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Hull City 2015/16 Championship Season Preview

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After a two-year stint in the Premier League, Steve Bruce’s Hull City side find themselves back in the Championship. Following relegation, Steve Bruce said he was surprised that he was still in the job, and was quick to absolve full responsibility for the Tigers failings in their last campaign.

Story of Last Season

Following an impressive first season in the Premier League, recording their highest ever league finish and reaching their first ever FA Cup final, Hull City did not rest on their laurels. Significant investment, to the tune of almost £40 million (net spend nearer to £25 million), was made, as the Allams looked to take the club onto the next level. The ambition was not realised. In a campaign ravaged by injuries, Bruce’s men failed to reach the Europa League group stages and were eventually relegated on the final day of the season. The Tigers had a horrible winter period, when their injury list was at its longest, and although they appeared to have turned a corner a few times last season, they failed to gather any real momentum. Steve Bruce’s insistence on playing a 3-5-2 system made Hull predictable when coming forward, repeatedly launching crosses into the box and rarely creating a great deal, which was reflected in their poor goal scoring figures, a problem which has plagued the East Yorkshire club for a number of years now, ever since their play-off winning season of 2007/08 under Phil Brown.

Transfers

Unlike most teams in the division, Hull City are likely to complete a few more signings before the window closes. Their recruitment began very late, and they were the last league team in the country to complete a signing when Sam Clucas joined the club on July 27th. Having sold Tom Ince, Robbie Brady and James Chester for a combined fee in excess of £20 million, as well as receiving a considerable sell-on fee from Blackburn’s sale of Tom Cairney, Steve Bruce has been given some cash to re-invest in the squad.

Sam Clucas – The much sought after, versatile 24-year-old Sam Clucas became Steve Bruce’s first signing of the summer, making a £1.3 million switch from Chesterfield after the two clubs faced each other in pre-season. Clucas had been linked to Cardiff and Wigan, but joined Hull after just a season at Chesterfield. A product of the Glenn Hoddle Youth Academy, Clucas began life as a box-to-box midfielder but was deployed on the left flank when he first joined Chesterfield. After the sale of Eoin Doyle, Clucas was even played up front, and he finished the season with 9 goals to his name.

Ryan Taylor – Injury-plagued full-back Ryan Taylor joined the Tigers on the same day as Clucas, having been released by Newcastle United at the end of the season. Like Clucas, Taylor is a versatile player, who can play either down the right side or deep in the midfield. The former England U21 international is happy to be on the pitch at all, having spent a great deal of his career in the medical department. If he can stay fit, Taylor will be a useful utility player, who Steve Bruce knows well from their time together at Wigan. Hull City fans will also be pleased to have a free-kick specialist, a luxury they haven’t had in their squad for a long time now.

Moses Odebaju – The latest recruit at the KC Stadium, Hull had hoped that Odebaju would be signed along with his former teammate Andre Gray, but after their joint bid of £9.5 million for the pair was rebuffed they decided to get the signing of Odebaju confirmed and go after Gray as a separate deal. Odebaju is excellent going forward and will look to overlap Ahmed Elmohamady, should the Egyptian remain at the club this window. He is a real threat going forward, and will look to create chances for the Tigers forwards, although his defensive work and decision making still needs some work.

Isaac Hayden – Steve Bruce utilised his strong relationship with Arsene Wenger to bring two Gunners players on-loan to the KC, the first of whom was Isaac Hayden. It is the 20-year-old’s first loan move, and he will be hoping to prove his first team credentials after only a handful of appearances for the Arsenal first team. Standing at 6 feet and 2 inches, Hayden is a strong young man who will not be bullied off the ball. Commonly deployed as a ball-playing defender at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger described him as an intelligent footballer, and there are suspicions that Steve Bruce may play Hayden in a holding midfield role, replacing Jake Livermore, who still has a cloud hanging over his future following his positive drugs test.

Chuba Akpom – The second man to arrive on a season-long loan from Arsenal is Chuba Akpom. Like Hayden, Akpom has represented England at a number of youth levels, but unlike Hayden, this is not Akpom’s first move away from the Emirates. It is the 19-year-old’s fourth loan move, but he is yet to make a real impression in first team football. Arsene Wenger reportedly rates the youngster, who has played 4 league games for the club, and even played against Hull in the FA Cup last season.

Key Players

Michael Dawson – The departure of James Chester means that Michael Dawson is likely to be the most integral man at the heart of the Hull City defence. He was named Player of the Year at last seasons end of year awards ceremony and after a shaky start in which he struggled to gel with Curtis Davies, Dawson soon became a rock at the back, as well as helping the team with his pinpoint distribution skills. Dawson made it clear when the season ended that he was keen to remain a Hull City player and help them get back into the top flight. In a back three or a back four, Dawson is likely to be an ever-present providing he can stay fit.

Andrew Robertson – Scottish full-back Andrew Robertson is still very raw, but one can forgive him considering he was playing for part-time Queens Park until 2013. In the last two years he has stepped up to full-time football, stepped up to the Premier League, stepped up to international football and even scored against England. His explosive pace and direct approach make him a constant thorn in the oppositions side, and it is no surprise that Steve Bruce had to work very hard to warn off any potential suitors this summer, which reportedly included top four sides. With the departure of Robbie Brady, Robertson is likely to be a permanent fixture in the Hull side.

Sone Aluko – A surprise candidate as a ‘key player’ perhaps, seen as though Sone Aluko was used sparingly in the Premier League to varying degrees of success, but the 26-year-old was excellent the last time Hull were in the Championship. He played alongside Jay Simpson in a front 2 when the Tigers won promotion in 2012, and scored 8 goals in 23 games, before picking up an injury. A skillful and unpredictable talent, on his day he can be unplayable, particularly with the drop in quality of the Championship. It is difficult to predict which forwards will be at Hull City come the end of the window, as Hernandez, Jelavic and N’Doye could all leave, and there will almost certainly be some new additions in that position too, but wherever he is deployed I suspect Aluko will perform.

Predicted Line-Up

You’d need a crystal ball to predict what Hull City’s starting line-up will be once the season settles down. There are likely to be further signings made and players sold before the transfer window shuts for the summer. It also remains to be seen whether Steve Bruce will opt for a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2. The Tigers probably have the strongest defence in the league, even without James Chester, and will be able to play a back four of Odebaju, Dawson, Maguire and Robertson, or a back five of Elmohamady, Dawson, Davies, Maguire and Robertson, with both of those back lines having capable Championship defenders waiting in the wings should they be called upon. In midfield, Tom Huddlestone could still leave the club, but should he stay, Steve Bruce will be hoping his class can shine through at a lower level following a poor last campaign. Mo Diame and Robert Snodgrass will return from injury in either October or November, both are quality players at this level but one suspects the former will leave the club in January. Up front in anyone’s guess, as all three strikers could go or stay, and with the cloud hanging over Andre Gray, it remains to be seen who will come in.

Prediction

Predicting anything in the Championship is a fool’s game. It is a hugely open league and many would say Hull City could as easily go down as make a return to the top flight. They have lost some quality players, but their recruitment has been strong. They still have a very strong squad for this level, and should Steve Bruce be able to get them playing for him, and finally find the best way to arrange his players, they will be a force to be reckoned with. One obvious inadequacy of the Hull City squad is creativity. The Tigers have bid for Shaun Maloney who could fill that void, but right now all their creativity is through the wings, and they are crying out for some creativity through the center of the pitch. There are some very strong teams in this seasons Championship, but there’s no reason Hull City can’t mix it with the best of them.

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Hartlepool

Hartlepool United: Time to save the Pools from extinction

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Hartlepool United
Photo: Reuters

Chaos often brings camaraderie in the football world.  The news that Hartlepool United, in existence for over 100 years, are in serious financial trouble has once again united fans of several clubs, who have rallied to the cause in supporting the drive to raise the cash to resurrect the club from its deathbed.

As a Boro fan, this is particularly pertinent given the role that Hartlepool played in resuscitating my team in 1986. Boro fans have launched efforts to each donate £19.86 to Hartlepool’s cause and drum up support for supporters to attend the Pools’ home game against Wrexham on Saturday whilst Boro are away against Queens Park Rangers.

Whilst supporter solidarity is heartening at these times, I am once again left asking why? Why are clubs allowed to be so poorly run by the FA? Why in a game awash with money, where almost every Premier League side receives £100 million per season, can a club potentially go bust?

Why is it the fans, who pour money into clubs up and down the every week, who are the ones expected to pay for the bail out (minus a few honourable exceptions, such as Danny Graham)?

The Hartlepool fans are attempting to raise £200k to keep the club going until new owners can be found.  The fact that this sum, which would be considered paltry to every Premier League and the majority of Championship clubs, can potentially send a club to extinction, is symptomatic of the greed exhibited by those at the top of the football pyramid.

My own club, Middlesbrough, earned almost £200 million (~ £105 million prize money and £85 million parachute payments) as a result of one season in the sun of the Premier League. Why can’t Chairman Steve Gibson, who was on the Boro board in 1986, donate the 0.1% required to keep Hartlepool going?

Things are only going to get worse.  The top six of the Premier League are not content with trousering more cash than everyone else. No, they want an even bigger slice of the pie from foreign TV rights. This greed is to the detriment of the game.

Clubs like Hartlepool are the lifeblood of football. Tottenham, one of the aforementioned six that are attempting to steal ever more from the rest, owe the development of two of their biggest stars to football league clubs.

Dele Alli was brought through the system at Milton Keynes Dons, while Harry Kane cut his teeth with loan spells at the likes of Leyton Orient and Millwall.

Of the current England squad, Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Jesse Lingard and John Stones, to name just a few, all benefitted from playing time in the Football League – playing time that otherwise not have received in the Premier League.

The great Brian Clough started his managerial career at Hartlepool. If we are ever to see an English manager emulate Cloughie and win the Champions League, it is likely that their formative years will be spent in the lower part of the football pyramid.

All that the big teams achieve with any extra cash is either unscrupulous owners taking millions out of the club and/or more money squandered on players and agents.

We aren’t getting a better standard of football or player. Virgil Van Dijk may be the most expensive defender in the world, but he is not a better defender than Mats Hummels, Leonardo Bonucci or Gerard Pique.

Top stars such as Lionel Messi, Neymar and Robert Lewandowski chose not to play in the Premier League. The likes of Gareth Bale, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho head to Spain when they approach their peak.

At one time, Boro signed Paul Merson, an England international, when the club were relegated to the Championship. Last summer they spent £14 million on Britt Assombalonga, a player who has never featured in the top flight of English football.

The £70 million of so called ‘solidarity’ payments paid by the Premier League to the rest of English football show anything but solidarity. It is nothing more than a token gesture, a handing over of loose change.

Rather than rushing to stick their snouts in the trough, it time that the top clubs recognise the role of lower league clubs in developing both on and off the field talent by giving them a fairer proportion of the TV riches.

So I encourage you all to give to the Pools plight. However, I also say don’t buy that season ticket, don’t but that shirt, don’t buy that sky sports subscription. That is the only way the greed at the top of the game can be stopped.

Perhaps only then will the powers that be listen and we’ll finally see the end of fans rattling buckets to bail out once proud but now crippled clubs. There is enough money in the game for everyone. There is enough money in the game to give £200k to Hartlepool United.

If you wish to donate to Hartlepool United’s cause, you can do so using the following link: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/savehartlepoolunitedfootballclub

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Reading

Why Jaap Stam desperately needs an upturn in form at Reading

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Jaap Stam
Photo: Reuters

When Reading fans watched on as Huddersfield Town won in the cruelest of ways at Wembley all the way back in May last year, it sparked what many fans thought would be a time of uncertainty at the club. However, as the majority of the core squad remained and many additions were made, it led to a sense of quiet optimism around the Madejski Stadium.

Jaap Stam had played down the Royal’s chances of promotion, the pundits were predicting a far less glamorous season than the last – but this wasn’t enough to dampen spirits too much. Reading fans were used to seeing their club being underestimated and told that they simply weren’t cut out to go to-to-toe with the Championship elite.

However, perhaps even the biggest of skeptics would not have anticipated that the Royals would find themselves in their current league position at such an advanced point of the season.

At the start of the campaign it felt like the additions that Jaap Stam and his director of football, Brian Tevreden, had acquired were garnering a good deal of praise from Reading fans and, with the majority of the core squad intact, there was certainly cause for optimism as the campaign got underway.

The losses of Ali Al-Habsi and Danny Williams have definitely left a mark on Reading, which is now becoming fully apparent. At times Al-Habsi was producing 2-3 world class saves per game and Danny Williams put together a brilliant season from the heart of the club’s midfield. Currently, their replacements have not done enough to fill the void left by the departed duo.

The 2016/17 campaign was an excellent time to be a Reading fan. The club had a clear philosophy and style under Jaap Stam and were agonisingly close to returning to the Premier League after a four year absence. However, there were definitely some fans that were never convinced of the Dutchman and particularly the style of play that the club employed throughout the season.

At times, the Royals struggled to create goal scoring opportunities and certainly had some defensive frailties. No side had conceded more goals entering the play-offs and the Royals also had the second worst goal difference in the top ten.

It was easy to overlook some of the issues with the team last season as the Royals stormed a fantastic third place finish. However, this time around Jaap Stam’s men have massively underperformed.

Winless runs and a poor home record have left the club in a very difficult position that you feel no fans, playing staff, or management could have foreseen the club being in.

At times, Jaap Stam’s men play at walking pace and have little-to-no adventure going forward, seemingly not knowing the next step once they enter the final third. They have been beaten for quality against the top sides in the division and beaten for desire against fellow relegation candidates.

When going behind in a game, there is no ‘Plan B’ for Jaap Stam and the side often loses shape completely as they chase the game. Frustratingly, they have only recovered three points from losing positions.

Reading have flirted with relegation a couple of times since they were relegated back to the Championship in 2013, but this season has a much more toxic feeling considering the expectation for the club to follow up on the heroics of the last campaign.

This toxic feeling has spread amongst large portions of the support and is damaging the relationship between the players, the manager and the fans. This was perhaps epitomised by the events that occurred after Reading’s uninspiring 0-0 with League Two Stevenage in the FA Cup third round at the start of January.

Club captain Paul McShane made a heat of the moment decision in refusing to thank the travelling Reading faithful after the fans made it perfectly clear how they felt the team had performed during the game, as well as in recent weeks.

It was a flashpoint that had threatened to boil over as a result of Reading fans’ growing frustrations. The Royals are winless in eight and have found the net just twice in their previous seven games. Of course, things could change very quickly with a handful of quick wins, but this is certainly a very worrying period for Jaap Stam and his side.

Obviously, there are two options that the Reading board has to choose from – sack Jaap Stam or keep the Dutchman at the helm.

The case for sacking the former Manchester United man is growing. However, with the club allegedly treading the line with Financial Fair Play, you wonder if the club has the leeway to dismiss the Dutchman.

The January transfer window is nearly at the half way point and if the board were looking to bring in a new manager, the time would have been at the start of the month. For someone new to come in now, they would have a tough time learning the squad and acquiring new players in just a two week period.

If Jaap Stam’s men fail to put in a convincing performance in their FA Cup replay against Stevenage on Tuesday, it could spell absolute disaster for Stam.

The club have invested heavily in new signings; breaking the transfer record twice in the last two seasons with the additions of Tiago Ilori and Sone Aluko – neither of whom have justified the substantial price tags that arrived with them as of yet.

Reports are also circulating that Liam Moore’s time at the club could be limited, as interest in the centre half is growing. Given the situation the club currently finds itself in, you can understand why the 24-year-old could be willing to listen to any offers that come his way.

It has become increasingly common in the Championship that clubs can be on the brink of relegation one year and chasing promotion the next; and vice-versa. Jaap Stam may be a victim of his own success and is always quick to say that the club overachieved massively throughout last season.

Lee Johnson and Bristol City are a shining example of why sticking with your manager can sometimes pay dividends, with the club forced to wait until the penultimate game of last season before securing survival – despite having loan striker Tammy Abraham firing in 26 goals.

Johnson’s men are now flying high in the Championship semi finals of the League Cup with several Premier League scalps to their name.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the Reading faithful’s patience for Jaap Stam’s approach and lack of results are wearing thin. The Dutchman desperately needs an upturn in form if he is to fight off more talk of the sack and the first challenge will be getting a convincing win against Stevenage on Tuesday night, albeit, at the second time of asking.

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Bristol City

Why Bristol City’s next three fixtures could be season defining

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Bristol City
Photo: Reuters

Bristol City have had a fantastic 2017/18 season so far, of that there can be little doubt.

Currently sitting fourth in the league, in the semi-finals of the League Cup, City have not only replaced the goals of Tammy Abraham “in-house”, they have gone viral with goal scoring gifs, and did this all playing for months with six long term injuries to first team players.

This is less a matter of months after staving off relegation and a toxic atmosphere at Ashton Gate as Lee Johnson lost eight Championship fixtures on the spin and ‘Johnson Out’ bedsheets were plastered over major highways in south Bristol.

For Bristol City to now be playing brave attacking football, beating four Premier League sides (including Manchester United) and going toe-to-toe with Manchester City at the Etihad, spearheaded by local academy midfield graduate turned striker Bobby Reid, Robins fans can have little complaints. Or so you would think.

City have somewhat under the radar lost five games on the bounce, most recently a 0-1 home versus against Norwich City (this rather cheeky tweet from the Canaries’ media team did not go unnoticed).

Admittedly two of the five aforementioned defeats were in cup competitions – one a 2-1 last minute loss courtesy of Sergio Aguero, the other a 3-0 reverse at Vicarage Road with a second string XI put out by Lee Johnson.

That said, late defeats against Wolves, Norwich and a thumping at Aston Villa, won’t exactly be good for morale. Media plaudits for performances in the League Cup will only go so far, and City fans will be wanting owner Steve Lansdown to seriously invest this January to get the promotion push back on track.

Liam Walsh and Ryan Kent have been added so far, and they will inject youthful energy – much needed for this paper thin squad. Alone these two exciting prospects will not be enough.

The return of the likes of record signing Famara Diedhiou, Eros Pisano, Callum O’Dowda and Milan Djuric will also help squad depth and stop the current norm for City of players playing out of position.

However, one or two marque signings are required if Lee Johnson is to stand any chance of an automatic promotion berth. After this run of losses, the next three fixtures could be season defining for Bristol City, and they are as follows:

Derby (A)

The toughest of the three fixtures is a Friday night trip under the lights at Pride Park. This County side is a different beast altogether than the one put to the sword 4-1 at Ashton Gate in September.

Gary Rowett is showing his credentials as one of the most talented young English managers in the game, and has guided The Rams up to second in the division, with the Whites unbeaten in the Championship since November 28th.

Impressive stuff from Derby, and it is fair to say an out of sorts Bristol City will have their work cut out. If City were to win, not only would it send a statement to the rest of league but it would also get the automatic promotion push well back on track – a massive six pointer to look forward to in the coming days.

QPR (H)

Whenever Ian Holloway visits Ashton Gate, it is an occasion. The City faithful will never forget his Gas roots – playing, captaining and managing Bristol Rovers as well as an infamous speech from the top of a bus when Rovers pipped City to the third division title in 1990.

Holloway brings a QPR side to Ashton Gate with some familiar faces in the form of Luke Freeman and Matt Smith. The London oufit started the season poorly but are beginning to turn things around. That said, if City are serious about their promotion aspirations this needs to be three points won.

This will be the first game after the second leg home tie versus Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Let’s hope that win, lose or draw, City do not suffer a hangover going back in the brutal rhythm of the Championship.

Bolton (A)

More familiar faces for City fans with Mark Little and Aaron Wilbraham now plying their trade for Bolton Wanderers, and another three points should be the target, one feels.

Bolton, like QPR, have had a mini resurgence in recent weeks but, despite this being an away fixture, Lee Johnson will need a win to keep up the pressure on the other promotion hopefuls (especially if he loses the six pointer versus Derby).

By the time this game rolls around the Robins may have a couple of new signings, and maybe even a few of the long term injuries back in the fold.

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