Chris Powell's Flat Cap

Home » Season Previews » Chris Powell’s Flat Cap League One Season Preview – Part One

Chris Powell’s Flat Cap League One Season Preview – Part One

Charlton supporters, preparing to see the Addicks partake in third tier football for the first time in five seasons, may find it easy to scorn at the perceived quality of League One.

When the South East London side were last relegated to League One, they were in a division alongside Norwich City, Leeds United, Southampton, Brighton & Hove Albion, Huddersfield Town, a Charlie Austin-led Swindon Town, and an ultimately promoted Millwall. The quality of the division in 2009/10 as high as it ever had been, and is ever likely to be.

But even when Charlton eventually achieved promotion back to the Championship, romping to the League One title with 101 points three years later, there were a healthy number of clubs with a status that was perceived to be bigger than the division. The Addicks joined by Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Huddersfield Town and Preston North End, in addition to Brentford and Bournemouth sides beginning to show what they were capable of.

For the 2016/17 season, however, the number of perceived bigger clubs is limited. And many of those are in a state that means their reputations have been significantly damaged.

The opposition to Charlton’s ownership meaning there remains uncertainty despite the appointment of an English boss, Bolton Wanderers’ financial situation healthier but a transfer embargo remained until July and a certain amount of caution will exist given how close they were to complete disaster, Coventry City playing second fiddle to a rugby franchise in their own home, and Sheffield United preparing for their sixth successive season in the third tier.

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Millwall, reigniting supporter interest irrespective of last season’s play-off final defeat with a side well led by a club hero, and Bradford City, optimistic that German investment will make the departure of Phil Parkinson meaningless and in fact move the club forward, have enough positivity to outweigh concerns or complaints, but even at those two clubs are there questions that need answering.

It is, therefore, easy for clubs of a slightly larger size to demand promotion from a league not at its strongest. Even those not in the healthiest of states will expect nothing less than a serious effort made to return to a division they would argue is more fitting of their status.

But such thinking is incredibly naïve. The success of Burton Albion last season in this division ignored, as is Walsall’s third-place finish, Scunthorpe’s late push for a play-off place, and Gillingham only falling away from the top six in the final weeks of the season. Status holds only a small amount of importance when cohesive and well-led units frequently achieve in League One.

Among those not already mentioned, Port Vale are trying something a bit different and have, apparently, genuine promotion ambitions, Peterborough United chairman Darragh MacAnthony, after an inconsistent and unsettled campaign, won’t settle for anything less than a top six finish, and the four clubs promoted from League Two are all not to be underestimated. There are plenty of healthy clubs in this division.

A lack of strong big clubs, maybe, but certainly no lack of competition in the 2016/17 edition of League One. Each of the 24 clubs will be previewed in depth over the course of four parts, with the assistance of a supporter from each club.


AFC Wimbledon

Rarely explicitly stated, but AFC Wimbledon’s promotion from League Two was covered in such a manner that made the play-off final victory over Plymouth Argyle seem like the final chapter of their fairy tale revival.120px-AFC_Wimbledon.svg

The narrative implying that Adebayo Akinfenwa’s stoppage-time penalty, sealing the win at Wembley after Lyle Taylor’s 78th minute opener, was the completion of a project rather than a move to the next level.

Emotional celebrations from supporters reflecting the idea that this was the ultimate reward for the efforts put in since 2002 to revive a club that had effectively been taken from them. The media retelling a tale that takes in six promotions in 14 years, the latest of which puts them in the same division as the relocated and renamed club that was once the one stolen from them. The infamous “resurrecting the club from its ashes is not in the wider interests of football” comment from the FA seemingly defeated, as the wider footballing community embraced Wimbledon’s story and success.

But the joy of that promotion, an incredible achievement for a side that exceeded expectations as much an incredible story, is certainly not the conclusion of Wimbledon’s journey. And not just because such thinking invites a forgive and forget attitude towards the manner in which the original club was taken from supporters of the Dons.

For while the emotion of their play-off victory won’t be forgotten, AFC Wimbledon have a new challenge ahead of them. As testing as anything they’ve faced since their rebirth. To compete in League One, with its numerous former Premier League clubs, despite comparatively limited resources and a ground, the 4,850 capacity Kingsmeadow while the battle to return to Wimbledon continues, which reflects their relatively small status.

No side in this division, however, has a greater sense of identity, collective spirit, and a determined fight to prove people wrong. You wouldn’t put it past Neal Ardley’s side to do so again in their first season in the third tier since their rebirth.

The Manager – Neal Ardley

“It’s immense, it’s what you dream of. It’s surreal. To stand there in front of 20 to 25,000 people, who 14 years ago had their club ripped away from them. To be there in front of them, as one of their own, having joined at the age of 11.” 

Having a manager that perfectly understood and embraced the magnitude and meaning of AFC Wimbledon’s achievement managed to make the Dons’ day at Wembley just a bit more special. Ardley, with 245 league appearances for the original incarnation over an 11-year period, is the ideal leader of this club.

But he’s not merely a token figurehead, who has maintained his position at Kingsmeadow since 2012 on the basis of his status alone. Clever recruitment, the sort of excellent man-management required to lead a club with certain limitations, and the building of a cohesive unit has allowed Wimbledon to pull off two impressive against-the-odds survival efforts under Ardley’s stewardship, in addition to overcoming sides with great financial strength and perceived quality to achieve promotion last season.

It’s those qualities, particularly being able to gel together a side with comparatively smaller resources, which will be particularly important in Wimbledon’s battle to avoid an immediate return to League Two.

Transfer Business

Unfortunately, the only place to start is with an out. Ardley allowing Akinfenwa, ultimately signing for Wycombe Wanderers, to depart the club despite his influence, unique qualities and promotion-sealing penalty at Wembley.

There is an argument that Akinfenwa, at 34 and having made a number of his appearances off the bench last season, no longer possesses the same ability to make an impact as in years gone by. That justified by the fact he has joined a League Two club, and not one in the same division as the Dons.

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But there is no denying, whether he would have been able to contribute consistently to a League One side or not, he is a player and personality that will be missed at Kingsmeadow.

Akinfenwa not the only first-team player to depart AFC this summer, with left-back Callum Kennedy (Leyton Orient) and winger Sean Rigg (Newport County) also finding League Two clubs after being released.

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More frustratingly for Ardley, however, are the departures of former Charlton striker Adebayo Azeez and Irish midfielder Connor Smith. Azeez turning down a new contract offer from the Dons to join Partick Thistle, and Smith doing likewise in order to sign for losing play-off finalists Plymouth Argyle.

But there have been some tidy additions made to the squad, avoiding the notion that the Dons go into this season with a weaker group of players than last.

Defender Darius Charles joins permanently after impressing on loan from Burton last season, Stevenage midfield pair Dean Parrett and Chris Whelpdale, who has League One experience with Peterborough and Gillingham, have excelled in League Two over the previous two campaigns, and forward Dominic Poleon arrives from Oldham with unfulfilled potential.

Another forward addition also promised, though Ardley has stated it won’t be a direct replacement for Akinfenwa, not that a direct replacement for Akinfenwa exists.

Regardless, the nature of and finances available to AFC Wimbledon means competing in the transfer market with other League One clubs is a testing ask. Their main advantages that provide hope of maintaining their third tier status, namely structure, organisation and spirit, to be found elsewhere.

The Squad

Given that AFC Wimbledon’s squad is one that overachieved and defied the odds to win promotion last season, it appearing comparatively weak on paper in League One comes as no surprise.

But that isn’t to say there isn’t quality that’s good enough for this level within it. Maybe some question marks over the depth of their defensive options, but Barry Fuller, Paul Robinson, Charles and Jonathan Meades form a very solid backline, with Meades the only player to lack reasonable experience at this level.

A backline that will protect James Shea, likely to be first choice goalkeeper after loanee Kelle Roos returned to Derby.

In midfield, Parrett will be competing for a central spot with evergreen 37-year-old Dannie Bulman and impressive 23-year-old Jake Reeves, with the experienced Andy Barcham and long-serving George Francomb the wide options available in addition to Whelpdale.

While in attack, the goals of Lyle Taylor will again prove crucial. The 26-year-old, who has failed to impress at League One level previously, is surely much better equipped to make an impression in the third tier this time around having scored 23 times last season.

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Overall though, it’s arguably the organisation, determination and collective strength of the side that is more important than the individuals within it. A need for them to overachieve in a similar way to last season in order to avoid relegation.

Fans View – Joe Moger (@JoeMoger)

The rise of AFC Wimbledon has been embraced by neutrals, and the emotion that followed last season’s League Two play-off final made your victory feel special to the average football supporter. Are there words that do justice to what you’ve been through, and where you find yourself now? 

I think every Wimbledon fan is used to ridiculous seasons, it’s just in our nature. In the last 20 years a team representing Wimbledon has played in the top 9 divisions and in the guise of AFC Wimbledon we stayed in League 2 for the longest out of any division: a prolonged stint of 5 seasons. Last season was pretty normal for us in all honesty, we’ve been spoilt for promotions in the last 14 years, that being our 6th, and we now sit one division below from where Wimbledon lost its original league place.

Also, I have to say the support from neutral fans is nice; it proves to us that what we have done and are doing, along with other clubs like FCUM, Darlington and Enfield, is benefiting more than just Wimbledon and its fans.

As a club that had bad owners in the past, we are very much supportive of Charlton fans (CARD in particular) that will not stand for owners dragging the club through bad times with no real personal attachment to the club. Sometimes foreign owners forget what football clubs mean to its community and that fans have brains and lots of stress balls.

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Where does attempting to compete in League One rank among the many impossible challenges you’ve faced throughout your existence? Will 20th be a success this season? 

For pretty much every Wimbledon fan the 1988 FA Cup win against Liverpool will be the greatest moment in our history. In more recent years being promoted to the Football League would be the most important, followed by staying up on the last day of the season to preserve the league place. Those two were more important than promotion, so staying up would be up there, but for our management team this isn’t too much of a shock, so I’ll put my trust in them to do right again this season.

20th would definitely mean success, we can’t afford to take such a big backwards step. We pondered in lower mid table for a few years in League 2, so hopefully we can emulate that again before maybe dreaming of the Championship, which was probably our ultimate goal since promotion to the Football League.

Does Adebayo Akinfenwa’s personality mean his importance to the side was overstated, or will he be a big miss?

I think it was almost the opposite. His personality took away from what he was as a player and a person for our club, and clubs like Northampton in the past. People see an overly large, League Two footballer with teenagers bowing down to him because of a video game and think he’s awful.

As far as target men go in the lower leagues, there is no better; he could chest a ball down with 50 defenders marking him. When a player occupies two centre backs like that, it leaves more space for other players.

The obvious problem is that sometimes it alters your style, and you feel the need to go long to him all the time. But his goals record speaks for itself. Last season was the first time in 7 years he hadn’t scored 10 league goals, and that was largely because he became a substitute for us.

He’ll be a big miss, especially in the changing room and for the impact everyone around the world saw during the three play-off games, but it was definitely time to move on and evolve our team past just Akinfenwa.

First team players have departed, but, especially considering how difficult it is for a club like yours to compete in the transfer market against other League One sides, you’ve made some tidy additions. How would you assess your transfer activity, and the state of your squad?

We’ve done well in keeping our players so far. Ex Charlton youngster Azeez left for Scotland, but he was really only going to be an impact sub for us, as well as Connor Smith who filled gaps more than demanded a starting place.

We have a good core to our squad with the likes of Robinson, Reeves and Taylor down the middle, but I’m not personally convinced all of our players are good enough for League One. Two of our wingers, Francomb and Barcham, certainly have the potential to be good enough, but their form in the second half of last season is worrying if we’re going to compete in a tougher league.

Goalkeeper is another questionable area with young Shea being up and down last season, and Clarke not playing at all for Northampton. Getting Darius Charles permanently after his loan has been our best signing after his partnership with Robinson, but I’m not entirely convinced by Poleon so we definitely need another striker.

Now that you’re in the same division as the club that many would argue stole your league position, would returning to a ground in Wimbledon make the club’s revival complete, or is that thinking too close to forgiving and forgetting the unforgivable? 

The fans have always kept Wimbledon alive and kicking throughout, so moving back to Plough Lane would be more completing a story. In an ideal world in five years we’d be in the Championship, playing at Plough Lane and MK would drop the Dons.

For me that’d bring the whole scenario to an acceptable end, but I don’t think a lot of football fans in general would be able to accept MK.

“In an ideal world in five years we’d be in the Championship, playing at Plough Lane and MK would drop the Dons” 

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I have absolutely no idea where we’ll finish. Hopefully somewhere nice and boring but if this squad under performs we’ll be right down there for sure. I’ll predict 17th for the sake of it with no real confidence.

Summary

Survival as big a success as promotion itself, and would not at all be surprised if they pulled it off, but it looks a difficult ask. Would be delighted to be proven wrong. 22nd 

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Bolton Wanderers

Celebrating a dramatic UEFA Cup draw with Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena to simply being thankful that their club exists to compete in the third tier of English football. Bolton supporters have witnessed their club decline in barely believable fashion over the previous nine seasons. grgerbherherhnerhe

But the reality of their situation is one they must accept. Having finished bottom of the Championship last season, and narrowly avoided financial oblivion, there is no injustice or unfairness that they are now a League One club. Escaping winding up orders celebrated more greatly than the five wins managed.

That, however, does not prevent the Trotters, standing on seemingly stable foundations after a takeover from the Dean Holdsworth-led and Ken Anderson-owned Sports Shield consortium in March, from having serious and credible ambitions to make an immediate return to the second tier.

An element of concern always likely to exist given how close they appeared to liquidation at times last season, in addition to Bolton being the sort of club too big to be viable in this division, and their transfer embargo only being removed at the start of July. But they do genuinely appear in a state to challenge.

The appointment of Phil Parkinson a promising one, the newly found stable financial base allowing for some useful additions to be made, and the squad containing some exciting young players who excelled in troubled times in the previous campaign.

Those European nights might be long gone, but a season where the Trotters begin to rebuild and mount a successful promotion challenge will be, after several seasons of suffering, enjoyed almost as much.
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The Manager – Phil Parkinson

For a period, it seemed like a straight race between the unemployed Steve Cotterill and the unemployed Nigel Adkins for the vacant Bolton manager’s position. A position that had frustratingly remained vacant since March when Neil Lennon was dismissed.

So to ultimately prise a boss away from a League One rival, whose position appeared relatively secure, provides much greater encouragement than simply settling for someone searching for a job.

Phil Parkinson – with a League Cup final appearance, a League Two play-off final win, and a finish in the top six of League One – had enjoyed a marvellous five seasons at Bradford City, and seemingly had the support of the Yorkshire club’s new German owners. In one way or another, managing the Trotters remains an attractive proposition despite the crisis the club have crept out of.

And Parkinson, promoted from this division with Colchester United in 2006 in addition to a play-off failure with Charlton in 2010, has the potential to reverse the relegation that came as a consequence of the shambolic state Bolton were in.

Not necessarily an implementer of attractive and flowing football, the most frustrating aspect of his time at The Valley a failure to utilise Jonjo Shelvey properly, but a man who can put together a cohesive unit that knows how to get results.

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Transfer Business

With relegation was always going to come some disappointing losses, and none more so for Bolton than that of young centre-back Rob Holding.

The England U21 international, who won the club’s Player of the Year award last season despite it being his debut campaign, joining Arsenal for a fee in the region of £2m. The hope being that at least some of that fee will be reinvested in the squad, but Holding a huge loss regardless.

He joins a whole host of players who have been released by the club, with many who would have been receiving relatively high wages departing. Neil Danns, Stephen Dobbie, Emile Heskey and David Wheater among them. Liam Feeney, who joins Blackburn Rovers, the only big loss, but he was always likely to leave having spent the final part of last season on loan at Ipswich Town.

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Besides, Feeney’s replacement is a strong one, with the club’s transfer embargo served during the period of extreme uncertainty partially lifted. Chris Taylor impressive at this level for both Oldham and Millwall, and impressed on occasions in the Championship for Blackburn Rovers. He also scored twice against Charlton in a FA Cup game once, which is probably worth something.

And the departure of Holding has been offset by the arrival of Mark Beevers after he opted to leave Millwall. The centre-back, though only 26, a strong presence at the back that can certainly lead a defensive line.

Elsewhere, forward Jamie Proctor arrives having worked with Parkinson at former club Bradford, while Mark Howard joins from Sheffield United to probably serve as back-up goalkeeper.

Activity minimal, but probably to be expected given the nature of Bolton’s situation. The sale of Holding might get the ball rolling.

The Squad

If there was one crumb of comfort to be taken from last season, it is the fact numerous youngsters were given a first team chance, and several impressed.

Holding obviously among them, and he will be missed following his departure, but other young and homegrown players are likely to play very important roles this season. A massive boost that both midfielder Josh Vela and exciting forward Zach Clough remain with the club.

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Experience also in the squad, with players that should, in theory, be impressive performers at this level despite sometimes struggling last season. Dorian Dervite and Lawrie Wilson not making the greatest of impressions at the Macron, but Charlton supporters will tell you they’re both of decent quality. At the very least, they provide depth in defence.

A great deal of experience also to be found in Bolton’s midfield, likely competing for spots alongside Vela. It looked like Jay Spearing’s Trotters career was over at one point while Liam Trotter spent part of last season on loan at Nottingham Forest, but both remain, while there will be few better creative midfielders in this division than Mark Davies if he can maintain fitness. All of which keeps the disliked Darren Pratley down the pecking order, which will please supporters.

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A strong argument existing, however, for the need for further wide men. Wilson can play on the right side of midfield if needed, while Clough and forward Max Clayton can both operate in wide positions, but there is little beyond Taylor in terms of players who are exclusively wingers. More game time for youngster Tom Walker likely.

Youngsters also providing the depth in the central attacking positions, with Kaiyne Woolery and Conor Wilkinson in reserve to Clayton, Clough and Proctor. Gary Madine, who has proven himself to be effective at this level in the past, also available should Parkinson want a more physical presence in attack.

All in all, especially for a club that was on the brink of extinction, Bolton’s squad could be a lot worse.

Fans View – Jake Vickers (@Jake_BWFC)

Are you simply relieved to still have a club, despite playing in the third tier?

After the financial mess we were in last season I’m more than happy to be in League 1. A lot of us feared the worst especially when we were as little as 30 minutes from being put into liquidation by the court. Any club at any level is better than no club.

Given that you have been taken over by a group who have provided a degree of financial stability and appear to have Bolton’s best interests at heart, can you relax about the club’s future now? 

I’m still wary of the new owners, with the recent news of Dean Holdsworth, the face of the takeover, resigning from his position of Director of Football there seems to be something off about the new ownership. This only supports the rumours of the two co-owners falling out which is worrying, time will tell what they have planned for the future of the club. But there has been reason to have faith in the new hierarchy such as the 4 signings brought in far.

Phil Parkinson’s appointment as manager was, in a positive sense, a little bit unexpected. Is he the right man to rebuild Bolton?

At first it was a big surprise, I knew little about him but the more we see the more confidence I have in him to take us forward. His no nonsense attitude should bring back the Bolton of old, a tough team who plays with their heart of their sleeves, not afraid to get stuck in and giving everything for the shirt. That’s what we’ve been missing in recent years.

Is anything but an immediate return to the Championship failure, or does the nature of your situation mean you have to accept the possibility of a season set aside to rebuild and consolidate?

I personally wouldn’t consider another year in League One as a failure. The players left here have to adapt to the new league and we don’t have the resources to go out and buy the best players available to us so a rebuild has to be done on a tight budget.

It’s time for us to rebuild on and off the pitch and that won’t be a quick job. I would set a two year timescale to get back into the Championship, any longer and I would worry about the finances of the club again.

“It’s time for us to rebuild on and off the pitch and that won’t be a quick job”

A host of young players provided some rare positivity last season, including the departing Rob Holding. How important will they be as the club attempts to reignite passion in Bolton and mount a promotion challenge?

Holding will be a huge miss for us, he’s a terrific talent with a bright future. But the likes of Zach Clough, Max Clayton, Josh Vela and Kaiyne Woolery have a huge chance to make a name for themselves this season. If we do make a push for promotion it’ll be these players who will prove to be the consistent performers and match winners.

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And finally, where will you finish this season?

I want to say play-offs, so 6th.

Summary                                                              

Won’t simply walk the league, especially given the nature of their situation, as many big clubs that are relegated to League One expect, but have enough about them to be competitive under Parkinson’s stewardship. 4th 

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Bradford City

Before supporters of Bradford City get excited about what new foreign investment can achieve at a club that has improved steadily in recent years, they need only look a few miles away for a cautionary tale. fghreghreher

For foreign ownership has delivered anything but progression at Leeds United. Massimo Cellino overseeing continued stagnation on the pitch, chaos off it, and leaving a committed set of supporters divided. Occupants of The Valley, Ewood Park, and the City Ground experiencing similar, and among those who would also suggest foreign ownership isn’t always a positive change.

But so too can the Bantams find optimism in another part of Yorkshire. Sheffield Wednesday’s Thai owner Dejphon Chansiri building on a relatively stable platform to take the Owls to last season’s Championship play-off final, and strengthening supporter bonds with the club in the process. The champions of England will also tell you that being foreign owned certainly doesn’t mean a need to start planning protests is required.

And if the words and actions of German duo Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp in the early months of their reign are setting the standard for what’s to come, then there could well be victory parades around Bradford rather than vicious protests come the end of the season. In appearing to connect with the club and holding no objectives other than to bring success and stability to Valley Parade, they appear more likely to emulate the overseas investors at Hillsborough than Elland Road.

The only transformation one not intended, and forced upon them. Full support offered to Phil Parkinson, having led his side on an ultimately unsuccessful play-off campaign last time out, before the manager opted to take up an opportunity to lead Bolton Wanderers.

It dealt with in a promising manner, though, as cult hero Stuart McCall was quickly appointed, and fully supported in the transfer market. The solid foundations left behind by Parkinson built upon, rather than reset for the benefit of the German duo.

And, should Rahic and Rupp’s words prove truthful, will be built upon over the long-term, with an “open and transparent relationship with the fans and the press” as they attempt to move the club forward. A promise that there is no hidden agenda, and simply a desire to make Bradford as successful as possible.

It would appear that cautionary tales aren’t totally relevant.

The Manager – Stuart McCall

Maybe not the ideal scenario, with support still plentiful for the departed boss irrespective of last season’s play-off defeat and his position reaffirmed as safe by the new owners, but Parkinson’s move to Bolton has at least allowed Rahic and Rupp to confirm they have the club and supporters’ best interests at heart.

A German coach with minimal knowledge of English football, but a close personal relationship with the owners, could have been appointed to assist in any hidden personal objectives they have. Similar has been seen elsewhere.

Instead, a club legend was given the role for a second time in a bid to rally supporters and achieve the primary objective of promotion. A club legend who has improved his CV since leaving Bradford in 2010. Who has “learned so much” in managerial and coaching roles at Motherwell, Rangers and the Scottish national team.

To the extent that despite McCall resigning with the club in the bottom half of League Two in February 2010, with suggestions that the pressure of fulfilling the demands of the role while being a club legend was too much, this is not an appointment simply to appease supporters.

His 395 league appearances over two spells obviously make him adored at Valley Parade, but it’s a second place finish in the SPL with Motherwell, and the experienced gained while with Rangers and Scotland, that make McCall’s appointment just as promising.

A man that can now deal with pressure like having fresh cash to spend, with Rahic and Rupp supporting him in the transfer market, and taking over from a manager that achieved so much, with Parkinson having cup runs, a promotion and consistent improvement to his name.

Transfer Business

Despite the promise of a hefty transfer kitty, it’s a signing that has cost the club £1 which has attracted the greatest attention this summer.

Former Birmingham goalkeeper Colin Doyle arriving from crisis club Blackpool for spare change, and replacing the departed Ben Williams. The Irishman, despite being a benchwarmer with the Blues and suffering relegation with the Tangerines last season, a decent stopper.

And that spending £1 a player is the most attention grabbing bit of business Bradford have done this summer is probably a reflection of the fact that they’ve been a little slow in recruiting new additions to their squad.

Not that those additions haven’t been excellent ones. Particularly that of Romain Vincelot, who is arguably one of the best holding midfielders in the division.

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Joining him are Nat Knight-Percival, a reliable League One centre-back, midfielder Nicky Law, who spent time on loan at Bradford between 2007 and 2009 and has impressed in Scotland for several seasons with both Motherwell and Rangers, and former Oldham utility man Timothee Dieng, who has signed a two-year deal after impressing on trial.

A move also made to sign forward Jordy Hiwula on loan from Huddersfield for the duration of the campaign. The 21-year-old impressing in loan spells at Walsall in recent seasons.

His signing makes the loss of striker Jamie Proctor, joining his old boss at Bolton Wanderers, easier to take.

But few players that played anything more than a bit-part role, other than Williams and Proctor, have left the club this summer. Few tears shed as Steve Davies, Billy Knott and Josh Morris depart.

And so quality has been added to a decent amount of quality that was already in place. It’s just that, with the German millions, maybe a few more fireworks were expected.

The Squad

In fact, it’s probably not entirely unreasonable for supporters of the Bantams to suggest that further strengthening of their squad is required if they are to challenge for a top six place again this season.

At least Knight-Percival plugs the gap left behind by Reece Burke’s return to West Ham, with the 19-year-old centre-back having impressed immensely last season. Long-serving Rory McArdle and Nathan Clarke, who struggled to make much on impression on City supporters last season, Knight-Percival’s competition, and so another central defender wouldn’t go a miss.

A need, too, for another full-back to provide competition to skipper Stephen Darby at right-back and Australian James Meredith on the left. Tony McMahon can fill in if required, but he was primarily used in the centre of midfield last season.

Though McMahon might well find full-back is where his best chance of starting is, after the arrival of Law, Dieng and Vincelot. Competition for places in the middle despite the departures of Knott and the end of Lee Evans’ loan from Wolves.

Mark Marshall, Filipe Morais and Paul Anderson provide three decent wide options, with Morias particularly impressive, while target man James Hanson should form a potent partnership with either Hiwula or fan favourite Billy Clarke.

Again, though, you could argue that, though there is quality available, there is need for another option out wide and in attack to provide reassurance. A decent side, but maybe just a body short in each department for one that wants to challenge.

Fans View – Joshua Chapman (@JRCSport)

Clubs under new foreign ownership rarely go without either speedy development or even quicker destruction. Are you excited about Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp, or a little nervous?

Personally, I feel investment and a change of leadership is long overdue for the club. Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn saved the club at it’s lowest ebb but were becoming too dependent for me on sustaining the clubs on the back of Cup runs.

To build the side up from where it was six-seven years ago at the wrong end of League Two trying to avoid what would have been a club ending relegation to the Conference to League One promotion credit was a massive turnaround.

However, the majority of our income seemed to be coming through cheap season tickets and those runs to the Capital One Cup Final and FA Cup Quarter Finals.

The Germans have the money, they have the ambition, they have the drive and they have the connections so for me, it’s only a good thing that they are now at the top.

“Investment and a change of leadership is long overdue for the club”

Does Stuart McCall’s appointment make Phil Parkinson’s departure to Bolton easier to take, or would you have liked a different direction to be taken rather than a former boss reappointed?

Stuart McCall is known as god for a reason, the man bleeds Claret and Amber. And his second spell as a player with us didn’t go too badly did it? Against all odds promotion to the Premier League and even more so against the odds survival for a second year at the top of the table.

Stuart is a different manager to what he was last time he was here. He came into the Valley Parade hotseat nine years ago as a novice who had spent all his managerial career as a number two to Neil Warnock.

Since then he turned Motherwell into a force in Scottish Football and stabilised Rangers after Ally McCoist’s departure and was unlucky to not earn promotion to the Scottish Premiership.

He’s also served as Gordon Strachan’s number two at Scotland and Gordon has managed against the best that Europe has had to offer in his career.

We’re a very different club, Stuart is a very different manager to 2007 so it goes well hand in hand that ‘McGod’ is home yet again.

Phil Parkinson for me was a very defensive minded manager and in League Two, his build from the back and hoof it to Hanson methods worked an absolute treat and even caught the Premier League clubs out but in League One we were getting found out at times and unfortunately we aren’t the 1980’s Arsenal. Winning 1-0 every week and being the best doesn’t happen in the modern game. It was the right time for us to part ways, even if many don’t agree.

Having got relatively close last season, and with new investment, does promotion need to be achieved this season?

I would say this season is all about stability, it took the Sheikh at Manchester City a good three years for the Champions League and then a further year to deliver the Premier League at the Etihad after all!

Stuart and the owners have there own ideas and will want there own men and it won’t happen over night. Personally, I see 2016-17 as a year of building what they want to then push on for promotion to the Championship in 2018.

Bradford City needs stability, Phil Parkinson gave us it after 13 years of uncertainty and Stuart McCall and the new investors will give it that boost it’s desperately needed to take us to that next level.

You’ve been a little slow to get going in the transfer market, despite the promise of big spending and investment. A frustration, or are you remaining patient?

Stuart McCall will want his own players to go with what he’s inherited and there’s no point in just throwing money at it from minute one in my honest opinion, because it will just go downhill very quickly if we don’t take off from day one against Port Vale.

Romain Vincelot for a 6 figure fee from Coventry over the weekend is a massive coup for the club as he has been one of League One’s most dangerous midfielders for seasons and with the likes of Nicky Law alongside him will cause teams problem throughout the division.

Jordy Hiwula on loan from Huddersfield is an exciting signing also as if he can link up superbly with James Hanson, they could cause the damage that ‘Big Jim’ used to with Nahki Wells during the Parkinson era.

I’m remaining firmly patient, I believe in the new regime and I believe in Stuart McCall and I firmly believe that if given the time, they will get what they want to achieve sooner rather than later.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

It’s stability I want this season. Yes, 5th placed and the play-offs was a superb accomplishment last season but with new owners and a new manager there is bound to be a transitional period and for me a 8th-11th placed finish to give us stability and something to push on to promotion with in 2017-18 would be ideal.

Summary

A good game spoken by Rahic and Rupp, their actions promising, and McCall a promising way to replace Parkinson. Fill the relatively small gaps in the squad and will be up there. 3rd

The Sunwin Stand at the Coral Windows Stadium, home of Bradford City FC. Saturday 9th February 2008


Bristol Rovers

If ever you need a reminder of what football means to people, take some time out of your day to enjoy the remarkable scenes that followed the stoppage-time goal on the final day of last season that gave Bristol Rovers a quite remarkable promotion to League One. erherh

And by people, I don’t just simply mean the supporters at the Memorial Ground, irrespective of how incredible their celebrations were as Lee Brown scored against Dagenham & Redbridge to mean Rovers leapfrogged Accrington Stanley into third place with almost the final kick of the campaign.

A real joy expressed by a tight collection of players, many of who were involved in promotion from the Conference viva the play-offs at the end of the previous season, and emotion from manager Darrell Clarke, having led his side to 12 wins from their final 16 games to secure a second successive promotion, that matched that of his supporters. One of those events, while holding some sympathy for Accrington, which you can’t help but smile at as a football supporter.

The scenes a reflection of the barely believable recovery overseen by Clarke, having been the man at the helm when they suffered relegation to non-league football in 2014. Promotion to League One seen as a “redemption” by the boss, but that might just be underselling it a little. This rise has created something very special at the Memorial Ground.

A young manager attracting attention from clubs further up the league ladder, but willing to remain to continue his successful reign that has created a bond between supporters and club. A group of players well drilled, and exceeding all expectations. An unbelievable atmosphere, and not just when celebrating last-minute promotions.

So much so that League One is being attacked without fear, and instead simply another opportunity to enjoy Clarke’s incredible side. And why wouldn’t it be?

The Manager – Darrell Clarke

To know that Massimo Cellino wants you to manage his football club probably provides more discomfort than it does praise, but that Leeds United ultimately appointed Garry Monk having attempted to snatch Clarke away from Bristol Rovers is an indication of just how highly the 38-year-old boss is rated.

And that Clarke remains with Rovers, with a new three-year-deal signed, is an indication that something special has and continues to happen at the Memorial Ground club. A tight and talented squad, the majority of which was shaped following relegation from League Two when further crisis appeared more likely than possible celebration, perfectly in tune with their boss and perfectly in tune with the club’s supporters.

The Pirates a club transformed under Clarke’s stewardship, and one that can continue to hold ambition and confidence as a consequence of Clarke irrespective of the challenge that awaits in League One.

“I’m not the sort of manager who is ever going to be happy to target a mid-table finish,” Clarke told the Bristol Post in May. “There is more work to be done because I am not one to standstill and I am still hungry for more.”

Such self-belief might well take a little knock throughout the course of a difficult League One season, and the need to be pragmatic may ultimately overtake positivity, but having a manager who can speak of a further desire to improve despite having recorded successive promotions and not sound misguided or delusional must be a real joy for supporters of Rovers.

Transfer Business

Particularly for a promoted club, Bristol Rovers have been incredibly quiet in the transfer market this summer.

Only forward Rory Fallon, released after not being offered a new contract, and Tom Parkes, opting to turn down Rovers’ contract offer in favour of joining Leyton Orient after four seasons with the club, the only two first team players to depart, while just three have arrived.

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Three solid arrivals, though. Experienced centre-back Peter Hartley joins from Plymouth, winger Byron Moore snapped up following his release from Port Vale, and forward Luke James, who showed so much potential at Hartlepool but has struggled since moving to Peterborough, given a positive environment in which to rediscover his best form during a season-long loan.

Nonetheless, it’s fair to suggest that you would normally expect a touch more activity from a newly promoted side.

But that lack of activity a consequence of that fact they have had other focuses. Focuses such as securing the services of the squad that served them so well last season. A grand total of 16 new deals signed, including forward Matty Taylor, who many were expecting to depart after his goal scoring exploits.

Clarke largely giving an opportunity to those who have achieved a great deal for this club to perform in League One.

The Squad

New deals were “in the post” for almost every member of Bristol Rover’s promotion winning squad before a week since their incredible achievement had even passed.

Not only reward for their success, but a show of faith by Clarke in this group that it is talented enough to compete at a higher level. And, in fairness, there’s a reasonable chance he’ll be proved right.

For there is quality and depth throughout the side, starting with Will Puddy providing reasonable back up to experienced goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall. Both among the number that have signed new deals.

Hartley likely to find his way into the centre of defence, with club captain Mark McChrystal and Tom Lockyer, who both have over 100 appearances for Rovers, the main two contenders for the position alongside him. Both signed new deals at the end of last season, as did James Clarke, who provides cover in the centre and started frequently at right-back.

Daniel Leadbitter the other leading contender for the right-back position, while Lee Brown was an ever-present on the left. Both have agreed new deals with the club.

In the centre of midfield, there’s a nice mix of experience and relative youth. Chris Lines, in his third spell with the club and boasting Championship experience with Sheffield Wednesday, could link up with home-grown Ollie Clarke, 33-year-old Lee Mansell, or Stuart Sinclair, who will be playing in League One for the first time having spent most of his career in the depths of non-league football.

Sinclair, a player who I saw play quite often for Bedford Town in the mid-2000s, the only one not to have signed a new deal this summer, having extended his stay at the Memorial Stadium in the previous off-season.

It’s probably in the forward positions, however, where Rovers have the greatest strength in depth, helped by having plenty of versatile attacking players. Billy Bodin, who scored 13 times last season, and Ellis Harrison among those who can be deployed out wide and up top.

Further wide options can be found in new signing Moore, Colombian Christian Montano, and Gibraltar international Jake Gosling. The experience of Liam Lawrence also available after he joined the club from Shrewsbury in January. Unsurprisingly, they all signed new deals during the close season.

But it is the renewal of Taylor’s contract, with even Clarke believing the 27-goal striker would leave, that provides the biggest boost of all to Rovers. He’ll be supported in attack by loan signing James, Rory Gaffney, and Jermaine Easter, who once scored for Millwall against Charlton in a Championship fixture, which was fun.

The worry, of course, is that this act of loyalty is in fact one of complacency, with the true strength of League One undervalued. Clarke himself wanting a few more additions, with competition at left-back and maybe a touch more quality in the centre of midfield needed.

But the already cohesive and structured nature of the side provides an additional advantage, and there are certainly players within it that will have little struggle in stepping up from the fourth tier.

Fans View – Lucy Ford (@LucyRovers)

The transformation of your football club under Darrell Clarke appears barely believable. Were the lows of relegation from the Football League worth for it for what’s followed?

At the time we got relegated, I honestly thought that was the end of our club and I was devastated but looking back now, getting relegated was the best thing to ever happen to our club. We have players who not only play for the club, but play for the manager and buy into his philosophy.

“Getting relegated was the best thing to ever happen to our club”

After two promotions in two seasons, is this season merely about maintaining a place in League One, or is this group so special that more should be expected?

I would like to consolidate this year with a mid-table finish, but I also said this last season about going back into league two, so anything can happen.

I imagine it’s been quite a nervy summer, what with speculation about staff and squad. How important is it to have tied down the majority of this unit, and in particular Clarke and Taylor?

Everyone was offered a deal on the back of promotion, the manager stated this before we got promoted and all our players bar one signed. Clarke was arguably the biggest signing of the season in my eyes, he’s an integral part of our club, it’s his philosophy our players buy into. Taylor is also important, he was the Football League’s top goal scorer despite last season being his first season as a Football League player.

Though the retention of key players and personnel is obviously important, you’ve not done too much strengthening. Any concerns about certain areas of your squad?

I feel another goalkeeper is needed, Mildenhall is good but getting old while Puddy I have question marks over. So a young goalkeeper, perhaps on loan from a Championship/Premier League club would be good as competition. A central midfielder and a left back is needed, just for extra cover with the changes to the loan system and again for competition to our current players.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

Right now I would take mid table, so 10-12th I would be very happy with. We could then push on next season.

Summary

Third promotion in a row is beyond even Clarke and his group of players. All about consolidation. 16th 

Uplands_StandBRFC


Bury

Occasional moments of disappointment and unnecessary uncertainty, in addition to a period spent in the top six, but last season was ultimately a case of job done on two fronts for Bury. 

The play-offs, although only briefly in the autumn months, flirted with more than the bottom four as their status as a League One club, in their first season back in the third tier since 2012/13, was consolidated with a commendable 14th place finish. Their joint highest league finish since relegation from the second tier in 1998/99.

Or at least it would have been had three points not been deducted from their final tally for fielding an illegible player on the final day of the season, demoting the Shakers to 16th. Not the only blunder that was being made while David Flitcroft’s side were recording victories over Walsall, Sheffield United, and Burton, and doing their utmost to make the previous campaign relatively stress free for supporters. The club’s failure not only to make sense of the registration rules, but also an inability to pay tax bills on time, assured unnecessary discomfort.

Three separate winding up petitions, one coming just following the season’s conclusion, issued to the club, and all dismissed before an appearance in court was required. The sort of prolificacy shown by Leon Clarke, with 18 goals scored in all competitions, required by those in the admin department.

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But the real dilemma for Bury, a club that haven’t finished in the top half of the third tier in the 21st century, is how ambitious they can really afford to be.

The status and strength of the Gigg Lane outfit, at least when compared with other clubs in the division, suggests continuing to consolidate is the best they can hope for. Another season avoiding a relegation battle would probably be acceptable. Especially given that it seems Clarke will be departing to promotion-chasing Sheffield United.

The year-on-year improvement of Flitcroft’s side probably ends here.

The Manager – David Flitcroft

Given that his achievements have not necessarily been remarkable, and are somewhat tainted by a sacking, Flitcroft’s relative success in the early years of his managerial career hasn’t received the attention it probably deserves.

At the very least, it a little surprising that his name was rarely even mentioned in passing while larger League One clubs were hunting for a new manager during the summer. Supporters of Bury won’t thank me for saying this, but he’s certainly done enough at Gigg Lane to deserve an opportunity to manage at a bigger club.

Having only been sacked by Championship Barnsley, a club he had impressively managed to save from relegation at the end of the previous season, nine days before arriving at Gigg Lane, his original appointment was something of a coup for then League Two Bury in December 2013. The threat of relegation comfortable avoided, building a platform from which promotion could be won in the campaign that followed.

And last season’s comfortable mid-table finish in League One another indication of Flitcroft’s managerial ability. A steady enough effort in the club’s first season back in the third tier.

Though this season, particularly without Clarke’s goals to cover faults of his own and within his side, is going to prove a tougher test of Flitcroft’s talents. Come out of this one unscathed, and he’s certainly done well.

Transfer Business

Few clubs, for better or worse, were as active as Bury in the early parts of the summer. Most of their transfer activity completed before pre-season had begun.

First, amid a clear out of bit part players that included former Addick Chris Eagles, comes the disappointment of losing both of last season’s regular full-backs. Right-back Joe Riley allowed to join Shrewsbury Town, and left-back Chris Hussey now at Sheffield United. Danny Pugh, despite being offered a new contract, also departing with Blackpool his destination.

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And it is on the basis of potential, rather than the proven quality that Riley and Hussey had, that their replacements have been signed. Niall Maher, 20, held his own when given a chance by Bolton Wanderers in the Championship last season, but has only a handful of senior appearances to his name, while Greg Leigh, 21, did a decent job in this division for Crewe two seasons ago, but managed just nine first-team appearances for Bradford in the previous campaign.

Something of a chance also offered to winger Zeli Ismail, who arrives on a permanent basis from Wolves. The 22-year-old having both impressed and frustrated during various loan spells across the country and divisions in the previous four seasons.

Less of a gamble taken in signing Anthony Kay, with the former MK Dons centre-back a proven performer at this level, and the vastly experienced Leon Barnett, who arrived slightly later in the summer alongside midfielder Neil Danns following his release from Bolton. The loss of Peter Clarke, the centre-back a regular last season but allowed to join Oldham, just about offset.

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Elsewhere, there is a battle for the number one shirt after the now released Rob Lainton and various loan goalkeepers were used last season. Ben Williams making 32 appearances for Bradford City, while Chris Kirkland has his England caps to boast about having sat on Preston’s bench during the previous campaign. Both decent goalkeepers for a club of this level.

Nicky Clark, who scored six times in 32 games for Rangers last season, also looks a decent addition, particularly with Ryan Lowe, Daniel Nardiello and Danny Rose all departing, and Tom Pope rather oddly transfer listed.

The problem is, though, that the most damaging bit of transfer activity was left less than two weeks until the season got underway. Just prior to posting this, Sheffield United had agreed a deal with the club for forward Clarke.

A sale that undoes the positives of the early transfer activity, with the loss of their talismanic forward leaving Bury woefully short in attack, and arguably dramatically weaker in general.

The Squad

It’s not total revolution at Gigg Lane, with a solid core of those who impressed last season remaining at the club.

That not true of the backline, with an entirely new one likely to take to the field against the Addicks on the opening day of the season unless full-back Craig Jones, a reserve for much of the previous campaign but a long-standing player, and club captain Nathan Cameron, who may well lose his place to the new centre-back additions, are involved.

But, with Danns providing another option, there is continuity in midfield. Decent central options Andrew Tutte, Klevin Etuhu, and Jacob Mellis all remain, as does one-time Charlton loanee Tom Soares, who was an almost ever-present last season playing in the middle or out wide.

Soares likely to start on one flank, with Danny Mayor on the other and Ismail in reserve, with their job largely to supply whoever fills the gaping hole left by Clarke. New signing Clark the most likely, with 22-year-old Hallam Hope, who spent time on loan at Carlisle last season, yet to make an impression since joining from Everton, and Pope’s situation unlikely to change despite Clarke’s departure.

Further forward options desperately needed.

Fans View – Dominic Kay (@DKay93)

Without considering the off-the-pitch hiccups, does last season lay a foundation to build on or can a club of Bury’s size hope only to consolidate in League One?

On paper, a mid-table finish in our first campaign back in the third tier suggests that there are decent foundations to build upon, but it was very much a season of two halves and it is the 2016 form that raises concerns heading into the new season. Our away form went from the best in the country to the worst in a matter of months, our style of football deteriorated, and already we have seen a number of changes in personnel. Thankfully, our decent home form and our early accumulation of points saw us over the line relatively comfortably in the end.

It’s rather difficult to judge purely from a footballing perspective, however, as the state of affairs behind the scenes is so blurry. When our current chairman took the reigns there was a five-year plan in place to attain Championship football, so clearly under the current ownership there has certainly been a strong ambition to get a club of our size further up the football ladder. Three years in, that plan has since been re-assessed and I think that – quite rightly – the short-term goal for supporters and management alike is to consolidate our position as a League One football club.

“It was very much a season of two halves and it is the 2016 form that raises concerns heading into the new season”

David Flitcroft is doing quite an underrated job at Gigg Lane. Are you at all concerned he may depart in the near future, and what impact would that have?

He actually divides opinion amongst our fans with plenty supporting him through thick and thin and just as many calling for his head at every opportunity. From the outside I’m sure he appears to be a young manager working wonders with a small club, but I think his stubbornness has made him a lot of enemies and there have been numerous occasions where he has been proven to be tactically naive.

That all said, he has been at the helm for over two and a half years and in this day and age that is not to be sniffed at – I’m guessing most Charlton supporters can only hope to have some kind of stability with their management staff so I will avoid grumbling too much. He is still a relative newcomer in management, and has improved our league position season upon season so should be merited on that. On that alone I can see clubs being interested.

Personally though I think there are better options for other clubs out there. He has developed a reputation for playing the ball on the deck but the truth is his brand of football has deteriorated over time and as a result of this he was under a lot of pressure at the back end of last season. We have had some absolute garbage at the helm in recent memory though and I think he will be missed if clubs do happen to come sniffing.

Leon Clarke failed to fire during his brief spell at Charlton. In other words, he was absolute garbage. What is it that has made him such a potent threat, with previous clubs and the Shakers? (Asked prior to a deal with Sheffield United being agreed)

I think his movement and positional sense is right up there with anybody else at this level, such that he gives the impression that he’s a lot faster and taller than he actually is. He’s also very comfortable when he’s tight with defenders – his control is sound and he often does little kicks and pushes which frequently go unnoticed by referees (see his goal at Sheffield United last season for a prime example). He’s basically just one of those nuisances that you love to have on your team but would hate on the opposition’s.

This all works in his favour when he is the focal point of a team’s attack, whereas at Charlton he was at comfortably the best team in the division that season with a lot of competition, and Bradley Wright-Phillips stole the headlines. Similarly, at Wolves he was second fiddle to Nouha Dicko and Bakary Sako. Leon Clarke prefers being the big fish at a football club, or at least, the main man that a team relies on for goals.

He is nomadic in the sense that he doesn’t stick around at clubs for very long and I think that’s because – as we saw at Swindon – he clashes with a lot of people. I think he needs an arm around him and constant reassurance that he is the main man, and for all of Flitcroft’s flaws last season, his handling of Clarke was very, very good. I genuinely believe he is settled here and appreciates Bury, and barring a last chance at Championship level or at a big League One club (Blackburn and Sheffield United are reportedly interested), I fancy him to stay.

You’ve been very active in the transfer market, losing a couple of first team players but making some very promising signings. Overall, is your squad in a healthier state?

To be honest I don’t think it is. For starters we look seriously light up top; the departures of Danny Rose and Ryan Lowe and the transfer listing of Tom Pope suggests that we are even more reliant on Leon Clarke for goals than we were before. Alongside him we have the returning Hallam Hope who was awful before we shipped him out loan to Carlisle, and the incoming Nicky Clark who appears to be nothing more than an experienced Scottish second tier striker. Not exactly awe-inspiring.

Defensively there has been a complete overhaul. Three of our back four have left for fees (which in fairness represents decent business given that only three teams conceded more than us in the league last season) two of which will be sorely missed – Peter Clarke was our player of the season last campaign and Chris Hussey’s dead-ball ability is the best I have seen at Gigg Lane in my lifetime, even if he can’t defend.

Our defensive recruitments this summer include; Anthony Kay who appears to be a like-for-like replacement for Peter Clarke, Leon Barnett whose rapid decline is somewhat alarming but could definitely do a job for us, and two young full backs in Greg Leigh and Niall Maher – the former featured not all too often for Bradford last season but does seem to have potential, with the latter being a surprise departure for many at Bolton.

At least now we look to have a decent goalkeeper behind our new look defence, the only question is which one? After two seasons of rubbish loan goalkeeper after loan goalkeeper (Nick Pope the exception, best ‘keeper I’ve seen play for Bury since Kasper Schmeichel), Flitcroft has decided to sign two first-choice goalkeepers which seems a bit silly. Chris Kirkland’s injury record should dictate he misses a good number of games anyway but you would expect that when both fit, him and Ben Williams would expect to start games. That’s something worth keeping an eye on.

To summarise, a lot of our signings this summer are quite simply replacements for outgoing players as opposed to genuine improvements to our squad. Personally, I think we are still a good two players short (a utility defender and a pacey forward) and as a result are in a less healthy state now than we were 12 months ago, but I am hoping that I know nothing and am proven massively wrong.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I think it pretty much depends on one thing and one thing only and that is keeping hold of Leon Clarke. If he departs then I really do fear we will be relegated without a whimper, but if we keep hold of him and make a couple more reinforcements (without losing anybody else) then I don’t think another mid-table finish is beyond the realms of possibility. I’m going to say 18th.

Summary

Early summer optimism, or at least hope of stability, tainted by Clarke’s imminent sale. Should still have enough about them to survivie, but will find themselves involved in the relegation battle. 18th

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Charlton Athletic

For the second half of last season, if not longer, results became a near irrelevance for supporters of Charlton Athletic irrespective of the fact they were required in order to make an unlikely attempt to avoid relegation to League One.

The need to win was replaced by a need to remove those that had made winning almost impossible, and almost impossible to enjoy on the rare occasions when it did happen. Roland Duchatelet and his regime a cancer on a once respected club.

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The mistakes in recruitment and strategy, which saw a ridiculously high turnover of garbage players as part of an experiment and three head coaches with personal connections to Duchatelet unsuccessfully attempt to keep the Addicks away from relegation, only making up a relatively small percentage of the problem.

The protests, impressive and successful in that attention was drawn to Charlton’s plight if not ultimately resulting in Duchatelet departing, primarily backed by feelings of disconnection, apathy and injustice, rather than simply the anger that comes with a completely unnecessary relegation.

A large number of supporters, so important in the history of this club, finding that the bond they shared with their club had been destroyed by the actions and behaviour of Duchatelet and CEO Katrien Meire. Their worth and value constantly insulted, and part of the reason why protests to remove this regime, that have frustratingly stood their ground despite other parties showing interest, will continue into the new season.

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It probably coming as no surprise, therefore, that appeasement this summer has quickly been followed by further frustration.

A degree of excitement as an English manager, who seemingly has a degree of control, was appointed, and three excellent League One performers signed. The arrival of Russell Slade, in addition to Ricky Holmes, Lee Novak, and Nicky Ajose, increasing expectations of an immediate return to the Championship among Charlton supporters irrespective of the fact that Duchatelet remained.

But that has been followed by the sale of key player after key player for much less than their perceived value, the squad being left in a very flimsy state with the season just over a week away, and ridiculous ticket office fees alienating supporters once again.

Confirmation, if it were needed, that the main focus for Charlton supporters remains the removal of Duchatelet’s regime for the sake of both the long-term and short-term health of their club.

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The Manager – Russell Slade

If only those in charge of Charlton had appointed a manager suited to the Championship while they were in the second tier, instead of waiting until dropping to League One to appoint a boss who knows his way around the third tier.

Praise for Duchatelet and friends over the appointment of Slade, therefore, probably not something that should be given. But that isn’t to say the appointment of the former Leyton Orient and Cardiff City boss, fulfilling the position left vacant after Jose Riga’s post-relegation resignation and criticism of the club, isn’t both a pleasing and promising one.

He might not have a promotion to his name, there’s often a criticism that his football is too direct, and Cardiff supporters weren’t too keen on him, but he arrives at The Valley with the sort of experience that is required in this situation. A man who, having overachieved in often restrictive circumstances at Yeovil Town, Brighton and Hove Albion, and Orient, can provide stability and calm to a sinking ship.

At the very least, it makes the notion of supporting the team and not the regime much easier. Slade certainly his own man, wanting to bring success to Charlton and not simply appease the dictatorship. A clear divide, affirmed by the signings made, which hasn’t necessarily been easy to spot under the previous appointments made by Duchatelet.

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Transfer Business

It just a shame, therefore, that regardless of who is in charge at The Valley, they’re going to face restrictions and difficulties in assembling a competent and competitive squad with the necessary depth required.

Some hope that Slade would lead under slightly different circumstances as the summer began, as three promising additions arrived. Holmes impressing as Northampton achieved promotion from League Two, Novak the sort of robust forward that a Slade team requires, and Ajose arriving having scored 24 times for Swindon last season.

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But those early additions did not prove the catalyst for a summer of hope. Another summer of frustration instead.

True, Charlton’s key performers were always likely to leave. Jordan Cousins joining QPR, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Nick Pope heading to Burnley, while Igor Vetokele (Zulte Waregem) and Tony Watt (Hearts) have been loaned out. The explicit loss of players not necessarily the issue.

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Nor is it the fact that small fees have been received, the most laughable of which being the £1.5m Cousins commanded, and that the club are continuing to subsidise the wages of those out on loan, including flop Naby Sarr.

But that the Addicks have not sought replacements this deep into pre-season, and are likely to spend the remaining days prior to the start of the campaign in a state of panic as they seek to bolster their squad, is unbelievably naïve. Not least given that no senior goalkeeper is at the club, after Stephen Henderson was allowed to join Nottingham Forest without a fee being paid.

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It forced Slade, having admitted his squad was nowhere near ready to compete for promotion, to effectively plea for five to six more arrivals at least following the pre-season draw with Leyton Orient. Attempts to sign trialists Lewis Buxton and Kevin Foley unsuccessful as a result of the club’s finances, bizarrely, being stretched.

Another trialist, Andrew Crofts, has signed, while goalkeeper Simon Moore and defender Jason Pearce are being sought, but the Addicks remain incredibly unprepared at this stage of pre-season.

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The situation made worse by the fact that Portuguese centre-back Jorge Teixeira and Arsenal target Ademola Lookman will almost certainly join the long list of departures. Teixeira’s agent seeking a move away, and 19-year-old forward Lookman too good not to receive attention from Premier League clubs.

And the frustration increased by the fact that the last time Charlton achieved promotion from League One, Chris Powell had been allowed to assemble a squad before the start of pre-season.

Irrespective of what happens between now and the start of the season, Slade’s squad will be behind.

The Squad

Behind because, as things stand, the squad is quite the state. A result of gaps, injuries, and Roger Johnson.

The experienced, but really, really, really, really, really pathetically naff, centre-back playing throughout pre-season with the Addicks lacking defensive options. Oh, and a goalkeeper, with youngsters Dillon Phillips, who spent last season on loan at Cheltenham, and Dimitar Mitov, a young Bulgarian without first-team experience, the only current options between the sticks.

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And the situation is not much at centre-back. Both Patrick Bauer and Harry Lennon injured, while Teixeira continues to search for a move away.

In fact, throughout pre-season, it has been teenage centre-back Ezri Konsa who has staked the biggest claim for a starting position. The academy graduate, who is yet to make a senior appearance, strong and composed. For all Charlton’s faults, and there are plenty, the continuing success the club has in developing young players provides some solace.                                   

The full-back options all homegrown, with Chris Solly, who signed a new contract in the summer to provide a rare moment of good feeling, and Morgan Fox likely to be the starting wide defenders as they were last season. Tareiq Holmes-Dennis providing another left-back option but, with Solly injury prone, another right-back is required.

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Speaking of injury prone, holding midfielder Ahmed Kashi will miss the first four months of the season with a recurrence of the Achilles injury that kept him out for the majority of the previous campaign.

A quality performer when fit, his loss will be felt as much as that of Alou Diarra. The former France international, who performed consistently at both centre-back and in midfield last season, expected to miss the start of the season.

It leaves the Addicks, at least in the first few weeks of the campaign, a little short in the middle. The experience and inspirational qualities of skipper Johnnie Jackson providing some clam, while Crofts has looked composed during pre-season, but El-Hadji Ba failed to make an impression last season.

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Slade without depth in the wide areas, too, though Holmes and Callum Harriott, who remains despite being linked with a move away, both offer quality on the flanks. Support for them needed, with Cristian Ceballos struggling since arriving from Spurs with apparent potential, and Zakarya Bergdich, having done what we all want to do and simply give up with Charlton, AWOL.

And even in attack, where Charlton are at their strongest, there’s a need for more bodies. Novak and Ajose should form a marvellous partnership, but there is little beyond that. A need for Karlan Ahearne-Grant to step up, having shown promise at the start of his career two seasons ago, but little since.

Overall, it’s a bit hard not to feel a sense of discomfort.

Fans View – Louis Mendez (@LouisMend)

Can you attempt to explain the extent of the apathy and disillusionment that exists among supporters of Charlton currently?

Football fans could not have failed to see the very real levels of disillusionment displayed by the Charlton crowd last season. Major protests aimed at Roland Duchatelet’s haphazard running of the club earned national headlines. With protests first requesting a greater level of dialogue between the club’s board and the fan base, a Q&A session with CEO Katrien Meire and fans revealed a lack of any clear strategy to realise a vague target of becoming a “stable Championship club with Premier League ambitions.”
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Anger levels really ramped up following the sacking of Guy Luzon and replacement with yet another network stooge Karel Fraeye. A disastrous 14 game spell ruined any real chances is escaping relegation for The Addicks.
Now with what may have appeared to be a change in strategy- an experienced English league manager Russell Slade hired and three decent signings for League One made early on – once again things appear to be going wrong.
Two weeks before the season is due to start Slade has admitted that his squad is “miles away” from one which could challenge at the top of the table. I genuinely question Duchatelet’s desire for a team that gets results. I honestly don’t think it matters a jot to him, or at least that he has once again completely underestimated what it takes to get them at this level.
Anger has turned to apathy for many – only 5,500 people have renewed season tickets so far. But make no mistake – the majority of Charlton fans still worry about the direction the club is going.
“I genuinely question Duchatelet’s desire for a team that gets results. I honestly don’t think it matters a jot to him”

An immediate return to the Championship and Duchatelet’s reign continues, or an indifferent season in League One that forces the owner to move on. What’s better for the long-term prospects of the club?

Because I’m not sure that an indifferent season in League One would actually force a sale, it’s a difficult question to answer. Ideally promotion with Duchatelet then deciding to sell and allowing someone else in to try and take the club forward in The Championship. But no path for success or a sale seems to be set in stone.

Has the appointment of Russell Slade been over celebrated on the basis that he is an English manager, or can he bring a success of sorts back to The Valley?

Slade has proven at Orient and Yeovil that he can compete with limited squads. I have faith that he can garner a team spirit amongst the squad that he is given and get the results that they are capable of. However without the assistance from upstairs then he’ll be unable to achieve what he wants to achieve.

Some decent additions, but some big, if expected, losses. How would you asses the state of Charlton’s squad?

As it stands, woefully short. There’s quality within it – Nicky Ajose up top is particularly exciting – but the necessity of playing four youth players without a league appearance between them for the Addicks against Orient says it all. We’re now notorious for having a squad depth akin to a paddling pool and Duchatelet’s penny pinching seems to have struck again. It needs addressing if we’re serious about wanting to challenge.

Charlton’s success in producing homegrown talent is remarkable. Who will watchers of League One be introduced to this season?

I’ve had my eye on Ezri Konsa ever since seeing him play in the PDL2 play-off final at Brentford in 2015- a classy defender in the Joe Gomez mould. I expect to see him given his chance this term. He’s a centre back by trade but proved his versatility with an accomplished performance at right back against Orient. Really comfortable on the ball.

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And finally, where will you finish this season?   

I fear that the negativity of the Duchatelet factor will outweigh the positive elements of the Slade factor when injuries and fatigue start to take toll in a squad that won’t have been adequately prepared for them. 10th. 

Summary

Despite the continuing crisis, Slade’s management and strong areas of the side should be enough for the Addicks to compete in this division. A play-off position the minimum, but you worry that won’t be fulfilled if the gaps within the squad are not addressed, and the club continues to be run in the manner that it is. 7th

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All information correct, or at least it should be, as of 26/07/2016. Photos my own, or marked as available for reuse. Part Two to follow in the next few days…

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