Ahead of London Lions' first-ever season in the Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division, Danny Caro put some questions to manager Tony Gold about the challenges that lie ahead.
How has pre-season gone?
"Pre-season has gone as well as it could have given 80 per cent of the players were at the Maccabiah in Israel. Steve [Grenfell) and I have been working mainly with a bulk of 10 to 12 players consisting of trialists, reserves and four first team players who for one reason or another didn’t end up going to Israel. Obviously preparation has been non-existent in terms of team shape, team fitness, game understanding, set-pieces, and it will very much be a case of hitting the ground running and fast. Not ideal planning seeing as we are going into a very tough and competitive league, but our challenges this season are very, very different compared to last season, each week, every game will be testing. Steve and I will look to get a higher intensity output during games."
Are you happy with the squad's levels of fitness going into the new season?
"Unfortunately it’s not a case of being happy or not, Steve and I just have to except that every player is going to be at different stages when it comes to their individual fitness levels. I can’t manage situations outside of my control. I suspect the players who keep themselves in shape all year round will be OK, sharpness may be a factor and those that struggle with the discipline of maintaining decent levels of fitness will be some way off. The only certainty is that it will be a very mixed bag for the first six to eight games, but it will be those games that will hopefully get everyone somewhere close to where they will need to be. The issue is you are talking about 18 points from those games that is a lot of points early on in the season to concede."
Do you expect to have any of the GB players in your squad for the first game?
"I expect to have four or five available but several are certainly going to need time out. Several of the lads have had no time off for almost two years. A long and taxing season last year which physically and mentally took a lot out of the players plus the draining situation of a major football tournament in Israel would have taken its toll. We won’t be seeing Sam Sloma, Craig Ellis, Guy Morris and Aron Barnes any time soon and it goes without saying there presence will be sorely missed and extremely hard to replace, especially early on when you are looking for stability."
Given the below-par performances of the GB squad in Israel, how difficult will it be for you and Steve to galvanise the boys?
"I suspect the management and players of the GB open squad will be bitterly disappointed not to have performed to the levels they expected. Tournament football is totally different to a marathon football season, the margins for error are minimal in tournament football, the players don’t have the luxuries of another 30 plus games to get it right, so a bit of bad luck in the knock out stages and it’s over. I would expect the lads to be looking forward to the new season, they are reasonably experienced and the majority of them have experienced highs and lows throughout their football careers in one way or another, I suspect most of them will remember the experience and memories the Maccabiah leaves and they will put the disappointment of going out in the quarter-finals behind them but take important lessons from the defeat which will make them stronger. The new season throws up a certain amount of the unknown and we will all face many new exciting challenges, some of which will be fun and some of which will be taxing."
Have you made any new signings?
"Sam Reeves, Ben Joseph, Jamie Nagioff and Scott Smith have all been training hard and will more than likely be added to the first team squad providing they continue to progress. In truth, the reality is there are no exceptional talented Jewish players out there either not already playing at this level or higher. Steve and I aim to bring through a crop of young talented players who can gain unequivocal experience playing at this level. We will also focus on a number of loan signings throughout the season where possible."
You start with 3 matches in 7 days. How important is it to hit the ground running?
"Of course you want to start the season well and build momentum, last year that is exactly what we did but that was on the back of an exceptional pre-season. The reality this year is that we have to take every game as it comes because our team is going to change from one game to the next due to player unavailability etc. We just have to focus on being as organised as we possibly can and hope on the day of the game that we get a bit of luck and things go our way."
The club has some excellent young talent coming through the ranks. How big a season is the club's first in the Prem Div for these players?
"Without getting carried away, the young talent has potential but these players have to want to fulfil that potential. I meet and work with a lot of young players outside of Jewish football, I find the main difference is the hunger. Eighteen, nineteen year old non jewish players seem to have a far greater desire to be the best they can. The majority of Jewish players I come across of the same age have this attitude like they feel they are owed something. The Spartan Premier league will take no prisoners. Unfortunately, technical ability just isn’t enough. It is a league based mainly on good fitness and physical strength. For our young players that do have the right attitude and desire to push on and develop this will be a baptism of fire and a tremendous opportunity and experience. Players will not be able to hide in this league and those who do will get found out very quickly. It will be up to Steve and myself to decipher which of the young lads we believe will be ready and make sure they are looked after in the right way. Like with everything in football it is finding that balance."
What do you think will be the main differences between Division 1 and Premier Division football and how quickly do you expect your players to adjust?
"I have touched on it already, fitness and physical strength. This is semi-professional football. The lads will be playing against sides whose players will be earning anything from £100 to £400 a game. Dunstable Town won this league last season without losing a game. Their front two were on £400 each a game, that is what we are up against. It is always worth remembering Steve and I do not have the luxuries and Cart Blanche of other sides in our league. We can only select and play Jewish players that is why last years achievement of winning the league was so satisfying. To do it with an all Jewish side was phenomenal given our restrictions. It is going to take a lot of adjusting as players are going to have to change their expectations. We will be the under dogs in every game we play, fact. Every team in our league has strengthened in one way or another, we are the only team in the league that have weakened. I see this season as a great test in so many ways and I am certainly going to learn a lot more about myself."