This time last year, Paul Cox had a huge squad of old and new faces ready to report back for pre-season training with all eyes eager to see how the conference champions fared back in league two. This term things couldn’t be more different as gone is the mantel of conference champions, thanks Luton, as is the huge number of faces ready for the first day back at school.
For whatever reason the budget has been dramatically slashed and Paul Cox is having to work with certain restrictions in place for the first time in his Stags tenure. Certain factors of this are worrying such as the departure of key players such as James Jennings and Alan Marriott and the faltering contract negotiations with other players whilst other factors are actually pleasing, if only to see how Cox and his backroom team cope with the pressure.
Previously Cox has had a fairly free reign when it comes to signing players either short term or in some cases long term if only to prevent other clubs having them (ala George Pilkington, Godfrey Poku et al) – this had led to high numbers being involved with pre-season and in some cases, upto Christmas which in turn has had an adverse effect on the path the club were trying to take.
Cox has had three seasons in charge now and so far, the preparations in pre-season have seen a high number of players involved in a high volume of matches meaning there was no defined ‘settled side’ to start the campaign with. As a result, things got off to a shaky start and pre-season inadvertently rolled into the league fixtures before the ‘click’ happened and the fire ignited.
Looking through the stats, in Cox’s first pre-season (2011-12) a total of thirty-six players were used not including squad of trial players that played at Rainworth MW under the watchful eye of Micky Moore, of the thirty-six, fourteen were trialists and only ONE went on to secure a contract in the form of left back Joe Kendrick. There were eight games in total that pre-season, six away against lower-ranked opposition where a different starting eleven was used in pretty much every game.
Preparations for our title winning season were upped as eleven matches we’re played, often in close proximity (in the space of 24-48 hours), meaning “squad rotation” was again enforced. Thirty-four players were used which included five trialists, none of whom went onto be signed.
For our first season back in the Football League, preparations followed suit with ten games for the first team which included the trip to Malta at the very start to face Naxxar Lions. Again games were in close proximity meaning a split between the players and two sides being used – in total a mammoth fifty players were involved, seven were youth teamers, twelve were trialists of which one gained a contract – Calvin Andrew.
This high volume use of players, whether it be players on trial or youth teamers has hampered both team spirit with old faces left feeling pushed out and new players wondering why exactly they’d been signed whilst the number of games has left supporters wondering if Cox actually does know his strongest and most valuable assists – this year’s budget tightening and subsequent smaller squad will help tighten team spirit and should help Cox figure out which formula is best going into another season.
With only seven pre-season games scheduled this term, Cox will have less time to tinker and players will have a breather from the constant burn of games in quick succession. There are four home games and three away – all of which come against strong opposition, the best way to prepare rather than playing games for the sake of playing games, hopefully the results will become apparently when the season gets going.
Naturally there is concern that Cox has yet to sign a keeper, also the fact he’s looking for a loanee is also a basis for worry but I guess that’s what happens when you have restrictions, you have to take the rough with the smooth and play the hand you are dealt – the rest comes from temperament and determination, get that right and from a bad situation, might eventually come some good.
To finish today, we need to answer a question ‘will there be pre-season commentary’ – currently the answer is a sad no. It’s been a blast doing the past three, but the goal-posts are different now – but hey, another story for another day, let’s see how this journey develops.
There are times I notice these similarities and attempt to make a change, so I'll catch a different bus which takes a different route - sometimes I'll even get off at a different stop and walk a different route, thrilling I know! I do this to make each day different and whilst ultimately I end up in the same place, the way I got there has changed.
Thinking about that for a moment, I wonder if Paul Cox after three years at the helm has decided it’s time to get off at a different bus stop.
His three pre-seasons so far have been the same, crammed with so many games he becomes confused and unable to pick a settled squad to start the campaign - I’ll look at this in more detail in another article but the common denominator is this - Two many games has equaled a split squad which as a result has equaled two many players and has taken time to eliminate into something special - namely January and the playoff push, title race and last term, survival.
This term the budget is restricted which means changes have to happen, players such as Marriott no longer become a piece of the furniture, they become an old sofa that must be replaced for half the price. It's harsh, but somberingly true.
Whilst it's not nice to see an old favorite go, it does add an era of mystery and excitement to the equation, who will arrive and how will the new team fare - our ultimate destination is football at a higher level, we will reach it one day but for now, the same sights sounds and characteristics have been put aside for something untested and untried, hopefully being unpredictable will be a risk worth taking - the only shame is we'll never get to say a proper thank-you or farewell.
All the best to those departing and thanks for the memories.
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