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Championship

Why Queens Park Rangers will not bounce back at the first time of asking

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It all started so badly for Queens Park Rangers at the start of 2015 as they failed to add any quality additions to their squad and lost manager Harry Redknapp who resigned after the January failings.

Chris Ramsey was appointed as the man to try and stop what seemed like an inevitable drop into the Championship and it started so promisingly for him. QPR finally won their first away match of the season, but that was as good as it got for them as they bowed out of the top flight without putting up much of a fight. Their relegation confirmed with a 6-0 hammering by Manchester City.

Just when QPR fans thought that it couldn’t get worse, Joey Barton accused senior players including Chile striker Eduardo Vargas of being bad eggs and causing problems in the dressing room. This in itself was a bad revelation, but Adel Taarabt has come out this week and accused players of not caring about the club and just looking to line their pockets. He also claimed that players were declared unfit and injured in public when really they were fully fit.

These appalling revelations coupled with a potential fine of up to £50 Million for failing to comply with Financial Fair Play Rules when they were last in the second tier has started the summer off very poorly for the club. They have also lost some big players such as Joey Barton, Adel Taarabt and loanee Mauricio Isla who returned to Juventus after a mixed loan spell.

The club have tried to turn around the demise and set up a promotion push by bringing in new players, but are they really good enough? QPR have signed young Swindon stars Ben Gladwin and Massimo Luongo, but having only been playing in League One it will be a big ask for them to immediately be in a side who look to be at the top of the Championship and I see these moves as ones for the future.

The Rs have shown a noticeable change in transfer policy this summer, opting for youth and potential over household names.

The Rs have shown a noticeable change in transfer policy this summer, opting for youth and potential, over household names.

Another signing was Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, who is a very talented player but the winger scored just 9 league goals in 36 appearances for League One Table Toppers Bristol City. His versatility could make him a good addition as he can also play as a centre forward or just in behind the striker, but he hasn’t been consistent enough to give fans confidence that he can be a star for the club.

The biggest signing so far this summer for Rangers though is the return of Scottish International forward Jamie Mackie. He was a fantastic servant for the club and did a brilliant job for QPR after joining from Plymouth Argyle in 2010. His first spell at the club started incredibly but a broken leg in January 2011 checked his progress. QPR were promoted at the end of the 2010/11 season and when he returned to the side towards the end of 2011 and was a key player under both Neil Warnock and Mark Hughes.

Mackie’s biggest contribution was a superb performance off the bench at home to Liverpool, when he inspired his side as they came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 with Mackie scoring the winner. He also scored QPR’s second in the defeat to Manchester City which won the Manchester club the title. He continued to do a very decent job on the wing during the next season, but left the club for Nottingham Forest after Rangers failed to secure their Premiership status.

Since leaving QPR Mackie has never really got going and has struggled at both Nottingham Forest and on loan last season at Reading, although he did excel in the second half of last season. Mackie’s non-stop running and commitment makes him a very good player to have, but considering he has barely had a look in over the last 2 seasons is he really good enough to be the club’s marquee signing?

Add those 4 players to the squad and you have a team that looks ok, but there are only a few names that stand out such as striker Charlie Austin, goalkeeper Rob Green and midfielder Sandro. These 3 are quite clearly Premiership quality but the rest of the squad look weak and if any of these 3 (with the exception of maybe Green with Alex McCarthy waiting in the wings) were to be sold or injured then QPR would be severely weakened.

With money not readily available with the fine looming over QPR’S head it means they haven’t been able to bulk up their squad and whilst their starting 11 looks reasonably strong, they have no depth whatsoever and injuries to key players could even lead to a relegation battle. Armand Traore has also stayed at the club despite strong criticism of his commitment to the side and if he continues to act the same it is only going to affect QPR negatively.

Even the biggest of diehard Rangers fans will know that they will have to produce something really special to bounce back straight away and with the negatives massively outweighing the positives it looks like they are destined for a long stay in the second tier.

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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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