One of the most interesting things to come out of Michael Appleton’s first week as manager is his opinions on the average age of our current squad.
He said post-match on Friday that he felt we needed younger players in the squad. When it first came out it sounded like a thinly-veiled attack on our older players. Let’s be honest, anyone watching the 6-0 defeat against Oxford could have said our senior players looked past their best, but the young guns didn’t cover themselves in glory either.
“We’ve got a youthful team at times, but for me, I still think as a squad we’re too old if I’m being bluntly honest,” he said. “That’s something that over a period of time we’ll be looking to reduce the age of the team.”
By the time Michael was on Quest TV he had refined his opinion a little, suggesting that he was happy with the experience in the squad and wanted to bring younger players in to take the team forward. I can’t help but feel he had considered his first comments carefully, I suspect he wasn’t lashing out at the average age as such, just wanting to form some sort of succession plan.
According to transfermrkt, the club’s average age is 27, which is skewed slightly by them still having Tom Shaw and Jamie McCombe on the list, the true figure is closer to 26.5. That surprised me, when you think of Harry, Bruno, Jorge Grant, Jack Payne, Tyler Walker, Joe Morrell and Harry Toffolo, they conjure up an image of a young squad. However, Freck is 33, Shacks is 36, Bozzy is 31 and Big John is the same age as Eards; 30. For me, that’s not such an old squad but it does have experience. The average age of the starting XI on Friday was significantly lower and we don’t have several young players dragging our average age down, like some of the sides we’re set to face.
The main issue is the lack of young players that are in the squad; not in the first team, but around the team as a whole. Jordan Adebayo-Smith and Alex Bradley are out on loan whilst we didn’t promote many academy players to the first team squad. One of the by-products of having a small squad is that a couple of older players do push up the average quicker.
What is the fix? Targeting younger players is certainly one aim, but I don’t think that is anything new. If you look at our summer signings, all of them fell below the average age of the squad. I think the board and the football side of the business have identified the need for a degree of self-sufficiency and player trading. You don’t make money by selling 36-year-old Jason Shackell, but Alex Bradley could well be a good investment.
In order to drive this side of the business, your acquisitions need to be clever and cunning. Within our youth set up I feel we’re doing well with recruiting. Maybe the local talent are not impressing as much, but Jordan proves that in going further afield we are finding the odd nugget. Interesting that Tim Akinola went to Huddersfield though, don’t you think?
Whilst we will make good money (and hopefully good footballers) by developing the academy, the harsh reality is we’re more likely to strike gold by picking up someone else’s cast-offs. When I think of some of the big-money sales of the last year or so from this division, the likes of John Marquis, Jack Marriott and Matt Clarke, they all came from academies of bigger clubs. Oddly, Clarke and Marriott came from Ipswich, Marquis from Millwall.
That means for Lincoln City to truly develop the next Kemar Roofe, we’ll need to be savvy about who we signed and from where. I liked our transfer business over the summer, but how often have we signed a young player released by an academy higher up? We’ve loaned plenty with a view to helping them develop, but we’ve rarely taken a punt on a player from above who could turn into real cash.
I’m thinking about Marc Bola, released by Arsenal, signed by Blackpool and sold for big money to Middlesbrough last season. This year, Blackpool have Matty Virtue who came from Liverpool and could well do the same thing. Regan Poole, released by United is now at MK Dons and could earn them big bucks. Ollie Rathbone took the same route albeit to Rochdale. There are examples of players being released and joining other clubs across the board.
One who I do recall us doing this with is Harry Toffolo and his performances this season are proof that it’s worth the risk. He was released by Norwich, joined us and is perhaps our most saleable asset right now, alongside Harry Anderson. Whilst the focus has been on getting the youngsters at 15 or 16 and working with them, we’ve maybe been missing the trick higher up the age groups; that might be by accident or it’s more likely to be a budget thing.
I wonder if it’s the first major change of direction we’ll see under Michael Appleton. He’s surely going to have much stronger contacts across the world of football than many of the managers we’ve had in recent years. That’s not just from his experience with West Brom Under 23s and Leicester, but also through his extensive playing career and that of our new assistant, David Kerslake.
Might I put forward the notion that a football person, a man with a full history of doing nothing but the professional game, might be entrusted by his network of contacts a little more. He’s more likely to receive a tip-off than managers with a background that doesn’t always fall in the Football League. That’s not a criticism of the previous regime, I’m not one of ‘those’ guys, but when looking for more positives it does occur to me that our set up has been boosted by the experience of Michael Appleton, not eroded because of our recent history alone.
It certainly makes for a fascinating January, no doubt at all. There must be a budget available for bringing extra talent into the squad and I feel that the only stint we can judge Appleton’s transfer business on is the time he spent at Oxford. He didn’t have time to sign at Blackpool or Blackburn, nor the means to do so at Portsmouth.
During his time at the Kassam, he signed Chey Dunkley, Kemar Roofe, John Lundstram, Rob Hall, Curtis Nelson and Joe Rothwell, all under the age of 23 and coming in for free (bar Roofe). In addition, he signed Wes Burns, Tyrone Barnett, Tyler Roberts, George Long, George Baldock, Jonjoe Kenny, Jordan Graham, Jordan Evans, Ryan Lesom, Dan Crowley and Toni Martinez on loan. If you look through that list, most of them have either gone on to play in the Championship or earned Oxford decent money.
Perhaps, just perhaps that’s a small glimpse of our transfer future. If the approach on the field is (largely) right and only needs a little tinkering, this is one area where we might see a drastic change of direction.