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Joe Garner – Pride of Preston

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Over the last five years, there hasn’t been a great deal for Preston fans to shout about. A winding-up order, a relegation, the farcical Graham Westley era and another play-off defeat to Rotherham all came within four seasons.

That all changed just a month ago, as manager Simon Grayson led his side from the despair of missing out on automatic promotion on the final day of the season, to the ecstacy of ending the famous play-off course with a 4-0 win over Swindon Town at Wembley.

Now back in the Championship for the first time since relegation in 2011, Preston will be hoping to strengthen their squad and establish themselves as a Championship club once again – but have so far focused on keeping the promotion-winning side intact.

The likes of Tom Clarke, Paul Huntington, John Welsh and Chris Humphrey have all signed new contracts with the club, whilst Paul Gallagher and Jermaine Beckford have signed permanently following successful loan spells.

Yet, the most important deal so far came last week, as striker Joe Garner agreed a new three-year extension to stay with North End for the foreseeable future.

The 27-year-old has not only established himself as one of the deadliest strikers in the Football League having hit 51 goals in 104 games for Preston, but has become a Deepdale hero, writing himself into folklore over the last two-and-a-half years.

Garner may have been born in Blackburn, but he grew up supporting Preston – a fact which hasn’t gone unnoticed during his time with the club. With the modern game permeated by an obsession with money, it’s natural for fans to feel detached from their club as they watch men deemed as mercenaries play with only their next move on their mind.

But in the case of Garner, supporters are able to watch a player simply living his dream of playing for the club he supports. Garner’s passion is infectious, and his all-action displays have reignited a team and a fanbase which had struggled for momentum since relegation, providing never-ending commitment to the cause and persistently rallying fans, as he did at Wembley…even though Preston were already 4-0 up.

Preston fans know that the Garner situation is a rare one, and one they may not see for some time. Few players get the chance to become a hero at their boyhood club in the modern era, but that’s certainly what Garner has been able to do in just over two years at Preston.

Now, just one year after penning a two-year extension, Garner has once again tied his future to Preston, extending his contract until 2018 – a deal which will take him into his 30’s. Having scored so many goals for Preston, Garner could have easily looked for a move away this summer, with no shortage of suitors looking at the possibility of luring him away from his boyhood club. Instead, Garner has made it clear that he is going nowhere, and will be staying with North End as they return to the Championship.

The deal also gives Garner a chance to finally prove himself in the second tier. Disappointing spells with Nottingham Forest and Watford have made many believe that Garner is a League One-level striker who will now struggle to score goals in the Championship.

However, now in a team which is virtually built around him, Garner has flourished, and will be expected to continue his blossoming partnership with Jermaine Beckford next season. The duo hit a combined 45 goals for North End last season, and if the can even manage half of that total in the Championship, their new contracts will be money well spent.

The funny thing about Garner’s city-wide hero status in Preston is that it hasn’t always been this way. Fans actually derided Garner having failed to score in his first few months at Deepdale, with questions over his future after just six months at the club. With the likes of Kevin Davies, Iain Hume and Stuart Beavon in the ranks, Garner was considered to be the fourth choice striker at Deepdale heading into the 2013/14 season, with many supporters suggesting that he had no future at North End.

Now, the news of his new contract has been met with delight and celebration, with fans no longer having to live with the fear and dread of losing their favourite player of recent years. Garner’s goalscoring exploits and love for the club have certainly won fans over, arguably to the point where he can now be considered as the symbol of Preston’s revival under Simon Grayson – and long may it continue.

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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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