Outside of the Premiership, 72 teams begin their 21/22 campaigns in earnest this weekend. These teams have not built their squads at a combined cost of a small country’s GDP, but through shrewd investments, hopeful punts on journeymen, experienced veterans and young hopefuls that may offer the differential to correct last season’s mistakes or add that bit of quality to get them over the line. Form in the Football League is not linear, they play too often for that, and as the games rack up, clear favourites emerge, but a lot of fun can be had watching those late pushes for the playoff places. Here a two-goal swing can cost you everything, and every now and then this rich tapestry of colourful characters reminds you that while the Champions League may have the most viewers, Football League observers have the most fun.
Bournemouth v West Brom – Race To The Promised Land
Friday 6th August, 7.45pm kick-off.
Sky Sports Main Event – Football League
This game represents the curtain-raiser for the domestic league in England, and it’s a truly mouth-watering encounter. Two coaches with recent Championship success, and a lot to prove, two clubs with very different transfer strategies this summer. West Brom manager Valerian Ismael worked miracles with Barnsley last season, taking them from relegation candidates to the playoff places. Since taking over Ismael has overseen the departure of 17 players, the majority of whom were 30 or over, including Ahmed Hegazi, Charlie Austin, Hal Robson-Kanu, and Kamal Grosicki, but holds a lean squad that could outperform itself in the Championship this season. Among those remaining, Adam Reach, Sam Johnstone, Romaine Sawyers and Jake Livermore will be key to success, however, a few more signings will be needed if the Baggies are to bounce back into the Premiership. By comparison, Scott Parker walks into a ready-made title-contender with a solid defence and multiple attacking threats.
Verdict: Underestimate Ismael at your peril, but he’s already fighting a rising tide at West Brom in terms of squad harmony, that Bournemouth defence by comparison is well-drilled, experienced and solid. Bournemouth 2-0 West Brom
One to watch: David Brooks (24 – AMR/AMC – Bournemouth)
It is easy to forget that in the Summer of 2018, Brooks was in high demand. Neil Warnock described him to me as the one player above all others he wished he could sign ahead of Cardiff’s Premiership campaign. Bournemouth paid £11.5m for him, and he rewarded them with 7 goals and 5 assists. Significant ankle issues have troubled him in both seasons since, although he performed well when available last year and for Wales at the Euros. I expect Brooks to kick on this year, don’t be surprised if he nets the first goal of the 2021/22 domestic campaign.
Charlton v Sheffield Wednesday – Clash of the Fallen Giants
Charlton v Sheffield Wednesday, Saturday 7th August, 5.30pm kick-off.
Sky Sports Football – Football League
Both of these clubs are probably more famous for boardroom crisis in recent years, however, they possess two of the League’s calmest influences in Darren Moore (Sheff Wed) and Nigel Adkins (Charlton) and I expect them to be in the mix for the playoffs by the end of the season. Both teams possess a wealth of experience, for Charlton, Wales centurion Chris Gunter will be lining up for his 18th campaign, well-travelled Jayden Stockley will be looking to get back into the form he showed in the last 3 months of 20/21. Sheffield Wednesday are likely to start with Barry Bannan and Josh Widass in midfield, and Callum Paterson up front, between the three there are over 1,000 appearances, and that experience will assist in overcoming many of the challenges that football at this level presents.
Verdict: League One football is different to Championship level, it’s gritty, not pretty. Many teams come unstuck if they don’t have what it takes to grind out results. I don’t expect Sheffield Wednesday to have this issue, for the reasons mentioned above, but equally, I don’t think they’ll walk the league. I think this game will be entertaining, with the points shared. Charlton 2-2 Sheffield Wednesday.
One to watch: Bailey Peacock-Farrell (24 – GK – Sheff Wed)
At 21, Peacock-Farrell was the established number one for both club and country, and reigning Leeds Young Player of the Year after a string of man-of-the-match performances. 3 years later he has had the opportunity to work with Casilla, Nick Pope and Joe Hart, but very little opportunity for regular games. This season represents a fantastic opportunity for Peacock-Farrell to remind his doubters that he can compete with the best.
Forest Green Rovers v Sutton United – Battle of the Pie
Forest Green Rovers v Sutton United, Saturday 7th August, 3pm kick-off.
Not televised live, highlights on Quest, Saturday 7th August, 9pm, and Sunday 8th August, 10am.
Forest Green are a well-worn cliche, the Vegan club, representing a town whose population is only 600 more than the stadium will hold. Sutton will be remembered by many purely for the sight of their reserve goalkeeper eating a pie during a 2017 FA Cup clash with Arsenal. However, there is far more to this story than pastry-based cuisine, as Sutton United are in a similar place to where Forest Green Rovers sat a few years ago, and the Cotswold outfit represent a blueprint to what sustainable success at League Two level could represent. A proven goalscorer is crucial at this level, and I have a feeling that Sutton’s Donovan Wilson could be the latest to break through from League Two in the way James Norwood, Kieffer Moore and Matty Taylor have done previously, all of whom played for Saturday’s opponents.
Verdict: I would love to see an upset here, and there’s every possibility this goes either way. Forest Green parted ways with Mark Cooper during the summer, a key factor in their recent success, but retained the majority of their key players. The best Sutton can hope for here is a draw, but I don’t see that happening. Forest Green 1-0 Sutton United.
One to watch: Jamille Matt (31 – F – FGR)
Matt is the embodiment of everything great about League Two, a striker who has bounced around the lower leagues for 10 years with little success until he found that perfect fit. Nominated for League Two Player of the Year last season, when he picked up a season-ending hand injury in March, it set off a 4 game losing streak that dropped them out of the automatic promotion spots for the rest of the campaign. All eyes will be on him to see if he kicks on from here, or if it was a one-off.
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