On the eve of a new Premier League season, two sides are enjoying a free-ride from many football observers. I aim to set the record straight, but I maintain an open mind, so if you think I am wrong, please comment.
I’ll start with Birmingham City. Twelve months ago, the Blues were looking forward to a season of Premier League football, albeit after labouring to second place in the Championship. Despite their lacklustre promotion, most pundits steered clear of naming Blues as relegation favourites. As a Wolves fan, I spluttered. Why, after storming the Championship in style, well ahead of our near neighbours, were my team now being regarded as less able to survive? I put it down to lazy journalism. Birmingham had enjoyed a few recent years of relative top flight stability, their name was fresher in sports writer’s minds. Not to worry I thought, they would be shown up.
I was wrong.
Birmingham went on to do more than just stay-up, amassing 50 points and plenty of plaudits on their way to a 9th place finish. Understandably therefore, Birmingham are now not a team being associated with a relegation battle this season. But I refuse to learn my lesson. I think they are far from safe.
The reason they did so well last season is clear. The experienced top-flight veterans who had stumbled to promotion in the hustle and bustle of the Championship, returned to their home in the Premier League, and complimented by an inspired loaned goalkeeper, and a couple of solid centre-halves.
Such experience was key to Birmingham’s success. But when does this experienced bubble burst? The likes of Carr, Bowyer, Ferguson and Phillips are at the twilight of their careers, and as such, time is running-out for the spine of Blues’ team. Therefore Birmingham have a major rebuilding job on the horizon, and it is a brave team who continues to rely so heavily on aging legs, especially having lost their stalwart in goal.
There is every chance those legs may last another season, but that is by no means a given, making Birmingham over-valued and an excellent outside bet for relegation. They are however, mere pretenders. The real charlatans are Newcastle United.
The media love-in with Newcastle knows no bounds. Mid-table, even a push for Europe, has been predicted for the North-East club.
Let’s analyse the spine of Newcastle’s side and start in defence. Ryan Taylor is solid enough, but will miss the opening month of the season. This leaves the evergreen Sol Campbell to step into his shoes and partner Fabricio Coloccini. Let’s not beat around the bush. Campbell and Coloccini will be one of the least mobile central defence pairings in the Premier League. So slow are they in fact, they make the likes of Carragher and Terry look like Bolt and Gay. This is without remembering the Argentinean’s forgettable form when Newcastle were relegated, and Campbell’s weight problems and fragile mind.
Moving onto central midfield, many Premier League previews have listed Alan Smith and Kevin Nolan as reasons Newcastle will consolidate this season. I see the opposite as true. In a similar vain to their defensive pairing, mobility will be at a premium in the Magpies’ midfield this season. In fact, the lack of movement from Smith and Nolan was largely cited as the central reason Newcastle were relegated in the first place. Neither player is young, so why is it being assumed that a season in the Championship has made them a capable Premiership pairing?
Andy Carroll has been revered as the second-coming of Alan Shearer on Tyneside, and while no doubt showing promise, many a striker has banged in goals at Championship level and failed to replicate such exploits in the top flight. Just ask Sylvan Ebanks-Blake. Most relegated sides are undone by their inability to score goals, and Newcastle are entering this season without a proven goalscorer. Potential alone won’t score the goals to keep them up.
On the managerial front, Chris Hughton has done an admirable job steadying the ship at St James’s Park, but lacks Premier League experience. Don’t forget, the club put a stop to his disappointing stint as caretaker boss in 2009.
Lastly, new faces have been few and far between at Newcastle, with the club stating there will be no monetary outlay on transfers. This ordinarily would be a nail in the coffin of a promoted club, but the signing of Dan Gosling on a free seems to have masked the major issues the club faces in terms of squad improvement.
I’m not saying Newcastle will go down. All I suggest is that they are looked at in the cold light of day that other promoted clubs receive. Evidence of improvement over the side that was relegated is slim, and I see no reason to believe that they won’t be part of the relegation struggle this season.