With the season hours away, Prostate Cancer UK, our Official Charity Partner, met up with every football fan’s favourite Saturday afternoon presenter, Jeff Stelling.Here, he gives his take on the new Sky Bet Football League season, which starts this Friday night.
Sky Bet Championship:
A lot of people will look at the sides who went close last season. Derby County will be in the mix once again, and Paul Clement is a great coach. He did brilliantly at Real Madrid. Is he going to do the same here? Time will tell but I think they've got terrific support and I expect they'll have a good season.
I think Wolves will have a strong season too under Kenny Jackett. They came close last season, and they've lost Sakho, but I still think they'll have a respectable campaign. I'm trying to pick out somebody as a dark horse, and club who I think will have a good season is Bristol City.
They were the best side by a million miles in Sky Bet League 1 last year. Steve Cotterill has had a couple of managerial upsets, but didn't sit back and feel sorry for himself. He went around the world looking at different coaching techniques and then came back and benefitted from that. Steve used to say his teams play one way, but he couldn't see that. And it wasn't until he went elsewhere his eyes were opened and I think that's a big plus for them.
Middlesbrough are the other team who’ve got to be in the mix. I'm not sure what West Ham were thinking about letting Stewart Downing leave, but he could be a key player for Boro.
Sky Bet League 1:
Everybody has been fancying Sheffield United. So close so often, proven quality in cup competitions, Nigel Clough did a great job there. I think they did need a fresh face which is hard to say really, but Nigel Atkins was a big success at Southampton. They loved him down there and he is an absolutely effervescent character and I think he will get them bubbling. I think they will be right up there.
Wigan, I think, will be close again as well and stop the rot finally. They've got parachute payments, an inexperienced manager in Gary Caldwell, but he's Wigan through and through really.
And I also think Scunthorpe I think will do well. Their chairman will tell you that Mark Robins was always the right man for the job, and has a great future in front of him, and he might well be right.
Sky Bet League 2:
I fancy Luton Town. A lot of people fancied them last season and in the end they were just a little bit disappointing. But it was their first season back in The Football League and it had taken them a heck of a long time to get there. I think with the benefit of that they'll go close season.
I’ve got a lot of time for Paul Cook the new Portsmouth manager, and they've made some good signings. Christian Burgess will be the best ball-playing central defender in the division. He's fantastic, I love him, as a footballer look he takes a chance or two but he loves to play a bit and I'm really surprised that Peterborough United decided to let him go. I think he'll make a big impact there, so Portsmouth will be thereabouts.
My other team will be Northampton Town. They've got a little bit of money behind them and they've come from a long way back a couple of seasons ago when they were in as bad a position as Hartlepool were last year, and they've just consolidated and this be might the season for them to push on.
And what about Hartlepool United? Pool fans will be the first to visit the Prostate Cancer UK Stand at Bootham Crescent in their first away match of the season against York City on Saturday 15 August.
I'm just glad that we're going to the Prostate Cancer UK Stand this season because last season it looked as if we'd be out of The Football League. Ronnie Moore did a great job to keep us there. It is a local derby for us. It's a pretty long distance local derby but since Darlington dropped out of the league it's the nearest one to us. So it's great that my team can christen the new stand at York and I look forward to seeing it. I look forward to a good three points away from home.
It's a great idea to change the name of the stand. Anything that brings awareness of prostate cancer to men who may well be affected by it in years to come has to be great.
It’s not just a male-dominated environment these days either. Maybe that's a good thing as well because the girls who are there who are looking at the Prostate Cancer UK Stand can make their fellas aware and that's going to be a big help.
Last season we went to York late in the season and we took about two-and-a-half-thousand fans and we would have taken more than that. It was slightly exceptional circumstances because we were battling for survival. We would have taken more than that but basically the ground was full. We won't take that many this time round but it's the start of the season, hopes are high so there'll be a pretty big travelling contingent. The trains down that mainline will be pretty full of Hartlepool fans.
We've got to be aiming higher. We were 11 points adrift with 10 games to go last season, and I think most people had written us off. And in my heart I'd probably written us off as well. It was an amazing achievement and Ronnie worked it brilliantly. He brought in a number of players on loan who performed fantastically for us. We were helped by the fact that Cheltenham and Tranmere both had terrible finishes to the season. But it was an amazing achievement.
Also, the great thing about Ronnie Moore is that he knows the lower divisions and you know he's a master at that level. But he knows and everybody else knows that's not good enough again this season. And that's why there's been a huge turnaround of players at the club. It hasn't been a case of everybody out but it has been a case of quite a few out, quite a few new faces in. And we are looking forward to it with a great deal more optimism than last season.
Also this summer, I heard a phrase I never thought I'd hear used in my lifetime. We had a player called Rakish Bingham on loan from Mansfield Town last season and he went back to Mansfield. He was doing very well for us, but they took him back. We have now signed him permanently and the Mansfield manager said they wanted to keep Rakish Bingham but he had his head turned by Hartlepool. Now that was never a phrase I thought I'd hear in my lifetime, that a player would have his head turned by Hartlepool. But I think he's going to be a big success. He scored a hat trick in one of the pre-season games for us.
In the studio, are you hoping for a smoother ride on Saturdays with your team this season?
Yes, it was hard last season although at times when it looked like we were gone, and it was a bit subdued because you couldn't really see any hope. I'm hoping it will be easier this time around. I felt like celebrating our survival but I know what it meant for fans of Tranmere Rovers and Cheltenham Town. For them to be relegated, it's just a terrible thing for a football fan to happen.
But the consolation for them is there is a way back. A lot of clubs have been down there. Mansfield Town have been relegated from The Football League and they've come back. York city have been relegated from The Football League. There's a whole list of them. Barnet are the latest ones of course, and are back in the Football League this season. And you know, they could have felt aggrieved because when they went down they had 51 points. And we stayed up with 45. So you know, we're counting our blessings and making sure it doesn't happen again.
Finally, are you looking forward to getting back into the chair?
Am I looking forward to getting back in the chair? The close season has gone a bit too quickly for my liking to be absolutely honest with you. We had a late finish with the Champions League, and the Premier League is starting a week earlier as well. My close season had been two or three weeks less than it might have been. I’ll be looking forward to it at one minute to twelve on Saturday I can guarantee you that. So many teams have changed their managers, changed their personnel. If you look at some clubs in Sky Bet League 1 and 2 in particular, you know they'll have changed 14 or 15 players. There'll be 14 out and 14 in and you've got to try and remember their names and you know where they've come from and so on and so forth. So it's always a relief when the first Saturday's over and, touch wood, gone well.
Jeff Stelling has joined Men United, the movement for everyone who believes men are worth fighting for. Jeff visited Prostate Cancer UK’s HQ ahead of getting back in the chair for Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports. And Prostate Cancer UK’s predicts Jeff will have written his name into Men United folklore before the end of the season. To find out why (in time) join Jeff at Men United to follow his exploits this season.