Fulham, Sunderland, Stoke, West Brom, Villa, Bolton, Newcastle – all clubs consigned to a kind of limbo, no realistic aspirations of Europe, but confident in their chances of survival. Some may slip into a “race” for the poisoned chalice that is Europa League football, others dragged into the outskirts of the Premier League survival battle, but all will likely end up where they started: mid table and mediocre.
For Fulham, this pursuit is unfamiliar in its comfort. Many forget that only two years before the glory of a Europa League run the Whites were firmly ensconced in the bowels of relegation’s keenly avoided no man’s land. Only magic from Jimmy Bullard and Roy Hodgson’s inspiration pulled them out – and it would take a spectacular season from those currently below to drag them back in. Already, they are involved in a Europa League adventure, one that will only improve morale, if perhaps not league form. Midfielder Clint Dempsey, a star figure over the past three seasons, is positive heading into the new campaign, desperate to see his club improve on their promising post Hodgson form.
“We want to better what we did last season,” he said. “We have a good core group of guys who have been here through the most successful period. These last three years have been great. We want to make a good run in the Europa League and see what we can do in the cups.” Notice that no mention of the league was made. Dempsey, in his heart of hearts, must know that there is only so far a club of limited financial clout can go in a league where unscrupulous billionaires are valued more than friendly little clubs, however picturesque their setting.
While Fulham’s transfer activity remains limited, that of some of their fellows does not. Sunderland embarked on yet another rebuilding project this summer, seeking to cure the malaise which fell over Steve Bruce’s team around the turn of the year. For a club so often accompanied by predictions of success when heading into a new season, this summer has been no different. Fans will hope though, that the Black Cats finally make good on early promise.
There is no question that Bruce’s activity thus far has been clever; bringing in solid, experienced veterans like John O’Shea and Wes Brown, to complement up and comer Connor Wickham and jaded, relegation hardened midfielders Craig Gardner and Sebastian Larrson. However, it has been the loss of Henderson to Liverpool which has caught observer’s eyes the most, and it will take a gargantuan effort by the new signings to surpass the impact he made during his three year tenure.
Once perennial participants in the race for fourth, Everton and Aston Villa have seen their fortunes slip in accordance with the influx of money to Manchester City. Unable to compete with the financial juggernauts up North, Villa and Everton are outsiders looking in on developments in the table’s top quarter. The Toffees this summer offered little encouragement to their passionate support – the only Merseysiders mentioned in the gossip columns were the ones clad in red. At Villa, outgoing stars have seen the club’s stock drop further, as has the PR blunder which resulted in Alex McLeish taking the reigns at Villa Park. While still a good player, there is a reason why Liverpool and United were after Young and Downing rather than Charles N’Zogbia, a man who’s form is more spotty than the before pictures in Proactive advertisements. Following two major exits and one iffy signing, Villa fans won’t have been encouraged by what manager McLeish had to say on the subject of money.
“I’ve said, all along, since I joined the club, that we won’t be bringing players in until we trade. We still have a very heavy wage bill and we’ve got to try and work with Randy Lerner and Aston Villa to adjust that.” If it makes Villa supporters feel any better, at least Gabby Agbonlahor has pledged his future to the team.
For two of last year’s FA Cup finalists, this season looks to be one of mainly consolidation. It’s been a while since Stoke’s 5-0 drubbing of Bolton at Wembley, but little has changed at either club. Both still play in contrasting styles, Bolton preferring a measured, attractive approach and Stoke a more traditional long ball game. The Potters this year, have a Europa League campaign to think about, one which has seen Jon Walters’ meteoric rise continue towards the next level. However, it seems unlikely that the club famed for owning a throw in specialist will ever develop a cosmopolitan feel, after all, Kenwyne Jones’ ability in the air is too good to waste.
When not answering questions about Joey Barton, Alan Pardew has been busy fueling a summer of movement at St. James’ Park. Gone is top scorer Kevin Nolan, as well as star full back Jose Enrique. In there stead, are a group of promising if perhaps overly raw youngsters, headlined by former West Ham striker Demba Ba and Manchester United flop Gabriel Obertan. For a club known for flair in the attack, those two signings represent a return to the old habit – push forward with no interest in defense. Pardew has made it clear that creative midfielder Joey Barton is still welcome to play, though I doubt anything other than Twitter could possibly tear him away from Nietzsche at the moment.
In the turbulent, unpredictable world of English football, there are very few certainties. One of them is that West Brom’s top flight stints expire after two years at the maximum. However, punters will have to look for another dead cert to bet on this time around, West Brom seem to be preparing themselves for a longer stay than usual. Finally, the midlands club are armed with a capable playing staff and an inspirational manager – had Roy Hodgson been in charge from the start last season, then the club probably wouldn’t even have needed Peter Odemwingie’s goals to stay up. This time around, striker and coach are ready and in position – no excuses then, if things suddenly go pear shaped.
For the clubs mentioned, 11/12 is likely to be a season of limited excitement. Some might even climb high enough up the Premier League ladder to catch a glimpse of the effulgent world that is Champions League football, while others might find themselves dangerously near to the abyss. For fans of the teams involved though, go out, do it. Go buy yourself a nice pair of nail clippers. Your teeth won’t be overworked in the gnawing department.