With Leeds, after only small improvements to the squad before the season began, I think it was the only realistic expectation to hope for a consolidation season. Just a season to stop the yo-yo'ing between leagues and to give our now confirmed owner the means to shore up the club's foundations.
I think with matters on the pitch, Simon Grayson did a great job in finishing 7th. The side, at one stage, even looked like they might even be able to beat the odds and give themselves a shot at promotion. Unfortunately the season fizzled out towards the end as the lack of strength in depth of the side began to show. There were some great games and plenty of entertainment and Leeds ended the season as one of the highest scoring teams in the league.
I actually do like that Leeds aren't spending a fortune on players any more - given the past financial disasters - and last season did exceed my expectations and for that I was very happy. The problem is, to progress on the pitch, Simon Grayson has to be given some help to improve the side - within the clubs' realistic financial safety limits of course - but from what I've heard in the general media, it seems more of a question of who do we get to replace the players leaving, if or when they do leave? I just think it's very unlikely that the players that Leeds need to add to the squad to improve it (let alone in order to make a push for promotion) will all be free agents or available for loan this summer, buying a player or two might be the only option but can we buy in better players without spending crazy money? For me, the possibility of a salary cap in the football league has been the best football related news of the summer so far and surely it can't come in soon enough, it should have been in place 10 years ago.
On the subject of money, ticket prices at Leeds have yet again increased for the season to come, so you'd hope there would be at least some re-investment on the pitch. Even a little investment could undoubtedly go a long way. Especially if the players brought in have plenty of potential to develop. I just hope that this summer, should a prospect arise within our reasonable means, Simon Grayson doesn't have to pass up that opportunity. As the squad hasn't yet fallen into place for Leeds it's hard to know what to expect next season to bring, but with plenty of time between then and now it'll no doubt fall into place before long.
With Crusaders in the Irish League, during the last half of the season, the side really started to live up to the potential that we saw glimpses of in pre season. Although there was no silverware, a 2nd place finish, 1 cup final and 2 cup semi finals was quite the achievement. After all, the only thing that prevented the Crues winning the biggest two competitions was a still pro (full time) Linfield side with a much higher wage bill.
A few players came to prominence this season, one player was Aidan Watson who made a bold statement in filling the void left by Ryan McCanns unfortunate leg break. A battling midfielder, his leap and tenacity became a key ingredient to the side. For the season to come, with both midfielders fit and healthy, it should be a great problem for manager Stephen Baxter to have.
The second was Stuart Dallas. Dallas joined the Crues pre season from Coagh United and he really has been a sensation. From a largely unknown player, by the end of pre season anyone who had seen him had him in their fantasy football side and by the end of the season he was earning his first international cap for the national side and receiving both the Northern Ireland Football Writers' Association Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards.
What's special about Dallas? Well he's strong on the ball, has balance and composure, can pass, but most of all, he can run at defences with ball at feet and pull open defensive, plus he's not half bad at tracking back or crossing either. As I said during the season, it can't be long before he's signed up by a side across the Irish Sea. If he's not, it'll be a travesty as it's no secret that he's a great talent.
If he does start the 2011/12 season with the Crues however, quite pleasingly he'll not be our only prized attacking asset. Chris Morrow and Jordan Owens also continued to develop their game last season and at the very end of the season, Declan Caddel also started to add consistency to his A-game too.
In defence, things were beginning to look up after a rocky start. Personally I think this was because the balance of the side improved and we were not perpetually being caught on the counter attack all the time after pushing forward. Hopefully the balance to the side that was found during that long unbeaten run which got us 2nd place will continue into the new season and with the new addition of Paul Leeman there will be added depth of experience in the squad for those defensive positions.
Further to this strong core of Stephen Baxter's side, there has already been some strengthening. Martin Donnelly wished to see out his contract and has moved on, and some players were let go, but replacing them have been a few good players in key positions. Ciaran Gargan is welcomed back at Seaview after a couple of years away but the two players who will undoubtedly be most instrumental to how things pan out next season will be the two players on their way to Seaview from Dungannon Swifts. These two players are goalkeeper Sean O'Neil and striker Timmy Adamson.
As we've been missing a combination of both confident and experienced pair of hands in goal and Adamson has been on our managers wish list for years, hopefully they'll slot into the side like 2 final pieces of a jigsaw.
There have also been 2 further additions at Seaview, but not on the pitch... just at the ends of it. The Shore Road End and Railway End terracing are no more and construction is well under way. This is what Seaview was looking like at the end of last season but it's being transformed right now as I type this.
Two new stands are being constructed along with brand new turnstiles and toilet facilities that will help to bring Seaview up to modern standards. For all football supporters who come to take in a game at the revamped ground, the new stands should also help keep the noise in and improve the atmosphere besides as keeping us all dry.
My expectations at Crusaders are still well grounded but I'd have to be blind to not notice that the team Stephen Baxter has built has the ability to, well, be awesome. Consistency is the issue and hopefully that can be remedied enough next season to have us bouncing in the new stands.
With my two clubs, there has been a similar trend over the last couple of years. The season before last, both made great strides and achieved some success. The season just gone was a year of re-finding their feet performing at a higher standard. This season will be a big test and I really can't wait to see how both get on. Currently I'd be more confident in the Crues doing the better of the two in their respective leagues, but who knows, Leeds could yet come in and sign Stuart Dallas!
By the way, this might be a long shot, but if anyone would like to join us in the new stands at Seaview next season. Season tickets are a phenomenal bargain in the Irish League and with the Crues, like a few other Irish League clubs, the club is voluntary run and owned by us, the supporters - just a cross community club brining sporting excellence and entertainment to it's support and the local area.
Crusaders FC ticket prices are as follows and more details can be found via the clubs twitter feed, Facebook page or the official Crusaders FC website:
Adult ticket £130 / OAP ticket £40 / Under 18's ticket £35
Or Family Ticket - Adult pays £130, with a £15 deduction for each subsequent family member's ticket purchased (ie spouse £115, U18 £20). This applies to families within the same household.