This season, owing to certain circumstances and my new-found profession as a freelance writer, I’ve taken the opportunity to write team-by-team previews for every League One and Two side over on We Love Betting UK:
League Two - 13th; W 16 / D 14 / L 16 / F 53 / A 52 / Pts 62
As you’d expect finishing 13th and winning the same number of games as they lost, Colchester United’s season was quite mixed, with a low total of goals scored and conceded to boot. August and September weren’t kind to The U’s, yielding just three victories, although one of them was emphatic (5-1), teaching Forest Green Rovers a harsh lesson in what it took to be competitive in the EFL. The run-up to Christmas saw fortunes change, and the bulk of their triumphs were accrued during that period. The early months of 2018 were mostly characterised by low-scoring draws, giving John McGreal plenty of food for thought for the following season, as by this point, they were practically assured of fourth tier football, and were highly unlikely to trouble the top seven. Proceedings tailed off somewhat during the denouement, but there was still plenty of cause for optimism as the curtain fell on the campaign.
Top Goalscorer: Sammie Szmodics (12 goals in 29 starts/2,697 minutes)
Top Creator: Drey Wright (8 assists in 38 starts/3,366 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: John McGreal; I remember him from the ‘nearly’ side that were Tranmere Rovers in the early-to-mid-90s, lining up alongside the likes of John Aldridge and Eric Nixon; three times in a row, they lost out in the ‘old’ Division 1 play-offs, and the defender spent the peak years of his career in a white and blue jersey, amassing well over 200 appearances for the Birkenhead outfit. He sought a new challenge in 1999, and found it in the guise of Ipswich Town, helping them to win promotion to the Premier League, succeeding where he and his teammates back on the Wirral had failed so cruelly.
The Tractor Boys took the top flight by storm, finishing in an astonishing fifth position, qualifying for the UEFA Cup, as it was known at the time, and reaching it once more by virtue of the Fair Play rankings. The latter half of his stint at Portman Road was plagued by injuries, and he moved to Burnley in 2004, spending three years at Turf Moor. Upon release, and ironically failing to gain a contract after a trial at Colchester, McGreal started studying for his coaching badges, returning to the Suffolk side in an academy role.
He slowly climbed the ranks there, and in 2015, he was named as interim manager at United, overseeing a single game: a 5-1 defeat against Burton Albion. Subsequently, he became reserve team coach as part of Kevin Keen’s backroom staff. However, the latter left after their relegation to League Two at the end of that term, and McGreal was named as his permanent successor. In his nascent campaign, he steered the U’s to eighth, helped along by the goals of Chris Porter. Shorn of such a reliable source, they fell back slightly in 2017/2018, but he’s been backed in the transfer market during the summer.
Ins: Harry Pell (Cheltenham Town), Noah Chesmain (Millwall), Frank Nouble (Newport County), Ethan Ross (West Bromwich Albion U23s), Luke Norris (Swindon Town), Bailey Vose (Brighton & Hove Albion U23s) & Aaron Collins (Wolverhampton Wanderers on loan).
Outs: Doug Loft (Shrewsbury Town), Danny Jonhstone (Greenock Morton), Sam Walker (Reading), Craig Slater (Partick Thistle), Sean Murray (Vejle), Tommy O’Sullivan (free agent), Drey Wright (St Johnstone) & Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe (Bromley).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: I don’t think Dillon Barnes is nailed on to be #1 following the departure of Sam Walker to Reading in the long-term, but will be between the sticks for at least a while yet. His reflexes are his strongest suit, and he should line up behind a three-man backline, with the wider centre backs splitting off when Colchester are in possession, plugging the gaps left by the wing-backs who will be so high up the pitch as to resemble wide midfielders. Tom Eastman is an accurate passer with raking balls forward to the front or to the playmaker in the side, which will undoubtedly be Harry Pell. Frankie Kent is the youngest of the trio, and will hold fort close to Barnes. Luke Prosser is both tall and strong, and relishes putting these attributes to the test.
Defensive midfielder Tom Lapslie will work hard to ensure that the middle third of the pitch isn’t vacated by the forays forward by his teammates, organising them and covering when gaps are left with his customary sliding tackles. Brennan Dickenson has all the requisite skills to make the flank his own. He’s extremely quick, agile, and possesses good balance. Added to that, his early crosses can be laser-like, so he’ll need to be closed down by his opponents well before he reaches what would normally be considered dangerous territory. On the opposite side, Kane Vincent-Young’s qualities are not too dissimilar, and he can do so on either wing, owing to his favourable left foot.
Behind the front three, Pell will look to play angled through balls, both on the ground and over the top, in an attempt to disrupt the defensive line as much as possible, forcing them back; in doing so, he’ll have more room to operate in. He enjoys taking long shots, especially from direct free-kicks, and being the heartbeat of the team. Sammie Szmodics is technically brilliant, and is at his best when running straight at defenders. Another player in the ranks who tries his luck from range, he’ll have good options to pick out if he decides to look for a pass.
Competition for his spot could come in the form of Frank Nouble, who, although usually a striker, does operate wide left sometimes, and uses his physical prowess to dominate his marker. Mikael Mandron will be the target man if selected, operating in the half-space to create space for others. Luke Norris should be fit for the opening game on Saturday after overcoming a groin problem. Whilst not the largest in stature, he will go toe-to-toe with any centre back and fancy his chances of besting them. More importantly, he rediscovered his scoring touch at Swindon Town, and should be fashioned with numerous opportunities every match to trouble the leaderboard in 2018/2019.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Gunning for automatic promotion;I don’t know if this represents a bold call, but as I’ve said several times during these previews, none of the ‘existing’ League Two sides really have much to fear from those relegated from the tier above, with the possible exception of Milton Keynes Dons. Largely, McGreal has replaced those who’ve left the Colchester Community Stadium with better, more tactically flexible alternatives. In Pell, Szmodics and Norris, they have three of the most deadly individuals in the league, and depth in every position. Some might consider the Essex side less fashionable than the favourites to win the title in 2018/2019, but I believe they have a good a chance as anyone to lift the trophy come May. Bet against them at your peril.
League Two - 22nd; W 9 / D 19 / L 18 / F 41 / A 56 / Pts 46
A pretty awful campaign at first glance, with survival only obtained by virtue of a superior goal difference over Barnet, a stalemate away at eventual play-off winners Coventry City proving sufficient to retain their league status. Goals were a big struggle in 2017/2018, with fewer than one per game on average. Fortunately, with Barry Roche at the other end, Morecambe had one of the best goalkeepers in the division, and were actually pretty miserly when conceding goals, owing much to him and his defensive organisation.
Top Goalscorer: Callum Lang (10 goals in 14 starts/1,445 minutes)
Top Creator: Michael Rose (5 assists in 38 starts/3,418 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Jim Bentley; at just 42, the Liverpudlian is now the longest-serving manager in the top four tiers of English, following Paul Tisdale’s move from Exeter City to Milton Keynes Dons. As a player, he was once on Manchester City’s books, before seeking first team football with Telford United, and he spent five seasons with the Shropshire outfit. In 2002, he signed for Morecambe, plying his trade for The Shrimps for nine years; in the last couple of this spell, he started taking his coaching badges, becoming coach of the reserves and then the first team, in addition to still being registered to play.
However, once he was given the main job, he turned his attentions fully to the dugout in 2011. Since then, he has kept the Lancashire club in the EFL against all odds, and, such is the admiration their fans have for him, they held a bucket collection to raise £1,000 to pay off a fine he received from the FA in 2017. He sets his sides up to be technically competent, playing a quick passing game that’s pleasing on the eye. His closest brush with relegation came last season, and despite finishing in the bottom half for the lion’s share of his tenure, he’s admired universally throughout the lower leagues for his work on such a tight budget.
Ins: Jordan Cranston (Cheltenham Town), Lamin Jagne (free agent), Rhys Oates (Hartlepool United), Andrew Tutte (Bury), Carlos Mendes Gomes (West Didsbury & Chorlton), Dawid Szczepaniak (Airbus UK Broughton), Zak Mills (Grimsby Town), Jason Oswell (Stockport County), Liam Mandeville (Doncaster Rovers on loan) & James Sinclair (free agent).
Outs: Rhys Turner (Barrow), Patrick Brough (Falkirk), Danijel Nizic (Western Sydney Wanderers), Dean Winnard (free agent), Reece Deakin (free agent), Luke Jordan (free agent), Michael Rose (Macclesfield Town), Steven Yawson (free agent), Adam McGurk (free agent) & Aaron McGowan (Hamilton Academical).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: The transition from back to front will be rapid, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to long punts from the centre backs. The Shrimps will mix it up, adapting their style of play in order to unsettle the opposition. Barry Roche’s superb leadership always gives his fellow defenders a confidence boost, and he’s as capable a goalkeeper as any other plying their trade in League Two. Nominal captain Alex Kenyon can operate in the heart of defence and as a pivot, using his good range of passing, strength and left foot to full effect. Steven Old is best known for timing his interceptions well, which is another key skill in an outfit that might be on the back foot for most of their encounters.
At left-back, Luke Conlan challenges for the ball well when in the air, and tracks back quickly if caught up the pitch and Morecambe are countered on. Zak Mills uses his weaker foot a considerable amount of time, which helps him not to be too predictable when engaging his marker. The base of the midfield will contain Andrew Fleming more often than not, and his positional flexibility and agility enable him to cover the space between the lines admirably, and he really gets stuck in when it’s called for. Andrew Tutte, when fit, will do much the same task, but looks most at home when breaking forward with the ball, and he’ll be a danger for any side that invite him to hit one from outside of the 18-yard box.
Even at 39, Kevin Ellison can still hang with players half his age. His free-kicks remain deadly, and his game management ensures he makes the most of his experience and stamina reserves. Aaron Wildig will spend the most time on the ball in advanced areas, looking to bring Ellison and the other attackers into play. His movement is very good, and his low centre of gravity gets him out of tight spots. Adam Campbell is particularly versatile, and this can make it difficult for markets to pick him up. He tends to place his shots rather than opt for power, and his dribbling skills can unlock defences, creating opportunities for him or one of his teammates.
There is a substantial number of contenders for the lone striker role. Carlos Mendes Gomes is highly regarded, but he might have to settle for 20-minute cameos from the bench as he’s eased into full-time football. Liam Mandeville could be the first crack of the whip, and he can get up well for a 5’11” centre forward. His composure in front of goal could be the difference between a draw and a defeat, especially if clear-cut chances are at a premium.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Circling the relegation drain;although I have the north-west club in the lowest group, it’s not an indictment of their manager, nor of their players. Many of the contingent brought through the doors this summer are extreme punts – that’s simply the nature of the beast, and if one or two come off quickly, they will vindicate the transfer policy and then some. Bentley has always done an admirable job with the resources he’s been given, and there’s no reason to suggest that that will change in 2018/2019. The openness of the division does give a side like Morecambe a decent opportunity to make a mockery of my prediction, and unlike many others who will be down there come next May, they already have in place pretty much an entire squad, with at least two players fighting it out for every role. This is most true in attack, and as a consequence, they should trouble the scoresheet more regularly than last term.
League Two - 17th; W 13 / D 12 / L 21 / F 67 / A 73 / Pts 51
A strange campaign for Gary Johnson’s men. The goals of Mo Eisa, a predatory striker plucked from relative obscurity at Greenwich Borough, proved to be one of the stories of 2017/2018. The creativity of Harry Pell and several others ensured he always had a reliable supply of chances to make the most of, but the problem was keeping them out at the other end. The Robins conceded three or more times in a match on 10 separate occasions, hampering their efforts to attain a comfortable mid-table position. Several fallow, winless periods marked the season, despite their collective potency. Additionally, only once did they manage to put together a sequence of wins, and the last four games all ended in defeat, giving a more lop-sided complexion to proceedings than ought to have been the case.
Top Goalscorer: Mo Eisa (23 goals in 45 starts/3,758 minutes)
Top Creator: Harry Pell (5 assists in 32 starts/2,914 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Gary Johnson; never a particularly successful player, the father of Bristol City head coach Lee built up a business that mixed the sport and holidays together. He studied for his badges for six years, before assuming a post at Newmarket Town in 1986. He came to greater prominence as assistant to John Beck at Cambridge United in the early 90s, being a key man in their rise from the fourth to the second tier. He took over permanently in 1993, moving to Kettering Town two years later. Most intriguingly, he was the Latvia boss from 1999 to 2001, overseeing their respectable Euro 2000 qualification campaign, finishing with a positive goal difference and a mere four points from a play-off spot.
Arguably, Johnson’s most successful period as a manager was his first stint with Yeovil Town, taking them from the doldrums of the then-Conference to the ‘old’ Division Two in the space of three seasons, which included winning the fifth tier championship by a margin of 17 points, only missing out on the play-offs by goal difference in the second term, then becoming title winners once more, amassing 90 points.
Bristol City came calling in 2005, and he quickly steadied the ship, taking them from 22nd to 9th in the first campaign, then securing runners-up spot and automatic promotion on the final day of 2006/2007. Remarkably, he almost took them to the Premier League, only missing out in the play-off final to Hull City. His fortunes waned in short interludes at both Peterborough United and Northampton Town, and these were measured in months.
He returned to Huish Park in 2012, masterminding their promotion to the Championship, which remains the highest league The Glovers have ever been in. In an ultra-competitive division, he couldn’t keep his charges up, winning just eight matches. The rot didn’t end there, and he was relieved of his duties in February 2015, not long before they suffered a double relegation, both occasions finishing bottom of the pile.
Although Cheltenham didn’t escape the same fate upon his appointment, he was kept on, and won an instant return to the EFL, winning the National League and racking up over 100 points. Easily the most experienced manager in League Two, he’ll be hoping to use that to his advantage, particularly in tight encounters.
Ins: Alex Addai (Mertsham), Ryan Broom (Bristol Rovers), Chris Hussey (Sheffield United), Tom Smith (Swindon Town), Conor Thomas (ATK), Sean Long (Lincoln City), Johnny Mullins (Luton Town), Ben Tozer (Newport County), Josh Debayo (Leicester City U23s), Manny Duku (Hayes & Yeading United) & Jacob Maddox (Chelsea U23s on loan).
Outs: Mo Eisa (Bristol City), Harry Pell (Colchester United), Josh Thomas (Gloucester City), Dan Holman (free agent), Danny Wright (Solihull Moors), Jamie Grimes (Macclesfield Town), Jerrell Sellars (Östersunds), Jordan Cranston (Morecambe), Sanmi Odelusi (Halifax Town), Carl Winchester (Forest Green Rovers), Aaron Downes (retired), Adam Page (free agent), Jaanai Gordon (free agent) & Brian Graham (Ross County).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Goalkeeper Scott Flinders is a little on the slow side to move off his line, and this is an area that could be identified as a weak link. That said, he is a competent shot-stopper, and is one of the more willing custodians in the fourth tier to come up for corners late in the game, when things are desperate.
Captain Johnny Mullins should bring with him from Luton Town an assuredness to the backline that was lacking in 2017/2018. Excellent in the air and a warrior on the ground, that combination will help The Robins from giving away both goals and chances quite as readily. He’ll take William Boyle under his care, coaching him through some of the hairier situations they’ll come up against. As a duo, they will make forwards work hard for openings.
The full-backs on the flanks should be more expansive this time round. Chris Hussey’s reputation precedes him when it comes to roving into the final third, and both his crossing and delivery from set pieces are normally outstanding. His main weakness is his defensive positioning, but there’s reason to believe that the conservative look of the likely midfield trio will act as a countermeasure to that shortcoming. Ryan Broom will have it out with Sean Long for the slot on the right; the former is the mirror of Hussey in his movements, the latter a more pragmatic, safety-first defender.
Nigel Atangana is another in the XI who’ll take few prisoners, being the bulwark between the lines and an intimidating physical presence. He, along with his teammates in the centre of the park, will look to recycle the ball out wide when they win it back. Ben Tozer gets plenty of purchase on his long throws, and his propensity to sit deep will make it harder for opponents to break Cheltenham down through the middle, forcing them into the wider spaces. Conor Thomas might be the only one of the three who’ll burst forward with any regularity, supporting Manny Duku in periods when The Robins can retain the ball in the channels to provide another body to aim for in the penalty area.
Liam McAlinden won’t hug the touchline, drifting inside but still favouring his left peg, to support the lone striker; this also allows for the characteristics of Hussey to come to the fore, most evidenced in his overlapping runs. McAlinden is a goal threat, and will be helped by the positivity of Jacob Maddox on the opposite side, who’ll need to prove he can use his passing and movement on and off the ball in a senior environment and retain his effectiveness. The aforementioned Duku is,one of only two strikers on the books, and won’t have the luxury of time to set down a marker, but like Eisa and Gold Omotayo at Bury, is another non-league prospect in his early-to-mid-20s, who could well make a mockery of the giant step up from Hayes & Yeading, basing his play on stealing half a yard of space with his back to goal, and more crucially, making quick decisions when he does have the ball at his feet.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Safe but sorry; both the board and Johnson will have foreseen and prepared for the sale of Eisa long before it came. Whilst there’s just a week remaining in the permanent transfer window, Robins fans can still expect at least one more striker to come in, particularly as the sale of Brian Graham was sanctioned earlier today. They should concede fewer goals in 2018/2019, but the lack of depth in attacking areas could be a big issue, even if the manager is able to reinvest most of the transfer fee received for Eisa in further recruits. I don’t see them troubling the top half of the table, but they should remain an exciting side to watch when on their game.
League Two - 4th; W 24 / D 8 / L 14 / F 64 / A 54 / Pts 80
(Lost in the play-off final)
Oh so close. Paul Tisdale’s men just fell short in the play-off final, losing 3-1 to an imperious-looking Coventry City side. The Grecians started their campaign off in superb fashion, winning seven and drawing one of the opening eight games. That level of consistency was always going to be hard to sustain, with no real sequences of any sort occurring for the remainder of 2017, undoing some of their momentum. The subsequent calendar year was more fruitful, and they rallied back into a comfortable position in the top seven. In the semi-final, Danny Cowley and Lincoln City were tactically outwitted over two legs by the Devon side, which was exceedingly rare last term. Unfortunately, they couldn’t best the Sky Blues, and Tisdale, perhaps sensing that it was now or never to chance his arm elsewhere, sought pastures new at Milton Keynes Dons. Matt Taylor was promoted from the U23s in his place.
Top Goalscorer: Jayden Stockley (20 goals in 37 starts/3,472 minutes)
Top Creator: Hiram Boateng (6 assists in 31 starts/2,874 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Matt Taylor; the 36 year-old had to bide his time before making a breakthrough as a player, converting from a goalkeeper to a centre back in the early stages of his semi-professional career, turning out for the likes of Rossendale United (now defunct) and Matlock Town. Whilst studying part-time at university, he caught the eye of Team Bath’s scouts, spending a season there before progressing to St. James Park for the first time. He impressed almost immediately, earning a new contract in less than half a year, amassing over 150 appearances before moving to Chris Powell’s Charlton Athletic. His subsequent spell at Bradford City didn’t work out as planned, dropping down with Cheltenham Town and Newport County, rounding off his time in the Roman city once more, but with the National League South outfit. He now finds himself in his first senior managerial post after a successful spell working with the development and academy squads.
Ins: Nicky Law (Bradford City), Aaron Martin (Oxford United), Lee Martin (Gillingham), James Oates (Hereford), Jonathan Forte (Notts County) & Tristan Abrahams (Norwich City on loan).
Outs: Joel Randall (Tiverton Town on loan), Ryan Brunt (free agent), Alex Byrne (free agent), Jordan Moore-Taylor (Milton Keynes Dons), Josh Key (Tiverton Town on loan), Alex Hartridge (Truro City on loan), Robbie Simpson (Milton Keynes Dons), Danny Seaborne (Derry City), Ryan Harley (Milton Keynes Dons), Max Smallcombe (Truro City on loan), Troy Archibald-Henville (free agent), Liam McAlinden (free agent), Lewis Williams (free agent), Jordan Storey (Preston North End) & Lloyd James (Forest Green Rovers).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Christy Pym played every game for the Grecians in goal last season, and has no major weaknesses to his game, being particularly competent with his reflexes. The back four has a conservative complexion to it, with neither full-back instructed to get forward with any abandon. Troy Brown is excellent in the air, and a real threat in the opposition penalty area as a consequence, using every part of his body to out-muscle the nearest man. Aaron Martin’s best aspect is his ability to mark forwards out of the game, and that’s something that will be called upon frequently. Dean Moxey’s crossing is more accurate than almost anyone in his position in the fourth tier, but does have a tendency to pick up many yellow cards. Pierce Sweeney will hold fort in the defensive third, and is hesitant to leave the area he patrols.
Hiram Boateng is a dynamic figure in midfield, playing in between the lines and offering an outlet for his teammates in multiple phases of play. He also pops up with telling balls of his own on a fairly frequent basis, and alongside Nicky Law, the duo will cover plenty of ground. The latter possesses outstanding vision and the stamina to make a two-man partnership in the engine room work. Captain Jake Taylor can operate across the middle of the pitch, but is most at home wide right. His agility will keep things ticking over for his namesake, and he will be tasked with the majority of the set pieces they earn. Lee Holmes is a good technical dribbler, has no shortage of flair and a low centre of gravity – these three ingredients are crucial to retaining the ball in the channels.
Up top, Jonathan Forte has joined the squad, and he brings a strong left foot, a change of direction and blistering pace with him. He’ll weigh in with his share of goals, but the real threat is Jayden Stockley. A natural finisher as his 20 strikes last term are testament to, he’ll be well supplied by his compatriots, and should, all things being equal, come close to matching his haul in the months to come.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Mid-table mediocrity;I’ve seen several predictions that don’t make for happy reading for Grecians fans. The common narrative is that Paul Tisdale was working with at least one figurative hand tied behind his back, hitting the glass ceiling time and time again. Matt Taylor has seen Tisdale’s methods at close quarters, and I’m not anticipating a paradigm shift overnight. The tried and tested strategies that have worked for Exeter in the past will still be utilised, and whilst the dominating figure of Stockley leads the line, they will always be at the very least competitive, even if they now find themselves with a novice manager, and some of their better talents siphoned off to Buckinghamshire.
National League (champions) 1st; W 27 / D 11 / L 8 / F 67 / A 46 / Pts 92
John Askey’s charges would’ve been hoping for a tilt at the National League play-offs at the start of the campaign, but never in their wildest dreams would they have envisaged becoming champions by a 10-point margin. A thoroughly mixed bag in August didn’t give the ardent supporters at the Moss Rose any particular cause for optimism, but the narrow win over Dover Athletic on the 25th of that month was to be the start of a bountiful sequence, gaining maximum points in eight of the subsequent 10 games. Another slightly sticky patch followed, but their score draw against favourites Tranmere Rovers was an indication of their quality. More victories were followed, and even a 6-0 shellacking against moneyed Fylde didn’t slow their momentum for long.
A 4-1 thrashing away to the Birkenhead outfit in the February return fixture was another yardstick with which to measure their excellent progress. A miserly total of two losses in 2018 saw the Silkmen lift the title at a canter in early April, but Askey decided not to stick around for their first campaign back in the EFL for six years, making the short journey south to third tier Shrewsbury Town on the 1st of June. The board took a few weeks to appoint a replacement, opting for Mark Yates, whose exploits at Solihull Moors in saving them from almost certain relegation, might be called upon once more.
Top Goalscorer: Scott Wilson (14 goals in 23 starts/2,082 minutes)
Manager/Head Coach: Mark Yates; as a player, the Birmingham native mostly stuck to the Midlands, signing pro terms with this boyhood club in 1988 and remaining there for a further three years. A move up north to Burnley didn’t work out as planned, and he found himself at Doncaster Rovers for a season, before a transfer to Conference side Kidderminster Harriers, who were riding high during the mid-90s in an era of one-up, one-down. Coincidentally, he was part of the Kiddy side who blew a massive lead in 1997, eventually losing out to the side he now manages. He got the success he craved at local rivals Cheltenham Town, securing two promotions with The Robins during his time there.
He returned to Worcestershire in 2004, helping to save Harriers from the drop back into non-league. That feat achieved, he hung up his boots, becoming a first team coach under Steve Cotterill back at Turf Moor. He struck out on his own with the two sides he spent the longest spells with as a player. He came very close twice with Cheltenham to getting them up to League One, losing out in the play-offs in successive seasons. He was sacked in 2014, with the Robins in a poor position in late November. His tenure at Crawley Town lasted less than a year, and he had to wait quite a while for another chance at management, which came at Solihull Moors. With just 11 points from 19 games upon his arrival, he somehow managed to steer them to safety, winning almost half their remaining matches. His efforts were rewarded by the Silkmen, and he’ll have another campaign in the EFL to look forward to.
Ins: Michael Rose (Morecambe), Harry Smith (Millwall), Rhys Taylor (Fylde), Miles Welch-Hayes (Bath City), Ben Stephens (Stratford Town), Callum Evans (Forest Green Rovers), Jamie Grimes (Cheltenham Town), Nathan Blissett (Plymouth Argyle), James Pearson (Kidderminster Harriers), Fiacre Kelleher (Oxford United on loan) & Callum Maycock (Coventry City on loan).
Outs: Diego De Girolamo (free agent), Mitch Hancox (Milton Keynes Dons), Courtney Richards (free agent), Noe Baba (Waterford), Sam Ramsbottom (free agent), Danny Whitehead (Salford City), Shwan Jalal (Chesterfield), Kieran Kennedy (Shrewsbury Town), Josh Thompson (free agent) & George Pilkington (retired).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
Tactics: Elliott Durrell’s groin operation could mean that unless some eleventh hour signings are made, the midfield area desperately lacks width, and Yates might be forced to deploy someone out of their favoured position to compensate, or risk playing narrow. The late signing of Rhys Taylor is the reason this preview didn’t come out much sooner; currently, he’s the only senior goalkeeper in the squad. Playing second fiddle at Fylde is not the ringing endorsement fans require, and he’s probably going to do the same for the Silkmen, once another custodian is secured. In the meantime, his indecisiveness when faced with crosses into the area will be a cause for concern.
Ahead of him, loanee Fiacre Kelleher is an archetypal centre back, who will be tasked with winning headers and clearing his lines before any other considerations are entertained. Jamie Grimes is his more experienced partner, whose long balls from defence are reasonably accurate, and he can cover ground more quickly. On the flanks, David Fitzpatrick could get the nod, and his preferred role as a winger might perversely help Macc out of congested areas and relieve pressure, with plenty of bodies in deep areas if possession is lost. Captain Jared Hodgkiss will do much the same on the right, supplying early crosses to the strikers.
Callum Maycock will buzz about between the lines, offering high energy and protection to the backline, as well as the pivot of choice to recycle the ball to more advanced teammates. Michael Rose is a dead-ball specialist, and marries that with accurate long-range shots from open play. Danny Whitaker might be 38 in the coming season, but he can still perform admirably. Another who likes having a pop from distance, he’s also good at spraying passes to the strikers and bringing others into play. Koby Arthur is a dynamic option behind the forwards, preferring to press high up the pitch and is best when the ball is moved at a quick tempo.
Nathan Blissett moves well for a target man, and is far from a stationary figure for his compatriots to pick out. Scott Wilson should join him, using his pace and dribbling to unsettle defences and win any knockdowns from Blissett. There is plenty of faces vying for these spots, and it would be remiss not to mention Harry Smith, a tall, rangy player, who recently took some time away from the game to deal with some mental health and addiction issues, but has since returned, and he will be hoping to hit the ground running in a new environment.
Predicted ‘Area’ of Finish: Circling the relegation drain;the Silkmen are still a few players short of a full deck, most notably on the flanks, between the sticks and a bona fide playmaker. Losing Askey to Shrewsbury, Danny Whitehead back down a division to the behemoths at Salford City, and Elliott Durrell to injury are all grievous blows in their own right. Mark Yates has plenty of experience of managing in the EFL, but he’ll have his work cut out from the outset to avoid a slow start. There’s still a little bit of time remaining in the window to augment his roster, and goals shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Preventing them might be much trickier, however, and it’s difficult to foresee anything but a pitched battle not to return from whence they came.
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)
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.
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).
Predicted First XI & Shape:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Top Goalscorer: Uche Ikpeazu (13 goals in 36 starts/3,301 minutes)
Top Creator: Jevani Brown (8 assists in 35 starts/3,169 minutes)
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:
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.
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 - 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.
Top Goalscorer: Jordan Bowery (12 goals in 32 starts/2,964 minutes)
Top Creator: George Cooper (9 assists in 22 starts/1,989 minutes)
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:
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.
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.
Analysing The Shakers, League One & Two, and Local English & Welsh Football