As the countdown to the first day of the League Two season continues, Stenhousemuir manager Brown Ferguson admits that there is no clear favourite for the title so far.
Despite dropping down a league, the feeling around Ochilview is still positive heading into the 2017/18 League Two campaign, for Brown Ferguson’s men.
“Speaking to those involved with the Family Fun Day, they were very, very, very, pleased with the way it went, the numbers which turned up, as well as the interaction between the club and the community. Ultimately, I think the club managed to raise some funds going forward, so, I think all in, it was a very positive day; people came along and enjoyed themselves, and for me, that makes me delighted that we are having that connection with the community and everybody had a good day.”
Stenny have lost some key players over the summer, but that just comes with the territory of dropping down a league.
“Players have got to consider what their motivations are. For some players it could be finance; for some players it could be for playing at a certain level or even for some players, it could be that they’ve signed for a club which is closer to home,” explains Ferguson. “Some of the players who have left this summer, such as Alan Cook and Kieran Millar, want to test themselves at as high a level as they can and I have got to respect that. As a manager, I have a good relationship with both players – they’ve enjoyed their time at the club, and who knows what can happen in the future…they made the decision to move to Alloa and East Fife, respectively, because these clubs are now at a higher level than us and they wanted to go out there and test themselves at a level they felt was going to do that. I think this year, however, that League Two will be a very competitive league and already, a lot of clubs have signed a lot of good players. Also, we have lost Vinny [Berry] who has an idea about relocating to America and it was a good time for him now to try do that. He see’s his longer term future in the USA and whether that transpires or his circumstances change, we will have to wait and see. If he wanted to come back, I am sure both parties could sit down and discuss that, but, at this moment in time, similarly to the others who have left this summer, they all enjoyed their time at the club, we respect their decision, we thank them for their efforts and we wish them well.”
Chris Smith has re-joined the Warriors after his release by Stirling Albion and Ferguson is pleasantly surprised to have landed the experienced stopper.
“I was surprised [to see Smith released by Stirling]. I think he got Player of the Year at Stirling as well as Goalkeeper of the Season in League Two. I already knew how good a goalkeeper he is, and how respected he is within the game, but, that just confirms that over the last season, he is still performing at the same, consistent, level. This summer, there were a good few keepers available; we were talking to a couple ourselves, but, ‘Big Wally’ is someone I know what he can do, he is someone I like and he knows the club: he has been here before and has performed very, very, well. He also knows League Two, he has been involved in it last season so it was a good fit for everybody at the club.”
Another impressive piece of business by Ferguson is to convince released Alloa striker Jamie Longworth to make the step down from the division above.
“‘Jammer’ is an important signing for us. He brings us a real cleverness that he has in his play. He has the capability of changing games, as well as the capability of scoring goals. I would say though, that, all the players we have signed so far have a specific role to perform within the squad and play within the club – that goes for the players we have retained to the players we have brought in. I believe he is a big player for us and I believe he is capable of helping us win matches. I am delighted to get him on board. He is a player I really rate – as a person I really rate him too as he is a winner – but I would say that about all the players we have signed; I feel they will bring these same qualities as well.”
The recruitment drive hasn’t stopped there though, with experienced campaigners Nathan Blockley, Martin Scott and Mark Ferry all joining up as well.
“When we sat down and looked at it all, and what we wanted to bring to the club, there was certain criteria that we were looking for. I was looking for a good mix of ages; when you look at teams that go on and win leagues, the average age is around the 27 mark. We are in and around that area just now with the group of players we have assembled. There are a few guys at the tail end of their careers, that are good professionals; we have got guys who are in their best years of their career and we have got guys that are at an established professional level but still have the legs and the hunger. We have players who are versatile: we are also a physically strong group. I believe they are all capable of doing the specific role we are all asking them to do.”
Ferguson added: “From a recruitment policy perspective, and what we were trying to get, I am very, very, happy with where we are considering all those factors. We do still need to get one or two more in to give a bit more depth to the group. We are probably now looking at the players who are unestablished – we are probably looking at the market now. It brings us energy, desire and a different dynamic. It’ll give us something different within the group and hopefully they can come in and nail down a starting spot. Overall, I am really happy with where we are right now.”
After returning to pre-season just over two weeks ago, the players have now been able to partake in their first game together, after facing Morton at the weekend.
“The first pre-season session was not the usual – typically, it is fitness tests on the first evening back, but, we felt it’d be best to bring that in over the course of the first couple of sessions. The reason for that decision was due to the large turnover in players; it gave the players an opportunity to get to know each other and thankfully, that was a natural and quick process. We gave them a lot of game-play just so they could get used to each other – this allowed us to set up different scenarios so people got to know each others names and getting comfortable with each other. I was really pleased with how they performed in that first session. Pre-Season allows us to be flexible as it is all about getting ready for competitive football – that includes physically and tactically so everyone knows exactly how we are going to play. Although our plans may change over the course of pre-season as we review their fitness levels, we are using the friendlies right now as an overload phase. We are still working them very hard but we are also being mindful of injuries as we have also got to look forward at the BetFred Cup which is coming up. However, that has to be considered as a competitive pre-season game,” explains Ferguson, “2 or 3 weeks of pre-season is not enough, in my opinion, to get the players up to full speed. We want to perform well and want to progress in these fixtures, but, we also have to make sure we are in the right condition for the first league game of the season, as well.”
Stenhousemuir have a further two friendlies over the coming days as the appetite for the new campaign heats up, starting tonight, with a match against a Trialists Select.
“Definitely,” agrees Ferguson, who feels tonight’s match allows him to possibly find a hidden gem or two. “My experience of playing them last year and the players which have been brought over here by Adam Kassin over the past couple of seasons allow me to know that they will be good players. They will also, I suspect, be ahead of us in terms of fitness and conditioning due to the fact they’ve been in training full-time. The biggest thing for me though, is, that these lads will be hungry – they will play the game quite competitively. These players will be technically good; but because they are hungry, they may go that extra yard which will push us even more. We then follow tonight’s match up on Saturday against the Indian team, Real Kashmir. I think it should be quite an exciting game – more so for just a neutral follower of football to see these two types of teams up against one another. I think it is a game everyone can look forward to, as it is a bit of the unknown.”
“A challenging group” is how Ferguson has described the section Stenhousemuir have been drawn into for the BetFred Cup.
“You would automatically assume that Hamilton will progress, due to being the Premiership side. From my perspective, we have Albion Rovers and East Kilbride – two other part-time teams and they will be very even and competitive games. If we can do well in these two games, then you never know where we could go…we open up with a game against Queen of the South at home and on the face of it, it’ll be a very even game. Both sides will still be trying to get ready to go for the first league game of the season, so, if we can get something out of that game then we can take on the two teams that are both time, then we can re-assess it at that point. It is a group that gives every side an opportunity to do well in. Location wise, it is also good – we aren’t needing to do an awful lot of travelling and that is important for us as well when you are playing Saturday-Tuesday. We want to progress and I think we have an opportunity to do that – but I also think every other sde will think the same thing.”
The Ochilview club miss out on match day three of the competition which is entering it’s second year, after being revamped last summer.
“If I could have picked a date for us to miss, it would have been that day – I am really happy we are missing that Saturday. It allows us as a group to get together for other reasons – it could allow us to get together as a squad and as a club in an informal capacity after training. The plan is for everybody to get together and to get to know each other. These things are hard to do at part-time level, when you are playing all the time. We will be looking to have a good training session in the morning – perhaps looking at other things, like, the expectations before doing something later on in the day which gets everybody in the club together. The other thing it does is take the load off the players. They are playing two games back-to-back; the only thing that disappoints me with this competition is that you can’t play trialists and I think that is still the ruling for this season. We have got a thin squad, even if we do get a few more in by then, so, this break is ideal – it will allow us to recover a little bit before we go again with the final two group games.”
League Two was a fight to the finish line last season, and Ferguson expects nothing less this term.
“This season, every team and every game will be competitive. I don’t see any one team being able to dominate the league – this division has always been quite tight. On paper, you look at some of the clubs and some of the signings that teams are making and you can certainly see that some clubs are making some good signings, but I do think it’ll be a very competitive league this season. The biggest thing for me though is how we perform. The plan we have got in place and the players we have got, I am really, really, happy with for the reasons I have already stated. We have good professionalism in the dressing room – we also have players who know this level – but most importantly, we have players who have won in this division and in the ones above. It is just about fine tuning the team and hoping we stay away from a major injury crisis.”