After a 15-year hiatus from the top-flight QPR are back in the big-time, with fans favourite Neil ‘The Megaphone’ Warnock at the helm, as referees and opponents prepare themselves to be in his firing line just for existing. The Super-Hoops’ story is the stuff Hollywood-blockbusters are made of; financial administration, third-tier relegation, a takeover from a Formula One mega-billionaire, guns in the boardroom (allegedly) and finally the threat of their Championship being wiped out by allegations of underhand shenanigans a couple of years previous with the signing of Alejandro Faurlin.
An outstanding season saw them finish top of the pile last-term and with the points deduction avoided and an easily forgotten fine paid, Rangers faced their toughest test yet – keeping hold of the Championship’s best player last year, Adel Taarabt. He remains at the club but the question is for how long. Premiership experience has been brought in for a few bob including Kieron ‘Sicknote Part 2’ Dyer, DJ Campbell and Jay Bothroyd, but these reinforcements will not send Japan-size shockwaves through the League, more like the force of a tubby-kid falling on his ar*e.
Expectations are high that they will survive the cull but with the board as stable as North-London’s streets do not be surprised to see a swift return to the Championship with one of the class of ’96, spidery-haired legend Trevor Sinclair, shaking his dreadlocks in dismay.
“The Canaries” sang their way to second-place in the Championship last term behind QPR, a feat all the more remarkable considering that two years previous they had been relegated to the third tier of English football and began that season with a 7-1 defeat, their biggest home drubbing ever. The singing stopped and two fans publicly ripped up their season tickets. Yet this dramatic gesture signaled a voodoo-like rebirth of our yellow-feathered friends. Norwich City never looked back from that day, installing the Scottish former Celtic and Borussia Dortmund Champions League winner Paul Lambert at the helm and winning back-to-back promotions to the Promised Land.
If they needed inspiration then they need look no further than the 1992-1993 virgin Premiership-founding team that led for most of the season before stumbling on the home straight behind Villa and Man Utd. One of my ever-lasting memories of the early Premiership years was tuning an old television to see Norwich, inspired by the ‘Welsh Gazza’ Jeremy Goss, beat Bayern Munich in the 2nd round of the UEFA Cup in the Olympic Stadium in Munich, still the only English team to humble the German Giants.
The 2011-2012 season will be Norwich’s first in the top flight in 6 years and they will hope major shareholder and embarrassingly loud celebrity-drunk (cook) Delia Smith (Let's be 'avin you!) puts the ‘Cab Sav’ away and gets out the cheque-book.
Pre-season has seen the addition of the impressive young Irish-midfielder Kevin Pilkington from Huddersfield with Lambert displaying his shrewdness in the loan market with England U-21 international Kyle Naughton joining on loan from Spurs and an addition from the ‘Luke Chadwick school of looks’ (and Man United) Belgian international full-back Ritchie De Laet.
Newcastle-target and prolific captain Grant Holt holds the hope of East Anglia on his bulky shoulders and will need to keep finding the onion-bag to keep his employers out of the Premiership’s basement. But keeping the goals out will be their biggest struggle with some hardcore fans concerned about the lack of a “Smash ya back doors in” type Centre-Back plugging the gaps. Delia may need a bigger hip flask this year to numb the pain.
The first Welsh club to be promoted to the Premiership did it the hard way, winning the Playoffs at New Wembley. Fashionably tagged as the ‘Barcelona of the Championship’, their own Pep Guardiola, Brendan Rodgers, set out his intent to demolish teams with open, attacking play. Whether this style will pay off against the likes of Man Utd, Man City and Chelsea will determine whether Swansea will be demolishing, or become the demolished.
Top scorer in the Championship last year, Danny Graham, has been acquired but a hole the size of the River Severn bridge has been left with the departure of central midfield dynamo Darren Pratley for a painful-looking zero pounds, as Rodgers shakes his fist at the air and curses free transfer trailblazer John Bosman. The impressive fans-favourite Nathan Dyer will fight with former Chelsea-winger Scott Sinclair to provide goals but a high-stakes gamble has been wagered with the signing of Benfica’s reserve goalkeeper Moreira (on his day great, on an off-day think Grobbelaar meets Spurs’ Gomes) to replace the departing and reliable De Vries.
The club has the unique accolade of climbing from the very bottom spot of the English professional football to the summit of the entire Football League in a little over three years between 1978-1982. Mr Football himself, John Toshack, guided this ascent as a 28 year-old player-manager and if they needed words of wisdom, Tosh would be a priceless mentor.
Predicted finish QPR: 17th
Predicted finish Norwich: 15th
Predicted finish Swansea: 18th
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