It seems a long time now since the final whistle blew at Stadium:Mk back on May, 3rd and home fans celebrated on the pitch as a long time relegated Yeovil Town side slumped off after yet another defeat.
Although in reality only three short months ago, a lot has changed at Huish Park since that day and as we prepare to kick off our season at Exeter this weekend, things feel very different in our part of Somerset. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting carried away and thinking we are going to have some sort of miraculous turn around but even in these early days there is a sense that a corner may have been turned.
That began back when Paul Sturrock was made manager and his necessary if brutal culling of our relegation squad forced us to breathe fresh air in to the green and white changing rooms. The job of rebuilding such a voluntarily depleted squad was always going to be huge but it is one Sturrock has done intelligently and patiently.
As is often the way, panic set in amongst some supporters when he didn’t bring in a raft of new races in the opening weeks of the summer, but his cleverly arranged trialist matches were a signal of positive intent.
When the signings did start coming in through the door, they were largely impressive too. Jack Compton and Wes Fogdens signings – amongst others - went to prove that we still had enough pulling power to bring in players with first team experience in the Football League, while Shaun Jeffers and Omar Sowumni highlight the managers faith in ambitious youth.
With the season now almost upon us, we have no fewer than 15 new signings ready to pull on the shirt, all from varying backgrounds and footballing educations; but one key question remains unanswered. Can they work together as a squad to stop a two year long slide which has seen the club drop from the dreamland of The Championship to the cold, hard reality of the Football Leagues basement division? Part of the intrigue and unpredictability of a new season is that nobody really knows. On paper, the squad looks good.
We have experience, stability and competition in goal while we have three or four centre backs to choose from, all with plenty of League Two knowhow. The full back positions are covered, potentially, by the new captain (Ryan Dickson) and his vice-captain (Nathan Smith) and there is cover should injuries or suspensions kick in as the season progresses.
Current injuries aside, we have a wealth of options in midfield and the managers’ toughest job in the early stages of the season may be to decide who earns the right to make a place across the middle their own. While we have less options up front, we have some interesting possible combinations and the blend of pace and height Sturrock has brought in should, in theory, suit his style of football perfectly.
That’s the problem, though. It should, in theory, be a decent enough squad to at least consolidate at this level; but we all know this game isn’t about theory. This time last season I was fairly happy with the squad then-manager Gary Johnson had put together. There was experience, some ability and most importantly, I thought, there was a solid core of our own players which meant we would no longer be reliant on loans.
I wasn’t expecting us to pull up any trees particularly, but I believed we’d finish comfortably in the top half, with an outside chance of pushing for the play-offs if we really hit form. The reality was, of course, much starker. Defeat in our opening three matches proved to be a sign of things to come as we went down without so much as a whimper.
I think that is why this season people are a little bit more wary about judging this squad before a ball has been kicked. You can have all the promising signs and new signings you want in pre-season but if they don’t work hard and function as a team, you’re in trouble.
Where last season we probably felt we could out play a lot of sides, many will be more eager to see us out fight the opposition this time. This new squad, in a new division, doesn’t need to play expansive attacking football to win us over. It doesn’t need to do anything too complex. It just needs to play with the passion the supporters expect, and make us feel, as we make our way out of the ground at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon, like they’ve given us everything.
If we feel as though they’ve been through the same emotions as we have, and given all they’ve got then we will be in a far better position than we were throughout almost the entirety of last season.
Heart and passion only get you so far, of course, and we also need someone to stick the ball in the back of the net, but it’s all about finding a starting point. Players showing heart and fight will get the fans on side and once belief and confidence begins to run around the club, that can extend on to the pitch.
If that changes what became not only a losing mentality but a losing habit from the past two seasons then it will have to be counted as a major positive. If that in turn allows us to consolidate and start to grow on the pitch, then in my view the season can be marked down as a success. It may take some time, and require an at times testing degree of patience, but Paul Sturrock has breathed some fresh life in to the club, and in to the changing rooms.
Now it is time for his players – new and old – to spread that throughout the club.