With just four days to go until the season kicks off, you’d hope that our squad would be pretty much set and ready for all that the Championship has to throw at it. Eight signings have been made, though we still lack depth in key areas. The hierarchy is not complacent though; they recognise this, and more signings are expected. However, the majority of our business has been done, and I thought I’d review the senior additions to our squad.
I’m excited about the Poland international. While somewhat of an unknown quantity in the Championship, this is an ambitious signing – a player of some pedigree. He’s been playing in the Bundesliga for the last few years and has already impressed during pre-season. There is, of course, the risk that he turns out to be another Francesco Pisano (remember him?), but under Parky’s guidance I’m backing him to do well. We look well set at right back, with Mark Little (a strong performer last season) also in the mix for the right back spot.
Hobbs received terrific reviews from Nottingham Forest fans with the small caveat that he stays fit. The centre back has really struggled for game time in recent years, but on his day is known to be a very solid performer at Championship level. While Wheater and Beevers have formed a good partnership in the last couple of seasons, I’m glad that we’re bringing in competition. Hobbs has done well in pre-season, too, and if, and it is a big if, he can stay injury free, he looks to be a shrewd signing.
With almost 200 Premier League appearances to his name, Wilson has plenty of experience playing at a high level. He is versatile, and I’d be comfortable with him playing as a full back, as a centre back in a back three, or even as a defensive midfielder. He’s good on the ball, and despite a disappointing season with Sunderland last year, I see Wilson and as a good upgrade on Derik. I wouldn’t, however, see him as direct competition for Wheater/Hobbs/Beevers, as he is probably not suited to playing regularly in a back four as a centre back. However, provided he can stay fit, Wilson, too is a good signing.
I often worry when we sign players like Lowe. He was highly rated when younger, having played England U21 football and a whole season of Premier League football at the age of 20. However, he struggled for game time in what was not a brilliant Birmingham City side last season, and his critics say that he’s limited on the ball. The cynic in me worried that this screamed of a Dougie Freedman signing – a flashback to an era of releasing our good players and replacing them with inferior ones. However, during pre-season, by all accounts Lowe has impressed. He’s got a very good engine; he’s a good talker; and apparently has been tidy on the ball. Hopefully he can kick on and be a real leader for us. You don’t play 30+ games in a Premier League season at such a young age without having real quality… even if it was for Steve Kean.
Despite a lack of Championship experience, this signing has really excited me. We haven’t been able to see much of him during pre-season, but from our brief but fun adventure in League 1, we have seen his quality first hand. He was one of the lower leagues’ most highly rated players, and under the guidance of Phil Parkinson, who as a manager who has made the steady rise to the Championship himself, can kick on. We’ve been lacking a real craftsman from set pieces since we had Barry Bannan, and Oztumer should bring this precision along with some creativity and goals. I worry slightly about his size at 5 ft 3, and whether the league will be too physical. But then again, League 1 is full of big centre halves kicking small skilful players, and Oztumer managed to do a number on our very big team. I’m excited to see more of the Oz.
Signing Wildschut was a real statement of intent to the rest of the division. It came not long after our players’ strike, and put us back in business, giving the fans something to really cheer about. Not least because he reportedly courted interest from Wigan. 18 months ago, the Dutchman was a £7 million signing, made by a Norwich City side not flush with cash. While an Ed Balls run club may not necessarily always make the best decisions with its money, it does speak to Wildschut’s quality. He’s got a point to prove now in this division, and hopefully he can get his head down and prove himself for Wanderers. He’s got goals in him and scored 5 in 12 for Wigan at this level. If he can do that he can do anything.
10 years ago Donaldson was playing in Scotland and struggled for goals. However, he went on to have an incredible spell at Crewe, scoring 28 in a League 2 season, and worked his way up to playing Championship football with Birmingham City. I really liked the look of him there – a hard working target man with an eye for a goal (he scored 26 league goals in his first two seasons at St Andrews). While he didn’t set the world alight at Sheffield United last season, he was useful off the bench. He fits the mould of the type of striker Parkinson has tended to do very well with – think Gary Madine, James Hanson etc – and I think this Donaldson could be a useful player for us. He’s younger than Wilbraham, and also has a decent record at this level in recent years. Shame he picked up a strain the other day.
While Magennis has never really troubled the scoring charts, I’m actually really excited about the Northern Ireland international. This isn’t just because we actually paid actual money for him actually. It is because he, like Donaldson but younger, really fits the Gary Madine mould. He’s a player with a point to prove at this level, and he’s got a manager who really wanted him. That all bodes well, and I think Magennis is another striker who Parkinson can really develop. The former Charlton man has good pace and strength and also looks brilliant in the air from what I’ve seen. Furthermore, he’s known for working tirelessly around the pitch, and can help make goals, too. Hopefully, as well as chipping in himself, he can help bring goals out of the likes of Le Fondre, Oztumer, Wildschut and Ameobi.
Now, for the million dollar question… Are we better than we were last year? Well, I think we have better players, on the whole. However, we do lack depth.
We need another striker, and it’s clear that the club is after one. Whether that may be Charlie Wyke, or a cheaper alternative, we’ll have to see. If Wyke is going to prove to be too expensive, then with Donaldson and Magennis already signed, I’d be happy with us moving on to sign some competition for Le Fondre, whom I really hope Parkinson uses. A young Championship loanee isn’t necessarily a bad idea given the experience we already have in the squad. It would also be good to see Connor Hall given some game time, particularly in the cup. It’s a long old season and we need options up front.
Having released Karl Henry and Darren Pratley, our options in central midfield are lacking. It is clear that we need a more physical presence to add to our current options. Henry certainly seems keen on a return, and if we can’t find anyone better then he might be our best bet. However, I’m keen for us to be ambitious and try to find someone with more legs.
It’s also clear that we could do with more options at left back. While, unlike some fans, I’m keen that we don’t write Andy Taylor off just yet, we certainly do need a quicker alternative. Antonee Robinson would be ideal, and it looks like there’s some chance of him returning. This is especially crucial if we are to play three at the back with wing backs, and I really, really don’t like seeing makeshift left wing backs (à la Ashley Young).
We also need a new goalkeeper. We’ve missed out on Sam Walker to Reading, and have had Ben Williams on trial, also coaching at the academy. If possible, I’d be very keen on us investing that little bit extra into someone who could provide proper competition for Alnwick. I think competition is really key, and perhaps its lack thereof contributed to Ben Amos’ downfall in the 2015/16 season. Ben Williams’ profile is similar to that of Paul Rachubka who had been our backup ‘keeper that season. Boaz Myhill has been mentioned, and I think that would be a good signing. I’d be keen on someone of that ilk.
I am a little concerned that we lack cover at centre back, too, and would potentially like to see a young loanee – preferably with pace – from the Premier League added. While Beevers and Wheater have been virtual ever-presents, if one of them gets injured, and Hobbs/Wilson are both injured (they have had their own injury troubles in the past), we really lack cover. Parky also does like to play with three at the back occasionally, and we’ve lost Dervite, Derik and Burke.
While some of these gaps maybe be plugged, at least in the short term, by some of our younger players, I’m really keen that we do not rely on them too much. The likes of Jack Earing et al are talented, but aren’t necessarily what we need especially in the middle of the park.
So clearly, while we’ve brought in eight senior players, there’s still plenty to do. And very little time. However, when push comes to shove I reckon we’ll cobble together a decent enough squad. I really, really hope so anyway.