With major investment comes major expectation. Notts go into this season as bookies favourites to win League Two and owner Alan Hardy has been clear with his remit; only promotion will do.
This is relatively uncharted territory for this club – in the past 20 years, only in the mental Munto season could automatic promotion have been considered the expectation in pre-season – and definitely for Kevin Nolan, who spent almost the entirety of last season (understandably) telling us to remember how far we’ve come and playing down talk of going up.
Nolan – who, lest we forget has done an absolutely outstanding job to-date – will have to approach things differently this time around. There was a perceived negativity in the second half of the last campaign where lowly opposition were afforded too much respect. ‘Respect the point’ was second only to ‘look how far we’ve come’ in the favourite quote stakes and it’s no coincidence that Notts regularly dropped points to teams near the bottom of the table, but with three proven attackers brought-in for six-figure sums to add pace and (hopefully) goals, the emphasis will be on Nolan’s side to play on the front foot and attack, particularly at home.
In a pre-season where there seems like there’s been less first-team games than usual and the opposition have almost exclusively been much better or much worse than us, little has been learnt about this new squad, which was put together in record time. Perhaps the most obvious switch seems to be the intention to play the ball on the floor more after the (successful) direct style of the first 18 months under Nolan. It’ll be interesting to see if this continues into competitive games; it’d be nonsensical to sign a player of David Vaughan’s quality and expect him to spend his time pressing the opposition and watching the ball go over his head, but equally it’s hard to imagine Shaun Brisley in-particular being comfortable getting the ball from the keeper and be expected to do anything than launch it towards Jon Stead’s head.
Squad-wise, there’s been bigger changes to personnel than we probably thought there would be after that playoff defeat to
the match officials Coventry City in May. The departures of Adam Collin and Jonathan Forte were probably the most controversial; Collin’s faults were well-documented but to lose a #1 proven at this level and not replace him is a risk, and Forte had been the man who had revitalised things at the end of last season and gave us hope going into the playoffs.
The other thing to note is the sheer amount of experience which has walked out the door; yes, more pace and energy was needed, but the likes of Shola Ameobi, Alan Smith and Mike Edwards were hugely-important figures in enabling Nolan to have full control of the squad which mentally barely wavered throughout last season. Add Carl Dickinson, Michael O’Connor, Collin, Nicky Hunt and Rob Milsom, and that’s a lot of seasoned pros who helped to manage the dressing room; it’ll be interesting to see if that has any impact on matters on the pitch this campaign – there was no doubt in my mind that the togetherness and mentality within the squad was the main factor in setting-up a promotion-chasing campaign, as opposed to necessarily possessing more quality to the rest of the division on the pitch.
This time around, largely due to the men Nolan’s brought-in to replace those who’ve departed, there will be more stardust expected; more easier on the eye football and, of course, more results to go with it.
No pressure, then.
So let’s look take a deeper look at this relatively new squad and see why exactly we’re so highly-fancied going into this campaign. Though there have been plenty of new additions, nine of Nolan’s XI look fairly set going into the season’s opener (a far cry to the Ricardo Moniz days, where the captain wasn’t even known until the morning of the game).
Predicted strongest squad
Tootle Duffy Brisley Jones
Boldewijn Hewitt Vaughan Thomas
Subs: Pindroch; Hall; Oxlade-Chamberlain; Kellett; Husin; Alessandra; Dennis/Stead.
Full strength team at end of last season: Collin; Tootle, Duffy, Brisley, Jones; Alessandra, Hewitt, Noble, Grant; Stead, Forte/Ameobi.
Though Notts undoubtedly have more quality in their XI this season, Nolan and Hardy have successfully trimmed the squad. During the last campaign the likes of Milsom, Hunt and Dickinson – senior pros – regularly failed to make the bench, whereas of the predicted 18 above only Terry Hawkridge of the more senior players in the squad is omitted, and he should feature at least while Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kellett recover from injury. Youngsters such as Tom Crawford and Will Patching will expect game-time and will hope to force their way into the reckoning sooner rather than later.
The main positions to be determined look to me to be which of the no-nonsense Brisley or the promising Ben Hall partners Richard Duffy at the back, and which of Jon Stead, Kristian Dennis and Lewis Alessandra starts alongside Kane Hemmings upfront. I expect the strikers to rotate more than last season, and Dennis will surely be given a chance when fully fit, but think Stead will start the season with the new arrival from Chesterfield still returning to full fitness after suffering with injuries in pre-season.
As mentioned above, this is the one position it could be argued that Notts are weaker than last season, given Ross Fitzsimons was never recalled following his almighty indiscretion which saw him sent-off and cost the Magpies two points against Crawley in January. Until then, it must be remembered that the 24-year-old was outstanding in his three-month spell in the side during a very successful period, and looked anything-but a novice deputising for a more senior keeper. His distribution with either foot is outstanding and lends itself to the apparent intention to play more football this campaign, while his shot-stopping is excellent. Other than the lack of experience, the main issue is dealing with high balls – which isn’t an easy one to fix given he is shorter than your average League Two keeper.
Branislav Pindroch was a more surprising name on the retained list and, though he possesses strong top-flight experience in the Czech league, didn’t really impress in his fleeting cup appearances last season. The decision to rush Collin back from injury ahead of schedule for the Swansea FA Cup tie rather than trust the Slovak was pretty damning, which surely means unless there’s been a major change it’s hard to think that Nolan considers him a viable option as first-choice.
I’d expect Nolan to dip into the loan market before the end of this month; Fitzsimons’ early-season form could dictate whether he goes for a no.1, 2, or 3 but on a sheer numbers basis you’d expect Notts to get another one in.
Two huge fan favourites are undisputed first-choice here, meaning the main issue is the lack of cover; Hunt and Dickinson getting an absolute roasting in the FA Cup mauling at Swansea lives long in the memory, but there is a reason they’ve both been snapped-up by League Two clubs; they’re solid, reliable pros who Nolan could trust to step-in for periods when Tootle and Jones were injured last campaign. Oxlade-Chamberlain, when fit, should provide an interesting attack-minded option at right-back, but there’s no specialist cover for the injury-prone Jones on the left. It looks like the loose plan is for 19-year-old centre back Pierce Bird to switch there, though that is a big ask of the young player signed from Dunkirk – football at all levels is full of left-footed players shoved out onto that flank for ‘balance’, when their skillset is much more suited to the middle. Midfielder Kellett could also fill-in as he has played left back previously, but don’t forget Jones missed nearly three months through injury last season and struggles to play twice a week. Someone may have to step-up to the plate here.
Without meaning to anger the whole of Notts’ fanbase, I’ve also a slight concern over Jones’ defensive abilities; he is great to watch and his forward runs and set-piece delivery are undoubtedly huge assets to the side, but he can be susceptible (his pace often gets him out of trouble), which was pretty much forgotten due to an excellent end to the season and that assist at Coventry. A big season ahead for him now as his importance has undoubtedly grown as the only senior left-back at the club.
No change here with the highly-promising Hall returning for another season despite not forcing his way into the team this year. Hall and Brisley would probably be the fans’ preferred pairing, but Duffy’s isolated brain freezes and occasional histrionics shouldn’t overshadow the way in which he consistently led the defence during tough periods last year.
As above, I really don’t see how Brisley – a key figure in both boxes throughout last season – in any way links with a switch to a more footballing style. Hall is a great all-round talent – comfortable on the ball, aerially and physically strong and positionally sound – who hasn’t come on-loan to sit on the bench, and it’ll be interesting to see who gets the nod longer-term – centre backs are very rarely rotated. Bird looks a hell of a prospect and deserves his two-year deal, if there is a couple of injuries here it’d be good to see faith put in him, rather than moving Elliott Hewitt back.
The initial pairing of Vaughan and Hewitt looks pretty set here, with Vaughan undoubtedly a huge coup for a League Two club. He was still considered a key man for our neighbours until Karanka signed half-a-dozen centre midfielders in January. However, his age and injury record does mean he will miss a lot of games, which means Noor Husin, 21, will need to step-up. He is a great talent but, like Vaughan, doesn’t look a natural fit for a two-man midfield with so much work expected off-the-ball, and Hewitt’s importance looks to have grown going into this season; not only is he a certain starter but there is no longer anyone else of his ilk in the squad if he’s ever missing.
Crawford and Patching are both highly-rated but are only 19; it’d be a big ask to expect either to play regularly in the heart of the Notts midfield. Kellett excels as a no.10 but also looks a bit lightweight to play in the middle in a 4-4-2. Interestingly, Nolan has trialed Hawkridge centrally in pre-season and the homegrown 28-year-old does have the tenacity and work rate to play there, but whether he’d cope physically or aerially remains to be seen.
All eyes on Boldewijn here; pace and power is a rare combination in a League Two winger. If he has another season like he did for Crawley last time around – where he reached double figures for goals and assists, the Magpies may struggle to keep hold of him, but his career record prior to last year was fairly mixed. Like all League Two wingers, the biggest battle will be getting consistency and end product out of him.
Nathan Thomas is a shrewd addition; he was hugely impressive for Hartlepool the season before last and he’s still just 23. He featured regularly on-loan for promotion-chasing Shrewsbury in League One and only hasn’t had a look-in at Sheffield Utd as they don’t play with wingers. Kellett provides strong competition in this area, while last season’s regulars Hawkridge and Alessandra remain in the squad. Youngsters Alex Howes and Sam Osborne have also displayed massive promise in pre-season so there’s plenty of competition for places on the flanks.
The major change. Forte was underused last season, but while Stead remains a favourite surely the 35-year-old won’t play 45+ games again. Hemmings is still only 26 but has never settled anywhere; he now has the chance to do that, after being backed with a three-year deal. Likewise, Dennis has arrived with a big fee and been backed with a long contract after the best season of his career when scoring 20+ goals for bottom-of-the-table Chesterfield, but prior to that his record is mixed. He is a penalty-box striker who relies on service, so much will depend on those around him.
Alessandra has had an excellent pre-season and has a decent chance of starting on the opening day, though his performances upfront were very poor last year; I’d prefer to see him used wide and massively promising youngster Remayne Campbell eased into first-team action as understudy to the first-choice three of Hemmings, Dennis and Stead.
Full Squad 18/19
GK: Ross Fitzsimons, Branislav Pindroch.
DEF: Matt Tootle (RB), Dan Jones (LB), Richard Duffy (CB), Shaun Brisley (CB), Ben Hall (CB), Pierce Bird (CB/LB), Christian Oxlade-Chamberlain (RB/WG).
MID: Enzio Boldewijn (RW/LW), Elliott Hewitt (CM/CB), David Vaughan (DM), Nathan Thomas (LW/RW), Andy Kellett (LW/AM/LB), Noor Husin (CM), Tom Crawford (CM), Terry Hawkridge (RM/LM/CM), Alex Howes (LW/AM), Sam Osborne (WG), Declan Dunn (CM/LB), Dongda He (WG).
FOR: Kane Hemmings, Kristian Dennis, Jon Stead, Lewis Alessandra (CF/WG), Remayne Campbell.
What do you think? Is this the strongest squad we’ve had in League Two since Munto? Are there areas that still need strengthening? Join in the debate with @GerritForward on Twitter, or let us know in the comments box below.