WATFORD HEAD to their bogey ground tomorrow (Saturday) to face Dougie Freedman`s Crystal Palace in their opening fixture of the 2012/13 n.Power Championship campaign.
It has of course been an excessively busy off-season both on and away from the field for the Hornets with a change of owner, management, backroom staff and a number of new additions to the first-team squad as well as the news that the club will only apply for EPPP Category 3 status.
In south London it`s been a different story however with Freedman quietly going about improving a squad which after a bright start to last season fell away badly, finishing 17th in the Championship.
Freedman has enjoyed some success in the summer`s transfer market, bringing in the highly-coveted Joel Ward from Portsmouth for £400k. The 22 year-old was the Eagles first signing of the summer, wrapped up before May was even over. Ward spent six years with cash-strapped Portsmouth, working his way through the youth ranks and into the first-team where he became a regular under Steve Cotterill and Michael Appleton, largely thanks to his versatility. It looks likely however that Palace will utilise the former Bournemouth loanee at right-back this term.
Next to sign permanently was former Norwich City, MK Dons, Hull City & Stockport County target man, Aaron Wilbraham, or ‘Wilbrahimavic` as Canaries supporters dubbed the 32 year-old forward last season. It took the 6`3 striker until April to make his first Premier League start at Spurs, but by that time the rangy striker had already bagged the 100th goal of his career, joining an elite list of players to have scored in all four divisions in the process.
A month later former Queens Park Rangers and Newcastle United defender Peter Ramage penned a permanent contract with Palace having spent part of last season on-loan, impressing during 17 loan appearances before making another 14 appearances for Birmingham City during the second-half of the campaign. The Whitley Bay-born defender came through the youth ranks at St James` Park before going on to make 51 appearances for the Magpies. Ramage is equally adept at both right and centre-back.
Freedman also added one loan addition in the former of Southampton`s highly-rated young centre-back, Aaron Martin. The 22 year-old signed on a season-long loan from the Saints where has made 20 first-team appearances so far after joining from local side Eastleigh. Born in Newport on the Isle of Wight, Martin is highly-rated by Saints` supporters and staff alike and will be looking to build on his first-team experience with the Eagles this season.
One big loss was that of experienced midfielder Darren Ambrose. The former Newcastle, Charlton Athletic & Ipswich Town made was important again last season, scoring the wonder goal which knocked Manchester United out the Carling Cup. However, after a successful spell at Palace, he was allowed to join Birmingham City this summer for a substantial figure.
Home-grown full-back Nathaniel Clyne also departed following the expiry of his contract, joining Nigel Adkins` Southampton for a seven-figure fee before going to tribunal.
Gianfranco Zola could very well be without Alex Geijo and Sean Murray for the season`s opener, Murray has a calf problem while Geijo is not fit. Steve Leo Beleck is not yet fit whilst Stephen McGinn and Fitz Hall both have knocks.
Crystal Palace: Speroni; Ward, Martin, McCarthy (c), Parr; Zaha, Marrow, Garvan, Dikgacoi, Moxey; Wilbraham.
Watford: Almunia; Hodson, Nosworthy, Taylor, Pudil; Hogg, Eustace (c), Abdi; Yeates, Iwelumo & Vydra.
Referee: Mr A D`Urso.