No more fence sitting: It's time for the big decisions

PUBLISHED: 07:00 05 August 2009 | UPDATED: 11:19 06 July 2010

Chris Lakey

Bryan Gunn couldn't have asked for a smoother entry into his first "genuine" stint as Norwich City manager. He's had pretty much what he would have wished from pre-season.

Bryan Gunn couldn't have asked for a smoother entry into his first “genuine” stint as Norwich City manager.

He's had pretty much what he would have wished from pre-season. You can hardly call a 1-1 draw at home to Sir Alex Ferguson's stars of the future a blemish; he's beaten Crystal Palace away and Wigan at home. The pre-season itinerary was planned with care; whether it worked a treat will be proven this weekend should City open with a victory against Colchester United at Carrow Road. The proof of the pudding, and all that.

All that's left to do is pick the team which, as you might imagine, isn't as easy as it looks, given the compelling evidence put forward over seven summer games.

Gunn has assembled a large playing squad, although realistically, the 34 squad players can be whittled down to the low-20s; some of the young players are on their way up the ladder, they're not there yet.

David Stephens and Dario Dumic performed well in pre-season, but unless there's an injury crisis, Gunn shouldn't have to consider them outside of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. Ditto Sam Habergham, Danny Kelly, Kris Renton, Damon Lathrope and Luke Daley. Add in the unlucky Korey Smith, whose pre-season has been hit by injury, and Gunn's squad takes on a more realistic size.

Of the remaining 27 players you can take out left-back Rhoys Wiggins, who is short of fitness after a summer operation on a knee, as well as three others - Darel Russell, Dejan Stefanovic and Matty Pattison.

Russell is basically free to leave, as long as the bid suits City; Burnley's didn't, and they haven't come back, as yet, so it leaves both player and club in limbo. The sooner the cord is cut, the better - Russell remains a part of the squad in name only.

The same appears to apply to Pattison, who, having got himself back into the fold, seems set to return to South Africa.

Two decent midfielders on the way out would usually be frowned upon in the week leading up to the opening game, but Gunn has filled those gaps already so is unlikely to feel any real pain. Then there's Stefanovic, a quality centre-half, but whose future is under a very large Norfolk cloud.

No need for awkward questions here: he's clearly on a decent salary, but at 34 years of age, with a long injury lay-off behind him and a clutch of central defenders in front of him, what hope has the Serb of getting a game this season?

When Gunn is asked about Stefanovic's role, he answers diplomatically - enough to allow the rest of us to put two and two together and actually come up with four for a change.

So then there were 22 - and that's where Gunn, assistant Ian Butterworth and coach Ian Crook will really earn their corn.

Assuming they start with the easy selection - and assuming the squad is clear of any new injuries - then Michael Theoklitos will start in goal and become the first fully paid-up Australian to represent City in a league match.

Theoklitos has overcome a hip injury to play in the final two games of pre-season and hasn't looked out of place; he looks comfortable in his area, but may show his true colours once he's had more game time with his defence.

Ahead of him it gets a little tricky, but we'll go for, from right to left, Jon Otsemobor, Gary Doherty, Jens Berthel Askou and Adam Drury.

Three of those positions are arguably no-brainers: Otsemobor was a different player last weekend against Wigan, overlapping to great effect and defending well. His incredible burst of pace means he doesn't have to tackle - he just nicks the ball off striker's toes. He sweeps up well if an opponent breaks away, but if City break, then he's a greyhound down the right.

To leave your skipper out would mean you've made a gaffe somewhere along the line - and besides, Doherty deserves to be in anyway.

It's who partners him that produces the first big question. Askou looked impressive in pre-season and Gunn hasn't given him a two-year contract to help City to the Football Combination title. He heads the ball farther than most people can kick it, but he's more than decent on the ground to boot.

Michael Spillane replaced him last weekend against Wigan and did a fine job, but he may become a victim of his own adaptability. Spillane could push for Otsemobor's job at right back and either central defensive berth, while he could give one or two midfielders a run for their money as well.

However, the fact that he isn't a specialist centre-half will tell against him - especially as Michael Nelson also has legitimate right to a game. Nelson missed the Wigan game after he was concussed at Palace last week - purely precautionary, but Gunn made a point of mentioning how desperate he is to start against Colchester.

It will be a close-run thing between Askou and Nelson - both have started three pre-season games and it will be hard to separate them. Why Askou? Just a feeling, no more, no less.

Adam Drury has looked something like his old self at left-back after a succession of injury problems dating way back to November, 2007. He's had a fairly full pre-season, he's seen Gunn sign young Rhoys Wiggins from Crystal Palace - and he's responded. Wiggins isn't fit yet, and Simon Lappin is a left-midfielder who can do a turn at left-back, rather than a straight replacement.

So if that's the back five sorted, what about the rest?

Without the ability to read minds you have to guess at the formation Gunn will go for: 4-3-3 worked well against Wigan, but will it work against Colchester? The advantage with that line-up was that he can adjust it slightly by moving Wes Hoolahan and neatly make it into a 4-4-2 without major surgery.

My tip is that he quite liked the look of three in the middle and will go with it again: he's proved that the line-up and the people can pass it around and mix it up when necessary.

Hoolahan in the middle can torment League One defences. The sheer volume of possession he enjoys means he will lose it occasionally, but he appears to have put more thought into his defending over the summer. Some say Hoolahan is a luxury, but if he can pick a pass, do the unexpected and bamboozle opponents, then he's not a luxury, just a match-winner.

Alongside him are two very neat and effective summer recruits, Owain Tudur Jones and Matt Gill.

Tudur Jones is good at winning the ball in the middle and finding a man to effect the pass; Gill is similar, but both have a pass in them as well. With Hoolahan strutting his stuff, they protect the defence and support the front men - Tudur Jones should have scored on Saturday and should have scored against Manchester United the previous week, but to see him getting into dangerous positions is encouraging.

There are challengers, but there are reasons why they may have to be patient this weekend. Stephen Hughes, who started against Wigan, is not match fit. He improved as the game went on and for those who say he's lightweight, think again - he LOOKS lightweight with a touch of the Luke Chadwicks about him, but I don't recall him being knocked around and bullied.

Tom Adeyemi has surprised only those who haven't seen him develop in the last year or two and, frankly, has been magnificent in pre-season, but Gunn will be only too aware that he is just 17 years old and that to burden him with responsibility would be unfair and potentially harmful. He only has to look at Chris Martin as an example of a youngster who probably had too much, too young.

Which leads us nicely to the front men, and Martin himself. Two goals at Dartford, another brace last weekend against Wigan - how do you leave him out? Gunn might, but I won't.

Martin has a nice touch and a variety of weapons - tap-ins are just as welcome as curlers from 20 yards, and he can do both. The reality is that after a season at Luton he has learned a lot - and should still have more to learn.

On the other side it's got to be Simon Whaley - he's scored the winners in the last two games and once he gets his crossing boots on should be a dangerman down City's right flank. It's fair to say we haven't seen the best of him yet, certainly not over an extended period, but it's also fair to say he has shown glimpses of the form that promoted Gunn to sign him.

Waiting in the middle will be Grant Holt, who Shrewsbury fans liked so much they bought a big flag with his face on. He left them in the summer for Norwich - it's called the Julien Brellier Effect: don't put a player's name on a flag because it will only end in tears.

But Shrewsbury's loss was City's gain: Holt was outstanding at Palace, although not surprisingly he withered a little against Wigan defenders Paul Scharner and Titus Bramble. But he will be a real handful - not just because he's good in the air and aggressive, but because he has a lovely touch as well.

Cody McDonald and Jamie Cureton stand by, but the best they can hope for is a place on the bench.

So there you have it: 11 players who wouldn't look out of place running out at 3pm on Saturday.

But who's left on the bench? Goalkeeper Ben Alnwick, Goran Maric, Paul McVeigh, Nelson - if Askou starts - Adeyemi, Hughes, Jamie Cureton. Spillane is unlucky to miss out, but City are at home, it's the first day of the season and he needs two strikers among his seven subs. McDonald is short of match fitness, so it's Maric and Cureton.

If that's not the squad, blame it on a broken crystal ball.

If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Lowestoft Journal. Click the link in the orange box above for details.

Become a supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Latest from the Lowestoft Journal