Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ready for the rollercoaster

With less than 48 hours to go until the new season gets under way, it is fair to say that expectations among CTFC fans for the new season are not high.
Most are expecting a tough campaign ahead, with many fearing that this may be the time we fall through the dreaded trap door.
The so-called experts with their pre-season guides concur with those sentiments, with one, FourFourTwo magazine, tipping us to finish bottom.
I am not that gloomy - but have to admit that the Kidderminster performance last weekend has given me a bit of a jolt (and yes, I know that goes against my belief that you cannot set much stall by pre-season displays or results).
It has been a strange pre-season. For some parts of some games we have looked decent, especially the games against higher-level opponents Wolves and Bristol City, and the overall display against Bristol Rovers was the most encouraging.
But I think we have played too many games, and also that they were in the wrong order. I would rather see us try to increase the level of opposition as we go along, rather than jumping about from a side in the Southern League, to a Championship team, back down to Conference North or South opposition and so on.
I also feel some players have not had enough football, and we haven't taken time to test out viable alternatives in some positions, notably right back and centre-forward. Only one player, Jack Deaman, played some part in every friendly, but never was tried at right-back, where we are told he can play.
While nine players have come into the squad, there is no doubt that a few of them are gambles who might come off, or might not - players like Deaman, Omari Sterling-James and Koby Arthur - while the likes of Matt Taylor, Paul Black and Andy Haworth come to us without much first-team football in recent times.
Other clubs of a similar stature to us have brought in what amounts to more proven quality at this level, while we have gone the other way it seems, either by the manager's choice or because the budget at his disposal is such that this is all he can afford to do.
I also have a slight concern that, as we get ready to go to Bury, that the manager is still hunting for two players he wants to go straight into his team and make a difference - hardly a ringing endorsement for the ones he has already brought to the club.
He ended last season under pressure, and the award of a one-year contract with a much-changed coaching team allied with this summer's dealings have not done much to ease that, and there is no doubt that the first 12-15 games are very important for him.
The first 15 games takes us to the end of October, and FA Cup time, the part of the season where chairmen get twitchy - and by then we will have played a lot of the sides being tipped by many to be at the top of the table.
His interview yesterday was interesting and I was pleased to hear him come out in optimistic mood about our chances, but to be honest we shouldn't expect anything different.
I have not, however, been impressed by the building-up of Bury as some sort of world-beaters.  It's Bury, not Barcelona.
"They're going to be right up there" and words like that have been used - it smacks of getting your excuses in early, and also I found it strange when he said "we're not expecting it all to be singing and dancing on Saturday" suggesting that deep down he maybe isn't too optimistic on our chances this weekend.
Tactically as well it all seems a bit muddled. We thought we were going to get 4-3-3/4-5-1 and we have seen a lot of that, but we have seen 4-4-2 tried again (without success again) and also all of a sudden we try 3-5-2 and a bit of 3-4-1-2 as well. I guess we must be grateful to have missed out on the despised diamond.
The three at the back idea seems to have been a late, spur-of-the-moment experiment from the manager, who has never shown any inkling of using it before. It may well be a success down the line - but with a lot more work on the training ground, and I certainly would not try it out this weekend.
So how will we fare? To be honest, we could be anything with this new look squad. I do not share the view of some that we will be nailed-on relegation candidates, but I fear may have to bear some pain on the way to a lower-mid table finish again, finishing in the bottom eight.
I have divided the league into three sections of eight, and think (in no order) Luton, Shrewsbury, Southend, Burton, Northampton, York, Plymouth and Bury are the leading candidates.
The next eight, bubbling under, who could, with a good run, break into that section for a play-off bid are Carlisle, Stevenage, AFC Wimbledon, Oxford, Portsmouth, Dagenham, Newport and Tranmere.
That leaves the rest - ourselves, Accrington, Morecambe, Cambridge, Exeter, Hartlepool, Wycombe and Mansfield in the lower section.
Obviously, I want to be totally and spectacularly wrong, and I'd love to see us improve on last season and finish comfortably in the top half and even flirt with the play-offs, but realistically I cannot see that unless key players stay fit and others step up to the plate and have strong consistent seasons.
The spine of the team will be crucial - the performances and fitness of players like Trevor Carson, Matt Taylor, Matt Richards and Byron Harrison will, in my view, hold the key to our ultimate fortunes.

The squad
1 Trevor Carson - Looks a safe pair of hands, and will prove an adequate replacement for Scott Brown, but I hope fans don't spend all season comparing the two. Carson will do some things better than Brown, and some things worse, but all goalkeepers are only as good as the defenders ahead of them.
2 Lee Vaughan - Shaping up to be a fans' favourite already, and looks to have no shortage of energy and commitment. Looking forward, however, to seeing how he shapes up against Football League wingers.
3 Craig Braham-Barrett - Has the seemingly impossible task of turning round fans' opinions, with a majority adamant he is not good enough, his cause not helped by his part in 'non-trying-gate'. Paul Black's arrival gives proper competition in the left-back position and if Craig starts the season he will have to show more consistency than he has up to now.
4 Matt Taylor - Not seen much of him, with an hour in roasting weather against Bath and 45 minutes against Bristol City, but his record suggests he will be the leader and solid presence we have been looking for.
5 Troy Brown - Solid enough last season, but hasn't, in my view, enjoyed the best of pre-seasons and will need to show, with competition at the back now, that he is worthy of his place.
6 Steve Elliott - Rumours of his demise may be greatly exaggerated. The arrival of Taylor seemingly meant Steve would be put out to grass, but has been our best central defender in pre-season, and he might yet still be a regular - especially if we persist with three at the back.
8 Matt Richards - Unfairly castigated last season and scapegoated over 'non-trying-gate', he was nowhere near as bad last season as a lot of fans made out. Has been good in pre-season and his set-piece delivery will be important, and this is an area where he needs to find more consistency. Will be a key man.
9 Byron Harrison - 15 goals in a team which finished 17th was a superb effort and he needs to at least match that this time around - but will need some help from those around him. Needs to cut out the lethargic displays which creep into his repertoire as on his day he can be unplayable. If those unplayable days happen more often however, we will struggle to keep him.
10 Terry Gornell - Talented player who has not lived up to expectations so far, and no goal since October 22 tells the story of a frustrating time for Terry. Time is running out for him though with Yates looking to bring in forward reinforcements and he could soon find himself the odd man out.
11 Andy Haworth - Looking to find his way back into regular league football, and we have to hope he rises to the challenge. Will be an important man in trying to give Byron the service he needs, and will also have to weigh in with some goals.
14 Asa Hall - Disrupted pre-season with injury but showed that he could be a useful acquisition. He will have to be the midfield player who gets into the box and contributes a few goals, and with his height, especially from set-pieces, he is capable of doing that.
15 Jack Deaman - Very raw but definitely has some promise. Has made some mistakes in pre-season but could develop into an asset with some work on the training ground and in the gym.
16 Joe Hanks - Hoping this will be his breakthrough season. Not used enough last season in my view and shone in the last two games. Hasn't played enough in pre-season in what would be viewed as the first-choice team but I have no doubt he could succeed at League Two level. I'd hope to see him make at least 10-15 starts this season.
17 Zack Kotwica - Last season's great hope, but despite some promising cameos it didn't quite happen for him. Should have had a few starts earlier in the season, but needs to show signs of improvement this term as I feel he has plateaued slightly. Big campaign ahead.
18 Paul Black - Majority of fans would pick him at left-back immediately simply as he isn't Craig Braham-Barrett. Has played more than 100 league games, but has lost his way career-wise recently. Showed some good signs in pre-season and the left-back battle will be a good one.
19 Omari Sterling-James - A gamble, which may or may not come off. Some bright signs in pre-season, while at other times he looked a mile off a League player. Six-month contract worth the risk, and he has work to do to prove himself.
20 Koby Arthur - Comes in with glowing reports from Birmingham fans, and has shown he has ability. Interesting to see if he can produce it at League Two level, and could be a surprise package for us.
21 Harry Williams - 38 youth and reserve goals last season deservedly earned him a contract and some first-team exposure last season, and I have high hopes for him. I hope he is given chance to develop this season with more first-team chances and not to stagnate as Hanks did a bit last season as I view him as a great prospect.
22 Bobbie Dale - Also had a good goalscoring record at youth and reserve level and another who needs the opportunity to develop. May have to go on loan to get regular games, but another good prospect in my view.
23 James Bowen - Tenacious, feisty player with a nice left foot who can play anywhere up that flank, and capable of weighing in with goals. Another with a chance of being a good player for us in the future with the right opportunity to progress, again with a loan in the offing I suspect.
24 Adam Powell - Quite similar in my view to Hanks - tall midfield player, good on the ball and handy set-piece taker. Scored a lovely goal at Redditch last week and as with Williams, Dale and Bowen needs to be given chances to show what he can do. Likely to be loaned at some point.
25 Jason Taylor - His squad number shows where he sits in Mark Yates' plans - transfer-listed and not really wanted by the manager. But he will start the season in the side, although I suspect that if Yates had brought another midfielder in, or given Hanks more game-time that he would be the man left out. He had not had a bad pre-season and showed that he could do a job as the defensive one of the midfield three - until Kidderminster when he had a disastrous afternoon.

And so to Bury, and I get the idea many - the manager included - would view a draw as a superb result, and I hope Yates does not try the three at the back at Gigg Lane, as I fear that would be a disaster.
I would to see the 4-3-3/4-5-1 system, and I think the team will be something like:

Carson
Vaughan
Two of Brown/Elliott/M Taylor
CBB/Black
J Taylor
Richards
Hall
Haworth
Arthur
Harrison

Subs from: Reynolds (gk), one of Brown/Elliott/M Taylor, Deaman, CBB/Black, Hanks, Gornell, Sterling-James, Kotwica, Williams, Dale, Powell, Bowen