I’ve been feverishly working away on my season preview this week, looking at all the League One sides and trying to put some semblance of a prediction together.
I didn’t really do it last season, only for the Imps. It was the first year in three I didn’t get us spot-on: I called 7th in 2017/18 and 1st the following season. I think I had tenth for last season, but unforeseen circumstances scuppered that. Still, to only be six places out across three years isn’t bad, so let’s see how I do this time out.
Those of you on Twitter will already have seen it, but my prediction for the Imps this season is 12th. You can find my whole table, 1-24, below.
I’ve gone through my reasons for the top six and bottom four on the podcast this afternoon (starts at around 30 minutes if you don’t want the other stuff), and I’ll look to address a few of the other issues on a YouTube live a little later on today I think. If you haven’t already, head on over to my channel and drop a subscription, so you don’t miss a live video.
Anyhow, why do I arrive at 12th this season? I suppose depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty, I have to defend or justify my prediction. Shall we start with me explaining why I think we’ll be as high as 12th? After all, two months or so ago we had half a squad and belief that 20th upwards would be a decent finish. Now, there is optimism and some pundits have got us as high as 2nd. I was surprised when James from D3D4 said he had us in the automatic spots, but he isn’t the only one I’ve seen. Others have us in the middle of the pack, some as low as 17th I think, but nobody is tipping us to go down.
I can see why; we have a squad of able League One players, mixed up with excruciating quality (Bridcutt) and a lot of potential (Edun, Archibald, Scully, Roughan, Montsma to name a few). The likes of Tom Hopper, Connor McGrandles, James Jones and Adam Jackson are experienced campaigners too, despite their relative youth. It isn’t a hopeful squad like Rochdale or one peppered primarily with loans like MK Dons. The exciting talent we have is largely our own, and there is scope to add loan players should we find ourselves short once games get underway.
The pre-season games showed me we can play a bit, and the Crewe game suggested we have enough in the tank to overcome decent sides at this level. I know league action will be very different indeed, but we didn’t have our full first team out against Crewe and some players have yet to show us the benefit of their talents. I feel Theo Archibald and Calum Morton could be huge for us, and yet fans have seen next to nothing of both for different reasons. Imagine, if they kick in, fighting for places along with the likes of Harry Anderson and Jorge Grant, established stars already.
Those two have to get a mention because they’ve done something right to survive Michael’s cull. If we’re being honest, the cull was probably needed, our previous squad was ageing and aside from one obvious player (Bostwick), none of the players released was a huge surprise. When the retained list came out, fear struck I think, but the power of hindsight would surely have had people thinking we would be alright. The transfer policy has been interesting, the changes wholesale and sweeping, but we’ve arrived in a good place ahead of the big kick-off, unlike some of our rivals. Even Oxford, a firm promotion favourite, have been snapping up talent today, giving him little time to train with the club.
Our squad has pace, direction, a clear philosophy and potential. In terms of cover, it could be described as one of the most complete of the past few seasons. Our previous regime always seemed to go into a season one short, usually up top, whereas we’re currently sat on enough players to cover an injury crisis as well. I would like to see one more attacker, maybe that’s being greedy, but I think you need three out-and-out strikers for a full season as a minimum, even if we’re playing 4-3-3 which has space for just one at any time. Michael seems to know that too and there is something in the pipeline. The last time we got the ‘just one more’ rhetoric from the club, Anthony Scully came in. Another player of his quality making a late appearance would be something very special.
I don’t want to be a happy clapper though and my prediction of 12th might be a bit below some people’s expectations, so I ought to temper the positivity with some realism. Firstly, not all of our signings will work out, no matter how excited we get. remember the likes of Rene Howe coming in on loan, a sure-fire goal scorer, or Dean Keates entering to revolutionise our midfield. I’m not saying Bridcutt will flop, nor Morton, but of the new signings someone will, the law of averages says so. Our squad looks excellent on paper, but Ryan Semple looked excellent on paper and he never did the business. I might be wrong of course, but the squad currently looks to have 18 or 19 first team players in it. By the time Xmas gets here, we’ll have little gaps we think might need plugging.
I do still have a concern about the killer instinct up top, something I’m sure will be addressed. Our play has looked really nice in the summer months and yet in some games, I felt we had a reluctance to pull the trigger. I know it was only pre-season, but on the pod, we discussed the Scunthorpe game and Ben suggested we should have scored three or four. I’m not sure we should; we didn’t create clear-cut chances, not really. A few of the balls were good enough to result in goals, but players weren’t there, and many of the efforts we had were token gestures. I recall I used to play FIFA against my mate Kirky and if the game was drawn, we’d try to claim a win over the number of shots we had. That resulted in long-range efforts that were tame as games wore on and I felt a few of our efforts on Tuesday night had that feel to them.
I’m not being critical here, this is a young team coming together for the first time and I firmly believe you need six months or so under your belt before being judged. All I’m doing is pointing out where we might be held back a little. Of course, Callum Morton might turn into a James Norwood type, everything he touches goes in and suddenly things look brighter, but it is better not to build hopes up on ‘what ifs’. I’m sure that continued time on the training ground and in matches will see our style evolve and develop, and the players become more comfortable with it. When you think only a handful of those players were here in March, even fewer in December, I think we should be proud of how quickly they are gelling this season already.
My other concern is around teams who stop you playing, rather than those who play against you if that makes sense. I’m thinking Shrewsbury, Northampton and Gillingham, the robust sides who make life difficult, operate a high press or maximum aggression. We got done by Gillingham and in two matches against Shrewsbury, I almost fell asleep six times. Our style is great and I’m all for attractive football, but those who choose to stifle the game will cause us an issue. Similarly, teams will know we play out from the back and might look to press us as Sunderland did at their place; I’m confident we’re better equipped to deal with that now, but it is a weak spot that as yet, I haven’t see tested in pre-season.
Look, these negative aspects are the reason I won’t get carried away and say sixth, or second. I know in private conversations with a few people, the words ‘dark horse’ has been bandied about and I was even tempted to label us as such on the podcast, but these are early days. I think everyone at the club should be applauded for the work that has gone in over the summer in terms of recruitment and commercially keeping the club viable. To be here, on the eve of the new league season, with a solvent club and a squad some people are mentioning as promotion favourites is a real testament to the work put in at all levels of the football club. I won’t get carried away with the hype, but deep down there is a part of me that has excitement at the unknown running through my veins. It’s different from the trophy years of 2016-2019, that was excitement slowly built by expectation. Now, as we approach a horrible version of football thanks to COVID, I have the excitement of the unknown, rather than fear. Sure, I’ve had this before (Magnificent Seven springs to mind) and I’ve been let down before, but this is different. Other people are looking at our business and our setup enviously, other pundits believe we are on the cusp of a new era and not everyone is going to be wrong, surely?
To finish this article, I’ve picked out a couple of names and players on the next page whom I feel could surprise, might be important or who have come from nowhere to really impress me thus far.