of attrition between the club’s supporters and owner Mike Ashley. “If Rafa goes, we go” is the latest warning from a proportion of support of a club that continues to pinch pennies at every turn whilst treading water in the Premier League, and the possibility of Benitez leaving in protest at the club’s inertia in the transfer market being followed by a boycott by supporters is real enough. Newcastle United players are used to having to work against a background of unhappy noises from the stands, and this might well turn out to be a winter of considerable discontent on Tyneside.
Last year’s two other promoted teams survived the threat of relegation with a little, but not much, to spare. Brighton & Hove Albion beat Manchester United with a couple of games left to ensure their survival last season, and seven points from home matches against United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur proved to be difference between a lower mid-table finish and relegation. They’ve spent wisely over the course of the summer and there should be at least three weaker teams in the division.
Huddersfield Town, meanwhile, find themselves looking over their shoulders at something of a narrow escape last season at newly promoted clubs who are spending with ambition and wondering whether this season will be any easier whatsoever than the last was. They’ve broken their transfer record on making the loan signing of defender Terence Kongolo from Monaco permanent, but several of their other new signings have the look of filler about them and, whilst the margins between success and failure in the bottom half of the Premier League are so thin that they could finish anywhere from eighth or ninth down, finishing above the relegation places for a second successive season would be a not insubstantial achievement for a club which, let us not forget, was not in the slightest even expected to get into the Premier League in the first place, just a couple of years ago.
What of this newly promoted clubs, though? There are few places with as restless an atmosphere than Molineux at the moment, and unsurprisingly so. Wolverhampton Wanderers won promotion at a canter last season, playing some of the best football that the Championship has seen for a very long time indeed. There remain questions over the involvement of Jorge Mendes at the club, but his Portuguese revolution has continued this summer with the eyebrow-raising signing of Rui Patricio, and optimism levels in the Black Country remain elevated to the point of hubris. Considering the quality of football that they played last season and the mundane nature of so much of the bottom half of the Premier League, though, it’s not difficult to imagine Wolves being capable of a top half finish this time around.
Cardiff City, who finished in second place behind them last season, are most pundits’ pre-season favourites to finish bottom of the pile (which probably means that they’ll finish eighth) and Fulham have dropped £30m on Jean Michael Seri, brought in Alfie Mawson from Swansea City and picked up 2014 World Cup winner Andreas Schurrle on loan from Borussia Dortmund, all astute bits of business which indicate that they won’t be settling for seventeenth at best this time around. Furthermore, in hanging on to Ryan Sessegnon, last year’s Championship wunderkind, and making the signing of Aleksander Mitrovic from Newcastle United permanent means that they are hardly short of attacking options, either.
The arrival of Fulham and Wolves into the Premier League certainly means that few tears were shed for the loss of Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion at the end of last season, and it remains difficult to get particularly excited by many of the other clubs that will inhabit the lower reaches of the Premier League this time around. West Ham United have managed the most West Ham United signing that they could manage in bringing Smoking Jack Wilshere to the London Stadium from Arsenal and may have taken a step towards resolving their ongoing goalkeeping issue in acquiring themselves Lukasz Fabianski from Swansea City for £7m, but perhaps more importantly the arrival of a new manager in the form of Manuel Pellegrini and a degree of detente after the ructions amongst the support and the club’s owners may at least provide for a somewhat calmer season than last time around.
Elsewhere in London, Crystal Palace are financially straitened and have been hurt a little by the loss of Yohan Cabaye, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, but at least Palace supporters can consider that their team couldn’t possibly start as weakly as it did last season. However, staying up will need to be the main area of attention. Palace’s wage bill has risen hugely over the last couple of years and the club intends a redevelopment of part of Selhurst Park that will not come cheap, so relegation wouldn’t just be a minor inconvenience for the club. Watford, meanwhile, are starting a new season with the same manager as they finished the previous for the first time since 2012 (Gianfranco Zola lasted a while five months into his second season at Vicarage Road before getting the chop), but new signings made so far this summer haven’t exactly been inspirational, the squad looks thin, and Javier Gracia didn’t do much above the bare minimum following his arrival at the club last season. The bookmakers have Watford amongst the favourites to be relegated this time around, and they’re likely to have a tough season.
It took mini-run of four games unbeaten just before the end of last season to keep Southampton in the Premier League last season, but any relief at staying up for supporters might well have been offset by irritation at a club that had settled back into Premier League life quite happily upon its return finding itself in such a position in the first place. They’ve spent a shade over £50m this summer on Stuart Armstrong, Mohammed Elyounoussi, Angus Gunn and Jannik Vestergaard, and there may be a small crumb of comfort for Saints supporters in the fact that their relative fall from grace last season seems to have ended the annual pillage of their first team by bigger clubs.
The atmosphere just along the coast at Bournemouth as the new season starts is likely to be a little optimistic. This is the club’s fourth season in the Premier League, and last season’s mid-table finish managed the singular achievement of being both gravity-defying and an object lesson to Championship clubs in the potential benefits of crashing headfirst through the Football League’s Financial Fair Play regulations. With manager Eddie Howe still respected but no longer being linked with every other managerial vacancy that becomes available, they should be strong enough to avoid relegation and should end up in the middle of the table, but the club with the smallest attendances in the division will always have half an eye on the clubs lower than them in the table.
They should be joined there by Leicester City, although the departure of Riyyad Mahrez for Manchester City during the summer only really serves to underline the truth that the spring of 2016 already feels like a very long time ago indeed. Even with an extra £60m burning a hole in their pocket, the prospect of having fill a Mahrez-shaped hole may be considered sufficiently daunting for the club to decide to not even specifically try. Again, Leicester are too good to go down, but anything above another mid-table finish would likely be considered over-achievement. Having said that, though, the margins around the middle of the table are such that a top ten finish certainly isn’t beyond the realms of possibility, and the arrival of Jonny Evans from West Bromwich Albion and James Maddison look like sensible signings, considering what they will be hoping to achieve this season.
What, though, will be the stories of the Premier League season? Well, we can never quite tell where the most striking meltdown of the season may occur, but Manchester United looks as good a bet as any at this stage of the season, whilst any of the rest of the top six may be subject to the usual hysteria should they fail to match the glorious level that they are expected to reach. Arsenal vs Manchester City on the opening day of the season may well prove to be instructive of what we can expect from the rest. Will Spurs move seamlessly into their new stadium? Have Liverpool sealed the defensive leaks that ultimately dropped them down to fourth place in the table? How will Emery and Sarri, Premier League debutees both, cope with their new positions? For all that Manchester City continue to feel unassailable at the top of the table, there are still stories to be told at the top end of the Premier League.
The Football League Championship
If the Premier League is best characterised by an unholy trinity of fear, hubris and calcification, the the smell of the Championship is that of ambition bordering on desperation and the feeling that, for all that its biggest clubs consider themselves to be above their current position, just about anybody could spring from the pack and find themselves, come next May, blinking in the sunlight at the prospect of taking up a place amongst the top twenty next season. The three clubs relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season are, of course, reminded that this is a division far easier to tumble into than it can be to scramble back out of in an upwardly direction. The Football League starts its new season with its highlights on a new channel, as well. Coverage shifts again, this time from Five to Quest, part of the Discovery Network. From BBC1 to Quest in just three years. Interpret that as you wish.
The biggest hysteria of the pre-season seldom comes from the freshly-relegated. They’ve usually got their hands full with balancing the books after the shock of losing all that lovely television money. Two of the relegated clubs do, however, make appearances amongst the favourites to get promotion this time around. Stoke City have poached Gary Rowett from Derby County to navigate through these choppy waters and, having managed Birmingham City and Derby at this level within the last twelve months, he should at least know his way around. However, his reputation as a highly talented young manager who just needs to be given a chance is in the line. Indeed, we might well argue that with Stoke having retained a team packed with Premier League experience, this is his chance.
West Bromwich Albion’s Darren Moore certainly made an impression during his few matches in charge at The Hawthorns at the end of last season, even if he couldn’t quite do enough to keep them up following the reign of terror of Alan “Worst Manager In The History Of A Founder Member Of The Football League” Pardew. There were no expectations resting in on the manager’s shoulders at the end of last season, but there are this time around. Completing this triumvirate are Swansea City, who’ve retained a core of strong players and have made an imaginative managerial appointment in the form of Graham Potter, who’s impressed in Sweden as the coach of Ostersund, including a home win against Arsenal in the Europa League last season, although his team did lose in aggregate over two legs. He’s untested as a manager in the Football League, though, so am instant return may be too much for Swansea City this season.
It is below these three however, that the fun begins. Derby County’s recently earned reputation as the divisions Chokers-in-Chief has led them to give Frank Lampard a chance as manager. Lampard has played under some of the very best and there’s no questioning his experience as a player, but no-one knows at present what he’ll be like as a manager. If this looked like being the audacious managerial appointment of the summer, though, Leeds United had some beer that they needed us to hold. Marcelo Bielsa has managed a grand total of sixty matches in charge of his last three clubs, including two days spent at Lazio before leaving and prompting legal action from his former employers. Including caretakers, Bielsa becomes Leeds’ twenty-first manager since they were relegated from the Premier League in 2004. It will certainly be entertaining to watch, even if the impulse question to ask with the new season upon us might well be, “What on earth could possibly go wrong here?”
Middlesbrough have spruced themselves up with a handful of Pulisesque signings and, having got the playoffs at the end of last season, may well fancy their chances of a playoff spot at the very least. This sensible dullness is, of course, very much in contrast with Aston Villa. This is now Villa’s third season away from the Premier League, and the prognosis for the club looked very unhealthy indeed at the start of the summer, when the extent of the financial mismanagement at the club last season put it on the verge of administration. New investment has staved off that particular threat, but the recent rumours concerning the possibility of Thierry Henry replacing Steve Bruce as the club’s manager were hardly confidence-inspiring and, with the club having been required to be relatively quiet in the transfer market so far this summer, perhaps the best that Villa might be able to hope for this time around might well be another playoff place.
One or more of this six will likely underachieve, of course, such is the nature of the Football League Championship, and when they do there will be others waiting to pounce. Following a dismal few seasons, Nottingham Forest are now under the ownership of Andrea Marinakis, and it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that his club is following the Wolves template from last season a little too enthusiastically, with expensive but talented players arriving at The City Ground over the course of the summer including Joao Carvalho, Costel Pantimilion, Lewis Grabban and Gial Dias. It’s the return of Michael Dawson, however, that tugs at the heartstrings more than any other. Now thirty-four years old, and almost sixteen and a half years after he made his Forest debut, Dawson returns to his first club to find it looking more optimistically towards the future than it has for some years. Marinakis, however, can be a tempestuous sort, so success on the pitch shouldn’t be considered a certainty quite yet for Forest this season.
Chasing the Teams of Lofty Ambitions come the tribe that we might otherwise call the Teams Who Were Not Quite Good Enough Last Season. These clubs – Brentford, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Bristol City, Norwich City, Millwall and Preston North End – will be clinging to the belief that there is usually one club that emerges from the morass to make a serious tilt at automatic promotion, and few would be surprised were at least one of them to make the playoffs come the end of the season. They’re a curious mixture, are these clubs, stalwarts of the Football League who’ve never played Premier League football yet mixed with clubs who have been there before but who don’t especially look time around. Any of them could get promoted. Any of them could get relegated. The Championship is, of course, like that.
Then, of course, there are the newly-promoted and the relative also-rans. It says something for the mature of the way in which clubs have managed themselves in recent years that two of the three promoted clubs have played Premier League football in the last ten years, but few are expecting a return to the Premier League for either Blackburn Rovers or Wigan Athletic, whilst playoff winners Rotherham United have spent the last few seasons apparently unable to whether they are a Championship club or a League One club. Ipswich Town are the record-holders for consecutive seasons in this division, but the bungled exit of Mick McCarthy at the end of cast something of a pall over Portman Road at the end of last season, and new manager Paul Hirst will likely be hoping for an opportunity to settle into his new job and keep the club clear of relegation danger.
The same goes for Queens Park Rangers, who will start the new season in something of an optimistic mood after having finally settled their long running dispute with the Football League over FFP breaches in 2014 with a £17m, £3m in costs, and a ban from the January 2019 transfer window. Blue and white don’t exactly look like being lucky colours in the Championship this season, either. Birmingham City only just scrambled clear of the relegation places over the last few games of last season and don’t seem to have strengthened particularly since then, in no small part because of their own travails with FFP. Reading had a dismal time of things last season and don’t seem much stronger this time around, and Bolton Wanderers only avoided relegation on the last day of last season, but investment after the lifting of a transfer embargo has not been forthcoming and, whilst manager Phil Parkinson has done what he can with free transfers, only the name of Josh Meginnis stands out and it seems likely to be another long winter for the club. Hull City, meanwhile, have shed further players, and the Kcom Stadium remains a combustible place to watch football, with supporters still deeply unhappy at the way in which the Allam family continue to mismanage the club.
Still, though, with this being the Football League Championship, just about anything is possible, and it’s likely that we’ll see both glory and complete meltdowns over the course of the coming season, and likely more of the latter than of the former. Indeed, we might argue that the best way to watch this division is to treat it as a lavish melodrama, with a cast of heroes (few and far between, but they do exist), villains, and (the biggest population of all) comedy stooges who are always ready to take a pratfall for our entertainment. Settle down for the ride. It may not be dignified and there be points at which it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but it will be entertaining.
It’s taken longer than most would have expected, but the time would seem right for 2018 to be the point at which the fortunes of Sunderland finally bottom out. The statistics from the club’s recent history make for grim reading. Relegated for each of the last two seasons, with just eighteen wins from one hundred and twenty two games over the last three seasons. Still, Ellis Short has finally gone and the new broom that is new owner Stewart Donald – previously the man behind Eastleigh’s rise to the National League – has swept a degree of optimism through the club.
Former St Mirren manager Jack Ross is the creative choice as the next man to seek to avoid a plot in this particular manager’s graveyard, and his ten new arrivals at the club have new as modest as we might have expected as the club seeks to set itself on a more sensible financial course than it could manage under Short, with his players coming largely from the lower divisions and the fringes of other clubs, but it is important to remember that, despite their position as clear favourites for promotion from League One at the end of this season, the club’s health remains a matter of ongoing rehabilitation. Some of the higher earners have gone, but this is by no means all of them.
Shrewsbury Town, who occupied one or other of the automatic promotion places for much of last season and ended it all with defeat in the play-off final, have been filleted during the summer and are unlikely to feature near the top of the table, whilst the modest means of Burton Albion, relegated from the Championship last season, makes a quick return difficult for them. The other relegated club, Barnsley, could be strong enough to challenge near the top of the table, with Daniel Stendel, whose previous managerial experience came with Hannover 96 in Germany, being a bold choice as the club’s new manager.
With few clubs standing put as natural contenders for promotion, there’s a grouping of clubs from which any might spring a small surprise. Portsmouth are another former Premier League club who are looking to reclaim a proportion of their former glories, and they settled well following promotion from League Two last year, although an eight placed finish wasn’t quite enough to get them into the playoffs. They’re certainly capable of better, as are Charlton Athletic, although the ongoing protests against owner Roland Duchatelet mean that any preseason optimism will be likely be quick to evaporate, should they not start well. Scunthorpe United are under new managership and will be expecting to be there or thereabouts after having only narrowly missed out on promotion last season.
Perhaps, though, League One is where the benefits of a post-promotion high might be most visibly felt. Both Luton Town and Coventry City start the new season with the pressure relatively off following promotion from at the end of last season. Coventry in particular have a strong young squad, and it’s possible that their two visits to Wembley last season – to win the Football League Trophy and the League Two playoff final – have likely reawoken some dormant interest in the club in the city and, although the owners of the club remain plenty of capable of pulling dick moves, for once the atmosphere amongst supporters is quietly optimistic. Luton, meanwhile, dropped a level lower even than Coventry before beginning their revival, and manager Nathan Jones may well find that the spotlight being trained elsewhere will benefit his team this time around. Elsewhere, Chris Powell’s appointment at Southend United has cheered Roots Hall up quite a bit. Even more interesting is the situation at Oxford United, where the appointment of a new manager, Karl Robinson, and the signing of a clutch of new players including Luke Garbutt and Jamie Mackie give the team a hint of potential near the top end of the table.
At the other end of the table, meanwhile, we’re reminded of the extent to which League One can feel like a melting pot of English football. Whilst clubs such as Coventry City and Sunderland scrap to get back to a level of the game at which they feel that they should be playing, there are others in the same division for whom League One is, if not quite a summit of ambitions, a division worth fighting to stay in. Accrington Stanley were the surprise champions of League Two last season and have carried out substantial ground improvements over the course of the summer, but will likely find staying at this level for longer than one season a struggle, whilst the other promoted side, Wycombe Wanderers, may find themselves similarly restricted by financial limitations. Elsewhere, Blackpool remain in a form of ownership nomansland, with the Oyston family steadfastly refusing to leave Bloomfield Road despite an overwhelming body of evidence suggesting that it would be in the best interests of the club for them to do so. Elsewhere, Wimbledon stayed up last season but lost top goalscorer Lyle Taylor to Charlton Athletic during the summer – a sign in itself of the gulf in financial resources within this decision – whilst Walsall and Rochdale struggled throughout last season, scrambled to safety, but can most likely expect more of the same this time around.
Following their defeat in this year’s League Two play-off final came the end of one of lower division football’s more enduring love affairs. After twelve years, Paul Tisdale finally conceded that he had taken Exeter City as far as he could and departed. His destination, however, may have left a sour taste in the mouth of some. Tisdale has been acquired by Milton Keynes, who were relegated from League One at the end of last season but start this season as favourites for promotion straight back. Exeter, meanwhile, have to face up to a new era under new management. Also expected to perform this season are Notts County and Lincoln City, both of whom lost out in the semi-gfinals of the play-offs at the end of last season and will be hoping to improve this time around, although there remain concerns at Sincil Bank that the Cowley brothers, who masterminded the Imps’ run to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup two seasons ago and their promotion back into the Football League, will continue to attract the attention of bigger clubs.
Elsewhere in what is expected to be quite an open promotion race, Swindon Town should end the decline that saw them relegated from League One at the end of last season and may find themselves inhabiting the Twilight Zone between Leagues One and Two, whilst Mansfield Town have spent £100,000 on Otis Khan, whilst the arrival of Tyler Walker on loan from Derby County is a similarly impressive signing. Stevenage are potential dark horses, whilst Port Vale return to League Two with Ricky Miller, who has been extremely impressive in the National League over the last couple of seasons for Dover Athletic, having arrived at the club.
The bottom of the table, meanwhile, might turn out to get quite congested. There is Crisis Club potential at Morecambe, who only avoided relegation from the Football League on goal difference at the end of last season and who still haven’t shaken off the question marks over their ownership just yet, whilst both Bury and Oldham Athletic ended last season in League One in such a state of disrepair that it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to see either or both of them getting sucked into another baattle against relegation this time around. The National League has seen several clubs pitch up there having tumbled through a couple of divisions. Both need to improve on last season if they’re to arrest that decline.
They may be joined near the foot of the table by Yeovil Town, another club from which there are worrying rumours concerning the state of the club’s ownership, and Forest Green Rovers, who struggled in their first season in the Football League and have earned some derision for their decision to wear a shirt for this season with stars blanked out to signify achievements not yet reached. Of the two newly-promoted sides, Tranmere Rovers seem the most likely to be comfortable this time around. Last year’s National League champions, Macclesfield Town, won the league on one of the division’s lowest wage budgets and it’s difficult to see them having anything but a season of struggle now they’re back in the Football League.
The Final Whistle
It still feels as though this season should be starting in two or three weeks time, of course. The new football season starting less than three weeks after the World Cup final is a reflection on the increasingly congested schedule of the club game, and it’s likely that we will have a slow start to this season, brought about by a combination of the extremely hot weather – the recent heatwave has decided to show its head again in the south of England just in time for the first weekend of the season – and that close proximity.
And the World Cup finals will hang over the new season, just as the club season hangs over any World Cup finals. There will doubtlessly be witless articles unfavourably comparing some Premier League manager with Saint Gareth of Southgate as soon as one has a meltdown in a post-match pres conference, whilst the Premier League’s decision to put off anything beyond continuing trials for VAR until the end of this season will doubtless come in for considerable scrutiny as soon as one referee makes one mistake in one match. But that’s the thing about modern football. The game keeps trundling along. What really changes is the level of white noise that surrounds it.
In the current era, it’s likely that the most competitively-battled for award will be the media award for the hack best prepared to have an outrageous opinion for money. Will the Daily Mail or the Sun continue their campaign of bullying and harrassment against Raheem Sterling? Who will be found to blame should England lose their Nations League international matches against Croatia? Who will be the scapegoats for the season? It’s a valid question in an era during which it often feels as though more people watch football in order to see the teams they dislike lose than to see the teams that they do like win, after all. As ever, our closing message at the very start of the new season is a simple one… enjoy yourselves and try, if you can, to remember that it really is only a game, no matter what others might try to tell you.