By Paul Marshall
Now the dust has settled, the fixtures are out and the stark reality of League Two football has sunk in, the rebuilding job is well on its way for the upcoming season.
Players have rightfully been released, others have been offered contracts and we have secured eight signings that totally fit Gary Bowyer’s blueprint for League Two football. The rebuilding of the squad has moved at very positive pace, but the backroom staff – which have thankfully just about been filled now – have taken a little longer than would have been expected.
After watching some of the League Two play offs games, the standard of football is again a huge drop in quality in comparison to some of the football played, by other teams, in League One last season. You forget how different certain aspects of the game are when compared to the division above.
League Two is all about strength, aggression, winning individual battles, defending set pieces and having the ability to quickly turn defence into attack. The defensive signings that we have made indicate that this was an aspect of our game that needed to be addressed, which Bowyer has, and the new players again fit in to this plan.
The reality is that our higher earners, more than likely, will hopefully be allowed to find new clubs to enable us to move on and start to plan for next season. Rumours around what certain players are earning (receive) seem to fluctuate dependent on which ‘source’ it comes from. Eoin Doyle and Sean Scannell both seem to be high on that list, Anthony O’Connor, Hope Akpan and Joe Riley you would have thought would be next in line.
I doubt that any of these players, if offered, would want to drop a division and play League Two football. But if performances from last season are to go by, they may not have a choice. From the reaction on social media to the news that Josh Wright has left to go to Leyton Orient was a huge sigh of relief.
Of the players who have been offered contracts, Danny Devine and Jermaine Anderson have taken up the one-year deals offered by the club. Devine wasted no time in signing his which will hopefully see him start more games and further develop his career. After a disappointing season last year he did start to make appearances towards the end of the season. He hasn’t really had the opportunities that maybe he should have been given due to the merry go round of managers and injuries. Unfortunately for Danny I think if it doesn’t happen this season will be his last at City.
As for Anderson, you have to trust Bowyer’s judgement on this one. He didn’t really pull up any trees but did gradually start to find some form towards the end of the season, which is why he may have been given a one-year deal.
Paudie O’Connor’s return and on a three-year permanent deal is the most positive of all the signings so far. Unfortunately not used or given a chance by David Hopkin after being discarded after just 45 minutes against Barnsley, it looked like his short stint at City was finished. Bowyer obviously came in and saw something in Paudie O’Connor to bring him back into the fold. Maybe it was because he was a natural leader, confident and also liked to play football?
The signing of Tyler French could be an indication of the type of player that we will be looking at bringing into the club. All of the defensive signings so far seem to be players that match Bowyer’s requirements to get back out of League Two. All the players seem to be tall, strong and at a good age to still develop and be moulded into Bowyer style players, but also at an age to progress and develop again into League One players. The majority are also free transfers – another indication that due to the player’s budget that has been set, it may be at this level that we will be recruiting from until some of the higher earners move on.
Zeli Ismail, on paper, looks like a very positive and promising signing. It could also be a sign that we will play with width and look at getting the ball in the box which is something that was desperately lacking last season.
The Clayton Donaldson signing is an interesting one and a very smart move. At 35 years old it looks a really good move for both the club and player. He ticks the majority of the blue print boxes and brings with him years of experience and also at a good level. He could be a very good strike partner for a younger less experienced player looking to build his career. The potential sell on for a younger striker could also be beneficial going forward.
The foundations have definitely been set. A complete overhaul at the back was definitely needed and is very welcome. None of the defensive players that have been brought in are over 27 years old. It seems like the majority of these new players are at a crossroads in their careers, at a good age and all want to play games. It also seems like Bowyer has specifically targeted these players based on certain criteria rather than the scatter gun approach that was used last summer.
One thing that definitely stands out is their attitude. Bowyer’s worked with Henley before so knows him personally. He’s also spoken about their approach and about having talked to people around them and worked with them. This to me seems to highlight the fact that he’s building a team rather a squad full of individuals based solely on ability or playing career. We saw last season that players coming in were known for what they have done previously, but without actually knowing what their attitude was like. Unfortunately, we saw how that went.
Whilst clubs like Peterborough have picked up promising talent from the lower leagues City have never really delved deep enough, had the resources or had the experience to scour the lower leagues to unearth any semi-pro or non-league players. Unfortunately, the times that we have signed lower leagues players it hasn’t quite worked out. This in itself is a gamble but a remarkably cheaper option. The bright lights of playing football in front of 15,000 supporters at a big League Two ground is a far more attractive prospect than getting changed in a portacabin and playing in front of a 1,000 fans. You would have thought!
Despite premature panic on various forums and social media with regards to the lack of signings, the tide seems to have changed and positivity regarding signings is growing by everyone. Other clubs are starting to pick up players, and I’m sure this will continue until pre-season is well under way.
Despite talking about not replacing Andy Todd or Anton McElhone due to the players budget it has just been confirmed that we have brought in Ben Rome to become our new fitness coach. Ben worked at Doncaster when they achieved promotion in 2017 so knows all about trying to get the players as fit as possible to make a promotion push. We also have a new goalkeeping coach to replace Maik Taylor, confirmed as John Vaughan. John comes with vast amounts of experience and worked last season at Barnsley.
The only position that we haven’t replaced is the assistant manager role. This may change if some of the higher earners leave and he can use some of the budget, without affecting the first team squad, to bring in an assistant.
The shambles of last pre-season cannot happen again and although we have a very attractive and worthy cause with the game against Liverpool, this year’s pre-season needs to be the most professional and well-structured one that City have had for a long time. Start badly, and memories from last season will come flooding back and I don’t think it would take many poor performances or defeats for the negativity to creep around Valley Parade.
The squad and staff have changed so much over the last month. Worries about the lack of recruitment in the backroom things changed dramatically over the last couples of days. All signs are positive and with pre-season starting this week it will be interesting to see the new recruits, more new faces coming in and also players leaving. The difference to a year ago, especially as Michael Collins had just been appointed, thankfully could not be vaster.
The club seems to be a massively different plac – positivity is returning, communication is back and a general hope and belief at the upcoming season is starting to creep back.