Written by Alex Scott (images by Kieran Wilkinson)
A summer of revolution at the club has seen a number of City’s established icons over the last couple of seasons depart for pastures new, as Phil Parkinson looks to revamp his approach under new financial constraints.
City’s playing budget has been slashed by over £600,000 on last season, which in footballing terms is around £11,000 a week in salary. With a number of expensive carryovers into the new season (Aaron McLean, Mark Yeates and Andrew Davies), and a couple of deserved expensive new contracts dished out (Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle), sacrifices have had to be made elsewhere.
This is the backdrop to this new season where expectations are mighty difficult to set until the games begin, and the season does not exactly start easily.
We will be taking a look at the team’s prospects over the week, ahead of the opener against Coventry; but over the next couple of days we’re going to look at the ins and outs, and what the player’s expectations will be going into the new season. First, the strength of the team coming into the new season: the backline.
In: Jordan Pickford (Sunderland – season long youth loan); Out: Jon McLaughlin; Arron Jameson (End of loan)
Last season (Burton Albion, Carlisle United): 30 games, 41 goals conceded.
Contract expiry date: June 2015
The arrival of the 20-year old Sunderland stopper signalled the end of Jon McLaughlin’s six-year tenure at the club, emphasising yet again that nothing ever stands still, and in the end, money talks. McLaughlin had been described as “desperate to stay” and given his improvement over the last 18 months, his renewal seemed something of a slam-dunk.
Alas, given the budgetary constraints evident going into this season, there just wasn’t the money available to offer McLaughlin a competitive deal, with the club instead opting to save money and gamble on Pickford.
Pickford’s one season as a professional didn’t go all to plan, as he ended the season relegated from League One with Carlisle. That probably does him a disservice (they had long standing defensive issues before he arrived), and he did manage to keep seven clean sheets in his 18 starts for the Cumbrian team. They only managed five other shutouts in the 34 games he didn’t appear.
That said he left Burton Albion mid-table, with a below average goal concession record (20 in 16 games), and they ended up almost succeeding in the play offs, with the fourth best defence in the division, only conceding 22 goals in the 30 games he missed. So, swings and roundabouts.
Pickford comes with a good pedigree; he is highly rated and is an England under-19 international. He will be looking for a full season in League One, playing behind a solid defence. This season is all about experience for him. From the club’s point of view, Pickford will be a significant gamble until proven otherwise, but it has been dictated that the cloth must be cut, and if that means placing an inexperienced young keeper behind the expensively retained defensive line instead of a proven, experienced, homegrown talent entering his prime in McLaughlin, then needs must.
In: Alan Sheehan (Notts County); Out: Matthew Bates (Hartlepool), Adam Drury, Carl McHugh (Plymouth), Matt Taylor (Cheltenham)
Last season: 46 games, 0 goals
Contract expiry date: June 2017
The man who would be King. Darby represents the big winner of the last twelve months, following his sweep of the Player of the Year awards with a new contract and an elevation to club captain. Entering last season, his play was a clear strength of the team, although it was to be seen how well his form would translate in a higher division. If anything, he performed better last season than the season before and was a key cog in one of the division’s better defences.
This season, things are much clearer. Stephen Darby is one of the better right backs at this level, and given his eighty plus appearances in the past two seasons at the club, is the modicum of reliability. Only 25, Darby has his best years ahead of him, and the next three of those will be at Valley Parade, entering his prime.
The only question Darby has to answer surrounds his elevation to club captain. Gary Jones was an instantly iconic figure in City folklore, and being the man to follow in his footsteps cannot be an easy task, even for someone as close to him as Darby. Quieter by personality, it will be interesting to watch how he approaches his new role, especially if things don’t go to plan quickly.
Darby is about to begin a new phase of his journey at the club. His consistent excellence will no longer be the only barometer of his success. With the extrication of a number of the leaders amongst the dressing room over the summer, the burden will fall onto the experienced heads in the back line to set the tone, Darby in particular. How he imposes his personality on the team, and the club as a whole, will likely be of greater importance than his play on the field.
Last season: 41 games, 3 goals
Contract expiry date: June 2017
Rory McArdle is in a similar boat to Darby. The recipient of a three-year extension, McArdle and the club are betrothed for the foreseeable future. He has proven over the past few years that he can play a key role in an excellent defence at this level. When playing alongside Andrew Davies last season, the defensive record was play off calibre, only to be undermined by the club’s attacking players, and injuries as the season wore on.
More of the same will do for McArdle, and he shares the same consistency in output as his counterpart outside at right back. Similarly to Darby, his new-found seniority at the club will be as important as his play on the field. There is a lot of change happening in front of the Northern Irishman and his counterparts in defence; they will be relied upon to keep the ship steady in the early season, and help Parkinson exert his will on the new recruits.
Last season: 28 games, 1 goal
Contract expiry date: June 2015
Andrew Davies enters this season, his fourth at the club, as clearly the team’s most important player. Since the loss of the attacking luminaries, and the midfield heartbeats of the past few years, the burden now falls predominantly on the defensive line. Whereas Stephen Darby’s importance is driven by a sustained excellence, Davies’ value is defined by the heights he can reach in the short term spells he is on the field.
Since arriving at the club three seasons ago, Davies has made 82 league appearances, almost 40% of his career total. Injuries have plagued his career, and his period at Valley Parade has been much of the same. He’s played almost three full seasons at Valley Parade, and has only made between 26 and 28 league appearances in each campaign.
To now predict a 46 game season would be folly. He has broken the 30-game barrier in a season once in his career, in 2006. In fairness, a number of the subsequent seasons he has spent time on the sidelines through selection as much as injury troubles, however the point remains valid. It may be that this season, as he turns 30, will be the one in which he can break through and play a full season, but there is little evidence to support planning on that basis. In fact, probably the only reason City are able to attract a player of his calibre is because of his inconsistency of fitness.
This is especially pointed this season after the loss of other key players over the last few years. Looking at the squad on paper as currently constructed, and the act of removing Andrew Davies leaves the rest of the squad looking distinctly average. How City replace Davies for the 15-20 games he misses will go a long way to defining how far they go this season.
For Davies, he is entering another contract year, his age thirty season. If he can make it through the season without getting hurt, not only should the club succeed, he will have a much easier job marketing himself on the free agent market come the summer. At his age, the next contract will likely be the last substantial one, and it may be that next summer will be the last crack he has to catch on and prove himself in the Championship. His performance level will not be a worry; he is an elite defender at this level. He just needs to stay on the field.
Last season: N/A
Contract expiry date: June 2015
Niall Heaton, just 18, is following the footsteps of Oli McBurnie into the first team squad, taking up the position vacated by Carl McHugh who has moved down to Plymouth. A former starlet, Heaton left Valley Parade as a 14-year old to join Liverpool, before being released last summer, returning to the club he left three years before.
A young centre half-cum-left back should be able to gain some good experience this season travelling around with the first team squad; however, extensive first team action appears unlikely given the nature of his position in the squad, and two experienced talented left backs occupying his primary route to the field.
For Heaton, his eyes will be fixed on attaining a new contract next summer. His current commitment expires in the summer, and if he is able to be in the first team squad this time next year, the season will have been a success for him. Any time on the field for Heaton will be a bonus.
Last season (Notts County): 42 games, 7 goals
Contract expiry date: June 2016
Alan Sheehan arrives at Valley Parade as the only new starter in the back five. The former Notts County full back was signed to replace James Meredith who spurned the club’s initial advances of a new deal. As it turned out, Meredith is back at the club, accepting reduced terms on a one-year deal.
However, taking into account the relative salary invested in each player, people should be under no illusions as to who will be the de facto starter to begin the season at least. A talented, attacking left back, Sheehan is a set piece specialist who should have room to flourish in Parkinson’s new narrow system.
After making his debut as an 18-year old for then-Championship side Leicester, the Irish under-21 international could have been forgiven for having higher hopes than League One at this stage of the career. Some unfortunately-timed injuries and career moves (Road, Elland) have hindered his progress up the football ladder. That said, as he now enters his peak, at the beginning of a two-year contract, Sheehan will have a secure platform to now kick on and reach his potential.
City will be hoping that the competition for his position will bring out the best in Sheehan, and if he could live up to his reputation, the 27-year old Irishman could strengthen City’s already strong backline.
Last season: 24 games (2 sub), 0 goals
Contract expiry date: June 2015
To say things haven’t gone to plan for Meredith since January is probably an understatement. Adapting well to the third tier, the 26-year old was entering a purple patch with pipedreams of the Australian World Cup squad. Things went quickly downhill after the New Year, with a broken bone in his right foot, resulting in him missing almost the entire rest of the season.
Like teammate Jon McLaughlin, Meredith eschewed the opportunity to sign a two year deal in the summer, rolling the dice on obtaining more money elsewhere, a perfectly valid decision for a 26-year old who only began his Football League career in earnest two years ago. However, things didn’t go to plan with his options elsewhere evaporating, and his gig at Valley Parade being awarded to Alan Sheehan.
In the end, Meredith decided to return to the club on reduced terms on a one-year commitment, hoping to have another go at the market next season. However, how he approaches that is a huge question.
Sheehan will undoubtedly start on the left side of defence, at least initially, for Parkinson’s men, and Meredith’s lack of versatility is looking like it may be about to haunt him. Perhaps the only other string to his bow is left midfield, but City look ever more likely to move away from wide men, showcasing their new central midfield. The Australian did appear last year in central midfield with mixed returns; this may be a focus for him in pre-season to increase his chances at playing time.
It may be that the versatility of Sheehan may save the day for Meredith. If Andrew Davies was to miss time in the centre of defence, it may be that Parkinson opts to slide Sheehan across inside, freeing up a slot for Meredith on the left, rather than promoting Niall Heaton.
With an expiring contract, reduced wages, and no clear route to playing time, Meredith is in a bit of a bind. He needs playing time for his own sake next summer to prove to potential suitors he can do it at this level, and he wants that to come at left back to give him the best opportunity to prove what he can do. He needs to ensure that he is ready when his opportunity comes, and he surely has the talent at this level, but the outlook is gloomy for James Meredith.