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Town End 2021/22 Season Preview: Part Six

Rounding off our pre-season preview are the views of fans from Sheffield United, Stoke City, Swansea and West Brom.

Stoke City v Swansea City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Alex Livesey - Danehouse/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?

We wrap up the series with probably the strongest set of four teams so far. Two of them will be hoping to make immediate returns to the Premier League, but they’ll be challenged by last season’s beaten play-off finalists and another side with real hopes of going one better than last season and making the top six.

You can find Chris Davis Smith on Twitter @ChrisDavisSmith

What do you make of new manager Slavisa Jokanovic? Is he the right man for the job?

I think most Blades fans were delighted to see Slavisa Jokanovic appointed as the club’s new manager this summer. The board took their time in appointing Chris Wilder’s replacement, which led to a lot of frustration amongst the fan base, but the overwhelming verdict is that the Serbian is the right man for the job.

His record at Championship level is outstanding, having guided both Watford and Fulham into the top flight in previous years. Jokanovic won’t have been a cheap appointment, which is another pleasing aspect of this deal, as Sheffield United historically have a tendency not to splash to cash when it comes to managerial appointments. It’s also interesting to see the club go down the foreign route, as Jokanovic is the club’s first-ever overseas manager.

Personally, I believe the board made the right choice by not hiring a British manager on this occasion. Chris Wilder wasn’t shy when it came to expressing his love for the Blades, so anyone replacing him from the UK would’ve instantly had their devotion to the club questioned by a section of supporters - especially if they didn’t hit the ground running.

The Blades endured a pretty rough 2020/21. Is the club strong enough to brush that off and bounce back immediately, or are there deeper problems that may hold you back?

I think the arrival of Slavisa Jokanovic has given everyone at the club a clean slate. Last season Sheffield United were completely out of their depth in the Premier League, and rightly finished bottom of the table.

However, results and performances did improve slightly towards the end of the season under Paul Heckingbottom, who did an admirable job at the helm temporarily while the board worked on hiring Wilder’s permanent replacement. Heckingbottom effectively restored a bit of belief, pride, and morale in the squad during the second half of the campaign, which will hopefully be built on further by Jokanovic in the Championship.

How would you sum up last season?

The 2020/21 season was the type of campaign most football fans expected Sheffield United to have when they were initially promoted to the Premier League. In a nutshell, nothing went our way. Dean Henderson’s return to Manchester United following a two-year loan spell in South Yorkshire immediately made us more defensively vulnerable, which was made worse by the loss of our overlapping left-centre back Jack O’Connell for the entire season.

On the pitch, we couldn’t buy any type of result and it looked like we were going to potentially beat Derby County’s all-time low record Premier League points total at one stage. We lacked any type of creativity or cutting edge at the other end of the field as well.

Most Blades fans recognised that we were all but down by November after losing at fellow strugglers West Bromwich Albion. Psychologically, the players struggled for any form without the fans roaring them on against the technically better opposition they were facing week in week out, which sadly resulted in Chris Wilder’s departure after nearly five years and the club’s inevitable relegation from the Premier League.

In summary, last season was nothing short of a nightmare!

What are your expectations for this season?

I think the club’s decision to hire Slavisa Jokanovic indicates the Blades’ ambition to try and get back up into the Premier League at the first time of asking. The 52-year-old knows what it takes to get out of the division, so if we can somehow keep hold of key players like Sander Berge, Aaron Ramsdale and John Egan, then we’ve got every chance.

I still believe we need to bolster our defence in the transfer market with a new left-sided centre half and possibly a proven Championship midfielder such as Conor Hourihane if we’re going to seriously compete over 46 games.

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

This season is huge for Rhian Brewster. Big things were expected of him when he joined the Blades from Liverpool for over £20 million last October, but the 21-year-old striker failed to find the net once in the 2020/21 campaign. Like everyone at the club last year, Brewster suffered from a lack of confidence and probably wondered what he’d walked into, as the chances for our attackers were very few and far between anyway.

However, Brewster proved that he could score goals in the Championship when he was on loan at Swansea before his move to Bramall Lane. Hopefully, once he’s able to get that elusive first goal for the Blades, he’ll be able to go on a run and show everyone why the club paid so much money for him in the first place.

Where will you finish?

I think the squad is good enough to achieve a top-six finish, but I’m just not sure if we have enough to finish in the top two. I’ll go for fourth.

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

From an outsider’s perspective, Reading should be aiming for a top-six finish this season. The Royals started well last year and just faded away during the final stretch of the campaign to finish outside of the play-offs, but there’s no doubt Reading have enough talent in their squad to compete at the top end of the division.

Ex-Sheffield Wednesday striker Lucas Joao is a player us Blades fans are all too familiar with, and if he can build on the 19 league goals he scored last season, then Reading will have a chance of going up for sure. George Puscas is another top-quality marksman on his day, so if he improves his consistency in front of goal, Reading could potentially outscore a lot of sides next season.

Also, John Swift is a player who’s been linked with Sheffield United for a long time, and we were crying out for someone with his creative ability in the middle of the park last season. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to prize him away from the Madejski Stadium last summer! Needless to say, if Swift stays fit, he’s as good as anyone at that level in his position. I think you’ll finish sixth, and you never know, we may meet each other in the play-offs!

Ben Rowley is founder of The YYY Files podcast (@theyyyfiles) and can be found on Twitter @benarowley

Last summer you said things were looking better behind the scenes at Stoke after previous financial problems. Are you still on the right track behind the scenes?

Many from the outside would say no, as Stoke posted losses of approximately £90m for last season. However, this could could come down to accelerating all of our imminent losses into a period when losses due to Covid are not counted towards FFP. A lot of high earners have Stoke have left for good this time (not just on loan as in previous seasons) and we’re trimming the squad down to a much more sustainable size and wage bill.

Although this means we’d be hard pushed to spend any sort of significant transfer fee on any players this season, it should mean that we’re much more free financially heading into next summer once all these losses are behind us. Recruitment seems much more centered around young, homegrown players too and the strategy seems to be bearing fruit.

You were making a push for the playoffs last season but fizzled out into midtable. What needs to change if you’re to seal a top-six spot this time round?

To not have a squad full of injuries. I couldn’t name many players who didn’t miss a game last season due to injury and the particularly long-term injuries were all sustained by top players (Nathan Collins, Tyrese Campbell, Joe Allen). Plenty of teams suffered due to Covid last season but you can’t help but feel sorry for Stoke: at one point they had no fewer than five goalkeepers unavailable - with another overcoming flu just in time - for their League Cup tie against Spurs.

This led us to playing square pegs in round holes for the majority of the season, playing a 3-5-2 system which clearly did not suit us and resorting to inexperienced teenagers (despite come encouraging performances) to see the campaign off. Whether there’s more than O’Neill can do on the training groud to improve players’ resilience, but either way we need a more consistent starting XI to be able to progress this season.

How would you sum up last season?

Really encouraging became incredibly turgid. We were pushing the top two toward the end of the calendar year, and then the aforementioned injuries tore our squad apart. The changes to squad and system led to some absolutely terrible games of football. For the majority of 2021 Stoke were either walked over or too blunt to cut through equally as poor opposition.

Having said this, green shoots were growing. We blooded an astounding amount of young players, with varying degrees of success and we found ourselves a group of players we weren’t angry at (just sometimes disappointed). It’d be no mistake to admit that fan engagement as certainly dropped due to reasons on and off the pitch last season, but I believe the experiences of last season set us up nicely to give the Championship a much better go this time around.

What are your expectations for this season?

I expect us to improve on our league position from last season (14th) and hopefully break into the top half. I expect us to do all that we can to make a real fist of things next season by evolving those players who will be here by that time. But most of all, I expect us to have a lot more fun than last season.

Being back watching football in stadiums is long overdue and watching Stoke play with intensity, confidence and precision seems equally as far away. I don’t expect us to be world-beaters or storm the Championship, but I do expect a wave of optimism to wash over Stoke-on-Trent come May.

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

Without a doubt it’s Tyrese Campbell. He was making inroads to be one of the deadliest forwards in the Championship last season before his injury. I truly hope he comes back the same player, and that neither his dynamism or confidence are affected.

Both of these attributes synergise well with his knack for scoring and setting up goals and brings something unique to the Stoke squad. He’s one to watch because he could well take time to get back up to speed, but once he does I don’t think there’ll be many Championship defences who’ll be able to stop him.

Where will you finish?

I’ve gone for ninth. This is providing we manage to sign a striker to provide cover, if not start in place of, Steven Fletcher. I think Stoke will manage to forge a play-off push - early or late - at some point this season but I don’t think Stoke will have the depth or consistency to reach the top six. Stoke much much more balanced and hungry heading into this new season, more so than any of our recent Championship campaigns for sure.

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

Reading are tricky. I don’t think anyone expected such a surge at the start of your campaign, but not finishing in the play-offs was certainly a chance missed after being in amongst it for so long. Whether the momentum from the season a whole, or whether the momentum from the lacklustre finish will trickle through to this campaign is tough to call.

I’m going for eighth, just outside the play-offs again for you guys. Your squad is still strong, despite some key men now missing, and there’s enough quality in most positions for you to make a push for promotion once again.

You can find Declan Terry on Twitter @DeclanTerry_

How would you sum up last season?

On paper I’d say last season was a good success, reaching the play-off final and being 90 minutes from a return to the Premier League that would’ve served the club with a much-needed financial boost.

However, from watching the Swans week in, week out it wasn’t actually that fun. We’d often rely on Andre Ayew’s brilliance to nick a goal and then sit back for dear life for a 1-0 win. We turned our back on ‘the Swansea way’ of entertaining, possession-based football for pure results driven football which understandably split the fan base. While there were some fantastic individual performers in Ayew, Marc Guehi and Connor Roberts - probably quite strangely for people on the outside - it’s not a season we’ll look back on too fondly in years to come.

Steve Cooper has stepped down as manager - what was your reaction to the news?

I didn’t lose much sleep over it to be honest. While I definitely wasn’t ‘Cooper out’, he is replaceable and my initial thoughts were ‘I just hope we can get someone in to make us play football again now’. Cooper may have got away with the negative football and win at any cost approach with no fans at stadia last season, but returning the Liberty this season, we just really want to enjoy watching our football again.

I think Cooper is a very good coach, he did very well with developing an array of youngsters but with the style of play - and granted a lack of backing from our anonymous owners - his tenure probably run its course and I don’t think season three would’ve played out too well had he stayed.

Russell Martin has been appointed to replace him. Is he the right choice?

The more I hear about Russell Martin the more I like the idea of his appointment. He played some brilliant football at MK Dons last season, with a extremely high average possession percentage and it seems as if he aims to retain that strategy at any cost, regardless of results.

He’s young, exciting and fits the profile of what most Swansea fans want in charge of the team. He’s very much in the mould of former appointments such as Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers - they haven’t done too badly, have they? I just hope he gets some backing to bring a few more players into quite a bare squad. We won’t be paying millions for anyone but three or four good loanees are vital.

What are your expectations for this season?

I don’t think many Swansea fans expect us to be in the shout for promotion again in all honesty. We’ve lost some key players in Ayew, Guehi, Woodman and could well lose our captain Matt Grimes (I also think Roberts would be on the move had he not got injured at the Euros). Players like Ben Cabango, Jamal Lowe and Jay Fulton will now be expected to step up and become key men.

We have paid £1 million for PSV striker Joel Piroe but he’s young and an unknown quantity at this stage - hopefully he can prove to be a great goalscorer. I think mid-table is where we’ll be at at this stage but if we get back to the Swansea way of playing, I’m not going to complain too much. I just want to get back to the Liberty and enjoy my Saturday’s watching my club. There’s more to football than scraping boring 1-0 wins in my opinion.

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

I’d probably say Ben Cabango is now a key player for us. We’ve been blessed with some real good centre-backs in recent years with Joe Rodon and Marc Guehi more than capable of long careers in the Premier League. Cabango is the next to step up after an impressive 20/21 campaign which concluded with a call up to the Wales Euro squad. Now given the number 5 shirt, Cabango is an absolute unit of a man and can go toe to toe with any striker in the Championship.

Where will you finish?

At present, I think mid-table is where Swansea are at. Maybe pushing top ten if we can get some much needed loans through the door but I’ll go for 11th.

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

I think Reading have some really good players and I think there could reason for optimism however it remains to be seen how you deal with big losses in Olise and Richards. I remember last season where you flew off the block and were phenomenal for the first couple of months but then just fell away.

So a little more consistency and longevity of the course of a whole season and I think the Royals could have a good season. Though, I’ll go for mid-table along with Swansea. I’ll say 12th as a guess. As a side note: love the new Reading home kit!

You can find The Baggies Podcast on Twitter @TheBaggiesPod

How would you sum up last season?

Last season provided bitter disappointment for Albion fans, but it certainly didn’t hit us as a massive surprise. The squad was incredibly inexperienced at Premier League level and that was telling throughout the campaign. Without any real goal threat after the eventual defensive reorganisation under Sam Allardyce, the side found things incredibly difficult and by that point it was too late. Most of us are hoping that we can put the 20/21 season firmly in our past as it was definitely one to forget.

What do you make of the appointment of Valerien Ismael?

Ismaël is an appointment that was received well among the Baggies fanbase. His high-pressing system should suit the current crop of players and I’ve been very impressed with the adaptation of the players to this new style. Ismaël’s appointment has all the hallmarks of a long-term managerial solution. I for one am pleased with his appointment and optimistic about the season ahead under him.

What are your expectations for this season?

A promotion challenge is tipped by most Albion fans. I’d be inclined to agree but it won’t be a walkover in any way shape or form. The squad has a strong nucleus of Championship players, and we’re heavily expected to finish inside the top six. The Championship is as unpredictable as ever though.

Sam Johnstone and Matheus Pereira have both been heavily linked with moves away - how big a loss would they be?

Both players are certainly the elephants in the room when it comes to Albion at the moment. Matheus Pereira is actively looking for a move away from the club, despite alienating all of his potential suitors by openly voicing his desires to leave. The Brazilian is currently training on his own, and the club are waiting for a buyer to come in.

Sam Johnstone is a completely different story, The Athletic reporting that he’s in discussions for a new contract after reporting back for training early. The feeling amongst Baggies’ fans is that we need to sell to buy, therefore in Pereira’s case it’s probably best if he were to leave.

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

Our key man this season is likely to come in the shape of Grady Diangana who shone during the promotion season under Bilic. The former West Ham man had a rough ride under Allardyce after a false dawn of promise earlier on in the PL season but I’m confident that under Ismaël he’ll be firing on all cylinders yet again in the Championship.

Where will you finish?

I’m putting the Baggies’ forward for a third-placed finish just missing out on the automatic places and falling into the play-offs. It’ll be a difficult season but I can just see fellow relegated sides Fulham and Sheffield United finishing above us.

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

The Royals, although I understand they can’t sign any big names, do have a strong squad and were unlucky not to finish in the play-offs last season. Josh Laurent is a fine player that I’ve admired since his Shrewsbury days and Veljko Paunovic is an interesting manager that has had a positive impact on the players since joining.

However, after losing Olise and Richards to higher division clubs without the power to sign replacements, I think a mid-table finish of 12th is probably realistic.