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Town End 2021/22 Season Preview: Part Four


Nottingham Forest v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship - City Ground
Photo by Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

It’s mid-table special this time out: these clubs finished last season in 10th, 11th, 12th, and 17th.

All this week in the build-up to the start of the new Championship season, we’ll be speaking to fans from around the division to get the lowdown on their team. What are their aspirations and fears going into the new campaign? Which member of their squad is most likely to stand out? And of course how their season - and Reading’s - pan out?

Part four is made up entirely of sides who finished last season in mid-table. How they got there though was quite the mixture: an unexpectedly stress-free season for one, recovery from the bottom three for another, while the last two had play-off hopes but fell away.

You can find Matt Storey on Twitter @StoreyMatt

Last time we spoke you emphasised the importance of manager Nathan Jones. Is Luton’s success dependent on him, or is the club now strong enough to be established in the Championship regardless?

That is a seriously good question. I think we are now strong enough as a club both on and off the pitch to be a Championship side regardless of who is in charge. But at the same time, if Nathan Jones is not in charge then expectations going into the season would be no-way near as high.

On the pitch we have a core group of players who have been here for a number of years and drive standards, mixed with some incredibly exciting young players. While some clubs seem to have quite old squads filled with stagnating players, I definitely wouldn’t say that about Luton currently.

Off the pitch, we are an incredibly well-run football club and have now been for a good number of years. It seems like little improvements are constantly being made to give us the best chance for success. I believe the NTT20 podcast lads actually referred to us as the best-run club in the EFL over the past five years in their latest release and when that is the case, it’s tough to see it going badly wrong.

How’s former Reading man Gabriel Osho getting on?

We really haven’t seen a lot of Osho yet. He was at Rochdale for the second half of last season and seemed to do well, though they did ship a lot of goals in League One. He’s had a chance in pre-season and has played at both centre-back and in a holding role in midfield.

I don’t see him getting into our starting line-up at the start of the campaign but if he gets a chance in the EFL Cup and impresses, there appears to be no reason he can’t push for a spot. There were stories around earlier in the summer that he wanted to move on due to a lack of first-team opportunities – I hope that was agent talk and nothing more. You’ve got to be prepared to do the hard yards and fight for your spot.

How would you sum up last season?

Stress free! And I can’t begin to tell you how rare that is for Luton in the past 15 years or so. I think it was the third time since 2006 that we weren’t battling for promotion, the play-offs or fighting relegation.

Mid-table mediocrity was about as good as any Luton fan hoped for before the campaign and Jones well and truly delivered again. We weren’t necessarily thrilling to watch but we ground out results, upset plenty of big boys and established ourselves in this division.

Beating the horrible club from down the M1 in April was the icing on the cake and felt like a bit of a seminal moment for us. It’s not so long ago that we were non-league and they were Premier League. To be at the same level as them, albeit only for a season, felt like the world returning to its axis.

What are your expectations for this season?

If you offered me a 12th-placed finish again, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

That won’t necessarily chime with lots of fans if you believe what you read on social media though. There seems to be a consensus that we can push further up the table and maybe flirt with the play-offs. That may be the aim for the bullish Jones and the squad, I’m just not so certain it is realistic.

It’s been quite a big summer of change at Kenilworth Road with eight new signings and the likes of James Collins and Matty Pearson departing. The new lads may come in and gel straight away, but there is also a chance it’ll take time.

The biggest difference might be how we play and approach games. The clogged fixture list combined with the short time between escaping relegation and starting last season meant Jones was fairly pragmatic in his approach to games. But we know he wants his side to be attacking and entertaining from his first spell with us, so I think he will have looked to implement that style again over the summer.

Which player of yours should we look out for this season?

Carlos Mendes Gomes or Elijah Adebayo would perhaps be the obvious choices here – but I am going to pick someone else. We signed Allan Campbell from Motherwell and fans of every side north of the border seemed surprised. That is because they thought he would sign for a ‘bigger’ club, be it staying in the Scottish Premiership or in the Championship.

Fans of every club were praising him and saying how good he was, which is always something you like to read when you sign a new player. It sounds like we beat plenty of competition to sign him so I’m excited to see how he goes. An all-action midfielder, he’s already played 160 times for Motherwell and 24 times for Scotland’s U-21s. In a role that isn’t always glamourous, Campbell may prove our best bit of business.

Where will you finish?

I’m going for a repeat of last season and saying we’ll end up 12th.

How will Reading’s season go, and where will we finish?

Well, this time last year I think I predicted that you would go down. That went well, didn’t it? I don’t expect you to be as high as you were last time around but I have seen some fans predict fairly low finishes. There is still enough quality in your squad to keep you well away from trouble even if you can’t make signings. I’ll go for 11th – mainly because you seem to be our Championship bogey side so it’d feel wrong to put you below us.

Dana Maltinez (@danamalt) is co-host of the Boro Breakdown podcast (@Boro_Breakdown)

Neil Warnock’s overseen survival and then a comfortable midtable finish. Is the turnaround just down to him, or have other factors played a part too?

I’d say it’s definitely down to Warnock. Aside from his great expertise in getting teams promoted, he also has a reputation of being a firefighter manager (he likened himself to Red Adair when he first joined Boro).

He not only delivered safety from a potential disaster, but he’s also helped elevate the now key components of the side, some of whom were previously not even regarded as starters. Marc Bola and Anfernee Dijksteel are two of those. Both are now enjoying an important status at Boro having turned their careers around under Warnock’s tutelage. Dael Fry is another. Although very much a starter under Warnock’s predecessor, Jonathan Woodgate, Fry was never entirely convincing, but he’s bulked up; he looks sharper, quicker, and much more trustworthy.

Although time definitely helps players settle, speaking here in regards to Bola and Dijksteel, Neil Warnock is the common denominator, and his work with enhancing individuals has undoubtedly factored into Boro’s renaissance.

Boro were on the verge of the playoff at points last season but ultimately lost out – what more needs to be added for you to go one further and finish in the top six?

Better quality in depth would help. Last season we lost key players in Fry, Dijksteel and Marcus Tavernier after the turn of the year - and it was costly. These three were statistically our three most important players in terms of points per game.

Tavernier in particular is someone we missed massively. Nobody else in our side offered the same energy and creativity as him. He’s the lynchpin of this team, so bringing in someone that would soften the blow should Tavernier get injured again, would be golden.

Additionally, there’s the obvious: goals. At present Boro only have Uche Ikpeazu and the Besiktas-linked Chuba Akpom vying for that striker slot. We need more options in that position if we are to challenge for the top 6 this season.

How would you sum up last season?

If you’ve ever seen that meme of the horse drawing that starts off perfect but then gets progressively less so and ends up looking like a kid’s taken the pencil, it would be that. We went on a 10-game unbeaten run at the beginning of the campaign, in which our performances were brimming with great promise, but then came January and the gradual fall off. We finished the season with a whimper really, losing 3-0 to relegated Wycombe on the final day.

What are your expectations for this season?

I expect us to be in the mix for a play-off place. Much was made towards the final stretch of last season about Neil Warnock’s record of getting out of this division, but that comfort blanket statement will grow tiresome should Boro not be in and around the top six come Christmas.

Which player of yours should we look out for this season?

Definitely Marcus Tavernier. If he doesn’t play, Boro tend to struggle. Whether he’s funneling the play centrally or cutting in from the right, he’s a danger and I’m expecting him to come up well in the goal contribution charts for us come the end of the campaign.

Where will you finish?

I’m going for an unlucky seventh courtesy of some final-day drama (though I hope I’m wrong and it’s sixth instead!)

How will Reading’s season go, and where will we finish?

I can see you lot following the same path as we did last season; having a very good first half of the season and then dropping off. I’ve got you 12th.

You can find Lucas Ball on Twitter @LucasBall2211

Things haven’t worked out for former Reading striker Jon Dadi Bodvarsson at Millwall. Why is that?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that - frankly, he’s been very poor since signing for us. His goal record wasn’t great at this level when we signed him but few will have been impressed by many aspects, if any, of his play since joining Millwall.

He’s shown little to no promise really barring a couple of games in December 2020 where he formed a decent strike partnership with Tom Bradshaw but we then had a Covid outbreak that put an end to that.

He’s now transfer-listed and needs to move on for the good of his career and so that we can get another attacking player in - we have no transfer budget left and need to sell players to sign anyone else.

George Saville is back after a few years at Boro - how much of a boost will his return be?

I’m really excited like most fans about this one. Saville made a couple of comments about Millwall being a ‘stepping stone’ when he left for Boro but most fans will welcome him back and give him a chance to impress.

We badly need goals from midfield and he has the legs to operate as that advanced/box-to-box midfielder in our 5-3-2. There will be high expectations after he netted double figures in his last full season with us.

He’s now signed for us for a fourth time and will look to fire us towards the play-offs. He offers a lot of quality in midfield and was one of Boro’s best performers in recent times - the move came out of nowhere and as a shock to many.

How would you sum up last season?

Overall, slightly disappointing for us to not challenge properly for the top six but we had such a tough hand dealt to us at times.

Loan signings who were expected to get the goals we needed picked up long-term injuries and didn’t offer as much as we expected, a number of Covid outbreaks caused struggles and no fans affected us more than most other teams.

However, a number of players’ individual games came on massively - the likes of Billy Mitchell, Mason Bennett, Scott Malone and Jed Wallace to name but a few massively impressing. We also adapted to a new system which arguably suits us better with the 5-3-2 and Gary Rowett can look forward to a promising 2021/22.

What are your expectations for this season?

Play-offs. Without a doubt that has to be the aim. To not challenge for the top six after consecutive top-half finishes would be a disappointment and we need to look for that promotion opportunity this time around.

We have one of the most tactically astute managers in our history, a squad with strength in depth and potentially that 15-goal striker that we’ve been lacking in Benik Afobe if we give him the right service.

I expect more young players to break towards the first-team after strong seasons out on loan or with us last season and having had the chances to impress in pre-season - particularly the likes of Alex Mitchell, Tyler Burey, Isaac Olaofe and Junior Tiensia.

We’ve added real Championship quality and have the chance to take advantage in a wide-open Championship.

Which player of yours should we look out for this season?

Jed Wallace will once again be the key man. He’s scored double figures in back-to-back Championship seasons and most of our good play goes through him. He’s a better finisher now, creates a lot and relieves pressure at key moments with driving runs or a great pass.

Jake Cooper is one of the best centre backs in the division (thank you) and has a formidable partnership with Shaun Hutchinson in a back-four. Murray Wallace, Dan Ballard or Alex Pearce joining them in the back-three makes it one of the strongest in the division, particularly with Bartosz Bialkowski behind them - one of the best shot-stoppers in the second tier.

Scott Malone scored goals from left wing-back last season and will be expected to contribute again, whilst there will be an expectation on George Saville to add goals from midfield.

Where will you finish?

Fifth. I think we’ll make the play-offs with fans back in. This is a strong squad and the league is wide open so I’ll back Rowett’s tactical aptitude to get us where we need to go.

How will Reading’s season go, and where will we finish?

Losing Michael Olise is obviously a big blow, he’s been a key player for you recently. Omar Richards departing isn’t ideal either - you don’t have as strong an attacking full-back as him in my opinion and Sone Aluko’s departure leaves a gap in terms of squad players in the attacking roles.

I hate to be full of negatives but Yakou Meite’s injury will also provide problems and with the transfer embargo I can see this being a season of struggle for the Royals.

Things seemed to go a little stale under Veljko Paunovic towards the back end of last season. I think Reading will finish in mid table, possibly the bottom half - barring any more departures, they should have enough quality to avoid being dragged into any sort of relegation battle though.

Take that with a pinch of salt, though. The division is so wide open this season and a lot can change before the transfer window closes!

You can find Lee Clarke on Twitter @Clarkey_No1

How would you sum up last season?

Absolutely miserable is all I can say really. We started poorly, got a bit better and finished seven without a win.

How did Forest go from just missing out on the playoffs to flirting with relegation - and how can Reading avoid suffering the same fate?

Well we lost Matty Cash who signed for Aston Villa for £16m and replaced him with 16 new players which was a big mistake. Of those, only Scott McKenna and a major impact, with Cyrus Christie and Anthony Knockaert doing okay on loan. Some were gone by January. Thankfully we’ve taken steps this season to improve the recruitment.

What are your expectations for this season?

I’d like us to play on the front foot a bit more and ultimately win more matches. I’d also like us to blood a few more youngsters into the first team.

Chris Hughton steadied the ship when he replaced Sabri Lamouchi last October. Is he the right man to take the club forwards?

I believe he is and he deserves time to get things right. An underwhelming campaign during 20/21 and a new CEO has placed him under pressure to get the team firing now.

Which player of yours should we look out for this season?

I’m going to say Joe Lolley. He was injured for the final 12 games of the season but is now fully fit. It could be a season of resurgence for him.

Where will you finish?

11th

How will Reading’s season go, and where will we finish?

If we pinch Laurent and Holmes you’ll be bottom half, but I doubt we will so I’ll say similar to us. 12th.

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