Simon Heslop: National League Signing of the Year

Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c)

What an odd series of transfers we’ve had over the last two years. I accept that in the Conference money is tight and committing to long term contracts is rare, so each Summer we’re likely to regenerate like Doctor Who. However, how we’ve added to the squad during the season has been different. Series of players have come and gone without spending with time on the pitch. I spent ages trying to remember Taylor McKenzie’s name, and never had to say it apart from when I read out the substitutes.

In the midst of these unmemorable characters, Simon Heslop stands out. Is he the best signing we’ve made since the start of last season?

When he arrived there were dark mutterings. Why would we take on a player that Torquay had let go? But that was to hugely over-simplify the situation. Heslop was a player with Football League experience who had gone south on a short term contract to help Paul Cox rescue fight what quickly became apparent was a losing cause.

We played Torquay in the second game of the season, and even as soon as then the size of his task had become apparent to Cox. After the post-match interviews he told me his objective was to ensure their survival and nothing more, and explained the difficulties of inheriting an inexperienced squad. He’d wanted to tear into them at half time, but couldn’t because he feared he’d do lasting damage to their confidence.

Heslop, brought in to offer experience, was battling impossible odds. Cox eventually had to accept that and move on so it made sense that Heslop would look for a club more in line with his ability.

He fitted Mills’ requirements perfectly. Since pre-season we’ve looked too open when we lost the ball and could be punished on the counter. Mills realised that and looked for a holding midfielder, trying Javan Vidal and Jamal Fyfield in that role in pre-season, but never really found a solution. Adriano Moke played as the central midfielder, but he was hardly asked to play as a destructive, deep-lying presence.

Heslop is exactly that. When he arrived I hoped that he’d be a carbon copy of Danny Williams, who had anchored Brian Flynn’s later teams with the dominant physicality of a player who had spent his formative years playing as a centre back.

Heslop isn’t quite the same physical specimen, but his style is similar. He breaks play up, covers ground well and is strong in the tackle and the air. I felt at first that his use of the ball was a little rudimentary, but no more. I’m not claiming he’s Andrea Pirlo, but used in a more advanced wide spot in the diamond a couple of times he’s shown he could maraud forwards to good effect.

Irrespective of how the end of the season pans out, Mills will surely understand that tying his two key mid-season signings, Heslop and Rhys Taylor, to long-term contracts will be a key part of building his side for next season.

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