Chris Powell's Flat Cap

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

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

Part Two


Oldham Athletic

Why someone would wish to make Oldham their home for a third time is anyone’s guess, but when John Sheridan rocked up at Boundary Park for a third spell in January, the Latics appeared doomed.

Ten winless games under Stephen Robinson had left them bottom of the division, three points from safety and with only three victories all season 24 games into it. Robinson, assistant to Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill at Euro 2016 but without managerial experience of his own, always appeared an odd appointment and results were proving that. The squad demoralised, lost, and the mental barrier that needed to be overcome meaning it was more than just three points that separated Oldham from safety.

But Sheridan, in keeping the side in the division 12 months previously, had done this before. His appointment rejuvenated, or at least injected a certain amount of belief into, supporters. His experience of these situations, along with a determination and an ability to grind out results, meant the Latics ultimately survived by a relatively comfortable four points.

League Two avoided, but a rather tiresome and gruesome theme is developing for Oldham. Their eighth consecutive season in the bottom half of League One. A constant flirtation with the drop.

On only two occasions during the run of bottom half finishes have they ended the season closer to the bottom four than they did last season. Three points away in 2012/13, and two points away in 2009/10. Occasionally, as they did in the season before in Sheridan’s previous rescue act, they’ve required a miraculous recovery, and ultimately there’s an argument that it doesn’t really matter as long as come the end of the campaign the club is maintaining its position in the third tier.

The problem, however, is that, even for someone with a face like mine, flirtation will eventually result in something you can’t get away from. That there only so long, particularly given the previous two seasons, Oldham can continue to have these narrow escapes from relegation. There has to be a fear heading into the new season that their luck, or more importantly their fight, will die.

A fear increased by the improvements other clubs that might be looking over their shoulders have made. Subtle ones made by Oldham, with a few handy additions to their squad, but not dramatic. Not enough to think they won’t find themselves in a similar position.

The most important thing is that, unlike last season, Sheridan remains in the building. There stability, and his ability to grind out results with a side that might lack the quality that other sides in the division do. And if it comes to it, his ability to perform a miracle.

Either way, this season is going to be another battle for the Latics.

The Manager – John Sheridan

I’m not sure he quite gives it off at first glance. In his appearance, his persona, or his managerial style. But to supporters of Oldham, John Sheridan is like a soothing hug, followed by a warm cup of tea.

He probably doesn’t quite give off that impression because he was accused of fighting his own players during his first spell at the club in 2009, he was given a five-match touchline ban last season while in charge of Notts County for abusing a match official, and has received intense criticism from County owner Alan Hardy following his dismissal from the club. Maybe not the nicest of chaps. But he has a knack of salvaging Oldham from certain crisis.

Successive seasons now has Sheridan appeared in January and clawed the club away from the threat of relegation. Coming in with the Latics in perilous positions, struggling under the management of David Dunn and Stephen Robinson, but ultimately doing enough to achieve survival. A deflated group of players inspired by his tough and determined methods.

And unlike for the start of the previous campaign, Sheridan is hanging around after keeping the club in League One. Having worked wonders, and got two relatively poor squads to show some fight, for two consecutive seasons, there are certainly no complaints about that around the Lancashire club. A hope that sustaining their third-tier status will be a bit more comfortable with the 52-year-old around for the duration of the campaign.

But Sheridan’s recent record when tasked with doing something that isn’t arriving at Boundary Park midway through a season and keeping Oldham up isn’t great. A struggle to gain points at Newport County, and the controversy that marred his time at Notts County meaning there are flaws to his managerial style. Flaws that haven’t been exposed during these two spells back at Boundary Park, because these dog-fight situations, where determination and hard-work is required, suit him as much as the club does.

So too will Sheridan have a different challenge on his hands. The Latics are still likely to be looking over their shoulders and fearing relegation throughout this season, but it a fear Sheridan won’t be reacting to. It one he’ll be attempting to calm throughout the campaign.

At the very least, if Oldham are to be in a fight, having Sheridan around to do the battling is pretty useful.

Transfer Business

The way most managers go after a season which saw their team narrowly avoid relegation is to oversee a huge turnover of playing staff. But that hasn’t been the case for Sheridan or Oldham, with a degree of faith seemingly placed in the side that fought hard to escape the drop. Outs and ins both relatively minimal.

A quite obvious theme among those allowed to depart, with each one a squad player whose game time was limited. Charles Dunne, blighted by injury, allowed to depart having not played a game beyond Boxing Day, fellow full-back Jamie Reckford used just four times after Sheridan arrived, and defender Josh Law another who struggled for game time after the managerial change. Lee Croft, about two years after his legs did similar, has also departed, while Michael Ngoo, bravely given another chance in the Football League, failed to do enough to earn a longer contract.

Those full-back departures immediately justified by the permanent signing of Rob Hunt, with the right-back having impressed during a spell on loan from Brighton last season. A signing, given that he proved his qualities in the previous campaign, with certain benefits. Less certainty about the positive impact about Oldham’s other additions, however.

Not that they’re unquestionably poor, far from it in fact, just that there’s arguments for and against each one. Dan Gardner was in and out of a Chesterfield side that suffered relegation last season, but he is a versatile attacking midfielder with the qualities to contribute when on song, forward Craig Davies joins from Scunthorpe United with experience and a reputation for bullying defences but with one league goal since September 2015, and 21-year-old striker Coutney Duffus, snapped up from Everton, arrives with potential but without a first-team appearance at any level since 2014. Some question marks, but players that can provide in attacking positions should Sheridan be able to get the best out of them.

Additional forward options required after Lee Erwin returned to parent club Leeds United, and Gardner probably fills the hole that’s left by Chris Taylor’s loan expiring, but not all of the Oldham’s returning loanees have been accounted for. Connor Ripley, who spent last season on loan at Boundary Park from Middlesbrough, played every game in goal, and as things stand the Latics have no senior ‘keeper.

Chris Kettings, who warmed the bench last season, turned down a new contract, and so trialists have been playing between the sticks during friendlies. Young German Niklas Bolten, most recently with Stuttgart’s reserves, and Bailey Peackock-Farrell, ultimately sent back to Leeds having been training with Oldham in the hope of earning a loan deal, among them. There even still hope that Ripley may return.

A goalkeeper most certainly required, and one will be added, but in general you might have expected Oldham to be a bit more active this summer.

The Squad

Sheridan’s thinking is that he can get the same sort of results by utilising a structured and settled side. Both in system and personnel, something similar to the one that escaped relegation last season. But it’s a squad that feels short on both quality and numbers.

Not that maintaining the structure that kept the side up isn’t important. Particularly given the fact no club outside the top six conceded less than the Latcis (44). Keeping tight at the back again, regardless of whether it’s pretty or not, will be vital to their chances of survival.

It experience that Sheridan will rely on in the centre, with Anthony Gerrard and Peter Clarke forming a partnership that boasts 973 Football League appearances, and the ability to make me feel young just by looking at them. Little question of their effectiveness and fitness, though, with Gerrard an important figure under Sheridan, and Clarke an ever-present throughout the season. Beyond that, however, there’s not a great deal.

Brian Wilson, who signed a new contract in the summer, is naturally a full-back but can play in the centre if required, while teenagers Jamie Stott and George Edmundson made a handful of appearances each last season. But more depth, and a goalkeeper or two, is certainly required in the centre of defence.

Fewer concerns about depth in the full-back positions, with four solid options. Hunt and Ryan McLaughlin likely to take the starting roles, with Cameron Dummigan and Wilson offering alternatives and cover.

McLaughlin, brother of now Millwall wing-back Conor, is also comfortable playing further forward, given his attacking qualities. The Northern Ireland international supplementing Sheridan’s other wide options, with Gardner and the pacey Tope Obadeyi, who impressed having arrived from Dundee United in January, arguably the favourites to claim the wing roles. Though strong competition is provided by Ryan Flynn, with the former Sheffield United winger having started 31 times last season.

With three out-and-out wingers, you’d probably want one more, but, like at the back, it’s in the centre where greater strength in depth is more urgently required. Ousmane Fane really impressed during the game at The Valley last season, and has all the qualities of a strong defensive midfielder, Paul Green still offers composure on the ball at the age of 34, and playmaker Ollie Banks has the potential to be a bit more creative. But there next to nothing beyond that, which proves particularly concerning given that Sheridan does occasionally opt for three in the middle of midfield.

While in attack, Davies and Duffus are likely to form the forward partnership, though Sheridan did switch between one and two up top during the second period of the previous campaign. Aaron Amadi-Holloway and Darius Osei, two forwards in similar moulds to the men they might well end up replacing, the alternatives.

But when a number of teams who might well have spent this season looking over their shoulders have strengthened, and the majority of the promoted sides appear strong, you do question whether Oldham have enough.

Fans View – Samuel Gill (@samuelgill23)

That’s two great escapes John Sheridan has pulled off in consecutive seasons. How does he go about galvanising seemingly hopeless squads?

I think his experience helps massively, we are known for appointing rookies which barring recently Lee Johnson, has backfired by Christmas with Darren Kelly and Stephen Robinson notable examples but I think his no nonsense attitude as well helps and gets the best out of our usually average squad!

Unlike in preparation for the previous campaign, Sheridan remains after keeping you in the division. How much of a greater chance does that give you of having a comfortable season, or are you at all concerned the flaws in Sheridan’s management will be exposed over a longer period?

It gives us a massive chance of having a comfortable season and maybe even challenge for the playoffs which in my opinion is achievable, last season we appointed a manager in Stephen Robinson who had relatively no experience and he had to work 18 hour days to sign new players after a mass exodus which meant he was relieved of his duties a few months later due to poor results while this year we have an experienced manager at the helm who knows Oldham more than any other club and has brought in a few players even paying money for some in the case of Duffus and Hunt and have kept most of players which is something we did not do last season!

You’ve flirted with relegation for several seasons now. How do you go about becoming a club that does more than just scraps away at the bottom of League One?

It’s all about money in my opinion, Corney has made it no secret that he wants to sell and he can’t take the club forward and so we can’t compete with the likes of Wigan, Fleetwood or Bradford at the top of the league but I think for now having a manager in place like Sheridan as well as backroom staff like Wright, Wellens and Harbin with a good squad in place as well should hopefully bring an end for this season at least to us scrapping to survive with a few games to go!

Regardless, would simply avoiding relegation again be a relative success?

Nope I wouldn’t say so, Sheridan said when we survived last season that surviving shouldn’t be an achievement and the stats show that if we would have had the form we had last season we would be challenging for playoffs so considering the players we have kept like Clarke, Green, Obadeyi etc. who were key it would be a failure if we just survived again!

You’ve not been hugely active in the transfer market, but have made subtle improvements to your squad. Is that the way you’d prefer it to be? How would you assess the state of your squad overall?

I wouldn’t say it’s how I prefer it to be but myself and other Oldham fans know that we don’t have a money tree and we only just get by, having an embargo last year and numerous tax bills but I would say taking into account our additions and our current crop, 2 goalkeepers are needed as we don’t have any due to our star man Ripley going back to Boro and Kettings rejecting a new deal due to game time and I think a defensive midfielder but I believe apart from that we have a good squad especially due to the signings of Rob Hunt from Brighton permanently as well as Courtney Duffus from Everton, Craig Davies returning from Scunthorpe and Dan Gardner from Chesterfield as well as keeping the likes of Peter Clarke, Anthony Gerrard, Paul Green, Tope Obadeyi etc on long term deals so I believe as long as we get one or two more in we will be in a good position to start the season against Oxford in a few weeks!

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I don’t think we will be in trouble but I would give a guess of around 14th or 15th at the end but like any other season supporting Oldham it’s usually a bit of a whirlwind so I am not 100% sure but I would guess around there!

Summary

Best Case – Sheridan injects a season-long level of fight into Oldham, Latics avoid relegation with relative comfort, and the boss doesn’t even threaten a referee

Worse Case – Sheridan struggles to have the same impact over a longer period of time, players underperform and relegation looms, no man to pull off the rescue act.

Better placed with Sheridan in control from the start, but his squad is weak in a division that has the also-rans improve. Not convinced. 22nd


Oxford United

Many of their supporters would have accepted simply cementing their place in the division but, having been promoted from League Two, in their first campaign in the third tier since 1998/99, Oxford United finished just four points off the play-offs. A sign of their relative success the fact that they won as many games as both play-off finalists. There no question that the U’s were one of the success stories of the 2016/17 League One season.

But much of that was down to the management of Michael Appleton. Promotion to League Two followed by this fantastic effort in the division above under the 41-year-old’s leadership. An appearance at Wembley, though ending in defeat to Coventry City, in the Checkatrade Trophy and guiding his side to the fifth round of the FA Cup earning Appleton further praise during a season in which Oxford scored 100 goals in all competitions.

Praise, in fact, which drew the attention of Craig Shakespeare and Leicester City. Appleton drawn away from the Kassam Stadium with pre-season approaching to take on the role of the former Premier League champions’ assistant boss. Concern and panic suddenly spreading around followers of the U’s, when throughout the summer they had been tentatively wondering whether their side could build on the previous season and challenge for a top-six spot with genuine intent.

The success that the U’s have enjoyed in recent seasons, however, is not solely down to Appleton’s management. The club is a stable one without the worries and restraints that many suffer from, moving as a whole in a positive direction. The loss of Appleton, even at the time it occurred, was never going to be terminal.

But that means chairman Darryl Eales could have simply appointed from within, or gone for an experienced boss to take the reins and carry on where Appleton has left off. Instead, he has been brave. Pep Clotet, assistant for several seasons to Garry Monk, gets his first managerial role in England.

Brave, but a sign of intent. A sign of not simply settling for what is already there, but wanting more. Believing that Clotet, combing his own ideas with what is already in place at the Kassam, has the potential to guide the U’s to greater success.

Of course, it may all go horribly wrong. It is certainly a gamble. But Oxford aren’t willing to wallow in self-pity after Appleton’s departure, and aren’t willing to use it as an excuse to accept a position as a League One also-ran.

The Manager – Pep Clotet

While Clotet’s name is immediately associated with assistant management, and more specifically holding hands with Garry Monk, he does not arrive at the Kassam a complete stranger to standing in the technical area with the final say.

Lower league and ‘B’ team sides, who play within the Spanish league system, were his staple diet in his home nation, while he also had a brief spell in charge of Norway’s Halmstad. In fact, despite being just 40 and spending all of his time in England as an assistant, he’s led five different teams as a boss. It’s just that, whether working in Spain or Norway, Clotet’s experiences as a manager haven’t been great. Failures to meet expectations, relegations and sackings litter his CV.

But Clotet hasn’t been given this opportunity at Oxford on the basis of his CV prior to 2013. The belief that he can achieve as his own man comes from innovative philosophies, creative football and uplifting atmospheres created in partnership with Monk at both Swansea at Leeds in previous seasons. A top half Premier League finish achieved with the Swans and, though ultimately capitulating to the extent that a play-off place wasn’t earned, some life injected back into Leeds after several sluggish and quite chaotic campaigns.

That, of course, not to suggest that the success of those sides was the work of Clotet. They were, after all, led by Monk. But the Spaniard’s involvement was always seen as important, particularly to the former Swansea captain’s admired style of play, and there were a few raised eyebrows when Monk joined Middlesbrough this summer without his regular righthand man.

And a stable, progressive club in a division below where he worked with Monk seems an ideal place for Clotet to prove his worth as a manager in his own right.

Undoubtedly, there will be concerns and issues. Not least the fact that Oxford were preparing for a season under Appleton, something of a conservative and traditional manager, and now find themselves with quite a unique boss in charge appointed just as pre-season began. Teething problems for the players adapting to his system a possibility, if not teething problems for Clotet adapting to management.

But the general consensus is that it’s quite an exciting, ambitious appointment. It’s not a club in crisis, led by a brainless owner, appointing a manager from overseas without a clue of how to cope with leading in England. It’s a gamble, but it’s one with the right intentions, and one that Clotet himself will be desperately hoping pays off.

Transfer Business

There few clubs in the division that have had such an up and down summer of transfers as Oxford. One moment the Clotet gamble likely to pay off as he adds to a strong squad that was already in place, the next a member of that strong squad departs.

With left-back Joe Skarz allowed to join Bury, right-back Phil Edwards following him to Gigg Lane after his loan spell from Burton expired, and powerhouse Chey Dunkley snapped up by Wigan, three of the men that more often than not featured in Oxford’s backline last season are no longer with the club. Dunkley, with 52 appearances in all competitions and arguably the defensive leader, the man most likely to be missed.

The centre of midfield has taken a battering, too. Liam Sercombe, who was always likely to leave having been suspended by the club for disciplinary reasons, heading to Bristol Rovers, while 23-year-old skipper John Lundstram is primed for a move to Sheffield United. A key figure in the middle, with maturity, composure and a creative quality, beyond his years, the loss of Lundstram is as big as any.

Though the impact of his loss is only narrowly greater than that of losing winger-cum-forward Chris Maguire. With a tenacity that meant opposition defences struggled to deal with him, a delicious set-piece delivery, and 13 goals to his name, the impact the Scot had during last season is quite apparent. It hardly ideal to lose his 13 goals, while the ten goals of Conor McAleny ended up at Fleetwood, with Oxford unable to sign the forward permanently following his impressive spell on loan from Everton.

The nature of departures makes it difficult to believe that this transfer window can be seen as anything more than a disastrous one. But, though ultimately leaving Oxford weaker, it can probably be argued that it’s more a transitional one. Clotet bringing in bodies to replace the departed, and this isn’t a club that will simply allow players to leave without supporting the boss in bringing in alternatives.

It probably to be expected that a player Clotet had worked with before would be among the arrivals at the Kassam Stadium. Former Swansea full-back Dwight Tiendalli hasn’t played a game of professional football since May 2015, but the Dutchman is only 31, and arrives with Premier League and international experience. A gamble, but Clotet evidently believes he can resume his career with Oxford.

And it probably to be expected that a little-known Spaniard would arrive. Evidently plenty of faith in 22-year-old playmaker Xemi’s quality, given that he’s been handed a three-year contract having joined from Barcelona B. A regular in the Spanish second tier, it probably more a question about whether he adapts to League One or not rather than his technical ability.

Though less expected that the U’s would take a key player from the squad of rivals Swindon Town. Forward Jon Obika joining with a decent goal-scoring record at this level, supplemented by strong qualities in holding up the ball and bringing others into play. Though I think Oxford fans are simply revelling in the fact that they’ve nabbed a player from the Robbins.

Elsewhere, goalkeeper Scott Shearer joins from Mansfield Town, most likely to provide competition to number one Simon Eastwood, young Irish defender Fiacre Kelleher signs from Celtic having spent last season on loan at Scottish League One side Peterhead, and winger James Henry, having played 30 times while on loan at Bolton during their promotion winning campaign, arrives having departed Wolves during the summer.

Centre-back Charlie Raglan also sees his loan from Chesterfield turned into a permanent deal, with the U’s continue to keep an eye on several trialists. Not £4m Luciano Narsingh, however, despite the club announcing his was part of the squad for a friendly against Birmingham. It was, in fact, Furdjel Narsingh, the brother of Luciano who has spent his career hovering around the Dutch second division.

Certainly busy. But you sense the loss of those central figures in last season’s success will sting more than the new arrivals can heal. At least until Clotet has the chance to show how he can operate with them.

The Squad

For all the departures and arrivals, there remains a decent enough core to Oxford’s squad for panic to be far and away from supporters’ minds.

Certainly no panic in the heart of defence. Raglan likely to partner Curtis Nelson in what is a strong enough duo to mean Dunkley’s loss isn’t terminally damaging, while Aaron Martin, who returns after a horrid time with injury, and Kelleher provide the alternatives.

But the scene, or at least the strength, in the full-back area not quite so clear cut. Christian Ribeiro has reasonable experience, but spent almost the entirety of last in the treatment room, Sam Long lacks experience, but was handed a new contract in the summer as a showing of faith, and, despite his Premier League appearances for Swansea, doubts about Tiendalli after such a long time out of the game. Canice Carroll, an 18-year-old Irishman who got some game time towards the end of last season, provides a fourth option, but you’d probably want a bit more certainty and security in those positions.

Nonetheless, the departures in the centre of midfield, though Lundstram will be missed, haven’t left Oxford weak or struggling for options. Joe Rothwell and Ryan Ledson, despite being 22 and 19 respectively, showed enough quality last season to make the positions their own, while Josh Ruffles, who also showed promise last season, and Xemi offer competition. Assuming Clotet will look to play with three centre-midfielders, another would be handy, but there’s strength in what they do have.

The U’s also have decent quality in forward positions, but are going to need players to increase their goal tallies after the loss of Maguire, and the failure to retain McAleny. Marvin Johnson and James Henry will probably take the starting wing roles, but the former scored three times last season, and the latter only once during his spell on loan at Bolton. Rob Hall, the most likely alternative on the flanks, with the former West Ham youngster contributing six goals and has he went in and out of the side.

Greater pressure on Kane Hemmings, who probably didn’t live up to expectations having arrived last summer on the back of scoring 21 goals in 37 games for Dundee, and new arrival Obika to address the concern that Oxford might be short of goals, while the return to fitness of Wes Thomas, who managed just 13 games last season before rupturing an Achilles tendon, is certainly helpful. But with three genuine options on the wings and in attack, you’d probably like one more addition in each area to supplement their squad.

A slight improvement, though not dramatic, in depth needed to have the U’s in shape for the season, but the greater concern is probably regarding how quickly they adapt to Clotet’s ways.

Fans View – Jack Shoemark (@CaptainOx)

Given the success he’s had at the club, it’s been quite easy from the outside to see losing Michael Appleton just prior to the start of pre-season as a disaster. But given the progress the club in general has made, were Oxford always in a healthy enough position to deal with losing him whenever that might have come?

Mapp’s departure probably took us all by surprise – not him leaving but the role he left for. I had expected bigger clubs to come knocking sooner rather than later especially if we had done well this coming season but for him to go and be an assistant was a shock. There is no doubt that the club he left is a very different one from the one he joined. It remains to be seen how we move on, but the unit of backroom staff that surrounded him has importantly stayed intact and should hopefully be able to at least consolidate.

Similarly, is the success you’ve enjoyed actually primarily Appleton’s, or can it be assigned to other key figures at the club? 

There is no doubt that the revolution at the club began as a three pronged process – Daryl Eales (Chairman), Mark Ashton (former CEO) and MApp himself. Over time things have changed, Ashton has moved on as well as other staff and there are now questions from some areas of the fan base about Eales’ especially since a takeover from a rich Uruguayan bloke didn’t happen earlier this summer. The coaching staff, recruitment team and analysis departments have played a major part in recent success too. It is huge that all of those people are still at the club as we speak.

There no doubt that appointing Pep Clotet is a gamble. But is it a gamble you’re excited about?

I’m probably more intrigued than excited. Leeds fans don’t have a bad word to say about Pep and suggest that he played a big part in their positive campaign under Garry Monk. He has a good reputation for his coaching and development of young players – something that is very much part of the process at OUFC these days. Derek Fazackerley and Chrissy Allen remain as assistant coaches so there will be some carry over from Appleton’s time.

One thing is for sure, by mentioning “7 in a row” (victories v arch rivals Swindon) in his first interview, Pep has definitely won some early support across the fan base.

Clotet takes over on the back of the U’s finishing just four points off the play-offs last season. Is that something you can build on, or with the change and the need to adapt to Clotet’s way is there an acceptance that stability is the goal this season?

It has been a funny pre-season really. If MApp had stayed then of course we would have been looking to build on last season in a big way. With his exit and that of a number of players, it is hard to know what to expect. Personally, with all the change, I think stability and consolidation would be a good season. But I know others would be disappointed if we don’t get ourselves in at least the play-off mix. And some will expect promotion – but they probably expect promotion every year!

A few very useful additions, a couple of disappointing departures, but the core of the side kept. How would you assess both your transfer business, and the state of squad?

I had to restart this answer once it emerged that our skipper, Jonny Lundstram, is set to join Sheffield United, then to top it off, Bury announced the signing of last season’s top scorer, Chris Maguire. “Lunny” is going for a fee likely to be in the region of 500k which frankly is a steal for the Blades. Maguire will forever be a cult hero, his free-kicks, and role of “wind up merchant” will be missed much more than his overall contribution to the side though. Other big players have left and I read that we only have 3 of the 2015/16 promotion squad still at the club – that is rapid change!

As for the new boys – a mixed bag. James Henry looks the standout signing on paper. Jon Obika should get a few goals, if and it’s a big if, he stays fit. There is also Xemi Hernandez, a capture from Barcelona B on a 3 year contract, who could be sensational or a complete flop! Dwight Tiendalli hasn’t played for two years and the others are likely to be squad players.

The key now is for no-one else to go out the door so I hope they’ve got Marvin Johnson, Curtis Nelson and Ryan Ledson, locked in a room and only brought out for training and match days.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

You always want to improve on the previous season but with all the change, I think that will be a tough ask. Comfortably midtable with a bit of a flirt with the playoffs. So similar to this season!

Summary

Best Case – Pep Clotet makes Pep Guardiola look average, injects an attractive and effective style of football into the side that the squad immediately adapts to, successful challenge for the top six made.

Worse Case – Garry Monk blocks Clotet’s number, Oxford look hopeless and a decision to remove the Spaniard is made with the U’s looking over their shoulders, new boss has too much to do to move them into the top half.

I quite like the appointment of Clotet but, not least with a handful of key players departing, I do think this will be a season of transition for Oxford. 12th


Peterborough United

There no question that Peterborough United’s niche for plucking a player from relative obscurity, offering him a Football League chance, before selling him for huge profit remains strong. It part of the club’s identity, and something that will define chairman Darragh MacAnthony’s reign. It a unique process, to repeat it so regularly, and something to be proud of.

George Boyd, Dwight Gayle and Britt Assombalonga among the highlights in a much longer list of players offered a chance at Peterborough, and ultimately enjoyed such a level of success that they were sold for relatively large fees. A huge impact, but the player realistically used London Road as a stepping stone. It the policy that the club is sustained upon.

And even among Posh’s current group, there players that look set to ultimately become a part of this policy. Clubs have spent the summer sniffing around playmaker Marcus Maddison, who has impressed since arriving from Gateshead, while Ricky Miller, having scored 40 goals in 41 games for Dover Athletic last season, is the latest talent taken from non-league. Their effective transfer policy is set in stone.

But this is Peterborough’s fifth campaign at League One level, and on only one occasion have they seriously challenged for a return to the Championship. For several seasons they bounced between the second and third tiers, but now appear resigned to being among the League One also-rans. Their efforts during last season – Grant McCann’s first as boss after a brief stint at the end of the previous campaign – were too often uninspiring.

Has this focus on player turnover taken a focus away from a wider desire to achieve on the pitch? Given MacAnthony’s ambitious nature, that’s highly unlikely. But for a club that does have ambition to be in the second tier, something isn’t quite right.

It almost seems like too much experimentation, and too many gambles, have taken place, without enough clear and obvious messages of intent. Young players that could produce something occupying much of their squad, and a risk taken in appointing McCann as boss that remains to be seen whether it will pay off. But there not enough immediacy to match ambition.

There will, undoubtedly, be a goal of challenging for a play-off position for Peterborough this season. And that may be something more likely with a more open division, McCann having a year’s experience under his belt, and some handy additions made to his squad. There is an argument, a slim one, that they’re better placed.

But this Peterborough side, as much as it doesn’t match the more experienced and more progressive sides in this division, doesn’t match the dynamism and quality of the previous Posh incarnations that battled to play Championship football.

The Manager – Grant McCann

Giving someone their first opportunity in management at a club largely as a result of their cult hero status as a player can work. This blog named after one of the best examples. But to place your faith in a man inexperienced in one role on the basis of what he achieved in another is quite a gamble.

And having fallen from sixth in December to 11th, and 11 points off the play-off positions, come the end of the season, it remains to be seen whether the gamble taken in McCann is one that will pay off.

He will, as is the case with all managers appointed in similar circumstances, be given time. Supporters will be desperate for the gamble to pay off. For their side to be led successfully by a cult hero.

But Posh are also led by a chairman who isn’t afraid to make changes when required. To completely change the philosophy the club is taking in terms of who leads the side from appointment to appointment. It will be something on MacAnthony’s mind if McCann doesn’t improve upon a poor second half of last season.

Results obviously poor, with McCann only able to win back-to-back games once after December and 12 of their final 22 games ending in defeat. But the manner of performances during that run created a greater concern. McCann unable to inject a resilience in his side that meant heavy defeats became relatively regular, while the counter-attacking style that Posh have been known for was rarely on show. Points few and efforts uninspiring under the 37-year-old’s leadership from January onwards.

As such, the first few months of this season are going to be crucial for McCann. Peterborough’s former midfielder under a touch of pressure.

Transfer Business

Though there is some quality, or at least potential, in what has arrived at London Road this summer, it doesn’t feel like Peterborough’s squad has seen a great deal of strengthening.

A part of that a consequence of players who contributed heavily last season departing during the summer. The decision to allow Michael Bostwick, as important as ever in the centre of midfield 223 games into his Posh career, to join Lincoln a bizarre one. And he not the only experience performer to leave.

Full-back Michael Smith, a regular in Peterborough’s side for three seasons, heads to Hearts, forward Paul Taylor, having returned to London Road last summer, released to join Bradford City, and striker Tom Nichols, not exactly a crowd favourite but a scorer of ten goals in the previous campaign, departs for Bristol Rovers.

A clear out of underused squad players, including Harry Anderson, Hayden White, Jerome Binnon-Williams and Lee Angol, adding to the departures, midfielder Brad Inman allowed to join fellow League One side Rochdale on loan, while goalkeeper Luke McGee, winger Martin Samuelsen and experienced striker Craig Mackail-Smith, whose five goals in 19 games were a bit more than many expected upon his return to the club, among those returning to their parent clubs following temporary spells at London Road. The squad significantly trimmed.

While among those coming in, there is potential and a degree of excitement, but also a need to be realistic and a sense that gambles have been taken. Miller the prime example. A superb goal-scoring record in the National League but, having struggled the last time he was in the Football League with Luton Town, there has to be some questions regarding whether he’ll make the step up.

A similar story for Danny Lloyd, who arrives having scored 29 goals in the National League North for Stockport last season, while centre-back Alex Penny joins from Nuneaton Town after a successful trial. Again, impressing in the sixth tier, but can they make the step up to the third tier? Given Peterborough’s record in signing players from non-league football, you’re certainly going to sway more to the side of believing they can.

But, given the departures and the unconvincing nature of last season, a few players you can feel more assured about would be handy. They arrive in the shape of former Swansea City full-back Liam Shephard, a replacement for Smith having impressed during several loan spells at Yeovil Town, midfielder Michael Doughty, who joins from QPR after displaying his talents while on loan at Swindon Town, and forward Jack Marriott, having been a steady performer at Kenilworth Road in the previous two seasons, signs from Luton Town. There also a promising replacement for the departed McGee, with former England U21 goalkeeper Jonathan Bond arriving on loan from Reading.

If the players that Posh have taken gambles on step up, then it becomes a useful transfer window. If they struggle with the quite steep rise in divisions they’ve taken, then it appears another one where Peterborough have taken too many risks.

The Squad

While Peterborough are going to need the forwards they’ve taken gambles on to fire, and the experienced departures will be largely missed, there remains a solid core to their squad.

Ryan Tafazolli and Jack Baldwin form a solid enough centre-back partnership, with Shepard and Andrew Hughes either side to complete a reasonable backline, but alternatives in defence are lacking. Penny the only obvious competition in the centre, and Lewis Freestone, a 17-year-old who made four appearances at the end of last season, the only alternative in the full-back positions. Greater depth most definitely needed.

But as always seems to be the case for Peterborough, and despite Bostwick’s departure, they have midfielders coming out their ears. In terms of those expected to play in the centre, Doughty is joined by Anthony Grant, the only member of Peterborough’s squad to yet celebrate his 30th birthday, Chris Forrester, Callum Chettle, while there is quality among the attacking options, at least for now. Eyes always on wingers-cum-attacking midfielders Leonardo da Silva Lopes and Marcus Maddison, but they’re still with the club, only Maddison and Nichols scored more league goals than winger Gwion Edwards last season, and Miller equally capable of playing on the right flank as he is up top.

Though whether Jermaine Anderson, injured again having missed most of last season and having had a contract offer withdrawn, can be included in those options is questionable. A return likely around October, but Posh should cope without him in those positions regardless.

Then comes the question of whether Peterborough’s forwards will make the step up, and actually how they’ll fit into McCann’s system. A variety of formations used last season, some accommodating two up top, others using three forwards with a mixture of more widely recognised forwards and genuine wingers taking up the positions either side of a central man, and a lone forward also occasionally deployed.

It’ll probably be the case that Marriot, just on the basis that he’s making the least terrifying step up the divisions, will become the central figure, with Miller, after he returns from a six-game ban handed out for biting an opposition player while with Dover, and Lloyd providing support, whether that be as alternatives or in partnership. Junior Morias also likely to feature heavily having scored four times after arriving from St Albans City in January while, if all else fails, Shaq Coulthirst has returned from a loan at Mansfield and remains an option.

Definitely some quality among the bodies that Peterborough have, and definitely some promise, but too many question marks to feel completely comfortable with it.

Fans View – John Verrall (@JohnVerrall)

Not too long ago, Peterborough were a dynamic side, with exciting ideas, playing attractive football that a lot of neutrals took an interest in. Another season among the also-rans suggests that’s long gone. What’s gone wrong?

How long have we got? There’s a multitude of reasons why we’ve struggled more in recent seasons than most, but the most pertinent one is simply that we don’t have the quality of player that we once had.

Posh have a history of having great strikers, but we’ve not really found a number nine to build our team around for a whole season since Britt Assombalonga left.

Conor Washington hit form for half a season back in 2015/16, but he was sold quickly and last campaign we had very little in the way of quality up-front.

A succession of poor managerial appointments haven’t helped,  but I do think Grant McCann could put things right – providing he has the tools required at his disposal.

As a neutral, I can never quite work out Darragh MacAnthony. No doubt I’d swap him for Roland Duchatelet in a heartbeat, but some time he appears too focused on player profit rather than actual success, and does a bit too much speaking. What’s the general view among supporters?

MacAnthony’s still very popular with Posh fans, and for good reason.

Granted, there’s times when he can rub people up the wrong way – and I’ve had disagreements with him myself.

But I don’t doubt every decision he makes is, in his opinion, for the benefit of the club, and you can’t really ask for anything more than that.

Given his affiliation with the club Grant McCann was always going to be given time at London Road to succeed. But following the slump in the second half of last season, does he begin this campaign under a fair amount of pressure?

I don’t think he’s under severe pressure, but MacAnthony always aims for promotion and another season outside the top six will see questions asked.

I alluded to it earlier, but I don’t think McCann could have done much better last season. He had a poor squad, in general, to pick from and we still occupied a mid-table spot. An improvement will be expected this time around, though, from those within the club.

With Dover being my team of choice on Football Manager, I don’t thank you for stealing Ricky Miller, nor is it ideal that he misses the first six games of the season after getting a bit hungry on the pitch, but he certainly seems like the latest in your long list of forwards snapped up from lower league set to score goals for yourselves. How would you assess your transfer business in general?

As things stand, I think it’s the worst window we’ve had since MacAnthony took the helm.

We’ve lost players with proven track records in League One in the shape of Paul Taylor, Michael Smith and Michael Bostwick, and, even though I thought he was abject, Tom Nichols and their replacements are largely unproven.

Michael Doughty looks to be a brilliant addition, but every other one of the players brought in has no history in the third tier.

Miller scored plenty of goals in the Conference, but he was playing part-time football last term. And that’s the same with Danny Lloyd and Alex Penny. Liam Shephard, meanwhile, had doubters at Yeovil last season.

I’m certainly not writing any of the signings off, but they have a sizeable amount to prove and there’s still big gaps in the squad.

The noises are we’re about to sign another three players, so that could change things considerably, but at the moment the squad does seem to have gone backwards.

Additionally, is your squad better equipped for a season-long challenge for the top-six this season, or has the club found its position among League One’s also-rans?

As I say, I think the squad has gone backwards, but without seeing our transfer business completed it’s hard to say exactly what the squad is shaping up like.

If we go into the season now, my money would be on us finishing lower than last season.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

As things stand, I think we’ll struggle – so I’ll say 17th.

However, if we can bring in a striker of proven quality, and a couple of quality defenders there is potential in the squad.

Marcus Maddison is one of League One’s best players, and our midfield looks very strong.

If we get the recruitment right between now and the end of the window, I wouldn’t entirely write off our chances of making a push for the top 10 and maybe even sneaking a play off spot.

Summary

Best Case – Faith shown in McCann is repaid, Ricky Miller scores 94 goals, Darragh MacAnthony takes to Twitter for a drunken celebration as Posh finish in the top six.

Worse Case – McCann struggles and is dismissed by November, new boss can’t make a weak Peterborough side more competitive, Ricky Miller’s ten goals not enough to lift Posh away from mid-table.

Not convinced that Peterborough are equipped to challenge for the top six, and in fact may even find themselves slipping outside the top half. 14th 


Plymouth Argyle

As Plymouth Argyle supporters celebrated the 6-1 victory over Newport County that confirmed their promotion to League One, memories of a painful past would have made the joy of success all the sweeter.

Successive relegations, financial implosion and narrowly avoiding being sucked into non-league football two season in a row, with the Pilgrims’ one of the Football League’s crisis clubs for several years. And even since stabilising, they’ve had heartbreak, with a play-off semi-final and final defeat in the previous two campaigns. Not even failing to come out on top in a very tight battle for the title could have seriously dented the relief and enjoyment that came from glory after so many years of suffering.

In fact, such glory has changed the entire attitude and atmosphere of the club. Something that the foundations have been laid for at Home Park in previous seasons, but been set back by the play-off failures. There now a genuine belief that the Devon club, who had for too long had become accustomed to suffering or slip-ups to one degree or another, can succeed on a more consistent basis.

And so Argyle aren’t simply approaching their first season in the third-tier since 2010/11 nervously hoping to avoid an immediate return to League Two. There a justifiable confidence that more than that can be aimed for. Both by looking at what the promoted teams last season achieved, and by simply looking at themselves.

For not only is the club stable and in a position to boast positive ambitions, but so too is Derek Adams’ side a strong one. One that was already in decent shape as it entered League One, but has been strengthened impressively throughout the summer. Decent quality in almost every area of the side.

A danger, of course, that such confidence around the club may translate into Argyle and their supporters getting ahead of themselves. To demand or expect immediate success in League One is dangerous. There must be caution, or at least some realism, considered.

But the Pilgrims have every right to believe their first season back in the third tier is going to have more to it than an uncomfortable scrap for points.

The Manager – Derek Adams

There’s no real logic behind it, because the quality and the philosophies involved in the Scottish division and lower tiers of the English Football League aren’t too dissimilar. But Some managers plucked from the Scottish game to operate in England simply can’t adapt, while others do fine jobs. It something of a lottery.

For Plymouth, appointing Derek Adams, whose previous job had been at Ross County, has most definitely paid off. Not only in terms of achieving promotion last season, but in injecting a positive style of football over the course of the two campaigns he has led the Pilgrims. The sort of positive style of football that a club, and set of supporters, who have suffered so much in recent times required.

Ahead of the previous campaign, Adams could have so easily been more reserved. Responding to the play-off disappointment of the season before, and attempting more purposefully to grind out results in a diligent and determined manner. But the 42-year-old Scot stuck to his strategy.

In achieving promotion, and what made Plymouth such an attractive threat throughout the campaign, Adams utilised the strength of his attacking midfielders. Graham Carey in particular, whose retention is a huge boost for the Home Park club, leading the forward threat that gave the Pilgrims a match-winning advantage on several occasions. A sweeping brand of counter-attacking football which, with only Portsmouth and Luton conceding less than the 46 that passed their back line, didn’t sacrifice defensive resilience.

Resilience, too, in the fact that the Scot was able to get his side to respond so quickly to the set-back of suffering defeat in the play-off final the season before last. A motivator as much a tactician.

And as such, it also fairly apparent that Adams, and his simple but attractive and effective strategies, will be able to deal with the demands of League One.

Transfer Business

Plymouth’s chances of pushing themselves towards the top end of the table this season have been helped by a positive summer of transfer activity.

Always a concern after promotion that teams of greater status will attempt to attract those who contributed heavily to promotion, but Argyle have maintained all their key figures from last season’s success. Those departing out of contract players that, at best, made semi-regular appearances but failed to hold down a place in the side. Defender Nauris Bulvitis, winger Ryan Donaldson, and forward Jordan Slew among the released who had some involvement last season, though none managed more than 20 starts.

But with the likes of Sonny Bradley, Graham Carey and Jake Jervis hanging around, Plymouth’s transfer activity has only strengthened an already strong squad. And in all areas of the pitch, too.

Even in goal, where Luke McCormick will almost certainly keep his place, has there been arrival of quality. Dutch goalkeeper Robbet te Loeke arrives from Achilles ’29 with strong experience in his home country’s second tier.

Ryan Edwards, having impressed for Morecambe over the course of several seasons, adds to an already solid defence, while full-back Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, who spent almost the whole of last season sat on the sidelines, arrives from Doncaster to provide competition at left-back.

The centre of midfield strengthened by the signing of Jamie Ness, a steady performer at this level though on the fringes of Scunthorpe’s promotion chasing squad last season, but the Scot seems set to miss the start of the season having spent much of pre-season injured. Ruben Lameiras, able to play anywhere across the middle, arrives having shown plenty of promise while with Coventry City, and wide man Gregg Wylde, who scored seven goals in 43 games for Plymouth two seasons ago, returns to Home Park having been released from Millwall.

And it probably in the wide areas where the Pilgrims’ summer activity has been most impressive. Lionel Ainsworth gets a second go at English football having impressed for Motherwell, while, much to the delight of Plymouth supporters, a player has been snatched away from their rivals. Joel Grant, able to play out wide or up top, was vital to Exeter City’s promotion bid, but crosses the Devon divide.

Ultimately, a mightily encouraging transfer window.

The Squad

The combination of some impressive additions and a set of players that performed incredibly in achieving promotion last season leaves Plymouth’s squad in a healthy state.

Certainly sound options in defence. Bradley and Jakub Sokolik held the centre-back positions in the second half of last season, with Edwards providing an alternative and Yann Songo’o, pushed into a defensive midfield role, capable of playing there if required. They likely to be flanked by Osscar Threkled and Gary Sawyer, though Gary Miller and Taylor-Sinclair will be competing for a starting birth in those full-back positions.

Strong competition for places also in the centre of midfield. Songo’o impressive when moved into a defensive midfield role, and he’ll likely continue there, with Ness and the experienced David Fox offering alternatives in that particular role.

And a similar level of depth in the attacking midfield position, though Carey has his grip firmly on it. The Irishman an ever-present last season, scoring 14 goals in the process and leading Plymouth’s attacking charge. It a position that Antoni Sarcevic and Lameiras are both suited to, though the former is capable of playing deeper and out wide, while the latter can play on either flank.

That versatility only strengthening the depth of the wide options available to Adams. New arrivals Ainsworth, Wylde and Grant all favour playing on the flanks, while forward Jake Jervis, equally capable of performing on the wing, provides a further alternative.

Though Jervis, having scored 12 goals last season, will probably find himself leading the line. Adams often playing one up top, and is likely to continue doing that given the strength available in the attacking midfield positions. Ryan Taylor, a January arrival from Oxford United, Nathan Blissett, another who joined during the winter having impressed in the National League with Torquay, and Grant provide the alternatives.

A squad full of attacking strength, but one that also looks solid defensively. Few, if any, reasons to be concerned.

Fans View – Ryan Ferguson (@PAFC_Ryan)

After the financial disasters, the relegations, the failed play-off campaigns and having to watch Enoch Showunmi attempt to play football, last season’s promotion must have felt particularly good?

Despite the inevitability of it by March or so, it was still surreal when we clinched promotion against Newport. Our last prior promotion had been in 2004 so I think the younger supporters cherished it even more so. Some Argyle fans view the promotion as a bit lacklustre but l think some take the double over Exeter, holding Liverpool to a draw at Anfield, and numerous other away day victories, for granted. After travelling to the likes of Hartlepool, Accrington, Mansfield and Bury in this league over the past few seasons, promotion most definitely made it all seem worthwhile.

Derek Adams arrived from Scotland has a relative unknown two seasons ago, and maybe it was something of a gamble in appointing him, but certainly one that’s paid off. Just how impressive has he beets

He’s most definitely been our shrewdest acquisition over the past two years – he’s been more pivotal to our success than any player signing. It’s been particularly refreshing to see him really connect and embrace the club and fans, something rarely witnessed with his predecessor John. Most importantly, however, Adams always has a ‘plan B’, evidenced by Argyle turning around a game on numerous occasions. He achieved successive promotions with Ross County in Scotland so I see no reason why, with the financial backing of the board, he can’t guide us to The Championship in the future.

I don’t think it matters now. It was a blight on the season considering we surrendered the title to Portsmouth of all teams, I wouldn’t have cared if it was Donny or anybody else. However, promotion was always the priority and whether that was achieved by winning the title or scraping through the play-offs was always irrelevant to me. Plus, nobody expected us to be top of the table going into the final game of the season anyway.

You are, of course, more than a one-man team, but would you have achieved the success you did last season without Graham Carey, and does keeping him going into this campaign give you a realistic chance of competing at the top end of the division?

Potentially. Like many ‘luxury’ players, he is enigmatic yet inconsistent. Last season he was rather anonymous for the winter months and seemingly regained form around February or so. Nonetheless, to record 14 goals and just as many assists from midfield is a fantastic achievement which will hopefully translate to League One. Even with a Graham Carey firing on all cylinders though, I can’t see us doing anything more than flirting with the play-offs.

You’ve made what appear some very impressive signings, particularly in the wide positions which Adams likes to exploit. How would you assess your transfer business, and your squad in general?

I’m relatively happy with the new signings. Admittedly, there haven’t been any ‘blow away’ signings like those being made by other League One clubs (namely Blackburn and Bury) but realistically we don’t have the budget nor the location to compete with several clubs in this league. However, all of the signings on paper seem solid and are capable of making us a competitive outfit in League One. Despite not going to any pre-season friendlies myself, new signing Ruben Lameiras has received a lot of praise – certainly one to watch.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

13th – which after the last few eventful seasons, I’d be more than content with.

Summary

Best Case – Momentum from last season still in place, Graham Carey wins the division on his own, Adams actually gives the rest of his squad the weekend off for Oldham away and just plays the winger.

Worse Case – Step up proves more challenging than expected, forced to scrap for points to keep themselves away from fears of relegation rather than challenging for the top six, injury to Graham Carey means he can’t calm those fears on his own.

Particularly on the back of their summer strengthening, they join the pool of clubs who have a chance of threatening the top six. Won’t be too far away. 10th 


Portsmouth

The League Two title that Portsmouth claimed last season may have been an achievement earned by boss Paul Cook and his talented side, but it was more a reward for supporter persistence, determination and fight.

Those that follow Pompey have witnessed three relegations, two administrations and Yassin Moutaouakil’s footballing ability since their self-earned status of Premier League darlings crumbled. They’ve suffered as much as any set of supporters, and plenty of sets of supporters have suffered, in recent times. But they’ve also fought as hard as any to begin the rebuilding process.

And while they have slogged through four seasons of League Two football, including a play-off semi-final defeat in the campaign before the last, the efforts of the Pompey Supporters’ Trust to stabilise and re-establish identity has been immense. The fear of extinction replaced a community club worth supporting, with just shy of 17,000 still attending last season, irrespective of what tier they’re playing in. The first season of genuine success probably since their FA Cup win in the 2007/08 a tangible reward for that diligence and determination to protect an adored football club.

The efforts of Portsmouth supporters, and in particular the PST, the real platform for the club to rebuild, but claiming the League Two title last season should be seen as the catalyst for progression up the leagues. There no chance that, given their past, this success was going to be enjoyed for too long. Attentions immediately turning to how the next hurdle, how to compete in League One, is dealt with.

But there a possibility some of the momentum from last season has been lost, along with the foundations that appeared to be in place. There no doubt that Paul Cook’s leadership, stubborn but also allowing for attractive attacking football, was vital for last season’s success, and that Wigan have lured him away from Fratton Park can’t be swept under the carpet. A sensible, strong, appointment in Kenny Jackett, who inherits a strong and spirited squad, but losing the title-winning boss remains a blow.

So too do the solid foundations in the boardroom which have held the club together for several years, though not crumbling, appear to be passing into new hands. Former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner will soon be owner of Pompey, a proposal that has been agreed by the PST and those with shares in the club. Having had their supporters in control for four seasons, the club passing into new hands will no doubt cause some uncertainty.

A similar situation in both cases, with change that might well have a positive outcome. Jackett is an excellent boss at League One level, who is likely to do as good a job as Cook might have done. That the PST have voted in favour of Eisner’s takeover suggests his acquisition of the club will benefit it, and allow them to progress to the next level.

Change, however, is bound to create uncertainty. Jackett might not be able to get the same level of performance out of the squad that Cook did, and Portsmouth could crumble. Eisner might ultimately prove to be a carbon copy of the owners that the club have had in the past, and send Pompey several years backwards.

But despite the alterations taking place ahead of the new season, the success achieved in the previous season and the general belief that has been instilled among the clubs’ supporters since their fight has seen reward means there is hope heading into their first campaign in League One since 2012/13.

A feeling that Portsmouth are moving themselves well away from the threat of crisis, and will only be adding to the rebuilding work already done.

The Manager – Kenny Jackett

Given the progress Portsmouth are making as a club, and the quality they have within their squad, losing Paul Cook to Wigan following their promotion was never going to be terminal. But it might have been extremely damaging. Extremely damaging if they hadn’t made a sensible choice in replacing him.

They could have opted for a young and ambitious boss, without much previous experience, but that wouldn’t have felt right when the club’s first objective should be stability. They could have appointed from within, with the hope Cook’s work may have simply been continued, but with assistant Leam Richardson also heading to Wigan that was always going to be unlikely. The best bet, to utilise the position that had been left behind by Cook and also feel comfortable, appeared appointing a man of experience.

As such, the appointment of Kenny Jackett, a man of both experience and quality, appears a good one. He arrives having resigned after just five games at Rotherham last season, but his successes before that cannot be ignored. He even has two promotions, with Milwall and Wolves, from League One to his name.

And while his approach is slightly more reserved, both in terms of playing a more structured, defensive style of football and being a little less vocal, Jackett isn’t so dramatically different to Cook to mean a huge readjusting period is required. With Cook passing a settled squad into Jackett’s hands, and Portsmouth’s new boss having a full pre-season to iron out any creases that may emerge during this brief transitional period, the 55-year-old shouldn’t have too difficult a task to get the side playing his way.

Of course, Pompey would much rather be preparing to begin their League One campaign without the inconvenience of Cook’s departure, and as such fully maintaining the momentum that comes from the promotion he achieved, but they’ve certainly appointed a sensible replacement.

Transfer Business

Only a handful of additions and a couple of regular starters from last season’s title-winning side departing, but those brought in of strong quality. It probably fair to suggest that Portsmouth’s summer in the transfer market has been relatively mixed.

Enda Stevens, who started all but one game in an impressive season at left-back, leaves to play Championship football with Sheffield United, while ever-present midfielder and captain Michael Doyle opting to move to Coventry City with Pompey delaying their offer of a fresh contract for the midfielder. Two important figures in Portsmouth’s side last season, and there disappointment that they have departed.

Stanley Aborah, Noel Hunt, Liam O’Brien and Amine Linganzi also leaving Fratton Park over the summer, though their contributions to promotion last season ranging from minimal to non-existent.

At least Stevens has been replaced by a player of equal, if not better, quality. Tareiq Holmes-Dennis arriving on loan from Huddersfield Town having adequately performed whenever called upon as they were promoted to the Premier League. The young left-back impressive, both defensively and going forward, while at Charlton prior to moving to the Terriers.

And while there is no direct replacement as of yet for Doyle, a new signing takes the armband and another, though more natural at the back, can play in the sort of defensive midfield role that the Irishman took up. Forward Brett Pitman, who joins from Ipswich Town with a strong goal-scoring record both in League One and in the Championship, becomes Portsmouth’s new captain, while a number of clubs beaten in order to sign Nathan Thompson, coincidentally Swindon’s captain before leaving the County Ground, having performed impressively at right-back, centre-back and occasionally in midfield for several seasons.

The final quality addition coming in the shape of goalkeeper Luke McGee, who showed his talents while on loan from Tottenham at Peterborough last season. The 21-year-old replacing David Forde, with the ever-present departing following the conclusion of his spell on loan at Fratton Park during the previous campaign.

A couple of frustrating departures, and few arrivals in terms of numbers, but the quality of those that have arrived does provide reassurance. That Portsmouth have intent to compete during this season.

The Squad

Part of the reasoning behind Portsmouth only make a small number of additions to their squad is that, in most positions, the options they already have are strong enough.

There strength at the back, probably to be expected after some strong defensive additions and only conceding on 40 occasions last season. In Gareth Evans, Matt Clarke and Christian Burgess, three of the four defenders played most regularly in the previous campaign remain at the club, while Holmes-Dennis is a very strong replacement for Stevens. Nathan Thompson will be pushing to come into the starting XI, while Drew Talbot, Tom Davies and Jack Whatmough provide alternatives across the backline.

Though maybe a need for another defensive minded centre-midfielder or two. Thompson can perform in that role, as can Clarke, but there little other than Danny Rose as a natural deep-sitting midfielder following Doyle’s departure.

But Pompey are certainly well stocked in attacking midfield areas, not least with Carl Baker, a scorer of nine goals, and Gary Roberts, who contributed ten and so often provided match-winning moments, two of the best in League Two last season. They’re joined by the experienced Kyle Bennett, winger-cum-forward Jamal Lowe, who made a positive impression after arriving from Hemel Hempstead Town in January, and Kai Naismith, another equally capable of playing out wide or in attack.

There also options up top, though Brett Pitman will almost certainly lead the line. Should he have a partner alongside him, it likely to be either Naismith or Conor Chaplin, who struck 13 and eight times respectively last season. Though further alternatives are provided by Michael Smith (Northampton) and Milan Lalkovic (Ross County) returning from loan spells, and Curtis Main’s return to fitness.

Address the lack of defensive midfield options, and are Pompey well set.

Fans View – Steve Larham (@stevelarham_94)

Portsmouth were a disaster club before being a disaster club was cool. After the chaos and crisis, how enjoyable did it feel to finally achieve some tangible success?

Winning the title, even though it was League Two, felt better then winning the FA Cup in 2008. The fact we did after the problems we had, we were never top at any point during the season, it was under fan ownership and the last game of the season made it a day Pompey fans will never forgot.

Paul Cook departing must have come as quite a shock. Does it take away any of the momentum gained last season, or does the shrewd appointment of Kenny Jackett prevent that? 

Paul Cook leaving did come as a shock, especially as he said two weeks previously he would never the club. I don’t believe the change of management takes away momentum from last season, as we’ve kept the majority of the squad together, and improved upon certain positions e.g. Goalkeeper. Also, appointing Kenny Jackett helps prevent the loss of momentum as he has a proven track record at this level. Many fans say he is an improvement upon Cook, so there is a lot of optimism for the new season, which is shown by selling 15,000 season tickets.

Regardless, does the change in manager make maintaining your position in League One the most realistic objective for the coming season, or can you still aim for a bit more?

I was confident we would maintain our position in League One with Cook in charge. We would never of been in relegation trouble, however, with Jackett in charge I believe we’ll be able to finish higher then mid-table, which is where most fans believed we would have finished under Cook.

At some point over the next few months, it appears the Pompey Supporters Trust will pass the club into new hands. Given what’s gone before, is that a concern, or something that needs to happen for the club to progress?

A change of ownership is always a risk, and of course it’s a worry, but in order to progress, you have to make tough decisions. The vision Michael Eisner has for the club is one that excites fans. Focusing on the development of young players, as well as investment in Fratton Park, two subjects close to the fans hearts. Fratton Park is our spiritual home, but the fact it needs 5 million pounds of development just to maintain current capacity was a major concern for many.

You’ve only made a handful of additions to your squad but, given the strength of your side and what was achieved last season, was there really a need to go over the top?

We have only made a few additions this summer, but we didn’t need to bring too many players in. We have the basis of a good squad, good players in every position with strength in depth. Of course the positions that really needed additions were Goalkeeper (I can’t remember the last permenet goalkeeper we had) Right Back (we were playing without a regular out and out Right Back last season), Left back, losing Stevens to Sheffield United was a massive blow, especially as he was voted Player of the Season a few weeks earlier, holding/centre midfield and Striker who scores goals. Bringing in Brett Pitman fulfills that criteria, and the fact he’s been made captain shows he’ll be playing an important role this season. The only other position we need to bring in is in holding/centre midfield. Losing Captain Michael Doyle was a massive blow, and hasn’t yet been replaced. Although we have Danny Rose and youngsters Adam May and Ben Close in that position, we still need an experienced, tough tackling midfielder to give us more options. I don’t really see much else happening in terms of incoming, however I would expect outgoings.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

Finally, I believe we have a realistic chance of a top half finish this season, with a push trying to get into the play-offs. I do however believe we have a squad capable of challenging for automatic promotion yet again this season.

Summary

Best Case – Kenny Jackett picks up from where Paul Cook left off, a change in ownership allows the club to progress, a challenge for the top six possible.

Worse Case – Squad struggles to adapt to Jackett’s ways and momentum from last season is completely lost, the motives of the new regime remain uncertain, and the season is spent looking over their shoulders.

Jackett an excellent replacement, the squad is a solid one, and the takeover offers promise more than pain. Portsmouth, in spite of losing Cook over the summer, appear in a good place. 4th 


Rochdale

At times last season, not only did Rochdale show that hard to beat nature that any side led by Keith Hill is likely to have, but a genuine quality.

Through the months of September and October, they won six consecutive games. Four of those games were against sides that would ultimately finish inside the top seven. Their top six ambitions were perfectly reasonable, expressed by the quality of performance their side was able to achieve, and justified by eight wins from their next 12 that left them six points clear of seventh at the start of the calendar year.

But it was a quality that was not sustainable. Only five of their final 21 games were won, all coming against sides in the bottom six, and Hill’s side ultimately finished three points off the top six. Had they had snuck into the play-offs, their performances in the second half of the season suggests they would have suffered emphatic defeat during their semi-final tie.

And that implosion of sorts was probably a showing that Dale, at least in the first half of the previous campaign and quite possibly in their overall ambitions, have been punching above their weight. Hill getting more out of a side than he should have been capable, a side that appeared a tier below the challenging pack. The boss allowing a club with restricted resources to compete to a greater level than their status might suggest they are capable of.

For Rochdale haven’t played in the second tier in their history, and to even be genuinely challenging for a top-six position is a huge overachievement. But three consecutive top ten finishes have instilled a certain amount of expectation and belief among supporters of the Dale. A belief that isn’t going to die without a fight as this season approaches.

Supporters, in spite of last season’s capitulation, will still be expecting to see their side mix among the better, more financially capable, sides League One has to offer. And why shouldn’t they? They’ve seen their side be competitive for three campaigns in succession.

But with last season’s capitulation in mind, a handful of key players departing Rochdale’s squad, and League One sides of similar status improving, a reality check might well be required. At least a second thought about what the ambitions are for this season. For competing in and around the top ten is certainly going to a lot tougher.

While Keith Hill remains in charge, supporters will always have faith. But the Dale might have hit their glass ceiling and come back down with a bump in the previous six months or so.

The Manager – Keith Hill

Several teams in this division are almost totally reliant on their manager, achieving relative success as part of what appears a perfect relationship. But maybe none more so than Rochdale, and their reliance on Keith Hill. You do question whether the Dale would have been quite so competitive, if at all, without their former defender in the technical area since guiding them to promotion four seasons ago.

A huge testament to the 48-year-old’s managerial ability, which seems to come from a bygone age. He certainly has no creative philosophy or unique tactical structure. Hill simply a man who demands the utmost from his players, sets up structured and determined sides, and can execute achievement via the finest of margins.

He simply, or so it may seem simple, succeeds by getting the most out of the resources made available to him, and allows his sides to compete to a level they probably shouldn’t. Following the promotion from League Two of 2013/14, Hill’s Rochdale have finished 8th, 10th, and 9th. A mighty fine achievement for a club whose finances and status make battling for the top six something that should be out of their reach.

It simply impossible to ignore, or even downplay, how important Hill has been in that relative success. He’s quite possibly been the most important figure. His managerial qualities, and the additional assistance that comes from a connection with both club and supporters, allowing the Dale to overachieve.

And though there is a general consensus that the challenge that faces Rochdale this season, at least to make themselves a nuisance to those battling for the top six for the duration of the campaign, it not a consensus that Hill will be a part of. He’ll still be fighting to get the best out of whatever sort of squad he has available to him. He’ll still be demanding that they fight among sides with grander resources than they do.

Transfer Business

It fairly reasonable to suggest that, after the slump in the second half of last season, some strengthening to the squad was required. Most importantly on the very simple basis that an extended run of poor form shows improvement is needed, but also as an attempt to avoid the complacent belief that what was already in place could recover.

That particularly the case given that two key players were among those who have departed. Matty Lund, who joins Burton, an influential presence in the centre of midfield, while Nathaniel Mendez-Laing’s creativity and match-winning qualities will now be displayed in a Cardiff City shirt. Only Ian Henderson scored more than Lund’s nine goals last season, with Mendez-Laing scoring eight times and providing many more.

Conrad Logan, who stood in for the injured Josh Lillis between the sticks last season, midfielder Peter Vincenti, who struggled for game time, and winger Donal McDermott, equally underused, among the less detrimental departures.

But the incomings have been relatively few, and relatively underwhelming. American goalkeeper Brendan Moore, who joins having rejected a new contract at Torquay, provides cover, defender Reece Brown has had a fairly nomadic career and was let go by Bury at the end of last season, and Brad Inman arrives on loan from Peterborough having struggled to find his way into the Posh side after a broken leg kept him out until the second half of the season.

There is, however, some excitement about Jordan Williams, who the club have paid a six-figure-fee for in order to take the winger away from non-league Barrow. A scorer of 12 goals last season, and with several Football League clubs interested, there is an expectation that Williams will be capable of making the step up despite having never played above National League level before. He’s certainly got big boots to fill, if his job is to replace Mendez-Laing.

But you do feel that, on the back of Rochdale’s end-of-season form, more needs to be added.

The Squad

While you can suggest that Rochdale’s slump at the end of last season is something that becomes set in stone, it’s also important to recognise that many of those who contributed to a Dale side that attracted plenty of praise during the first half of the season remain at the club.

On a handful of occasions last season, Hill opted for a 3-5-2 formation, but more often than not there were four at the back for Rochdale. A wealth of options in the heart of defence, taking in the experience of Niall Canavan, Keith Keane and Jimmy McNulty, the maturity and promise of Harrison McGahey, and recent arrival Brown given Dale’s boss a number of options. Whatever partnership or trio is chosen, they’ll be standing in front of Lillis, who returns after spending the second half of the season in the treatment room.

Handy options at full-back, too, with McNulty among them. Joe Rafferty, a regular at right-back during the previous campaign, Joe Bunney, who can rather oddly play at left-back or as a centre-forward, and 21-year-old Andy Cannon, versatile but probably most at home in a full-back role, meaning Dale’s defence in general isn’t in a bad place at all.

Also depth, and not just for the sake of it, in the centre of midfield. Oliver Rathbone (20) and Callum Camps (21), the latter in particular catching the eye last season with eight goals, two promising young talents, the consistent Jamie Allen, having played 129 league games for the club at just 22, Keane’s ability to play as a defensive midfielder and new arrival Inman means they’re pretty well set in the middle.

It also appears that Joe Thompson, having battled cancer for a second time, will join the squad at some point in the coming months. A quite incredible effort to resume his football career once again after beating the disease previously in 2014.

But, if there are questions to be asked of Rochdale’s squad, then they’re probably in the attacking positions. A hope that Williams will fill the void left by Mendez-Laing, and winger-cum-striker Ian Henderson’s quality on the opposite flank as obvious as ever having scored 15 times last season, but there little quality below that in the wide areas. Reuben Noble-Lazarus the most obvious alternative, but a player who has made just 12 starts since initially joining on loan in October 2014.

And a similar situation up top, with two very good forwards, but little beyond it. Calvin Andrew a menace to League One defences, not least Charlton’s, last season, with seven goals to compliment his strong target man qualities, and the experienced Steve Davies, though largely kept in reserve, scoring nine league goals. With Hill tending to go with one up top, and Bunney’s rather odd versatility, it shouldn’t be disastrous, but a few options out wide and in attack wouldn’t go amiss.

But there is quality and talent in this Dale squad. A question of whether they’ll find their feet again after last season’s slump, and how they’ll manage going forward.

Fans View – (@Dannywiseman246)

You suffered a bit of a capitulation in the second half of last season that left you quite some way off the top six. What went wrong?

I personally feel this was down to injuries we accumulated over such a short period of time. I feel this affected the spine of the team greatly and affected the progression we hoped for.

Does your form in the second half of last season suggest that Rochdale’s time of challenging for a play-off spot in League One, which is arguably an overachievement in, might be over?

As a Rochdale fan we are always reminded the first task in the league is being able to retain our league one status. If anything else comes from it then it’s a bonus. I completely agree it’s an overachievement but I feel like we are knocked far too much and we show what we can do. In terms of saying it’s over I can’t really say as who’s to say what’s going to happen this season. This beautiful sport is very unpredictable.

Irrespective, there must always be a degree of faith while Keith Hill remains in charge. What is it about him that seems to get the best out of relatively average Rochdale squads?

Keith Hill will not take slack from players. If you don’t preform you don’t get game time, if you don’t get game time you don’t play for Rochdale. Hilly and the players have a very clear understanding of what is expected at the club and aim to achieve these goals set.

Matty Lund and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing are two rather big losses, while the incomings have been a little underwhelming. Particularly given that a boost was probably needed after last season’s slump, has this summer proved a frustration?

Unfortunately, we lost two key players who helped guide us to a very successful season but just like every season we have to work with what we have. The boost would have been very nice but like I said we just have to make sure we get the appropriate signings and ensure we get the best from them.

Nonetheless, many of the players that performed well enough to have you competing for a top-six spot in the first half of last season remain. How would you assess your squad in general?  

I feel like the squad is looking very promising and I believe that even though we are a club that can’t spend a lot we have got ourselves a squad that could give the top-six a real good go if they have the correct mindset.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I would love to say just sneak into the top six, but we’ll have to see how it plays out.

Summary

Best Case – Hill gets the team going again, battling to results they probably shouldn’t achieve, and the little extra bit of quality they have meaning they’re able to challenge for the top six.

Worst Case – End of season form continues, Hill can’t find the answers, season spent looking over their shoulders.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable suggesting Hill won’t get a Rochdale side to be truly competitive, but I’m going to suggest it anyway. Think the bubble may have burst somewhat, and that run towards the end of the previous campaign will be something more permanent. Though if there’s any prediction that I sense will be proved emphatically wrong, it’s probably this one. 17th 


Part Four to Follow 

(All information, and nonsense, correct, or horribly misinformed, as of 24/07/2017)

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