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View From The Town End: 2020/21 Season Preview, Part Six

Last but not least: Stoke City, Swansea City, Watford and Wycombe Wanderers.

Stoke City v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship - bet365 Stadium Photo by Dave Howarth/EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images

We’re at the final part of our 2020/21 season preview, and we’re left with four final teams: Stoke City, Swansea City, Watford and Wycombe Wanderers. Those sides had very different 2019/20 campaigns - one relegated from the Premier League, one missing out on promotion via the playoffs, another fighting back from an early relegation fight to stay up, and the last sealing promotion against the odds in dramatic fashion at Wembley.

Thanks to our last four writers for their thoughts on their teams.

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How’s Michael O’Neill done so far?

Almost faultlessly. Stoke were a sinking ship when he arrived and we were doomed for relegation, being rooted at the bottom of the table after 16 games. He’s come in and done what no Stoke manager has managed since 2017: get the best out of a really talented squad. He’s kept things simple for the players and tries to play them in their preferred positions when possible.

He’s not been afraid to leave big names out of the side if the situation warrants it and is encouraging youth development more than we’ve seen for years. But most importantly, Stoke have confidence and willpower. That’s the reason why we didn’t just climb out of relegation, but we soared to the dizzy heights of mid-table and somehow improve on last season’s finish.

Stoke’s woes behind the scenes in recent years have been well documented - how are things looking now?

Better. Although we were a financial crisis away from being as bad as any club you see in the EFL, so there was plenty of room for improvement. On the pitch, I’ve mentioned the work that Michael O’Neill has brought to the team. But off it, there seems to be more of a plan for the future, short and long-term. We’ve finally hired a head of recruitment after the controversial Mark Cartwright left the club last year.

Any player that isn’t committed to the cause has either been, or will be, shipped out or frozen out. Stoke’s hierarchy were exemplary in response to the Covid-19 situation, being charitable inside and outside of the club. Where Stoke fans were so angry with the club this time a year ago, it feels like an institution to be proud of once again.

How would you sum up last season?

On a macro-level, not good enough. A side that spends as much money as Stoke and has the resources that they have should be pushing for promotion without question. 15th in the Championship would have been far away from the board’s and fans’ expectations. However, when you think of the turnaround we’ve had and delve deeper into the transformation Stoke have been through, it was something that’s been lacking and required for years.

O’Neill’s form is currently one of the best in the Championship and Stoke have proved to be a force against teams at all levels. There’s real optimism for the upcoming season and it’s largely due to the transition that we’ve been through. In short: not a great result, but a necessary process.

What are your expectations in general for this season?

That we’re much, much better than the previous season. I expect us to be playing similarly to how we did post-lockdown, only more consistently across an entire season. That sort of form would infer a high league finish of course, so promotion is the aim. New bodies in will help to achieve that and the manager is able to properly implement his strategies on players that have been signed under himself.

But most of all, I expect Stoke fans to go without as much stress, or anger, or sadness. Whether it’s a season of stability or a real push for the top, it should be a far more relaxing and enjoyable experience this time around.

A younger name that could break through?

There’s actually quite a few. Centre backs Harry Souttar and Nathan Collins are still at the club after not being sent out on loan (yet). Thibaud Verlinden should come back into the side after his loan at Bolton and his nasty injury. Tashan Oakley-Boothe could be one to break into the midfield, despite stiff competition.

But one to keep an eye on is Josh Tymon. We signed him from Hull City when we were in the Premier League and he’s had few chances at Stoke. But now O’Neill is giving him a shot at left back, left wing and in central midfield. I’m interested to see where this lad’s gonna fit in at Stoke, but I do genuinely see him as one to be a really handy character to fit in wherever he’s required.

Where will you finish?

I’m gonna be cheeky: seventh. Yes I really do think we’ll make a real push for promotion this time, and we’ve got more reason to believe that than in the previous two seasons when everyone expected us to walk the league. Having said that, I’ve predicted first and second respectively for the last two seasons and it’s gone horribly.

If I say seventh, I’m cautiously bracing myself for the fact that we’ll be still in the Championship for the 2021/22 season. I’d be delighted but not surprised if we managed to do better than that.

Ben Rowley (@benarowley) is founder of The YYY-Files.

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How would you sum up last season?

Last season was a real mixed bag. We enjoyed a tremendous start to the campaign with a win away at Leeds to top off a fantastic August, however home form quickly became a real issue as August’s momentum disappeared, while we became very inconsistent from then on. A victory in the first South Wales derby for several years was a particular highlight though!

Through Steve Cooper’s connections as an England youth boss, we managed to acquire Rhian Brewster and Connor Gallagher on loan in January who provided a much-needed spark in attack during the second half of the season, although deep down I still didn’t think we had quite enough quality to reach the play-offs. But football’s a funny old game and we managed to sneak in on the final day of the season thanks to a 4-1 win at Reading following a purple patch when football resumed.

It’s a testament to the character of the many youngsters who were given a chance to make their mark in the Championship that they managed to get in the play-offs against the odds - though we were beaten by a better side in Brentford at the semi-finals. After last season I can’t see many better clubs for young players to learn and progress at than Swansea and it certainly looks like that’s the angle the club is going towards as the Swans rebuild.

What are your general expectations for this season?

I think being in and around the play-offs again would mark a successful season. There aren’t any expectations to be knocking on the door for automatic promotion due to our financial restrictions - but we don’t want to be seen to regress either so I think it’d be disappointing to slip into the lower half of the table after some promising signings in Jamal Lowe, Morgan Gibbs-White and Korey Smith, as well as retaining the services of Marc Guehi, Kyle Naughton, Wayne Routledge and last season’s number-one Freddie Woodman.

Last campaign was a big learning curve for Steve Cooper in his first season of senior management so there’s plenty he would’ve learnt from 2019/20 so hopefully we can continue to show progress and enjoy a decent season. There’s not a lot of pressure on Cooper as manager (despite fans getting on his back at times) so hopefully we can have an enjoyable campaign if lessons can be learned and the many youngsters can continue to grow.

Morgan Gibbs-White has become the latest member of England’s under-17 World Cup winning squad to move to the club. How important has Steve Cooper’s connection to that group of players been?

Cooper has been a huge influence in some of England’s best young talents coming to Swansea. Players like Freddie Woodman, Rhian Brewster, Ben Wilmot, Connor Gallagher, Marc Guehi and now Morgan Gibbs-White were all part of England’s under-17 World Cup triumph and have a huge amount of trust and respect for Cooper - and to have this calibre of player at the Liberty Stadium is only a good thing.

Yes, on paper they are inexperienced but if you’re good enough, you’re old enough and these boys are definitely good enough to produce the goods in the second tier. It’s exciting to see young, hungry, talented players wearing a white shirt and it’s clear to see how these youngsters have bought into Swansea City as a club... for example, Woodman winding up the Cardiff fans doing the ‘swim away’ gesture which we all loved!

How much will you miss Rhian Brewster after his excellent loan spell last season?

I absolutely loved Brewster with us down at Swansea. He only played half a season but netted a goal in every other game which is no mean feat for a guy who, despite being highly rated at Liverpool, had very little first-team experience. Brewster was thrown straight in at the deep end to be Swansea’s starting (and only fit) striker, but from the off he excelled with some very well-taken goals. As well as being a clinical forward, he also had a strong work ethic and would certainly put himself about.

Some of the goals in his last few games were sublime as well, a magnificent half-volley against Nottingham Forest, a long-range rocket at Reading and a lovely chip versus Brentford. It’s unlikely that he’ll be back in Wales for another loan spell but I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on him throughout what should be a long and successful career. At the time of writing we only have academy graduate Liam Cullen in the striker department so it’s vital the Swans get to business on one or two goalscorers in the next few weeks.

Who’s your player to look out for?

Andre Ayew deservedly scooped up all of the end of season awards for 2019/20 and he’s easily one of the best players in the league. The Ghana captain is a top quality player with Champions League experience and we’re lucky to have him playing in the Championship. If we manage to keep hold of him (everything’s so uncertain at the moment!) then Ayew will likely to be a key part of the Swans team again.

He seems happy at Swansea and I think he regretted leaving after just one season in 2016 so wants to make up for that at the Liberty Stadium. Ayew is a leader on the pitch with his vast experience helpful for all the youngsters and his footballing brain and ability is a huge asset - we are such a weaker team when he’s not playing. He has a year left on his contract so should he be content to see that through until next summer then Ayew will be a huge player for Swansea.

A younger name that could break through?

Swansea boast one of the youngest squads in the league and it’s great to see so many local boys given the chance to perform, something they couldn’t get when we were in the Premier League. Players like Dan James, Connor Roberts and Joe Rodon broke through in 2018/19 and Ben Cabango, Liam Cullen and Jordan Garrick made the step up last season.

Ben Cabango was recently called up for his first Wales cap which was fantastic to see and I’m expecting a big future for the centre-back. He’s going to be pretty hard to drop after some stellar performances in the second half of the season, so with another full season of first-team football under his belt I think he’ll be (unfortunately) attracting real interest from elsewhere. He fits the profile for what all clubs are searching for in a modern centre-half: young, big, strong, athletic and composed on the ball. He’s definitely worth keeping an eye on next campaign.

Where will you finish?

It depends on whether we sign an adequate striker and if we manage to keep hold of the likes of Ayew and captain Matt Grimes, but if transfer activity does go to plan I think we can be around the play-offs and will be battling between 10th-5/6th. I don’t think we’ll be close to automatic promotion with the likes of Brentford and Watford but I have trust in the squad we have at our disposal that we can get more wins than losses and remain in the hunt for the top six.

You can find Declan Terry on Twitter @DeclanTerry_.

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How would you sum up last season?

A complete disaster in my eyes, we went from finishing runners up in the FA Cup (albeit we got an absolute pasting) and having our best Premier League season to being absolutely woeful at times. It took us 12 games to pick up our first league win of the season – I think that just set the tone. Real shame as the Liverpool win was an unforgettable moment in our history.

What are your general expectations for this season?

I think we have to be realistic – the owners want us straight back up (but whose owners wouldn’t after being relegated?). I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and a lot of pundits saying this is the weakest Championship for a long time. ANYTHING can happen in football so I’m not taking anything for granted. General expectation though would be top six, I think it has to be if we’re serious about giving this a good go.

Vladimir Ivić is the club’s fourth manager in 12 months. What do you make of the appointment?

It’s strange because I’d never heard of him before he was linked with the job but after reading into his history & seeing what he achieved at Maccabi Tel-Aviv, I’m really excited to see what he can do with us. He’s a young, progressive coach who can actually build something here plus he’s a no-nonsense kind of guy.

More importantly, he has a winning mentality which is a vital quality in a head coach pushing for promotion. Maccabi Tel Aviv also only conceded 10 goals the whole of last season (we conceded EIGHT in one match!). It’ll make a change to seeing us hoof it up to Troy and trying to play that way.

So far you’ve managed to retain a number of high level players that were expected to move on (e.g Deulofeu, Sarr). Do you think you’ll be able keep them for the rest of the window or are they likely to be sold?

Deulofeu is pretty much off, I think the only reason he hasn’t actually gone yet is because he’s still recovering from doing his ACL in – he’ll go to Spain or Italy I’d imagine. Sarr on the other hand, I’m really shocked nobody has made a formal approach yet but he came out and did an interview a few weeks back saying that he’s more than happy to stay with Watford to ‘help us fight for promotion back to the Premier League’ which was a huge delight to our fans so for that reason I can see him staying.

Doucoure as well looks to be out the door too which is hardly surprising, his attitude has pointed to him wanting the exit door all of this season which is a shame. We also look to be losing Etienne Capoue to Valencia too (to join us with our ex boss Javi Garcia) which will hurt Watford fans more than the Doucoure transfer.

Editor’s note: after this was written, Doucoure moved to Everton.

Who’s your player to look out for?

Luis Suarez, he’s a young Colombian that has just spent a season on loan at Real Zaragoza scoring 19 goals. He’s a striker with a lot of potential and us Watford fans can’t wait to finally see him this season.

A younger name that could break through?

Similar to the last question but I think this year is going to be all about how Domingos Quina steps up, he’s an exciting young prospect we got from West Ham a couple of seasons back and with Capoue pretty much edging closer to a move away that leaves Quina pretty much in the driving seat for a name on the teamsheet every week.

Where will you finish?

Ben – I’d say we’d finish in the top six. A lot of people are saying this is the weakest Championship for years but I disagree. Watford, Norwich, Swansea, Bournemouth, Brentford, Derby and Forest will all be up there this season.

Mike – I’m in the camp of believing this rebuild job will take time so therefore I’m going to say fourth and we’ll miss out in the play-offs.

Ben Aiton (@benaiton23) and Mike Duffy (@MikeDuffy_25) host The Voices of the Vic.

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How integral is Gareth Ainsworth to Wycombe’s success?

Our previous greatest ever manager, ‘Saint’ Martin O’Neill, passed that baton onto Ainsworth live on TV after the play-off final. That’s as good an indicator as any of the utterly phenomenal job Gaz has done in his almost eight years in charge.

You’d have to put him in the same bracket as Klopp, Wilder and Bielsa in terms of universal popularity among the fans. He’s taken us beyond our wildest dreams and created a genuine culture here. Really, Gareth Ainsworth is Wycombe Wanderers. If he were to pack up and leave tomorrow, the soul of the club would be ripped right out.

Do Wycombe have what it takes to, in the long term, establish themselves in the Championship?

Considering the Championship seems to get more financially mind-numbing by the year, it’s hard to say what we’ll need in order to establish ourselves in the long term. Our chief financial officer is on record as saying we’re prepared to be a yo-yo club. I can’t imagine that’s a long-term aim, as such, but we’re not going to go all out to try and stay up.

Rotherham have gone down-up-down-up in the last four seasons and are in great shape off the pitch - and have also kept hold of their manager, which I hope we’re able to do for at least a couple more years yet! Ainsworth has been quite open about the fact that any next job would have to be right - it’s absolutely not all about the money for him - who’s to say his current job won’t always be the right job?

The players we’ve brought in so far this summer mostly seem like the kind who would stay if we were to drop straight back into League One. We want to build something here - or build on what we’ve already got. We will be looking at the longer term, the bigger picture, which is worryingly rare in football these days. It’s impossible to say for sure if we have what it takes to become part of the Championship ‘stable’ - although that is the owners’ ambition - but I believe we’ve got an excellent footing to at least try and do it, even if that takes a relegation or two first.

How would you sum up last season?

“What the f*** just happened?!”...

...was pretty much my reaction as I fell to my living room floor at the final whistle of the play-off final, but it still hasn’t 100% sunk in - although seeing our name (not bottom!) in the Championship table and the release of the fixtures have made it feel more or less real.

At the end of the day, it was our greatest season ever. The ride in itself was incredible, but to cap it all with Wembley glory made it incomparable. We defied the odds yet again and well and truly put ourselves on the footballing map - a miracle six years on from the miracle that kept us in the Football League on goal difference and saved the club from probable oblivion.

What are your general expectations for this season?

In terms of what to expect from the players, nothing - in the sense that giving their all, all the time, is such a given that the fans don’t need to expect it. In terms of what I expect us to achieve? Again, nothing. No Wycombe supporter could sincerely say that they expect us to stay up.

That’s not to say we can’t - and I don’t think any of our fans will be surprised, as such, if we do - but this is the biggest step up in our history and we’ll have one of the smallest Championship budgets ever. Regardless of how it pans out, I just hope everyone enjoys it; this club has worked so hard, in the face of various degrees of adversity, to earn this opportunity.

Who’s your player to look out for?

All of them - but for the purposes of this question, our left-back with the wand of a left foot: Joe Jacobson. He WILL shoot from corners - and the scary thing is he actually seems to be getting better at it. The 33-year-old has scored five goals directly from corners since January 2019 and could easily have had a couple more - having already produced his party trick in the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Fleetwood, he deposited one onto the top of the crossbar in the second.

His delivery is easily Championship quality - he probably could have spent most of his career in the second tier if he had pace - and he is our main creative outlet. That’s not to say he’s lacking defensively - he’s not at all - but we’ll have to wait and see how he fares in that respect at this level.

A younger name that could break through?

With no academy and having only just set up a B Team - which so far has only three players, one of whom is already 23 and will probably overlap with the first team squad anyway - I can’t really answer that.

The youngest first-team player is Alex Pattison - although even he’ll be 23 by the time the season starts - so I suppose I’d have to go with him. A tenacious midfielder with an excellent forward gear and willingness to carry the ball, he only made 15 appearances during the 2019/20 regular season - his first with the club - but did feature from the bench in all three play-off games and looked extra driven and generally more robust than before the suspension.

He stood out in an attacking sense in our recent friendly against a strong West Ham side too, and while I never like to read too much into pre-season games, he could be one who’s ‘playing himself into contention’ for a more regular berth in the side.

Where will you finish?

Somewhere in the bottom four. That’s all I’m going to say.

Tom Hancock (@Tom_Hancock_) runs Chairboys Central.