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Premiership Review N – S

Newcastle United

Last Season: 12th

On the face of it, Newcastle’s pre-season looks like an unmitigated disaster.  Their captain has been sold, other star performers have vented their frustrations at the way the club in run on Twitter as well as three players being refused entry to the USA for the pre-season tour.  Not exactly what you call plain sailing.

The furore that Joey Barton caused on his social network page has resulted in him being made available to other clubs on a free transfer.   Barton has just entered the last year of his contract, so would be able to leave for nothing next summer anyway, but by bringing this forward a year the club has further angered the fans who have already seen Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll leave in the last eight months.  Left back Jose Enrique is also looking to be moving closer to the St James’ Park exit door.

But The Magpies must focus on the players that will be available to them when Arsenal visit them first up.  It was abundantly clear to anyone that saw Newcastle at the back end of last season that they need a striker and they have picked up Demba Ba, who impressed in a poor team at West Ham when played through the middle.  The rest of their options up front will not strike fear into the hearts of opposition defenders as they include local lad Shola Ameobi, youngster Nile Ranger, Danish international Peter Lovenkrands and Leon Best.  Alan Pardew would probably ideally like another one to arrive but the return of the mercurial Hatem Ben Arfa will help the Toon with creativity and goals.

Ben Arfa spent last season on loan at Newcastle and made only four appearances before breaking his leg following a challenge by Nigel de Jong.  He did well enough though, especially in a game against Everton at Goodison Park where he scored a wonderful goal, to earn a permanent contract.  An exciting dribbler but not without his temperamental issues, Ben Arfa could possibly add a bit of guile and some X-Factor to give the team an extra dimension.

They’ve also brought in three players from the French league in the form of Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Maveaux and Medi Abeid.  The latter is probably one for the future, whilst Cabaye was a league champion last season with Lille and Maveuax interested Liverpool but a deal broke down over a failed medical.  If one of these can have a similar impact to the one Cheik Tiote made last year after arriving as a relative unknown, and a replacement for Barton is found, then the midfield may prove to be Newcastle’s strength this season.  Cabaye especially could be one to watch this season as is a deep-lying playmaker who will try to dictate things for the Toon.

At the back Newcastle have three goalkeepers that could potentially stake a claim for the number one berth with experienced custodian Steve Harper, young Dutchman Tim Krul and Fraser Forster who has just returned from a loan spell at Celtic fighting for the shirt.  Their options at centre half look more limited though, in terms of both number and quality.  Sol Campbell left the club in the off season and an experienced replacement would certainly help Newcastle if the money became available to partner new club captain Fabricio Collocini.  In Mike Williamson, James Perch and Steven Taylor they have bodies good enough for the Championship but probably not when trying to consolidate their position in England’s top division.

It is easy to forget amongst the turmoil that Newcastle had a good first season back in the big time last term despite the bizarre sacking of Chris Hughton but losing key players will challenge his replacement Pardew to maintain that position this year.  Mike Ashley needs to loosen the purse strings to ensure that happens and support the manager he chose to lead the club forward.  He cannot let the current situation spiral out of control.

Key Man: Demba Ba- The Senegalese will be charged with scoring the goals to keep Newcastle in the division and possibly even firing towards mid-table.  He was a bright spark for West Ham when he joined in January, being big, strong and knowing where the goal was.  Fitness is a concern as he failed a medical at Stoke before his move to West Ham but Ba will attempt to fill the space left by Andy Carroll.

Norwich City

Last Season: 2nd (Championship)

2 seasons, 2 manager of the year awards and 2 automatic promotions.  It is probably fair to say that Paul Lambert has won over the Carrow Road faithful.

He took over almost exactly 2 years ago when Norwich were rock bottom of League One after being hammered 7-1 on the opening day of the season by Colchester United, who were ironically managed by Lambert.  Since then it has been nothing but positives for Lambert as they became champions of League One and then came second in the Championship last year, scoring over 80 goals on the way.  Their season was studded with injury time goals that turned defeats into draws and draws into wins that cemented them eventually in the automatic promotion places.

The Norfolk club have invested the most of the three clubs that were promoted, spending just under £10 million on seven players.  It is noticeable that Lambert has targeted younger players with very little or no Premier League experience, but are hungry to prove their worth.  The oldest of these players is Steve Morison who joins from Millwall.  The Welsh international scored 17 goals in all competitions last year and will be another option in what will likely be a striking duo for the Norfolk club.  They have also acquired the youngest player ever to score a Premier League goal in James Vaughan from Everton.  Vaughan’s career has been plagued by injuries and he has been involved in numerous loan deals but will hope he has found a permanent home with the Canaries.

Norwich’s other striking options include Chris Martin, Simeon Jackson and captain Grant Holt.  Holt has been linked with a move away from the club but those rumours were firmly quashed as he looks to prove that he can score goals against the elite defences in the country.  The brute strength of Holt as well as his ability to find the net makes him a difficult man to handle.

In midfield, Bradley Johnson has joined from Leeds United after resolving contractual issues that had been going on for some time.  He proved his credentials to play at a higher level by scoring a wonder goal in a losing cause in an FA cup tie against Arsenal last season.  He will probably occupy the holding role in midfield.  Outstanding wingers from last year’s League One have given Norwich more options on the flanks in the form of Elliott Bennett and Anthony Pilkington from Brighton and Huddersfield respectively.

At the back flying right-back Kyle Naughton has signed on loan from Spurs.  Naughton was named in the Championship team of the year last season for his time at Leicester, and although he has a lot to learn about the defensive side of the game his attacking prowess make him an exciting modern day full-back.  Ritchie De Laet, another serial loanee, has come in to add more numbers in the heart of defence.

What Norwich lack is someone who can effectively link play and operate between the lines of midfield and attack.  Last season they employed Henri Lansbury in that role, who has since returned to Arsenal.  The uncertainty around the incomings, and more specifically outgoings, at The Emirates means that nothing is guaranteed in terms of him staying or leaving.  If they cannot broker a deal to get Lansbury back then a creative influence should be a priority before the window slams shut.

The fact that the Carrow Road faithful are delighted just to be back in the Premier League, the board have backed the manager in the market and the general feel good factor around the club, it could well be that Norwich City are the best equipped of the three promoted sides to stay afloat for a second season in the top league.

Key Man: Grant Holt.  The Norwich skipper proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could score goals in the Championship when some didn’t think he could and he will look to raise his game another level to try and notch in the Premiership.  His physicality and hold-up play will also be crucial to the Canaries when they are under the cosh, which surely they will be more so this season than in the last two.

Queens Park Rangers

Last Season: 1st (Championship)

QPR looked like nailed on winners of the Championship for the majority of last season.  The best defence in the league, experience in the middle of the park, good strikers for that level and the breath taking talents of Adel Taarabt and the West London club eventually won the title.

For a while though, it looked like they may be docked points for the third party ownership of Alejandro Faurlin but despite being found guilty, they were allowed to take their promotion.  Since that controversy, things have not got much better for the The Hoops.


Neil Warnock has not been backed in the transfer market, with only one of his four signings commanding any kind of fee.  This is despite the fact that QPR’s boardroom contains some incredibly wealthy people indeed, who have also hiked up the prices of season tickets by 40%.  Some good news is that the star of the side Taarabt looks like he will stay the Loftus Road despite flirting with a big money move to Paris Saint Germain but what should have been an exciting off season for the Rangers faithful has not been quite that riveting.

The one player who did cost some money is DJ Campbell.  He arrives on the back of a successful season in the Premier League at Blackpool despite the Tangerines eventually succumbing to the drop on the final day of the last campaign.  There were huge doubts over whether Campbell could score goals in the top league, but a haul of 13 in a relegated side is very acceptable indeed.  Another forward that Warnock has brought in is the nomadic Jay Bothroyd whose contract expired at Cardiff City.  He started last season like a house on fire with 15 goals in the first 16 games in all competitions which earned him an England cap.  Bothroyd has good pace, and also the ability to score spectacular goals but whether he can make the step up to the Premier League remains to be seen.

Another member of the QPR squad who this applies to is of course, Adel Taarabt.  The Moroccan sparkled in the Championship last year with his array of flicks and tricks, outrageous passing and back catalogue of wonderful goals.  He is very much an individual though, and can go missing in games which would be punished in the Premier League.  Warnock does not let the rest of his team pass to Taarabt in their own half because of his tendency to turnover possession, once again, in the top league this will be taken advantage of much more this season.  When he is at his best though, the former Spurs man is a joy to behold, and the bigger stage may inspire him to even greater things.  It will almost certainly be exciting to follow his progress this year.

The rest of the QPR midfield has been supplemented by the arrival of Kieron Dyer who replaces the outgoing Wayne Routledge.  Dyer has had a career blighted by injuries, especially during his time at West Ham where he only made 30 appearances in 4 years.  If he can get back to full fitness then he will be a very useful but it remains to be seen whether his body can stand up to the rigours of Premiership football.

The final arrival is also for West Ham as Welsh centre half Danny Gabbidon also arrives from Upton Park after a successful trial.  He has Premier League experience which will be vital for Rangers this term, as although they have some players with numerous league appearances they do not have all that many players who have played at the highest level.

Their biggest asset could be their manager.  Neil Warnock manages to rub people up the wrong way on an almost daily basis but is a very shrewd operator who has unfinished business with this league.  He will probably count it as one of his biggest achievements in the game if he can keep QPR in the league.  It will be a tough ask, but if anybody can do it Warnock can.


Key Man: Paddy Kenny.  He was the best goalkeeper in the Championship last year by a distance and was a huge reason for QPR’s steadfast defence.  Despite having some issues in his past such as having his eyebrow bitten off in a drunken brawl and failing a drugs test, Kenny is hugely talented and will need to be at his best if QPR are to retain their Premiership status for more than one season.

Stoke City

Last Season: 13th

Stoke City are not everyone’s cup of tea.  They play in a very specific style, using their wide players to get crosses in for the tall strikers and rely heavily on set pieces.  They are also never shy of launching the ball quickly from front to back.  But it works.

They don’t have the most talented group of players in the league, but they do have unbelievably good spirit and discipline which has helped them establish themselves as a bona fide Premier League club and also reach the FA Cup final last season.

It is probably fair to say that they did not do themselves justice against Manchester City that day where they only lost 1-0 but were comfortably outplayed.  That cup run though did earn them a place in the Europa League, where their style will be completely alien to a lot of the teams that they come up against in that competition.  If the officials allow Stoke to continue their firm but fair approach, then they could cause ripples in Europe’s secondary tournament.  Stoke will certainly take the Europa League more seriously than others and the Thursday nights at the Britannia will undoubtedly be rocking.

In the Premier League this season, Stoke will have to manage their squad to deal with the two competitions and face the prospect of playing Thursday and Sunday most weeks.  So far only two new faces have arrived in the form of Matthew Upson and Jonathon Woodgate but Tony Pulis has made a habit of doing late deals in previous transfer windows and has been linked to Peter Crouch and Wilson Palacios in recent days.  Chairman Peter Coates is never shy of opening his chequebook so more arrivals should be expected.

Upson had a poor season last year but is a seasoned Premiership performer who knows the league inside out.  He is also left footed which offers more balance to the Stoke defence, where they have been known at times to field 4 players at the back whose preferred position is centre half.  The signing of Woodgate on a pay-as-you-play deal could turn out to be a masterstroke.  He is such a talented defender who was adored by the Real Madrid fans but has had horrendous luck with injuries in the last few years.  If he can get fit for any kind of extended period Stoke will have one of the best English centre backs around.  The two new boys will compete with the likes of Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross and Danny Collins for a place in the first eleven.

In midfield it is Stoke’s wingers that provide the most threat.  The two first choice on right and left respectively are Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington.  They both offer direct running and the ability to provide good delivery to Stoke’s battery of tall strikers.  Both Etherington and Pennant also track back and work hard for the team, something that Tony Pulis insists on in his side.

In the middle of the park Pulis has a number of functional rather than flair players to call upon such as Rory Delap, Dean Whitehead and Marc Wilson.  If Stoke could find someone with a touch more creativity and can put the ball through the eye of a needle, the Potters would have a different dimension and be an even bigger force than they already are.

Up front there is Kenwyne Jones who can be absolutely unplayable when he is in the mood, but utterly anonymous when he is not.  Jonathon Walters was impressive in his first season in the Premier League after arriving from Ipswich and Ricardo Fuller is an enigma who has good and bad days.  Another striker should be on the agenda for Pulis if he wants to fire Stoke into the top ten and have another successful cup run or two.

Key Man: Matthew Etherington.  He is by far Stoke’s most dangerous player and has revitalised his career under the guidance of Tony Pulis.  His goals, assists and work-rate are all vital to the Potters and this was clear when he took to the field in the FA Cup final last May despite not being close to 100% fit.  Expect another productive season from him both at home and abroad.



Last Season: 10th

How do you solve the problem of a good start, raising expectations for the season, followed by an alarming slump that lowers them again?  That has been the story of Steve Bruce’s first two season in charge of the Black Cats.  To remedy that he has used the money that Sunderland banked from the sales of Darren Bent in January and Jordan Henderson this summer to purchase no less than 10 players.  And he hasn’t finished his business yet.

There can be no excuses for the former Birmingham boss this term.  He has been backed by the board and redesigned the squad to exactly how he wants.

Highly-rated goalkeeper Kieran Westwood has signed on a free from Coventry and will compete with Craig Gordon and Simon Mignolet for the number one shirt.  Westwood possesses an incredibly long kick as well as being a good all-round keeper so it will be interesting to see who gets the nod for the first game and throughout the campaign.

At the back Bruce has gone to his former club Manchester United and picked up two very experienced defenders in the form of Wes Brown and John O’Shea.  Brown found first team opportunities limited at Old Trafford in the last years of his stint there, but O’Shea did get more regular game time and it was a surprise when he headed for the exit door.  The champion’s loss is Sunderland’s gain though, and both of these veterans are also very versatile and will give Bruce options.  He has also made Egyptian right back Ahmed Elmohamady’s transfer a permanent one after his loan spell at the Stadium of Light last year.

Sunderland have also used the classic transfer tactic of raiding the relegated clubs for their best players.  Two of these are from Birmingham with Sebastien Larsson and Craig Gardner arriving.  Larsson has excellent ability from dead ball situations and is an excellent crosser, whilst Gardner has an eye for goal and was actually top scorer for the Blues last year.  Bruce has also attracted David Vaughan from Blackpool, who is an incredibly underrated performer.  He was criticial to Blackpool last year, filling in when Charlie Adam strayed out of position and using the ball intelligently.  He may not have grabbed as many headlines as Adam but he is a very good player in his own right and will thrive in the North East.  Left winger James McClean has joined from Derry City after being thought of as the best player in the League of Ireland.

Up front was where Sunderland needed strengthening the most.  At times last season Stephane Sessegnon was forced to play there as the Mackems suffered an almost incomprehensible injury crisis.  Asamoah Gyan took to English football well but he had nobody to play up there with when Darren Bent left.  Sunderland have brought in Ji Dong Wonn and an exciting prospect in Connor Wickham.  Wickham was thought of extremely highly at Ipswich and is undoubtedly talented but of course unproven.  It will be interesting to see if he can develop at the rate expected and show people that the price tag of over £8 million is justified.

Sunderland first of all need to prove that they are not just a first half of the season team and they can sustain a challenge for the duration of the year.  Along with the players they have bought in people like Gyan, Lee Cattermole and Kieran Richardson will need to step up to the plate to push Sunderland higher up the table.  The top five will probably be out of their reach, but the top eight certainly isn’t and a good cup run would definitely buy Bruce more time with the Sunderland fans.

Key Man:  Asamoah Gyan.  The Black Cats will rely on the likeable Ghanaian for goals once again as his likely strike partners are still so young.  Gyan was good at the World Cup and certainly showed he knew where the goal was in his maiden Premier League season.

Chad Nugent



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