At the invitation of a prominent accounting company, over 200 top thinkers from business, art, academia and the public sector attended a conference in Sheffield on 12 May to brainstorm ways of unlocking the city’s potential and making it “the innovation and creativity capital of Europe”.
It so happened that later that very day Sheffield United appointed Chris Wilder as manager. Sorted.
Or maybe not. But the club sure have invested high hopes in Wilder, a boyhood Blade who was hired on the back of turning Northampton Town into surprising League Two champions last season. And boy, do Sheffield United need a winner to jolt them into action. Tipsters have been backing them for promotion for each of the past five seasons but the Blades have begun to look institutionalised in League One, shrivelling up every time escape seems within reach. The hope now is that Wilder will instil the rigorous method and uplifting spirit that powered Northampton to success, enabling United to vindicate the label of favourites at last.
Wilder has already given the squad a revamp since his appointment, signing seven players while releasing 10 and transfer-listing another seven. Much could depend, however, on his ability to hang on to Che Adams, the 20-year-old forward who struck 11 goals last season and is expected to flourish even further this term, which is why United have rejected two bids from Birmingham City. With Adams, last season’s top scorer, Billy Sharp, and the canny recruit from Bury, Leon Clarke, they would have potent striking options and could be confident of outscoring most opponents if Wilder succeeds in cultivating the defensive discipline shown by Northampton. With the new manager a stickler for solidity the club are trying to attract further defensive reinforcements following the signings of James Wilson, Jack O’Connell and Jake Wright, and Wilder is also on the look out for another midfield patrol man.
Charlton Athletic had approached Wilder but ultimately appointed Russell Slade to pick up the pieces from last season’s dispiriting relegation and supporter mutiny. The Valley faithful remain far from happy with the club’s owner, Roland Duchâtelet, who since taking over in 2014 has issued regular homilies about enlightened club administration while alienating fans and overseeing monumental failure on the pitch. Perhaps it takes a degree of gullibility to believe the club is prepared to sustain a challenge for the title but Slade is an able manager and some decent signings have been made, with Declan Rudd solving the goalkeeping problem and Nicky Ajose a highly promising addition from Swindon Town, for whom he scored prolifically last season.
In contrast to Sheffield United and Charlton, Millwall go into the season with stability and upward momentum, defeat in the play-off final notwithstanding. They won 14 and lost only three of their last 21 matches in the regular season as they evolved into a well-honed and free-scoring side in Neil Harris’ first full campaign. The supply to their strikers should be augmented by the signing of Gregg Wylde, the former Plymouth winger having the ability to do on one flank what Shane Ferguson tends to do on the other. For Millwall attack is likely to remain the best form of defence, as the rearguard still looks leaky.
Scunthorpe United have become a force with which to be reckoned since Graham Alexander took charge in March. They missed out on the play-offs on goal difference despite Paddy Madden’s customary sharpness and a storming run that brought victory in their last six matches of the season. They have since been strengthened by the signings of Josh Morris and Sam Mantom, the latter being one of several players, along with Tom Bradshaw, to have left Walsall looking too light to muster a repeat of last season’s stirring title challenge.
Plenty can aspire to these places, which, of course, is one of the reasons why the play-off system is such fun. Bradford City’s new owners – the club was bought by German investors in May – turned to an old favourite to replace the departed Phil Parkinson, bringing in Stuart McCall for a second stint in charge. The Scot is particularly keen to enhance Bradford’s firepower and if he succeeds in that, notably by prising Kieran Agard from Bristol City, then another crack at the play-offs seems on the cards.
Parkinson, meanwhile, embarks on a fraught mission to revive Bolton Wanderers and is not the only encouraging arrival at the club. He has brought the striker Jamie Proctor with him from Bradford to add to an array of attackers that still includes – for now, at any rate – Zach Clough and Gary Madine. Marc Beevers is a handy defensive addition. The squad is probably to skimpy to go straight up automatically but a playoff place seems achievable with Parkinson.
Oxford United have a realistic chance of following up last season’s promotion from League Two with a tilt at promotion from the third tier. The sales of Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda represent serious losses to the team but the club appears to have reinvested some of the earnings wisely by bringing in the powerful Kane Hemmings, who was a regular goal-getter at Dundee.
Peterborough United made efforts during the summer to repair a defence that cost them promotion last season, when they were joint highest scorers in the league. Jerome Binnom-Williams could go straight into the startling lineup at left-back following his loan move from Crystal Palace this week.
Coventry City, however, look weaker than last season, primarily because of the end of Adam Armstrong’s loan and the sale of Romain Vincelot to Bradford. Bristol Rovers’ chances of pulling off an impressive third straight promotion remain slim but intact so long as they hold on to their ace striker Matt Taylor.
Port Vale could make strides towards promotion under the former Portugal international Bruno Ribeiro and with a slew of unheralded imports. Then again, they could also be a useless jumble and flop to the bottom.
Defying the odds is what AFC Wimbledon are all about and they will have to do so again to survive on a flimsy budget. With an iffy defence that will no longer have the security of Kelle Roos, the Dutchman having returned to Derby County upon the completion of his loan, a season of struggle awaits. Enjoying righteous victories over MK Dons seems their most realistic target.
By agreeing to take charge of Oldham Athletic – after Steve Evans snubbed them – Stephen Robinson has set himself up for a mighty comedown after serving as Michael O’Neill’s assistant during Northern Ireland’s captivating Euro 2016 campaign. Oldham narrowly avoided the drop last season and have been unable to reinforce much, although Robinson continues to try to wangle Josh Magennis from Kilmarnock in an effort to improve the side’s goalscoring ability but in all probability, that would merely drag another Northern Ireland man into relegation woe at Boundary Park.
Bury can also expect to be up to their necks in trouble. Financial bother led to a summer of significant departures from Gigg Lane and even though the arrival of Neil Danns represented at least some encouraging inward movement, they look too weak to get close to last season’s 16th-place finish. Uwe Rösler will need to excel to get Fleetwood Town punching above their weight, while Phil Brown needs to rediscover some buoyancy if Southend United are to avoid slipping into choppy waters.
Three players to watch
Ched Evans (Chesterfield)
Watching the Welshman over the next few months will certainly be interesting. His 2012 conviction for rape was overturned on appeal in April, leaving him free to resume his career four years after he last played. But he must present himself for a retrial in October. Chesterfield, who have given him a one-year contract, evidently hope that goes in his favour. If it does, and if Evans has retained the goalscoring ability that made him such a useful striker in the past, then this could be the start of a comeback by a player who, at 27, still could have years of success ahead of him. If it does not, then the damage to Chesterfield’s promotion challenge will be the least of the harm done.
Fred Onyedinma (Millwall)
The 19-year-old thrilled in flickers last season, his skill on the wing embellishing Millwall’s attractive attacking. If he progresses as expected, and gives the ball away less often, he will make an even bigger contribution to this campaign and boost his club’s title credentials.
Chris Forrester (Peterborough)
The elegant midfielder enjoyed a decent first season in English football following his transfer from St Patrick’s Athletic last summer and at 23 and perhaps with a more balanced Posh side, can be expected to perform even better this season. A former Republic of Ireland Under-21, he has a fine range of passing and a strong eye for goal.
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