‘Never seen a keeper progress as quickly as he has’ – Michael Appleton discusses keepers in first of exclusive SW series

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be invited to the EPC by Imps’ gaffer Michael Appleton to have a chat about the current playing squad.

With such a high turnover of players, many of the newer faces are still quite alien to supporters, and Michael was keen to chat about how they are moulding in the absence of fans being able to judge for themselves in the ground. Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be going through our chat and breaking it down into nice, manageable chunks for you to get a feel for some of the players we’ll be cheering on from our sofas for much of the season.

I genuinely feel very lucky to have been given an invite, but in the absence of a Covid test, we had to conduct our interview outside and socially distanced. I had been to the EPC before to interview Michael, not long after he first joined the club. Back then, we sat in his office and had a brew as he explained the things he wanted to address and develop. Michael is very candid and relies on me (and I imagine other press) to show integrity and judgement when reporting what he says; by that I mean there is no bull and no bluster.

Back then Michael felt like the new kid on the block. He wasn’t tucked away in his office, but the remnants of the previous manager’s regime were still evident in everything around the training ground, from the players to the pitches. I guess that meeting would have been a year ago and it came on a cold day, which felt a little reflective of the atmosphere. the new man in town was settling in and the club’s future, if we’re being honest, felt a little up in the air.

Credit Graham Burrell

Contrast that with yesterday, a beautiful late-summer evening with the sprinklers on, the grass gleaming and a relaxed Michael roaming his jungle. Lincoln City is now his patch, his territory and it felt like it too. Steve Croudson walked past, a face that has appeared since the change, and said hello. Assistant manager David Kerslake did the same with a smile on his face. Who’s house? Michael’s house.

Maybe it was just the difference in the weather, maybe it was something more, but this was the first time I visited the EPC where (being brutally honest) I didn’t feel like I’d walked into a Cowley environment. I knew it would take time to draw a line and move on and even up to the recent games, I felt there was still a hangover in some people’s eyes. Not now. Lincoln City have changed and one-year on, that is evident to anyone willing to look hard enough.

That isn’t diminishing what has happened before, but a manager brings a culture and a feel to a place. I’ve experienced it at Builder’s Merchants in the past when a manager changes it takes a while to progress and move forward. It takes a while for a branch to become your branch. Sometimes, like when I took over Jewson at Bourne, you never change the culture and the old ways win. There is no fear of that at Lincoln City, certainly not now.

Michael and I spoke for over an hour about the players, tactics, and a host of other things. He spoke about the players as though he was introducing his kids to me, talking about some of their traits on the training ground as well as what we can expect to see from them on the field. Oxford United fans told us that when Michael gets his players around him and his ideas into their heads, then we will see the progress start to happen. Well, we are there now. Even with a pandemic budget, even with the ‘new normal’, Michael Appleton has handpicked his troops and is training them well.

So, to start off the series, we chatted about the goalkeepers and one acquisition has clearly got the manager very excited indeed.

Credit Graham Burrell

“One of the biggest characters we’ve signed, or it looks that way, has not been in the building all that long. Alex Palmer might only be on loan but he’s 6ft 4in, makes the goal look small, and he’s a big character too, around the dressing room and training ground. He’s absolutely not shy either, he always has something to say!”

“If he’s not the best goalkeeper in the division, he’s certainly in the top three and he’s going to have a good career in the game. If he’s not in the Championship next year, it will be because someone has taken him to be a Premier League keeper, that’s how highly I rate him.”

Alex came in after Ethan Ross, and Michael explained that Ross, another likeable character who looked solid in the friendlies, has to push Alex all the way for a first-team spot.

“Ethan’s obviously come in, quite openly, as a number two and as an opportunity to get better, improve his game and push for a first-team place.”

Credit Graham Burrell

I’ve mentioned Steve Croudson already, he is the man tasked with developing Ethan and Alex, as well as young Sam Long. The academy player has been around the first team this pre-season and Michael finished talking about the keepers by revealing Long’s progress is something to keep an eye on.

“Steve works the keepers incredibly hard all the time and that has shown in how Sam Long has progressed this season. Sam’s been able to get involved with the first team a lot more with Alex coming in late.

“I’ve never seen a keeper come on as quickly as he has in a six-month period. He’s really come out of his shell; he’s suddenly got a real presence around the training pitch and he’s certainly one for the future.

“Ethan is here on a one-year deal looking to establish himself for longer, and we are more than aware that Sam could be ready next season, if not to be the number one certainly to compete for the number one jersey.”

Tomorrow we’ll be discussing defenders, with more exclusive comments from Michael Appleton.