The football and Premier league season starts this weekend. The first few weeks have the potential to affect how the season unfolds, whether you achieve your aspirations or whether you fall by the wayside. As a result, the nerves of the average football fan are higher than normal. In light of that, I thought now was a good time to gauge how my former blog colleagues over at We Only Sing When We’re Winning were feeling about their sides.
We’ll start with Charlie, a West Bromwich Albion fan. In our quick conversation, we discussed West Brom’s hopes for the season as well as looking at Charlie’s passion for non-league football.
How good do you think your summer transfer activity has been? Will any new signings make a particularly positive impact on the squad?
Charlie: I’m pretty happy. No mad or unnecessary signings, added a bit of strength at the back and Lambert will provide a lot going forward.
Are there any ares you want to strengthen further before the window closes?
C: Not hugely I don’t think, but I wouldn’t complain if another keeper came in.
Of your existing players, who will have to play well for WBA to have a good season?
C: I was going to say Berahino but if he plays too well he’ll be gone even sooner! I think everyone will pull together under Pulis and there shouldn’t be any concerns.
Ah yes, Berahino. Are you worried about losing him this month or is it more likely to happen in Jan or next summer?
C: Liverpool are rumoured to be interested, and if their dealings are anything to go by he’ll go for a lot more than he’s worth in January.
Realistically, what can we expect from West Brom this season?
C: Same as every year, flirting with relegation but ultimately surviving.
So you think relegation will still be an issue, even with Pulis in charge for a whole season?
C: It’ll be less of an issue than it has been in previous years, there are certainly worse teams, but you can never count it out.
Do you want a cup run?
C: I wouldn’t turn one down, but if WBA lose early in both cups then it gives time and energy to focus on survival.
How much football do you think you’ll get to watch this season?
C: Inevitably not as much as I’d like, but hopefully there’ll be enough decent stuff on TV.
Do you think you’ll go to a West Brom match?
C: Probably one of the cheaper matches but I’d like to.
Further afield, who do you think will win the Premier League? Qualify for Europe? And get relegated?
C: I imagine Chelsea will win the league again, and City, Arsenal and Man Utd will get the CL spots. Europa League will probably be any 2 of Spurs, Liverpool and Everton, maybe even Stoke, relegation I see any of the three promoted teams and Villa.
Of course you would say Villa! Any reason other than being rivals?
C: They’ve lost Delph and Benteke, and I haven’t seen any marquee signings come in, plus I’m not Sherwood’s biggest fan.
So if they’ve not had a good summer, is there any side who has done well in the transfer market?
C: I think Stoke have to be happy with their business, they’ve got a lot for not a lot.
I know you love your non-league football Charlie. Are there any sides in those divisions we should keep an eye on?
C: It almost seems strange to have Cheltenham and Tranmere playing in the National League so it’ll be interesting to see how they adapt, but the promotion contenders from last season, Grimsby in particular are worth watching. Further down, the likes of Hyde and Guernsey are always good value, but it all feels too close to call at the moment!
The non-leagues always seem to be more exciting than the leagues. Besides those you have mentioned, are there any sides you’d recommend we should go watch should we have the time or money. Or those that you hope to watch?
C: This might sound like a cop out answer, but go and watch the closest club to you! Non League Day is October 10th this year, and typing your town name into thefa.com’s search function will give you a list of clubs, including their next fixtures.
Finally, how well do you think Nottingham Forest will fare this season and what do Everton have to do to achieve European qualification?
C: Forest will be Forest and have a season of two halves, I’m just not sure which half will be the better one! Everton need to start strong, they’ve made some good signings so getting early points on the board and getting into a rhythm will help no end.
Moving on to Josh and Martyn, the two Forest fans in our group. In the conversation with these two, we touched upon Forest’s transfer embargo and then moved on to how they feel on the Championship as a whole.
How good has your summer transfer activity been? Which transfer will have the biggest impact?
Josh: It’s been surprisingly impressive. With a transfer embargo and our key players linked with moves away, I think most Forest fans approached this summer with some trepidation. I didn’t think paying 10k a week wages was especially restrictive, but not being allowed to pay any transfer fees would be a hindrance, as lots of the best lower-league talents can be acquired for low wages, but also a transfer fee. However, we’ve not lost any players we didn’t want to lose (so far!) and have added good quality in Mills and Ward. Couldn’t have done better with the hand we were dealt.
Martyn: Our summer transfer activity has actually been quite incredible, given the circumstances imposed upon us by Financial Fair Play. Dougie Freedman has gone about his business quietly, but in Ben Hamer, Matt Mills and Jamie Ward, he has brought in players with vast amounts of Championship experience, and Daniel Pinillos is a hungry young player with experience of playing in La Liga. I’d personally like to see another central midfielder and striker through the door before the end of August, but the signs so far are good. The only disappointments for me have been the departures of Radi Majewski and Jamie Mackie, who I feel still had a lot to contribute to this squad.
One transfer rumour has been raging all summer, in the next few weeks will Lansbury leave to join Burnley?
J: I’d say Antonio to West Brom was the bigger rumour, and he’s certainly the player whose loss would affect us more. Fortunately it looks like both are staying put. But if Burnley did come back in for Lansbury, if the bidding got up to between £3-4 million, I’d actually say we were getting a good deal.
M: Mark my words: not a chance! Not only has Lansbury been made captain (albeit temporarily until Cohen returns), but he’s also looked back to his mercurial best during pre-season. Lansbury had the chance to go to a Premier League Burnley back in January and refused – why would now be any different? And at a time when Forest are under FFP restrictions, our asking price is only going to be higher than back then as we look to hold on to our key men. He often comes in for a lot of criticism, but I don’t think any manager has yet unlocked his full potential. For me, Lansbury should be deployed just behind the striker, with two holding midfielders behind him. If he could focus purely on the attacking side of the game and leave the defensive side to players like Vaughan, Tesche and Cohen, not only would we see less yellow cards for Lansbury, but he would guarantee you 15 goals a season.
How big are the losses of Darlow and Lascelles?
J: I am a huge admirer of Darlow, he has all the attributes to succeed at Premier League level. De Vries is an experienced Championship goalkeeper though who deserves a chance to play after being very patient for the last 2 years. Ben Hamer would also provide good competition if that deal ends up going through, so I think we’ll be ok. Lascelles didn’t play much last season and, although he has a lot of potential, is he really that much better at the moment than any of Mills, Hobbs, Mancienne or Wilson? I’d say not, so I don’t think we’ll miss him that much.
M: Don’t get me wrong, Darlow has an extremely bright future and has natural goalkeeping talent; however, in Dorus de Vries, Forest have a goalkeeper who has been there and done it in the Championship. He was the stand-out goalkeeper in Swansea’s promotion season and brings huge amounts of experience. To have Ben Hamer as back-up (if the transfer is sorted out) is nothing to be sniffed at, either. As for Lascelles, I don’t think Forest will even feel his absence. Our four centre backs (Hobbs, Wilson, Mancienne and Mills) are all top-6 Championship defenders (at least) and should have no problem replacing the mistake-prone Lascelles.
Of the players who were at Forest before, who will have to play well for you to have a good season?
J: The obvious examples are the aforementioned Antonio and Lansbury, who scored 14 and 11 from midfield respectively last season. I also think Hobbs and Mancienne could become the best central defensive partnership in the league if they’re given a chance to play together regularly.
M: As mentioned above, Lansbury could be that very man if he is afforded a more attacking role in the team. A lot will depend on Dexter Blackstock; with Assombalonga out until at least the New Year and with service from the likes of Ward, Antonio, Burke and Paterson, there’s no reason that the big man shouldn’t be getting 15-20 goals this season. If that happens, there’s no reason that Forest can’t have a promotion push.
What would be a realistic aim this season? Is promotion still achievable?
J: What is realistic in the Championship? Would Burnley have said getting promoted was realistic 2 seasons ago? Anything is possible. If it wasn’t for the fact that we have no idea what we’ll get from key players like Cohen, Reid and Assombalonga (hence why I didn’t mention them in Q.4), we could easily be a top 2 side. As it is, even if those 3 play no part at all, we could easily be top 6. But no doubt a dozen other sides will think the same. Realistically, so long as we don’t drop below mid-table, we shouldn’t get too angry, because we need to give a manager a proper chance, and Dougie seems like he’s doing good stuff off the pitch. But why not dream of doing better. Otherwise, why be a football fan?
M: The Championship is always so hard to predict – who would have guessed that Bournemouth would go up last season? On paper, Forest have a team befitting of the top 6: you look at a centre back partnership of Hobbs and Mills, a central midfield of Cohen, Vaughan and Lansbury, and Antonio and Ward on the wings, and wonder how that team is not going to win the majority of its games. I’m full of optimism and fully believe that Dougie Freedman is the right man to lead Forest to a play-off push – just look what he did at Crystal Palace. A good season for me would be top 4, but I certainly expect top 6. I’ll go for 5th as my prediction.
Sometimes you have a cluster of fixtures that, on paper, look like they will shape your season. Are there any months like that this season? Or is it just the start, Christmas and run-in that will make the biggest impact?
J: I haven’t looked properly at our fixture list. But my theory on this generally is that the first 40 games of the season are all about jockeying for position, and then the final 5 or 6 are crucial. I’d hope we’re not more than 10 points off the top 6 after 40 games (if we are, it’s been a shocking season!), so then it’ll all come down to the last few games.
M: February – March will be the time when Forest have to grab the bull by the horns if we really want a promotion push. Tricky away trips to Leeds, Hull, Burnley, Ipswich and Derby are complemented by winnable home games against Huddersfield, Bristol City, Preston and Sheffield Wednesday. If Forest can take maximum points from those home games and six or seven points from the away games, we should be in good shape come the Easter period and final run-in. As we saw last season, a good start isn’t everything; Forest were top in September, and look how that ended. The end of January is when we’ll really see how the table is going to take shape.
How much football do you think you’ll watch this season?
J: Probably not all that much live. But Sky Sports is a wonderful thing.
M: A hell of a lot! I’ve missed the football over the summer, even though towards the end of the last season, I was getting relatively bored with Forest having little to play for, and the majority of promotions/relegations pretty much tied up by March/April time. I think the Premier League will be one of the most exciting ever this season, and the Championship is packed full of teams who could win the league – in my book, at least 10 teams will be in the automatic promotion race.
How many Nottingham Forest matches do you think you’ll go to this season?
J: Due to living on the south coast, this is the first time in 15 years I don’t have a Forest season ticket. But I will try and get to the City Ground a few times, as well as southern away games.
M: I’ll probably try and get to two or three a month. The prices are still ridiculously prohibitive, but when you love a club, you do what you have to do. The roar at the City Ground when Assombolanga scored against Derby last season will never be forgotten by anybody – I don’t want to miss more moments like that, so that’s why I’ll get to as many games as I can.
Who do you think looks good for promotion, and who looks set to be relegated?
J: See 5. You can’t predict these things in the Championship. But the teams coming down from the Premier League will usually feature, particularly QPR given the mockery they are making of FFP. Middlesbrough look particularly strong of the sides in the Championship last season. They might not go up, but MK Dons having been promoted from League One will do well too. Derby and Fulham have invested heavily, so it’ll be interesting to see how that works out for them. Wolves will be there or thereabouts too. Not sure about relegation really. None of the teams look especially weak from what I can tell.
M: For me, any of Forest, QPR, Middlesbrough, Hull, Burnley, Ipswich, Derby, Brentford, Wolves and Blackburn could be in the race for automatic promotion. If I had to go for a top 2, it would be Middlesbrough and Hull, followed by a top 6 of Brentford, Derby, Forest and QPR. Having said that, teams promoted from League One tend to do well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve Cotterill led Bristol City on a push for promotion. As for relegation, I can’t look beyond MK Dons, Rotherham and Preston.
Leaving the Championship aside, are there any clubs in the lower leagues or even non-league who you will be keeping an eye on?
J: I’ve always had soft spots for West Ham and Yeovil. Eastbourne Borough are now my local club, so I’ll watch out for their results + maybe attend a game or two if I can. But something that’s interesting me more and more is the MLS. I’ve lived in the States before, and football there is taking off in a big way, and so is the MLS. The great Robbie Earnshaw now plays for Vancouver Whitecaps, who are in the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time, so I’ll keep an eye on them too.
M: In the lower leagues, I’ll of course keep an eye on Notts County. They’ve had massive changes at Meadow Lane this summer and it will be intriguing to see whether they can bounce back to League One at the first attempt. Another team I’ll have my eyes on is Crystal Palace (not lower leagues, I know, but the most interesting case for me). I can see them breaking into the top 8 this season with the fantastic signings of Cabaye, Sako and Wickham. For me, they have the best English manager at the present time – and from my point of view, hopefully the next England manager – and I’d love to see them have a great season. The fans down there are also second to none and deserve all of the success in the world.
If so, what do you hope for from their seasons?
J: No idea, just that they win from time to time. West Ham have invested heavily under their new manager Slaven Bilic, who did a great job with the Croatian national team. So I really hope they can sustain a push for Europe.
M: Notts County should be looking to bounce back to League One. I’d love to see a Nottingham league derby one day, but I feel like County will have to reach the Championship at least for this to happen. As far as Palace go, a top 8 finish is highly realistic. A good season could even see them fighting with the likes of Liverpool, Southampton and Stoke.
Finally, how well do you think West Brom and Everton will fare this season?
J: I hope both fare well! I have a lot of time for both Martinez and Pulis, which is odd given their contrasting styles as managers. But both are distinctive, and unafraid to challenge orthodoxy to do things in their own ways. I highly doubt West Brom will go down under Pulis, but their squad probably doesn’t have the capacity to do much more than stay in the league, to be honest. Everton is harder to predict. No Europa League gives them a real chance of getting back to the form of 2 seasons ago. However, at the moment they have only 2 centre-backs, and 1 of those might be about to leave. And it looks like teams like West Ham, Stoke, Palace etc. are really pushing for a tilt at top 6, which would threaten Everton. Purely because I would love Martinez to succeed, I’ll err on the side of optimism and say 5th. But it will need Ross Barkley to get back to his best.
M: I like both Martinez and Pulis as managers, but I don’t think West Brom or Everton have as yet added to their squads enough or in the right areas. Everton should have more joy this season than last, though, and I’d expect them to finish somewhere around 9th. As for West Brom, it could be another unremarkable season, but they should be safe from relegation: 15th/16th for me.
Following that, Martyn decided to ask me some questions on Everton. We talked about how Everton will do this season and then moved on to the Championship.
How have Everton done in the summer transfer window so far?
Gareth: To be honest, not great. Deulofeu is possibly the steal of the summer, and Cleverley will plug a hole in the midfield but it’s hardly addressing the problem positions. Hanging onto our big guns (so far) is a major positive. We’ve spent less money than anyone else in the Premier League – that, for me, tells you all you need to know about how frustrating it’s been.
Do you see any major gaps that still need to be plugged by Martinez? How many more signings will this take?
G: I see quite a lot of gaps! We have 2 senior CB’s, and we let 2 go at the end of last season! We need one more, if not two. On top of that, we need a new number 10, as cover / replacement for Barkley and a new back-up striker. Lukaku can’t do it all on his own and Kone is useless. Howard deserves one more season but I certainly wouldn’t mind a new goalkeeper.
Will/should John Stones leave? If so, how much would be a good amount in your view?
G: John Stones shouldn’t leave this window and I’ll be surprised if he does. Twitter says that we told clubs to wait until next summer to sign him, after City and Barcelona enquired. Our thinking is that with more TV money, the money we can receive will be much higher. If we sell him this summer it’ll be around £30-40 million, next will probably be closer to £60. It makes sense for everyone to wait a summer. And that’s exactly why Chelsea are desperate to sign him in these few weeks. They know they’ll be blown out of the market next summer.
Will we see a better Romelu Lukaku this season?
G: A better Lukaku? A lot of people thought he had a bad season last year but truth is I don’t think he did. He was the first Everton striker to score 20 goals in a season in the 21st century (91/92 season was the last time it happened). Ok, only 10 were in the league but it’s still a good return for our record signing and he will only get better. So yes, he will be better but he doesn’t need to be much better.
Who or which area of the pitch is the key to your success this season?
G: Good question. I think Leighton Baines is still important to our chances, especially with a new left sided partner (Pienaar can’t stop being injured at the moment). How he links up with Mirallas/Deulofeu/Cleverley will be a key aspect. More importantly though, our defence needs to be better than last season, particularly in net. Howard was the worst goalkeeper in the league last year and that right there is why we finished 11th.
What would be a successful season in your view? Is Europe League attainable?
G: Yeah, Europa League would be an incredibly successful season but I just don’t see it as realistic. Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Man City, Man United and Chelsea are already miles ahead of us and it’s possible that Stoke, West Ham and even Crystal Palace could overtake us. So, successful would be Europe, realistic is just reaching the top 10.
Besides the Merseyside derbies, which games are you most looking forward to this season?
G: Personally, I love playing the Manchester clubs at Goodison. We have a good record against them and the atmosphere is terrific.
Who are the ones to be watched this season in the Premier League? Who will struggling against the drop?
G: I think United will be one to watch with their stellar additions, Stoke have improved 10-fold and Palace will have their eyes on europe. In terms of struggling, I see all promoted sides as being in danger. Outside of that, the usual suspects – Villa, West Brom, possibly even Leicester again. Sunderland struggle and then bounce at the end of the season and it wouldn’t surprise me to see that happen again.
Who is the best signing of the summer so far? You must have been laughing when Manchester City shelled out £50 million pounds for Sterling…
G: I was laughing at City for that, and at Liverpool for ever thinking that Raheem would be loyal (believe it or not – I saw some fans that genuinely thought that). In terms of best signing, I think it is Bastian Schweinsteiger at United. He will almost certainly turn them into title hunters.
Moving to the Championship, who would you like to see do well this season?
G: I always want to see Forest do well, being an adopted Nottingham lad. I still have soft spots for Reading, Wigan, Bolton and Fulham from their PL days and would love to see them do well. I’m glad that Preston are back at that level.
More to the point, who do you think will do well this season?
G: QPR, unfortunately, will do well, they are the new yo-yo club. I liked what I saw of Wolves last season and they should be strong again, of which the same goes for Middlesbrough. But none of what I say matters in truth – the Championship is so crazy that any of the 24 sides could win the league. So, come May, we could be celebrating Rotherham’s runaway success!
Finally, what do you make of Martyn’s assertion that Alan Pardew should be the next England manager? 😉
G: I’m just glad he’s moved on from his man crush on Brendan Rodgers.