Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Blog 14 - The X Factor 2010

The X Factor has once more bounded back onto our screens, no longer the adorable sparkly-eyed puppy it once was, but an older fully-developed mongrel, smugly expecting to be a family favourite as always. Trouble is that the family have tired somewhat of their preening pedigree pet. We know where the farty smell has been coming from on a saturday night and it's not Grandad.

It's been 4 days now since the first episode of the new series and already the show has had 2 scandals of which you sense, neither was a pre-planned publicity stunt. We're far quicker to look for the flaws these days and the press are spearheading the push. But more of these later.

We start with the same tired format. Dermot O'Leary comes on and makes us forget that he was ever a promisingly entertaining presenter in the days of Big Brothers Little Brother and instead flogs himself to the highest bidder and in return has nothing to say except the hackneyed offerings from a bucket of cliches more well worn than the square foot of carpet in front of Simon Cowell's mirror. Dermot perfunctorily showers us with news that "more people than ever before have shown up to audition for a life-changing blah-de-blah" over the ubiquitous crowd shots of cheering, arm-waving psychopaths, that has a more soporific effect on the synapses than a lakeful of Ketamin.

Cowell's back with whiter teeth, higher hair, and an increasing grumpiness bordering on melancholy as he realises his cash cow has peaked and he's just riding the last few gallons of milk out of it's pendulously sagging udders.

Louis the Laprechaun has popped back up as well, looking as happy as a dog with two dicks. (Well he did sign Jedward after all). I'm actually gaining some respect for Walsh, based solely on the fact that he's so obviously gleeful about the fact that he is in all self-awareness, getting paid shitloads to mumble crap, and he keeps getting work! Nobody has a good word to say about Walsh's incomprehensible musings, yet he's there every week, playing the role of Benny-The-Ball to Cowell's Top Cat and coining it in. Good luck to him.

Cheryl Cole/Tweedy/Geordie Princess Di is there at the moment although her imminent televised malarial collapse keeps being dangled before us at every "coming up" segment with an alarming relish. I dread to think what the producers would do with Tommy Cooper's on-screen death. "And as Tommy goes off to the morgue, what will this mean for the groups?" chimes Dermot in monotone.

Danni Minogue is missing this series as she's been pushing out a baby, presumably to the bemusement of the midwives who have never seen a woman grimace with pain whilst looking like a startled trout. This has given Cowell the excuse to replace her on a "temporary" basis with various other uglier understudies to Cheryl. This week it was the turn of octagenarian basket-case Geri Halliwell to flap her gums with the her trademark pretension of intellect that would fit in perfectly in the common room of an upper-middle-class 6th-form. With goggly eyes and a skeletal frame, Halliwell looks like a "Before" picture for thyroid medicine. Every contestant was treated to her nonsensical ponderings on how to make it as a pop star, although tragically she never embued the contestants with the secrets of her own personal route to musical success, having big tits.

And so on came the lunatics, like hopeful cattle playing "What's the Time Mr Wolf" by the abattoir wall, they clomped on stage, mooed, pawed and grazed at the floor whilst Cowell and co plundered their magic 8-ball of stock phrases to heckle at the disappointing bags of flesh that were littering their eyeline. 4 days on I can only remember 2 of them, both of which were skinny girls with big eyes who sung strangely. One of these has since been found to have serious mental health issues which has led Cowell to sling her off the programme quicker than you can say "She- wouldn't-have-made-as-much-as-Subo-so-she's-not-worth-the-hassle".

This is small beans however compared to the furore caused by Scandal number 2 which came out yesterday that, shock horror, X-Factor uses vocal techology to improve contestants voices. "Thank fuck for that" is my only response. We all know that if/when they release their solitary cover song post X-Factor their voices will be more heavily doctored than Typhoid Cheryl on her deathbed. With that being the case, why make us suffer their inept flailings every week when there's an option to make a poor man's Michael Buble from a rich man's Shane McGowan? I want vaguely entertaining, not a preposterous illusion that any of them are talented enough to have a career.

I shall of course, watch as always. It's like low quality weed. You know it's not good for you and will give you a headache, but when it's right in front of you it somehow seems like a harmlessly compelling way to spend an evening.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Blog 13 - Norwich 2 Swansea 0

Quick review - Good game. 2 teams playing football, at times beautifully. Lambert obviously studied the tape of Swansea's previous performances and realised that they like to play from the back because every time they went to take a goal kick we picked up every member of their back four and any deep-dropping midfielders and made their keeper kick it which he didn't want to do. Likewise we did our best to press them all over the pitch. For the first half hour this worked well and we were in the ascendency. Then we started looking a little tired both physically, and more important mentally, which is a sign of how well Swansea pass and move, and we're not used to having to work so hard, particularly at home. For Swansea's part as well as they passed and moved, they had little penetration. Second half, both teams slowed the pace a little and it was again, fairly even. Then they got themselves a penalty which was worked for rather than conceded, but to be fair the ref had little choice and showed good common sense in only producing a yellow for Ruddy. The game then spun on a moment with a great penalty save from Ruddy, and City, fortified by a not wholly appropriate sense of injustice powered on to yet another great finish. Could have gone either way, but we took it and we won't say no to that.

Marks out of 10:

Ruddy - 8
Relatively quiet game but for that one fantastic pen save. Great for his confidence though when couple with another clean sheet. Really looking the part now.

R Martin - 6
Hugely difficult task in keeping Sinclair quiet and just about managed it. He'll face a lot easier afternoons than this.

Drury - 7
As with R Martin, had a tricky winger to keep tabs on and it was a mark of how well he did that Dyer was subbed. Typical Drury 7/10.

Ward - 9
Immense. Best performance for City so far, and like Ruddy he's settling into the team and system. Lost count of the number of important blocks he made and covered for those around him with great responsibility.

Nelson - 6
Typical Nelson. Wonderful in the air, awful on the deck, and was nutmegged several times. Fortunately for us Ward had his back and got us out of tricky situations.

Crofts - 7
Solid, composed, and quality. Protected the defence and not afraid to push forward when appropriate.

K Smith - 7
All energy, the heartbeat of the team. His passing on the move is improving as well.

Surman - 8
Great left foot and better dribbling than I expected. Finally someone else who can pick a through-ball as well as Wes.

Hoolahan - 6
Some people were unimpressed but I thought he had a decent game. Didn't have a lot of luck but kept plugging away and was always a threat.

Holt - 6
Quiet by his normal standards, but like Hoolahan, did enough to make them have to be constantly aware of his presence.

C Martin - 6
Not a vintage performance but his direct running almost created two goals in the first half.


McNamee - 7
Big contribution to allow us to get at them late on.

Askou - 6
Barely had a kick to judge on.

Jackson - 7
Fantastic finish for the goal and delighted for him to get off the mark. Pressure back on Holt and Martin to keep him out.

Blog 12 - Religion - Respect my views...

They say you should never discuss religion for fear of offending someone or causing an argument. Fortunately when you have no fear of either outcome it doesn't preclude the discussion in the first place.

I'm an agnostic. I don't think any of the organized religions are remotely close to providing suitable life guidance or answers to lifes great conundrums. Equally I find atheism too cynical (yes, it is possible for me to find something TOO cynical) and the purely scientific theory of evolution doesn't ring totally true. I accept general evolution as a fact of life, but I find intelligent design a far more likely explanation for life in all its forms than a slowly mutating gene pool. Anyway that's an argument for another day. As far as where I put my religious cross, I'm Agnostic. I think there is a higher power we're not aware of but I freely accept I have no concept of what form that could take.

What I struggle with, is how so many people genuinely believe in one religion or another. All of the major religions are based around stories and texts from so long ago, and there have been no occurrences of miracles or additions to the religions history or central tenants in centuries. If Christianity is right, why hasn't there been a good old miracle we can all observe for so long? Why no Saints with healing powers? Nobody walking on water? And the same for all the other religions. No elephant gods have turned up. Most people would settle for a talking squirrel just as a sign that there was something still happening in these dusty old belief systems. But there's nothing. Instead we have books written thousands of years ago, and every few days followers of each religion get together, someone reads a bit from the books whilst everyone listens, and possibly has a sing song and a collection, and that's religion in the 21st century. To me it seems ridiculous. You may as well base your belief system on the works of Shakespeare. In fact, had he ever stated that God spoke to him and told him to knock out Romeo and Juliet and call it Testament 3 - The Revenge, the population of Belfast could now be arguing about the Capulets opposition to the Orange Day Marches by the Montagues. It's that tenuous. Yet people genuinely believe. And not just nutters, sensible people. Intelligent people. People who have actually thought about religion and come to the conclusion that they believe in life as set out by The Torah, The Koran or The Bible. It's a leap of faith that's utterly beyond me, and indeed, my comprehension. I don't see how they accept it. Why is slightly easier. It must be nice to have the structure and rules provided by religion. If you do this, you're doing right. If you do something else, you're doing wrong. Obviously the devil is in the interpretation of that but maybe that's the cynic in me. There's also the comfort of being part of a community that is rapidly becoming less and less prevalent in todays globalised society. I can see why elements are attractive, but it takes a leap to go from wanting to believe in something to actually believing in it. But I accept that many people genuinely do.

Now with the vast majority of religions, if you don't want to be part of them, they keep their distance from you. Whilst they make themselves accessible if you have a genuine interest, they let you come to them. Fine. I have no issue with that. I may think what you believe is total bilge, but at the same time I have no more idea of the mysteries of the universe than any of them do, so you believe what you like. As long as you don't want to blow me up for not believing too, it's all good. My problem however, comes with the religions that actively try to recruit. And recently with the most famous of those, the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Now it's easy to pick on Jehovah's Witnesses. Most of us did it at school so we've got previous in that area. And some of their beliefs are so at odds with modern thinking that most people not of the religion will struggle to accept the relevance and plausibility of them as a serious religion. The obvious example is their refusal to allow members to receive blood transfusions following accidents, and some followers have even died rather than break this central tenant of their religion. Similarly a while ago someone at work refused to sign a colleagues birthday card because she doesn't celebrate birthdays. I hadn't known until then she was a Jehovah's Witness. It seems an odd thing for someone to be not allowed to do, but there you go. I like the person concerned and that doesn't change because they're a Jehovah's Witness, but equally I can't understand how they get to the position where they accept a religion which tells them that saying Happy Birthday to someone is a bad thing which they mustn't do. As far as I'm concerned from a secular position, wishing someone a Happy Birthday is not a religious statement. It's a meaningless milestone whose only relevance is charting our individual time on the planet. We mark it for no other reason than that it's a pleasant thing to do. The person involved isn't what I would consider a deep-thinker, and I think their belief is based around being raised by parents of that faith rather than by independant choice, but it still seems bizarre to me. However, she's a nice person, she keeps her religious beliefs to herself, and therefore I don't have any issue with what she thinks, regardless of whether it contradicts my own thinking.

However, there was an incident which happened last week which was hugely inappropriate and which led to my current musings. Kerry was at home with the girls when she got a knock on the door, and it was a woman with a child in a buggy and an older girl of about 5 or 6. The woman was a Jehovah's Witness with a stack of Watchtowers or whatever they pass round now. Now in hindsight this seems odd because they usually turn up in pairs (presumably for safety as much as anything), but this one was a lone ranger. She went through the usual "How are you today? I'm here to see if I can leave this pamphlet" schtick, and Kerry did the polite English, "No thanks I'm not really interested" but this woman was not easily dissuaded and turned it up a notch with "Why not?" and "You should be interested...". In terms of middle-class sensibilities this is a breach of protocol and not how the dialogue should go, so on these terms a (gentle) closing of the door with a disappointed yet stern frown would be the order of the day. However, this avenue was closed when the woman gave her child a nudge in the back. Our children, as per usual when somebody is at the door, sloped up behind for a nosy. (Bailey delights in greeting the supermarket delivery person with "'ello Tesco" regardless of their particular store). As soon as the woman spotted this she did the nudge, and the child as if on autopilot said "I want to play with the children" and attempted to run into the house clutching her own sampling of Junior Watchtowers. It would have been understandable if it was genuine but according to Kerry it felt so rehearsed and disingenuous that she knew the mother was using it as a pre-planned tactic to gain entry. Fortunately Kerry's child-obstruction reflexes are finely tuned and she was able to block like an NFL linebacker with a quick shimmy of the hips before closing the door on the grumbling woman who was in the early throws of attempting to make Kerry feel guilty for stopping this "spontaneous" joyful union of playful tots. Now I'm not saying this behaviour is typical, and all the Jehovah's Witnesses I've ever had on the doorstep have always been polite enough to take their leave as soon as I say I'm not interested, but the incident underlines why I personally am so unimpressed by religion as a whole and organized religion in particular. This woman has not only indoctrinated her own child before she was able to make her own conscious decisions on belief, but she has also trained her to play a part in attempted conversions of others. What gets me is not the cynicism of someone using a child in such a way as I'm perfectly happy to believe that whilst this incident is an exception rather than the rule, people in all walks of life are happy and comfortable to use children, animals, loved ones, and anything else to get what they want. What gets me is "Why?". Why did this woman think this was neccesary? Is she so certain that her beliefs should be universally duplicated that she has to train her child in an elaborate set-up to try and get to conversational first base with a stranger? What makes her so certain? And this is the problem for me.

We live in a society which desperately proports liberal values and the current favourite is Respect. With a capital R. Anybody can say anything and if you disagree it's almost expected that you have to disagree under the codicil "You have the right to your opinions and I respect your opinion, but....". In this case, I don't respect that womans opinion. I accept people being whichever religion they want to be, Hindu, Jew or Jedi, it's all rubbish in my book, but everyone can do what they want. But this woman has obviously decided that not only should she follow the teachings of her religion in that she will actively make efforts to bring others into the religion, she has gone a step further by introducing cynical tactics to do so. And she obviously believes that her beliefs give her the right to do this. Any sane person would surely have realised that no system of beliefs for everyday life is worth pushing your child to that extent. And again, I acknowledge that this woman was obviously a nut-job and not a typical Jehovah's Witness. But the fact is that very few things can make people behave so self-righteously or with such disregard for common morality as religion. As long as you say you have a belief in what you're doing, it seems to be that it's justified these days. Virtual Carte Blanche.

But at what point can you say "No, this is just bollocks"? If someone turns up purporting to believe in the Tooth Fairy and asking for a donation to support research into Tooth Fairy Studies, can you report them for fraud? Or do you have to "respect" them and leave them to pop round your gullible elderly neighbours house?

So under the terms of Headism, my new religion (no followers required, we have a very strict admittance policy), it's a basic principle that anybody who turns up at my door and behaves in a manner I deem inappropriate by my own morality is subject to a smack in the face. It's what my God would want. It may be inappropriate for most people, but I can't go against it. Please respect my views...

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Blog 11 - Norwich 2 Watford 3 Quick thoughts

Yes, I know I'm becoming a one trick pony with this and it's actually tragic how much thought a grown man puts into one topic, but screw it, it's my blog and it's cathartic. Am going to do one of these after every game to get it out of my system and then I can focus on something more interesting to blog about. Something more all-encompassing and challenging. Something intellectual and worthy. Like telly or sumfing.

Anyway thoughts from last night.

Watford played better than anyone was expecting, and their finishing and movement from the front two was exceptional. City looked good going forward and should be more than capable of opening most teams up. Defensively we were less impressive, and as predicted, Fox may be a capable passer but he provides scant cover in front of a central defence that has obviously not learned to play together. Special mention should go to Russell Martin who despite being a boo-boy target for no apparant reason worked furiously up and down the right hand side and consistently provided good width for us whilst also getting back to fulfil his defensive responsibilities.

Marks out of 10:

Ruddy 5 - Could have done better with 2 of the goals but equally can't be blamed for them either. Bryan Gunn looked wobbly when he started his career with us, so Ruddy can be given time to ease his way in. Some good stops.

R Martin 8 - As above, great buccaneering full back play.

Drury 7 - 7 out of 10 as he almost always is. More than comfortable at Championship level.

Nelson 5 - Caught out positionally a few times but also made some good blocks and scored a quality goal. Will need to do better to maintain his place with Askou and Whitbread breathing down his neck.

Ward 6 - Not a great game, but did enough to suggest that there's better to come. Positional issues will hopefully clear up the more he gets used to playing with his nw teammates.

Fox 6 - Good passing but also gave some balls away. Can see him dominating some games but will also cause us some issues with his lack of size and grit in what is a key defensive position. Not sure Lambert has this one right tactically.

Surman 6 - Exceptionally comfortable on the ball, he lost patience once or twice and tried to force some balls that weren't on. Worked hard though and not a bad debut.

Crofts 7 - Best of the debutants. Great engine and aggression. I think he's going to be a Drury-like 7/10 every week.

Hoolahan 8 - Great feet, sometimes overdid things but overall he was our best attacking option and looked the most gifted player on the park by a long chalk.

Jackson 7 - Good first game. Intelligent runs and good on the ball. Also showed a creative touch to set up Crofts goal.

Martin 7 - Worked hard and was unlucky that the service didn't quite give him the chances that he needed

Subs - Holt 7, McNamee 6.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Blog 10 - New Season Preview

Can't let the new season begin without a Head preview, Y'Army or no Y'Army!

Only about the Championship because it's the only league that matters this year.

So how do the mighty City look?

I'm very positive at this stage, which is nothing new on the eve of a new season, and indeed 12 months ago I was feeling similarly bright just before we got handed our arse courtesy of Mr Lambert. So what's different? Whatmakes us more likely to succeed now?

The simple answer is Lambert. I don't think that he's a football genius or somekind of tactical nostradamus just because he got us promoted last year. His record before City with Wycombe and Colchester was only briefly promising and when he arrived I was surprised by how well he did, as he himself has confessed he was. The positive thing with Lambert is that he's learning, and he's retaining good habits as he acquires knowledge. For a player who has been an international and played in the Champions League, you can see that the higher he moves up the divisions the more comfortable he's going to be with the tactics and the lessening of limitations of the players at his disposal. The players he has brought in are proper footballers and have added technical quality to the squad. The key this season will be marrying the skills to the steel which we also need at this level. As fans we've spent enough time in this league to know that you need the willingness to hoof it an stick a foot in as to play a killer through-ball at times and I'm eager to see ho our new lads fit in with this dual philosophy.

Ruddy in goal is a interesting choice and I've not seen nearly enough of him to gauge a proper opinion yet. He had a blooper against Everton but unless he starts chucking them in regularly I think we can write that one off as an isolated incident. He certainly comes with a better pedigree than Theoklitis did a year ago, and at 6ft 4in is less likely to be left flapping every time a looping head goes near the goal. In Lambert I'll trust on this one.

Steven Smith at left back is someone I've never seen, so again, I'll reserve judgement. Even if he's only good enough to keep Drury on his toes then he'll have done his job so expectations can be kept at a low level for Smith.

Elliot Ward is an awesome signing and if he can keep fit and get a steady run of games and minutes in a settled defence at the start of the season I can see him becoming a huge player for us for seasons to come. No hedging on this one. Ward is perfect for what we're trying to do and where we're hoping to be. Fantastic addition.

David Fox is a player I didn't expect us to sign but someone I'm delighted we did. Fox is a Man United youth product who plays with the comfortable, productive style of someone who has had that grooming. The criticism that has always been levelled at him is that, certainly in a 4-4-2 he doesn't have the legs or the tenacity to compete in the middle of the park. Good passer, but too lightweight. In our system he's going to play in what's been termed the Quarterback role. Like Darel Russell last season he'll sit in front of the defence. Unlike Russell though he'll take the ball from the centre halves to launch our attacks and has a handsome range of passing with which to do this. Whereas Russell was an anchor, dropping in to help the defence and stopping anybody trying to come through the middle of us, Fox is a gunslinger who will sit deep because it gives him space to work. Of course there will be times when he needs to defend, and how successfully he adapts to this will be another key to our season. If he looks too good in the role, other teams will start to close him down and limit his time on the ball and again, he'll have to adapt to that.

Andrew Surman was the surprise signing of the summer with most of us thinking that he was probably a bit too good for what we were expecting. Again this shows how positive Lambert is looking to be though. Like Fox he's a renowned ball-player with the question mark being whether he can dig in and fight. In this system he'll have to do just that but I can't see him having any problems. He's a player who for Southampton was always too good for the Championship, and the only question is whether he is quite good enough at the highest level. Like Ward, that's perfect for our ambitions.

Andrew Crofts was an interesting, and if I'm honest, a slightly underwhelming first signing of the summer. Having seen him play for Gillingham and Brighton I'd got him pegged as an aggressive and energetic runner in the middle but the more I see of him, the more I realise that he can play a bit too. He'll have to be on his game as well because his most obvious competition for a start is Korey Smith and I can't see him giving up his place without a good fight. I'm looking forward to seeing how Crofts adapts to being a smaller fish in a bigger pond. It can surely only be good for him to not be carrying a poor team and be with better players.

Which just leaves Simeon Jackson. An aggressive, direct, lightning-quick finisher, he's an entirely new option for our attack. I'm not entirely sure how he's going to fit in, particularly at Carrow Road because pacey strikers are generally better in counter-attacking teams and we're not set up to play in that manner. However, he has the weapons in his arsenal to score goals whatever the system and when you can add a striker who's capable of being a 20 goals a season man to a strikeforce already boasting two similar players you know you're going to have a decent "For" column.

All in all I'm very pleased and very positive.

As far as where we'll finish, the key will be staying injury-free and having some consistency of selection. The first part we can do little about although I'm mildly concerned that there is no target man to back up Holt for when he inevitably picks up suspensions. Likewise any absence of Hoolahan will knock us back considerably. However other than that we've got good competition everywhere else, and we're as equipped to cope with injuries as any squad in the league, and in most cases, more so. Lambert has shown last year that he believes in keeping a settled side as much as possible and again, that can only be positive.

The interesting thing for me is that whilst injuries to key players is our biggest/only achilles heel, most of the other sides have got far bigger problems.

Our opening day opponents Watford have no money, a diminished squad, an inexperienced manager and are going to be fighting against relegation.

Scunthorpe have performed miracles in staying up last season but with Hooper and Hayes gone I can't see them repeating that effort again despite having an astute and capable boss in Nigel Adkins.

Swansea had a play-off near miss last season based on hard work and defensive grit but with their (only?) creative spark, Leon Brittain gone and a new manager with a very modest track record in Brendan Rogers, I can't see them being anyting other than also rans.

Nottingham Forest are a lot of peoples favourites and Billy Davies is a proven manager but there are some odd goings-on behind the scene at the City Ground with talk of Perch being sold behind the managers back. They have a potential to implode quite easily, but should still be in the shake-up at the top end of the division.

I'd love to see Mark Robins succeed at Barnsley and as one of the favourites for relegation coming off a poor end to last season, expectations are low at Oakwell. I think they'll be ok but as far as providing a challenge to the promotion contenders they're a million miles away.

Doncaster are an ever-increasing force in this division and the permanent addition of Billy Sharp is huge for them. If they can cope with the increased attention and expectation they'll do well.

Preston are rebuilding and although I can see them being solid, it's too soon for them to mount any serious challenge.

Hull have given themselves a chance by getting Nigel Pearson and what they drugged him with to persuade him to take over as captain of the Titanic I'll never know, but if anyone can sort out a squad of overpaid freelancers and make them a team, I think Pearson could be that man. Could go either way.

Leicester replaced Pearson with Swansea's De Sousa. Both clubs did well on small budgets last year but I can't shake the feeling that this is a move in the wrong direction for the Foxes. I see them as mid-tablers making up the numbers.

Bristol City have surged up most bookies list of favourites but I don't see it myself. They're a good club with a decent infrastructure but I'm not sold on Coppell as saviour because of two outstanding seasons at Reading a few years back. James is a marquee signing but if he can't get some consistency from the rest of the team, in particular a porous defence, then it won't matter who picks the ball out of the net. May have a crack at the play-offs but don't count on it.

QPR have money and Warnock but both can be as much of a curse as a blessing. I think Warnock has done well to keep the squad settled and make careful additions and not make wholesale changes, and this evolution rather than revolution will help. Definite play-off contenders for me.

Crystal Palace are on their arses, both financially and in terms of experience and Ambrose alone cannot make a team. Burley will be looking at the bottom half rather than the top.

Middlesbrough have brought in more Jocks but this time have focussed on quality, and with Boyd and Bailey they'll be stronger than last season, and sould prove a genuine contender.

Cardiff look like they're holding things together on the surface but with Kennedy having to be sold to Ipswich just to guarantee that wages could be paid, plus Chopra angling for a move, Ledley gone and Whittingham seemingly constantly in talks elsewhere I think they're going to struggle.

Burnley are amongst the favourites but for me Brian Laws is a dead-weight as manager and will keep them from achieving their potential. I'm certain that he'll go at some point and from their point of view the quicker he does the better chance they'll have.

Millwall outdid themselves last season and don't have the tools to get above the lower reaches of the table.

Reading are a lot of peoples fancies after the success of Brian McDermott in taking over last year. I think second-season syndrome will kick in for them though and I think Play-offs will be their best hope.

Leeds are blowing their trumpets as usual but don't have the squad to back it up. I expect them to struggle a little and be mid-table at best.

Ipswich have the wrong manager and a poor squad. They should be the favourites with the resources they have but until Paddy o'Grumpy has taken his gloom elsewhere they'll continue to be inconsistent and unproductive.

Derby are struggling on and off the pitch and I think the situation there will get a lot worse before it can get better.

Portsmouth look to have the biggest problems of any club in the division but I have a feeling that Cotterill will plot a canny course through the stormy seas. They won't trouble the promotion contenders but they'll pick up points along the way.

Coventry are in flux yet again and I think Boothroyd will either take them on a massive up or a massive down. The Ricoh could be a good place to get a season ticket this year.

Sheffield United have experienced another season of expensive mediocrity under Blackwell and I can't see there being any difference again. Play-Offs at best, but more likely they'll dip a bit and finish lower mid-table.

Overall, I think Middlesbrough are deserved favourites and of the rest, Forest, Doncaster and QPR are the only other teams who are on the up for me. And I think we'll be better than any of those.

But then it is still pre-season...