Only 49 days since we triumphed at Wembley, the lads are back in action as we take on Rangers in our first pre-season fixture ahead of the new campaign.
Of course, while building up fitness and avoiding injury is the most important aspect of these games, they will give us a bit of insight into how Alex Neil is thinking about the season ahead – particularly in terms of shape.
Neil arrived at the Stadium of Light with the reputation of being a pretty rigid ‘four at the back’ manager, but flitted between a back four and five last season – although the fact he went four at the back for the play-offs may indicate that’s his preferred approach.
Predicting a lineup for a pre-season game’s nigh-on impossible, but here we go...
Goalkeeper: Anthony Patterson
Given he’s the only senior keeper at the club, Patterson will no doubt start the game. It’ll be interesting to see how he does and how that impacts the type of goalkeeper we’ll bring in, as we probably need to sign a couple in reality.
Personally, I’d rather we signed an experienced first-choice keeper to battle it out with Patterson, but a few strong pre-season games may alter Alex Neil’s mind.
Defenders: Niall Huggins, Daniel Ballard, Danny Batth, Dennis Cirkin
Back four or back five? It’s a tough one to call, but I’m leaning towards us preferring a back four – particularly with the news Jack Clarke’s signing is imminent. Surely, if we were planning on playing with wingbacks, rather than wingers, we wouldn’t be spending so much on a winger who struggled at wingback last season?
Niall Huggins is a player I’m really looking forward to watching this pre-season. Although he signed last summer from Leeds we’ve barely seen him in action – a serious injury ruled him out from October onwards, but he could make the right back position his own this term, if he stays fit. I’m not certain where he is in terms of fitness, but he’s been pictured training in Portugal so could well be given a game tonight.
Our one new signing so far, Ballard, played on the right of a back three last season for Millwall, and I expect to see him given a start to bed into the team. Will he partner Batth or Wright? Given Wright has had a shorter break than some others after his successful world cup qualifying campaign with Australia, Batth might be ahead of him in terms of needing minutes on the pitch. Dennis Cirkin will probably play at left back, given Huggins is our only real alternative there.
Midfield: Corry Evans, Luke O’Nien
Evans and O’Nien were Alex Neil’s clear first choice in the centre of midfield towards the end of the season, but they face some serious pre-season competition from Jay Matete, Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton – all of whom will believe, not unreasonably – that they should be in the starting XI. I think we’ll start with Evans and O’Nien in the starting XI – whether they’ll both be there when the season kicks off in three weeks is another matter.
Attackers: Patrick Roberts, Alex Pritchard, Elliot Embleton
Getting Patrick Roberts back at the club was huge – he’s such a talented player and was coming into really good form towards the end of the season after taking a little while to get match fit. He’s a player you enjoy watching, and could be a huge asset for us this season. Pritchard, too, was another player who took a while to get up to speed last campaign, but once he found his form he was critically important to us, and another who’s a joy to watch when he’s on his game. Elliot Embleton has a big season ahead of him – he’ll be wanting to nail down a regular position in the starting XI, and it’s difficult to see where that might be on a regular basis. I thought he did brilliantly last season when he was played in a deeper role, but I’m not sure he’d be able to do that week in, week out at championship level. I hope he can nail down a regular place – even when he’s not affecting the game hugely he has a goal and assist in him.
Striker: Leon Dajaku
I’m going out on a flyer here, but I’d leave Ross Stewart out tonight. He’s not yet agreed on a contract extension and he’s been linked with Rangers all summer. You can just see it, can’t you – he’ll terrorise their defence, score a goal or two, and everyone connected with Rangers will be falling over themselves to sign him. No thanks. Give him a rest tonight. Actually, I’d not play him in the first couple of preseason games – he played an incredible number of games for us last season after being dogged by injury during his first few months at the club, and then he was away with Scotland so probably could do with more rest. The prospect of seeing Dajaku upfront is interesting anyway – he’s got a lot about him and can finish – it’d be a good experiment to give him a run-out up top.