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Town End 2019/20 Season Preview: Part Four

Another day, another part in our season preview series.

Nottingham Forest v Middlesbrough - EFL Sky Bet Championship Photo by Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We’re moving into the second half of the division now as we continue our preview of all the teams Reading will be facing in 2019/20. As before, please bear in mind that some signings may have been made after these answers were written.

Here, we’re talking to Matt Storey of Luton Town, Andy Bell of Middlesbrough, Lucas Ball of Millwall and Sean Hockett of Nottingham Forest. Many thanks to them for their help putting this piece together.

How would you sum up last season?

The best way to sum it up would be that it was just lots and lots of fun. I know that sounds simple but we played brilliant football, went on a 28-game unbeaten run and surpassed all expectations. When you throw in the fact it was the first time we’d been at that level in eleven years, it makes it even more remarkable.

For the fans, I think there’s an element that last season felt like the year we deserved after the -30 points, five years in non-league, multiple play-off heartbreaks etc. I know we’ve won the Conference and come second in League Two so it’s not all bad, but last year surpassed both of them by a long way and it felt like Luton put themselves back on the map.

That club legend - and the man in charge when we were relegated from the Football League due to that ludicrous points deduction - Mick Harford was in charge was simply the icing on the cake. If I watch a season as enjoyable as that again, then it’ll have to be a hell of a year.

What are your expectations for this season?

I think any Luton fans would take 21st now if it was offered to them. Obviously I’d love us to carry on our momentum and finish mid-table/comfortably clear of the bottom three, but Graeme Jones is an unknown quantity as a manager in his own right, so it’s difficult to know what to expect. That we’ve sold both full-backs (James Justin and Jack Stacey) to Premier League clubs is a concern given how important they were for us.

If the season started today, I think we’d struggle. But at the time of writing, we’ve only made four signings and Jones has spoken about getting more through the door. The way Luton is now run and with money in the bank, I’m confident we’ll get the right faces in (keeper, right-back and forward being the most important right now) and steer clear of the drop-zone. If Stoke’s manager hadn’t left us in the lurch and still stood in the Kenilworth Road dug-out - and I hate to say this - I’d be more confident.

Who’s your player to watch out for?

With James Justin and Jack Stacey both sold, I’m going to go for Pelly Ruddock-Mpanzu as one who will catch the eye. Pelly is actually our longest-serving player and has been at the club since joining on-loan in November 2013 from West Ham. He’s the only player to have been involved in all three of our recent promotions and has just taken his game to the next level over the past 12-18 months.

He’s best as one of the two box-to-box midfielders in our diamond system, but he can also play in the holding role. Pelly’s work-rate has always been exceptional but the best thing about him for me is that he never shies away from receiving the ball. He can pick a pass, or go on a lung-busting, powerful run that opposition players just cannot deal with. Pelly’s attracted attention from Championship clubs before and at 25, I think he’s more than ready for Championship football. Let’s just hope we keep hold of him now...

A younger name that could break through?

Honestly, I don’t think we have any younger players that will break through this year. It’s a shame, but our fairly rapid rise has made it more difficult. Justin has moved to Leicester now, yet as I mentioned earlier he struggled to cement his starting spot for a while.

I’m going to mention Harry Cornick here instead. Cornick is 24 and a lightning quick winger-turned-forward who just signed a new long-term contract. Cornick is beginning to show a bit more composure in front of goal and will cause defences problem. In two years at Kenilworth Road, his improvement has been massive and that should continue. Jones has already talked up his potential so I’ll think we’ll see plenty of him, and Luton will have to play on the counterattack a bit more this season, which plays into Cornick’s hands further. I think he’ll be a name lots more people are familiar with over the next few months.

Where will you finish the season?

I’ll go for 16th. We have the momentum, plenty of good players and a manager who has a big reputation, even if it’s his first outing as his own man. If we don’t make the signings I think we will before the deadline shuts, I’ll have to revise this. Staying in this division will be huge for us and is something, in an ideal world, we’ll continue to do until our new ground comes in three/four years’ time. Then you never know...

Jack Stacey excelled for you in recent seasons - how important was he, and how much will he be missed?

There is no doubting that we’re going to miss Jack Stacey a lot. The full-backs were so important to us last year and Stacey just came on leaps and bounds during his two years at the club. He’s such a threat going forward, has the ability to pick out players in the final third and just an incredible engine.

Last year he really improved defensively too. He’s going to be a success in the Premier League and I can’t quite believe Reading let him go. One caveat to this is I don’t think we’ll use the diamond this year - certainly not as much as the past two years - which could make that role slightly less important.

Has Graeme Jones’ tenure simply been about continuing Nathan Jones’ work, or have Luton changed much under him?

I don’t think I can answer this yet. Mick Harford’s interim role was definitely a case of doing exactly the same, but I can’t imagine GJ following that route. We’ve only had three pre-season games under him though, so it’s impossible to tell. Ask me before our first meeting of the season in November and it’ll be a lot clearer.

You can find Matt Storey on Twitter here.

How would you sum up last season?

Disappointing and flat. For long periods it never felt like Boro were serious contenders for promotion, despite being in the top six for most of the campaign. Despite Tony Pulis’ assertions that it was a successful season, the squad he had at his disposal should have, at least, been sat comfortably in the play-offs.

What are your expectations for this season?

I think Boro will miss out on the play-offs but achieve a top-half finish. This is very much a transitional season for the club with a new head coach and a new playing philosophy. Couple that with the squad losing a lot of experienced heads over the summer and I don’t think many Boro fans are expecting an automatic promotion push like last season.

This is Jonathan Woodgate’s first managerial position. Is he ready for the role and was he the right choice for you?

He seems to be saying the right things in press conferences and interviews, and there seems a real determination on his part to succeed in the job. I think the key thing for Woodgate will be assessing the individuals he has at his disposal and deciding where they best fit into the squad. If he is backed in the transfer market, he’ll stand a better chance than with the unbalanced squad he currently has at his disposal.

Tony Pulis had a very distinct style of play. Has Woodgate given any indication as to how he will set Boro up?

Woodgate has made it very clear that he wants to play attacking football and the pre-season games have shown glimpses of that philosophy. The midfielders seem to have been given more license to go forward, even Adam Clayton is getting into the final third! If Woodgate is given time and patience from the fans to implement his style, trips to the Riverside will be a lot more enjoyable than the infamous ‘Pulisball’.

Who’s your player to look out for?

Lewis Wing. He became an important cog in Boro’s side in the second half of the season and Pulis’ side looked noticeably weaker in the final third in his absence. He has the ability to pick a pass or slam one in from distance and could be set for a big season. Most of the club’s other central midfielders are arguably better at the defensive side of the game so Wing will be important in the new, attacking Boro side. A special mention too for Britt Assombalonga who, despite his critics, has scored 31 goals in two seasons. No easy task in a Tony Pulis team.

A younger name that could break through?

Boro’s a club famed for their successful academy and there are a number of promising talents coming through. The one I’m expecting to feature more prominently however is Marcus Tavernier. Despite his obvious talent and willingness to go forward, Pulis seemed reluctant to use him last season but he has featured heavily in pre-season and Woodgate’s preferred 4-3-3 formation could suit him well. Expect to see him cutting in from the right and firing an effort in.

Where will you finish this season?

Somewhere between seventh and tenth. There will probably be moments when a play-off push looks a possibility, but the squad is likely too thin and lacking in certain areas to mount a successful one. The club is very much in transition at the moment and it needs patience from the supporters for long-term success.

Andy Bell writes for oneBoro, a Middlesbrough FC news website

Millwall have shaken up their squad a fair bit this summer - was it needed, and will it work?

A much needed shake up after last season’s dressing room issues. Players needed to move on and we needed new blood to challenge some of those that may have got a little too comfortable. I think we’re in a much better place than last year, hopefully it works but only time will tell.

What did you make of the Jon Dadi Bodvarsson signing? Is he right for Millwall?

Provided we can keep him fit, he looks to be a good addition. He’s - in many ways - the perfect Millwall striker. A decent goal record, hard worker, runs the channels well, can hold the ball up and is good in the air. What’s not to like?

How would you sum up last season?

Depressing. Boring. Awful. We couldn’t hold on to a lead, missed out on a Wembley appearance thanks to a goalkeeping disaster and narrowly avoided relegation. it was far from ideal, particularly with some of the poor football being played.

What are your expectations for this season?

To play some better football and be able to see out games. Anywhere in the lower mid table area would be good, but I’d take safety again provided it comes more easily and with more entertainment.

Who’s your player to watch out for?

Ben Thompson - he returned from a loan spell at Portsmouth a different player and was a key man in our limp towards survival, which got more difficult after his hamstring injury with three or four games to go. He’s added goals to his game and has a great leap for his height, so could be pivotal in midfield

A younger name that could break through?

James Brown was expected to be back up right back to Mahlon Romeo but he has an injury that’s put him out for the next 3-4 months. I would’ve said him but, other than that, we have a very young u23s squad and I cant see anyone making the step up just yet. If anyone, I’d say Tyler Burey. He excited at Wimbledon in rare appearances last season and looks promising.

Where will you finish the season?

I’m going to say 17th.

Lucas Ball writes for Millwall site News At Den

What went wrong for Martin O’Neill, and is Sabri Lamouchi the right man for the job?

The ‘jobs for Forest Old Boys’ had probably run its course and his was an appointment too far. Having not managed/coached a league team for six years and not been involved with the Championship (then called the Football League First Division) since 1996, I didn’t think it was ever going to work. And that’s not saying that in hindsight; I said it at the time too.

The style of football we played was far-removed from the football we saw under Aitor Karanka. He was soon tagged as a dinosaur by a section of the fans and the results weren’t helping. Add to that the seemingly stubborn belief that our £13m summer signing Carvalho shouldn’t be playing baffled a lot of fans and it all turned to s**t.

The icing on the cake was a home win against Middlesbrough towards the end of the season when Carvalho started only his second game under O’Neill and promptly ran the show. The best individual performance from a Forest player I’ve ever seen and a veritable two-fingered salute from the player to his manager. It was as if he wanted to show us what we’d been missing. Let’s be under no illusion: I’m not saying if Carvalho had played most or all of the games under O’Neill we would have been promoted, but I do think we would have played better and our results may have been better.

As for M. Lamouchi, your guess is as good as mine. Having joined the stable of super agent Jorge Mendes (an agency that also represented Karanka) one can only assume our owner is hoping to ‘do a Wolves’. Were our Portuguese signings under Karanka represented by Mr Mendes? Are our current trio of Portuguese signings represented by Mr Mendes? They may well be, but I can’t really be bothered to find out. If you’re a Wolves fan you won’t care, and if you’re a Forest fan and we get promoted, we probably won’t care either.

As for being the ‘right man for the job’, well if he can give us some nice football to watch (which O’Neill wasn’t able to provide) and a solid set of results with enough points to propel us towards the top of the table, then he’ll be ticking the right boxes.

What’s the mood in the Forest fanbase like at the moment?

Delight, puzzlement, resignation, expectation…

The O’Neill sacking came completely out of the blue. There was a section of the fanbase delighted to see the back of this so-called dinosaur, while others were clearly puzzled by the suddenness of the dismissal. This was compounded by the speed of the subsequent appointment; clearly something that was in place for a while.

There’s a sense of resignation too with regards to the ongoing ‘churn’ of permanent managers. It’s been a while since we’ve had the same manager for an entire season, so why would this latest appointment change that?

All that being said, there’s still a sense of expectation when taking into account the current new signings and the new man’s approach to training/coaching/style of play. Once again, it’s the hope that kills you.

How would you sum up last season?

It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions. We were thoroughly on board with Karanka and our push for promotion. We were playing some very nice stuff at times and most of the fans were really enjoying watching us play, especially at home where we had record season card sales and bumper crowds.

Then the wheels came off and (generally) the football was turgid. But despite this the home crowds kept swelling the City Ground (probably because we wanted our Forest Old Boy to succeed) and we huffed and puffed over the line in the end. Compared to the previous two seasons I think our final league position was what most level-headed fans would have hoped for at the beginning of the campaign.

The short answer to your question would be: It was ok.

What are your expectations for this season?

My personal expectations are top six and a genuine push for promotion. But this is Forest and I’m sure we’ll find some way to bugger it up. Probably with a change of manager in January if we’re not top of the table and matching any unrealistic targets our owner has set the new man.

Who’s your player to watch out for?

I like the look of the goalkeeper we’ve signed on loan from Man. City. Arijanet Muric is only 20, but looks very assured and distributes the ball very well. He could well be a big improvement on Pantilimon and looks to be part of that new breed of ‘keeper that has to have more about his game than just stopping the ball hitting the back of the net.

In terms of outfield players, Tiago Silva (no, not that one) signed from Feirense looks like a quality box-to-box midfielder. I’d like to see how he links up with Carvalho (which won’t be soon because Carvalho’s currently wearing a protective boot after picking up an injury at Alfreton at the end of June).

A younger name that could break through?

While Lamouchi has included a few academy players in our pre-season squads, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if any of them get any significant time playing in the Championship this season.

In an ideal world, the likes of Brennan Johnson in midfield (son of former Forest striker David Johnson) and Arvin Appiah on the wing would be great to see, but I’m not holding my breath.

We do have Ryan Yates (21) who made something of an impact while O’Neill and Keane were at the helm. He’s just had knee surgery and won’t be playing for a couple of months, but if there’s anyone who’s got a chance of first team action it’s him.

Where will you finish the season?

Automatic promotion. Obviously!

Sean Hockett writes for Forest fanzine Banty and Shinty