clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

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

How will Millwall, Norwich City, Nottingham Forest and Preston fare in 2020/21?

Nottingham Forest v Millwall - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

This set of four teams could well be the strongest in our 2020/21 preview series, with all having very realistic aims of promotion. Norwich City are the stand-outs, looking to bounce back after winning the Championship two years ago but being relegated last season, but Nottingham Forest, Millwall and Preston finished only just outside the playoffs in 2019/20 - seventh, eighth and ninth respectively.

Will any or all of them manage to get into the top flight with promotion this season? We asked writers for each of those clubs to tell us how their campaigns will end up; many thanks to them for taking the time.


Getty Images

Gary Rowett’s had almost a year in charge at the Den now. How’s he done?

Brilliantly. The turnaround has been remarkable from our struggling start under Harris. He’s added more defensive stability to us as a unit whilst maintaining elements of your ‘typical Millwall side’ in terms of aggressive pressing and being in the opposition’s face.

He’s attracted quality to the club that we wouldn’t have been able to get before, whilst adapting the style so we play more football. His tactical nous means we have the ability to play a variety of systems now and lack the predictability that we had under the former manager.

Millwall seem to be a club edging closer to getting into the top six. Do you think this is a Premier League-bound club?

I’m trying not to get myself too excited, but this is the most excited I’ve been ahead of a campaign ever, probably. We’ve made crucial signings in areas we needed to strengthen and could still see Jayson Molumby return.

There’s no guarantee that our business is done but the aspiration now has to be to reach the top six this season and see what happens from there. Fans being back as normal by next May would certainly boost our play-off hopes if we were to reach them.

Couple this exciting squad with the aspirations off the pitch in terms of the stadium re-development opening up new revenue avenues, and it’s a very exciting time to be a Millwall fan.

How would you sum up last season?

Things became stale under Harris and both he and the club needed a change. He’s done well at Cardiff since departing and we’ve gone from strength to strength under a new leader. The football was boring and we were being outplayed almost every game, with an eight-game winless run culminating in Harris’ resignation.

In came Rowett - after a three game caretaker spell for Adam Barrett - to change our fortunes, propelling us into the top six by New Year’s Day. Whilst we didn’t finish in the play-off positions, it was a fantastic season where we proved - again - that we have the quality to compete and this level.

What are your general expectations for this season?

To be in the mix for the top six again, simply. In Troy Parrott, we have a striker who - I believe - could notch up 20 goals if the service is right. Ryan Woods adds quality to the midfield, whilst Jed Wallace and Mason Bennett offer pace and quality in the wide areas.

Scott Malone provides an attacking option at left wing back on his return whilst Jake Cooper and Shaun Hutchinson are two of the best central defenders in the division. There’s quality all over the pitch and more depth than in previous years - with the likes of Matt Smith, Connor Mahoney and Shaun Williams probably missing out on Rowett’s current first choice eleven.

Who’s your player to look out for?

There are a number of them, but probably Jed Wallace. He was the only player in the division to reach 10+ goals and 10+ assists last season so hopefully he can continue to improve. The burden is probably less on him this season, too, with the quality that we’ve added, which should help him.

A younger name that could break through?

Billy Mitchell. He’s a young central midfielder with bundles of energy but also the quality to go with it. He’s been employed as a right wing back a couple of times and has looked comfortable there.

Being a Millwall fan, the fans are even more keen to see him succeed but unfortunately he’s out for 10-12 weeks with an injury now. I expect big things from him when he’s back and in years to come.

Where will you finish?

I’m going to say in the top six, but this looks a very open league so there’ll be a lot of teams challenging for those positions, I think.

Lucas Ball (@LucasBall2211) is a reporter for London Football Scene and News at Den.

Getty Images

How do Norwich need to adapt if they’re to get back into the Premier League and stay there?

I think the onus is on them to improve the formula they used to get out of the Championship under Daniel Farke two years ago.

It’s less about revolution and more about evolution – the fundamentals of their game proved that they can be successful. Variation is key, but also changing the profile of their recruits. Defensive improvement is key, they simply cannot ship the amount of goals they did in the last two seasons, but as a collective they need additional quality.

So, I don’t think we’re suddenly going to see a drastic step change away from the possession-based philosophy Farke likes, but there will need to subtle tweaks and variation within that. See Jordan Hugill.

Are Canaries fans still confident Daniel Farke is the right man to take you forward?

I think so. But the reality is that they need to hit the ground running after 12 straight defeats in all competitions at the back end of last season – a club record.

There’s an acceptance that he was operating with his hands tied, they did have an injury crisis that meant he never had three fit centre-backs, they couldn’t spend money and didn’t have the quality to survive. But supporters won’t accept excuses this time around. After all the acceptance comes expectation, Farke hasn’t had to contend with that since joining the club.

All three relegated clubs have opted to go in differing directions – it’ll be interesting if continuity is the one that works. Either you change the head coach or the squad – City have opted for the latter.

How would you sum up last season?

Frustrating. Difficult. I think there are many other synonyms that you could you opt for. There was generally a feeling amongst City supporters that they could adapt and thrive in the Premier League but I think a lack of variation and quality impacted them.

It was telling at points post-lockdown when both teams would stop for ‘drinks’ break and they’d huddle on the touchline near the press area – you could see the drastic difference in terms of size and physique. Everyone in the top-flight seems to be six foot plus.

But it was quality. City didn’t possess enough to dominate games in the same manner as they managed in the Championship. They had to adapt – but didn’t have the options to effectively alter from a passing side to a defensively effective team.

Injuries played a part as well. There’s plenty of mitigating factors and quite frankly, there’s a book to be written on why it transpired in the manner that it did. You can’t hide away from the poor recruitment and tactical errors also. But it’s about learning.

What are your general expectations for this season?

It’s hard. Naturally, you would suggest that City should be at the top end of the table competing for promotion, especially considering their recruitment this summer. But, they’ve lost a club record 12 games on the spin and come down in freefall.

Arresting that slump and converting a losing mentality into a winning one will be difficult – but after the leeway supporters offered Daniel Farke last season, there is a realisation that they need to convert excuses into tangible progression.

There was damage done to Farke’s hero status by the performances post-lockdown and that means there is expectation. Top six will be a minimum expectation but City fans will be gutted if they don’t bounce back at the first time of asking.

Who’s your player to look out for?

Beyond the usual suspects – if they stick around – I’ll go for a new boy. Oliver Skipp has looked brilliant in pre-season. He has a bite and tenacity about him, I think he could make that Norwich City midfield engineroom his own. When we do get supporters back into stadia, I feel like he could be one that becomes a fans favourite.

I’m also intrigued by Przemyslaw Placheta, who City purchased from the Polish top-flight and is believed to be rapid. Over 30m his time is apparently in Usain Bolt’s ballpark.

A younger name that could break through?

Adam Idah is the main one for me. He recently made his senior debut for the Republic of Ireland aged 19. He’s a powerful, quick and strong striker who has scored plenty of goals at youth level and netted a hat-trick against Preston North End in January in the FA Cup. Idah was a bright spark after football’s resumption as well, he was unlucky not to score.

With Pukki and Hugill in front of him, it’s going to be difficult but he’s a confident lad with plenty of ability so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him chip in with a few goals.

Another is Josh Martin, who joined City from Arsenal last season. He’s a very technical midfielder who made a handful of Premier League appearances. He’s still very raw though, so let’s see but we know how much faith Farke has in his young players.

Where will you finish?

Second.

Connor Southwell (@CJSouthwell) covers Norwich City for The Pink Un.

NurPhoto via Getty Images

Forest narrowly missed out on the top six last season - does this side have the mental strength to go one better this time round?

I hope so. But this is Forest, and Forest will do Forest things. We’re a long-suffering bunch and the cynic in me (there’s a little of that as I’ve got older) will see us flounder under the psychological trauma of the final game debacle. But the optimist in me (and there’s a lot of that) wants to believe - here comes the cliché - we’ll pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and go again.

What’s the difference this season? Well, I think it’s our manager, Sabri Lamouchi. He seemed to have created a tight-knit bunch of players who invested in him. And I’m hoping they’ll want to show him - and us - that they have the mettle to get it done.

Forest snapped up former Reading man Tyler Blackett this summer - how’s he been received by the fans?

I don’t lurk on social media any more or engage with forums, so my finger isn’t exactly on the pulse. But because I’m a diligent chap, I took a shallow dive - as well as speaking to a couple of people - prior to writing this and as always you can swing from “meh” to “great bit of business.”

Being able to play at CB or LB is clearly a good thing - although one post I saw reckoned he was a poor man’s Danny Fox. Now, I like Danny Fox, cultured left foot etc. but to many Forest fans he was a liability. He wasn’t at CB (maybe a little at LB) and Blackett won’t be either. Big, fast, strong, technically good and seemed to be improving at Reading year on year.

How would you sum up last season?

Up until the final game of the season it had been an enjoyable one. Strong away performances, good results against the teams that eventually finished above us, to all intents and purposes our best season for a while. Fans get bogged down with the immediacy of feelings and let that colour their overall opinion of a season.

We need to take a step back and realise it was - on the whole - one of the most enjoyable seasons to watch Forest in quite some time. Yes there were the odd aberrations - Sheffield Wednesday and Millwall at home - but we were tough to beat and the feel-good factor surrounding Sabri and the players swept us along.

What are your general expectations for this season?

I’ve written this before - probably for this very website - and I’ll write it again. Promotion and a good cup run. That’s what all (most) fans want. But to be more specific, I want to see Forest learn from last season and show us we can push on. This is now. We shouldn’t be weighed down by previous teams’ results and (ultimately) failures in the 21 years outside the Premier League.

The look on Sabri’s face at the end of the season said it all. He was utterly bewildered and rightly so. Maybe ultimate failure is endemic within the club; who knows. Our manager doesn’t believe in that and why should he? I think there’s enough about him to instil a belief in the squad and that’s my expectation.

Who’s your player to look out for?

I’d like to think it’s Lewis Grabban (in the hope he doesn’t go anywhere between now and October 16th), given he was able to score 20 goals last season living off scraps. I think we’ll want to be more creative this season and certainly create more chances and Grabban should thrive on that.

Of the new signings, I’d like to see Colback start where the great (but ageing) Ben Watson left off prior to lockdown. We’ll just have to see how fit Colback is. And to allow me to work through the team from front to back, I’d like to see Joe Worrall continue to improve and show he’s one of the best centre-backs in the league.

A younger name that could break through?

While Alex Mighten had a nice cameo in our FA Cup loss to Chelsea last season, as well as a few substitute appearances, I’d like to see him become more involved this season. An exciting winger with bags of pace, he’s just lacking a bit of composure in front of goal. He’s only 18 and recently signed a new deal until 2025.

There’s also Brennan Johnson - son of David Johnson - who, once again, featured sporadically last season as an attacking, central midfielder. He’s another good prospect and in this condensed season I’m hoping our younger academy prospects get the chance to feature in what will certainly be a season that relies on the full squad rather than 16 or 17 players throughout the campaign.

Where will you finish?

Top six. Anything else will be seen as a failure of the manager and we’ll be on another “who’s coming next?” merry-go-round. My fear is that will happen before Christmas. This team needs to be given at least 10 games to settle considering the end to last season. Patience is key and we all know that’s a rare commodity in football these days.

Sean Hockett is from Bandy & Shinty.

CameraSport via Getty Images

Preston seem like a very safe, stable club. What’s required to push you to the next level?

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the question to be completely honest with you. We are a safe and stable club. Safe in the fact that we have a good squad that can be relatively certain that we won’t be relegated, and stable in the sense that we have no underlying debts off field that could threaten the club. There comes a time, however, when safe and stable simply won’t cut it in the Championship if you have real aspirations of becoming a Premier League club.

Now am I saying that we need to go out and sign seven or eight players for millions of pounds each? Absolutely not. Where I do think we need to improve however is in our overall recruitment and transfer policy.

It is all well and good looking for bargains in the League of Ireland and in League Two but that is only going to work every so often - see our recent record in Ireland with players like Graham Burke and Kevin O’Connor. I find it staggering that over the last five years or so we haven’t ventured overseas for players, I’m a big advocate for German football and some of the bargains that are there in their leagues is phenomenal. Why don’t we think outside the box for once?

Alex Neil has been crying out for a striker, and with a rumoured £500,000 available to spend on one, it looks like we are trying to do it on the cheap yet again. Fans are becoming more and more frustrated, and while I completely understand their side of it, I can see the clubs point of view as well.

We are at a crossroads as a club at the moment and I hope we choose the right turning to go down.

Is it a matter of time before a bigger club comes calling for Alex Neil?

West Brom and most recently Bristol City have come in with approaches for Alex Neil and we as a club have been able to fend them off, but there comes a time when the club, and Neil himself need to assess where we are going as a club. At the moment I’m worried about what his thoughts would be.

Neil is a fantastic young manager with great potential and I worry that if we continue to stand still as a club there will come a time when he wants and needs to move on. We have seen by the approach from West Brom that he is highly coveted and with each season that passes working on a shoe string budget and achieving top half finishes, that reputation continues to grow.

As I will mention in more detail we are at a real crossroads as a club at the moment. Do we look forward and dare to push ourselves to the next level? Or do we continue to be content with floating in mid-table of the Championship?

As a fan I would love to see us have a real go at it and back Alex Neil in the transfer market with one or two big signings, remember we haven’t paid cash for a player since January 2019 which is seriously worrying…

How would you sum up last season?

Frustrating, but that seems to be the case each time I’m asked to sum up a previous season. Going into the Christmas period we were top of the league and absolutely flying, so to end the season in ninth was extremely frustrating, let alone finish outside of the play-offs.

We seem to be stuck in a constant loop over the past several seasons of being so close and just not capitalising on it. Fingers can be pointed and people can be blamed but for whatever reason we just don’t have the mentality of a “Big Club”.

The players were extremely poor pre- and post-lockdown and let the playoffs slip through their fingers for the third season running, the manager and his staff were reluctant to change things during games, leaving substitutions far too late for example. The higher-ups again missed the opportunity to go out and back the manager in January when we were crying out for a forward who could put the ball in the net.

All this, as is often the way with us, took us from an extremely promising position, to another season of being seemingly content with languishing in mid table. Will that change this season? I honestly don’t know. As it stands at the moment it certainly doesn’t appear to.

What are your general expectations for this season?

Honestly, to build on the good work that we have done over the past few seasons. Giving our better players new contracts and looking to build rather than being content with where we are as a club.

The “Big Four” of Alan Browne, Daniel Johnson, Ben Pearson and Ben Davies are coming to the end of their current deals and none has as of writing this haven’t signed extensions. The big hope around the club is that they will pen new deals, however the club may look to cash in, Ben Davies has recently been linked with a move to Celtic.

Pearson and Browne have been fantastic in midfield, with Browne being Mr Versatile last season, playing in more or less every position apart from in between the sticks, however with the re-emergence of Ryan Ledson the club could look to move one of them, most likely Pearson, on to free up funds elsewhere. I’m hoping that none of this happens though!

We have recently purchased a new training facility from the Wigan Athletic administrators which gives us “Premier League Facilities” as chief executive Peter Risdale claims, yet we don’t seem to have that same ambition on the pitch.

I completely understand that these are extremely trying times but at the same time it can be used as an opportunity to get ahead of those clubs around us who are thinking the same.

I’m really hopeful, even though I seem to say this each season, that the club are looking to the future, and that future sees us as a Premier League team. Could it happen? Sure! But I’m not getting ahead of myself just yet…

Who’s your player to look out for/a younger name that could break through?

I think for both of these this season it has to be Tom Bayliss. We signed him last summer on a four-year deal from Coventry, and he endured a frustrating first season behind the likes of Pearson, Ledson and Gallagher. This pre-season though he looks like the player that we saw when we signed him.

He has the ability to pick up the ball from deep and carry it in the transitions between the midfield and forward line, something that we haven’t really seen at Preston in recent seasons and in doing so he compliments Pearson and Ledson extremely well.

As well as limited opportunities in his first season he was brought in to be the heir to Paul Gallagher who seems to get better every season, so he has had the perfect mentor to learn from. It promises to be a big season from Bayliss, and if he can settle into the midfield as he seems to have done so far during pre-season he will add an extra dimension to our attack which is desperately needed.

Where will you finish?

Honestly, it all depends on the way our transfer window pans out between now and deadline day. If we can tie down Johnson, Browne, Davies and Pearson to new deals and bring in a striker to replace the seemingly departing David Nugent then I think we can have a very good season, and challenge for the top six.

Do I think that all of this will happen? I’m not overly optimistic. The club have been very vocal in recent weeks about the need to be cautious during these unprecedented times which I completely agree with. However, it seems to be the same story each season where we get so desperately close to the play offs and the squad is one maybe two players away from really challenging and we sit back and do nothing. This summer, so far, has been the same.

As I said I think we are genuinely just a forward who can get into double figures away from being serious play off challengers, and not just outsiders. Whether we dip into the funds made available by recent sales of the likes of Callum Robinson, Jordan Hugill and Greg Cunningham remains to be seen but if we don’t then I would expect us to finish similarly to the previous few seasons of just missing out and finishing high in the mid table area.

James Vickers (@_JamesVickers) is host of The Championship Podcast.