Pilgrims and Royals considered
Following the formulation of our frankly barmy predictions earlier today, we have finally got round to an assessment of the chances of Plymouth Argyle and Reading for the new season. The results are below, discussed over email on a hot line between London and Didcot:
Lanterne Rouge: So Lloyd, Alan Judge is back at Home Park after last season’s successful loan spell. Can we expect to see more of last season’s temporary signings in green again?
Lloyd: Not before we’ve pared down our own squad. Like Carl Fletcher, Judge was a star performer in our narrow escape from relegation last season, and securing his return was a no-brainer once we’d managed to ship wantaway attacking midfielder Jason Puncheon to MK Dons, but our squad remains swollen with a host of duds that need to be moved on before we can afford replacements. I’d expect to see a Manchester United reserve or two if we can shear our playing staff.
What do you think of the size and quality of your own squad in respect to the league’s favourites?
Lanterne Rouge: It’s lighter and the necessary downsizing that accompanies relegation from the top flight , as well as failure to bounce back, is already notable. The overwhelming impression is of youth. Even rumoured signing Matt Mills is still only 22 and the likes of Scott Davies, Simon Church, James Henry and Alex Pearce may all feature rather a lot this season. Older heads such as James Harper and Brynjar Gunnarsson are very thin on the ground now. Are you disappointed to see Puncheon leave?
Lloyd: Yes, until I heard about Judge. Paul Sturrock has employed a diamond midfield in many of our friendlies with Puncheon most often at its apex, so it was mystifying to see him leave yesterday. While Puncheon’s idea of what constitutes a team may be questionable, he possesses a ridiculous amount of ability and I was looking forward to the sight of him lashing home a few screamers from this new position. He was, though, apparently unsettled in the South West and had been seeking a move closer to London for some time, so I’m not too disheartened.
Reading haven’t won a home game since February; do you think that you can recapture the early home form that propelled you to the upper echelons last season?
Lanterne Rouge: I think the possible signing of Mills will signal a less gung-ho approach. In that long run of home setbacks in the Spring, Royals were often caught on the break, not least in the play-off semi final against Burnley. Last year, the ball was humped forward into the channels for the likes of Kevin Doyle, Noel Hunt and Shane Long to run onto, often leaving gaping holes behind. Brendan Rodgers is likely to instil a more patient approach whereby the side builds from the back and keeps the ball on the floor: Reading won’t be expecting to beat anyone this season and it will be up to visiting teams with ambition to break them down.
There were occasional mutterings concerning Paul Sturrock’s ability to take Argyle forward last term. Can you see him lasting until the end of the season?
Lloyd: I do, but probably not much further than that. His well-documented ill health lingers like a spectre and he has struggled to regain wholesale support amongst the fanbase since replacing Ian Holloway in 2007. He does appear to prefer a more considered approach to the game and his signings reflect that: none of Steve Maclean, Jason Puncheon, Carl Fletcher, Karl Duguid or David McNamee, for example, could be likened to the physical type of player that Sturrock often went for in his first tenure at the club. If he manages to achieve that and leave the Pilgrims in the Championship when he does depart, then he would have done his job.
Brendan Rodgers is a member of the fêted group of young and up-and-coming managers in the Championship. Do you think that he’s in for the long haul at Reading, or is it just another stepping stone?
Lanterne Rouge: I think he’ll stay with the club for a while, although it may end up being out of his hands. Personally, I think he may have jumped ship at Watford a little early and spent longer earning his corn. The playing staff he has inherited is slightly superior on paper to that at Vicarage Road but even in the Premier League, Reading never spent much money and Madejski can be parsimonious with the purse strings. Rodgers built his reputation on working with and developing young players – that looks set to continue. It’s all about starting from Year Zero again for Reading after the shabby and embarrassing resort to fallen heroes Dave Kitson and Glen Little in March.
For a while now, Plymouth have struggled for goals. Could young Ashley Barnes be the solution to that problem? If not, who would you like to see Sturrock bring in?
Lloyd: I very much doubt it. Although the snarling youngster’s animal approach was just the ticket for a side that were starting to feel more than a little sorry for themselves last season, his petty fouling and aggravating manner may not suit a side looking to shrug off their long ball reputation. If Rory Fallon, Argyle’s most powerful forward, can exploit his presence more consistently, then Barnes will be certainly be restricted to appearing from the bench.
What do you think of your own attacking line-up?
Lanterne Rouge: It’s patently not good enough at the moment. Rodgers has been playing with Shane Long on his own up front in pre-season and although the ex-hurler is only 22, little suggests that he will ever be more than a support striker who works hard. Noel Hunt had a good first season but both players’ primary strength is in the air – that may not suit the adjustment in the style of play. Simon Church and Dave Mooney are back from loan spells but are unlikely to be fully ready. The rumoured link is to David Nugent, but his reputation has taken a real beating since that tap in against Andorra and today’s papers reveal him to be in trouble again.
To wrap up, Argyle’s other signings of the summer have included Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kári Árnason and Réda Johnson. How big a role do you think they will play?
Lloyd: News is that BWP is out for 4 months with a cartilage injury, which if true would be catastrophic. Árnason and Johnson are both punts, but the former’s 15 international appearances for Iceland suggests that he will be more than a peripheral figure. Sturrock complained that last year’s squad lacked pace throughout, and the pacy Johnson’s arrival from Amiens indicates that this gap has been filled, at least along the back line.
To conclude, why do you think that the majority of predictions / odds continue to see you as a top 6 side?
Lanterne Rouge: Lazy journalism. It’s been a golden period for Reading and the fact that success has coincided with the general football boom (unlike that enjoyed by Oxford and Swindon) and the development of the town as a prosperous centre for white collar industry has left the club well placed in the long run – but the squad as it stands is a very young one and very inexperienced compared to the likes of Sheffield United and West Brom and the last two seasons have been plagued by rumours of dressing room unrest. It’s a cyclical game and Reading are in the early stages of regrouping.