Here we go again. Two and a half months since Notts trudged off the Newport County cornfield, pitch invaders barging past and smoke bombs drifting off into the sky, we’re back. No points have been awarded yet, but that’s not going to stop me from making an ill-advised and clumsy attempt at previewing this year’s fourth division fun.
Keen to only embarrass rather than completely humiliate myself, I’m not going to make predictions by exact position, but have divided the league up into four chunks of six teams. Promotion contenders, outside bets, mid-table also-rans and probably rubbish.
It’s with that final category that I’m going to start – sit back, enjoy and direct all hate mail to @GerritForward on Twitter…
Manager – Russell Slade
Best signing – Nathan Clarke
Biggest strength – Some of Marcus Bignot’s non-league boys
Biggest weakness – Russell Slade’s bad mood
Russell Slade used to be such a happy man, bouncing around at Leyton Orient with a smile as wide as the peak on his baseball cap. Then Steve Evans happened. With one charge up with Wembley touchline, trousers sliding towards his ankles, veins furiously bulging out of his massive head, Steve Evans ruined the league’s cheeriest, shiniest bald man. We should never forgive him.
Since then, Slade has had to deal with a succession of despot owners, embarking on a two-year tour of the Football League’s most barmy boardrooms. If he’s not been ground down by Francesco Becchetti, Vincent Tan, Roland Duchatelet and the mysterious SISU then he is a better man than I and Grimsby will win the title. Sadly, I think that you can see the cap begin to fade, the grin narrow and the brow furrow. He’ll never be the same again.
Grimsby may not be owned by an unaccountable hedge fund, but their decisions since Paul Hurst left for Shrewsbury Town have, to me at least, been a little odd. Having made the decision to dip into non-league for the promising but ultimately unproven Marcus Bignot, it seemed bizarre to then sack him despite stabilising the Mariners in League Two, even with their one genuinely class player being sold.
The likes of Jamey Osborne and Sam Jones were starting to prove that Bignot’s transfer policy of returning to non-league could work – but then they sacked him and called for the man with the hat in a bid to rekindle the glory days of knocking Spurs out of the League Cup but somehow not getting promoted with a really good team. Slade has returned to a more traditional method – signing old centre backs – but whilst Nathan Clarke could be a solid one, Karleigh Osborne has come from Kilmarnock and no one leaves England for a mid-table SPL side without returning as a shell of their former selves. I fear for them.
Manager – Michael Brown
Best signing – Cristian Montano
Biggest strength – Papal intervention
Biggest weakness – The ghost of Carl Dickinson
Oh lord, do I fear for our email inbox here. Watching Port Vale’s 2016/17 campaign from afar, it seemed to unfold in slow motion, a painful unfolding of everything that was pretty obvious to outsiders as soon as they appointed Bruno Ribeiro as manager and allowed him to round up the dregs from Vitoria Setubal and Oriental Lisbon. I imagine it’s how the rest of the world viewed us letting Ricardo Moniz run wild in the Dutch second division.
A surprisingly fast start soon gave way to the inevitable slump, with midfield hatchet man Michael Brown’s elevation to manager not doing enough to turn around their fortunes. Brown has been handed the job on a full-time basis, but putting an inexperienced manager in charge of a club where the owner’s heart no longer fully seems to be in it and a foreign manager has left showy-but-ultimately-useless continental wingers cluttering the place up (admittedly he seems to have taken a big broom to them all) feels like an instinctively risky move. Again, they only really needed to ask us about that.
There has been some decent activity in the transfer market – white smoke billowed over Burslem to mark the return of Tom Pope, whose goals were crucial to Vale’s last promotion from this level, but watching our contingent from that Vale Park season has hardly filled me with confidence. Questionably behaved former Notts loanee Cristian Montano should be good, though, whilst Lawrie Wilson is also solid.
I’m sure that Vale will expect far better than this and you could probably put it down to a bit of a hunch, but there are too many alarm bells ringing about the whole set up. I don’t think that they’ll get relegated, but Vale are my best punt at the surprise team to struggle that this division always seems to throw up (it’s usually Notts, to be fair).
Manager – Gary Johnson
Best signing – Kevin Dawson
Biggest strength – Can field an entire team of central midfielders
Biggest weakness – Everything else
This one should prove to be less controversial. Cheltenham were rubbish last season, haven’t really signed anyone and their pre-season campaign has included chastening defeats to no less than three Conference South sides.
I’ll be honest, i’ve had to look up Cheltenham’s squad as I couldn’t really remember anyone other than that Harry Pell chap who always plays well again us, and Gary Johnson seems to have assembled an armada of central midfielders at the expense of anyone else. The Robins lack quality pretty much everywhere else, although Dan Holman could help to remedy that if he can stay fit.
Midfielders Kevin Dawson and Kyle Storer look set for an intriguing personal battle to see who can get the most yellow cards – expect one to be sent off for decking Liam Noble in their don’t-call-it-a-derby against Forest Green – and it may be an area of the pitch where they have enough to stave off danger, but any great improvement on last season would come as a surprise.
I’ve not really got much to say about Cheltenham, so we’ll leave it there.
Manager – Harry Kewell
Best signing – Dannie Bulman
Biggest strength – Tiny Cox
Biggest weakness – Signing players from MVV Maastricht
Crawley Town have appointed scorching Aussie Harry Kewell as manager, despite his only experience coming as boss of a Premier League’s under-23 side. This just 12 months after appointing balding Englishman Dermot Drummy as manager, despite his only experience coming as boss of a Premier League’s under-23 side. Do some people just never learn?
Kewell’s signings have included two from the Dutch second division (why does no one ever listen to us?), flashy but lightweight midfielder Mark Randall and Cedric Evina, a left back who managed the hearty total of one game for Doncaster Rovers last season. You can see where i’m going with this, can’t you?
Crawley do have Dean Cox, though, and Dean Cox is very good. That complete accident of geography, being the only realistic league team close enough to Cox’s home to sign him when Francesco Becchetti went full nutcase at Leyton Orient, may just be enough to continue to maintain their league status. Kewell, though? He’ll be gone by the turn of the year.
Manager – Keith Curle
Best signing – Richie Bennett
Biggest strength – Their players
Biggest weakness – Their manager
There are much worse teams in this league than Carlisle United. In fact, were this game played on paper, I would rank their squad as one of the best in the league. Nicky Adams, Jamie Devitt and John O’Sullivan is a genuinely creative and exciting set of wingers, new boy Richie Bennett and Shaun Miller should score goals, Danny Grainger and Gary Liddle are fine defenders.
Yet, by submitting themselves fully to the Keith Curle experience, the Cumbrians are resigned to a season of strife. Everyone’s favourite expression-encouraging, Yeezy-wearing embarrassing uncle plots out a well worn path, a graph of which would look almost identical to the value of the pound in the hours before the Brexit vote. The people are going to vote the right way! Keith Curle has signed another talented wide player! The bookies can’t be wrong about this one! Keith Curle has signed another talented wide player!
But, just as the people will always get things wrong if they’re given half a chance, Keith Curle will always fail to get the best out of his talented wide players. He will run out of ideas. He will continue mumbling in his interviews. Things will go wrong. We will start importing chicken scrubbed with chlorine. He’ll probably sign Francois Zoko again and start playing him on the left. We won’t be able to go on holiday without remortgaging our houses to buy some Euros. He’ll probably bring Tom Williams out of retirement.
This season represents the end of Keith’s wild ride and, so long as they don’t replace him with Chris Kiwomya, a different manager may be able to rescue the potential of what is an impressive Carlisle side. They’re already my favourites for promotion next season, but this year won’t be pretty.
Manager – Darren Way
Best signing – Jake Gray
Biggest strength – Everyone is tired by the time they get there
Biggest weakness – Everywhere else is really far away
So, apparently I can’t just cut and paste the bit about Cheltenham here. My first observation on Yeovil is that their squad seems to be terrifyingly small. In the era of short term loanees, they’re going to need some serious reinforcements in the coming weeks if every single injury isn’t going to spark some sort of full blown crisis.
Speaking of short-term loanees – they’ve signed Alefe Santos! Remember him? I don’t blame you. He’s joined by Jake Gray from Luton Town, probably the stand-out from Darren Way’s summer business, and James Bailey from Carlisle, who should be a relatively adequate replacement for Kevin Dawson.
Yeovil looked like a young, enterprising and exciting team when they blew away our sorry lot on the opening day last season, but the longer that the season went on, the more it appeared that Way retreated into his shell and had them playing turgid, football-by-numbers stuff. Their display in the goalless draw at Meadow Lane in the spring was comfortably the most negative I saw all season and, when teams start doing that on a regular basis, it tends to be a sign that the manager isn’t entirely sure of where he’s taking his team.
Do you agree with who will be this season’s strugglers? Share your views in the comments or over at @GerritForward.
If you’re a fan of any of the clubs mentioned above, don’t worry we’ve got our tin hats on…