Port Vale

Nick Saunders Smith

Key player: Marc Cullen

It’s a bold move to pick Cullen over veteran (and last season’s top scorer with 14) Tom Pope. The 33 year-old is now entering his eighth season with the Valiants, and has showed no signs of slowing down recently. He already has more than 100 goals in white and black, and should move to second in their all time goal-scorers list this season. However, looking at the players Vale have brought in this season, Marc Cullen actually might be a better fit as a striker who can link together a swift, direct, counter-attacking team.

Just as he did during Blackpool’s run to promotion in 2016/17, Cullen can offer intelligent positioning, good awareness of his teammates and solid passing to help tie together a front-three full of raw but unrefined talent. David Amoo, Richie Bennett and Rhys Browne are all dangerous wingers, but their goals and assists come in fits and spurts. Cullen can provide the consistent glue to hold together an attack that could tear a hole in any defence on its day, helping to ensure the goals don’t run dry for significant periods during the season.

Manager: John Askey

Having made over 650 appearances for Macclesfield in his career, John Askey took over as their manager on a permanent basis during the 2012/13 season. Coming a year after the Silkmen’s relegation to non-league football, he turned their fortunes around. Despite consistently working with one of the lowest budgets in the division, he had them probing around the play-off places before he somehow led them to the league title and automatic promotion in 2018. 

Shrewsbury then swooped in and took Askey in to replace the departing Paul Hurst, but the move didn’t work out and he was sacked by November. He then signed on at Vale, his boyhood club, and helped to keep them in the division. Now, he’ll look to get back to overachieving as Vale target a season of progress in League Two.

Stopper: Scott Brown

Currently, Vale only have one ‘keeper on their books, but fortunately for them Scott Brown has been a consistently superb lower-league stopper for well over a decade now. Averaging a clean sheet better than once every four games at League Two level in 322 appearances, Brown has been a player more accustomed to competing for promotion from League Two, but at Vale last season he bailed them out time and time again to ensure the club remained in the Football League.

He has twice won promotion from this league, most recently with Wycombe in 2018, and previously with Cheltenham Town in 2014. Between that time, he spent time at Aberdeen, winning two runner-up medals in the SPL. Having joined Vale at the beginning of last season, he went on to scoop every award available at the end of season awards night. His penalty save against Mansfield – which helped launch their turnaround in form – was described as one of their most important moments in the season.

Last season: 20th

The eight point difference between Vale and relegation betrays a much closer, more dangerous season than it really was. Going into March they were just three points clear of danger, before hitting form with four wins in six – launched by Brown’s penalty save in the 2-1 win against Mansfield – as Askey finally picked up his first victories after taking over as manager.

Vale had the worst attack in the entire division, scoring just 39 league goals, more than a quarter coming from target-man Tom Pope. They provided very little threat to opposition defences and that was the source of their trouble. At the other end, Brown and his defence kept fifteen clean-sheets, worth at least 17 points on their own, to help them to an uncomfortable survival.

Key transfer: David Amoo

As one of the four attackers Askey has signed to turn around Vale’s cumbersome attack, David Amoo will provide a direct counter-attacking threat. The winger is strong, fast and direct, though inconsistent, as he showed at Cambridge last season. His one man show against Bury – a game in which he tore their defence apart – was contrasted with several no-shows across the campaign.

He will now join an even more dynamic attack, with fellow wingers Bennett and Browne playing off Cullen and/or Pope up front. If Vale can coax consistency out of Amoo, then they’ll have a game-changer on their hands. At full-speed, it’s hard for any team to deal with him bursting in off the wing.

Target: Mid-table

Now that they have an attacking ensemble to match their stronger defence, Vale should look to target a top-half finish this season. the defensive core has been mostly kept intact, with Brown protected by promising young centre-back Nathan Smith and veteran Leon Legge, and screened by Luke Joyce.

The key will be balancing their dynamic but inconsistent attackers. If two or more show up then they’ll be a handful on the counter for teams across the league, but the problem will be how often that happens. Marc Cullen might be the answer, as a more selfless and intelligent striker, but whether or not they manage to piece that puzzle together is another matter.

 

Leyton Orient

Tom Sleeman

Key player: Jobi McAnuff

Certainly in the twilight of his career, the 37-year-old provides vital experience in the Orient midfield, having played in the Premier League for Reading and made over 350 appearances at Championship level. The O’s captain returned to Brisbane Road in 2017 after enduring a miserable first spell in which then owner Francesco Becchetti forced him to train with the youth team as a tactic to force him out of the club. Making 38 appearances last season, McAnuff registered five goals and six assists as Orient were crowned champions ahead of big spending Salford City. 

Manager: Ross Embleton

Embleton is currently serving as interim head coach at Orient following the tragic death of manager Justin Edinburgh in June 2019. The 37-year-old has previously been involved in academy roles with Orient as well as Premier League clubs Tottenham, Bournemouth and Norwich City before moving on to Swindon as a first-team coach. The former Bedford player returned to the O’s in 2017 to be assistant manager, first to Steve Davis and then later to Edinburgh.

Danger man: Conor Wilkinson

Having fallen out of the Football League after spells with Bolton and Gillingham, 24-year-old forward Wilkinson finally found form with Dagenham & Redbridge in the National League last season. His record of 12 goals in 23 appearances helped steer the Daggers away from the relegation zone and earned a move back to the Football League with Orient for an undisclosed fee.

The 6ft 2in man is often deployed as a target man with a quicker forward alongside him which will work particularly well in Orient’s 4-2-2 (double six) formation. With the departure of Macauley Bonne to Charlton (23 goals) and Josh Koroma (11 goals) returning to parent club Huddersfield, the former Portsmouth loanee will certainly have big shoes to fill.

Last season: 1st (promoted)

After finishing a dismal 15th the previous season amid financial despair off the field, Orient finally clinched promotion back to the Football League. Despite sharing a division with big spending Salford, who would also eventually gain promotion, Orient claimed top spot after beating Bromley 3-1 in December and ultimately never looked back, staying top for every match day bar one until the end of the season to be crowned champions by three points ahead of Solihull.

The O’s lost just seven games all season, scoring an impressive 73 goals along the way. Despite Bonne and Koroma providing 34 of these, centre-backs Josh Coulson (seven) and Marvin Ekpiteta (six) contributed a further 13 to ensure goals were spread throughout the side rather than a total overreliance on their frontmen. 

Key transfer: Josh Wright

Despite a couple of poor seasons by his usual standards, midfielder Josh Wright could turn out to be a fantastic signing for Orient after dropping a level to League Two. The 29-year-old was relegated with Bradford from League One last season. Starting the season as captain, he was eventually stripped of his role and spent five months without making a single start as he fell out of favour before new manager Gary Bowyer reinstated him to the side in March.

Wright made just 18 league appearances and failed to register a goal or an assist. Originally captain with previous club Southend in League One, the Englishman enjoyed a prolific 2016/17 campaign, registered 13 goals in 41 appearances. Should Embleton manage to get that form out of him once more, Orient will have a very good player on their hands and a replacement for Koroma’s goals from midfield. 

Target: Top-half

Following  a fantastic season that saw them crowned champions in a very tight National League promotion race, Orient will be hoping to emulate Tranmere’s heroics last season and challenge for promotion once more. Yet, consolidation is a far more likely goal. Though the majority of last season’s side remains, they have lost two of their best players and made just three signings to help them cope with the step up.

Having to deal with the loss of Bonne and Koroma was bad enough, but the real hammer blow came with the death of Edinburgh. Dealing with the loss of the man who had just led them to the league title is nearly impossible, both from a footballing standpoint and in terms of the mental impact. Hopefully the whole club can overcome that and continue his project, but nobody will blame them if that doesn’t happen.

Rest in peace.

 

Newport County

Luke Folland

Key player: Padraig Amond

Irish forward Padraig Amond transferred to the Welsh side in the summer of 2017 from Hartlepool. The poacher like forward saw great success for the Exiles last year, being rewarded with a call up to Republic of Ireland’s national team, and will look to continue his rich vein of form in the 2019/20 season under Mike Flynn. 

After his brief cameo on the international stage Amond continued his good run of form by finishing the campaign as club top goal scorer and top assister. He found the back of the net 23 times and assisted 11 more. The Carlow born forward worked well in a front two throughout the season as former Pilgrim Jamille Matt was able to occupy defenders with his daunting physical presence. Expect more of the same from the deadly Irishman this season.

Manager: Michael Flynn

County manager Michael Flynn is still at the dawn of his managerial career but is quickly finding his feet in the modern game with a robust style. Although criticised, it has proved incredibly effective, as it is extremely hard to break down while producing goals at the other end of the pitch. The style consists of what is commonly referred to as “hoof ball.”

Flynn has used the transfer market to bolster his squad so that he can utilise this style once more. With a lower tier budget and often a battlefield like pitch, the prospect of good football at Rodney Parade, why attempt to bring Barcelona to Newport when you can do even better with a different style? After miraculously saving the club from relegation in 2017 turning them into promotion contenders, Flynn is seeing his stock rise season on season. 

Defensive rock: Micky Demetriou

A hidden star in the depths of the County team must be centre-half Micky Demetriou. An ever present figure in the backline, Demetriou showed his defensive capabilities whilst also contributing in the final third. He  predominantly operated as the central centre back within a back three system, though he was also deployed as a left-sided centre-half during the Exiles play-off venture.

His 5ft 10 frame allows him to be more mobile across the backline compared to taller, stronger centre-backs and he pairs this with neat ball control, making him a good foil for his defensive partners. Although this short frame would lead you to believe that he is not an aerially threat, the 4 goals he scored would suggest otherwise. Demetriou was one of the un-sung heroes of Newport’s 2018/19 campaign and there is no doubt that their fans will be delighted by the fact that their he has renewed his contract at Rodney Parade.

Last season: 7th

Seven wins in their first ten had the Exiles flying high in second come the end of September, and they held onto their top-three spot until late October. From there they tumbled out off the play-offs, dropping as low as 15th at the beginning of March, eight points off the play-offs. Yet, an unbeaten run in their final ten games saw them steal the last play-off spot from Exeter and Colchester.

After a feisty 1-1 draw against Mansfield Town at Rodney Parade in the first-leg, they held the Stags to a stalemate at the One Call Stadium, with Flynn’s men came out victorious in the penalty shoot-out. Despite the success of the semi-finals the Exiles couldn’t finish the job, losing after a 119th minute winner by Connor Jennings at Wembley, resulting as Tranmere Rovers sealing promotion. 

Key transfer: Dan Butler

The key departure for the Welsh side would be their left sided full-back Dan Butler, who made the move to League One side Peterborough United. The full-back was a main stay in the County line-up as he made 60 appearances across last years campaign. From left wing-back, Butler contributed greatly to the defensive stability of his Newport side, while taking advantage of his Mo Farah-like engine to contribute regularly at the other end too.

The Cowes born full-back paired this with his fierce cross, accumulating 6 assists last term, the sort of return you’d expect from a wing-back. Aged just 24, Butler has more room to grow and is a good signing for Posh, but he will be a huge miss for Flynn’s men next season.

Target: Top-half

Yes, the spine of last season’s team remains, as does its coach, but for Newport to repeat the feat and reach the play-offs again this year will be tricky. Plenty of middling sides experience seasons like Newport went through, having a shot at promotion, mostly keeping the team together, but failing to deliver the next season. Hell, Argyle kept most of the squad that almost delivered the play-offs in 2018 and we were relegated last season!

The robust style that Newport use will make the difficult to break down, and their attacking duo of Matt and Amond will likely fire again, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to align the stars for another play-off push. A top-half finish would be a far more realistic target. 

 

Oldham Athletic

Louis Killick

Key player: Christopher Missilou

Christopher Missilou excelled in his first season in English football, having played his football in France up until 2018. Missilou played the fourth highest amount of minutes for Oldham in the 2018/2019 season, and was so influential in the centre of midfield, a contract extension was triggered for the forthcoming season.

The Congo international is an industrious midfielder, winning ball after ball in the middle of the park and passing it on to others after doing the dirty work. One of the success stories of Oldham’s overseas recruitment policy, he will bring stability to a shaky Oldham team. 

Manager: Laurent Banide

Laurent Banide is just the latest imporrt made by owner Abdallah Lemsagam. Banide started his coaching career in France with Monaco, which was then followed by an extensive stint in the Middle East, with spells in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Banide brings a wealth of overseas experience with him, though will have to adapt to managing in England. In truth, we do not know much about the main, so it will be interesting to see how he gets along, but given the hit-and-miss nature of Oldham’s (well, Lemsagam’s) transfer activity and discontent behind the scenes, he starts the season on high on the sack list of potential managerial departures. 

Danger man: Gevaro Nepomuceno

Oldham’s greatest attacking threat, Gevaro Nepomuceno scored and assisted 16 league goals last season, having featured predominantly on the left side of midfield. He formed a good partnership on the wing with left-back Alex Iacovitti, who has just signed on a permanent deal following a loan deal last season, and the duo will look to pick up where they left off this time around.

Another product of Oldham’s overseas recruitment, the Curaçaoan winger is highly talented with the ball at his feet, and is at his best driving to goal at speed. Nepomuceno’s contributions will be valuable for Oldham this season, a player who can get fans out of their seats is a valuable commodity, especially for a team that many are tipping to struggle. 

Last season: 14th

The 2018/2019 season for Oldham was a bit up and down, featuring some high scoring games including such as the 6-0 loss to Carlisle which was followed 3 days later by a 4-1 win against Port Vale. The team went through three managers over the course of the campaign, with Paul Scholes receiving media attention after speaking to the press following his decision to quit, citing problems with the way the club was run. 

Oldham finished the season in mid-table at 14th, while scoring the joint highest amount of goals outside the top 5 with 67. They actually scored and conceded at an acceptable rate, the issue was these goals often came in bundles, preventing the side from really building up a head of steam. Off the pitch, there were problems, with a dispute between owner Abdallah Lemsagam and a fan led group who are upset with his running of the club. That shows no signs of going away soon, particularly with financial threats to other Greater Manchester clubs ongoing. 

Key transfer: Scott Wilson

Scott Wilson, who joins Oldham from Macclesfield, has big boots to fill. Callum Lang has returned to Wigan following a successful season long loan which saw the former Liverpool youth player score 13 league goals for the Latics. He was also supported in the first half of the season by fellow loanee Sam Surridge, who enjoyed an equally productive start to the campaign alongside Lang. 

Wilson, who scored 10 goals himself in League 2 last year, has now come in to replace them, and Oldham would need him to replicate or exceed this tally to have the best chance at success this season. He should get plenty of service from his left-wing in particular, but there will be a lot of pressure on him form the off to deliver the goals. 

Target: Mid-table

Some good signings mixed with some disappointing departures should lead to another mid-table season for Oldham. The club lost both starting centre-halves in George Edmundson and Peter Clarke, and the goals of former loanees Callum Lang and Sam Surridge. They have signed Wilson as a replacement, and also brought over lively full-back Zac Mills from Morecambe, but it will be hard for them to make up for those who have moved on. 

Oldham have good names on paper, but they didn’t add up to a particularly impressive team last year, and should be set for another hit-and-miss campaign this time around. The off-field troubles will likely continue throughout 2019/20, and though goals won’t be hard to come by, the defence looks worse this season compared to last. Assuming they don’t ship too many, they should make the top-half of the table, but if things go wrong then they might find themselves in deeper waters.

 

Walsall

Josh Pope

Key player: Liam Kinsella

Midfielder Liam Kinsella is one player who has not jumped ship despite relegation, and appears to be a key figure in Walsall’s fight to return to League One. The 23 year old came through the youth system at the club and has so far made 89 appearances, with many more set to come after he signed an improved contract this summer.

Kinsella is keen to make amends for the club’s relegation last season, though he was one of their few bright points in a season of disappointment, earning young player of the season award. Their fans will be delighted that they fought off interest from a number of other clubs to keep him at Walsall, given all the change around the club this summer.

Manager: Darrell Clarke

Darrell Clarke joined the Sadlers in May after Walsall sacked club legend Dean Keates towards the end of a disappointing League One season which culminated in relegation. Clarke was himself sacked by Bristol Rovers in December of 2018 while he was, at the time, the fourth longest serving manager in the EFL.

Clarke has had success before in the lower leagues, after a double promotion in 14/15 and 15/16 with Bristol Rovers lifted them from the National League to League One. He continued the upward trend in his first two seasons in League One, but couldn’t spark the team last season and it will be interesting to see if the 41 year old do better at a different club.

Engine: Stuart Sinclair

Effectively the replacement for George Dobson, Stuart Sinclair has a large gap to fill in central midfield. One of Darrel Clarke’s favourite players for three and a half seasons at Bristol Rovers, he will provide the engine and functionality within Walsall’s midfield.

While he was not part of Graham Coughlan’s plans at The Memorial Stadium for the second half of last season, he has plenty of Football League experience, having made 161 appearances in four years for Rovers, featuring regularly in both of their two promotion seasons. That experience will be vital for Walsall in the coming season, especially as Clarke attempts to implement his own style.

Last season: 22nd (relegated)

2018/19 was a very disappointing season for Walsall as they succumbed to relegation, finishing one position behind Argyle in 22nd and – like the Pilgrims – had their fate sealed on the final day. After A 12 game unbeaten run across all competitions at the start of the season, sparked by a controversial 2-1 win against Argyle on the opening day, Walsall sat in 5th place in League One by mid-September.

However, their form soon dropped off and they finished with a run of just four wins in their final 25 games. This led to Dean Keates’ dismissal in mid-April, a sacking that proved too late to save their League One status. They went down with a lifeless draw against close rivals Shrewsbury.

Key departure: George Dobson

Among the departures at the Bescot Stadium was George Dobson, who moved to Sunderland for an undisclosed fee on the 25th July. As a strong and composed defensive midfielder, Dobson will be a key loss for Walsall this season and at the age of just 21 was a player they had high hopes for the future.

On top of this, he was Walsall’s captain so will be a big miss all round as they look to rebuild in League Two. Strong off the ball and talented with it, he will prove a very difficult player to replace for Darrell Clarke this season. Stuart Sinclair can bring energy and drive, but can he add the quality in possession that Dobson brought?

Target: Mid-table

Normally, the aim would be for Darrell Clarke will be to return the Sadlers to League One at the first time of asking, though this may prove to be a challenge that is easier said than done. A large turnover of players means it will be hard to hit the ground running this season, and that’s not to mention that they have lost many of the few bright-sparks from last year. It won’t be easy for them to transition to a new squad and a new manager.

That being said, Darrell Clarke is a manager who has had prolonged period of success with Rovers and knows what it takes to gain promotion from League Two. While the automatics appear well out of reach at the time of writing, the play-offs could be achieved if they hit their stride, but a year of consolidation leading to a more concerted push next year may be the right way to go as Walsall transition following the end of an era in League One.

 

Carlisle United

Josh Pope

Key player: Hallam Hope

Hallam Hope is one of the few key players from last season who has remained with Carlisle for the season ahead. Hope made 44 appearances across all competitions last season, and finished as the side’s top scorer with 15 goals. The centre forward also recorded 10 assists, as he proved himself to be one of Carlisle’s main goal contributors.

If they are to have any success next season, then Hope will be key. They have lost key players behind him, principally Jamie Devitt, who left for Blackpool, so the onus will be on him to create even more chances for himself in a squad that has lost some of its stardust.

Manager: Steven Pressley

A former Scottish national team member, Pressley took over at Brunton Park in January after former Plymouth Argyle manager John Sheridan resigned to join Chesterfield. Pressley made over 450 appearances as a player playing for both Rangers and Celtic, as well as Hearts and Dundee United among others before retiring and becoming a manager.

He has not enjoyed a long stint with a club since his first permanent job managing Falkirk between 2010 and 2013, which led to his appointment at Coventry City. He lasted less than two years there and after an underwhelming spell at Fleetwood, he is yet to enjoy any prolonged success at an English club.

Stopper: Adam Collin

Veteran goalkeeper Adam Collin is, like Hallam Hope, one of the few important players from Carlisle’s side to remain with them. At 34 and having made over 300 professional appearances, he is also one of the more experienced figures in the side.

Collin had a respectable first season at Brunton Park, managing to keep 10 clean sheets in the league across 42 appearances, conceding on average 1.3 goals a game. His leadership will be important to help settle the large changeover in players at Carlisle this season as they look to enjoy a better first half of the season in 2019/20.

Last season: 11th

After being a part of the promotion race in the early weeks of the season, an 11th placed finish for Carlisle was somewhat of a disappointment. The biggest factor influencing the drop in the team’s form was ultimately the resignation of John Sheridan in January, who left for Chesterfield to become the highest paid manager in the fourth and fifth tier of English football.

Sheridan left the team after a run of five successive victories had pushed them back into the play-off race, and though this form sustained itself until the end of the month, which saw them in fourth, they eventually petered out and won just four games for the rest of the season.

Key transfer: Nathan Thomas

Nathan Thomas was, arguably, somewhat of a fortunate re-signing for Carlisle this season and they have no doubt bagged a coup for League Two. Having been sent on loan from Sheffield United to Gillingham, Thomas’ family were unable to settle in the South East and as such the loan was cancelled last week and he has moved much closer to his home in the North East.

He returns to provide support to Hope in Carlisle’s attack, having joined the team after the winning run ended last season. His four goals and one assist in sixteen games showed that he can provide some threat, but stepping into the shoes of Jamie Devitt is going to be very tricky, and he will likely fail to match his impact over the course of a season.

Target: Top-half

Despite having been play-off contenders for much of last season, aims for Carlisle this year will realistically look a bit different. There has been a high turnover of players from last season; aside from losing talisman Jamie Devitt, Carlisle have also lost a number of key players such as Anthony Gerrard, Gary Liddle and Tom Parkes.

That, combined with Pressley’s hardly sparkling career, suggests that they won’t threaten the play-offs as much this year. A push for the top seven in a league the standard of League Two is hardly unfathomable, but the Cumbrians would be wiser to target mid-table mediocrity once more, rather than setting their hopes too high.

 


 

SP19 Team Reviews: Play-offs

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