As The Ram’s home at Holloways Park begins its transformation to a fully functioning 21st century sporting facility and community resource, the team that will grace the new hi-tec surface there has also undergone something of a revolution.
Who knew in March 2020 that on again off again Lockdowns, stop start seasons, Social distancing, NHS Apps, masks, hand-sanitising, vaccines and epidemiology would come to dominate all our lives to quite the extent they have and continue to do? Even at this late stage COVID is still an ever-present consideration affecting selection with two players sidelined this week.
The peculiar circumstances of the last two seasons, the uncertainties in not just football but in every aspect of our lives, have produced probably the longest weirdest pre-season on record. It seems to have begun a very long time ago! A dizzying number of players have come and gone even by the standards of the high turn-over of Non-League football.
Now with just over 24 hours before we kick off the Southern League Premier South campaign with the trip to Dorchester Town, Gary Meakin can afford to reflect on a final pre-season process that, whilst it’s certainly had its ups and downs, has assembled an upgraded squad, seemingly capable of more than holding its own at this level.
With a few notable survivors from the squad that secured the Rams promotion to Step 3 in Meakin’s first season, the team that travels to Dorset on Saturday will be almost unrecognisable from the side that last took to the field for a competitive fixture at Aveley back in October 2020.
The youthful enthusiasm - always a strong theme for Meakin’s teams -offered by U23 keeper Matteo Giacobbe who, whilst a work in progress at this level, has impressed in pre-season, Alex Lafleur, Andrei Chirac and Tyrone Lewthwaite is now backed with a spine of experience of higher-level competition.
Keeper Alex Tokarczyk, centre back Baboucarr ‘Babbs’ Jarra and defender Josh Webb add experience to a defence already boasting the high consistent pair of Ollie Sprague and Callum Webb. They are strengthened by the commanding presence of Jordan Aghatise who has impressed in recent outings, releasing Jordan ‘AJ’ Ajanlekoko back to the heart of midfield where he is joined by Scott Donnelly and Harrison Bayley who both possess the experience and game intelligence to fill the ‘ Wes Daly’ shaped hole which has been so apparent in the two truncated COVID constrained seasons.
Donnelly has settled seamlessly into the heart of midfield and his class and experience are immediately apparent. He brings a range of passing, control and time that has been noticeable absent since Daly retired. Say it quietly but if he can remain fit, the 33 year old former pro could even represent an upgrade!
Bayley is an excellent reader of the game and adds defensive solidity and a range of passing and organization and the game management we have missed of late.
Nathan Webb returns with his appetite for competitive tenacious midfield battling seemingly undiminished as does Aaron Minhas who has looked back to his previous best in pre-season. Toby Little adds experience, versatility and a steadying influence.
With Ollie McCoy weighing in with goals in the final two pre-season fixtures, the addition of similarly attack minded Carl Stewart and Kensley Maloney, selection and retention may be the managers biggest headache as the season develops.
Up front Dylan Kearney, the most consistently on target throughout pre-season, returns as does the ever-green Jefferson Louis. They are joined by the promising Lewthwaite who impressed during the end of season friendly outings back in April and continued to look sharp in pre-season.
It’s been a long time coming but we’re nearly here.
Throughout his time with The Rams Gary Meakin’s philosophy on players has been a simple one. “Sign the players you can afford if they upgrade the position or make you better as a team”.
The evidence of pre-season suggests he has made some significant upgrades.
The trick will be creating and maintaining the team and squad mentality that they will need to meet the challenges ahead.