Wednesday, August 10, 2011
New kids on the block
After the champagne ran dry and the party poppers were expended following a trio of promotion celebrations in May, new Premier League clubs QPR, Norwich and Swansea immediately set about readying themselves for the 2011-12 campaign, determined to ensure that they do not suffer the same fate that has befallen 26 sides since the inception of the Premier League: an immediate return to the second tier.
If history is anything to go by, it is reasonable to expect that at least one of the top flight's new boys will find themselves parachuting back down to the Championship next May, albeit with a hefty cheque in their back pockets to cushion the fall. Only once in the past 19 seasons have all three promoted clubs managed to avoid relegation, when
Fulham, Bolton and Blackburn survived the drop in 2001-02. Generally it is just one club who experienced immediate demotion - this has been the case 11 times, while two have gone down on six occasions and all three (Bolton, Barnsley and Crystal Palace) waved goodbye to the Premier League in 1998.
Generally the winners of the Championship are expected to have the best chance of avoiding relegation having proved themselves to be the cream of a competitive crop, though a rough start to the new campaign can quickly serve to erase the confidence and self-belief built up over the preceding 12 months. This time around it is QPR who will join Manchester United as the only two sides to enter the new term as 'league champions' and for Hoops boss Neil Warnock, his desire to avoid relegation will likely manifest itself as a personal crusade.
His last tilt at Premier League management ended in agony and acrimony four years ago, as Sheffield United were sent packing on the final day thanks to Carlos Tevez's heroics for West Ham at Old Trafford. A messy legal battle ensued over the Hammers' illegitimate use of the part-owned Tevez and Javier Mascherano, and while sympathy was forthcoming for the Blades and their boss, the £20 million in damages eventually paid out did little to soften the blow for Warnock, who had only been able to pit his wits against English football's finest for nine months.
Outspoken and passionate, the Yorkshireman's presence back in the top flight will go some way towards filling the void left by Blackpool's Ian Holloway, though Warnock's interviews can perhaps be expected to err more on the side of controversy than comedy. While Warnock's Premier League exile has lasted four years, his club's has been significantly longer; QPR have waited 15 years to return to the promised land and having seen neighbours Fulham and Chelsea thrive in that period, Rs fans are hoping they can become west London's third established Premier League club in the coming years.
Chelsea's visit to Loftus Road in October will be eagerly anticipated, not least because it is QPR's first encounter with one of the big boys. They have been blessed with a generous run of fixtures to start the season and the derby clash with Andre Villas-Boas' side comes nine games in, giving them a chance to hit the ground running.
Warnock's free-transfer signings of free-scoring Championship striker Jay Bothroyd and former England international Kieron Dyer could prove to be masterstrokes, though the former is unproven in the top flight and the latter has not been consistently fit for five years. The £1.2 million arrival of DJ Campbell was an astute bit of business and the Rs will be heavily reliant on his goals but the best piece of business was unquestionably holding on to the 2010-11 Championship Player of the Year Adel Taarabt, who was the subject of serious interest from PSG.
Bringing the sort of flair and panache that owners Flavio Briatore, Tony Fernandes and Bernie Ecclestone are more accustomed to seeing on their Monte Carlo yachts, Taarabt will be the creative fulcrum of Warnock's side. The Frenchman has plenty of motivation to help the Rs succeed as he will be desperate to disprove the doubts about his temperament and ability to cut it at the top level, concerns which led to his departure from Tottenham.
Norwich City finished runners-up to QPR in the Championship, though their success was considerably more surprising than that of the wealthy champions. With hungry young manager Paul Lambert at their helm, the Canaries achieved the remarkable feat of back-to-back promotions, ensuring Premier League football will be played at Carrow Road for the first time since 2005, when they fell victim to West Brom's astonishing Great Escape on the last day of the season.
The halcyon days of the early 1990s - when Jeremy Goss was beating Bayern Munich with wonder-strikes and owner Delia Smith was at her pastry-making pomp - must feel like a distant memory to Norwich supporters. Fortunately for Lambert, though, they will not be expecting him to guide the club back into Europe anytime soon; preserving their Premier League status next May will be enough.
Whether the 1997 Champions League winner can achieve it with the personnel at his disposal is another matter; a number of the Norwich squad were playing in League One just 15 months ago and his signings have little Premier League pedigree. James Vaughan was making waves at Everton as the Premier League's youngest ever goalscorer last time Norwich were in the top flight; five years and several failed loan moves later he arrives at Carrow Road having failed to live up to his early promise. Simeon Jackson, Grant Holt and Wales striker Steve Morison - who was playing in the Conference when the Canaries went down in 2005 - make up the striking options, but all are unlikely to leave the likes of Nemanja Vidic and John Terry breaking out in a cold sweat.
Ritchie De Laet arrives on loan from Manchester United in the hope that he can emulate the likes of Jonny Evans at Sunderland and Ryan Shawcross at Stoke in establishing himself at the highest level. However, the loss of influential midfielder Henri Lansbury, who was string-puller-in-chief for Norwich in the successful 2010-11 campaign but has returned to Arsenal, leaves Lambert with a dearth of imagination in midfield. The former Borussia Dortmund midfielder has a real task on his hands if he is to help Norwich succeed where Watford and Manchester City previously failed in making back-to-back promotions stick, but he has proved an adept tactician and man-motivator; his Canaries may well ruffle a few feathers.
The final member of the plucky triumvirate is the first Welsh club to play in the Premier League, Swansea City. Led by a manager whose self-confidence runs as deep as the valleys of South Wales and rivals that of his mentor at Chelsea, it's taken former Blues youth team coach Brendan Rodgers a little longer than Jose Mourinho to get noticed in English football, but he has the opportunity to make an immediate impact if he can inspire his newly-promoted charges to take points away from visits to Manchester City, his former employers at Stamford Bridge and Arsenal in a challenging first few weeks.
Those games will be a real baptism of fire for the Swans, who earned their place at English football's top table thanks to a thrilling 4-2 victory over Reading in May's play-off final. Promotion was made all the sweeter because it had been rivals Cardiff who were widely expected to be the first Welsh club to beat them to it having come close in recent years. Scott Sinclair was Swansea's hat-trick hero at Wembley and he will be asked to take up the role of Liberty Stadium talisman again, with Rodgers seemingly able to extract every sinew of finishing prowess out of player he originally nurtured in the Chelsea academy.
Sinclair will be joined up front by new record signing Danny Graham, who set the Championship alight on his way to becoming the division's top scorer last season, while former Reading forward Leroy Lita and Luke Moore will also complement the Swans' attack. Defensively, they were dealt a blow by Dorus De Vries' departure to Wolves and Rodgers has left it late to find a replacement; a bid has been accepted by Dutch club Utrecht for goalkeeper Michel Vormbut but he will have little time to bed in and get accustomed to his new backline. Only QPR conceded fewer goals in 2010-11 but one may question whether the likes of Neil Taylor, Alan Tate and Garry Monk can shackle Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba as easily as they did the likes of Nathan Ellington and Pablo Counago.
All three promoted clubs inevitably find themselves among the favourites for relegation but Warnock, Rodgers and Lambert will be determined to ensure that that this Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman do not become a Premier League joke.
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