The Lower League Week – Bright Beginnings
Pay Up Pompey, Pompey Pay Up
If one word can be applied to the mess at Portsmouth, it’s ‘complicated’. Every week seems to bring three or four new developments. As you may have read, Portsmouth made 10 signings last Friday, all on month-long contracts. Eight of these had previously been on trial, while Simon Eastwood had previously been registered to play in the League Cup on a ‘non-contract basis’. The temptation when looking in from a distance is to view the Portsmouth team who took to the field at the weekend as a ragtag bunch of misfits, put together at the last possible moment. But the majority of them had been training with the club through pre-season, even travelling to Spain while the then contracted players stayed at home.
Michael Appleton, speaking last week after his budget was cut, said that under the new budget, the outcome would be
“Relegation. Without any shadow of any doubt.”
Without wanting to be flippant, I can say with near certainty that Portsmouth won’t be relegated this season. They may cease to exist but the team they now have, supplemented by four loan signings, is a solid mid-table League One squad, at least.
Lee Williamson played 40 times for Sheffield United last season before leaving against the club’s wishes, Luke Rodgers scored nine goals in 23 games for New York Red Bulls in last year’s MLS before being denied a visa to remain in the States, while Izale McLeod was joint top scorer in League Two, despite playing for the division’s third from bottom team. Jon Harley and Brian Howard, while not at the peak of their careers, are solid, experienced players.
I’m genuinely curious about what’s motivating some of the Portsmouth players to choose such an unstable club. McLeod should be one of the most sought after players in the lower leagues. A ‘natural goalscorer’ of his type is the most coveted type at any level. Even assuming he wants to remain in the south-east, Leyton Orient and Colchester, even his former club MK Dons should be interested. Failing that, clubs at the top end of League Two like Southend or AFC Wimbledon should be able to offer a decent wage.
Do the players have a lot of faith in Appleton’s vision? Are they merely using the spotlight on the club to draw the attention of Championship teams? Does the relative glamour of playing for 2008′s FA Cup winners attract them? Or are Portsmouth paying higher wages than stable but cash poorer clubs?
Despite a very long list of injuries, Bournemouth have spent a lot of money (the £800,000 capture of Matt Tubbs among them), so would prove a tough test. Lee Barnard, who signed on loan from Southampton just prior to the weekend, scored 15 times in the Saints’ promotion from League One two years ago so they were certainly no pushovers.
The game ended 1-1, with Portsmouth scoring when McLeod made his way into space and shot from range straight at the Bournemouth keeper Jalal, who did a Taibi, allowing the ball to squirm straight through his body. Jalal later flapped a cross straight to McLeod, who blazed over from close range.
This draw was followed by a 2-2 draw at Colchester, who should be a solid mid-table team.
Amid all the chaos at Pompey, on the pitch is pretty much the only place where things aren’t looking too bad. But there’s an argument to made that this strength may be the result of spending the kind of money others would love to have.
Draw for the Johnstone Paint Trophy
The draw for the first round of the Football League Trophy was made on Saturday, with one or two interesting ties. Sixteen teams were given a bye into the second round to make the numbers work. The Trophy is held in the same sort of regard by clubs like Oldham and Scunthorpe that the League Cup is by Manchester United and Arsenal, with it not being unusual to see crowds below a thousand in the early stages. Coventry will be introduced to the Trophy by hosting Burton, holders Chesterfield will begin their defence at home to Oldham, but the most interesting tie is probably Oxford vs Swindon.
Not only are they local rivals seperated by a division, but last year on the way to the League Two title, Swindon lost twice to Oxford and tried to prise away James Constable, their star striker. Both teams will have plenty of motive to put one over on their rivals, so the Trophy could have the rarity of an interesting first round match.
Doncaster to bounce back?
Teams relegated to League One often find their first season harder than they’d expected, thinking that their experience higher up the league ladder, enhanced by their superior resources, will make promotion relatively easy. Without being disrespectful to Doncaster, their years of battling in the Championship on a League One budget should make the transition a little easier.
Against Walsall, Rovers looked to be playing a good passing game in general against one of the weaker teams in the division, with David Cotterill impressing with a long range strike from the right wing. Moving into space to get time on the ball closer to the halfway line than the goal, Cotterill launched a dipping long range shot over the keeper. The game ended with a solid 3-0 win.
This was followed up by a hard fought victory over Bury. Doncaster had to come from behind, and despite Bury going down to ten men, needed a late winner to get the victory. But spending twenty minutes unable to break down a team with inferior numbers is the kind of situation where tension can build, and the process of underachievement start. Doncaster are one of three teams to win both their first games, meaning Rovers have started as well as possible on their return to the third tier.
The Blades Cut Their Cloth
Sheffield United, last year’s League One playoff losers, have been made the favourites for the title by most bookmakers. Personally I don’t see it happening, with finances being the main reason. Chairman Kevin McCabe announced back in May that the wage bill would have to be cut to fit under the now mandatory 60% of turnover spending limit, Steve Simonsen was released days after missing the vital penalty with Lee Williamson later leaving amid speculation of a move to Forest.
The experienced pair of Nick Montgomery and Richard Cresswell haven’t played in any of United’s three games so far, with Danny Wilson announcing that they’ve been left out for financial reasons. The feeling amongst fans seems to be that Cresswell’s legs are going, but he played a part in 51 games last year, while Montgomery is a tough midfielder who’s still only 30. I can still see Sheffield United going up, but unless the current and future signings replace the huge impact of those who’ve left, the title looks a little beyond them.
Preston still spending
Preston’s spending was covered in more depth last week, but since then Steve Simonsen, first choice keeper at Sheff Utd last year, has signed to compete with the popular Thorsten Stuckmann and David Healy, a man who’s not popular at North End because of the way he left the club for Leeds, is on trial.
Graham Westley announced in May that they’d be reducing the spending on youth saying that “We aren’t going to have a big development agenda, in terms of holding lads here for three or four years in the hope that they’re going to go somewhere.” While diverting resources to the first team will help in the short term, the lack of long-term thinking worries me. It’s particularly dangerous with the EPPP set to have a major effect on lower league clubs.
The Prolific Richard Hinds
In the League Cup tie against Colchester, Yeovil defender Richard Hinds scored twice from set pieces in a 3-0 victory, and against Coventry the defender got his third of the season. This uncharacteristic run of goals means that the defender is, by my reckoning, the joint top scorer in the top four divisions, despite having scored only 15 goals in a 14 year career.
It’s a funny old game.
Good Start to the Season for Yeovil, Bad Start for Gary Johnson
But manager Gary Johnson’s been angry about the state of the pitch, saying that:
“One day someone will listen to me and make that grass short enough so we can get that opportunity (to play passing football).”
He’s spoken of “the need to start acting like a League One club,” and said that “we have to get into those people who have not quite got those standards that we’ve got, and make sure that they raise them. If they do, then we’ll all be happy.”
The style of play Johnson favours is a passing one, and at his best he’s been one of the Football League’s best managers in that mould in recent years, so it’s a little surprising the grounds staff haven’t already adapted to his preferences.
There’s a temptation amongst fans to think of managers as being either good or bad. When a successful manager moves to another club where he fails, he’s often described as being ‘found out’. But managers react differently to different support and stresses – probably the best example in recent years is Paul Buckle at Bristol Rovers – but Johnson fits comfortably into this group as well.
Johnson took Lewis Young and Byron Webster from Northampton during the summer, so Gilligan’s feelings can’t have been universal. But it is interesting to peer behind the cliches footballers often communicate in, to see the more complex relationships. Gilligan’s Twitter feed on 18th August makes interesting reading.
Aidy Boothroyd Doesn’t Like Twitter
The weekend also saw Northampton strike Jake Robinson ‘vent his frustration’ at being left out of Northampton’s squad.
So what wild and irresponsible thing did the striker say? When asked if he was in the travelling squad, he replied “you would have thought so wouldn’t you”.
Feel the white hot rage of that!
Boothroyd spoke of his dislike of Twitter on Saturday evening, saying “apparently you can find out exactly what’s going on with him which is disappointing but I’ll deal with that”. Robinson later appears to have been informed by fans on Twitter of his manager’s publically stated dissatisfaction, being unaware which tweet had gotten him into trouble. But is Robinson answering a straightforward question on Twitter with mild sarcasm really worse than Boothroyd speaking to the media before his player?
The reaction (stating he was unhappy rather than happy to be left out of the squad) seems pretty mild to me. In addition to starting with two up front Northampton had Adebayo Akinfenwa, first year pro Lewis Wilson, summer signings Lewis Moult and Henoc Mukendi (all of them mainly strikers) on the bench. Effectively, this means that on current form and fitness he’s not considered one of the top six strikers at the club, and frankly, Robinson has enough of a pedigree that you would expect him to be chosen over a first year pro.
A lot of managers dislike Twitter, seemingly for the lack of control it gives them.
Personally, I think the reaction should be to accept that people will get annoyed and try and work round that, rather than outlawing unhappiness. To me, mildly expressed annoyance is acceptable, as long as most of the energy is channelled into his performances.
Northampton On the Pitch
Aidy Boothroyd took over from Gary Johnson in January, pulling them away from the relegation zone. Boothroyd has added several new signings rebuilding for a promotion challenge, gambling on players who’ve ‘lost their way’
at previous clubs.
Statistically, Northampton were outclassed in terms of shots on and off-target, but a victory over the league’s big spenders is impressive regardless of how it’s achieved.
League Two’s New Boys Start Badly
Chesterfield, the defending Football League Trophy holders, struggled against AFC Wimbledon in their opening game.
A solid finish by last season’s joint top League Two scorer Jack Midson, aided by strong defending from Wimbledon and a few spectacular saves, meant the Dons were able to snatch a surprise victory. Elsewhere on the same day, Rochdale had a goal ruled out for offside and struck the post in a dominant display against Northampton, but were held to a draw that seemed from the highlights to be more about luck than strong defending.
There were a few summer departures for Exeter (defensive lynchpin Troy Archibald-Henville among them); but the additions of experienced goal-getter Jamie Cureton and former Derby captain Matt Oakley look pretty solid.
The opening game against Morecambe didn’t go so well. A sideways pass from the left back to an under pressure teammate was closed down by Morecambe’s Craig Woodman, for Andrew Fleming to coolly slot under the keeper. Goalkeeper Krysiak, rushing out of his box, later chested the ball thirty yards straight into Fleming’s path, and was beaten from distance. For the third Krysiak tried to close a hole in the defence, but Izak Reid reached the ball first and was able to calmly lob the ball past the keeper.
Wycombe were the exception of the four teams that came down, with a relatively comfortable 3-1 win over York, which included a beautiful long range volley from Sam Cook.
After Bristol Rovers had a seemingly legitimate goal ruled out for a foul, Oxford’s Jake Foster-Caskey burst inside before blasting home with power from the edge of the area. Alfie Potter won the ball wide left just inside his own half before running the full length of the pitch, holding off the man he’d just robbed and beating two more defenders before sliding the ball past the goalkeeper. A 2-0 win was perhaps a little harsh on Rovers, but a strong and entertaining start from Oxford.
Burton vs Wimbledon
After losing 3-0 at big-spending Rotherham on the opening day, Burton fans may not have been optimistic when they hosted AFC Wimbledon. But things went pretty well, all things considered. Burton, who had only won three times in the calendar year in the league, raced into a 4-0 lead before half time. They led 5-0 at one point, eventually coming away with a 6-2 victory.
Football can be pretty nuts at times.
What do you think about what we have to say about your club? Are those mentioned under-appreciated or overrated? Did we miss someone or something that should be covered? Join in by commenting below, or find me on Twitter @Joe_Bloghead