This summer was always going to be a strange one for Crawley – after all, nobody was really sure how we’d get on in our first season in League One. The general consensus however, was that consolidation should be the aim. After two promotions on the bounce, a season or two of stability is what’s required right now. Which is why, when Sean O’Driscoll was announced as new manager at the beginning of pre-season, I was delighted.
Attractive football, not what we had become accustomed to under Evans, astute in the transfer market, and he came across as an amicable character, someone who would work hard to establish the club in League One and hopefully beyond. But his tenure lasted all but two months before Nottingham Forest came calling for his services. Needless to say, he jumped ship and we were, for the second time this year, left managerless.
But in the short time he was manager, he left a considerable mark on the club. A new style of football, much preferred to Evans-ball, was implemented and when he left, it came as a bitter blow. Whoever the new manager would be, they were under a lot of pressure to keep the same style of football and produce results. Coach Craig Brewster or Director of Football Steve Coppell, who knew the players well and would ensure stability and continuity, were my prefered candidates, but neither seemed likely. Failing that, Sean Dyche, harshly sacked by Watford after leading them to 11th in the Championship last year, would have been a good appointment, but that never seemed on the cards.
A number of managers were considered, and consequently turned Town down including Dean Holdsworth, one of a worryingly long list. Then Crawley turned to a name which came as a surprise to everyone. Richie Barker of Bury. Even after doing a good job with Bury, carrying them across the promotion line to League One in the 2010-11 season, then steering them to mid table safety last campaign, I was dubious.
The board, however, seemingly weren’t so and in due course finally got their man. However in the days that have passed, I’ve become convinced that he’s the man for the job. Keeping the attractive style of football that O’Driscoll brought to the club and with intentions to stabilise and then build the club, he is exactly what was required. Whether he’s had enough time to stamp his authority on the team yet is unknown, but the appointment, whilst perhaps unexpected, has turned out to be a very astute one.
So for the new season consolidation is still the aim and anything more would be a bonus. Another promotion would see Crawley way out of their depth in the Championship, and could see the long term stability of the club severely under pressure. So for the first time in a good couple of years, I think we’re happy with mid table mediocrity.
The squad that will take us into our first season as a League One side is a mixture of the side that saw us promoted from League Two – only David Hunt, Michel Kuipers, Scott Neilson, Josh Simpson, Sergio Torres, Dannie Bulman, Charlie Wassmer and Kyle McFadzean remain from the legendary Conference winning side of two seasons ago – and new faces. Gone is much of the deadwood from last year, and in come Nicky Adams, Mat Sadler, Mark Connolly, Jonathan Forte, Nicky Ajose, and Paul Jones. Here I’ll run the rule over the squad.
Michel Kuipers is a veteran at 39, and will be second choice to Jones this season. Signed in the summer of 2010 on a free from Brighton, the former Dutch Marine has a tendency to make erratic decisions, such as those that led to him being sent off twice in his first two games for the club. However he has always done the job when called upon despite injury in the early part of 2011, which saw the now departed Scott Shearer replace him as number 1.
Paul Jones is already something of a hero with a fantastic performance in the penalty shootout against Millwall earlier this week, saving two of their three penalties. He’s an excellent shot stopper who is comfortable dealing with backpasses and that will make him first choice this season.
In defence is David Hunt, a fan favourite and stalwart of the double winning promotion side. Steve Evans converted him from a midfielder into a solid right back with a tendency to join in the attack. Largely second choice to Mark Connolly in pre-season although that may change under Richie Barker. Connolly is primarily a centre back, but used at right back during pre-season after signing on a free from Bolton. Solid and dependable, he will be first choice at right back if the warm up games are anything to go by.
*Big* Claude Davis is, in simple terms, a beast of a centre back. Signed on a free last September, he proved to be integral to our promotion last season and another good campaign is needed from the Jamaican tank after he penned a new contract on Friday. Kyle MaFadzean is a highly rated defender capable of playing in midfield – the 23 year old from Sheffield was a mainstay of the double winning promotion side, alongside first Pablo Mills and then Davis. He tackles and passes well, and proved to be formidable alongside Davis last season. The signing of a three year contract, as announced also on Friday, is a huge boost.
Charlie Wassmer is another highly rated young defender. The 21-year-old who signed from Hayes and Yeading in March 2011 initially on loan has proved to be a more than capable deputy at centre back. Largely blamed by Steve Evans for the 6-0 mauling suffered at the hands of Morecambe last season, he wasn’t given another chance until Evans departed, but could be a Premier League defender one day.
Experienced left back Mat Sadler completes the backline having arrived from Walsall and has the spot largely to himself this season, but seems a good fit and gets forward well.
In the midfield winger Scott Neilson was largely a bit part player last season, useful as an impact sub and scored the winning goal against Accrington to send us up to League One. He won’t feature much this season, but is still a useful player who can be terrifying on his day.
Dannie Bulman is a club legend. The box to box midfielder was sold to Oxford back in 2007 to help ease our financial woes, but rejoined in September ’10 and has been a regular since. Good passer, box to box, leader. Say no more.
Sergio Torres cemented his place in Crawley history with a dramatic late winner against Derby County two seasons ago in the FA Cup third round – an act which actually caused Steve Evans to run! The flamboyant midfielder is a fans favourite with his passing and hard work. Loves the club, the fans love him. A regular last season, the ever-smiling Argentine may not feature as much this season though.
Tricky winger Nicky Adams has signed from Rochdale following their relegation last season and he will be key with his passing and dirbbling. A great acquisition.
Also in the engine room is Josh Simpson, a good passer of the ball with good feet who was last season’s captain in place of the largely injured and now departed Pablo Mills. He has found it difficult to nail down a first team place since joining in January 2011 from Peterborough, but that seems to have changed under O’Driscoll and now Barker with the new style of play. It could be a big season for him.
The tenacious Hope Akpan joined from Everton on a free last summer found first team places hard to come by despite flashes of quality, but has excelled in pre season and is now one of the first names on the team sheet. Can hold in midfield, get forward or do the box to box role. Defensive midfielder Sean Cooper signed from Bournemouth this summer and is a player who can tackle, pass well and will prove a useful addition to the squad, but may struggle to get consistent first team action.
Arron Wickham is promising young midfielder who likes to get forward, and the first product of the revamped youth development and scouting system to break into the first team, featuring on the bench against Stoke in February.
Up top we have Billy Clarke – a tricky, versatile striker who can operate anywhere in an attacking role. Clarke will be the creative force upfront this year. He struggled for goals at first when he joined at the end of January, but has been prolific in pre season and will be crucial. He’s got Championship quality for sure. Alongside him is Gary Alexander who was brought in on loan last season from Brentford. The former Millwall and Leyton Orient man got the goals at the end of last season to get us up and will need to do so again this year whilst wearing the captain’s armband.
Maligned by many for his lack of goals since joining last summer, John Akinde or ‘Big John’ as I have christened him packs pace and power, but so often ruins his good work with a poor finish in front of goal. I’m one of the few who actually rates him, and he’ll need to have a good season this time round.
Jonte Smith was prolific at youth level last year and the 18 year old Bermudan has been promoted to the first team squad this time round and has an exciting future. He won’t feature much this season, but, like Arron Wickham, is a product of the youth system at Crawley and a good one at that.
Jonathan Forte signed on loan for three months earlier today, could prove useful this season, having spent time in this division with Notts County previously. Nicky Ajose, like Forte, has signed on loan for three months but this time with a view to a permanent deal. Quick and with an eye for goal, and still young, he could prove to be an inspired signing.
So there it is. The squad that will lead Crawley into League One and in my opinion a strong one.
The aim for this season is to consolidate and perhaps attain a top half finish if we’re lucky. Crawley host Scunthorpe on the opening day, a game which will tell us a lot about what we can expect from this season, and I’m going to stick my neck out and predict a 2-1 Crawley win, with Alexander and Adams getting the goals.
Of course, that’ll all come back to haunt me come 5:15pm tomorrow when we’ve lost 5-0 won’t it? Anyway, roll on the new season!
Written by Louie Elmer, We Are Going Up’s Crawley Town blogger
Louie tweets at @LouieElmer