League One preview 17/18 – part III
Onto Middle England then, which is a little sparse when it comes to League One clubs. Just Walsall the only proper Midlands side.
Last season was a whole lot of disappointment for Walsall’s supporters after the incredible campaign the year previous when they finished 3rd, but ultimately missed out on promotion in the play-offs. The man credited with that inspirational season was Jon Whitney, but last season he and his players were a million miles away from a repeat in what was a turgid if not relegation threatened season.
Whitney is a man under pressure and his legend-like status (he joined the Bescot as Physio in 2003) is running very thin. Walsall have had a bit of a summer clear-out and one player who moved on was ex-Addick Neil Etheridge, who turned down a new contract offer and moved to Cardiff instead. Mark Gillespie was signed on a free from Carlisle to replace him. Franck Moussa, who made 22 appearances last season was released.
Record signing, striker Andreas Makris returned to Cyprus, after scoring just once last season but Whitney does still have the live wire skills of Erhun Oztumer, who I am surprised they were able to keep hold off. The Charlton youth player scored 15 times last season from midfield. Liam Kinsella, son of Mark is still on the books and the well travelled Simeon Jackson can still provide goals.
Walsall have survived very well in League One and this will be their 11th consecutive season which has seen them compete with all manner of larger clubs, but I worry that their League One journey may come to an end.
Key player – Erhun Oztumer
CA expectation – Relegation fight
The M54 will take you out to Shropshire and Shrewsbury Town. The Shrews were promoted in 2015 but have just about scraped to safety in both the following seasons, last year leaving it very late to climb out of the bottom four.
Paul Hurst arrived in October and he set about tightening the Shrews defence and they had the best defensive record of all their relegation rivals. Hurst also used the loan market well during the January window. Those loan players have gone so has captain Adam El-Abd, who Brighton fans will remember fondly.
Hurst has again dipped into the loan market and acquired England U20 World Cup winning keeper Dean Henderson from Man United and highly regarded Welsh winger Daniel James from Swansea. Midfielder Jon Nolan signed from Chesterfield on a lengthy contract and goals are possible from Lenell John-Lewis, who scored plenty whilst at Grimsby, where Hurst would have known him, but was signed from Newport.
Paul Hurst’s ambitions will mirror a few other clubs in this division and that is purely survival but I think the Shrews have a good lower league manager in Hurst, who has a good eye for a young player.
Key player – Lenell John-Lewis
CA expectation – Relegation slog ending in survival
The other side of the country sits Peterborough United. Posh are perennial bets for a play-off push but the last two seasons have been disappointing for Posh’s gregarious owner Darragh MacAnthony, who appointed ex-Posh midfielder Grant McCann towards the end of the previous campaign.
MacAnthony has formulated a successful strategy of operating a football club, plucking non-league obscurities and selling them on for good fees, Idris Kanu from Aldershot being the latest, attempting to entertain fans and believing in open and honest communication with fans. He is also happy to make quick changes and McCann, despite his high esteem amongst Posh fans, needs a good start out of the gate.
McCann has overseen quite a summer squad refresh. Many familiar names have departed including midfielder Michael Bostwick (Lincoln), striker Paul Taylor (Bradford) and right back Michael Smith (Hearts).
Other than Aldershot’s 17-year old Kanu, McCann dipped into the non-league for prolific Dover striker Ricky Miller, defender Alex Penny from Nuneaton plus Danny Lloyd from Stockport, scorer of 29 goals in the National League North last season. Two other useful additions appear to be midfielder Michael Doughty, who joins from QPR and goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, who has signed on loan from Reading.
Peterborough are not the free-flowing footballing side of a few years back, yet they continue their impressive scouting of rough diamonds from the non-league network. Can they sustain a play-off push? I’m not sure.
Key player – Marcus Maddison
CA expectation – Mid table
A country road drive away is Northampton Town, now under 60% Chinese ownership giving the Cobblers a firm financial footing and even the opportunity to push this small town club in the same direction as Bournemouth and Burnley?
Justin Edinburgh was someone I wouldn’t have minded Charlton taking a punt on, and he arrived at Northampton in January replacing Rob Page, whose replacement of Chris Wilder didn’t work. I guess the only doubt about Edinburgh’s continued tenure at Sixfields will be if they aren’t progressing as quickly as the majority shareholder would like.
With a cash injection Northampton have been very active in the market. At the back the one time Addicks’ target Leon Barnett signed from Bury and Aberdeen’s experienced Ash Taylor, Merseyside born, moved back south. Dean Bowditch and Daniel Powell both signed from MK Dons and in Yaser Kasim, Edinburgh has signed a very able League One central midfielder. The signing of Aaron Pierre from Wycombe is another to catch my eye.
Amongst those gone are Gabriel Zakuani and the wonderfully named Zander Diamond, Harry Beautyman and Emmanuel Sonupe. Fan favourite John-Joe O’Toole remains as does last season’s top Marc Richards, who forms a good partnership up top with Alex Revell.
I rate Edinburgh and if Northampton are patient I can see a medium-term promotion, probably not this season, but I still expect them to do pretty well.
Key player – John-Joe O’Toole
CA expectation – Top 8, possibly a play-off place.
Down the M1 are the much loved MK Dons, even more loved since Karl Robinson moved onto better things. After Richie Barker continued the crappy work of Robinson, Pete Winkelman pulled off a small coup bringing in Robbie Nielson down from Hearts, where he’d enjoyed two very good seasons. It was all the rage once upon a time bringing Scotsmen into the English league, but it’s too rare an occurrence now, although Plymouth did the same with Derek Adams.
Nielson took a little time to get going, understandably after Robinson’s long reign but as the season grew to a conclusion MK Dons under the Scot became pretty formidable and played some good looking football to boot.
Nielson, like Robinson, has now had a pre-season to further put his mark on his team and the first thing he has done is move on almost the entirety of Robinson’s favourite players. You know, the ones KR constantly raves about! The only real loss perhaps being that of George Baldock, sold to Sheffield United for £650,000. Although Ben Reeves turned down a couple of contract offers, but as of today, looks happy to take a season off!
Nielson looked across the border for additions and ex-Falkirk midfielder Conor McGrandles came from Norwich and winger Peter Pawlett joined from Aberdeen, for whom he played over 170 games. On loan defender Ethan Ebanks-Landell did well at Sheffield United last season. His parent club are Wolves, who you’d think would want him themselves. French 6ft 5 Ousseynou Cissé could either sink (unless he is stood in the 6ft deep end) or swim, although American midfielder Gboly Ariyibi signing on loan from Forest for the season is less of a gamble.
The fitness of ex-Arsenal youngster Chuks Aneke will be key, but MK look a little light on forward options. In fact interestingly Neilson, unless he has more additions planned, is carrying a small squad, which might restrict potential promotion abilities.
Key player – Ousseynou Cissé
CA expectation – Play-offs