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Town End 2021/22 Season Preview: Part One

Thoughts from the Barnsley, Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool camps ahead of the new campaign.

Barnsley v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

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?

First up, an eclectic bunch that had very different 2020/21 campaigns...

Rob Miles edits Barnsley Mad and can be found on Twitter @21Tyke

How big a blow will the loss of Valerien Ismael be?

Obviously hard to quantify at this point but with what he achieved last season you have to imagine quite big! Nobody could have predicted what we achieved and I think his style of football took many teams by surprise.

I feel a few towards the end of the season started to suss us out, we failed to win any of the last four games including play-offs and Swansea marshalled us superbly throughout the two legs. Will be interesting to see how he does at West Brom as its not a style of football their fans will be used to.

What do you make of his replacement, Markus Schopp?

Very much in the Ismael mould and Struber before him, had success in Austrian football. This seems to be the model we are using now and to be honest you cannot fault the choices so far. Struber kept us up when we looked doomed and Ismael took us to fifth! Schopp’s style does seem to be a bit more “on the floor” and playing out from the back judging by pre-season games. He certainly looks the part!

How would you sum up last season?

Incredible. We actually started with our worst start for 29 years, failing to win any of our first seven league games but then went on such an incredible run under Ismael, breaking many club records along the way.

Not many games were fun to watch but we kept eking out results and players like Carlton Morris and Daryl Dike were incredible finds. Play-offs were a step too far which I don’t think anybody was surprised about but the ride was something nobody will ever forget.

What are your expectations for this season?

Personally I don’t think we will be anywhere near the play-offs this season, I think a lot of things went in our favour last season, one of the main things being no fans in grounds, we set a club record for away wins at this level and because every game was almost like neutral territory it played into our hands. We should be well clear of the relegation scrap though… hopefully!

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

Well we’ve only signed two – Devante Cole and Obi Oulare! Many fans are comparing Oulare to Dike so he’s the obvious one to keep on eye on. Some of the young lads had break-out seasons last year such as Callum Styles and Romal Palmer so seeing if they can build on that will be interesting.

Where will you finish?

I’ll say a healthy 12th, just inside that top half, be more than happy with that.

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

The key will probably be not to start like a house on fire like you did last season! I think you just ran out of steam towards the end with the 1-1 draw at Oakwell when Joao missed a chance I still cannot believe he missed a really crucial result for both teams. I certainly think you have the quality to be in the mix again but will probably just miss out and finish eighth.

Gabriel runs The EFL Fans Show and can be found on Twitter @GabSutton

How well has Lee Bowyer done so far in the dugout, and is he the right man to take you forward?

He’s done brilliantly so far and is absolutely the right man to take us forward. As soon as he came in, there was an instant difference to the intensity of our game, with the likes of aggressive centre-back Harlee Dean and target man Lukas Jutkiewicz right back to their best.

We’re starting games by pressing much higher up the pitch and getting into faces early, which will certainly strike a chord with fans, who I’m sure will get behind the team if they see those sorts of performances come into this season. However, I also think an element of patience is required: we could do with some stability in the dugout.

Birmingham City have been a bottom-third side for the last few years – how far are you from pushing up into mid-table or higher?

As above - if we can get close to our performance levels at the back end of last season, then we’ll certainly stabilise in midtable.

There’s possibility, though, that a combination of the fresh impact Bowyer had after Aitor Karanka’s management style and the fact we desperately needed the points meant we almost elevated ourselves above our natural level. Bowyer was perfect for what we needed at the time, but now it’s about doing it from the start, when there isn’t anything immediately on the line.

How would you sum up last season?

It’s a difficult one because three quarters of last season was extremely uninspiring.

Karanka didn’t really connect with fans, the football was dull and we always played with one up top, despite neither Jutkiewicz nor Scott Hogan having the range of attributes to successfully lead the line on their own. The team felt very disjointed with lots of rotation between games, and yet Karanka was very passive when it came to in-game management.

What’s interesting, though, is that I suppose I have to almost prompt my own mind to remember the majority of the season, because there’s a bit of recency bias – for me and I’m sure a lot of fans - in terms of just thinking of the last seven weeks or so under Bowyer.

It feels like although much of last season was dreadful, that period under Bowyer was almost like a season in itself, such was the contrast from the previous regime.

What are your expectations for this season?


Given the transformation, combined with the quality of new signings like defender Dion Sanderson, midfielder Ryan Woods and wide forward Tahith Chong, a top-half finish is a realistic hope.

However, I still think we can have a good season whilst finishing in the bottom half, if performance levels remain competitive, if we start to develop some young players and continue to see the new-found transparency in the boardroom, as well as enjoying some stability in the dugout.

I’d be disappointed with anything lower than 16th, though.

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

Other than the players I’ve mentioned above, Iván Sánchez was one of the bright sparks under Karanka. He’s not shy to the physical side of the game but can also provide moments of individual quality.

Jeremie Bela can put in a good ball too, though and I’m really excited about Woods.

Where will you finish?

As I’ve said above, I think top half is achievable, but I’d be disappointed with anything lower than 16th.

You can find Gab’s full Championship predictions right here.

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

I’ve been torn with my prediction. On the one hand, I don’t think Reading need much to launch another challenge if you replace Omar Richards and Michael Olise, whilst adding a couple of other extra players for depth on top of a promising crop of youngsters.

On the other hand, I’m also wondering whether the restrictions are making it difficult to make the right signings in those two key areas. If I have Reading in my top six, it’ll be because I trust last season’s core to go again, but if not, it’ll be down to the transfer business.

You can find Mike Delap on Twitter @MikeyDelap

You told us in March that Tony Mowbray had taken the club as far as he could. Should Blackburn have moved on from him by now?

Yes that is still not an opinion I’d revise. He’s had his good and his bad moments, but the manager has given no indication in the last 6-12 months that he has anything else to offer other than the ability to tread water (at best).

The manager has had plenty of financial backing but since returning to the Championship there has never been any genuine indication that Rovers could do any better than upper/mid-table. In fact this summer has brought to the fore a lot of struggles lying ahead - ones we’re in danger of sleepwalking into unless some fresh impetuous is provided from the dugout.

At time of writing, Rovers have – like Reading – made no signings. Is that lack of transfer activity a cause for concern?

Definitely. The club has indicated it’s a frees-and-loans-only policy due to lack of finance and ever building debts. Understandable but in Rovers case the lack of activity has also been brought about by a lack of clear direction and a relaxed attitude to getting transfer deals over the line.

Sadly the club are often beaten to a deal by other clubs just being seemingly better organised and more pro-active. At the moment we have a solid enough looking starting XI but essentially just the academy on the bench to fluff the numbers.

How would you sum up last season?

Very disappointing. In hindsight I am not sure the team had enough creativity and collective cohesion to hit the top six (which was the stated aim), but there was more than enough about to mount a better effort than finishing in 15th. The abysmal run between February to April killed the whole season dead.

Adam Armstrong has 28 league goals, Harvey Elliott had the footwork of a magician and the squad was bloated in number but Rovers still seemed to be lacking in most key areas and fell short when push came to shove.

What are your expectations for this season?

Basement level low. Unless something changes we’re in for a season of struggle and difficulty. The only saving grace here is that there are a lot of other teams who are pleading hardship too. I suspect the level of injuries will be a key determinant in where we end up. Mid-lower table seems assured... although this is football.

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

Keep an eye out for John Buckley. Was starting to make some waves last season but looks set for an extended run in midfield this season - can really carry the ball at pace through midfield and provide support to the forward players.

Where will you finish?

I’ll be ever the optimist and say 17th, which qualifies as optimistic!

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

Sadly I don’t think you’ll clock as decent a finish as you managed last season - which I am aware carried its own disappointments - but I’ll assume you’re going to carry a decent threat into this campaign and say 11th.

You can find Up The Mighty Pool on Twitter @utmp_ and their website here

How would you sum up last season?

Last season was perfect for us. First full season under Simon Sadler and with Neil Critchley. We started slow but could see the style of play had a lot of positives and we would come good - to win promotion at Wembley for the sixth time was a dream.

It has been a tough few years for Blackpool since you were relegated from the Championship in 2015 - is promotion a sign that things are finally back on track?

Absolutely, we are fully expecting to give it a good go this year and feel we deserve a proper crack at the second tier after we went down effectively through our chairman’s own lack of care or fight. He ran the club like he wanted it to be relegated and that’s what happened - two years running. We’re out of that now and feel we deserve to be back here, but you have to earn the right too.

What are your expectations for this season?

Expectation is to cause a few upsets and hold our own at this level. We will be in and around the bottom 6-8 but are quietly confident of staying up despite being the bookies’ favourites to go down as usual.

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

Jerry Yates is the main man up top. A real handful and will take to the championship comfortably. Other key men are Kenny Dougall in midfield and captain Chris Maxwell in goal. Both have experience playing at this level.

This is Neil Critchley’s first managerial role at senior level - sum up the impact he has made since coming in.

Critchley has helped the board to build this club from the ground up. We have built a whole new u18s side and secured various players from premier league academies for our first team. The style of play is brilliant and he understands the pain we have been through as a fanbase and a town - he’s well loved on the Fylde coast and is destined for a Premier League job in the coming years.

Where will you finish?

We will finish 17th.

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

Reading will be in the lower mid table bracket in my view, just above us. You’ll beat us at the Madejski as you always do, so that’s three points for you on the board already. I’m expecting you to be 13th.