Tomorrow sees us kick off the new season against Exeter City and it’s fair to say that expectation levels are not where they have been in the past.
There is a train of thought, one I’m firmly behind, that we’re not quite ready in terms of the squad for the new season. We feel a little bit light, but if you scratch away at the surface, I think the doom and gloom, something that has grabbed me over the last week, is partly right and partly wrong.
We are light in attacking areas, that much is for certain. The players we have not replaced, primarily, are the two Swansea loanees, Liam Cullen and Morgan Whittaker. We haven’t brought in the marquee loan, and that’s no disrespect to Tashan. Two seasons ago we had Brennan Johnson, and sadly that’s the benchmark for this season. Last season, we missed out on Morgan Whittaker, will we be successful this time around?
It’s worth noting that Brennan and (had we signed him) Morgan were both due after the season started, and with our campaign kicking off a week early, we do feel a bit premature. I wonder if perhaps the pessimism (shared by me) is purely because as yet, we haven’t activated the loan market.
Starting at the back, we’ve got a keeper I think we can be comfortable with, and the defence feels settled. That was our undoing last season; we dominated games and gave away stupid goals. I got sick of watching us be the better side at home, or at least match our opponents (Doncaster, Ipswich, Wimbledon, Cambridge, Accrington, Gillingham, MK Dons, Hartlepool, I could go on) only to lose because we gave something stupid away. Sometimes it was a penalty, other times an error, but it was always the same thing; we just couldn’t defend. That would have been high on my priorities for this coming season, sorting the defence, and I think the summer suggests we’re getting there. Sure, we haven’t scored a lot (I’ll come to that later), but we haven’t conceded all that many. We kept Blackburn down to one, a strong Blackburn, and generally we’ve looked a bit more no-nonsense than we have over the last 12 months. Paudie O’Connor will certainly be a big part of that; I’ve met him recently and he’s got a hardness about him that I like. We know what Regan Poole is capable of, but perhaps he won’t be carrying the torch on his own.
As for the full-backs, TJ was our marquee signing last summer and is more than capable of playing in the top six of this division, whilst a year ago Jamie Robson was still playing in Scotland’s top flight. Throw in Adam Jackson, Lewis Montsma, Jay Benn and Sean Roughan, and we’re beginning to feel tighter. Personally, I think that centre-half pairing is stronger than any we were able to put out last season. If we don’t concede goals, then we’re always in with a shout of a result and that wasn’t the case last season.
Moving forward, I do have a problem with the midfield looking light, I can’t hide that fact. It’s not the advanced midfield roles I worry about; Tashan clearly has quality and will hopefully reach his potential here. Ted Bishop is a great footballer given the right position, and it’s no coincidence that a couple of the players have told me this summer it’ll be good to see him settled in a single role. Max Sanders is a fan favourite and one I think will step up and that’s without guessing where Danny Mandroiu fits in. The problem is the holding role, where we have just Lasse Sorensen. Lasse had a tough season here last time out, and if he’s going to thrive in the holding role, he’s going to have to step up. Who knows, perhaps he might just do that, after all, he’ll be better protected by the centre halves I feel, and I think there will be less (pardon the expression) fannying around in front of the 18-yard box. One thing I will say for Lasse is he has a great engine, and if he can pair that with an uplift in quality, we might be okay.
That’s one area where I have optimism and one pessimism, which brings us to the attacking third. There’s been a fear we’re not scoring goals in pre-season, and people have asked where the goals are coming from. Oh, I don’t know, maybe the first Football League striker to get 15 in successive seasons for 40 years, Anthony Scully? We’re talking as if we have nothing upfront, and yet we have arguably our most prolific striker at this level in a generation. If he were to hit 15 again this season, I think he’d be the first to get 15 in three successive seasons since Andy Graver. Maybe he could get a few? After all, you might say he’s not torn up trees in pre-season, but if I remember rightly, he didn’t score any last pre-season either.
There’s Tom Hopper, a striker perfectly suited to leading the line in 2020/21, perfectly adequate for scoring play-off semi-final goals to beat Sunderland. We’re talking about a player with a long history of performing in League One; okay, he’s not a 20-goal man, but like I said in my feature on him being captain, he’s a footballer’s footballer. I’ve had a long chat this week with Anthony Scully, not for anything official, and he’s delighted Hops is back and fit, because he knows he’ll hold the ball up, create space and help others into good positions. Hops is a fighter, he’s hard as nails and he’s told me he feels as fresh now as he has done since January 2021, when he scored a late winner at Wimbledon. He’s a great choice for captain and I have a real hope we’ll see the Hops that was so vital to the team in the early part of that season.
What I really want to stress about Tom Hopper is how much we missed him last season, and in the run-in to the promotion campaign. You know I speak to a League One manager every now and again, a manager who tried to sign Hops whilst he was here, and he couldn’t speak highly enough of him. Teammates appreciate him perhaps more than supporters at times, but he started last season injured, then when he came back he never got match fit. To say he wasn’t on it in March isn’t doing him justice at all. He is vital to this football club, and hugely respected in the dressing room. He hasn’t been given the armband because Regan Poole’s leaving, he’s been given it because he’s a senior professional, a leader we lacked last season. Regan will be club captain one day, here or wherever he spends the latter part of his career, and as I understand it he’ll be our unofficial vice-captain right now.
I have questions about our creativity, but again we look to players perhaps described by some as ‘deadwood’. Haks springs to mind, a seemingly quiet and unassuming player who I think is the sort to be adversely affected when his confidence takes a knock. He’s got the ability, we saw it in flashes last season (Bradford, Cambridge and MK Dons), but we didn’t see it enough. That said, we didn’t see him enough, not really. Yes, he has a lot to prove, but he could be another set to surprise us. That’s without mentioning Charles Vernam, the local boy coming back home. He’s another I think could be a big hit if he gets the chance; he’s clearly delighted to be back home and involved with the club. He comes across as a very bright lad as well, and he might be a surprise package.
There are others with untapped potential; Charlie Kendall, Ben House and Freddie Draper spring to mind, without mentioning Jovon. I’m not touching on all the players here, but what I do think we have is a young squad packed with potential, but perhaps just lacking in the on-field leaders. However, Paudie and Regan will lead from the back, Tom from the front and that’s two of the three areas of the field covered.
Players Are Confident
I am pessimistic, I do have worries, but I have to confess my chat with Scully alleviated some of them. He couldn’t speak highly enough of the new regime, as you imagine he would, but the focus on fitness was massive in my eyes. Ross Burbeary has come in, the man who made Rotherham one of the fittest teams in Europe last season, and he’s clearly having a big effect. It might be you don’t notice the different tomorrow, but the players I’ve spoke to feel you’ll notice it in the latter stages of games in the middle of the season, especially when we player a higher intensity, higher press. There’s a degree of confidence amongst those players I’ve spoken to, and dare I say it feels (with some at least) as if there’s a weight been lifted,
Also, do not underestimate the effect of last summer. Many of the boys finished a play-off campaign, one where we’d had two matches almost every week for four months, and they were back in training three weeks later. They didn’t get to go away, and for some that means more than just no holiday. Think about Scully, with all his family in Ireland, unable to travel in those three weeks. There would have been others, brooding on the play-off defeat, nursing injuries and with no respite. Other clubs finished in early May and at least had time to recharge, we didn’t. It’s not an excuse for the season, but more than one player over the course of last season spoke about it being a factor. Then they didn’t have the manager at the training ground for a couple of weeks, and before you knew it we were back in the stadium and they were touted as a top six side. I can understand why the season didn’t start well, why injuries began to pile up and why perhaps one or two players didn’t reach their levels.
At the start of this week I felt pessimistic, based purely on signings, and over the last couple of days I’ve chatted to people, thought a lot about the season and blocked out the external noise. I shouldn’t care what the pundits say, they don’t know the club like we do, and we don’t know it like the players and staff do. I’ve tried to focus on that, hence the chats with players, and whilst I know you’ll get ‘spin’, I think I’m a good judge of character. Last summer I recall meeting Chris Maguire and instantly worrying about how he’d settle, despite the actual words that came out. This season, having chatted to a couple of lads, I genuinely feel they’re happier with their personal progress. That’s only the ones I know to talk to of course, but they seem fitter, not carrying knocks and energised by the changes. That’s not to say a change was needed, but certainly some have reacted to it positively. I’m not sure that happened when Michael first arrived, hence the clear out he had in 2020, but this squad feels to have embraced the tweaks around the place.
That brings me to one of the main reasons people are writing us off, and a huge unknown for the season ahead; Mark Kennedy. Some people have question Mark’s handling of the media, saying he appears a little sharp with Rob. If you scratch away at Mark’s history, he does have a history with being done over by the media; he once successfully sued The Sun (I like him more already). I’m sure that makes him more careful when talking to press and sometimes, care can come across as aloofness. I don’t think that’s Mark at all; off camera with me, Ben and Jake he was warm and approachable. He did make a comment to us about liking doing the podcast because he knows he wouldn’t get stitched up; I thought it was a joke, an off-the-cuff remark, but knowing his history with mainstream media it makes more sense now. Don’t judge the man on a couple of pre-season interviews is what I’m getting at here.
He is an unknown, and of course the players will have talked up his methods to me, even in off-the-record chats. However, having sat through his presentation at the event we recorded, he is clearly a man who knows what he wants on the field. Corners are going into the box, free kicks the same, and is that not a step forward? Hopefully, our fans are sharp enough to judge him on his merits in competitive games, nothing more.
Outside pundits have not done that, because they can’t. They have 24/48 or even 72 teams to assess for their podcasts and even if they did fifteen minutes research on each, that would take them 18 hours, more than two working days. Could you honestly get a grip of where we might compete next season by spending fifteen minutes looking at incomings and outgoing? Why then do we let predictions get under our skin? Maybe it’s just me, but I genuinely get worried when I see people putting us in the bottom four. What do they know we don’t, that’s what I think. The answer is nothing.
Mark Kennedy is an unknown quantity, as are many managers at this level (Ian Burchnall, Wade Elliott and Scott Brown being three). However, Mike Garrity is not; he’s been promoted from this division before as an assistant and we should not underestimate his importance when assessing where we’ll finish this season. Together, we have a coaching duo with much respect in football circles, but both of whom are happy to be here; they’re not bigger than the club and they both feel respectful of where we are.
Fear of the Unknown
I could write much more but it’s all speculation. I’m going to wrap by saying that until this article, I didn’t feel excitement for the season. I felt apprehension and pessimism, but never excitement. I have a fear of failure, a fear of coming back on a Saturday and wading through the ‘told you so’ Tweets, through the ‘bubble’s burst’ memes and ‘wheels falling off’ stuff from Grimsby fans. I do fear that, because it pisses me off, and that manifests itself in pessimism. That’s the wrong angle.
We’re in our third full season in League One, financially we’re in a good place and whilst the squad is light, we’re not the only ones who have yet to complete their business. We have kept our best players so far, and there’s no indication we’re going to sell before the window shuts, and I can’t help but feel we might still have a trick up our sleeves. Whatever the situation, we have good owners and a structure that has allowed us to build a decent squad and facilities to promote longevity. We’re kicking off at the same level as seven former Premier League clubs, and that comes on the back of what many deem a weak campaign last season. We’re still here in League One, we’re still fighting and if we finish 16th, it’ll be a decent campaign. It could be worse; we could be looking at an away trip to Wealdstone or Maidenhead, but we’re not. I don’t subscribe to using the National League seasons as a barometer of how far we’ve come when we’re losing at home to Gillingham, but before a season has kicked off it is all we have. We’ve come a long way, and we’re still here, punching above our weight, consolidating, making Lincoln City a staple of League One, not perennial strugglers. We have a group of players, albeit one or two short, that feel motivated, fitter than last season and positive about the future. We have great facilities, we live within our means and we’re likely to average 8,500 all season. We are Lincoln City and whatever the summer has held, tomorrow is a new start, a fresh hope. It’s the beginning of an era and maybe, just maybe it can be as successful as the two that have preceded it.
For that reason, I’m now fucking excited.
Up the Imps.