Early doors #3: Middlesbrough, Reading, Hull City and Norwich City
Prior to the first game, The Seventy Two predicted that the Championship’s final top six would, in order, look like this: Middlesbrough, Burnley, Reading, Nottingham Forest, Hull City, Norwich City.
We have already looked in-depth at what Burnley and Forest supporters think of their respective starts to a typically unpredictable season. So what of the rest?
Huge thanks to Middlesbrough fans Mark Forster and Iwan Evans, Reading supporter Russell Hammant, Norwich City fan and blogger Matt Wallace and Hull City fan Kevin Malton for taking the time to answer the following questions.
Q1: Before the season started, where did you think your team would finish?
Mark Forster (Middlesbrough): I was confident of automatic promotion. Play-offs at the worst.
Russell Hammant (Reading): I thought we’d end up around eighth if we were lucky.
Matt Wallace (Norwich City): I fancied us to finish up in lower mid-table.
Kevin Malton (Hull City): Eighth. Certainly in the top half, anyway.
Q2: What do you think now?
MF (Middlesbrough): I think we’ll be very lucky to get anywhere near the play-offs. Some of our fans still have blind optimism that we’ll get into the top two somehow.
RH (Reading): I reckon we will scrape into the top half but a bit further from the play-offs than I thought before the season.
MW (Norwich): Nothing much has changed for me. I still think we’ll end the season in mid-table.
KM (Hull): More like twelfth.
Q3: Has your team performed above or below expectations so far? What has gone right/wrong?
MF (Middlesbrough): At the moment we are performing well below what I think myself and a lot of other Boro fans were expecting, especially after bringing in a lot of signings that were supposedly ‘proven’. Although, in fairness, the majority of these players have never played in England or at this level before.
I don’t think we are doing much wrong in terms of technical footballing ability, though. It is just a complete lack of communication throughout the team. I do feel that we are lacking any sort of creative players and are reliant on mistakes that teams make rather than our own ability.
Despite this, though, a few things have gone right – Gordon Strachan has finally got the team that he wants and feels can win us promotion. Also, David Wheater has come right back into form and is looking to be regaining the form he had when partnering Robert Huth early last season.
The emergence of a few young homegrown players is good to see: Jason Steele looks solid in goal and Luke Williams, if nurtured correctly, has the potential to follow Adam Johnson and Stuart Downing into future England squads.
RH (Reading): Losing at home to Scunthorpe on the opening day was disappointing. We should have had three points from that game. Draws against Portsmouth and Nottingham Forest were good results though.
MW (Norwich): Probably above. We’ve got two wins from three, but the win over Swansea was pretty lucky. Not to say we deserved to lose, but if Swansea could finish then we would have. It’s pleasing to see just how often we score late goals, as the team never gives up and never loses faith that they can get a winner.
As for what has gone wrong, it’s a picky complaint but predictable – the midfield hasn’t gelled yet. We’re putting some new faces in and they’ll need time, but at the moment they aren’t working together as well as they can, and they certainly aren’t pressing or offering space, which puts too much pressure on our defence.
KM (Hull): Slightly below. Our goalkeeper Matt Duke has been solid but there is worrying lack of creativity from midfield and not enough movement from our strikers.
Q4: What needs to change in order to achieve success this season?
Iwan Evans (Middlesbrough): We really need some new wingers and maybe one loan signing in the middle of the park too.
RH (Reading): A new centre-back is a must. Alex Pearce needs someone to keep him on his toes so that he continues to improve. A new striker that can play the lone role up front would be good too.
None of our current crop can really do it effectively. I would stick with our current manager and formation, though. Nothing needs to change there.
MW (Norwich): Reinforcement at centre-back. I’m happy with the diamond formation but, as we saw against Swansea, it can come undone if you let the opposition get balls out wide quickly – that’s where the space is and good teams can take advantage.
It means the full-backs do the job of two men. The midfield four need to press high and hard to make sure we play on our terms, not those of our opponents. On the whole, we do that.
Positionally, though, we need more in the heart of our defence. We’ve only got four players there and one is forever injured (Zak Whitbread), while two have next to no experience at this level (Michael Nelson and Jens Berthel Askou).
Nelson is so far performing well but when we let Gary Doherty go, we lost the best defender we had. It’s a position that worries me and I’d like to see another player brought in.
KM (Hull): I wouldn’t change anything really. We just need time to bed in our two big signings: Robert Koren from West Bromwich Albion and Jay Simpson from Arsenal.
Q5: Who has impressed so far?
IE (Middlesbrough): David Wheater looks in great form and is benefitting from having a consistent and experienced partner in Stephen McManus. Also, young Jason Steele only made his league debut two weeks ago and he’s kept two clean sheets in two league matches which is fantastic for him and he’s looked very commanding and an excellent shot stopper, something we’ve not had since Schwarzer left.
Matt Kilgallon and Nicky Bailey are two new signings I think will do well for us as well.
RH (Reading): Gylfi Sigurdsson has been good for us so far, although he was quiet against Forest. As for other teams, Adel Taarabt of QPR and obviously Craig Bellamy at Cardiff have impressed.
MW (Norwich): Andrew Crofts. He came in from Brighton and is becoming a bit of a fan’s favourite already – he works very hard, gets forward, puts in some crunching tackles and rarely misplaces a pass. A great box to box midfielder and very popular early in his time with us.
I also think Grant Holt is beginning, and will continue, to prove doubters wrong and show that he can play at this level, after Forest didn’t give him the chance.
From the three teams we’ve played against so far, the player to have impressed me the most is Danny Graham. He works inside channels so well, running at defenders and he’s got a good finish. He should score plenty and keep Watford safe.
KM (Hull): Matt Duke in goal and Paul McShane at the back have both been impressive so far.
Q6: Who will win the league?
IE (Middlesbrough): Burnley because they’ve managed to keep a good core of last year’s team, they’ve added some proven Championship players like Chris Iwelumo and Ross Wallace and I think their home form will be the best in the league come the end of the season.
RH (Reading): QPR and Cardiff will be the two to get promoted and it’ll be between them for the title. With Bellamy playing and seemingly happy, I’ll go with Cardiff to win the league as they seem to have strength in every position and a manager that knows what he’s doing.
They also scored plenty of goals away in the Premier League last season, so if they defend better, which they should, then I fancy them.
MW (Norwich): Cardiff will win it because of Craig Bellamy.
When Norwich won the old Division One a few years back we had a very good team that included Darren Huckerby, a player far better than any other in the division. We won the league because he led us to it.
Bellamy is far better than most players in the Premier League, let alone the Championship. With him, Chopra, Bothroyd and a solid team behind them, they should terrorise defences and really walk every single home game they play – and most away. I’d be surprised if they didn’t go up.
KM (Hull): Burnley. They have a good spirit, they play as a team and have strength in depth.