Key player: Conor McGrandles
With quite a few quality players from their near miss at promotion leaving over the summer, it’s not immediately obvious who Lincoln’s key player will be next season. Jorge Grant, the lynchpin of the system has gone. Alex Palmer and Brennan Johnson – two top performers – are no longer on loan with the club. You could make a case for a few of the defenders standing out as key players, including either of their first choice full-backs, but I think it says something about a team if their key player if a full-back.
Instead, Conor McGrandles, who caught my eye in a few of the games I saw him play, is the one I’ve opted for. He didn’t score or assist on anywhere near the same level as Grant did, and obviously played from a deeper position, but was so important to the way that Appleton wanted to play. Not everything about Lincoln was designed for passing their way through teams, and they had a nice, hybrid approach that offered them lots of routes to goal, but McGrandles was ever so good at breaking the lines with his passing and movement last year.
He’s still young, only 25, but with Grant gone and the replacements – Chris Maguire and Hakeeb Adelakun – less likely to strike the balance between playmaker, creator and finisher that Grant so ably provided, I think that McGrandles is going to play a vital role in keeping Lincoln a balanced side in attack, particularly when trying to break down an opponent.
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Manager: Michael Appleton
Ten years into his managerial career, Michael Appleton is yet to win a title, but that doesn’t mean his career has been a failure to this point. Far from it. But, that’s not to say it started well.
Appleton’s playing career was cut short when he was forced to retire following a knee injury in a training ground collision, however he remained with West Brom as part of their coaching set-up. He got his first permanent managerial role at Portsmouth as they were being run into the ground by a series of owners. Following administration, he was unable to keep the stricken club in the Championship, but was offered an opportunity to jump back into the Championship with Blackpool. His time there was short and unhappy: with just two wins from twelve he resigned, making him the shortest serving manager in their history. He then jumped ship to Blackburn, seemingly having a knack for failing upwards, but ended up joining another club in a behind-the-scenes mess. He lasted just two days longer in Lancashire than on the coast before he was sacked.
With his career in a tailspin, he joined a promising Oxford United side but started awfully, winning just one of the first ten league games, but eventually turned it around. The next season saw Oxford confirm promotion on the final day of the season after a year of exciting attacking football and he maintained the same style, promoting young talents and getting the best out of them as the club fell four points short of the play-offs in their first season in League One for fifteen years.
Surprisingly, he left for Leicester City to join as their assistant manager during the summer but left the next summer and just over a year later he took over at Lincoln following the departure of the Cowleys. His first season saw him stabilise the club and prevent relegation, which looked a potential threat in the months after he took over. After undertaking a wholesale cleanout of the more pragmatic team the Cowleys had put together, even removing some of the player you’d expect to better match his intended style, he generated a hard-working, physical yet skilled team on a good but not outstanding budget that took Lincoln ever so close to the Championship, almost mirroring that of Shrewsbury back in 2018.
For so long they looked like gaining automatic promotion, even the title. Then the slip, ignited by Joe Edwards’ dramatic, late double at Home Park, the same day that Grant was injured for a period of weeks, saw the clubs form drop and eventually lead them to the play-offs and ultimately defeat to Blackpool at Wembley.
Rock: Lewis Montsma
Let’s not beat about the bush, Montsma was one of the signings of the season last year. Brought in from the Dutch second tier as a relatively unknown (to all but the Lincoln scouting department), he oozed quality in pre-season and it was not long before he showed off his ability in the League. Capable in the air, calm in possession, a danger at set pieces (9 goals last season) and still only 23, this player is only heading in one direction, and that’s the Championship (or the top division of a foreign league).
A core component of one of the league’s best defences last season, don’t be surprised if he makes the League One team of the year for a second season in a row (that is assuming he is still playing at this level in 10 months time).
Key departure: Jorge Grant
In another season, the signing of Adelakun would be down as their key transfer, given his obvious quality in this division, but you just can’t overlook the impact of losing Jorge Grant. For Argyle fans, it’s best compared to losing 2017/18 Graham Carey. An attacking midfielder who can operate as an inverted winger in a 4-3-3, he scored 17 goals, made 13 assists, was vital to all phases of attacking play, an inspirational leader, and a big-game player capable of slotting in pressure penalties.
People have known about Grant’s obvious talent for a while now, especailly after his excellent run at Notts County and Mansfield. He had a good first season at Lincoln, with 2 goals and 11 assists, but kicked it up a gear last season as the poster boy of Appleton’s almost promotion winners. Lincoln have lost some big players from last year, and brought in some seemingly great replacements, but the loss of Grant is such that he can be the only one highlighted here.
Were it not for last season, I’d be putting Lincoln down as targetting the top half of the league, as I did last season, but you can’t overlook the impact Appleton had. Quality managers are always more valuable than quality teams, and Appleton has proved his quality in this division with Oxford and Lincoln. Sure, I don’t think they’ll make the play-offs, given the quality of the division and the loss of key players, but Appleton is a manager I like, I think he can deliver the play-offs again, and, importantly, it’ll no doubt be Lincoln’s target for the season internally.
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