The Imps pre-season continued on Tuesday night with a short journey to King’s Lynn, where we shared the spoils in a 1-1 draw. You might have forgotten that in the excitement of last night’s signing.
That came on the back of our 1-1 draw with Stockport County over in Spain, which means an undefeated pre-season campaign, or a winless one, depending on your view. Sounds familiar.
It is very important not to get carried away by results in pre-season. The year we went up in 1998, we lost a pre-season game 3-0 against Gainsborough. The year we were relegated out of the Football League (1987) we scored 58 goals in our friendlies. Honestly, they mean very little in terms of the outcomes.
So, what is the purpose, and how do the pre-season matches fit into our preparations? Firstly, there’s a chance for the new faces to integrate with the team. Alistair Smith has already bagged, getting the only goal we’ve scored from open play against Stockport. Lukas Jensen, Reeco Hackett, and Jaden Brown have all got minutes under their belt and time on the field with their new teammates. That’s a good thing, and whilst I don’t put too much weight behind needing players in early so they can gel, it does help to get players in early for fitness. You would expect those we sign in early July will be fit and raring to go on the opening day of the season. Can the same be said for a free agent who arrives with two weeks to spare? Possibly not.
However, that doesn’t mean leaving some business late is a problem. Right now, we’re in a much better position than many. If we kicked off tomorrow, an XI of Jensen, Sorensen, Brown, Jackson, O’Connor, Roughan, Erhahon, Smith, Hackett, Mandroiu, and House could easily compete at this level, and the bench would feature Wright, Eyoma, Ahui, Duffy, and Walker, as well as other talents. We will be stronger come the start of the campaign, but I think we’re a good way down the line with our recruitment. Last season, players like Jack Diamond and Matty Virtue didn’t arrive until the end of August; Danny Mandroiu wasn’t fit for the kick-off, nor was Charles Vernam. We feel more prepared.
That eagerness to avoid injury is also why I have no problems with us not putting bodies on the line in pre-season games. Sure, you could have a big club come to visit, and you give them a bit of a slap, like we did Middlesbrough back in the nineties, but what does it achieve? Charles Vernam was injured in the final friendly of last season, and whilst that’s not his fault, nor the clubs, it is worth remembering what friendlies are for. I’ve said this a million times, but they’re not for football fans wanting to see a game. I want to go and watch this weekend to see the lads in action, but not from a competitive point of view. We might get pumped 5-0 by Boston as we did a couple of years ago, but that season we started quite brightly, did we not? Drawing with Gillingham, beating Fleetwood, putting five past Cambridge. The Boston result then was gone as quickly as it arrived.
Results mean nothing, and getting the right minutes into the players is what is vitally important. If we get their loads right, then we’ll ensure the fine balance between match fitness and injury resistance when the big kick-off finally arrives. Of course, things can always happen – our opening-day opponents, Bolton, have lost a key player to an ACL injury sustained in their first pre-season friendly. That is something that can’t be predicted, but overload can.
Oisin Gallagher, MJ Kamara, Morgan Worsfold-Gregg, Elicha Ahui, and Hayden Cann; they’ve all had minutes in pre-season, as have most of our exciting younger players. For their development, it is crucial they’re involved, feeling like a part of the squad. Some of those will go out on loan and may feel a disconnect once the season starts, so to have them amongst it in pre-season is good. It’s also interesting to see some of the squad numbers – Ahui at 2 and Cann at 5, for instance. Will they have those numbers when the season starts? Probably not, but if they do, are we seeing a hint that some of our young players will be more involved? Of those, I expect Elicha Ahui to be someone we’re close to keeping in the squad, certainly, as we’re currently a little light in terms of defensive numbers.
Sometimes, pre-season is not about what you see but what you do not see. For instance, we do not see Ted Bishop yet, and one wonders if a third season of injury troubles beckons. Ted has undoubtedly got quality, and were he fit for 46 games, he probably wouldn’t be in our squad but possibly a Championship one. However, his absence from pre-season is an indicator that all is still not well. I like Ted as a player, and he’s always come across as a cracking guy, but the fact no conversations about the squad that we’ve had on the podcast have involved him speaks volumes. We need him fit, we need a good run of games, and right now, that looks to be a big ask.
Hakeeb Adelakun is another who has been absent – he’s this season’s Chris Maguire. There’s no suggestion he’s injured, which can only mean one thing; he’s not fancied by Mark Kennedy. It’s not surprising after going to Gillingham and struggling to make an impact there, Haks had a lot of catching up to do. He was really poor in his first season here, and he looks like he is becoming one of those players consigned to the annuls of history with little for fans to look back on fondly. It’s a shame – I spoke to Haks last season at the sponsors’ event, and he’s such a softly-spoken guy, really pleasant to talk to. Sadly, that doesn’t get goals or assists, and this pre-season suggests he won’t be getting a chance to prove himself again.
From what I can see, our shape looks to be much the same, 3-4-3, which I think does give us flexibility in terms of the type of attackers we need. The two on either side of Ben House or Tyler Walker do not have to be out-and-out wingers but can instead be a more traditional insider forward, and the pair could play together. Danny Mandroiu fits the profile nicely also, as does Hackett, from what I’ve heard and seen. However, it does place a renewed emphasis on the wing backs – Lasse and Jaden look like the starting pairing, but do we have the right cover or options for them if things go awry? TJ and Sean Roughan are both, in my opinion, far better as defenders on either side of a three. If Ahui is a first-team option, we may still need a wide player to push Jaden Brown. The question is, can we sign a player for that position, given that Jaden is likely to be the starter?
Pre-season always throws up plenty of questions and few answers. We think we learn a lot, but in reality, the only people truly learning are Mark Kennedy, his staff and the players. As fans, we are watching glorified training sessions, and part of me is in favour of that. What you shouldn’t do is read anything into results at all, and certainly not base renewing your season ticket on whether we beat King’s Lynn or not in a game featuring 22 different players.