Month: July 2018

League Two Club-by-Club Preview for 2018/2019: Bury

2017/2018

Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

League One - 24th (relegated); W 8 / D 12 / L 26 / F 41 / A 71 / Pts 36

A total shambles from start to finish. Lee Clark was the main (but not only) reason behind the toxic atmosphere really taking hold at Gigg Lane. For better or worse, he’d been extremely well-backed by chairman Stewart Day in the summer of 2017, assembling the sort of squad that has some parallels to the one formed at Peterborough United this year. Unfortunately, his man management skills and tactical acumen proved to be as large as the full stop at the end of this sentence. It is true that he (and his successors) wasn’t helped by injuries to key players. Stephen Dawson and Jay O’Shea were ruled out for months within the first week of the nascent campaign. In October, top goalscorer Jermaine Beckford was ruled out for the rest of the season, and he won’t even be in contention until next month!

Clark failed to marry the available talent in his roster to a system that would yield consistent results, and impressive performances against Oxford United and Bradford City at home were the anomalies instead of commonplace. I advocated his removal before the transfer window had even closed, not because of the woeful results, but because his recruitment policy and public comments, throwing youth players under the bus, were bringing the club into disrepute. Ryan Lowe was placed in caretaker charge for a month, presiding over the worst FA Cup performance any Shakers fan still alive has ever witnessed, which is unfortunately not hyperbole.

Scunthorpe United’s assistant manager (and BL9 legend) Chris Lucketti returned to the club in his first crack in his own right. However, his dour demeanour and insipid answer to a question about his tactical philosophy I put to him on radio immediately set alarm bells ringing in my head. Too many seasoned pros had really poor body language by this stage, and the last thing they needed was a combination of a light and uninspiring touch. He only lasted nine league games in charge, yielding a single point. Even by Christmas when he was put out of his misery, relegation felt inevitable.

Once more, Day turned to Lowe, appointing him on an interim basis until the end of 2017/2018. He halted a long sequence of gutless defeats at the expense of the Yellows yet again, which heralded the ‘best’ spell the south Lancashire outfit had, which most definitely is a relative term. Pretensions of a great escape from the mire were firmly put to bed after surrendering a two-goal lead to rivals Oldham Athletic at home. Seven more losses on the spin all but confirmed a return, after only three years away, from the basement division, prompting Day to write an open letter to fans, admonishing the players, whilst effectively absolving Lowe from any responsibility.

Top Goalscorer: Jermaine Beckford (8 goals in 15 starts/1,285 minutes)

Top Creator:  Harry Bunn (4 assists in 28 starts/2,470 minutes)

saul shotton
Saul Shotton will run Eoghan O’Connell close for the ball-playing centre back role, regardless of whether it’s in a two or a three; still just 17, that is especially unusual for a defender; he will need to iron out some errors that come with experience, but he has a bright future in the game

2018/2019

Manager/Head Coach: Ryan Lowe; the Liverpudlian grew up in the red side of the city’s youth ranks alongside the likes of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, before an injury slowed his development. He went on to play for local sides, before being snapped up by Shrewsbury Town whilst plying his trade for Burscough. Though never prolific for Salop, he was highly regarded during his five-year spell, and he often played as a wide forward, as well as through the middle.

He rose to prominence during his initial stint with now-defunct Chester City, scoring twice in an FA Cup encounter against Nottingham Forest. By 2006/2007, he was at Gresty Road in League One for his first time with Crewe Alexandra, faring reasonably well initially, but he fell out of favour during the second term, finding a himself back at the Deva Stadium, where was a massive thorn in Bury’s side whenever he came up against them. His 16 goals weren’t enough to save The Seals from falling out of the league, and he signed for the Shakers upon the expiry of his contract.

His most fruitful period in front of goal coincided with his time in the white and royal blue, proving an excellent fit for Alan Knill’s attacking 4-4-2. In 2010/2011, he set a new club record, scoring in nine consecutive games (even if one goal in that sequence was dubious in the extreme). He weighed in with an eye-watering 27 in League Two, which secured second place for both player and club in the respective goal and overall table. His winner against eventual champions Chesterfield will mean he’ll always be regarded as a legend, no matter how his managerial spell pans out.

His exploits didn’t cease after promotion, and he made the move to Sheffield Wednesday, adding eight to his tally of four, the latter total being accrued in just the first five games of the new season. No longer assured of being the first name on the teamsheet at The Owls, he transferred to Milton Keynes Dons, where he amassed 11 in 42 appearances. In a repeat of his time at Chester, he was prolific once again, this time in the colours of Tranmere Rovers, but couldn’t prevent their demotion.

Tsun Dai
Wai Tsun-Dai will need to find a role that’s suited for his skills, especially if Lowe opts for a 5-3-2 as his primary shape; he can play anywhere on the right or in central midfield, and his style can be best be described as an inverted winger

For a second time, he was back at Bury. Even at 36, his high level of football intelligence and fitness helped the Shakers gain promotion back to third tier. He was subsequently loaned back to The Railwaymen, making that permanent in the summer of 2016, once it became clear that he was unwanted by David Flitcroft. He formed an effective partnership with Chris Dagnall, but it wasn’t long before he once more made the journey north, this time helping out as a first time coach in addition to his playing duties. His aspiration to be manager one day has now come sooner than he’d have anticipated, and must prove to supporters that his role under both Clark and Lucketti can be abrogated and he can instil a new culture at Carrington, having been a key member of their respective backrooms. He also has to win over certain sections of fans, who don’t believe he showed enough in his interim spell to suggest he has the right tools to do the job on a permanent basis.

Ins: Will Aimson (Blackpool), Chris Stokes (Coventry City), Chris Dagnall (Crewe Alexandra), Byron Moore (Bristol Rovers), Gold Omotayo (Whitehawk), Tom Miller (Carlisle United), Nicky Adams (Carlisle United), Dom Telford (Stoke City U23s), Mathew Hudson (Preston North End on loan) & Jordan Archer (Chester).

Outs: Craig Jones (free agent), Chris Humphrey (free agent), Nathan Cameron (free agent), Zeli Ismail (Walsall), Greg Leigh (NAC Breda), Andrew Tutte (Morecambe), Callum Reilly (Gillingham) & Chris Maguire (Sunderland).

Gold
Gold Omotayo is the shining example of a 180-degree change in player recruitment policy; with Director of Sport Lee Dykes now a the club, chances are now being taken on individuals who have been impressing in the non-league system, who will be hungry to succeed at Bury

Predicted First XI & Shape: 

Bury 1819

Tactics: In theory, Lowe wants to play an attacking style that excites the fans. During pre-season, he has largely stuck to a conservative 5-3-2 – conservative in the sense that neither of the likely wing-backs in his first XI have all of the attributes to perform the role as anything other than stop-gaps.

Mathew Hudson will battle it out with Joe Murphy between the sticks. The latter has been plagued by injuries at Bury, and might not have the requisite fitness to play Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday. Additionally, Hudson would not have been sent out on loan by Alex Neil at Preston North End without some assurances being made over gametime. The 20 year-old has a distinct agility advantage over his rival for the gloves, which could be a key area if, as expected, most teams favour a direct style.

Ahead of the ‘winner’ is likely to be a three-man defence. One of these will be tasked with being the stopper, whilst the other two step up in turn to head off an attacker down their side, in lieu of a holding midfielder in front of them. Will Aimson, a signing from Blackpool, should be the middle ‘component’ of the trio. Short for a centre back, he’s saved by his jumping reach, and his tenacity in the tackle. On his right will be Adam Thompson, who’ll be itching to kickstart his career once more. Capable on the ball and tireless, he needs a sustained run in the side to restore supporters’ faith in his ability.

The leftmost of the three will be the designated ball-player. Eoghan O’Connell had an erratic time in 2017/2018. I saw him win almost every challenge and only misplace one pass against a supremely well-drilled Blackburn Rovers side last November, but he had his fair share of nightmare displays, too. For me, it partly comes down to being amongst a rarely changing, consistent defensive unit. There’s definitely a good player in there. If his form does dip, his place will be under threat from 17 year-old Saul Shotton, who has shown despite his age, that he can compete physically.

Chris Stokes arrives from Coventry City with glowing reviews… but only as an ordinary left-back. In a recent interview, the player himself stated that he’s a bit of a throwback, in the sense that he always considers his primary function to be to defend first and foremost, and only then get forward in support of his teammates. He doesn’t have the speed to bomb up the wing, but is a decent crosser of the ball. He’s also on the taller side for someone who favours being played out wide, and he, like Joe Skarz, can fill in as the left-sided centre back.

Tom Miller is one of two arrivals from Director of Sport Lee Dykes’ old haunt. In a roster that now ‘boasts’ four right (wing) backs, he’ll probably get the nod in most fixtures. Quicker than Stokes, as well as being decent from a long throw, his positioning is inversely more susceptible than his compatriot. He will be vying for the shirt with Ryan Cooney, a playmaker in the U18s who has been shoehorned into a more defensive, wider role, and Dougie Nyaupembe, who offers more pace and a high work rate, but is very limited in terms of his exposure to the senior setup. The fourth option is Phil Edwards, but I cannot see him remaining at the club.

In midfield, there’s an immediate problem. There are precisely zero players who can be reliably called upon to sit in front of the defence, win the ball back and recycle possession. Of course, not every team needs someone to perform that role, but it does appear to be an oversight. Rumours persist that Stephen Dawson, nearing 33 and into the second of his inexplicable three-year contract, will depart for pastures new. Either way, on the evidence of pre-season, he’s overweight and largely off the pace. He’s very aggressive in the tackle (which is why he got injured last term in the first place), and the areas he tends to win the ball back are in the second or final thirds of the pitch.

joe adams
If (and it’s a big if) Lowe decides to drop the 5-3-2, there could be an opportunity for Joe Adams to stake a claim for more minutes; capped by Wales U19s when he was just 16, he operates best as an inside forward, cutting inside from both wings – he doesn’t really have a weaker foot

There is then an argument that his place is most under threat from Callum Styles, and it’s one I buy into, even though they’re completely different players. It might turn out that the young playmaker adopts a deeper role. Diminutive in size, he’s added some more muscle to his frame in the summer months, which will help him combat the more physical opponents he’ll doubtless face in League Two. In a settled side, he should flourish, spraying balls left and right, as well as playing in the strikers with quick one-twos and through balls.

Captain Neil Danns successfully completed a mental Damascene Conversion in the minds of many fans last season, coming good on his determined words to break back into contention, and would’ve won the club’s Player of the Season award, had it not been scrapped out of embarrassment. He enjoys shooting from long range and being in the thick of it, especially in advanced areas of the pitch. Scott Burgess, on the back of winning the National League with Macclesfield Town, is not in Lowe’s favour, so it remains to be seen whether he’ll feature. Wai-Tsun Dai could be next in line, but his best role, which isn’t immediately apparent, is coming in from the right flank.

The nominal third member of the midfield might actually operate in the left half-space. Nicky Adams, back at Gigg Lane once more, now tends to play on that side, crossing with his right foot and lurking at the far post for a loose ball, when it’s tossed in from the opposite wing. He’ll be Lowe’s go-to man for set pieces, should he be able to successfully shake off any lingering injury concerns. Danny Mayor has had a full pre-season programme, which isn’t usual for him. Everyone knows what he’s capable of, which is a double-edged sword. He’s an excellent finisher when given the chance, but hasn’t improved as a footballer in the past three years, doubtlessly hampered by persistent spells on the sidelines.

Up front, despite my misgivings (more on those next week), it’s likely to be two strikers. Chris Dagnall needs someone else alongside him to get the best out of his supporting role. His positioning is good, and that’s a plus point to possess when you put yourself about as much as he does. With Jermaine Beckford still out, the other spot is very much up for grabs. Chris Sang, like Dagnall, is more of a support striker, and is the likeliest of the other four available to head out on loan.

Dom Telford has been signed from Stoke City U23s, and impressed the fans of Bristol Rovers more than he did their manager, Darrell Clarke, during his loan spell at the Memorial Stadium. Left-footed, he comes alive in the area, and by making bursting runs on the dribble into space. Jordan Archer probably won’t immediately start, but could have a part to play from the bench. That leaves Gold Omotayo. The Swiss target man with the memorable name is desperate and hungry to prove his credentials in the EFL with Bury, and even a cursory glance at his physique will tell you that he’s a real threat. Blessed with a decent first touch and change of pace, if Lowe can remain patient and the chances fall for him consistently, he could be a good punt to be top goalscorer in the league, which would immediately draw comparisons with Mo Eisa.

byron moore.jpg
Byron Moore (middle) has his work cut out already to get in the XI, with Lowe effectively dispensing with wingers; turning 30 next month, his main weapon of choice is his speed, but is that enough by itself to stake a claim?

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Play-off chasers; on paper, there are some compelling reasons to place Bury in the ‘top’ group in my predictions: the imminent return of Jermaine Beckford, the likes of Harry Bunn and Jay O’Shea (neither of whom I’ve even mentioned up until now), some promising youngsters and the tenacity and passion of Neil Danns.

However, there are plenty of unknowns, even as the season draws ever closer that other managers have already been able to answer.

  • What’s Lowe’s best XI, all things being equal?
  • What’s the best formation and style of play to adopt?
  • When the going gets tough, will he still make good on his commitment to using academy players?
  • Why he has reneged on reducing the bloated nature of the squad, which is still the largest in League Two?
  • If at least one of Omotayo, Telford and Archer come good, can he really justify replacing them with an injury-prone Beckford?

Most importantly…

  • Who is going to win the ball in defensive midfield areas, to relieve pressure on the defence, start attacks and keep possession?

Some of the above, he might not have the immediate answer for. And that might not matter. That last question though will be crucial in him, in my opinion, retaining his job. Much as Day is loath to dispensing with yet another manager’s services, especially one with the legend status that Lowe has, sooner or later, he’ll realise that he needs to employ someone with the tactical acumen, if the current incumbent falls short in that regard. I’ve seen some predictions from people whose opinions I respect put Bury as far down as 20th, and in one sense, it’s hard to disagree, as so much is up in the air. If things aren’t going to plan, there will be time for someone else to turn things around, with the personnel at their disposal. Long-suffering supporters can probably expect another slow start to a season, even if he can get a winning formula together.

The minimum expectation should be that the Shakers win more league games than they lose in 2018/2019. The ‘back to basics’ approach instilled by Day might actually be beneficial, as the ranks have been swelled by individuals who at the very worst, see Bury as their way up to bigger and better things, rather than the opposite, as was what came to characterise the previous campaign. Ambitions might be more muted, but in the right hands, a tilt at the top seven is not impossible.

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League Two Club-by-Club Preview for 2018/2019: Cambridge United

2017/2018

Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

League Two - 12th; W 17 / D 13 / L 16 / F 56 / A 60 / Pts 64

A very similar league position to 2016/2017, it’s difficult to perceive it as anything other than a little underwhelming. Previous manager Shaun Derry started the campaign with The U’s, and once more, a real struggle for consistency was to be their undoing, with most of the defeats towards the end of last year coming against the more fancied sides in the fourth tier, a clear indication that they weren’t quite at the same level. This was announced emphatically in the most brutal fashion in the derby away to Luton Town, a 7-0 thrashing piling on the humiliation. There wasn’t much in the way of a positive reaction to that loss, and no real upturn in form either, culminating in Derry being sacked in early February after no win in six.

Joe Dunne immediately took over as caretaker, and oversaw a noticeable improvement in their fortunes, gaining maximum points in the first three matches in the hotseat, and scoring more from then onwards until the end of the season. Finishing just inside the top half, it must now serve as a springboard for a real crack at the play-offs as a minimum.

Jevani-Brown-2
Jevani Brown was impressive last season, offering both creativity and an eye for goal from attacking midfield, and is just one of many individuals Joe Dunne will be turning to for a sustained tilt at the top three

Top Goalscorer: Uche Ikpeazu (13 goals in 36 starts/3,301 minutes)

Top Creator:  Jevani Brown (8 assists in 35 starts/3,169 minutes)

2018/2019

Manager/Head Coach: Joe Dunne; the former defender’s playing career was curtailed at the age of 30, enjoying many seasons at Gillingham and Colchester United, the latter of which came in two separate spells. Upon his retirement, he was offered a coaching role in the academy, and quickly assumed control of the U18s, leading them to unprecedented success during his tenure. His good work hadn’t gone unnoticed by the Essex outfit, and he was asked to charge of the reserves on a permanent basis, as well as helping out with first team affairs when there was a change of management, which was a frequent occurrence.

Finally getting the gig in 2012, his charges narrowly avoided relegation from League One, and moved up four places in the standings at the end of the subsequent season. A woeful start to 2014/2015 saw him dismissed on the 1st of September. He joined his current club early the following year, assisting both Richard Money and Derry, jumping at the chance to prove his credentials once more after the former Notts County boss’ contract was terminated. A disciplinarian who eschews tradition, he’ll be looking to use the knowledge he’s gained in various roles in his coaching career to date to make 2018/2019 more memorable for Cambridge’s fans, utilising at least several of their academy prospects in the process.

Ins: Reggie Lambe (Carlisle United), Louis John (Sutton United) & George Taft (Mansfield Town).

Outs: Uche Ikpeazu (Heart of Midlothian), Piero Mingoia (Accrington Stanley), Leon Legge (Port Vale) & Medy Elito (Barnet).

Predicted First XI & Shape: 

Cambridge 1819.PNG

Tactics: Dunne will utilise the speed and agility Cambridge posses on the flanks to stretch the opposition and to keep them wide when it’s their turn to attack. David Forde’s best attribute is his positioning, which ranks as one of the best in the EFL. He uses all of his years of experience to know where to place himself, especially for floated crosses, and is one of the few whose punching is authoritative and wholly convincing when attempted. In the middle of the defence, George Taft stands at a giant 6’5″, and is an intimidating presence to come against for any forward. His compatriot Greg Taylor is similarly strong, both in stature and with his left foot, and keep a disciplined watch as a triangle, with Forde at its base.

Both full-backs will constantly overlap the wide midfielders. Jake Carroll will offer a consistent option for Harrison Dunk to make overloads happen on one flank, as well as having the ability to switch the play when this occurs to exploit the vacated space on the other side. Leon Davies is a hot prospect at right-back, and has been watched closely by scouts from the Premier League. Any full-back who shows a willingness to get forward but also time those forays up the wing well is an excellent fit for the modern game, as well as being having the technical ability that could be moulded at a team higher up in the pyramid.

Captain Gary Deegan takes no prisoners as the pivot in this side, relishing the battles against the silkier attacking midfielders that League Two has to offer. He’ll recycle the ball, opting to spray it wide whenever possible. David Amoo and Emmanuel Osadebe and loan capture Reggie Lambe will duke it out on the right. Amoo might miss the first few games, which will give his teammates the chance to impress in his spot. A dynamic player, Osadebe is just as comfortable operating in the half-space, and his raw speed will give plenty of concern for visiting sides to the Abbey Stadium. Amoo and Lambe carry more of a proven goal threat than Osadebe (and can be used as a wide forward), and its good competition to have when all three are available, and any of their introductions from the bench in the latter stages of matches will be unwelcome for their designated marker.

Harrison Dunk has the positional flexibility to operate as an attacking left-back, as well as further up the pitch. This could be key in games that favour the U’s and their direct running. Jevani Brown will sit off the front two when they’re out of possession, and join in quickly whenever there’s a turnover. Also likely to be the designated free-kick and corner taker, his creativity credentials will be put to the test, and he should be able to take that pressure on, as well as weighing in with some goals from range.

Ade Azeez or Barry Corr will offer support to Jabo Ibehre. The latter of the duo is certainly the better choice to be waiting for a multitude of crosses to come into the penalty area, as well as being able to use his know-how to back into his marker and win fouls both in and around the box. Azeez is yet to recapture the form he showed at AFC Wimbledon several years ago, but he has the right characteristics to be able to do so if given a sustained run in the XI. He’ll always look to beat the offside trap and use his pace to get into one-on-ones with a defender or the goalkeeper, but he has a propensity to be too selfish when a simple pass across the face of the area would be almost certainly a goal. Ibehre is obviously strong, and just as importantly, he has the required composure in front of goal to be an outside bet to be top scorer, as he should receive plenty of service.

 

dunk

Harrison Dunk is an excellent player who makes the entire left flank his own with his tireless running and outstanding agility, as well as his close dribbling skills

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Gunning for automatic promotion; recruitment has been on the quieter side in the university city, but that shouldn’t ring any alarm bells. There’s a good mix of youthful zest, flashy wingers and canny experience in the setup, and Dunne enjoys bringing through and developing players from the academy, which could be something to look out for as the season reaches its end point A full pre-season to work with the squad can only be beneficial for the manager, and the conclusion to draw is that he’s happy with the setup. There’s certainly a case to be made for them to go under the radar in the top seven and becoming a force to be reckoned with as more fancied teams only start to realise what Cambridge are capable of. I’ve been burnt several times in the past when betting on them for promotion, but this just might be their year…

League Two Club-by-Club Preview for 2018/2019: Crewe Alexandra

2017/2018

Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

League Two - 15th; W 17 / D 5 / L 24 / F 62 / A 75 / Pts 56

Certainly not boring! The Railwaymen only drew a staggeringly low five matches, two of which opened the season and only one of those in total was a stalemate. The only consistency to their campaign was that the losses, of which there were many, tended to become runs, and they often found themselves conceding three or more, as the overall tally against alludes to. Pre-Christmas, things looked pretty desperate, but David Artell rallied his troops in the second half of 2017/2018, only suffering one sequence of consecutive defeats and reducing their arrears in goal difference. The term ended on a high, with four victories in the run-in, giving a slightly more positive complexion to an erratic year for the Cheshire outfit.

ainley
Callum Ainley was almost an ever-present in the lineup last season, operating mostly as a wide right midfielder; another successful academy graduate and still only 20, he signed a new three-year deal in May, which is testament to the way the club is run and in turn, likely increasing the fee they’ll receive if his development continues apace

Top Goalscorer: Jordan Bowery (12 goals in 32 starts/2,964 minutes)

Top Creator:  George Cooper (9 assists in 22 starts/1,989 minutes)

2018/2019

Manager/Head Coach: David Artell; capped seven times by the Gibraltar national side, starting in the year following formal recognition by FIFA, the old-school centre-back is still remembered fondly by fans of several EFL lower league stalwarts, most notably in the north-west of England at Morecambe, the now-defunct Chester City, and The Alex themselves. Retiring at 37 to assume the reins at Gresty Road in January 2017, he appeared to take many traits from his playing days and incorporate them into his management style, warning his players that failure to escape relegation that season could mean the end of some of their careers as professionals. It had the desired effect, but only a marginal improvement in terms of the league position was yielded last season. He doesn’t suffer individuals he feels are less than totally committed to the cause, whilst still recognising that the foundations the club base themselves on in the modern era are of paramount importance – the academy remains productive, and is still their USP, frequently dipped into by successive managers since the long and storied days of Dario Gradi.

Ins: Paul Green (Oldham Athletic), Alex Nicholls (Barnet) & Shaun Miller (Carlisle United).

Outs: Chris Dagnall (Bury), Zoumana Bakayogo (Tranmere Rovers), Ross Woodcock (free agent) & Daniel Udoh (Telford United).

Predicted First XI & Shape: 

Crewe1819.PNG

Tactics: Likely to be one of the few remaining sides in League Two to play a conventional 4-4-2. David Richards will distribute the ball to the wings, where the stronger individuals in the side appear to be. Eddie Nolan is adept with both feet, which is unusual in a centre back in the fourth tier. He has a decent amount of pace and strength, but probably won’t stray far from his marker. Captain George Ray is tall and couples his height with excellent aerial ability (two traits which aren’t as mutually inclusive as you might believe). His good balance also helps him win the majority of 50-50 challenges and remain standing.

Perry Ng won’t make the same overlapping runs as Harry Pickering down the left channel, but has been known to wander upfield and try his effort from distance; this is something the opposition need to be mindful of, if he slips into the final third unnoticed. Pickering will get ahead of Charlie Kirk to offer a passing option to cross into the area from the byline. He can also be deployed in a holding midfield role, should Artell feel the need to stray from his usual setup. Paul Green has signed permanently from Oldham Athletic, and is the definition of a team player, which is an essential trait to possess in a formation with no hiding places. His reactions to danger remain sharp, and his aging legs might mean that he sits a little deeper when Crewe are attacking. Ryan Wintle is another individual with a low centre of gravity, and this helps him keep tight to Green and not appear as outnumbered as they could often be when fighting for the ball in the middle of the park.

Jordan Bowery has the credentials to be a target forward, but he can also mix it up, which is a great asset to have in a side blessed with good technical ability. His hold-up play encourages runners from midfield, as well as helping to ensure his fellow striker isn’t cut off. Shaun Miller will have to sit out the early matches, so the experience of Chris Porter could be utilised instead. His left foot is reasonably strong, and he should offer another reliable end point to aim for from crosses.

Shaun Miller.jpg
Shaun Miller enjoyed a successful loan spell at Gresty Road, scoring six in little over 1,000 minutes of competitive football; when he returns from a knee injury, he should be a given to be in the starting lineup, where he will make the most of his agility and speed to take up good positions in the penalty area

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Mid-table mediocrity; at the time of writing, no defenders have been brought in from outside the club, which is a surprise, given the sheer number of goals conceded last season. Five of the eight ‘new’ faces in the squad are from the famous academy, and there will be many more from the same origin on the training ground and on the field, where it really matters. The back four/five aside, Crewe look like a reasonably strong outfit, and the likes of Green, Miller and Porter will be the older heads in a youthful dressing room, tasked with imparting their wisdom and game management skills in order to grind out results. Artell will be hoping for something more than incremental improvement up the table, but I just don’t see it happening, without a radical reorganisation of the defensive unit.

League Two Club-by-Club Preview for 2018/2019: Newport County

2017/2018

Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

League Two - 11th; W 16 / D 14 / L 14 / F 56 / A 58 / Pts 64

A miraculous escape from the snarling jaws of relegation was achieved under Michael Flynn, avoiding the National League on the final day of 2016/2017 at the expense of Hartlepool United. Few would’ve envisaged a top-half finish in the following season. A 4-0 away win at Forest Green Rovers had The Exiles in veritable nosebleed territory, and, whilst that form couldn’t last, it never really nose-dived either; two separate six-game spells without triumphing were the worst it got, and even then, they still managed to pick up several draws. The winter months were on the leaner side, but three hard-earned 2-1 results in succession at Rodney Parade were sufficient for a more than respectable placing, one of their best since reforming in 1989 and clawing their way back to the EFL the hard way.

padraig amond
Padraig Amond probably doesn’t receive the credit or attention he deserves; leading the line for The Exiles, he bagged 13 league goals last season, and will continue to be their go-to striker, as long as Michael Flynn can resist any late bids in the remaining days of the transfer window

Top Goalscorer: Padraig Amond (13 goals in 37 starts/3,139 minutes)

Top Creator:  Robbie Willmott (6 assists in 36 starts/3,226 minutes)

2018/2019

Manager/Head Coach: Michael Flynn; the much-travelled midfielder had four separate spells as a player for the south Wales outfit, both starting and ending his career in the cathedral city. Perhaps best known outside the area for his times with Gillingham and Bradford City, he returned ‘home’ two years ago, first taking up a football and business development director role before becoming a coach under the machinations of Graham Westley. Half a year later, he found himself in caretaker charge, with Newport marooned at the bottom of the pile. Eight weeks on, he masterminded their survival in a period that will live long in the collective memory of supporters and echo down the coming decades. He improved the club’s standing in the following season greatly, enhancing his burgeoning reputation to make the most from relatively limited resources. Still only 37, he has a bright future in the game, regardless of whether that’s in the land of Saint David.

Ins: Fraser Franks (Stevenage), Charlie Cooper (Forest Green Rovers on loan), Keanu Marsh-Brown (Forest Green Rovers), Tyler Hornby-Forbes (Brighton & Hove Albion), Jamille Matt (Blackpool), Andrew Crofts (Scunthorpe United), Antoine Semenyo (Bristol City U23s on loan) & Tyreeq Bakinson (Bristol City U23s on loan).

Outs: Momodou Touray (Barry Town), Jamie Turley (free agent), Paul Hayes (free agent), Frank Nouble (Colchester United), Ben Tozer (Cheltenham Town), Lamar Reynolds (Dagenham & Redbridge), Calaum Jahraldo-Martin (free agent), Marlon Jackson (free agent), Tom Owen-Evans (Falkirk), Joss Ladabie (free agent) & James Bittner (retired).

Predicted First XI & Shape: 

Newport 1819

Tactics: The current personnel in one of the division’s shallower squads (in terms of overall numbers) look more suited for a cautious 5-3-2 on-paper, with at least one sitting midfielder, if not two. Jamie Day doesn’t have any registered competition between the sticks at present, and should that continue to be the case once the season beings properly, he will offer his teammates a surprisingly high level of strength when challenging for the ball. Despite that attribute, he isn’t confident when coming out for crosses, preferring to stick close to the safety of his goal-line, even though he’s 6’3″.

The work rate of Mickey Demetriou will be key to maintaining the shape of the back three. His ability to glide over the ground will help his goalkeeper and side out immeasurably, both facing away from and towards his own penalty area. He also could prove to be an outlet for The County from long throws, should the opportunity arise. Fraser Franks could form the central component, and he is adept at playing short passes and recycling possession, as well as having the flexibility to play on the right of the trio or out wide. Scot Bennett will use his frame to out-muscle the opposing forward, shepherding them away from the danger zone and allowing his teammates to regroup when quickly countered upon, despite his own lack of speed.

The wing-backs are crucial in helping Flynn’s charges transition from a defensive to attacking posture. Dan Butler tends to appear more comfortable in this style, and he allies his stamina with excellent aerial ability and a certain penchant for floating in early crosses for the likes of Padraig Amond and Jamille Matt. On the opposite flank, David Pipe must be one of the most aggressive and tenacious customers in the whole EFL, and though he doesn’t have the same raw speed of Butler, he is still reliable from the same sort of areas to put a ball in, as he has demonstrated throughout his long career in the lower leagues.

Andrew Crofts is the new captain, and although he will stay close to the backline without the ball, he ought to have some freedom to get forward when they win it back, and will more often than not be the one they look to make a crunching tackle and play a quick, forward pass in a short timeframe. Josh Sheehan is one of the more promising members in the ranks, and will need to shuttle between the front three and Crofts in a manner that alienates neither group for too long. A lot of his passes will also be positive in their direction and trajectory, utilising the high level of skill and dribbling talents of Keanu Marsh-Brown to the maximum. More of a wide player by trade, he could find himself operating through the middle but with the license to investigate space in between the lines.

The aforementioned Amond is an all-round striker, who leads the line and has enough presence and physicality to compete with the most brutish of cloggers in the fourth tier. He could be partnered by Jamille Matt, who, whilst never prolific in the EFL, seems a good fit for the likely strategy, and to give the Irishman enough room and support to get plenty of shots off.

tyreeq
The loan capture earlier today of Tyreeq Bakinson should offer a different kind of option than already exists in central midfield; tall and rangy, he will cover a lot of ground in the engine room when other legs around him are tiring, which will help keep them on the front foot and competing until the end

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Safe but sorry; there is no reason to suggest that the travails of 2016/2017 will return to Rodney Parade (where there are worries off the field). I am from far from alone in admiring the turnaround Flynn has made to the club since assuming control in the dugout. The likes of Marsh-Brown and Amond, coupled with a quick style from back to front, should ensure that the loyal Exiles in the stands are usually entertained, and the squad has a good balance about it, as well as the personnel with enough tactical and positional flexibility to change tack and keep the scouts guessing. The sheer openness of the league means that there isn’t a position from 22nd up to the play-off ranks that they can’t realistically obtain, although that same equity means there could be a handful of points that separate a bevvy of sides. Do they have enough in their contingent to last a gruelling campaign without suffering if a few are lost to injury and suspension? That could be the one major weakness.

League Two Club-by-Club Preview for 2018/2019: Notts County

2017/2018

Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

League Two - 5th; W 21 / D 14 / L 11 / F 71 / A 48 / Pts 77
(Lost in the play-off semi-final)

A superb campaign that bordered on exceptional. The nadir of the previous campaign was washed away almost immediately by Kevin Nolan’s charges. The opening day defeat to Coventry City was quickly forgotten as it proved to be the catalyst for a 10-game unbeaten run containing nine victories and plenty of goals to boot. The momentum slowed but didn’t completely stop in the run-up to Christmas, although perhaps there were a few too many draws for the Magpies’ liking. There was no particular poor patch that derailed their automatic promotion hopes, although they struggled to replicate their deep run in the summer. That a meant a play-off semi-final against the Sky Blues. After the first leg, the tie was finely poised, with County just having the edge by virtue of being the away side in a score draw. However, they were blown away back at Meadow Lane, having no real answer to their opponents’ potency in front of goal. Nevertheless, huge strides forward were made and built upon as the curtain came down on 2017/2018.

kevin nolan.jpg
Player-manager Kevin Nolan deserves respect for chancing his arm in the lower reaches of the EFL, and has every reason to believe he can add more accolades to his name (and the club’s) than the monthly award he managed to gain in 2017/2018

Top Goalscorer: Jorge Grant (16 goals in 37 starts/3,574 minutes)

Top Creator:  Jon Stead (9 assists in 40 starts/3,485 minutes)

2018/2019

Manager/Head Coach: Kevin Nolan; the Liverpudlian was one of the finest in his midfield role during much of the first decade of the new millennium for Bolton Wanderers, excelling under the ever-watchful eyes of Sam Allardyce in a team that reached heights in the Premier League few would’ve expected. Although he was never capped at senior level for England, his peak coincided with those of Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard to name but three, so there’s no shame in that. After more than a decade in Horwich, he journeyed north to Newcastle United, where his best season in front of goal came during their Championship winning campaign.

Allardyce, now at West Ham United, persuaded one of his most trusted troops to join him at Upton Park, where he spent four years that slowly became less productive. In August 2015, he left the Irons by mutual consent, but he chose to stay in London, surprisingly becoming player-manager of Leyton Orient. He lasted three months before being relieved of his coaching duties, despite having a respectable win percentage. The reins were handed to Andy Hessenthaler and Nolan made the decision in the close season to depart Brisbane Road. In January of last year, he assumed his current post at Notts County, replacing John Sheridan. New owner Alan Hardy rewarded his successful survival bid with a new deal in September, once it became clear that he had a real knack for the role beyond firefighting, and he has been backed well this summer to improve on their fifth-placed finish in 2018/2019.

Ins: Enzio Boldewijn (Crawley Town), Christian Oxlade-Chamberlain (Portsmouth), Ben Hall (Brighton & Hove Albion on loan), Andy Kellett (Wigan Athletic U23s), Will Patching (Manchester City U23s), David Vaughan (Nottingham Forest), Kane Hemmings (Oxford United), Tom Crawford (Chester), Nathan Thomas (Sheffield United on loan) & Kristian Dennis (Chesterfield).

Outs: Alan Smith (free agent), Elliott Hodge (free agent), Callum Saunders (free agent), Curtis Thompson (Wycombe Wanderers), Adam Collin (Carlisle United), Mike Edwards (free agent), Rob Milsom (free agent), Liam Noble (Hartlepool United), Shola Ameobi (free agent), Carl Dickinson (Yeovil Town), Nicky Hunt (free agent), Michael O’Connor (Lincoln City) & Jonathan Forte (Exeter City).

Predicted First XI & Shape: 

Notts 1819.PNG

Tactics: Ross Fitzsimmons is Nolan’s preferred choice in goal, and he engenders confidence in his defenders by knowing when to claim crosses. His distribution is likely to be key for the way the Magpies play, as the two midfielders will be deeper than most others they come up against, creating a gap when they’re in possession between the back six and front four. Probable captain has years of experience under his belt, and will sit tight to his own 18 yard-line but will wander forward for any dangerous looking set piece. Ben Hall has returned on loan from Brighton, so the majority of the backline will be the same and he will continue to grow in the unit.

Daniel Jones might not be instructed to rove down the left flank as much as he would like, but he does offer an excellent option to recycle the ball to in order to put in deep crosses. He could also be the designated free-kick taker, which will definitely be something to look out for in tight games. Matt Tootle can vie with almost anyone who has a clear height advantage over him in the air, and combines that facet of his game with a decent amount of strength and low centre of gravity, as well as being able to keep up a steady pace for the full 90.

The signature of David Vaughan is a massive coup for the fourth tier side, despite his age. His composure on the ball will rival any other player in the entire division, as will his range of passing, both short and long. He will be the heartbeat of the team without question. Elliott Hewitt is versatile, having graduated from being an out-and-out right-back to a more than competent presence in the centre of midfield, which is where he should mostly be found during the season. Speedy and possessing the work rate his role in a two-man midfield demands, he will be just as pivotal to their potential success as his more vaunted partner.

Nathan Thomas and Enzio Boldewijn have it within them to swap wings periodically without much of an impact on their efficacy. The former is a victim of his parent club not playing a system with advanced wingers, and is another County individual that will be quietly impressive. He has flair on the ball, a strong left foot and the willingness to take on and beat his man. He will supply plenty of ammunition for the frontmen and be a threat in his own right. Boldewijn should have plenty of time on the ball to improve on his breathtaking displays in a Crawley shirt, and his presence ensures that the burden of creativity and goalscoring is spread widely. He will run both outside and inside his marker, stretching the opposing defence beyond breaking point.

Kane Hemmings is an excellent natural finisher, who bagged 15 league goals last term for Mansfield under two managers with differing tactical approaches, which is testament to his quality. A little on the languid side, he will be at his most effective on the end of whipped balls into the area. He, like Kristian Dennis, is in his prime. Dennis was sought after by many suitors following Chesterfield’s relegation out of the EFL. Weighing in with 19 goals in a shambolic outfit, he can be effective in more than one phase of play, always showing for the ball in advanced areas and testing his luck from range, which is accurate for the most part. Blessed with a strong left foot, there will be a good balance and contrast of styles up top, should he be match fit enough to start from the outset. If not, Jon Stead will be the focal point, creating as many as he scores.

stead.jpg
Jon Stead might not have lived up to his early promise at Huddersfield Town and Blackburn Rovers, but he has been an important player for Notts County, weighing in with his share of goals for the past three seasons, and could still have a role to play from the bench this year

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Gunning for automatic promotion; there is a oft-repeated narrative that beaten play-off sides come back stronger the following season. There is every reason to believe that’s the case with Notts County. One or two unwelcome departures aside, Nolan has replaced the litany of players who have left in the close season with better quality. Looking at the division as a whole, open as it is, the four relegated teams from League One (with the exception of MK Dons) don’t appear as strong as the ones that have headed in the other direction, for one reason or another. Their main competition will come from sides they’re already familiar with from 2017/2018. There is quality all over the pitch, and with Vaughan pulling the strings and a potent front four, a ‘clean’ return to the third tier is very much within their collective power to attain.

League Two Club-by-Club Preview for 2018/2019: Mansfield Town

2017/2018

Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

League Two - 8th; W 18 / D 18 / L 10 / F 67 / A 52 / Pts 72

The Stags, much like this coming season, were one of the bookies’ favourites for promotion from League Two, and there many valid reasons that lent credence to that lofty position. Steve Evans, the very epitome of a divisive manager, had been sanctioned to make many signings that seemed of sufficient quality on paper to make a real crack at the top three. The opening games were a portent of things to come, with a high number of score draws. An inconsistent September and October meant the Nottinghamshire side were well out of contention after a third of the campaign. The subsequent three months were much more impressive, and the majority of Evans’ captures were starting to produce.

However, with the Peterborough United position vacant in the tier above, the Glaswegian moved to London Road whilst they were very much in the hunt to escape League Two. A few days later, David Flitcroft was recruited from Swindon Town, another side at the right end of the standings. Unfortunately, he couldn’t maintain the winning formula, gaining only four points in his first eight matches. They finished the term unbeaten in five, but it was insufficient to prevent a fall from the play-offs, missing out by three points.

flitcroft
David Flitcroft must hit the ground running in 2018/2019 to convince many sceptical Stags fans of his managerial ability; he has been backed in the transfer market to a far greater extent than almost every other club in the window

Top Goalscorer: Kane Hemmings (15 goals in 36 starts/2,945 minutes)

Top Creator:  Alexander MacDonald (6 assists in 40 starts/3,564 minutes)

2018/2019

Manager/Head Coach: David Flitcroft; the Bolton native had a fruitful lower league career as a tough-tackling midfielder and was more known for his light-hearted personality than any particular skills he had, although few could question his passion or resolve on the pitch. Chester City, Rochdale and Bury were where he made the most appearances, returning to Spotland to assist Keith Hill in the dugout, eventually retiring in 2010.

Perceived as an integral part of the relative success Dale enjoyed, he followed his close friend to Barnsley and when Hill received his marching orders a year later, he became permanent manager after a short stint as caretaker, guiding the Tykes to safety on the last day of 2012/2013 against the odds. The next season was pockmarked with heavy defeats, and he too suffered the same fate. He was not out of work for long, with Shakers chairman Stewart Day proclaiming at the time of his arrival back at Gigg Lane that he was pursuing his signature whilst still in post at Oakwell.

His tenure in BL9 continues to divide opinion, even now. With substantial backing, he was able to galvanise a bloated squad of disparate personalities away from danger, leading to a respectable mid-table finish. ‘Promotion’ was the word banded about from before 2014/2015 kicked off. As was his pattern in charge at Bury, things started off well and petered out as temperatures dropped, only to perform once they rose again. The signing on loan of goalkeeper Nick Pope was crucial in turning around their fortunes, and their charge up the standings was built on a series of narrow victories and clean sheets. Third place and promotion was secured on the final day away at already relegated Tranmere Rovers on an occasion that will live in the memory for everyone involved.

The two subsequent seasons in the third tier followed the ‘Flitcroft Pattern’, with an inability to devise a credible Plan ‘B’, as well as injuries to key players, hamstringing his efforts to make good on his proclamations and star names that entered the revolving doors. An insipid 5-0 defeat to AFC Wimbledon was the final nail in his coffin, and it would take more than half a year for him to find work. Swindon Town came calling, and as already noted in my preview of the Wiltshire outfit, he didn’t wholly convince there either, but was always unlikely to turn down the opportunity to jump ship to a club he felt could continually support his efforts in the transfer market.

A down-to-earth person, his interviews tend to be full of modern business terminology, which whilst ultimately unimportant, often has a grating effect on fans after a while and especially so if form is poor. He has to win over many Stags fans wholly impressed with either his rhetoric or utter incapability to at least book a play-off berth last season.

Ins: Matt Preston (Swindon Town), Neal Bishop (Scunthorpe United), Craig Davies (Oldham Athletic), Tyler Walker (on loan from Nottingham Forest) & Otis Khan (Yeovil Town).

Outs: George Taft (Cambridge United), Lewis Collins (free agent), Alfie Potter (free agent), Jimmy Spencer (free agent), Joel Byrom (Stevenage), Jack Thomas (free agent), Johnny Hunt (Stevenage), Rhys Bennett (Peterborough United), Zayn Hakeem (free agent) & Zander Diamond (free agent).

Predicted First XI & Shape:

Mansfield 1819

Tactics: Flitcroft has at his disposal real competition in every area of the pitch, save for right-back. Conrad Logan opts to punch rather than catch more often than not, and is particularly strong for a goalkeeper. Matt Preston has joined his old boss at Field Mill, and is undoubtedly one of the most promising centre-backs in League Two. Combining aerial prowess with controlled aggression, he also covers ground extremely quickly. Kristian Pearce is the leader in defence, and he should be able to forge a formidable partnership.

MalvindBenning possesses plenty of skill for a full-back and is an alternative option for direct free-kicks to Alex MacDonald. He will burst forward up the pitch to offer a wide outlet for his teammates. Hayden White will do much the same, but his crossing isn’t quite of the standard, and has a serious tendency to make rash decisions in tense situations.

If selected, Calum Butcher will hold fort in front of the backline, mopping up lofted balls forward to the opposition’s frontmen; he will compete with Will Atkinson, who has been taken off the transfer list. Probable captain Neal Bishop will dictate the tempo from deep, picking passes for the marauding full-backs and Jacob Mellis. The former Bury attacking midfielder also has a lot of technical ability and favours playing through balls to the strikers. His vision is his greatest asset, and he should get plenty of time on the ball.

Otis Khan’s dynamism is something Flitcroft will be leaning on considerably, as well as to take some of the burden away from Mellis when it comes to chance creation. He’s likely to cut in from the left to allow room for Benning to operate in, as well to lend support the striker(s).

Tyler Walker’s pace and finesse will cause chaos for his marker. He can play as a wide forward or through the middle, and will have the likes of Craig Davies, Lee Angol and Danny Rose to supply and receive the ball from. The former of the trio provides the greatest focal point and had a fruitful (half) season with Oldham Athletic in that role. Angol is also potent in the air, and allies that with a knack of timing his runs well to beat offside traps. Rose’s agility and ‘hangtime’ have seen him flourish in yellow and blue, as his goal tally in 2017/2018 illustrates in bold terms.

tyler walker
Carolyn Radford pulled off a real coup in persuading Nottingham Forest to send Tyler Walker on loan two tiers below; a precocious talent, he will prove to be matchwinner for Mansfield Town, if given the chance and creative freedom

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Play-off chasers; the squad is (pretty much) there; the financial clout from the Radfords is there. What’s still not there, however, is a manager who I feel who can employ a style of football that will please supporters and yield results. Flitcroft will be judged from the first whistle of 2018/2019, and I don’t think he will outstay his welcome if things don’t go his way immediately, but not through choice. In that event, it’s almost certain that someone else could come in and pick up the pieces if they’re of sufficient quality and have tactical nous. Of course, there’s every chance he could prove me wrong and the Stags will be celebrating promotion next May… but I just don’t think he ranks in the same bracket as a Tisdale, for example. That could be key.

League Two Club-by-Club Preview for 2018/2019: Milton Keynes Dons

2017/2018

Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

League One - 23rd (relegated); W 11 / D 12 / L 23 / F 43 / A 69 / Pts 45

Certainly showed me up! The issues at stadium:mk last season from an outsider’s point of view were threefold: long-term injuries to key players, poor management and huge question marks over the mentality of some of their more exciting talents. Robbie Neilson started the campaign confident of improving over 2016/2017’s forgettable effort (in fairness, he was only in charge for the latter half). They shook off an indifferent opening to accrue a sizeable points tally in September, before once again sliding badly, only triumphing once in the last three months of the calendar year in the league. Neilson was still afforded the majority of the winter transfer window, but his fate was sealed after the Dons fell into the bottom four after a 2-1 reverse against Northampton Town.

Dan Micciche was subsequently appointed – his only previous managerial role was with England U16s, so he was certainly a choice out of left-field for a struggling team. He failed to win a single match in his first seven in the dugout, and when they did hit a small patch of form, it wasn’t sustained. Much like trap-door rivals Bury, they then turned to a third man, Keith Millen, who was placed in temporary charge, but he couldn’t prevent the seemingly inevitable from occurring. A decade after their last spell in the basement division, the team most lower league fans regard with contempt* are back, having taken their time to appoint Paul Tisdale in the close season.

gilbey
Alex Gilbey’s knee injury has kept him out since February; a classy central midfielder and a crucial part of the squad, the Buckinghamshire outfit’s supporters will be hoping he can feature in the new campaign from the get-go, having gained some valuable minutes in last night’s friendly against Ipswich Town

Top Goalscorer: Chuks Aneke (9 goals in 26 starts/2,391 minutes)

Top Creator:  Chuks Aneke (7 assists in 26 starts/2,391 minutes)

2018/2019

Manager/Head Coach: Paul Tisdale; never a regular as a pro, the Maltese-born midfielder got into management whilst still in his 20s at Team Bath, leading the university team to an incredible four promotions, and an even more memorable run to the first round proper of the FA Cup in 2003. Three years later, he took over then-Conference side Exeter City, which was the start of a tenure that lasted well over a decade, an extremely rare feat in the modern era. He guided The Grecians to successive promotions, and, in 2010/2011, equalled their highest ever finish, narrowly missing out on the play-off places in League One.

Renowned for his fashion sense, Tisdale did suffer relegation, but the board kept faith with him, full in the knowledge that he was doing the best he could, working under a strict financial model that revolved around developing young players from within and without, and selling them then on for handsome profits, most of which would go straight back into improving the infrastructure off-field and keeping the club as a going concern. His last act as manager, other than becoming the longest-serving boss in the top four divisions, was to lead Exeter to the play-off final, only to lose to Coventry City. He couldn’t agree terms with the board, and perhaps seeking a fresh challenge with fewer constraints, made the journey eastwards to another side that seem a close match for his philosophy.

Ins: Robbie Simpson (Exeter City), Mitch Hancox (Macclesfield Town), Lawson D’Ath (Luton Town), Jordan Moore-Taylor (Exeter City), Ryan Watson (Barnet), Jordan Houghton (Chelsea U23s) & Ryan Harley (Exeter City).

Outs: Scott Wootton (Plymouth Argyle), Ben Tilney (Larne), Ed Upson (Bristol Rovers), Giorgio Rasulo (free agent), Hugo Logan (free agent), Connor Furlong (free agent) & Nigel Reo-Coker (free agent).

Predicted First XI & Shape:

MK Dons 1819

Tactics: Custodian Lee Nicholls has no major weaknesses to his game, being tall, light on his feet and adept at setting up counter-attacks with his accurate throwing. Tisdale has brought with him three players he knows very well; Jordan Moore-Taylor can operate on the left or in the centre, and can dictate play from the back, picking out teammates with raking balls forward and is also a creator of chances from long throws. George Williams also possesses plenty of positional flexibility. His jumping is second to none when you consider his height. Age is catching up with captain Dean Lewington, but he has competition for his spot with the capture of Mitch Hancox. His lack of pace could catch him out, but he ought to have the wherewithal to keep those instances to a minimum.

Despite his team’s demotion, Callum Brittain is still under close watch by a slew of scouts. He has the technical skills and consistency in his play to make the grade in more vaunted surroundings, and will rove with purpose if chosen at right-back. Jordan Houghton sits in front of the back four and uses his short passing skills to recycle possession and supply his compatriots ahead of him. He could be half of a double pivot if Alex Gilbey can be ready in time for the new season.

Conor McGrandles will shuttle between both boxes, and whilst he isn’t the most convincing in the tackle, he will give his opponents no peace. Ryan Harley could become the first choice set piece taker, using his free kicks to add guile to the craft Dons fans are likely to witness once more under their new manager. An immediate on-field issue for him will be coaxing the best out of Chuks Aneke. His attitude was woeful at times last season, and whilst few would dispute his talent, he needs to be focused and consistent in his actions. Nominally on the left, he will drift close to Kieran Agard when they have possession in the final third. What he doesn’t have in speed, he makes up for in almost every single other area of importance.

The agile Peter Pawlett is strong with both feet and can play anywhere in advanced midfield areas. His dribbling will unlock defences in tense encounters. The aforementioned Agard is not wholly persuasive as a target man, and looks better coming off the wing or with someone alongside him to feed him through balls to break offside traps set by their opponents. Osman Sow is more comfortable in this role, but as with several others, is beset with injury problems.

Milton Keynes Dons v Northampton Town - Sky Bet League One
Callum Brittain is another successful graduate of the academy, which is the foundation on which the club has been ‘built’; technically excellent, tactically flexible, he has a big future in the game

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Gunning for automatic promotion; there is some anxiety amongst the supporters that Tisdale’s relatively late appointment in an abridged close season might scupper any pretensions of a major tilt at the title or automatic promotion back to whence they came, before they’ve even begun. Whilst it’s certainly plausible, one factor in his favour is that the retained list only went out a week after he was in post, so he would’ve exerted at least some influence over the names on it. They are probably still short of at least one more striker, either to aid Agard or to usurp him. Tisdale is a canny operator, and should get the best from his charges. It might be a slower start than he himself would like, but I’m going to stick my neck out for MK once more and say that they should be there or thereabouts!

*Not an opinion I share!

League Two Club-by-Club Preview for 2018/2019: Yeovil Town

2017/2018

Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

League Two - 19th; W 12 / D 12 / L 22 / F 59 / A 75 / Pts 47

Darren Way’s Yeovil Town had a baptism of fire in their opening fixture of 2017/2018, being on the receiving end of a 8-2 monstering by Luton Town. Some notable wins were achieved in the early stages, most notably against eventual champions Accrington Stanley and Coventry City. Goals were never especially difficult to come by, but keeping them out was an entirely different matter. Midwinter was the best period and the bulk of their victories came in that spell, defying the doom-mongers. They saved their best performance by doing the double over The Sky Blues, putting six past them in a truly bizarre encounter.

Way’s charges upset many a betting slip with a finish of 19th, ensuring that The Glovers have featured in the bottom six for a fifth year in a row, including their consecutive relegations between 2013 and 2015.

Top Goalscorer: François Zoko (13 goals in 35 starts/3,041 minutes)

Top Creator:  Otis Khan (6 assists in 35 starts/2,919 minutes)

Zoko
François Zoko will be even more central to Yeovil Town’s survival chances than he was in 2017/2018; his physique lends itself extremely well to the rigours of fourth tier football, and his eye for goal might be the decisive factor in which division The Glovers compete in this time next year

2018/2019

Manager/Head Coach: Darren Way; the lion’s share of his playing career came at Huish Park. What ‘Weasel’ didn’t have in stature, he more than compensated for with his battling, energetic performances in midfield. He announced his retirement eight years after returning to the fold following an injury-plagued stint at Swansea City. Indeed, a serious accident off-the-field had him wheelchair-bound for a time, having to learn to walk all over again once he was on the slow path to recovery. Slowly rising the ranks in the backroom, Way has now been in charge at Yeovil for nearly three years, working wonders to keep them above the trap-door, and his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

Ins: Korrey Henry (West Ham United U18s), Nathan Baxter (Chelsea U23s on loan), Carl Dickinson (Notts County),  Sessi D’Almeida (Blackpool), Garry Warren (Inverness Caledonian Thistle) & Diallang Jaiyesimi (Norwich City U23s on loan).

Outs: Nathan Smith (free agent), Oscar Gobern (Eastleigh), Ryan Dickson (Torquay United), Daniel Alfei (free agent), Connor Smith (Boreham Wood), Artur Krysiak (free agent), Jonny Maddison (Darlington) & Otis Khan (Mansfield Town).

Predicted First XI & Shape:

Yeovil 1819

Tactics: With the first-team squad currently so small, a number of the above pick themselves. Stuart Nelson’s positioning is decent, which helps no end due to his propensity to come for crosses. Ahead of him, Tom James can play across defence, and might be one of the few in the division that starts as a left-footed right-back. His aerial ability is reasonably high, and he rarely gets caught out in behind. Bevis Mugabi is one to watch out for from set pieces and has been impressive in pre-season alongside stand-in captain Omar Sowunmi, who’s very much in the old-school fashion of centre backs and possesses colossal strength. On the left, Carl Dickinson will keep well in his own half, and is very aggressive in the tackle when he needs to be.

Sessi D’Almeida will cover plenty of ground in between defence and midfield, and his ability to link the two will be crucial to Yeovil retaining the ball and winning it back quickly when there’s a turnover. Rhys Browne is very fast and good on the dribble; his versatility will also doubtlessly come into play as the season wears on. Jordan Green is a steady influence on the right flank and will provide whipped crosses for the strikers to meet first time. Alefe Santos is a flair player, more at home on the wing but can also operate centrally when required. His understanding with the likes of François Zoko will be important, as will his runs into the area to provide greater numbers.

Zoko is a veteran at this level, and will surely be looked to both to score the goals and help develop the younger players on the roster, not least of whom is likely to be Diallang Jaiyesimi, a nippy wide forward by trade.

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If chosen, on-loan goalkeeper Nathan Baxter will surely face plenty of shots; however, despite being only 19, he has amassed more than 60 senior appearances away from his parent club, so his experience in struggling sides shouldn’t be easily disregarded

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Circling the relegation drain; there remains a lot of uncertainty regarding the playing squad. Clearly, only just being able to fill a bench is far from ideal (and that’s assuming they’re all available). This might help to build a siege mentality and also give opportunities for academy prospects at the Somerset outfit. Way is obviously operating with at least one hand proverbially tied behind his back, and it’s difficult to foresee any outcome other than another season of toil. They face Bury in less than two weeks on the opening day of 2018/2019 and will hope to swell their numbers before then, with the summer window closing early and leaving little time for substantial reinforcements. Zoko will lead the line admirably, but will that be enough? They’re my most certain choice for the lowest category at the time of writing.

League Two Club-by-Club Preview for 2018/2019: Tranmere Rovers

2017/2018

Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

National League - 2nd; W 24 / D 10 / L 12 / F 78 / A 46 / Pts 82
(won the play-offs)

Edged out by Forest Green Rovers in the previous season’s play-off final, Tranmere Rovers were determined from the outset not to allow a repeat of that disappointment taking place. However, Micky Mellon’s side were well off the pace in the opening dozen matches of the National League, plummeting as low as 18th, their lowest ever position at any time in their long and storied history. The Birkenhead outfit rallied from that embarrassment, suffering only two further defeats in 2017 and the strike partnership of Andy Cook and James Norwood proving extremely effective. Macclesfield Town were too far out in front to truly catch, and their 4-1 victory over Rovers proved to be a minor setback.

The extension of the fifth tier’s play-off system meant that they were fresher than their opponents Ebbsfleet United in the one-leg semi-final, which proved to be a decisive factor in extra time, Tranmere eventually running out 4-2 winners. In the Wembley showdown with Boreham Wood, the sending off of Liam Ridehalgh wasn’t the catalyst for the Herfordshire club to dominate proceedings; indeed, it was the Super White Army that struck first, but the lengthy amount of stoppage time did level things up. Norwood once more came up with the goods when it truly mattered, settling the tie with 10 minutes to spare and sending them back into the EFL after three years in the wilderness, but not for want of trying.

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James Norwood is prolific, but works best with someone up alongside him; Andy Cook’s departure has left Micky Mellon with a big gap to fill

Top Goalscorer:  Andy Cook (27 goals in 39 starts/3,490 minutes)

2018/2019

Manager/Head Coach: Micky Mellon; as a midfielder in his playing days, the Paisley-born man carved out his niche mainly in the north-west of England, most prominently for Blackpool, Burnley and Tranmere themselves, in what is a noticeable trend with League Two managers in 2018/2019. Initially dividing his time between the Turf Moor academy and managing Fleetwood Town (in an era when the latter were still very much a part of the non-league pyramid), the latter role was made permanent in 2009.

Eventually negotiating the then-Conference North via the play-offs in 2010, they got all the way to the deciders in the league above, before being routed 8-1 on aggregate by AFC Wimbledon. Mellon made no mistake the following season, winning the title and accruing over 100 points in the process. He was harshly dismissed by the ambitious Cod Army board, with the coastal club occupying seventh in League Two in 2012/2013.

His next mission was assisting David Flitcroft in keeping Barnsley in the Championship, which they managed to do on the final day. Flitcroft was sacked in November of the same year, but Mellon stayed on for several more months before also having his contract terminated.

He took up the cudgels at recently relegated Shrewsbury Town, he guided them to promotion back to League One at the first time of asking. With Salop struggling in 2016, he made the drop to Prenton Park before he was sacked, and will be now hoping to once again reach the third tier.

Ins: Ollie Banks (Oldham Athletic), Manny Monthe (Forest Green Rovers), Harvey Gilmour (Sheffield United on loan), Mark Ellis (Carlisle United), Paul Mullin (Swindon Town), Jake Caprice (Leyton Orient) & Shamal George (Liverpool U23s).

Outs: Mitch Duggan (free agent), Eddie Clarke (Fleetwood Town), James Wallace (Fleetwood Town), Drissa Traoré (free agent), James Kirby (Stockport County), Elliot Rokka (free agent), Devarn Green (Southport), Jay McEveley (Warrington Town), Andy Mangan (Bala Town), Jack Dunn (free agent), Jeff Hughes (Larne), Andy Cook (Walsall) & James Alabi (Leyton Orient).

Predicted First XI & Shape:

Tranmere 1819.PNG

Tactics: There are several plausible shapes for Mellon to try out with the current roster at his disposal. Looking at recent friendlies and the number of centre backs in the senior side, I think three of them are likely to feature in most instances. Luke Pilling has competition in the form of Shamal George, who signed earlier today. Both are adept at organising and communicating with their defence to ensure the structure remains solid. They will receive no shortage of help in this regard from captain Steve McNulty, who I have seen several times in the flesh when he was plying his trade for Luton Town. Infamous in the lower leagues, his looks are deceptive. Whilst he doesn’t possess any pace to speak of, his positioning is excellent, as is his uncanny ability to pick out teammates with a wide range of passes.

McNulty could be joined by Ritchie Sutton, who plays best as one of the wider centre backs in a trio, as he’s equally at home on the flank as he is in front of the goalkeeper. Manny Monthe is a giant defender, who lives up to his size with his aerial prowess in both boxes. Zoumana Bakayoko returns to Prenton Park shorn of some the raw speed he used to have, but he still relishes getting up the wing and supplying crosses for the strikers. His skills are mirrored on the right-hand side by Jake Caprice.

In midfield, Ollie Banks is the closest Tranmere will have to a holding midfielder in a 5-3-2.  He’s adept with both feet and this allows him to play searching balls over the top of the opposition’s defence for strikers to run onto from more angles. Ollie Norburn is an all-action central midfielder, who has found his niche in a white shirt. He should take command of free kicks too, and most of their positive play will be conducted by him. Connor Jennings can operate off the frontmen and in attacking midfield, so he will be the link man in this XI. He’s adept at shooting from range and using his good control of the ball to beat his marker and bring others into action.

Up front, James Norwood can comfortably start from the wing and cut inside, making him difficult to track. Equally, he has a variety of finishing techniques, as his sizeable haul from last term is testament to. His threat should not be underestimated. At the present time, he might be partnered by Paul Mullin, who can play across the top end of the pitch and is best utilised as the target of lofted crosses.

steve mcnulty
Steve McNulty is one of the most distinctive figures in recent times in the EFL’s lower reaches; sometimes mocked for his physique by fans of other teams, once they have seen him in action, they normally end up wishing they had him in their colours!

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Mid-table mediocrity; going slightly against the narrative of a promoted National League side being able to amble their way to a top-seven place in the EFL’s basement division, Tranmere nevertheless look the better equipped of the two from the fifth tier to have a positive impact. Mellon has slowly assembled a squad that contains numerous individuals that have attracted heavy interest from higher up the pyramid, and for good reason. They are a little short up front, but they have tactical flexibility from the bench (Larnell Cole and Ben Tollitt in particular) that can help nullify that issue, should a new player not be signed in time for the start of the campaign. Their defenders will undergo more frequent, thorough examinations than they have experienced recently, and it will be interesting to see how well they can cope.

League Two Club-by-Club Preview for 2018/2019: Stevenage

2017/2018

Record Last Season + Quick Summary: 

League Two - 16th; W 14 / D 13 / L 19 / F 60 / A 65 / Pts 55

Previous manager Darren Sarll would’ve been hoping for a bit more from The Boro, particularly given their five-game unbeaten start to the campaign. Things still looked rosy in September, and the Hertfordshire outfit were sitting comfortably in the play-offs. However, a long, sticky spell followed, with a single victory from the beginning of October until Christmas in the league; the 7-1 hammering by ‘rivals’ Luton Town was a portent of things to come. Sarll simply couldn’t coax any consistency from his players, and at no stage in the remainder of his tenure did they win twice in a row. Dino Maamria was brought in to replace him in mid-March, the first 10 results yielding the epitome of a mixed bag. That said, there is more (justified) optimism regarding the upcoming season…

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Relatively new manager Dino Maamria, renewing an association with the club that goes back 15 years, will be hoping to extract the best from some eyebrow-raising signings to propel Stevenage back into League One after what will be a half-decade absence in 2019

Top Goalscorer: Danny Newton (14 goals in 38 starts/3,262 minutes)

Top Creator: Ben Kennedy (7 assists in 24 starts/2,153 minutes)

2018/2019

Manager/Head Coach: Dino Maamria; the Tunisian-born manager signed for Burnley in 1996, and has remained in some part of the UK ever since, save for a brief time in the USL with Charleston Battery.  The former striker’s most fruitful period came at Leigh RMI (now Genesis), before moving south for The Boro in 2003. Upon his return from America, he again donned the red and white, remaining there for three years.

His first taste of management was as caretaker at Northwich Victoria, where he somehow masterminded survival from seemingly impossible odds and was named as the then-Conference Manager of the Year. Shortly into the subsequent season, he was sacked by the Trickies after being placed on gardening leave. Once more, he came back to the Lamex Stadium, this time as first-team coach under Graham Westley. He followed the divisive manager to Preston North End and then back to Stevenage in assistant roles. Upon Teddy Sheringham’s appointment and an all-too-brief time in charge at Southport, he gained his UEFA Pro Licence, linking up with Westley yet again at Newport County.

He struck out on his own st Nuneaton Borough in October of last year, finding them in a similar predicament to Northwich when he first cut his teeth as a manager. The same pattern followed, lifting the National League North side to within sight of the play-offs. Back in Hertfordshire, all eyes are on whether he can keep the quiet confidence the club have been building over the summer going, and transform it into something meaningful come the end of 2018/2019.

Ins: Scott Cuthbert (Luton Town), Jamal Campbell-Ryce (Carlisle United), Ben Nugent (Gillingham), Joel Byrom (Mansfield Town), Michael Timlin (Southend United), Johnny Hunt (Mansfield Town), James Ball (Stockport County), Emmanuel Sonupé (Kidderminster Harriers), Alex Reid (Fleetwood Town), Luther Wildin (Nuneaton Borough) & Paul Farman (Lincoln City).

Outs: Ben Wilmot (Watford), Tom Conlon (free agent), Fraser Franks (Newport County), Ryan Johnson (Kidderminster Harriers on loan), Chris Whelpdale (free agent), Jack King (Ebbsfleet United), Alex Samuel (free agent), Dale Gorman (Leyton Orient), Jamie Gray (free agent), Matt Godden (Peterborough United), Kevin Lokko (Dover Athletic) & Chris Day (free agent).

Predicted First XI & Shape:

Stevenage 1819

 

Tactics: Whilst not set in stone, the setup appears to be leaning heavily towards a more direct style of football this season. Paul Farman doesn’t, at the time of writing, have an understudy in goal, so he appears set to be #1. His ability to throw the ball long and accurately might not be called upon frequently, but could be a secret weapon for Maamria if a shift in emphasis is required. In front of him will be Ben Nugent and Scott Cuthbert. Both of them are more than competent centre backs in the fourth tier; the latter is more stocky and possesses immense strength, as well as being a danger in the opposition penalty area from set pieces. Nugent is also strong and brings balance to the duo with his left foot and is adept at timing a sliding tackle to perfection.

At full-back, Johnny Hunt and Ronnie Henry probably won’t be tasked with bombing forward; instead, they’ll be asked to retain the shape of the defensive line and only advance to close down space when the need is urgent. Joel Byrom and Michael Timlin will drop off out of possession to act add an intimidating extra shield. Both are excellent long passers with their left foot, strong and far from shy when it comes to getting stuck in.

Mamaria is blessed with an array of options for the right wing. Emmanuel Sonupé and Jamal Campbell-Ryce are the most prominent and might have to settle for rotation. The latter is 13 years his teammate’s senior, and can operate anywhere behind the striker. He’s most known for his balance, surprising aerial ability… and propensity to dive. He can still be a danger though, and could just as easily compete for a spot on the left with Ben Kennedy. Another versatile midfielder, he’s more agile than quick and quite aggressive. He has a tendency to avoid using his weaker foot, so his angled runs will be designed with that in mind.

Up top, possible captain Alex Revell will be putting himself about as he always has. A target man by build, his stamina is second-to-none, and he will be seeking to carry on his good goalscoring start to life at The Boro. His first touch helps bring in others to play, which is a key skill if, as expected, his strike partner is Alex Reid. Athletic and tall, he will be calling upon Revell’s know-how to remain a fixture in a match (and the team), as well as looking to lose his marker whenever possible.

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Last term’s Player of the Season Danny Newton might not even start, such is the stiff competition he now faces; if he does feature, he will drift wide to create space in the middle for late runners, as well as being a goalscoring force in his own right

Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Play-off chasers; Maamria appears to have bought well on the whole following the sale of outstanding prospect Ben Wilmot to neighbours Watford, especially down the spine of the team. They ought to be much tougher to beat in 2018/2019, as well as having more depth throughout, except between the sticks. The optimism engendered by the current look of the squad is shared by the fans, who will be right behind their manager and his charges from the get-go. The style of play might not always be the easiest on the eye, but they won’t care if it yields results. They’re most definitely a side to look out for in League Two.