After the unprecedented response to Part 1, the calls for Part 2 of this article were as vociferous as Wigan fans at an away game. So, following in the footsteps of the great sequels of our time, here it is.
Queens Park Rangers:
Have you ever been to a boot fair and seen a stall made up of completely random objects that bear no relation to each other? That’s a bit like looking at Rangers’ squad list this season. In history, they’ll be filed under ‘miscellaneous’.
Mark Hughes brought in a lot of players this summer, but are any of them actually any good?
Ji-Sung Park plays like he’s always got somewhere to be. The problem is too often that somewhere is on the floor having tripped over his own feet. Fabio is a less accident-prone (but no less injury-prone) version of his brother. And then there’s the curious case of Julio Cesar.
If anything sums up Rangers’ buy-now-think-never philosophy it’s the ridiculous demotion of Robert Green after just one (admittedly poor) game against Swansea. To sign Cesar on a free is a coup. But what now for Green: a premier league-quality ‘keeper counting down the days until January?
Hughes is a good manager, as his time with Wales and Blackburn proved. But he’s never kicked on from that. He’s gone backwards. And just a quick memo to Adel Taarabt: Do you think you can play well, maybe just once? Just so I can see what all the fuss is about.
I really like Brian McDermott. I’ve admired his football philosophy since he first took charge of Reading and, in his early days, turned them into giant-killers. He’s perfect for the club. The problem is the club isn’t perfect for the Premier League. They are a team that can catch opponents by surprise. But that’s a trait for cup football, not for a 38-game season.
They’ll win a few. And their performances will earn them the title of “plucky underdogs”. But their fans may as well brace themselves now. They’ll finish bottom.
And yet, as with all bottom-placed clubs, there’ll be that one game, when they inexplicably win against a title-challenger; gaining points that ultimately mean something only to the team who miss out on them. That rare occasion won’t be celebrated for points gained, or at least it shouldn’t be. It should be celebrated for memories made. After all, at the end of the season that’s all they’ll have.
Whispers after just three games that Harry Redknapp was being lined up as Nigel Adkins’ replacement were unfounded and unnecessary. Show me a harder start to a Premier League campaign than Southampton’s and I’ll show you a literate fan of Fifty Shades of Grey.
So now the triple-whammy of the two Manchester clubs and Arsenal is out of the way, we’re starting to see what the Saints are capable of. Or more importantly, what Gaston Ramirez is capable of. The club record signing from Bologna is something very special indeed. He could even be the best player the club have seen since that bloke on Soccer Saturday. Along with Ricky Lambert and the underrated Adam Lallana, Ramirez is key to keeping them up.
Winning breeds winning. So the fact that Southampton won consecutive promotions prior to this season suggests that, as with Norwich last year, a mid-table finish is possible. But only if they steer clear of injuries. More likely they’ll be forced to rely on a threadbare backup for the winter months and they’ll be fighting until the very last day.
For a club that, in recent times, is most famous for a player who can throw the ball, Stoke have defied the odds to become “established”. Tony Pulis – think PE teacher made good – has patiently built a team over time, signing just enough each season to strengthen the foundations, giving third chances to the likes of Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant, and taking risks on the injury-prone Michaels, Kightly and Owen.
The Britannia Stadium – otherwise known as the retirement home for England strikers past – is that old football cliché, a fortress. And they’re not bad away either. Basically, Stoke are hard to beat. Due in no small part to Ryan Shawcross, a player who must cause Sir Alex Ferguson to wake up in the night screaming: “No, Tony! I didn’t say two million! I said twenty!”
With his yearly defensive injury crisis in full swing, how Sir Alex could do with Shawcross now.
The problem is that Stoke are stuck. They’ll survive this season, and the next one, and every one after that until someone gets trigger happy or Pulis decides to leave. And then they’ll do a Charlton. Remember them? They had Premier League football year-in-year-out, and now it’s a distant memory.
Everyone laughed when Martin O’Neill paid £12million for Steven Fletcher, probably even Fletcher himself. Now he’s laughing for a completely different reason, because Sunderland finally have the striker they’ve been missing since Asamoah Gyan…sorry, I mean Darren Bent.
With the signings they made last summer, I thought Sunderland were in a good position to challenge for Europe. Craig Gardner was a goal-scoring midfielder, David Vaughan the key ingredient in Blackpool’s brief but uplifting fairy tale, and John O’Shea was, in his time at United, the solution to almost any positional problem. And yet it didn’t work and O’Neill spent the second half of last season cleaning up someone else’s mess
After the management technique that was New season = Wholesale changes displayed so catastrophically under both Roy Keane and Steve Bruce, O’Neill has signed only two players. But they are two excellent players. Fletcher scores goals. It’s that simple. And Adam Johnson has two years of football to catch up on after the huge mistake of signing for a club that doesn’t know the English for “youth product”.
Sunderland won’t win anything. They won’t qualify for Europe. It will all be a bit boring. But if you believe all the players who have turned the club down over the years, so is the city.
So maybe they do need Joe Allen and Scott Sinclair after all.
Losing your two best players would normally be cause for concern, but the way Swansea started this season, no one cared. Michu was carrying on where he left off in Spain, Chico was forming an impenetrable partnership with Ashley Williams, and Jonathan de Guzman was running the midfield. There was talk of Europe, of Michael Laudrup being the spiritual successor to Roberto Martinez, of a real football force in Wales.
After winning their first two games, they haven’t won since. Danny Graham isn’t nearly prolific enough. He’s doing a Grant Holt. It’s easy to score when no one knows you. When they do, that’s when you prove how good you really are.
Losing Neil Taylor to injury so early in the season was a huge blow. But here’s the truth: if they’d kept Allen and Sinclair and still bought the others – then they’d have the season their early form suggested. With reinforcements rather than replacements Swansea would be this year’s Newcastle. Instead they’ll be this year’s Swansea.
One of only two men in English football (and possibly the world) known solely by his initials, AVB suddenly can’t put a foot wrong. The weekend victory at Old Trafford seals the quickest of turnarounds as, in less than a month, he’s gone from tactically inept to the manager Roman Abramovich thought he’d got a year ago.
With Spurs two-nil up at half time on Saturday, we all knew what would happen. As it always does when they play Manchester United, they’d capitulate. And in all honesty, they did. United should have won; in which case we’d have been reminded of AVB’s Chelsea being 3-0 up against the same opposition last season; how the game ended in a draw and shortly after the Portuguese lost his job.
But for once the luck was with the Lilywhites. And the man playing the role of a football manager made it to the next scene. Because let’s get one thing straight: AVB must be an actor. That beard is straight out of Hollywood. And that voice – the man could play Bond.
Portugal is probably awash with actors perfecting “the Mourinho” and AVB is just the first. In a few years, half the clubs in Europe will have a brooding, mumbling Mediterranean man in charge, men who will make up three quarters of Portugal’s gross domestic product.
The fact is: Spurs are still Spurs and regardless of the weekend they’ll play no better or worse, and finish no higher, than they did under Harry Redknapp.
West Bromwich Albion:
You spend years assisting managers, quietly watching miracles and mistakes while taking none of the credit or blame. You work with some of the best players in the world and slowly your reputation builds until people start talking about you, even though you’re only an assistant manager, and everyone knows their job is to watch what the manager does and copy it.
And then one day someone gives you a chance. Or maybe you’ve been given chances before but this time you take it. And you take over a club with solid foundations, left in good nick by the man now in charge of the national side. And at the start of the season you don’t say you’re targeting safety. You say let’s win something. And as if it’s that easy, your players say okay then.
Steve Clarke has always been championed by the players around him. Now he is proving why. When you can find nothing bad to say about a club, even when it’s the purpose of your story, they must be doing something right. West Brom will be the surprise package of the season. And if I am going to annoy their fans, the only thing I can think is that you are Clarke’s stepping stone to something much, much bigger.
West Ham United:
Sam Allardyce’s teams play lump-it football. They win by sheer brute force. The fans hate him.
Sam Allardyce signed Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff. He took Bolton into Europe and could write the book on promotion. The fans love him.
Whichever statement you agree with, there’s no denying Allardyce is a proper football manager. And perhaps a deluded one, as he did once say he was more suited to managing Real Madrid than Blackburn Rovers. The fans of his current club would have you believe they are the purveyors of beautiful football in this country. But they’re not. They’re an average football team with an above-average manager.
Convincing Andy Carroll to sign was a masterstroke. In his only game so far, he showed exactly what he can do when someone lets him. He’s an Allardyce player; one who needs to be the focal point, to be told exactly how good he is and only then will he show it. Basically he’s a hippie Kevin Davies. The signing of Matt Jarvis to supply him is equally as shrewd; if only as much thought had gone into the defence.
So the self-proclaimed World Cup winners are in for a season of so-so results and, at least until January, a player with more to prove than anyone else in the league. It’s just a shame that the only thing most of us will remember about West Ham’s season is that they were the place someone from another club stopped off at to find some form.
Dave Whelan is a wizard, or possibly a hypnotist. How else can you explain the fact that Roberto Martinez is still his manager? In fact, I may go so far as to say Whelan is the cleverest man in football, expertly handling the situation whenever a new suitor comes knocking. He leaves it up to Martinez, and so far at least, Martinez has ignored the door.
But it can’t last forever. And you fear that when the manager does eventually leave, whoever takes over will struggle to keep Wigan up. In truth, there is no future in Wigan as a top-flight team. Martinez is their heart, and he will leave one day. He’s been smart so far. Paul Lambert has shown exactly why Aston Villa wasn’t a good move. And Liverpool couldn’t offer the control Martinez clearly enjoys under Whelan. But there are bigger, better clubs out there, and Martinez will inevitably make the shortlist.
Ultimately, how long Wigan stay in the Premier League is down to how long he remains in charge. So that’s another season at least. But my money’s on not many more.