Non-League Football

Town not Learning Lessons in Limp Towards Play-Offs

A little under 3 weeks ago, I wrote about how Paul Hurst had got it tactically spot on for a 1-0 home win over Wrexham. What’s happened since strongly suggests to me that Hurst either didn’t plan those Wrexham tactics in as much detail as I described it, or he didn’t understand what made it work. In addition to that, the Town boss has also shown up several Managerial deficiencies that has lead to a lot of fans losing confidence in his ability to lead us to promotion.

Since that win on March 26th, Town have taken just 4 points from the 15 available.

Paul Hurst 2

Tactics Wrong at Moss Rose

The game immediately following the Wrexham game was away at Macclesfield. Hurst stuck with the same lop-sided midfield system with Nolan coming inside to make a central 3. This was never going to be as effective and Hurst was tactically naïve to think it would. Robertson came in for the injured Horwood at left back and Robertson, for as solid a defender as he is, doesn’t have the legs to get up the pitch quickly to provide the width on that side if the midfielder in front of him is asked to drift into the centre. Not forgetting the main reason Hurst had used this system against Wrexham – the 3 man midfield we were up against – was no longer a problem with Macclesfield’s 4-4-2.

No Reaction with Game Slipping Away

Next up for the Mariners was an away trip to the leaders – Cheltenham. Refereeing decisions went against both sides during the game but Town were not at the races for the first 40 minutes, during which time they went a goal down. Having got an equaliser early in the second half, Cheltenham soon went back in front which immediately knocked the stuffing out of Town. We couldn’t get any sort of play going but Hurst made no changes until after Cheltenham got a third goal, sending Bogle on for Arnold in the 78th minute. This was hugely frustrating to watch Town struggle to even get a foothold in the game yet Hurst allowed the clock to run down without injecting new life/energy into the side or changing our shape. Only when it was too late did he try and do something about a game that was slipping away from us ever since Cheltenham got their second goal in the 58th minute.

Lack of Invention

The following three games had highs and lows but that only adds to the frustration Town fans feel. We came back from 0-2 down to win 4-3 away at Aldershot and this appeared partly down to the introduction of Omar Bogle and Jordan Stewart at half time. It was unusual of Hurst to make substitutions at half-time and it later transpired that Monkhouse and Hoban had been struggling with knocks.

Saturday saw Eastleigh come to Blundell Park and Hurst stuck with the same eleven that started the second half at Aldershot 4 days earlier. Most would have agreed with the line-up and it was only poor finishing and/or an excellent goalkeeping display by Ross Flitney that denied Town 3 points as they settled for a point against the 10-man Spitfires.

Again though, only 2 like-for-like substitutions in the 72nd minute against a side playing with 10 men since the 49th minute showed a lack of invention from the bench.

That lack of invention was also evident on Tuesday when Braintree were the victors at Blundell Park.

Insanity

Einstein once defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

thD607TXJS

I could apply this apparent “insanity” to the management of GTFC in two ways.

  1. We have consistently struggled to break down sides that come to Blundell Park and are fairly well organised and set up to frustrate us. We know teams will come and do this. Yet we haven’t attempted at any point to come up with a different idea of how to approach these games and continue to predictably struggle against a deep defensive block set up by a well-drilled side.
  2. During an individual match, Hurst and the players either do not recognise when something isn’t working or the management only want us to play in a certain way and not differentiate from that. Sometimes we play dozens of long high balls up to the front two with very little success. Yet we continued to launch it forward. Were we expecting Amond and Hoban would grow 6 inches during the game and suddenly become a match for Braintree’s dominant centre halves in the air? And if a flat 4-4-2 isn’t working to break a team down, we never try something else to change shape or give the opposition different problems to think about.

Where Did We Fail Against Braintree?

Braintree are known for being in tight games with few goals and their defensive record is second only to Cheltenham in the National League this season. It was clear to everyone how they would come and play. Keep it tight, keep a deep defensive block with 5 in midfield, clear their lines early playing percentage football and looking for set-pieces.

Yet Town played predictable football with no invention from the bench or on the field. In all honesty Town could’ve played for 3 hours and wouldn’t have scored. Braintree were always going to get one chance, and they took it to deservedly take the points.

Shape

It’s a trait of Hurst’s sides to keep their shape very well. This is no bad thing. The problem is, we also keep to our shape when in possession. The rigid lines of the 4-4-2 leave few passing options and it is easy to defend against a team so inflexible when in position. Keeping our shape when we don’t have the ball is imperative, but when we have the ball we need to have players coming out of their disciplined zones. On Tuesday there was no-one creating space, either for themselves or for the team. We didn’t stretch a team that were always going to be happy for us to play in front of them. There was no movement to drag Braintree’s well-drilled players out of their positions, not enough third man runs (only Tait offering this from full-back). Arnold could have drifted infield between the defensive and midfield lines to pick up the ball. Monkhouse moved to receive the ball but when he gets it he needs an early pass to be on as he can’t carry the ball forward himself. One of the forwards could pull wide or drop deep. Look our shape when we’ve got the ball and compare to when we haven’t. There isn’t a lot of difference. And there’s no intelligence of movement or patterns of movement to break away from the 3 straight lines of the formation. Because of this, the gap between our midfield and strikers is always too big, with no midfielder or forward getting in the space between the opposition midfield and defence.

Front Two

Even the strikers stuck rigidly to the shape on Tuesday, both playing level together in a line, right up against the defenders. With Amond and Hoban both having a defender right up their backside whenever the ball was played up to them they would struggle to hold it, let alone be able to receive and turn, where they might be dangerous. I could’ve counted on one hand the number of times that either of them came short to show for a ball into their feet in a no.10 sort of position. If one of them drops short like this, his marker could also go with him and create more space for the striker in the no.9 position against the other central defender left in the back line.

Defenders taking the flak

There were a lot of occasions on Tuesday were it seemed Nsiala and Gowling were being criticised for playing too many long balls forward. I certainly think a lot of the time our centre-backs were left with no option. Nolan always wanted the ball but sometimes couldn’t make an angle for a pass, was tightly marked, or was rotating in midfield for Disley to come short. When Braintree had the midfield closely marked, there wasn’t enough movement as individuals in midfield or desire to want to get on the ball. And there wasn’t much coming short from the strikers as mentioned earlier, so there was sometimes no passing option available.

Width

One thing we should’ve been attempting to do is stretch the game as wide as possible to stretch the defensive unit of Braintree and open up bigger gaps. The problem is Monkhouse isn’t the type of winger he was when he was giving Iain Ward the run-around in the late 90’s/early 00’s in his early Rotherham days. He likes to come infield, he’s an intelligent player but needs pace or movement in the team around him to flourish. On the other side, Nathan Arnold has been badly out of form for several months and in truth might as well not have been on the pitch on Tuesday. He didn’t look like he wanted the ball and didn’t do anything when he had it either. So we had neither winger getting wide to the touchline.

Changes?

It was obvious to many that we weren’t going to score from very early in the second half. Again though, there was no changes in the offing. Bogle and Jennings stayed on the bench until the 72nd minute and Pittman had somehow jumped ahead of Bogle in the pecking order to come on ahead of them in the 62nd minute. All three of Hurst’s subs came before Braintree’s winner, but none of them altered the way we were playing or the predictably rigid shape of our team that Braintree were dealing with comfortably. And “comfortably” is an understatement. Remember the “insanity” quote? What we were doing was getting us no-where and we were only ever going to draw the game at best. But we changed nothing except for the personnel asked to carry out the specific roles in the team as we continued with the same shape and methods. Could we have gone 4-3-3, 3-5-2, or 4-3-1-2 with a player linking midfield and attack? Could we have substituted Arnold and left our 30-goal striker on?

Chances

We had one real chance and that was in the 93rd minute. Very worrying. If we make the play-offs, surely whoever we face in the semi-final only has to look at the blueprint that many have used in the last couple of years to take a point or three away from Blundell Park?

Lessons Learned?

Would we suddenly find a way to play against such tactics and break down a well-drilled low defensive block? Nothing I’ve seen gives me any confidence that we would. When asked by Mike White on BBC Radio Humberside what he learns from a game like that, Hurst’s response was: “I’m not going to get too hung up about the game, I think we move on.”

That comment, coupled with the same way we go about approaching these types of games (and often fail), is why it seems like Hurst doesn’t actually learn from the mistakes he makes both with preparation and game-management. It leads me to believe that the next time we come against a Braintree or a Guiseley at home, we’ll just play the same way and probably get the same disappointing result. I know we’ve had a lot of positive results at home too, but the teams that are well organised and efficient enough to execute a defensive plan like Braintree can easily make it difficult for us.

Outlook

After the apparent tactical successes against Wrexham less than 3 weeks ago, it unfortunately appears as if it wasn’t quite so thought-out as I interpreted it in previous analysis. Because what’s followed has been a few strange selections (Bogle in, out and shaking it all about), omissions (Stewart waiting 6 years for a game then “rested” from the 16 to play a reserve game 24 hours later) and lack of tactical ideas and imagination.

Could we still get promoted? Yes.

Am I confident we will? No.

UTM.

 

 

Hurst’s Tactical Adjustment Takes 3 Points for Town

Grimsby Town took on Wrexham on Saturday afternoon as two of the Vanarama National League’s form sides came head-to-head at Blundell Park. The Mariners welcomed a Wrexham side who had kept 6 clean sheets in a row and featured a few familiar faces in their line-up. Former Town trio Connor Jennings, Simon Helsop and Jamal Fyfield were joined by ex-GTFC loanee Javan Vidal who came on as a second half substitute.

Paul Hurst

The game also saw bosses Paul Hurst and Gary Mills renew acquaintances in opposite dugouts. Hurst has had mixed success against Mills’ teams in recent years. Despite the odd success for Hurst (6-1 away win at Gateshead), Mills has generally had the upper hand. His York side had the better of Scott & Hurst’s Town side 3 times in 2011/12, he got the better of Hurst when Gateshead progressed to the Play-off Final at our expense in 2014, and a 2-2 draw for Gateshead at Blundell Park end any hopes of our title challenge in 2015.

Gary Mills

Mills always has his sides playing 4-3-3 and they usually play good football, building from the back, passing and moving with players comfortable in possession.

Today, Hurst strayed from the usual straight-forward 4-4-2 in a tactical move that helped Town deal with the problems that a side playing 4-3-3 poses for a 4-4-2. The result was Wrexham looking anything like a “Gary Mills team” in terms of style and Town taking all three points after a 1-0 win.

Town v Wrexham 1

Hurst made two changes to his starting line-up, bringing Toto Nsiala in for Shaun Pearson at centre-back and Craig Clay in place of Danny East in midfield. Nsiala was seemingly brought in as the more athletic defender to combat deal with the pace of Wrexham forward Kayden Jackson. Clay’s inclusion allowed Nathan Arnold to switch back to the right of midfield and saw Jon Nolan take up an unusual position on the left side of midfield.

The graphic above shows the starting positions of the Town line-up – with Nolan narrow on that left side. However, if Opta or whoever provides all the stats for Premier League football were to produce heat maps for Conference football, then the average positions of the team would look a lot different to the above.

Mills’ 4-3-3 often leaves Hurst’s 4-4-2 outnumbered in midfield, so Hurst’s plan was for Nolan to drift infield and to create a 3v3 in the middle of the midfield. As he did this, Evan Horwood got forward well to offer the attacking width on that side. This was most evident from James McKeown’s goal kicks, when Horwood would up a very high position ahead of the midfielders. To compensate, Richard Tait’s forays forward from right-back were limited as he needed to sit alongside the centre-backs whilst Horwood pushed forward on the other side.

Nolan not only drifted infield to even the midfield numbers, but he was usually the one midfielder that broke lines and got forward to support the Irish strike pairing of Hoban and Amond.

When Town did lose the ball in the middle third, we were often able to win the ball back quickly in defensive transitions because we already had that three in the middle.

Town v Wrexham 3

This second graphic shows the more realistic positions that the town players took up during the game, and how it lined up against Wrexham’s first half set-up. As well as Tait’s more conservative game today, Disley also generally sat deeper to allow Clay and especially Nolan to support attacking moves.

This approach completely nullified Wrexham’s ability to play out from the back and they invariably hit long balls over the top for the quick forwards to chase. At half time, Gary Mills made a substitution and changed to a back three, and whilst his side put up more of a performance in the second half, they were still unable to really test McKeown in the Town goal as the home side remained more threatening.

The goalmouth scrambles after Wrexham set-pieces in injury time was the first time the Town goal was under threat since Hoban headed off the line late in the first half. Wrexham remained direct in the second half and were now going long to substitute Wes York more often than not but Tait stood his ground well at right back.

The match-winning goal came in just the 7th minute when a Grimsby corner made it to the far post where Nathan Arnold calmly cushion-volleyed down for Craig Disley to smash home from 6 yards. The goal just cemented what was a good start to the game from the Mariners, and they went on to play some good stuff throughout the half. Hoban had a shot blocked after a cut-back from Horwood and Nolan mis-hit a shot after a nice lay-off from Hoban as Town pressed for a second.

After half-time it was still looking more likely that Town would double their lead, with Hoban guiding a header goalwards that cannoned back off the crossbar, Clay hitting a volley over and Nolan shooting just wide when 1v1 with the goalkeeper after a great first touch from Amond’s reverse ball.

But after Town saw out those final few minutes of injury time (where the referee found 4 minutes to add on I’ll never know) it was Paul Hurst celebrating in the home dugout. After facing criticism at times during his reign of being out-thought by rival managers (even as recently as Cheltenham at home this season), Hurst should be praised for his tactics today.

Gary Mills is a good, experienced Manager and Wrexham will cause other teams problems in the run-in. And Hurst rightly saw this as an important win judging by his reaction after the full time whistle. Yet we can also take confidence from Hurst seemingly winning a battle of tactical minds with a rival Manager. Potentially a good sign with a Play-Off campaign probably coming up in May that’ll hopefully involve 3 games? Time will tell.

Grimsby Town 1-0 Wrexham

Disley ‘7

Att: 4581 (315 away supporters)

 

 

 

Reacting to Play-Off Final Defeats: Will 2015 be different to 2006 for Grimsby Town?

At the end of the 2014/15 season, Grimsby Town suffered Conference Premier Play-Off Final heartache in the cruellest fashion with a penalty shoot-out defeat to Bristol Rovers.

Nine years earlier, Town lost to Cheltenham at the Millennium Stadium in the League Two Play-Off Final to end the 2005/06 season in disappointment.

I’ll look at the how there are massive differences in how it came about, the reaction following the two matches and more importantly, the likelihood of the following seasons after both Finals going the same way.

The Season of Play-Off Failure

In the season before Russell Slade’s Mariners reached the League Two Play-Offs, the side finished a lowly 18th. So it was quite a transformation in fortunes. The season was a one-off in terms of it being sandwiched between years of fighting at the bottom end of the table. Town spent most of the season in the automatic promotion places but ended up finishing 4th after just 2 wins in the last 9 games allowed Leyton Orient to steal third place.

Whilst Slade’s side faltered towards the end of the season, Paul Hurst’s Grimsby Town side grew stronger as the season went on. After losing 7 games and drawing 8 up to New Years Day, Town lost 3 and drew 3 after January 1st. Positivity and belief amongst supporters grew in the second half of the season and this passion helped the side put themselves in contention to actually win the league at one point.

The Play-Off Final

In 2006, Town didn’t really turn up. We had beaten Cheltenham twice during the season and maybe complacency was an issue. There was also uncertainty over Russell Slade’s future at the Club after a contract renewal went wrong earlier in the year. Whatever possible distractions there may have been, the game that day was a damp squib from our point of view and we kind of went out without a fight. Key striker Michael Reddy had to be substituted after less than half an hour and the usually strong back 4 looked shaky in the early stages. Steve Guinan scored when his cross ended up in the back of the net and a Steve Mildenhall penalty-save prevented Town from falling 2-0 behind. We never really got going, despite having a penalty shout turned down, and resorted to pumping high balls into the area in the latter stages to try and get back into the game.

In contrast, Hurst’s Mariners put in a respectable performance at Wembley in 2015. Generally seen to have been slightly the better team on the day, Town competed well and looked threatening in the early stages. Bristol Rovers were lucky not to go down to 10 men when Town still led 1-0 and there were no suggestions of Town not turning up for this one. The support from the 13,000 Mariners fans inside Wembley was incredible and despite being outnumbered 2-to-1, made sure the positivity continued by making the most noise at the highest attended Conference Play-Off Final in history. Ultimately, it ended with defeat in the narrowest of margins after a single penalty miss in the shoot-out allowed Bristol Rovers to earn promotion at our expense.

Supporters Reaction to the Final

In 2006, the feeling of deflation was huge. After being amongst the automatic promotion places for much of the season, there was a sense of feeling that we had thrown it after away having our destiny in our own hands for so long. There was a sense of anger amongst many that the team had not turned up despite the thousands of Town fans spending their hard-earned cash (in some cases not so hard-earned) to travel to Cardiff in support of the team. The team’s performance on the day was not even a shadow of the displays seen earlier in the season and the only feelings of supporters afterwards were negative.

Again, in stark contrast to nine years ago there was a different reaction from supporters in the aftermath of the Final. There was still the devastating disappointment and a really downbeat mood after a feeling that it was “our time” developed in the latter months of the season. However, this time there’s been a huge sense of pride amongst the Town support. To outsiders this may seem strange after such a disheartening end to the season, but as has been commented on social media since, the fans feel that after this season, “We’ve got our Club back.” The supporters and the team are closer than in recent memory and this was evident with the fantastic noise created by the Black and White army at Wembley. Since the end of the season, fans have rallied in an attempt to make sure the positive atmosphere from the last few months doesn’t fizzle out and there’s been a surge of new members for the Mariners Trust.

Squad Retention

In 2006, Manager Russell Slade left the Club to take over at Yeovil. Following that, EIGHT of the matchday sixteen from the match at the Millennium Stadium were no longer with us by the time the following season started under Graham Rodger’s leadership. You could class that as NINE when you consider Ben Futcher was also gone by October. Another massive blow to the Club’s preparation for the new season was dealt by Michael Reddy. The Irish striker, who had scored 14 goals for the Mariners in the 05/06 season, handed in a transfer request just a couple of weeks before the start of the new season. This put a dampener on any hopes for the new season and Reddy only played 10 more league games for Town without scoring a goal, before retiring after failing to recover from a hip injury. So in reality, we played the following season with just SIX of the sixteen that were in the matchday squad at Cardiff just a few months previously.

All of Paul Hurst’s business has not yet been completed for the season following the latest Play-Off disappointment. However, so far it is going down a much different route to that of 2006. To start with, we’ll still have the same Manager to lead the charge this time. There may have been quite a few people disappointed with that if we look back 6-8 months, but the general consensus now seems to be that Hurst deserves another crack at it. As far as the players are concerned, eight of the matchday sixteen from the Conference Play-Off Final have already signed new deals with the Club. A ninth (James McKeown) is still under contract for another season and a tenth (Josh Gowling) has signed a new deal having missed Wembley through injury. And most of the players who have left the Club so far (Parslow, Hannah, Bignot, Jolley) have done so having been released. Only Nsiala and Magnay are yet to make decisions on their future and only Lenell John-Lewis has so far rejected a longer stay at GTFC in favour of another Club. This compares to 2006 when Rob Jones (Hibs), Andy Parkinson (Notts County), Steve Mildenhall and JP Kalala (both Yeovil) turned down GTFC to move to new Clubs, as well as Reddy who tried to engineer a move away and Futcher who left 2 months into the season.

The Season Following the Play-Off Defeat

Teams often find there is a big hangover after such massive disappointment at the end of a season and many Clubs struggle the following year in this scenario – as we did in 2006/07. Town finished 15th in 06/07 and finished lower and lower each year until eventually being relegated to the Conference in 2010. We never recovered from the lingering disappointment hanging over the Club from May 2005 and the dissection of the bulk of the squad that were regularly involved.

The Verdict for 2015/16

Whilst the 2005/06 and 2014/15 seasons both ended with Play-Off Final failure. That is just about where the similarities end. The supporters reaction and feeling around the Club this summer has kept the positivity flowing. A record surge of new Mariners Trust members ensued and there are now healthy expectations of season ticket sales for next season. Player retention has been positive so far and there will be no upheaval required. There will be no last minute transfer request from a star striker as everyone except our goalkeeper has signed their deals this summer. The wave of positivity around the Club and the pride amongst the fans cannot be underestimated. There is also a belief and steely determination that the Club can and will mount a serious challenge for the Conference title for the first time next season. This is coming from both fans and players alike as the bond between the two that established over the latter few months over the season looks like it will continue. If Town can start well in 2015/16, it could be our year.

#operationpromotion

#thistownknows

#UTM

Grimsby Town Predictions for the 2014/15 Vanarama Conference Season

Here are some of my thoughts and predictions on the coming season for Grimsby Town and the Vanarama Conference 2014/15 season.

League Winners: Gateshead/Barnet

Gary Mills’ Gateshead went close last season after ending our own promotion challenge. And I expect them to be serious challengers this year. My alternative tip is Barnet. Martin Allen has made some good signings to add to the decent squad they already had. John Akinde and Charlie Macdonald up front looks a potent strike-force and I believe Bees Manager Allen has the mentality needed to be successful in this league.

Where Town will finish: 3rd

I think Town are set-up to remain consistent with previous years and achieve a place in the play-offs. We’ve made good additions in wide areas and we remain solid in central defence, but the lack of a prolific goalscorer will prevent the Mariners from winning the title.

Town’s Top Scorer: Ross Hannah

I would have been tempted to go for John-Paul Pittman but concerns over his fitness leave me unsure as to how many sustained runs in the starting eleven he will get over the season. He looks to be a real threat with his pace and power, and what possibly gives him an edge on Hamnah is that he looks to be able to create a chance for himself. Hannah is more reliant on service in the 18 yard box, but our improved quality/depth in wide areas should see him get plenty of chances to better his goals tally of last season.

Town’s Key Player: Lenell John-Lewis

I’ve gone for “The Shop” because as a regular in Hurst’s starting XI, if he can improve his goals record it could make all the difference this season. Most fans recognise the good work he does for the team. And the sensible amongst us will realise teams don’t often have 2 out-and-out goalscorers in their front two. In the past we’ve had the likes of Steve Livingstone, who never scored more than 10 goals in a season but played important role for the team and was widely adored by fans. Anyway, if John-Lewis can improve on his 6 league goals of last season, and get to 10-12, it could prove valuable in Town’s promotion push.

Key Summer Signing: Scott Brown

The central midfield area has been seen as the area needing improvement for years by GTFC fans. Scott Kerr was a very tactically intelligent player and comfortable on the ball last season. But with his declining fitness we probably signed him a few years too late. Brown looks like a player in a similar mould to Kerr, only much fitter and busier in the middle of the park. In the little I’ve seen of him so far, he looks very mobile, keen to get on the ball and use it well. He’s linked well with other clever players that are clearly on his wavelength, namely Scott Nielson, so I think he’s capable of living up to the fans’ expectations.

Town’s Most Carded Player: Shaun Pearson

Easy choice this one. Shaun Pearson as a regular first choice player should play all the games he is available for. He likes a tackle but unfortunately it is his mouth that gets him the most unnecessary bookings by way of dissent to the referee. Pearson is an excellent defender and we need him available as much possible. So I’m really hoping his suspension that caused him to sit out the decisive 2nd leg of the play-off semi-final has made him realise it is the silly bookings for dissent towards officials that cost him the chance to influence that important game. If Shaun can eradicate this part of his behaviour on the pitch, he could be a future Captain of the club because he already has the leadership qualities required.

Young Player to make an Impact: Paul Walker

The young right back appears physically ready to be thrown in at the deep end already. He didn’t look out of place in his appearances last season and right-back is again an area where we don’t have an outstanding player for the position so he has every chance of breaking through. His determined style rampaging up and down the right will win him plenty of fans no doubt.

Assist King: Jack Mackreth

I expect the pacey new right winger to make fools of many a left back in the Conference this season. His pace and direct running should get him into plenty of dangerous positions and then it will be down to him to pick out the head of John-Lewis, Hannah lurking in front of goal, or Disley arriving late in the box.

Do you agree or disagree with any of these predictions? It’d be good to hear some thoughts – leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

Will Connell be a Success on Return to Blundell Park?

So Grimsby Town have brought former striker Alan Connell back to the club on a “short-term” deal. But will he have the same impact as his previous spell at the Club?

image

In the 2010/11 season (Town’s first in the Conference) Connell was an ever-present in the side, scoring 25 league goals in 46 games. He scored more in that one season at Blundell Park than he did in the three seasons that followed combined – scoring 19 league goals during spells at Swindon, Bradford and Northampton over that period.

Of course, it is worth noting that he scored all of those 19 goals at a higher level (League Two) and also played just over a dozen times at League One level (without scoring) last season. In fact, Connell’s season at Grimsby was the only prolific goalscoring season of his career. So it isn’t really fair to say his goalscoring dried up after his spell at GTFC – it just reverted to what it was previously.

So is the Conference just the level that Connell thrives at? Or is Grimsby Town just the club where it all seems to click for him? Many players in the past have scored goals and been too good for what is now the Championship, but haven’t quite been good enough or scored goals in the Premier League (see Darren Huckerby). So similarly, there is every chance that Connell is at a level in the Conference where he can easily excel, as opposed to League Two where he finds goals harder to come by.

Another thing to point out, and a sign of the times perhaps, is that despite just a 3 year gap between his spells at GTFC, there is not a single player left at the club that was here during his first spell. This lessens the notion that he could fit straight in, although the other side of that is that the team, and indeed the squad, is a much stronger proposition than what he was part of here previously.

Connell, now 31, reportedly knew he wanted to leave the club half-way through his 1st spell and solitary season with us. And he signed for Northampton in January 2014 when he had a straight choice between the Cobblers or the Mariners. Northampton avoided relegation but Connell’s record of 0 goals in 16 appearances contributed to his release at the end of the season. His wish to leave relatively early into his previous spell with us coupled with his rejection of us last season leads me to believe that this “short-term” deal will remain exactly that. He was still without a club 24 hours before the Football League and Conference seasons kick off and this, I suspect, is seen by Connell as a chance to put himself in the shop window to try and earn a longer contract elsewhere. That maybe wouldn’t be a terrible thing for GTFC either. If he hits the ground running, hits the net with regularity, atttacts interest and moves on, then he would’ve helped us out during a striker shortage and hopefully helped us get points on the board in the process.

If I were Alan Connell, I’d have been asking to come back with a longer-term deal to the only club where he’s scored goals consistently.

As it is, it’s a short-term arrangement – probably just a rolling monthly or weekly contract – and I suspect that’s all Alan envisages it ever becoming. Maybe a bit of success here, supporter backing, or a lack of interest elsewhere could change his mind. But for me, there’s every chance he could be a success again while he’s here. His ability on the ball and knack of creating goals out of nothing will hopefully be evident again. And as we struggled to break down teams that sat back against us last season, Connell’s long-range shooting skills could be worth its weight in points.

Good luck back in the black & white Alan.

Focus on the Race to the Football League

As the Blue Square Bet Premier season edges towards its decisive last couple of months, we review the challengers for that all-important top-spot to guarantee promotion to the football league.

BBC Sport table

Table graphic courtesy of BBC Sport

Not since 2009, when Burton Albion were crowned champions by a 2-point margin, has a title race in England’s top non-league division been so open. That year, just 7 points separated he top 5 at the end of the season. As things currently stand, 8 points separate the top 6. And all of those 6 will believe that they can be the side to hit form at the right time and take the championship at the end of April.

The current top 4 have been in the mix since the early weeks of the season. Fourth-placed Kidderminster and sixth-placed Mansfield came into form a little later, but have now given themselves a great chance to challenge for automatic promotion.

Current leaders Grimsby Town haven’t lost since a 3-2 defeat away to Hyde on November 6th. They boast the meanest defence in the Conference with just 21 goals conceded and away record of only one loss on the road all season. However, part of the Mariners’ plan going forward will be to turn some of their away draws into wins, having won just 5 of their 13 away games so far. What could work in Grimsby’s favour is their record against the other sides around the top. They’ve beaten Wrexham (1-0), Forest Green (1-0), Luton (4-1) and Mansfield (4-1) at Blundell Park. Whilst goalless away draws at Newport, Kidderminster and Wrexham have added weight to the view that Grimsby have been the most difficult side to beat so far. With Andy Cook turning into one of the divisions most effective strikers, and the likes of Ross Hannah and Richard Brodie chipping in with important goals, Grimsby have as good a chance as anyone to seal a return to the Football League at the third attempt. They may even be able to call upon striker Liam Hearn in the final weeks of the season. He recently joined the squad for light training after missing the entire season so far through an injury sustained in pre-season.

Wrexham will be hoping to avoid ending up in the play-offs this time around after the only challengers to Fleetwood in last season’s title race. Andy Morrell’s men are a good quality footballing side, and perhaps have the smallest squad out of the challenging pack. This hasn’t halted their progress so far this season. They have a strong, settled side, and haven’t lost since the away defeat to Grimsby in front of the Premier Sport cameras on December 21st. In Dean Keates they boast one of the most cultured midfielder’s in the division, and Danny Wright is a handful for any team whether he plays through the middle or on the right side of a front three. The Reds have already played rivals Newport twice, beating them 2-0 at the Racecourse, and playing out an entertaining 1-1 draw at Rodney Parade. They’ve also taken 4 points off Forest Green, again winning at home (2-1) and drawing away (0-0). Wrexham have been consistent throughout this season, their record of 5 defeats is only bettered by Grimsby (4) and there is no doubt they have the quality to challenge for the title.

Forest Green Rovers currently find themselves in 3rd place, although the teams below them have games in hand which could force them out of the play-off places if results don’t go their way. After new financial backing arrived last year, many were tipping Rovers to go all the way this season. Their transfer activity in the summer also suggested they would be challengers, as they signed quality players who already had experience in this division. They’ve been in the top 5 most of the season, but have struggled against the other top sides. They beat Kidderminster (1-0) during Harriers’ winless start to the season, but have since won only once against any of their rivals. That said, it was a fantastic 5-0 away win at Newport County on New Year’s Day. But they have lost at Grimsby, Wrexham, Mansfield and at home to Newport. They’ve got a strong, physical side and great options in attack. James Norwood can’t stop scoring this season, Jan Klukowski currently has 12 from central midfield, and in the pacey Matty Taylor they have one of the better strikers in the division. To stay in contention and make up the ground on the leaders, Rovers will have to become harder to beat on the road, and hope they can take points off the teams around them in the coming weeks.

Newport County, who were the early pace-setters, are the divisions top scorers, netting 64 goals in their first 30 games. Many Blue Square Premier fans doubted whether Justin Edinburgh’s side would maintain their early-season form, but they’ve managed to stay in contention despite losing 5 of their last 15 league games. 19-goal striker Aaron O’Connor is arguably the best striker in non-league at the moment, with the former Luton and Mansfield man relishing being played through the middle in an attack-minded side. Newport will be hoping to have him back from injury soon, to get their promotion challenge back on track after those recent defeats and several postponements halting their momentum. The Exiles have had a mixed bag of results against other teams around the top, drawing at home to both Grimsby and Wrexham, beating Mansfield twice, taking 3 points from 6 against Forest Green and losing away to Wrexham and Kidderminster. Justin Edinburgh will be hoping to tighten his side up defensively, as none of the top 8 sides have conceded as many as Newport. Being harder to beat will help them challenge for the title if they can keep the likes of O’Connor, Jolley, Minshull and Sandell fit.

Kidderminster Harriers didn’t win any of their first 10 games, but have only lost 3 of their 21 games since they got their first win against Cambridge in late September. Steve Burr’s side stormed into the top half of the table and are now real challengers. Whether they can maintain such a good run of form remains to be seen, but they’ve even coped well with the loss of striker Jamille Matt in the transfer window to Fleetwood. Only Grimsby have a better defensive record than Harriers. They have already beaten Wrexham (2-0) and Newport (3-2) at the Aggborough Stadium and held Grimsby to a 0-0 draw. They will need to keep taking points off the teams above them but the main challenge for Kidderminster will be maintaining their excellent form all the way through to the end of the season.

Mansfield Town were also slow starters but their run in the FA Cup, which saw them run Liverpool close in the 3rd Round, appeared to give them momentum and they currently sit just outside the play-off places with games in hand. Since that cup defeat to Liverpool, the Stags have won 5 of their 7 games, losing the other 2 against rivals Newport and Kidderminster. Paul Cox has put together a hard-working side, spearheaded by 14-goal striker Matt Green. But they have a lot to do after defeats this season at the hands of Grimsby, Newport and Kidderminster. They have beaten Kidderminster and Forest Green. Pressure will be on Mansfield to win their games in hand, and they, like Newport, will need to tighten up defensively if they are serious about challenging for the title.

Head-to-head guide for games between the top 6:

Courtesy of statto.com

Graphics courtesy of statto.com

Verdict

Based on how the season has panned out so far, Grimsby, Wrexham and Newport seem to be the serious contenders for the title that are likely to last the distance. These 3 sides have all been top of the table at some point in the last few months, and may trade positions again between now and the final league games on April 20th. Expect Grimsby and Wrexham to battle it out for top-spot, with superior strength throughout their eleven, and game-changing options from the bench, edging them slightly ahead of Newport. If Newport do keep up their challenge with the top 2, then there is potentially a final-day title-decider come April 20th when they travel to Grimsby. Grimsby and Wrexham may also meet in the final of the FA Trophy at Wembley in March, after the two title challengers built up good 1st leg leads in their respective semi-finals, but this added fixture shouldn’t prove too much of a distraction at this stage.

Forest Green should be strong enough to comfortably make the play-offs, but their form against the rest of the top 6 will ultimately cost them. Mansfield and Kidderminster have left themselves a lot of work to do in the final 9 weeks of the season. Kidderminster are the more likely of the two, with a decent record against the rest of the top 6. But both should end up battling with Macclesfield and Luton for the last play-off spots.

Vardy Transfer Shows Continued Growth of Non-League Football

Jamie Vardy’s £1million transfer from Fleetwood Town to Leicester City this week emphasises the growth and development of non-league football in England. More and more players are successfully making the step up from non-league and this is a credit to how non-league football, and in particular the Blue Square Bet Premier Division, is improving. The fact that an increasing number of Football League clubs are paying large transfer fees to sign these players is evidence that the clubs in the Football League are fully aware of it too.

Vardy (above) is the latest non-league player to move for big-money after several deals in the last few years, although this eclipses all of those in terms of the transfer fee. Although Fleetwood finished the season as Champions of the Blue Square Bet Premier Division, Vardy is a player who has previously only played at non-league level. The pacey 26 year old was only signed by Fleetwood in August 2011 for an initial fee of around £150,000 from FC Halifax. Now, after scoring 34 goals in 40 games in a fantastic season, he steps up to the Championship with Leicester in a deal that not only rises to £1.7million with add-ons, it will also see his former club Halifax profit to the tune of another £200,000-plus after bonus add-ons and a sell-on clause in the deal that took him to Fleetwood a year ago.

So now we take a look at other players that have been involved in expensive transfers from non-league clubs in the last few years.

When Crawley Town signed Richard Brodie from York City for £275,000 in August 2010, it set the record for the highest transfer fee paid between non-league clubs. Brodie had just come off the back of a magnificent season for York in which he hit 34 goals as York made the play-offs, where they would eventually lose to Oxford. Brodie never completely settled at Crawley and was in and out of the team, but did manage 11 goals as they marched towards the Blue Square Bet Premier Division title that season. The following season he was loaned out to Fleetwood Town. At Fleetwood he appeared from the substitutes bench more times than he started, as he found himself to be second choice to the prolific Vardy and the impressive Andy Mangan. He did manage 9 goals to contribute to Fleetwood’s successful title-winning season, but it is unknown what his future holds.

Crawley also paid £100,000 to Alfreton Town before the start of the 2010/2011 season, for the services of centre-back Kyle McFadzean. McFadzean was a key figure in Crawley’s promotion and remained an integral part of the team that won a second successive promotion to earn a place in League One.

That wasn’t the only significant transfer income that Alfreton received that season. In January 2011, Swindon Town paid Alfreton, then of the Blue Square Bet North Division, a fee of around £150,000 for defender Aden Flint. Flint struggled to break into the Swindon team immediately as they fought a relegation battle in League One. He was loaned back to Alfreton in March and captained the side as they were crowned Champions to earn promotion the Blue Square Bet Premier Division for the first time in their history. Flint has since become a regular in the Swindon side that finished as Champions of League Two, meaning he will now play in League One for the first time in his career next season.

When Flint arrived back at Swindon for pre-season training in July 2011, he was joined by another player that Swindon plucked from non-league. This time it was Grimsby Town striker Alan Connell. Connell (below) had previously played in the Football League for Bournemouth, Brentford, Hereford and Torquay. But he had the best goalscoring season of his career for Grimsby, scoring 29 goals in all competitions for a side that finished 11th in the league. Swindon boss Paolo Di Canio paid the Mariners a fee believed to be £150,000 to add him to a healthy choice of strikers that meant Connell wasn’t the automatic pick that he had been at Grimsby. He did manage to score 13 goals to play his part in the title-winning season that means he will once again play at League One level.

Wrexham’s season-long battle with Fleetwood at the top of the Blue Square Bet Premier Division was interrupted in the January transfer window when Premier League Swansea City lodged a bid for Curtis Obeng. Swansea paid around £200,000 for the defender, who has yet to make an appearance at the Liberty Stadium. But at the age of 23 he has time on his side in his quest to become a regular fixture in the Swansea team.

Newport County received £200,000 from two separate transfers within 6 months of each other in 2011. In the January of that year, Stevenage paid £100,000 for striker Craig Reid. Reid had enjoyed a blistering start to the season that saw him score 18 goals in his 29 league game for County. He only scored twice for Stevenage during the rest of the season but managed 7 goals in his 29 games the following season in League One. Newport received their second £100,000 windfall when Blackpool signed defender Paul Bignot in July 2011. Bignot is yet to make an appearance for Blackpool and was loaned out to Plymouth during the season.

Stevenage’s capture of Craig Reid was their second signing from non-league in recent seasons. In May 2010 they paid Ebbsfleet United £100,000 for defender Darius Charles. Charles had famously signed for Ebbsfleet after his release from Brentford in 2009, when the community-owned club’s members raised the £25,000 compensation fee and voted in favour of him signing – the first transfer of this nature. Charles has made 56 appearances in his two years at Stevenage and played in the League Two play-off final at Old Trafford in his first season with The Boro, which secured promotion to League One.

One player has been involved in two decent-sized transfers from non-league clubs in recent years is George Donnelly. The striker, now playing at Rochdale, signed for Fleetwood in January 2011 for a fee of £50,000. He scored 5 goals in his 25 appearances for Fleetwood, but soon found himself behind new arrivals Jamie Vardy, Andy Mangan, Richard Brodie as well as Magno Vieira in the pecking order at The Highbury Stadium. Donnelly was initially loaned out to Macclesfield and was later bought by the League Two side for £75,000, who will ironically now pass his former side on the way down to non-league after their relegation to the Blue Square Bet Premier Division.

Two players that left the non-league scene for sizeable transfer fees in 2011 were Tom Naylor and Alex Rodman. Defender Naylor joined Derby County, initially on loan with a view to a permanent deal. Derby boss Nigel Clough liked what he saw of the youngster and The Rams eventually paid Mansfield a fee thought to be £100,000 in January 2012. Tamworth forward Rodman joined League Two side Aldershot Town for an undisclosed fee believed to be in the region of £75,000. The versatile midfielder/striker scored a hat-trick for Tamworth in a 3-2 win against Newport on the 11th of January, 2011. The following day, Newport Manager Dean Holdsworth left to take over as Manager of Aldershot and had obviously been impressed by Rodman’s hat-trick exploits as he signed just two weeks after taking over as manager of The Shots.

Now to a player perhaps more commonly recognised than some of the names above – Lee Novak. Novak (above) signed for Huddersfield from Gateshead in January 2009 for an initial fee of £50,000 after scoring an incredible 16 goals in the first 18 games of the season. The arrangement of the transfer saw Novak loaned back to Gateshead where he took his total for the season to 26 goals in 32 games as The Heed finished in 2nd place in the Blue Square Bet North Division and won promotion via the play-offs to the Blue Square Bet Premier Division. His subsequent number of appearances for Huddersfield have seen another £100,000 go Gateshead’s way in the form of appearance-related add-ons, taking the total transfer value to £150,000. Novak isn’t quite as prolific in League One with Huddersfield, but his strength is important to Huddersfield and he helps the likes of Jordan Rhodes to shine.

Another player who has played for a few league clubs, including Peterborough at Championship level, since rising from non-league, is Exodus Geohaghon. Geohaghon was signed by Peterborough in January 2010. After playing under Mark Cooper at Kettering for 15 months, Cooper had left Kettering in November 2009 to take over at Peterborough. Two weeks after taking the reins at Peterborough, Cooper moved to sign Geohaghon on loan from his former club, with a view to a permanent deal in the transfer window. Sure enough, in the January transfer window of 2010, Geohaghon signed for The Posh for a fee of around £150,000. He then had several loan spells after falling out of favour at Peterborough following Cooper’s departure. He left Peterborough in 2011, had spells at Barnet and Darlington (again under Mark Cooper, before he was sacked as manager) before finishing the season on loan at Mansfield. He is now a free agent.

Finally, I think it is necessary to give an honorary mention to Matt Tubbs. Whilst Tubbs (below) wasn’t signed from non-league to get his chance in the Football League, he had only been out of non-league for 6 months by the time he was signed by Bournemouth for a massive £800,000 fee. He was a prolific goalscorer for Salisbury City before Crawley paid £55,000 for him to join their promotion challenge in 2010. By the end of the 2010/2011 season Tubbs had hit an amazing 40 goals in 48 matches to fire Crawley into League Two as Champions of the Blue Square Bet Premier Division. Then half-way through his first ever season out of non-league, by which time he had already bagged 18 goals in 31 games, Bournemouth swooped in and smashed their transfer record to sign the 27 year old striker.

Pictures courtesy of dailymail.co.uk, examiner.co.uk and bestofthebets.com.