Be honest now: how many of you expected to see Lincoln City in the top three at the end of December?
Be honest now: how many of you expected to see Lincoln City in the top three at the end of December? After all, the 2016 National League champions Cheltenham struggled badly in their first season back in the Football League, and were almost relegated. Consolidation may have been on the cards for City on that basis, but that will never be good enough if your surname happens to be Cowley.
Time to be smug for a moment: the Vital Lincoln City season preview (Part One | Part Two) tipped City for automatic promotion (the writer is an extremely intelligent and perceptive individual, obviously) and Luton Town for the championship (ditto). But there will always be teams who under perform and over perform in equal measure. There will always be dark horses and disaster areas – just ask Leyton Orient about that – and the league table seldom finishes in any kind of logical order come May.
By and large, the top half of the table is as expected in terms of the names of the clubs in there. Luton Town have an excellent budget comparatively and are justifiably heading for League One. They like to claim that their net spend on players is lower than most clubs because they have sold players for more money than they have spent, making their budget self-generated. Although undeniably true, it is also disingenuous. Luton have spent far more money on transfer fees, signing-on fees and wages than most clubs in the lower divisions, and that gives them a clear advantage. It requires a good manager to draw all of the constituent elements together of course, and Nathan Jones is clearly that manager. The style of play is exciting and goals are dropping like rain on the Kenilworth Road pitch. And with a new stadium finally nearing reality, things are set fair for them for the foreseeable future. Luton are the best team in the league by a considerable margin and will be champions unless something drastic happens.
Certain clubs – most notably relegated Swindon and bankrolled Mansfield – would have expected to be higher than they are. Swindon have been promoted at the first attempt on the last two occasions they have been relegated to the basement, and expectation of a similar response lies heavily on the shoulders of new manager and former Imp Gary Flitcroft. Swindon’s away form is magnificent, with nine wins from their twelve games to date giving them the best away record in the division. Their return of four wins from thirteen gives them one of the worst home records, with only Barnet and Forest Green having collected fewer points. If they can correct that home form, they could be a real force over the next four months.
Mansfield have backed manager Steve Evans with another Radford-sized budget in a bold attempt to get The Stags out of League Two after four mediocre seasons. Some big summer signings were expected to put them right at the top of the league but that has not transpired. Evans’ points-per-game return this season is very similar to last season (1.60 against 1.56) despite the inflated budget, and supporters are already calling for some of those signings to be moved on in January. The consumption of that large budget this season begs the question of what happens next season, even if they are promoted: will a similar spend be available again? If not, it all seems a bit pointless.
Notts County have a new owner in Alan Hardy and half a dozen new board members. Kevin Nolan has made some good signings, although they are heavily dependent on Nottingham Forest loanees Ryan Yates and Jorge Grant, who have scored 22 goals between them. An injury to Grant could mean the play-offs or worse, rather than an automatic spot. Hardy revealed recently that the club is paying a ludicrous £40,000 per month in bonus payments to players and management; even he admits that cannot be sustained long-term. For a club with such a disastrous financial record in recent years, that is a surprising approach to take.
Coventry have encountered some appalling luck, with three players suffering season-ending cruciate ligament injuries (Jodi Jones, Tony Andreu and now Peter Vincenti). Liam Kelly is also missing long-term with a heel injury. Given the ongoing problems with owners SISU and the tiny issue of where they are going to play next season, it is a small miracle that The Sky Blues are anywhere near the top of the table. They will do well to stay there against that backdrop and will deserve promotion if it comes their way.
Wycombe, Exeter and Colchester were all expected to make a challenge for the play-offs after just falling short last season, and all three are where they need to be at the midway stage. Surprise of the season for many is the success of Newport County, who only retained League status with a stoppage time winner against Notts County on the final day of last season. Michael Flynn has carried the momentum from that great escape into this season, although one win in December has seen them drop off the pace a little. Maintaining form may rely on the pitch at Rodney Parade surviving the winter, with Dragons and Newport RFC also using it.
Of the rest, Accrington, Carlisle and Cambridge would appear to be in with a shout of a play-off spot, although Carlisle will have to fix a very leaky defence first. Accrington have hit some poor form recently, not helped by a postponement and an abandonment due to their quagmire of a pitch. Cambridge are inconsistent, and only Morecambe have scored fewer goals than they have. The loss of Luke Berry to Luton has not helped them, and another season in League Two looks the likely outcome.
There is always a dark horse which runs from the lower reaches. Last season it was Exeter, who made the play-off final despite being bottom of the table in mid-November. Whilst it is very hard to see the current bottom side Forest Green doing that, Port Vale are on a great run after four wins from five games in December carried them to within nine points of the play-offs. Part of that could be the infamous ‘new manager bounce’, so it will be interesting to see whether Neil Aspin will be able to continue that form this month and beyond.
The other clubs in the division seem destined for either mid-table mediocrity or a relegation battle. Grimsby and Stevenage appear classic mid-table candidates, although both clubs expected better and could be reviewing their managerial positions as we speak. Grimsby have the oldest squad in the division, while Stevenage will do well to hold on to Matt Godden and possibly Danny Newton during the transfer window. Those factors could mean a difficult second half of the season for both clubs.
As far as relegation is concerned, our old friends from Nailsworth have struggled badly on and off the field since promotion. The club seems out of its depth in the Football League, attracting criticism for their treatment of visiting supporters and a series of unsavoury incidents involving manager Mark Cooper. Incredibly, owner Dale Vince gave his unequivocal backing to Cooper in his New Year message to supporters, setting the excellent Forest Green fans’ forum ablaze. If Forest Green are to survive for another season in the League, major changes are needed in all areas. They appear to have underestimated what is required for the Football League, and the Football League may be in unforgiving mood.
Chesterfield and Barnet both seem in disarray. Chesterfield enjoyed a brief revival in November under new manager Jack Lester but have hit poor form again. Their dire financial position will surely prohibit a spending spree in January despite an average attendance of 5,200, and Lester faces a monumental task to retain the League status they have held continuously since 1921. Barnet have struggled to attract supporters to their new Hive ground, with fewer than 1,300 making it to their last home game. They were unfortunate in suffering a number of injuries to key players in early season including an ACL to new signing Dave Tarpey, and they dropped like a stone down the table. New manager Mark McGhee has had no impact whatsoever since replacing coach Rossi Eames, and there would appear to be no money for new signings. John Akinde has returned to fitness after missing much of the opening half of the season, and survival may well hinge on whether he can poach enough goals in the remaining games.
Almost everyone tipped perennial strugglers Morecambe for relegation this year, and they currently hover just five points above the drop zone. Gates are tiny at the Globe Arena, and they have the worst scoring record in the division with just 24 goals. Morecambe traditionally have a poor second half of the season, which does not bode well. Yeovil and Crewe complete the list of candidates for the trapdoor, although Yeovil’s ability to score should see them safe before May. Only Carlisle in the bottom half have scored more goals.
No one can say how the league table will look on 5 May. The degree of success each club enjoys during the transfer window can make or break a season, and injuries, suspensions, postponements and a significant number of less tangible variables can all contribute. There is everything to play for, and the number of clubs currently in contention could create one of the most dramatic ends to a season for many years.
As far as we are concerned, it is in our hands. As things stand, another ten wins from our twenty remaining games should ensure a play-off spot, and thirteen wins should ensure promotion. The loss of Sean Raggett needs to be offset by the players coming in, and Danny Rowe is a great first step towards achieving that. One thing is for sure: City need more than the present eighteen contracted players, so expect three or four permanent new faces as a minimum. If that does not present an exciting prospect, nothing ever will.
Whatever the next four months have in store for us, it has been a great return to the Football League, a magnificent 2017 and a truly unbelievable eighteen months.
These are the best of times. Enjoy them
Who did our members consider to be December’s star players?
Player of the Month by a clear margin is MATT RHEAD, who dominated League Two defences in exactly the same way as last season in the National League. Rhead’s return to the side and to form was as unexpected as it was welcome, and his four goals put him joint-top scorer in the league with Matt Green and Harry Anderson.
Second place goes to MATT GREEN, who also notched four in December. His return to form was as dramatic as that of his strike partner, and he finally returned a goal tally commensurate with his work rate. With the addition of a talented left winger in Danny Rowe, Green’s season is surely set to improve further.
Third place goes to NEAL EARDLEY, who would surely win the ‘Free Agent Signing of the Season’ award if such a thing existed. His stature at the club and in League Two continues to grow in line with his number of assists, and it is impossible to believe that he will not be offered a longer-term deal by the club before this season is out.
A special mention must go to Josh Vickers, eleventh in the standings this month despite conceding just one goal in five games. He has been excellent on the few occasions he has been called upon, but it is very hard to earn high ratings when you have almost nothing to do.
The average team score of 7.04 is the highest since January 2017.
1. Matt Rhead 7.88
2. Matt Green 7.40
3. Neal Eardley 7.35
4. Michael Bostwick 7.34
5. Sean Raggett 7.25
6. Luke Waterfall 7.19
7. Harry Anderson 7.09
8. Alex Woodyard 6.98
9. Rob Dickie 6.88
10. Sam Habergham 6.75
11. Josh Vickers 6.68
12. Sean Long, Josh Ginnelly 6.67
14. Elliott Whitehouse 6.50
15. Nathan Arnold 6.42
16. Ollie Palmer 6.28
17. Cameron Stewart 6.23
18. Paul Farman 5.33
Individual ratings by match:
Accrington (FLT): Harry Anderson 7.33
Yeovil: Matt Rhead 8.37
Accrington: Matt Rhead 7.68
Newport: Luke Waterfall, Sean Raggett 7.08
Stevenage: Matt Green 8.18
Forest Green: Matt Rhead 8.50
So where does that leave us regarding the current player of the season standings?
1. Sean Raggett 7.13
2. Alex Woodyard 7.09
3. Luke Waterfall 7.06
Home player of the season:
1. Luke Waterfall 7.22
2. Alex Woodyard 7.12
3. Harry Anderson 7.10
Away player of the season:
1. Sean Raggett 7.30
2. Alex Woodyard 7.01
3. Michael Bostwick 6.91
August Player Ratings: Why Sean Raggett Is In Serious Danger
September Player Ratings: Lincoln City Is The Perfect Antidote To The Dacia Duster
October Player Ratings: What Lincoln City Can Learn From Jack Kerouac
November Player Ratings: What We Need In January Is Taylor Haines
Average Player Ratings v Yeovil Town (a)
Average Player Ratings v Accrington Stanley (h)
Average Player Ratings v Newport County (a)
Average Player Ratings v Stevenage (h)
Average Player Ratings v Forest Green Rovers (h)
Thank you to Graham Burrell and Lincoln City FC for the photograph.
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) January 6, 2018