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.
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.
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.
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.