I recently asked Stacey West readers to predict our finishing position this season and was surprised when the results came in.
All but two or three put us inside the top six, which I think would be a huge achievement. Personally, as you will hopefully have read by now, I’ve put us just outside the top six, and that is by no means negative. I’m sure some will say it is, but I don’t care. I believe this season is the toughest League One for years, if not ever. We have teams spending £10k a week on strikers, others putting in £1m for players, and that’s simply not our level.
That’s not critical. I have visited the club a few times recently and what I find is a well-run club, building for the future. Every summer, the ground looks a little bit better, the generated income goes up a little more and the quality of playing staff increases. We are a forward-thinking club with ideas of progression and evolution, but we are doing it on our terms, not those set by others.
The removal of the salary cap has meant the haves can spend at will, some have nots decided to do the same, and there is a chasm between the richest and the poorest. We’re not in either bracket, I wouldn’t be so bold as to state we’ve got a budget on the Morecambe level, but we’re not big spenders, whatever opposition managers may think. We sold a key asset, allowing us to buy a player or two entering the last year of their contract. We allegedly enquired about a £200,000 left-back, but only because of a perceived interest in a player of our own worth twice that and double again. We spend what we generate, and we make the most of what we have, and that’s fine. We measure our progression by our own metrics, and whilst we have moved forward as a club, in terms of League One, we might have gone backwards a little because of what everyone else is doing.
I look at League One and put us in the bracket of ‘top ten’ sides, like Oxford, Portsmouth and Doncaster. We’re sides that have established ourselves in the division and want to kick on but won’t do so by outspending others unless we generate revenue. Our Holy Grail was to be at their level, and I believe last year put us there in many aspects. I would wager at least two of those have bigger budgets than us but do they have better squads? I suppose, like art, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I’d say we’re on a level with them.
That’s a good thing because five or six years ago we wanted to be on a level with Dover and York City. A football club should be judged on its own individual merits, and I think Lincoln City FC have a lot of merits. Just because I think six other clubs have gone for broke or are in a better position doesn’t mean we’re bad. Look at it this way, if you came seventh in a race of 24 but recorded your personal best, would you take pride from that finish? Also, to keep up the running analogy, predicting League One this season, for us at least, is like predicting the second leg of the 4x100m race. Our goal is the Championship by the end of Michael’s tenure: he believes it and he’s committed to it and when I spoke to him, he was mentioning little snippets about next season, proving he’s here for the long haul. We might not be in the top six when the second leg is run, but I’d wager with our progression, we’ll be right up there in the timescale the manager has predicted.
Where are my concerns? I suppose I have to say the defence, not because we have poor players, but because at present there’s no right-back cover and our best central defender is injured. The injuries worry me, and we do seem to get a lot. Why is that? Players perhaps put more into training than they should, but that’s part of our intensity I guess. I watched Liam Bridcutt throwing himself about the training pitch like a madman on Tuesday, but if he didn’t what example would that set to younger players? We have levels, and we reach those levels in everything we do, and as a consequence, we do pick up injuries. That doesn’t stop me worrying though, and despite our depth how damaging would it be if Tom Hopper limped off against Gillingham, or Adam Jackson picked up a strain? Right now, hugely damaging.
There is also a concern around goals. We lost a whole lot of goals and assists when Grant, Johnson and Rogers left, and although we have signed talented players, we have yet to see how they will adapt and step up to take that responsibility. The hope is Dan Nlundulu and Hakeeb Adelakun can pick up some of the slack, with Chris Maguire also chipping in. If they have ten to fifteen goal involvements each this season, we’re laughing. Of course, all three are likely to miss tomorrow’s game against the Gills, which links back to my previous concern. Injuries killed our Championship hopes this season, I just pray they don’t do the same again. I said on the Gills in the Blood programme that it isn’t just players that score goals, it is processes and patterns of play. If we stick to those from last season, we will create chances, so there’s no reason instead of Brennan Johnson being fouled, it is Hakeeb Adelakun, or instead of Jorge Grant putting the ball in the net, it is Teddy Bishop.
On the positive side, we’ve got a squad packed with potential. If Bishop finds the form he’s threatened all his career, and if Lasse Sorensen reaches the heights people believe he can, we could have two absolute diamonds on our hands. Lewis Fiorini is an unknown quantity who we’ve yet to see nailed to a particular position as well, and there’s lots of scope for more loan players to drop in. Remember, when we kicked off against Crewe last season, Brennan Johnson and Morgan Rogers hadn’t stepped foot inside the ground. With between two and four new faces to come in, we could yet see a season-changing player arrive who throws all of our predictions out of the window.
The future is bright, very bright, but we shouldn’t let last season’s heroics cloud the path. It was a poor League One last season, with teams sacking managers, big-spending sides limited to what they could outlay and general disarray all around us. We kept our heads, battled the adversity and came within one game of the Championship, but does it mean we should be amongst the favourites this season? For some, yes, for others, no. For me, it means we’re on the right track, but we might have to accept that in taking one step forward as a club, others might temporarily overtake us by trying to take two or three this season. However, as long as fans keep focused on us, our team, our squad and our evolution, then we’ll be on course to realise that Championship dream under Michael Appleton. We’ll be in the mix, I’m sure of that, because we’re a good football team with good players and a proper plan moving forward. All being well, we will play Championship football in my lifetime, and we will get promoted out of this division.
It just might not be this season.