Ups and downs
Two months into the new campaign, and we’re in a position to assess how things are starting to shape up for the six teams either promoted from or relegated to the Championship.
Let’s begin with last season’s champions Reading. Lanterne Rouge’s side have recently been the primary subject of an excellent discussion post examining Premier League survival prospects on this very site. For that reason, I’ll focus my attention on specific observations in the light of having seen them in the flesh at the Madejski on Saturday, when they were unfortunate not to claim all three points from the encounter with a sluggish, disjointed Newcastle.
Most impressive in blue and white was Noel Hunt, one of four players starting in the top flight for the first time, who rewarded his manager’s faith with a busy, effervescent performance, constantly harrying defenders like a wasp who’s scented a jam sandwich. He took his goal well, sneaking in front of his marker to glance a header past Steve Harper. The Royals’ other scorer, right winger Jimmy Kebe, was also featuring for the first time this season, coming to life after an anonymous first half (much like the match itself). On the opposite flank, captain Jobi McAnuff created Hunt’s goal and also spanked the face of the far post as the home side chased that elusive first win. Their wingers, so devastating in the Championship run-in, suggested that they may yet be the Biscuitmen’s most potent weapon in an old-school 4-4-2 formation.
It was without doubt the Royals’ best performance of the league season to date, but I do wonder if the central midfield would have been strong enough if Newcastle had been able to call upon the creativity of Yohan Cabaye. Meanwhile, the nervousness of the home supporters as regards the defence’s brittle fragility proved well-founded, even if Demba Ba’s Maradona-esque second equaliser should have been chalked off. Shaun Cummings and Nicky Shorey were an improvement on Chris Gunter and Ian Harte, while Adrian Mariappa, preferred to last season’s player of the year Alex Pearce, added pace and class – but Kaspars Gorkss was a weak link an at-the-races Cisse could have exploited and as a unit they didn’t function particularly well. It would be good to see Reading survive if only to ram Mark Lawrenson’s glib dismissal of them as a case of “loaves and fishes” back down his throat, but for that to happen they’re going to have to start getting some breaks.
All in all it was a distinctly uncomfortable afternoon for Alan Pardew, and the Newcastle boss has got trips to two more former clubs to look forward to. He was unlucky to be sacked by Southampton, but since his departure the Saints have gone from strength to strength – or, to put it more specifically, from League One to the Premier League in just two seasons. The manager responsible, Nigel Adkins, may have suspected the fixtures computer of having Pompey sympathies when it pitched them against Man City, Man Utd and Arsenal in their first four games – all ended in defeat (valiant defeat against the two Manchester clubs, it should be stressed), and ludicrous rumours suggested his position might be under threat. Of more concern to Adkins will have been the meek 2-0 loss at home to Wigan, the one game of the four no doubt earmarked as distinctly winnable. Since then, they finally found their feet by thrashing Villa, but then went down at Goodison Park after surrendering a lead.
To his credit, Adkins appears to have instilled a fearlessness in his squad, and has demonstrated his own fearlessness by deploying an adventurous and attack-minded 4-3-3 formation in which lower-league goal machine Ricky Lambert has already caught the eye. However, they don’t seem to have the essential defensive foundation or fortitude, and rather than resembling the Swansea of 2011-12 they’re currently more like the Blackpool of 2010-11 – and we all know how that ended. £12m record signing Gaston Ramirez grabbed his first goal against Everton at the weekend, but the hefty price tag could weigh heavy round the neck of the man born in Fray Bentos (the Uruguayan town, not the pie-in-a-tin), as it could for £7m striker Jay Rodriguez, still yet to score. Southampton’s two successive promotions have been all the sweeter for Portsmouth’s simultaneous slide into disarray and disgrace – but you do wonder if the Saints might not have risked a similar fate by gambling so much.
Like Southampton, West Ham will feel they’re very much back where they belong, even though their Premier League exile lasted just one solitary season. Sam Allardyce did just enough to get them into the play-offs, and then just enough to get them the final promotion spot. There’s a pragmatic, utilitarian feel to this season’s Hammers (unsurprising given who’s at the helm), and while that may not endear them to purists permanently gabbling on about the need to play football “the West Ham way“, it should stand them in good stead when it comes to survival.
As the old cliche goes, home form is critical, so Allardyce will no doubt be delighted that the Boleyn Ground has been the proverbial fortress thus far. Villa and Fulham were sent packing without a goal or a point for comfort, and even when Sunderland led deep into stoppage time, West Ham found the necessary resolve to equalise. That the goal was scored by ex-Newcastle man Kevin Nolan, whose celebratory chicken dance the Mackems had to endure three times in one game during his time on Tyneside, will have been a bitter blow. The Hammers’ club captain also found the net in those earlier home victories, and in tandem with on-loan human battering ram Andy Carroll – his former Toon colleague and temporary lodger – looks set for a prolific season.
Not that everything’s been rosy. For instance, record signing Matt Jarvis, brought in to supply the ammunition for the strikers, has been out of sorts and out of the starting XI, warned to up his game. Scoring three minutes into last night’s victory over QPR was a suitable riposte. Meanwhile, any Hammers fans in danger of getting carried away should be gently reminded that they haven’t yet faced any of the sides to finish among last year’s top eight. Much sterner tests await.
West Ham took their place at the Premier League table (or trough, if you prefer) at the expense of two of Allardyce’s former clubs. In the run-up to the big kick-off I wrote at length about the spectacular and farcical demise of Blackburn – a demise which began with Venky’s decision to give Allardyce the boot with the club sitting comfortably in the middle of the Premier League table – and yet, just eight games into the Championship season, there’s already plenty more to say. Most obviously, Steve Kean – a dead man walking for more than a year – has finally walked, belatedly acknowledging what everyone else has known for ages: that his position was “untenable“. Even the manner of his departure was suitably bizarre, coming the very same day he claimed clear-the-air talks had been “positive and constructive” and announced through his lawyers without the knowledge of managing director Derek Shaw.
If Kean really did feel “forced to resign” by Venky’s, then you have to wonder why on earth they chose to entrust a man the fans despised and who presided over the club’s relegation with a substantial pot of cash in the summer, watched him guide Rovers to the top of the nascent Championship table and then decided to get rid of him. Let’s not waste our time trying to comprehend their utterly incomprehensive logic, and instead reflect on the performance of the players to date. I was sceptical about their chances of an immediate return to the Premier League, and in particular of the wisdom of signing Nuno Gomes, but the Portuguese has thus far demonstrated that his eye for goal hasn’t diminished with the passing years, scoring four times. Since my assessment, they’ve also added Jordan Rhodes to their front line – at £8m, silly money for the second tier, but an astute (if probably short-term) investment all the same, and one who’s also hit the ground running.
As anticipated, though, Blackburn’s problems are primarily defensive, that department having been totally neglected over the summer. Thus far they’ve kept only one clean sheet in all competitions, at home to Hull, and were bailed out by their potent strikeforce when taking four points from consecutive away fixtures at Leeds and Bristol City despite shipping six goals. Whoever is certifiably insane enough to sign up as Kean’s replacement will need to make addressing those deficiencies a priority.
And what of Allardyce’s other former employers, Bolton? Kean’s compatriot Owen Coyle might not be feeling as though he’s being forced out just yet, but he’s certainly a man under considerable pressure. The Trotters began among the favourites for promotion, as is befitting a side able to boast midfielders like Mark Davies, Martin Petrov, Chung-Yong Lee, Chris Eagles, Liverpool loanee Jay Spearing and the occasionally fit Stuart Holden. But, like Lancastrian near-neighbours Blackburn, they’ve found shut-outs hard to come by, recording only one themselves (at home to Derby) – and this despite possessing centre-backs of supposedly good calibre in Zat Knight, Tim Ream and Matt Mills. Without prolific strikers in the mould of Rhodes and Gomes to offset the goals conceded (David Ngog has set about suggesting he might not find his level until Bolton are relegated again, leaving Eagles to shoulder primary responsibility for scoring), the Trotters find themselves in eighteenth place.
Bolton endured four successive away defeats, including a painful opening-day reverse at his old club Burnley and a 2-1 humiliation at Crawley in the League Cup, before finally triumphing on the road, capitalising on Sheffield Wednesday’s atrocious run of form. But Coyle will have been dismayed that they then surrendered the unbeaten home record that had been propping them up, Crystal Palace leaving the Reebok with all three points on Saturday. The capture of out-of-favour Villa full-back Stephen Warnock on loan was rightly hailed as something of a coup, a sign of genuine ambition – but their undoubtedly talented squad needs to start delivering swiftly if the club is to escape the division at the first time of asking.
Which finally brings me to Wolves. Whereas Blackburn and Bolton opted to keep faith (at least temporarily) with the managers at the helm when their Premier League death knell was sounded, the Black Country outfit relieved the hapless Terry Connor (someone who looked visibly distraught each time his players capitulated) of his caretaker duties and made amends for the horrifically botched sacking of Mick McCarthy by appointing Stale Solbakken. The man who was once pronounced clinically dead has quietly set about breathing new life into the Old Gold, who with little fanfare have inched their way up to third.
As expected, relegation was the cue for prized assets Matt Jarvis and Steven Fletcher to jump ship, and it must be a bit galling for Wolves fans to watch Fletcher rattling in the goals for Sunderland. But Solbakken can still call upon the firepower of Kevin Doyle and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, the latter as perenially devastating in the Championship as he is perenially useless in the top flight. Into McCarthy’s predominantly British Isles mix, the Norwegian has lobbed a clutch of unknowns from around the globe: Austrian central defender Georg Margreitter, Togolese winger Razak Boukari, Icelandic striker Bjorn Bergmann Sigurdarson, French midfielder/forward Bakary Sako (who already has three goals to his name, though needs to learn about the importance of waiting for the referee’s whistle) and Polish midfielder Slawomir Peszko (who has the hint of a mullet, the eyes of a hunted man and a Dennis Wise-esque affinity with taxi drivers).
Integrating them all will be a challenge, but Wolves are already succeeding where Blackburn and Bolton are both currently failing, having notched clean sheets in each of their last three league games (the 6-0 League Cup thrashing at Chelsea was an excusable aberration) – a signal, perhaps, that Roger Johnson is rediscovering the form that once made him Premier League hot property. From such solid platforms can serious and sustained promotion bids be launched.