A lot has been said about how lucky we were with the squad we had last season and, whilst we were arguably not ready for promotion behind the scenes, on the field we were better placed than we have perhaps ever been for a short at the National League.
This campaign has been a lot more hit-and-miss, with some good runs and, perhaps more so, some bad ones.
So just how do this season’s squad compare to last year? Just 6 of last year’s 36 players remain (including Bagasan Graham on loan and Phil Roberts’ late re-arrival), a large amount of change by anyone’s standards.
Starting at the back, this years crop of goalkeepers has, so far, included Sam Beasant, Jake Jessup and Nathan Gartside, as well as the recent arrival of Kleten Perntreou, with Beasant being almost ever-present but for a short spell on the sidelines. Ross Fitzsimons made the number one shirt his own last year, following the early departure of Joe Welch, and fast become one of Rod Stringer’s top signings, eventually leaving for Notts County at the end of the season. Given the choice between Beasant and Fitzsimons, I think it’s fair to say that most City fans would pick the latter, which isn’t to say that Beasant isn’t a quality player in his own right, but I think the evidence speaks for itself.
City’s defence last year was the envy of many, with good strength in depth across the back four. Comparing last seasons’s more conventional full-backs to this year’s wing backs is perhaps not a fair comparison, but I would suggest that Braham-Barrett and Omozusi are perhaps an upgrade on Ashley Miller and Danny Blanchett.
In the middle last term were a combination of Josh Hill, Mark Haines, Michael Spillane and Chris Bush, with Phil Walsh occasionally filling in too. This year Spillane has been joined by Ipswich loanee Chris Smith, who has really stood out with Haines playing a more reduced role and few bit-part cameos from others. I would say that as a pairing, we are again better off this season, but overall quality at centre back last season might just have an edge.
Moving onto midfield and we are starting to get into the territory where this season’s squad starts to lag behind in my opinion. In the middle this year we’ve seen so many different combinations of players, with captain Anthony Church being joined by the likes of Davies, Johnson, Miles, Stevenson and West, with only Miles really standing out from that list as a worthy partner for Church.
One of last season’s key personnel was Josh Rees, who formed a formidable central midfield partnership with Church, with Max Cornhill and Max Porter adding good depth. For me, only Taylor Miles from this year’s crop would even stand a chance of displacing anyone in last year’s squad and we have definitely struggled in this area so far this campaign.
On the wings, it’s hard to compare anyone to Robbie Willmott, who was undoubtedly City’s star man in 2016-17. Bagasan Graham provided great attacking options from the other wing, with the versatile Luke Daley offering backup with Kane Haysman. This year’s options are slightly more limited with Danny Green and Jonny Giles, who have both had mixed seasons. There have been moments of brilliance from both of these players at times, but also games where they are virtually anonymous – something I don’t think I ever saw from Willmott. There’s no way that anyone was going to live up to the standard that the Newport County man set last season, so there’s no point debating it.
Finally, moving to the strikers. Scoring goals has been the Clarets real weakness this season, particularly over the last 3 or 4 months with just 28 league goals from our 9 forwards so far this season. Compare that to the 50 league goals that our 10 front-men bagged last year and it’s clear to see where this season’s main difference is. It is worth nothing though, that there are still 8 games remaining this season, though it’s unlikely that Dickson, Oyenuga, Fenwick, Roberts and Batt will be able to muster 22 goals between them in that time.
The real difference up front last season came in the form of Shamir Mullings, who netted 14 times in 22 games before joining Forest Green in December, and Shaun Jeffers who scored 23 times in 50 games in all competitions over the course of the season. 12 goals from Chris Dickson and a further 7 from Louis Theophanous gave the Clarets one of the most lethal strike forces outside of the National League.
Unfortunately this year’s crop have simply not matched up at all. Chris Dickson has been the mainstay throughout the campaign and has managed a decent return of 17 in 38 games, with Kudus Oyenuga providing a slightly less favourable return of 12 from 36. Elsewhere, Twelfth Man Shaun Batt has scored just 4 times, Tom Hitchcock managed an unimpressive 3 goals and Barnard, Fenwick, Assombalonga and Roberts share 7 goals between them.
To me it’s clear where our problems lie this season. Defensively, this season’s squad is at least on par with last year (though we could’ve done without Chris Bush leaving early on), but as you move up the pitch the comparisons begin to look less favourable, with the midfield and particularly strikers not measuring up at all to last year’s squad.
Chelmsford City might still make the play-offs and once you get there, there is always a chance of promotion, with with the newly complicated play-off system. The proof will no doubt be in the pudding. Last year I felt no fear as we took on Dartford and Ebbsfleet, this season I would be worried about a midweek play-off trip to Truro or the visit of Hemel Hempstead, which just goes to emphasise just how good we had it last year.
With the troubles behind the scene, not winning promotion last year may well have been a blessing in disguise, but I do wonder if, with the Betsi takeover still chugging along slowly, we would be any better off this time around, but let’s just see if we can there first…