It’s been eight weeks since we drew the curtain on the poor 2022/23 season, tomorrow we turn out for the first time for the new campaign (at Welling), and we’re about five weeks away from the start of real hostilities. All that can be said is that right now we’re nowhere near where we would want to be if we are to mount a promotion challenge. That’s news to nobody and of course much is going to change in the month ahead, just that the chances of hitting the ground running have faded as the ownership situation is not resolved and there’s no indication yet of how the team/squad will shape up. All perhaps understandable, judgement for sure is reserved, doesn’t mean it isn’t disappointing.
We are told repeatedly that the budget has been agreed with all interested parties and the protracted process of the transfer of ownership will have no impact on signings. That’s hard to believe, just in terms of the profile we present to a prospective player with other options. And it isn’t as if other clubs are sitting around. Portsmouth have made I think seven new signings against one for us, plus two players – Hector and Thomas - putting pen to paper on new deals. And whether or not we did have an offer accepted for May, if he ends up joining Gillingham, as indicted, it will mean that two obvious and available forward targets (with Stockton having joined Burton) will not be coming our way.
As so often the case, whether or not this proves material depends on what happens next, ie who if anyone really does get signed. We felt the same way when Washington was released. He wasn’t replaced and we suffered as a result. Everyone knows we need at least one, preferably two, forwards, with just Aneke, Leaburn and Kanu currently on the books. You might argue that’s enough if we play one up front (keeping the ‘front three’ shape even though Rak-Sakyi is not longer around), but two young, developing players and Chuk’s injury record say otherwise.
Retaining Hector and Thomas is good news. Thomas, who was within a whisker of being shipped out in January, has taken his opportunity and with Clare gone offers cover at full-back, while Hector slotted in well enough since his arrival in January. But there are no surprises here. Either/both may have preferred to move on, might have attracted better terms from other League One clubs, but neither was going up a division. You are left with the impression that the defence is going to rest on how well Ness returns and progresses, whether Egbo stays clear of injury, what other full back is brought in, whether Lavelle finds a new home and another centre-back is signed, and whether other youngsters (Mitchell, Asiimwe etc) are ready. That’s quite a few imponderables for a club saying it is aiming for the top six.
Our one signing to date, of keeper Isted, is also positive, if a little surprising. With Harness not retained and Wollacott opting to join Hibernian (seemingly to get the game time he needs for his international career), it was clear we would need to bring in a keeper. But with Maynard-Brewer seemingly having established himself as our number one, ahead of Wollacott, most people would have guessed it would be a back-up, someone ready to step in in the event of injury or loss of form. I doubt Isted is ready to play second-fiddle, or that Maynard-Brewer will take kindly to finding himself back on the bench. As Holden stressed, competition for places is healthy, usually, not always for the goalkeeping spot as a defence needs to adapt to the guy behind them and get used to his strengths and weaknesses. Chopping and changing in this area isn’t desirable, so I’d assume one of the two will become established and the other will hopefully react in the right fashion. That can often depend on how the team does. Keep winning and have a place around the top and all are happy – and vice versa.
Wollacott choosing to move on was understandable and we wish him the best, he did nothing wrong while with us, circumstances conspired against him. But that does raise the issue of who else might still be shipped out to clear up room. Kirk, Jaiyesimi, McGrandles and Lavelle have all returned from loan and we have no idea if they might form part of Holden’s plans for the season. As especially the midfield line-up and preferred formation seem to hinge as much on who stays as who is brought in, it would help if we knew.
Finally, just belated good wishes to Morgan, Inniss and Clare. A move to Blackpool looks a great opportunity for Morgan to make his mark on a team. Hopefully he will, albeit not to the extent of taking a promotion place instead of us. For Inniss it’s the usual proviso, if he can stay fit and not suspended he will be a powerhouse at Forest Green. In both cases I think the decisions to part company were fair enough, that forming a defence and midfield to challenge at the top required something different. I’m still surprised that we let Clare go, and that he hasn’t yet been snapped up, but no doubt he will be. It may be small comfort, but he was my partner Suzanne’s favourite player. I keep telling her we’re going to bring in new, really, really good alternatives. Please let it be so.