2017/18 is upon us. Craven Cottage awaits, nothing can go wrong there, right? Regardless, ACN's big hitters Andy Lawn, Ffion Thomas, Jon Punt and Duncan Edwards have looked at the key questions prior to the season's opener....
Most important signing of the summer?
Andy - It’s not strictly accurate in terms of conventional ‘signings’ but I firmly believe our best piece of business recently has been the ‘signing’ of Stuart Webber from Huddersfield. The ‘Webberlution’ has been a breath of fresh air. Long gone is the seemingly scattergun approach to recruitment and in its place is a clear and concrete plan; this is how we want to play and therefore these are the attributes we need from our players in these positions. The net effect of this is that the system is more important than any one player, so for me the signing of Webber was and is the key.
Jon – This is probably controversial, but Russell Martin’s commitment to a longer term deal at the club will provide the continuity required in order for the Webberlution, Farkemania, or whatever the kids are calling it nowadays, to bed in properly. I’ve said it before, but Martin seemingly acts as the perfect conduit between the players and the management team. Now’s the time for several leaders to emerge in order to kick on and progress, Russ can help facilitate and support that, despite not always being part of the starting eleven.
Ffion – Mario Vrančić. It helps that among the new faces, his silver hair makes him immediately recognisable – but the early indications also seem to show he’ll stand out in dictating the play from central midfield. He’s the first example of how the Webber/Farke partnership gives us the ability to pick out good value talent from leagues that our rivals might overlook - and with Bosnia and Herzegovina well placed with four qualifiers to go to grab a spot in the World Cup play-offs, a strong start to the season at club level could see him featuring in some very high stakes games in November and beyond.
Dunc - Tough question. Mario Vrančić might prove to be a very astute piece of business and his apparent ability to deliver the ball into dangerous areas could be a potent weapon. Even if it just stops the "can't beat the first man.." gripes when we have a corner it will be a start. Despite only being a "loon" player, I reckon Harrison Reed might take the signing plaudits. He appears all action, brimful of desire and uses the ball well. He could be the Tettey/Dorrans/Howson clone that we've seemed to need for eons. No pressure then.
How excited are you about Farke?
Andy - Very. Primarily that excitement comes from the above and the sense that we have a plan we’re willing to try something different. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen, but I would much rather us try something new than appoint the latest name to fall off the managerial merry-go-round and sign the same old names. I know almost nothing about Marcel Franke, Mario Vrančić or even Marley Watkins and that’s exciting.
Jon – Ridicu-cited. We’ve gone and made stickers, flags and t-shirts about the guy. All the signs are good so far. Players speak positively about his methods, he’s quickly identified that fitness in the Championship will be vital and he seems tactically flexible. These were all things the masses were rightly worried about last time out, so in that sense Farke fits the mould perfectly. The fans have also taken to him straight away, Currywurst is on the menu in ALL Norfolk restaurants now and he has super silky smooth dulcet tones. Plus look at his hair, isn't it just lovely? Still, Norwich fans know these things rarely work out the way we anticipate so he’ll probably be gone by Christmas.
Ffion – I’m positively giddy. I’m confident that when he and his coaching staff emerge from the tunnel in the corner at Craven Cottage and walk across in front of the away end to the dugouts, he’ll be getting one hell of a reception – and, given it feels like we’re still at the stage of flirtatiously trying to impress each other, hopefully his heart will be all a flutter at the sight of 4,000+ of us in the Yellow Wall of the Putney End. The long, slow death that was last season means it genuinely has been six months since we truly felt the anticipation and excitement of a match that means something – and this is a completely clean slate.
Dunc - The last time I was this excited before a ball was kicked we'd just gone all-in with the "Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" marketing. Given how that transpired I've tried to keep a lid on it but his charisma, confidence and intelligence have left me failing miserably to contain my optimism. If he can manage to manifest those qualities into his squad then it really could be exciting times. Whatever happens, Farkelife promises to be entertaining and I can't wait for the reaction in the crowd when we start knocking around short passes on the edge of our box. Widely well received, if he manages to conjure up a result that ends a generation of Craven Cottage misery he'll probably have the freedom of the city by the end of August.
Where we gonna finish?
Andy - Who knows? Top 24. A positive pre-season, coupled with the renewed sense of purpose emanating from the club is promising, so you have to hope that we have the nucleus there to challenge and the top six shouldn’t be beyond us. There are some good sides in this division, some terrible sides and a lot in between, you’d hope we’re one of the better ones, but hands up who thought that last year too?
Jon – Top 6 seems achievable and relatively realistic. Looking at those relegated from the Premier League it’s highly possible both Hull and Sunderland could struggle early on, while the list of last season’s contenders is nothing to be wary of if we get it right. Then of course there’s the money Villa and Birmingham are throwing at it, but pound signs don’t always convert themselves as easily into points. If we can make a reasonable start while still in the transitional phase I’ll be hopeful of a tilt at automatic, but another trip to Wembley is fine by me.
Ffion – I think we all had our fingers burnt last season, but I see no reason to be overly cautious a year on. We’ve spent the summer getting our business done early, working within our means to both strengthen the squad and shed the deadwood at long last, and while last year it felt like Newcastle had one of the top two spots sewn up from the outset, that's not the case this time. I’d be massively disappointed to not make the top six, and am hopeful that things will go our way to be pushing higher than that for as long as possible.
Dunc - Top. Why not? No, I really don't know. I mean we could but as always with the Championship there are probably 12-15 teams who'll think the play offs are a minimum. It's a big season for us being the last tug on the cord of the parachute payments but our recruitment suggests all wouldn't be lost if the Farkelution doesn't bear immediate fruit. That said; I expect us to have a real go at it and I'd be disappointed if we finished outside the top six.
Who'll win the league and why?
Andy - It could be anyone of about 5 sides. Sheffield Wednesday are one of the favourites for me. They have a settled side and have now narrowly missed out twice. Of the relegated sides, Middlesbrough look strongest on paper, but so did City 12 months ago. The other two both have a new manager and much changed squads; Hull should be around the play-offs but I think Sunderland will be mid-table at best.
Jon – Middlesbrough are the bookies favourites and it’s difficult to see beyond them, such has been the sensible nature of their spending so far. Garry Monk has been proven to get a par score or better out of the sides he’s managed so far and even turned around Leeds, quite the accomplishment. If we finish above Boro, I’ll be a very happy clapper.
Ffion – Of the three relegated teams, Sunderland barely register as a threat and Hull’s squad once again seems very bare, but Middlesbrough’s spending is daunting, and Monk will get them to click. Sheffield Wednesday will be strong again and Aston Villa could get their house in order, but really, it’s up for grabs.
Dunc - Middlesbrough seem to be the team on everybody's lips and they've certainly thrown a few quid at it. It's worth remembering this though; they showed a seemingly similar level of intent last season and that failed miserably. They were awful in the Prem and they might not shake that out of their system immediately. Villa, Wednesday and Fulham will all think they're in with a chance, Sunderland - anything could happen - and Hull will have some cash behind them. I honestly don't see why we can't mount a challenge and I wouldn't back anyone else ahead of us. Gulp.
Andy - Derby appear to have recruited quite well over the summer and have added to an already solid squad. Sheffield United romped through League One and you could see them pushing on again. You’d also have to say Fulham and Reading should go well if they put last season’s disappointment behind them.
Jon – Cardiff. As much as I dislike the man’s methods, Neil Warnock’s style of football is effective at this level. Beyond them Forest could surprise a few since Mark Warburton has now had a proper chance to assess his squad and Ben Brereton shows much promise from what I’ve seen and heard.
Ffion – Wolves have been splashing the Chinese cash, and their new head coach Nuno Espírito Santo has been able to bring in former Porto charges Ruben Neves for a cool £15m and the talented Diogo Jota on a season loan. Mind you, they’ve also signed Ryan Bennett, so maybe we don’t have too much to fear.
Dunc - Yuk. Leeds. I can't even justify why I think it but it's nagging at me like a depressing toothache. I doubt they'll win the league but if they build on last season and make Elland Road as horrible as possible then I think they could make the top six. Hope I'm wrong. Really wrong.
And who is in for a long season?
Andy - Burton have had a strange summer and seen a major overhaul, I personally like the Brewers so hope that will see them stronger rather than likely to struggle. Similar for Barnsley who have lost lots of their core performers from last season, including Marley. Ipswich appear to be standing still (boo hoo) and I always wish nothing but terrible things for QPR.
Jon – Ipswich have been bobbing around doing nothing in this league for too long now. While Mick McCarthy continues to perform admirably giving the level of resources he’s been afforded, I have a funny feeling things are about to go horribly wrong down the A140. If their efforts at ripping down kit advertising are anything to go by then the boys in blue could really struggle. Wouldn’t that be terrible?
Ffion – Having sold Sam Winnall and Conor Hourihane in January, Barnsley slumped and won only two of their last 18. With insufficient replacements for their further summer losses of Marc Roberts, Josh Scowen and a certain Marley Watkins I can see that form continuing, although our cup-hefting captain Cam McGeehan, in from Luton, will surely relish his return to Carrow Road. It’s a big step up for Millwall, who barely scraped into the League One play-offs, but they have a squad with plenty of grit and experience.
Dunc – Ipswich. They've been on a gradual decline for a long while and despite that brief fling in the play-offs (what happened there?) it's been a depressing period for that lot down the road. The fans seem to have accepted their lot and the malaise appears to be deeply entrenched. Their signings inspire little confidence and it could well be their turn to drop inconspicuously into the third tier. Hope I'm right. I really hope I'm right.