If last season throughout English football was a story of unlikely successes, then Northampton Town’s contribution towards that tale cannot be underestimated. Greater against the odds achievements to be seen elsewhere, but no one else can claim a recovery quite like this.
In November, incredibly managing to remain competitive in the league regardless, the Cobblers were on the brink of oblivion. Administration at the very least, as the Borough Council demanded outstanding loan repayments, but liquidation, a consequence of a winding-up order over an unpaid tax bill that left the club’s bank account frozen, a real possibility. A situation so desperate that manager Chris Wilder was using official club channels to appeal for then owner David Cardoza to sell to Kelvin Thomas.
By May, Northampton had finished the season as champions of League Two. No defeat in the final 24 games of their successful campaign, and just two after the first week of September, giving them a final tally of 99 points. Oxford United, admired by many for the emphatic way in which they were able to brush aside opposition, finishing 13 points behind in second.
The Cobblers, despite being days away from no longer existing at one point, managing to ultimately romp to the League Two title. A barely believable achievement.
But as they prepare for their first campaign in League One since 2008/09, there is a danger that the momentum built from last season has been lost over the summer.
The departure of Wilder, as strong a leader in crisis as success, and key player Ricky Holmes, who contributed 11 goals from the wing, means there’s a sense an element of recovery is required once again. At the very least, the 24-game unbeaten run does not belong to newly appointed boss Rob Page, and it is under a slightly different approach that they will attempt to compete in the third tier.
The uncertainty that provides, however, hardly daunting for a club that has overcome much greater concerns. The 24-game unbeaten run might belong to a departed manager, but it is a reflection of the strength, togetherness and fight that has been shown by Northampton. Continuing it would be a reflection of the ambition that Thomas has instilled into the club.
The Manager – Rob Page
Without criticism, Northampton could have justified taking a conservative and safe approach when looking to appoint Wilder’s replacement. A managerial journeyman with the experience to assure the short-term goal of consolidating a position in League One would be fulfilled, and any potential backlash from losing such a successful boss avoided.
Instead, owner Thomas and the Cobblers have been arguably bolder and braver, with the hope of greater reward. A man appointed who can lead the long-term project that was seemingly just beginning, rather than one to act as little more than a plaster to the wound left by Wilder’s departure. A reflection of the ambition that has been instilled into the club in the previous 12 months.
For Page arrives at Sixfields with a growing reputation, built upon just shy of two full seasons at Port Vale in which the club were stabilised and relatively attractive football was football. A back catalogue of evidence to support his managerial ability there is not, but enough shown in those two campaigns at Vale Park to suggest the 41-year-old can build up the platform Wilder’s left behind.
At the very least, Page is perfectly in tune with Thomas’ vision for the club. The decision to move to Northampton a “no-brainer”, despite a strong bond with Port Vale and their club’s supporters, as a consequence of the owner’s positivity. An owner and manager heading in the same direction can only be a good thing, and much more meaningful than simply attempting to avoid relegation following a promotion.
Quite the worry for supporters of the Cobblers when, having lost their manager, their star performer from the previous season departed the club right at the start of the summer. Ricky Holmes, having scored 11 goals in 32 games, sold to Charlton Athletic.
So too had another winger left the club at the start of the summer, with Nicky Adams citing the uncertainty that followed Wilder’s departure as his justification for joining League Two Carlisle, while Northampton had been unable to match the contract offer that Danny Rose received from Portsmouth. A touch of uncertainty in general in the early weeks of the off-season.
It was not, however, the beginning of a crisis or the break-up of their promotion-winning squad.
In fact, the now stable and ambitious club that Northampton are was reaffirmed by their success in signing forward Alex Revell. The Cobblers beating a host of League One clubs, including Charlton, to the signature of the 32-year-old, who impressed at MK Dons during the latter half of last season.
In former Coventry full-back Aaron Phillips and experience centre-back Gabriel Zakuani, two other impressive players that were attracting attention from elsewhere have also been snapped up by the Cobblers, potential seen in the relatively inexperienced left-back Raheem Hanley and midfielder Jak McCourt, while David Cornell and player-coach Paddy Kenny will provide competition to Adam Smith in goal.
The club’s transfer dealings much more encouraging as the summer has progressed, with a replacement for Holmes found as the latter stage of pre-season was entered. Harry Beautyman arriving from Peterborough.
Even given the loss of a couple of key men in addition to the rise in quality of the division that they’ll be playing in, Northampton’s squad is in a reasonable state.
Particularly at the back, which will obviously prove crucial should there be a need to grind out results in order to preserve their third tier status.
Goalkeeper Smith voted into the League Two Team of the Year last season, and rightly so, while you would imagine that Zakuani and Zander Diamond will form the centre-back partnership ahead of him. Cover to be found in the shape of Ryan Cresswell and Rod McDonald, who both featured more than 20 times in the title-winning campaign.
Strong in the full-back areas, too, where ever-present David Buchanan will look to hold off the competition provided by Hanley’s arrival, while you imagine that Phillips will take over Brendan Moloney’s duties at right-back.
There are, however, gaps in the middle. Both in terms of a lack of numbers, and a questionable degree of quality among those that are available. Central man Jason Taylor and winger Alfie Potter, who started eight and 12 games respectively last season, dangerously close to the starting XI.
The situation helped, however, by the versatility of what is available. Lawson D’Ath and Beautyman both able to play centrally and out wide, with one likely to join Joel Byrom in the centre and the other occupying the opposite flank to Potter. Inexperienced signing McCourt also an option, but greater strength and depth in the midfield required.
Another alternative is to play John-Joe O’Toole in the position he started his career in, but Northampton’s Player of the Year made such an impression in attack that that seems counterproductive.
He joined by Revell, skipper Marc Richards, and Sam Hoskins as the options up top. Plenty of physicality, but not a great deal of pace – maybe another forward who offers something a bit different required.
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As the threat to your existence grew at the beginning of last season, did you really anticipate you’d be starting the next campaign in League One?
Absolutely not. I think we knew that the talent was there on the pitch but there was a period around November when things looked extremely bleak and bad news was coming out in the local press every day. I recall travelling to Coventry in the first round of the FA Cup knowing that there was a chance that it could be the last time that I’d be watching the club in its current form.
Given we ended up absolutely strolling to a first league title in nearly 30 years not even 6 months later, it’s very easy to forget that every single member of staff at the football club went without pay for a couple of months just before Christmas.
The financial struggles actually ended up creating a very special unique bond between the fans, players and staff and it somehow felt that we quite literally ended up riding on the crest of the wave towards the title. Last season was one that no one involved with the football club will ever forget.
With the departure of Chris Wilder, have you lost momentum from last season, or is Rob Page well placed to continue from where the previous boss left off?
Being a Blades fan born-and-raised, no Cobblers fan begrudged Wilder his move to his boyhood club. However, I think we’re now suffering from that nagging feeling of what could have been.
Following the takeover of the football club, Wilder truly nailed down a winning formula which saw us go unbeaten for the last 24 league games in a season in which we came very close to breaking the 100 points barrier. If we’d have kept the same regime and squad, I think many of us had quiet optimism that we could have had a go at emulating Burton Albion’s achievements in the upcoming season.
Page has been recruited to carry on Wilder’s outstanding work but his record at Port Vale, albeit with a reduced budget, wasn’t outstanding so it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to recreate the same level of success.
At the very least, does the change in management make your expectations for this coming season less ambitious that they would have been? Simple survival enough?
I hope that most Cobblers fans will be sensible enough to understand that the departures of Wilder, his whole coaching staff and a couple of key players means that our expectations should be tempered.
We haven’t been in League One since 2009 and the whole club needs to adapt accordingly. Realistically speaking, we are one of the smaller fishes at this level and a season of survival whilst we adjust to the step up should be our primary objective.
My fear is that an element of support will have become used to winning most weeks (I’m writing this in July and we still haven’t lost a league game in 2016 yet!) and any run of negative results at the beginning of the season may get fingers pointed quickly at Page – who from the outset has taken over somewhat after the lord mayor’s show.
You’ve also lost Ricky Holmes, but made some quite handy additions. Overall, is your squad equipped to deal with the third tier?
Whilst we’ve retained the likes of O’Toole and Smith, losing Holmes is a big blow for us. I’ve been watching the Cobblers for over 20 years and I cannot remember another player with his ability to pluck a match winning moment from nowhere.
In my humble opinion, Holmes was the difference between us and the rest of the chasing pack at the business end of the season with crucial strikes, particularly away from home, turning a lot of draws into wins.
Whilst Page has been sensible to focus his recruitment towards solid players with League One experience in Zakuani, Revell, Beautyman and Phillips, we haven’t signed anyone with either the pace and ‘wow’ factor of Holmes.
We appear to have added depth and robustness in defensive areas but as it stands we are a couple of creative midfielders and a quick forward away from being able to feel truly optimistic.
And finally, where will you finish this season?
As it stands, I’d be satisfied with a successful fight against relegation and a season of stability in League One following the rollercoaster ride, on and off the field, that was 2015/16. However, a couple of exciting additions in attacking positions before the season opener could persuade me to rethink those expectations.
Post-season disruptions means thoughts of challenging for a second successive promotion are not at all realistic. Midfield additions could allow them to break into the top half, but consolidation would be a successful season. 13th
As pre-season began for clubs across the Football League, the time when I begin to write this nonsense, no club in League One appeared in a more unprepared state than Oldham Athletic.
On the eve of the club’s first training session, the five contracted professionals and handful of youngsters the Latics had tied down were still yet to receive confirmation of who their new manager would be. John Sheridan, stepping down a division to manage Notts County and escape Boundary Park, leaving on May 27, and no replacement appointed by the start of the July as Steve Evans turned down the club in an uncomfortable position.
A 17th place finish in League One last season probably the biggest sign of stability at the club, with winding up orders, issues paying players and now this extended wait for a new boss creating grand concern.
In fact, it took until July 9 for a boss to be in place at Oldham. Northern Ireland assistant manager Stephen Robinson given the task of rebuilding the rather dismantled Latics. A tough ask, reaffirmed by his first training session effectively being an open trial for free agents as an entirely new squad is put together.
Signings have since arrived, a squad has been formed, and Robinson has had a degree of time to work with his players. Like had been happening at every other League One club for several weeks prior.
So while Oldham will ultimately begin the campaign with a manager and squad in place, you worry that the bizarre start to their pre-season and the need to completely reshape a new side will leave them in for a season of struggle.
The Manager – Stephen Robinson
From the euphoria of assisting your nation’s efforts in the European Championships, to working 18 hour days in an attempt to put together some sort of squad. Robinson has enjoyed, and endured, quite a unique summer.
Having been a well-respected member of Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland unit, Robinson at least arrives at Boundary Park with some reputation and confidence, but this seemingly no job for a man in his first as a boss.
An entirely new squad needing to be formed, and without it being properly put together halfway through July, time isn’t really on the new manager’s side. At the very least, other League One clubs undoubtedly have an advantage.
Robinson, who can at least call upon the support of Sean O’Driscoll and Ian Baraclough as members of his coaching staff, has a very difficult challenge to quickly gel together a squad ready to compete in the third tier.
Well, erm, lots, what with the whole five contracted players turning up to the first day of pre-season thing.
First, those released. Goalkeeper David Cornell (Northampton) and defender Theo Vassell (Walsall) snapped up by League One rivals, winger Mike Jones (Carlisle United) and forward Rhys Turner (Morecombe) will be playing League Two football in the coming season, while full-back Joseph Mills (Perth Glory) was also allowed to depart in addition to youngsters Jordan Bove and Jack Truelove.
Then those that departed despite the club making an effort to keep a hold of them. Three of those, in the shape of the versatile Timothee Deng (Bradford City), defender James Wilson (Sheffield United) and striker Dominic Poleon (AFC Wimbledon) finding themselves healthier third tier clubs to join, while forward Jonathan Forte has joined Notts County. A contract offered to defender Anthony Gerrard, but he appears to not be returning.
While goalkeeper Joel Coleman (Huddersfield), midfielder Liam Kelly (Leyton Orient), and forward Rhys Murphy (Forest Green Rovers) all left the club for some sort of fee.
If you also include midfielder Jack Tuohy, whose employment has been suspended after being charged with grooming and child sex offences, that’s a total of 16 players leaving the club this summer, in addition to four loan players – Aaron Holloway, Curtis Main, Timmy Thiele, and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis – whose temporary stays at Boundary Park concluded at the end of last season.
To replace them arrives eight permanent additions, and four loan signings at the time of writing. More expected before the season begins, but it’s all a bit panicky.
Goalkeeper Chris Kettings joins having been released by Crystal Palace, with Connor Ripley arriving on loan from Middlesbrough and taking the number one jersey, while the experienced Peter Clarke, allowed to leave Bury despite playing 44 times last season, and inexperienced Cameron Burgess, signed on loan from Fulham, improve options in the centre of defence.
Burgess can also play at left-back, a position that also sees Jamie Reckford added to it after his departure from Scottish side Ross County. Right-back Josh Law, able to play in midfield, another arrival from Scotland, as he joins from Motherwell.
More natural midfield options arriving in the shape of Luke Woodland, who has five caps for the Philippines and played seven times for Bradford Park Avenue last season, Dutchman Marc Klok, who joins having spent time at Ross County but was most recently playing for Cherno More in Bulgaria, and Ollie Banks, who made 33 appearances for Chesterfield last season.
Winger Ryan Flynn, who has been a decent performer for Sheffield United in spite of their inability to escape League One, arguably the most impressive signing of the summer, while forwards Lee Erwin, failing to impress at Leeds, and Billy McKay, who has a very good record in Scotland but is yet to score for Wigan Athletic, arrive on loan.
Good luck getting that all together, Steve.
In addition to those new signings, there’s the grand sum of six players who featured for the Latics last season who are still with the club. An increase by one on those who reported to the first day of pre-season training given that wide man Lee Croft remains on a month-to-month basis.
And it’s not really as if, Croft included, that first-team regulars are among that number. Youngster George Edmundson, who can play in defence and midfield, featuring twice last season, versatile defender Connor Brown starting just ten games, and forward Jake Cassidy involved from the off in eight.
Experienced right-back Brian Wilson (26) and midfielder Carl Winchester (31) the only two players that remain to play anything like a meaningful role in last season’s 17th place finish. An almost entirely new squad for Robinson to gel together.
And a squad that is by no means complete. Question marks over the strength in depth, and in some cases starting quality, in almost every position of the pitch.
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So, erm, this summer has been quite a messy one for Oldham. How on earth did the club find itself in a position where only a handful of contracted players were in place for the start of pre-season?
It has been an extremely turbulent summer for the Latics. After the heroics of John Sheridan to keep us up last season, many felt quietly confident about this coming year. This however was ripped from us when it was announced that he had left to go to League Two Notts County, a move that still baffles me now. From here things spiralled out of control. As always a large number of players were released, most of which were unsurprising and overall accepted. The club however did not make any move to replace these players until a manager was in place, this was a huge error that left us behind other teams
Among those that left, who were you most disappointed to lose?
Whilst looking for a new gaffer and failing with two or three appointments, major players were sold, most notably two first team goalkeepers and our captain Liam Kelly to leyton Orient, the one I was most gutted about.
And even at this stage of pre-season, your squad looks incredibly weak. How fearful are you of relegation?
Robinson has done a good job in building a squad in such a short space of time. Overall coming into the new season under Robbo I am actually surprisingly confident that we will stay up. As well as the usual mid-table and former SPL players, he has brought in one or two top quality players in the form of Ryan Flynn and Peter Clarke giving fans a slight bit of confidence
Given the unstable state of the club, and the need to gel a completely new squad together, is opting for a relatively inexperienced boss in Robinson the right way to go?
He had an impossible task to begin with, but his signings have been positive and in interviews the gaffer has come across great. He’s talked about building a future for the club.
And finally, where will you finish this season?
With a couple more signings and a goalscorer we could even push for a mid-table finish. 16th
Being so unprepared at the start of pre-season rarely leads to a successful campaign. 24th
Unable to match the consistency of Northampton Town, and as a consequence settling for second place, but Oxford United could claim to be the most attractive and dynamic side in League Two last season when at their best.
At the very least, that the case according to boss Michael Atherton. Admitting that his belief that the U’s were “the best team in division” would upset residents of Sixfields, but confident in his claim as promotion was achieved by scoring more goals (84) and conceding less (41) than any other side in the third tier.
A promotion, and a Football League Trophy final appearance that ultimately ended in defeat to Barnsley, achieved with a fast-paced brand of counter-attacking football. A relatively settled and determined defence, led largely by Johnny Mullins and club captain Jake Wright, complemented in particular by the excellence of top scorer and League Two Player of the Year Kemar Roofe. The consequence of which being that three or more goals were scored on 11 occasions in the league last season, in addition to 15 wins to-nil.
But despite the impressive nature of their performances in achieving promotion, there is a dilemma for Appleton and his side going into Oxford’s first season in the third tier since 2000/01. Can that attractive style of football be replicated against stronger opposition, or is there a need to be more pragmatic to consolidate their position in League One? Not least with key members of that attacking play, in Roofe and Callum O’Dowda, departing.
Appleton, however, will be keen to add further weight behind his claims about the attractive nature of his side. Keen to show his side can continue to perform in that manner despite the loss of its key wide men, and against tougher opponents.
A battle between philosophy and pragmatism. The winner the one that keeps Oxford in League One, the only thing that will really matter come the conclusion of this campaign.
The Manager – Michael Appleton
It fair to say that prior to being appointed Oxford manager, Appleton’s reputation had suffered a considerable amount of damage. That he needed to take a position in League Two, having previously led three Championship clubs, strong evidence of such.
Credit gained, given that it was during a time of administration and crisis, from his spell in charge of Portsmouth irrespective of the fact relegation was suffered, but that all lost from brief periods at Blackpool and Blackburn in 2012/13. Two wins managed in 12 games with the former, before Rovers strangely decided to snatch him from Bloomfield Road, and ultimately sack him 15 games and 67 days later with just four victories to his name.
But his efforts with the U’s have healed his reputation to such an extent that Manchester United, the club whose youth ranks he progressed through, were allegedly interested in making him their academy boss in January. Whether an approach was made or not, that Appleton could even be linked with such a position a sign of how much his stock has risen since arriving at the Kassam Stadium in 2014.
That rise in reputation not purely the result of Oxford’s promotion, but the manner in which the U’s play and the platform Appleton has provided for young players to impress. To say his side were the best in League Two was slightly misguided and irresponsible, given that they finished second, but it’s a comment he could make with evidence to support it.
From seemingly being overwhelmed in the dugout to leading a side that regularly overwhelmed opponents with attractive and dynamic attacking football. Quite the transformation for Appleton, and he’ll be keen to prove his, and his side’s, worth in League One during this campaign.
Having played such attractive football last season, there was always going to be interest in Oxford’s key players. Especially those that played in forward positions, and contributed to such brutal counter-attacking football.
But to lose both Roofe and O’Dowda is a huge blow. Roofe, the League Two Player of the Year, sold to Leeds for £3m, and O’Dowda, making 20 of his 38 appearances as a substitute but still scoring eight times and consistently impressing, joining Bristol City for a fee somewhere in the region of £1.2m. There no doubt that United are much weaker without the duo.
The signing of Rob Hall made to soften the blow, who rejected a return to MK Dons in order to join the U’s having spent last season on loan at Stadium:MK from Bolton. Plenty of pressure on the 22-year-old to fill the void left by the departing duo.
In fact, Oxford’s incomings this summer in general have been fairly promising. Goalkeeper Simon Eastwood arriving with Championship experience gained at Blackburn Rovers as Sam Slocombe departs to Blackpool, while the arrival of Aaron Martin (Coventry) and Curtis Nelson (Plymouth) provide such competition at centre-back that long-standing club captain Jake Wright opted to leave by mutual consent and ultimately join Sheffield United.
Defensive options also strengthened with the signing of full-back Christian Ribeiro from Exeter City, and any disappointment that existed after forward Danny Hylton opted to join Luton Town having been offered a new contract was quickly put to one side with the addition of Wes Thomas, who despite being very much a journeyman striker has a decent reputation at this level, and Kane Hemmings, who arrives having scored 21 times for Dundee last season.
Elsewhere, reputations will look to be built by the midfield dup that the club have signed, with 20-year-old Joe Rothwell, arriving permanently following his release from Manchester United having spent time on loan at Barnsley last season, and 18-year-old Daniel Crowley, who joins on loan from Arsenal having also been with the Tykes for a period last year, part of Appleton’s plans in the coming campaign.
Certainly difficult to overlook the departures of Roofe and O’Dowda, but no denying Oxford have strengthened commendably in other areas.
For irrespective of the sales of Roofe and O’Dowda, there is reasonable strength in most areas of Oxford’s squad.
Martin and Nelson likely to form the new centre-back partnership, but Chey Dunkley will have something to say about that. The 24-year-old, previously of Kidderminster, impressing in the latter half of last season.
And in Ribeiro and Joe Skarz, there will be two steady full-backs either side of whatever central pairing is chosen. Little in terms of experienced depth beyond then in the full-back positions, though, so another one or two wouldn’t go amiss. Sam Long, who made just one substitute appearance last season, the only real cover.
Much greater depth in the centre of midfield, where John Lundstram and Liam Sercombe will look to form a formidable partnership once again. Rothwell, Crowley, and Josh Ruffels among those providing more than reasonable cover, and the opportunity to deploy five in midfield if required.
However, there remains a need to add additional wide men to replace Roofe and O’Dowda. Hall should be influential in League One, while forwards Chris Maguire and Alex MacDonald are both as comfortable up top as they are out wide, but another winger most certainly needed.
Maguire, who was comfortable in the Championship with both Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham, they key man in a forward line that also includes new signings Thomas and Hemmings, target man Ryan Taylor, and youngster James Roberts.
Some gaps to fill, but there’s certainly squads in worse states in this division.
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Particularly given that he arrived having struggled in his previous roles as a boss, just how impressive a job has Michael Appleton done at Oxford?
Outstanding, after a rocky six months he’s shown good knowledge in the transfer market with the team he assembled last season, he’s transformed the playing style to a passing attacking style and he’s established a team ethos with the team wanting to play and win for the club.
Chairman Darryl Eales deserves a mention for turning Oxford back into a fan friendly club, making fans feel part of everything and making Saturdays enjoyable again. Seeing him in the pub and on terraces with fans. We thank them both.
Appleton claimed you were the best side in League Two last season given your attractive attacking style, but is a more pragmatic approach to be expected in order to consolidate in League One this season?
Probably but judging by players who have left and the players brought in they appear to be like for like. I think he’ll keep his flowing attacking style but wouldn’t be surprised if against a handful of teams he’ll maybe opt for a more conservative style.
The losses of Roofe and O’Dowda might well force a more conservative style regardless. Have you had to reset your ambitions for this season following their departures?
Yes and no. We’ll miss Roofe big time, goals, assists and general play but we knew we wouldn’t keep hold of him so his transfer was expected.
Callum was a good player, brilliant on his day but Appleton rested him a lot last year and we coped without him. The two new midfielders he’s bought in look exciting prospects and we just have to hope our new forwards gel quickly. Robbie Hall will hopefully come back fully fit too. So not disheartened at all.
Despite those losses, you’ve strengthened well, recruiting both experienced League One performers and a couple of promising youngsters. How would you assess your squad in general?
On paper they all look decent players with good stats. In reality who knows. I’d say Appleton appears to have brought in players that strengthen the squad and are a step up in playing ability. I’d say I’m happy with the players in the squad, it just feels a bit light again. He got it right last year so fingers crossed.
And finally, where will you finish this season?
Loss of Roofe and O’Dowda means they’ll need to keep one eye over their shoulders, but still have enough about them to have a comfortable first season in League One. 15th
The combination of failure, supporter frustration, and the outspoken words of a bullish owner have resulted in this season being an incredibly high-pressure one for Peterborough United.
A 13th place finish, with Posh never looking like challenging for a top six spot beyond the new year, simply not good enough for a club that have frequently flirted with the Championship in recent years. Their lowest finish since promotion from League Two in 2007/08, and it is felt among many supporters that it’s a consequence of owner Darragh MacAnthony’s failings.
His transfer policy, which sees the Irishman oversee the recruitment of low-cost young talent before selling them on at profit, beginning to frustrate. An achievement to locate these hidden gems, such as Conor Washington who was sold for £2.8m in January, but a feeling existing that they’re not remaining at London Road long enough, nor is the money gained from their sales being invested back into the team heavily enough.
Then there’s an issue over the appointment and dismissal of managers. Two, Dave Robertson and Graham Westley, sacked last season, leaving MacAnthony to call his next appointment “critical”. Former Posh midfielder Grant McCann, having been in charge at the end of last season, given the job despite having limited coaching experience.
And finally comes the claim made by MacAnthony, whose achievements in just shy of ten years in charge of the club have been commendable and only recently has patience with his approach groan thin, in February that the club will be sold if promotion is not achieved this season. One made not out of desperation, but with the genuine belief that Posh can return to the Championship.
Pressure, and an incredibly tough challenge facing Peterborough in this coming campaign.
The Manager – Grant McCann
Calling the appointment of your next manager “critical”, only to hire someone without any previous managerial experience seems a bizarre decision. At best, MacAnthony’s move to appointment McCann as Posh boss on a permanent basis is certainly brave and bold.
The former Northern Ireland international, who made 128 league appearances for Peterborough, undoubtedly a figure you’d want to have as part of the club’s coaching set up, given his connection to it. The 36-year-old an undisturbed member of the backroom staff while Robertson and Westley were being shown the door.
But whether he’s ready to be the main man is a question that can really only be viewed with a degree of cynicism.
Two victories, by scorelines of 4-3 and 5-1, in the games overseen by McCann as caretaker boss at the end of last season promising, but hardly a large enough sample size to make a proper judgement from. Even Westley appeared a positive appointment for a period.
The success of other former players given their first managerial position at clubs that they have strong affiliation to, including Chris Powell and Neil Harris, offers evidence of appointments such as this one working. But both Powell and Harris served longer apprenticeships than McCann, and weren’t placed under as nearly as much pressure.
For there is pressure on McCann to succeed immediately. But not nearly as much pressure as there is on MacAnthony for McCann to succeed immediately.
It’s reasonable to suggest that Peterborough’s transfer activity this summer has mixed. The damage done by a few disappointing departures healed with some promising additions made.
The most disappointing loss being that of Erhun Oztumer, with the skilful midfielder joining fellow League One club Walsall. His individual ability and character made him a well-liked player among Posh supporters, and his presence will be missed.
Also a shame for Peterborough fans to see long-serving Gabriel Zakuani depart, irrespective of the fact he was something of a bit-part player last season. The centre-back, who has signed for Northampton following his release, enjoying a special relationship with club and supporters.
But there is no denying that those coming in increase the quality within Peterborough’s squad.
Gwion Edwards, having performed mightily impressively for Crawley over the previous two seasons, arrives at London Road despite the winger attractive interest from other League One clubs, and possibly fills the exciting attacking void created by Oztumer’s departure, while the centre of midfield has been strengthened by the signing of Brad Inman, who performed consistently for Crewe Alexandra irrespective of their relegation though he will miss the start of the season having broken his leg.
Additions also made to the defensive options available to McCann, with an opportunity offered to 21-year-old former Bolton right-back Hayden White, in addition to 6’5 centre-back Ryan Tafazolli, after over a century of league appearances for Mansfield Town, and Andrew Hughes, who made 141 appearances for Newport County, taking the step up to League One having impressed in the tier below.
A chance also given to former Peterborough forward Paul Taylor, who impressed at London Road previously but has been without a club since being released by Ipswich Town in May 2015, and 18-year-old forward Matt Stevens, who joins from Barnet. A need to replace the goals lost by Washington’s January departure to QPR.
Quality improved, but the question is whether these are the sort of additions that suggest Posh can challenge for promotion once again.
You could make an argument for a touch more experience being required in this Peterborough squad, but you could make the same argument about any Peterborough side since the beginning of time.
Experience dotted throughout it, though, with former Charlton goalkeeper Ben Alnwick likely to be the man starting between the sticks, while Michael Bostwick, with 155 Posh league games to his name, spent much more of his time in the centre of defence than in midfield last season.
Though the growing competition for places at centre-back might well mean that Bostwick finds himself in midfield at times this season. Tafazolli, Jack Baldwin, who impressed in the latter half of the previous campaign, and Ricardo Santos, appearing 37 times in the league last season, all options in the heart of defence.
Depth also at right-back, with White providing support to Michael Smith, and Baldwin able to fill in on the left should Hughes struggle in the third tier or Callum Elder, who the club hope to sign on loan from Leicester for a second time, not return.
But it’s in midfield where Posh are arguably at their strongest, to the extent that Inman’s injury is disappointing and not disastrous, and there is seemingly no hope of a future at the club for Jack Payne following his return from a loan spell at Leyton Orient.
In fact, it would arguably provide greater balance to the side should Bostwick play in midfield given the amount of creative central players Posh possess. Jermaine Anderson, who was named the Football League’s Young Player of the Month for November before suffering a season ending injury last term, new signing Edwards, and Callum Chettle, who joined from Nuneaton in January and hasn’t been overwhelmed by League football, among them.
Marcus Maddison and Chris Forrester also come under that category, with both capable of playing out wide. Another area where depth is not exactly lacking, with exciting youngster Leondaro Da Silva Lopes, 11-goal Jon Taylor, and the versatile Lee Angol, who will miss the first part of the season through injury, among the options.
Plenty to choose from in attack, too, but maybe a slight question mark over the quality available. At the very least, there’s an element of needing to prove themselves for almost every Posh forward. Shaquile Coulthirst scoring just twice in 19 games last season, but has potential, Paul Taylor out the game for a year, and Tom Nichols yet to find his feet since arriving from Exeter in January.
Additionally, there’s Aaron Williams, who scored twice in the second half of last season after arriving from Nuneaton, former West Brom youngster Adil Nabi, without a goal having joined in January, and prolific Northern Ireland striker Joe Gormley, who has recovered from an injury that meant his first season at London Road last just four games.
Promise and potential in Posh’s squad in abundance, but whether there’s enough proven quality is questionable.
Fans View: Louie Chandler (@ChandlerLouie)
This could, hypothetically speaking, be Darragh MacAnthony’s final season as Posh owner. From the outside, he appears quite frustrating and financially driven. How is he viewed among supporters?
There’s no doubt that the majority of our supporters love having Darragh as an owner. We love his honesty and his willingness to communicate with fans. However over the last couple of seasons frustrations have definitely begun to mount. More and more fans feel he needs a reality check, and statements such as the one he made about selling the club if we don’t get promoted do not help at all. Obviously it’s part of his job to whip-up excitement and enthusiasm around the club, but there are definitely better ways to do it.
I don’t have access to the club’s finances so I don’t know in detail what is going on there, but there is definitely a sense that we should be holding onto our key players instead of cashing in on them at the first chance. Selling Conor Washington last season was a real momentum killer, and in complete contrast, keeping Mackail-Smith for the whole 2010/11 season probably meant we were able to go up. His first excuse always seems to be that if we had higher gates we wouldn’t have to sell these players. But then some feel this is Darragh’s way of passing the blame and using the fans as a scapegoat. We also have some of the most expensive tickets in the league which is never going to help.
After he was sacked Graham Westley revealed it was an AIM for the season to sell a player for a big fee! That really wound the fans up.
The appointment of McCann, given his lack of experience, is undoubtedly a bit of a risk. The right man for the job?
I think he is the right man for the job. With the appointment of Grant no-one seems to be massively excited or massively pessimistic. Those who wanted him (like myself) think he’ll do well, but we are aware it may not be instant success. Those who didn’t want him may not think he will do well, but the thought of one of the club’s legendary players leading us to promotion I think is a thought that keeps the hopes raised a bit.
A lot of people felt it was time for an experienced manager, who wouldn’t take some of the players’ attitudes with Steve Evans a lot of people’s first choice. But having had three managers in the last year, I think it’s time we thought a bit more long term. We are not a League One winning side (despite what some fans and maybe the owner may think) and we need patience and stability now more than ever.
Your squad is, in comparison to others in this division, huge, but lacks experience and largely contains players with a degree of promise or points to prove. Any concerns about the make-up of it?
There are definitely concerns about the make-up of our squad. Like you say it is huge, but it is very unbalanced. For example we have seven players to choose from up-front, but only three for the two full back positions.
In midfield we are still very strong. There is some feeling that we lack a ball winner in there, but I can’t see McCann sacrificing a creative asset for that. In Chris Forrester and Marcus Maddison we have two of the League’s most talented midfielders, and in Jermaine Anderson and Leo Da Silva Lopes two of the League’s most promising. We have never been a club to possess too much experience. It’s not something I think is essential though.
I feel we still need a left-back to really tie up our starting XI, but it’s unclear whether we are planning to bring someone in. We were hoping to bring Callum Elder back on loan from Leicester, but he now seems set to go to a Championship club.
Nonetheless, there are undoubtedly some exciting players among those with potential. Who should League One followers be keeping an eye on in particular?
And finally, where will you finish this season?
It’s difficult to call where we will finish this season. I’ll say first that I’ll be happy to see us pushing for the play-offs, and to have a consistent season. In the past few campaigns we seem to have an unbelievable spell early on before crumbling in the second half. I think all three teams coming down from the Championship will have a good chance of going back up, and look as though they will be significantly stronger than us. Any of our fans who think we should go up this season are a bit naive. But I think we’ll finish 8th or 9th.
Anyone fancy buying a football club? 9th
Just as it seemed they had settled comfortably into the idea of being a relatively no-thrills mid-table League One club, Port Vale were dealt a summer of disruption and uncertainty.
Sparked by the unexpected departure of popular manager Rob Page to Northampton, extended by a period of over a month passing before relatively unknown Portuguese boss Bruno Ribeiro was named as his replacement, and made worse by several departures and an apparent cut in the playing budget leaving Vale with just nine contracted recognised professionals at one point.
Easy, therefore, to think the uncertainty and unscheduled change will prove the catalyst for a season of struggle. At the very least, there’s a need to rebuild with a different direction taken following the departure of Page and key members of his squad.
But there are positive voices coming out of Vale Park which suggest the departure of Page, the appointment of Riberio, and the reshaping of the club’s squad does not at all signal the start of concerning times for the Valiants. So much so that nothing less than the top six is being accepted.
The budget available to Riberio doubled by owner Norman Smurthwaite, the signings arriving from both overseas and abroad, and a suggestion that Page’s departure has actually allowed a stable club to move forward.
In fact, Smurthwaite is so confident of promotion that he has a Plan B in place should the club not be in the top six at Christmas. No consideration taken for the time needed to gel a new side together, and for players from abroad to adapt to the English game.
Ambition, some might argue, but so too does there feel a degree of naivety at Vale Park.
The Manager – Bruno Ribeiro
Being told that your new manager is close personal friends with Jose Mourinho, and the Manchester United boss will be utilised if needed, is certainly a nice sweetener having had to wait over a month for an appointment to be made.
And that Mourinho recommended Ribeiro for the Port Vale job makes a slightly concerning managerial record, and an obvious lack of League One experience, less unsettling. You can just about overlook the fact the 40-year-old hasn’t stayed in a job for more than a year on the previous seven occasions he’s held a managerial position when one of the game’s great bosses says he knows what he’s doing.
There’s confidence from Ribeiro, a former Leeds and Sheffield United player, too. “I believe this is a Championship club,” the Portuguese has said rather optimistically, offering a suggestion that he’ll be looking to build upon Page’s mid-table position and push for promotion with the Valiants.
Confidence that’s aided by the apparent advantage gained in recruitment with Ribeiro in charge. Signings made from Europe, out of the radar of other League One opponents, and the loan market exploited.
And with Michael Brown providing assistance, Ribeiro’s lack of experience in English football and knowledge of League One should be nullified. An over reliance on foreign recruits, and an overseas boss going at it without assistance, has failed before regardless of perceived quality and reputation.
But there remains reason to be dubious and suspicious of Ribeiro and the strategy taken by Port Vale. Pressure on the Valiants to make an immediate impression in the first few weeks of the season to calm those concerns.
At the very least, regardless of Mourinho’s recommendation, Vale chairman Norman Smurthwaite has taken a huge gamble on an alternative approach to move his club forward.
This apparent push for the play-offs is being instigated by a complete overhaul of the squad during the summer, with many steady League One performers departing to be replaced largely by signings from Europe.
The outs including former captain Carl Dickinson (Notts County), forwards Louis Dodds and Aj Leitch-Smith (both Shrewsbury Town), and winger Byron Moore (Bristol Rovers). All regular starters last season, with many others who contributed among the 14 to depart on a permanent basis.
In come 12, signed from clubs in the Netherlands, France, Portugal and Norway. Oh, and England.
Dutch pair Kjell Knops, who joins from MVV Maastricht, and Calvin Mac-Intosch, snapped up from Cambuur, look set to form Vale’s new centre-back partnership. Knops, 28, claims to “known a bit about English football” from watching the Premier League, so he’s all set, while Mac-Intosch, 26, made 14 appearances for the club that finished bottom of the Eredivisie last season.
A trio of Frenchman have joined the club, with Anthony de Freitas and Sebastien Amoros arriving from Monaco, while Quentin Pereira joins from amateur side RC Epernay Champagne. Though de Fretias, now 22, has two France U20 caps to his name and spent half of last season on loan at Portuguese club Varzim, none of the midfield trio have much first team experience.
And it no surprise that a number of players from Ribeiro’s homeland have arrived. Two of them, midfielder Paulo Tavares and full-back Kiko joining from the manager’s former club Vitoria Setubal, while former Sporting Lisbon forward Carlos Saleiro arrives from Oriental with a dubious goal-scoring record.
The overseas influx rounded off with 6’5 Curacaoan forward Rigino Cicilia joining from Roda JC, and Swedish winger Christopher Mbamba signed from Hamarkameratene, who play in the third tier of Norwegian football, apparently. A need to hope Ribeiro knows what he’s doing, and what sort of player will adapt quickly to English football, with each new addition.
Some experience of the English game has been added with the signings of 22-year-old forward Anton Forrester and 33-year-old former Charlton winger Jerome Thomas. The former possessing potential, the latter should still be able to perform at this level despite his best days being behind him.
But both have question marks over them, with appearances in recent seasons limited. Former Blackburn man Forrester with just four to his name, made on loan at Morecombe last season, since the start of 2014/15, and Thomas, who was without a club for most the previous campaign, playing just six times for Rotherham United having been a forgotten man for several years at Crystal Palace prior to that.
Good luck gelling it all together, Bruno.
You wonder whether what remains of Port Vale’s squad from last season will be pushed to one side, or play an important role in gelling the new recruits together into something functional.
The former seems more likely, especially with midfielder Anthony Grant handing in a transfer request midway through pre-season. The host of midfield signings made by Ribeiro likely to be competing to be first choice for Vale this season.
But Jak Alnwick, brother of former Charlton goalkeeper Ben, certainly likely to continue between the sticks, with no competition sought and Chris Neal released. The 23-year-old impressing to the extent that he won Vale’s Young Player of the Year award at the end of the previous campaign.
Ben Purkiss also likely to keep his place at full-back, Sams Foley and Kelly are decent wide options, and cover to be had in attack with JJ Hooper, a bit-part player last season, not a bad fourth choice option to have should Forrester, Saleiro and Cicilia all fail to deliver.
You can, however, question Vale’s lack of depth at centre-back. The inexperienced Remie Streete and Nathan Smith the only real cover for Knops and Mac-Intosch, with their inexperience of the English game.
Fans View: Bob Hughes (@BobGH)
A summer of huge change at Port Vale, from the relative stability of Rob Page to what appears to be something of an experiment instigated by Bruno Ribeiro and his overseas recruits. Excited, or fearful?
Excited. Rob Page did a decent job but some fans never took to him probably because at times last season we were solid but boring. Bruno has promised good entertaining football to be played out from the back which if it works will be great.
You’ve lost some consistent League One performers over the summer. Irrespective of how the overseas signings perform, how disappointed are you to lose AJ Leitch-Smith and co?
AJ Leitch-Smith had his best season of his career with us and I doubt he will better it with Shrewsbury, the two player’s I’m dissapointed which left are fan’s favourite Louis Dodds and our captain Carl Dickinson.
Which of the new signings are you expecting to make the biggest impact, or is it a case that there’s so much uncertainty about whether they will adapt and perform that it’s hard to say?
The signing of Paulo Taveres certainly excites me, he’s a 30 year midfielder who was captain of his last club which played in the Portuguese premiership and he was linked with a move to Sunderland two years ago. Pereria and De Freitas the French midfielders have impressed in pre season.
I’m afraid I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of arrogance and naivety in everything that owner Norman Smurthwaite says. What’s the view of him among supporters?
He splits the divide, some can’t stand him and never have a positive thing to say about anything he says or does and others think he can do no wrong. For me he definitely needs to improve his PR skills and sometimes close his mouth but he brought us out of administration and has put millions of pounds into the club plus we’re one of the few clubs which are debt free.
Smurthwaite has promised a ‘Plan B’ if you’re not in the top six by Christmas. Surely that isn’t a realistic target for Port Vale under any circumstance, let alone the first season of a dramatic change?
None of us know what this Plan B is. I can’t see him sacking Bruno six months into a three year deal, he’ll probably throw more money and maybe think we need more British players if the foreign lads can’t adapt.
Finally, where will you finish this season?
5th, I think it will take the new player’s time to settle but once they do we’ll hit the ground running.
No denying that there is quality among those signed, but too much change has occurred at once, and incredibly hard to see an experiment like this paying off in England’s third tier. Either way, Smurthwaite is likely to have to turn to this apparent Plan B, probably sooner than he thinks. 17th
Despite suggestions existing before the season that Rochdale, after an eighth place finish in 2014/15, would struggle to avoid being drawn into a relegation battle in their second campaign back in the third tier, Keith Hill’s side found themselves in the top ten of League One once again last season.
Level on points with Coventry and Gillingham, who both spent much of the season in the top six, and three above Sheffield United. No real challenge for the play-offs, and Dale actually finishing two places lower despite winning six more points, but the Spotland club worthy of plenty of praise for cementing their place in League One with minimal fuss.
The question is, though, can a club of Rochdale’s size build on two successive top ten finishes, or must they simply accept that attempting to emulate such an achievement for the third season in a row is the best they can hope for?
An acceptance that Dale aren’t necessarily on the same level as bigger clubs in the division, and mid-table security would remain a success, but the achievement of Burton Albion last season can provide hope to clubs like Rochdale.
At the very least, with the creation of a well-drilled unit under Hill’s continued leadership, Dale have done enough in the last two seasons to prevent another campaign that begins with them being tipped for relegation.
The Manager – Keith Hill
With both Blackburn Rovers and Charlton Athletic interested, it appeared for a period during the summer that Hill would not be manager of Rochdale for a tenth season.
Only during one campaign, with the entirety of the 11/12 season spent at Barnsley, since 06/07 has the 47-year-old not spent at least some time at Spotland. The large majority of that time proving successful, and the manager an adored figure as a result.
So for Hill to be beginning another season as Rochdale boss provides a great deal of relief for supporters of the club. Reason to fear that without Hill in charge, their status as a stable and competitive League One club would be lost.
There no denying that Hill’s football isn’t the most attractive, but he has certainly made his Dale side capable of picking up more points in the third tier than many believe they’re capable of. An organised unit, exceeding expectations with the help of an excellent and well-suited leader.
A clear out of the average, and three promising additions. A relatively quiet summer for Rochdale, with dramatic change not needed to a settled squad.
Of those departing, only centre-back Olly Lancashire, who has joined Shrewsbury, was a regular last season. Ashley Eastham (Fleetwood), Rhys Bennett (Mansfield), and released pair Michael Rose and Tom Kennedy bit-part players, while Grant Holt’s return to Spotland, with the forward leaving to join Hibs, wasn’t quite as successful as many hoped it would be.
With several of those who have left the club being centre-backs, it’s more than useful that that is the area Dale have strengthened the most this summer. Irish defender Niall Canavan, having impressed during a spell on loan from Scunthorpe last season, making his move a permanent one, while 20-year-old Harrison McGahey, with minimal experience but showing potential during his time with Sheffield United, also joins.
Potential also the justification in signing former Manchester United midfielder Oliver Rathbone, who is yet to play first-team football but impressed for United’s U21 side last season, and the loan addition of Wigan Athletic winger Sanmi Odelusi.
Possibly the frustration to be had with Rochdale’s summer activity being that a bundle of proven talent has not been signed to improve a squad that fell just short of the play-offs last season.
But the status of the club, both financially and in terms of size, means it’s difficult for them to compete in the transfer market, and maintaining both the manager and his cohesive squad is encouraging in itself.
Even without high-profile additions, the squad, in almost all areas of the pitch, is in a relatively healthy state. Beginning in goal, with long-serving Josh Lillis an excellent stopper.
Only in defence is there an argument for greater depth being required, with a clear out of so many who can play across the backline leaving Dale a little short. Canavan and Jimmy McNulty likely to form the central partnership, with Joe Rafferty and Scott Tanser the only real options in the full-back positions. McGahey provides cover across the backline, but much more than that required.
Far fewer concerns in midfield, where 21-year-old skipper Jamie Allen has plenty of company in the centre. Andy Cannon and Callum Camps, both 20, enjoyed relative breakthrough seasons in the previous campaign, while Matty Lund and the experienced and versatile Peter Vincenti provide proven quality. Summer signing Rathbone another option.
A similar scenario out wide, with options in abundance. It really a competition to see who from Nathaniel Mendez-Lang, Reuben Noble-Lazarus and Donal McDermott will occupy the flank opposite Ian Henderson. Another successful season for the winger, who can also play up top, with 13 goals scored in 39 games.
Additional competition provided by recent signing Odelusi, who can also play as a striker, though it was Joe Bunney who held the often lone central forward spot towards the end of last season. Calvin Andrew and 19-year-old James Hooper providing further alternatives in attack.
Get a few more bodies in defence and they’ve got a very tidy squad.
Fans View: Calvin Calvs (@RAFCCalv)
Despite a second successive season where you weren’t too far off the play-offs, you appear to remain under the radar. Is that how you like it?
Personally I prefer us being under the radar. It means we don’t get as much attention as the bigger clubs in the league and is usually seen as surprising where we finish in the league.
How important is it to have kept a hold of Keith Hill amid interest from bigger clubs?
I think it is great that Hill is still with us. After being linked with a move away I was a bit worried. If/when Hill does move on I would hope that we don’t make the same mistakes as last time. And that means not bringing in someone that hasn’t managed at this level in the past.
What needs to be done in order for you to improve on the last two seasons and break into the top six?
Improve our defence. Going forward we look very strong. But defensively not as much. I am hoping that we bring in two defensive players before the transfer window closes. I don’t see why we can’t get into the top six, after being so close in the past two seasons, if we do that.
Your squad is relatively strong, but lacks options at the back. How desperate are you for some more bodies in defence?
Like I said I would like at least two more defensive players before the transfer window closes. We’ve only got three centre backs and one of them will probably be playing at left back this season. I also think we should be looking for a new defensive midfielder.
And finally, where will you finish this season?
I think we will finish 8th. We will be looking strong for a playoff push but I feel that in the last few months of the season we might drop off a bit but still finish just outside the top six.
Mid-table obscurity isn’t something Rochdale should feel underwhelmed by, but a lot more settled than other clubs. Strengthen at the back and will again be among the chasing pack. 8th
Part Four will be out in the next few days. All information, or at least it should be, correct as of 27/07/2016. All photos my own, or marked for reuse by others.