Saturday sees us kick off the new season against Bolton Wanderers, and it’s fair to say that expectation levels are not where they have been in the past.
I started my review article last season exactly the same way, apart from the Bolton thing, of course. 12 months ago, fans expected very little. I predicted us just outside the bottom four; as it turned out, we never really flirted with it. The season before, post-play-offs, fans were reeling from the loss of key figures and what turned out to be a poor summer in terms of incoming players. This summer? I’d say widespread optimism, more so than for many seasons. More so than Michael’s first campaign, perhaps as much optimism as we’ve truly had in this division.
Why? Well, I could sum it up in a paragraph, but that’s not what I do. I break it down into a lot of words, more than is needed. That’s what I’m going to do right now (although each section does have a handy summary for those with a short attention span).
At a very base level, the club like to have ‘two for every position’. That’s assuming we play a 3-4-3, so do we have that? Keepers, yes – Lukas Jensen and Jordan Wright. Right-back, yes – Lasse Sorensen, and Elicha Ahui. Centre backs, no (need six in a two-for-one position model) – TJ, Adam Jackson, Paudie O’Connor, Sean Roughan, Lewis Montsma. Left-back, no – Jaden Brown. Midfield, yes – Ted Bishop, Ethan Erhahon, Ethan Hamilton, Alistair Smith. Wide attackers, no – Danny Mandroiu, Dylan Duffy, Reeco Hackett. Centre forwards, yes Tyler Walker, and Ben House.
Now, this is a loose model. For instance, TJ could be classed as a right back, Elicha can play left back, and I haven’t included young players such as Jovon, who will cover up top. Montsma is obviously out, so we’re short there as well. However, it still smells to me like we need three in – a centre-back, a left-sided defender and a wide player. That’s if we’re going down the route of two-for-one, which I have no reason to suspect we won’t. Also, we do have flexibility within that group – Ted can play a number of positions, and whilst he doesn’t feel like he’s going to keep Hamilton, Erhahon or Smith on the bench, he could be considered for wide left.
What we do have is a good balance, a squad we own in its entirety and the spine of a team that finished 11th last season. Are we stronger or weaker than at the end of the last campaign? It’s a good question – Jensen has a lot to prove if he’s going to match Rushworth; Poole’s departure hasn’t been covered by anyone new, either. Are Hamilton and Smith an upgrade on Virtue and Sanders? Absolutely, yes. Walker is definitely an uplift on Plange. I don’t think, pound for pound, we’re in a hugely different position, but we have far fewer gambles in this squad. There’s no Plange, Diamond or N’Lundulu, big loan signings who will struggle to deliver.
I do think we’ve gone some way to insulating ourselves against injuries in the key areas, central midfield and up top. We’ve suffered with (for instance) Tom Hopper being injured and having to field a second-choice striker. It worked out well with Ben House but not so much with Dan N’Lundulu. This season, if the worst happened and Ben was out for three or four weeks, we wouldn’t feel like we were taking a risk with Tyler. Also, when Liam Bridcutt was injured, our game plan fell apart under Michael Appleton. This season, Ethan Erhahon will hopefully play 40-odd games, but if he didn’t, I’d feel comfortable about Hamilton and Smith, and I’ve barely seen the former play.
Overall, we’re not going into the first month of the season needing a huge amount. We require depth, yes, but we’re not suffering from gaping holes anywhere on the park. Last season, our first game saw Lasse and Max in midfield, neither of who finished the season regularly there. We had Haks on one wing, Chris Maguire came on, and Tom Hopper was our lead striker. It was a team in transition with a lot of work to do. This one isn’t, so in that respect, we’re better placed to start consistently.
Whilst we probably need three in, a defender, left back and wide player, we’re in good shape and won’t be hanging on in late August for key pieces of the squad puzzle.
A word here on the transfer policy. We paid a fee for Ethan Hamilton and Reece Hackett and managed to attract Jaden Brown and Tyler Walker over other clubs. I feel we’ve been aggressive this summer, not splashing massive sums, but certainly more so than in previous seasons. Nothing has been done on the cheap, and whilst we’re not moneybags, it shows a degree of intent. Every season, a couple of players catch fire; this season, if they do, it’s almost certain they won’t be going back to a parent club.
I do find it interesting how many supporters are claiming this avoidance of loans to be a massive positive when the same people were defending the use of loan players previously. I think the loan market is vital, and all the best teams tap into it. Look at Rak-Saki last season, Connor Bradley at Bolton, and even Norton-Cuffy, Fiorini and (of course) Brennan Johnson for us. I’m not sure we will, but I wonder if there might still be a big loan signing or two. Covering left back, for instance, is something I could see us doing via the loan market, ditto a wide attacker. They’ll be the icing on the cake, the parmesan on the spaghetti bolognese, the garlic naan with my goan chicken curry tomorrow night A late shift to the loan market would, in my eyes, be very welcome.
There’s no doubt that the headline signing of the summer, for many, was the return of Tyler Walker on a permanent deal. I feel I’ve overlooked it to a degree because it feels like he isn’t the key to our success, but rather a component of it. We can afford for him to be eased into the side, to be given space to get fit without the pressure of having to perform. Contrast that with two years ago, when we had to force Dan N’Lundulu to play when he wasn’t fit.
However, Walker’s arrival adds to a complement of forwards that is exciting. I don’t recall a season where we’ve had two strikers who could well lead the line. Last season, Tom Hopper was expected to do it alone until House stepped up. Maybe the year we had Matt Green and John Akinde? I don’t know. What I do know is we won’t be sitting around on August 31st hoping to see a striker sign. We have two that 95% of League One sides would happily have in their squad. Hackett and Mandroiu can both play centrally if needed and whilst that’s not something we necessarily want to see, it’s better than seeing an ineffective Jack Diamond doing it last season.
That brings me to Ben House. A little over 18 months ago, he was at Eastleigh. A year ago, we were thinking he might play central midfield, and here we are, 13 goals later, lauding a new deal for him. His progress has been proof the recruitment at the club has been good, his attitude is right, he’s got the ability and fight, and he’s a huge reason for our confidence.
Do I think Walker and House will share 40 goals this season? No. Do I think we’ll see far fewer games like Charlton and Cambridge last season, where we struggle to get a shot on target? Yes. That’s a big plus for me.
Having two strikers capable of scoring goals at this level puts us in a much better position than last season.
A year ago, many pundits had us down as finishing in the bottom four because of Mark Kennedy. I strongly suspect there will be some having us in the top half of the table because of him.
We saw a development arc for Mark last season. He arrived with an idea of how he wanted to play, but that evolved over the course of the season. We went from attacking to defending and finally settled on something in the middle which had fans interested. I confess, the middle bit, where we drew games every week, did have people worried, but I felt that stability was a great platform to build on. It was tough after Cambridge at home to maintain focus, but nobody complained when we beat Plymouth 2-0. The latter result doesn’t happen without Mark finding his way through the league and our squad, accruing a few 0-0 draws along the way.
This season, it’ll be better for him to have had a full season as head coach. We know exactly how we’re going to play, the things we’ll be doing. Does it mean teams might figure us out? Possibly, but they’ve got to stop us as well. If we press right, defend well and utilise the counter well, we’re not going to be easy to play against, even if teams know what to expect.
Of course, the concern will always be breaking down the two banks of five we’re going to see from some teams at the Bank, but that’s modern football for you. We haven’t been able to pick a defensive team apart for a few years now, it’s not a Mark Kennedy thing; it’s just how football has progressed. If the development arc continues, and we find the attacking panache to go with everything else, then we’re going to be top ten contenders, no doubt.
Mark having a full season behind him leaves us with a much clearer idea of how we’ll play, which will benefit the players as well.
What Could Go Wrong?
I always try to find the fly in the ointment, just like I try to see a silver lining to every cloud. That’s balance, and therefore if there are concerns, I want to hunt them out.
Firstly, as things stand, we do look susceptible to an injury crisis. Last season, we had a fairly strong injury record, with few long-term injuries (when compared to the year before). However, if Jaden Brown and TJ (for example) picked up knocks against Bolton, we’d have a real issue. The same goes across the top – if Reeceo Hackett and Danny Mandroiu got the same, we’re light. This has been covered in the squad bit, but it is a slight concern. Other clubs will be much more worried, though, not least Reading, with one fit striker right now.
I do wonder about clubs working us out. We stifle teams away, and that was something we did really well last season. However, you could say that technically, that’s one area of the field we’re a little weaker than last season – Rushworth and Poole out, with Jensen and Brown in. Remember, this isn’t me criticising; it’s looking at where things could go wrong. There’s no evidence to suggest we’re going to be any different, but the potential to have lost some of that defensive edge is there.
There is the potential for a poor start. Bolton away is tough, Notts County on the cup is different levels to Bradford and Doncaster over the past two seasons, and then Wycombe will fancy their chances against us as well. If we did get off to a bad start, some fans could quickly turn, and with a young squad, that can be detrimental. Again, I’m not saying we will struggle, but if our first three games were Reading, Harrogate and Cambridge, I’d feel we’d give ourselves a good springboard.
These are just a few little things that I think could go against us, and in the interest of balance, it’s important to consider all things.
Shit happens that sometimes you can’t plan for.
I always try to compare to the previous year and then look objectively as if I were an opposition fan. We’re much stronger than we were last pre-season, and perhaps in a league where there’s more opportunity. The NTT20 boys think this season, more than ever, is where a midtable also-ran (like us) could easily challenge the top six. I concur – there are more average sides and more teams our size this season, which is both a blessing and a curse. They’re the sort of sides we could and should be beating, but they’re also the ones we often struggle against.
However, we are in good shape. We haven’t tapped the loan market yet, which could pepper the squad with a bit of talent without the massive outlay. The spine of our team has remained largely intact, and we’ve added players either proven at this level (Hamilton, Walker, Hackett) or who have passed their tests in League Two with flying colours (Smith). There’s some height in the side, a bit more physicality that we’ve lacked, at times, over the past couple of seasons. I think we’ll be pragmatic, I think we’ll be tough to beat, and we’ll compete with anyone at this level.
Ultimately, it comes down to this. If Danny Mandroiu, Ben House and Alistair Smith thrive, create and score, we’ll challenge the top six. If we offer a bit more in attack than last season, we could finish between eighth and tenth, perhaps. The ingredients are all there, but it’s up to Chef Kennedy to cook us up something worth dining on. If he manages that, then we could be making Wembley reservations in May.
Do I think we will? I’m not so sure right now. Ask me again on September 1st, when we can see the squad in full. For now, I’m confident we can match last season, which would still be an achievement.
Up the Imps.