Notts County Season Preview: younger squad

With the 2018-19 League Two season around the corner, The Football Lab spoke to Notts County fan Tom Nixey from the excellent The Michael Thomas Moment (@tmtm_blog).

Kevin Nolan has a 44% win ratio at Notts County, the highest any 20+ game boss has had since Jimmy Sirrel left in 1975. Do you think his passion has helped rejuvenate the place?

I wouldn’t solely put it down to his passion, but it’s certainly helped. The big thing that Nolan did when he first came in was put an obviously capable side into a shape; 4-4-2 where everyone knew their duty. Along with this came a work ethic that had been badly lacking which was then supplemented by Jorge Grant’s ability. He adopted exactly the same style last season which took us within touching distant of the play-off final. On the touch line he is clearly a passionate man but sometimes that has gotten the better of him; especially when a referee is involved. For some, they want to see their manager giving it the Klopp-esq 100% and whilst I’m happy to see it if it’s channelled properly, it’s not what defines a good manager.

Just three of the 11 players Nolan released this summer were under 30, while ex-Forest stalwart David Vaughan is so far the only new arrival over 28. Do you think the squad age has been reduced deliberately?

Indeed. Ever since Nolan came through the door there has been a narrative that he wants to have young players in and around the squad. This has been continually backed by our chairman, Mr Hardy, and this summer has shown a clear move in that direction. I also think it has been a deliberate ploy due to the expectation of promotion. It’s clear a lot of this summer’s signings can play in League Two but they will be expected to make up a decent majority of a League One squad too. Last season, Nolan made do with what he had. This seasons he’s been given the money to build but not only for this season it seems.

New signing Krystian Dennis put in an impressive performance against you for Chesterfield last season. With Kane Hemmings also coming in to provide competition for Jonathan Stead, do you feel you have strikers who bring different qualities?

I think Dennis and Hemmings are fantastic signings with bags of talent and goal scoring ability. They’re both strikers who will do their best work in the 18 yard box and that will mean a big shift in the way that Notts play. For me, that shift in play will be the most interesting thing about us this season; how will they cope? What will it look like? Will it work? I wouldn’t have kept Stead on but I can see that he’ll be useful across a season, especially in the final 20 minutes of games.

Personally, I think we’re one striker short; someone who can drop off and link the lines together because I do not see Nolan dropping the 4-4-2. With two penalty box strikers, there could be a big gap between them and the midfield. I’m hopeful academy graduate Remaye Campbell will get a chance this season too to supplement the forward ranks.

Another Spireites player who upped their game against you in that match in March was Andy Kellett, who has also signed. Do you see him being given a free midfield role like the one he had that day, or in a more familiar full-back position?

I can see Kellett going between positions during the upcoming campaign. I think Nolan will start with Enzio Boldewijn and Nathan Thomas on the flanks against Colchester and I certainly don’t see a Number 10 being deployed. We had Jorge Grant on the books last season, a natural 10, and even he was put out on the left. Kellett and Thomas will fight it out for a spot on the left flank, but both can play on either side which gives us flexibility; a necessity over a full league season. He’ll also provide cover for Dan Jones and will be a solid left back when called upon.

Goalkeeper Adam Collin was released in the summer, despite starting 30 league games last season. Ross Fitzsimons has signed a new contract, but are you surprised you’ve not, at the time of writing, added a stopper?

Not hugely. I think Fitzsimons was always going to be the natural successor to Collin due to the fact he had a sustained run in the team last season. I’ve heard murmurs that Nolan wanted to keep Collin but this was vetoed. Whilst I wouldn’t have been impressed, I don’t think it would have surprised me had Collin stayed on; it was clear Nolan trusted him. I think Fitzsimons has a chance of making it as our Number One. He’s an excellent shot stopper and distributor but I think he needs more presence in his penalty area; coming for crosses and coming off his line in particular. I hope he’s learnt from his moment of madness that ultimately lost him his place in the side for the remainder of last season. I’m also glad we won’t have to put up with the social media nonsense surrounding Collin anymore.

Right-back Matt Tootle was regarded as the next big talent to come out of Crewe’s academy a few years ago, before injuries perhaps stalled his path. Did we see signs of him getting back to his best last season?

He was fantastic last season. When he first came in, under John Sheridan, he played in central midfield and was our best player for four months. When Nolan came in, he deployed him at right back and he hasn’t looked back since. He can be susceptible defensively, especially when a team turns him around and makes him go towards his own goal, but going forward he is the best right back in League Two. He especially impressed me when Dan Jones was injured. Jones was the early go-to marauding full back but when he was injured, Tootle became the option and he always picked the right pass in the final third. He’s a real fans favourite and should also be praised for his openness regarding his personal mental health issues over the past few years. He has done great work in the past year to raise awareness and this has only further endeared him to the Notts faithful. I hope he picks up where he left last season.

Dan Jones seemed to have a nightmare at Coventry on the opening day then, ironically, was arguably your best player against the same team in the play-offs. Is that an indication of his progression during the intervening eight months?

Dan Jones is an impressive footballer. Again, the absolute nonsense surrounding his opening day performance against Coventry was baffling. ‘League Two footballer has bad game… shock.’ Overall, I think he had a good season when he played. His sheer athleticism enables him to be a real asset both defensively and going forward. When he has to defend, he can get caught out but his pace allows him to recover. In the play-offs, the first leg especially, he was outstanding. That smash on Jack Grimmer in the build up to Jonathan Forte’s goal was everything a fan loves to see.

Richard Duffy and Shaun Brisley was your first-choice centre-back pairing last season, but stats would suggest that your defence faired better when the latter was replaced by Ben Hall, who returns on loan from Brighton. How do you assess your current options?

I think in Duffy, Brisley and Hall you have three good centre halves at this level. I’d like to see Brisley and Hall given the nod this season but think Nolan will go for Duffy and Hall. For me, whilst Duffy improved greatly last season, he is a walking mistake. Added to this is his penchant for trying to buy fouls instead of actually defending at times then you have obvious weaknesses. Hall and Brisley are both big, strong lads who play simply and for me they should be paired together this season.

New wide man Nathan Thomas and Enzio Boldewijn normally like to cut inside from the left and right respectively. Are there any wingers in your squad who you think might be able to change things up and attack the flank when you need more width?

I do wonder whether Nolan will play with two inverted wingers. I can see Boldewijn playing on the right and Thomas on the left. If it comes to pass that he does invert the two, then Terry Hawkridge and Andy Kellett would be the obvious options to stretch a game. Hawkridge had an excellent first half of last season but dropped out of the reckoning post January. I hope he is given a chance and just backs himself to stay wide and deliver into the box, rather than cut back in and play safe.

Magpies aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the League Two season as a whole?

As ever, I’m excited for the new season. I think the teams who did well last season have generally made good signings this summer. John Akinde was the striker most League Two teams probably wanted and he’s at Lincoln; that’s a massive signing for them. He and Matt Green should become a formidable partnership. Mansfield have arguably made the signing of the summer by getting Tyler Walker in on a season long loan. There’s been plenty made of them allegedly paying him five grand a week, but he’s very capable of scoring 30+ goals this season and taking them up; that’s priceless. I think The Franchise have a good chance of going up. We all know Paul Tisdale knows League Two like the rim of his flat cap and they’ll be backed well in the transfer market. I also think the league having Tranmere and Macclesfield back in is to its benefit. Two good away trips and two definite stalwarts of the Football League.

Any potential dark horses for you?

I think Tranmere could go well. Prenton Park has always been a tough place to go for Notts and I can see plenty of teams struggle there. When you twin this with the momentum created by achieving promotion then you have a potent combination. Of the existing sides, I think Carlisle will have a good season post Keith Curle; sometimes a change at the top is just what a club needs. I also see Mansfield going well, but with David Flitcroft at the helm, you never know…

Where will you finish?

Champions. Looking at the squad we’ve assembled I think we are streets ahead of most teams in the league. I think we may need a touch more strength in depth, but the players we’ve brought in are a cut above, especially David Vaughan. If he can stay fit, he will be the best player in League Two by a country mile next season.

Thanks to Tom for his answers. The Football Lab’s verdict on County can be found on We Love Betting from late July.