This is it: the opening day of the football season. A time when hope has yet to be abandoned, when dreams of a joyous May still abound.
And a little trepidation as well. Pre-season was going so well and then Middlesbrough pitched up at Villa Park. For half the game, things seemed to be going reasonably well but the second half left as many questions as answers.
It was however, pre-season. We can’t hang our hats onto anything beyond seeing the players match fitness return. Competitive football is so much different.
How I wish I hadn’t gone there. If you are concerned by last weekend’s defeat, it’s best not to remember last season. Most of us have spent the summer trying to forget the horror show but as eyes turn to Hillsborough this afternoon, that’s almost impossible. This is the Championship, after all, and we’re here because of last season.
Any dreams of a cakewalk to promotion were dealt a reality check on Friday night when Fulham beat Newcastle. The Magpies were being held up as having the best summer of all the relegated teams yet received a bloody nose at Craven Cottage. Fulham finished 20th in last season’s Championship. All the teams will be looking to claim the scalps of the ‘big names’.
And we travel to Sheffield Wednesday this afternoon. Last season’s beaten play-off finalists; the opening day could not have come much harder.
Despite the reasons to be fearful, there are as many to be optimistic. Ross McCormack joined in time for the game and it would be a brave manager to leave him out. That’s brave in the daftest sense of the word and Roberto Di Matteo doesn’t strike me as daft.
The squad all have points to prove. Those who remain from last season need to convince Di Matteo that they are worth their places whilst new signings have to show they are improving the squad. That shouldn’t be too hard, the weary and cynical voice in my head says.
I would expect the new boys to start, creating a new spine for the team: Gollini, Elphick, Tshibola and McCormack. Straight through the centre of the side: a new heart, a new energy and new belief.
Whilst Scott Sinclair is on his way to Celtic – the deal had yet to be completed at the time of writing – and Gabby Agbonlahor out with injury, I wouldn’t expect too many changes this afternoon from last weekend’s starting line-up.
Perhaps Jordan Ayew will start instead of Ross McCormack but with the speculation over the youngster’s future increasing, I wonder if he is distracted by the attention.
The other question mark is over Gary Gardner. Aaron Tshibola’s arrival puts his place under threat and I suspect the England Under – 18 man will get the nod. It’s tough on Gardner but I suspect RDM’s thinking is more along those lines than maintaining the status quo. It leaves the line-up:
Gollini; Hutton, Elphick, Baker, Cissokho, Bacuna; Tshibola, Westwood, Grealish; Gestede, McCormack
Whilst three points is the ideal, a point will be a good start. More than anything, a solid performance, stamping RDM’s authority on the side, will do wonders for the team’s belief.