Positive signs finally start to emerge from Boundary Park
Oldham Athletic yesterday confirmed their fourth pre-season friendly and hope to arrange a further three before the start of the 2012/13 campaign. Due to the Olympic Games in London, the Football League has delayed the opening round of matches by a week meaning its clubs will begin their new season with a first round match in the Capital One Cup.
While hundreds of footballers are holidaying all over the world, club officials and coaching staff are busy planning for another slog at various aims. Preston North End, led by manager Graham Westley, are undoubtedly the early pace-setters in League One. Westley has let it be known through his ruthless actions – players have come and gone in their dozen – that a new regime is set to begin properly.
Meanwhile, Athletic are plodding along without much of a stir. The main focus for Chairman Simon Corney and manager Paul Dickov is convincing the current players whose contracts are slowly ticking down to commit for at least another year. Their persuasive ability certainly failed on Kieran Lee and Chris Taylor who, as expected, moved to Sheffield Wednesday and Millwall (both in a higher division) respectively. They left with good wishes from the supporters, although Lee was handed a quick return to Boundary Park as Athletic were pitted against the Owls in the Capital One Cup.
Amongst the contract wrangling and pre-season organizing, Dickov has managed to bring in one new face. Connor Brown, released by Sheffield Utd, arrives on a 12-month deal, presumably as a replacement for the departed Lee, a right back. Although he failed to make a first-team appearance for the Blades, his potential is well documented, but so is his mouth. Silly comments made on Twitter in the wake of Ched Evans’ conviction resulted in a club suspension and no doubt factored in Danny Wilson’s decision to release him (the decision may have bypassed Wilson and been made by the board).
Without question the biggest piece of positive news to be announced on Sheepfoot Laneis the signature of James Wesolowski on a contract worth a surprising two years. The little, combative Aussie suffered from a reoccurring shoulder injury, but his partnership with Dean Furman in midfield was excellent at times. Strong, robust and full of energy, the pair may lack flair and a creative spark, but their ball-winning abilities, plus leadership, make the pair a superb addition to next season’s team.
There has been much speculation regarding Athletic’s goalkeepers. Alex Cisak, a promising 23-year old stopper, had a terrific debut season in League One following his move from Accrington Stanley. Rumours that reached several national newspapers suggest a £350,000 bid from Darren Ferguson’s Peteborough, but Posh’s owner and Chairman Darragh MacAnthony has attempted to cool the speculation.
A figure in the region of £350,000 for a player signed only 12 months ago and for a tribunal fee would be a superb deal for Athletic, but should Cisak stay with the club his role in the team, like Wesolowski, would be important.
Dean Bouzanis, Cisak’s understudy, at the age of 22 is also another promising keeper. After a Cisak injury late last season allowed the ex-Liverpool player, who Rafael Benitez once described as “the best goalkeeper in the world for his age”, a run in the side. A player with unquestionable talent, a string of fine saves against Brentford was only belittled by a few youthful and naïve mistakes in his nine appearances.
Before signing a one-year deal with Athletic, Bouzanis had been linked with a return to his native Australia, but has made the correct decision staying in England. Should Cisak transfer during the summer transfer window Dickov will be under no pressure to sign a replacement because Bouzanis, with a more experienced defence, could very well prove to be a hidden gem awaiting a consistent run of first-team appearances.
The only concern of Dickov now is persuading Robbie Simpson, Filipe Morais and Shefki Kuqi to sign contract extensions with the club. Simpson, when fit, is a real talent with the ball and a goal threat. Morais, though suffering for years with over-confidence and a urge to showboat at inappropriate times, improved so much after Christmas that he was Athletic’s best performer in a dreadful run of form. While supporters early last season would have gladly seen his exit, his signature is important. Creative and tricky, he has proven that he can finally begin forging a career that promised so much as a youngster at Chelsea. The Portuguese has also added goals to his game, which is only a benefit for Dickov.
Kuqi is a difficult one. His arrival was heralded as a capture like none other and his reputation was only heightened during October and November of last year when his goal-scoring form spearheaded some lovely, attacking football, an upturn in the team’s league results, and two Cup adventures. However, a loss of confidence and fatigue severely hindered the Finn’s form and goals disappeared by the end of the season. When the 36-year old striker is not trying to force the issue by attempting the ridiculous (although one effort against Rochdale was indescribably ridiculous) he is a real asset to a club in League One where he can be the main man.
Despite Kieran Lee and Chris Taylor’s departures, there are clear signs of positivity coming out of BoundaryPark. Then again, the players aren’t in the country…
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