Chris Powell's Flat Cap

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

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

Part Three 


Rotherham United

So, where shall we start? Breaking the record for fewest points in a second-tier season (23) seems like a good place. Along with equalling the record for most away defeats (21) in a Football League season.

Club records equalled or matched, too. They managed just five victories all season, and that equalled the club record for fewest number of wins in a campaign. While the two points picked up on the road a record low, beating the previous record of three.

Then there’s just the endless stream of grim, grim statistics. A quite staggering 98 goals conceded, with three or more goals conceded on 15 occasions. 33 defeats, and a quite unbelievable run of 17 games without a win that meant relegation was confirmed with seven games still to play,

In summary, Rotherham United’s relegation from the Championship last season wasn’t much fun.

In truth, it was something that had been on the cards for the two seasons prior to it. Avoiding relegation by a single place for consecutive campaigns, and the club not doing enough strengthening to avoid such fortune lasting. Though such a traumatic, embarrassing and inexcusable relegation certainly wasn’t something that had been predicted.

A weak squad, that Alan Stubbs couldn’t get to perform and was subsequently sacked. But a suggestion the club was in an even weaker position, which appeared obvious when replacement Kenny Jackett opted to resign five games into his tenure. The pressure and stress placed on inexperienced replacement Paul Warne, plucked from the back benches, rather unfair, and his appointment on a full-time basis hard to fathom.

And as Rotherham prepare for League One there will be a concern, born out of both the disaster of last season and several of the clubs relegated from the Championship in situations of chaos that weren’t actually as bad as this one, that another campaign of failure as afoot. They need only look at Charlton, a club that actually competed for survival during the season in which they were relegated from the second tier, for a club dropping to League One and flirting with the notion of mixing with the bottom four. That they find themselves in the third tier doesn’t automatically mean the Millers get a free pass to rebuild.

They would not be the first club to suffer back-to-back relegations, and the severity of last season means it will be something that will play on the mind of many. At the very least, expectations are realistic. Simply stabilising among the also-rans would not be a disaster.

Christ, it might even be fun for Rotherham just to win a few games.

The Manager – Paul Warne

Having been involved in professional football since 1997, played 261 league games for the Millers over two spells, and been a coach at the New York Stadium since his retirement in 2012, it should have come as some surprise that Warne spoke with a degree of resignation about the possibility of leaving the game come the confirmation of Rotherham’s relegation.

But as his facial hair grew thicker, the tone around his eyes darker and a woolly hat appeared to be pulled deeper down to cover his misery, it became more and more apparent that management, and managing a team to just three victories in 21 games before the inevitable drop to League One, had taken its toll on the 44-year-old.

There appeared a desire to escape, and not have a caretaker role full of defeats and suffering made a permanent one. The importance of being able to make his family happy mentioned, lesser roles among the backroom staff mentioned, and even the suggestion he could be a financial advisor. It appeared that making Warne manager would suit neither he nor club.

And yet, with the firm backing of chairman Tony Stewart, Warne was made Rotherham’s permanent manager just four days after the club’s relegation and four after Warne himself had seemingly hit rock bottom. “A Miller, through and through” he might be, but the appointment, and not the least the timing of it, seems questionable.

That not to say there can’t be sympathy for Warne. A relatively healthy five points in the seven games after relegation was confirmed, including a first victory in 19, at least offered some comfort to a Miller hurting as much from the dugout as those who watched with embarrassment, detachment, and outrage from the stands.

But there will be little sympathy if a trend of failure, that was already firmly in place last season and would have taken a minor miracle to halt, cannot be reversed by Warne in League One. The nature of the appointment means there is pressure on both manager and club for relative success to be achieved.

Transfer Business

The unsettled, constantly changing nature of Rotherham’s side and squad last season was hardly beneficial, but there no doubt big changes were required over the course of this summer to the Millers’ playing staff. Those that had suffered, and contributed little while being paid too much, moved on, and those that could inject a touch of positivity into a downbeat environment brought in.

To move on defenders Joel Ekstrand, Kelvin Wilson and Kirk Broadfoot after the trio amassed 12 league appearances between them will be pleasing, while few tears have been shed as full-back Stephen Kelly, centre-back Tom Thorpe, who spent last season on loan at Bolton and away from the carnage, and goalkeeper Lee Camp, have been released.

Midfielder Chris Dawson, who spent the first half of the season on loan at Viking, managed to depart the club without having made a single appearance after arriving from Leeds United in January 2016, while Dexter Blackstock, having started just four times last season, saw his contract terminated midway through pre-season.

The only departures creating disappointment, though twinned a sense of realism and acceptance, are those of Richie Smallwood and Danny Ward. Smallwood a regular after returning from a loan spell at Scunthorpe, but ultimately rejecting Rotherham’s contract offer, while Ward, having scored 11 times, was always likely to be snapped up by a club still at Championship level, and it Cardiff City who have paid the figure required to take him away from the New York Stadium.

And so come a set of fresh arrivals, hopefully prepared to offer a much greater deal of fight and quality than the majority of those departing were. Semi Ajayi, however, one signed that wore Rotherham colours last season. The former Charlton centre-back impressed while on loan on from Cardiff, and the club have done well to secure the 23-year-old’s services on a permanent basis.

The disappointing departures, it would seem, have been directly replaced with the arrivals of David Ball (Fleetwood Town) and Darren Potter (MK Dons). Ball a winger-cum-forward very much in the mould of Ward who helped himself to 14 goals during Fleetwood’s play-off campaign, while Potter provides a similar ability to sit deep, break up play and look to make the next pass as Smallwood did.

Potter possibly attracted to the club by Richie Barker, who joins the Millers as assistant to Warne having been Karl Robinson’s at MK Dons and Charlton. An addition to the staff arguably as important as any player, just on the basis that he provides some experience and a reassuring figure for a man who still appears incredibly fragile in the dugout.

While there further strengthening in most areas of the pitch. Given the number of experienced players who failed to perform, that Rotherham have taken a little gamble on Tranmere centre-back Michael Ihiekwe, a regular for Rovers over the previous seasons, is to no one’s disappointment. He joined by attacking full-back Josh Emmaneul, who arrives on loan from Ipswich having played 15 league games during the previous campaign.

Further forward, winger Ryan Williams arrives having struggled for game time – with just five starts – at Barnsley since joining the club permanently in 2015, forward Jamie Proctor joins from Bolton Wanderers with a solid a League One record and on the back of four goals in 17 games while on loan at Carlisle United last season, and Kieffer Moore, who struggled to make the step up after joining Ipswich from Forest Green Rovers, has been given an opportunity to prove himself in the third tier.

Ultimately, there a very obvious attempt to change attitude of the club and squad, and build a side with the right attitude.

The Squad

Despite the positive turnover of players, and as you probably might expect following such a disastrous campaign, this isn’t a Rotherham squad bursting at the seams with quality. It is, however, a streamlined Rotherham squad that looks in a much healthier state to be competitive than the side they had last season did.

Particularly encouraging that the Millers appear to have themselves a solid backline, with some decent options in reserve. Much needed after conceding 98 goals as they were relegated from the Championship.

Ajayi, despite his relative youth, looks set to be the defensive leader, with a competition between Ihiekwe and former Addick Richard Wood to partner him. Further alternatives coming in the shape of Dominic Ball, who is back into the mould after an unsuccessful loan spell at Peterborough, and Aymen Belaid, though it appears the Tunisian may be departing before the end of August. Whatever defensive pairing is chosen, they’ll be protecting an experienced goalkeeper in Richard O’Donnell.

While in the full-back positions, it would seem that Emmanuel and Joe Mattock will take the starting roles on the right and left respectively, with Darnell Fisher and Ben Purrington providing cover.

In midfield, the experienced heads of Potter and skipper Lee Frecklington, still perfectly adequate performers at League One level, will look to control the centre from deep. But they are very similar players in style, and fitting them both into the same side if playing four in midfield might prove a challenge. Will Vaulks and Joe Newell, who can also play out wide, providing alternatives.

Newell joins a healthy list of wide options, most of which have performed at League One level before. Anthony Forde, Jon Taylor, and new arrival Williams giving Warne a degree of choice.

While in attack, the options are strengthened by Jonson Clarke-Harris’ return to fitness, having missed most of the previous campaign and returning only once relegation had been sealed. It either Clarke-Harris or, more likely, Ball who will partner Proctor in attack, with Moore in reserve.

Bodies in most positions, and as such the Millers squad seems set for the season. But maybe just lacking a little on quality, and requiring players who underperformed last season to rediscover their form. A need, also, for boss Warne to be able gel this slightly refreshed side together.

Fans View – (@Joseywebb)

So, erm, last season. Wasn’t much fun, was it. What on earth happened?

The less said about last season the better I think. From the outside it looked bad, from where we were sitting it looked even worse and by the end we were all just begging for it to be over.

In regards to what happened you could probably point to a number of things. Obviously in the Championship we are swimming with fish considerably bigger than ourselves, so even if we are firing on all cylinders it is a tough ask.

Neil Warnock took an age to decide he wasn’t going to continue in charge and Alan Stubbs was just completely out of his depth. Awful in the transfer market, poor tactically and had a dour personality which almost took away any patience the fans might have shown. After he left the damage was too great for anyway to fix so we went down with a whimper. All in all, a disaster from start to finish.

As the months went on, I felt more and more sorry for Paul Warne. I wanted to give him a hug when relegation was finally confirmed. I can’t understand why he’s been given the job on a permanent basis, particularly when he gave off the impression he didn’t really want it, can you explain the thinking behind that?

Look, when the decision was first made I was in the same boat as you and couldn’t understand why he was appointed. Personally, I saw very little sign of improvement and as you say it appeared for a long time that he didn’t even want the job.

My reasoning for the chairman giving him the job is because he is a club legend, is well respected around the place and after the Kenny Jackett and Neil Warnock u-turns, is someone the the chairman can trust. Now, myself and the majority of supporters, albeit sceptical, are willing to give him a clean slate because he had his hands and feet tied behind his back last season.

The appointment of Richie Barker is a sensible one to assist Warne. But are you a bit frustrated that, just on the basis of how record-breakingly grim last season was, there hasn’t been a greater upheaval in staff both on and off the pitch, or is some degree of stability crucial?

I’m sure there are many that wanted to see more departures, but let’s be honest if we got rid of everyone that let us down last season we would almost have no one left and in this day and age it is almost impossible to get rid of that many players.

The majority of the bad apples have been shipped out and some changes in the backroom have been made, so like Warne most have a clean slate this season to win the fans around.

Clubs of relative size who competed in the Championship have found themselves struggling in League One the following season, you need only look at MK Dons and Charlton during the previous campaign, while back-to-back relegations aren’t that uncommon. Given the extent of last season’s disaster, and those things that concern you.

Of course it does. It’s something that we’ve seen happen to a number of clubs in the past and something that almost happened to us last time we were in this position. Stopping the rot is easier said than done and losing habits are easy to pick up so it has to be a genuine concern.

If we can get the away monkey (we only picked up 2 points away last season) off our back and start ok then we might be able to look up the table, but I’m sure I’m not alone in considering a mid-table finish a decent season.

Changes to the squad were always going to be vital, if only to spit out the bad taste from last season. How would you assess your transfer business?

I am very happy with the transfer business we have done so far as it looks like we have strengthened key areas. The most important thing from my perspective is that the vast majority of business was done early and most players were together on the pre-season tour. This is a big contrast from last season and should work in our favour.

I think everyone in the division would always like to add more goals and we are no different but David Ball should score at this level and if we can improve on last season’s abysmal defence then we might be ok.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

Always difficult to predict and I consider myself an optimist so I will say top half and maybe a play-off push if we things go well!

Summary

Best Case – Paul Warne adapts to management with adequate support, signings make the Millers more competitive, in and around the top half as the recovery from last season begins.

Worst Case – Warne has breakdown during Football on 5 interview, state the club were in last season hasn’t been rectified, second successive relegation is flirted with.

Rotherham aren’t the club they were last season, but I don’t think you recover from something like that in the space of just one campaign. Particularly given that I’m really not sure Warne is the man for the job. Should ultimately be okay, and I do think that if Warne proves himself with the squad he has then the Millers can have a much more comfortable campaign, but will need to keep half an eye over their shoulders. 18th


Scunthorpe United

The qualities and capabilities of Scunthorpe’s side went somewhat under the radar prior to the start of the previous campaign, but became immediately obvious as it got underway.

A finely balanced squad, with that touch of match-winning quality in key positions, led by a manager who remained one of promise but had achieved success previously. Naïve of many not to realise they had all the attributes to challenge. And to sustain a challenge through the duration of a campaign.

In fact, they were top of the division with a game in hand after beating Port Vale in the final week of January. A point clear of second, and eight points clear of third. And with Josh Morris, the Iron’s key match winner, having scored 18 goals up to that point, Graham Alexander’s men seemed well set for promotion.

But a run of nine without a win following that result meant they ultimately finished four points off the top two in third. They won seven of their final nine games, including their final five, to reaffirm their quality and enter the play-offs with momentum, but it wasn’t enough. A semi-final defeat to Millwall preventing a promotion that, for much of the season, had looked very likely.

To a certain degree, particularly given the position they were in at the end of January, it was a chance of promotion somewhat thrown away. But that only highlights the sense that Alexander’s side deserved to be in the position they were in for much of the campaign. It was certainly no fluke, and they were, both in terms of individual quality and as a collective, one of the better sides throughout the League One season.

As such, Scunthorpe didn’t necessarily overachieve last season, but they did achieve more than what many expected of them, and what their status indicates their ambitions should be. Such thinking always makes them more vulnerable to a more dramatic response to the failure of not succeeding in turning their positive season into tangible achievement. Always less likely to have the resources to recover.

But it would appear the Iron remain in a position of relative strength. Or at least in a position where they will be threatening the top six again. To suggest they aren’t would simply be making the same mistake that many made last season, and ignoring the fact that they have a relatively healthy and balanced squad, a handful of match-winners, and a strong boss.

There have been departures, and that always likely to be the case, while important loan players returning to parent clubs might well hit hard, but the crux of their squad remains, and in particularly their key attacking talent. In fact, it’s probably more the fact that fresh faces have been few that has frustrated, and there most certainly a need for greater depth in midfield. But with Alexander still around to guide, there is an overriding sense of calm and belief.

Belief that the Iron will overcome the disappointment of last season, along with any hurdle that has appeared in reshaping their squad this summer, and challenge again during this campaign.

The Manager – Graham Alexander

It might well be the case that I’m missing it, but there doesn’t seem to be the widespread praise for Alexander’s management that he warrants.

Maybe a good thing for supporters of Scunthorpe that their manager remains under the radar, increasing the likelihood that he is theirs until they no longer want him. But Alexander has certainly done enough since rocking up at Glanford Park in March 2016 to be seen as one of the better managers in the Football League. At the very least, I’ve now seen his emotional end-of-career free-kick at Deepdale, and an impressive demeanour in the dugout.

In fact, he didn’t even arrive at Scunthorpe as a complete novice as a manager. With a sacking to his name, he did have a point to prove, but he’d guided Fleetwood Town to promotion from League Two, and that point was almost immediately proven. Despite being appointed with the Iron in 13th and six points off the top six, seven wins from their final eight games meant they finished outside of the play-offs on goal difference.

And last season, the former Scotland international, who made over 1,000 appearances as a player, got the most out of a reasonable squad. He kept it organised, and allowed the match-winners and potent forwards to make the difference. As was the case when he was a player, he showed himself to be an exceptional leader, he reads the game extremely well, and motivates both via composure and determination.

Qualities that meant that, after being in and around the top two for much of the season but not quite doing enough to leap from third into second, Alexander seemed capable of priming his squad for a play-off campaign. The semi-final defeat to Milwall, especially having gone into the second leg after a draw at The Den, will sting. Sting Alexander as much as it has anyone.

As such, there no doubt that Alexander will be determined to improve on the previous campaign, and instil that determined mentality into a squad not too dissimilar to last season’s. Make sure the failure to achieve promotion is firmly behind them, and the focus is totally on bettering those relative achievements that weren’t quite enough. Something his attributes suggest he’ll have no issue doing.

Third time lucky for Alexander? It won’t be lucky if it is.

Transfer Business

With a handful of senior players departing, only a few arrivals, and targets missed out on, it’s fair to suggest this has been a frustrating summer for Scunthorpe. Frustrating, though not fatally disruptive to their chances of achieving a top-six finish.

Among those leaving the club are several players that were on the fringes last season, and never really managed to impress when opportunity came their way. Scott Wiseman, Jamie Ness and Craig Davies released, Scott Laird allowed to join Forest Green Rovers having spent last season on loan at Walsall, and replacement goalkeeper Joe Anyon also let go.

But of those departing, it’ll be Luke Daniels and Stephen Dawson who will be missed the most. Daniels the regular between the sticks last season, but attracted the attentions of Brentford, while Dawson’s battling in midfield was vital, but the Irishman rejected the chance to stay at Glanford Park in favour of joining Bury. Two parts of the team’s spine lost.

Centre-back David Mirfin another regular to depart, but his loss off-set by the arrivals of Cameron Burgess, joining from Fulham having impressed on loan at Bury last season, and Rory McArdly, a consistent and dependable figure in Bradford’s backline. They’ll be protecting Matt Gilks, who arrives to replace Daniels having played 14 times for Wigan in the latter part of last season.

The loss of Dawson, however, becomes a greater frustration when considered alongside the fact that the Iron were unable to convince Matt Crooks to return to the club after a successful loan spell last season. The Rangers man instead joining Northampton Town, leaving Alexander without two important midfield figures from the second half of the previous campaign. The frustration cooled somewhat by the arrival of Funso Ojo, a 25-year-old who spent last season playing in the Dutch top flight for Willem II.

And on the subject of players departing after successful loan spells, defender Harry Toffolo (Norwich) and forward Ivan Toney (Newcastle) both contributed heavily after their arrivals in January. Probably a further indication that a little bit more work needs to be done.

The Squad

In spite of the frustrating summer of transfer activity, Scunthorpe’s squad remains a strong one in almost all areas.

It the likely scenario that Burgess and McArdle won’t form the Iron’s centre-back partnership, with Murray Wallace, an ever-present last season, unlikely to give up his place in the starting XI without a fight. Charlie Goode, a 21-year-old who started 13 times, offering a further alternative to that trio.

However, further options in the full-back areas are needed. Jordan Clarke the first choice right-back for much of the campaign, and Townsend the starter at left-back before Toffolo arrived, but there very little beyond that. Two perfectly adequate starters, but some cover required.

And the Iron, having been incredibly well set in the middle at the end of last season, will probably want another centre-midfielder just to compliment the decent set of bodies that they already have. Ojo looks promising, Neal Bishop, at the age of 35, is still as strong and reliable as ever, while Sam Mantom, though in and out of the side last season, has previous proven his quality at this level with Walsall. There also the option to play Duane Holmes, suited either to a wide role or a central attacking one, in the middle, while 21-year-old Levi Sutton got a small amount of game time having returned from a loan spell at North Ferriby United.

But it in the attacking positions where the Iron appear at their strongest. Winger Josh Morris, having scored 19 goals last season, among those threats, with Holmes and the excellent winger-cum-forward Kevin van Veen adding to the quality available on the flanks. Luke Williams, who returns from a loan spell at Northampton another who can play up top or out wide, and Haeek Adealkub, a 21-year-old who made 17 league appearances, provide further alternatives.

While up top, van Veen is joined by Paddy Madden, who scored 11 times last season, and Tom Hopper, whose influence is underrated away from Glanford Park. Real quality that should mean they’re not short of goals.

Quality that still fills their starting XI throughout, regardless of the difficulties there have been in adding significantly to their squad throughout this summer. But it will remain a little fragile until further cover is found, with Iron supporters wanting midfielders, and the Scunthorpe squad needing full-backs.

Fans View – Max Bell (@Max_Bell_11)

I think, as the season progressed, it became clear that Scunthorpe had gone under the radar somewhat prior to the campaign getting underway. As such, not least given the heartbreak of falling short both in terms of automatic promotion and in the play-offs, was last season more a disappointment that a valiant effort?

Ultimately, it was both. Indeed, the season before we heroically missed out on the Play-Offs on Goal Difference on the final day of the season as well. Pacemakers and heartache are becoming more common at Scunthorpe recently. Letting so many key players’ contracts indisputably harmed our season and created turbulence post-January; so whilst we would have all taken 3rd if offered it this time last year – it’s very hard not to lament a missed opportunity.

Also going under the radar was Graham Alexander, but there no question his efforts were superb. Just how fantastic a job has he done for Scunthorpe, and is it really only a matter of time before he’s managing at a higher level, either with the Iron or another club?

Alexander began his playing career with Scunthorpe, was a very popular appointment back in March 2015, and remains so. There had been rumours he might have been a contender when the Preston job came up – but thankfully he stays with us. He’s done a terrific job, and we played some absolutely brilliant football through large parts of last season. But responding to last season’s heartache could yet be the biggest challenge of his career.

Having kept the majority of your squad, particularly your goal-scoring forward players, intact, there’s a strong chance you could challenge again. But you’ve lost a number of bodies in midfield. How big a concern is that?

In truth, our strikers probably underachieved last season given our lofty position, and we badly missed Tom Hopper when he was out injured. Captain Stephen Dawson’s departure to big-money Bury is the stand-out loss, and we’ll surely massively miss him. At time of writing, we’re currently badly light across midfield – keeping the likes of Josh Morris and Sam ‘glass legs’ Mantom fit is absolutely imperative.

Does the fact that you lost out on Matt Crooks to Northampton, who have got themselves a bit of cash, actually suggest that, given your resources, you’ve been overachieving?

Missing out on Crooks was a surprise and a disappointment – especially after we’d done so well to sign Rory McArdle on a free transfer from Bradford. They’ve got themselves an excellent midfielder, who we would have been very happy to see return to Glanford Park. God only knows how he can’t get in the Rangers side! All indications seem to suggest that we’ve got a competitive budget, but putting it to good use as a small club is never easy.

In general, you’ve been a bit slow in bringing bodies in to strengthen your squad, which must be frustrating when you have such a positive position to build on. How would you assess your transfer business?

The signings we have made thus far, have by and large been good ones. McArdle in particular is a real boon – especially as centre-half is an area we definitely struggled at last season. Him and the magnificent Murray Wallace could prove to be the strongest CB pair in the league next season, but they’ll need help! How 35 year old Matt Gilks proves himself in goal will be absolutely crucial too. The first month of the season will be absolutely massive in indicating how well we have replaced key departures.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

Haha, the million dollar question! Whilst I’m not a particularly optimistic football supporter generally – as things stand, I do think next season will be comparatively difficult. Our Central Midfielders are all currently either ancient, injury-prone or totally unknown, no clear ’20 goal a season’ striker as yet, and the jury is still out on our Goalkeeper. If we’re to be successful – it will require on the continued heroics of Josh Morris, and a very stingy defence. 8th.

Summary

Best Case – Alexander immediately instils resilience back into his side, the attacking players shine, promotion challenged for.

Worst Case – Last season proves an opportunity wasted as Alexander can’t lift his players, the gaps in his squad exposed, slump to mid-table.

An excellent boss, solid foundations, and a touch of attacking quality. On the basis that the Iron will bring in a bit more cover before the start of the season, they should be in a position to challenge again. 3rd


Shrewsbury Town

It an unfortunate reflection of the standard of League One that there are several clubs who, despite having ambitions of taking themselves further, realistically for the time being at least can’t hope to achieve more than just about avoid relegation to League Two.

Shrewsbury Town most definitely among those, as they take a sigh of relief following a second successive campaign where survival was achieved in unconvincing fashion. One position above the drop two seasons ago, and only two points away from the bottom four at the end of the previous campaign. With a stadium still new enough not to have been completely vandalised by opposition fans, a regular commitment to being active in the transfer market, and a chairman called Roland (Wycherley) who isn’t a massive tit, there is a desire for more.

But at the same time, there is an acceptance that they are extremely fortunate to be starting this season as a League One club. It wasn’t until the 42nd game of the season, a single-goal victory over Rochdale that sparked a run of eight points from four, that the Shrews moved out of the relegation zone for good. It was an ever-changing make-up of the third tier’s bottom four, and given the fact they finished only two points above it, it so easily could have been them that were sucked into League Two.

Ambition, or simply a desire to be a club that does more than slog around the bottom eight of League One, isn’t unrealistic. But that a serious amount of fight has been required over the previous two seasons means the Shrews can’t approach the new season over confident. They can’t approach it, in fact, without thinking that their first goal is to secure their League One status.

That something, at least, they will feel confident of doing. There runs of horrendous form during his time in charge having replaced Micky Mellon in October, but Paul Hurst, not least in getting those vital eight points at the end of last season, showed a certain amount of battle and fight that means supporters of the Shrews are more than happy to give him their support ahead of the new campaign. His squad, though missing loanees that made a huge impact at the end of last season, hasn’t seen major departures otherwise and has had some positive additions.

But ultimately, Shrewsbury appear stuck in this bottom eight trap, unable to claw themselves away from the relegation zone as it attempts to draw them in for the duration of the season. It would seem that, once again, they will be spending a season looking over their shoulders, hopeful that it will end with them breathing a sigh of relief.

The Manager – Paul Hurst

When Hurst arrived at New Meadow at the end of October, many had already assumed Shrewsbury’s relegation to League Two was unavoidable. And that despite the season being 15 games old. Six points separating them from safety, with a side low on quality and lacking in belief appearing in no shape whatsoever to make up such a margin.

But 31 games, and 41 points, later, the former Grimsby boss had guided the Shrews to safety. Not a particularly comfortable one, surviving ultimately by two points. But survival nonetheless, and survival that, in the circumstances, was an impressive achievement.

He formed a tight structure and instilled a sense of determination into his side that meant they discovered the ability to grind out results they so desperately required. Eleven games won while Hurst was in charge, nine of them by a single-goal margin, and six by one-goal-to-nil. Other factors, like big contributions from those who arrived on loan during the January window, but largely survival came as a consequence of Hurst getting some fight and determination out of a side that were seemingly lost.

And so, there faith in Hurst ahead of the new campaign. There a very high chance that, ultimately, he’ll be required to once again force the Shrews away from the bottom four. But the efforts shown by a side led by him last season suggests for many that Shrewsbury’s flirt with the bottom four won’t be as risky as it was last season.

Transfer Business

On the back of last season’s narrow escape from the clutches of League Two, and with this being Hurts’ first summer in charge, a fair amount of activity in the transfer market was probably to be expected.

The departures largely seeing squad players move on. Defender Olly Lancashire heads to Swindon, midfielder Jim O’Brien joins Ross County, and second-choice goalkeeper Mark Halstead joining forward Ethan Jones in signing for Southport.

But there some disappointment in seeing skipper Adam El-Abd, whose first-team opportunities did become limited in the second half of the campaign but performed whenever called upon, and midfielder Gary Deegan, who played 40 times in the centre, leave New Meadow. Though that the pair of joined League Two clubs, in the shape of Wycombe Wanderers and Cambridge United, maybe suggests their departures won’t sting that great a deal.

The more important situation was always going to be to replace the loanees that had such a big impact in the final months of the campaign. Left-back Jack Grimmer, winger Tyler Roberts and target man Freddie Ladapo all contributing before returning to their parent clubs at the end of last season.

A full-back arrives in the shape of James Bolton, who impressed in the National League for Gateshead though the question of course is whether he’ll be able to step up, winger Daniel James joins on loan from Swansea, where he is without first team football but highly rated as a consequence of his performance in the development side, to replace his fellow Welshman Roberts, while Norwich forward Carlton Morris will spend the season at New Meadow.

Further strengthening in attack with the signings of Arther Gnahoua, a robust forward offered an opportunity having impressed for Kidderminster, and Lenell John-Lewis, joining from Newport County having spent most of last season injured, while further loans arrive in the shape of midfielder Ebou Adams (Norwich) and goalkeeper Dean Henderson (Manchester United), who was part of the England U20 squad that won the U20 World Cup this summer.

Elsewhere, midfielder Jon Nolan joins from relegated Chesterfield, and imposing centre-back Zak Jules joins from Reading having spent the second half of last season on loan at Motherwell.

A few gambles among those brought in, but ultimately a positive summer for Shrewsbury.

The Squad

Though it certainly still a squad that will need to be scrapping for points in order to keep themselves clear of the bottom four, it’s a squad that isn’t exactly in a weak state.

Even competition between the sticks, with Jayson Leutwiler, unlikely to give up his place without a fight after playing 43 times last season, placed under fierce pressure by the arrival of Henderson.

While Shrewsbury’s backline, so vital in keeping them away from the bottom four considering how many games they won by a single-goal margin, appears in relatively decent shape. Mat Salder and Jules likely to form the centre-back partnership, though the pair face competition from Aristote Nsiala, who became a regular in the second half of last season. Joe Riley and Junior Brown look set to continue in the full-back positions, while the versatile Ryan McGivern and new signing Bolton provide alternatives.

Nolan will probably take Deegan’s place in the centre of midfield, and find Abu Ogogo alongside. A combative pair, with Bryn Morris, new arrival Adams, and the versatile Louis Dodds providing alternatives.

And Dodds part of a decent number of wide options. Shaun Whalley ripping Charlton apart at New Meadow last season, not that that’s a particularly difficult challenge, Alex Rodman contributed heavily after arriving from Notts County in January, and loanee James provides a further option.

But with a few gambles taken on those that have already arrived, and AJ Leitch-Smith seemingly unwanted, it no surprise that Hurst has made it clear he remains in the market for a forward. Options available to him as it is, but there a tough requirement for John-Lewis, not least after a season on the sidelines, and Gnahoua to deal with the step up in quality, and Morris’ eight games in an unsuccessful loan spell at Rotherham was the only first team football he had last season. With Shrewsbury more than likely to go with one up top, it should be enough, but a proven goalscorer won’t go amiss.

Though with an additional forward, it does seem like Shrewsbury’s squad appears in a relatively healthy state.

Fans View – Liam Northwood (@liamnorthwood96)

Far too close for comfort again last season, but ultimately avoiding relegation. Is that a relative success or should you really have made it more comfortable for yourselves?

Given the circumstances in the first half of the season, it’s almost a miracle that Hurst managed to save us from relegation. Micky Mellon had us down and out by October but Hurst turned it all around! He got us playing as a team and managed to get the best out of most of the players, got to give him credit for keeping us up with the mess that Mellon left. It got a bit tight towards the end of the season, but we had enough to get the job done.

Given that you’ve been in League One now for two seasons, and flirted with relegation in both of them, it’s probably now time to look to progress. But are you really in a position to do that?

I believe the new recruitments are worthy of finishing in the top half, another season fighting for relegation is not wanted. With Hurst as manager, I’m confident we can stabilise in League One and push further up the table. The chairman has also backed him with more funds to buy players, which shows that Wycherley’s ambition matches his.

Succeeding, just about, in keeping you up, but did Paul Hurst show enough to suggest that he’s definitely the right man for the job over a longer period?

Yes, definitely, has an eye for a good signing and gets the players to the best of their ability. He gets the team playing as a unit, and it may not always be pretty, but his way of playing is always effective. He has a bright future in the game, looking forward to seeing how far he can take us.

You’ve been quite active in the transfer market, which you probably needed to be given not only the players that have departed but the quality of those that have returned to their parent clubs following successful loan spells. How would you assess your transfer dealings?

I am happy with the transfer window, we’ve sold the majority of our deadwood and we had no chance of keeping the loanees that we’d have liked. Incomings look very good! It’s important that we triggered the option of another year in Ogogo’s contract, as he was a stand out last season when he was fit. The signings have mostly been inexperienced players with points to prove, but they look good so far and give me much more optimism for the season. The acquisitions of Dean Henderson (loan) and Jon Nolan look superb.

And similarly, is your squad strong enough to keep yourselves away from getting sucked into a relegation battle again?

I really hope so. Although I am confident that we’ll have a better season, it’s still hard to tell. We have such a young squad so we could become really unpredictable, hopefully they can all gel quickly. If things go well, something special could be happening and it could be fantastic, but on the other side of the scale, we could be down and out by Christmas. Hopefully that won’t be the case.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

Hard to tell at the moment, but I’m going for a 12th placed finish.

Summary

Best Case – Hurst continues where he left off last season, the new signings gel around his leadership, a comfortable mid-table finish achieved.

Worst Case – Luck and fight runs out, Hurst’s side don’t come together and struggle, the relegation they narrowly avoided last season is inflicted.

I think Shrewsbury are one of the most difficult sides to judge, on the basis that there have been changes to their squad, but also given the fact that so many other clubs in a similar position have similarly strengthened. They do have every chance of pushing for a solid mid-table finish, but I think a lot of things would have to go their way for that to be the case. Another gritty battle seems most likely. 19th


Southend United

There nothing particularly spectacularly about the Shrimpers side last season. A bog-standard unit who looked set to be sharing a campaign among the also-rans. Nothing that immediately leapt out and suggested they would be competing for the final play-off position until the 46th fixture. 

But what Southend United did have, however, was stability and a sense of calm. A cohesive side guided by Phil Brown, who had led the club for three whole seasons previously, and a lack of chaos above him that many clubs would dream of. A squad that was little more than handy, but happily settled under their manager’s guidance, and able to play in a positive environment.

They had their own strengths but, in many ways, they simply took advantage where others failed. They avoided the crisis, chaos and uncertainty that so many flirted with, had a strong background away from the pitch, and a structured side on it. Their settled unit slowly growing into the play-off picture, consistently grinding out results and producing the occasional performance of real quality, as they went 13 games between October and January.

And ultimately, there was disappointment that they didn’t quite sneak into the top six. Their seventh-place finish was an overachievement – certainly more than many predicted of them prior to the start of the campaign – but they needed only a single point more to finish inside the play-off places. A play-off place that they effectively threw away by losing four of their final six away games.

A point they might have earned had Frank Nouble not wasted the simplest of chances in a 2-1 defeat at The Valley during the final weeks of the campaign. A point they might have earned had they not had to rely on players like Frank Nouble. Though that they got so close with a squad lacking strength in depth, as reflected in needing to utilise Frank Nouble, makes their efforts all the more commendable.

Of course, in these situations commendable efforts don’t really elevate frustration. Greater quality in a side that’s collective strength was greater than the sum of its parts might have made a difference. Just a touch more ambition and expenditure may have placed the Shrimpers in the top six.

And as the new season begins, there a certain amount of frustration, having come so close to achieving a top-six finish, that the position hasn’t been emphatically built upon. Some handy additions made to the squad, but strength in depth still lacking, and overall there little difference to the position they were in last season. Brown’s side are going to need to dig deep as a unit in order to claim points once again.

But what does remain are the things that proved most important last season. The calmness off the pitch, stability in the dugout, and a settled side on the pitch that has enough ability to deal comfortably with the demands of League One. There’s little chance of emphatic regression, and a reasonable hope of repetition.

The Manager – Phil Brown

On occasions, Phil Brown gives off the impression of a tactically astute boss who reads the game greater than any of the simpletons who sit in the stands. On others, he looks so out of place inside the technical area that being among alcohol-fuelled supporters may actually be homelier. He’s an enigma.

He carries that aggressive, no nonsense attitude that would inspire one type of player (he managed to get Nile Ranger to bother to turn up so fair play), but surely demoralise another. He’ll look for excuses or to shift blame in the aftermath of defeat, but there no questioning his drive to immediately correct faults. He’s testing to appreciate as an individual, but there can be doubt appreciation is warranted for his four-and-a-bit seasons in charge at Southend.

League Two play-off success at the second attempt after the club had spent five seasons in the Football League’s basement division, a campaign of stabilisation in the third tier, before falling just a single point shy of League One’s top six. Progress, and at a decent rate, through each season. The conundrum for Brown as the next season approaches is how he goes about turning a touch of disappointment into a platform for further progression.

His side challenged for that final play-off position for much of the previous campaign, and would have got it had they found one further goal in any of their four single-goal defeats that occurred in their final six games. An excellent season’s work somewhat thrown away. There will undoubtedly be a need to rejuvenate members of the Shrimpers squad if they are to compete again.

And it probably a task that the 58-year-old will relish. For he may be something of an old-fashioned boss, and he may stay clear of more modern methods, but ultimately Brown, having put the much-publicised capitulation at Hull City and a horror spell at Preston North End behind him, is a man you can trust to force the right attitude into a squad. To lead a driven and determined side to results.

Transfer Business

Street parties took place across the People’s Republic of Southend when news filtered through of Frank Nouble’s release, and really all other transfer news has been made irrelevant by his wondrous departure. But apparently some other stuff has happened at Roots Hall this summer.

Dave Mooney, after an injury-hit campaign, Zavon Hines and Luke O’Neill joining Nouble in departing the club having played very rarely last season. Though maybe some disappointment to see midfielder Will Atkinson, who was offered a new contract but opted instead to head to League Two Mansfield Town, and centre-back Adam Thompson, attracted to Lee Clark’s project at Bury after starting 40 times for the Shrimpers during the previous campaign, both leave the club.

But their departures have been immediately off-set by the arrival of defender Michael Turner, who didn’t play a league game for Norwich City last season but comes with strong Premier League and Championship experience, and winger Michael Kightly, who joins from Burnley having impressed while on loan at Championship side Burton Albion during the previous campaign. Full-back Stephen Hendrie, who previously had a spell on loan at Roots Hall, completes Southend’s trio of summer signings.

The biggest story, however, might well be yet to come. And it unfortunately covers a departure. Playmaker Ryan Leonard continues to attract the attention of Championship clubs, with Sheffield United and Millwall being particularly vocal about their attempts to sign him, having rejected the offer a new contract at Southend. The 25-year-old, who started 43 times last season, did drop his transfer request having turned down the Shrimpers’ offer, but that hasn’t deterred clubs from the division above attempting to sign him.

Well, biggest story aside from Nouble’s release.

The Squad

Competitive, experienced, and largely containing the sort of figures that work well under Brown’s aggressive managerial style. Southend’s squad certainly isn’t in a bad place.

A competitive battle, in fact, between which goalkeeper starts the season. Ted Smith taking over from Mark Oxley midway through the season after the latter suffered an elbow injury, with the 21-year-old making the most of his chance and impressing. But Oxley’s reputation hasn’t been damaged by his time in the treatment room, and Brown is yet to decide who stands between the sticks on the opening day.

Whoever takes the gloves, they’ll have what appears a strong a defence in front of them. The former Premier League duo of Anton Ferdinand and Turner likely to form the centre-back partnership, with Jason Demetriou and Ben Coker either side. John White and new signing Hendrie providing adequate alternatives at full-back, but there’s very little cover in the centre, though Hendrie can play there if required.

A tale of quality and cover is run that runs throughout the squad, though not to the same extent it does in the heart of defence. Strong performers throughout, but you’d probably want another option in each area of the pitch.

Another two in the centre of midfield if Leonard, winner if Southend’s Player of the Year award for the previous two seasons, ultimately departs. But while he remains, you can count him, Michael Timlin and Anthony Wordsworth as three very excellent central options. Stephen McLaughlin and Kightly probably take the starting roles out wide, with Jermaine McGlashan and option in reserve

While in attack, Marc-Antoine Fortune and Simon Cox look set to continue what became a strong partnership, with the Frenchman bullying back fours, and Cox helping himself to 16 goals. But with only Theo Robinson, who mostly appeared from the bench after arriving in January, in reserve, it’s a similar story of strong starting quality without a great deal of depth as is the case elsewhere.

Though Nile Ranger will become an option following his release from prison, and reintegration into the squad. The forward impressing last season, and Brown happily sticking by the man who he gave a fresh chance to in football.

His return will give the Shrimpers enough bodies in attack, but there’s certainly a need to find a few more at centre-back, in the centre, and out wide.

Fans View – Luke Jarvis (@Ljarvis27)

A single point would have got you into the play-offs last season, made particularly difficult to take by the fact you lost four of your final six games. Did your performances over the course of the season warrant a top-six finish, or did you get what you deserve in slipping outside?

At the start of the season no one would’ve expected us to get the play offs, which is something many fans do forget. It was out second season in League One after half a decade in league two. We’d made some good signings including Simon Cox and Jason Demetriou but the squad was still looking thin considering the huge amount of players who we’d let go from the season before. We lost key players in Dan Bentley, Jack Payne and from the get go we didn’t really look up to it. Phil Brown would’ve been fearing for his job if it wasn’t for the 3-0 win away to Sheffield United only 3 games in considering our woeful form to the tail end of the 15/16 season.

By the end of September I was resigned to the fact that we were in a relegation battle, as was club captain and legend Adam Barrett, who got dropped after a 3-0 loss away to Rochdale and was never treated fairly for who he was.

Between October and the start of January we went 13 games unbeaten and this got us firmly in the mix for the play offs or even automatic promotion if we held things together.

After defeat to Sheffield United at home we lost only 3 times until the April 4th, which is where the disappointment starts. A last gasp goal for Bolton lost it at home, then 2000 fans went to Charlton to witness a dire 2-1 loss and the miss of the season from Frank Nouble. Then a 4-0 away win at Chesterfield got things back on track and we just had to bank on Millwall dropping points. That happened… 2 games running, but we also lost both. All we needed was one point. Just a point. MK Dons had nothing to play for and we could only produce a 2-1 loss. Then nearly 1300 fans travelled to Shrewsbury who were pretty much safe, barring a bit of a miracle. All that was required was a point as Millwall lost, but we also lost. This meant it all came down to the final game of the season against Bury, which was a must win. We did win, but missing out by a point due to Millwall’s win was hard to take.

We’d had a great season when you consider how awful we were at the start, but you couldn’t help but feel bitterly disappointed with how it had ended. We just didn’t perform when it really mattered and that was the most disappointing thing. If we’d missed out by Three or four points then it would’ve been much easier to accept, but the way that we finished and the fact that we dropped so many games meant it was very difficult to take. I think we did warrant a top-six finish based on some of the performances, but winning only 2 of the last 6 probably did warrant us missing out.

Nonetheless, to have competed as you did was more than many expected of Southend. Is it an opportunity wasted, or something that can be built on?

I would say it is a bit of both. We definitely wasted the countless opportunities we had, but on the other hand we can build on it. A couple of more wins at the end and a few more at the start would’ve put us in the hunt for the automatics so we can definitely build on last season.

To build on it, many might suggest you have to invest and strengthen a team that still had something fragile about. You’ve made good signings, but only a handful, while rumours surrounding Ryan Leonard’s future persist. How would you assess your squad?

I think it’s fair to say that we have one of the strongest starting XIs in the league with premier league experience in Ferdinand, Cox and Fortuné, as well as some very talented players who have played at a higher level such as Anthony Wordsworth.

We did lose Adam Thompson, who was one of our most consistent performers last season to Bury and Will Atkinson moved  to Mansfield because he didn’t feel ‘valued’ by the club. Michael Kightly and Michael Turner have added even more experience to the squad and fill the spots left by Atkinson and Thompson, however they are both in their 30s and this is a worry for me. Turner hasn’t played more than 30 games in a season since 14/15 and with Ferdinand’s dodgy hamstrings we could do with a less injury prone defender. Kightly is naturally a fantastic signing and could still do a job in the Championship so fans are very excited by his arrival, especially considering he was let go in 2005 after only 19 appearances.

There has also been lots of speculation regarding three-time player of the year winner Ryan Leonard, who enters the final year of his contract. Sheffield United and Millwall have both tried with pathetic bids, leading to Leonard rejecting a contract offer and putting in a transfer request, which he later retracted after a meeting with our chairman. Ron Martin, the chairman, has said he is adamant Leonard is not for sale, which I for one am delighted about. He is a huge player for us and clearly loves the club, even if he did hand in the transfer request, which is understandable after having three bids rejected.

We still do need more signings though, specifically in the centre of defence and centre midfield. If we can fill those gaps then I believe we would be more than ready for a promotion push.

Phil Brown does things his own way, and isn’t necessarily universally liked among the wider footballing public, but he’s got results at Southend. He’s definitely the right man to lift a few disappointed faces after the final weeks of last season, isn’t he?

Yes and no. Brown has done a fantastic job and we’ve improved every season that he’s been manager, but there are things that he says and does which can be particularly annoying. Some of his team selections are very strange and leave many fans wondering what he’s thinking and his subs can be questionable at times.

Also if he says in an interview that a player is “in my thoughts”, then he’s guaranteed to not be starting.

However he has a great track record of bringing in some quality players, such as Anton Ferdinand, Simon Cox and most recently Michael Turner and Michael Kightly. Then again his treatment of some players in the past have been very poor. Cian Bolger was bought in 2014 and had a pretty dire start, but then just as he seemed to have improved and was more composed he was outcasted and loaned to Bury in 2016 and left for Fleetwood before becoming player of the year, which is frustrating as we are now low on centre backs. Also the treatment of club legend Adam Barrett has been indescribably bad. Barrett was rightly named captain, but was left to rot by Brown after admittedly some poor performances, but that kind of treatment of any player, especially a player of Barrett’s stature was disgraceful.

Once Nile Ranger is released from prison, it appears likely he’ll return to Southend. Is that something you’re comfortable with?

Yes, I’m happy with it. The crime he did was in 2015 and we signed Ranger at the start of last season after a long trial period. When he’s fit (which is rare) he’s unplayable and could dominate any defender in the league. We saw that at Sheffield United away when we won 3-0 and he played a huge part as to why we went three-up so early on and went off injured after only 24 minutes.

Hopefully his time in prison will be the wakeup call he needs because he’s surrounded by good people, experienced pros and fans that love him. He’s great with the younger fans too and can play a big role in a promotion push.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I think we’ll do well, but I don’t want to upset the football gods, so I’ll put us a lower than what I’m hoping, providing everyone stays fit and we get the extra couple of players in. I’ll say 7th, but a promotion push really is the aim. I just want to show the football gods that I’m not expecting too much and hopefully they’ll reward us!

Summary

Best Case – Brown leads recovery from last season, small squad defies the odds again, battle for top six.

Worst Case – Frank Nouble returns from the dead, misses dreadful one-on-one in vital game, mid-table accepted.

Got the same sort of qualities they had last season, so certainly won’t implode. Wouldn’t rule out a push for the top six, and they’re in that pool of clubs who can compete for a play-off place in a quite open division. But to truly challenge they desperately require greater depth to their squad in all almost every area, and think they might find themselves towards the back of the pack. 13th


Walsall

Heavy, uncomfortable sighs spread around the Bescot last season quicker than Erhun Oztumer can move the ball.

Having missed out on automatic promotion by a single point – then flopped in the play-offs – at the end of the previous season, a turgid campaign that offered unattractive football and saw more defeats than victories was hugely disappointing. A challenge for supporters to remain inspired after such a spectacular collapse. Faith in the club decreasing, in line with tired frustration increasing, as the season went on.

Of course, with Walsall breaking free of several seasons of mid-table obscurity to challenge for promotion there was a reasonable degree of acceptable last season would have its challenges. But it was the weak, almost gutless, way in which they returned to the bottom half of the third tier that made it so difficult to bear. Ambition from above minimal, performances from individuals poor, and a deeply unappealing brand of football played by boss Jon Whitney, in his first role as a manager, who finds himself under a degree of pressure.

So with a season where the Saddlers pushed for promotion under their belt, and another where they regressed to the point where that third place finish might as well have not happened, it begs the question of what is acceptable going into this campaign. At other clubs, the question is what is achievable. But it does appear Walsall have got themselves trapped among the also-rans again.

A better, more inspiring, style of football is certainly demanded. Too many periods of last season were turgid and difficult to watch. That the club have largely added young players to their squad, and retained Oztumer, might well help in that.

But possibly the biggest question going into the start of the campaign is whether Whitney can prove the point he needs to. A more competitive Walsall needs to be seen, and he the man that can provide that. If not from above, then certainly from the stands the 46-year-old will be under pressure to prove a point as the season gets underway.

Irrespective, the Walsall side that approaches this campaign is some way off the confident one that entered the 2015/16 season and fell just short of promotion. An emphatically speedy regression has occurred.

The Manager – Jon Whitney

There little doubt that one-time Walsall physio Whitney was to be appointed as permanent boss for the start of the previous campaign after his efforts at the end of the Saddlers’ promotion challenging season. Capitulation in the play-offs didn’t take away from his efforts in the final months of the campaign, which took in eight victories from 12 games during a brief stint as interim boss. Enough to prove he deserved a go on a full-time basis.

But Whitney, in his first full season as a boss, failed to live up to the expectations that the victories achieved during his interim spell in charge created. Given that several key players from that promotion push departed, with Romaine Sawyers, Tom Bradshaw and Rico Henry among them, a harder task was always expected. But results, including six defeats in the final nine games of the campaign, disappointing and performances poor.

In fact, after January, Whitney could only muster one victory – against Peterborough – over a side that would finish inside the top half of the division. As the season progressed, more questions began to be asked of him, and faith continued to decrease. Without the answers to inject some life into what appeared a demoralised side, or prevent a bottom-half finish.

However, the 46-year-old remains in charge, and has an opportunity to prove he remains the right man for the job. A possibility that, following his first full season in the dugout, Whitney will have learned a great deal and be in a position to oversee something more competitive in the coming campaign. But those who regularly occupy the Bescot remain unconvinced.

Transfer Business

Walsall’s chances of improving on last season’s bottom half finish have also been restricted by a limited amount of strengthening over the summer. Strengthening required not only because those around them who might well be spending the season looking over their shoulders have added bodies to their squad, but because a handful of regulars have departed.

Goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, having impressed over the course of two seasons at the Bescot, joins Cardiff City, club-record signing Andreas Makris returns to Cyprus having failed to truly adapt to English football, while Franck Moussa, who remains made of glass, and Isaiah Osbourne have been released. At least Erhun Oztumer, who struck 15 times last season and is undoubtedly one of the best attacking midfielders in the division, hasn’t been lured away.

On top of those departures, the failure to retain Jason McCarthy, who heads to Barnsley having been an ever-present during his season on loan from Southampton, and Eoghan O’Connell, snapped up by Bury following a mightily impressive effort having joined on a temporary basis from Celtic, leaves a significant dent in their backline.

In addressing the defensive loses, Jon Guthrie arrives having performed consistently in League Two for Crewe Alexandra for several seasons, and James Wilson, having sat in reserve for Sheffield United during the previous campaign, joins on loan. They’re joined by full-backs Luke Leahy and Nicky Devlin, who were both playing their football in the Scottish Championship last season for Falkirk and Ayr United respectively. While the goalkeeper situation has been addressed by the arrival of Mark Gillespie, signed from Carlisle United after an ever-present season with the League Two promotion chases.

But ultimately, after an uninspiring campaign that saw a slump to the bottom half of the division, it’s difficult to suggest this has been an encouraging summer for the Saddlers.

The Squad

There is a certain amount of strength to Walsall’s side, but certainly nowhere near enough to leave you feeling comfortable.

It would appear the backline will largely be made of new arrivals, with Guthrie and Wilson forming the centre-back partnership, and Leahy arguably the leading candidate to start on the left. Fellow new arrival Devlin likely to act as cover, with Joe Edwards taking the right-back role, and Matt Preston offering an alternative at left-back.

But it’s a defence that appears a little undercooked in the centre, not least when it seems it will be without James O’Connor for some time. The centre-back injured and Whitney unable to provide an estimate as to when he’ll return.

And with those that have departed in midfield not replaced, the Saddlers are also short of numbers in the middle. Skipper Adam Chambers and Belgian Florent Cuvelier, assuming he stays fit after horrendous problems with injury, provide the most likely centre-midfield pairing, but there not a great deal in reserve. The return of Reece Flanagan from a season out through injury does provide another option while youngster Liam Kinsella, son of Mark, saw some game time last season.

And it a similar story in the attacking midfield positions, in spite of Erhun Oztumer’s presence. Kieron Morris and Amadou Bakayoko, more suited to playing up top but can play out wide, the only wingers Walsall have with genuine experience. Though much is expected of 19-year-old Afghan Maziar Kouhyar, who appeared on six occasions last season.

The shortage also continuing in attack, with options few behind Simeon Jackson and Bakayoko. Even with Walsall likely to play one up top, with Oztumer behind the forward, that isn’t enough.

And particularly as the quality of League One’s bottom half improves, it’s difficult to look at Walsall’s squad and see it as one that has enough to be competitive.

Fans View – Stu Jones (@StuJones94)

Within touching distance of automatic promotion one season to a sluggish campaign among the also-rans the next. Why were Walsall unable to build on the success of the previous campaign during last season?

If we didn’t go for the cheap option with the manager and signed a goalscorer we wouldn’t have been that far away. That’s all it would’ve taken too. A Bradshaw replacement and some tactical nous and we’d have done alright. And then this season we’d have been able to push for top 6.

In truth, once we all knew that JW was going to be our manager, a successful season at the start was staying up. Any chance of us rebuilding and challenging for promotion again was dead.

One of the most common complaints, in addition to the disappointing results, was a very unattractive style of football from boss Jon Whitney. And that despite having one of the best creative midfielders, in the shape of Erhun Oztumer, in the division. What made it so difficult to watch?

Apart from give it to Oztumer and wait for him to create some magic, we didn’t seem to have a visible game plan or style of football which is utterly ridiculous. In most games we played the 3-5-1-1 system which explains why we didn’t create chances and ultimately didn’t score enough goals. To think, in the space of 12/18 months we’ve gone from being well known for playing attractive free flowing football to this. All that hard work just gone.

There’s undoubtedly a great deal of pressure on Whitney. Can he prove his worth, or is it really only a matter of time before he’s dismissed?

Don’t get me wrong, every fan wants him to succeed as he’s a club legend but he just doesn’t have it in him tactically and as a motivator to become a good manager. He’s destroying his own legacy. Also, his frequent use of abstract nouns in interviews (passion, application, fight, belief etc) makes you understand why so many players have left us recently. They clearly knew what was coming. I don’t even listen to his post game interviews anymore. I just can’t be arsed. It’s scary when 3000 fans know the issues but the manager doesn’t.

You appear to have focused on signing relatively young players, from League Two and Scotland’s lower leagues. The right way to go to freshen up your squad?

I think that says a lot about our budget or lack of one. From what I’ve seen/read I’m fairly happy with our signings. But our squad needs more depth and that isn’t going to happen. We’re currently going into the season with one senior winger and two strikers (and neither of them are going to score double figures). We emphasise about our academy all the time but it’s unfair to bring them all through in a relegation battle under poor management. You’re basically screwing them over before their careers have started.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

22nd. Can’t see us scoring anywhere near enough goals and poor management will contribute to us losing games. Also, Oztumer won’t be as good next year as he’ll be a marked man before getting sold in January. It’s going to be a grim year.

Summary

Best Case – Offer something more competitive, at least less tedious football, and flirt with a top-ten finish.

Worst Case – Break record for number of deaths inside a football ground due to boredom, Jon Whitney unable to make change and keeps his position for too long, League Two looms.

In a division that has seen those in the bottom half strengthen over the summer, Wallsall remain a side with an average squad led by an under-pressure boss. I’m concerned. 21st 


Wigan Athletic

With the shine from The FA Cup in their trophy room yet to fade and memories of their Europa League ties still fresh, it reasonable to suggest that League One is not the level Wigan Athletic should be playing at.

But a second relegation to the third tier in three seasons means it’s an unavoidable truth that the Latics only have themselves to blame for being at this level. A relegation that should have been totally avoidable. For Wigan were well placed to at least cement their status in the Championship last season, having returned to the second tier at the first attempt with Gary Caldwell carrying the League One title.

Alas, they crumbled. Caldwell dismissed before November with his side struggling to deliver and sitting inside the bottom three, appointing former Manchester United reserve team manager Warren Joyce a gamble that didn’t pay off and Wigan’s second boss of the season was dismissed with just five wins from 22 games as relegation loomed, with their fate sealed under interim boss Graham Barrow. Ultimately finishing nine points from safety, neither of the three men that led the Latics could get enough out of a squad that criminally underperformed, and warrants as much blame as those that stood in the technical area.

And all of that means that when Wigan are forced to face up to the reality of League One, travelling to Stadium MK on the opening day of the season, they will be led by their fourth manager since October. The number, in combination with the relegation, suggests a club in crisis. But snaring Paul Cook away from Portsmouth is one of a number of factors that offers belief to supporters of the Latics that their stay in League One will again be a short one.

Cook was mightily impressive in his leadership of Portsmouth as they won the League Two title last season, and is exactly the sort of stubborn character that is required to drive out any sort of negative energy that may remain from the previous season. He does have a strong squad to play with. And a squad that’s good enough to achieve promotion if he can get it to perform as it should.

So too will Wigan supporters look back to their title winning season, and how quickly they bounced back on that occasion from the disappointment of relegation beforehand. That relegation, working through three managers who couldn’t get enough of an underperforming squad, very similar to the one that occurred last season. It doesn’t detract from the fact they shouldn’t be in this position, but it does mean fear the crisis of the previous campaign will impact this one is minimal.

And though they do have a young chairman whose stewardship has taken in both the confident promotion from League One and the miserable return, he certainly isn’t a chairman intent on crippling the club from the inside. With Wigan still owned by Dave Whelan, 26-year-old David Sharpe has his grandfather’s wisdom for support, and would have been extremely hurt to have inflicted the pain of relegation on relatives, supporters and club. That he went through three managers last season probably the best indication he made mistakes, but he’ll be desperate to correct those this season, and there is a degree of faith in him.

Of course, amid that hope is a certain amount of worry. A second relegation in three seasons may have a greater negative impact than the first did, and regrouping may be tougher. Having experienced a second relegation that shouldn’t have taken place, Wigan supporters won’t be forgiving, and the possibility of a slow start might well create an uncomfortable atmosphere at the DW.

But for many, the worry won’t be so much about promotion, but what happens after. Having so comfortably won League One following their previous relegation from the second tier, but failed so emphatically once back there, they’re going to need to be better prepared.

There are plenty of sides, however, who have thought like that before. Who have entered this division believing they are too good for it, become complacent, and found themselves stuck among the also-rans. The focus for next few months is promotion; how they deal with the consequences of that can be worried about if it is achieved.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be confidence that it will come. Confidence, and an expectation.

The Manager – Paul Cook

Not least given the circumstances Wigan find themselves in, snaring Cook away from Portsmouth is a greater signing than any the club will make throughout this summer.

Partly because it means they shouldn’t have to work their way through three bosses this season. But primarily Cook has all the qualities required to lift this Latics squad, and make them competitive during this campaign. Changing their outlooks, which might well have remained downbeat at the start of pre-season, and introducing a structured, counter-attacking style of football that will lift both supporters and side.

Wigan chairman David Sharpe attracted to Cook as a consequence of his impressive efforts at Portsmouth over the previous two seasons, which take in a play-off defeat and a League Two title win. And that success is no fluke. Promotion from League Two, followed by an ultimately unsuccessful play-off campaign in League One, with Chesterfield before upping sticks to Fratton Park.

As such, he arrives at The DW used to success, bringing a determined persona, and intent on allowing the club to succeed again. His attitude and managerial style as useful as his football philosophies and attractiveness of his previous record. Bold, stubborn, and the sort of man that won’t accept anything less than the maximum from his squad is really just what’s needed to put last season in the past.

For there is quality in the Wigan side he inherits, and certainly quality for League One. But it needs a leader, who will deploy the right sort of attitude along with a match-winning set-up, to get the most out of it and spark the required recovery. Cook has the skills to be that leader.

There still a concern that the former Accrington boss might not be able to lift the mood at The DW, but he seems a fantastic appointment regardless.

Transfer Business

Wigan’s summer activity is a reflection of the fact that, certainly at League One level, they already have a strong squad that simply needs organising, directing and motivating in the correct ways.

Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been the expected post-season clear out of players who were part of the side relegated from the Championship. Some disappointment that more wasn’t done to keep centre-back Jake Buxton and left-back Stephen Warnock, with the pair departing to Burton Albion having been regulars and relatively reliable last season, but otherwise those that depart were no longer required.

The sigh of relief expressed by Wigan’s wage bill as ineffective winger Gabriel Obertan and 42-year-old goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen left could be heard all over the country, with Matt Gilks also departing to free up the number one shirt for a much younger man. Christian Walton arriving on loan from Brighton with an England U21 cap to his name and having shown promise during previous loan spells at Luton Town and Southend United.

Forward Mikael Mandron joins Colchester having failed to step up after arriving from Eastleigh in the winter, left-back Andrew Taylor heads to Bolton Wanderers permanently having spent the season on loan at the Macron Stadium, while Jack Hendry, Sanmi Odelusi and Billy McKay follow Taylor’s lead in departing the club upon returning from loan spells elsewhere.

Loans. Wigan signed a plethora of players on short-term deals last season, with Callum Connolly, Ryan Tunnicliffe, and Jamie Hanson among those returning to their parent clubs, while sending an equally excessive number away from the DW on a temporary basis. But that many of those returning have been allowed to depart suggests that those who find themselves a Latic for the coming season having spent the previous campaign out on loan will have an important part to play.

Nathan Byrne wasn’t great at right-back while on loan at Charlton but showed himself to be a very effective winger, wide man Ryan Colclough didn’t get much of an opportunity having returned from MK Dons in January but scored five times in 19 games during his stint at Stadium MK, and homegrown talent Jordan Flores may see some game time having impressed while at Blackpool. Like new signings, and all that nonsense.

In terms of actual new signings, Chey Dunkley is an impressive capture from Oxford United, and a figure that Cook can look to build a structured defence around. Winger-cum-forward Gavin Massey arrives having performed admirably in tough circumstances at Leyton Orient, while Terrell Thomas gets another opportunity in professional football having been let go by Charlton. Many will have wanted more, but it complements the bodies already there.

The Squad

An assessment of Wigan’s squad merely reaffirms the thinking that it’s mentality and structure that needs resolving in their attempt to make a second immediate return to the Championship. For the quality is there.

It probably only at the back where there are a couple of questions over depth, if not the quality of what will start. For starters, a senior alternative to Walton in goal would be useful.

Dunkley and skipper Craig Morgan are likely to form a robust centre-back pairing, with Dan Burn, and his neck which I’m fairly sure is longer than my entire body, provides a strong alternative. The defensive situation also helped by the return to fitness of Donervon Daniels, who missed almost the entirety of last season through injury having contributed to Wigan’s previous promotion. Four solid enough centre-backs.

You would, however, probably want a little bit more in the full-back positions with Warnock and Connolly, the first-choice full-backs during the second part of the previous campaign, departing. The return of Reece James, who has spent 18 months on the sidelines, is a huge boost, Byrne is an option but just didn’t look comfortable in a defensive role while with the Addicks, while Andy Kellet and Luke Burke are two young full-backs that haven’t seen a great deal of first-team football. A right-back probably what’s required as minimum, just to allow Byrne to play in his more natural position.

Though it’s not as if Wigan are short of attacking wide options. Byrne joined by Colclough, Massey and Michael Jacobs, with a few versatile attacking midfielders offering further alternatives. Jack Byrne, more naturally suited to playing in the middle but capable of playing on the flanks, likely to get more first-team chances having arrived from Man City in January, while Nick Powell is a threat regardless of whether he’s playing out wide or behind a striker.

Jack Byrne and Powell, who has never lived up to the potential that attracted Manchester United to him but did show signs of class in the final month of last season, adding to a list of central options for the Latics that is terrifyingly long. Shaun MacDonald and David Perkins provide wise heads and an unrelenting ability to calmly break up play, Sam Morsy’s ability as a playmaker match his defensive qualities, while Max Power has the potential to be particularly creative from the centre. Alex Gilbey, who joined from Yeovil last summer but struggled with injury, Josh Laurent, who found opportunities limited following his January arrival from Hartlepool, and Flores, following his return from Blackpool, completes a very long list of excellent centre-midfielders that give Cook plenty to think about.

While up top, the Latics will be desperately hoping the goals of Will Grigg return. A scorer of 45 of them over the course of his previous two campaigns in League One, the Northern Ireland international only managed five last season, but will surely return to form in the third tier. Support for Grigg coming primarily from Omar Bogle, who scored 19 times in 27 games for Grimsby before moving to the DW in January and you would imagine will be prolific in League One, and Massey, which should be enough with Wigan’s quality and depth in midfield meaning Cook will probably opt for one up top.

An alternative in goal, a little bit of depth at full-back, and a few changes to mentality and shape, and Wigan appear in a very strong position despite last season’s collapse.

Fans View – (@_JackPiper)

Following promotion to the Championship, you seemed in a relatively healthy place. What exactly went wrong?

I think multiple things went wrong last season. Firstly, I felt the summer recruitment following our League One triumph wasn’t good enough, we added little quality to what was fundamentally a League One outfit and the gulf in class told. Secondly, was the inability to get a decent manager in, sacking Gary Caldwell I feel was justified, however there was no plan to replace him, meaning we had to take a risk on Warren Joyce. The job was huge for an inexperienced man for starters, then the January transfer window came up and the signings brought in seemed as though we were planning for life back in the third tier.

The easy man to blame, after two relegations in three years, is David Sharpe. A young chairman who is being overwhelmed by the task at hand. Do Wigan fans believe he’s up to the job?

I think it’s an understatement to say that football fans in general are quite fickle. When we lifted the League One title just over 12 months ago, Sharpe was a cult hero in the town. Now people suggest that he isn’t up to it and he isn’t making the calls, and that his grandfather (Dave Whelan) is. I personally think he’s up to it, however, I feel he needs to get a bit of stability back at the club, as currently we’re a bit of a yo-yo team, I think he has made a brilliant appointment this summer in Paul Cook, and hope he backs him, within our means financially, and doesn’t get nervous if we’re not ‘smashing the league’ in December.

Paul Cook becomes your fourth manager in less than a year, but he appears a strong appointment for this level. Is he the right man to settle things down and guide you back to the second tier at the first attempt?

Paul Cook is a refreshing change to our managers, as unlike others, he has some history with Wigan, having played for us in the 80s and early 2000s. This is something universally Wigan fans have been crying out for since Uwe Rosler was sacked, and initially, we got it with Gary Caldwell, however as things turned sour with results many felt it was justifiable he was removed from his position as boss. This being said, many Latics fans wanted someone to come in who has history with the club, Nigel Adkins for example, someone who has been mentioned by the Wigan fans. This appointment has got everyone on side and I think given his managerial career so far, doing magnificent jobs at both Chesterfield and Portsmouth, I think he’ll do a good job with us.

You’ve not been particularly active in the transfer market, but your squad still seems in relatively healthy shape to attack League One, and given how unsettled and fragmented your side became last season, is the policy you’ve taken over the summer for the best?

We’ve made a few additions to the squad, but truth be told, I don’t know much about them. Fundamentally the core of the squad is being held together which is a positive, as it adds a bit of stability to the squad. I think keeping players like Sam Morsy and Dan Burn, both of which have attracted interest from Championship sides, will be vital for us. I also think Omar Bogle will have a good season with us, along with Will Grigg and Alex Gilbey too. If all those stay, I can’t see there being a side that’s better than us in the division if I’m being honest, and the expectation will be for Cook to win the league.

Though you won promotion back to the Championship quite comfortably at the first attempt on the previous occasion, are there any concerns that a second relegation could have a more emphatic impact on the club?

I think this time round will be more difficult, naturally as the parachute payments from the Premier League have run out. However, I believe we’re in a better position this season, as we’ve kept the majority of the core squad together (so far) and we have a manager who’s come in who is experienced at this level. I think we’ll be fine this campaign.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I think we’ll finish in the playoff places somewhere, I’m going to say 4th.

Summary

Best Case – Cook inspires squad, leads comfortable promotion, Wigan supporters ask what really is the point of League One.

Worst Case – Turns out David Sharpe has invested most of the club’s money in hair wax, argument between himself and Cook emerges that results in Cook departing, chaos combined with a failure to get over last season’s disappointment leaves the Latics outside the top six.

Worry that a second relegation in three years may hit hard, but under Cook’s management a Wigan squad that seems handy for this level appear well-placed for an immediate return. 2nd


I’m off for a lie down. I hope, in spite of it being full of nonsense, some enjoyment has been taken out of browsing through each part of my Season Preview.

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

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