How they fared: Capital Football's verdict on how our London clubs all did in 2019/20
So ends a season like no other. Brentford and Fulham contested the Championship play-off final a year and day after their opening fixtures – the campaign forced to go into cold storage because of the global pandemic. It is a small miracle that the players were able to return to complete the season, albeit behind closed doors in bio-secure bubbles. Time to take quick stock of the 2019/20 season for all the capital’s clubs before the September resumption. Here we give our end-of-term report and assess who were the winners and losers.
The cancellation of League One was just fine by the Dons, who were facing a testing last few months to stave off the drop. When the world ended, they were just above the dotted line and facing an anxious finale. It was another struggle at the foot of the table for a club which will always have to operate on a shoestring, but with a new ground to hold out for, there is hope and the way they regrouped under Glyn Hodges after the shock exit of Wally Downes was heartening. Steady home form was also key, as were the goals of Marcus Forss, on loan from Brentford, earlier in the season, but they need another dependable marksman when play resumes. 5/10
What was on course to becoming a dire season was rescued at the last with an Aubameyang-inspired 14th FA Cup triumph. Mikel Arteta admitted ahead of the final against Chelsea that silverware could not gloss over the fact this was a hugely disappointing season for the club in the league, with a lowest finish since pre-Wenger days and a dismal exit from the Europa League. And yet...and yet. There were hints that the players are responding to Arteta’s approach and proving more resilient. There are signs the future could be better for the club – bad PR over redundancies notwithstanding - with the young players coming through to implement a new way of playing under a new boss who looks the part. If better defenders can be recruited, the ailing behemoth of Highbury might yet stir again to become a force.
What can you say? It was a phenomenal season for the Bees, who came so close to achieving the unlikeliest of dreams by returning to the top flight after 73 years. Their steady rise has vindicated the analytical business model in spades - surely offered a model for potential imitators for clubs of similar size. Almost every new recruit has been as good as or better than ones sold on for a profit and the club’s three-pronged strikeforce was underpinned by a mean defence. Having two of the best players in the division in Said Benrahma and Ollie Watkins, helped. If they move on, can the Bees find the right replacements to have another tilt at getting to the promised land in their shiny new stadium at Lionel Road? Theirs is a fascination journey that is very far from over.
A truly awful season for the Addicks, whose on-field woes seemed to mirror the depressing off-field ownership uncertainties, which are dragging on as long as the Newcastle United soap opera. A year on from their dramatic promotion via the play-offs, they could not find the goals to stop themselves from floundering in the relegation quicksand and even having a man as dedicated and enamoured with the club as Lee Bowyer has not saved them. They looked in with a chance of beating the drop immediately after the restart when they beat QPR at the Valley, but they then fell away alarmingly, winning none of their last seven matches. One to forget for the fans, who may be glad they were spared being there in person. Much rebuilding to do.
The accepted narrative is that Frank Lampard has done very well in his first season and with the transfer embargo unblocked, some marquee signings should dovetail nicely with young players who were given the chance to shine. The Blues finished fourth and that is hardly punching above their weight given the resources but most fans will be happy to have seen players like Abraham, James, Mount, Gilmour and Pulisic impress. There were some great performances along the way too – Man City in the league, Liverpool and Man United in the cup. The summer recruitments are exciting with Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech potential stars to fill the and the void left by Eden Hazard. But Champions League qualification, while OK, is not silverware and losing an FA Cup final to Arsenal yet again has to hurt. This is a club that has made trophy-collection a habit and they do not want to lose it.
The way the season ended should serve as a warning to Roy Hodgson that unless fresh resources are found – and a source of goals to improve on a dismal return – a season of toil could lie ahead. It seems likely that Wilfried Zaha will move on, if a buyer is found, but the over-reliance on their star player was even more painfully obvious when his form nosedived after the pandemic break. Too many players dropped below the standards they are capable of – Townsend and Benteke the prime examples. Yes, they have kept their status as a top flight side, and are well established after seven years there, but to extend the stay they will need to improve quickly.
The mantra among the players after their 2-1 play-off final victory over the Bees was that they had proved critics wrong. The Whites pulled off a gutsy campaign to make their way back to the Premier League, having started the season with plenty of resources (parachute money and a couple of solid signings) but with a few demons to battle because of the drip-feed of defeats in the relegation season. They also had to override any whispered doubts about a rookie manager but Scott Parker kept the ship on course and came up with the plans to triumph in the play-offs. The trick now will be to avoid the mistakes made when they last went up and for sure there will be no gung-ho spending like last time – when £100m was spent on new players - as they look to build on what they have.
The O’s should be happy enough with their curtailed first season back in the football league, having very quickly decided they needed to get Ross Embleton back in as manager to recapture the sense of direction and solidarity achieved under Justin Edinburgh when they lost their way in the autumn. It was not easy adjusting to life back in League Two but they did just enough to keep heads above water and will look to kick on next season, using the experience gained from their first season back. But, in common with a lot of clubs in the lower leagues, the key issue of the season may be how the club copes with the financial impact of the pandemic. Already operating on a shoestring, money issues will more than likely dictate the narrative in the coming months.
The Lions punched well above their wight and Gary Rowett did a superb job in husbanding resources to make his team so competitive, much as Neil Harris had done. They were pushing for the play-offs almost to the last game and a mean defence led by Jake Cooper and Shaun Hutchinson, allied to that eternal defiance which underpins their DNA, means they make their presence felt. The fans were sorely missed in the final weeks when their passion might even have got the team over the line and into the top six. They did not get enough goals, with only Matt Smith and Jed Wallace getting into double figures, but this has to go down as very decent season.
Realism abounds at Rangers these days after the years of over-spending and vaulting ambition. Boss Mark Warburton is a sound pragmatist who has done a good job of getting a decent return with the limitations in place. The season saw the emergence of two shining lights in Bright Osayi-Samuel and Ebe Eze, and there were some thrilling performances – such as the New Year’s Day thrashing of Cardiff City. But the need to sell their marketable assets is part of the new reality of trying to make ends meet and there is every chance they will move on. Rangers will watch neighbours Brentford enviously next season, given the limited prospects of moving from their own ageing stadium in the near future and continuing struggles to acquire an improved training ground.
Good form after the enforced break will not erase the feeling that this season was a major flop for Spurs, just a year on from the heady heights of a Champions League final. The thrilling high-tempo identity created by Mauricio Pochettino went missing even before he was axed and the 7-2 nightmare against Bayern Munich summed up the broken-down nature of the machine. Jose Mourinho has a big job making the team challenge for trophies and much will depend on keeping Harry Kane and Hueng-Min Son on board. They at least made it back into Europe, albeit in the second competition, through league placing, and they finished above Arsenal. But these were small mercies and they had hoped for more glory in their first full season at that magnificent new stadium.
They were lucky that there were enough bad teams to finish below them in what was a fitful season at the London Stadium. Big-money signings commanding big wages were not enough to provide the consistency needed and although Michail Antonio and Declan Rice impressed, there were a few too many passengers. The home wins over Man United and Chelsea offered glimpses of possibilities but too many soft points were frittered away and it needed the steadying hand of David Moyes to keep them from running aground in the home strait. There seems to be plenty of talent in the ranks but they need to more consistently become the sum of their parts or they will be in for a repeat next term.