Dean Brennan’s Barnet shocked many fans and critics last year as they stormed to fifth place in the Vanarama National League and achieved a playoff berth, writes Aryan Jolly.
They now have a settled and reliable core group of players, a good blend of youthful exuberance and experienced heads, which has led to a great club atmosphere being created and a manager who is tactically adept and flexible. This means that I think the Bees have all the tools it takes to go one better than last year and claim their fourth Conference title, but winning such a competitive league won’t come without its challenges.
A Strong Retained List
The first thing that Barnet were able to do was retain a strong core of players over the summer and, for me, that sense of continuity is vital for any team trying to win the National League. Long gone are the days of having to release more than 10 first-team players for financial or performance-based reasons; Dean Brennan was able to retain the services of 17 players this summer. Amongst them, a core of 7 or 8 players stands out. Goalkeeper (and last season’s Supporters Player of the Season) Laurie Walker, centre-backs Danny Collinge and Jerome Okimo, central midfielders Dale Gorman and Harry Pritchard (who won Managers and Player’s Player of the Season) as well as striker Nicke Kabamba and wide man Idris Kanu all made over 40 starts for the Bees last season and I would expect most of them to do so again next season. This continuity will be vital during the early part of the season as other teams who have many more new faces will still be looking to gel.
In addition to the players who I have already highlighted, the Bees were also able to retain full-back duo Ben Wynter and Sam Beard. Wynter is team vice-captain and he adds a lot of leadership on and off the pitch whilst Beard is the club’s longest-serving player and was an ever-present during the Bees’ run of 1 loss in 18 league and FA Trophy games last season. Beard and Wynter have over 200 National League appearances between them and they make up a crucial part of the balance between youth and experience which will be pivotal to Barnet this season.
The Mentality and Togetherness Within the Squad
Pardon the pun, but the Bees have been stung before by putting together squads of experienced Football League players who felt they were doing the club a favour by dropping down into non-league with them. This often meant that players weren’t fully committed to playing for the club, perhaps not wanting to play with a small niggle or just not fully fighting for the badge when they were on the pitch. This is not the case anymore and it is best exemplified by Jerome Okimo who started 54 games despite being signed as a player/coach who was meant to provide backup in defence. Furthermore, Brennan has been able to recruit young and hungry players like Finley Potter, who has returned on loan after an impressive 16-game stint last season, or Callum Stead who has looked like a real workhorse throughout preseason.
This has created something key to the way Dean Brennan works, togetherness. Instead of players playing as individuals and looking out for themselves, the team are a unit that wins and loses together and is prepared to fight and scrap until the last second for a goal. I believe that this mentality will be crucial in a National League season as you don’t get many easy games and there are long periods where fixtures just keep coming (Barnet fans know that already as their team played Saturday-Tuesday almost every week from late January to the end of last season). This mentality will be particularly important on big away days against intimidating opposition fans at places like Chesterfield, Oldham and York who all averaged over 4500 home fans last season and have top-class squads going into this season. But Dean Brennan has proved that he is capable of adapting his teams to situations like that.
I think pretty much every Barnet fan will agree that Dean Brennan is the key to their teams’ success in the upcoming season and he has proved to me that he has what it takes to guide Barnet to the title. Brennan is a shrewd recruiter and has already managed to assemble a squad with two quality players in most positions but I want to focus more on his tactical nous which he has fine-tuned over the last 2 seasons. He set his side up in a very flexible way last season as the team constantly transitioned from a back 4 in possession to a back 5 out of it, taking advantage of Idris Kanu’s immense work rate whilst using him as a winger and wingback simultaneously. Picking a team that could transition between a back 4 and 5 so easily meant that Brennan was able to adapt to what the opposition was doing quickly and nullify their threats before they led to a chance or a goal. With the likes of Reece Hall-Johnson and Sam Barratt joining this summer, that adaptability is only going to increase and it should allow Brennan to build a more defensively solid base whilst still reaping the rewards of his naturally attacking style of football.
Even though the 24-year-old has now moved to Bromley, I would also like to mention Brennan’s use of Sam Woods last season. Brennan used Woods sparingly as he was fairly limited as a general defensive midfielder in his Irish manager’s system, but he was used to excellent effect when man-marking players out of big games. Against Chesterfield, he was used high up the pitch to nullify Chesterfield’s deep-lying playmaker and he did so well that Mike Jones had to be replaced with Ollie Banks at half-time; he also did an excellent job man-marking Ruben Rodrigues at The Hive in the 0-0 draw against Notts County. This shows me two important things: firstly, Brennan can identify a player’s strengths and weaknesses and adapt his system to suit them and, secondly, Deano can identify the opposition’s key threats and neutralise them. If he could adapt his system to get the best out of high-quality players like Courtney Senior, then Barnet should be right at the sharp end of the table in April.
Overall, although the National League is no easy ride, as can be seen by losing hard-working midfielder Ryan De Havilland to Peterborough and assistant manager John Dreyer to Burton already this season, Barnet are more than equipped to start a title challenge. They have a settled core of top-class players and they have been able to bring in marquee signings such as Zak Brunt from Sheffield United for an undisclosed fee. The mentality of players is something which is closely examined in the recruitment process and that means that the togetherness and camaraderie amongst the playing staff is as good as it has ever been which is vital going into what will undoubtedly be a mentally taxing season. Finally, Dean Brennan is only improving as a manager as he gets more games in the fifth division under his belt and this year he looks to have got all his ducks in a row in terms of both squad building and personal performance. Hence, the men in black and amber will be able to mount a title challenge this season.