Monday, June 30, 2008

The Expectation League

It was back to work for most of the Charlton squad this morning, and from what we are led to believe, the lads are all keen as cucumbers to get back into the pre-season training regime. But putting aside any transfer speculation, what can we expect, as Charlton fans, from our second season back in the Championship? And more importantly, what do the other teams in this division expect also?

It’s all very well Addicks supporters thinking that we are going to win every game, a heavy burden that slowed the club to an eventual stagger last season, but where do we rank when looking at all 24 teams bearing in mind the number of ex-Premiership sides that are now lurking one league below where they all think they should be?

I’m an honest realist, and taking all the above into consideration, here is my first league table of the season – the Expectation League. You may be an optimist, or a defeatist; if you think I have it wrong, let me know.

1. Birmingham City
2. Reading
3. Derby County
4. QPR
5. Cardiff City
6. Southampton
7. Watford
8. Sheffield United
9. Wolverhampton Wanderers
10. Coventry City
11. Croydon
12. Norwich City
13. Ipswich Town
14. Charlton Athletic
15. Burnley
16. Bristol City
17. Nottingham Forest
18. Sheffield Wednesday
19. Barnsley
20. Swansea City
21. Plymouth Argyle
22. Preston North End
23. Blackpool
24. Doncaster Rovers

So why have I settled on a league that puts Charlton in mid-table, and other clubs higher or lower than they may realistically finish?

OK, let’s start with the three clubs who were relegated; all will expect to get automatic promotion.

Birmingham, a second city club, probably think they were unlucky to go down, and their fans will expect them to steamroller their way back up again – it may not be pretty under McLeish, but they will expect results. Failure will not be an option that Gold and Sullivan – who so nearly grabbed the foreign money last season – can endure. A poor start, and heads will roll. Lots of pressure on the manager here, and he’s not being helped by his so-called stars (McFadden) wanting away. Birmingham have yet to cut their cloth accordingly, and it may not be a pretty sight once done.

Reading are another club whose fans will expect a rollercoaster season beating everyone put in their way. Last time in this league, they won at a canter, and more will be expected. Sadly for them, their gilt-edged players are also much sought after, with Harper, Doyle, Kitson, and co all being tempted by the much larger money on offer elsewhere; the Royals season will depend on who stays and who goes. The fans and chairman John Madjeski though, will expect to be right up there, whatever the squad.

As for last years Premiership fall guys – Derby, who knows what is in store for them. A club that is as poor in one league cannot by right expect to gel a few months later, and with the number of players signed (or being courted) on the Pardew scale, the Rams could also struggle as Charlton did last season to get going. Paul Jewell is a good manager, but he too will be under pressure to start well bearing in mind the owners faith shown in him. The Derby fans will also expect a lot more from the players after such a poor season, even though they crept into the top league via the play offs two years back, and haven’t really had a decent side/season for quite a few years now.

So three come down, and all three will expect to bounce back again, even if one has to go up via the play-off final.

But others also expect to be in the mix – and QPR top that little mini-league. It’s all very well being the play-thing for the son of the World’s wealthiest man, but only if he is spending money on his boy/toy. With Flavio Briattore also involved, you know that something will be happening, even if it’s just in the directors box toilets! A new manager, who will no doubt want to splash the cash (and boy does he know how to do that!), there is little obvious sign that Dowie mania has gripped West London. If you were a (decent) player, would you join now in the knowledge that you would be dumped for a bigger name if you helped get the club promoted? No, I wouldn’t either! The fans though will be booking there seats expecting to top every league they play in for a few years to come, so there is much pressure on the rocket scientist to achieve blast off come August 9th.

Then there are Cardiff – the Welsh boyos got to Wembley, made some dosh, and now have spent their inheritance and want to prove themselves with the big lads each and every week. Lots of puffed out chests, but maybe too much weight on the Dave Jones back me thinks! With Fowler and Hasslebaink another year older (and slower), who knows where this team will end up in the league, and I think they are guaranteed to be lower than the expectation of their fans come May 2009.

Southampton has a new manager – nothing new there over recent years! But this one proudly announced today that he expects a play off place as a minimum. Nothing like getting the fans all geee-d up and then having them brought back down to earth with a bang come, say, October. Has he not looked at his squad, the amount of money he has to spend, and the opposition? Crazy guy. Another club who will be lucky to finish in the top half, yet have much higher expectation levels.

Then I place another couple of the clubs who are recently relegated, Watford and Sheffield United who came down with Charlton the season before last. Watford made a great start, but then blew up at Xmas, and had almost as poor a run in as Charlton. Luckily (by one goal) they made the play offs, but their dream ended there. The fans will be expecting more, used to bouncing up and down over the last few years, but they could also struggle if they succumb to injuries and suspensions as they did this season. Kevin Blackwell is predicting a good season for The Blades, and seven wins in their last eleven games might suggest this. But they also have not much money to spend, and a squad that will not change a great deal. That could be an advantage, but I’m not sure it will be enough to get them up.

Midlands rivals Coventry and Wolves have new owners, and the fans will be expecting them to dish the dosh, and get new players in. It didn’t work for Mick McCarthy last season, and I’m not sure that Cookie Coleman will do any better down the road. Both should be stronger at the season start, but that may raise expectation to unrealistic ambition – Wolves will be tough, but Coventry need to improve immensely if they are to be anything other than mid-table mediocrity.

Then we have our non-rivals from Croydon; they always expect to be winning games, but have nobody to wind them up (as Charlton don’t count); maybe with many ex-players coming back to face them as managers, they will get a few three point gifts – I can’t see them doing anything else to think they will be nearer the top than scraping into the play offs again.

After this we have the two East Anglian rivals; Ipswich have new owners, but have spent big to clear debts. Norwich have Delia, but maybe a new long-time Billionaire fan to take the reins? Both will expect to finish above the other – Ipswich courtesy of their youngsters and a willingness to attack, Norwich through the transfer route and a sell-out home crowd each week.

I put Charlton next – we Addicks had our fingers burnt last season, with bloggers predicting wins week in and week out, only to be proved wrong by Pardew’s rotation and non-tactics. I doubt as many will think we will stroll this division this year, but that could play into our hands? A solid, consistent team (a result of a culling of the make-weights in the squad) and a bit of luck with injuries and suspension could see Charlton surpass the hopes that we have currently. I cannot see anyone else being brought in until we have sold off the unwanted – Bent, Thomas, Faye, Thatcher, and a forward. Then the money (or some of it) will be spent on a central midfielder to help Holland, Shelvey, and the rest.

I doubt many of the clubs below Charlton in my league have significant ambition or too much expectation amongst fans. Sure, Burnley have bought and sold well, but not enough to trouble the top six; Bristol City will hope for the play offs again, but have lost some good players already, and they could be struggling; Forest will retain the European Champions tag that has hung around their neck for thirty odd years, but that won’t scare many players who face them who weren’t even born then!

Other ex-mining area teams Barnsley and Sheffield Wednesday will pin hopes on a few younger players coming good – both could cause the odd upset, but are unlikely to play major parts in the shake-up.

Swansea will hope to consolidate after winning their division quite easily (but then again so did Scunthorpe, and look what happened to them…), while Plymouth seem to have sold all their better players and may not be much above half-way, so not much expectation there.

Preston and Blackpool have not long been in this divisions, and nothing much shown last season suggest they will be uprooting many trees, which is probably the realistic expectation of their fans, while Doncaster fans will just be along for the ride to a few new grounds next season I fear (plus the hope of upsetting local rivals from Sheffield and Barnsley occasionally!).

Of course, the league come next May will not look anything like this, but if you polled a vote now amongst the 24 clubs fans, this would be something close to how they would think it will finish.

Some teams will play above themselves, and some below – that happens in every league every season. It is why Blackburn, Spurs and Portsmouth had better than expected seasons last year, and Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal did not.

Roll on August 9th!


14th? surely you're high pedro ... well higher than we'll finish anyway ;-)
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