If there’s one thing to take away from the weekend’s draw with Sunderland, it is the dilemma facing Michael Appleton as we go into the season’s final eight games.
We have eight games to get the points needed to stay up; one would assume 50 should do it, so a couple more wins and we’ll be there or thereabouts. However, are we going to gamble, keep Jordan Wright without a keeper on the bench, or bring in an emergency stopper to cover us for eight games? The assumption is the latter, but there’s also every chance Wright could get his chance to impress, just as Sam Long is doing over in Ireland.
“Unless we can bring someone in with vastly more experience than Jordan, then we’re not going to do it. What’s the point of bringing someone in who’s less experienced?” That’s the question Michael asked when quizzed about a new keeper, and he’s got a point. Going for a keeper with zero senior experience wouldn’t be wise, as they’d technically be no better off than Wright, who has appeared for us a couple of times. Opting for someone like Alex Palmer, third in line at West Brom might be an option, but not straightforward.
“You’ve got clubs who aren’t particularly keen to do it, which I understand,” he added. “That’s why it was so easy to get someone of the quality and level of [Joe] Bursik because the season had finished. It was a great opportunity for him, albeit for one game. He’s in the England U21 set-up regularly. There aren’t many of them out there.” When asked specifically about Bursik and Palmer, he added; “clearly, they’re no-brainers, but unless the parent club are happy to do it, there’s nothing we can do about that.”
Where does that leave us? These are the options available to us.
Bring in an emergency keeper
The obvious choice is for us to bring in an emergency loan. The problem is, only a handful of keepers really fit the bill, and even fewer are likely to be available. For instance, Joe Bursik is number two at Stoke, so why would they risk their own situation by loaning him to us? Alex Palmer is number three at West Brom and has just been out on loan, but perhaps they’re reticent to let him join a third-tier club after he recently went in goal for a Premier League hopeful in Luton Town. There’s the boy Eastwood from Sheffield United, he’s one likely to be allowed to leave, but he only has two outings at a level equal to, or higher than ours (one in the Championship and one in the SPFL). Remember, Jordan Wright now has five Imps appearances under his belt, including two clean sheets (three if you count the few minutes he didn’t concede against Sheffield Wednesday). This option depends almost entirely on being able to bring in a keeper of a certain quality, sufficient to warrant dropping Jordan. In the last two weeks, that’s become a much harder task, due to his performances.
Stick with Jordan Wright
This might not be the risk many have been led to believe. There’s been a call for us to sign a keeper on loan so we can have one on the bench in the event of injury. Look back at the teamsheet when we lost to Sunderland in the EFL Trophy, or when we beat Bradford. What do you see? That’s right. Matt Boylan. I suspect one of the reasons we haven’t introduced Boylan to the bench recently is because it would weaken our need for an emergency loan. I might be wrong, but have we flown without the parachute over these last few games to help keep our options open? If we do decide to stick with Jordan, could we insulate ourselves by bringing Matt, or indeed Sam Green, onto the bench? After all, if Jordan then got injured, we’d still have the facility to bring an emergency keeper in, because we’d be without a first-team stopper.
I personally wonder if this option is the one we might now take; the relegation battle has become loaded in our favour since we brought Jordan into the team, and with every passing game there’s a little less at stake. We could feasibly come out of this weekend’s game against Shrewsbury 12 points clear of the drop, with those involved in it only having 18 points to play for. I know football doesn’t work that way, but it is possible.
Sign a free agent on a short term deal
I have seen this mentioned elsewhere, and thought I’d address it. There is an option for us to sign a free agent to sit on the bench, should we need the cover. This is really not easy at all; if you search for free agents who last played in England’s top four divisions on the website Transfermarkt, there are very few. In fact, there’s Abdoulaye Diallo (not a serious option for us), Ben Alnwick, Kyle Letheren (who we can’t sign as he wasn’t released until February 8th by Fleetwood) and Dino Visser. Reice Charles-Cook is listed as having last played in the National League, but anyone who recalls him throwing the ball into his own net in the dying stages of our 2-2 draw with Swindon in 2018 wouldn’t want him on the bench. Another player I listed as a free agent a couple of weeks ago, Keiren Westwood, joined QPR on Friday.
That makes this a non-starter in reality, as I’m sure Michael would prefer to have one of the youngsters on the bench instead of another mouth to feed from the wage bill.
Three matches ago, I might have been eager to see an emergency loan come in. Ideally, I wanted to see Alex Palmer return to the club, but as the pressure on us subsides, I’m beginning to wonder if it is worth the hassle. I think my preference would be to bring Matt Boylan onto the bench, just in case, and let Jordan Wright have a run in the team, which is only going to be good for him. Over in Ireland right now, a young man by the name of Sam Long is impressing Drogheda fans despite having only played three times, and it seems only fair to give Wright the chance to get senior minutes as well. It certainly looks to point towards an interesting battle next season, and the more exposure Jordan gets now, the better place he’ll be in when the 2022/23 season starts, with us as a League One side.