Chris Powell's Flat Cap

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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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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)

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

Part One 


Charlton Athletic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Manager – Karl Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

         

Transfer Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Squad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fans View – Louis Mendez (@LouisMend)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, where will you finish this season?

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

Summary

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

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

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


Doncaster Rovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Manager – Darren Ferguson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transfer Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Squad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fans View – Ashley Grayson (@ashgrayson94)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, where will you finish this season?

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

Summary

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

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

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


Fleetwood Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Manager – Uwe Rosler

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

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

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

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

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

Transfer Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Squad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fans View – Curtis Sandercock (@Curt_1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, where will you finish this season?

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

Summary

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

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

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


Gillingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Manager – Adrian Pennock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transfer Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Squad

Weak, worrying, and Wagstaff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fans View – Reece Heard (@Reece_GFC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, where will you finish this season?

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

Summary

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

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

Seemingly intent on condemning themselves to relegation. 23rd


Milton Keynes Dons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Manager – Robbie Neilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transfer Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Squad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fans View – Harry Wright (@HarryWright27)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, where will you finish this season?

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

Summary

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

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

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


Northampton Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Manager – Justin Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

Transfer Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Squad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fans View – Ben Trasler (@benjohntrasler)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, where will you finish this season?

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

Summary

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

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

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


Part Three to Follow 

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

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

To be perfectly honest, I took very little enjoyment from my first experience of League One for six years. Slogging several hundred miles up north on cold Tuesday nights to stand in away ends that had received even less care than Charlton supporters in previous years and witness defeats was hardly much fun. I’d really rather not go through all that again, though at least I’ve not had to research for a League Two preview, as it appeared I might have to do at one point.

And with quality lost, as Sheffield United, Bolton Wanderers and, begrudgingly, Millwall prepare for life in the Championship, an outsider – or a grumpy Charlton fan who doesn’t want to be in this division – may suggest that the third tier will be even more of a grind during the 2017/18 campaign.

However, to suggest that would not be fair. For not only have several clubs strengthened, and a percentage of those that have entered the league either from above or below appearing in strong positions, but there is an increased competitiveness to the division. A number of clubs will not simply have wild ambitions, but feel they have a genuine chance of battling for a top six position throughout the campaign.

Many of those who challenged but missed out on promotion last season have lost key members of their squad, but they have been replaced and intent remains. There also-rans, whether they be the Charlton-like larger clubs who feel they are better that this division or those who are looking to overachieve, who have improved their squads and their situations. Those that came up automatically have not too distant memories of the second tier, while at least two of the clubs that came down from the Championship will expect nothing less than an immediate return.

A Sheffield United there is not. There probably isn’t even a Bolton. But there are many clubs that will believe they can finish in the positions those two clubs occupied last season.

And with greater competitiveness at the top, comes greater competitiveness at the bottom, not that there wasn’t a very tight dogfight to avoid the drop during the previous campaign. Because several teams have improved, any that haven’t will find themselves sucked towards the bottom four. Even teams that have improved may find they haven’t improved enough, and endure a season of looking over their shoulders.

So while League One may lack the quality to be totally enjoyable, and some of the defeats may be impossible to endure, a certain amount of interest may come this season from an increased level of competitiveness. It’s up for grabs.


AFC Wimbledon

Though ultimately finishing four points behind them, it is a showing of what this phoenix club has achieved in its 15 years of existence that AFC Wimbledon flirted with the notion of finishing above the club that took the original Wimbledon’s position within the Football League, moved it 60 odd miles north, and showed no regard whatsoever for those who have supported the Dons for many a year. 

And while the focus, of course, is not entirely on their relationship with another club, that AFC Wimbledon find themselves competing with MK Dons cannot be ignored as a sign of success.

But nor can the fact that Near Ardley’s side, with resources considerably smaller than many of those who they share League One with, managed to maintain their third-tier status following promotion from League Two with relative ease. At no point during the campaign were the Dons sucked away from the comfort of mid-table.

Nonetheless, it seems that, for sides who are arguably overachieving on the basis of their resources to be competing comfortably in the division they’re in, staying in the league for a second season is actually the more difficult challenge.

Not least when clubs of greater stature, from this division and the one above, help themselves to important figures from within the Wimbledon side. Creative midfielder Jake Reeves and top-scorer Tom Elliott among those to depart.

You wouldn’t, however, expect a club that has shown so much resolve, character and fight in such testing circumstances in previous years to simply cave in. This challenge a comparatively minor one to many AFC Wimbledon have faced previously.

The Manager – Neal Ardley

If not restraining Karl Robinson from assaulting one of his ground staff, then comfortably keeping AFC Wimbledon in League One last season was most certainly as impressive an achievement for boss Ardley as gaining promotion to the third tier was in the first place.

With 245 league appearances to his name for the original club, and departing as the move to Milton Keynes began to become more likely, Ardley is a man that understands both the Dons and its supporters. A man ideal for the role he finds himself in. Not least when Wimbledon are somewhat overachieving, competing against sides with greater resources.

But it is too easy to typecast Ardley as a cheerleader in a suit. To focus too greatly on how his connection with the club has created a positive environment which has allowed for success, and not enough on the sort of managerial qualities that are shared by successful bosses across the Football League. At the very least, you need more than just an understanding of a club to guide them to promotion, and thereafter maintain their status in the division above with little concern.

For Ardley is a fantastic reader of the game, able to see where his side can gain the smallest of margins. The comeback victory over Charlton at The Valley last season, where the introduction of Tom Elliott and Tyrone Barnett pushed an unsettled opposition backline onto the back foot, and the subsequent last-minute salvation of a point against the Addicks at Kingsmeadow, achieved after a persistent utilisation of Elliott finally payed off, the prime examples. Intelligent as much as he is a leader.

But whether primarily a leader or a man of brains, he has a challenge to succeed. Not least with Elliott among those to depart – though Cody McDonald does make for a positive replacement – it does appear he’s going to have to work harder to get the most out of a squad that seems weaker than many in the division. As such, a much greater test of his abilities faces Wimbledon’s boss in the coming campaign.

Transfer Business

For AFC Wimbledon, losing three forwards who all made over 40 appearances in all competitions during the previous campaign doesn’t sound particularly ideal.

But, in truth, two of those forwards, in spite of their relatively regular involvement throughout the season, are dispensable. Dominic Poleon, who flirted between playing out wide and alongside another forward, showed moments of brilliance and scored 12 times in all competitions, but too often frustrated and lacked a consistent end product. Tyrone Barnett’s physical strength meant he made himself a nuisance at times, but he scored just twice in the league, and one of those was against Charlton so it doesn’t really count.

But there no doubt the loss of Tom Elliott has caused, if not concern, huge disappointment among supporters of the Dons. Leader of the line, a figure that seemed to have a hand in many match-defining moments, and as such contributed 13 vital goals in all competitions. The 26-year-old departing for Milwall.

To AFC’s credit, however, they’ve immediately replaced their potential loss of goals, and in particular the man that leads the line, with one of League One’s most consistent forwards over the previous four seasons. Snatching Cody McDonald away from Gillingham’s hands is quite a coup, with the 31-year-old having scored 48 goals in 153 third-tier appearances for the Gills and become something of a talismanic figure at Priestfield. Not the same sort of target man as Tom Elliott, six inches shorter for starters, but still a striker with the strength to hold up play and additionally contribute ten or more goals in a campaign.

In their other forward addition, there is a degree of the unknown, and that despite Kwesi Appiah having previously played on loan at Kingsmeadow. That loan spell just one of eight he had away from Selhurst Park during the five years he was contracted to Crystal Palace, only once scoring at League One level or above (for Reading in the Championship). At 26, this permanent move to a new home was desperately needed, and he does have the raw attributes to be a threat, but it remains to be seen how long it will take the forward to establish and prove himself after such a nomadic recent past.

In midfield, too, has a key figure been lost. Playmaker Jake Reeves, at just 24, constantly showed potential to play at a higher level, and it was probably only a matter of time before a club with greater resources lured him away from Kingsmeadow. The former Brentford man heading to Bradford City, who can offer genuine promotion ambitions, and the additions of an injury-hit Liam Trotter and Millwall loanee Jimmy Abdou lack legs.

Elsewhere, Deji Oshilaja, having impressed in loan spells at Gillingham and previously spent time on loan at the Dons, and Callum Kennedy, another who has previous represented AFC, join after their respective releases from Cardiff City and Leyton Orient, while the loan signing of Sheffield United goalkeeper George Long replaces the outgoing James Shea.

The Squad

The Dons managed to creep towards mid-table security, ultimately quite comfortable, for a number of reasons last season. Ardley’s management, the ability to scrape unlikely points, and strong togetherness in the squad that made it greater than the sum of its parts. But you wonder if, on its second go in League One, the relatively substandard individual quality in Wimbledon’s side will be exposed.

At the very least, reflected in the fact only Charlton and Oldham conceded less than Ardley’s side from ninth downwards last season, AFC do have a decent enough backline that has seen some strengthening over the summer. The ever-reliable Barry Fuller at right-back, Oshilaja likely to stand alongside a man of much greater experience in Paul Robinson at centre-back, while Jonathan Meades and Callum Kennedy will compete for the left-back spot. With Long behind them, it’s strong enough.

But, particularly with Darius Charles expected to be unavailable until September at the earliest, depth may prove a little bit of a problem. Will Nightingale, a 21-year-old who played 12 times last season, offers an alternative with some first-team experience to his name, but defensive options otherwise are teens with just a handful of games under their belt. A fragile situation at the back.

The situation in the centre of midfield better in terms of depth, it’s just that you’re left asking a few more questions about the quality and reliability of the options available than you are of AFC’s standard back four.

Of those available in the centre, it’s arguably Dean Parrett that’s the standout, as the sort of midfielder who enjoys having plenty of possession and complements that with a reasonable amount of creativity. Alongside him are Tom Soares, who really should have had a much better career than he has done, becoming little more than a steady League One performer, and recent arrivals Abdou, who is adored at The Den but hasn’t had a great deal of first-team football in recent seasons, and Trotter, who did contribute to Bolton’s promotion last season but has had his recent career blighted by injury. Teenager Alfie Egan got a chance in the final month of the previous campaign, and he may be called upon throughout this campaign if required.

But it’s probably in the wide positions where the Dons leave you least inspired. Andy Barcham the traditional pacey winger with a frustrating lack of end product, George Francomb has racked up over 150 league games for the Dons though lacks cutting edge, while Chris Whelpdale spent much of last injured but failed to make a real impression during the opportunities he had while fit. There next to nothing beyond that, and you do wonder where what is a reasonable set of forwards are going to getting their service from.

For McDonald and Lyle Taylor, who struck ten times in the league last season, could form a potent partnership in bottom-half of the division terms. Enough to make the difference in tight games. But with Appiah, and the sense of unknown that surrounds him, being AFC’s only other senior striking option, another forward wouldn’t go amiss.

As such, it not just quality that’s an issue, but depth too.

Fans View – Joe Moger (@JoeMoger)

Relatively comfortable survival last season has to go down as quite an impressive achievement. Would simply maintaining League One status again be a success for AFC Wimbledon at the end of this campaign?

I think for the next couple of years survival is the first goal, anything else is a bonus. We started the season really badly, which was a blessing in disguise because we knew how tough it would be, and that allowed us to go on a good run of form before the winter period. But after January we barely scored a goal, it got to the point where we didn’t expect to score a goal. We didn’t even win a game after beating MK, something I internally predicted.

It does appear that your second season in League is going to be tougher than the first. Hypothetically speaking, does Neal Ardley deserve to be stood by regardless of what happens?

I’ll personally stick by him for a long, long time. The work he’s done, not just with the first team, has been nothing short of a miracle, and he’s always pulled something out of the hat to make things work when you think the worst. I wasn’t very optimistic before last season, and he proved me wrong, and I’m definitely not very optimistic this season, so hopefully he can continue that trend.

Elliott, Poleon, Reeves. Some important players have departed this summer, though you have sought replacements. Are you at all concerned about the state of your squad?

Firstly, Poleon wasn’t that important. He had one really good run of form, but after that was played out wide too much and wasn’t consistent enough. Jake Reeves is one I’m devastated about, for more than one reason. We won’t find another player with the combination of ability, stamina and footballing sense than him for a long time. Tom Elliott is another really big blow, him and Reeves were the main two players last season, and he’s another one we won’t find a decent replacement for. He may not be the most gifted player, but he more than makes up for it for his ability to bully two centre backs on and off the ball.

But, going back to the previous answer slightly, Neal has always replaced seemingly irreplaceable players. Top scorer and cult hero Jack Midson was released, our fans went into meltdown, and we signed Tubbs and Akinfenwa. Akinfenwa leaves, Tom Elliott steps up. So let’s just hope it’s another situation like those. We have got good strike options, with another supposedly on the way, with Lyle Taylor, Kwesi Appiah and Cody McDonald. They all like to get in to the box and score goals, but bring slightly different attributes too.

As for the rest of the squad, I’m slightly unsure in certain areas, as I was last season as well. In goal we’ve let go of Shea, which was fair enough, and brought in George Long on loan. The general consensus from Baldes fans was that he was a good shotstopper but could make mistakes if he lacks confidence. We’ve had a young, fair-haired keeper on loan from a Championship club before. Ben Wilson. Google him, it was all fun and games to say the least. But George had a good debut in preseason against Watford so hopefully we can keep his confidence up all season.

In terms of defence we’ve replaced Chris Robertson with Deji Oshilaja, who we’ve had on loan before and has been playing at this level with Gills. Really talented player and isn’t in the mould of old man who can barely run like most of our recent centre backs. It’s a great signing considering Darius Charles seems to like being injured. With full-backs we’ve also brought back another old face in Callum Kennedy. He struggled at Orient last year, but he knows our club, gets the club, and represents us so perfectly. It’s good to have him back but I’m not sure he’s good enough for this league, especially as Meades is another one who always seems to be injured, meaning Kennedy will definitely play a lot.

Losing Reeves in midfield is a massive blow, but we’ve signed Jimmy Abdou on loan, who’s slightly more defensive than the options we’ve had in previous seasons, so hopefully he can bring some much-needed balance and experience to that position. We also expect to bring in another, and youth player Alfie Egan could well get some game time as he progresses through the ranks. With Tom Soares and Dean Parrett already here, we should have a good combination of legs, goal scoring threat and defensiveness, even if it is completely unspectacular.

Wingers…tumbleweed. I did question whether Barcham was good enough last year, and he proved me wrong despite his injuries. So I’ll trust him again this season. On the other flank we have Francomb and Whelpdale, probably the most uninspiring options possible.

Up front is probably our strongest areas, with 3 really good options as mentioned before. The only problem is we’ll probably revert to a defensive 4-3-3 and shove at least one of them on the right and make them play 5 metres form the keeper. We definitely have the potential to score a lot of goals, but I don’t have great confidence in providing the chances we need.

Can the club really have ambition beyond hovering around the bottom half of League One without further development off the pitch?

Every club can dream right? The way I look at it is if a team says they want to win the league, they mean finish in automatic promotions, predicting promotion means play offs, and predicting play offs means you’ll be 5 points off at one point and then fall off. If you think you’ll finish lower than that you’re either getting relegated or are actually realistic. I would agree mid table League One is where we’re at on a good day right now, but I’ll mention the stadium because that’s where you seem to be trying to prod me. The Section 106 agreement has nearly been signed off on, which is essentially legally bribing the council. We’ve had several delays from good old Mayor Boris calling it in, and then the greyhound racing weirdos doing anything they can to save the site, which was then further held up by the election being called. Too much politics to say the least. But once we finally get the new stadium, it’ll provide a good boost in income. Funnily enough, I remember reading through the original plans, which mentioned getting promoted to League One within a few years with “prudent management”. I thought it was crazy at the time but it’s become reality, and it mentioned getting into the Championship too. So you never know.

Are you in favour of binning off our fixture at Kingsmeadow this season and instead having a cage fight between Karl Robinson and your groundsman? That it wasn’t allowed to take place last season in full was extremely disappointing.

I’m more than in favour of that happening, even though Karl will definitely win Charlton the 3 points. It wouldn’t even need to be a real person, just a sack of potatoes that mildly questions Novak’s finishing and he’d be off on a rant and swinging his limbs all over the place.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

We’ll finish in about March as we seem to do every season we’re not going up. Roll over, give up and go on holiday with 10 games left. But seriously, I’m going 16th. It’s a nice rounded number in midtable that doesn’t make me sound too optimistic or pessimistic. But to even finish there we’ll have to get several players to over-perform like we did last year. I don’t really like predicting a full season ahead because a lot changes, and we’re always incredibly unpredictable and inconsistent. We could easily go down if a few things go against us, or, heavens forbid, threaten the infamous top half of the table too.

Summary

Best Scenario – Defence stays stubborn, McDonald and Taylor score goals, League One Status comfortably secured.

Worst Scenario – Lack of quality and depth in squad exposed, McDonald and Taylor can’t make the difference, a return to League Two follows.

Certainly going to be tougher second time around. Will be in a fight to maintain their status as a third-tier club. 20th


Blackburn Rovers

There many facts, statistics and emotions that make a club like Blackburn Rovers’ relegation to League One an embarrassing one. But maybe none more so than the fact that they become the first title winners in the Premier League era to be relegated to the third tier. No other club has fallen from such a high as them.  

Once Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton’s goals were leading them to the summit of English football, now an ownership that are constantly firing off-target are dragging the club further and further down the Football League. The Venky’s, with total ignorance and not appreciating how insulting such a comment is to supporters, determined Blackburn’s relegation from the Championship to be a “temporary setback”. Really, the club are one of the many that have failed on the pitch, and lost a relationship with supporters off it, under the control of a regime that simply does not understand how to run a football club.

And so supporters of Blackburn have become what seems like the millionth set of fans to engage in protest against an inept ownership. Engaging in protest, because their club does not engage with them. Desperately hoping for change, for it only change that will properly allow for their club to rebuild, and recover from the poison that they Venky’s have injected into it.

As such, there remains a worry, a fear, that this inept regime with no genuine care for club nor supporters will obstruct any chance of Tony Mowbray’s side putting last season’s downfall behind them and making an immediate return to the Championship. Second tier status the minimum a club of Blackburn’s size should be holding. This is, after all, the first time they’ve played in the third tier since 1979/1980.

But if someone ignorant to their ownership problems were to assess Rovers’ potential for success on the pitch without the restrictions or worries that others fear, they would see every possibility of achievement. A squad with players of quality, not least in midfield, too good for this division, led by a manager of experience who won’t be fazed by what goes on above. An immediate return to the Championship definitely on the cards if the Venky’s don’t intervene in the negative fashion that they’ve made a habit of.

Success that would offer more relief than joyous scenes of celebration, given that Blackburn shouldn’t even be in this position. It probably wouldn’t even right the wrongs of last season, or allow supporters to forgive the ownership. But it’s desperately needed.

A success needed to avoid the potential of entering complete and inescapable crisis. A success that most certainly can be achieved. A success that, given what’s occurred in previous seasons, would not belong to the poisonous Venky’s regime, but to a set of supporters who deserve a great deal more than what they have been given.

The Manager – Tony Mowbray

Mowbray, for all manner of reason, was on the back foot from the moment he arrived at Ewood Park 31 games into last season’s Championship.

He was, of course, handed a difficult task. Inheriting a side lacking confidence and cohesion, expected to claw them away from the relegation zone while supporters found themselves disillusioned with regime, team and club. Two points from safety, but it seemed like twenty in the circumstances.

So too, however, was Mowbray placed on the back foot simply because he’d been appointed. Disillusioned supporters, particularly given that they had been forced to watch Owen Coyle’s dire football, wanted someone to inspire. Instead they were given someone who had been sacked by a club (Coventry City) who were in League One’s relegation zone earlier on in the season and would ultimately be relegated.

It seemed like, both from the outside and within, a lazy and cheap option for the Venky’s to take. Most of the anger directed towards the ownership, but believing in Mowbray a tough task for those who expected better. Surely not the man to lift this crumbling side away from the threat of League One.

And maybe the final outcome proves his appointment was not the right one. The 53-year-old unable to prevent Rovers from falling to League One. He has a relegation on his CV.

But there no doubt that Mowbray, who has previously managed at West Brom, Celtic and Middlesbrough, had a commendable go at keeping what was a club and side in crisis in England’s second tier. Just three defeats from his 15 games in charge, with vital victories over relegation rivals Wigan Athletic and Nottingham Forest, meant it was ultimately goal difference that relegated Rovers. They probably drew too many games (7) under his tenure, but an extra point, or even a three-goal swing, would have kept Mowbray’s men up.

And so blame for the relegation does not lie heavily at the feet of Mowbray. The regime, Coyle, and the side that failed throughout the season are certainly more responsible. At the very least, the Venky’s had an excuse to stick by their experienced boss for the slog of League One.

So does Mowbray start with a clean state, with the disgust that existed as he was appointed dropped? He did, after all, fail to prevent Blackburn from relegation.

But there were signs in that final period of the season that Mowbray’s management is not so flawed so as to believe he cannot lead an immediate return to the Championship. In a shock twist at Ewood Park, supporters have a degree of faith in a boss.

Transfer Business

A clear out, to cleanse the mouth of the bad taste left by last season and to remove high-earning underperformers off the wage bill, always expected at Ewood Park. And that’s exactly what took place.

The only genuine disappoint among the departures coming from seeing promising winger Connor Mahoney move to Bournemouth, with the 20-year-old rejecting Blackburn’s contract offer to move to Dean Court for a fee likely to be decided by a tribunal, and the release of long-standing midfielder Jason Lowe, who leaves Rovers just five short of a double-century of games in all competitions.

Otherwise, injury-hit and ageing players who still command excessive wages make up the majority of those who have departed Ewood Park. Danny Guthrie, Wes Brown and Gordon Greer among them. Having Lucas Joao and Marvin Emnes, among those who have returned to their parent clubs after loan spells, off the wage bill probably helps too.

What was less certain, particularly with a lack of trust in the Venky’s, was what would be replacing those that had left the club. Some feared Rovers would be scrapping the bottom of the barrel for players simply not suitable for a push for promotion for League One. Others hoped the ownership would stick to their words and commit to an immediate return to the Championship.

And based on the quality of what has arrived so far, it would appear that there is in fact a commitment to getting the club out of the third tier at the first attempt.

Not least given the standard of signings in midfield. Tears shed as Peter Whittingham departed Cardiff City, a cult hero with many still believing he could perform at Championship, and as such a real coup to get such an experienced and talented midfielder to Ewood Park who seems perfect for the situation Blackburn find themselves in, while Bradley Dack (Gillingham) and Ben Gladwin (QPR, but with several spells at Swindon) have proven themselves to be two of the best creative midfielders in League One over previous seasons. With Richie Smallwood also snapped up on a free following his departure from Rotherham, a hard-working battler who has experience but is still only 26, Rovers have made their midfield terrifyingly strong.

The signing of Dominic Samuel, arriving on a permanent from Reading after loan spells all over the country, also seems a positive one, particularly with Anthony Stokes leaving shortly after and Rovers short enough on strikers even after the 23-year-old’s signing. The forward is still raw, but has a positive goal-scoring record at League One level despite relative inexperience, and has the attributes to mean his potential can be fulfilled. Certainly a signing far away from the half-arsed journeymen they attempted to rely on to keep them away from League One.

A bit of a journeyman, who isn’t necessarily half-arsed, is Paul Caddis. The Scot arrives having spent much of last season injured, making a return for Bury in the second half of it having been released by Birmingham City. But he left St Andrews with cult hero status, is certainly a useful addition for this level, and his versatility, primarily a right-back but also able to play at left-back and further forward if desperately required, will prove particularly useful.

Nonetheless, it remains the case that more is needed. Depth required, or Rovers might find themselves reliant on youngsters that aren’t ready for first-team football. But the signings made so far are of high League One quality, and as such statements of intent.

The Squad

Until Samuel rocked up, there was a very real concern that Blackburn would have to adopt the Spanish systems (no, I’m not sure how I’ve come to write those words in that order either) of the late 2000s and shove some random midfielder where the forward should be. Has Peter Whittingham played up top before?

But another body makes their attacking options a little less concerning. In Danny Graham, who notched 12 times in 28 starts last season, they have one of the best natural goal-scorers in the division, while Samuel, with League One experience to his name having spent time on loan at Coventry City and Gillingham, has pace, power and potential. Though Mowbray will probably opt for one up top, with one of the attacking midfielders in the number ten role, another forward or two is still needed to supplement what they have.

Their greatest strength in midfield. Gladwin and Dack likely to be the main creative presences, with Whittingham playing in a slightly deeper role in his advancing years, and Smallwood a natural to the tough-tackling defensive position. They’re joined by Corry Evans, another in the tough-tackling mould and who has over a century of league appearances for the club, and 19-year-old Willem Tomlinson, who made his debut for Rovers and has taken a full part in pre-season with the first team.

Another wide option, however, probably something that’s required. Craig Conway, even at 32, arguably too good for this level, while both Elliott Bennett and Liam Feeney have performed at a higher standard and should have no trouble doing a job in the third tier, but there’s little beyond that. Whittingham has played on the left in the past but no longer has the pace, Dack flirted with playing out wide while at Gillingham, but ultimately another winger should be on Mowbray’s hit list.

A similar scenario at the back, where the options are strong but you’d love a bit more. Last season’s POTY, if that has much value, Derrick Williams, Elliott Ward, Darragh Lenihan, and Charlie Mulgrew will form a strong back line for this level, while Jason Steele is most definitely an excellent goalkeeper. Smallwood can fill in if required, but young centre-backs Scott Wharton and Ryan Nyambe, who at least has 25-games worth of experience to his name at just 19, are the most natural replacements if there are injuries, while Caddis is the only experienced alternative at full-back.

That lack of depth, particularly with a healthy variety of youngster involved throughout pre-season, is more a frustration than anything else. Their starting XI is very strong, and you could flog together an unbalanced bench of players that would get into starting line-ups of almost every team. But there are some concerns.

Quality throughout, but a lack of options may prove problematic over the course of a 46-game season if the squad is not added to prior to the campaign getting underway. And really, it’s only one or two bodies, that are just going to act as cover, required per position to allow Blackburn to feel comfortable. Something I’m sure will be sorted in time.

Fans View – Jonathan Secker (@JonathanSecker1)

Embarrassing, crisis, a club being ripped apart from the inside. There have been all sorts of attempts to describe went on last season. So just how did Blackburn Rovers, former winners of the Premier League, end up suffering Relegation from the Championship?

Ultimately the table doesn’t lie and we weren’t good enough but the poor management off the field was the telling blow. Appointing Owen Coyle was a recipe for disaster and was never going to work, how he lasted until February is beyond me. I went to the Rotherham game in early February and in all fairness we should have won the game by half-time but once Rotherham went ahead the fans turned and it was as toxic as I’d seen at a game (Note – I wasn’t at the Bolton game with Steve Kean in charge).

We didn’t invest properly over the summer and whereas some of the signings were met with optimism (Graham, Samuelson, even Stokes) the fact we spent £250,000 after selling around £10 million worth of talent (£20 million the season before) says it all.

The frustrating thing is that we competed most of the season and never really got thrashed but our habit for conceding late goals haunted us again and again. We had players that could score goals in Graham and Gallagher but had creative talents such as Mahoney and Samuleson sitting on the bench – Coyle rarely used his substitutes. We were week in central midfield and struggled to field a consistent centre half pairing due to injuries. The FA cup game against Man United was there for all to see what we could do. We pushed them hard and were unlucky to lose, the goal Graham scored was one of the highlights of the season for us.

The fact we went down on goal difference still hurts and ponders so many ifs and buts…. though I think all Rovers fans would agree with Mowbray (or anyone bar Coyle) in position for the season we wouldn’t have been relegated

Of course, the goal will be an immediate return to the Championship, but how big is the concern that the Venky’s will obstruct any chance of achieving that?

It’s a concern no doubt for all Rovers fans but at the same time they’ve invested more in this window then we’ve seen for a long time. Many people thought (and hoped) that relegation would see the Venky’s sell up.

The only negative quibble I’ve heard recently is that they blocked a move for Tony McMahon from Bradford earlier this summer but with us already having Ryan Nyambe and recently signing Paul Caddis I’m not sure that’s a problem.

We’ve probably invested more than any other League one club this window in transfers as well as keeping our academy Category one status. The fact they backed Mowbray very quickly at the end of the last season and met him in India is also encouraging.

Reading that back it sounds like plain sailing but I’d be naïve to think there wasn’t a hiccup or two ahead of us this season. I think the fact we have a good squad, a trusted manager and that we should win more games this season in comparison to the previous 2/3 means the Venky’s might be pushed to the back of the fans mind (I’m planning to do so).

Tony Mowbray seemed a strange appointment but, though not succeeding in keeping Rovers up, did relatively well at the end of last season and might well be the experienced, thick-skinned figure that is required for the situation the club finds itself in. Do you have confidence in him?

Yes 100% – if he was appointed at Christmas last season then we would have comfortably finished mid-table in the Championship. I’d admit he was never my first choice but his enthusiasm for the game, the way he talks, the way he wants the team to play is very impressive. I sat close to the dugout when we played Bristol City on Easter Monday and for the whole 90 minutes he was talking to the players, pushing them to get on the ball, keep the shape and really try and influence the game.

As was always going to be the case after relegation, Rovers’ squad has seen a bit of reshaping. High earners out, a few players that appeared very talented at this level in. How would you assess your squad?

Happy, potentially very happy – another striker (or two) needed and I’d be content. But I think our bigger challenge at the moment is keeping hold of some of our key players such as Lenihan and Mulgrew, and personally I think if an offer came in for Steele we would sell as we have a more than able younger keeper in Raya.

The signing of Dack has really excited fans and with Whittingham and Smallwood we may see something that resembles a creative and combative midfield in comparison to the last few seasons. Any more incomings are likely to be loans and hopefully premier league loans as Mowbray has a good track record from his time at Coventry and what he did with Armstrong and Murphy (to name a couple).

At the end of last season we released eight players and had five go back to parent clubs but realistically from that 13 there were only two or three that fans would have wanted to keep. The hardest one to take losing has been Connor Mahoney – a local lad, supports the club and would have thrived and shined league One

Other clubs in similar situations to yourselves, high profile but relegated to the third tier with concerns over ownership, have not delivered. Do those examples, such as Charlton last season, fill you with a little bit of fear or are Blackburn in a better state than that?

If I’d answered that in May then I was full of fear, I could only see cost cutting and potentially administration ahead of us. At that point in time I would struggle to name a handful of teams that were run worse than Rovers.

Answering it right now I’d more glass half full, it appears (using that term loosely) our owners have realised they need to invest to move us forward and the only way they will get their money back is to get us back to the premier league. They seem to trust Tony Mowbray and have given him money to invest in some proven League One players. Even so it can’t be forgotten how financially dependent we are on the Venky’s and that statement is a worry in itself.

Football wise I’m looking at past years examples of Southampton, Norwich, Leicester in one-step backwards for two steps forward as opposed to Charlton.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I can’t say anything but top two and automatic promotion though part of me would like to see us go up via the play-offs as I’ve never seen Rovers at Wembley, but I’m not sure many fellow Rovers would agree with or want that!

Summary

Best case – Venky’s keep quiet, Mowbray gets a hardworking squad to stay injury free, automatic promotion.

Worst case – Venky’s get involved, injuries take their toll on a small squad, slump to a mid-table finish.

You worry that the club as a whole has taken a huge knock, or that the Venky’s while do damage we’re yet to see, but it would appear for the moment they’re well placed for an immediate return to the Championship. In fact, with depth added in attack, they become the team to beat. 1st


Blackpool

The Oyston family are poison. A brand of poison so intense that their ownership has prevented Blackpool supporters from celebrating last season’s promotion to League One. In fact, many aren’t even sure if it’s a positive thing.

Prior to the trip to Wembley, where a 2-1 victory over Exeter City saw an immediate return to the third tier for the Tangerines, Tim Fielding, the Blackpool Supporters Trust’s honorary vice-president, suggested that promotion might not be in the best interests of the club, as it wouldn’t help to facilitate the selling of it. A view, or at least a concern, shared by the many not wishing to see Karl and Owen Oyston’s position strengthened. Whether among the masses boycotting, or the relative few in attendance both throughout the season and at Wembley, the opposition to this regime is as intense as the love for Blackpool Football Club once was.

The cynics will suggest that Blackpool supporters have merely turned their back on their club, and as such aren’t real supporters. But, in fact, it is quite the opposite. They are showing resilience in a fight to take it out of the hands of an ownership that, aside from overseeing a collapse from Premier League to League Two, has stripped money from the club and attempted to sue supporters quite rightfully voicing their discount in previous years.

And so the unfortunate truth is that celebrating promotion in a manner considered natural is a tough ask when disconnection and discontent remain the overriding emotions around Bloomfield Road. An immediate return to League One does not brush the damage done by the Oystons under the carpet. There no action that can be taken that will result in forgiveness and normality returning while they remain in control.

A normality that supporters want. There no question that supporters want to return to supporting their side, and that for each week they are forced to remain away from Bloomfield Road their anger at this destructive regime increases. There heartbreak, that the soulless Oystons could simply not understand.

As such, regardless of what is achieved on the pitch this season, it will matter little to the majority of Blackpool supporters who have lost touch with a club that sees them as the enemy. The only success worth celebrating would be the Oystons finally selling up. And only then could any other success, or even an unpleasant goalless draw at home to Rochdale on a cold Tuesday evening, be appreciated as it should be for a football supporter.

The Manager – Gary Bowyer

While some may argue that to work under such a controversial ownership requires a questionable set of morals, that Bowyer achieved success in the circumstances at Bloomfield Road makes his efforts particularly commendable ones.

Surely impossible to have a truly positive relationship with such a gruesome owner and chairman, a complete reshaping of the squad required with a dozen in and a dozen out last summer, and having to ignore the crisis occurring in the background once standing in the technical area.

Managers in these situations pretend what goes on above and around them can be easily ignored, and his previous managerial experience with the Venky’s in his ears at Blackburn probably gave him a particularly thick skin, but in the state Blackpool are in few are falling for the idea it had no impact whatsoever.

At the very least, it meant Bowyer had the challenge of getting the most out of something of a mish-mash of a squad. Scraped together, with the occasional player of high League Two quality among it. That Bowyer did enough, in the circumstances and with the tools he had available, to achieve promotion cannot be downplayed as an outstanding accomplishment.

But, with the same restrictions and complications in place, getting the most out of a squad so that they compete in the tier above is another story. Compete against stronger opposition, with a squad that hasn’t seen much, if any, relative strengthening. Compete to the extent that he’ll be able to keep his side away from a gruelling relegation battle.

With crisis above, and weakness within the squad, Blackpool are reliant on the intelligence and leadership of Bowyer to keep them away from an immediate return to League Two.

Transfer Business

As is probably to be expected of a club in such an unstable state, irrespective of their promotion, there has been another summer at Blackpool of many exits and plenty of arrivals. But whether the required quality to compete in League One has been added is questionable.

Among the departures are several simply not required, who played very few games last season and have been released without much of a second thought. Defender Eddie Nolan, midfielders Henry Cameron and John Herron, and forward Jack Redshaw falling into that category. Another clear out at Bloomfield Road.

But a handful of the other exits have been a little more difficult to justify, particularly those that have been allowed to leave without a fight. Regular goalkeeper Sam Slocombe released despite starting the play-off final, talented playmaker Jack Payne let go regardless of his 38 appearances last season and being another who started at Wembley, and captain Tom Aldred departs to Bury having turned down a new contract.

A need also to consider the losses of Neil Danns, Jordan Flores and Sanmi Odelusi, with the trio returning to their parent clubs after positive loan spells in the second half of last season.

At least Blackpool haven’t stood still and allowed the departed to go unreplaced. The goalkeeper situation, exasperated by Dean Lyness also being released, addressed by the arrivals of experienced League One stopper Ben Williams and Bournemouth loanee Ryan Allsop, while Congo international Christoffer Mafoumbi joins from South African side Free State Stars following a successful trial. Williams, released by Bury at the end of last season, takes the number one shirt.

In defence comes the tried and the untested. Experienced defensive additions take the shape of full-back Oliver Turton, a regular at Crewe Alexandra for several seasons but moves to Bloomfield Road having rejected their contract offer during the summer, and Peter Hartley, who endured a torrid time with injury at Bristol Rovers last season but has been a strong enough performer at League Two in the past to suggest he can step up to this level. Greater gambles taken on Nick Wilmer-Anderton, a 21-year-old full-back who impressed for play-off chasing Barrow in the National League last season, and Curtis Tilt, a 25-year-old centre-back who spent most of the previous campaign at Wrexham before joining Forest Green Rovers on loan to supplement their charge towards promotion.

Further forward, playmaker Jimmy Ryan arrives from Fleetwood Town on the back of a season of injury not too dissimilar to Hartley’s, but having previously displayed his ability in League One and seems the likely candidate to replace the hole left by Payne, while creative midfielder Callum Cooke provides a further option having joined on loan from Middlesbrough. A show of faith also given to released Bolton forward Max Clayton, who at 22 still has plenty of time to fulfil his potential, but racked up more long-term injuries than goals in his three seasons at the Macron Stadium.

Ultimately, and probably a consequence of the position that they’re in, the Tangerines have had to take a number of risks and gambles in going about attempting to improve their squad.

The Squad

In spite of the undoubted issues the club has, and the questionable quality and reliability of the additions made to the squad, there has to be talent within a side to achieve promotion. And that there is.

Particularly in the shape of talented playmaker Brad Potts, who scored 13 times and led Blackpool’s midfield in the previous campaign. A scorer at Wembley, and quite possibly the difference in general between being among the also-rans and promotion. And given that importance, it vital he remains at Bloomfield Road for the Tangerines to have a realistic chance of competing this season, but interest in him won’t cool until September 1st.

Another strength in Bowyer’s side is that, though switching between four and three at the back, they were relatively settled in defence, resulting in only Portsmouth and Luton Town conceding less than the 46 they did. And while the leader of that defence, Aldred, departs, the rest of it remains. Right-back Kelvin Mellor, who also pushed further forward, with a wealth of Football League experience, Scot Clark Robertson a regular in Blackpool’s back line for two seasons having arrived from Aberdeen, and left-back Andy Taylor previously involved with promotion pushes from League One with Sheffield United and Walsall.

Hartley the most likely candidate to fill the hole left by Aldred, or possibly Will Aimson who got some game time during the previous campaign, while it seemingly the case that the rest of the defensive arrivals will provide competition to what’s already in place.

Competing for a place alongside Potts, whose box-to-box nature means you can play an attacking or defensive midfielder alongside him, are recent signings Ryan and Cooke. But more is needed, particularly with Jim McAlister missing the start of the campaign has his continues to recover from a broken leg sustained at the start of the calendar year.

At least Bowyer has a wealth of options who can play on the wingers, whether it their natural position or not. Experienced left-midfielder Colin Daniel, with some competition from teenager Bright Osayi-Samuel, the only player to really hold down a position on the flanks last season, as all sorts came and went, from full-backs to forwards. Armand Gnanduillet, Danny Philliskirk, Jamille Matt and Nathan Delfouneso among the body of forwards-who-don’t-really-score-goals-but-have-a-bit-of-pace-and-so-get-shoved-out-wide-sometimes.

While centrally, Mark Cullen, who really impressed towards the end of last season and supplemented that with a hat-trick in the play-off semi-final win over Luton and the winner at Wembley, probably has his place in the side cemented. Clayton and Kyle Vassell, scorer of 11 goals last season, competing if two are played up top, and Bowyer able to pluck from his army of winger-cum-forwards if all goes wrong.

Options in most areas, but quality, and positive experiences above League Two for that matter, runs very thin.

Fans View – Jason Steed (@JasonSteed14)

It must feel like something of a chore to have to answer anything Blackpool related when the first thing that must come to mind at present are the Oystons and the damage they have done to your club. Can you put into the words the pain you’ve been through in recent years?

No words can do justice to what that family has done to the club. They have affected more than just a football club, they have damaged a whole town, sued and bankrupted fans, the list is endless. When the miracle happened and we got promoted to the promised land of the premier league, we had a chance to really make our mark, instead they took 11 million instantly out of the club and into there own back pockets. The day that family leaves the football club will be a tremendous day, not only for the club but for the town itself.

The crisis that exists at your club can seemingly be best understood by the fact there’s an argument over whether promotion was actually a good thing. How did winning the play-offs, with the club in the position it’s in, make you feel?

It seems absurd that we are in a situation where you’re asking me whether my team being promoted is a good thing, but that’s how ridiculous the situation has become! It was a difficult one, a real difficult one. It’s hard to put into words the whole scenario but obviously no one wants there team to be continuing to drop down leagues. The one thing I would say is the promotion was down to Gary Bowyer and his team, and not the board.

Irrespective, it remains a success to achieve promotion, and as such do you admire the work that Gary Bowyer has done?

The guy deserves a bloody knighthood. We were in complete free fall. They play in a home ground that’s 80% empty, it must be horrendous. He deserves a lot of credit and to be honest I am surprised someone hasn’t poached him off us. I’m making him sound like a god here but when your previous manages include Paul Ince, Lee Clark and Neil Mcdonald, it’s hard not to.

Bowyer’s squad has seen change, but not much strengthening over the summer, and you don’t exactly appear well equipped for the challenges of League One. Not that that really comes as any surprise with the Oystons above him. Are you concerned that an immediate return to League Two is on the cards?

If I’m completely honest, I think we will do okay and end up around mid-table. At this level if you get your team structured and organised with a little bit of flair going forward you tend to do okay. I don’t believe the difference between League One and Two is all that much different, so unless something dramatic changes in the upcoming weeks I don’t think there is too much to worry about.

What is more important this season – maintaining your League One status or the Oystons selling up? 

Oystons selling up by a country mile. We want our football club back. We want to see Bloomfield road bouncing again. I want to be able to go back to Bloomfield road, it may be a 4 hour round trip from where I live and the M6 may be the worst motorway in history but I miss it, miss it a lot!

And finally, where will you finish this season? 

Mid-table-ish, we’ll go with 14th.

Summary

Best Case – Bowyer battles again, his squad responds, survival secured despite what’s occurring above.

Worst Case – The Oystons actually start bare knuckle fights with supporters, Bowyer looks on confused, Blackpool are relegated.

Difficult to see how a club in such a state, with a comparatively weak squad, compete in the third tier. 24th


Bradford City

As the Bantams begin their League One season against Blackpool, there no doubt the minds of their supporters will be full of memories of the heartbreak of Wembley. Steve Morison’s winner for Millwall with just five minutes to play in the play-off final the reason that Bradford’s efforts last season have not been rewarded with Championship football during this one, and instead find themselves slogging through the third tier once again.

There will, of course, be a concerted effort to move on from those efforts. But moving on is a challenge when a sense of misfortune and hard luck, only natural after losing such a game in such a fashion, clouds the mind. In a contest that saw both sides enjoy periods of relative control, that single goal could have so easily belonged to Bradford.

But so too will they look to the regular season. Particularly at the fact that, despite remaining unbeaten at Valley Parade throughout the campaign, they only had the fifth best home record in the division. Valley Parade might have been a fortress, but too many teams were allowed to leave without scars.

In fact, as was the case at Wembley, throughout the campaign Stuart McCall’s men weren’t ruthless enough. Diligent and determined, no doubt, but often lacking the quality to turn the just a handful of 12 home draws in a few more victories. Something that may prove more difficult now that Mark Marshall, the winger that led their attacking drive, has departed for Charlton.

Ultimately, therefore, there’s a sense that a chance has been wasted. A sense that, at least in the short-term, there won’t be a better chance for the Bantams to make a return to the second tier of English football for the first time since the 2003/04 season.

That not to say Bradford won’t be competing again during this season. The motivational and general managerial qualities of McCall means their little doubt the side will bounce back from their disappointment, and there remains that resilience and resolve about the squad. They are one of League One’s better sides.

But the task will be tougher. A tougher 46 game slog, and certainly more draining than attempting to find the winner at Wembley. Their best chance gone.

The Manager – Stuart McCall

Something of a throwaway comment, but there no doubt that McCall would have been hurting as much as each and every Bradford fan in the aftermath of his side’s play-off final defeat.

With 395 league appearances and three spells leading from the sidelines at Valley Parade, the former Scotland international’s connection with the Bantams is undisputed. A tough and uncompromising figure, who came “close to clocking” the Millwall fans who entered the Wembley pitch come full-time in May. But his heart would have sunk as deep as any as Morison found the back of Bradford’s net.

He won’t, however, be one of those who will be sat around sulking throughout pre-season and as the new campaign gets underway. The 53-year-old will simply be more determined to achieve promotion with the club that has become his home. A mentality he will hammer into his squad with forcefulness and intent.

That determined mentality one his sides always carry. Defensively sound, tough in midfield, and fighters for points a weaker unit might not have got. A good collective spirit built up in the Bradford side that McCall inherited from Phil Parkinson, and subsequently built upon, and he’ll need to dig deep to get last season’s disappointment out of their systems and retain that.

So too is there some rebuilding work for McCall to do, needing to slot new faces into his side in key positions. In truth, a few fresh faces not scarred by consecutive play-off disappointments may help. But the men lost were key, and make the Scot’s task of getting Bradford to challenge once again a tougher one.

His main task, however, is to resolve the issue his side had in turning draws into wins during the previous campaign. No question the fight and resolve will be there, but greater attacking threat and potency is required. A tough test for a boss who is renowned for a more dogged, workmanlike, approach to his football.

At the very least, there no doubt McCall will lift the Bantams, and there no doubt there will be support for him. He’s the sort of figure you want in these situations.

Transfer Business

A failure to gain promotion, irrespective of how commendable an effort it was, was always going to have some negative consequences on Bradford. And the main negative consequence is that several stalwarts have departed. To try their hand at Championship football, or attempt to gain promotion at an alternative top six challenger.

An argument to be had over who the biggest loss will be, but Bradford are certainly much weaker going forward without Mark Marshall’s wing play. Six goals, several assists, and a general creative threat that constantly led the Bantam’s forward moves. A match-winner who Charlton now have at their disposal, with Billy Clarke, a figure who many aren’t too fussed about losing having frustrated supporters at Valley Parade more and more over recent seasons, also heading to SE7.

The departure of James Meredith, made worse by his decision to join the side who inflicted play-off final defeat on the Bantams, only fractionally less harmful than that of Marshall. Somewhat underrated to a wider audience, but one of the most consistent full-backs at League One level during an extended period at Valley Parade, the Australian has been a key figure in Bradford’s relative success in recent season. Some pressure on Adam Chicksen, signed having been released by Charlton Athletic despite performing with little fault in at The Valley, to fill the void left by Meredith.

In fact, across Bradford’s back line have reliable and long-standing figures departed. Stephen Darby, who heads to Bolton, and Rory McArdle, snapped up by Scunthorpe, were far from ever-presents last season but both reached a double-century of appearances for the Bantams and the consistency and influence of both will be missed. Time to move on, some might suggest, but the pair still had much to offer.

There does, however, remain strength in defence, particularly with Chicksen slotting into Meredith’s position, and so Bradford’s focus this summer has been on improving their forward options.

Shay McCartan, having earned a Northern Ireland cap in the summer while still an Accrington Stanley player, arrives with promise, Paul Taylor, having scored nine times for Peterborough last season in a second spell at the club, arrives with experience, and Dominic Poleon, probably favouring the wide positions more than he does the central role, will probably have to fill Mark Marshall’s boots despite frustrating AFC Wimbledon supporters at times last season irrespective of the 12 goals he scored in all competitions.

Elsewhere, Alex Gilliead returns on loan from Newcastle, probably to act as cover in the wide positions, while Jake Reeves, another who joins from AFC Wimbledon, is an excellent addition who adds a touch of creative quality to the centre of midfield.

Quality snatched away, dependables departing, and plenty arriving but of variable quality. On balance, it probably a summer that leaves Bradford weaker.

The Squad

Players lost, but that there remains a solid core to Bradford’s squad is a sign of their strength, and a sign of the resolve that McCall has attempted to instil in his side. But there some questions to be asked.

Tony McMahon, Nathaniel Knight-Percival and Adam Chicksen almost certainties to take up three of the back four positions, standing ahead of Colin Doyle, but some doubt who will partner Knight-Percival in the centre of defence. Gordon Greer has been on trial as McCall hunts for another defensive option, Romain Vincelot, or more likely Timothee Dieng, could drop from midfield, and the experienced Matt Kilgallon rarely got a game last season but remains with the squad. Regardless, some cover, and particularly in the full-back, positions wouldn’t go amiss.

It more likely that Vincelot, the classic battling midfielder with an outstanding set-up of facial hair, will lead the Bantams from the middle, with several very strong options to partner him. Nicky Law and very promising youngster Danny Devine joining Dieng and Reeves. It probably in the centre of midfield where Bradford are at their strongest.

And despite the loss of Marshall, there are a plethora of attacking options, just maybe none quite in his mould. Charlie Wyke and Alex Jones, out and out forwards, impressed after arriving in January, and will be accompanied by McCartan, Poleon, and Taylor. It might well be the case that two of the forwards will need to hover out wide, for natural wingers are almost non-existent in McCall’s squad.

A solid, battling core, and a handful of players that will contribute towards a forward threat. But there feels a slight lack of depth, and something of an imbalance in attack.

Fans View – Josh Chapman (@JRCSport)

As a Charlton fan, I’ve spent the last seven years having nightmares about Steve Morison. They’re not fun, are they?

Without Steve Morison I would have never got the undoubted pleasure of watching a Millwall fan punch a police horse in the face on Wembley Way before getting a crack over the head with a baton so I’ll thank him for leaving me with them images!

Wembley won’t be remembered for the football, it will always be remembered as the day Millwall dared to go where people thought not even Millwall would dare to go and we go again this season.

After all, who needs that derby against Leeds when you’ve got the glamour away days of Shrewsbury and Milton Keynes? (Thanks Billy Clarke!)

Not only did you lose at Wembley, but you failed to make the most of an unbeaten home record. How big a wasted opportunity was last season, and are you really going to get another chance as good as that to achieve promotion?

Personally I think that last season was a stepping stone to allow Stuart and the German owners to get a feel for the division and the team and making Wembley for the play-off final was an unexpected bonus so it was an opportunity missed.

Stuart now has put his own stamp on the place once again and this summer has built what he feels is his team to take that next step and if anything bar Blackburn, I think League One is a far weaker division this time around so if we can keep our home form as good as it is and turn a few of them draws into wins we could achieve something special.

But, I’m keeping my feet firmly to the ground and I’m expecting a mid-table finish this time around to build up the side once more before pushing on for promotion again in 2019.

Valley Parade has been something of a fortress for some time, but with far too many draws. How do you turn those draws into wins? Is a goal scoring forward needed, or a more dynamic and adventurous set-up at home?

Teams don’t like coming to Valley Parade, it’s a fact. The stadium is always bouncing and it gets to opposition players especially coming into that cauldron of colour and noise from a dressing room as small as the visitors one is at VP.

We just need to stop frustrating ourselves by expecting everything to happen at once when we’re on the attack and just switch on that extra 5 or 10 percent in defence and we could sweep teams off the field.

We have two goalscoring forwards in Charlie Wyke and Alex Jones and with Dominic Poleon added from Wimbledon, if the likes of McMahon, Reeves, Law etc. can provide the assists then we’ll have no problems finding the back of the net this time around.

Mark Marshall, James Meredith and Stephen Darby are among those to depart Valley Parade this summer. A squad not only hurt by last season’s experiences, but is it one that is considerably weaker?

Failure to gain promotion meant James Meredith was always going to leave and it’s about time he jumped up a level as he’s far too good for League One, it’s just a shame he had to join Millwall of all teams.

The loss of Stephen Darby is one that upsets me but I think with Tony McMahon making the right back position his own, it was time for Darbs to move on and Mark Marshall to Charlton is a loss which might seem to leave a hole but I think we can survive without him.

The biggest departure in my eyes is Rory McArdle to Scunthorpe, which was sad in itself as it means all of our history makers squad of 2012/13 has now left the club.

Rory was Mr Dependable at the back and was always good for a few goals from set pieces and his aerial prowess and leadership leaves a massive hole in the side and the defence.

We might seem weaker on paper but we said the same thing 12 months ago and we ended up 90 minutes from Championship football. I’ll never forgive Billy Clarke for that miss against Millwall at Wembley so you’re welcome to him at Charlton!

Despite the traumatic experience at Wembley and the blows taken to the squad, you still have Stuart McCall in charge. The perfect man for this situation?

McGod. What a man.

Most clubs in pre-season going on fitness camps in hot sunny climates, Bradford City go for a pre-season friendly against the owners hometown club and then are led by the gaffer to go on the lash with the fans.

For the record, unlike some of the cringeworthy ‘Bantams Family’ supporters we have, I for one applaud them going out on the sesh for team bonding and to build that superb relationship our players and management have with the supporters.

We’ve seen it on many occasions when legendary players go back to their clubs and fail as the manager, Stuart laid the foundations for Phil Parkinson first time around and this time has taken over what Phil left behind and made it into something bigger and better.

If I could hand pick one man to manage us back into the Championship after 14 long years then it would be god himself, Stuart.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I think a comfortable mid-table finish this season around as the overall of key personnel in the squad might take a season to gel before pushing on. If we were to end up challenging for promotion once more I’d say that’s an added bonus but I wouldn’t expect too much from City except good home results and lots of draws!

Summary

Best Case – McCall galvanises, replacements make loses seem irrelevant, a near-repeat of the previous campaign

Worst Case – Another play-off disappointment finally takes its toll, defensive cracks and a lack of cutting edge out wide shows, a slump to mid-table.

Their battling efforts will allow them to never be too far away from the top six. Will still be regretting not finding the winner at Wembley throughout the campaign, though. 8th


Bristol Rovers

Momentum was on their side, and the intelligence and guile of a man who had led the club to successive promotions, but there seemed few convincing arguments to suggest Bristol Rovers would not be involved in a relegation battle last season.

They had, after all, been playing non-league football just two seasons ago, their budget and resources tiny in comparison to many other League One clubs, and despite playing in the third tier as recently as 2010/11 this seemed like a step too far. A huge challenge for Darrell Clarke’s side to maintain its place in League One. One that many felt they would struggle to do.

Rovers, however, laughed emphatically at those who suggested stabilising after successive promotions would be too much for them. Peterborough United, MK Dons and Charlton Athletic among those who sat behind them as they achieved a quite incredible 10th place finish. With successive defeats always followed by a more positive result, the mental toughness and quality of this Rovers side meant there was never any chance the Memorial Stadium would be hosting League Two football again this season.

In terms of individual quality, it certainly lacks when compared to other sides. But under the leadership of Clarke, Rovers’ collective unit has an ability to win games of football, and to grind out results against those sides that are seemingly stronger. There top-half finish last season no fluke, and well earned.

The question, however, is where do Rovers go from this point? After three seasons of superb progression, is a fourth expected? Or have the Gas, given the limitations in resources they have that cannot be downplayed despite the success they’ve had, reached a glass ceiling?

They could, of course, take motivation from a club like Fleetwood Town flirting with promotion last season, or even Burton Albion finding their way into the Championship and successfully staying there. Sides like Bristol Rovers have fought for promotion from League One in previous campaigns.

But maybe it would be more realistic, for both club and its supporters, to enter the campaign with targets that don’t necessarily match what they achieved last season. To admit that they overachieved, and to either repeat or build on that is going to be too much. A comfortable mid-table finish would be a positive effort.

You get the impression, however, that Rovers, not least under Clarke, aren’t just going to settle for the absolute minimum.

The Manager – Darrell Clarke

With successive promotions and now an unlikely top half finish to his name, it really is a surprise that no managerless Championship clubs have lured Clarke away from the Memorial Stadium.

He certainly deserves a chance to impress at a higher level. With an astute persona, tactical intelligence, and inspirational qualities that allow him to lead a squad to overachievement, there no questioning his ability. It reasonable to think ultimately the 39-year-old, who still has a long managerial career ahead of him, will be in charge of a side playing at a level above League One sooner rather than later, and that despite recently signing a new contract at the Memorial Stadium.

And were that not to be at Bristol Rovers, you get the sense that, as long he’s not pictured holding a red shirt from the other half of Bristol, he would depart without any anger or bitterness from those that have supported him over the previous three-and-a-half years. His achievements make him at least a club icon, if not a legend. Once the tears have dried, there would only be pride in seeing Clarke’s career progress.

But for now, there is a desperate hope he will remain in charge of the Gas for as long as possible. The man that has led this club up the divisions, and the man that continues to give supporters belief of overachievement. A squad to shape, individuals to motivate, and a collective to form that’s once again much stronger than the sum of its parts.

And though his task this season will be a tougher one, a tougher task for the club in general to compete as they did last season, it’s impossible for followers of the Gas to feel any sense of fear while such a reassuring figure leads their team.

Transfer Business

In preparation for their second season in League One, Bristol Rovers’ side has seen quite a turnover in players.

A large percentage of those departing are players that have been with the club has they’ve risen through the divisions, or even part of the side that won promotion from League Two, and aren’t quite up to the standard of the third tier. Emotional disappointment that midfielder Lee Mansell, who has retired after not being offered a fresh contract, departs given that his winning penalty in the Conference play-off final began this rise, fellow centre-mid Jake Gosling is another who leaves that played at Wembley, while winger Cristian Montano and forward Jermaine Easter both made minor contributions last season having helped the Gas into the division. But it’s the right time for all to move on.

Goalkeepers Will Puddy (released) and Steve Mildenhall (retired to become part of the coaching staff) have also departed having been part of the rise from the start, but it won’t be one of that pair that new arrivals Sam Slocombe and Adam Smith will be battling to replace. Joe Lumley was mightily impressive during a spell on loan from QPR in the second half of last season, but returns to his parent club. Both the new arrivals were regulars for Blackpool and Northampton respectively last season, but given that Smith’s football came at League One level, it’s he that appears favourite for the number one spot.

There also departures for centre-back Peter Hartley (Blackpool), who scored five goals from centre-back last season but spent much of it injured, and full-back Bob Harris, having failed to earn a longer contract after arriving on a short-term deal towards the end of last season.

Aside from addressing the distinct lack of people capable of standing between the posts, the most obvious position that needed supplementing on the basis of who has departed was probably the centre of midfield. Liam Sercombe, who attracted interest from a number of clubs despite being placed on an indefinite ban at Oxford United for disciplinary reasons, joining the Gas with talent but maybe a few issues away from the field to resolve.

But there also questions over where the goals would come from that have been there since Matty Taylor’s acrimonious departure in January and, particularly with the talented Ryan Sweeney returning to Stoke after a period on loan, limited options in defence.

Tom Nichols, scorer of 13 goals in all competitions for Peterborough United last season but far from a fan favourite at London Road, arrives with hope of answering the goals question, while centre-back Tom Broadbent has been offered a chance in professional football having previously played for Hayes & Yeading and for the Army’s football side. A chance also offered to young Arsenal left-back Marc Bola, who joins on loan for the season having done a reasonable job during a brief stint in League Two with Notts County during the previous campaign.

Stalwarts not quite up to it anymore moved on at the right time, but the quality of those replacing them indifferent.

The Squad

I would suggest that it’s important to keep in mind when assessing Rovers’ squad just how important the collective is. There are few standout figures, which is probably why most of what wanted to kept from last season remains in place, but Clarke has formed a strong unit in a positive environment.

At least three figures that remain in Clarke’s squad were regulars in his back four, and it would appear they are likely to keep their place in the side going into this season. Daniel Leadbitter a reasonable full-back whose pace means he likes to get forward, skipper Tom Lockyer an ever-present at centre-back, and left-back Lee Brown passed 250 league appearances for the club.

The centre-back spot alongside Lockyer was filled in the latter stages of last season by Sweeney, and so James Clarke, having started in that role 19 times last season, and new signing Broadbent will compete for it, but another central defender is probably needed. Joe Partington, signed from Eastleigh in January, and Bola provide alternatives in the full-back positions.

If Lockyer leads from the back, that Chris Lines takes the reigns in the middle. League One experience, including a promotion with Sheffield Wednesday, before taking part in both of Rovers’ promotions to be back at this level, the 31-year-old really impressed in the centre last season. It Liam Sercombe that is likely to partner Lines in the centre, but Stuart Sinclair, Ollie Clarke and youngster Ryan Broom provide further alternatives.

However, while there’s just about enough depth and reasonable amount of quality to supplement Clarke’s philosophy at the back and in the centre of midfield, and it’s out wide and in attack where Bristol Rovers leave you a little uncertain.

It’s not there aren’t options. Billy Bodin, with 13 goals from 36 games and able to play both out wide and up top, is probably the best of what remains available from last season’s squad, the versatile Ellis Harrison flickers between excellent and excruciatingly frustrating with a similar story of inconsistency for Rory Gaffney during the previous campaign, and while Byron Moore didn’t particularly impress he is another body that can play out wide.

But no one really held down either of the wide positions or a place up top after Taylor’s departure with plenty of chopping and changing, and there a feel that more strengthening than the addition of Nicholls is required. Given the inconsistency among Rovers’ attacking options, the signing from Posh probably comes straight into the side.

You can ask questions of quality about the backline and the midfield, but Clarke has that organised. He certainly, however, requires a bit more in attack for that organisation to have some reward.

Fans View – Lucy Ford (@LuceFord_)

I’m sure most Rovers fans would have settled for a scrap for survival last season. A top-half finish, following successive promotions and with limited resources compared to many other League One clubs. That’s an incredible achievement, isn’t it?

It really is, considering where we were three seasons ago. Under Darrell Clarke, we’ve gone from strength to strength and being taken over by our new owners as well has also helped take the club forward, I definitely feel that it is a good time to be a Rovers fan.

A top-half finish, but do you have to be realistic in the coming season? Would building on that simply being retaining you League One status in comfortable fashion, even if you were to finish below 10th?

I do think we can build on 10th position, providing we strengthen, which I believe we will. I have a lot of faith in Darrell and I believe he can bring in players that will hopefully lead us to a top-six finish.

The loss of Matty Taylor, if I’m allowed to mention his name without evoking some sort of trauma, didn’t seem to harm you at all in the second half of the season. But is there at all a concern about where the goals are going to come from during this campaign?

Yes, I am concerned where our lack of goals may come from but providing we bring in two more strikers, a big, strong, 6ft centre forward and a pacey centre forward who can play off the big striker, I do think we will be fine. Losing Taylor’s goals was a obvious miss in the second half of last season, especially as the replacement, loan striker Luke James, did not score once during last season. However, Taylor’s departure didn’t really bother me as much as people may expect, despite the fact he joined Bristol City.

Your success has largely been built upon a tight unit, marshalled by Darrell Clarke’s genius, and achieving as a collective. But even with that in mind there is very little strength in depth in your squad. How concerned are you about the shape of your side?

I think it just comes down to how we strength over the summer transfer window. Currently we do need a number of players but I have a lot of faith in Darrell Clarke to bring in the players we need this summer.

There must be, given his constant success at the club, a worry that Clarke will eventually be attracted to a job at a bigger club. Would that be as disastrous as it immediately seems, or is the club in a healthy enough position to mean that a new appointment would simply be able to carry on where he left off?

I think last season we had the biggest worry that Darrell Clarke would go when Leeds were extremely interested in him, but he proved his loyalty for the club by signing a new contract. He recently has signed a new five-year contract which shows how much faith the owners have him in him and really shows how dedicated he is to the club; he clearly believes he can take the club. I honestly believe he will be our manager in the championship in our brand-new stadium.

I probably echo the majority of our fans’ views by saying that even though he doesn’t get it right all the time, Darrell Clarke is the best manager we’ve ever had. My Grandad who has been watching Rovers since 1950 & has been through many ups and downs supporting Rovers also believes Darrell Clarke is the best manager we’ve ever had. I know in the future there will come a time when Darrell Clarke will go to another club, he’s an excellent young manager, we are extremely fortunate to have him.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

As long as we strengthen well during the summer transfer window, which I believe we will, I don’t think the top-six is out of the question.

Summary

Best Case – Clarke again gets more out of a team than is expected, his side battles hard for points they aren’t expected to achieve, a top half finish secured.

Worst Case – A lack of quality and depth exposed, Clarke struggles to find the answers, Rovers capitulate towards League Two

I don’t think Rovers are in a position to build on last season as such, but maintaining their position in League One for a second season shouldn’t be sneered at. 15th


Bury

They had collected nine points from their previous six games, and yet fear and worry about relegation from League One remained strong as Lee Clark was appointed Bury boss midway through February.

The bottom of the division was tight, with the Shakers two points from safety, but there a concern that could quickly grow with other sides around them also picking up points as they too scrapped for their third-tier status. So too did several of those teams around them have games in hand. And ultimately, faith in a side that had gone 16 games without a victory previously in the season remained low.

Fear and worry that was justified. Clark won his first three, and lost just one of his first eight, but a final-day defeat to Southend United meant they were thankful both Port Vale and Gillingham drew their respective games. Bury avoiding relegation by just a single point.

A job done for Clark, and a relative success for the Shakers in maintaining their League One status when for much of the season it did appear in threat, but not without quite a significant scare. The 24 goals, and the avoidance of injury, of James Vaughan absolutely vital, along with the touch of good fortune that has to exist when surviving by a point. It a rather grim slog.

And so supporters of the Lancashire club could be forgiven for approaching the season with particularly low expectations. Fearing another fight to avoid the drop to League Two, and ultimately a rather unenjoyable campaign. Not least with Vaughan taking his 24 goals and questionable hamstrings to Sunderland.

But Vaughan’s departure, though a rather large one and quite disappointing after original bids were fended off, has been the only significant dent in a summer that has otherwise been incredibly, and maybe quite unbelievably, positive for the Shakers. Players that sides with genuine promotion ambitions, with Stephen Dawson, Jay O’Shea, Chris Maguire among them, signed, while positive consequences will certainly follow if the slight gamble taken on Jermaine Beckford pays off. Even with the loss of their main goalscorer, there intrigue and maybe even a touch of excitement as the new campaign nears.

With the quality that has been attracted to the club by Clark and the senior management, Bury certainly won’t find themselves looking towards the drop zone this season. If nothing else, a single point will carry less significance. At least at the bottom of the division.

The Manager – Lee Clark

For some time now, Lee Clark’s managerial reputation has been sustained on the basis of being a man for a crisis. Relegation almost accepted at the three jobs he had prior to arriving at Bury, and both Birmingham City and Kilmarnock salvaged from the drop. I think he can be forgiven for not keeping Blackpool in the Championship three seasons ago.

And it’s probably that identity that Clark seems to have that meant the relegation threatened Shakers were attracted to him. That Bury are starting this season in League One, regardless of how close they were to starting it in League Two, means it was job done for the 44-year-old. Another crisis averted.

It’s just that Clark, having avoided those three relegations, hasn’t taken a club forward thereafter. Not since his days of taking Huddersfield on an unbeaten-run-that-wasn’t-actually-an-unbeaten-run-because-they-lost-in-the-play-off-final-in-the-middle-of-it-but-whatever-it-was-ended-by-Yann-Kermorgant-anyway and setting the foundations for promotion to the Championship has Clark succeed in more than scrapping away at the bottom of a division.

Sacked two months into the season after keeping Birmingham in the second tier, and though making Kilmarnock more competitive rarely having them more than a few points above the bottom two before moving to Bury. It does make you question what he’ll offer over the course of a full season. Particularly when he has a completely reshappen squad to put together, and ambition to fulfil given the type of player the club has managed to attract.

In truth, Clark’s style still probably suits a club like Bury regardless of the position they’re in or what stage of the season they’re at. A gritty and determined boss that doesn’t care much for the attractiveness of his style of play, but can motivate and organise a side to get results. And there is a handy squad at his disposal that does need some organising.

But having failed to succeed when needing to take a club forward, there is pressure on Clark to prove a point. At least he’s got a bit of talent in his squad to help with that.

Transfer Business

Selling your key player, and that after rejecting previous bids for him and indicating he didn’t need to be sold, suggests a disastrous summer of transfer activity. But that certainly hasn’t been the case for Bury.

In fact, they even moved quickly to replace Vaughan. Nicky Ajose arriving on loan from Charlton before the Sunderland shirt Vaughan had worn for his unveiling had been put in the wash, with Oxford forward Chris Maguire following.

The former a player that needs an arm round him after struggling at The Valley last season, and not really discovering his best form back at Swindon, but one that did rack up an identical tally to what Vaughan managed in the previous campaign while with the Robins two seasons ago. The latter a winger-cum-forward who arrives with confidence, having impressed last season at this level with the U’s. Vaughan’s departure almost a footnote.

There every chance that Ajose or Maguire may form a potent partnership with another forward that needs an arm round him, if only to keep him standing upright. Jermaine Beckford a scorer of 18 goals for Preston North End, including a hat-trick at Wembley, as they achieved promotion from League One in 2014/15, but injury has plagued him for the two seasons that have followed. With his physical attributes and hold-up play in addition to his goal-scoring ability, a fully-fit Beckford could still perform at League One level, but it is an investment of both wage and faith.

Tom Heardman, a 21-year-old forward with two Football League appearances made while on loan at Hartlepool United last season, the fourth forward the Shakers have signed, arriving on loan from Newcastle, supplementing not only Vaughan’s departure but a quite substantial clear out of crap. Tom Pope, Ishmael Miller, Chris Brown (who didn’t actually manage to play a game as a result of injury) and Hallam Hope won’t be missed. Teenage forward Gorge Miller, who showed promise particularly in the latter half of last season and as such has been given an opportunity by Middlesbrough, the only other striker whose departure causes some disappointment.

Also significant change, and almost certainly improvement, as we drop deeper into Bury’s ranks. Midfielders Kelvin Etuhu and Jacob Mellis were previously on the books of Manchester City and Chelsea respectively, with Etuhu having ten Premier League appearances to his name, but that they both find themselves in League Two after their release says a great deal, while one-time Premier League regular Jermaine Pennant didn’t do enough to earn an extended stay after arriving on a short-term contract at the back end of the previous campaign. The sorts of players who you would want to invest time in, but ultimately aren’t value for the wages they can still command.

In their place come, well, players I’m not quite sure how Bury have managed to attract. Jay O’Shea, one of League One’s best attacking midfielders for several seasons, joins from Chesterfield having contributed to Sheffield United’s promotion during a loan spell at Bramall Lane in the second half of last season, tough-tackling Stephen Dawson arrives from Scunthorpe United having played in all but three of their games as they finished in the play-offs during the previous campaign, while Jamaica international winger Chris Humphrey, arriving with a poor injury record but undoubted quality for League One level, joins following his release from Hibernian. A decent effort to make Callum Reilly, a tidy 23-year-old midfielder who Clark knows well from his time at Birmingham, seem a relatively minor addition despite having impressed while on loan at Coventry City from Burton Albion last season.

The trend continuing into the defensive options, though maybe with a bit more thought regarding those allowed to depart. Anthony Kay played 42 times last season, though that he turns 35 in October probably contributed heavily towards letting him go, Leon Barnett became a regular towards the end of the season but spent far too much of his time injured, and, particularly given that he’s signed for Blackburn Rovers, it quite a surprise that a Clark favourite in Paul Caddis wasn’t kept on. Reece Brown and Niall Maher also allowed to leave.

Regardless, the additions are as promising as they are up top and in midfield. Right-back Phil Edwards a vital part of Burton’s rise up the leagues and did well on loan at Oxford United last season, left-back Joe Skarz also arrives having done a job at the Kassam Stadium last season, while 21-year-old centre-back Eoghan O’Connell joins from Celtic having impressed on loan at Walsall in the second part of the previous campaign. Tom Alred, the leader of Blackpool’s backline as they achieved promotion, and Adam Thompson, who played 40 times for play-off chasing Southend United last season, also bolster Clark’s defensive options.

Clark’s even made sure of an arrival, if not a change, between the sticks. Out go Ben Williams, Rob Lainton and professional bench-sitter Paul Rachubka, in comes Joe Murphy, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Gigg Lane. Experienced and dependable.

A complete reshaping of the squad. There no doubt the quality has improved. But will Clark get it all to gel together quickly enough?

The Squad

Given that Clark has signed half the Football League, and roughly 108% of those who made up Bury’s squad last season have departed, there’s a reasonable chance their starting XI could be formed from entirely new signings. You can certainly make one. Murphy, Edwards, O’Connell, Thompson, Skarz, Humphrey, Dawson, O’Shea, Maguire, Beckford, Ajose.

But even new signings, in Aldred and Reilly, will have something to say about that, let alone what remains of the Shakers side from last season. Craig Jones and Greg Leigh alternatives at full-back, while centre-back Nathan Cameron won’t sit in reserve without a fight.

With Andrew Tutte, promising 17-year Callum Styles and Neil Danns, Bury have midfield options coming out of their ears, while Zeli Ismail and Danny Mayor will challenge out wide. Even Ryan Lowe, scorer of the winning goal for the Shakers at The Valley last season, in a player-coach role and at 38 might still have something to offer up top. It really only in goal, where Clark requires in alternative to Murphy, that remains an issue.

Ultimately what that shows is that, in addition to added quality, there’s a reasonable level of depth to Bury’s squad. Neither quality nor depth are the conundrums. The greatest concern is whether this group of individuals will form a strong collective.

There work for those individuals to do in making that happen, but that largely the job of Clark. To build a positive atmosphere, to gel the side together, and to get them to adapt quickly to each other and his system. Chris Powell, having had a similar task and claimed 101 points in this division, will tell you it’s all rather simple; other managers will say differently.

Fans Views – Dominic Kay (@DKay93)

Lee Clark is a man for a crisis, and he did what was required in just about keeping you up last season. But he’s not done a great deal more than desperately salvage clubs from relegation since his days at Huddersfield. Did you see enough from him to believe he can succeed at Bury on a long-term basis?

He wasn’t the most inspiring appointment but at the same time he is a manager with strong experience at this level. At a time where a lot of fans thought we were doomed, he made an immediate impact and in the end just about got us the points required for survival. It’s only fair he’s given a chance with the squad he has assembled.

It reasonable to suggest that without James Vaughan’s 24 goals last season, you would have been relegated. Is it a case of Vaughan did his job, was never likely to stay and now everyone needs to move on?

100%, without his goals we probably would have been relegated sooner than Coventry and Chesterfield were. I anticipated relegation last season after the loss of Leon Clarke to Sheffield United but little did I expect us to replace him with an even better player in Vaughan. I think most fans realistically expected his departure and I don’t think anyone would begrudge him another chance in the Championship where hopefully he can stay injury free and finally kick on in his career.

Irrespective of the loss of Vaughan, you’ve made some impressive additions to your squad. There’s individuals among the signings that clubs with genuine promotion ambitions wouldn’t turn down. You’re in much better shape than you were last season, aren’t you?

It appears Clark’s plan this summer has been to bring in players that have dealt with the pressures of getting promoted from this division (Jermaine Beckford, Jay O’Shea, and Phil Edwards) as well as players who have had successful spells at this club in the past (Stephen Dawson, Joe Skarz and of course Nicky Ajose). If between them Beckford and Ajose can account for the goals Vaughan scored last season then we’re definitely in better shape than we were last season – we can put out two separate XIs that can genuinely compete which is pretty crazy at this level.

You’ve hovered between the top of League Two and the bottom of League One now for several seasons without ever showing any signs that you can be anything more. Can Bury progress as a football club?

I think we can. Naturally, Clark may have a task keeping everyone happy given the competition for places – off-field issues have cost us in the recent years so the less of that the better – but we now have the strongest squad I have seen in my lifetime and I think if the team can gel quickly enough and settle in before the season kicks off there is every reason to be optimistic.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I’m not sure that this is as strong a division as it has been in the past and I would be seriously disappointed if we don’t at least make some sort of push for the play-offs. I’m going to say 4th. 

Summary

Best Case – Make the most of the genuinely high-quality League One additions they’ve made to their squad, prove themselves as dark horses, get in and about the top six.

Worse Case – Squad doesn’t gel, 75% of them are out injured anyway from neck strain as Clark continues to get the ball pumped long towards Beckford, looking over their shoulders once they return from injury.

Some questions to be asked about Clark and whether he can mould the players he’s signed into a collective, but the squad is strong enough to mean that a top-half finish, with half an eye on the top six, is a realistic ambition. 9th


Part Two to Follow 

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

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

Part Three


Scunthorpe United

Given the nature of the unexpected successes that occurred throughout English football last season, it’s not unsurprising that the occasional relative overachievement went without the attention it deserved. 

And not nearly enough attention has been given to Scunthorpe United for their efforts in 2016. The Iron losing just three league games in the entire calendar year, which included a period of two months without a permanent manager, with only goal difference meaning that ultimately promoted Barnsley were able to claim the final play-off spot ahead of them.

A devastating near miss, especially given the realisation that repeating such a challenge will be a tough ask, but an incredible relative achievement all the same for a club of Scunthorpe’s stature. Their resources and perceived quality of their playing staff, despite enjoying success and a period in the Championship under Nigel Adkins, comparatively much smaller to many other clubs in the division.

And an achievement made even more incredible considering the position the Iron were in when they dismissed Mark Robins in January. Andy Dawson and Nick Daws given the reigns on a temporary basis with the club in 16th, and the Glanford Park side only two places higher when Graham Alexander was appointed with nine games of the season remaining.

The Scot’s overseeing of seven wins in that period the main reason why Scunthorpe were able to get so close, and why there is a degree of confidence among the club’s supporters. The success of Alexander, who has been able to keep most of the side together and make a handful of useful additions, in the closing stages of last season meaning there is an excitement to see what he can achieve in a full campaign.

To challenge again, whether successfully or to just fall short, would be seen as an unexpected overachievement by the wider footballing public. But such is the momentum and optimism created in the final months of last season, you can understand why there’s a belief around the club that it’s possible.

The Manager – Graham Alexander

It might have taken just over two months for Scunthorpe to get round to finding a replacement for Mark Robins, but it was certainly worth the wait.

Not only because Dawson and Daws did a commendable job in the interim, but the appointment of Alexander has proven a very promising one. Seven wins from his nine games in charge, including scoring six without reply against Swindon along with defeats of Burton Albion and Sheffield United, providing belief that the former Fleetwood boss could achieve something special at Glanford Park.

Of course, there is a danger of getting carried away. Nine games not the largest sample size, and competing throughout the duration of a season against perceived stronger opposition a tough ask. You can’t expect or demand a win percentage above 75% to be maintained.

But there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a sensible amount of belief in Alexander after such an impressive showing in the final weeks of the previous campaign.

Transfer Business

Activity has been minimal over the summer at Glanford Park, but that not necessarily a bad thing. Key players retained and the additions made of quality.

No real surprises among or disappointments among those who have departed, given that Andrew Boyce, Niall Canavan, and Gary McSheffrey all spent the final part of last season away from Glanford Park.  Sean McAllister, who made just 11 league appearances in the previous campaign though was the club’s Player of the Year in 2013/14, completing the list of players allowed to depart.

In their place come midfielder Sam Mantom, who impressed for Walsall in their promotion-chasing campaign, the versatile Josh Morris, who struggled for game time at Bradford last season but played 45 League One games while on loan with Fleetwood, and attacking midfielder Duane Holmes, who was wanted by Charlton and arrives with plenty of potential and promise.

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But quite possibly the best news among it all is that forward Paddy Madden, always likely to be linked with moves away having scored 20 time last season, remains a Scunthorpe player.

The Squad

You could make an argument for there needing to be a touch more depth and individual talent in order to compete over the duration of a season, but there’s enough quality in Scunthorpe’s squad to suggest their run of form towards the end of the previous campaign was no fluke.

That true from back to front. Luke Daniels, who once spent time on loan at Charlton without making an appearance, an excellent goalkeeper, with Joe Anyon experienced enough to offer a useful replacement.

The defensive line, too, appears strong. Former Huddersfield defender Murray Wallace and the experienced David Mirfin likely to form the centre-back partnership, with Jordan Clarke and Conor Townsend likely to claim the full-back positions ahead of Scotts Wiseman and Laird. Youngster Charlie Good providing a central alternative, but maybe some more cover required.

Less of a concern about depth in midfield, given that the new arrivals add quality to what is already in place. Skipper Stephen Dawson, the experienced Neal Bishop and former Rangers man Jamie Ness among those that Mantom, Morris and Holmes will be attempting to get ahead of.

Morris and Holmes, however, more likely to be deployed out wide, and provide competition to winger-cum-forward Luke Williams, and Hakeeb Adelakun, who featured regularly under Alexander.

While in attack, Madden could be supported by Dutchman Kevin van Veen, who returns to the club having spent the second half of last season on loan at SC Cambuur. Former Leicester striker Tom Hopper, who scored eight times last season, and Williams providing the most obvious alternatives.

A few question marks over the lack of depth at the back, but otherwise a very tidy unit.

Fans View: Max Bell (@UseTheLeftWing)

The momentum you had in the final part of last season was so strong that it was only on goal difference that you found yourselves finishing outside of the top six. Was that run of form simply just an unexpected run of form, or a display of the genuine quality you possess?

In truth, it was a bit of both. There can be no doubt that the level of quality required for such runs is within the players – because not only were we excellent throughout it with no luck involved; but it wasn’t the only time throughout the season we showed flashes of such quality.

But ultimately, if you’re still in the relegation zone in October and getting thrashed 5-0 by Blackpool in January (this is not a joke: that actually happened), then you’ve clearly got problems with consistency and only have yourselves to blame if your season’s hopes and dreams fall just short.

The job Graham Alexander, with a nod towards the Dawson/Daws double act, has done is a mightily impressive one. What does he need to do this season in order to allow Scunthorpe to challenge for a top six place again?

It was a certainly a surprise when the Daws / Dawson double act was brought to an abrupt halt – with them already having been promised the job until the end of the season, although all of our bets had already been paid out by unusually reasonable bookmakers, so Iron fans were philosophical!

That said, Alexander’s win ratio plus the associated quality performances and relationship with the fans, has undoubtedly earmarked the decision as an extremely popular and beneficial one thus far – hopefully giving everyone a great platform ahead of this season.

You’ve not been too active in the transfer market. Subtle additions to the midfield, and that’s about it. But is that all that was really needed?

In truth, probably not. I think most Iron fans would probably have preferred to see us strengthen defensively. Whilst we did undoubtedly improve under Alexander, it’s safe to say that we’re not sold on our ability to defend well over the course of a whole season – and certainly don’t have enough depth at Centre-Half. Despite Mark Robins’ actual attempts to sell him last season, without lynchpin David Mirfin steadying the ship, we often resemble a rather bad Sunday league side at the back.

The return of well-liked striker Kevin van Veen from his loan spell in the Dutch Eredivisie is certainly welcome though, and should help us have a rather more fluid option up top – especially if Alexander persists with his popular and successful 442 from last season. Unless the ambiguous midfielders recruited are going to be wingers though, our lack of options out wide may well curtail that at some point sadly though.

Paddy Madden and his goals. Where would you be without them?

Desperately trying to sign a striker no doubt! The hard-working and effervescent Irish striker is not only an effective goalscorer – but an absolute vital lynchpin of the side, despite being ridiculously shunted out wide for large spells of last season.

Perhaps not too unsurprisingly popular, with just one international cap to his name – if he can keep scoring following the inevitable retirement of Robbie Keane and co, a return to the Republic of Ireland’s senior squad may yet be back on the cards at some point for him too.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

An excellent question! If Alexander can nail our long-standing inconsistency problems and start this season like we ended the last one, then the Top 6 is a definite and realistic target. Unlucky to miss out on 74 points when a mere 68 would have got us in the season before – you just hope that complacency hasn’t snuck in over the Summer, especially given our relative lack of movement in the transfer market.

But for once, I’ll be brave and stick my neck out. 5th.

Summary

In a relatively strong place after their run of form at the end of last season. Could push for a play-off place, but will certainly be among the chasing pack. 10th

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Sheffield United

A fifth successive failure to escape from the third tier, an incredible run of failure for a club of Sheffield United’s size, and this a serious contender for the most painful.gerg

At the very least, it wasn’t too far off the first unsuccessful attempt to return to the Championship in 2011/12, which saw rivals Sheffield Wednesday beat them to the second automatic promotion place before a penalty shoot-out defeat to Huddersfield Town was suffered in the play-off final.

For not only did the Blades stutter to 11th place, their lowest finish since 1982/83, but they had to deal with Wednesday receiving nationwide plaudits as they reached the Championship play-off. That the Owls suffered defeat to Hull City not much of a sweetener, but at least meaning the inflicting of further punishment was avoided.

Nor was there a cup run, with semi-finals of the FA Cup and League Cup incredibly reached in the two campaigns prior to last season, to soften the blow of league disappointment. Nigel Adkins’s sacking, despite being seen as the man who would finally return the Blades to the second tier upon his arrival at Bramall Lane, inevitable and unavoidable.

So step forward the latest man to attempt to complete what is becoming an impossible job, irrespective of the fact the Blades, in status and quality, seemingly remain above this division’s standards. Chris Wilder departing a stable job and a promising project at Northampton Town to attempt to guide his hometown club out of the third tier.

And in appointing Wilder, who also made over 100 league appearances as a player for the Blades in two spells, a slightly different approach has been taken. A manager who has impressed in League Two, and has personal momentum behind him, recruited, rather than one that had departed a Championship club, like Adkins and Nigel Clough before him.

An approach that Blades supporters will be desperate makes a difference, and finally sees them return to the Championship at the sixth attempt.

The Manager – Chris Wilder

There have been appointments to seemingly get excited about at Bramall Lane since United’s drop to League One, so it would appear naïve for supporters to lose themselves in the idea that Wilder is the perfect man for the job of finally getting his hometown club out of the third tier.

That a few doubts can be listed, therefore, is understandable. Wilder has never led a club of this size, and with this expectation, before, and the persistent failure that the Blades have endured means a sense of caution is unavoidable.

But there is no denying that there are reasons to feel optimism in what the 48-year-old can achieve in the red and white half of Sheffield. His managerial ability, his understanding of the Blades, and the nature of his appointment all offering encouraging signs to supporters trapped in what has been a continuous cycle of barely believable disappointment.

Wilder stolen from the cusp of Charlton’s clutches. Possibly because the Addicks wouldn’t offer the assurances he wanted, but his attachment to Sheffield United definitely a decisive factor in his decision. Regardless, his commitment to the Blades undoubted, and his desire to bring success to the club likewise.

His chances of bringing success to the club, which for now equates to taking them back to the Championship, appear high. His efforts at Northampton exceptional, leading superbly in a time of crisis before overseeing a cohesive and organised side to an emphatic winning of the League Two title, and the talent displayed at Sixfields transferable to Bramall Lane. There’s a reason why the Blades needed to beat off other large League One clubs to appoint him.

A reason why there is faith in this appointment, despite five previous seasons of disappointment.

Transfer Business

It’s not just the appointment of Wilder that sees positivity outweigh an expectation of disappointment at Bramall Lane, but the activity the new boss has overseen in the transfer market. An attempt made to halt that habit of underperforming.

First, the outs. In addition to the disruptive influence of Jose Baxter, inconsistent and often frustrating performers, such as Jamal Campbell-Ryce, Jay McEveley and Ryan Flynn, are among those allowed to leave.

The decision to terminate the contract of the universally disliked Dean Hammond also applauded, while players that haven’t lived up to reputations – Kieron Freeman, Paul Coutts and Martyn Woolford among them – occupy the transfer list.

In their place comes some tidy additions, who either have experience of performing at this level or the promise and potential to do so.

Arrivals who can play in the centre of defence plentiful, with the consistent James Wilson, signed from Oldham, and Jake Wright, with well over 200 appearances for Oxford to his name, likely to form United’s new pairing. Competition provided by 22-year-old Jack O’Connell, who joins from Brentford.

Left-back Chris Hussey, who arrives with a decent potential having performed solidly for Bury in recent seasons, likely to be the third fresh face in United’s back four. Developing an understanding the issue faced, but certainly no lack of quality.

Further forward, Mark Duffy joins from Birmingham having impressed on loan at Burton Albion last season, while John Fleck, unquestionably one of the best playmakers in the division, has been snatched from Coventry City. Certainly more consistent in their efforts than those allowed to leave.

And if frustration existed from centre-back Kyle McFadzean and forward Alex Revell opting for Burton and Northampton Town respectively ahead of the Blades, then the signing of prolific forward Leon Clarke has addressed that. A prolific partnership with Billy Sharp on the cards.

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The Squad

At times last season, it was the goals of local lad Sharp alone that provided hope and solace to supporters of the Blades in another season of disappointment. The boyhood fan scoring 21 times.

And while forwards don’t traditionally make for good captains, there seems no better man to lead United in the coming campaign than the 30-year-old goal-scorer. His talismanic influence, mentality, and connection with the club meaning Wilder had no doubt in awarding Sharp the captaincy for the coming campaign.

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He’ll lead a very strong looking squad, which begins with goalkeeper George Long. The 22-year-old three shy of a century of league appearances for the Blades, and has the mentality and qualities of a much older shot stopper.

Long will stand behind a very different looking back four to the one seen last season, with right-back John Brayford the only member of it likely to have kept his place from last season. O’Connell and Wilson seemingly the leading contenders to start in the centre, and Hussey brought in from Bury to be first choice left-back.

Kieran Wallace and Freeman, with all but Woolford of those transfer listed taking part in pre-season, in addition to the versatile Chris Basham providing cover in the full-back positions, while trialist Alex Davey looks set to join Wright as alternative centre-back options.

Options relatively strong in midfield too, with Couts and James Wallace, both transfer listed but seemingly in Wilder’s plans if pre-season is anything to go by, adding extra depth. Logic suggests that Basham and impressive youngster Louis Reed will compete for the deeper role behind Fleck.

Stefan Scougall, suited to the role that Fleck is likely to play but also capable of playing out wide, another midfield option, having been welcomed back into United’s ranks after spending the final part of last season on loan at Fleetwood.

His best chance of playing probably does come on the wing, though numbers in the wide areas are helped by striker-by-trade Matt Done and exciting forward Che Adams’ natural ability to play there. One of that cohort likely to start on the opposite flank to Duffy.

While in attack, there are numerous options for United’s new boss to utilise, including Done and, more likely, Adams should he wish to deploy them centrally. But there no reason why the Clarke-Sharp partnership shouldn’t be a success, with the former’s strength and hold-up play perfect for the latter to make the most of.

Mark McNulty and 19-year-old Dominic Calvert-Lewin, despite both spending last season on loan at League Two Portsmouth and Northampton respectively, provide further alternatives.

And with Wilder insisting he will look for loan signings to provide further depth, that it appears quite a healthy unit.

Fans View: Ross Gregory (@ross_sufc)

Is Chris Wilder the man to finally get you out of this division?           

I believe Chris Wilder could be the man to get us out of this division. He is looking to bring exciting, attacking football to Bramall Lane which has been lacking with previous regimes, he knows the club inside out and knows what our club means to the supporters.

What does he need to do differently to previous managers to make sure you perform consistently for the duration of the season?

The big difference will be the high pressing game that he is looking to implement into the team. Under previous regimes, we have sat back and invited teams onto us, so I believe taking the games to teams from the off could be the big difference if we are to be successful.

There’s been a great deal of change to your squad over the summer. Underperformers removed, and some tidy additions made. How would you assess your transfer activity, and your squad overall?

Our squad is looking very promising. The addition of John fleck in midfield is a real positive as we have missed that creative midfielder our side, we have taken a few gambles on players such as James Wilson and Chris Hussey but with Wilder’s man management I believe they could do well. With Billy Sharp and Leon Clarke with 40 goals combined last season at this level we could score for fun.

A boyhood fan as manager, and a boyhood fan as captain. How important is Billy Sharp’s leadership, and his goals, going to be to your promotion efforts?

Billy’s Leadership will be absolutely huge for us, he is a blade through and through and lives, eats, and breaths the football club. His goals as always will be a key factor in our season once again and I’m sure other players will thrive off Billy’s passion and love for this football club.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I think we will be in the top 6 with the players we have but it will be a tough battle for the automatic promotion spots as always.

Summary

Well placed to achieve promotion. I wonder what exciting way they’ll find to bottle it this year? 1st

sheff


Shrewsbury Town

Supporters of clubs facing relegation from the Championship often make light of what awaits them in League One with a self-pitying chant of “que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Shrewsbury”.rwherwhrwhwehew

But for a period, it seemed as if supporters of Bolton, Charlton and MK Dons would not be able to act upon their half-tearful tune. Shrewsbury Town, having been promoted to League One at the conclusion of the previous campaign, were in danger of an immediate return to the fourth tier right up until the penultimate weekend of the season.

In fact, with six of their final eight games resulting in defeat, it was largely the incompetence of those around them that allowed Micky Mellon’s side to remain in League One. Safety itself confirmed when Shrewsbury’s defeat to Peterborough with a game to go was matched with losses for the shambolic Doncaster Rovers and Blackpool.

Their 20th place finish a job done of sorts, and made more bearable by an impressive run to the fifth round of the FA Cup, but certainly not a comfortable and convincing one. Mellon himself stating that safety was achieved in a way he was “not at all happy about”.

The task for the Shrews this campaign, therefore, is to allow supporters of clubs facing relegation from the Championship to start singing about trips to New Meadow with confidence some weeks prior to its conclusion. A more comfortable consolidation of their third tier status required, with Mellon looking to end the club’s yo-yo years.

And steps have been taken to increase the chances of that occurring. Eight players with League One experience, and respectable ability at this level, snapped up prior to pre-season beginning as a new Shrewsbury unit is shaped. Maybe not quite “the Harlem Globetrotters” as Mellon puts it, but the Shrews have certainly given themselves a chance of being more competitive this campaign.

The Manager – Micky Mellon

A season flirting with relegation hasn’t at all damaged the confident demeanour of Shrewsbury boss Mellon.

Nor has a period of uncertainty over his job, resulting in the need to have his future confirmed by chairman Roland Wycherley, done his bullish character any harm. The 44-year-old, who led the Shrews to promotion prior to last season’s semi-struggle, adamant a successful rebuilding of his side would be overseen the moment his position was secured.

Adamant, too, that a side that featured 37 players last season will be far more successful, competitive and cohesive this campaign.

“I want us to have a really good pop at the teams at the top end of the league and the aim is to get closer to them. That’s where I believe the club wants to be,” said Mellon during the summer. “I want to try to fill this stadium more and I want to be managing and coaching kids of a good age of massive energy and great power as a team people are proud of watching.”

That sort of energy and enthusiasm towards improvement, while bosses of bigger clubs tentatively touch on the subject of promotion, can only offer encouragement.

Transfer Business

An attempt to avoid flirting with relegation again has been made with a very productive summer of transfer activity for Shrewsbury.

The only real disappointment being Nat Knight-Percival’s decision to reject a new contract at the club and instead join Bradford City. The centre-back’s departure coming alongside ten others, released or allowed to leave the club. Matt Tootle, Jermaine Grandison, Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro, Zak Whitbread and James Collins among them.

In their place come players who have all impressed to one degree or another at League One level in recent seasons, all signed on two-year contracts.

Adam El-Abd, signed following his release from Bristol City, a no-nonsense centre-back who spent time last season on loan at Swindon Town and Gillingham, and could form a partnership with Olly Lancashire, snapped up after his departure from Rochdale.

The full-back positions also strengthened with a fee paid for Bury’s young right-back Joe Riley, and former Leicester City and Manchester City left-back Ryan McGivern one of three players signed from Port Vale. Attacking midfielder Louis Dodds, who made more than 300 appearances in all competitions, and forward AJ Leitch-Smith, having scored 11 times last season, the other two recruited following Vale’s rather odd clear-out.

Elsewhere, there’s now plenty of competition in midfield, with the wonderfully bearded Gary Deegan, a more combative central man, arriving from Southend, while the creative Antoni Sarcevic and Jim O’Brien, both capable playing behind the front man or out wide, join from Fleetwood and Coventry respectively.

Few risks, few gambles. Just solid League One additions for a club looking to consolidate. Roland Wycherley, seemingly a better Roland than Charlton’s one.

The Squad

The high turnover of players, and the possibility of trouble being had in gelling a unit together, made much easier by the fact a core of players remain at the club from last season.

First choice goalkeeper Jayson Leutwiler agreeing a new deal with the club, along with regular left-back Junior Brown, while the experienced Mat Sadler and young Dominic Smith provide alterative defensive options. Another centre-back probably needed, though.

Unquestionable depth, however, to be found in the centre of midfield. Aby Ogogo featuring 42 times last season, the talented James Wesolowski hoping to rebuild his career after a leg break that saw him miss almost the whole of last season, and one-time Scotland international Ian Black providing plenty of competition for places in addition to the new recruits. So much so that former Leicester midfielder Richie Wellens has been transfer listed.

Decent option in the forward positions, too. Shaun Whalley’s presence providing another wide player for Mellon, alongside Sarcevic, O’Brien and Dodds, while Tyrone Barnett’s appearances in pre-season games having returned from a loan spell at Southend United suggests he has a Shrewsbury future, and will compete for places in attack with Andrew Mangan and Leitch-Smith. Certainly a need for one more forward should Barnett depart, however.

Nonetheless, there’s a reasonable amount of quality in Shrewsbury’s squad. A squad added to, rather than an entirely new one created.

Fans View: Liam Northwood (@liamnorthwood96)

Despite flirting with relegation for much of last season, does strong support still exist for Micky Mellon? His own confidence would suggest so.  

I believe most of the fan base are definitely still 100% behind Mellon. Last season showed that he can sometimes be quite weak tactically which cost us points, but hopefully he has learnt from those mistakes to give League One a much better go this time around. I am definitely behind him to try and improve the team and himself as a coach.

You’ve made some very impressive signings, all of them with a history of performing at this level. Is Mellon’s desire to push towards the top six a realistic ambition as a consequence of those additions, or is stability the aim this season?

I have been very happy with the majority of our new signings. I haven’t seen a few of them play as much as others, but this summer’s recruitment has been much better than the previous L1 season. To be honest, I would be happy with a solid mid table finish this season and then hopefully continue improving on that. After last season, anything above 16th would be a successful season. If we can push for the play offs, that would be an extra bonus.

Any concern that gelling this new side together may prove difficult, or does the fact that most were brought in before pre-season started provide enough time to put together a cohesive unit?

With Mellon in charge, I’m not really worried about the amount that have been signed. We went back up from League Two a couple of years ago with about 16 new players and they all gelled together quite quickly. Hopefully this will be the same and we can have a quick start. It also helps that some of the new players have played together before, such as Dodds, Leitch-Smith and McGivern at Port Vale.

Despite the positive additions, are there any of those that have departed who you’re particularly disappointed to see leave?

When Nathaniel Knight-Percival rejected a new contract to join Bradford, I was quite disappointed. I considered him our best defender and although our defence conceded a lot of goals last season, he was the best of a poor bunch. He was brilliant before he suffered a long term knee injury, and last season he was still trying to get over that.

Sullay Kaikai’s loan spell also ended with him returning to Crystal Palace. We will definitely miss his goals as he single-handedly kept us in the division. Hopefully we have replaced him well.

Finally, where will you finish this season?

I am going to go for a solid 13th placed finish.

Summary

Strengthening of squad should see them comfortably clear of the bottom four. Maybe even looking towards the top half. 12th

Greenhous_Meadow_Cold


Southend United

It something of a relief that Southend’s League One status was all but assured before the end of February in their first campaign back in the third tier since 2009/10.

For the final period of last season was a relative disaster. Possibly a consequence of motivation being lost with little to play for, while uncertainty over the future of manager Phil Brown probably didn’t help, but winning just two out of their final 13 games inexcusable whatever the cause. A drop from the outskirts of the play-offs to the bottom half.  

Nonetheless, even five consecutive defeats as the season drew to a close isn’t enough to get away from the fact that it was a case of job done for the Shrimpers. Their mid-table finish commendable, and relegation never at all flirted with. Frustration in the end of season form, rather than outright outrage.

The issue for Southend, however, is that emulating last season and achieving a comfortable mid-table finish appears a much harder task this time around. If momentum being lost as a result of the end of season form isn’t necessarily an issue, given that it’s something that can be addressed during pre-season, then the departure of several key players certainly is. The squad arguably weaker.

So much so that looking to build on their 14th place finish might not be a realistic ambition. The conclusion to last season, a question mark or two over Brown and the breaking up of his squad meaning that avoiding any sort of flirtation with relegation would be a success of sorts for the Shrimpers this campaign.

The Manager – Phil Brown

Clarity over Brown’s future as Southend boss, having been linked with Bolton Wanderers for much of the second half of last season, is undoubtedly welcome at Roots Hall. The clarity itself, that is, and not necessarily that Brown remains in charge.

For though there is respect for the job that the former Hull boss has done, and a healthy number of fans that remain supportive, a sense of disappointment existed among some that his move to the Macron never materialised.

That end of season form, in an addition to Brown being a character that’s very difficult to like when things aren’t quite going to plan, meaning a section of Southend support wouldn’t have at all minded if he had made a move to Bolton, and the Shrimpers were given the opportunity to make a new appointment.

Nonetheless, Brown’s relative success at Roots Hall means he deserves a degree of support, and there certainly isn’t a desire to force him out or that he oversees failure this season.

Instead, there is hope that confirmation over his future will see him be able to coordinate an improvement in the Shrimpers, and see them compete successfully in the third tier once again.

Transfer Business

As a manager with a little bit of fan pressure on your back, I’m not entirely sure that handing a trial to Nile Ranger after losing a number of first-team players is the best thing to do.

Nor is referring to Ranger, who hasn’t played since 2014 after going AWOL at Blackpool, as a “good lad” and speaking with some positivity about his footballing ability. The whole point of a trial, obviously, to have a look at a player, but considering signing such a controversial figure having seen key members of last season’s side depart isn’t exactly the boost Southend supporters were after.

For among the many manageable departures, with Gary Deegan (Shrewsbury Town), David Worrall (Millwall), and Cian Bolger (Fleetwood Town) among the eight players allowed to leave the club without much of a fight as Brown seeks to take the club forward, are some more disappointing exits.

Particularly losing 23-year-old goalkeeper Daniel Bentley and 21-year-old playmaker Jack Payne for no more than compensation. Bentley snapped up by Brentford, and Huddersfield signing Payne.

And an attempt made to re-sign Noel Hunt, who was released at the end of the season but Brown remained in discussions with the Irish forward, proved unsuccessful. The former Reading man rocking up for a trial at Portsmouth while Southend’s offer remained on the table.

The frustration increased by how slow Southend have been to secure replacements. The five who have arrived – goalkeeper Mark Oxley (Hibs), right-back Jason Demetriou (Walsall), centre-back Jakub Sokolik (Yeovil), winger Jermaine McGlashan (Gillingham), and forward Simon Cox (Reading) appear decent additions, but the squad remains lacking in strength and depth.

The Squad

Unquestionably weaker than it was last season, but there are certainly worse squads in this division.

At the very least, despite losing their first choice goalkeeper, there are squads in the division with greater concerns between the sticks. Oxley taking the number one jersey, but Ted Smith has England youth caps and Paul Smith has a wealth of experience.

Options in defence not too bad either, with Adam Thompson likely to be competing with Sokolik for the centre-back spot alongside the experienced Adam Barrett, who is closing in on 300 league appearances for Southend over two spells. Demetriou and the dependable Ben Coker, despite possessing arguably the worst haircut in professional football, in pole position for the full-back slots, with John White and Luke O’Neill providing alternative defensive options.

It is, however, hard to get away from the fact that the midfield losses a considerable amount of quality without Payne in it. A situation which isn’t helped by the long-term absence of the creative Anthony Wordsworth, and a hamstring injury sustained by Michael Timlin that means he’s likely to miss the start of the season.

There might well be, therefore, an opportunity for 20-year-old Jack Bridge, who was handed his league debut towards the end of last season. Ryan Leonard, remaining a consistent performer as he enters his sixth season with the Shrimpers, and Will Atkinson, naturally a winger but capable of playing centrally, to dislodge first.

Once Timlin returns, Atkinson is likely to be competing with McGlashan and Stephen McLaughlin for a place out wide. A feeling that both centrally and on the flanks, Brown’s side is a little stretched.

And there probably a need for one more body in attack, irrespective of whether Ranger is awarded a contract or not. Former Charlton forward David Mooney, unimpressive at The Valley but has developed into a useful League One striker, and Cox could form quite the tidy partnership, but not a great deal beyond that.

As is the case in midfield, a possible opportunity for a youngster, after 20-year-old Jason Williams scored seven times in 13 games on loan at Chelmsford City last season, and featured in blue towards the end of the previous campaign.

The squad, therefore, not in a terrible state by any means, but there certainly a need for further depth.

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Job done last season, but would it have been better for all involved had Phil Brown departed over the course of the summer? He appears to divide supporters.

Not at all, although some fans question Phil’s loyalty there is no doubt over the positives he has brought to us as a club. Even though most of our fans aren’t happy with him constantly on the TV he does bring a lot of publicity to the club. Without Phil we definitely wouldn’t have been able to sign Simon Cox who has already scored a couple of goals in pre season. If Brown did leave there is not a lot of managers who would probably want to come to Southend and do a good job.

What does Brown need to do in order to win back the trust and support of those fans who question him?

I think if he carries on doing his job the right way, getting the right results and making some good signings, our fans will see what a good manager he is. I also think if he stops openly stating his desire for other jobs (Hull, Sunderland and England Assistant) than he will definitely be appreciated by all fans

How much more difficult has Brown’s job been made by the loss of Bentley and Payne over the summer? 

There is no question over the quality of Bentley and Payne however no player is irreplaceable. The two were always going to move on at the end of their contracts and Brown still tried his up most best to keep them. Ted Smith and new signing Mark Oxley, both looked sharp during preseason and will definitely be battling it out for the number one shirt. However with just two fit centre midfielders Brown will definitely be looking for at least 1 more singing for a little more backup to an already small squad.

Though Simon Cox, goal-shy for a few seasons but will undoubtedly prove a threat at this level, is one of several tidy additions. What more does your squad need?

Yes absolutely, as stated earlier Cox has already been among the goals and his partnership with David Mooney seems to be working fine. Nile Ranger has also been signed on a one year deal, and already seems to be saying and doing the right things. One or two more centre backs, a winger, one centre midfielder and a proven goalscorer and I think Southend will be set up for a good season.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

At the moment, with the small squad we have I think mid table will be the expectation but if we make a few more good signings I wouldn’t rule out a playoff push however that is very unlikely. Anything higher than last season’s 14th placed finish and I will see it as a successful season. Up The Blues!

Summary

The lack of depth and maybe a slight in question mark over quality in certain areas makes it uninspiring, while Brown’s powers are waning. Enough to avoid relegation, but this season likely to be a touch more uncomfortable than the last. 19th

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Swindon Town

The last time Charlton Athletic were relegated to League One, it was Swindon Town and their prolific forwards that denied the Addicks an opportunity of an immediate return to the Championship.berbfd

On this occasion, Charlton helping themselves to a prolific Swindon forward at a price believed to be considerably less than the reported £800k has been one of several factors that denied supporters of the Robins an opportunity to dismiss the alarm bells that have rarely stopped ringing since the ball bobbled before Charlie Austin shaped to shoot at Wembley six years ago.

For Nicky Ajose’s goals were a rare positive in a season that can best be described as a messy one for Swindon. The decision to cash in on the 25-goal striker after just one year at the County Ground providing further frustration to a sizeable amount of supporters, unhappy with the manner in which chairman Lee Power is operating.

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Power’s crimes, aside from overseeing a drop from play-off finalists to 15th, including imposing restrictions on local media, bizarrely briefly appointing himself as caretaker boss following the rather harsh dismissal of Mark Cooper, and a failure to strengthen adequately after the departure of a number of key players. On the pitch success seemingly sacrificed in favour of an almost complete focus on financial stability.

But the departing Ajose has called on supporters to get behind the chairman and head coach Luke Williams, irrespective of the sales and last season’s on-the-pitch failings. Power doing things his own way and leading a club that doesn’t have a top six budget in a clever way, while Williams’ style of football, irrespective of the fact it didn’t always produce results, is enough to attract players to the County Ground.

That a departed player, however, has to give a message like that is as big an indication as any that things aren’t quite right at Swindon. The need to replace that departed player, and his 25-goals, a concern, but not a concern as large as the mistrust in the club and the sense of disappointment among supporters.

The Manager – Luke Williams

There were periods under the control of Williams where Swindon impressed last season. Enough periods were enough was shown for Power to award Williams, originally interim boss, with a five-year contract.

A style of attacking football played that resulted in Power calling him “a fantastic coach, the best I’ve come across in 25 years of football”. Probably a touch of hyperbole in that, but a reflection of the fact that the 35-year-old was able to prove his worth in his first job in management.

So too, however, were there clumps of poor form and performances. Six wins in his first ten games in charge, four of those coming against sides ultimately relegated, followed by a run of nine without victory. Williams’ reign far from faultless.

Nothing to prove to Power, it would seem, but maybe still something to prove to supporters of Swindon.

Transfer Business

It’s not just the loss of Ajose that provides frustration to Swindon supporters, or that he was sold to a club in the same league for a relatively low fee, but the fact he hasn’t been replaced.

In fact, despite the Robins’ struggles last season and further eight players departing of various importance, only a handful of additions have been made to the squad.

Goalkeeper Lawrence Vigouroux, who spent last season on loan at Swindon, joining on a permanent basis from Liverpool, John Goddard, a winger with no football league experience, bought having impressed in the National League for Woking, and Conor Thomas, having played just three times last season, signing following his release from Swindon. And that be that.

Meanwhile, Michael Smith (Portsmouth) and Miles Story (Aberdeen) have been allowed to leave the club on a permanent basis having spent much of last season away on loan, while Fabien Robert, having played 34 league games last season, and Drissa Traore, a relative bit-part player, among those released.

At least Jon Obika and Yaser Kasim remain, despite the former rejecting a new contract and the latter attracting interest from elsewhere. Chairman Power insisting that the former Charlton forward will remain at the club regardless of his contract situation, while discussions with Kasim are ongoing.

The Squad

Concerning. Very concerning. Gaps in almost every area of the squad, though at least Vigouroux returns to stand between the sticks.

And the goalkeeper will probably have quite a bit of work to do, given both the lack of quality and lack of numbers available in defence. Raphael Rossi Branco and Jamie Sendles-White the only natural centre-backs at the club, with natural right-back Nathan Thompson probably going to have to play centrally. Bradley Barry, who played 37 times after arriving from Brighton last season, taking the right-back spot, with former Arsenal trainee Brandon Ormonde-Ottewill likely to start at left-back ahead of James Brophy. Minimal experience beyond Thompson and Branco.

The situation not much in a midfield that was largely beefed up by loanees last season. At least in the shape of Kasim, Thomas and Anton Rodgers, there’s three central options with decent Football League experience, but little beyond that. 18-year-olds Tom Smith and Jake Evans, in addition to 16-year-old Jordan Young all used last season and will probably have some involvement this time around.

Not a great deal of quality or depth out wide, either, with hope that new signing Goddard will prove his worth in the Football League. Ellis Iandolo, an 18-year-old who can play on the wing or up top, another option, in addition to Jordan Stewart, who spent the final part of last season on loan at Grimsby and has made just one appearance for the Robins.

Stewart, like Iandolo, can also play up top, where the situation is rather desperate. Obika the only member of this Swindon squad with any sort of goal-scoring record, with Jermaine Hylton, who has one goal to his name in 31 appearances for the club, his alternative.

Weak, inexperienced, and worrying.

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Lee Power’s running of Swindon has been, at best, controversial. Can you return to challenging for promotion with him and his strategy overseeing things?

Controversial is one way of putting it! In my years as a Swindon fan I’ve never seen so much friction between fans as Power is causing with his policies. I’m not ruling out the possibility of returning to challenging for promotion with him at the helm however many things will drastically have to change for that to happen.

Having strength and depth in the squad instead of having to rely on teenagers when injuries occur and signing players that have Football League experience would be my starting point. Power always moans that if the fans do not turn up to home games then we cannot make the signings we all desperately want. However why would anyone be willing to pay £25 to watch a team with an average age of 22 persistently foul and attempt to play fancy football with Sunday League mistakes occurring regularly? I can only see attendances dropping once more and people losing interest unless his business model doesn’t change.

Did Luke Williams show enough in the second half of last season to prove he’s the right man for the job, or do you still have doubts?  

From what I’ve heard internally within the club Williams has very much always been the man running things on a day to day basis with him feeding to Power regularly. Personally I haven’t seen enough to be convinced to travel to places like Oldham on a Tuesday night like I would do with no hesitation when managers like Danny Wilson & Paolo Di Canio were at the helm.

How much harder is Williams’ job going to be without the goals of Nicky Ajose? Did they alone keep you away from a genuine relegation battle last season?  

I dread to think what would’ve happened last season without the goals of Nicky Ajose! Williams’ job can potentially be easier if we actually get a replacement for Ajose. What I have seen in pre-season it seems like we will very much be reliant on Obika who is rather injury prone. I’m still surprised that we are yet to sign a striker. That must be the priority I hope.

You’ve not exactly been quick to look to replace the departing Ajose, and your squad overall doesn’t appear to be in the best of states. How worried are you by the state of your side, and are there any fears you might found yourselves in the bottom four?

I’m very worried. It’s got to the stage now where I don’t even check the club twitter account or BBC Wiltshire when on lunch break as I don’t expect any signings. Worst thing is I honestly still expect more departures before the end of the transfer window.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

Honestly, right now I’ll take 20th!

Summary

An incredibly weak squad and an owner insistent on creating controversy isn’t a great mix. 21st

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Walsall

Taking in a campaign in League Two and two further bottom six finishes in League One, Walsall had waited 12 seasons to mount a serious attempt to return to the second tier before last season’s promotion push.wegw

In the first insistence, the outstanding nature of the Saddlers’ achievement to agonisingly miss out on automatic promotion, and consequently suffer a play-off semi-final defeat to Barnsley, cannot be ignored. This a club that have spent just six seasons in the second tier since the end of World War II, rely on clever recruitment and the development of their own to compete, and had to deal with Dean Smith, the long-serving boss that shaped together an impressive side, departing for Brentford halfway through the season.

Without the disruption caused by Smith leaving, the one additional point required to leapfrog Burton Albion into second place would have probably been achieved by his exciting and dynamic side. Replacement Sean O’Driscoll overseeing a period of five wins in 14 league games that ultimately forced Walsall to take the bold decision to dismiss the Irishman and allow Jon Whitney, assistant to Smith and caretaker in the immediate aftermath of his departure, to take the reins. A strong end to the league season not followed with success in the play-offs, and Walsall supporters left to rue what might have been with stability.

And the question of what might have been becomes a more desperate and frustrating one when replicating, and potentially bettering, the success of last season appears an extremely difficult task. Though there have been promising replacements, the departures of key players, particularly Romaine Sawyers and Tom Bradshaw, leaves the Saddlers in a weaker position than they were at the start of the previous campaign.

A campaign that was unquestionable a fantastic achievement, but also potentially a missed opportunity. To make another competitive promotion push in this season, something this slightly reshaped Walsall side will contest that they’re capable of, would be an achievement even greater than last season’s near miss.

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The Manager – Jon Whitney

Whether it be that some coaches are unable to transfer their skills from assistant to top boss, players struggle to respect a man they struggle not to see as the number two, or it simply the case that the assistant is lost without his old boss, appointing from within after a successful boss has been snatched rarely sees the continuation of that success that a certain logic might suggest.

But, despite this being Whitney’s first managerial job, replacing from within proved much more fruitful for Walsall than attempting to find someone from the outside to continue Smith’s work.

O’Driscoll – particularly with draws against ultimately relegated Blackpool and Crewe Alexandra in addition to defeats to promotion rivals Millwall, Wigan and Barnsley – a huge disappointment. Performances and results, though seemingly unable to pick his players up for the play-offs after missing out on automatic promotion, immediately improving once Whitney had been placed in control.

Though those performances and results, eight wins from 12 games prior to the play-offs and an additional victory in a league game as caretaker earlier on in the season, come from a small sample size. While Whitney has certainly done enough to show he deserves a chance, he will, in his first full season as a manger, need to prove he’s up to the task over the duration of a campaign.

But support for Whitney, appointed on a permanent basis having been in interim charge at the end of the season, is high among supporters, and there is a belief that the 45-year-old, who has been at the Bescott Stadium in one capacity or another since 2003, is the right man to attempt to build on last season’s relative success.

Transfer Business

A failure to achieve promotion was always likely to result in a number of Walsall’s key players departing, and that has proven to be the case.

In fact, of those that were likely to depart, only 19-year-old full-back Rico Henry remains. Remaining despite each day bringing about a new rumour of a seven-figure bid from a Premier League or Championship club, with no shortage of interest in the highly-rated academy graduate.

Of the ten permanent Walsall players that started the play-off semi-final second leg defeat to Barnsley, six have departed, with all three of those who came off the bench during the game also leaving the club.

The biggest losses being the extremely talented playmaker Romaine Sawyers, who moves to Brentford, top scorer Tom Bradshaw, signed by Barnsley, and consistently performing full-back Jason Demetriou, snapped up by Southend. A serious amount of top League One-level quality lost.

But that isn’t to say that departures of Paul Downing (MK Dons), Anthony Forde (Rotherham United), Milan Lalkovic (Portsmouth), Sam Mantom (Scunthorpe), Andy Taylor (Blackpool), and Jordan Cook (Luton) won’t also be felt. An almost entirely new squad needing to be built.

The rebuild beginning with young centre-backs George Dobson and Jason McCarthy arriving on loan from West Ham United and Southampton respectively. Dobson lacking any sort of experience, but McCarthy spent most of last season at Wycombe.

Former Walsall loanee Florent Cuvelier, who most recently endured an injury-hit time at Sheffield United, and Joe Edwards, having impressed for relegated Colchester United, arrive to add some steel to a depleted midfield, while the diminutive Erhun Oztumer, a skilful performer for Peterborough, and Franck Moussa, looking to rebuild his career after a torrid time at Charlton, provide impetuous going forward.

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But a great deal more needs to be done to have Walsall’s squad in competitive shape, particularly in attack. Losing out on Jordi Hiwula, who opted to join Bradford City despite spending half of last season on loan at the Bescot, particularly disappointing, though Simeon Jackson, arriving after his release from Blackburn, has a decent record in League One.

The additions promising, but no hiding away from the bashing that Walsall’s impressive squad of last season has taken.

The Squad

Well, erm, there’s not much left of it. At a push, there’s ten who remain from last season, and most of those were not anything like regulars.

In addition to Henry, former Charlton goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, mightily impressive for the Saddlers, defender James O’Connor, and long-serving captain Adam Chambers the only regular starters who are still with the club. Kieron Morris also stays, having played 42 times last season, but many of those appearances came from the bench.

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And it’s the influence of midfielder Chambers in gelling this new side together that arguably makes him, at least in the short-term, the most important retainee. Leadership required from the 35-year-old, who has over 200 appearances for the club.

There could also be a need for bit part players from last season to step up. More football for 21-year-old defender Matt Preston, 21-year-old midfielder Reece Flanagan, and 20-year-old full-back Liam, son of Mark, Kinsella.

Forward Amadou Bakayoko, 20, another who has staked a claim to be involved, with a prolific pre-season.

Regardless, given the success of last season, it all just feels a little underwhelming. Particularly in attack, where there is a great deal of pressure to make up for the goals lost by the various forward departures.

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Last season. An incredible achievement or a wasted opportunity? The break-up of the squad suggests the latter…

Both really. We were superb for months but just bottled it big time towards the end. We had a couple of results in April which weren’t helpful in the slightest and once we finished third, a lot of people knew our chance had gone with the form Barnsley were in.

The break-up of the squad doesn’t really bother me too much. Even if we’d have gone up, 2/3 of our first team were just about okay in League One and would’ve needed replacing anyway. I was even okay with Romaine Sawyers going. He was an absolute pleasure to watch for 3 years but he was just too technically gifted for League One. He needs to prove himself in the Championship now and show everyone how good he is.

Do the departures over the summer mean you’re going to have to be forced to accept a season without a promotion push, or can you challenge again regardless?

It’s hard to say really. If we start well again then who knows. Anything could happen. It’s a very weird league. Barnsley proved that. Obviously we had a lot of team spirit last year which got us a lot of points, which we might be lacking in this season.

Overall, I think we’ve recruited really well in fairness to Whitney. For example, Cuvelier/Dobson are better than Mantom and McCarthy should be better than Downing. Oztumer too is a class act.

Jon Whitney oversaw some impressive performances and results last season, but are you a little concerned about his lack of managerial experience in the context of an entire campaign?

Yeah I am a little bit as it’s his first go at management. He’s very good at motivating and if his tactics are spot on (mostly) then we’ll have a good season again.

Also, most people are forgetting that the 4/5 very good players we’ve signed have bought into what he’s trying to do after meeting/speaking to Whitney a couple of times.

He did well last year as it wasn’t his squad and we were a bit out of form. I’d expect the likes of Dean Holden, Neil Cutler and John Ward as back room staff to guide him through a hell of a lot too.

After the departures of just about every single player at the club who knew how to put the ball in the net, where are your goals coming from?  

As long as we replace Bradshaw’s goals then we should be fine. Easier said than done but not completely out of the question. Our top scorers in the last four seasons (Bradshaw, Westcarr, Grigg) all got at least 15 in a season. If Cuvelier stays fit, he’ll get as many as Mantom and I’m tipping Morris to score as many as Lalkovic did. We’ve got more direct players this season who are going to create chances and probably shoot as much as they can.

And finally, where are you going to finish this season?

Lower top half I’d imagine. Anything better and Whitney will deserve an incredible amount of credit. I’ll go with 9th but I said exactly that last season so what do I know? (Can’t wait to come back to this naive shite in May once we’ve been relegated.)

Summary

Will undoubtedly struggle to repeat the relative success of last season, but have a structure in place that means they should be comfortable. Should. 11th

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All information correct, or at least it should, as of 29/07/2016. All photos my own, or marked for reuse by others. Thanks for taking the time to read through my League One Season Preview. Sure you don’t agree with all of it, not even sure if I agree with what I’ve written myself, but a decent amount of effort has gone into it so appreciate every minute set aside to take a glance through it. 

Chris Powell’s Flat Cap Championship Season Preview – Part Four

Part Three


Queens Park Rangers

A rather lethargic second tier campaign, which saw the club slump to 12th in their first season back in the Championship following relegation from the Premier League, is arguably what was needed at Queens Park Rangers. Possibly more useful in the long-term than a push for the top six. qpr-new-crest-2016-1300

For it has encouraged a change in philosophy at a club that had been held back for several seasons by unenthusiastic journeymen on large contracts. Harry Redknappitus, or something like that. A balancing of the books and future development now taking prominence.

A change beginning midway through last season, with the appointment of a relatively young manager who had shown signs of potential in the lower leagues. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink not overseeing immediate transformation at Loftus Road, with results and performances remaining indifferent, but his shaping of his squad since then has given the R’s a more youthful and encouraging side.

In truth, a focus on creating a younger and more progressive side does not guarantee immediate success or improvement. But the attempt to improve in such a manner is certainly the right path to take for QPR, who have largely shunned long-term thinking during their period of bouncing between the top flight and the Championship.

A season, therefore, where success is not guaranteed, but you feel the club is moving in a more positive direction overall.

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The Manager – Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink

It took Hasselbaink eight league games for him to pick up his first win as QPR boss after arriving from Burton Albion in December, and only seven of the 27 league games he oversaw were won, but there is no desire to write off the former Burton boss’ chances of success at Loftus Road.

For enough was shown during his time in charge at the Pirelli Stadium to suggest Hasselbaink remains a promising appointment for the R’s. Particularly that results were gained in a stylish fashion with a relatively unfancied side.

Things didn’t quite go to plan for the former Chelsea and Charlton forward in his first six months in charge, not least with winter signings Abdenasser El Khayati and Conor Washington failing to live up to their potential, and there will undoubtedly be pressure on him to succeed in the early weeks of the campaign.

But after a summer working with this side, and adapting it to the style of football he wishes to play, is the time to make a true judgement of whether Hasselbaink is right for this job. A summer, too, that will have allowed individuals to improve and seen promising signings made.

That, however, has not stopped Hasselbaink suggesting that expectations can’t be too high in the coming season.

“We want to be competitive and challenge. The big aim is to get promotion but we can’t be crazy and stupid,” he said.

Improvement and development, both in terms of results and becoming more in tune with Hasselbaink’s philosophy, the overriding goal.

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Transfer Business

A certain type of player leaving the R’s this summer, and a certain type joining. Quite literally out with the old, and in with the (slightly) new(er).

To lose the old wasn’t necessarily consistently a positive. Disappointment that long-serving club captain Clint Hill and injury-hit midfielder Alejandro Faurlin, both with cult hero status at Loftus Road, were among those to be allowed to leave the club, but it seen as the right time for them both to move on.

Also frustration to be had in Matt Phillips moving to West Brom, with the impressive Scottish winger joining the Premier League club for £5.5m, though an acceptance existing that retaining him would have been difficult. A player that possess top flight quality.

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Fewer tears shed, however, as Armand Traore, Rob Green and Samba Diakite joined forgettable Charlton loanee Yun Suk-young in being released by the club, while Leroy Fer (Swansea) has left permanently and Sandro will probably join him before the end of August.

The exit of underperforming players on large wages, in addition to the money made from the sale of Phillips and the departure of Charlie Austin in January, giving the R’s a power, presence and pounds in the transfer market.

Power, presence and pounds that have been used relatively wisely, with the club seemingly moved on from the days of spending overinflated sums on average players.

Jake Bidwell, who arrives from Brentford, and Jordan Cousins, signed from Charlton, the greatest sign of that. Young players who have already proven themselves at this level, and have shown great commitment and determination at their previous clubs. Both wearers, Bidwell regularly and Cousins on occasions, of the captain’s armband at their previous clubs despite being 23 and 22 respectively.

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Joel Lynch another addition who, though at 28 lacks the young and promising tag, has proven his worth in this division and has characteristics that make him appear committed and determined. A little injury hit, but an excellent performer at centre-back when fit for Huddersfield.

A move also made for 25-year-old Poland international Ariel Borysiuk. Signed from Poland’s premier club, Legia Warsaw, and awarded the number seven shirt at Loftus Road despite being a combative midfielder, there is promise of quality.

A need for more, most certainly, with Patrick Bamford and Alex Pritchard linked, but that these are the sort of names that the R’s are being linked with, and not a 37-year-old journeyman who last had a good season in 2012, is promising in itself. A different direction most certainly being taken.

The Squad

It quite refreshing that in looking through QPR’s squad, it’s those with potential that stand out, rather than wondering how much Samba Diakite is being paid a week.

That true even in the goalkeeper position, where Alex Smithies, despite having over 250 league appearances to his name and already proving himself as an excellent Championship, has time to get better at the age of 26. Matt Ingram, 22, his understudy having impressed for Wycombe Wanderers and he, with just shy of 150 league appearances, not short of experience either.

In the centre of defence, there is the option to use Steven Caulker, who has returned to the club after his rather disastrous loan spells at Liverpool and Southampton. Celtic allegedly interested, however, and Grant Hall, who made a decent impression having arrived from Tottenham last season, skipper Nedum Onuoha, and new arrival Lynch all likely to be ahead of him. Another centre-back probably needed should the man once capped by England depart.

Bidwell and James Perch likely to claim the full-back positions, and depth will improve once the long-term injured Jack Robinson returns. The 22-year-old, who has impressed in the Championship previously during a loan spell at Huddersfield, suffering a set-back over the summer.

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It homegrown players, in the shape of the largely untried Darnell Furlong and Cole Kpekawa, who currently provide cover at right and left-back, and so another full-back with proven quality wouldn’t go amiss.

Young players who still need to prove themselves also to be found in the centre of midfield, though with a larger layer of proven quality above them. Ben Gladwin yet to make an impression having arrived from Swindon last summer, and in fact spent parts of last season back with the Robins alongside homegrown Michael Doughty.

They’ll provide cover to Cousins, Borysiuk, Massimo Luongo, and the more experienced Karl Henry, who are arguably all above them in the pecking order. Former Watford man Daniel Tozser, who appeared 17 times last season, also an option.

Two of those likely to sit behind Tjaronn Chery, with the attacking midfielder enjoying an excellent first season at Loftus, scoring ten times and showing real quality.

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Chery the R’s most creative and threatening attacking midfield option, particularly with wide options a little stretched. Junior Hoilett’s future uncertain and Jamie Mackie injured. Abdenasser El Khayati and Conor Washington, under real pressure to prove himself after failing to score having arrived from Peterborough in January, probably going to find themselves as the starting wingers initially.

It leaves Sebastian Polter, who appears to be Simon Makienok but German, competent, and without a nice dog, as Hasselbaink’s central forward man. It up top and out wide where options are seriously lacking, to the point that Jay Emmanuel-Thomas appears to have been given another chance, and a real need to strengthen before the start of the season.

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Fans View: Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire

Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink’s arrival at Loftus Road last season didn’t quite result in the upturn of form that many were hoping for. Regardless, have you seen enough during his period in charge to feel a sense of optimism, or are you a touch concerned?

I was a little tentative to the appointment but I’ve full support and faith in Jimmy and the staff. The club have begun to take a long term view and therefore expectations have been scaled back accordingly; performances under JFH last year weren’t always thrilling nor majorly progressive but supporters realise it’s not a quick fix.

A great deal of us felt a little disconnected from our club during the disastrous spending sprees however there’s hope and light at the end of the tunnel and I see JFH guiding us down the right path. So yes, optimistic, relatively unconcerned but realistic about what QPR will offer in the coming 12 months.

In both recent departures and arrivals, in addition to Hasselbaink’s appointment, it appears that the club is taking a slightly more pragmatic and long-term approach than in recent years. In other words, not simply allowing Harry Redknapp to blow the wage budget on a 34-year-old journeyman. The right way to go?

Absolutely. I remember crying my eyes out when we sold Les Ferdinand, Andy Sinton and co as a kid. I always wished Rangers could push on and compete as a major Premier League club but the slipper just never fit – we’re not suited to be big-spenders and although I’d never criticise the ambition, it was embarrassing and humbling and to see our club taken to the cleaners in front of the whole football population.

QPR have always been about giving local players a chance, finding rough gems and giving players the opportunity to move on to bigger and better things. I’m thrilled by the additions of Joel Lynch and Jake Bidwell this summer and 100% believe it’s the right way to go. Some supporters are getting itchy feet regarding the lack of a striker joining but I’d rather start the season without a forward than chucking cash around willy nilly on a player that’s no interest in pulling on the shirt, as we’ve seen all too often in recent years.

Nonetheless, does the ambition for this season have to be promotion, or are your expectations in the short-term a little lower than that? 

The answer to this is different for many fans. For me, after relegation I just wanted the club to consolidate last season and stay out of the news. Thankfully, we managed to get through 2015/16 without too much drama and it’s now baby steps to rebuild the club on and off the pitch. I think all 24 clubs would want a push to the play-offs but I wouldn’t say we’re targeting promotion – that can come next year.

You appear to be lacking a little in attack. How hopeful are you that Conor Washington, having struggled a little since arriving in January, will prove his worth in the second tier?

Conor’s a strange one. Clearly talented, when he has played we’ve often played him up front on his own – a position and role he’s unfamiliar and unsuited too. Seb Polter is in pole position to start in the lone striker’s role so Conor’s possibly going to be playing wide in a 4-2-3-1 right now, unless JFH decides to play two up front, which we’ve little evidence he will. I’m a little fearful for Conor’s future but I’m certain JFH and the club will have seen how and why he thrived at Posh under Westley and will do their utmost to integrate him into the team.

We are short in attack and it’s an issue that’ll be even more magnetised following Charlie Austin’s departure but I’m confident in the club and JFH to make the right calls regarding transfers. They’ll be looking at options and unless those potentials suit, I don’t see the benefit in buying players in for the sake of it.

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And finally, where will you finish this season?

The side seems strong and solid from goalkeeper, in defence and through midfield. If we can add a bit of sparkle to the attack then I’ve no doubt we’ll be a top-half team. Right now I think an 8th-12th placed finish looks most likely.

Summary

Before anything else, the lack of quality and depth in forward positions needs addressing. But the R’s, though maybe not resulting in immediate success this season, are going in the right direction. A promising mid-table finish, rather than a sluggish one. 12th

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Reading

Such is the rather uncertain position that Reading find themselves in, a drop from serious play-off contenders at the start of last season to a final position of 17th has almost lost its importance over the summer months.  erherherherher

A drop used to justify the sacking of both Steve Clarke and Brian McDermott. The speed with which both bosses were dismissed disappointing many supporters, particularly in the case of McDermott. Supporters split over the decision to remove him at the conclusion last season, but the overriding feeling being that a well-respected figure around the Madejski, having led the club to the Premier League in 2011/12, had been treated in poor fashion.

And a gamble taken on the next appointment, with former Manchester United defender Jaap Stam given his first job in management. A big name, of course, and one that has spent time as an assistant at Ajax, but that doesn’t prevent uncertainty existing over whether the Dutchman is the right man to lead a club that has been in relative decline since their relegation from the top flight in 2013.

The managerial situation, in addition to the club’s disappointing recent campaigns, ultimately a consequence of a succession of questionable ownerships. Anton Zingarevich’s reign leaving the club in a financial mess, and the Thai consortium that’s followed seemingly searching for new investment.

Financial uncertainty, and uncertainty about the stability of the club in general. Possibly best summed up by chairman John Madejski criticising the owners’ decision to sack McDermott during the press conference to announce Stam while shareholder Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth was on the same table, with those comments criticised by club CEO Nigel Howe. Division within the club, and opposition from outside.

Not to the point where supporters are protesting, particularly given that there has been communication and reassurances, but a stage has certainly been reached where disconnection is growing between club and its fans.

This certainly a position where supporters are increasingly finding it testing to have faith in their club, and not much faith existing that a challenge for a top-six spot, especially with the managerial appointment a gamble and funds comparatively lacking, will be possible in the coming campaign.

It’s probably all worth it to watch Yann Kermrogant play, mind.

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The Manager – Jaap Stam

Maybe there is an argument that appointing a big name in the world of football as your club’s new boss in relative uncertain times will inject hope, excitement and positivity into supporters.

But the more realistic response to former Netherlands international Stam being named Reading manager is for that uncertainty to increase. Without having led a club before, there is only his reputation as a player and his words to go off in assessing how likely he is to bring success to the Royals. A complete unknown quality.

In fairness, his words are strong.

“As a player I wanted to win as many trophies as I could and as a manager I have the same ambition. I am going to do that with Reading and I am very happy to do that with this club. Hopefully we can get to the Premier League with Reading,” said Stam upon his appointment.

That followed up with a promise of “attacking football” and a “need to be creative”. Strong words, undoubtedly, but with little evidence to support them.

Pressure on the former Manchester United defender, irrespective of how experienced he was as a player, to back up his words and prove himself as a manager.

Transfer Business

If there is one certain positive in appointing a name like Stam, it’s the fact his presence will help to attract players to the club. Both from his home country, and from other English clubs.

Of the Dutch contingent, it’s Roy Beerens that arrives with the strongest reputation, despite only playing five times for Hertha Berlin last season. The 28-year-old winger, who has two caps for his country, failed to make an impact in two seasons with the German top flight club, but was an impressive performer for AZ Alkmaar previously.

Midfielder Joey van den Berg, who “is physically strong enough for the Championship, is technically strong and…has a winner’s mentality” according to Stam, arrives from FC Heerenven with a disciplinary record that Joey Barton would admire, while 22-year-old defender Danzell Gravenberch, interestingly signed before Stam’s arrival on the recommendation of technical director Brian Tevreden, joins from Dordrecht with Dutch youth caps to his name.

There have also been signings from abroad without Dutch connections. French forward Joseph Mendes, who has the pace to also play out wide, arrives from Le Harve with a pretty mediocre goal-scoring record, while Finish goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola arrives from South African side Ajax Cape Town, a club owned by the Ajax of the Netherlands where Stam has worked as a coach.

And from England comes John Swift, who signs on a permanent basis from Chelsea having spent last season on loan at Brentford. The 21-year-old midfield, who had a mixed time at Griffin Park but showed a decent amount of promise overall, replaces Aaron Tshibola, with Reading unable to turn down the £5m offered for their exciting young midfielder.

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Thankfully, Tshibola is the only real loss that has been suffered by the Royals this summer, though there were a few suggesting that the decision to allow Hal Robson-Kanu to leave after his efforts in France might have been a mistake. Anton Ferdinand and Simon Cox also released.

Michael Hector is no longer a Reading player, having spent last season on loan at the Madejski following a transfer to Chelsea, while the somewhat indifferent performing Ola John, Matej Vydra and Lucas Piazon are among those to return to parent clubs after loan spells, but these are departures the club would have prepared for.

The Squad

They’ve got Yann Kermorgant. Yann Kermorgant. Yann Kermorgant!!!!!

No but seriously, Reading have Yann Kermorgant. Nothing else really matters, does it? Apparently so.

Yann Kermorgant

And despite Kermorgant’s presence in attack, it’s probably in midfield where the Royals have the greatest strength and depth. Both centrally, where George Evans, Danny Williams and Norwood will compete for places with Swift and Van den Berg, and out wide, with Stephen Quinn, Garath McCleary, the returning Paolo Hurtado and Beerens available to Stam.

The Dutchman could also deploy Deniss Rakels and Mendes out wide, but they’re likely to be needed up top, with the Royals lacking a little bit of depth in attack. Dominic Samuel, having spent last season on loan at Gillingham, may get a chance in the first-team squad.

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But it’s at the back where Reading’s biggest concern is, certainly in terms of depth. Chris Gunter and Jordan Obita quality full-backs, but nothing in reserve. Captain Paul McShane an experienced centre-back and promise shown by 21-year-old Jake Cooker, but only the inexperienced Gravenberch offers an alternative.

Handy, then that there’s decent goalkeeping options, with new signing Jaakkola competing with Jonathan Bond and Ali Al-Habsi for the starting berth.

Fans View – The Tilehurst End (@TheTilehurstEnd)

I sense, after a succession of questionable ownerships and on-the-pitch stagnation, a sense of apathy among Reading supporters. How true is that?

I think that was certainly the case at the end of last season, another year that promised much and delivered very little. There was a feeling the club was drifting aimlessly without any real direction but the past few weeks have slowly seen optimism return to the Madejski Stadium. Suddenly one of our three co-owners seems to be taking direct interest, there’s a clear vision and the squad is being rapidly reshaped. Of course we’ll need to see it sustained before we totally let our guards down but for now there is a growing sense of cautious optimism.

Does the appointment of Jaap Stam address that, in creating some excitement, or is there more concern that an inexperienced boss is in charge?

Initially a lot of fans were skeptical about a manager with such limited managerial experience but Stam’s been doing well on the media front and has helped bring a bit of a buzz back to the place. Of course we’ve seen other former United legends like Solskjaer flounder so again we’ll just have to wait and see. Whatever happens fans just want to see someone given a proper go after seeing 4 managers leave in the past 3 years.

A number of signings have arrived from Europe, which has had mixed results at other Championship clubs in the past. Are you concerned they might not adapt to the English game, or is this the route Reading have to go down to compete at the top of the division?

I think your second point nails it really. There’s no way we can compete financially with the likes of Villa, Newcastle or even Derby so we have to be increasingly creative and take a few more risks to stay competitive.

I think the key here is that we’ve been signing players with points to prove rather than just mercenary types who are on their way down so they should at least be giving it 100% even if they’re slow to adapt. All fans want to see are players giving it their all so if these new signings do that, we can take a dud or two!

Every little bit of worry and concern is worth it to watch Yann Kermorgant play though, right? 

Well when he puts in performances like he did at The Valley last season! Sadly we didn’t get to see the best of Yann last season but with a full pre-season behind him and a new strike partner or two I’m hoping this will be a good year!

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And finally, where will you finish this season?

I could honestly make a case for anywhere from 1st to 24th but my gut tells me it’ll be somewhere between 6th and 12th. If we get on a good roll and stay injury free anything can happen but if we struggle early and the new signings take longer than we hoped to gel I could just as easily see us sucked into a dog fight. Still, if you forced me to make a pick I’d say 10th.

Summary

An uncomfortable situation off-the-pitch, and an uncertain one on it. Very hard to predict what impact Stam and his signings will make, and despite my doubts I think that with time and patience, it could work out quite nicely. One of the many clubs in this division where if it all clicks, somthing positive will happen. A need, however, for exceptions to be relatively low in his first season in charge. 17th

109


Rotherham United

As Neil Warnock, having overseen an incredible run that kept Rotherham United in the Championship, confirmed he would not be remaining at the club, there was a danger that uncertainty and an element of crisis would replace what appeared to be reassurance and stability. gewgwegewgew

Six points from safety and with just one victory in ten matches after three games of Neil Warnock’s reign, the Millers appeared condemned to relegation at the end of February.

But, as a consequence of the experienced boss’ nous, an 11 match unbeaten run followed that saw Rotherham finish nine points above the bottom three despite losing their final two games of the campaign. The turnaround barely believable, and supporters desperate for Warnock to remain at the New York Stadium.

His departure meaning that Rotherham’s advantage, explicitly the brain of the 67-year-old, had been lost. Not a month after their survival had been confirmed, the threat of relegation in the following season appeared substantial.

Warnock, however, made a key point as he departed the club. “The club needs somebody to commit themselves now to actually take it forward,” he said. The Millers possessing a desire to be ambitious and progressive – not something the Yorkshireman felt he could commit to with him only wanting one more year in management.

It seems, therefore, that the appointment of Alan Stubbs is a more logical one with the long-term ambitions of Rotherham in mind. A young boss, who has shown potential at Hibernian, with the capability of leading the Millers over the coming years.

But so too did Warnock make the point that any thoughts of challenging at the top end of the Championship for Rotherham are “a few years away yet”.

The main thing is consolidating in the Championship, have a steady season where they’re not flirting with relegation and get the infrastructure correct for when they could make a push,” he quite rightly said. Stubbs must first provide stability, before further ambition can be shown.

As a result, this will not be an easy season for Stubbs and his Rotherham side, and achieving Championship survival would again prove a success for a club not yet in a position where it can push on.

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The Manager – Alan Stubbs

It mattered not that Stubbs had failed to achieve promotion from the Scottish second tier in two consecutive seasons with Hibs. His overseeing of the club’s dramatic Scottish Cup win, their first in 114 years, meant his job at Easter Road was one with a great deal more security than many managers could claim to have.

Consequently, even Stubbs himself can see the “risk” involved in moving to Rotherham. A testing job, with the club comparatively weaker than many of the opposition they will face in the Championship, and one that the former Everton defender takes on without the same level of backing he had from Hibernian supporters.

But, with his ambition for the Millers high, the 44-year-old will hope to experience similar backing from home fans at the New York Stadium. That will undoubtedly be the case if he can deliver on what has been said is the ultimate aim – to be “around the play-offs.”

The aim for this coming season, however, is to simply adapt. Stubbs must prove himself in the Championship, and at the absolute very least maintain Rotherham’s status in the second tier.

A need to organise what is truthfully a sub-par group of players to such an extent that they can compete in this division. The “risk” of taking this job reaffirmed by how difficult a task that may prove to be.

Transfer Business

Any potential enthusiasm and excitement created by the arrival of Stubbs certainly hasn’t been supported in the transfer market. A very frustrating summer of recruitment for Rotherham.

The main frustration coming from the failure to sign Wasall forward Tom Bradshaw. The prolific Welshman opting instead for Barnsley, a club likely to be involved in the same relegation battle as the Millers.

The frustration increased by the fact that, at the time of writing, no other forward has been found to fill the rather sizeable gap in attacking options. A situation that exists as a result of Matt Derbyshire, Rotherham’s main forward option last season, heading off to Cyprus, in addition to the much less frequently used Leon Best and Luciano Becchio being released.

An attempt to find an experienced midfielder with leadership qualities, to replace the departed Paul Green, has also been unsuccessful, with target Dean Whitehead opting to remain and fight for his place at Huddersfield.

Two young, more attack-minded, central midfielders have arrived, however, with 22-year-old Will Vaulks joining from Falkirk, and 22-year-old Jake Forster-Caskey, who has regressed slightly in recent seasons having shown early potential at Brighton, arriving on loan.

The signing of winger Anthony Forde, who impressed at Walsall, also made as contracted (Emmauel Ledesma and Jerome Thomas) and loanee (Chris Burke and Andrew Shinnie) depart, while Lewis Price joins as reserve to the experienced Lee Camp having been released by Sheffield Wednesday.

Price replacing the released Alex Cairns and Adam Colin, with a clear out also taking place in defence. Lewis Buxton, who has spent the summer on trial at Charlton, former Addick Frazer Richardson, and Lloyd Doyley, who spent a part of last season training in South East London, among those to be let go.

With Paddy Kenny and Danny Collins also included, in addition to the four loan deals that expired at the end of last season, it all amounts to 17 players no longer a part of Rotherham’s squad, and only four added to it. Not ideal.

The Squad

It no surprise, therefore, that Rotherham’s squad appears a touch weak. At least, with the excellent Camp, the quality between the sticks cannot be questioned.

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There’s reasonable numbers in defence, which was exploited by Warnock at the end of last season with five recognised defenders frequently deployed, but the quality is debatable. Journeymen for as far as the eye can see.

Former Addicks Richard Wood and Greg Halford, having spent earlier parts of the season out on loan, became important players towards the conclusion of the campaign, with Wood determined in defence and Halford acting as a shield between midfield and the backline.

Kirk Broadfoot, a more natural full-back, was often used in the centre, with the experienced Stephen Kelly making a decent impression at right-back, and former Sheffield Wednesday man Joe Mattock a regular at left-back. January signing Aymen Belaid, Tom Thorpe, who returns from a loan at Bradford City, and the versatile Joe Newell providing defensive alternatives.

So too, if required, could Richard Smallwood fill in at centre-back, but he excelling for the Millers as a combative midfielder. Skipper Lee Frecklington often alongside in the centre, with Vaulks, Forster-Caskey and Chris Dawson, who joined from Leeds in January but is yet to make an appearance, providing competition.

But it’s forward positions, both centrally and out wide, where Stubbs’ side appears particularly weak. Danny Ward, the embodiment of a frustrating and inconsistent winger, Newell, and Forde the only senior natural wide men at the club, though Forster-Caskey can fill in and even Halford played wide right once last season.

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While centrally, there’s effectively nothing. Jonson Clarke-Harris set to be out for the majority of the season through injury, which does at least keep him away from penalties. The need for additional strikers desperate.

Fans View: Josey Webb (@Joseywebb)

A part of you must have been resigned to relegation after Charlton’s 4-1 win at the New York Stadium in January. Just how impressive a job did Warnock do, and how disappointed were you not to retain him?

The defeat to Charlton was disappointing, but how easy we made it for them was even worse as it never looked like they were under any sort of pressure. Remember this was a team that had a horrible away record and were below us in the table, to crumble so easily was hugely disappointing.

However, it was still January and with Bolton up next there was still hope. I think the last minute defeat in that game was the one that got alarm bells ringing and it was obviously the final game for Redfearn before we sent an emergency call to Warnock.

I think the job Warnock did was terrific, the players looked down and out, and even though it wasn’t pretty we went on a great run and in typical Warnock style suddenly remembered how to get points.

At first I would have loved to have kept hold of him, but when it started to drag on it felt to me like his heart wasn’t in it so don’t blame him for walking away a hero. He would only have done a maximum of one season so we could have potentially been in exactly the same situation in a year’s time.

Warnock for Stubbs. The best of a bad situation or an opportunity to build something with a young boss in charge?

Warnock did a great job, but we all knew it was a short term fix. Even if he had given us another season, it was still only a quick fix and the sort of players he likes to sign would do a job for him but we need to start looking to build something. I think Stubbs is a good appointment, probably the best of the realistic names we were linked with, but as he has never managed at this level it was always going to be a risk. He seems ambitious so hopefully he can get some way to realising his ambitions with Rotherham.

What does Stubbs need to do to replicate the form under Warnock, and avoid another season-long relegation battle?

Not too much in my opinion, we have a core of players still here that did so well at the back end of last season and he will need to add a little more quality, especially up front. The key thing that Warnock did was give the players he had the belief that they were good enough, so if Stubbs can keep this going he already has some good players available. It will be tough, no Rotherham fan will tell you any different, but if we can stay lucky with injuries (hopefully Clarke-Harris is the only one) and he can find that elusive front man, we could be ok.

You’ve not had much luck in the transfer market. How concerned are you about the state of your squad?

The current transfer policy is so different to that of Steve Evans that most of us have felt frustrated. Over the last few seasons we have been used to seeing a couple of new players every week so it has been a dramatic change. So far though the players we have signed have looked good and it is refreshing to see a more considered approach to try and get the players we actually want. We desperately need at least two strikers, so not seeing one brought in yet has proved frustrating but the club apparently deemed Bradshaw and Gregory not worthy of the price their clubs wanted. I’m not a scout so don’t know how good these players are or will be but hopefully some movement on this front will happen before too long.

The manager seems calm about the state of the squad, even though it does look a little thin, so that is good enough for me. We will see what the next two weeks bring.

And finally, where will you finish this season?

I don’t share the optimism of Alan Stubbs that we will finish top 10 but that is ok. Ask any Rotherham fan and most will be happy to stay up again. It would be nice to do things a little more comfortably and start to build and improve. I’m going to go for 18th.

Summary

Will undoubtedly be involved in a relegation battle again. Unsure if they’ll survive this one. 23rd

108


Sheffield Wednesday

In the immediate aftermath of their play-off final defeat to Hull City, the overriding emotion for supporters of Sheffield Wednesday would have been one of disappointment accompanied by a feeling of an opportunity missed. Sheffield-Wednesday-Crest (2)

And why wouldn’t there have been? No reward for an impressive season, the Owls’ first where a serious attempt to return to the Premier League was made since their relegation in 2000, and instead the pain of falling agonisingly short having to be dealt with. Failing to achieve promotion having been 90 minutes away from it always carries a sense of injustice.

But once those reactionary feelings died down, supporters of Wednesday could reflect on an incredible first full season under the control of owner Dejphon Chansiri. His ambition reflected in a rise from 13th to 6th, the push for promotion exceeding the realistic expectations that were in place, and the play-off final defeat providing a platform to build form rather than crushing what was already built.

For the Owls, unlike many who suffer play-off final defeat, head into the new season in a stronger position than they started the last. Carlos Carvalhal with a year of experience in the Championship to his name, a successful and cohesive side maintained that played exciting football last season, and a handful of quality additions made to a squad that wasn’t in need of an overhaul.

The despite of last season not damaging to want Wednesday want to achieve. There no reason why they can’t compete for promotion once again.

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The Head Coach – Carlos Carvalhal

There was an element of uncertainty as Carvalhal arrived at Hillsborough last summer. Something of a gamble by Chansiri to dismiss the well-liked Stuart Gray, who had led the Owls to a comfortable mid-table finish, and replace him with a boss without experience of English football who had been something of a journeyman throughout Europe.

But such is the success that Carvalhal enjoyed in his first season in England, and the attachment he shares with the club and its supporters, it seems strange that there was ever any uncertainty at all.

The Portuguese boss justifying Chansiri’s decision throughout the season, constructing a mightily impressive side that played positive and attractive attacking football on their way to the play-off final.

His achievements not only in bringing about collective success, but getting the best out of players who had previously frustrated. Fernando Forestieri’s reputation sometimes preceding him, but a much more consistent performer than during his time at Watford, Barry Bannan one of the division’s best playmakers having struggled to settled elsewhere, and Gary Hooper a potent threat having underwhelmed at Norwich.

And with a year’s experience of the Championship, it can be suggested that Carvalhal may prove to be even more impressive in this campaign. His understanding of what’s needed to succeed in this division greater, and occasional mistakes less likely.

Mistakes like persisting with that rather questionable coat for much of the season…

Transfer Business

There no doubt that frustration existed towards Wednesday’s transfer activity for much of the summer, but the arrival of Almen Abdi and Daniel Pudil has done more than appease.

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The positive of the general lack of activity in the early parts of the summer being that their relatively successful squad from last season, with its strength in depth in most areas, remains intact. That the impressive Ross Wallace has agreed a new deal the sort of news to match that of a new signing.

And the signing they did make, in addition to recruiting Jake Kean as a reserve goalkeeping option, appears a decent one. Carvalhal never afraid of going direct should it be required, and Steven Fletcher has proven himself to be a real handful for Premier League, and Ligue 1, defences to deal with in recent seasons. Not the best goal-scoring record to complement his other attributes, but his strength, intelligence and ability to bring others into play will certainly prove useful.

But there were grumbles that not enough was being done to build upon the success of last season, especially given the club’s financial resources and their ambition. The attempts to re-sign Pudil effectively becoming something of a rather dull saga, and little else happening.

So to finally secure the left-back on a permanent basis, in addition to his Watford teammate Abdi, has reaffirmed the club’s ambitions, and quietened a handful of supporters that were maybe growing a little uncomfortable with the lack of activity.

The Squad

As proven last season, Wednesday’s side is incredibly talented and well-deserving of their place in the Championship play-offs. But it does lack a little bit of depth in certain positions.

Keiren Westwood one of the division’s best goalkeepers, and has consistent performers Tom Lees and Glenn Loovens stood in front of him to form a solid central defensive unit. Right-back Jack Hunt another impressively consistent member of this Wednesday side, and the signing of Pudil crucial given the lack of other left-back options. A same, therefore, that cover for a very strong and consistent defensive unit is lacking.

Depth questionable at the back, but certainly not in the centre of midfield. So much so that Lewis McGugan managed just 12 appearances last season, unable to dislodge the yellow-card hungry Sam Hutchinson, the creative Barry Bannan or the tireless Kieran Lee. Former Addick Jose Semedo and fellow Portugese Filipe Melo also available to Carvalhal.

Lee also played out wide at times last season, and he may be required on the right of the midfield again should Wednesday play a 4-4-2. The former Oldham man preferred to Marco Matias in that position for much of the season, and even deployed there while Aiden McGeady was on loan with the Owls. Ross Wallace making the left wing his own, and Jeremy Helan not really a serious threat to his starting place. Even with the arrival of Abdi, who can play out wide in addition to the Bannan-role, you’d probably still want another winger.

Nonetheless, the need to improve the depth of Wednesday’s wide options is made less desperate by the fact Carvalhal could deploy the attacking 4-3-3 used at times during the final weeks of last season in this campaign. Fernando Forestieri, Gary Hooper and Lucas Joao forming quite the potent forward trio, with Fletcher and Atdhe Nuhiu also available.

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Fans View: Alexandra O’Neil (@alexandraswfc)

Is the idea that you overachieved last season, rather than failed in the play-off, an important thought to hold going into the new season?

Definitely, no one expected the play-off final after certain performances last season, and the whole experience was surreal. However it has raised the expectations of a number of fans for the coming season

Given those achievements last season, are your expectations higher this season? Will only promotion do?

Of course expectations have gone up, but I think hope has also increased. After years of crap we finally have a solid team with a creative manager. I’d personally be happy with play-offs again, especially with the amount of money being spent by other teams and the calibre of players being signed.

Given how many overseas managers and coaches have failed in the Championship, just how impressive a job has Carvalhal done in turning Wednesday into serious promotion contenders?

Unbelievable. Obviously the investment has helped, but he’s managed to get a team of frees (Bannan), bargains (Forestieri) and players who were already there (Lee, Lees, Westwood) looking like a force to be reckoned with. Being Wednesday’s first foreign manager we were all a little sceptical, but he’s proven he’s got his head screwed on unlike some of the other foreign managers.

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You’ve not done a great deal of strengthening to your squad, the Pudil situation continues to drag on, and it can be suggested you lack depth in certain areas. Is all that a worry, or are you still well-placed to challenge? (Asked prior to the signings of Pudil and Abdi)

A lot of our fans are panicking over these, and I must admit the Pudil saga is one that worries me. However, the best players we signed last year weren’t ours until the end of August, so I’m not too worried. We haven’t lost anyone from our squad, and judging by pre-season a few of the injury prone players from last year are looking strong. We do need additions, but I’m confident in Chansiri and Carvalhal to deliver.

Finally, where will you finish this season?   

5th. We won’t have enough to compete with the relegated teams, and if we don’t add any more quality I can’t see us being near automatics. I’ll live in hope, though.

Summary

Make the handful of improvements to the squad required, and will challenge again. 5th

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Wigan Athletic

With an ambitious young chairman who understood what was required to revitalise the club, a well-supported boss who showed a commendable amount of managerial talent in his first season in the dugout, and a group of players that have reignited supporter interest at a time when apathy was growing, Wigan Athletic return to the Championship in a much healthier state than the one they were in when they left it.erherherherne erh reh es

For such was the atmosphere around the DW Stadium as the Latics dropped to League One two seasons ago, the belief that the club who spent eight years in the Premier League and won a FA Cup would immediately bounce back was not entirely universal. The unpopular reign of Malky Mackay, with a group of players lacking drive and commitment, leaving behind unavoidable baggage. No longer the nation’s overachievers that continue to defy the odds, but a club regressing at pace.

The answer an almost total squad revolution, with young players and the best League One had to offer making up the bulk of those coming in. Gary Caldwell, a natural leader on the pitch but in his first full season in management, deserving of endless praise for gelling a newly formed unit together, and getting it to play attractive and dominant football. A quite staggering 82 goals scored, and just two defeats after mid-December, en route to lifting the title.

The events on the pitch reflecting the attitude of 25-year-old chairman David Sharpe, taking over from grandfather Dave Whelan, and reversing the notion that the Latics were in an unavoidable state of regression.

In fact, as Wigan return to the second to the second tier, they arrive with a sense that they are a progressing and developing unit. The ethos of last season maintained, with the lure to spend and attract larger names ignored.

Maybe, therefore, not quite in a position where a return to the Premier League can be considered. There will be times where inexperience among their staff and squad will be exposed in the cutthroat nature of the Championship.

But maintaining, and building upon, a young and hungry side gives the Latics an excellent chance of laying a foundation in the second tier from which further development can occur, and supporter interest and attachment can remain high.

Oh, and Will Grigg’s on fire. There, I said it. We all happy now? Good.

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The Manager – Gary Caldwell

A club rejuvenated, a squad revolutionised, and promotion as champions all achieved in Caldwell’s first full season in management. It no wonder that the Scot was named the LMA’s League One Manager of the Year.

For despite failing to achieve Sharpe’s rather ambitious target of achieving 100 points, Wigan’s first season under Caldwell was a huge success and provided further encouragement for the future. The club escaping from the clutches of disaster under his leadership.

Always likely to have the full support of Latics, given that he won the FA Cup as captain of the club, and always likely to make for a good boss, given his strong qualities as an on-the-pitch leader, the impressive campaign in League One has merely cemented a strong wave of support behind the 35-year-old boss. Appointing a previously untried manager on the basis of his connection with a club in relative crisis a gamble, but one that has certainly paid off.

The task at hand for Caldwell to prove his worth in the Championship, and that he can show adaptability and compromise when needed against stronger opponents. His attacking play, utilising the youth and energy in his side, commendable, but greater defensive resolve will be required in periods throughout the coming the campaign.

Something, with the full DW Stadium’s backing, he’s likely to be able to achieve.

Transfer Business

Considered strengthening to a core that will largely have no issue in making the step up from League One to the Championship.

It in the centre of defence and midfield, as bit-part players Leon Barnett and Chris McCann depart, where the main additions have been made. Dan Burn, who has shown promise but so too a keenness to commit horrendous errors in his Football League career, joins from Fulham, while experienced Jake Buxton arrives from Derby with nothing to prove at this level.

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A bit more for 21-year-old playmaker Alex Gibley, snapped up from Colchester United following their relegation to League Two, to prove, but he has shown plenty of class and potential for the U’s, while Nick Powell, whose career has stagnated horribly since his move to Manchester United, has been offered a chance to reignite himself at the club he spent a season on loan at in 2013/14.

Further defensive additions made in the shape of Stephen Warnock, who joins permanently from Derby having enjoyed a successful loan spell in the second half of last season, and Kyle Knoyle, a young full-back signed on loan from West Ham who replaces the departed Reece Wabara.

The loan signing of Liverpool’s Adam Bogdan also made. Easy to scorn at his ability having become the brunt of much mocking following his move to the Premier League club, but his quality at this level shown during his time with Bolton.

Additionally, Emyr Huws return to the club after a very impressive loan spell at Huddersfield last season. A bit of a fall out in the way he left the Latics, but a player whose ability to dictate play in the middle mean it’s worth patching up those differences.

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The Squad

In truth, there have been more complete sides to gain promotion as champions from League One in recent seasons, but that isn’t to suggest this Wigan group isn’t one with plenty of promise and potential. A contrast from the ageing and lethargic squad that took the club down two seasons ago.

No issues with it lacking experience, however, with 41-year-old Jussi Jaaskelainen still going strong between the sticks, and will face competition from new arrival Bogdan. Third choice goalkeeper Lee Nicholls, who spent part of last season on loan at Bristol Rovers, likely to depart.

Competition for places seemingly also resulting in departures at centre-back, too, with Jason Pearce linked with a move to Charlton Athletic despite being a regular from November onwards last season. Craig Morgan and Donervon Daniels the other centre-backs to feature relatively regularly last season, and they’ll provide competition to Burn and Buxton.

Former Manchester United full-back Reece James and new signing Knoyle likely to compete for the right-back spot, with Andrew Taylor, who returns from a loan spell at Reading, offering cover to Warnock.

The defence tidy, but it’s in the centre of midfield where the Latics appear to hold the greatest strength in depth. From the experience of 34-year-old David Perkins to the potential of 23-year-old Max Power. They joined by the combative Sam Morsy, playmakers Gilbey and Huws, attack-minded Powell, and promising youngsters Jordan Flores and Tim Chow.

Good quality in the wide positions, too, with many of Wigan’s wingers having played at this level previously. Michael Jacobs a useful performer for both Derby and Wolves, while Yanic Wildschut, creative and exciting for the Latics, has something of a point to prove having failed to make a great impression at Middlesbrough. Maybe a need for one man option, however, with Ryan Colclough, showing excellent promise having arrived from Crewe in January, the only natural alternative, though Power was deployed on the right at times last season.

Additional cover in the wide positions would also allow Wildschut to play further forward, were options are also a little limited. Craig Davies a useful target man, but a