Best Blog or Account to Follow: Bipolar Latic saw the glory years when the Latics were in the Premier League; he’s been witness to over 1,000 competitive and takes a philosophical view of the club’s current status as the ‘caretakers’ of the third tier.
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League One - 17th; W 12 / D 17 / L 17 / F 31 / A 44 / Pts 53
Only a single victory in the league up to the start of October (against neighbours Bury, naturally) was indicative of life under Steve Robinson. Goals were at an absolute premium and it was rare for the Lancashire outfit to garner more than one in a match, which when coupled with a defence under constant pressure, was a recipe for disaster. During their dismal latter half of 2016 however, they did earn a couple of surprise victories, most notably against table-toppers Scunthorpe United at a juncture when the Iron looked as imperious as their nickname made them out to be. Even so, it wasn’t enough for Robinson to keep his job and he was dismissed with the club deep in the relegation zone doldrums.
John Sheridan was tempted back for a third permanent spell as manager at Boundary Park and almost immediately, what became known as the ‘Shezzarection’ was in gear. A very positive late winter period with victories earned against divisional rivals nearby in the standings catapulted them out of the bottom four. Many a 0-0 or 1-1 scoreline was ground out in 2017 with the back five (including Connor Ripley) utterly colossal against much more fancied and dangerous opponents. Safety was assured with a few games to spare and the Latics’ fans could look forward to League One football for the 21st consecutive campaign.
Top Goalscorer: Lee Erwin (8 goals in 25 starts/2,210 minutes)
Top Creator: Aaron Amadi-Holloway (4 assists in 14 starts/1,147 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: John Sheridan; an icon in Oldham. An excellent player in his day (and capped by the Republic of Ireland, most memorably at the 1994 World Cup), the last six years of his career on the pitch were spent at Boundary Park, which took in two stints as either sole or co-caretaker in charge of the first team. Led the Latics to the play-offs in his first full season in charge and just outside the top six in the following season. Departed in March 2009 after a succession of poor results.
In between his first and second spells in south-east Lancashire, he led Chesterfield to the League Two title in 2010/2011 and the EFL Trophy in 2011/2012 (although the Spierites slipped back into the fourth tier), Plymouth to the play-offs in 2014/2015 and latterly a short period in charge of Newport County. He took the reins at Oldham once again in January 2016, saving them from relegation… only to join Notts County early in the close season. He endured a disastrous time at Meadow Lane, which ended after a foul-mouthed tirade came to light after the last defeat in a sequence of nine.
Remarkably, he was in situ at Oldham just 10 days later and tasked with one simple goal: save the club from relegation – again. That he achieved this without a final day nail-biter is testament to getting the most of a limited squad and motivating them in such a way as to push what was possible from each individual but moreover the team itself.
Ins: Dan Gardner (Chesterfield), Craig Davies (Scunthorpe United), Courtney Duffus (Everton U23s) & Rob Hunt (Brighton & Hove Albion).
Outs: Charles Dunne (Motherwell), Josh Law (York City), Lee Croft (free agent), Michael Ngoo (free agent) & Jamie Reckord (free agent).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: The strategy Sheridan employs is quite well-worn by this juncture but it’s still devised and implemented as it quite simply works for the most part. The centre back pairing of Anthony Gerrard and Peter Clarke are akin to twin colossi and will sit deeper than any other in League One for almost every game. It helps diminish the lack of raw pace and speed on the turn the duo have and that is their only real combined weakness.
Oldham have a plethora of right-backs on the books but no senior specialist on the other flank, so expect neither Chris Kettings in goal nor Rob Hunt to be on the teamsheet on Saturday if things go to plan for Sheridan. On the right, Ryan McLaughlin is well-regarded at the club. Despite his lack of height, he can jump quite well and will rove up the flank to support Ryan Flynn on the overlap and provide crosses. He’s likely to be on set piece duties once more.
Another imposing figure in the XI is that of Ousmane Fané, who takes no prisoners. He stands tall, covers the not-inconsiderate gap in front of the centre backs with aplomb and can run towards either goalmouth all match long. Ollie Banks can comfortably perform any role in the middle and with Fané behind him, he will look to receive the ball from his Malian teammate and play reliably accurate balls to the front two.
Out wide, Tope Obadeyi could continue the mini-revival his career has undergone since donning the blue and red. His pace and athleticism have never been in question but it has been a case of trying to marry those to a more defined end product, which he has started to do. He will endeavour to keep the opposing full-back and nearest centre-back occupied, dragging the latter out of position with his agility and dribbling skills. Ryan Flynn will be slightly less direct but he’s no slouch either, adding a defensive dimension to his game and a remarkable ability to stay on his feet and maintain composure on the ball.
The underrated Aaron Amadi-Holloway will use his versatility to link up with the midfield and either Craig Davies or Courtney Duffus. Whilst no blisteringly quick, he has a knack of getting into good positions both horizontally and vertically on the pitch, which makes it difficult for his opposing number to keep close tabs on him. Being close to Davies will be essential to get the most out of the latter. It’s been a lean time for the former Scunthorpe target man but he still possesses all the traits required of the role and might relish being the focal point of the side. Additionally, he has a good record when taking penalties and can still oversee direct free-kicks if required.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Safe but sorry. At the time of writing, Oldham are still chasing at least goalkeeper and a left-back. They will be hard-pressed to get anyone better than Connor Ripley as their #1, who was the outstanding shot-stopper in League One last term. Even without those additions, the greater confidence that everyone connected with the club has about 2017/2018 should be reflected in how they fare. Whilst unlikely to be quite so frugal in defence this time out, their pathetic goals haul should be overtaken with months to spare – Davies and Duffus will chip in more reliably than their predecessors. They will get in the faces once more of teams with more skillful individuals and upset many apple-carts. A mid-table finish or perhaps even higher is not outside the realms of possibility.
Best Blog or Account to Follow: Bristol Rovers Supporters Club are a treasure trove for Pirates fans (try to contain your laughter at the back!)and there is an infrequently updated but nevertheless decent blog on their pages.
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League One - 10th; W 18 / D 12 / L 16 / F 68 / A 70 / Pts 66
A third straight season of massive progress for the blue and white half of Bristol, capping off two successive promotions with a very creditable top-half finish in the third tier and only several points from the final play-off place. Darrell Clarke’s squad, many of whom had played a starring role in their first promotion, adjusted to life in League One reasonably quickly, with a pretty even record by the time autumn was creeping in. Although they were racking up no shortage of goals of their own, the number of heavy reverses they suffered was cause for some concern. Ironically, the controversial sale of top goalscorer Matt Taylor to their city rivals brought about a change of fortunes in defence, with the rearguard action much more disciplined and tight in February during their sequence of six draws on the spin. The side coped well without their main goal threat and didn’t really drop off in terms of output, thanks chiefly to Billy Bodin weighing in heavily from out wide. Seven wins from the last 11 matches enabled them to rank highly in the standings, although the floodgates at the back seemed to creek open once more.
Top Goalscorer: Matt Taylor (16 goals in 23 starts/2,098 minutes)
Top Creator: Chris Lines (7 assists in 40 starts/3,709 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Darrell Clarke; one of the highest rated managers outside the Premier League in the English game and for good reason: back-to-back promotions, a subsequent top-10 finish and a positive, attacking mentality to go alongside it (even when his side are a player short) will make boardrooms higher up the pyramid sit up and take notice. Despite the success of recent times, he still comes across as a patient manager and is unlikely to make waves in the transfer market if all isn’t going to plan as long as the standards he upholds are reflected in the performances (if not results) from his charges.
Ins: Liam Sercombe (Oxford United), Adam Smith (Northampton Town), Sam Slocombe (Blackpool), Tom Nichols (Peterborough United), Rollin Menayese (Weston-Super-Mare) & Marc Bola (Arsenal U23s on loan).
Outs: Jamie Lucas(Bath City), Cristian Montaño (Port Vale), Jake Gosling (Torquay United), Peter Hartley (Blackpool), Bob Harris (free agent), Dominic Thomas (free agent), Will Puddy (free agent), Jermaine Easter (free agent), Lee Mansell (retired), Danny Greensdale (free agent) & Steve Mildenhall (retired).
Lee Brown is probably more at home as a wing-back but is no stranger to tracking the runner in behind his own position. He will look to bomb forwards, especially if Bodin is operating on the opposite flank in order to provide more balanced width and can also assume free-kick taking duty.
The midfield five, Bodin aside, operate quite narrowly with its obvious advantages and disadvantages. They can overwhelm the opposition in the middle by keeping one or two men free for a quick pass, hunt down the player in possession in a pack or push up and down the pitch as a unit to offer support to both attack and defence. The excellently hirsute Stuart Sinclair can break out into wider areas to help Partington or to provide a different angle for a cross or pull-back to the edge of the box for an advancing teammate to latch onto.
None of the narrow four are specialists in sitting deeply but have a good all-round set of attributes. Ollie Clarke and Liam Sercombe will drive forward with and without the ball; Chris Lines’ range of passing will help the Pirates dictate the tempo and retain possession more often than not. There are plenty of effective long-range shooters in the XI if the route to the striker(s) are cut off. Bodin can swap sides and cut in, providing a direct option towards the 18-yard line and someone to bounce off the main forward.
Elliott Harrison or Tom Nichols (or indeed both) will lead the charge up top with good options bubbling under the starting lineup. Harrison has plenty of pace and will try to beat the offside trip when played in by his teammates. His low centre of gravity is a good asset in tight spaces to make the most of the chances that come his way. Nichols operates similarly but is more easily barged off the ball, so he might be a good substitute to call upon when the opposition defence starts to tire.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Comfortably mid-table.There would be no shame whatsoever in a similar campaign in 2017/2018. New sides have joined the league that look on paper to have stronger squads overall, which in theory could push Bristol Rovers down the table substantially. However, they have an astute manager in Darrell Clarke and he will know that there is still a bit more work to be done in both boxes to make an assault on the top six a realistic notion. That ship may not sail until the subsequent season. If the young defence can keep things tight whilst knotting themselves together into a cohesive, well-drilled unit, then it augurs well and is likely to mean they will concede substantially fewer than last year.
Best Blog or Account to Follow: Holly Hunt on Twitter is a Millers fan with a good understanding of the club and the malaise that has surrounded it. She works as a media officer for Worksop Town and has a keen interest in the non-league as a whole.
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
Championship - 24th; W 5 / D 8 / L 33 / F 40 / A 98 / Pts 23
An unmitigated, howling shambles, with the South Yorkshire outfit ‘boasting’ the worst post-war record in the second tier with an avalanche of goals conceded at a rate of greater than two per game. Alan Stubbs came with an impressive record north of the border at Hibernian but wasn’t able to translate that into early results, losing 10 of the first 14 matches and was relieved of his duties. His successor Kenny Jackett relieved himself (so to speak) just a month into the post and he failed to achieve victory in any of the five league games he was in charge for and you had the sense that things off the pitch were little better than the disasters on it.
Paul Warne then assumed control on an interim basis but was powerless to turn the tide in any meaningful sense and long, long spells without a win and precisely zero on the road. Any Millers supporter who was (un)lucky enough to travel to every away league game would’ve seen their side not lose only twice. Relegation was confirmed in early April but in truth, the rot had set in much earlier and a summer of ringing the changes at the club has occurred.
Top Goalscorer: Danny Ward (10 goals in 40 starts/3,468 minutes)
Top Creator: Izzy Brown (5 assists in 17 starts/1,492 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Paul Warne; an icon as a player during two stints for Rotherham, he was a self-confessed reluctant choice for interim manager. Backed by the board at the New York Stadium immediately following demotion to do the job on a permanent basis, he is a passionate person and his love for the club is obvious for everyone to see and gets involved more than most other figureheads would at third tier level with everyday life. A modicum of greater self-belief is required to ensure that the staff and players under him have faith in his abilities.
Ins: Darren Potter (MK Dons),Michael Ihiekwe (Tranmere Rovers), Ryan Williams (Barnsley), David Ball (Fleetwood Town), Semi Ajayi (Cardiff City), Kieffer Moore (Ipswich Town on loan), Alex Bray (Swansea City U23s), Jamie Proctor (Bolton Wanderers) & Josh Emmanuel (Ipswich Town on loan).
Outs: Danny Ward(Cardiff City), Richard Smallwood (Blackburn Rovers), Kirk Broadfoot (Kilmarnock), Lee Camp (Cardiff City), Dexter Blackstock (free agent), Darnell Fisher (Preston North End), Stephen Kelly (free agent), Chris Dawson (free agent), Joel Ekstrand (free agent), Tom Thorpe (free agent) & Kelvin Wilson (free agent).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: The signing of target man Kieffer Moore on loan should be taken as an indicator of Warne’s main strategy but in truth, he is likely to mix it up to keep the opposition guessing. Left-back Joe Mattock will probably play a little further back than Josh Emmanuel on the right flank; the former is a good crosser of the ball from deep positions and that’s as further forward as he’s likely to go in normal situations. Emmanuel can operate just as effectively on the left, which is unusual for a full-back and a big asset to the Millers. His build is also markedly different to many of his peers and that stands him in excellent stead when shielding the ball from a forward to relieve pressure on his teammates or to win it back in advanced areas.
Similarly, Semi Ajayi has lots of pace in the right-sided centre back role and will help to cover for his compatriot if he is caught upfield and can bully forwards into losing possession with his brute strength. He’ll be partnered by another young defender in the shape of Michael Ihiekwe, who, whilst lacking the raw physicality of Ajayi, will be able to put his foot on the ball to initiate a change of transition, both long to the strikers and short to Mattock or Darren Potter.
Speaking of Potter, he has the vision required of a defensive midfielder to make himself useful in a multitude of ways. Primarily, he will disrupt the runs of opposing attacking midfielders but is also adept at creating chances of his own and will be tasked with carrying the ball into the other half of the pitch. Captain Lee Frecklington can perform well almost anywhere in the middle and even out wide on occasion and will look to be a heavy influence on the tempo of the match. His tireless and selfless running will bring others into the action and he can hit rasping drives from distance should a more direct approach prove ineffective.
Much like the person behind him, Jon Taylor can swap wings to give his marker a hard task; not only that, he’s also one of the quickest and most agile players in the entire EFL, backing it up with close technical dribbling skills, the occasional bout of showboating and acrobatics with the ball. On the left, Joe Newell’s long throw-ins could be a difference maker and he is effective from corners with the amount of swerve he can get on them.
David Ball will link the midfield and attack with no shortage of aplomb and is the key man in an outfield position in this setup. Moore will offer a moving target for diagonal balls but he is also adept if the crosses are at waist height with his propensity (and confidence) when volleying the ball with his first touch.
David Ball had an impressive goal tally for high-flyers Fleetwood Town in 2016/2017; he represents just one of several decent options in the forward line for the Millers and they are sure to utilise him dropping vertically into space to pull the centre backs out of place
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Safe but sorry.I’ll put the caveat in now that this prediction is by the far the one I am least certain of. I’ve seen other pundits marking the South Yorkshire club down as relegation certs… whilst some of their ardent supporters think an immediate return is probable. I think both groups are wide of the mark. There are enough good acquisitions (coupled with a necessary churn of a lot of high earners from the squad), especially Ball, to suggest that 2018/2019 will see them once more lining up in League One. The main issue hanging over them doesn’t lie with any of the players but rather the current incumbent in the dugout. Will Warne gain the confidence to think he’s much more than a ‘fraud’ as he himself has put? A dressing room needs to have some synchronicity with the person in charge of it in order for it to operate at somewhere close to its best. If he believes himself to be a loser, who could then blame his roster for thinking the same of him and each other? The opportunity is there to banish the detritus of last season’s campaign and make a good go of it.
Best Blog or Account to Follow: This is a tricky one for me. There are plenty of good accounts out there that I’m aware of but no active blogs as such other than my own. gigglane.com is however an excellent forum and not just because I post there!
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League One - 19th; W 13 / D 11 / L 22 / F 61 / A 73 / Pts 50
I’ve summed it previously on my blog but here is the condensed version: another summer of churn under previous manager David Flitcroft to improve on the Shakers’ 14th 16th-placed finish got off to an excellent start with an unexpected opening day win over recently relegated Charlton Athletic and continued in a similar way until the end of September, with late summer signing James Vaughan’s pairing with Tom Pope up top instrumental. A closely-fought table-topping clash against Scunthorpe United at Gigg Lane went the way of the visitors and things quickly spiralled out of control with 12 straight league defeats, the worst run in the club’s history. Flitcroft was dismissed after an utterly shambolic thrashing to AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup, only for the same side to dish out another five-goal blitz in the league in the same week.
Under caretaker head coach Chris Brass, there was a very gradual improvement. Grit and determination not seen whatsoever in October and November slowly came back to the XI, as well as the introduction of several U18s into proceedings. The slide was eventually arrested with a shellacking of Bury’s own at the expense of Peterborough United in January, by which time it had been nearly four months since the Lancashire outfit had tasted victory.
Lee Clark was appointed in February and the best bit of form after the early stages coincided with his stewardship, largely keeping the 5-3-2 shape Brass had adopted in a bid to stop an alarming number of goals being conceded. Whilst it was successful in rescuing the men in white and royal blue from the relegation zone, it came at the expense of some attacking impetus and it quickly became apparent that if Vaughan or young supersub George Miller didn’t score, no-one could be relied upon to do so in their stead in a roster decimated by injuries all year long. A barren spell, coupled with rivals’ improvements, hauled Bury right back into danger. On the final day, despite a limp display against Southend United, the 50 point mark proved sufficient to retain third tier status for at least another season.
In the close season, the churn began anew.
Top Goalscorer: James Vaughan (24 goals in 36 starts/3,068 minutes)
Top Creator: Tom Pope (7 assists in 33 starts/2,554 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Lee Clark; a successful playing career at the highest level, most notably for Newcastle United, segued into a coaching role after injury forced him to take the decision to retire. To date, his time in the dugout has been a mixed bag; in his first role with Huddersfield Town, he set a 43-game unbeaten record stretching over the course of two seasons but still couldn’t quite guide the Terriers out of League One, losing in the play-offs twice in a row. He was then sacked in February 2012 despite his side lying in fourth position.
He was made Birmingham City boss in June of that year but under severe budgetary restraints, coupled with a penchant for chopping and changing personnel, meant that the final standing of 12th in the 2012/2013 campaign was as good as it got for him at St. Andrew’s and it took a Paul Caddis equaliser deep in injury time on the final day of the subsequent season to prevent the Blues from embarrassingly slipping into the third tier. A woeful start saw him dismissed in October and he unwisely took the reins at then-Championship Blackpool just 10 days later, with the Tangerine Army in utter turmoil (he documents life at Bloomfield Road quite vividly in his ghost-written autobiography).
Suffice it to say, his time on the Fylde coast didn’t go swimmingly and the club were relegated, at which point Clark tendered his resignation. He took some time before applying for his next post, which was at SPFL side Kilmarnock. His remit in 2015/2016 was to keep them in the top tier and this was achieved following a relegation play-off aggregate victory over Falkirk. With further significant transfer activity in both the summer and winter transfer windows, the dyed-in-the-wool Geordie was offered the job at Bury with Killie in 6th place, which had been the side’s minimum target. It says something about the current system in Scotland that it was considered a sideways rather than downward step by most commentators.
An honest, somewhat emotional individual, Clark has won over the vast majority of the Shakers faithful with straight-talking interviews and significantly overhauling the roster, as well as making some notable signings as evidenced by the long list of names below. He demands high levels of commitment and fitness from his players and is far from afraid of blooding youngsters, frequently stating that ‘age is no barrier’ when it comes to being his plans for the senior team.
Outs: James Vaughan (Sunderland), Tom Pope (Port Vale), Antony Kay (Port Vale), Kelvin Etuhu (Carlisle United), Rob Lainton (Port Vale), Jack Mackreth (Wrexham), Anthony Dudley (Salford), Scott Burgess (Macclesfield Town on loan), Jacob Mellis (Mansfield Town), Paul Caddis (Blackburn Rovers), Reece Brown (Rochdale), Hallam Hope (Carlisle United), Leon Barnett (Northampton Town), Ben Williams (Blackpool), George Miller (Middlesbrough U23s), Ishmael Miller (free agent), Niall Maher (free agent), Paul Rachubka (free agent), Jermaine Pennant (free agent) & Chris Brown (free agent).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Joe Murphy is a constantly communicating custodian and will be able to relax in the knowledge that the back four (as it will usually be) in front of him are all well-versed in the ‘art’ of defending and experienced to boot. His distribution will help the Shakers retain the ball more often than they would with most other goalkeepers in League One and his penchant for sweeping up any loose balls lofted over the defence will help win their trust quickly.
Joe Skarz and Phil Edwards are unlikely to push on too much from full-back; their conservatism is in contrast to the other options but both Greg Leigh and Craig Jones are more than capable of taking their places if called upon but the strategy would need to be adjusted accordingly. Skarz’ defensive positioning will be particularly key as there are no senior centre backs who are naturally left-sided. Adam Thompson is the closest reliably fit approximation and he will probably adopt a covering role to plug any gaps between him and Tom Aldred. The former Tangerines captain will remain fairly static going forward and will be the last line of defence between an attacker and Murphy.
Stephen Dawson’s box-to-box stylings are the foundations on which Clark’s high-tempo, high-pressing 4-4-2 will be built upon. The years since his first period at the club have seen him hone it down to a fine art and maintaining the high level of ground he will cover throughout the entire match is obligatory to ensure the front and back fours are not completely cut off from each other. Who will line up alongside him is anyone’s guess at this stage. Fellow new signing Callum Reilly is left-footed and has experience of a similar role in the colours of Coventry City in 2016/2017, but he needs to work on his concentration to make the ultra-disciplined spot his own.
Callum Styles is another option but of a completely different playstyle to Reilly or Dawson. Still only 17 years of age, his emergence last term into the first XI was a breath of fresh air and often left supporters on their feet with his playmaking, skill, ‘showing’ for the ball and willingness to drive forwards with it. He is quite slight in build but has been working on that over the summer in order to have more presence when both on the ball in tight areas and to win it back. Again, he is left-footed and would provide balance in that sense but is perhaps utilised most effectively directly (and closely) behind the front two, which I will cover in a future blog as to how I would set out the team if I were somehow the manager.
Tsun Dai has just turned 18 and, like Styles, big things are expected of him in the future… and, like Styles, he has the ability to produce today. His pre-season has probably been the best and easily the most notable of anyone in a Bury shirt. He is comfortable anywhere centrally in midfield and has made numerous appearances for the youth team on the right flank of a front three, underlining once more the options Clark has at his disposal across the park. There is currently no reason to disbelieve that his name could be on the team sheet for the first league match of the season as he has enough attributes in each role to make his inclusion undergo serious consideration.
The new wide players will offer a dimension not witnessed at Gigg Lane for years, at least on paper. The persistent injury problems Danny Mayor has are less of a concern than has ever previously been the case during his time at the club. Jay O’Shea or Chris Maguire will take his place but the way they play is markedly different to him and to each other.
The similarities with O’Shea begin and end with cutting inside on the right foot. The former Chesterfield talisman is much more involved in the transitions and superior at pressing the opposition. He is also likelier to try something unexpected and make darting off-the-ball runs into the area.
On the opposite wing, time will tell if Zeli Ismail is back to full fitness and his brilliant best. He will try to beat the offside trap and run around or in between the opposing full-back and nearest central defender, dribbling on his left foot to make it that bit more difficult to take the ball off him. Low crosses from the byline are his hallmark and there should be plenty of movement in the box to make the most of the chances he creates.
The aforementioned Maguire or Nicky Ajose, in BL9 for a third separate spell, will partner Jermaine Beckford in attack. Ajose is likely to stay further apart from the ex-Leeds hit and than James Vaughan would’ve done. The Charlton loanee likes to work the channel and can set up opportunities for his partner in a way Vaughan didn’t really do.
Beckford still has the pace, strength and ability he always has possessed and must be glad that the options around him are quite varied. He is good in the air and it will be interesting to see how much his strength is utilised, as well as through balls in behind for him to latch onto.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Play-off chasers. Make no mistake, it will be a struggle to achieve the stated aim of promotion. The turnover in the squad will almost certainly mean that the start to the campaign is slow and there are still one or two areas of concern in the squad. Eoghan O’Connell is sidelined for 10 weeks already and Nathan Cameron is by no means out of the woods regarding his own physical health. They represent the current backup to the centre back pairing and although Skarz can cover in that area, it’s not ideal when he’s first choice left-back. U18 scholar Saul Shotton may be called upon earlier than Clark would have originally envisaged.
There is also no competition for Murphy between the sticks, with the manager biding his time to find someone who can offer a serious alternative to the Irish veteran. Time is running out with only eight days to sign and register the right player.
The alternatives up front are mostly untried and untested. Chris Sang looks bright and a link player between midfield and attack but has no experience of senior football. Target man Tom Heardman is not dissimilar in that regard, so the scant gametime they do get in the first few months must be grabbed with both hands.
Clark has a well-earned reputation for churning personnel and given the money already spent this summer, must now focus on developing the people already present when the second goalkeeper arrives. He needs to prove that he has the same tactical flexibility his squad does, especially in attacking areas. There are very promising youth players coming through the ranks and the hope is he is as good as his word when utilising them whilst also being patient with their more senior teammates if things aren’t going as well as expected.
A late surge to the play-off places is not an unrealistic possibility for the Shakers. There are however many other clubs whose management are thinking exactly the same in an open field. Bury must reverse many of the negatives from last season to reach and stay in the top six, not least of which is closing games out when in the lead against fancied opposition. That’s where game management and Dawson, as well as other leaders in the locker room, will come to the forefront. At the very least, 2017/2018 should see a great leap forward from the lowly position of 19th.
Best Blog or Account to Follow: The aptly named Iron-Bru is an independent site with its own blog, forum and popular predictions league.
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League One - 3rd; W 24 / D 10 / L 12 / F 80 / A 54 / Pts 82
(Lost in the play-off semi-final)
Beyond expectations, even if an excellent campaign ultimately ended in play-off failure. A solitary defeat in the first 14 matches, coupled with some swashbuckling performances backed up by a steady defence, had the Iron in a shock lead at the summit of the table. Goals and victories continued to be plentiful supply up until the end of January with only the occasional loss. The considerable momentum Graham Alexander’s side had built up came to a shuddering halt soon afterwards; a yield of three draws from nine matches found the north Lincolnshire outfit listing badly and at one time, it even seemed as though they would fall out of the top six. Their fortunes turned around in mid-March but despite triumphing over second-placed Bolton Wanderers in the closing stages of the season, they finished four points below the Trotters.
A stalemate in the first leg of the play-offs at The Den was a good result on the face of it. However, Millwall (uncharacteristically for 2016/2017) put in an impressive away performance, coming back from a 1-0 deficit to notch three times in a 15-minute spell. Scunthorpe clawed a goal back but it wasn’t sufficient to force the tie into extra time, thus resigning them to another season in League One… but there can be little doubt that progress had been made.
Top Goalscorer: Josh Morris (19 goals in 46 starts/4,067 minutes)
Top Creator: Josh Morris (15 assists in 46 starts/4,067 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Graham Alexander; racked up three-figure appearances in the four clubs he played at in a long career, starting as a professional in 1990 and only hanging up his boots in 2012. Initially appointed as head of youth development at Preston North End, he was headhunted by Fleetwood Town just several months later to be their manager. He guided the Lancashire club to promotion in his first full season and they finished their maiden term at their highest ever level in a very respectable 10th place. Perhaps harshly sacked by The Trawlermen in September 2015 after both a poor start and a significant cut to the playing budget, Alexander found himself back in the dugout in March of the following year at Glanford Park. Missing out on sixth spot on goal difference alone after a late charge up the standings, he went one better as described above. A methodical manager, he is unlikely to panic if things go wrong and he believes in the players’ ability to turn things around and balance defensive and attacking priorities, which was evident for the vast majority of 2016/2017.
Ins: Funso Ojo (Willem II), Rory McArdle (Bradford City), Matt Gilks (Wigan Athletic) & Cameron Burgess (Fulham).
Outs: Scott Wiseman (Chesterfield), Stephen Dawson (Bury), Craig Davies (Oldham Athletic), Jamie Ness (Plymouth Argyle), Joe Anyon (Chesterfield), Scott Laird (Forest Green Rovers), David Mirfin (Mansfield Town), Luke Daniels (Brentford) & Dominic Vose (free agent).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Goalkeeper Matt Gilks is adept at commanding his area and ensuring that the backline are coherent as a unit and is a reassuring presence between the sticks. The further additions of Cameron Burgess and Rory McArdle to the roster points strongly towards a three-man defence and that has been a feature of pre-season thus far; the former played every single match of his loan spell at Bury in 2016/2017 as the left-sided centre back, often stepping out to provide cover for the wing-back. His physicality and sheer power will be a nightmare for opposing forwards and not just in air war. McArdle brings with him a wealth of experience and is similarly dominant when defending high balls into the box. Murray Wallace is the sort of player most fans love in their side: a real backs-to-the-wall, keep the ball out of the goal at all costs pro. He has a propensity for making accurate last-ditch tackles and will probably take over the captain’s armband from the departed Stephen Dawson.
The advanced wing-back pairing of Conor Townsend and Jordan Clarke complement each other well in terms of their attributes. Whilst down the left flank, Townsend isn’t as blisteringly quick as his teammate, his diagonal balls are more accurate. On the other side, Clarke has plenty of stamina and is at his best defensively when tracking back to cut off a searching ball down the wing.
In the middle, the continuing doubts over Sam Mantom’s fitness have led in part to the acquisition of Funso Ojo, who has previously lined up alongside Kevin van Veen. Ojo can cover a lot of ground from his ‘anchor man’ position, breaking down attacks and recycling possession to the plethora of options around him. Neal Bishop will be his help in midfield and although he is 36 in two weeks’ time, he isn’t showing many signs of slowing down and on form, he is a match for most other players in his role. He will provide the link between the wing-backs, Ojo and the front three.
Speaking of the front three, there is little reason for Alexander to alter Josh Morris’ responsibilities on the field, especially Scunthorpe employ a variant of 3-4-3 (although he could easily play on the right). He is excellent from dead balls, accurate when shooting both outside and in the penalty area but most impressively of all, he’s always looking to be involved and be an outlet for his teammates, so don’t be surprised if he drifts from his nominal starting position to find pockets of space.
To the right of Paddy Madden, Scunthorpe have several decent options to choose from; Hakeeb Adelakun could get the nod in the early stages of the league season and is starting to show his potential. He is quick, direct, good on the dribble and is bound to continue learning from both the coaching staff and his more ‘seasoned’ teammates. Madden spent a big chunk of last season on the sidelines, but still managed a goal tally of double figures. A tireless worker, he is characterised by his expert finishing, movement and willingness to keep going; he is rarely substituted because he’s tired in spite of putting himself about for his side.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Play-off chasers.Whilst several of the departures from Glanford Park over the close season have been disappointing for Alexander and the supporters, the incoming players look an improvement on previous defensive-minded players in similar roles. The major weakness not yet addressed is the lack of depth in the middle of the park. Ojo could strike up a rapport with Bishop quickly but after Mantom, options are worryingly thin on the ground if anything happens to either of them. There is still plenty of time to address this issue but it currently prevents me from placing them in the ‘gunning for automatic promotion’ category. They have a sensible manager, arguably now the best back three in the entire division, plenty of width, creativity and goals in the squad. In a more competitive and equal League One in 2017/2018, they have every chance of a third decent stab at the top six come May, especially with Morris looking like he’s staying for at least another season.
Best Blog or Account to Follow: Bescot Banter is an all-singing, all-dancing independent site for fans of the West Midlands club. It really is an impressive site that has grown from ‘one man and his blog’ in 2010 to the behemoth it is today.
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League One - 14th; W 14 / D 16 / L 16 / F 51 / A 58 / Pts 58
The very epitome of a mixed bag. The Saddlers weren’t really able to ever put a run of form together throughout the campaign but did more than enough here and there to never be threatened by the drop zone. Indeed, things were a fair bit brighter than that in March and they were amongst the outside bets for a play-off berth. However, a single win in their final 10 matches put paid to any pretense of battling it out beyond the first weekend in May – goals, which weren’t abundant in the first instance, dried up badly.
Top Goalscorer: Erhun Oztumer (15 goals in 34 starts/2,941 minutes)
Top Creator: Joe Edwards (6 assists in 43 starts/3,755 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Jon Whitney; an unremarkable playing career in the lower league doldrums notwithstanding, he has always maintained an interest in the sports science angle of the game, having previously been a sports therapist and also physio, the latter of which was also at Walsall. Eventually, he found himself promoted up the coaching ranks. Losing out in the play-offs in 2015/2016 when appointed caretaker, a first full season at the helm ended in mid-table mediocrity and with a sizeable chunk calling for his dismissal after things turned sour. A man-manager first and foremost, he’ll be looking to mold the very young squad to his ideas and in that sense, he has an advantage. However, the pressure will be present from the outset from Saddlers supporters to deliver.
Ins: Nicky Devlin (Ayr United), Mark Gillespie (Carlisle United), Jon Guthrie (Crewe Alexandra), Luke Leahy (Falkirk) & James Wilson (Sheffield United on loan).
Outs: Andreas Makris (APOEL Nicosia), Neil Etheridge (Cardiff City), Craig MacGillivray (Shrewsbury Town), Theo Vassell (Gateshead), Franck Moussa (free agent) & Isaiah Osbourne (free agent).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: There are two main shapes that Whitney is likely to try out: 4-4-2 with Erhun Oztumer in a withdrawn role behind the main striker and the more enterprising 3-5-2, with a balance between solidity and endeavour. I’ve gone with the latter as the four signings to date suggest attacking wing-backs will be deployed more often than not. James Wilson will provide leadership whilst on loan from Sheffield United and Kory Roberts could feature alongside him after impressive cameos for the Saddlers in 2016/2017. Luke Leahy and Nicky Devlin will provide the width and crosses for Amadou Bakayoko (or Simeon Jackson, should he get the nod).
Adam Chambers’ versatility will see him drift into the channels to shut off any space behind the midfield and wing-backs on the counter. Joe Edwards will mostly do the same but with the added job of supplying the more adventurous Florent Cuvelier. The Belgian’s ability to burst forward and pull centre backs out of position will be key to allowing the diminutive Oztumer to conjure up his significant magic. ‘The Turkish Messi’ possesses sublime skill, passing and shooting range. Staying close to Bakayoko and Cuvelier for knockdowns and unlocking space respectively is what will make this system tick. The Sierra Leonean target man is no slouch himself, with the pace and movement to get between the centre backs if an offside trap is sprung and the movement to be in front of them when anticipating diagonal balls.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Circling the relegation drain.The frustration in the West Midlands is growing at the lack of transfer activity with regards to anywhere but in goal or defence. Even Oztumer’s outstanding return from mainly being utilised in the shadow striker role cannot prop up the men in red and black this time around with competition much more fierce and unforgiving. Bakayoko should add a decent number but there is little to suggest the overall tally will increase; in truth, the roster looks weaker in every area save the forward line, which is what needs most attention in any case. The budget is tight in order to keep finances healthy but the degree of conservatism might just be too much for anything but a campaign scrapping for every point and goal. The younger players have to show they are ready if more senior recruits aren’t forthcoming.
Best Blog or Account to Follow: The simply titled Blackpool FC Blog is actually an in-depth look at the club with a focus on attendances and how much they’ve plumetted in recent years.
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League Two - 7th; W 18 / D 16 / L 12 / F 69 / A 46 / Pts 70
(Won in the play-off final)
The Tangerine Army had been in freefall in many more ways than one prior to Gary Bowyer’s arrival as manager at Bloomfield Road. With continuing problems off-the-pitch, the effects of which bleed profusely onto it, expectations were pretty low for their first jaunt in the fourth tier in 15 years. A mixed couple of early months in 2016/2017 gave way to a fine run leading up to Christmas, with the coastal club hovering just outside the play-off positions. A barren winter spell had threatened to undo a lot of the good work, but as the weather was beginning to warm up once more, the ‘Pool turned it on. The final day of the regular season had them occupying seventh place and despite an almighty scramble beneath them, they held onto it.
What followed were two thrilling, topsy-turvy encounters with Luton Town, the aggregate score of 6-5 being an accurate reflection of both the excitement and the openness of the contests. With many of the Seasiders fanbase understandably continuing to boycott, the final at Wembley against Exeter City was played out in front of a very poor crowd. However, Blackpool maintained their excellent play-off record, winning the competition for an unprecedented fifth time in total.
Top Goalscorer: Mark Cullen (13 goals in 20 starts/1,773 minutes)
Top Creator: Brad Potts (7 assists in 45 starts/3,865 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Gary Bowyer; one look at his CV tells you that he isn’t exactly a person to take on easy roles, having been Blackburn Rovers boss three times in one form or another. Arguably, life on the Fylde coast is even harder than further east in Lancashire. Anyone who can work under the Venky’s and the Oyston régimes and make a decent fist of it is to be applauded. His arrival at Blackpool massively helped a disparate looking playing staff mesh into a cohesive unit with no shortage of endeavour and team spirit on display, especially when the pressure increased in the League Two run-in. He has been candid about wage demands pricing his side out of a lot of signings but how much of that is also affected by the justified reluctance to play under the current ownership is up for debate.
Ins: Christoffer Mafoumbi (Free State Stars), Sean Longstaff (Newcastle United U23s on loan), Jimmy Ryan (Fleetwood Town), Callum Cooke (Middlesbrough U23s on loan), Curtis Tilt (Wrexham), Max Clayton (Bolton Wanderers), Ryan Allsop (Bournemouth on loan), Ollie Turton (Crewe Alexandra), Peter Hartley (Bristol Rovers), Nick Anderton (Barrow) & Ben Williams (Bury).
Outs: Tom Aldred (Bury), Henry Cameron (Limerick), Jack Redshaw (Salford), Sam Slocombe (Bristol Rovers), Luke Higham (Fleetwood Town), Jack Payne (Ebbsfleet United), Eddie Nolan (Crewe Alexandra), Macauley Wilson (free agent), Dean Lyness (free agent), John Herron (free agent), Ian Black (free agent) & Raúl Correira (Guiseley on loan).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Ben Williams operates best when he has a consistent back four ahead of him but whether that will occur is questionable; on the face of it, the defence could easily switch to a central three, with captain Andy Taylor and Kelvin Mellor pushed up the pitch a little. The duo is relatively conservative and a lot of the emphasis whilst the opposition have possession will be closing off the gaps in between the centre backs and down the flanks, regardless of formation.
Jimmy Ryan is more of a deep-lying playmaker than anchor man but should still be an effective pivot to distribute the ball to Brad Potts or look for an advancing full back overlapping his own position. If Bowyer decides to deploy wingers for the majority of matches in League One, it could afford Bright Osayi-Samuel more starts. The promising Nigerian has electric pace and a willingness to take the ball forward at any given opportunity. On the other flank, Nathan Delfouneso tends to be a little bit more narrow, so his runs should be more directly supportive of the striking partnership.
Max Clayton is adept with both feet and his link-up abilities will be key to keeping Cullen in the game as much as possible. His compatriot is deceptively good in the air and a real ‘nuisance player’ who requires constant close attention.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Circling the relegation drain.Bowyer himself has admitted that it could take ‘half a season’ for his charges to adjust to life in the third tier. The churn of personnel already is very high and it makes it that much more difficult to get off to a good start. I don’t think the ‘Pool will be short of goals and I expect quite an even distribution amongst their litany of strikers. In defence, losing the leadership skills of someone like Tom Aldred is a blow and the remaining centre backs must step up to the plate. The Tangerine Army cannot expect to take as many games by the scruff of the neck as they did in League Two and whilst the coaching staff and players still enjoy the fans’ support, whether they’re present at games or not, it’s hard to foresee a campaign free from strife on or off the field. Bowyer will do the best with the lot he has been given but it’s not out of the realms of probability that a swift return to the basement division could be on the cards.
Best Blog or Account to Follow: Into the Empty Net is a well-presented, comprehensive blog and is regularly updated.
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League Two - 3rd; W 25 / D 10 / L 11 / F 85 / A 55 / Pts 85
Recent history has seen Donny move divisions five times in the last six seasons. The board retained the services of manager Darren Ferguson following relegation to League Two. Last term was pockmarked with winning streaks of four matches and the free-scoring South Yorkshire outfit racked up handsome margins in a lot of these. The only poor spell of form they truly experienced came at the tail-end of the campaign when, having been at the summit after displacing early pacesetters Carlisle United, were themselves usurped by Plymouth Argyle. A 2-1 reverse at already relegated Hartlepool United scuppered their hopes of immediately returning as champions: a win would’ve seen them claim the title a point ahead of both Plymouth and Portsmouth. Despite the late disappointment, it would be churlish to label 2016/2017 as anything other than a success.
Top Goalscorer: John Marquis (26 goals in 45 starts/4,046 minutes)
Top Creator: James Coppinger (13 assists in 38 starts/3,161 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Darren Ferguson; the son of Sir Alex, who brought him through the ranks as a player at Manchester United. He was a more than capable player in his day and his first spell at Peterborough United came whilst he was still actively participating on the pitch. In his first full two seasons, he took them up consecutively to the Championship from League Two. They were immediately came back down to the third tier but he had left in November 2009. A disappointing spell at Preston North End followed before he once again returned to Cambridgeshire and led them out of League One, with his side playing mouth-watering, attacking football. He stayed for a four-year period once again suffering demotion. He has been in charge of Rovers since October 2015.
Ins: Ben Whiteman (Sheffield United on loan), Alex Kiwomya (Chelsea U23s on loan), Danny Andrew (Grimsby Town) & Niall Mason (Aston Villa U23s).
Outs: Cedric Evina (Crawley Town on loan), Mitchell Lund (Morecambe on loan), Joe Pugh (North Ferriby United), Aaron Taylor-Sinclair (Plymouth Argyle) & Gary McSheffrey (free agent).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Ferguson has stuck to a 3-5-2 in every pre-season friendly thus far, with the emphasis firmly placed on taking the game to the opponents in wave after wave of attacks. Most of the initial thrust will come from the wing-backs; the central defensive back three will remain fairly static in order to maintain a disciplined shape. Danny Andrew and Matty Blair offer pace and a direct style. None of the likely midfield trio are particularly of a holding bent, so the gaps between the lines once there is a transition in the passage of play could be considerable. On the positive side, that means six or seven bodies in the other team’s half whenever Donny have the ball.
Ben Whiteman brings with him a glowing reputation after an excellent loan spell last term at Mansfield Town; his creativity and scheming could take a little of the pressure off stalwart James Coppinger’s shoulders. The Rovers veteran is still more than equipped for the task at hand, oftentimes being the main focus for build-up play; he is excellent at retaining possession, long-range shooting and offering an out-ball for his teammates.
John Marquis will have Andy Williams alongside him in a potent strikeforce. The latter offers no shortage of agility and general movement and has fostered a good understanding with his partner. The former needs little introduction after his goalscoring exploits in the promotion-winning season; the target man is much more than that label normally suggests. He is exceptionally aggressive (usually in a fair way) at first winning and then keeping hold of the ball, rarely looks tired after 90 minutes and his aerial ability is up there with anyone else in the entire division.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Comfortably mid-table.The injury sustained by loan signing Alex Kiwomya is a blow but even without the Chelsea youngster’s help in the early weeks and months, there is little for Rovers to fear back in League One in terms of retaining their place and looking towards the top half of the division as a realistic target. Coppinger might not feature in quite as many matches but there is no shortage of playmakers to give Marquis and Williams juicy morsels to feed on.
Looking further back, the picture is currently less rosy. Former Newcastle United centre half Steven Taylor, who was recently on trial, has opted to sign for Peterborough and there is a chronic lack of midfielders who will provide shielding to the back three. The attacking overload could come back to bite Rovers more often than was the case last term now that they are a step up once more. Nevertheless, games at the Keepmoat should be exciting affairs and a season spent on an even keel might allow supporters to catch their collective breath and for Ferguson to continue the upward trend at a more gradual pace.
Best Blog or Account to Follow: Again, I’ll pick two: Rover Stan. A season ticket holder at Ewood Park since 1978, he has certainly seen it all in the 39 years to date and still loves the club, his posts showing no shortage of mirth. He also keeps a close eye on football in Lancashire from a more holistic viewpoint.
The second one is Rovers Chat. Unusually for a fan account, they also have Snapchat, as well as a presence on an array of other social media platforms.
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
Championship - 22nd; W 12 / D 15 / L 19 / F 53 / A 65 / Pts 51
Previous manager Owen Coyle who, putting it mildly, was deeply unpopular with Blackburn fans even upon arrival (having previously been at the helm of both neighbours Bolton Wanderers and hated rivals Burnley), did little to endear himself either to them in the early running of the Championship season. It would take until the middle of September before he guided his side to a win and even that was over Rotherham United, who were themselves embroiled in crisis. Proceedings didn’t improve too much in the league until his eventual dismissal in February (the double over Newcastle United the exception).
His replacement Tony Mowbray immediately galvanised the group; indeed, the Lancashire outfit didn’t lose any of the first seven matches under his stewardship and only three of the 15 in total. Even with that, they were in such a downward spiral by mid-February that the play-off standard form that followed wasn’t enough to rescue them from a cruel final day relegation to the third tier for the first time since 1980, winning 3-1 away at Brentford but still succumbing to demotion on goal difference by a margin of just two. The points total accrued would have seen them survive in almost every other year since ‘three for a win’ was introduced several decades ago.
The Somewhat controversial owners of the football club, the Venky’s, then issued what read as a cut and paste statement, offering their support to Mowbray and the efforts to bounce back immediately to the second tier have begun in earnest amidst an improved atmosphere around the town.
Top Goalscorer: Danny Graham (12 goals in 28 starts/2,496 minutes)
Top Creator: Marvin Emnes (5 assists in 13 starts/1,224 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Tony Mowbray; comes across as quite dour but by contrast, he likes his sides to have lots of technical ability, which often results in eye-catching performances when everyone is on song. He’s held high-profile posts both north and south of the border during his storied managerial career and both his current and previous roles have been at clubs with the fanbase utterly divorced from the board. He put in his best efforts at Coventry City, only for a lack of investment in the squad and a slow start to 2016/2017 to put an end to his time at the Ricoh Arena. On the face of it, he has had backing from the Venky’s, both in terms of his own position and in the transfer market. He can count himself extremely unfortunate that his escape act with Rovers didn’t quite come off.
Ins: Bradley Dack (Gillingham), Joe Nuttall (Aberdeen), Paul Caddis (Bury), Richard Smallwood (Rotherham United), Peter Whittingham (Cardiff City), Ben Gladwin (Queens Park Rangers) & Dominic Samuel (Reading).
Outs: Hope Akpan (Burton Albion), Connor Mahoney (Bournemouth), Danny Guthrie (free agent), Jason Lowe (free agent), Gordon Greer (free agent), Anthony Stokes (free agent), Wes Brown (free agent) & Adam Henley (free agent).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Rovers could shape up in a number of different ways, with both positional and role flexibility unusually high in defence and midfield. All three centre backs are comfortable on the ball to the extent that the men flanking Darragh Leinhan could push out and wide when their teammates have the ball in the other half in order to cover a quick turnover in possession. Charlie Mulgrew is also a dead ball expert who is able to conjure up a lot of curl from both corners and free kicks, making it that much more difficult for the opposition to deal with.
At just 19, Ryan Nyambe has a bright future ahead of him and can play in the centre and on the right. He will have competition from new signing Paul Caddis but there might be space to accommodate the pair in the same XI, with Mowbray giving the wing-backs licence to bomb forward to provide support and diagonal balls into the area for Danny Graham to make the most of.
If they can retain his services, Corry Evans will sit at the base of the diamond in midfield and he possesses the qualities Mowbray demands of his players, being neat and tidy on the ball whilst normally being a good man-marker when the situation requires it. In Peter Whittingham and Richard Smallwood, Blackburn have a good balance in the middle to adapt to a variety of gameplans that will be thrown at them in League One. The former is another dead-ball expert but equally handy in normal play, with the vision to pick out his compatriots both near and far. The latter will recycle possession well and graft for his side, covering any gaps in between Evans and the rest of the midfield.
Bradley Dack is a difference maker when on form. He is an expert at timing his runs into the box and at full flow when on the dribble, he is extremely difficult to cope with. Crucially, he has the goal threat to go along with these aspects of his playstyle, as well as the stamina not to simply fade as the match draws to a close. The aforementioned Graham is lethal with the right level of support and, whilst he does lack speed, his positioning makes up for it, especially in timing his movements to beat the offside trap. Much more than a poacher, he uses his upper-body strength to muscle defenders off the ball, calmly places his shots (including from the penalty spot) and will work extremely hard to keep Blackburn on the front foot whenever possible.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Gunning for automatic promotion.Added to the options already discussed, Rovers also have the likes of Elliott Bennett, Craig Conway and Liam Feeney to call on from the bench in advanced wide areas. When you can exclude all of that trio from your starting lineup and be no worse off and factor in promising players from the Category 1 Academy and in the U23s the Lancashire outfit still boast, you know you have a real chance of cause for celebration in May 2018. Under Mowbray, a side completely lacking goals from midfield and shorn of confidence didn’t look out of place in the Championship. Diligent work has been undertaken to address that problem and their defence should be able to shut down most attacks. In other words, the squad looks in better shape now than when he took over in February.
Some of their hopes, despite adding more striking options, rest on Graham’s fitness at the time of writing. On paper, they are easily in the top handful of teams with the current group. The only potential spanner in the works are matters off the pitch. The Venky’s have a track record of antagonising the town’s long-suffering fans with baffling decisions and extremely questionable dealings. The playing and coaching staff need (and should receive) the support from the stands to bring a modicum of pride back to the one of the oldest clubs in professional football.
Best Blog or Account to Follow: The irreverent SW19’s Army, whilst deliberately not attempting to represent the ‘real Dons’ fanbase, is a… very un-PC alternative point of view in these straight-laced ‘official club account’ times on supporting AFC Wimbledon, whose die-hard supporters have experienced the highs and lows of football like few other sides in the English game.
Record Last Season + Quick Summary:
League One - 15th; W 13 / D 18 / L 15 / F 52 / A 55 / Pts 57
After their fourth tier play-off triumph at Wembley, the Dons were on a high. Proceedings threatened to derail a little when their first five league games after promotion yielded only two points, but they turned things around in some style in the autumn, losing just twice in a 16-game stretch, with impressive victories gained against Oxford United, Bury (twice) and Charlton Athletic to name but a few. The long winter months were much bleaker and in truth, 2017 has been a very poor year on the pitch; the final half-dozen encounters saw them draw blanks in on every single occasion and stumble to a comfortable lower mid-table finish (although that itself was no small feat). Off it, several major hurdles have been overcome in order for them to return to Plough Lane in just two years’ time, which is a great boost for everyone concerned.
Top Goalscorer: Lyle Taylor (10 goals in 36 starts/3,098 minutes)
Top Creator: Dean Parrett (7 assists in 20 starts/1,915 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Neal Ardley; in situ for almost half a decade, the former long-serving fan favourite returned to the club in a management capacity in October 2012 and since then, has done brilliantly to get the ‘current’ incarnation of the Dons into the third tier. He has the confidence of both the board and management and in such a position, he can plan for the long-term in stark contrast to most of his peers. Tending to favour function over form, he will need to call upon his renowned organisational skills once more in 2017/2018 with a much-changed squad at his disposal, particularly given who has left the Cherry Red Records Stadium (from AFC Wimbledon’s perspective).
Ins: Adedeji Oshilaja (Cardiff City), Kwesi Appiah (Crystal Palace), Liam Trotter (Bolton Wanderers), Cody McDonald (Gillingham), Nadjim Abdou (Millwall on loan) & George Long (Sheffield United on loan).
Outs: Jake Reeves (Bradford City), Tom Elliott (Millwall), James Shea (Luton Town), Tyrone Barnett (Port Vale), Dannie Bulman (Crawley Town), Chris Robertson (Swindon Town), George Oakley (Inverness Caledonian Thistle), Sean Kelly (Ross County), David Fitzpatrick (Barrow), Dominic Poleon (Bradford City) & Danny Gallagher (Leatherhead).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: The back four shouldn’t be much changed from last season and that stable base will be key to Ardley’s desire to press the opposition more effectively and systematically than last season from the midfield three ahead of them, with the defensive line one of the more conservative in the division and unlikely to ever venture into the opposition’s half under normal circumstances.
That leaves the new-look midfield with a lot of ground to cover and recruitment has matched the need. Nadjim Abdou is very quick and his harrying will be the fulcrum of the Dons’ attempts to control the game. His physicality is equalled by Liam Trotter, who can comfortably play any role in the centre of the park – a useful card to have close to Ardley’s chest in the more tense encounters.
The creative spark will mostly come from Dean Parrett spraying balls forward to the front three to beat the offside trap. At least one of the places is up for grabs in the forward positions; Andy Barcham can be effective but is a bit more predictable for his marker to track than Dominic Poleon. The narrower right sided role could be taken by Lyle Taylor, who will add pace and power but moreover, support to Cody McDonald. The latter of two, a major summer recruit from Gillingham, is much more of a poacher than Taylor, so he will need ample support in the penalty area in order to thrive.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Circling the relegation drain.Despite what most suffering Shakers fans would believe, goals were actually at somewhat of a premium in 2016/2017 despite an exciting, interchangeable front three. The midfield area was the biggest headache for Ardley last season and whilst there is little doubt that it has been strengthened, it’s still hard to see who, if McDonald or Taylor have an off day, is going to step up to the plate from deeper positions. A stronger spine might not be sufficient in itself to stave off relegation trouble (going back to my slightly tired mantra of it being a more competitive division this time around). Time and patience will be afforded to the manager and his team if things aren’t going to plan. Expectations are realistic but it’s not hard to envisage that simply being harder to beat might just not cut the mustard.
Analysing The Shakers, League One & Two, and Local English & Welsh Football