Preview: Notts County

The re-appointment of Mark Robins as manager back in March was all about how ready we would be for the start of this season. Getting those few wins towards the back end of last season, and especially that wonderful afternoon at Wembley, was important in re-energising the fan-base, but the hard work of winning promotion back to League One at the first attempt begins now.

It has been an almost complete overhaul of the squad over the summer, with just four of the starting XI at Wembley likely to start this forthcoming game against Notts County – three, depending on whether Lee Burge is fit. Instead of relying on a relatively young squad packed with a number of homegrown talents, Robins has decided to employ a different model leaning towards more experienced and proven performers, with a veteran Michael Doyle being the poster ‘child’ of this new side.

It means that we are starting from square one as a team this season, although, having had the majority of the squad in place for the entirety of pre-season may hasten the gelling process. They key areas of the squad are whether Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis can form an effective central defensive partnership, Michael Doyle and Liam Kelly can provide dynamism in addition to their sturdiness in central midfield, and whether Marc McNulty is capable of scoring the goals to get us out of this division.

Possible Line-Up

We already have a strong idea of what team Mark Robins is going to pick for this game, based on his team selections in pre-season. The aforementioned five players will provide the spine of the side, along with the experienced Peter Vincenti on the right wing and Stuart Beavon playing slightly ahead of McNulty in attack. Jack Grimmer at right-back is also almost certain to start and, thanks to an injury picked up by Ryan Haynes, Chris Stokes will make up the back four.

After some reasonable performances in pre-season without being overly tested, Liam O’Brien may get a chance to stake a claim for the starting spot in goal if Lee Burge doesn’t prove his fitness in time. The decision to sign O’Brien over a more experienced keeper was a big call from Mark Robins this summer, and it could seriously hamstring us if both he and Burge don’t cut the mustard.

Finally, Jodi Jones’ performance in the final pre-season friendly against Nuneaton where he scored and provided an assist for Stuart Beavon should win him a start on the left wing ahead of Devon Kelly-Evans. This is a big season for Jones after failing to provide a consistent final product last season, he could prove to be one of those players who really benefits from dropping down a level to become a central player for the club.

Last Time We Met

Our last meeting with Notts County was a drab 0-0 draw at Meadow Lane during Tony Mowbray’s attempts to keep us in League One following his arrival back in 2015. Our attacking threat had been stunted by the recent loss of Dominic Samuel to injury, leaving a toothless strike force of Frank Nouble and Simeon Jackson to labour in vain against a Notts County side soon to be doomed to relegation.

Notts County’s last trip to the Ricoh Arena was another drab affair on the face of it, however, it was a game memorable for some of absolutely top notch time-wasting and gamesmanship on the part of a Notts County side then flying in the top six of League One under Shaun Derry. With the Sky Blues in a torpor at the time under Steven Pressley, an error for Andy Webster was ruthlessly punished late in the second-half to hand Shaun Derry, Roy Carroll and the merry men of Notts County all three points.

How Are They Doing?

Notts County are attempting to build something more stable after a soap opera of a past decade which has seen a revolving door of players and managers fail to sustain the occasional promising run of form. Back in January, the club were in a transfer embargo and in danger of dropping into the relegation battle in League Two, however, a takeover by local businessman Alan Hardy and the appointment of Kevin Nolan as manager has seemingly put the club back in right direction.

The January transfer deadline day signings of Shola Ameobi and Jorge Grant – along with left-back Marc Bola who has since joined Bristol Rovers – provided the team with an injection of quality required to make Kevin Nolan’s organisation of the team effective. Ameobi in particular played a crucial role as the figurehead in attack, holding the ball up due to his physical presence and technical skill to bring others into play – he’ll be partnered in attack by the equally experienced Jon Stead, who provides a lot less outside the area for his team.

Possible Line-Up

The aforementioned Grant was a big beneficiary of Ameobi’s hold-up play, coming in off the wing and scoring some excellent goals over the course of the second-half of last season.  Notts County have done well to re-sign the Nottingham Forest youngster on loan, and he’ll be a big danger man for this game. That threat coming in off wide positions has been further bolstered by the arrivals of Lewis Alessandra and Gibraltar international Liam Walker over the summer, who are both potential match-winners at this level on their day.

Notts County’s main area of weakness is in defence, where they lack pace and composure on the ball. The agricultural ex-Sky Blues loanees Carl Dickinson and Richard Duffy could well start this game, and it seems like a sensible game plan to try and press high in order to force errors at the back for Notts rather than try and break them down with a slower style of play. Furthermore, goalkeeper Adam Collin had a difficult previous season and we should be looking to keep him as busy as possible.

Prediction

With Notts County an experienced and physical side, this will be early acid test of our League Two credentials. My main area of concern is in defence, where I’m not sure Rod McDonald and Jordan Willis are capable of standing up to a physical battering from both Shola Ameobi and set-piece situations. If we’re slow and ponderous on the ball too, this has all the makings of a classic Ricoh Arena away team smash and grab, only this time it will be in League Two.

Overall, I’m expecting this to be a real ‘welcome to League Two’ experience for us – similar to the game we played against a recently-relegated Wigan side in League One two seasons ago. If we can show we’re capable of controlling games and creating enough chances, that would be the least I want to see from us in this game. If not, it may be an indication that this could be a harder season than anticipated.

I think Notts County will win this game 2-0.

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Preview: Notts County

Another home game, another three points handed to the visiting team. This time it was probably our costliest incidence of the season of gift-wrapping a limited opposition the win at the Ricoh Arena, with Orient now on a run of form that will probably see them sail their way to safety. With five of our six remaining games against fellow relegation strugglers, that generosity has to be stamped out.

It wasn’t just the defeat, we were arguably the better team, it was the lack of incisiveness, especially after falling behind. Tony Mowbray’s appointment has lifted the team from the desperate situation it was in a month ago but it is alarming that we have yet to take a single point from a losing position since his arrival. Along with the poor home form, this inability to fight back from falling behind will have to be addressed if we are to stay up.

Dominic Samuel's season-ending injury leaves the Sky Blues relying on some inconsistent players to shoot us to safety.

Dominic Samuel’s season-ending injury leaves the Sky Blues relying on some inconsistent players to shoot us to safety.

The biggest blow of all has been the loss of Dominic Samuel to injury. The Reading loanee has been our only reliable goal-scorer this season and the penetration he provides is hard to find elsewhere in the team. That performance against Orient where Frank Nouble failed to register a shot on goal, Sanmi Odelusi and Jim O’Brien were ineffectual too, left young George Thomas with far too much of the attacking burden than he could handle. If the loss of Samuel is to be softened, the senior attacking players in the team will have to take more responsibility than they did on Wednesday night.

For this coming trip to Notts County, we need big game performers, making the return of Reda Johnson to the squad a vital boost for the team. With Johnson in the team, our form is play-off worthy and our current league position is an indication of just how long we have been without him. Johnson’s struggles for fitness will probably mean that Mowbray will not be tempted to throw him back into the team right away but his presence in the match-day squad should lift the confidence of the team after a potentially devastating result last time out.

Dominic Samuel’s injury absence, coupled with that of Marcus Tudgay has made the return of wunderkind James Maddison more vital than it had been. Maddison is set for a place on the bench after impressing Mowbray in under-21s performances, he’ll be joined by the misfiring German striker Nick Proschwitz who has plenty of room for improvement after his first three games for the club.

Possible Line-Up: (4-2-3-1) Burge; Willis, Pennington, Martin, Stokes; Ward, Fleck; Odelusi, O’Brien, Turgott; Nouble.

Last Time We Met

Notts County will win the award this season for being the most cynical side to play at the Ricoh Arena. Under Shaun Derry, Notts kicked, dived and time-wasted their way to a 1-0 win that put them in touch of the top two back in November. They were a limited team but one that was playing to a common goal and knew how to get the very best out of their abilities, something that this Coventry City side has failed to do this season. A cast-iron penalty shout from a foul on Gary Madine was our only hope for a point as Notts County expertly held on for all three points.

How Are They Doing?

In the 23 league games that Notts County have had since they played us back in November, they have won just three games and now find themselves mired in the relegation battle. Shaun Derry was sacked three weeks ago and the club have recently failed to appoint Martin Jol’s former assistant manager Ricardo Moniz. Whilst those three wins have all come against side in a similar league position to where we currently are, their home form has been poor which probably makes us slight favourites here.

Notts County’s team is a fairly limited one overall but caretaker manager Paul Hart has plenty of experience to call upon which could swing the match in Notts’ favour. The spine of the team of Roy Carroll in goal, Hayden Mullins in defence, Gary Jones in midfield and Garry Thompson their top-scorer are all older than 34. This is a team with the ability to really bully our young team in all areas of the pitch.

No-one is entirely sure whether the 'No Bajner, No Party' meme is entirely friendly.

No-one is quite sure whether the ‘No Bajner, No Party’ meme is entirely friendly.

Up front they have the powerful Hungary international Balint Bajner who has been a somewhat frustrating presence in the team since joining in January from Ipswich. In his career Bajner has been subject to a meme in Hungary of ‘No Bajner, No Party’ which saw the club block their Facebook page in Hungary soon after his arrival. The forward has two goals in 13 appearances but his height of six foot five makes him a significant presence up top.

Notts County have been boosted by the return of Jimmy Spencer to full fitness after the ex-Huddersfield forward scored the goals that helped the club to a miraculous survival last season. Spencer is another physically occupying centre-forward who will test the mettle of Aaron Martin and Matthew Pennington. Top-scorer Garry Thompson has been a winger throughout his career but has been used mainly as an emergency centre-forward where his work-rate causes problems.

There are also two ex-players in the Notts County ranks in the form of Blair Adams and Billy Daniels. However it is possible that neither could be involved in this game, which is especially surprising in the case of Blair Adams where Lincoln City loanee Sean Newton has been preferred for his set-piece delivery. Daniels, after scoring a spectacular goal on his debut, has failed to nail down a starting spot in the Notts County team.

Possible Line-Up: (4-4-2) Carroll; Dumbuya, Hollis, Mullins, Newton; C Thompson, Jones, Noble, McCourt; Bajner, G Thompson.

Prediction

You only have to cast your mind back to our relegation season from the Championship to remember how key these fixtures over the Easter period can be in a relegation scrap. Back then, it was a momentum-turning defeat to Bristol City on Easter Monday that meant that a supposedly kind remaining fixture list of ‘easy’ home fixtures could not be capitalised upon. A defeat here would not be as grave as it was three years ago but it would really place the pressure on our poor home form to save our backsides.

Those of you who have listened to this week’s Nii Lamptey Show (and if you haven’t you really should), will know that I have predicted a 2-0 win for us in this game. I’m not entirely sure why I predicted two goals and a clean sheet, perhaps a couple of bloots forward from Lee Burge catching the wind will help us on the way. I am going to stick with my prediction of a Sky Blues victory.

Preview: Notts County

A win on Wednesday night against Plymouth Argyle was a much-needed boost after an explosive week for all the wrong reasons. It continued the trend of not all too convincing wins that we have had this season but fully convincing displays are in the minority in football. It is a step in the right direction, but judging from Pressley’s post-match interview, the team won’t be resting on their laurels just yet.

Not just a win, but a clean sheet for the Sky Blues against Plymouth Argyle.

Not just a win, but a clean sheet for the Sky Blues against Plymouth Argyle.

There weren’t the swingeing changes in team selection on Wednesday night that many had anticipated, speaking of the limited strength in depth that we have in our bloated squad. Simeon Jackson, who turned down international duty to be available, was the most high profile absentee and this week also saw Mohamed Coulibaly return to Bournemouth for ‘personal reasons’. With a quite a few missing regardless of their performance against Worcester for that Johnstone’s Paint Trophy game, we may have to wait a while to learn the full repercussions of that abject display.

In the meantime, some of our fringe players have the chance to really stake a claim for a more regular starting spot. Webster and Willis impressed as a central defensive pairing whilst Aaron Martin and Reda Johnson were unavailable. Martin and Johnson are both available for selection but the latter has a long journey from Morocco to make and Pressley might be tempted to stick with a winning partnership anyway. Ryan Allsop was another who took the opportunity to showcase his credentials well on Wednesday night and his Coventry City career may just have turned a corner.

The two main selection issues are in midfield and attack. Conor Thomas’s ability to close down opponents is vital in giving energy to the midfield area and is surely in line to for a return to the first-team. Frank Nouble provides a dilemma for Pressley, undoubtedly talented but inconsistent and arrogant, his brilliant goal on Wednesday night just adds to the frustration as to why he was unable to perform against Worcester a few days beforehand. However Nouble may be handed the start simply due to a lack of other convincing options after James Maddison did not quite make the expected impact against Plymouth

Possible Line-Up: (4-4-2) Allsop; Phillips, Webster, Willis, Haynes; O’Brien, Thomas, Barton, Fleck; Madine, Nouble.

Last Time We Met

The two meetings with Notts County were the yin and yangs of our respective seasons. Just over 12 months ago, a Coventry City side oozing confidence and self-assurance destroyed a managerless Notts County 3-0 at Sixfields after the Magpies had gone down to ten men. The Sky Blues dominated the second-half to the extent that Joe Murphy, Andy Webster and Jordan Clarke were included to swell the attendance figures on a blustery afternoon in Northampton.

During Steven Pressley’s winter of discontent though, Coventry City travelled to Meadow Lane in a vain attempt to reignite a play-off push with Leon Clarke now in the gold of Wolves. In one of the most inept performances that Coventry City have produced in recent years, Notts County, galvanised under the leadership of Shaun Derry, swept aside the Sky Blues and cruised to a 3-0 victory.

How Are They Doing?

Despite that emphatic win in early February, Notts County were still in need of a final-day result to ensure survival. They had been inconsistent under Shaun Derry for much of his tenure until after a 3-2 defeat at Tranmere when Notts County lost just two of their remaining nine games to surge to safety in dramatic circumstances.

It seemed like Notts County would be unable to build on that momentum after losing a series of key players over the summer. Regular starters Bartosz Bialkowski, Alan Sheehan, Gary Liddle, Josh Vela, Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Jack Grealish all left Meadow Lane in the off-season. Even worse was to come as star striker Jimmy Spencer picked up a season-ending injury during a pre-season loss at Mansfield, it looked to be a long and tough season.

Shaun Derry has been putting the 'Autograph' collection by Marks and Spencer to good use in his revival of Notts County.

Shaun Derry has been putting the ‘Autograph’ collection by Marks and Spencer to good use in his revival of Notts County.

Somehow Shaun Derry has managed to improved the team a very limited budget. The team is now an embodiment of what Derry was as a player, hard-working, the right kind of aggressive and adept at grinding out results. Players like Jordan Cranston, Shaun Harrad and Mike Edwards were unwanted by even League Two clubs but have been made to look like consistent performers at League One level.

A strong defence is the platform from which this Notts County side is built upon. Roy Carroll in goal has been brilliant for Notts County this season but is with the Northern Ireland national team and unavailable for selection, back-up Fabian Spiess is a decent option but inexperienced. The young but rock-solid central defensive partnership of Hayden Hollis, youth-team graduate, and Louis Laing, Nottingham Forest loanee, have thus far looked capable of playing at a higher level. Both are physically colossal and will not be fazed by the striker partnership of Frank Nouble and Gary Madine.

Liam Noble and Gary Jones in central midfield are almost polar opposites but work well together. Noble, formerly of Carlisle and Sunderland, is a young and technically gifted midfielder who can sometimes struggle when exposed to a physical battle. Jones is a vastly experienced box-to-box midfielder who is tireless beyond his years and can annoy opponents with some of the dark arts that he has learned during his two decades as a professional footballer.

The two wide-men for tomorrow, Zeli Ismail and Stephen McLaughlin, have been in excellent form this season. Ismail, on loan from Wolves, is proving that his potential is very much a real thing, his pace and trickery have undone many of the division’s best defences this season. McLaughlin, another Forest loanee, is a stereotypical winger who will put in good crosses but also provide some protection of his full-back. Garry Thompson, who has played most of his football out wide during spells with Morecambe, Scunthorpe and Bradford, will play as a lone striker and is the club’s top-scorer with five goals.

Finally, a chance to mention Blair Adams who was controversially given to Notts County for free this summer. In retrospect, his departure allowed for the blossoming of Ryan Haynes as a key player in the team, still, it would be harsh on Adams to say that he wouldn’t have improved this Coventry City team. This game will test whether Steven Pressley’s gamble to offload Adams to allow for Haynes to break through was a wise one.

Possible Line-Up: (4-3-3) Spiess; C Thompson, Laing, Hollis, Adams; Smith, Noble, Jones; Ismail, G Thompson, McLaughlin.

Prediction

All too often in the past 12 months we have won one game but failed to build on that momentum. Whilst Wednesday night’s victory was only in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, it was good to get some of the anxieties caused by that cup defeat to Worcester out of our system. Notts County will be hoping to pounce on any lingering doubts in our players’ minds, we will need to play with even greater energy and determination if we want to navigate a tough test of this team’s credentials.

Notts County’s defence is miserly but they will have to adapt to being without Roy Carroll in goal, the timing of this tricky fixture should benefit us more than them. I am going to predict a 1-1 draw which will disappoint both teams.

Preview: Notts County

Where We Are

Tuesday night’s victory over Bristol City came as a shot in the arm for our season. From looking like we were waiting for the season to end in a dismal defeat to Leyton Orient the play-offs suddenly seem reachable again. What’s more is that the win came without the departed Leon Clarke and the injured Callum Wilson in attack which demonstrated something approaching strength in depth in the squad.

Credit must go to Steven Pressley for his recruitment last week. Having had a fairly poor track record in the transfer market thus far at the club, the signings of Nathan Delfouneso and Mark Marshall look to be interesting additions. Delfouneso’s debut showed him to be a player who was a mix between Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson, nippy and playing off the shoulder of the defender but with the ability to make his presence felt and hold the ball up. His fitness isn’t quite there yet but once it does he’ll be a great signing for us. Mark Marshall also put in a strong performance, albeit from the bench, with the team tiring Marshall was sent on for the final 20 minutes and put pressure on the opposing defence with his speed and evasiveness. Marshall did not look like a player who hadn’t been playing for 2 years and whilst he’s unlikely to start many games, his pace will cause the opposition problems in the same way that Manset did with his physicality.

In addition Tuesday night also saw two players step up to the plate whom many considered to be no more than reserve players. Adam Barton put in a strong performance alongside Conor Thomas in the centre of midfield showing that he may still have a Coventry career. Barton’s post-match comments revealed him to be someone prepared to keep on working until he earns a starting berth, whilst he may not be a starter this season he may become an important player should Thomas or Fleck be sold in the summer. In addition Billy Daniels put in a strong display on the left wing and he’s looking like he’s going to be a top player in a season or two, his agility and work-rate was rewarded with an ‘assist’ for Franck Moussa’s opener.

The team news for this afternoon’s game against Notts County is that John Fleck and Dylan McGeouch are both available for selection. Fleck, who come off the bench against Bristol City, is likely to start ahead of the unlucky Adam Barton. Dylan McGeouch though may be ruing the flu that left him out of the squad on Tuesday, in his stead Billy Daniels put in a strong performance with Mark Marshall impressing as a wide option from the bench. It’s unlikely he’ll be selected as a starter and he’ll have to content himself with a place on the bench.

Last Time We Met

In our last game against Notts County we produced one of our most convincing performances of the season in a 3-0 victory. Notts, who had recently removed Chris Kiwomya from the hotseat and who sat bottom of the table, set themselves up to contain Coventry. This tactic worked fairly well until the 44th minuted when Danny Haynes got himself sent off with a reckless high tackle. The second half was one-way traffic to the extent that both Andy Webster and Jordan Clarke in central defence could have watched the proceedings from a deck chair. A Leon Clarke brace and a tidy Callum Wilson finish saw off the Notts County resistance with relative ease.

How Are They Doing?

Notts County eventually appointed their former player Shaun Derry as their manager alongside former Coventry youth-teamer Greg Abbott. After struggling in the first few weeks in his managerial career, Derry had seemed to turn the club around at the beginning of the calendar year. However since losing 4-3 to Peterborough after taking a 2-0 lead, Notts County have struggled to recapture the momentum they had seemed to have built. It’s been a case all season long of key players underperforming and they’re having a season long crisis of confidence that they haven’t been able to shake off.

With Shaun Derry ineligible to play this season due to having played already for two different clubs, the key men for Notts County are in midfield. Callum McGregor, an attacking midfielder on loan from Celtic, is the star player for Notts County having scored 11 goals in 24 appearances. The other dangerman for Notts County comes in the form of Villa loanee Jack Grealish, a left-winger who’s nimble and skilfull.

Elsewhere it’s a case of players with recognised names putting in sub-par performances. Dean Leacock, a former Sky Blue, shouldn’t be the captain of a side struggling to survive in League One but his performances this season haven’t helped Notts County’s efforts. Mark Fotheringham, who played in the Bundesliga with Hoffenheim, has been especially poor this campaign and struggled to exert an impact on the third-tier. Enoch Showunmi who once could strike fear into lower league defences is a shadow of his former self.

Bartosz Bialkowski the former Southampton goalkeeper is a talented keeper at this level but playing behind one of the worst defences in the division isn’t helping him stand-out. It was understandable then that he sat out last week’s defeat to Preston due to a lack of sleep, in his stead came 39-year-old goalkeeping coach Kevin Pilkington.

Prediction

This is an important game for us at this stage of the season. If we win we can restore momentum and begin a charge towards the play-offs. This is the type of game that teams who win things win, it’s against struggling opposition who’ll be desperate to save themselves, we most impose ourselves on the game early on in order to take the sting out of the game. If Notts County think they can get a point out of this game they’ll take that chance, this game is about how we play and how we can beat Notts County. Our next few games after this are very winnable and this is our chance to stake a claim for a run at promotion.

The squad right now is looking strong with players who won’t play today who would fit in at most other League One clubs as nailed-on starters. I’m feeling pretty confident that we can complete the double over Notts County and I’m predicting a 2-0 win.

The Other 23: Half-Way Review – Part 2

Crewe Alexandra

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What I Predicted

After an impressive season in 2012/13 which saw Crewe win the JPT as well as achieve a comfortable mid-table slot in the league, the club were expected to go from strength to strength. The loss of Luke Murphy to Leeds seemed off-set by re-signing Brad Inman and Chuks Aneke as well as retaining most of the core of the team. I predicted that Crewe were solidly mid-table with a chance of troubling the play-off positions.

How They’re Doing

It’s been an absolute stinker so far for Crewe. From the massive rape allegation that beset their team prior to their opening fixture, attitude problems with several key players, players losing form and just generally being rubbish. Crewe have struggled for consistency both in their results as well as in their starting line-up with some players falling out of favour and a number of loanees taking their place. They’re currently only in the relegation zone on goal difference thanks to the recent loan signings of Tom Hitchcock and Ne Bangna Mesca but both are set to return this month.

How Will They Do?

It seems likely that manager Steve Davis will have to turn to the loan market to save Crewe’s season. Players like Inman and summer signing Anthony Grant may be offloaded in order to free up some salary for arrivals. Injuries and loss of form to key players from last season have plagued the Alex this season and with clubs below them looking like they’ll strengthen over the coming month they face a tough challenge to keep up with their relegation rivals. I have a feeling that Crewe will be relegated.

Gillingham

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What I Predicted

Despite winning League Two last season, Gillingham began the season as one of the favourites for the drop. Few signings were made and those who did come didn’t seem to provide an improvement to what they already had, Cody McDonald aside. As such I tipped them for a relegation battle.

How They’re Doing

Martin Allen lumbered through the first quarter of the season despite a long winless run to open the campaign. He eventually was replaced by managerial journeyman Peter Taylor who has seen steady and modest improvement at the Priestfield. Without making many changes, Gillingham have become much harder to beat and are playing slightly better football than the ‘hoof-ball’ of Martin Allen’s tenure. Their recent win over Wolves at the Priestfield was emblematic of their recent recovery, they defended well and nicked a goal via Cody McDonald. They currently sit pretty in 14th, 5 points away from danger.

How Will They Do?

Gillingham have been unspectacular thus far and are focused more on not losing over winning games of football. With them currently in relative safety this safety-first policy may see them through unscathed until the end of the season. However they may lack the creativity to force the issue should they get dragged into a relegation scrap should Sheffield United, Bristol City and Notts County vacate the lower reaches of the table. Ultimately I think they’ll be able to save themselves for this season at least.

Leyton Orient

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What I Predicted

After a summer of losses and gains in the transfer market, Leyton Orient kept together a small nucleus of key players like Nathan Clarke, Kevin Lisbie and Dean Cox. Nothing great was expected of the O’s who’s small squad size prevented any serious tilt at the play-offs. I predicted that mid-table was the best they could wish for and that they could even been outsiders for relegation.

How They’re Doing

Another gulf between pre-season expectations and current performances has been observed here. Orient raced out of the blocks, winning their first 8 league games and have remained in the top 3 for most of the season. What was unusual about their early form was that Russell Slade had a reputation for producing teams who started the season slowly. The unexpected form of unheralded players such as David Mooney, Romain Vincelot and Mathieu Baudry has helped elevate them from a season that promised, at best, an upper mid-table finish.

How Will They Do?

Leyton Orient seem a different side to the Tranmere one which burned out so massively in the second half of last season. They seem better able to cope with sides seeking to park the bus against them and they have a variety of strengths across the pitch. That being said they have shown signs of lagging off their initial blistering pace at the start of the season and have had to call in some reinforcements as a result of a spate of injuries. Whether they keep up with the leaders will be one of the stories in the league in the second half of the season. I reckon they’ll drop off the pace slightly and end up in the play-off positions.

Milton Keynes Dons

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What I Predicted

After a failed attempt to sneak into the play-offs last season, MK Dons once again had to make budget cuts to keep their club sustainable. Whilst many outside observers may have felt that this might finally have been MK Dons’s year in terms of achieving promotion, I felt that the lack of forward momentum at the club would see them drop into the upper reaches of mid-table.

How They’re Doing

11th place, and I think that counts as just about upper-mid-table. They’ve had to cope with a seemingly endless list of injuries that has robbed them off key players at multiple times this season. After a poor run in November the pressure was beginning to mount on the unlikeable Karl Robinson but he has slowly steered MK back on course towards an outside chance of the play-offs. The goals of Patrick Bamford have kept them in the top half and the worry is what happens now that he’s been moved on to Derby.

How Will They Do?

On the one hand the loss of Patrick Bamford is a hammer-blow for MK’s promotion prospects. On the other though is that key men such as David Martin, Luke Chadwick and Antony Kay are beginning to recover from their injuries. A new striker is a must given that their only alternative is an out-of-form Izale McLeod, they’ve currently got Everton youngster Chris Long for a month but there’ll be significant doubts over his ability to play at senior level. Their current movement in the transfer market suggests that they don’t have the room in their budget to get a high quality replacement for Bamford so you’d expect them to stay mired in the mediocrity of mid-table for the rest of the campaign. Shame.

Notts County

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What I Predicted

After a reasonably successful summer transfer window which included signing Danny Haynes, David Bell and Mark Fotheringham who all came with a decent pedigree Notts County seemed to have quietly built a decent side. The only question mark was over the ability of the softly spoken Chris Kiwomya to translate his playing resources into an effective team unit. With this in mind I felt that they had enough about them to be mid-table and play-off outsiders.

How They’re Doing

It’s been a nightmare season for Notts County. In addition to being in 23rd position at the time of writing they’ve sacked yet another manager, an annual occurrence at Meadow Lane. The new man is Shaun Derry, like Kiwomya in his first managerial role, assisted by ousted Carlisle boss Greg Abbott. After being rooted to the bottom position things have slowly improved under Derry and Abbott with notable performances from loanees Jack Grealish and Callum McGregor helping the Nottingham side’s cause.

How Will They Do?

They seem like they’ll continue their course of recovery. Will that be enough to see them survive though? It’s tough to tell given that there are a few sides in the relegation picture who seem as if they could win 2 or 3 games in a row and lead themselves to safety. I expect the league will begin to tighten up as a whole as the underperformers from the first half of the season continue to improve. Can Notts County be one of those sides to lift themselves away from danger? That’s another difficult question, they’ll seemingly need to replace Callum McGregor but with one or two quality additions they should be able to scrape survival.

Half-Season Review

Now that we’re just slightly past the official half-way mark of the season I though it would be good to take a look back at how the season has gone so far at Coventry City.

Expectations

Casting your mind back to the pre-season and all was doom and gloom. Prior to the opening fixture of the season away at Crawley manager Steven Pressley was left with a skeleton squad featuring only one recognised centre-back in the form of Jordan Willis who had played only one league game in that position previously. Furthermore there were doubts over our manager’s capability to produce winning performances. His reign at that point had largely consisted of meaningless league fixtures featuring experimental line-ups as a result of a 10 point deduction after his third game in charge. To add insult to injury the day before the Crawley fixture began with the news that ‘Coventry City was in liquidation’ this was then revised to ‘Coventry City Ltd goes into liquidation’, due to the arcane ownership structure at the club this meant that there was a distinction between the two headlines meaning that the club itself was still in existence. However the cost of Coventry City Ltd’s liquidation came in the form of another 10 point deduction and transfer embargo. At this point many Coventry fans were anticipating a season which would at best see the team scrape survival in front of a dwindled and demoralised support in Northampton.

The contrast between expectations and the reality at the half way stage have been stark. Despite losing the first two games of the season, in the league against Crawley and then the League Cup against Leyton Orient, the team eventually raced out of the blocks with 7 points in 3 games, scoring 12 and conceding 9 against Bristol City, Carlisle and Preston. Quietly there was a growing sense that Steven Pressley was cultivating something special at the club. The team were playing a stylish and pressing style of football which coupled with the midfield control of Conor Thomas and John Fleck gave the team the element of surprise against sides expecting a walk-over against relegation fodder.

Performances

The Best

Coventry City 2 Colchester United 0 – Colchester may have had a depleted squad to pick from but the control and composure of the side to dominate the opposition, limiting them to just 3 shots (all off target), was indicative of what Pressley’s vision for the team. Cyrus Christie was unstoppable for large portions of the game with his raids from right-back, Colchester attempted to double-up but Christie’s pace, skill and physicality made him a force of nature on the day. John Fleck displayed exceptional defensive awareness with his positioning in front of the defence and his passing set constantly stretched the Colchester defense. Finally Callum Wilson’s pace and poise to score each of his goals was the cutting edge and ruthlessness that so many Coventry teams have lacked in the past.

Coventry City 3 Notts County 0 – Coventry once again displayed a ruthless streak against beleaguered opposition which saw Coventry achieve their 3rd win in a row, their first such run in three seasons. After a first half where Notts County contained a confident Coventry side, a rash challenge from Danny Haynes saw the Notts reduced to 10 men. From then on Coventry pummeled their opponents with possession, movement and shots. Coventry’s first came from Leon Clarke getting on the end of a Blair Adams cross, the second also came from Clarke punishing a poor back pass from Mark Fotheringham the final goal was a Callum Wilson classic as he characteristically rounded the keeper to round off the win.

Coventry City 4 Peterborough United 2 – Coventry had limped through December after consecutive thrashings at the end of November. A near full Sixfields, albeit due to a large Posh following, did not augur well as Coventry went head-to-head with one of the division’s supposed better sides. The pessimism continued with a thoroughly dominant display from Peterborough who took the lead from the surprising source of Sky Blues reject Shaun Jeffers, after having an Assombalonga goal questionably ruled out for off-side. After riding their luck Coventry equalised from a sloppy kick taken by Posh keeper Olejnik which Leon Clarke finished with aplomb. Content with seemingly surviving the first half level, Coventry immediately conceded from a Lee Tomlin goal to send the Sky Blues behind 2-1 at the break. The second half though was a complete 180 degree reversal of what had been seen in the first half with Coventry pressing a Peterborough side who subsequently fell to pieces. Leon Clarke equalised after Peterborough failed to clear a corner, the season’s top-scorer though he’d scored his hat-trick only to see it ruled out for off-side. Nonetheless Clarke then played a perfectly weighted through ball to play in Moussa to give Coventry a deserved lead. The drama didn’t end there with Peterborough forcing the ball over the line only to for it to be missed by the officials, capitalising on the Posh’s protestations Callum Wilson found himself released unmarked in the opposition half and tucked the ball away in his usual confident style.

The Worst

Port Vale 3 Coventry City 2 – For many fans who had chosen to boycott Sixfields this was their first chance to Steven Pressley’s enterprising Coventry City side. For the first half the travelling fans were treated to a display of confidence and control from the Sky Blues. Somehow though Port Vale managed to score a goal to make the score 2-1 and give the Valiants an opportunity to get back into the game. The second half saw the team lose their poise and control with Port Vale pressing and exploiting the aerial weakness of our defence to full advantage as they went on to win 3-2. Seeing Mickey Adams tactically outwit Steven Pressley made the defeat and performance that one bit worse

Bradford City 3 Coventry City 3 – The result in and of itself was not the disappointment just the manner in which it came about. Coventry scored twice in the opening 10 minutes as an out-of-form Bradford side were made to look out of sorts. In fact the early 2-0 scoreline flattered Bradford as Coventry could have been 4 up having fashioned score-able opportunities. However the defensive weakness that has undermined us at times this season was there for all to see in front of the Sky cameras as Jordan Clarke produced an air-kick which left Nahki Wells with an empty net from a long punt forward. Bradford’s equaliser came in similarly direct fashion, outlining the team’s inability to defend simple long balls once again. Despite the disappointment the team showed character to re-gain the lead and then create the lion’s share of the chances in a lower tempo second half. Naivety eventually cost the team what would have been a 4th consecutive league victory and taken us within two points of the play-offs. In the closing seconds Conor Thomas elected to keep a ball in play that would have been a throw-in for us in the opposition half, from this Bradford sent another hopeful ball towards the rugged target-man James Hanson and Jordan Clarke conceded a penalty for hand-ball in attempting to compete with him aerially. Wells completed his hat-trick as Coventry dropped points in what should have been an emphatic victory.

Coventry City 1 Tranmere Rovers 5 – Following the disappointment against Bradford we faced what should have been a simple win over an out-of-form and lowly Tranmere side. The disappointment wasn’t so much the performance but that our tactical set-up was exploited so perfectly by Tranmere. The statistics say it all, they had 5 shots on goal and scored each of them. The team failed to deal with Tranmere’s midfield runners isolating our defenders leaving simple opportunities to create chances. What’s worse was that despite ending the game with a man advantage we failed to assert the numerical superiority, instead conceding a final goal.

Players of the Season

John Fleck – For me, Fleck’s been the player of the season thus far. Fleck is a man transformed from the player that trundled around for the most part of last season. Fleck’s workrate and desire to make important tackles has been the most surprising aspect of his game this season. The way he can break up play with a well timed interception has been his most notable ability that’s been on display this season. Of course Fleck’s ‘meat and drink’ is his passing range which is mainly used to stretch the opposition defence. Unlike many midfielders at this level Fleck has the vision to see the whole pitch rather than a narrow plane just in front of him. Numerous goals this season have come from him spreading the play out to one of our raiding full-backs catching the opposition cold.

Leon Clarke – Leon’s influence in the side has been highlighted during his absence towards the end of November. Not only was his goalscoring ability missed as the side lost 3 out of 5 games but his ability to link the attack and midfield reduced the team’s impact in the final third. Leon has become one of the leaders of the side and this has been highlighted by the lethal partnership he has formed with Callum Wilson. You can tell just from watching the two celebrate their many goals that they love playing with each other. His ability to drop deep and hold the ball up has created space not only for Wilson but for Moussa and Baker as well, with those three now on around 30 goals between. Life without Leon seems an imminent possibility but hopefully one that can be delayed at least for a few months.

Blair Adams – Quietly and without drawing too much attention to himself Blair Adams has been one of our most consistent performers this season. Effective in supporting the attack, solid defensively, Blair Adams performances often go unnoticed but have been highly effective. Personally I am content with this state of affairs given the vultures that may inevitably be hanging around the club with their derisory bids for our star players. What has impressed me most has been the improvement in his crossing the season, after being ‘hit-and-hope’ to a large extent when he first arrived, his crossing has improved to the extent that he is now our first-choice corner taker.

Young Players of the Season

Callum Wilson – His rise to prominence this season has hidden just how unremarkable he was as a reserve player over the large majority of his Coventry career. Approaching 22, Callum Wilson has only made 35 appearances thus far for Coventry City. However the circumstances over the summer catapulted Wilson into a prominent role for the start of the season. Wilson’s pre-season performances were so impressive that it forced Pressley to alter his tactics to accommodate two strikers. He has seized his chance this season and sees himself now firmly ensconced in the League One scoring charts. A remarkable breakthrough season and his two month spell with a shoulder injury will be a massive blow to our play-off chances.

Aaron Phillips – An injury to Cyrus Christie eventually saw Aaron Phillips stake his claim for a starting spot after ousting competition in the form of the composed Jordan Willis. Phillips has shown himself to be fierce competitor with a genuine love of making well-timed sliding tackles. Another remarkable rise to first-team prominence given that he started the year on loan to Conference side Nuneaton Town where he played a massive role in saving them from relegation. The seemingly inevitable sale of the first-choice right-back Cyrus Christie will surely see Aaron Phillips become a first-team regular and there looks to be a bright future ahead for the youngster.

Billy Daniels – Daniels started his season off in emphatic fashion with two goals against Bristol City. The striker’s inclusion as a right winger in the team came as a surprise to many but he displayed great energy to protect his full-back and eventually get himself into the penalty area for his two goals. Previously Daniels had been played out of position as a central midfielder where he looked struggled to assert himself. Unfortunately as the season has gone on, injuries have seen Daniels’s chances limited to cameos. When he has returned to action he has struggled to repeat the feats he achieved in August but a promising display against Barnsley in the cup may see Daniels regain his place in more regular first-team action for the second half of the season.

Signings

This has perhaps been the one area where Pressley hasn’t particularly impressed thus far. Albeit he’s been under considerable restrictions with multiple deals in the summer scuppered due to the transfer embargo. I’ll go through one-by-one to try and delve deeper into the failures and successes of Pressley’s transfer dealings.

Mathieu Manset – The enigma of the season so far, relatively impressive during his substitute appearances until November when he fell off the face of the earth. A clear lack of fitness and his frustration of being behind Wilson and Leon Clarke in the strikers queue has left him frozen out of first-team affairs.

Andy Webster – Was meant to bring experience and composure to the defence but if anything has cost the team more goals than the supposedly poorer defender Jordan Clarke. However his aerial ability have been an asset to a side generally lacking in height and cannot be solely blamed for a lack of protection from midfield. A solid signing overall but maybe disappoints due to the expectations of him when coming in.

Stuart Urquhart – Yet to be included in the first-team even during defensive crises, one for the future.

Jamar Loza – Short-term loan signing to cover for the disappearing Manset but never really given a chance to play.

Chris Dagnall – A willing runner and worker more than anything. Had good games and bad games during his loan spell including telling contributions against MK Dons and Peterborough but ultimately won’t be missed upon his return to Barnsley.

Danny Seaborne – Signed during our worst run of the season and helped steady the ship defensively. Not an influential or dominant centre-back nor did we see any noticeable defensive improvement but he did help get both Webster and Jordan Clarke out of the firing line during a sticky spell. Ruined his loan spell with a dumb suspension for aiming a punch at Jonson Clarke-Harris against Oldham.

Chris Maguire – Went from hero during the MK Dons game with two brilliant goals from direct free-kicks. Followed that up with a mediocre display against Crewe, then dropped for the Swindon game and eventually recalled by Sheffield Wednesday. Technically an outstanding player but lacks the work-rate to fully integrate into Pressley’s style of football.

Denzel Slager – Signed at a rush due to an injury to Callum Wilson and loan spells ending. Underwhelming against Barnsley but too early to judge him.

Going Forward

A remarkable season thus far that has seen all the usual characteristics of a Coventry side turned on its head. Typically a Coventry team and manager would have used the summer’s tribulations as an excuse for under-performing. Steven Pressley though had forged a strong collective mentality and a style of play based on hard work as well as skill. Almost all of the players who remained from last season have improved this season as what should have been a relegation struggle has become a possible charge for promotion.

The squad remains small and it seems imminent that Pressley will change his tactics or make a big signing in order to overcome the potential problems that having a small squad may cause in the run-in. The blip during the end of November was a sign of the doom and gloom that many predicted and thus survival remains the ultimate priority. Financially though the cup tie with Arsenal may allow the club to prevent insulting offers for the star players at least until the summer so we should be able to have a proper go at achieving at least play-offs this season.

 

Preview: Notts County

Where We Are

The news this week has been dominated by the supposed re-opening of talks over the Ricoh Arena. Apparently Joy Seppala has e-mailed Anne Lucas requesting a meeting to discuss ownership of the Ricoh Arena, after Anne Lucas stated that she was willing to consider selling the stadium to SISU. However knowing how both sides of the dispute act, having talks and reaching a deal are two disparate entities but still it’s progress compared to the months of stand-off between the two factions.

In other news Callum Wilson has agreed a new contract with the club, in theory keeping him here until the summer of 2015. Hopefully this will help others who have been offered similar deals to make the right decision and stay at the world’s greatest football club. For Wilson all he has to worry about now is breaking his goal-scoring drought, having failed to score in the last three games.

The Manset situation has seen no progress, he still remains lurking somewhere in the bowels of the club having failed to find a club to join on loan. The sounds from the training pitch are that Jamar Loza has been impressive, although still below the level of our starting strike partnership, we should expect to see him make a cameo in the next few games from the sounds of things. This means that there is no room for ex-Birmingham striker Jake Jervis in our squad after his trial ended last Friday without us offering him a permanent contract.

In team news for the match against Notts County, Jordan Willis and Billy Daniels are both officially out of the squad after having to undergo surgery for their respective knee and hernia problems. The return of Cyrus Christie is slightly too soon for a starting berth in the first XI today which means Aaron Phillips will continue after impressing against Walsall last week.

Finally today sees yet another opportunity for the side to win three league games in a row, something that hasn’t been done at the club for around 3 years. The last time Coventry have won four in a row was way back in the McAllister days, five in a row hasn’t been done since the 97-98 season. Just to put things in perspective.

Last Time We Met

Our last game against Notts County was on the final day of last season at Meadow Lane. Not many Coventry may have paid notice to a 2-2 draw which arguably laid the seeds for this year’s performances. Franck Moussa and John Fleck both scored as Coventry twice fell behind to set pieces from Notts.

In the corresponding home fixture just over a year ago, Notts County secured a relatively straightforward 2-1 win over a Coventry side in the nascent days of Mark Robins’s reign.

How Are They Doing?

Another season another managerial sacking at Notts County, the club is becoming something of a graveyard for managers after last month’s sacking of Chris Kiwomya. It’s becoming a big issue at the club that managers are struggling to succeed at the club with the chairman keeping an itchy finger over his managerial sacking trigger. Some might argue that the problem hasn’t been the sackings but the appointments made in the first place, for a club that aspires to challenging for promotion to the Championship their managerial history of the untried Kiwomya, Keith Curle, who mainly has been a League 2 manager, Martin Allen a relegation dogfighter and Paul Ince a man who relies on his coaching staff might say more about the leadership behind the scenes. At the moment County fans are not holding high hopes that the right man will be found this time around.

Notts County currently lie bottom of the table but have been putting in decent performances in recent weeks. They won their last game 3-2 under their caretaker manager Steve Hodge, who swapped shirts with Maradona in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. They also were reportedly the better side as they lost to Preston last week in Kiwomya’s final game in charge.

The point is that Notts County aren’t a bad side but struggle to create too many chances. Looking at their squad and it’s at least good enough for lower mid-table and under the right manager could be challenging for the play-offs. For example, County fans feel that their goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski is one of the best in the league, although he’s susceptible to the odd blunder.

They have defenders such as ex-Sky Blue Dean Leacock, Mustapha Dumbuya and Alan Sheehan who’ve all been strong performers at this level. Their midfield containing Andre Boucaud, who scored at the Ricoh Arena last season, Mark Fotheringham, who played in the Bundesliga last season and serial Coventry-annoyer Jamal Campbell-Ryce could be hard to contain if they’re all in form. The star player for them this season is Callum McGregor, on loan from Celtic, and is a very skilful attacking midfielder who can either play on the left or in the centre. Up front they have the pacey Danny Haynes, the mercurial Yoann Arquin and the strong Enoch Showunmi who again have once-upon-a-time been top-half performers in this division.

Notts County are a side that possess a number of quality players and should be taken lightly at our own risk.

Prediction

This afternoon is a landmark in that it’s the first game at Sixfields that Coventry have played at 3 o’clock on a Saturday and maybe that will provide it with a more genuine feeling atmosphere. After the Walsall and Leyton Orient wins confidence is high that we can make it 3 out of 3 and beat the side currently occupying the bottom position in the league. Once upon a moon people would be cautious and suggest that it would be typical Coventry to be underwhelming and fail to win this game. Under Pressley all my previous notion of what is and isn’t ‘Coventry’ to do are fast washing away and I don’t believe that it will be a lack of motivation that keeps them from winning this afternoon.

My prediction is for Coventry to go out and win 2-1.