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.