I’ve done my three-part rundown of the coming season for all of our opponents, now it is time to turn my attention to the one club in League Two I know a little bit about. I’m talking of course about the mighty Lincoln City.
On to the important stuff, our return to the Football League. I think last season has given lots of people immense confidence in what we are able to achieve, and although the official line is to not get carried away, I think there is much cause for optimism amongst City fans.
I can understand Danny’s rhetoric playing down our chances, and it is refreshing from a fans perspective to hear it. In yesterday’s press conference he said if we were in the top 12 by Christmas then we would be in a strong position as we’ll get better as the season progresses. He called it last year too, but we got better and more fatigued as the games went on. There’s no reason to suggest we shouldn’t improve as this season goes on, but then again there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be on our game nice and early either. The crux of the squad has remained the same, many of the new signings are already familiar to the club and those that are not are (in the main) thoroughly experienced professional footballers.
Let’s look at the three reasons that we might not succeed first. The main thing I’ve seen is that our strategy, described by some as ‘moon ball’, is one-dimensional and easy to predict. The arrival of Ollie Palmer has suggested to the rest of the league that we’re a side tat goes long all the time, looking for the big ‘un and then getting pace around him to pick up the scraps. Unfortunately aside from a season under John Schofield we’ve been labelled as a long ball side, but in this instance I’m afraid that is way off the mark.
If sides come with a view to doubling up on Rheady and stifling our only outlet then I’m afraid they’re going to be surprised at what happens to them. I’m going to come to positives shortly, but it is a fallacy to believe that we are a long ball side. We can go long, I won’t deny it is an option we look to utilise at times, the equalising goal against Forest Green at home is proof of that, but we also break at pace on the floor, the opening goal away at Forest Green is proof of that. Yes, we take advantage of set pieces, but who wouldn’t? We have players that can deliver a fantastic ball for this level of football, and whipping in a corner or a free kick does not make you a long-ball side. It means you take the opportunities that arise and that is just good football.
I’ve seen some ‘expert’ pundits suggesting that Danny and Nicky will need to alter their style for the Football League, my question is why? In ten season or thereabouts Danny has always managed a team challenging at the top of a table, and invariably he’s experienced success. The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and again and expecting a different outcome, so surely (by definition) if you do the same thing over and again successfully you’ll get the same outcome. Anyone claiming that inexperience at this level will be detrimental ought to look at their first season with Braintree to see how stepping up a level is not an issue. Football League club’s believe that League Two is a different world to the National League, but outside the top ten I don’t think we’ll see a serious gap in quality at all.
One aspect that has concerned some fans is the defence. With you-know-who not in the squad from last season, Sam out injured and Sean Raggett’s future uncertain, many are saying we might be susceptible at the back. Luke Waterfall had a great season last time out, but in pre-season he hasn’t quite looked as sharp as he could, and many question Sean Long’s ability to succeed at this level.
If Sean Raggett goes then we have to deal with that. He’s a superb footballer and to keep him in League Two is akin to locking the Mona Lisa in a basement where people can’t truly appreciate it. He will play Championship football, he may play Premiership football and frankly he is good enough to do both. We’ve been lucky to have him pass through our football club, and if he stays then great. If he doesn’t then it is with our best wishes that he progresses.
Luke is still a great centre half and a couple of low-key outings against Peterborough and Forest do not change that. I think Rob Dickie is a good player too, and it may take him a little time to settle but he knows all about football at this level. I had to chuckle in yesterday’s press conference when someone asked if it would phase a young player like him coming into the squad: the boy has had almost two seasons with Cheltenham, winning the National League in one of them and banging 20-odd league appearances out in the other. He has more Football League experience than Sean Raggett, I don’t think he’ll be too worried about his performance levels.
Yes, full back is a concern, but not in the way people suspect. Sean Long is a competent right back who will only get better with games. He’s different to Brad, perhaps not as aggressive or as gung-ho but arguably possessing better distribution. In an ideal world we would have both scrapping for a spot in the side, but for now we will see Sean given a run of games in which he’ll settle down and I believe become Mr Consistent. On the left Sam’s injury is temporary, his class is permanent and if you remember him being one of our stand-out players last season, you’ll also remember him missing most of pre-season. In the interim period we have to ‘make do’ with Neal Eardly, a former Welsh international who has played all of his football higher than League Two, and a player that is still only 28-years old. It’s a tough life, isn’t it?
It may take some time for the back four to settle down, but the longevity is there and if Sean does go then it’s almost certain we’ll see someone come in to replace him. If that happens expect Dickie and Waterfall to form a partnership at the back, and see if you can spot the difference.
The final concern for some people is up front. I’ve heard whispers that Ollie Palmer isn’t impressing, Matt Rhead isn’t mobile enough and we’re hoping for too much from Matt Green. We’re going into the season light up top by Danny’s own admission, but you and I know that won’t be the case come September 1st. Therefore we only have to struggle through August with three forwards before a fourth arrives pre-transfer deadline.
Any criticism of Ollie Palmer is ridiculous at this stage. He’s had a couple of outings in friendlies, we’ve not see him in competitive action and that will be when we should judge him. He’s new to the squad and hasn’t been a regular elsewhere so he needs time to get ‘on method’ and perhaps needs a run of games to sharpen up. He’s an option and an experienced one at that, you don’t spend time on loan at Luton and Grimsby if you’re not a half-decent striker.
As for worrying about Rheady, best to let him prove us wrong. He isn’t mobile, nobody is claiming he is, but he is incredibly skilful and composed. He’s a massive asset in more ways than one, and there won’t be a team in League Two that isn’t plotting a way to stop him. Whilst they’re doing that they may be ignoring other aspects of our side.
So they’re the things that might hold us back, but what reasons do we have to be positive? We did win the National League last season, and the spine of that team know each other’s game inside out. There’s a cohesion there right from the ‘B’ of the bang, and that will be a sharp contrast to big-spending Mansfield Town for instance. I keep rattling on about consistency being king, but I believe in that mantra. A good side that stays together will very rarely lose that understanding of each other’s game, and when they’re winners as we are it can only mean good things.
Where we have added, we’ve done it really well. I’ll boldy predict there isn’t a better midfield in League Two, assuming we start with Bostwick, Woodyard and Billy Knott. The first two players are generals of the highest order, our Player of the Year and Peterborough’s too. I’ve talked about Bostwick for the last three weeks, but Alex Woodyard staying was as good as any new signing. We know his potential and endeavour is an asset but perhaps he’ll be overlooked now he has the mammoth alongside him in midfield. Seriously who is going to dominate those two, the brawn and the brains, endeavour and strength, industry and brute force. I believe this is the best midfield pairing in my lifetime, and with Billy Knott oozing potential ahead of them Imps should be excited. Billy has a lot to prove this season, and with Elliott Whitehouse snapping at his heels he will have to reach that potential we all believe he has. In terms of technical ability there isn’t a better player in our squad, and if he reaches the levels Danny expects then we will have the best midfield in League Two.
We also have the best selection of wide players too. Nathan Arnold weighed in with goals and assists last season, and he will thrive at the higher level, and he’ll have to Ginnelly, Anderson and Jordan Maguire-Drew all vying for a first team place. I spoke of Ginnelly being the ‘fourth’ winger, but his pre-season has been scintillating and he’s looked a cut above the player we saw last season. He’s so direct and aggressive with his runs, and we’re seeing some proper end product which is really exciting. Crucially he is happy here as well, I think he took the club to heart last season and he always has a smile on his face around the ground, Happy players are good players, and Josh is a really good player.
Jordan Maguire-Drew was the ‘Nathan Arnold’ of Dagenham last season, and his delivery from the left is extraordinary. He has a whipped cross the like of which we haven’t seen here for a long while, and delivery into the box is going to be key. we know Rheady, Luke Waterfall, Raggs and Bozzie will all thrive on good balls in, as will Matt Green the natural predator. JMD doesn’t just bring the delivery though, he’s keen in front of goal too and anyone concerned that we’re placing too much weigh on Matt Green’s shoulders need only look at Nathan and JMD’s tally from last season to realise we have goals covered.
I’ve done two paragraphs about wingers and not mentioned Harry Anderson, the first Imps signing in almost two decades to be given a three-year deal when he first joins. I’ve waxed lyrical about Harry ever since he first arrived, he’s got it all at such a tender age, he’s quick and direct but powerful and another who has a keen eye for goal. Potentially he could go on and play much higher, and the length of the deal is testament to the promise he has. I was shocked we managed to bring him in permanently, with Bozzie arriving on the same day it got played down, but he is a massive signing for the club.
Four wingers, two wings on which to play and even the most basic of mathematician knows that isn’t going to work. Imagine though, sixty minutes into a hard-fought game against Mansfield it’s 0-0. Arnold and Maguire-Drew have run the full backs into the ground, but they’re pace is dropping off slightly. The board goes up, off go number 28 and number 14 to the relief of all the yellow shirts. Then the board flashes up number 7 and number 26, Harry Anderson and Josh Ginnelly take up their positions….. potential carnage.
There is my assessment of the playing squad, and off the pitch we’ll be as structured and methodical as ever. I’ve read some articles saying Danny’s ‘marginal gains’ approach isn’t new, and they’re right. It isn’t new, and I would imagine many teams in our league look to exploit any little thing they can. I just believe we do it extremely well, I don’t imagine Steve Evans is often at Field Mill at 11pm watching videos, or that he’s up at 5.00am reading blogs and articles online before heading into the ground. Danny, Nicky and everyone behind the scenes operate the one-club philosophy and whilst there will always be ups and downs I don’t believe we’ve been as together as a club since the days of Keith and the 2003 play-off final. That year we achieved something remarkable with a set of players we have heard described as ‘greater than the sum of its parts’.
Imagine if this squad achieves something ‘greater than the sum of its parts’, adding up Bostwick, Woodyard, Ginnelly, Green, Waterfall and all of them and getting something greater. How much can they achieve?
I know Danny has played down expectation, I know most fans are happy with top ten and just like last season nobody is heaping pressure on the players. Danny puts the most pressure on himself, he admits that freely. You know what I don’t think he would ever admit freely? I think that as the light goes out at Castle Cowley at 1am, sometime before he falls asleep waiting for the 5am alarm, he affords himself a wry and knowing smile. I think Danny Cowley believes this team, his team, are good enough to reach the play-offs. You know what?
I do too.
Stacey West prediction for Lincoln City: 6th
All photographs by Graham Burrell
Stacey West Prediction for 2017/18 League Two
- Luton Town
- Cambridge United
- Mansfield Town
- Wycombe Wanderers
- Colchester United
- Lincoln City
- Grimsby Town
- Coventry City
- Exeter City
- Notts County
- Accrington Stanley
- Crewe Alexandra
- Port Vale
- Carlisle United
- Swindon Town
- Newport County
- Forest Green Rovers
- Cheltenham Town
- Yeovil Town