Friday, 11 July 2014

Here we go

IN a few hours time, Oliver Langford's whistle will herald the start of another 10-month rollercoaster.
Ups, downs and bits in the middle will await us, and - let's face it - nobody really knows what we can expect in the next 50-odd matches between now and next May.
But one thing we do know is that our season will not be defined by what happens tonight against Wolves, or tomorrow at Evesham, or in the games coming up against Bristol Rovers, Leamington, Cinderford, Bath, Bristol City and Kidderminster.
It is stressed every year. Pre-season games are not about results. They are for managers and coaches to work out different systems, try things out and try players in different roles.
It is a time for players to bed themselves in to new clubs, to get used to playing with new arrivals and just to have a ball at their feet once again. They can also maybe get a headstart on rivals for their place in the side.
For triallists it is the chance to give themselves an opportunity at a contract, and some players may shine, and others may not.
I remember a 16-year-old Theo Lewis coming off the bench to score a late equaliser against Southampton in July 2008. It was meant to be the arrival of a new star... he has just signed for Woking. Southampton had some bloke called Adam Lallana in their side that day. Don't know where he is now.
A convincing win in any of the games is not a sign that we are on the right track towards a successful season in the same way that a heavy or unexpected defeat means a swift trip to the Conference beckons.
Remember the summer of 2011. In fact, it was three years ago tomorrow when we travelled up to Stourbridge with a new signing called Russ Penn in the side (whatever happened to him?) along with Alan Bennett, Marlon Pack and Kaid Mohamed.
We suffered what the Echo described at the time as a 'meek' 2-0 defeat, ending the game with 10 mendue to injuries.
After that game, social media told us were were 'certainties for relegation'. We ended that season at Wembley via an FA Cup game at Spurs, and that side is still much-missed and lamented over regularly by fans.
On the other side, last July we went to Evesham and won 7-0. That was supposed to be the springboard for great things according to some keyboard gurus. Now those players are mainly persona non grata and many would be happy to see them all swapped for the 2011-12 ones. Yes, you know, the ones who lost at Stourbridge.
Leeds have had a summer of turmoil and they won a friendly 16-0 in Italy yesterday. However, I am sure you won't see many of their fans hailing Dave Hockaday as the new Mourinho as they save up for their 2015-16 Premier League season tickets on the back of that result.
There needs to be perspective, but we all know that won't happen.
The results will be picked over as usual and players' performances analysed in the finest detail, with, I am sure, some new arrivals written off before they have started and triallists hailed with a clamour to sign a contract now or urged to get on their bikes sharpish.
These first two games are a sharp contrast.
Against Wolves we will mainly be on the back foot I would expect, while Evesham should see us have more of the ball, so it could be that we can test our defensive strength in the Wolves game and our offensive capabilities at Evesham.
I think my main interest from these games and the ones coming up will be what systems we play rather than players' individual performances.
Much has been made of fans' dislike for the diamond, and there seems to have been no secret of the fact that we are going to try and go back to the 4-3-3/4-5-1 system of 2011-12 for our Plan A.
But I would hope also that we might see some evidence of a Plan B or Plan C as well in the coming weeks, something which has been rather lacking.
I think this can only serve to emphasise how much of a key figure our new first-team coach Shaun North will be this season, and hopefully he and Mark Yates will gel as well off the field as the new-look side will gel on it.
I saw a tweet from our fitness coach Ian Hutton, which read: "Can't speak highly enough of our new first team coach Shaun North. Learning so much all the time."
The off-field dynamics were not right last season, and that transferred itself on to the field.
The changes which have been made have given a new freshness which it is hoped will lead to a better environment for players to thrive.
North comes in with a fresh pair of eyes and every player, new or old, younger or more experienced, is starting from scratch with him. He has no favourites or agendas, so can hopefully give Yates an objective view of what he sees.
On the field, we have 18 contracted players and will also, it seems, see five triallists in the coming weeks - for at least the next three or four games anyway, and it is on them where much of the focus will be placed.
They face an uphill task for a contract, as our previous record of turning trials into contracts is not exactly prolific.
I have been struggling to think in recent years of many players who have come in for pre-season trials or any other trials for that matter who have ended up sticking around.
We took Bagasan Graham on at the start of 2011-12, and that wasn't exactly a roaring success. I guess technically Luke Summerfield came in as a triallist that season too, signing after a game at Newport (which we lost 1-0).
But for each one of those, there are plenty of others like Joe Anyinsah, Josh Klein-Davies, Tristan Plummer, George Bowerman and Luke Bottomer who have come in fleetingly, done well in friendlies and then disappeared again.
This year's crop is headed by Duncan Culley, fresh from FA Cup exploits and 40-plus goals for Shortwood United last season, and personally it is him I am most interested in seeing in the coming games.
I have seen him play for Wood once or twice, and anyone who scores goals at any level is worth a look. 
The club has been moaned at in the past for not having an eye on local players - I remember the criticism the club got in the Marc McGregor saga many years ago when he was banging them in for Endsleigh FC and ended up at Forest Green.
Culley is 25 and a late developer with an interesting sideline as a part-time model who nearly became a rabbit-handler for a 61-year-old ex Playboy bunny (well, so the Daily Mail said anyway - here).
Apparently, he didn't start playing football until he was 21, and I'd like to see him succeed as if he could make it, there would be hope for other local talent which I am sure is out there somewhere waiting to be found.
The others fall into the young and hungry category we have heard so much about - two lads from Redditch United, Jermaine Hylton and Omari-Sterling-James, and an ex-Nottingham Forest midfielder in Kieran Wallace.
Hylton is 21 and scored 16 league goals in the Southern League Premier last season, including two hat-tricks (playing one level above Culley and Shortwood) and was reportedly watched by bigger clubs including Birmingham City, having played for Continental Star and spent time at Kidderminster.
Sterling-James scored eight times for the Reds in the League last season and a quick Google trawl shows he has spent time at Birmingham and Walsall, had trials for Swedish club Ostersunds and also turned out for Alvechurch, who are a 'link club' to Birmingham City.
The Redditch manager has had his say on the trials for there two players here and seems sure that won't be leaving his club.
Wallace is 19 and has played for England under 16s and 17s, but was released by Forest after being with them from the age of eight. You can find a profile on him here which describes him as having 'great technique and a great left foot' as well as ability to sneak in around the back post to get goals. We shall see.
We are also trying out another goalkeeper in Ben McNamara, a 25-year-old Aussie who has spells at Northampton and Nuneaton and a trial at AFC Wimbledon behind him.
Listening to his recent interviews, Yates has said he wants anything between three and five more players, but we know one of them is not Neal Trotman, the former Plymouth centre-back.
But a centre-half is priority as we only have Steve Elliott and Troy Brown, so it is very likely that we will be seeing the sight of Jason Taylor playing there in the next two games - unless we get some late signing action or another triallist, or there even may be a chance for one of the scholars to get a run-out.
Then there is our old pal Ashley Grimes. Is he on the radar or not...? We have been told he is, and it is believed to be between us or Oxford. Are they still interested after their coup d'etat the other day at the Kassam which saw Michael Appleton take over as manager? Are we still really interested? Who knows.
Grimes played for Bury and scored twice in a 4-1 win at Radcliffe Borough the other day, but there were only four 'senior' players in a side of youth teamers and triallists, and the team's physio came on as a sub, so that doesn't strike me as he is beating a route back into Dave Flitcroft's plans.
In an ideal world, my shopping list would be a back-up goalkeeper, a centre-half, a central midfield player, a wide player and another forward, and I am sure some long-term loans will come into play.
But this is not an ideal world, and we don't have any real right-back cover for Lee Vaughan - so do we look for someone who can play right-back or centre-half a la Keith Lowe (whatever happened to him?).
Still so many questions, and tonight will only be the start of the quest for some answers.