Chris Powell's Flat Cap

Home » Season Previews » Chris Powell’s Flat Cap League One Season Preview 2017/18 – Part Two

Chris Powell’s Flat Cap League One Season Preview 2017/18 – Part Two

Part One 


Charlton Athletic

It not results that motivate Charlton supporters to protest against owner Roland Duchatelet and CEO Katrien Meire; victories would not address the grievances many have, nor the lasting damage that has been done since the club found its way into the hands of the Belgian duo in January 2014.

But to be four points off League One’s bottom four with five games to play, and in serious danger of successive relegations, undoubtedly highlights the failings of Duchatelet. So starved of success have Addicks been that four victories from the season’s final five games, confirming safety but also a bottom-half finish in the Football League’s third tier, was seen as a minor achievement. A club of Charlton’s stature should not be in such a position.

Failings, mistreatment and insults have left supporters lost. Disconnection and apathy has been rife for several seasons, but it is only growing as attendances drop and anger towards an ownership that has left a fanbase that has done so much in the past to support its club feeling unwelcome within their own second home. The cynic would suggest that those apathetic supporters are merely turning their back on their club in a troubled time, but many have been through much tougher times and not felt the disconnection that this regime has so purposefully inflicted.

That, of course, does not mean those who have become disconnected or detached want to see their club fail. The enforced separation hurts, opposition to the regime often makes the point that feelings towards club and team remain, while positive results offer the greatest distraction from the mess that has occurred over the previous three-and-a-half years. Positive results, if for distraction or to depart this torrid league, are still desperately sought.

And for the first time in several seasons, the on-the-pitch signs largely point towards the Addicks enjoying a successful campaign. Whether wanting a distraction or simply craving success, suffering supporters may finally receive their reward.

Karl Robinson has a point to prove with supporters undecided on him after a poor season with both MK Dons and Charlton, but a full pre-season with the Addicks is what’s required to imbed his strategy and identity into the side. The squad is a strong one, and Ricky Holmes agreeing a new contract while Championship clubs were circling provides the suggestion that a positive atmosphere exists among the playing and coaching staff that success can be achieved. There hasn’t been a huge amount of transfer activity, but those that have arrived have added to the squad in positive fashion.

Either way, the horrors of finishing 13th and flirting with relegation is something that should not be repeated.

But the worry is that seasons have started before under Duchatelet with a sense that relative success could possibly be achieved before emphatically crumbling and the ownership making things worse. A certain amount of caution will want to be taken. No trust will want to be placed in the regime regardless of the increased positivity that can be gained from looking at on-field matters.

For success would be in spite of, and not because of, the regime in SE7. Success that, for the first time since this poisonous regime has rocked up in SE7, can be achieved.

The Manager – Karl Robinson

Those that had fallen for the idea that Robinson was football management’s next great thing were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt after he failed to prevent MK Dons from making an immediate return to League One. His squad at Stadium MK not shaped to survive the rigours of Championship football, and those away from Milton Keynes were not laying the criticism on a man that had for so long received so much positive attention. He would surely prove himself again.

But during the previous campaign, there no question that the shine rather faded from Robinson’s reputation. Sacked at Stadium MK, with few expressing any disappointment as he departed, having overseen seven defeats in Milton Keynes’ first 15 league games of the season, and seemingly struggling to control the situation at Charlton having replaced Russell Slade in November. He spoke of things happening at a football club, and among the squad, that he had never seen before, and a defeat to his former employers with five games of the season to play meant the threat of relegation loomed.

And while the run of four victories in five that spared such embarrassment owes much to Robinson invigorating a group of players who looked lost, beaten and hopeless, it wasn’t enough to prevent the 36-year-old’s campaign with two clubs being a disastrous one. A win percentage of just 28.57%, with 12 wins from 42 games, reinforcing that. A man that many saw as making movements towards the Premier League only two years ago now struggling in the third tier.

Something that Robinson doesn’t struggle with, however, is talking. Whether genuine or false, he’ll promote and portray confidence and belief, about himself and his side, at every possible opportunity. A point of being excited for the season ahead and the squad he has available, putting what’s gone before behind him, made regularly.

He has, of course, had a pre-season to mould an identity and structure into his squad, something very important to Robinson when his quite a unique one. Whether one was up top or a reluctant second was pushed forward, players looked lost at time in the second half of last season, reliant on Ricky Holmes to dig them out of holes, or simply watching Ricky Holmes as they stood around and did nothing. That time to adapt should be crucial.

As should the fact Robinson has been able to appoint his own backroom staff, though maybe a little short on numbers. Lee Bowyer and player/coach Johnnie Jackson stand alongside the boss, two man who understand the real Charlton, with no ‘network’ backroom member for the first time since Duchatelet’s arrival. Someone other than Chris O’Loughlin will need to carry the cones and bibs.

The problem is, Charlton supporters have heard plenty of words before, from plenty of different people, and been told of positive steps being taken. Words that haven’t been turned into actions. And the actions they saw from Robinson last season were unconvincing.

Robinson has a point to prove. To Charlton supporters, to those who believe his managerial capabilities have crumbled, and, despite his own confidence, probably to himself. Results needed, and not rhetoric.

         

Transfer Business

Without being negative, and in fact remaining fairly positive in comparison to seasons of Duchatelet reign, transfer activity has proven a frustration for Charlton this summer.

A frustration, in part, because it began in such a positive fashion. Bradford fans relatively happy to see Billy Clarke depart, in spite of his decent record at this level, but less so with regards to Mark Marshall. The winger one of the better players in the division last season, would have surely been tracked by Championship clubs, and that he was attracted to The Valley is a promising sign.

Promising, too, is 21-year-old Tariqe Fosu, snapped up from Reading after impressing while on loan with Colchester United last season. Fosu able to play out wide, or behind the striker, and likely to offer the Addicks some impetus off the bench. Supporters of the Royals a little bit disappointed he wasn’t given a greater opportunity at the Madjeski to impress.

The frustration has come from the fact that, since then, incomings have stalled. A consequence of a struggle to get average or unwanted players who were given ridiculously excessive wages when originally signing out of the club. Mistakes of the past coming back to bite, with none able to follow Roger Johnson in being released.

Ultimately, it a case that no club owned by a sensible owner would match the wages these players were own, and so desperation moved three of them to STTV. Igor Vetokele moving to Duchetelet’s Belgian club for a second loan, with Jorge Teixeira and Cristian Ceballos heading their permanently. It remains to be seen, given that their wages are still being paid by the same chap, just how much that frees up for the Addicks, though Nicky Ajose’s loan move to Bury should certainly help.

Since those departures, Jay Dasilva, England’s U19 European Championship winning captain, returns on loan after impressing at the end of last season. Much needed with Adam Chicksen let go and Lewis Page set to miss at least the first two months of the season. Left-back looking incredible bare until the youngster arrived.

While Robinson has constantly reiterated his desire to sign a goalkeeper, a right-back and a number ten as an absolute minimum, with another forward probably required too. But that reiteration has been reiterated without a great deal happening. Long-term target Ben Reeves seemingly lost out on, while a goalkeeper desperately required after Declan Rudd’s loan expired, with interest in Aston Villa stopper Jed Steer and David Martin, who Robinson managed at MK Dons, coming and going and coming.

But were Charlton’s boss to add quality players in the positions he’s promised before the season gets underway, a frustrating window that leans towards positive becomes a more definite positive one.

The Squad

When I’m in power, all clichés will be banned from football writing, and every sentence used will have to be a unique one. Even if it would mean the death of this blog. But there no doubt retaining Ricky Holmes and the return to fitness of Ahmed Kashi do feel like two brand new signings.

It retaining Holmes, more than any signing or word spoken, that shows the Addicks do have ambition and intent this season. The ability to consistently beat his man, deliver potent crosses, and most importantly of all strike matching-winning goals out of nothing. At 30, it did seem that the winger, who scored 13 times last season, would want to move to a Championship club, but instead he’s opted to sign a new contract at The Valley and attempt to take Charlton back to the second tier.

Meanwhile, Kashi has been marred by cruciate ligament damage since arriving in SE7, missing a huge part of his first campaign at The Valley and the entirety of last season. But the Algerian, immediately showing his quality two seasons ago with a goal from the halfway line against Peterborough in the League Cup, proved himself to be a class above in the Championship, and hasn’t shown lasting scars to his footballing abilities during pre-season. Keeping him fit, and fielding him at the base of Charlton’s midfield, for the duration of the season will be vital.

They fit into a squad that, despite the disaster of the previous season, does have quality within it. But, as has been the question, and subsequently the problem, during each season under Duchatelet’s reign, does Charlton’s squad have enough depth? Or are we going to find that one or two injuries, or one or two players under performing, are going to create greater damage than they should?

The Addicks should be fine as they are at centre-back. Certainly a quality trio, with Jason Pearce, missed while injured for three months of last season, the defensive leader, alongside Patrick Bauer and Ezri Konsa, attracting the interest of Premier League clubs after winning the U20 World Cup with England, battling to be his partner at centre-back. Naby Sarr, much maligned but possibly playing himself into Robinson’s plans during pre-season having returned from a loan spell at Red Star, and Harry Lennon, struggling with a long-term hamstring injury but likely to return sooner rather than later, providing some degree of further depth.

But the situation less comfortable around the centre of defence. Adequate competition needs to be found for Dillon Phillips in goal, though the young stopper might well be first choice having impressed when given a chance last season, while Robinson’s side look a little flaky at full-back. Aaron Barnes a promising right-back, but more experienced cover required with Chris Solly so injury prone, and for the first few months of the season, with Page continuing his recovery, the Addicks will have one recognised left-back.

It’s probably in midfield where the Addicks are at their strongest, at least with regards to depth. Andrew Crofts and Johnnie Jackson offering alternative defensive options to Kashi, Joe Aribo a composed passer of the ball, and Jake Forster-Caskey and Clarke likely to compete for the position behind the forward, which Robinson favours.

That strength increases when the ability of those out wide is considered, with Holmes and Marshall arguably two of the best wingers in the division. Fosu and Watt, more naturally a forward but likely to play out wide in Robinson’s system, offering alternatives, and teenager Karlan Ahearne-Grant impressing in pre-season in a wide position having never really kicked on after offering promise as long as two seasons ago, gives greater depth.

But in attack, there isn’t someone that can do the job Josh Magennis does who isn’t Josh Magennis. The Northern Ireland international superb in leading the line, but the Addicks looked lost without him last season. With little faith in Lee Novak after a poor first season in SE7, Clarke more likely to play behind the forward, and Watt not suited to playing up top on his own, you’d certainly want another striker.

Undoubtedly, however, you can form a very strong starting XI. Keeping that fit, and getting the best out of it, as wasn’t the case last season, will certainly keep the Addicks competitive.

Fans View – Louis Mendez (@LouisMend)

How is it that a club of Charlton’s stature and standing found itself in genuine danger of being relegated from League One last season?

Where to start? Still reeling from the chaotic relegation from the Championship, the build-up to and journey through last term was equally as hectic. Russell Slade’s appointment, after an unsuccessful courtship of Chris Wilder – who in the end was seduced by the hometown gal up north – chucked an old-fashioned disciplinarian into the midst of a chimps’ tea party. The new Addicks boss bemoaned a lack of off-season schedule for his playing staff which meant players returned unfit – but this ill-preparedness was just the beginning.

Three seemingly encouraging early singings (Holmes, Novak, Ajose) apparently signalled some intent but as time wore on it became clear that patience was to be the name of the game as further additions didn’t arrive en-masse until after the starters’ whistle summoned opening day defeat at Bury.

A squad that seemed short of numbers took a while to gel but had just started showing some fluidity when Slade was unceremoniously dumped following a short-handed defeat at Swindon. More upheaval beckoned. Karl Robinson, who had some measurable success at Milton Keynes, came in with a burst of schoolboy enthusiasm but struggled to bank points as his new charges found adaptation of style hard to deal with.

A run of eight games without a win had an inconsistent Robinson jolting from questioning how much 40% of his squad even cared about playing for the club following defeat at Shrewsbury, to saying they couldn’t have given him any more after an equally lacklustre loss to Northampton five days later.

A win over Southend heralded a run that would be enough to get over the line, but at times it was certainly touch and go. Long term injuries to the likes of Ricky Holmes and Josh Magennis didn’t help but the majority of Charlton’s problems were once again of their own making.

Karl Robinson, at best, left supporters divided last season, and that division remains despite a determined effort to get them on side during pre-season. Given the failure of previous seasons, and the pleasure this regime gets out of sacking managers, how much time do you think Robinson will get to prove himself?

October/November seems to be sacking season in SE7. Bob Peeters, Guy Luzon and Russell Slade were all relieved of their duties around that time after difficult starts to their respective seasons, so you assume that Duchatelet will hold a quarterly review of sorts when we reach that point.

The quick-fire dismissals at The Valley over the last few seasons are as much a symptom of the problems at the club as they are a presumed short-term cure to bad results – CEO Katrien Meire famously claimed that the side’s ranking always improved following each lap of the managerial merry-go-round but we all know that inconsistency behind the scenes breeds inconsistency on the field of play.

Ricky Holmes agreeing a new contract was celebrated among supporters like the arrival of a high profile signing, and a sign of genuine ambition. Keeping a player of his match-winning quality really is that important, isn’t it?

You have to build your squad around players like Ricky Holmes when you’re lucky enough to have a Holmes in your midst. He can produce goals from nowhere and he epitomises the ‘Charlton way’ of playing – it’s less fancy than the famed, if not perhaps fanciful, ‘West Ham way’ – but as an Addicks fan I like seeing players who put the hard yards in on the field and have some quality to back it up.

Holmes’ extension clears the throat in preparation for a statement of intent – finishing off the squad would be the vocalisation of one.

Holmes is part of a side that supporters appear to have greater faith it, but there are still holes within the squad. How would you assess the tools Robinson has available to him? 

Getting there? The departures of Jorge Teixeria and Cristian Ceballos to sister club Sint Truiden, along with Nicky Ajose heading to Bury should ensure the availability of further funds in order to fully furnish Robinson’s stock of players – something that held Slade back last year. At the time of writing the squad lacks goalkeepers, an affordable centre-back in reserve behind Konsa and Pearce (Naby Sarr has too much baggage), a goalscorer and if I’m being greedy – an extra central midfielder unless Ahmed Kashi can stay fit.

I like the sort of players that Robinson has brought in on the whole. If he can, and there will always be a distrust of Charlton’s operating model after the last few years, I back him to procure the sort of signings we need.

A little bit more confidence in the Addicks going into this season, but we have been here before. How great is the concern that Duchatelet and Meire will ultimately obstruct Charlton’s chances of challenging for promotion? 

And here’s the crux of it. For all the good work that seems to have gone on thus far in the close season, the ill-feeling that has engulfed the club over the last three years won’t just vanish.

The similarities between this summer and last were striking until the last few days as high-earners were removed from the wage bill. The path we tread from now on still depends on Duchatelet’s eagerness to splash that reclaimed cash or tighten his belt to reduce the massive losses incurred over the last few years. Second guessing which direction he will wish to travel is impossible as so many decisions over the last few years have been illogical.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

10th. I can’t help but feel we’ll be left lacking somewhere – because that is what has happened every single time so far under Duchatelet. I hope to be proved wrong though.

Summary

Best Case – Duchatelet sells mid-season to someone who doesn’t throw darts at photos of Charlton fans, Robinson regains his magic touch and doesn’t punch any groundstaff, the lack of depth doesn’t become an issue and the Addicks escape this dreadful division.

Worst Case – Robinson struggles and is sacked by October, Duchatelet and Meire once again struggle to show anything but contempt for supporters, the fragile nature of the squad is exposed and another campaign among the also-rans must be suffered.

There’s talent within the squad, and the Addicks should be more competitive than they were last season. But supporters remain undecided on Robinson, while a battle against opposition, Duchatelet, and the environment created by his ownership is required in order to achieve success. Opportunity to flirt with the play-offs regardless, and might just sneak their way in. 6th


Doncaster Rovers

I endured one of my worst nights in football at Doncaster Rovers’ Keepmoat Stadium. Dale Stephens symbolically saying goodbye by getting himself sent off, Yann Kermorgant physically waving goodbye, and a 3-0 defeat the first obvious sign that Roland Duchatelet’s regime would terrorise Charlton Athletic. A game that took place in the 2013/14 edition of the Championship. 

And so to be celebrating promotion from the Football League’s bottom tier just three seasons later is an indication of the rather emphatic collapse Donny have endured since that cold and miserable January night. Relegation from the second and third tier, with a bottom-half finish in League One sandwiched in between, is a regression the Football League’s most crisisey of crisis clubs would be proud of. In fact, they probably have been a crisis club but without the off-field catastrophe to attract as much attention as others have.

Crisis, however, relieved by an immediate return to League One. The faith shown in Darren Ferguson, who oversaw Rovers’ relegation to the fourth tier and as such would have been an easy figure to dismiss, rewarded with a comfortably achieved promotion that has reignited belief among a beleaguered set of supporters.  The two relegations in three years firmly behind them, and a new sense of belief spreading around the Yorkshire club.

Belief that hasn’t been dented by the fact they crumbled in the final month of the season. Leaders, and arguably the division’s best side, for much of the campaign, but allowing Portsmouth to ultimately steal what for some time appeared their title following four consecutive defeats. That they could afford to lose those games and finish two points off top with a margin of eight points over fourth indicates how impressive they had been for much of the season.

Belief, in fact, that means there are certain expectations ahead of the coming campaign. And on the basis of how emphatically they stood above the rest in League Two for much of the campaign, why shouldn’t there be? While League One feels like their natural level, having hopped between the third and second tier several times since first climbing to the third in 2004, there is a sense that aiming for a top half finish and beyond this season isn’t out of the question.

Ferguson a boss that, having previously struggled to succeed anywhere other than London Road, has won the respect of the Donny fans, created a positive atmosphere at the Keepmoat and a positive playing style among his squad. There players who have previously proven themselves at League One level, and players that shone last season who will be desperate to show they can play at the level above, not least the 26-goal John Marquis. Additions minimal, but supplement a squad that already has a fighting chance.

There will be caution, and expectations shouldn’t exceed reality and realism. A season of establishing themselves in League One would count for a relative achievement.

But, at the very least, emphatic implosions down the leagues should be a thing of the past.

The Manager – Darren Ferguson

He may have arrived at the Keepmoat in the 2015/16 season with Doncaster already in the bottom four, but Ferguson led the club for 35 of their 46 league games during a campaign that ended in relegation. He oversaw a run of 16 winless games that ultimately meant survival was an impossible task. He did have to have to come in and pick up the pieces, but the length of time he was in charge means that the drop to League Two could be largely ascertained to the Glaswegian.

And so that Donny chose to sticky with Ferguson ahead of last season did appear questionable, and certainly something that frustrated supporters who wanted something fresh to inspire them after several seasons of traumatic decline. The promising young manager tag he held for a while in his two spells at Peterborough long gone, and he seemed a boss synonymous with failure.

For at Posh he helped the exciting individuals the club often produces or finds express themselves, attacking football was played, and a relatively small club were able to punch above their weight by spending several seasons at Championship level. A dour, gritty brand of play appears to have slowly replaced that as his managerial career has progressed. One that made his efforts in Doncaster’s relegation season all the less impressive.

But there no question that Ferguson repaid the faith shown in him by chairman David Blunt, probably to an extent that neither quite expected. Doncaster comfortably the best side in League Two until their end of season collapse, which really only put a small dent on their success. A slightly more pleasing style of football, too.

The worry that some may have is that Ferguson’s recent record at third tier level and above isn’t spectacular. A relegation from the Championship with Peterborough before being sacked while loitering around League One’s also-rans two seasons later preceded the relegation with Doncaster.

But with the impact he had on Rovers last season, and the momentum he has going into this campaign, the meaning his record before that carries is minimal. Ferguson appears to be rejuvenated.

Transfer Business

There’s two ways to respond to being promoted. Sign anything that has played in the division above that still has a pulse, or make a handful of additions while remaining faithful to the squad that has achieved your success. Doncaster have opted for the second approach.

And for that approach to work, you have to keep a hold of your key players. Something that Doncaster have managed to achieve. Senior players departing, but Paul Keegan, Gary McSheffery and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, who has been snapped up by Plymouth Argyle but spent almost the entire season injured, contributed next to nothing to their promotion effort.

A handful of temporary departures, too, as full-backs Mitchell Lunch (Morecambe) and former Addick Cedric Evina (Crawley) head out on loan. A bit of a clear out of players who have seen better days or aren’t up to the demands of League One, rather than any damage done to the squad.

Arriving comes left-back Danny Andrew, signing from Grimsby Town after an impressive ever-present season in League Two, creative midfielder Ben Whiteman, who will spend the season on loan at the Keepmoat from Sheffield United having scored seven times in 23 games during a temporary stay at Mansfield Town last season, and young winger Alex Kiwomya, a regular while on loan at Crewe Alexandra in the previous campaign, joins on a free having been released by Chelsea.

A deal also completed to make versatile defender Niall Mason’s move from Aston Villa, having been a part of last season’s promotion while on loan, a permanent one. An important signing having started 37 games in Doncaster’s backline.

But, in general, Ferguson hasn’t added too much to his squad. A show of faith, or wasting an opportunity to progress?

The Squad

So then, the lads that significantly impressed in League Two have been tasked with the challenge of making the step up to League One. Not that great a deal in all honesty, as proven by how comfortably the promoted sides stayed up last season.

Ian Lawlor took over goalkeeping duties midway through last season having been signed from Manchester City, and faces he familiarised himself with will form his defence.

The experienced duo of Mathieu Baudry and Andy Butler the most likely centre-back pairing, Craig Alcock a regular at right-back in the previous campaign, and Mason will compete with Andrew for the left-back slot. Alternatives come in the shape of Joe Wright and Tyler Garratt, who returns from a loan spell at Eastleigh, while the versatility of Alcock and Mason is also beneficial.

However, Donny will be without Luke McCullough, who looks set for a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a knee injury having only returned to fitness in the final weeks of last season. Possibly a contributing factor to Ferguson stating a desire to strengthen in defence, and former Newcastle United and Ipswich Town centre-back Steven Taylor is on trial with the club at the time of writing.

There also a desire to add a few bodies to the centre of midfield, which again has the structure and the quality that was there last season but maybe not a great deal of depth. The evergreen James Coppinger, who has now played more than 500 times for the club, exceptional in an attacking midfield role last season, while youngster Harry Middleton made 25 appearances, but Conor Grant and Jordan Houghton returning to their parent clubs after loan spells at the Keepmoat has left Donny a little light in the centre. Whiteman provides another option, Mason can play in a deep midfield role, while Tommy Rowe, more naturally a winger and where he operated most of the time last season, can come inside if required.

But there few concerns for Ferguson in attacking areas, which is probably reflected in the fact his side scored 85 times last season. Rowe, who netted 13 times, and Matty Blair, regulars on either flank in the previous campaign, more than capable of stepping up to League One, while Alex Kiwomya and winger-cum-forward Andy Williams provide strong alternatives.

Much of the focus, however, will be on John Marquis. The forward who scored 26 times last season having previous endured a rather nomadic start to his career, with the former Millwall man in and out of the Lions side over seven years and sent on nine separate loan spells over that period. His goals will be vital, with Williams, Liam Mandeville and Alfie May providing support up top.

Fans View – Ashley Grayson (@ashgrayson94)

Given the two relegations in three seasons that preceded the previous campaign, was achieving promotion from League Two at the first attempt as much a relief as it was a success?

It was a bit of both. Our aim was obviously to get promotion at the first attempt and we were successful of doing that. However, achieving promotion was a relief as well as if we didn’t get promoted we would have more than likely lost our best players.

Standing by Darren Ferguson following relegation to League Two seemed an odd decision, but he certainly repaid the faith shown in him. There must have been quite a turnaround in feeling towards him among supporters? 

I always thought it was the right decision to keep Fergie for our League Two campaign. Yes, we hit a major blip which got us relegated but the signings he made in pre-season were a sign of intent that we weren’t staying in League Two for long.

A failure to win any of your final five games meant the League Two title was effectively thrown away. How much did that take away from the joy of promotion, and do you think that disappointment could have a knock-on effect going into this campaign?

It was disappointing to not win the league after being top for so long so it did take a bit of joy away from promotion as I feel we should have gone all out to go for the title. But, like I said earlier promotion was our aim and we achieved that. I don’t think this will have a knock-on effect on the team however, I think (and hope) the players will learn from this.

Given that rather dramatic crash you had before last season’s promotion, is this campaign simply about stabilising in League One, or can you do a bit more than that?

I think mid-table is the most realistic target we could try and achieve next season so yes, next season is all about stabilising in League One and maybe push on for promotion the following season.

You’ve made only a handful of additions to your squad, but given how emphatically above the rest you were until the final weeks of last season, is what you already have good enough to compete in this division?

The lack of signings does worry me as one of our players (Luke McCullough) is out injured with a knee injury and we need more depth within the squad. On the other hand, our squad this season is a massive improvement on the squad which last competed in League One as Fergie has pretty much got rid of all of the deadwood that Paul Dickov signed. So yes, the squad is good enough to compete next season in League One

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I’m going to 11th, so around mid-table.

Summary

Best Case – Squad carries momentum forward from the entirety of last season, reasonable defence and strong attack allows them to win games, keep half an eye on the top six.

Worst Case – Find themselves a little understocked in key positions, Marquis doesn’t fire, constantly looking over their shoulders.

They’re in relatively healthy state, but feel that not adding significantly to the squad does mean the idea of a top half finish probably needs to cooled. Few concerns, though. 16th


Fleetwood Town

This little club from Lancashire were playing in the ninth tier of English football not so long ago, existing very much as a non-league also-ran. And yet, fuelled by ambition and a not outrageous amount of financial assistance that has taken them to this level, last season they were the fourth best side in League One. A rise that even the best players of Football Manager (me) would struggle with. 

But it won’t come as much comfort to supporters of Fleetwood Town that the entire Football League viewed their achievements as something quite incredible, and offers inspiration to each unfancied side in the third tier. For those achievements ended in heartbreak. Having upset the odds to earn a play-off place, hopes of promotion to the Championship were crushed by defeat to Bradford City in the semi-final.

Not least with Use Rosler in charge, the club has a winning mentality. A winning mentality that means the club’s relatively small status, and as such overachievement in finishing inside League One’s top six, doesn’t stop the two-legged loss to the Bantams being a disappointment. Pats on the back for overachievement just won’t do when an opportunity has slipped out of the Trawlermen’s fingertips.

It will, however, be a source of comfort that the achievements of Uwe Rosler’s side were no fluke. They didn’t undeservedly sneak their way into the top six. They held their position in the play-offs for much of the campaign, and won enough games to end the regular season just four points off an automatic promotion spot.

And with Rosler agreeing a new deal at Highbury Stadium, only a handful of noticeable losses to their side and healthy additions made, Fleetwood remain in a strong position. Not to overachieve on this occasion, but to achieve. Despite their status, there a widely held belief that they’re capable of challenging for the top six on the basis of what they offered last season.

For that opportunity to achieve promotion to the Championship wasn’t a one off. They proved in the previous campaign they’re a club with ambitions of playing in the second tier, and have a side capable of competing at the top end of League One. There no reason why Fleetwood can’t repeat last season’s overachievement, or at least be keeping their eyes on the top six.

The Manager – Uwe Rosler

Despite seemingly going out of his way to anger Charlton supporters in more petulant fashion than Sue Parkes, it’s hard not to admire the managerial ability of Rosler. At the very least, needlessly raising a fist of celebration in the direction of home supporters as he left The Valley’s pitch after his side had stolen a point in stoppage-time does not take anything away from the German’s efforts since he has led the Trawlermen.

Fleetwood finished only two places, and five points, above the relegation zone two seasons ago, so to transform the quality of the side, and ambitions of the club, in such a short space of time is quite an incredible achievement. A cohesive unit built, that proved itself to be one of the best in the third tier. There no doubt its creation lays quite heavily in the hands of Rosler’s impact.

He instilled a dynamic style of play that sides attempting to overachieve don’t often to display, with pacey and potent counter-attacking football. But that wasn’t at the cost of defensive structure, with only Bolton Wanderers conceding less, and Rosler’s side was also capable of going more direct when the need to chase a game was there. See there draw against the Addicks as an example.

And so getting Rosler to sign a new contract in the summer, at a club he has called “unique” suggesting that they “have a clear DNA” is huge. His success was always going to attract clubs higher up the divisions, but they have been kept at bay. His success now has a chance of being repeated and possibly furthered.

All, the same, it would be nice if he could blow kisses to Charlton fans and buy a few cuppas for supporters around the ground to say sorry. I’ll have two sugars please, Uwe.

Transfer Business

As Fleetwood made their way up the divisions, there was a criticism that their progress was overdependent on overspending. But in the third-tier, no longer can the relatively small Trawlermen afford to be big spenders. Their recruitment and squad building must instead be intelligent.

And with a solid foundation already in place, accustomed to Rosler’s way of thinking, they needed only to be intelligent in their recruitment over the course of this summer. And that, you can argue, they have been.

Of those that have departed, with the sparingly used Joe Davis, Declan McManus and Martyn Woolford among them, it only Conor McLaughlin and David Ball that were regulars last season. And it only really Conor McLaughlin and David Ball that will be truly missed. Jimmy Ryan a third member of Fleetwood’s squad to reject a contract offer, but he spent much of last season injured and his departure isn’t any sort of real blow.

Full-back McLaughlin making 172 league appearances in his five seasons at Highbury, making himself a regular name in the Northern Ireland squad in the process, but has been given a chance to play in the Championship by Millwall, while forward Ball, who played a similar amount of games over the same number of seasons and scored 14 times during the previous campaign, joins Rotherham United.

Their replacements, however, are at least of similar quality. Young full-back Lewie Coyle, who has shown much talent and promise at Leeds United but struggled with injury, joins on loan, while winger-cum-forward Conor McAleny, having scored ten times in 18 games while on loan with Oxford United last season, arrives following his release from Everton. Two additions that should mean those departing become quickly forgotten.

A further option in each position added, with right-back Harvey Rodgers, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Accrington Stanley, arriving following his release by Hull City, and Jordy Hiwula, who played regularly in Bradford’s promotion-chasing effort during the previous campaign, joins on loan from Huddersfield Town.

And finally, possibly the most important signing of the lot, Kyle Dempsey returns on a permanent basis having spent last season on loan at Highbury. The 21-year-old playmaker, who joins from Huddersfield, dictated play on countless occasions for the Trawlermen, and was vital to their success. He unquestionably still has the potential to play at a higher level, and Huddersfield’s promotion has probably helped in getting him to Fleetwood permanently.

Not spectacular or excessive, but it didn’t need to be.

The Squad

Both last season and as they prepare for this one, other sides in League One will look at Fleetwood’s squad and question why they’re not challenging for the top six. Then they’ll look behind them, at the baggage and lack of ambition their club has, and realise. But in terms of explicit individual quality many will suggest there isn’t much to be said.

Nonetheless, there is talent in Rosler’s side, and it’s not all about his systems and his philosophies allowing an average group to overachieve. Though he does play a big role in bringing it all together, and that’s probably why the replacements for those who have departed this summer have been almost like-for-like, with a real faith in what he’s doing.

As such the German will probably largely utilise a 3-5-2 formation, and it’s really only one of the defensive three that there is a question over. Ben Davies a regular in the side at the end of last season, but returning to Preston at the end of his loan spell and no natural centre-back brought in to replace him. Rodgers can play there, but captain Nathan Pond, Victor Nirennold and Godswill Ekpolo the options already at the club who can slot into the vacant role. Ashley Eastham and Cian Bolger likely to be the other two centre-backs, standing in front of Chris Neal.

Amari’i Bell, who not only scored the equaliser in Fleetwood’s draw at The Valley but performed mightily impressively, held down the left wing-back or full-back role for the entirety of the campaign, while the ability of Coyle and Rodgers to get forward means they’re perfect replacements for McLaughlin. Joe Maguire, who joined from Liverpool’s development squad in January, Michael Duckworth, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Morecambe, and both the versatile Nirennold and Ekpolo giving the Trawlermen plenty of cover.

Strong quality in the centre of midfield, too. George Glendon impressive after arriving on loan from Manchester City before ultimately making his move a permanent one, Bobby Grant maybe more naturally seen as a forward but dropping into midfield and doing an excellent job, while keeping Dempsey to complete that midfield trio is huge.

You’d probably want a bit more strength in depth, though. Really the only area of Fleetwood’s squad where that’s a huge concern. A few options, with German midfielder Markus Schwabl playing 13 games having arrived from VfR Aalen in January, 22-year-old Jack Sowerby getting a bit of playing time, and Nick Haughton returning from a loan at Salford having played 40 games for the club previously. But the effect of losing any of their three main centre-midfielders currently feels too big.

Strong depth and quality going forward, however, that also allows Rosler to revert to a formation with wingers if required. Hiwula and McAleny likely to be the German’s key men, with Wes Burns, Ashley Hunter and Devante Cole offering alternatives.

Possibly an argument for another centre-back, a more convincing one for a strong centre-mid, and Fleetwood are good to go.

Fans View – Curtis Sandercock (@Curt_1992)

What’s the overriding feeling from last season – pride in your relative success, or disappointment that you couldn’t quite achieve promotion?

To be honest bit of both I’d say whole town was buzzing come end of the season thinking can we actually do the unthinkable. But then getting into the play-offs, we seemed to run out of steam. But at end of the day it was the best finish in the club’s history. So more pride.

Regardless, finishing fourth was no fluke, was it? Your club, and your squad, deserved to be up there?

Maybe it was because, for some of the fans, we have a few players that are not up to standard. But the way we played after changing formation to the five-at-the-back was impressive. We deserved to be up there.

Is there a concern that, having overachieved last season and had the set-back of suffering in the play-offs, your side will struggle to pick themselves up ahead of the new season?

Yes, a little bit. I would have thought we would struggle but after the signings we have made I’m much more confident of fighting for play-offs this season.

How big a sign of intent, and as such that you can repeat last season’s efforts, is getting Uwe Rosler to sign a new contract?

Massive! That is the best signing we have made all summer.

You might not be able to spend as big as other clubs but you’ve made some clever additions over the summer. How would you assess your squad?

We have had a good summer, and signed a couple of quality players. Dempsey being out best singing, I’m glad we have been able to keep him. Also McAleny looks a good buy with 10 goals in 19 last season with Oxford so seems to know where the net is.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

Not sure on this one. Hopefully fight for play-off, but there are a number of massive clubs in this league now. Maybe 8th.

Summary

Best Case – Players again make the most of Rolser’s style, repeat their efforts of the previous campaign, challenge for promotion.

Worst Case – A slump towards the bottom half of the table suggests it was all a one-season wonder, Rosler dismissed, new boss fails to improve results.

So settled, so much ambition, so many reasons why they can have a decent go at repeating last season. Not sure it will be an exact repeat, but if anyone slips up, they’ll be waiting. 7th


Gillingham

Paul Scally has rarely been a man with many close acquaintances in and around the general area of The Valley, but it now seems Gillingham’s longstanding chairman is more intent than usual on losing friends at Priestfield. 

For starters, appointing a man, quite possibly on the basis that he’d played just over 150 league games for the Gills some time ago, that had previously only managed in non-league didn’t seem a great call when replacing the sacked Justin Edinburgh. Nor did giving Adrian Pennock the reins with Jamie Day as his assistant seem quite right when Pennock had been a consultant to Day at Welling United before their arrival at the Kent club. The highly questionable nature of the decision to give the 46-year-old the manager’s job reaffirmed by the fact he won just four of his 21 games in charge, and the Gills avoided relegation by a single point.

It therefore seemed like there was quite an obvious task for Scally to carry out this summer. Admit appointing Pennock was a mistake, dismiss him, and replace him with a manager more likely to succeed with a League One club. Instead, Scally hasn’t been able to swallow his pride, and to the fury of many Gillingham supporters stuck by a man who received immense criticism from followers of the club in the second half of last season.

And the chances of the Gills competing with Pennock in charge have only been worsened by the fact the club have lost key members of their squad. The impact that Bradley Dack and Cody McDonald have had in previous seasons will be difficult to replicate. A weakened side and an under-pressure boss hardly ideal when you survived relegation because another side failed to record victory on the final day of the season.

It these situations, where crisis has been avoided by a narrow margin, you expect dramatic change to inspire belief. But that simply hasn’t occurred. It no wonder patience is running thin with both club and Scally.

There is a strong argument he deserves respect for his commitment to the club since 1995, while the fact plans for a new stadium away from the uncomfortable Priestfield are in place suggest Scally still has plenty of ambition. But there no question his decision making of late has been poor. There no question the Gills look uncomfortable on-the-pitch.

The Manager – Adrian Pennock

Clutching at straws, but there are a few arguments in defence of not immediately dismissing Pennock’s application for the Gillingham job as if it were someone using their Football Manager achievements to apply for it.

To his credit, his record during his time at Forest Green Rovers was relatively impressive. A play-off semi-final defeat, and a somewhat bizarre sacking just before a second play-off campaign despite the club being in second. A club that, as their promotion last season showed, had very obvious intentions of achieving promotion, but still signs that Pennock had some potential as a manager.

Maybe there was a belief that appointing Pennock would get a restless set of supporters, unimpressed at the time of Edinburgh’s sacking with the club sitting 17th in League One, back on side on the basis of his connection with the Gills. A popular figure while a player at Priestfield, with 168 league appearances as a commanding centre-back, there probably a line of thinking that said his return would boost the sunken atmosphere around the club. At the very least, supporters would surely give one of their former cult heroes a reasonable chance to succeed.

But it quite quickly became clear that he was the wrong choice for the job. That his non-league experiences with a club that were always going to be somewhere among the top five didn’t make him capable of managing in League One. That his connection with the club wasn’t enough to prevent criticism and opposition.

Pennock simply appeared out of his depth. With both structure and leadership lacking, players looked lost and increasingly demoralised. Dire performances and poor results followed, just four wins achieved from the 21 games he manged having been appointed at the start of 2017, and only 18 points added to the 32 that the Gills had before Edinburgh was dismissed.

That Gillingham ultimately maintained their League One status by a single point not something Pennock should feel proud of.

He has, however, been given a further chance to prove himself, and Scally does appear to have faith in him. But there seems little faith among anyone else at the club. A slow start to the campaign and it surely only a matter of time before Gillingham’s chairman swallows his pride.

Transfer Business

You’ve avoided relegation by a single point with an unpopular manager. Supporters are demoralised, uninspired and struggling to get behind the club. What can you do?

I’ve always found, in these situations, allowing two of your best players to depart is a fantastic strategy. Really gets everyone going again. Up the Gills.

In fairness to Gillingham, there was always going to come a time when Bradley Dack was going to depart. A creative, goal-scoring midfielder who has impressed for at least the previous three seasons in League One, and that a club of Blackburn’s standing have lured him away from Priestfield isn’t too much of a surprise. Not that such reasoning doesn’t make it a massive disappointment.

To lose Cody McDonald, however, is considerably less forgivable. A reliable figure, settled at the club, who shouldn’t have effectively moved sideways to AFC Wimbledon. His goals and ability to lead the line will be missed.

Of course, these sorts of departures can be somewhat forgiven if the quality of replacements is high. It’s just that, well, they haven’t been. Forward Conor Wilkinson, who has had twice the number of loans in his career at just 22 than Pennock won games last season, did a reasonable job in a spell with Chesterfield last season, scoring four times in 12 games, and appears the most promising of the bunch having arrived from Bolton Wanderers. While a relatively risk-free gamble has been taken on Liam Nash, who scored 37 goals for Maldon and Tiptree in the eight tier during the previous campaign.

But signing two players released by League Two clubs with fairly average records doesn’t really inspire. Striker Tom Eaves scored four goals in 40 games for Yeovil Town last season, while midfielder Billy Bingham, a man restricted to 41 league appearances for Crewe Alexandra in the previous two seasons in part through injury, is no replacement for Dack. In key areas, the Gills have been made weaker.

A footnote to the main story, but forward Rory Donnelly has also departed, while midfielders Emmanuel Osadebe, former Charlton youngster Oliver Muldoon, and Billy Knott have been released.

Amid all that, there have actually been some positive developments in Gillingham’s defensive options, desperately required after the Gills conceded more (79) than any other side last season. And that despite loanee Deji Oshilaja not returning to the club.

The positive developments beginning with a clear out that saw Chris Herd, Ryan Jackson and Zesh Rehman, who they did well to find alive and still playing, depart. Space created for Gabriel Zakuani, a little injury-hit but still a high-quality performer at League One level, Alex Lacey, having impressed at centre-back for Yeovil last season, and full-back Luke O’Neill, who has found opportunities as Southend United limited in recent seasons but at 25 remains capable of performing in the third tier. That trio joined by left-back Connor Ogilvie, who arrives on loan from Spurs having had playing time at Stevenage in the previous two seasons.

Possibly looking a little sharper at the back, but otherwise this hasn’t been a great summer for the Gills.

The Squad

Weak, worrying, and Wagstaff.

Given that Gillingham finished just a point above the bottom four last season, have lost key players, and failed to strengthen to a point of reassurance, it probably comes as little surprise that their squad isn’t in great shape.

While skipper Max Ehmer and new signing Zakuani form an impressive centre-back pairing, protecting experienced goalkeeper Stuart Nelson, only Lacey offers real cover, and you’d want another centre-back. A similar situation in the full-back positions, where the return to fitness of left-back Bradley Garmston, having missed almost the whole of last season with a dislocated knee cap and hamstring problems, provides a huge boost and new recruit O’Neill is likely to start at right-back. But cover is limited, with Ogilvie the only natural alternative.

Aaron Morris, another who has taken part in pre-season having missed the entirety of last season through injury, can play at right-back but is more suited to playing in the centre of midfield, while former Addick Scott Wagstaff, having played at full-back in recent seasons, can drop deeper if required.

Though having Wagstaff available to play in his homelier position on the right flank would be beneficial given that the Gills aren’t exactly swimming in wingers either. He and another former Addick, Lee Martin, look like the best bet for the starting positions on either wing, but both have had their troubles with injury and form. Josh Parker, who wasn’t entirely overwhelmed with the step up having arrived from Wealdstone in January, and youngster Elliott List, who got some playing time last season, provide alternatives.

The potency of those in the wide areas will become particularly crucial this season if none of the central midfielders can step up and perform the creative role that Dack did. Josh Wright probably takes over the reins in the centre, and has company from Jake Hessenthaler, Mark Byrne, the returning Morris and new recruit Bingham. Steady enough performers among those options, but all very similar, and certainly none of them standing out as being particularly creative.

While up top, Wilkinson looks set to lead the line. Support from Eaves and Nash, but again, it another where what’s actually available isn’t particularly inspiring, and the numbers available aren’t enough.

Fans View – Reece Heard (@Reece_GFC)

Survival by a single point last season. Did that really come as any surprise with the steps taken and decisions made by the club throughout the season?

Not really. Justin Edinburgh was rightly dismissed as we were underachieving with the squad we had and the football was atrocious. However, the decision to appoint a manager in Adrian Pennock who had no experience of Football League management was a baffling one.

Many players also appeared to shirk responsibility when the going got tough, often managing to lose games within the first 30 minutes. Conceding 79 goals meant it was rather unsurprising that we came within a single Port Vale goal at Fleetwood from being relegated.

Why on earth was Adrian Pennock appointed, and how on earth does he remain in a job?

He was appointed because Scally claimed he could “trust him”, but I think it’s more the nature of the metaphorical revolving door we have at Gillingham, where individuals leave the club, yet often return due to their good relationship with the Chairman rather than their suitability for the role they’re filling.

How does he remain in a job? Because Scally felt sorry for him. Seriously. After giving him the job full time, he was quoted in saying “I felt that if I made a change based on just results, it would have been grossly unfair on Ady.” The cliché of football being a results business seemingly doesn’t apply here.

Bradley Dack and Cody McDonald departing, among others, having avoided relegation by just a single point. That doesn’t appear too clever.

The departure of Dack was inevitable. We all thought he was off last summer, for whatever reason a move never materialized, but he was entering the final year of his contract, so if we wanted a fee for him we had to sell.

McDonald leaving is a different story however. Strong rumours suggest the club offered him a new deal on reduced terms, making it no real shock that he opted to move to Wimbledon instead. There’s no doubt the club could have done more to keep him, and seeing a player leave who was comfortably in the club’s top ten all time scorers was a tough one for a lot of fans to take.

In fairness, you have looked to replace the departing players, but the quality doesn’t appear to high. How would you assess your squad overall? 

Defensively we look much healthier. Alex Lacey is an exciting prospect, Gabriel Zakuani brings a wealth of experience and Luke O’Neill comes with decent pedigree.

The question marks over us are unsurprisingly in attacking areas. However, Scott Wagstaff and Lee Martin appear fitter than last season, meanwhile Conor Wilkinson has found the net regularly throughout pre-season. We’ve also had a trialist from Maldon & Tiptree (Nash) who has impressed, so could be a secret weapon should we opt to give him a contract.

Given his long-term commitment to the club, being overly critical of Paul Scally must feel difficult, but has he completely cracked?

This time last year many were singing his praises given the budget he’d supplied to Edinburgh to sign the likes of Wagstaff, Emmanuel-Thomas, Konchesky etc. However that praise has largely evaporated now, and he’s become subject to criticism from many.

Openly admitting he essentially couldn’t be bothered to interview for managers once sacking Edinburgh wasn’t his most sensible idea, then appointing (and keeping) Pennock angered people further.

We’ve also in two years gone from being in his words “a ship ready to sail” and in a healthy financial position, to now seemingly having little direction on the field, and finances appear to be in the red again, with the club relying on two year season ticket sales to generate income due to his long-running legal case with a former catering company.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I can’t be a total pessimist and say we’re going to get relegated! I’m confident that despite the management, we will be drastically better from a defensive point of view this term. Of course, the lack of a proven League One marksman is a concern, but if the likes of Wagstaff and Martin can contribute from midfield, we should hopefully have enough to steer clear of danger. I’ll go for 15th.

Summary

Best Case – Pennock dismissed in the early months of the season, manager with greater experience arrives and injects a bit of calm around Priestfield, stumble clear of relegation.

Worse Case – Pennock given too much time, still lost and his players likewise, League Two looms.

Seemingly intent on condemning themselves to relegation. 23rd


Milton Keynes Dons

The promotion from League One that MK Dons achieved at the end of 2014/15 was the progress that the club had been seeking for several seasons, but in many ways it has resulted in regression.

The squad that attacked the Championship, with Will Grigg and Benik Afobe returning to their parent clubs in addition to Dele Alli departing for Tottenham, was weaker than the one that had won promotion. The club’s attempts to strengthen in the transfer marker of summer 2015 were desperately poor, and Karl Robinson was simply incapable of getting what was required to survive in the second tier out of a very weak squad. Relegation always likely, and seemingly crushing.

Crushing for club, players and in particular boss. For Robinson was unable to pick up the pieces last season, dismissed after over six years in charge at Stadium MK following a start to the campaign that left the Dons just one point above the relegation zone 15 games into it. The man symbolic with a progressive club had lost his touch, and now seemed symbolic with a club that were sliding below the foundations they had previously set.

At least, of course, they didn’t fall through those foundations completely. Milton Keynes only two points above the bottom four when Robbie Neilson was appointed five games after Robinson was dismissed, and the Scot was able to steer the club to a comfortable mid-table finish. His energy and an attractive brand of football rejuvenated both a demoralised side and a downbeat set of supporters.

That comfortable mid-table finish still something of a failure for the Dons, given that their pre-season ambitions would have been to challenge for promotion, but that not to take anything away from Neilson’s efforts. A tough job for the for the man capped once by Scotland, who had led Hearts for two years and had brief experience of playing in England but had never managed in the Football League before, but a job handled exceptionally well. Given the transformation in belief he instilled after arriving in December, few managers in the division had as big an impact in the second half of the season as Neilson.

As such, there comes a question of what the goal should be for the coming campaign. Momentum and optimism is certainly there, and the rebuilding work has definitely begun with a reshaping of a tired squad, but can a transformation really be completed at such a pace? If it has, then the ambition must surely be to secure a top-six place, with anything else seen as failure.

But so too must there be a sense of realism at Stadium MK. A greater acknowledgement to the regression that has taken place over the previous two seasons, and that something of transiational period is taking place, and not just the upturn in fortunes and confidence that Neilson’s appointment has offered in a short space of time. There no doubt that Neilson’s management has lifted the club, but, to demand success immediately may not be assessing the entire picture.

They’re certainly better placed to be challenging, and won’t be looking over their shoulders, but the positive signs under their Scottish boss have to be twined with caution ahead of his first full season in charge.

The Manager – Robbie Neilson

MK chairman Pete Winkelman was never going to replace Robinson, who attracted favourable reviews on the basis of being a young and dynamic boss that was a bit different to the norm, with a journeyman manager who had led more Football League clubs than years Milton Keynes Dons have been in existence.

And so arrived Neilson, just 36 at the time of his appointment and with only one managerial job to his name. A job he had achieved great success in, and was no doubt the reason Winkelman felt confidence in handing the Scot the reigns. A promotion with Hearts, immediately followed by a third-place finish in the Scottish top flight, is a very impressive record indeed.

But maybe in the circumstances, with Dons only just above the bottom four and in a concerning state of regression, it would have been more sensible to appoint a man with greater experience of the English game. For despite Neilson’s record with Hearts, and his promise, it remained something of a gamble to make him boss. With minimal experience of English football and away from the relative comfort of Tynecastle, with Neilson also making a double-century of league appearances for Hearts, there always a worry he wouldn’t quite adapt to this situation when immediate adaption was required.

Those fears, however, were quickly blunted. Points picked up at Stadium MK, but belief in the new boss born out of more. It not just that Neilson won 11 and lost only 8 of his 26 league games in charge, but he did so with a style of attractive football that simply didn’t seem plausible while the side led by Robinson slumped towards the bottom four.

And all of that made more impressive by the fact he had an inherited a seemingly weak squad, full of bodies that required uplifting. The impact loanees Stuart O’Keefe and Harvey Barnes, and forward Robbie Muirhead who moved south with Neilson from Hearts, had important, but this was largely a case of lifting a squad Robinson couldn’t get to perform. His impact obvious.

Ultimately, it would seem MK have got themselves a bit of a gem.

Transfer Business

Maybe the most obvious sign that a transitional period is taking place at Stadium MK can be seen in this summer’s transfer activity. Out go stalwarts of the Robinson era. In come men, some that certainly wouldn’t have arrived while the former boss was in charge, that Neilson has selected to be a part of freshened squad.

Midfielder Darren Potter, winger Daniel Powell, and goalkeeper David Martin had each made over 200 league appearances for the club before being released at the end of last season, while forward Dean Bowditch was only eight short of the double century. Potter still capable but ageing, Powell inconsistent, Lee Nicholls seemingly relegating Martin to reserve in the final months of the previous campaign, and injuries had taken their toll on Bowditch. Despite their service, a combined 937 league appearances, it’s a reasonable time to move on.

There are, however, departures that haven’t been accepted so easily. Emotional disappointment in losing that set of quadruplets, but a sense of great loss to the side following George Baldock’s departure to Sheffield United. A £650,000 fee paid for the right-back, who impressed last season after a period on loan at Oxford United while the Dons were in the Championship.

Nor is it ideal to lose Ben Reeves, who appears set for a move elsewhere having rejected the contracted offered by the club. A particular frustration given that Reeves was part of a set of creative or attacking midfielders that pushed the Dons forward in the second half of last season, with the other two that made similar contributions also departing. Stuart O’Keefe and Harvey Barnes returning to their parent clubs.

But the departures have merely given Neilson opportunity to shape the squad in the way he wants to, and make some promising additions to it.

That Scottish players have arrived probably comes as no surprise. Having previously impressed at Falkirk, 21-year-old playmaker Conor McGrandles joins after few chances at Norwich City, while Peter Pawlett, who made himself something of a fan favourite during ten years at Aberdeen, has the potential to be a very effective League One winger. Both are exciting signings.

So too has Nielson made intriguing additions to his squad. Malian midfielder Ousseynou Cisse is, well, big and arrives with healthy experience of the French second tier, while young Dutch goalkeeper Wieger Sietsma played six games for FC Emmen in his homeland’s second tier last season, and he’ll challenge Nicholls for the starting place between the sticks. With the pair arriving on frees, they appear risk-free investments of faith.

But with excitement and intrigue, you do need a degree of dependability. That comes in the rather formidable shape of centre-back Ethan Ebanks-Landell, who arrives on loan from Wolves, and winger Gboly Ariyibi, who joins on loan from Nottingham Forest. The defender, who can also perform at right-back, was an impressive figure as part of Sheffield United’s title-winning squad, while wide man Ariyibi impressed at League One level with Chesterfield before earning his move to Forest last winter.

Elsewhere, young forward Ryan Seager joins on loan from Southampton. An excellent goal-scoring record in development football, but injuries have prevented the 21-year-old from making more than a handful senior appearances. Seager likely to provider cover in attack.

Not having Reeves, O’Keefe and Barnes around is probably what hurts the most, but they have been replaced, and what MK have done in the transfer market over the summer does have an element of promise to it.

The Squad

While Neilson has sought change, some of those he inherited in December will be important to his plans. It likely that Nicholls will be his number one for starters.

While stalwart Dean Lewington, after signing a new contract with the club in the summer, appears set to continue at left-back, adding to the 551 league appearances he’s made for MK Dons having previously played for Wimbledon prior to the relocation and name change. A strong back four that looks likely to also include Ebanks-Landell, Joe Walsh, and right-back George Williams.

Centre-back Scott Wootton will also be an option having returned during pre-season after 11 months out through injury, while Paul Downing is also available in reserve. Alternatives in the full-back positions come in the shape of youngsters Ben Tilney and Callum Brittain, who were both given first-team chances towards the end of last season.

The losses in midfield are not only calmed by the arrivals, but also by hope that a full season will be got out of Chuks Aneke. The former Arsenal youngster managing only 15 appearances during the previous campaign as a consequence of injury, but impressing each time he did play. Keeping him fully fit will be crucial to Neilson’s ambitions.

Handy, too, that Aneke can play both in the deeper midfield role and further forward even as far as the man behind the striker. Ed Upson and Cisse provide alternatives in that deeper midfield role, while McGrandles or Pawlett, who can play quite readily as a number 10, will be relied upon to provide the creativity that O’Keefe and Reeves did. There also increasing hope that young attacking midfielder Giorgio Rasulo, who made his debut in 2012 but has never really managed to kick on, can make some sort of impression during this campaign.

Decent enough numbers in defence and plenty of options in the centre of midfield, but there is slight concern over a shortage of attacking options for the Dons. Pawlett is likely to play out wide, purely because there isn’t really anyone but the Scot and Ariyibi who can play there. Two very good options, but no depth whatsoever.

At least the signing of Seager provides some cover in attack, where Robbie Muirhead impressed leading the line in the second half of last season, and Kieran Agard, who could potentially occupy a wide position, helped himself to 12 goals. Teenage striker Brandon Thomas-Asante, who got a small amount of playing time last season, another option for Neilson who often operates with one up top, meaning the Dons should have enough bodies, but a winger or two is most certainly needed to complete their squad.

But you can see the quality in what MK have available, and equally you can shape a very strong starting XI out of what they have. Expanding on that, and as such adding to the depth, in combination with Neilson’s management would give them a very reasonable chance of competing.

Fans View – Harry Wright (@HarryWright27)

It’s not too early to suggest that you’ve got yourself a bit of a gem in Robbie Neilson, is it?

I don’t think so. We were all surprised when his name came out the hat, but in turn also quite pleased. It may be impossible to understand him (which still makes him easier to listen to than Karl Robinson), but he seems to know exactly what he wants and the way he wants to go. It’s a completely different style to Robinson, but he’s adapted to us and we’ve adapted to him really quickly, I’ve been really impressed with him so far.

Regardless, Neilson oversaw an impressive turnaround in form during the second half of last season after what had been quite an extended period of regression. Are you on the right track again?

It looks that way, he took a while to stamp his authority on things and for a little while it was just more of the same, but I think we’re becoming a bit more of a ‘normal’ team whereby we’ll go from one extreme to the other, 5-0 one week 4-0 loss the next. But hopefully we can find a bit more consistency this season opposed to last. With his own players and a pre-season behind him we can hope that good things are on the horizon.

Where did it actually go wrong in the final months of Karl Robinson’s reign?

It all just got a bit predictable. Same old faces, same old tactics, same old formations and then sooner rather than later same old excuses. Two seasons of poor recruitment reared their head, Ed Upson under-performed, Chuks Aneke was injured and nobody still has a clue why he signed Paul Downing. We’ve had poor runs before, but it was always individual errors. It was the first time a bad run was genuinely HIS fault, and it looked like he had no idea how to cope.

Stalwarts have left, and a couple of intriguing signings have arrived. For the first time in a few seasons the MK Dons squad looks a bit different. Is that exciting or a little bit worrying?

I think the right people have gone at the right time. Daniel Powell hasn’t had a look in for a couple of years now. Dean Bowditch and Darren Potter can be replaced, something fresh really. David Martin’s shot stopping will be missed but Lee Nicholls is more than adequate. I’m genuinely excited, I think you have to be, these people were brilliant, but you have to move on eventually and I think it had to happened before Neilson got cliquey with them just like Robinson.

Harvey Barnes, Stuart O’Keefe and Ben Reeves were crucial to your revival of sorts last season. How are you going to cope without the creative influence that trio had, and who will provide the impact they did?

Stuart O’Keefe offered something a lot different, an attacking presence in centre midfield. We’ve been waiting for it since Dele left and of course you can’t compare the two, but ever since he left we’ve had two number fours opposed to a four and an eight, if that makes sense. Potter and Poyet, Potter and Upson etc. I hope Neilson gets another just to act as another spark in the midfield. Harvey Barnes was a special talent, but in Ariyi, we have someone with lightning pace and he’s exciting too. With a fully fit Chuks Aneke all season, Reeves won’t be missed, he’s made of glass anyway!

And finally, where will you finish this season?

All we can ask is an improvement on last season, I think we can comfortably make the play offs as I think the signings we’ve made have been positive, if we can get some of the strikers we’ve been linked with such as Akinde we can really push for the top two, but I think Blackburn are the team to beat.

Summary

Best Case – Neilson reaffirms the strength of his managerial ability, a well-structured side deliver a brand of counter-attacking football that wins games, challenge for promotion.

Worse Case – Emerges the impact Neilson had at the end of last season was a bit of a fluke, lack of forward options and the absence of the attacking midfielders that made such an impression in the final months of last season hurts hard, slump to a mid-table finish.

I like Neilson, and I like the squad he’s built. Question over what they’ve got in attack, but a case of needing a bit of cover more than anything. Ultimately should be competitive. 5th


Northampton Town

In a climate where clubs have been stripped of financial security and identity, the announcement of a takeover by a foreign consortium is met less by excitement and more by extreme caution. But maybe supporters of Northampton Town can afford to feel a bit more positive about what the result of Chinese firm 5USport purchasing a 60% stake in the club will be. Or at least not have to fear that they will become the next Blackpool, Coventry or Leyton Orient.

For the investment the sports development and education firm have made is exactly that – an investment. Chairman Kelvin Thomas, who oversaw promotion two seasons ago, remains in charge, the structure of the club is not changing, and staff have maintained their roles. The case in other examples of foreign investment, but a naïve ownership does not have free reign to cripple a club on this occasion.

And ultimately, investment is what a club of Northampton’s stature and financial standing require to sustain the position they find themselves in, let alone have ambitions of pushing further. A relatively comfortable mid-table finish, though achieved via a change in manager with Rob Page replaced by Justin Edinburgh midway through the campaign, a success for the Cobblers in their first season back in the third tier since 2008/09. Success, at least in the short-term, would be to repeat that once again.

But there is ambition to push further. Chairman Thomas has compared the club to Swansea, Bournemouth and Huddersfield, suggesting “with the right decisions and the right investment [they] can make inroads into Premier League and the Championship”. Overstating it slightly, but the point is a solid one; those clubs are inspiration for smaller clubs in the Football League who believe they can push up the divisions if they get things right.

There will, in one way or another, be some sort of development this season. The troublesome East Stand at Sixfields, left half-constructed and seatless since 2014, looks set to finally be completed as a consequence of 5USport’s investment. An eyesore at Northampton’s home that a club with any sort of ambition needed to resolve.

But for now, on the pitch, sustaining a position in League One will do.

The Manager – Justin Edinburgh

With the financial strength, and as such ambition and expectation, of Northampton Town increasing, there an immediate pressure on Justin Edinburgh to leave no doubt among all connected with the Cobblers that he is the right man to manage the club.

To his credit, the former Gillingham boss did a reasonable job after the Northampton board lost faith in Rob Page. His six wins in the 12 games following his appointment a great deal better than the two in ten that led to his predecessor’s sacking. Their League One status never looking in doubt thereafter.

On the other hand, a competing argument exists. Northampton finished the season in the same place – 16th – that Page left them, Edinburgh managed victories in none of the final eight games of the campaign, and his football was largely unattractive and stodgy. He certainly did the job required, but it’s not as if he emphatically won over the whole of Sixfields.

There has, however, been no question of Edinburgh’s future being in doubt over the summer. If there was, it would completely go against the notion that 5U Sport would not be interfering and making dramatic structural and staff changes. He’s been allowed to build a side over the summer, and will certainly have a chance to prove himself.

But he must prove himself. You sense Northampton, if they wished to, are now in a position to attract a more high-profile boss.

Transfer Business

Both before and after the announcement of fresh investment, the Cobblers have been incredibly active in the transfer market, and mostly in positive fashion.

That despite the list of early season departures being as long as the list of arrivals, for those that left were largely squad players who failed to hold down a sport in the starting XI, with Paul Anderson probably the prime example. That Gabriel Zakuani and Zander Diamond, regulars at centre-back last season, were among those allowed to leave initially proved a frustration, but they have been replaced quite emphatically. Leon Barnett, who arrives from Bury with Premier League experience to his name, Ash Taylor, signed from Aberdeen having made a century of league appearances for the Dons, Regan Poole, who joins on loan from Manchester United, and Aaron Pierre, snapped up after rejecting a new contract at Wycombe, competing for the centre-back spots in the coming season.

Among those early arrivals was anything that maintained a pulse having departed Stadium MK, snapped up before Karl Robinson could get his hands on players from his former club. Daniel Powell an incredibly frustrating winger, who has the ability to beat a man though lacks the end product to be a consistent threat, but can produce moments of genius, while injury and age mean forward Dean Bowditch is no longer in his prime but remains a dependable League One performer.

Dependable is probably also the word you would use to describe experienced midfielder Sam Foley, who arrives having departed Port Vale following their relegation, while greater, positive gambles have been taken on young left-back George Smith, given another chance in the Football League having previously been with Barnsley after impressing with Gateshead last season, and forward Billy Waters, after scoring 12 times for Cheltenham in League Two last season. Promising additions, but knowledge of new investment means a demand for something more exciting.

The signing of Yaser Kasim, another to join from a relegated club in the shape of Swindon, arguably offers that. The Iraqi international a player who has performed consistently well in this division for several seasons and attracted a fair amount of attention, both while in a Swindon shirt and since being available following their drop into League Two. In fact, for Northampton to sign Kasim is something of a coup.

And, with play-off chasing Scunthorpe United attempting to re-sign the man they had on loan last season, snatching Matt Crooks from under their noses is definitely one. Two quality midfield additions that signal real positives for the Cobblers.

The Squad

There are squads in the division that contain more quality than Northampton’s does, that there little doubt about. But given the strengthening they have done across the board over the summer, the Cobblers compete with most in the division in terms of balance and depth. In almost every position, there not just a starting player and an alternative, but two players of strong quality battling for the role.

The only position where this currently doesn’t apply, though appears set to before the start of the season, is in goal. Last season’s first choice, Adam Smith, was among those released, and David Cornell, playing just six times in the league as his reserve, is the club’s only senior goalkeeper. Welshman Cornell is capable, but has spent most of his career warming benches, and a first-choice is needed.

Certainly no concerns in defence, and particularly not at centre-back. Very difficult to decide which two out of Barnett, Taylor, Pierre and Poole will start on the opening day. And that can only be a good thing.

Brendan Moloney, a dependable full-back at this level whose ability is somewhat tainted by a poor injury record, is likely to start at right-back having reclaimed his position at the end of last season from Aaron Phillips following recovering from a knee injury, while the almost ever-present David Buchanan stands to be the starting left-back, with a mixture of George Smith’s previous League One experience and his performances for Gateshead last season meaning there’s belief that he’ll be able to step up if required.

Though despite that strength at the back, it almost undoubtedly in midfield where the Cobblers are at their best. Quality and depth both in the centre and out wide, helped by holding several players with versatility, and a good balance between rugged defence types and central men more suited to the forward-thinking role.

Given what they’ve got in the centre, going three in the middle seems quite likely. Matt Crooks and Yaser Kasim, both naturally defensive but with playmaker qualities, sitting deeper, with cult hero John-Joe O’Toole between them and the striker. That still leaves Sam Foley and Matt Taylor, whose left-foot most certainly still works even his legs aren’t what they once were. Even 18-year-old Shaun McWilliams, who got some game time in the final month of last season, is an option.

However the midfield trio is made up, it’ll be supplemented by useful looking wide options. Powell comes with that frustrating winger tag, but can make a difference when it works for him, Dean Bowditch can play in any attacking midfield role, while Sam Hoskins has become less a forward and more a wide man since arriving at the Cobblers. Waters another that is equally adept on the wing or up top and, if all else fails, Foley has played out wide in the past, and Taylor could borrow someone else’s legs.

While up top, assuming Edinburgh opts for five in midfield, it looks like a battle between Alex Revell, who scored ten times last season, and club captain Marc Richards for the lone striker role. Both equally capable of leading the line. And in a situation where two go up top, it would probably still be a battle between the pair, with Waters or Bowditch looking to partner.

Ultimately, there are few holes in the Northampton’s squad.

Fans View – Ben Trasler (@benjohntrasler)

Despite needing to go through two managers and occasionally having to look over your shoulder, did achieving a comfortable enough mid-table finish make last season a relative success?

When our fans look back upon 2016-2017 in 10 years’ time, it’ll appear a pretty solid one on paper: a relatively comfortable survival in our first season back in League One after nearly a decade in the division below. However, I still look back at last season with a tinge of regret. Appointing Rob Page was in hindsight a poor decision and the catalyst for the near total replacement of our superb 2015-16 title winning side. Page quite obviously wanted to put his own stamp on proceedings from the off and the signings he made, bar perhaps Matt Taylor, were ultimately failures. I remain convinced that our title winning squad – including the likes of Ricky Holmes and John Marquis – with a couple of more appropriate additions and most importantly Chris Wilder in charge would have had a bloody good crack at the play-offs.

Foreign takeovers have filled supporters with fear in recent times, but 5USport’s investment into the Cobblers seems a little different. Not least with Kelvin Thomas hanging around, and dramatic changes to club infrastructure and staff not being made. Are there any worries at all, or is this all just very exciting?

I would think any football supporter would be lying if they said they were 100% comfortable with such a significant, and out of the blue, foreign investment in their football club. The horror stories (i.e. Charlton, Leyton Orient and Blackburn) are there for everyone to see especially when such investors come in without experience and knowledge of the lower leagues. 5USport are no different; they don’t have a big online presence or history and we still remain somewhat in the dark about their overall aims or the size of their financial muscle. However, Kelvin Thomas gives us a comfort factor right now. Off the pitch, he has hardly put a foot wrong since taking over the club in late 2015 and as supporters we continue to our faith in him to bring the club into 2017 after many years of negligence. For me, that can only be cautiously accelerated using the external investment providing the same reliable captain remains at the helm.

In terms of results, performances and ultimately league position, Justin Edinburgh wasn’t a dramatic improvement on Rob Page. Is there pressure on him, not least with the club having greater financial strength, to prove his worth in the early months of the season?

I would think so, yes. Edinburgh came in and to be fair to him steadied a pretty chaotic ship, in doing so quickly securing the necessary amounts of points to secure safety. However, after doing what was required, the squad appeared to down tools and didn’t win a game after the middle of March. Edinburgh experimented with different formations towards the end of the season without seeing any real success and bluntly, it was pretty dreadful to watch. Whilst he would been undoubtedly delighted with being giving good money to spend this summer to improve what was a poor squad, pressure will be added to his position as everyone at the club looks to see a marked improvement this time around. Time will only tell how that pans out.

You’ve made some positive signings, taking players such as Matt Crooks and Yaser Kasim from under the noses of clubs with more obvious promotion ambitions. How would you assess your squad?

At the time of responding to this Q&A, the squad already looks one of the strongest we’ve seen in years, particularly in midfield. We’ve signed some real quality in Crooks, Kasim, Billy Waters and Daniel Powell and also added the likes of Ash Taylor and Regan Poole (on loan from Manchester United) to improve what was a leaky defence last year. Where we look weaker is in between the sticks and potentially up front. Without doubt, we will sign a first choice goalkeeper to replace the talented but inconsistent Adam Smith who has gone to Bristol Rovers. Freddie Woodman (Newcastle) and Adam Ledzdins (Birmingham) have been rumoured as loanees and I would be happy with either of them. I also believe that we will sign a real stand out centre forward however that is more based on guesswork than anything concrete. Edinburgh has gone on record as saying another 3 players will be brought in and I fail to see a situation where these signings don’t cover off the weaker areas of the team. Tick those boxes and I’ll be really excited for the season to start.

Despite the investment, would you accept another season of establishing yourselves in League One before attempting to kick on further?

I would personally accept a top half finish with a flirt with the play-offs but the new Chinese investors may think differently to me. Despite the investment, we’re still small fish at this level and the size of our stadium, fanbase and the historic pull of the club only serves to prove that. A better go at the league this year and finally seeing some progress with the horrendous half-East Stand at Sixfields would suit me fine.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

A really difficult one to predict this year for quite obvious reasons! The events of the summer have given us real hope but that can be a very dangerous thing in football with paying punters to please. I predict decent progression but maybe not quite as much as some others may have predicted – 8/9th. That said, we could already be the ones to watch in 2018-2019.

Summary

Best Case – Investment not only strengthens squad but brings a positive atmosphere around Sixfields, Edinburgh leads a competitive side throughout the campaign, always in sight of the top six.

Worst Case – Edinburgh struggles in the early months of the season, investors lose patience and dismiss him quickly, replacement fails to pull the club away from the bottom eight.

This summer was always going to be a decisive one for Northampton, having scrapped away to sustain their place in League One. The investment means they can look up, rather than down, but an exciting new direction shouldn’t override realism. Stability, with the hope of sneaking into the top half, should be the aim. 11th


Part Three to Follow 

(All information, or nonsense, correct, or horribly inaccurate, as of 22/07/2017)

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