What went wrong?
That’s the first thing most fans will ask when we talk about last summer’s recruitment. Why did our recruitment team let Michael down? Or, if you’re of the other persuasion, why did Michael identify poor players? It’s a conversation I’ve had with many fans who I respect; what went wrong last summer? My answer surprises a few, because I always say ‘not a lot’. Whilst it wasn’t the perfect summer, the recruitment actually wasn’t all that bad.
The one thing that we, as a club, did get wrong, was waiting on Morgan Whittaker until the last day, and him being pulled out of the deal. It left us one player short from the bare minimum. I remember it was the night we beat Bradford in the cup and Michael Appleton said (before or after the game), that if we didn’t get one through the door, he would have sleepless nights, or something similar. We didn’t get them through the door, and for me, that was the only major failing of last summer.
If you also think we should have signed a free agent, then let me tell you this; the club looked at the list. I had a conversation with a club source the next day and, despondently, they told me they were looking through the free agent list at players, and may make a move for one. My understanding was we spoke to one player, a striker, about coming in, and he subsequently moved for almost twice the money to another League One club. That club is now in League Two, so make of that what you will.
Other than that, we didn’t have an awful summer. There was the odd miss, the odd head-scratching move, but in the main, it was no worse than most other seasons. The problem we had was the summer was always going to be compared to that of 2020, when we remodelled the squad and came without 90 minutes of the Championship as a result. That was never going to be repeatable, not with the changing climate, which created the perception of things not going well.
Let’s look at who we signed last summer, and break down exactly how many of the players were a disaster, and what portion of the recruitment process you might blame for that.
Lewis Fiorini was the first summer signing, and I think it’s fair to say he was a hit. He didn’t have a great early winter, but then the whole team struggled. However, after overcoming an injury in the opening fixtures, he came to life against Cambridge and overall was a good signing. This is credit to the recruitment team; we have cultivated a relationship with Manchester City that means we could benefit again this season from their exciting young players. Fiorini was a hit.
Next up was Chris Maguire, and whilst he has his doubters amongst the Imps fanbase, his capture was actually something of a coup. Think about it; three seasons at Sunderland, where he’d scored a few goals and was a bit of a fan favourite, and when his contract expires he comes to Lincoln City. Take away the fact it’s a player who could start an argument in solitary confinement; we signed a player proven at League One and above, of an age where he should be a role model for the younger players, and one who it was intended might add some bite and gamesmanship to our team. On paper, and at the recruitment stage, he looked like a great signing. The fact he only turned up when we played at the Stadium of Light wasn’t down to Jez Goerge, was it? Who knows, he might have a more significant role to play this season.
There’s no doubt Dan N’Lundulu didn’t work out, but again I don’t see him as a ‘what went wrong’ kinda signing. There were twelve League One clubs after Dan, and you can see why; 12 Premier League appearances under his belt, a goal in the FA Cup and a physique to make WWE wrestlers shit themselves. Dan was a monster, a player best described as a specimen. There’s every reason to think, at least at the time, he could have done for us what Ellis Simms and Taylor Richards did for Blackpool and Doncaster respectively. This was a win for the recruitment team, but circumstances made it look otherwise. Dan was injured in pre-season, rushed back for the Man Utd U21 game and injured again. When he finally got into the team, Tom Hopper was injured, and the expectation just wasn’t dealt with. He flopped, I won’t argue that, but to say this was a recruitment fail is not correct.
The capture of Lasse Sorensen came next, and I admit we haven’t seen the best of Lasse at the moment. I can say this now, I hope, but a conversation I had with Michael suggested we were looking for a long term replacement for a midfielder who may not be with us next season (he may, of course), and therefore we were getting ahead of the curve by bringing in Lasse. I even recall in his early outings one or two people were impressed with him, but over the course of 46 games (or however many he played) it would be hard to say this signing went well. He’s our player next season; it’s a big one for Lasse, but I’m sure even he won’t be happy with his first 12 months in red and white.
Next was Josh Griffiths and if he hadn’t been injured against Sheff Weds, I think he might have been a contender for Player of the Season, or rather, to come second behind Regan Poole in Player of the Season. There was nothing wrong with this signing and no reason to criticise the recruitment team.
Now, we come to an interesting one. How many of you want us to capture Hiram Boateng this summer? A few I imagine, because he’s got everything you want at this level; he’s played here before, he’s got goals and assists in him, and he’s a player who can get you off your seat. He’s experienced enough to add value, but young enough not to spend the entire season with his ankle on ice or something like that. Now, imagine if Hiram Boateng had done all that, then moved to a Championship side and sat out half a season, before coming back into League One. He’d still be a prospect, right? That’s what Hakeeb Adelakun was twelve months ago. I steadfastly refuse to accept he was a bad signing at the time. Something went wrong during the season, sure, I’ll buy that, but his actual capture was a coup for the club. It’s easy to remember Morecambe and Carlisle, games where he struggled, but what of Mk Dons at home? He played well that day, but it’s forgotten because we lost. He did well away at Cambridge, but that’s the Anthony Scully game. He did well away at Bradford but everyone remembers that day for us missing out on Whittaker.
The other three signings were Ted Bishop whom I think we can say was a hit, TJ Eyoma, who everyone felt was a coup signing, and Jamie Robson who was bought as a replacement for Tayo Edun. All three are decent signings, one of whom (Bishop) had a decent season and the other two suffering (as with many) injury and fitness problems.
At this point, I did pen another 1,000 words, but WordPress hasn’t saved it and frankly, I can’t go into it all again!
What I will add is this; of the players we signed last summer, only one came in, wasn’t great and left, Dan N’Lundulu. Lasse, Chris Maguire and Haks all struggled through the season, and if any of those leave during the summer then yes, they struggled to and didn’t hit the mark. However, of our nine signings, five were of value to the squad and still are. That’s around a 55% hit rate. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to the previous season, where Ethan Ross, Jamie Soule, Remy Longdon, Robbie Gotts and Callum Morton all came in and didn’t hit the mark. The difference is the players that did perform, like Brennan Johnson, did so over and above all expectations.
My conclusion is we made no significant errors last summer, bar waiting too long for Whittaker and going short up top. Had we signed a striker earlier, when Hopper was injured and Dan struggled we’d have been covered. No, the problem wasn’t recruitment, but player fitness. We simply had too many injuries too often. Now, whatever the reason for that, I don’t know, but had we not suffered 50% of the injuries we did, I think people would be less inclined to look at the summer, scapegoat our recruitment team and try to find blame.