Hi Jamie, so how would you summarise County’s season in a couple of paragraphs?
Big question! It’s been a topsy-turvy, difficult season in a lot of ways, and enjoyable in others. As with everyone, it’s been surreal watching our team from behind a laptop screen instead of in-person, but it’s been a relief to be able to have the football at the same time. The season started with so much excitement for us – new owners, bigger budget, stadium refurbishment and lots of new, quality signings. Everything was going swimmingly and the new guys were doing everything right – then some bright spark decided to fire legendary gaffer, Jim Gannon. Madness.
It’s done serious damage to the relationship between the club and a lot of fans, and threatened to derail our season altogether for a while. Credit to the new guy though – he’s come in and you can’t fault the job he’s doing so far at all – on his own merits, he’s doing great. On the pitch, we’re doing really well at the moment and hopefully we end up with our second promotion in three seasons. All in all, a bit surreal.
How has the teams recent form been?
Excellent. We’re unbeaten in fifteen and looking a really solid unit. We dropped points at home to Dagenham the other day, and it effectively ended our title challenge, which is a shame – but it’d be remiss to complain about a side that’s gone a third of the season without defeat. We’ve spent pretty much all season in and around the top four, so hopefully we keep it up into the playoffs.
What’s been your highlights of the season so far?
Results-wise, I’d have to say our FA Cup third round game against West Ham in January. We lost 1-0 in the end, but made them sweat for it and really did ourselves proud. Otherwise, stuffing Wrexham just after Christmas, and the recent run we’ve been on have been big highlights.
Are you confident of achieving promotion?
Yes. It’d take a minor miracle to win the league at this point, but I’d back us in the playoffs. Our defensive record is outstanding, and barring a horrible period in February/March where we couldn’t hit a cow’s backside, we’re not goal-shy either. The only thing that makes me nervous is our record against the top sides in the division which isn’t good at all. If every player is on his game though, we’ve got every chance.
Who are the key players and why?
We’ve had a lot of extremely strong performances this season. At the back, Liam Hogan has been a rock and marshals the tightest defence in the division. In the middle, John Rooney can be a bit of a Marmite figure, but there’s no doubt the lad has quality and an extraordinary ability to score absolute screamers out of nothing. Paddy Madden is a recent addition up front, who is far too good for National League level, and Alex Reid has been dependably scoring all season.
The standout player for me, though, is Ryan Croasdale. He works tirelessly in midfield to keep us ticking over, and he’s such a brilliantly gifted footballer. It’s a delight to watch him when he’s on his game.
TT PLAYER PROFILE Ryan Croasdale
Date of Birth: 26th September 1994 – 26 years-old
Former Clubs: Preston, Tamworth, Sheffield Wednesday, Kidderminster, Fylde
National League Stats 20-21: Played 31, Goals 1, Bookings 1
International: England C – 3 caps
Who’s the gaffer and what tactics does he like to use?
Simon Rusk. As I mentioned above, he came in mid-season to much acrimony, after the club decided, against all sane logic, to dispense with Jim Gannon. It’s fair to say nobody wanted Rusk over Gannon apart from the boardroom suits, but that decision aside, I think Rusk’s been a credit to himself in the relatively short time he’s been here. He seems respectful of the fact he has massive shoes to fill, and has put his head down and worked hard to sort things out after a dodgy start to life here. We’re on a great run now, and he also seems a genuinely nice bloke, which is an under-rated trait in my book.
He likes to keep things tight, which is reflected in our defensive solidity. Most of the time, we keep things compact for the first half and then play more expansively in the second. We use the pace of Macauley Southam-Hales effectively down the right, and we can mix it up and go long if we need to.
What’s your likely line up for Sunday?
Barring injuries: Ben Hinchliffe will be in goal.
Personally I’d go for a 5-3-2: Macauley Southam-Hales, Liam Hogan, Ash Palmer, James Jennings, Tom Walker; Will Collar, Ryan Croasdale, Elliot Newby; Paddy Madden and Alex Reid.
But there’s great competition there, and for pretty much every position there’s someone else who can slot in.
Would anything other than promotion be a failure for the Hatters?
I think it would be, but more so for the club than for the fans, certainly from my perspective. For the amount of money the club has spent this season, there’s no excuse really not to at least reach the very final hurdle – I think there’d be some serious questions to answer if that didn’t happen.
From my perspective though, while I definitely wouldn’t be upset if we got promoted (we’ve been waiting ten years for this!), our return to the Football League will be such a momentous occasion that I’d like to be there for it. So if it takes another season, so be it – as long as the club learns lessons from this season.
What do you think are the key battles for Sunday’s match?
How many factual inaccuracies Adam Virgo can spout on BT Sport will be the main one – does that guy bother to do any research whatsoever?! Aside from that, I think it’ll be quite a cagey affair, and it’ll be about who can capitalise on that first mistake or loose pass to create something.
In a sense, I think because we only drew on Tuesday, this game probably has more riding on it for you guys than us. For us, it’s more of a must-not-lose to ensure Hartlepool don’t overtake us again – but for United it’s a must-win to catch Sutton. In that sense, I think it suits us.
Which opposition teams and players have impressed you most?
Sutton is the obvious answer! For a part-time side to be putting in such consistently strong performances, and competing against (and beating) sides with far bigger budgets is a real credit to them. Personally, I was really impressed with Boreham Wood, despite their disappointing season – Tshimanga is a great player for them. Maidenhead too – Alan Devonshire’s teams always seem to be so difficult to break down.
I missed the Daggers game on Tuesday for work, but lots of our fans said they were really impressed that night.
I also admire your guys’ resilience in digging deep and coming up with so many late goals in games. It’s the sort of stuff champions do.
How do you think the club would cope with the step up to League 2?
We’d be fine. I think a bit like our return to the National League, we’d stabilise at first and then start to compete at the higher end the season after. We’re extremely lucky in that respect to have an owner who has resources behind him.
I’ve got misgivings about some of their decision-making, but the owner and people running the club have certainly put their money where their mouths are – the investment has been heavy, we’ve got some outstanding training facilities that wouldn’t be out of place in the Championship, and a healthy squad. We’ve got some exciting talent with growth potential too, so I think County will enjoy some success over the next few years. Whether we get promoted this season or not, I’m quite excited by the journey we ought to be able to go on – as they say, the journey’s normally more fun than the destination.
Either way, I hope proper clubs like County, Torquay, Hartlepool, Wrexham and Notts find their way back into the League soon. None of those sides should be in non-league football.
And finally, what’s your score prediction for this massive game?
Yikes, hostage to fortune here. We have an annoying knack of drawing at Edgeley Park, so I’ll say 1-1. Might even see you again in the playoffs!