FOOTBALL LEAGUE analyst Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) returns with his first Saturday column for the new 2018/19 campaign.
Ipswich v Blackburn | Saturday 4th August 2018, 15:00
After six years under Mick McCarthy’s watch, a new era gets underway at Portman Road on Saturday as Paul Hurst makes his debut in the dugout of Ipswich.
The former Shrewsbury and Grimsby boss worked wonders in his previous gigs but is well aware of the enormity of the task at-hand in Suffolk. The Tractor Boys consistently overachieved in the Championship under their former boss, and with options thin on the ground this weekend, it may take time for Hurst to make a major impact.
Teenage midfield trio Flynn Downes, Andre Dozzell and Tristan Nydam started last weekend’s friendly defeat to West Ham, highlighting the lack of numbers in the squad with Emyr Huws, Tom Adeyemi, Danny Rowe and Teddy Bishop all unavailable through injury.
Fortunately, Cole Skuse has been passed fit, although Joe Garner joins the casualty list but doubts remain over Martyn Waghorn’s availability with the in-demand striker having been left out of Ipswich’s final two pre-season fixtures.
Elsewhere, centre-half stalwart Adam Webster was sold in the summer and Town have been fielding youngster Luke Woolfenden alongside Luke Chambers as they frantically search for replacements.
Trevor Chalobah, Gwion Edwards and Ellis Harrison are in line for debuts but I’m happy to oppose the hosts in their current guise as they come against a stable and consistent Blackburn outfit this weekend.
Rovers re-enter the Championship with a stronger squad than the one they were relegated with two years ago and Tony Mowbray will be targeting consolidation this term. The visitors look set to start 10 of the same starting XI that featured at this stage 12 months ago with the club’s longest serving player Corry Evans the only alteration.
Mowbray himself would like four new faces in before the transfer windows closes next month, although the Blackburn boss admitted he had a great deal of faith in his current group being able to compete in the second-tier under his tutelage.
Ben Gladwin and Jacob Davenport are the only players unlikely to travel south with new signings Kasey Palmer and Joe Rothwell expected to be utilised from the bench and Blackburn should be trusted at 4/5 (188BET) to avoid defeat in a match featuring fewer than four goals.
A huge 31/48 (64%) of opening day Championship games have featured Under 2.5 Goals over the past four campaigns and this encounter looks ripe for another low-scoring duel.
Southend v Doncaster | Saturday 4th August 2018, 15:00
Southend stagnated under Phil Brown last season but the return of club hero Chris Powell provided fresh belief and impetus to the Essex outfit as they finished 2017/18 with a flourish.
Exclude the promoted clubs and only Plymouth collected more points than the Shrimpers’ tally of 32 from the end of January and there’s enough reason to believe the Roots Hall club could mount a promotion challenge this term.
Central midfielder Sam Manton has made his move permanent in the summer and Powell’s also brought in quality in the form of fellow midfield man Luke Hyam, striker Tom Hopper, defensive shield Timothee Dieng and centre-back Harry Lennon. With Theo Robinson staying put, Southend have a strong spine.
The hosts concluded their campaign with eight clean sheets in their final 12 fixtures, while the Shrimpers suffered just two defeats by the seaside in 2018. Scunthorpe, Wigan, Portsmouth and Rotherham all departed their Essex base pointless and I’m happy to support the home side at 11/8 (BetVictor) here.
Darren Ferguson surprisingly resigned as Doncaster manager in the first week of June, saying his decision had been made “after recent discussions with the board“. With Rovers knee-deep in planning and preparation for their second successive season back in League One, the departure caused plenty of upheaval.
Three weeks went by before Donny appointed Grant McCann and the club have been playing catch-up in the transfer market ever since. Admittedly, Ferguson has left a stable squad behind but too often in 2017/18, Rovers flattered to deceive and any signs of complacency could cost them dear this time around.
McCann has impressed supporters in pre-season with his promises of a more expansive style and it’s true too that Doncaster impressed in flashes last term. However, the current boss was axed by Peterborough mid-way through last season and the jury is definitely still out on the Northern Irishman’s ability as a number one.
The South Yorkshire side have lost Jordan Houghton in central midfield and there still appears to be a huge overreliance on marksman John Marquis to do the business in the final-third. Veteran James Coppinger remains integral and Rovers fired blanks on 10 (43%) occasions on their travels last term.
I can see the visitors regressing this term without significant investment and they look likely to come unstuck on the coast this Saturday afternoon.
Oldham v MK Dons | Saturday 4th August 2018, 15:00
Both Oldham and MK Dons were demoted from League One last season but the two clubs could be heading in opposite directions as they bid to bounce back to the third-time at the first time of asking.
Half of the past 52 clubs to be relegated to this level have tabled bottom-half finishes and the Latics look the most likely to extend that streak. The Boundary Park have thus far implemented an unsuccessful foreign recruitment model under their current ownership and are now led by rookie boss Frankie Bunn.
Last season’s loan stars Duckens Nazon and Eoin Doyle are no longer available and midfielder Ousmane Fane is unavailable for the coming months with a broken leg sustained in training. Allegedly, highly-rated Jack Byrne was to blame and the former Manchester City youth is rumoured to have been suspended by Athletic.
Elsewhere, reports have suggested that defender Anthony Gerrard has been sacked due to ill-discipline but long-suffering supporters remain in the dark with the club refusing to confirm or deny recent speculation. What’s more, issues with HMRC continue to overshadow the Lancashire outfit.
In terms of positives, the returning Jose Baxter missed last week’s friendly with Preston but is expected to make his second debut in a team spearheaded by Jonathan Benteke. However, the upheaval in the group makes the hosts a vulnerable proposition on the opening weekend.
MK Dons have dropped from the Championship in the space of three seasons although the shrewd appointment of Paul Tisdale should put the well-funded side back on the right path to progress. The former Exeter manager knows what’s required at this level and has wasted no time in strengthening the squad.
Nine new faces have arrived in Buckinghamshire, including poaching Ryan Harley, Jordan Moore-Taylor and Robbie Simpson from his old club, as well as eye-catching signings Jordan Houghton and Mitch Hincox. With Kieran Agard and Chuks Aneke still in situ, the Dons are in decent nick.
I’m more than happy to have MK onside at 20/21 (Marathon) in the Draw No Bet market.