As we approach the half way point in the season, much has settled down now and most teams know whether they’re going to enjoy a season of achievement or struggle.
There is always a step change for a couple of teams though, those struggling who suddenly show a burst of energy and trouble the top half, or those flying high who suffer a cataclysmic collapse at last-minute. As someone who studies League Two closely, I’ve identified the three sides I believe are in for a different second half of the season.
My first pick has to be the Spireites. They’re rock bottom at the moment with just sixteen points, but I firmly believe they won’t be in the bottom two come May. Before Jack Lester took control they’d won just once in 13 games, a terrible run that saw them plunge the depth of League Two. However, since we beat them 2-1 in his opening game (pictured top), they’ve looked a far more organised and competitive side.
Last night they showed resilience to beat Forest Green 3-2, a result that had ‘six pointer’ written all over it. On Saturday they beat promotion chasing Exeter 1-0 and the week before they held Swindon to a draw. Their current form is better than every team from 16th to 8th bar Colchester. In a division where anyone can beat anyone, they’re starting to show that they’re on a level with the sides around them.
Kristian Dennis and Jak McCourt have both starting hitting form too, Dennis has 13 for the season and has grabbed seven from the last nine games. He was on hand in the 81st minute of last nights clash to give them a 3-1 lead over FGR, effectively scoring the winner as Doidge pulled a late goal back. McCourt has scored four in five, taking his total to five for the season. He couldn’t hit a proverbial barn door with a tractor under the old regime, but Jack Lester has freed him up to fulfil his potential. Imagine, two striker scoring 11 in the last nine games, where would we be with something like that?
The reasons for their resurgence are numerous but the main factor is the arrival of Lester. He was a hero at the club as a player, scoring more gaols against us than any other player I care to remember. He went on to manage Forest U23’s and built a reputation for understanding the game. He took a sensible route into the game, working at a big club with younger players before switching to full-time management. The fact he’s a hero there means he has a bit of time too, he won’t be under immediate pressure. He arrived early enough to turn it around and I confidently predict he’ll have them finishing 10/12th by the time the season ends.
Exeter came out of the blocks on fire, handing out defeats like free flyers on Lincoln High Street. We lost there 1-0 and whilst it perhaps was no entirely a fair reflection, it was just another step on their promotion push. Forest Green, Crewe, Morecambe, Cambridge and Barnet were all put to the sword. However, if you look at the table now, it didn’t represent such a tough start.
Coventry, Notts County and Luton are all chasing promotion and had no problems dealing with the Exeter City threat. In recent weeks their ability to kill of the lower teams has deserted them as well, Crawley and Chesterfield have both taken all three points from their fixtures. They’ve only won four of their last 13 matches, one of those an FA Cup 1st Round tie against non-league Heybridge. Things are not all roses and light at St James’ Park and I can’t see them regaining their recently lost place in the top four.
Goals haven’t been easy to come by, Jayden Stockley has grabbed a few but they’re not scoring enough to make up for the suspect defence. The early season momentum has now gone and with some sides hitting their stride, I fear they’ll be passing many on the way down the table. Coventry, Mansfield, Colchester and Swindon are all knocking on the Grecians door and if my prediction is correct, they’ll be allowed safe passage to the upper echelons of the promotion race whilst Paul Tisdale’s side slide gently towards mid-table obscurity.
Brave I know, but I’m confident we won’t be meandering around in mid-table for long. I’m sure we will come back in January with a rip-roaring transfer policy and fresh impetus. I’m going to work on the assumption that Danny and Nicky will not let the current slide go on forever, whatever the cost.
I’ve actually listened to Danny’s interview from last night and changed my final pick. I was going to (painfully) suggest the Forest Green would pull themselves away from the bottom places, based on having money to spend and settling in the league. Listening to Danny though, prickly and assertive about his sides performance, made me think. The exact words he used that changed my mind were “I know where I’m going, I’m really clear on where I’m going and nobody is getting in my way.” Single-minded focus on where he wants to take Lincoln City. The board won’t stand in his way, they’re loading up his wallet with funds to spend. The fans, we’re not standing in his way either, we’ll carry him to where he wants to go if he needs us to.
No, he’s referring to the players whom he feels let him down last night, the same players that thrashed Crewe 4-1 ten days ago. He’s always very honest and he’s seen first hand what some of us have been saying, certain players are letting us down. He did refer to those who have come up from non-league with us, so who is that? Elliott Whitehouse, Nathan Arnold, Billy Knott? It would seem harsh given that Nathan has had a couple of decent games, but nobody is safe are they? Danny is a good manager and a strong people person, but he won’t let sentiment get in the way of taking Lincoln City up the leagues.
When I heard the tone of his voice I knew there was no way whatsoever he’s actually happy with the mid-table placing he set as the aim on the eve of the season. We’re 11th, four points outside of the play-offs and he was angry. Why do you think he displayed it so publicly? Because he’s an honest and open manager? Maybe. Because he felt guilty for the fans who travelled to watch a relatively poor match? Absolutely. So he could get a further message to the players who will undoubtedly see his response in the media and understand deeper what they need to do to get us pushed forward? Definitely.
In January I would wager that we’ll bring in a bare minimum of five new faces, that will put pressure on some of the players who have recently had their chance. Elliott Whitehouse needs to perform now, not adequately, not in fits and bursts, but consistently. Billy Knott needs to do the same, Matt Green and Ollie Palmer also need to offer more of a threat. Even Big Rheady, on the fringe this season, must flex those biceps and up his levels too. There’s bound to be a defender come in as well, the squad will look very different by the time February sets in and those final three months of the season loom large. If we’re still in touching distance of the top seven, I mean six or seven points outside, then expect a step change from us to match the climb of Chesterfield and fall of Exeter City.