Last season, around this time, the EFL introduced a salary cap which certainly affected the League One landscape for a season.
Sunderland, Ipswich, Portsmouth and Hull were all hampered to a degree. The latter had a squad largely comprising of Championship players from the season before, which was not affected by the rules, and as a consequence they had a head start on the others, Sunderland needed a rebuild, Ipswich needed a dismantle and Portsmouth were stuck with less wiggle room than me in a pair of skinny jeans. Perhaps it is not surprising at all that a team such as us, with a small squad and plenty of room to manoeuvre, did well.
This year is different. With no salary cap, clubs have already been able to pull their money out and impress potential players. League One is as tough as it has ever been, with at least three clubs playing at a level they feel is below them (Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland), with a further four having experienced the Premier League and European football in my lifetime (Charlton, Portsmouth, Wigan, and Bolton). With the restraints off, the handcuffs released and money no object (for some), League One takes on a different feel altogether this season.
Not much changes for us though. Michael Appleton has said as much when speaking to local media, confirming that we will again be looking to exploit contacts higher up the spectrum and maybe pick up players coming down, rather than those from our peers. “You hear on the grapevine what people are paying, salaries and stuff like that,” he said. “The first impression I get is that there is a lot of money being spent at our level which makes it very difficult to get certain players of high quality. What we’ve had to do, and what we will do, is continue in a similar vein to last year, where we’ll build up relationships with some bigger clubs – and we’ve already got some great relationships. We’ll do our best and try to be smart rather than being able to throw cash at it.”
What is our USP (unique selling point)? It certainly isn’t budget, on the Gone Off on a Tangent podcast, Liam Bridcutt suggested were would be mid-table to bottom half in that respect, and that will be the case again this season. No, our USP is the club itself, the positivity around last season, the last five years and maybe a couple of key events over the summer. Certainly, the new investment is perhaps as valuable in a public relations sense as it is in a monetary sense. The driving force behind that is Harvey Jabara and his family, but the headline is always going to be the involvement of Landon Donovan. He is a worldwide football star and merely by association, our brand becomes more stable, more impressive. I doubt Landon will have significant input other than in a consultancy role around expanding the brand, but players looking to sign for a club might see the news and view it as a more stable and progressive environment than Sheffield Wednesday, for instance.
Our other USP, and in my opinion our strongest, is Michael Appleton. Make no mistake, he is widely respected in the game and the fact we even got Jordan Graham to consider a contract is a testament to Michael. Graham might not move to us but look at the other clubs interested: Birmingham City and Hull City. If he is going to stay in League One what would it be for? Money? I’m not sure, professional pride would almost always stop a player holding back just for pounds and pence, but what about personnel? I liken a player choosing a club to me back in the merchant industry. Usually, if I was at a small depot and was offered a bigger one, that natural progression would drive me, just as it should a player moving from the Championship after being in League One. However, if a good friend or someone I’d worked with and respected before wanted me to swap jobs for something the same size, but with the lure of growing a business and working together, that could have convinced me. Michael and Jordan worked together at Oxford and that is why our offer sits on his table right now, along with those from higher up.
It isn’t just who Michael has worked with either. Imagine you’re Arsenal or Manchester City looking to send a young player out on loan, what do you look for? A stable environment? Box ticked. A good infrastructure and coaching staff? Box ticked. Maybe 18 clubs in League One tick those boxes, but what about a proven track record of improving players who come to you on loan? Alex Palmer could be West Brom’s number one this season, Morgan Rogers thrived with great goals in his spell and Brennan Johnson only missed out on Euro 2020 by the breadth of a hair. How many other clubs at our level had that success with loan players? Shilow Tracey didn’t at Shrewsbury, Troy Parrott flopped at Ipswich and across the division, few clubs did what we did with loan players. That is down to Michael, driving standards, picking those young players and assembling a coaching team worthy of working with the best youngsters in the game.
We might not be able to afford to lure top talent in the same way as Wigan and Charlton can, nor will we pay £750,000 we have squeezed out of additional investment on a player who could get injured tomorrow. We will stick with the same ethos that took us to Wembley last season and you know what? It might be tougher. If you stand still in this division, you’re going backwards and in terms of this season alone, even small steps forward might see you overtaken by clubs spending big. Remember though, success is earned, it doesn’t come overnight and it never ever comes easy. You can’t buy it either: money helps, but you have to have plenty of other factors aligning and I still believe that we have those factors in place.
It will be a very different season in my opinion, tougher because the secret of Lincoln City is out of the bag and the market is intense, but we are still equipped to remain an established League One side and I’m sure over the next couple of weeks, Michael’s aspiration squad of last season will evolve, develop and boast a couple of new faces.