"With Derby doomed, Sunderland safe and Birmingham somewhere between the two, which other clubs could make up the trio that will drop out of the top flight?"
The start of the new season always brings optimism and dread in roughly equal measure. We are usually informed of the fans’ excitement and hopes for the new campaign, but amongst most sets of supporters there is also a level of anxiety that perhaps the new multi million pound striker is more Wayne Sleep than Wayne Rooney. For the chosen few, perhaps 6 or 8 clubs, the fear of relegation from the Premiership is not a real concern. For the rest the need for points on the board early doors isn’t just to boost the chances of a UEFA Cup place.
Last season it wasn’t difficult to predict the demise of both Watford and Sheffield United, but I was in good company in failing to see how well Reading would adjust to life in the Premiership. As always when assessing the relegation candidates it’s usually wise to paraphrase the phrase, “what goes up, must comedown”.
Traditionally the team that wins the play offs for the last place in the Premiership, is immediately installed as favourites for the drop. In overcoming West Brom at the end of May, Derby ensured that this was one tradition that would be upheld. To be honest it’s difficult to see how Derby can stay up. They fought tooth and nail for their place in the Premiership, but look doomed from the off.
The target man Steve Howard will be a tricky customer and very awkward to mark for Premiership defenders used to thwarting a different type of opponent. He should also have willing runners in new signing Robert Earnshaw and the much coveted Giles Barnes, but as ever it’s a question of whether Derby will be able to turn their chances into goals and stay tight at the back. One doubts it frankly.
Their opening fixtures encompass travels to White Hart Lane, Anfield and the Emirates before the end of September. It could be a harsh introduction to life at the top. If they get left behind, it’s near impossible to see how they might catch up. One solace could be the huge amount of money they’ll receive simply for turning up.
Birmingham’s claims to Premiership survival are based largely on their having a manager who has done it before. Steve Bruce not only lead Blues to the promised land of the Premiership but kept them in the division against the odds. City also have a bit more money to invest than the Rams and should, along side Sunderland provide ample threat to the sides that finished just above relegation.
Fabrice Muamba has been signed permanently for £4m, Olivier Kapo has been brought in for £3m and Gary O’Conner has arrived for £2.6m. There have been a few players let go to balance the books a little, but with rumours of another bid for Spurs’ Egyptian forward Mido, Bruce has been backed again in the transfer market. Whether he gets the blend right up front, and how quickly Birmingham can get points on the board will be key.
To bulk up the defence Bruce has brought in experienced Premiership defenders Franck Queudrue and Liam Ridgewell, but will have to ensure his backline is organised quickly. He has also found it necessary to issue a warning to new investor Carson Yeung not to interfere with selection, which is a worry.
Despite an away trip to Stamford Bridge, Blues actually have a reasonable opening set of fixtures. There are no easy games, of course, but games against Sunderland, Derby, Bolton and Boro could all prove fruitful.
Sunderland manager Roy Keane has quickly been hailed as a messiah on Wearside, when perhaps more plaudits should be heard for Chairman Niall Quinn. Not only did he know enough about his own skills to hire someone else as manager, but he also lured Keane with the promise of backing, and has been as good as his word thus far.
The Premiership opener against Spurs should indicate how far Sunderland have to go, but there will be few eyebrows raised if Keane does what two previous Sunderland managers have failed to do. Keep them in the Premiership the season after gaining promotion.
With Derby doomed, Sunderland safe and Birmingham somewhere between the two, which other clubs could make up the trio that will drop out of the top flight? Two clubs that have lost their manager since the end of the season, Wigan and Bolton, (OK, so Big Sam left before the end of last season), could both find themselves in some difficulty.
Wigan barely survived last time out and have found it difficult to strengthen. In Jason Koumas they have added arguably the best player outside of the Premiership last season, but will struggle again to get the goals to make much of an impact. There’s a real danger that a slow start could spell the end of their run amongst the big boys.
For Bolton the loss of Big Sam runs right to the heart of the club. Bolton through and through, the larger than life manager was more than just an advocate of the hoof and hump game. His replacement, Little Sam, has vast experience in the game though, as well as being well versed in the off pitch work that lead to Bolton’s success under Allardyce.
Some have predicted trouble for Wanderers this season, but I’m not one of them. I can’t see Sammy Lee quite emulating his predecessor’s achievements, but I also believe they’ll surprise a few whilst maintaining a safe mid table position.
West Ham United scraped clear of the drop zone in the nick of time last season, by hook or by crook. With the sort of investment they have undertaken since escaping though, it’s unlikely that they’ll be in the same position this time around.
Reading could fall prey to the same “sophomore jinx”, or “second season syndrome”, that troubled Wigan last time around. Again there appear to be too many worse sides for Coppell’s troops to be drawn into the battle for survival for any real length of time, notwithstanding the loss of Steve Sidwell to Chelsea.
The only other sides likely to face real concern for their places are Middlesborough and Fulham. Neither appears to have enough to look towards the higher echelons of the league and neither appears to be bad enough to go down. There are concerns for both though.
In losing Mark Viduka, Boro’s goalscoring potential has been seriously reduced. If Yakubu also leaves, their threat could be withdrawn almost completely. The Riverside welcomes Tuncay Sanli and Jeremie Aliadiere, but there could be some headaches for Gareth Southgate if these two don’t hit it off. Jonathon Woodgate has completed his move to his home town club, and there is still more to come from the academy boys. All in all, Boro should stay safe, but it’s not nailed on.
Fulham, despite heavy investment, are for my money, not up to scratch in the Premiership, and lost a lot of experience and nous when Chris Coleman was sacked towards the end of last season. Fulham fans have their gripes about the way Coleman carried out the job, but on the resources available to him at Craven Cottage he was doing one of the best jobs of any Premiership manager.
The new manager Lawrie Sanchez has made a habit of turning the form books upside down. A goal for Wimbledon to win the FA Cup against Liverpool, a semi final place for Wycombe Wanderers and the exploits with the Northern Irish side, are all to his credit. He was also partially responsible for keeping Fulham in the Premiership last season.
All were characterised by good organisation, backs against the wall one off performances. Except the retention of the Premiership place last season. That was characterised by others falling short whilst Fulham had already done enough under Coleman to mean a win against an understrength Liverpool side kept them up.
My concern for Fulham lies in the lack of real quality and experience in the playing side, and on the management side at this level. I don’t believe Sanchez will be able to keep the team spirit and “up and at ‘em” approach seen at Windsor Park alive for a full season at Craven Cottage. And whether it will be enough even if he is able to. The Premiership is a harsh judge of talent, and I think Fulham will be found wanting.