In this most turbulent of season, with so much still to be decided, one thing seems clear to me: Dean Keates has more than earned the right to construct a side over the Summer with the increased cash which our new owners will make available.
His side has shown resilience and resourcefulness in the face of a multitude of challenges, and Keates has reshaped it effectively, turning it into a side capable of pushing from promotion despite a sluggish start.
If you want further evidence that he has earned the right to add to what he has achieved, consider this: the budget he was given at the start of this season was considerably smaller than the one Bryan Hughes was given a year earlier.
The gulf in quality between the two squads is clear, despite the financial discrepancy. Replacing Adam Barton with Jay Harris, Jazzi Barnum-Bobb with Reece Hall-Johnson, Michael Chambers with Fiacre Kelleher and Bobby Grant with Kwame Thomas would clearly be a step forwards, but to do so, alongside other upgrades, while spending less money is a terrific achievement.
He’s improved the squad judiciously as the campaign has worn on as well, despite the restrictions placed upon us. We are the only side not allowed to sign players whenever we like, an ironic situation to be in when we have cash burning a hole in our pockets for the first time in at least a generation.
He’s remodelled the side from four at the back to an effective three-man defence, repurposed players like Jordan Davies to get the best out of them, and recruited brilliantly to overcome an injury crisis up front, despite having both hands and at least one leg tied behind his back.
His nous in the transfer market will be crucial this Summer, and not just because we need to employ a manager who will spend sensibly rather than splash the cash on a wild splurge, like a Harry Redknapp tribute act.
The same transfer window restrictions will still apply to us next season, whatever division we are in. The manager won’t be able correct mistakes as he goes along by spending Rob and Ryan’s cash on new players: there’ll be one mid-season month to make alterations, and that’s it. Getting the basics of the squad right at the start of the campaign will be crucial.
Frankly, although the new owners will give us a much-improved budget, it goes against everything they’ve said to suggest a manager might throw good money after bad to correct poor recruitment.
Despite their wealth, and their willingness to write off cash thrown into the club, they won’t want to waste money. Plenty of heavily-backed sides in the National League have taken a while to get promoted, reshaping their team regularly as they try to do so.
It’s been happening this season: Chesterfield rebuilt their squad substantially in the Summer, brought in another 9 players when they appointed a new manager in November, and by the time they played us in April had added another 11!
Quite how constantly backing the manager’s transfer whims will affect them in the long term is a fair question, but I know this: Reynolds and McElhenney didn’t get rich by throwing good money after bad. Their business acumen is one of the key qualities they bring to the club, and they need a manager who will be compatible with a sensible approach to organic growth, not a profligate spendthrift.
That leads to another reason why retaining Keates makes sense. Go back to the start of last season, when Bryan Hughes was looking, with that afore-mentioned decent budget, to improve a squad which had finished 4th. We had the basis of a good side, namely a solid defence and decent midfield. A major rehaul was not required; just a careful sprinkling of quality up front. Instead, 7 new faces arrived, a new formation was trialled, and the solid foundations of the previous season were lost.
Only one of the 7 he drafted in remained by last Summer, and he has made two substitute appearances and no starts this season.
Keates constructed this squad and, even faced with the task of reshaping it, won’t throw the baby out with the bath water. He’ll look to upgrade, but has put together a side capable of going up. It doesn’t make sense for someone to come in, rip it all up and start again.
Keates has always shown an eye for a good player, and has very few misses in his transfer portfolio. Twice he’s been appointed with the club in crisis and an unthinkable collapse into the sixth tier a real possibility, and on both occasions, despite a lack of funds, he’s managed to improve the squad and steer us away from danger.
He’s had to deal with budget cuts, injury crises and personal criticism, and kept his professional standards high despite all that. He’s earned the right to have a stab at spending some serious money.