Thursday, 16 August 2012

Here we go again...

OK, so in around 44 hours time the first game of the new League Two campaign will be over, and hopefully we will have our first three points in the bag having mercilessly swept Dagenham and Redbridge aside.
Hopefully.
And that's the great thing about it - here we are on the cusp of the season, and no-one knows what will happen in the next 10 months.
We are a perfect example of that - no one, not even the most optimistic of our fans, really thought deep down that we would get anywhere near the play-offs last season.
But we did, and such is the way that football goes and fans' expectations increase, in some of our fans' eyes, the play-offs will not be enough for some.
Everyone wants their club to progress and move forward, and so the only way we can move forward and improve on last season is to go up - either winning the play-offs or finishing in the top three.
On Twitter, I asked some Cheltenham fans for their views on how they felt we would go and what their hopes for the season would be.
Here are some of them:
Stowe Gregory: Realistically play-offs would once again be a great achievement. But we want more! Squad has the quality, but not much depth
Kevin McKenna: Think the main concern is we need to remain injury free with such a small squad.Having said that we will be in the top 8.
Laurence Horton: Last season everything that could go right went right. Expect some setbacks this season but still a comfortable top 10 finish.
Jamie Howells: We set the bar last season with the core still here and only Summers leaving and some good additions coming in. We have to aim for the play-offs as a minimum but I'm really confident we can go one better I know its gonna be a tough season but with MY and the togetherness of the squad I'm really optimistic and looking forward to the season ahead!!
Healer: It will be hard to beat last seasons efforts and with the division improved I think a playoff place would be a good target.
Alan Calverley: My view 'building on last year'. One first teamer out - Summerfield - 4 in which makes for more competition. Playoffs minimum.
So there you are - a small straw poll, but it shows where the expectations are - top 10, top 8, play-offs minimum, improve on last season is the mantra coming from the terraces.
But can we do it? I don't see why not, but I do have some concerns about areas of the team, and I also feel that the division is going to be stronger than last season.
Overall, the squad is stronger with the additions of Sam Deering, Billy Jones, Chris Zebroski and Shaun Harrad, as well as the young keeper Connor Roberts.
Deering looks like he will play the 'in the hole' role when we play 4-2-3-1, and I am delighted we have got him as he has been one of those players who I always wished was in our side when he was playing for Barnet.
Jones will be solid at left-back - no frills, just a steady 7 or 8 every week, and gives an option for set-pieces and possibly penalties as well as giving us lots of experience in that position.
Zebroski is the sort of player we have been looking for - a speed merchant down the middle to really worry defenders and I hope he can find the goalscoring streak he had at Torquay.
We have seen what he is capable of when he has played against us in the past - and the same can be said of Harrad, who has been a thorn to us when he played for Burton.
If those two play like they did for those clubs then we have guaranteed goals in our locker, as well as those from Darryl Duffy (15 last season), Kaid Mohamed (11), Jeff Goulding (6) and Jermaine McGlashan, who was the play-off semi-final king.
Marlon Pack can contribute as well, as can Sido Jombati, Steve Elliott and Alan Bennett from set-pieces, and also Billy - basically, we have the potential to score goals all over the team.
Zebroski, Deering and Harrad give us multiple options in the midfield and up front - we can now play practically any system Mark Yates wishes, and have the players to fit those formations.
It looks like Russ Penn will have a different role - he looks set to play deeper, alongside Marlon in the role Luke Summerfield had last season, so basically he will be the enforcer while Marlon tries to be our quarterback.
However, I have a worry if Russ, Marlon or Sam get injured, and I feel we are crying out for at least one more central midfielder as cover.
I know we have had youth teamer Joe Hanks in and around the squad, and it looks like Jordan Hibbert will be offered something, maybe a six-month deal, and nothing against them, but I am just a bit worried we are a bit light in that central area.
I have seen Hanks play for the youth team, and only saw Hibbert briefly against Cardiff in a sterile second half, and they may be short-term cover but I feel we need a 'front-line' player to bolster us in the middle.
As well as Summers, we lost Josh Low, Junior Smikle and last season Dave Bird from that area and it seems we have gone from a position of strength in there where we almost had too many options in midfield to not having enough.
Whether it is 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 which Yatesy chooses to adopt, the only consistent thing is the '4' at the back.
Sido, Benno, Steve Elliott and Billy will be the first-choice four, with Scott Brown behind them.
They will be aiming for that consistency we found in the first half of last season, when the bedrock of that great run we had in October and November was built on the clean sheets we managed to keep.
But the defence is my other area of slight worry.
I wasn't at the MK game as I was watching Brazil choke in the Olympic final against Mexico, but I was slightly concerned to note that Steve Elliott was ruled out and Benno went off late in the game.
We know already that the pair are 'managed' very well with their training workload and therefore they clearly have some fragile fitness issues.
When Stevie was out for a few games after the Tottenham game last season, we struggled - and the first game he came back was the 5-0 win at Dagenham and Redbridge, when he slotted in like he had never been away.
This is no criticism of Keith Lowe or Harry Hooman, as Keith is a wholehearted player who has never let us down, and I think Harry has shown that he has great potential and will be looking to kick on this season, but I would be slightly worried if either of them had to fill in long-term at the heart of the defence.
I feel Keith has played his best games for us at right-back anyway, and he won't get much of a chance there with our cult hero Sido in that role.
On the other side, with Danny Andrew out of favour and seemingly heading for the exit door, we don't have any natural deputy for Billy Jones - I would guess if Billy gets injured or suspended, Sido will swap and Keith will play at right back.
So for these reasons, in an ideal world, I feel we need another defender - preferably a player who was equally comfortable playing at centre half and left back, which would then give us adequate cover right across the back line.
Behind them, Scott Brown has a vote of confidence and will be number one for the season, with only injury, suspension or a horrendous loss of form likely to take him out of the side.
So how are we going to do...?
Looking down the clubs in League Two, and the squads they have assembled in the summer, and it is going to be a competitive season.
I could make a case for at least half of the division to finish in the top seven, including us, but I feel we will be strong challengers for that, but I must admit, if I am realistic, I think the top three may be out of reach.
Fleetwood will be right up there having the backing of Andy Pilley's millions and players like Jon Parkin, Steve Gillespie, Youl Mawene, Damien Johnson, Dean Howell and David Ball will give them a strong backbone.
Then there is Rotherham, with the lovely Mr Evans in charge and a brand-new stadium, the chairman Tony Stewart has provided big funds for 11 summer signings, including Kayode Odejayi, and there is no doubt they will be right at the top.
Of the relegated clubs, Chesterfield will be strong - two seasons ago they walked the league but come back down with the signing of our old target Marc Richards, who is sure to give them a cutting edge.
Wycombe's fortunes could hinge on whether they keep Stewart Beavon, who scored 25 times in a relegated side, but players like Gareth Ainsworth, Gary Doherty and Matt Spring give them big experience.
Rochdale and Exeter I am not so sure about - they will be in the top half, but I am not sure if they will have what it takes to challenge for the top seven.
Then we have Southend, Torquay, Oxford, Northampton, Bradford, Bristol Rovers and Gillingham.
Southend and Torquay were alongside us in the play-off zone and, like us, will think they should be there again. Southend have signed Freddy Eastwood permanently, while Torquay have landed Billy Bodin - but lost Bobby Olejnik and Eunan O'Kane, two big players to replace.
The other five clubs fall into the 'can do better' category.
Oxford and Bristol Rovers both go into the season with expectations of getting out of the division.
Chris Wilder must be under some pressure to deliver after flattering to deceive of late, while Rovers improved under Mark McGhee and will want to continue that upward move.
I don't believe Bradford will have another poor season, and the arrival of Alan Connell from Swindon is a good acquisition, as is the vastly experienced Gary Jones from Rochdale, and Adie Boothroyd sorted Northampton out after he arrived.
He has signed Clive Platt to form an imposing front line with our friend Mr Akinfenwa, and I fully expect them to be looking upwards as well.
That leaves Gillingham, and anything could happen there given the man they have in charge. They have good players and the prolific Adam Birchall is fit after missing the whole of last season, but I wonder how long the Martin Allen-Paul Scally dynamic will hold out.
Scally will want promotion, but nothing will ever convince me that Allen's scattergun approach to players and tactics will provide it.
Elsewhere, I think Aldershot will be a dark horse. Dean Holdsworth has assembled a decent squad, and I think they could challenge for the top seven as well.
Port Vale are also in that category, as long as they can sort out their financial problems they will not be in any trouble and could be a top 10 side given a good run.
There are a few clubs who I cannot see making a challenge for the top echelons, but will not be in danger of the drop - AFC Wimbledon, Accrington, Plymouth and York should safely be mid-table.
AFC have Jack Midson to score goals, Accrington had a good finish to last season and can carry that on, Plymouth should be strong enough and York, while an unknown quantity, seem to have made some useful signings on the back of the momentum of promotion and their FA Trophy win.
That leaves Barnet, Burton, Dagenham and Redbridge and Morecambe - and I see two of these going down I'm afraid.
Barnet have hovered around there for a few seasons, Burton dropped like a stone last season, while Dagenham and Morecambe both work under financial constraints which may prove insurmountable.
So, prediction time, and here goes:
Top three: Fleetwood, Rotherham, Chesterfield.
Play-offs: Cheltenham, Wycombe, Southend, Bristol Rovers.
Relegated: Barnet, Morecambe.
There. Head on the block... let battle commence.