12 Queens Park Rangers
I’m not all that taken with QPR or their over-confident manager, Mark Hughes. He left Fulham after a reasonable 12 months: “I hope the supporters and all those connected to the club will understand that as a young, ambitious manager I wish to move on to further my experiences”. So he ends up battling relegation with QPR which could be described as a further “experience” I guess. And it’s not like the purse strings have been loosened. Fabio da Silva has hit a wall in his development at Manchester United so he comes in on loan while Rob Green, Ji-Sung Park and Junior Hoilett are high-profile signings and all will add to the first team – marginally – but none of them could be described as a game-changer. But there’s a lot of bodies to move on from a huge squad: Kieron Dyer, Jay Bothroyd, DJ Campbell, and Shaun Wright Phillips may be the most high-profile of those whose services are not required any more. If he trims the squad and builds some camraderie then QPR should be fine but the bottom half of the Premier League looks more challenging this year so they must pick up points early on.
Southampton have got it wrong for so long – Steve Wigley, Stuart Gray, Jan Poortvliet, Mark Wotte, Alan Ball, Rupert Lowe, Harry Redknapp – that the fans must have expected to wake up one morning last May and find Jeremy Beadle revealing himself from behind a huge fake beard. But, true it was and a young, promising Southampton squad led by goalscoring SENSATION Rickie Lambert (27 league goals) were promoted with the most goals and best goal difference in the division. It’s not just Lambert banging in the goals though. Billy Sharp signed from Doncaster last January and bagged 9 in 11 starts while Brazilian midfielder Guilherme Do Prado scored 10 goals. Jack Cork is the young starlet who made the Great Britain Olympic team and overseeing the whole operation is veteran goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, voted in to his respective leagues team of the year for three seasons in a row. Southampton are going tospect and something of a shock to the system for Premier League fans who remember Francis Benali and Simon Charlton.
10 West Ham United
I think West Ham fans have begrudgingly agreed to tolerate Big Sam, enemy of lovely football, the BBC and Steve Kean. With a virtual Premier League budget he managed to squeak in to the Premier League via the playoffs bringing Kevin Nolan and Carlton Cole back to their rightful place. Sniping aside, Sam has a decent squad at his disposal. I watched West Ham a good few times last season and they played decent football – certainly nowhere near the aberration some people would lead you to believe. The signing of Alou Diarra could be inspired although the re-signing of James Collins maybe less so. But West Ham will be quite good this year I think. Although the Carlton Cole thing will end in tears.
9 Aston Villa
Randy Lerner used to get a lot of praise for the support he gave former manager Martin O’Neill. But, Randy, what have you done for me lately? Alex McLeish? Gerard Houllier? And before O’Neill, fans had to contend with David O’Leary and Graham Taylor. Aside from O’Neill’s three sixth place finishes in a row, it’s not been a great decade for them. But new manager Paul Lambert has that air of conviction and legitimacy that McLeish, Houllier, O’Leary and Taylor just did not have. Players and fans can tell when a manager is legitimate and this helps breed a confidence that was clearly lacking under the aforementioned. Villa won’t threaten but they’ll be hard to beat and still have plenty of talent. Lambert will have to get the best out of young players like Fabian Delph, Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark, Barry Bannan and Nathan Delfouneso who have spent varying periods of time in and out of the first team. I’m also glad to see them re-sign Brad Guzan who is a very able understudy for Shay Given. For Alan Hutton, Stephen Ireland and Stephen Warnock, it could be a very long season.
Part 4 to be posted tomorrow.