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: Fleetwood Town

I can think of worse ways to enter into a two-week break from football than a 6-0 win. The majority of time spent as a supporter of a football team is waiting for these outstanding moments to happen. All those dreary afternoons spent getting angrier and angrier over referees, time-wasting opposition goalkeepers and your own side’s inadequacies, are all made worthwhile by those sorts of results. To have two weeks to savour that result has been fully welcome in my book.

You would hope that the result and subsequent break will also prove to be the shot in the arm that we had needed after more than a few disappointing results of late. It was a reminder that this team is actually one of the most devastating at this level when it’s our day and should serve to make it all the more frustrating that we are not currently sitting in the race for automatic promotion.

It would be easy to get carried away after that kind of result, it was our biggest win in over half a century, but there does have to be a realisation too that it was something of a freak result too. Bury, who have taken seven points from their subsequent three games, asked questions of us going forward and spurned a few very good chances. Bury’s defence and goalkeeper let them down badly and probably should really have prevented at least three or four of those goals we mustered.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

Take nothing away from that win though, when a team defends like that against you, you’ve got to make sure that you take advantage of it. It’s clear that as long as we have Joe Cole on the pitch, we’re going to be a danger from set-pieces which could make a massive difference in tighter comes to come. The new central defensive partnership offered solidity and composure in absolute spades, Baily Cargill in particular. We’ve got to feel confident now that this team can not only take advantage of shocking defending but can stand firm in the tougher games we’re set to face.

It’s hard to see Tony Mowbray now being tempted to make changes, although there have been plenty of occasions this season so far where he has altered things just when there hasn’t appeared to be a need. With Jim O’Brien gone now, seemingly for good, it’s hard to identify anyone elsewhere in the squad who would be an improvement on the 11 who took Bury apart. Fitness and suspensions permitting, this looks like it should be our team for the rest of the season.

Last Time We Met

We had the honour of providing Steven Pressley his first opposing team as Fleetwood manager back in October. A Sky Blues side having to deal without Adam Armstrong in attack struggled to make use of being on top for much of the game. The winner came in the dying moments of the game with substitute George Thomas making his most significant impact yet in the first-team, providing the effort on goal which our former player Richard Wood was unfortunate enough to divert into his own net.

How Are They Doing?

Fleetwood have vacillated between looking like kicking on under Steven Pressley and succumbing meekly to the end of season relegation places. Although they have generally struggled for wins and goals under Pressley, there have been results like a 4-0 thrashing of Burton which suggested that they have a lot more to offer than what they have often served up.

Having finished in the top half last season and looking in good shape to kick on, Fleetwood’s struggles this season have largely been down to an attempt to cut costs and develop young talent at the club. Over the past month or so, there has seemingly been a realisation at the club that the players they expected to lead this transitional period weren’t good enough and they have since brought in six, more notably experienced, new faces into the squad to lift them out of the mire.

 

The most notable new addition to Fleetwood’s squad is Shola Ameobi, the former Newcastle striker who made a career of promising much but delivering relatively little. He arrives at Fleetwood having had a decent spell at cash-strapped Bolton Wanderers at Championship level and certainly has the pedigree to cause us a lot of problems. Pressley has been deploying Ameobi as the spearhead of a 4-3-3 formation with pacier, more mobile, attacking players looking to play off around him.

Possible Line-Up

Possible Line-Up

If Pressley has his druthers about him, he’ll set up his side to soak up pressure and sting us on the counter attack. In forwards Devante Cole and Ash Hunter, Pressley has two quick players who can run in behind if we give them the opportunity to, although both are very erratic finishers. Bristol City loanee Wes Burns is another quick player to look out for and may well start ahead of either Cole or Hunter having looked bright in his first couple of appearances and coming close to snatching a point late on against Rochdale on Tuesday night.

In midfield, Jimmy Ryan could be the man to pick out Fleetwood’s quick players on the counter-attack with his passing ability. Ryan, who played a big role in Chesterfield’s run into the play-offs last season, is one of the few reliable performers in this Fleetwood side whose ability to influence the game could prove to be a key in the final result.

Prediction

Whether we can describe our last result as a freak or the jump-start our season needed depends on whether we can get the result in this game, as well as the next few as we enter into a congested run of fixtures. Fleetwood are struggling for form at the wrong end of the table at the moment, which presents the perfect opportunity to keep this momentum building.

My feeling heading into this game is that if we name the same starting 11 as we did against Bury, we’ll get the win here. More than anything, the composure that messrs Cargill and Stephens offered at the back had me feeling a lot more confident that we’re not going to be as prone to giving teams goals as we had been previously. Feeling confident, my prediction is for a 3-1 Sky Blues victory.