After gaining promotion in May, via the play-offs, Simon Grayson’s side have deftly acquired a few key players (including Joel Lynch) and retained the services of Jordan Rhodes. Charlie Johnson tells us what to expect from the home side on Tuesday night.
First time back in the second tier since 2000/01, how does it feel?
Amongst all the European Championships and Olympics mania, I almost forgot that glorious day in May, and it wasn’t until we lined up on Friday night against Cardiff that the reality actually sank in.
After such a lengthy hiatus, and so many play-off failures, I know I wasn’t alone in assuming that we’d never get back to the second tier of English football. It was fortunate that we came up against Sheffield United in the final, who are the only team to stumble around more than we do in play-off games.
However, after all the celebratory parades, the pats on the back and the more lucrative kit and sponsorship deals, we actually have to face up to the reality that we are in a new division and the challenge will be considerably greater than any we’ve faced in our period of exile.
As much as we put in an impressive performance against Cardiff, we were still punished at the end, and that will certainly be a wake-up call to how much tougher our new challenge is.
How has Simon Grayson changed the team since Lee Clark’s departure?
After the play-off final, Simon Grayson was quick to praise Lee Clark, as it was his team that earned promotion, and merely Grayson who dragged them coughing and spluttering over the line.
However, since promotion was confirmed he has really been putting his stamp on the side, making a number of impressive signings and bringing in a few players who he’s worked with before. He’s not been sentimental, and a number of players who earned promotion have left the club or are now nowhere near the first team.
One advantage of joining the club at such a late stage meant that Grayson didn’t have time to form genuine attachments to players and as a result could look at the squad dispassionately.
He’s addressed the real weaknesses of the midfield and at left-back and has really impressed with a very positive and astute transfer policy. The team that lined up on Friday night is no longer Clark’s, it belongs to Grayson and this season will give a true reflection of what sort of manager he truly is.
Have there been many changes since promotion?
It seems as though everything has changed, from the playing staff, to the shirt sponsor and most significantly the whole mood amongst the fans is a truly positive one.
League One had become a purgatory, that it seemed that we would never escape. The hashtag trend #leagueoneforever had started to appear on Twitter and, after so many near misses, to finally escape has given everyone such a lift that it seems that we can finally see the light after being plunged in darkness for 11 years.
I know all that sounds melodramatic, but another season in League One would have been too much to deal with. However, the club have sensibly approached the season in the Championship aware that we are going to need to invest well to compete at this level. After taking so long to get back, the last thing that anybody wants is to drift straight back down.
A most significant change has happened gradually over the last few months, as the club’s infrastructure has been greatly adjusted to attempt to build a successful club for the future.
Steve Eyre has been brought in to help academy graduates make the transition to the first team smoother, Mark Lillis is the new academy manager and we now have a head of football operations. Ross Wilson arrives from Watford with a very impressive reputation, and it is assumed that he will ease the everyday pressure on the manager and allow Grayson more time to focus on coaching.
Oh, and whilst I was on holiday the name of the ground changed to The John Smith’s Stadium, which is not a decision I’m hugely in favour of, not because I’m totally against commercialism, but because it just isn’t a very good name.
What can we expect tactically?
If Friday is anything to go by, I’d expect us to play a three-man midfield whenever possible. The trio of Keith Southern, Adam Clayton and Oliver Norwood — all new arrivals at the club — impressed on their league debut for the club and offer a genuine variety in midfield that has been missing for such a long time.
We will attempt as much as possible to keep the ball on the ground and pass it around, but we will do this cautiously. We aren’t going to be a gung-ho team and, if he stays, Jordan Rhodes will once again be expected to be our most significant goal threat.
After some very good summer signings we have no really obvious weaknesses, but we do perhaps lack a true goal threat if Rhodes is missing, as he was on Friday. We will be no pushovers and might surprise a few, and if our confidence grows we might just play some very good football.
Who are the key players to watch out for?
Rhodes is unlikely to be playing on Tuesday, so I’d keep an eye on our flying right-back Jack Hunt. The home-grown youngster kept Craig Bellamy quiet on Friday night and is magnificent when going forward.
Oliver Norwood also looks like he is a midfielder to keep an eye on. Signed from Manchester United, he looks to have great composure on the ball, a great eye for a pass and isn’t afraid to get stuck in when necessary.
What’s going to happen on Tuesday?
I’d expect us to keep it tight as much as possible as we’ll be keen to get our first points on the board. I’m not certain how we’ll line up, as I’ve suggested that if Rhodes isn’t playing we look a little light up front, and I expect Novak will play alone up front.
However, it will be our first home Championship game in over a decade so expect a hot atmosphere and at least a committed performance. Prediction? A low-scoring draw: 1-1.
You can follow Charlie on Twitter: @FootballCharlie
Image: By Ben Sutherland (Flickr: DSC04813) (CC-BY-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons