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Town End 2022/23 Preview: West Brom, QPR, Coventry City

This part of our season preview takes in a few clubs who had high hopes earlier on last season but ultimately fell well short.

Coventry City v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship - Coventry Building Society Arena Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

You can find The Baggies Podcast on Twitter @TheBaggiesPod.

How would you sum up last season?

Last season was really disappointing, a failure to be honest. For a side just relegated from the Premier League, the minimum expectation would be to make the playoffs. We went for a left-field choice in Valerien Ismael and his inflexibility left a considerable gap between the fans and the club. Steve Bruce came in to try and repair the damage but it was too deep, despite play-off hopes being viable until the end of April.

What are your general expectations for this season?

The general consensus among Albion fans is that we should be reaching the playoffs. With signings like Okay Yokuslu, John Swift and Jed Wallace, Bruce has solved the significant issues of creativity and lack of good character in the squad. There’s definitely more positivity than the end of the last campaign for sure.

Please take good care of John Swift. How important a signing is he for West Brom?

Firstly apologies for taking him off your hands. But Swift bridges the huge creative void of 21/22 and will hopefully provide the ‘thinking outside of the box’ approach in the final third. The glimpses during pre-season friendlies have been positive, so we’re optimistic he can thrive again at this level.

Reading fans don’t have the fondest memories of Ron Gourlay (putting it lightly). What has his time at West Brom been like so far?

We’ve certainly had our doubts with Ron Gourlay after his time with yourselves. But the early signs have been good, lowering and freezing season ticket prices (£1 a game for under-17s), bringing in Championship-quality signings and ensuring the return of the pre-match fanzone for supporters. Gourlay has made a decent first impression, but the only issue I’d have is that the players we’ve brought in are likely to be on big second-tier wages, so the hope is that he has a plan in place for if we don’t get promoted this year and in turn lose those vital parachute payments.

Who’s your player to look out for?

Our player to look out for would have to be Yokuslu, a cut above the rest of our side in the Premier League when he was on loan. In a more dominant side and playing in a lower division, the Turk could become a different beast after a stalling couple of years in Spain.

A younger name that could break through?

If he sticks around rather than going out on loan it has to be Caleb Taylor. After captaining our under-23s to last season’s PL Cup victory, the youngster could be further up the pecking order if we cut down on numbers in the CB department.

Where will you finish?

I’ll be optimistic and say fifth, still a few better sides in the division than ourselves.

Loft For Words can be found on Twitter @LoftForWords.

What do you make of the Michael Beale appointment?

We’ll wait and see.

Positives - talks a good game, comes with a stellar reputation, there’s been some nice early signs. I think clubs at our level without parachute payments have got to box a bit cleverer now than just hiring the same old soaks off the Keys and Gray sofa and trying to sign players everybody has heard of.

It’s the clubs making appointments like Graham Potter, Steve Cooper, Carlos Corberan, Nathan Jones, Neil Critchley and investing in data-led recruitment who are making progress and punching above their financial weight these days, trying to do things differently and getting creative about looking for value in the market, not those giving yet another job to Pards Pardew, Pulis, Mick McCarthy and signing up a load of 30+ year olds who were half decent 10 years ago. So, it’s nice to see us at least trying to do that.

Negatives – whether it’ll work or not we’ll see. It’s a very tough job for a rookie. We spent a bit of money on a promotion push last year that obviously didn’t materialise and there’s now very little budget or FFP headroom to do any major surgery on the squad. We need another big Eze-style sale in reasonably short order to open things up a bit, but of course you don’t ideally want to lose your best players. There’s very little strength in depth beyond the starting 11, and even that first team is short in key areas – particularly right back and up front.

Reading have snapped up two former QPR players this summer in Joe Lumley and Jeff Hendrick - think they’ll be good signings for us?

Crikey. I wish you hadn’t asked me this to be honest.

I’ll try and be as kind as I can, and that’s not too difficult in Lumley’s case because while I’m very glad he’s not our goalkeeper any more I do have a bit of a soft spot for him. I do still think there’s potentially a decent goalkeeper in there, though at 27 it’s getting a bit late to still be talking about potential.

He actually reminds me a lot of Tony Roberts who kept goal/terrorised us for 10 years in the 1990s. He’ll be fine for long periods, look confident, do good things, make a brilliant save, but the mistakes come far, far, far too often, and they’re often cataclysmically bad when they do happen.

It often felt like the problems were in his head. The instinctive stuff, good. Given time to think, not good. A lot of the mistakes come when he’s trying to do things with his feet, and look rooted in issues with concentration. I’d love him to do well, he’s a bit of a character and I do like him, but I think it’s a big stretch to rely on him as a first-choice keeper at this level at the moment – Boro would probably have been in the play-offs last season with somebody less accident prone.

Hendrick I can’t even be that nice. Look, QPR were in a weird freefall when he was here, it was a very difficult time to play for the club, maybe if he’d played for us in the first half of the season when we were winning he’d have looked different. And he may well pitch up at Reading, be really good, no doubt score against us. Fine.

But let’s be real here, he was absolutely f*cking abysmal for us. He actually made me quite angry watching him. Not a player we needed in the first place, signed at the last second of the transfer window basically because our chairman’s mate is on the new board at Newcastle and we could get him for nothing, picked ahead of players we owned who’d played the first half of the season which did the dressing room no good at all, absolutely beloved by Mark Warburton which put the supporters’ backs up - he just looked like the worst sort of 30+ Premier League player who’s had his career, made his money and is now phoning in a few short-term deals to top the pension up.

He didn’t run, didn’t tackle anybody, didn’t go forwards, didn’t pass forward, didn’t shoot, didn’t threaten, didn’t even move about that much. Lead weight, stood in the middle of midfield, and whenever he received the ball he immediately, firmly, unthinkingly, without even checking if another option might be on, planted it straight back to whichever centre back had just passed him it. He was painful. But, like I say, this only means he’ll be some brilliant goalscoring machine against us this season.

How would you sum up last season?

Bitterly disappointing. We’d finished 2020/21 so strongly, pushed the boat out on the summer recruitment, smashed Man Utd up in pre-season and came into the campaign with so much confidence that we had a really good chance. While rarely hitting the performance heights of the previous campaign, the results were consistent and we were well in contention.

When we beat you at Loftus Road at the end of January we were unbeaten through the month, manager of the month, player of the month, and looked potentially like a side that could run Bournemouth down for second. At that point we needed to win seven of our final 18/19 games to guarantee a play-off spot, which would have represented a significant drop in form.

We were then the first team in half a season to lose at Barnsley and the whole thing fell off a cliff. We only won four more times and ended up midtable. It was pretty miserable watching it all go up in smoke like that, and there was more than one occasion when players left the field in tears at the end of games.

A lot had gone on behind the scenes, fall outs and relationship breakdowns between coaches, manager, board, execs, loan players, some of which has come out publicly, some of which hasn’t, and in the end we played out the final few games with nothing riding on them everybody knowing that Mark Warburton was getting binned the moment the final whistle went in the final game.

What are your general expectations for this season?

Pretty low. It’s looking like we’re going to start the season with Macauley Bonne and Lyndon Dykes as our main strikers and the last time we tried to do that, 2020/21, we won four games in the first half of the season and needed Charlie Austin and a clutch of other loans to bail us out in January. I just don’t think there are enough goals in the team to get us up the table this year.

We didn’t sell anybody last season, and we spent significant money (for us) on several signings and loan players. The wage bill will have increased substantially. That was all done on the back of the Eze sale and without another sale of that sort it’s difficult to see where the FFP headroom comes from to correct the obvious problems with the squad – our strikers aren’t good enough, we don’t have a right back, the strength in depth below the starting 11 isn’t there, and there isn’t budget space to do much about any of that.

Who’s your player to look out for?

Chris Willock. Already one of the best players in the division, he’s probably our biggest hope of that Eze-sized cheque coming in but he’s only got two years left on his contract so he and we really need him to take this season by storm and then try and get some huge money for him in one of the next two transfer windows – assuming we’re going to struggle to get him to sign a new deal.

A younger name that could break through?

There’s a lot of hope and hype around Irish youth international Sinclair Armstrong. He’s 19 but he’s built like a brick sh*t house, he’s quick, he’s good in front of goal… we might have a good one here. Important not to expect too much too soon, and do that trendy modern thing of hammering his social media if things don’t go well immediately/at all. But, yeh, from what little I’ve seen, we might be onto something with him.

Where will you finish?

There’s a long running joke on our message board about us always being sixteenth, and honestly I’m not sure we’ll be too far off that for real this time.

Dominic Jerams (@SideSammy) is behind the website Sideways Sammy and did an excellent division-wide season preview which can be found here.

How important is Mark Robins to Coventry’s long-term success?

I don’t think it can be understated just how crucial Mark Robins has been to Coventry City’s turnaround over the past five years. We had been attuned to failure and a decline in ever-decreasing circles back in 2017.

Dropping out of the Football League entirely looked a much more realistic prospect than returning to the Championship upon Mark Robins’ return to the club. While having to deal with an array of off-pitch issues, as well as general mistrust of the owners from he fans, Mark Robins has quietly gone about winning two promotions and successfully establishing the club back in the second-tier.

I daren’t wonder what kind of position Coventry City would be in were it not for Mark Robins.

After consecutive mid-table finishes, how far off a play-off push are you?

A lot depends on how many of our key players we can hold onto and, if they are sold, how much can be reinvested in the squad. We weren’t that far away from being in play-off contention last year, but we haven’t been able to add the one or two extra pieces of quality that we looked short of last season in order to make that jump.

The club is currently caught between wanting to hold onto its best players in order to build on recent seasons, while also needing to sell at least one in order to be able to add quality to the squad. The danger is that the club ends up selling a key player or two with little time left in the window to find an adequate replacement, leaving the team in a worse position than it was last year.

How would you sum up last season?

After a fantastic start, the lack of strength in depth really started to tell. Promotion form in the first few months of the campaign and only just above relegation form for much of the season onwards. However, that doesn’t tell the full story as performance levels were generally pretty high throughout the campaign but let down by some poor finishing and pretty soft defending. It would only have taken a little better luck here and there to have turned a decent campaign into a memorable one.

What are your general expectations for this season?

I’m not feeling too optimistic at the moment as incoming transfer activity has been restricted to loans and free agents, while all of the team’s best players – Callum O’Hare, Viktor Gyokeres and Gustavo Hamer – continue to be linked to other clubs. As it stands, the team is probably a touch weaker than it was last year and it has been in relatively poor form for quite a while now.

The biggest source of optimism right now is that the team is relatively settled and has a number of players on an upwards trajectory. If players like O’Hare, Gyokeres and Hamer can add another 5%-10% to their games, with some of the new signings contributing too, this could look a stronger team than it currently does.

The main issue at the moment is that it’s not certain that many of those key players will be around come September.

Who’s your player to look out for?

Again, depending on whether they stay, Gustavo Hamer and Viktor Gyokeres are clearly Coventry City’s leading lights. Callum O’Hare, who is understandably cited as the team’s other key player, is just a little too inconsistent to be ranked alongside Hamer and Gyokeres as the absolute stand-out performers.

Gustavo Hamer’s willingness to take control of games marks him out as someone deserving to play at a higher level. From his touch, his passing ability, as well as his ability to be just a step or two ahead of his opponents in getting to the ball, he really is a joy to watch.

Viktor Gyokeres is another unique, remarkable footballer. There are not too many forwards of his physical stature who combine his level of mobility, technical skill, and sheer work-rate into one package. At his best when bursting off the shoulder of the last defender, Gyokeres consistently drags the team up the pitch, giving the team a chance in games that they otherwise wouldn’t.

A younger name that could break through?

It really is hard to pick one as there aren’t really any young players around the squad that aren’t established first-team players. Picking one youngster who might be set to make the step up this year, I would go for Josh Eccles.

He’s been close for a few seasons now but has been terribly unlucky with injuries. An intelligent and composed midfield player who is seemingly being converted into a right wing-back, he has all of the technical and mental attributes to become an established senior player for Coventry City. He just needs a run of games to show what he can do.

Where will you finish?

I reckon somewhere between 10th and 14th. That could very much change depending on what the squad looks like on the 1st of September.