A Case For The Defence

We’re now less than a week away from the big kick off, the pre-season posturing and predictions will be left by the wayside as we look to our first opening day fixture in the Football League since August 2010.

The summer has not been without its ups and downs, on the whole I think we’ve had a strong month or two. Our transfer dealings have seemed very astute, bar one or two players I think we’ve added strength and value throughout the squad. Where Hawkridge, Power and Muldoon have departed, Maguire-Drew, Bostwick and Matt Green have come in. We’ve retained the spine of a successful team and built around that. Performances have been good albeit not an indication of how we’ll do in the league, but we’ve almost every reason to be confident.

One area I believe that is still in the balance is the back four, and Danny’s revelation that he expects ‘one in and one out’ this week goes to show that he is still not happy. We’re short in both wide positions and whilst I wouldn’t call it disarray, I’m fairly certain we would like to have another week or so before the big kick off. Please note this isn’t pessimism or me being negative, there are teams in far worse positions than ours, but being objective there is still work to be done. To put it into perspective last year at this time we’d only just signed Nathan Arnold and Sean Raggett was still a Dover player.

Sean Raggett, for me there is perhaps one of the most important cogs in the machine that there still may be a question mark over. I have this nagging fear that as the transfer deadline approaches a team from the Championship or League One might panic and start throwing money at their own defensive problem, and as we know it will only take a certain set amount to prise our star defender away from Sincil Bank. That would be a severe set-back in no uncertain terms.

Raggett has it all, pace and power along with that ‘don’t give a shit’ attitude that elevates an average defender to a good one. He works well with Waterfall by virtue of the fact they played so many games together, and that was obvious against Forest in the week. Callum Howe didn’t have a bad game, but we looked much more solid when Raggett replaced him. I feel a little for Callum, I think he is a decent defender and Danny must feel the same otherwise he would have left the club. However, he’s 23 as is Sean and yet he’s being farmed out on loan and someone else is being brought into his place. It isn’t exactly a vote of confidence is it? I expect DC sees Callum as an investment, hoping that a season of National League football will bring him on as a player.

Whoever the new face is, I still believe our first-choice pairing at centre half is Raggett and Waterfall, although knowing Danny there could be a surprise this week. Whoever it is he’ll have his work cut out displacing either of those two, unless of course Raggett does end up with a deadline day panic move. We saw it with Southend and Theo Robinson in January, and with Scunthorpe and Johnny Margetts in August. Both players were the subject of last-minute panic buys, Southend even paid a fee for a non-contract player because they’d failed elsewhere in the window.

The next ‘interesting’ aspect to our defence is the full-back situation. Sean Long was in and out of the National League winning side, and he is currently the only player we have signed on who can play right back. Sam Habergham is consistent and able to play at League One level in my opinion, but his spell  on the side lines has taken longer than we expected. He won’t be fit for next weekend and without a pre-season I don’t think we’ll see the best of him until mid-September. With less than a week to go that means we have just one fit and recognised full-back.

Can play centre half, but I expect him to feature in midfield

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. The quality of trialist we’ve seen has really impressed me, Bob Harris looked competent against Forest, I liked Brandon Ormund-Ottiwell against Lincoln United and I heard good things about Noah Chesmain as well. The fact they haven’t signed shows Danny is being cautious and careful even when looking for cover. The truth is we’re not in this situation because of poor planning, we’re actually here because Danny wants to add the right players, not just fill the positions.

I does look as if he may attempt to bring Neal Eardley and Matthew Briggs to the Bank, I would speculate that one might be offered a one-year deal and the other a shorter term contract. The fact these players have even been in a Lincoln shirt does fill me with hope because both have superb pedigree, but have suffered from injuries.

Firstly, Matthew Briggs. This is a player that represented England from under 16 right the way through to under 21. He became the youngest ever Premier League player at Fulham, and by 2010 the world looked to be very much at his feet. Some players get the all the luck though, some do not and Briggs sadly did not. In December 2010 he started Fulham’s match against Chelsea but was injured after just 28 minutes, that resulted in an operation and a spell in the stands. A series of loan moves didn’t bring him joy, and eventually his seven years at Fulham ended with just 30 appearances in league and cup.

His move to Millwall brought no joy either as Ian Holloway chopped and changed his side, and then two seasons at Colchester were injury hit too. In just a few years he has gone from being a Premier League ‘wonder kid’ to a hopeful trialist at Lincoln City. That fall from grace isn’t due to a lack of ability nor a bad attitude, it is pure and simple bad luck. His bad luck might just be our good fortune though

I didn’t see him yesterday but I liked the look of him against Posh and he wouldn’t be back if Danny wasn’t interested. A 26 years of age he still has a chance to rescue his once-promising career, and despite his recent troubles he still has ability as well. You don’t represent your country at all those youth levels without having something to offer, and I firmly believe he’s worth a punt at left back on a short-term deal. I’d like to see him handed six months in which he can prove his fitness and offer vital cover for Sam. It would give both parties a chance to assess each and be mutually beneficial. He’d get regular game time as Sam recovered and we would have that cover and eventually competition for places.

Neal Eardley came out of nowhere yesterday to start at right-back, and again by all accounts he had a good game. Surely he was always going to though, after all he was a full Welsh international and he has also played regular football at a good level. He was last called up to the Welsh squad in 2013, but withdrew due to injury. His recent descent of the leagues has also been due to injury problems. In six seasons he made 248 appearances, firstly at Oldham in League One and latterly at Blackpool where he enjoyed Premier League football. In the last five seasons he has made just 34 senior appearances, ten of which came last year. It was the spell at Birmingham which really did for him, a ruptured medial ligament and a dislocated shoulder restricted him to just 21 games over a three-year period.

Like Briggs his quality is still there though, he offers more experience than his fellow trialist but less top-flight pedigree. From what I have been told he looked to have the sort of class that could push Sean Long all the way for a first team berth should he be offered a deal, and I think Danny would like to add some experience to his defence. The quality between National League and League Two may not be all that different, but over a full campaign it would not hurt to have some real Football League experience in the back four. Michael Bostwick will almost certainly play in midfield and I can see Danny looking to add generals to each area of the field. I would like to see Neal Eardly offered a one-year deal if at all possible, especially as he can operate on either flank as well.

Both players must be chomping at the bit for an opportunity to show what they can do, and the fact they have been on trial proves the tactic of sitting tight in the transfer market pays dividends. Here we are with six days to go before we kick off and we’re trialling a former Welsh international and a one-time Premier League wonder kid, both the right side of 30 and both with plenty still to offer. With the season drawing ever closer I’d imagine a deal that is favourable for the club will be much easier to strike that it might have been in late May.

Will we see the former Welsh international in the red and white again?

Despite the questions still being posed in the defence I’m not overly concerned. The basic errors in the two friendlies were frustrating, but there is no doubt Danny and Nicky will be working feverishly to correct them. I’m certainly not worried about the full back positions, the quality of trialist has convinced me that we’ll be covered properly in those areas. If one of the two is to sign I would expect it to be Eardly due to the versatility, he would be a ‘Lee Beevers’ style utility man offering cover in both positions.

The biggest factor in our pre-season being judged as a massive success will be hanging on to Sean Raggett. It may only have been a friendly yesterday but his goal underlined the impact he has at both ends of the pitch, and keeping him is really important if we’re to launch a second promotion challenge. I’m not going to say it is critical to our success, if he is the subject of a late bid I would imagine (at worst) Callum would be recalled and whoever the new face is will partner Luke. The reason I’m would be apprehensive at first is that I have seen many terrible defences at Lincoln over the past few seasons, and I’ve seen many good players (Josh Gowling) be made to look poor due to incompatibility with team mates, never having a consistent partner and a range of other factors. All the best teams have a steady central defensive pair that know each other’s game and it was the bedrock of our success last year. If we have the same solid foundations once again then there’s no reason we shouldn’t challenge for promotion, but if Sean moves on it has the potential to set us back a month or two.

Thanks to Graham Burrell for his excellent photos

1 Comment

  1. Regarding quality of signings in general, and being impressed with the trialists who have then been let go, there’s a piece today in the Sunday Times on Lincoln and Danny, he says this summer has been frustrating, but ‘you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince.’

    He knows what he wants, and isn’t prepared to compromise or make rush decisions. If they can agree a deal and Eardley’s knees pass the medical, he’d be one hell of a signing though, my first choice RB and LB while Sam gets up to fitness. Briggs seems to have generated less enthusiasm, but there’s an underlying pedigree to build on and the Cowley method to work with.

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