Squad review – coming and going

May and June are difficult months for a football club and particularly for football fans. There’s the emptiness resulting from the end of the season where Saturdays are suddenly blank and the narrative runs silent. It’s also a time when football goes on holiday, so real transfer news is typically scant. The void is filled by speculation, which is unsettling, and the real news that permeates beyond normal signings are the unusual ones, the ones that holidays simply can’t wait for.

So while we face uncomfortable truths about O’Dowda, Roofe, Maguire and Hylton, one might expect things to balance out across the whole summer. But, this week’s events are interesting and unnerving at the same time, so where exactly are we and where are we going to be come August?

Who’s going?

Hylton and Mullins have already gone, and I’d expect Maguire to go as well. He should be able to secure reasonable level of interest and all his permanent contracts have been in the north; so, we’re not necessarily an obvious choice for his employer.

O’Dowda and Roofe also seem likely to move on; although both should secure fat fees for the club. There’s a lot of angst about this. Obviously fully focused, fit and on-form O’Dowda and Roofe are huge assets to any club and them leaving will be a blow. But, there is a point when players outgrow their clubs and start to become more of a burden than an asset. Say, for example, O’Dowda stays; he’s a full international who has just turned 21. There is a point where the attention and the possibility of playing at a much higher level becomes a distraction. To some extent we saw it with Roofe after Christmas; suddenly he’s a bit of a star, there’s pressure to perform, do interviews, tell his story and the potential of a big move grows. His form became more fitful as the season progressed. It’s not easy to stay focussed when that’s happening.

There are a couple of outliers that have been subject to some light speculation notably Lundstram and Sercombe. I doubt either will go as their contracts and the fees required to secure them are likely to put people off when there are other, easier, options available.

Who’s left?

Michael Appleton has admitted that we’re over-subscribed with goalkeepers, which is undoubtedly true. Buchel played enough to earn a contract extension, Slocombe remains under contract and the club have got to decide what they want to do with Max Crocombe, who hasn’t been around the club very much in recent seasons.

None are obviously first-choice ‘keepers and you’d think that one needs to go somehow. If another, more reliable ‘keeper can be secured, that might mean two will go. My bet is that Slocombe is the most vulnerable because Crocombe is emergent and presumably a cheaper back-up. If another ‘keeper is brought in, I doubt there’s much in it between Buchel and Crocombe.

The planned loss of Mullins leaves us with two very capable centre-backs – little worry there, although we’re lacking cover. Skarz is the obvious first-choice left-back, but we have a hole at right-back with Baldock and then Kenny leaving. I can’t see Baldock coming into the club, unless money becomes available from O’Dowda or Roofe, but even then I suspect that he will be available only at a premium to us and so I’d feel that we’re more likely to fill the gap by looking elsewhere.

We look reasonably secure across the midfield – Sercombe, Lundstram, MacDonald and Ruffels are all in place.  Perhaps one senior pro, or maybe a good loan deal, along with the various younger players should give us enough cover early on.

Up-front suddenly looks threadbare; Ryan Taylor is the only senior striker left once Hylton and Roofe go. He’s no goal machine and his injury problems last year have to be an ongoing concern. This could be a break-through season for James Roberts, who in some ways has shown glimpses of being even better than O’Dowda. But, it is only glimpses and that’s not enough. If the O’Dowda and Roofe money is available, then this is an area we would do well to spend big on.

So what’s the prognosis?

We need to strengthen across the squad. Thin out the keepers, bolster in defence, strengthen the depth of the midfield and overhaul the striking department. It feels like quite a lot and the silence is deafening.

Say it quickly and the loss of O’Dowda, Roofe, Maguire and Hylton sounds pretty gut-wrenching, but there’s money to be had from two of the four and it does free up a reasonable amount of salary. Add to that a bumper year for merchandise and ticket sales, and a trip to Wembley this would suggest Appleton doesn’t have to scrape the barrel for reinforcements. Darryl Eales doesn’t seem to have lost his enthusiasm yet, he still seems excited about what we can achieve.

Plus, it seems unlikely that Michael Appleton has been unaware of this prospect for some time. Hylton may have been a shock, but an ‘improved offer’ may not have been as enticing as it sounds given that he was originally signed during the austerity between Lenagan stepping aside and Eales coming in. If he was signed on the cheap by Gary Waddock, an improved offer may not have been that much money. And, if that’s the case, then maybe the club weren’t as set on Hylton staying as the fans. There’s certainly some evidence to suggest that this wasn’t a ‘sign at all costs’ deal with Hylton looking to be on his way out at Christmas.

Also, Appleton has admitted that some of his planning has been hampered by not knowing which division he was playing in until the last game of the season. Last year it was clear that the club would be in League 2 and the signing of Joe Skarz signalled the beginning of a new plan being executed, 8 months before the start of last season. It’s not the same this season.

So, given that this scenario was always possible, it might suggest that Appleton has got this under control. Given his meticulousness about everything else from his tactical planning to his physique and tattoos, it would be a surprise if this has all come as a shock. There should be money available and maybe he’s waiting for the Roofe and O’Dowda deals to be completed. Plus, it is still holiday season in football world and so the silence shouldn’t be too concerning.

Squad review

Counter to most peoples’ expectations, this week’s announcement of who has been released turned out to be surprisingly tame. Only three senior players are leaving, plus three who were on loan, with Jake Wright and James Constable both considering new deals. Where does that leave us?

The end of season release list is like Christmas in reverse. While Christmas is characterised by the accumulation of things, the release list represents a cleansing experience, an exfoliation of the woes of the season past. Both can feel equally rewarding.

The announcement of this year’s released list couldn’t really have come too soon for us. There are a few fans who would have been happy to see the entire squad go. Many of those same people would have us sign pretty much any player from the Championship down that have been released by other clubs.

The shedding and signing of players isn’t that simple; players you want to say goodbye to can be under contract, others that we might want to retain may not want to stay. There are issues of squad balance, contract clauses and salary juggling; releasing great players to free up salary for a couple of good ones. And so on.

If he’s building from the back, then Gary Waddock may take a crumb of comfort from the fact he doesn’t have to worry about his goalkeepers. Ryan Clarke is nicely encased in a contract and Max Crocombe seems an able deputy for as long as he’s happy playing that role. The only question seems to be how long Crocombe will tolerate being in the shadows.

It’s in the back four where issues start to arise. The Chris Wilder (Ian Lenagan?) vision of a squad better equipped for the rigours of a League 2 season meant that Tom Newey and David Hunt were brought in along with Jonathan Meades. Meades, somewhat ironically given the requirement for robustness, has yet to feature because of injury. The Hunt/Newey combination has been a culture shock having got used to full-backs such as Damian Batt and Liam Davis storming the flanks.

The defensive qualities of Hunt and Newey helped provide a solid base from which counter attacks could be launched. This worked away from home, but at the Kassam, as teams sat back, they didn’t have the pace to stretch defences. A pathological reluctance to put in crosses meant that chances were at a premium leaving the strikers feeding off scraps. Despite Newey agreeing a new contract, the full-back positions have to be areas that Waddock will look to address.

In the middle of defence there is less to worry about; Raynes and Mullins had good, if injury interrupted, seasons, Jake Wright, by his standards, less so. There have been suggestions that Wright may even have been match fixing in the final game of the season against Northampton. This was based around a convoluted theory around Wilder wanting to sign him and it being in Wright’s interests to help keep them up. Whilst he looked shaky to say the least, it wasn’t the first time this season. Gary Waddock pointed to his injuries, which may be a factor. People forget how Wright developed under Chris Wilder, he had been drifting and it is only at Oxford did he begin to truly realise his talents. It seems a bit fanciful that Wright was match fixing, but I think he has once again lost his focus, if he can regain it then there are few better defenders in the league.

Our midfield is where major surgery is needed. There was a time when all we wanted was a team of Andy Whing’s, but Whing’s powers have been tested this season as injury largely wrecked him. Is that age catching up on him? Danny Rose was brought in as a creative dynamo, but rather like the Herbalife products he insists on pedalling, his signing gave some initial results before falling away badly. Wroe, similarly, started well before falling away and it’s not a surprise to see him heading back to Preston. I like Scott Davies a lot. He has a self-deprecating humour on Twitter – I particularly enjoy his publicly declared affection for his mum’s breakfasts – he seems like he’s the kind of player that managers like having around. That said, Waddock doesn’t have the luxury of spare wages to hand out to a court jester.

As a rule I don’t feel qualified to comment on the development squad players who have made their debuts this season, but all have looked comfortable when drafted into the first eleven showing signs that the new strategy of developing our own could be working.

You can split the attack into two; on the flanks there was Potter, Williams and Rigg. Potter’s presence tugs on the heart strings, but I think now is time to go our separate ways. Rigg too has failed to live up to his expectations and it wasn’t a surprise to see him released. Williams will head back to Fulham and I’m sure have a reasonable career worry the defences of the Championship.

Smalley was never destined to be retained. Waddock wouldn’t have survived the derision. All our strikers have been struggling; a lot to do with a lack of width and pace. Deane Smalley has been treated unfairly in my view, but 16 goals in three years was never going to suggest a new contract.

There may have been some temptation to retain Connolly, but that would surely have been a mistake. He clearly has class as a goal poacher, but he doesn’t have youth. If the financials can be sorted, then keeping Constable is good move. His goalscoring record hasn’t been great in recent years, but he’ll let no one down in a yellow shirt. With relations between club and fans in a brittle state, Constable could be the one to maintain the relationship.

The biggest enigma of them all is Dave Kitson. He has another year on his contract, but he seems to detest the game. A number of scenarios play through my head; the first is that Kitson is looking for some kind of self-definition that he can only find through football; to give up is to give into the unstoppable progress of age. It seems odd to continue to do something that he appears to hate so much. Related to that is the issue of depression, if his (alleged) book is right, then that might explain his uneven form. A final thought is that although despite him reportedly earning £10k a month from Portsmouth, he has money problems that means he simply needs to play for his salary. Personally, I’m not convinced about Kitson. If you think back to other ex-Premier League veterans we’ve signed in recent years – namely Gilchrist and Kitson, the second season has often been an injury ravaged disaster.

Waddock will surely focus his attentions on providing pace on the flanks and more firepower up front. But, with only three salaries released, can he do it?