There are just three weeks between now and the start of the new season.
In 21 days, we’ll be putting on our replica shirts, or £500 jackets with those sunglasses in the hoods (what are they for?). We’ll be texting our mates, ordering a pint when the pubs open or smashing the bottom out of a fat Full English in Wragby. We’ll park, cycle, walk and stumble to the ground and once again welcome in a new football season.
Ever since summer 2015, our pre-season has been one of hope. That hope pre-dates Danny Cowley’s miracles; I remember Chris Moyses signing Liam Hearn and thinking ‘here we go’. In truth, every summer is full of hope, that’s why football is so great, but I think since 2015 it’s been well-placed hope. We’ve either made great signings or been in a great position to kick on in our division. Even last summer, when the business didn’t quite reach the heights previously seen, people had us as play-off hopefuls.
This summer, for the first time in seven years, that hope isn’t quite as evident. Our expectations have been tempered somewhat by a big change over the summer, an entirely new coaching staff and backroom team, new players and all on the back of what many felt was a hugely disappointing season. This comes against a backdrop of a tough League One; I’m told by a couple of reliable sources that wages have taken another huge hike this summer. In 2020, there was parity, last year we increased our budget but fell behind, and this season there are more teams stretching the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
We’re not ‘have-nots’ in the strictest sense. We sit perhaps in the bottom ten budgets in our division, maybe. I don’t know for sure, but you can guarantee that clubs like MK Dons, Derby, Sheff Weds, Portsmouth, Ipswich, Charlton, Bolton, Peterborough, Barnsley, Oxford and Wycombe have more than us. However, like last season, big names don’t mean big seasons, and there will be a team from the likes of Bristol Rovers, Exeter City and Port Vale who surprise everyone (I quite fancy The Gas to do well this season). For the first time in quite a few years, I think most fans would take midtable security from the off, without a hint of irony or pessimism.
Is that where we’re destined to be? 12 days ago I woke up on a Monday morning about to head in to interview Mark Kennedy, and I felt genuine concern. It wasn’t a gut-punching fear, but we lacked so many components of a capable League One side. We still lack some, but I’m here 288 hours later thinking maybe, just maybe, we’re looking to be in better shape. Now, before I go on, I do keep getting Facebook reminders of my optimism ahead of the 2010/11 season, so a decade or more ago I was always the glass half full, but I like to think I’m more balanced now.
The past week has been big for us I think. Danny Mandroiu is a real statement signing, given the teams that have eyed him in the past. I know some will say ‘but they didn’t sign him’, but for a player to fall on Celtic’s radar they have to have something we can work with. There is a caveat; Mandroiu arrives injured and that was a massive issue for us last season. I didn’t ever solely blame the medical team for that, and I’d still be reticent to do so as I think Mickey Hines, Luke Jelly and the team must have felt physio was like painting the Forth Bridge last season, but the club clearly feel there was an issue there because almost everyone has gone. I don’t worry about signing a player carrying a knock, we’ve done it loads before (O’Connor, Eardley, Bostwick) with no issues. My fear is Mandroiu missing three weeks of pre-season, starting behind everyone else and playing catch up for six months whilst some less sympathetic fans brand him a flop.
I think, given a bit of time, he could be a massive signing for this club. Bringing in players hoping to accrue value is part of what we do now, but the biggest value bump comes from players at the top end of the pitch, those who shoot, score and create. That’s Danny Mandroiu and our attacking options look much stronger with him in the squad. Another centre-forward might be nice, a right-winger is fairly pressing, but otherwise, we’re looking fairly strong in the attacking areas; certainly stronger than we did against Oxford last season when we went there with no striker.
Imagine, we might actually play away at Oxford and be able to field a fit first team; that hasn’t happened in our last two trips there!
I’m also quite excited about Carl Rushworth, and for multiple reasons. Firstly, he almost certainly turned down other League One clubs; Pete O’Rourke reported he was signing for Derby and if Pete reports it, then it’s almost always certain to happen. Derby are going to be very strong in our division, and to take a prospect from under their noses is huge. It also settles a minor worry I had around the keepers. I like Sam Long, but I think he’s one that needs a loan elsewhere in England to get more experience; he’s still one for the future, 100%, but there’s no need to rush these players through. Look at Alex Palmer at West Brom; he had multiple loans before he’s knocking on the door there, and he’s better for it. I’ve no problem at all with loaning in young keepers – two of the best we’ve seen in Lincoln City shirts in my time as a fan have been Josh Griffiths and Alex Palmer, no doubt at all. Remember Nick Townsend? He was another who came in on loan and did well. Very few (perhaps one) have been a disaster in the last 12 years, Elliot Parish, and let’s not forget before him Trevor Carson did very well.
Those two signings have settled my nerves, and adding Tashan Oakley-Boothe seems like good business as well. Unfortunately, not all transfers will be a hit, and thrown in Vernam, Benn and O’Connor and you’ll have a mix of big impacts and underwhelming spells, but that’s football. However, I like the type of business we’ve done; the big signings have been permanent deals, which many applaud, which means the loan market is yet to be tapped into. I feel like top clubs are tighter on loans this season, there are far fewer being announced across League One, but I thoroughly expect us to add a couple more from that market before the summer is out.
I’m also heartened by Mike Garrity’s arrival, something I didn’t cover on the site as I was driving to the Mark Kennedy interview. I didn’t fear not having an assistant, one was always coming in, but Garrity is just the type of assistant head coach we needed; he knows the level, he’s been successful in the assistant role before and I think he’ll give us a more complete coaching team through his experience. We now have Tom Shaw who has been with the club a while, Mike Garrity who has been at this level before and Mark Kennedy who has extensive coaching experience heading up the team. Today saw a new keeper coach announced (a shame, I liked Steve Croudson), but Scott Fry comes with plenty of experience also.
Then there was last week’s game against Gainsborough, the type of encounter that means nothing at all, but somehow settles the nerves. Last season I recall losing 5-0 to Boston and trying to write it off, but it didn’t feel right at the time. We went to Gainsborough, and despite the result not mattering at all, it kinda did. Not in any major way, not in a ‘we’ll be alright this season’ way, but because it didn’t compound fears, it didn’t exasperate any festering negativity. Sure, the happy-clappers think it means we’ll win the league, the doom-and-gloomers think it was a nothing game against a pub team (that’s how they’ll see it, no me), but in truth, it was just a meaningless workout that didn’t go badly.
Three weeks. We have three weeks to be ready for a proper game, a bit of a grudge match against Exeter City (nobody has forgotten that semi-final, have they?) and a chance to move on from last season. I tweeted yesterday 12th and a cup run would be a great season and I stand by that. The only caveat would be to win more at home because I think that buys the team more time. If Sincil Bank is a fortress, and people don’t want to come here, then it leaves us in a much stronger position. What did we lose at home in 2016/17, two games perhaps? The following season was pretty much the same, and that made it easier for floating fans to decide to come to games, it made the atmosphere better and it meant Gav behind me didn’t have to constantly say ‘I’m getting sick of watching Lincoln City lose at home’. Whilst it never got so bad we were trapped in the bottom four, losing to teams that were created the illusion of being at their level. In truth, we were;t.
In truth, we were only three or four fitter players from being 12th, only a striker away from making the FA Cup third round, or the latter stages of the EFL Trophy. The framework for success (measured by finishing 12th) is still in place in my opinion, and I’m beginning to think the changes made elsewhere could be sufficient to help push us a tiny bit further up the table. Given rising wages, big clubs coming down and the intense competition in the division, being a bit further up the table will represent a decent step forward in my eyes.