To be perfectly honest, I took very little enjoyment from my first experience of League One for six years. Slogging several hundred miles up north on cold Tuesday nights to stand in away ends that had received even less care than Charlton supporters in previous years and witness defeats was hardly much fun. I’d really rather not go through all that again, though at least I’ve not had to research for a League Two preview, as it appeared I might have to do at one point.
And with quality lost, as Sheffield United, Bolton Wanderers and, begrudgingly, Millwall prepare for life in the Championship, an outsider – or a grumpy Charlton fan who doesn’t want to be in this division – may suggest that the third tier will be even more of a grind during the 2017/18 campaign.
However, to suggest that would not be fair. For not only have several clubs strengthened, and a percentage of those that have entered the league either from above or below appearing in strong positions, but there is an increased competitiveness to the division. A number of clubs will not simply have wild ambitions, but feel they have a genuine chance of battling for a top six position throughout the campaign.
Many of those who challenged but missed out on promotion last season have lost key members of their squad, but they have been replaced and intent remains. There also-rans, whether they be the Charlton-like larger clubs who feel they are better that this division or those who are looking to overachieve, who have improved their squads and their situations. Those that came up automatically have not too distant memories of the second tier, while at least two of the clubs that came down from the Championship will expect nothing less than an immediate return.
A Sheffield United there is not. There probably isn’t even a Bolton. But there are many clubs that will believe they can finish in the positions those two clubs occupied last season.
And with greater competitiveness at the top, comes greater competitiveness at the bottom, not that there wasn’t a very tight dogfight to avoid the drop during the previous campaign. Because several teams have improved, any that haven’t will find themselves sucked towards the bottom four. Even teams that have improved may find they haven’t improved enough, and endure a season of looking over their shoulders.
So while League One may lack the quality to be totally enjoyable, and some of the defeats may be impossible to endure, a certain amount of interest may come this season from an increased level of competitiveness. It’s up for grabs.
Though ultimately finishing four points behind them, it is a showing of what this phoenix club has achieved in its 15 years of existence that AFC Wimbledon flirted with the notion of finishing above the club that took the original Wimbledon’s position within the Football League, moved it 60 odd miles north, and showed no regard whatsoever for those who have supported the Dons for many a year.
And while the focus, of course, is not entirely on their relationship with another club, that AFC Wimbledon find themselves competing with MK Dons cannot be ignored as a sign of success.
But nor can the fact that Near Ardley’s side, with resources considerably smaller than many of those who they share League One with, managed to maintain their third-tier status following promotion from League Two with relative ease. At no point during the campaign were the Dons sucked away from the comfort of mid-table.
Nonetheless, it seems that, for sides who are arguably overachieving on the basis of their resources to be competing comfortably in the division they’re in, staying in the league for a second season is actually the more difficult challenge.
Not least when clubs of greater stature, from this division and the one above, help themselves to important figures from within the Wimbledon side. Creative midfielder Jake Reeves and top-scorer Tom Elliott among those to depart.
You wouldn’t, however, expect a club that has shown so much resolve, character and fight in such testing circumstances in previous years to simply cave in. This challenge a comparatively minor one to many AFC Wimbledon have faced previously.
The Manager – Neal Ardley
If not restraining Karl Robinson from assaulting one of his ground staff, then comfortably keeping AFC Wimbledon in League One last season was most certainly as impressive an achievement for boss Ardley as gaining promotion to the third tier was in the first place.
With 245 league appearances to his name for the original club, and departing as the move to Milton Keynes began to become more likely, Ardley is a man that understands both the Dons and its supporters. A man ideal for the role he finds himself in. Not least when Wimbledon are somewhat overachieving, competing against sides with greater resources.
But it is too easy to typecast Ardley as a cheerleader in a suit. To focus too greatly on how his connection with the club has created a positive environment which has allowed for success, and not enough on the sort of managerial qualities that are shared by successful bosses across the Football League. At the very least, you need more than just an understanding of a club to guide them to promotion, and thereafter maintain their status in the division above with little concern.
For Ardley is a fantastic reader of the game, able to see where his side can gain the smallest of margins. The comeback victory over Charlton at The Valley last season, where the introduction of Tom Elliott and Tyrone Barnett pushed an unsettled opposition backline onto the back foot, and the subsequent last-minute salvation of a point against the Addicks at Kingsmeadow, achieved after a persistent utilisation of Elliott finally payed off, the prime examples. Intelligent as much as he is a leader.
But whether primarily a leader or a man of brains, he has a challenge to succeed. Not least with Elliott among those to depart – though Cody McDonald does make for a positive replacement – it does appear he’s going to have to work harder to get the most out of a squad that seems weaker than many in the division. As such, a much greater test of his abilities faces Wimbledon’s boss in the coming campaign.
For AFC Wimbledon, losing three forwards who all made over 40 appearances in all competitions during the previous campaign doesn’t sound particularly ideal.
But, in truth, two of those forwards, in spite of their relatively regular involvement throughout the season, are dispensable. Dominic Poleon, who flirted between playing out wide and alongside another forward, showed moments of brilliance and scored 12 times in all competitions, but too often frustrated and lacked a consistent end product. Tyrone Barnett’s physical strength meant he made himself a nuisance at times, but he scored just twice in the league, and one of those was against Charlton so it doesn’t really count.
But there no doubt the loss of Tom Elliott has caused, if not concern, huge disappointment among supporters of the Dons. Leader of the line, a figure that seemed to have a hand in many match-defining moments, and as such contributed 13 vital goals in all competitions. The 26-year-old departing for Milwall.
To AFC’s credit, however, they’ve immediately replaced their potential loss of goals, and in particular the man that leads the line, with one of League One’s most consistent forwards over the previous four seasons. Snatching Cody McDonald away from Gillingham’s hands is quite a coup, with the 31-year-old having scored 48 goals in 153 third-tier appearances for the Gills and become something of a talismanic figure at Priestfield. Not the same sort of target man as Tom Elliott, six inches shorter for starters, but still a striker with the strength to hold up play and additionally contribute ten or more goals in a campaign.
In their other forward addition, there is a degree of the unknown, and that despite Kwesi Appiah having previously played on loan at Kingsmeadow. That loan spell just one of eight he had away from Selhurst Park during the five years he was contracted to Crystal Palace, only once scoring at League One level or above (for Reading in the Championship). At 26, this permanent move to a new home was desperately needed, and he does have the raw attributes to be a threat, but it remains to be seen how long it will take the forward to establish and prove himself after such a nomadic recent past.
In midfield, too, has a key figure been lost. Playmaker Jake Reeves, at just 24, constantly showed potential to play at a higher level, and it was probably only a matter of time before a club with greater resources lured him away from Kingsmeadow. The former Brentford man heading to Bradford City, who can offer genuine promotion ambitions, and the additions of an injury-hit Liam Trotter and Millwall loanee Jimmy Abdou lack legs.
Elsewhere, Deji Oshilaja, having impressed in loan spells at Gillingham and previously spent time on loan at the Dons, and Callum Kennedy, another who has previous represented AFC, join after their respective releases from Cardiff City and Leyton Orient, while the loan signing of Sheffield United goalkeeper George Long replaces the outgoing James Shea.
The Dons managed to creep towards mid-table security, ultimately quite comfortable, for a number of reasons last season. Ardley’s management, the ability to scrape unlikely points, and strong togetherness in the squad that made it greater than the sum of its parts. But you wonder if, on its second go in League One, the relatively substandard individual quality in Wimbledon’s side will be exposed.
At the very least, reflected in the fact only Charlton and Oldham conceded less than Ardley’s side from ninth downwards last season, AFC do have a decent enough backline that has seen some strengthening over the summer. The ever-reliable Barry Fuller at right-back, Oshilaja likely to stand alongside a man of much greater experience in Paul Robinson at centre-back, while Jonathan Meades and Callum Kennedy will compete for the left-back spot. With Long behind them, it’s strong enough.
But, particularly with Darius Charles expected to be unavailable until September at the earliest, depth may prove a little bit of a problem. Will Nightingale, a 21-year-old who played 12 times last season, offers an alternative with some first-team experience to his name, but defensive options otherwise are teens with just a handful of games under their belt. A fragile situation at the back.
The situation in the centre of midfield better in terms of depth, it’s just that you’re left asking a few more questions about the quality and reliability of the options available than you are of AFC’s standard back four.
Of those available in the centre, it’s arguably Dean Parrett that’s the standout, as the sort of midfielder who enjoys having plenty of possession and complements that with a reasonable amount of creativity. Alongside him are Tom Soares, who really should have had a much better career than he has done, becoming little more than a steady League One performer, and recent arrivals Abdou, who is adored at The Den but hasn’t had a great deal of first-team football in recent seasons, and Trotter, who did contribute to Bolton’s promotion last season but has had his recent career blighted by injury. Teenager Alfie Egan got a chance in the final month of the previous campaign, and he may be called upon throughout this campaign if required.
But it’s probably in the wide positions where the Dons leave you least inspired. Andy Barcham the traditional pacey winger with a frustrating lack of end product, George Francomb has racked up over 150 league games for the Dons though lacks cutting edge, while Chris Whelpdale spent much of last injured but failed to make a real impression during the opportunities he had while fit. There next to nothing beyond that, and you do wonder where what is a reasonable set of forwards are going to getting their service from.
For McDonald and Lyle Taylor, who struck ten times in the league last season, could form a potent partnership in bottom-half of the division terms. Enough to make the difference in tight games. But with Appiah, and the sense of unknown that surrounds him, being AFC’s only other senior striking option, another forward wouldn’t go amiss.
As such, it not just quality that’s an issue, but depth too.
Fans View – Joe Moger (@JoeMoger)
Relatively comfortable survival last season has to go down as quite an impressive achievement. Would simply maintaining League One status again be a success for AFC Wimbledon at the end of this campaign?
I think for the next couple of years survival is the first goal, anything else is a bonus. We started the season really badly, which was a blessing in disguise because we knew how tough it would be, and that allowed us to go on a good run of form before the winter period. But after January we barely scored a goal, it got to the point where we didn’t expect to score a goal. We didn’t even win a game after beating MK, something I internally predicted.
It does appear that your second season in League is going to be tougher than the first. Hypothetically speaking, does Neal Ardley deserve to be stood by regardless of what happens?
I’ll personally stick by him for a long, long time. The work he’s done, not just with the first team, has been nothing short of a miracle, and he’s always pulled something out of the hat to make things work when you think the worst. I wasn’t very optimistic before last season, and he proved me wrong, and I’m definitely not very optimistic this season, so hopefully he can continue that trend.
Elliott, Poleon, Reeves. Some important players have departed this summer, though you have sought replacements. Are you at all concerned about the state of your squad?
Firstly, Poleon wasn’t that important. He had one really good run of form, but after that was played out wide too much and wasn’t consistent enough. Jake Reeves is one I’m devastated about, for more than one reason. We won’t find another player with the combination of ability, stamina and footballing sense than him for a long time. Tom Elliott is another really big blow, him and Reeves were the main two players last season, and he’s another one we won’t find a decent replacement for. He may not be the most gifted player, but he more than makes up for it for his ability to bully two centre backs on and off the ball.
But, going back to the previous answer slightly, Neal has always replaced seemingly irreplaceable players. Top scorer and cult hero Jack Midson was released, our fans went into meltdown, and we signed Tubbs and Akinfenwa. Akinfenwa leaves, Tom Elliott steps up. So let’s just hope it’s another situation like those. We have got good strike options, with another supposedly on the way, with Lyle Taylor, Kwesi Appiah and Cody McDonald. They all like to get in to the box and score goals, but bring slightly different attributes too.
As for the rest of the squad, I’m slightly unsure in certain areas, as I was last season as well. In goal we’ve let go of Shea, which was fair enough, and brought in George Long on loan. The general consensus from Baldes fans was that he was a good shotstopper but could make mistakes if he lacks confidence. We’ve had a young, fair-haired keeper on loan from a Championship club before. Ben Wilson. Google him, it was all fun and games to say the least. But George had a good debut in preseason against Watford so hopefully we can keep his confidence up all season.
In terms of defence we’ve replaced Chris Robertson with Deji Oshilaja, who we’ve had on loan before and has been playing at this level with Gills. Really talented player and isn’t in the mould of old man who can barely run like most of our recent centre backs. It’s a great signing considering Darius Charles seems to like being injured. With full-backs we’ve also brought back another old face in Callum Kennedy. He struggled at Orient last year, but he knows our club, gets the club, and represents us so perfectly. It’s good to have him back but I’m not sure he’s good enough for this league, especially as Meades is another one who always seems to be injured, meaning Kennedy will definitely play a lot.
Losing Reeves in midfield is a massive blow, but we’ve signed Jimmy Abdou on loan, who’s slightly more defensive than the options we’ve had in previous seasons, so hopefully he can bring some much-needed balance and experience to that position. We also expect to bring in another, and youth player Alfie Egan could well get some game time as he progresses through the ranks. With Tom Soares and Dean Parrett already here, we should have a good combination of legs, goal scoring threat and defensiveness, even if it is completely unspectacular.
Wingers…tumbleweed. I did question whether Barcham was good enough last year, and he proved me wrong despite his injuries. So I’ll trust him again this season. On the other flank we have Francomb and Whelpdale, probably the most uninspiring options possible.
Up front is probably our strongest areas, with 3 really good options as mentioned before. The only problem is we’ll probably revert to a defensive 4-3-3 and shove at least one of them on the right and make them play 5 metres form the keeper. We definitely have the potential to score a lot of goals, but I don’t have great confidence in providing the chances we need.
Can the club really have ambition beyond hovering around the bottom half of League One without further development off the pitch?
Every club can dream right? The way I look at it is if a team says they want to win the league, they mean finish in automatic promotions, predicting promotion means play offs, and predicting play offs means you’ll be 5 points off at one point and then fall off. If you think you’ll finish lower than that you’re either getting relegated or are actually realistic. I would agree mid table League One is where we’re at on a good day right now, but I’ll mention the stadium because that’s where you seem to be trying to prod me. The Section 106 agreement has nearly been signed off on, which is essentially legally bribing the council. We’ve had several delays from good old Mayor Boris calling it in, and then the greyhound racing weirdos doing anything they can to save the site, which was then further held up by the election being called. Too much politics to say the least. But once we finally get the new stadium, it’ll provide a good boost in income. Funnily enough, I remember reading through the original plans, which mentioned getting promoted to League One within a few years with “prudent management”. I thought it was crazy at the time but it’s become reality, and it mentioned getting into the Championship too. So you never know.
Are you in favour of binning off our fixture at Kingsmeadow this season and instead having a cage fight between Karl Robinson and your groundsman? That it wasn’t allowed to take place last season in full was extremely disappointing.
I’m more than in favour of that happening, even though Karl will definitely win Charlton the 3 points. It wouldn’t even need to be a real person, just a sack of potatoes that mildly questions Novak’s finishing and he’d be off on a rant and swinging his limbs all over the place.
And finally, where will you finish this season?
We’ll finish in about March as we seem to do every season we’re not going up. Roll over, give up and go on holiday with 10 games left. But seriously, I’m going 16th. It’s a nice rounded number in midtable that doesn’t make me sound too optimistic or pessimistic. But to even finish there we’ll have to get several players to over-perform like we did last year. I don’t really like predicting a full season ahead because a lot changes, and we’re always incredibly unpredictable and inconsistent. We could easily go down if a few things go against us, or, heavens forbid, threaten the infamous top half of the table too.
Best Scenario – Defence stays stubborn, McDonald and Taylor score goals, League One Status comfortably secured.
Worst Scenario – Lack of quality and depth in squad exposed, McDonald and Taylor can’t make the difference, a return to League Two follows.
Certainly going to be tougher second time around. Will be in a fight to maintain their status as a third-tier club. 20th
There many facts, statistics and emotions that make a club like Blackburn Rovers’ relegation to League One an embarrassing one. But maybe none more so than the fact that they become the first title winners in the Premier League era to be relegated to the third tier. No other club has fallen from such a high as them.
Once Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton’s goals were leading them to the summit of English football, now an ownership that are constantly firing off-target are dragging the club further and further down the Football League. The Venky’s, with total ignorance and not appreciating how insulting such a comment is to supporters, determined Blackburn’s relegation from the Championship to be a “temporary setback”. Really, the club are one of the many that have failed on the pitch, and lost a relationship with supporters off it, under the control of a regime that simply does not understand how to run a football club.
And so supporters of Blackburn have become what seems like the millionth set of fans to engage in protest against an inept ownership. Engaging in protest, because their club does not engage with them. Desperately hoping for change, for it only change that will properly allow for their club to rebuild, and recover from the poison that they Venky’s have injected into it.
As such, there remains a worry, a fear, that this inept regime with no genuine care for club nor supporters will obstruct any chance of Tony Mowbray’s side putting last season’s downfall behind them and making an immediate return to the Championship. Second tier status the minimum a club of Blackburn’s size should be holding. This is, after all, the first time they’ve played in the third tier since 1979/1980.
But if someone ignorant to their ownership problems were to assess Rovers’ potential for success on the pitch without the restrictions or worries that others fear, they would see every possibility of achievement. A squad with players of quality, not least in midfield, too good for this division, led by a manager of experience who won’t be fazed by what goes on above. An immediate return to the Championship definitely on the cards if the Venky’s don’t intervene in the negative fashion that they’ve made a habit of.
Success that would offer more relief than joyous scenes of celebration, given that Blackburn shouldn’t even be in this position. It probably wouldn’t even right the wrongs of last season, or allow supporters to forgive the ownership. But it’s desperately needed.
A success needed to avoid the potential of entering complete and inescapable crisis. A success that most certainly can be achieved. A success that, given what’s occurred in previous seasons, would not belong to the poisonous Venky’s regime, but to a set of supporters who deserve a great deal more than what they have been given.
The Manager – Tony Mowbray
Mowbray, for all manner of reason, was on the back foot from the moment he arrived at Ewood Park 31 games into last season’s Championship.
He was, of course, handed a difficult task. Inheriting a side lacking confidence and cohesion, expected to claw them away from the relegation zone while supporters found themselves disillusioned with regime, team and club. Two points from safety, but it seemed like twenty in the circumstances.
So too, however, was Mowbray placed on the back foot simply because he’d been appointed. Disillusioned supporters, particularly given that they had been forced to watch Owen Coyle’s dire football, wanted someone to inspire. Instead they were given someone who had been sacked by a club (Coventry City) who were in League One’s relegation zone earlier on in the season and would ultimately be relegated.
It seemed like, both from the outside and within, a lazy and cheap option for the Venky’s to take. Most of the anger directed towards the ownership, but believing in Mowbray a tough task for those who expected better. Surely not the man to lift this crumbling side away from the threat of League One.
And maybe the final outcome proves his appointment was not the right one. The 53-year-old unable to prevent Rovers from falling to League One. He has a relegation on his CV.
But there no doubt that Mowbray, who has previously managed at West Brom, Celtic and Middlesbrough, had a commendable go at keeping what was a club and side in crisis in England’s second tier. Just three defeats from his 15 games in charge, with vital victories over relegation rivals Wigan Athletic and Nottingham Forest, meant it was ultimately goal difference that relegated Rovers. They probably drew too many games (7) under his tenure, but an extra point, or even a three-goal swing, would have kept Mowbray’s men up.
And so blame for the relegation does not lie heavily at the feet of Mowbray. The regime, Coyle, and the side that failed throughout the season are certainly more responsible. At the very least, the Venky’s had an excuse to stick by their experienced boss for the slog of League One.
So does Mowbray start with a clean state, with the disgust that existed as he was appointed dropped? He did, after all, fail to prevent Blackburn from relegation.
But there were signs in that final period of the season that Mowbray’s management is not so flawed so as to believe he cannot lead an immediate return to the Championship. In a shock twist at Ewood Park, supporters have a degree of faith in a boss.
A clear out, to cleanse the mouth of the bad taste left by last season and to remove high-earning underperformers off the wage bill, always expected at Ewood Park. And that’s exactly what took place.
The only genuine disappoint among the departures coming from seeing promising winger Connor Mahoney move to Bournemouth, with the 20-year-old rejecting Blackburn’s contract offer to move to Dean Court for a fee likely to be decided by a tribunal, and the release of long-standing midfielder Jason Lowe, who leaves Rovers just five short of a double-century of games in all competitions.
Otherwise, injury-hit and ageing players who still command excessive wages make up the majority of those who have departed Ewood Park. Danny Guthrie, Wes Brown and Gordon Greer among them. Having Lucas Joao and Marvin Emnes, among those who have returned to their parent clubs after loan spells, off the wage bill probably helps too.
What was less certain, particularly with a lack of trust in the Venky’s, was what would be replacing those that had left the club. Some feared Rovers would be scrapping the bottom of the barrel for players simply not suitable for a push for promotion for League One. Others hoped the ownership would stick to their words and commit to an immediate return to the Championship.
And based on the quality of what has arrived so far, it would appear that there is in fact a commitment to getting the club out of the third tier at the first attempt.
Not least given the standard of signings in midfield. Tears shed as Peter Whittingham departed Cardiff City, a cult hero with many still believing he could perform at Championship, and as such a real coup to get such an experienced and talented midfielder to Ewood Park who seems perfect for the situation Blackburn find themselves in, while Bradley Dack (Gillingham) and Ben Gladwin (QPR, but with several spells at Swindon) have proven themselves to be two of the best creative midfielders in League One over previous seasons. With Richie Smallwood also snapped up on a free following his departure from Rotherham, a hard-working battler who has experience but is still only 26, Rovers have made their midfield terrifyingly strong.
The signing of Dominic Samuel, arriving on a permanent from Reading after loan spells all over the country, also seems a positive one, particularly with Anthony Stokes leaving shortly after and Rovers short enough on strikers even after the 23-year-old’s signing. The forward is still raw, but has a positive goal-scoring record at League One level despite relative inexperience, and has the attributes to mean his potential can be fulfilled. Certainly a signing far away from the half-arsed journeymen they attempted to rely on to keep them away from League One.
A bit of a journeyman, who isn’t necessarily half-arsed, is Paul Caddis. The Scot arrives having spent much of last season injured, making a return for Bury in the second half of it having been released by Birmingham City. But he left St Andrews with cult hero status, is certainly a useful addition for this level, and his versatility, primarily a right-back but also able to play at left-back and further forward if desperately required, will prove particularly useful.
Nonetheless, it remains the case that more is needed. Depth required, or Rovers might find themselves reliant on youngsters that aren’t ready for first-team football. But the signings made so far are of high League One quality, and as such statements of intent.
Until Samuel rocked up, there was a very real concern that Blackburn would have to adopt the Spanish systems (no, I’m not sure how I’ve come to write those words in that order either) of the late 2000s and shove some random midfielder where the forward should be. Has Peter Whittingham played up top before?
But another body makes their attacking options a little less concerning. In Danny Graham, who notched 12 times in 28 starts last season, they have one of the best natural goal-scorers in the division, while Samuel, with League One experience to his name having spent time on loan at Coventry City and Gillingham, has pace, power and potential. Though Mowbray will probably opt for one up top, with one of the attacking midfielders in the number ten role, another forward or two is still needed to supplement what they have.
Their greatest strength in midfield. Gladwin and Dack likely to be the main creative presences, with Whittingham playing in a slightly deeper role in his advancing years, and Smallwood a natural to the tough-tackling defensive position. They’re joined by Corry Evans, another in the tough-tackling mould and who has over a century of league appearances for the club, and 19-year-old Willem Tomlinson, who made his debut for Rovers and has taken a full part in pre-season with the first team.
Another wide option, however, probably something that’s required. Craig Conway, even at 32, arguably too good for this level, while both Elliott Bennett and Liam Feeney have performed at a higher standard and should have no trouble doing a job in the third tier, but there’s little beyond that. Whittingham has played on the left in the past but no longer has the pace, Dack flirted with playing out wide while at Gillingham, but ultimately another winger should be on Mowbray’s hit list.
A similar scenario at the back, where the options are strong but you’d love a bit more. Last season’s POTY, if that has much value, Derrick Williams, Elliott Ward, Darragh Lenihan, and Charlie Mulgrew will form a strong back line for this level, while Jason Steele is most definitely an excellent goalkeeper. Smallwood can fill in if required, but young centre-backs Scott Wharton and Ryan Nyambe, who at least has 25-games worth of experience to his name at just 19, are the most natural replacements if there are injuries, while Caddis is the only experienced alternative at full-back.
That lack of depth, particularly with a healthy variety of youngster involved throughout pre-season, is more a frustration than anything else. Their starting XI is very strong, and you could flog together an unbalanced bench of players that would get into starting line-ups of almost every team. But there are some concerns.
Quality throughout, but a lack of options may prove problematic over the course of a 46-game season if the squad is not added to prior to the campaign getting underway. And really, it’s only one or two bodies, that are just going to act as cover, required per position to allow Blackburn to feel comfortable. Something I’m sure will be sorted in time.
Fans View – Jonathan Secker (@JonathanSecker1)
Embarrassing, crisis, a club being ripped apart from the inside. There have been all sorts of attempts to describe went on last season. So just how did Blackburn Rovers, former winners of the Premier League, end up suffering Relegation from the Championship?
Ultimately the table doesn’t lie and we weren’t good enough but the poor management off the field was the telling blow. Appointing Owen Coyle was a recipe for disaster and was never going to work, how he lasted until February is beyond me. I went to the Rotherham game in early February and in all fairness we should have won the game by half-time but once Rotherham went ahead the fans turned and it was as toxic as I’d seen at a game (Note – I wasn’t at the Bolton game with Steve Kean in charge).
We didn’t invest properly over the summer and whereas some of the signings were met with optimism (Graham, Samuelson, even Stokes) the fact we spent £250,000 after selling around £10 million worth of talent (£20 million the season before) says it all.
The frustrating thing is that we competed most of the season and never really got thrashed but our habit for conceding late goals haunted us again and again. We had players that could score goals in Graham and Gallagher but had creative talents such as Mahoney and Samuleson sitting on the bench – Coyle rarely used his substitutes. We were week in central midfield and struggled to field a consistent centre half pairing due to injuries. The FA cup game against Man United was there for all to see what we could do. We pushed them hard and were unlucky to lose, the goal Graham scored was one of the highlights of the season for us.
The fact we went down on goal difference still hurts and ponders so many ifs and buts…. though I think all Rovers fans would agree with Mowbray (or anyone bar Coyle) in position for the season we wouldn’t have been relegated
Of course, the goal will be an immediate return to the Championship, but how big is the concern that the Venky’s will obstruct any chance of achieving that?
It’s a concern no doubt for all Rovers fans but at the same time they’ve invested more in this window then we’ve seen for a long time. Many people thought (and hoped) that relegation would see the Venky’s sell up.
The only negative quibble I’ve heard recently is that they blocked a move for Tony McMahon from Bradford earlier this summer but with us already having Ryan Nyambe and recently signing Paul Caddis I’m not sure that’s a problem.
We’ve probably invested more than any other League one club this window in transfers as well as keeping our academy Category one status. The fact they backed Mowbray very quickly at the end of the last season and met him in India is also encouraging.
Reading that back it sounds like plain sailing but I’d be naïve to think there wasn’t a hiccup or two ahead of us this season. I think the fact we have a good squad, a trusted manager and that we should win more games this season in comparison to the previous 2/3 means the Venky’s might be pushed to the back of the fans mind (I’m planning to do so).
Tony Mowbray seemed a strange appointment but, though not succeeding in keeping Rovers up, did relatively well at the end of last season and might well be the experienced, thick-skinned figure that is required for the situation the club finds itself in. Do you have confidence in him?
Yes 100% – if he was appointed at Christmas last season then we would have comfortably finished mid-table in the Championship. I’d admit he was never my first choice but his enthusiasm for the game, the way he talks, the way he wants the team to play is very impressive. I sat close to the dugout when we played Bristol City on Easter Monday and for the whole 90 minutes he was talking to the players, pushing them to get on the ball, keep the shape and really try and influence the game.
As was always going to be the case after relegation, Rovers’ squad has seen a bit of reshaping. High earners out, a few players that appeared very talented at this level in. How would you assess your squad?
Happy, potentially very happy – another striker (or two) needed and I’d be content. But I think our bigger challenge at the moment is keeping hold of some of our key players such as Lenihan and Mulgrew, and personally I think if an offer came in for Steele we would sell as we have a more than able younger keeper in Raya.
The signing of Dack has really excited fans and with Whittingham and Smallwood we may see something that resembles a creative and combative midfield in comparison to the last few seasons. Any more incomings are likely to be loans and hopefully premier league loans as Mowbray has a good track record from his time at Coventry and what he did with Armstrong and Murphy (to name a couple).
At the end of last season we released eight players and had five go back to parent clubs but realistically from that 13 there were only two or three that fans would have wanted to keep. The hardest one to take losing has been Connor Mahoney – a local lad, supports the club and would have thrived and shined league One
Other clubs in similar situations to yourselves, high profile but relegated to the third tier with concerns over ownership, have not delivered. Do those examples, such as Charlton last season, fill you with a little bit of fear or are Blackburn in a better state than that?
If I’d answered that in May then I was full of fear, I could only see cost cutting and potentially administration ahead of us. At that point in time I would struggle to name a handful of teams that were run worse than Rovers.
Answering it right now I’d more glass half full, it appears (using that term loosely) our owners have realised they need to invest to move us forward and the only way they will get their money back is to get us back to the premier league. They seem to trust Tony Mowbray and have given him money to invest in some proven League One players. Even so it can’t be forgotten how financially dependent we are on the Venky’s and that statement is a worry in itself.
Football wise I’m looking at past years examples of Southampton, Norwich, Leicester in one-step backwards for two steps forward as opposed to Charlton.
And finally, where will you finish this season?
I can’t say anything but top two and automatic promotion though part of me would like to see us go up via the play-offs as I’ve never seen Rovers at Wembley, but I’m not sure many fellow Rovers would agree with or want that!
Best case – Venky’s keep quiet, Mowbray gets a hardworking squad to stay injury free, automatic promotion.
Worst case – Venky’s get involved, injuries take their toll on a small squad, slump to a mid-table finish.
You worry that the club as a whole has taken a huge knock, or that the Venky’s while do damage we’re yet to see, but it would appear for the moment they’re well placed for an immediate return to the Championship. In fact, with depth added in attack, they become the team to beat. 1st
The Oyston family are poison. A brand of poison so intense that their ownership has prevented Blackpool supporters from celebrating last season’s promotion to League One. In fact, many aren’t even sure if it’s a positive thing.
Prior to the trip to Wembley, where a 2-1 victory over Exeter City saw an immediate return to the third tier for the Tangerines, Tim Fielding, the Blackpool Supporters Trust’s honorary vice-president, suggested that promotion might not be in the best interests of the club, as it wouldn’t help to facilitate the selling of it. A view, or at least a concern, shared by the many not wishing to see Karl and Owen Oyston’s position strengthened. Whether among the masses boycotting, or the relative few in attendance both throughout the season and at Wembley, the opposition to this regime is as intense as the love for Blackpool Football Club once was.
The cynics will suggest that Blackpool supporters have merely turned their back on their club, and as such aren’t real supporters. But, in fact, it is quite the opposite. They are showing resilience in a fight to take it out of the hands of an ownership that, aside from overseeing a collapse from Premier League to League Two, has stripped money from the club and attempted to sue supporters quite rightfully voicing their discount in previous years.
And so the unfortunate truth is that celebrating promotion in a manner considered natural is a tough ask when disconnection and discontent remain the overriding emotions around Bloomfield Road. An immediate return to League One does not brush the damage done by the Oystons under the carpet. There no action that can be taken that will result in forgiveness and normality returning while they remain in control.
A normality that supporters want. There no question that supporters want to return to supporting their side, and that for each week they are forced to remain away from Bloomfield Road their anger at this destructive regime increases. There heartbreak, that the soulless Oystons could simply not understand.
As such, regardless of what is achieved on the pitch this season, it will matter little to the majority of Blackpool supporters who have lost touch with a club that sees them as the enemy. The only success worth celebrating would be the Oystons finally selling up. And only then could any other success, or even an unpleasant goalless draw at home to Rochdale on a cold Tuesday evening, be appreciated as it should be for a football supporter.
The Manager – Gary Bowyer
While some may argue that to work under such a controversial ownership requires a questionable set of morals, that Bowyer achieved success in the circumstances at Bloomfield Road makes his efforts particularly commendable ones.
Surely impossible to have a truly positive relationship with such a gruesome owner and chairman, a complete reshaping of the squad required with a dozen in and a dozen out last summer, and having to ignore the crisis occurring in the background once standing in the technical area.
Managers in these situations pretend what goes on above and around them can be easily ignored, and his previous managerial experience with the Venky’s in his ears at Blackburn probably gave him a particularly thick skin, but in the state Blackpool are in few are falling for the idea it had no impact whatsoever.
At the very least, it meant Bowyer had the challenge of getting the most out of something of a mish-mash of a squad. Scraped together, with the occasional player of high League Two quality among it. That Bowyer did enough, in the circumstances and with the tools he had available, to achieve promotion cannot be downplayed as an outstanding accomplishment.
But, with the same restrictions and complications in place, getting the most out of a squad so that they compete in the tier above is another story. Compete against stronger opposition, with a squad that hasn’t seen much, if any, relative strengthening. Compete to the extent that he’ll be able to keep his side away from a gruelling relegation battle.
With crisis above, and weakness within the squad, Blackpool are reliant on the intelligence and leadership of Bowyer to keep them away from an immediate return to League Two.
As is probably to be expected of a club in such an unstable state, irrespective of their promotion, there has been another summer at Blackpool of many exits and plenty of arrivals. But whether the required quality to compete in League One has been added is questionable.
Among the departures are several simply not required, who played very few games last season and have been released without much of a second thought. Defender Eddie Nolan, midfielders Henry Cameron and John Herron, and forward Jack Redshaw falling into that category. Another clear out at Bloomfield Road.
But a handful of the other exits have been a little more difficult to justify, particularly those that have been allowed to leave without a fight. Regular goalkeeper Sam Slocombe released despite starting the play-off final, talented playmaker Jack Payne let go regardless of his 38 appearances last season and being another who started at Wembley, and captain Tom Aldred departs to Bury having turned down a new contract.
A need also to consider the losses of Neil Danns, Jordan Flores and Sanmi Odelusi, with the trio returning to their parent clubs after positive loan spells in the second half of last season.
At least Blackpool haven’t stood still and allowed the departed to go unreplaced. The goalkeeper situation, exasperated by Dean Lyness also being released, addressed by the arrivals of experienced League One stopper Ben Williams and Bournemouth loanee Ryan Allsop, while Congo international Christoffer Mafoumbi joins from South African side Free State Stars following a successful trial. Williams, released by Bury at the end of last season, takes the number one shirt.
In defence comes the tried and the untested. Experienced defensive additions take the shape of full-back Oliver Turton, a regular at Crewe Alexandra for several seasons but moves to Bloomfield Road having rejected their contract offer during the summer, and Peter Hartley, who endured a torrid time with injury at Bristol Rovers last season but has been a strong enough performer at League Two in the past to suggest he can step up to this level. Greater gambles taken on Nick Wilmer-Anderton, a 21-year-old full-back who impressed for play-off chasing Barrow in the National League last season, and Curtis Tilt, a 25-year-old centre-back who spent most of the previous campaign at Wrexham before joining Forest Green Rovers on loan to supplement their charge towards promotion.
Further forward, playmaker Jimmy Ryan arrives from Fleetwood Town on the back of a season of injury not too dissimilar to Hartley’s, but having previously displayed his ability in League One and seems the likely candidate to replace the hole left by Payne, while creative midfielder Callum Cooke provides a further option having joined on loan from Middlesbrough. A show of faith also given to released Bolton forward Max Clayton, who at 22 still has plenty of time to fulfil his potential, but racked up more long-term injuries than goals in his three seasons at the Macron Stadium.
Ultimately, and probably a consequence of the position that they’re in, the Tangerines have had to take a number of risks and gambles in going about attempting to improve their squad.
In spite of the undoubted issues the club has, and the questionable quality and reliability of the additions made to the squad, there has to be talent within a side to achieve promotion. And that there is.
Particularly in the shape of talented playmaker Brad Potts, who scored 13 times and led Blackpool’s midfield in the previous campaign. A scorer at Wembley, and quite possibly the difference in general between being among the also-rans and promotion. And given that importance, it vital he remains at Bloomfield Road for the Tangerines to have a realistic chance of competing this season, but interest in him won’t cool until September 1st.
Another strength in Bowyer’s side is that, though switching between four and three at the back, they were relatively settled in defence, resulting in only Portsmouth and Luton Town conceding less than the 46 they did. And while the leader of that defence, Aldred, departs, the rest of it remains. Right-back Kelvin Mellor, who also pushed further forward, with a wealth of Football League experience, Scot Clark Robertson a regular in Blackpool’s back line for two seasons having arrived from Aberdeen, and left-back Andy Taylor previously involved with promotion pushes from League One with Sheffield United and Walsall.
Hartley the most likely candidate to fill the hole left by Aldred, or possibly Will Aimson who got some game time during the previous campaign, while it seemingly the case that the rest of the defensive arrivals will provide competition to what’s already in place.
Competing for a place alongside Potts, whose box-to-box nature means you can play an attacking or defensive midfielder alongside him, are recent signings Ryan and Cooke. But more is needed, particularly with Jim McAlister missing the start of the campaign has his continues to recover from a broken leg sustained at the start of the calendar year.
At least Bowyer has a wealth of options who can play on the wingers, whether it their natural position or not. Experienced left-midfielder Colin Daniel, with some competition from teenager Bright Osayi-Samuel, the only player to really hold down a position on the flanks last season, as all sorts came and went, from full-backs to forwards. Armand Gnanduillet, Danny Philliskirk, Jamille Matt and Nathan Delfouneso among the body of forwards-who-don’t-really-score-goals-but-have-a-bit-of-pace-and-so-get-shoved-out-wide-sometimes.
While centrally, Mark Cullen, who really impressed towards the end of last season and supplemented that with a hat-trick in the play-off semi-final win over Luton and the winner at Wembley, probably has his place in the side cemented. Clayton and Kyle Vassell, scorer of 11 goals last season, competing if two are played up top, and Bowyer able to pluck from his army of winger-cum-forwards if all goes wrong.
Options in most areas, but quality, and positive experiences above League Two for that matter, runs very thin.
Fans View – Jason Steed (@JasonSteed14)
It must feel like something of a chore to have to answer anything Blackpool related when the first thing that must come to mind at present are the Oystons and the damage they have done to your club. Can you put into the words the pain you’ve been through in recent years?
No words can do justice to what that family has done to the club. They have affected more than just a football club, they have damaged a whole town, sued and bankrupted fans, the list is endless. When the miracle happened and we got promoted to the promised land of the premier league, we had a chance to really make our mark, instead they took 11 million instantly out of the club and into there own back pockets. The day that family leaves the football club will be a tremendous day, not only for the club but for the town itself.
The crisis that exists at your club can seemingly be best understood by the fact there’s an argument over whether promotion was actually a good thing. How did winning the play-offs, with the club in the position it’s in, make you feel?
It seems absurd that we are in a situation where you’re asking me whether my team being promoted is a good thing, but that’s how ridiculous the situation has become! It was a difficult one, a real difficult one. It’s hard to put into words the whole scenario but obviously no one wants there team to be continuing to drop down leagues. The one thing I would say is the promotion was down to Gary Bowyer and his team, and not the board.
Irrespective, it remains a success to achieve promotion, and as such do you admire the work that Gary Bowyer has done?
The guy deserves a bloody knighthood. We were in complete free fall. They play in a home ground that’s 80% empty, it must be horrendous. He deserves a lot of credit and to be honest I am surprised someone hasn’t poached him off us. I’m making him sound like a god here but when your previous manages include Paul Ince, Lee Clark and Neil Mcdonald, it’s hard not to.
Bowyer’s squad has seen change, but not much strengthening over the summer, and you don’t exactly appear well equipped for the challenges of League One. Not that that really comes as any surprise with the Oystons above him. Are you concerned that an immediate return to League Two is on the cards?
If I’m completely honest, I think we will do okay and end up around mid-table. At this level if you get your team structured and organised with a little bit of flair going forward you tend to do okay. I don’t believe the difference between League One and Two is all that much different, so unless something dramatic changes in the upcoming weeks I don’t think there is too much to worry about.
What is more important this season – maintaining your League One status or the Oystons selling up?
Oystons selling up by a country mile. We want our football club back. We want to see Bloomfield road bouncing again. I want to be able to go back to Bloomfield road, it may be a 4 hour round trip from where I live and the M6 may be the worst motorway in history but I miss it, miss it a lot!
And finally, where will you finish this season?
Mid-table-ish, we’ll go with 14th.
Best Case – Bowyer battles again, his squad responds, survival secured despite what’s occurring above.
Worst Case – The Oystons actually start bare knuckle fights with supporters, Bowyer looks on confused, Blackpool are relegated.
Difficult to see how a club in such a state, with a comparatively weak squad, compete in the third tier. 24th
As the Bantams begin their League One season against Blackpool, there no doubt the minds of their supporters will be full of memories of the heartbreak of Wembley. Steve Morison’s winner for Millwall with just five minutes to play in the play-off final the reason that Bradford’s efforts last season have not been rewarded with Championship football during this one, and instead find themselves slogging through the third tier once again.
There will, of course, be a concerted effort to move on from those efforts. But moving on is a challenge when a sense of misfortune and hard luck, only natural after losing such a game in such a fashion, clouds the mind. In a contest that saw both sides enjoy periods of relative control, that single goal could have so easily belonged to Bradford.
But so too will they look to the regular season. Particularly at the fact that, despite remaining unbeaten at Valley Parade throughout the campaign, they only had the fifth best home record in the division. Valley Parade might have been a fortress, but too many teams were allowed to leave without scars.
In fact, as was the case at Wembley, throughout the campaign Stuart McCall’s men weren’t ruthless enough. Diligent and determined, no doubt, but often lacking the quality to turn the just a handful of 12 home draws in a few more victories. Something that may prove more difficult now that Mark Marshall, the winger that led their attacking drive, has departed for Charlton.
Ultimately, therefore, there’s a sense that a chance has been wasted. A sense that, at least in the short-term, there won’t be a better chance for the Bantams to make a return to the second tier of English football for the first time since the 2003/04 season.
That not to say Bradford won’t be competing again during this season. The motivational and general managerial qualities of McCall means their little doubt the side will bounce back from their disappointment, and there remains that resilience and resolve about the squad. They are one of League One’s better sides.
But the task will be tougher. A tougher 46 game slog, and certainly more draining than attempting to find the winner at Wembley. Their best chance gone.
The Manager – Stuart McCall
Something of a throwaway comment, but there no doubt that McCall would have been hurting as much as each and every Bradford fan in the aftermath of his side’s play-off final defeat.
With 395 league appearances and three spells leading from the sidelines at Valley Parade, the former Scotland international’s connection with the Bantams is undisputed. A tough and uncompromising figure, who came “close to clocking” the Millwall fans who entered the Wembley pitch come full-time in May. But his heart would have sunk as deep as any as Morison found the back of Bradford’s net.
He won’t, however, be one of those who will be sat around sulking throughout pre-season and as the new campaign gets underway. The 53-year-old will simply be more determined to achieve promotion with the club that has become his home. A mentality he will hammer into his squad with forcefulness and intent.
That determined mentality one his sides always carry. Defensively sound, tough in midfield, and fighters for points a weaker unit might not have got. A good collective spirit built up in the Bradford side that McCall inherited from Phil Parkinson, and subsequently built upon, and he’ll need to dig deep to get last season’s disappointment out of their systems and retain that.
So too is there some rebuilding work for McCall to do, needing to slot new faces into his side in key positions. In truth, a few fresh faces not scarred by consecutive play-off disappointments may help. But the men lost were key, and make the Scot’s task of getting Bradford to challenge once again a tougher one.
His main task, however, is to resolve the issue his side had in turning draws into wins during the previous campaign. No question the fight and resolve will be there, but greater attacking threat and potency is required. A tough test for a boss who is renowned for a more dogged, workmanlike, approach to his football.
At the very least, there no doubt McCall will lift the Bantams, and there no doubt there will be support for him. He’s the sort of figure you want in these situations.
A failure to gain promotion, irrespective of how commendable an effort it was, was always going to have some negative consequences on Bradford. And the main negative consequence is that several stalwarts have departed. To try their hand at Championship football, or attempt to gain promotion at an alternative top six challenger.
An argument to be had over who the biggest loss will be, but Bradford are certainly much weaker going forward without Mark Marshall’s wing play. Six goals, several assists, and a general creative threat that constantly led the Bantam’s forward moves. A match-winner who Charlton now have at their disposal, with Billy Clarke, a figure who many aren’t too fussed about losing having frustrated supporters at Valley Parade more and more over recent seasons, also heading to SE7.
The departure of James Meredith, made worse by his decision to join the side who inflicted play-off final defeat on the Bantams, only fractionally less harmful than that of Marshall. Somewhat underrated to a wider audience, but one of the most consistent full-backs at League One level during an extended period at Valley Parade, the Australian has been a key figure in Bradford’s relative success in recent season. Some pressure on Adam Chicksen, signed having been released by Charlton Athletic despite performing with little fault in at The Valley, to fill the void left by Meredith.
In fact, across Bradford’s back line have reliable and long-standing figures departed. Stephen Darby, who heads to Bolton, and Rory McArdle, snapped up by Scunthorpe, were far from ever-presents last season but both reached a double-century of appearances for the Bantams and the consistency and influence of both will be missed. Time to move on, some might suggest, but the pair still had much to offer.
There does, however, remain strength in defence, particularly with Chicksen slotting into Meredith’s position, and so Bradford’s focus this summer has been on improving their forward options.
Shay McCartan, having earned a Northern Ireland cap in the summer while still an Accrington Stanley player, arrives with promise, Paul Taylor, having scored nine times for Peterborough last season in a second spell at the club, arrives with experience, and Dominic Poleon, probably favouring the wide positions more than he does the central role, will probably have to fill Mark Marshall’s boots despite frustrating AFC Wimbledon supporters at times last season irrespective of the 12 goals he scored in all competitions.
Elsewhere, Alex Gilliead returns on loan from Newcastle, probably to act as cover in the wide positions, while Jake Reeves, another who joins from AFC Wimbledon, is an excellent addition who adds a touch of creative quality to the centre of midfield.
Quality snatched away, dependables departing, and plenty arriving but of variable quality. On balance, it probably a summer that leaves Bradford weaker.
Players lost, but that there remains a solid core to Bradford’s squad is a sign of their strength, and a sign of the resolve that McCall has attempted to instil in his side. But there some questions to be asked.
Tony McMahon, Nathaniel Knight-Percival and Adam Chicksen almost certainties to take up three of the back four positions, standing ahead of Colin Doyle, but some doubt who will partner Knight-Percival in the centre of defence. Gordon Greer has been on trial as McCall hunts for another defensive option, Romain Vincelot, or more likely Timothee Dieng, could drop from midfield, and the experienced Matt Kilgallon rarely got a game last season but remains with the squad. Regardless, some cover, and particularly in the full-back, positions wouldn’t go amiss.
It more likely that Vincelot, the classic battling midfielder with an outstanding set-up of facial hair, will lead the Bantams from the middle, with several very strong options to partner him. Nicky Law and very promising youngster Danny Devine joining Dieng and Reeves. It probably in the centre of midfield where Bradford are at their strongest.
And despite the loss of Marshall, there are a plethora of attacking options, just maybe none quite in his mould. Charlie Wyke and Alex Jones, out and out forwards, impressed after arriving in January, and will be accompanied by McCartan, Poleon, and Taylor. It might well be the case that two of the forwards will need to hover out wide, for natural wingers are almost non-existent in McCall’s squad.
A solid, battling core, and a handful of players that will contribute towards a forward threat. But there feels a slight lack of depth, and something of an imbalance in attack.
Fans View – Josh Chapman (@JRCSport)
As a Charlton fan, I’ve spent the last seven years having nightmares about Steve Morison. They’re not fun, are they?
Without Steve Morison I would have never got the undoubted pleasure of watching a Millwall fan punch a police horse in the face on Wembley Way before getting a crack over the head with a baton so I’ll thank him for leaving me with them images!
Wembley won’t be remembered for the football, it will always be remembered as the day Millwall dared to go where people thought not even Millwall would dare to go and we go again this season.
After all, who needs that derby against Leeds when you’ve got the glamour away days of Shrewsbury and Milton Keynes? (Thanks Billy Clarke!)
Not only did you lose at Wembley, but you failed to make the most of an unbeaten home record. How big a wasted opportunity was last season, and are you really going to get another chance as good as that to achieve promotion?
Personally I think that last season was a stepping stone to allow Stuart and the German owners to get a feel for the division and the team and making Wembley for the play-off final was an unexpected bonus so it was an opportunity missed.
Stuart now has put his own stamp on the place once again and this summer has built what he feels is his team to take that next step and if anything bar Blackburn, I think League One is a far weaker division this time around so if we can keep our home form as good as it is and turn a few of them draws into wins we could achieve something special.
But, I’m keeping my feet firmly to the ground and I’m expecting a mid-table finish this time around to build up the side once more before pushing on for promotion again in 2019.
Valley Parade has been something of a fortress for some time, but with far too many draws. How do you turn those draws into wins? Is a goal scoring forward needed, or a more dynamic and adventurous set-up at home?
Teams don’t like coming to Valley Parade, it’s a fact. The stadium is always bouncing and it gets to opposition players especially coming into that cauldron of colour and noise from a dressing room as small as the visitors one is at VP.
We just need to stop frustrating ourselves by expecting everything to happen at once when we’re on the attack and just switch on that extra 5 or 10 percent in defence and we could sweep teams off the field.
We have two goalscoring forwards in Charlie Wyke and Alex Jones and with Dominic Poleon added from Wimbledon, if the likes of McMahon, Reeves, Law etc. can provide the assists then we’ll have no problems finding the back of the net this time around.
Mark Marshall, James Meredith and Stephen Darby are among those to depart Valley Parade this summer. A squad not only hurt by last season’s experiences, but is it one that is considerably weaker?
Failure to gain promotion meant James Meredith was always going to leave and it’s about time he jumped up a level as he’s far too good for League One, it’s just a shame he had to join Millwall of all teams.
The loss of Stephen Darby is one that upsets me but I think with Tony McMahon making the right back position his own, it was time for Darbs to move on and Mark Marshall to Charlton is a loss which might seem to leave a hole but I think we can survive without him.
The biggest departure in my eyes is Rory McArdle to Scunthorpe, which was sad in itself as it means all of our history makers squad of 2012/13 has now left the club.
Rory was Mr Dependable at the back and was always good for a few goals from set pieces and his aerial prowess and leadership leaves a massive hole in the side and the defence.
We might seem weaker on paper but we said the same thing 12 months ago and we ended up 90 minutes from Championship football. I’ll never forgive Billy Clarke for that miss against Millwall at Wembley so you’re welcome to him at Charlton!
Despite the traumatic experience at Wembley and the blows taken to the squad, you still have Stuart McCall in charge. The perfect man for this situation?
McGod. What a man.
Most clubs in pre-season going on fitness camps in hot sunny climates, Bradford City go for a pre-season friendly against the owners hometown club and then are led by the gaffer to go on the lash with the fans.
For the record, unlike some of the cringeworthy ‘Bantams Family’ supporters we have, I for one applaud them going out on the sesh for team bonding and to build that superb relationship our players and management have with the supporters.
We’ve seen it on many occasions when legendary players go back to their clubs and fail as the manager, Stuart laid the foundations for Phil Parkinson first time around and this time has taken over what Phil left behind and made it into something bigger and better.
If I could hand pick one man to manage us back into the Championship after 14 long years then it would be god himself, Stuart.
And finally, where will you finish this season?
I think a comfortable mid-table finish this season around as the overall of key personnel in the squad might take a season to gel before pushing on. If we were to end up challenging for promotion once more I’d say that’s an added bonus but I wouldn’t expect too much from City except good home results and lots of draws!
Best Case – McCall galvanises, replacements make loses seem irrelevant, a near-repeat of the previous campaign
Worst Case – Another play-off disappointment finally takes its toll, defensive cracks and a lack of cutting edge out wide shows, a slump to mid-table.
Their battling efforts will allow them to never be too far away from the top six. Will still be regretting not finding the winner at Wembley throughout the campaign, though. 8th
Momentum was on their side, and the intelligence and guile of a man who had led the club to successive promotions, but there seemed few convincing arguments to suggest Bristol Rovers would not be involved in a relegation battle last season.
They had, after all, been playing non-league football just two seasons ago, their budget and resources tiny in comparison to many other League One clubs, and despite playing in the third tier as recently as 2010/11 this seemed like a step too far. A huge challenge for Darrell Clarke’s side to maintain its place in League One. One that many felt they would struggle to do.
Rovers, however, laughed emphatically at those who suggested stabilising after successive promotions would be too much for them. Peterborough United, MK Dons and Charlton Athletic among those who sat behind them as they achieved a quite incredible 10th place finish. With successive defeats always followed by a more positive result, the mental toughness and quality of this Rovers side meant there was never any chance the Memorial Stadium would be hosting League Two football again this season.
In terms of individual quality, it certainly lacks when compared to other sides. But under the leadership of Clarke, Rovers’ collective unit has an ability to win games of football, and to grind out results against those sides that are seemingly stronger. There top-half finish last season no fluke, and well earned.
The question, however, is where do Rovers go from this point? After three seasons of superb progression, is a fourth expected? Or have the Gas, given the limitations in resources they have that cannot be downplayed despite the success they’ve had, reached a glass ceiling?
They could, of course, take motivation from a club like Fleetwood Town flirting with promotion last season, or even Burton Albion finding their way into the Championship and successfully staying there. Sides like Bristol Rovers have fought for promotion from League One in previous campaigns.
But maybe it would be more realistic, for both club and its supporters, to enter the campaign with targets that don’t necessarily match what they achieved last season. To admit that they overachieved, and to either repeat or build on that is going to be too much. A comfortable mid-table finish would be a positive effort.
You get the impression, however, that Rovers, not least under Clarke, aren’t just going to settle for the absolute minimum.
The Manager – Darrell Clarke
With successive promotions and now an unlikely top half finish to his name, it really is a surprise that no managerless Championship clubs have lured Clarke away from the Memorial Stadium.
He certainly deserves a chance to impress at a higher level. With an astute persona, tactical intelligence, and inspirational qualities that allow him to lead a squad to overachievement, there no questioning his ability. It reasonable to think ultimately the 39-year-old, who still has a long managerial career ahead of him, will be in charge of a side playing at a level above League One sooner rather than later, and that despite recently signing a new contract at the Memorial Stadium.
And were that not to be at Bristol Rovers, you get the sense that, as long he’s not pictured holding a red shirt from the other half of Bristol, he would depart without any anger or bitterness from those that have supported him over the previous three-and-a-half years. His achievements make him at least a club icon, if not a legend. Once the tears have dried, there would only be pride in seeing Clarke’s career progress.
But for now, there is a desperate hope he will remain in charge of the Gas for as long as possible. The man that has led this club up the divisions, and the man that continues to give supporters belief of overachievement. A squad to shape, individuals to motivate, and a collective to form that’s once again much stronger than the sum of its parts.
And though his task this season will be a tougher one, a tougher task for the club in general to compete as they did last season, it’s impossible for followers of the Gas to feel any sense of fear while such a reassuring figure leads their team.
In preparation for their second season in League One, Bristol Rovers’ side has seen quite a turnover in players.
A large percentage of those departing are players that have been with the club has they’ve risen through the divisions, or even part of the side that won promotion from League Two, and aren’t quite up to the standard of the third tier. Emotional disappointment that midfielder Lee Mansell, who has retired after not being offered a fresh contract, departs given that his winning penalty in the Conference play-off final began this rise, fellow centre-mid Jake Gosling is another who leaves that played at Wembley, while winger Cristian Montano and forward Jermaine Easter both made minor contributions last season having helped the Gas into the division. But it’s the right time for all to move on.
Goalkeepers Will Puddy (released) and Steve Mildenhall (retired to become part of the coaching staff) have also departed having been part of the rise from the start, but it won’t be one of that pair that new arrivals Sam Slocombe and Adam Smith will be battling to replace. Joe Lumley was mightily impressive during a spell on loan from QPR in the second half of last season, but returns to his parent club. Both the new arrivals were regulars for Blackpool and Northampton respectively last season, but given that Smith’s football came at League One level, it’s he that appears favourite for the number one spot.
There also departures for centre-back Peter Hartley (Blackpool), who scored five goals from centre-back last season but spent much of it injured, and full-back Bob Harris, having failed to earn a longer contract after arriving on a short-term deal towards the end of last season.
Aside from addressing the distinct lack of people capable of standing between the posts, the most obvious position that needed supplementing on the basis of who has departed was probably the centre of midfield. Liam Sercombe, who attracted interest from a number of clubs despite being placed on an indefinite ban at Oxford United for disciplinary reasons, joining the Gas with talent but maybe a few issues away from the field to resolve.
But there also questions over where the goals would come from that have been there since Matty Taylor’s acrimonious departure in January and, particularly with the talented Ryan Sweeney returning to Stoke after a period on loan, limited options in defence.
Tom Nichols, scorer of 13 goals in all competitions for Peterborough United last season but far from a fan favourite at London Road, arrives with hope of answering the goals question, while centre-back Tom Broadbent has been offered a chance in professional football having previously played for Hayes & Yeading and for the Army’s football side. A chance also offered to young Arsenal left-back Marc Bola, who joins on loan for the season having done a reasonable job during a brief stint in League Two with Notts County during the previous campaign.
Stalwarts not quite up to it anymore moved on at the right time, but the quality of those replacing them indifferent.
I would suggest that it’s important to keep in mind when assessing Rovers’ squad just how important the collective is. There are few standout figures, which is probably why most of what wanted to kept from last season remains in place, but Clarke has formed a strong unit in a positive environment.
At least three figures that remain in Clarke’s squad were regulars in his back four, and it would appear they are likely to keep their place in the side going into this season. Daniel Leadbitter a reasonable full-back whose pace means he likes to get forward, skipper Tom Lockyer an ever-present at centre-back, and left-back Lee Brown passed 250 league appearances for the club.
The centre-back spot alongside Lockyer was filled in the latter stages of last season by Sweeney, and so James Clarke, having started in that role 19 times last season, and new signing Broadbent will compete for it, but another central defender is probably needed. Joe Partington, signed from Eastleigh in January, and Bola provide alternatives in the full-back positions.
If Lockyer leads from the back, that Chris Lines takes the reigns in the middle. League One experience, including a promotion with Sheffield Wednesday, before taking part in both of Rovers’ promotions to be back at this level, the 31-year-old really impressed in the centre last season. It Liam Sercombe that is likely to partner Lines in the centre, but Stuart Sinclair, Ollie Clarke and youngster Ryan Broom provide further alternatives.
However, while there’s just about enough depth and reasonable amount of quality to supplement Clarke’s philosophy at the back and in the centre of midfield, and it’s out wide and in attack where Bristol Rovers leave you a little uncertain.
It’s not there aren’t options. Billy Bodin, with 13 goals from 36 games and able to play both out wide and up top, is probably the best of what remains available from last season’s squad, the versatile Ellis Harrison flickers between excellent and excruciatingly frustrating with a similar story of inconsistency for Rory Gaffney during the previous campaign, and while Byron Moore didn’t particularly impress he is another body that can play out wide.
But no one really held down either of the wide positions or a place up top after Taylor’s departure with plenty of chopping and changing, and there a feel that more strengthening than the addition of Nicholls is required. Given the inconsistency among Rovers’ attacking options, the signing from Posh probably comes straight into the side.
You can ask questions of quality about the backline and the midfield, but Clarke has that organised. He certainly, however, requires a bit more in attack for that organisation to have some reward.
Fans View – Lucy Ford (@LuceFord_)
I’m sure most Rovers fans would have settled for a scrap for survival last season. A top-half finish, following successive promotions and with limited resources compared to many other League One clubs. That’s an incredible achievement, isn’t it?
It really is, considering where we were three seasons ago. Under Darrell Clarke, we’ve gone from strength to strength and being taken over by our new owners as well has also helped take the club forward, I definitely feel that it is a good time to be a Rovers fan.
A top-half finish, but do you have to be realistic in the coming season? Would building on that simply being retaining you League One status in comfortable fashion, even if you were to finish below 10th?
I do think we can build on 10th position, providing we strengthen, which I believe we will. I have a lot of faith in Darrell and I believe he can bring in players that will hopefully lead us to a top-six finish.
The loss of Matty Taylor, if I’m allowed to mention his name without evoking some sort of trauma, didn’t seem to harm you at all in the second half of the season. But is there at all a concern about where the goals are going to come from during this campaign?
Yes, I am concerned where our lack of goals may come from but providing we bring in two more strikers, a big, strong, 6ft centre forward and a pacey centre forward who can play off the big striker, I do think we will be fine. Losing Taylor’s goals was a obvious miss in the second half of last season, especially as the replacement, loan striker Luke James, did not score once during last season. However, Taylor’s departure didn’t really bother me as much as people may expect, despite the fact he joined Bristol City.
Your success has largely been built upon a tight unit, marshalled by Darrell Clarke’s genius, and achieving as a collective. But even with that in mind there is very little strength in depth in your squad. How concerned are you about the shape of your side?
I think it just comes down to how we strength over the summer transfer window. Currently we do need a number of players but I have a lot of faith in Darrell Clarke to bring in the players we need this summer.
There must be, given his constant success at the club, a worry that Clarke will eventually be attracted to a job at a bigger club. Would that be as disastrous as it immediately seems, or is the club in a healthy enough position to mean that a new appointment would simply be able to carry on where he left off?
I think last season we had the biggest worry that Darrell Clarke would go when Leeds were extremely interested in him, but he proved his loyalty for the club by signing a new contract. He recently has signed a new five-year contract which shows how much faith the owners have him in him and really shows how dedicated he is to the club; he clearly believes he can take the club. I honestly believe he will be our manager in the championship in our brand-new stadium.
I probably echo the majority of our fans’ views by saying that even though he doesn’t get it right all the time, Darrell Clarke is the best manager we’ve ever had. My Grandad who has been watching Rovers since 1950 & has been through many ups and downs supporting Rovers also believes Darrell Clarke is the best manager we’ve ever had. I know in the future there will come a time when Darrell Clarke will go to another club, he’s an excellent young manager, we are extremely fortunate to have him.
And finally, where will you finish this season?
As long as we strengthen well during the summer transfer window, which I believe we will, I don’t think the top-six is out of the question.
Best Case – Clarke again gets more out of a team than is expected, his side battles hard for points they aren’t expected to achieve, a top half finish secured.
Worst Case – A lack of quality and depth exposed, Clarke struggles to find the answers, Rovers capitulate towards League Two
I don’t think Rovers are in a position to build on last season as such, but maintaining their position in League One for a second season shouldn’t be sneered at. 15th
They had collected nine points from their previous six games, and yet fear and worry about relegation from League One remained strong as Lee Clark was appointed Bury boss midway through February.
The bottom of the division was tight, with the Shakers two points from safety, but there a concern that could quickly grow with other sides around them also picking up points as they too scrapped for their third-tier status. So too did several of those teams around them have games in hand. And ultimately, faith in a side that had gone 16 games without a victory previously in the season remained low.
Fear and worry that was justified. Clark won his first three, and lost just one of his first eight, but a final-day defeat to Southend United meant they were thankful both Port Vale and Gillingham drew their respective games. Bury avoiding relegation by just a single point.
A job done for Clark, and a relative success for the Shakers in maintaining their League One status when for much of the season it did appear in threat, but not without quite a significant scare. The 24 goals, and the avoidance of injury, of James Vaughan absolutely vital, along with the touch of good fortune that has to exist when surviving by a point. It a rather grim slog.
And so supporters of the Lancashire club could be forgiven for approaching the season with particularly low expectations. Fearing another fight to avoid the drop to League Two, and ultimately a rather unenjoyable campaign. Not least with Vaughan taking his 24 goals and questionable hamstrings to Sunderland.
But Vaughan’s departure, though a rather large one and quite disappointing after original bids were fended off, has been the only significant dent in a summer that has otherwise been incredibly, and maybe quite unbelievably, positive for the Shakers. Players that sides with genuine promotion ambitions, with Stephen Dawson, Jay O’Shea, Chris Maguire among them, signed, while positive consequences will certainly follow if the slight gamble taken on Jermaine Beckford pays off. Even with the loss of their main goalscorer, there intrigue and maybe even a touch of excitement as the new campaign nears.
With the quality that has been attracted to the club by Clark and the senior management, Bury certainly won’t find themselves looking towards the drop zone this season. If nothing else, a single point will carry less significance. At least at the bottom of the division.
The Manager – Lee Clark
For some time now, Lee Clark’s managerial reputation has been sustained on the basis of being a man for a crisis. Relegation almost accepted at the three jobs he had prior to arriving at Bury, and both Birmingham City and Kilmarnock salvaged from the drop. I think he can be forgiven for not keeping Blackpool in the Championship three seasons ago.
And it’s probably that identity that Clark seems to have that meant the relegation threatened Shakers were attracted to him. That Bury are starting this season in League One, regardless of how close they were to starting it in League Two, means it was job done for the 44-year-old. Another crisis averted.
It’s just that Clark, having avoided those three relegations, hasn’t taken a club forward thereafter. Not since his days of taking Huddersfield on an unbeaten-run-that-wasn’t-actually-an-unbeaten-run-because-they-lost-in-the-play-off-final-in-the-middle-of-it-but-whatever-it-was-ended-by-Yann-Kermorgant-anyway and setting the foundations for promotion to the Championship has Clark succeed in more than scrapping away at the bottom of a division.
Sacked two months into the season after keeping Birmingham in the second tier, and though making Kilmarnock more competitive rarely having them more than a few points above the bottom two before moving to Bury. It does make you question what he’ll offer over the course of a full season. Particularly when he has a completely reshappen squad to put together, and ambition to fulfil given the type of player the club has managed to attract.
In truth, Clark’s style still probably suits a club like Bury regardless of the position they’re in or what stage of the season they’re at. A gritty and determined boss that doesn’t care much for the attractiveness of his style of play, but can motivate and organise a side to get results. And there is a handy squad at his disposal that does need some organising.
But having failed to succeed when needing to take a club forward, there is pressure on Clark to prove a point. At least he’s got a bit of talent in his squad to help with that.
Selling your key player, and that after rejecting previous bids for him and indicating he didn’t need to be sold, suggests a disastrous summer of transfer activity. But that certainly hasn’t been the case for Bury.
In fact, they even moved quickly to replace Vaughan. Nicky Ajose arriving on loan from Charlton before the Sunderland shirt Vaughan had worn for his unveiling had been put in the wash, with Oxford forward Chris Maguire following.
The former a player that needs an arm round him after struggling at The Valley last season, and not really discovering his best form back at Swindon, but one that did rack up an identical tally to what Vaughan managed in the previous campaign while with the Robins two seasons ago. The latter a winger-cum-forward who arrives with confidence, having impressed last season at this level with the U’s. Vaughan’s departure almost a footnote.
There every chance that Ajose or Maguire may form a potent partnership with another forward that needs an arm round him, if only to keep him standing upright. Jermaine Beckford a scorer of 18 goals for Preston North End, including a hat-trick at Wembley, as they achieved promotion from League One in 2014/15, but injury has plagued him for the two seasons that have followed. With his physical attributes and hold-up play in addition to his goal-scoring ability, a fully-fit Beckford could still perform at League One level, but it is an investment of both wage and faith.
Tom Heardman, a 21-year-old forward with two Football League appearances made while on loan at Hartlepool United last season, the fourth forward the Shakers have signed, arriving on loan from Newcastle, supplementing not only Vaughan’s departure but a quite substantial clear out of crap. Tom Pope, Ishmael Miller, Chris Brown (who didn’t actually manage to play a game as a result of injury) and Hallam Hope won’t be missed. Teenage forward Gorge Miller, who showed promise particularly in the latter half of last season and as such has been given an opportunity by Middlesbrough, the only other striker whose departure causes some disappointment.
Also significant change, and almost certainly improvement, as we drop deeper into Bury’s ranks. Midfielders Kelvin Etuhu and Jacob Mellis were previously on the books of Manchester City and Chelsea respectively, with Etuhu having ten Premier League appearances to his name, but that they both find themselves in League Two after their release says a great deal, while one-time Premier League regular Jermaine Pennant didn’t do enough to earn an extended stay after arriving on a short-term contract at the back end of the previous campaign. The sorts of players who you would want to invest time in, but ultimately aren’t value for the wages they can still command.
In their place come, well, players I’m not quite sure how Bury have managed to attract. Jay O’Shea, one of League One’s best attacking midfielders for several seasons, joins from Chesterfield having contributed to Sheffield United’s promotion during a loan spell at Bramall Lane in the second half of last season, tough-tackling Stephen Dawson arrives from Scunthorpe United having played in all but three of their games as they finished in the play-offs during the previous campaign, while Jamaica international winger Chris Humphrey, arriving with a poor injury record but undoubted quality for League One level, joins following his release from Hibernian. A decent effort to make Callum Reilly, a tidy 23-year-old midfielder who Clark knows well from his time at Birmingham, seem a relatively minor addition despite having impressed while on loan at Coventry City from Burton Albion last season.
The trend continuing into the defensive options, though maybe with a bit more thought regarding those allowed to depart. Anthony Kay played 42 times last season, though that he turns 35 in October probably contributed heavily towards letting him go, Leon Barnett became a regular towards the end of the season but spent far too much of his time injured, and, particularly given that he’s signed for Blackburn Rovers, it quite a surprise that a Clark favourite in Paul Caddis wasn’t kept on. Reece Brown and Niall Maher also allowed to leave.
Regardless, the additions are as promising as they are up top and in midfield. Right-back Phil Edwards a vital part of Burton’s rise up the leagues and did well on loan at Oxford United last season, left-back Joe Skarz also arrives having done a job at the Kassam Stadium last season, while 21-year-old centre-back Eoghan O’Connell joins from Celtic having impressed on loan at Walsall in the second part of the previous campaign. Tom Alred, the leader of Blackpool’s backline as they achieved promotion, and Adam Thompson, who played 40 times for play-off chasing Southend United last season, also bolster Clark’s defensive options.
Clark’s even made sure of an arrival, if not a change, between the sticks. Out go Ben Williams, Rob Lainton and professional bench-sitter Paul Rachubka, in comes Joe Murphy, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Gigg Lane. Experienced and dependable.
A complete reshaping of the squad. There no doubt the quality has improved. But will Clark get it all to gel together quickly enough?
Given that Clark has signed half the Football League, and roughly 108% of those who made up Bury’s squad last season have departed, there’s a reasonable chance their starting XI could be formed from entirely new signings. You can certainly make one. Murphy, Edwards, O’Connell, Thompson, Skarz, Humphrey, Dawson, O’Shea, Maguire, Beckford, Ajose.
But even new signings, in Aldred and Reilly, will have something to say about that, let alone what remains of the Shakers side from last season. Craig Jones and Greg Leigh alternatives at full-back, while centre-back Nathan Cameron won’t sit in reserve without a fight.
With Andrew Tutte, promising 17-year Callum Styles and Neil Danns, Bury have midfield options coming out of their ears, while Zeli Ismail and Danny Mayor will challenge out wide. Even Ryan Lowe, scorer of the winning goal for the Shakers at The Valley last season, in a player-coach role and at 38 might still have something to offer up top. It really only in goal, where Clark requires in alternative to Murphy, that remains an issue.
Ultimately what that shows is that, in addition to added quality, there’s a reasonable level of depth to Bury’s squad. Neither quality nor depth are the conundrums. The greatest concern is whether this group of individuals will form a strong collective.
There work for those individuals to do in making that happen, but that largely the job of Clark. To build a positive atmosphere, to gel the side together, and to get them to adapt quickly to each other and his system. Chris Powell, having had a similar task and claimed 101 points in this division, will tell you it’s all rather simple; other managers will say differently.
Fans Views – Dominic Kay (@DKay93)
Lee Clark is a man for a crisis, and he did what was required in just about keeping you up last season. But he’s not done a great deal more than desperately salvage clubs from relegation since his days at Huddersfield. Did you see enough from him to believe he can succeed at Bury on a long-term basis?
He wasn’t the most inspiring appointment but at the same time he is a manager with strong experience at this level. At a time where a lot of fans thought we were doomed, he made an immediate impact and in the end just about got us the points required for survival. It’s only fair he’s given a chance with the squad he has assembled.
It reasonable to suggest that without James Vaughan’s 24 goals last season, you would have been relegated. Is it a case of Vaughan did his job, was never likely to stay and now everyone needs to move on?
100%, without his goals we probably would have been relegated sooner than Coventry and Chesterfield were. I anticipated relegation last season after the loss of Leon Clarke to Sheffield United but little did I expect us to replace him with an even better player in Vaughan. I think most fans realistically expected his departure and I don’t think anyone would begrudge him another chance in the Championship where hopefully he can stay injury free and finally kick on in his career.
Irrespective of the loss of Vaughan, you’ve made some impressive additions to your squad. There’s individuals among the signings that clubs with genuine promotion ambitions wouldn’t turn down. You’re in much better shape than you were last season, aren’t you?
It appears Clark’s plan this summer has been to bring in players that have dealt with the pressures of getting promoted from this division (Jermaine Beckford, Jay O’Shea, and Phil Edwards) as well as players who have had successful spells at this club in the past (Stephen Dawson, Joe Skarz and of course Nicky Ajose). If between them Beckford and Ajose can account for the goals Vaughan scored last season then we’re definitely in better shape than we were last season – we can put out two separate XIs that can genuinely compete which is pretty crazy at this level.
You’ve hovered between the top of League Two and the bottom of League One now for several seasons without ever showing any signs that you can be anything more. Can Bury progress as a football club?
I think we can. Naturally, Clark may have a task keeping everyone happy given the competition for places – off-field issues have cost us in the recent years so the less of that the better – but we now have the strongest squad I have seen in my lifetime and I think if the team can gel quickly enough and settle in before the season kicks off there is every reason to be optimistic.
And finally, where will you finish this season?
I’m not sure that this is as strong a division as it has been in the past and I would be seriously disappointed if we don’t at least make some sort of push for the play-offs. I’m going to say 4th.
Best Case – Make the most of the genuinely high-quality League One additions they’ve made to their squad, prove themselves as dark horses, get in and about the top six.
Worse Case – Squad doesn’t gel, 75% of them are out injured anyway from neck strain as Clark continues to get the ball pumped long towards Beckford, looking over their shoulders once they return from injury.
Some questions to be asked about Clark and whether he can mould the players he’s signed into a collective, but the squad is strong enough to mean that a top-half finish, with half an eye on the top six, is a realistic ambition. 9th
Part Two to Follow
(All information, and nonsense, correct, or horribly misinformed, as of 22/07/2017)