IS it evolution or devolution? How do the ongoing changes in the Wanderers’ squad affect their chances of getting back into the Premier League?
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Owen Coyle took the Whites to his old stomping ground at Turf Moor, with hopes sky-high that the club’s Championship stay would be a brief one.
The starting team humbled that afternoon included five thirty-somethings in Kevin Davies, Martin Petrov, Keith Andrews, Zat Knight and Sam Ricketts and only one player – Marvin Sordell – under the age of 24.
Times have changed, even if the division has not.
Such has been the clearout instigated by Dougie Freedman that only four players involved from the opening whistle against Burnley in 2012 stand a chance of starting against Watford two years later.
During that time the average age of the team has tumbled from well beyond 27 to, taking the last outing of last season against Birmingham City as an example, under 26.
Taking aside the fact that development squad coach Andy Hughes has been registered as a player, Kevin McNaughton is now the squad’s elder statesman, with the Scotsman due to turn 32 at the end of next month.
Only four players in the whole squad are currently aged over 30, with Darren Pratley due to join the club in April next year.
Freedman’s rationale for bringing down the average age lies in the type of football he wants his side to play – a more dynamic, counter-attacking brand that places a higher physical workload on the players.
But the Whites boss still has work to do, and results to achieve, before getting supporters to buy wholesale into the philosophy he has steadily introduced over the last 20 months.
It has been a slow process and Freedman has been forced to take the stick squarely on the chin at times, most notably last season. But while he is insistent that the club will come out of the other side better for the changes he has made, many feel results in this season will be the real acid test.
Financially, shedding some of the biggest earners has helped the club get back on an even keel and cope with relegation at the worst possible time. And in that sense Freedman has faced tougher constraints than any manager since Colin Todd and in the early years of Sam Allardyce.
Since the Scot walked through the doors he has tied down established talents such as Mark Davies, Tim Ream and David Wheater, and brought in others, along the lines of Jay Spearing, Medo or Rob Hall on longer deals.
There is no denying the squad has come to a crossroads this season – with several first teamers out of contract in the next 12 months.
Should Wanderers fail in their efforts to get out of the division – will they be in a financial position to keep hold of Bogdan, Chung-Yong Lee, Jermaine Beckford, Neil Danns and Co? Or will that simply pave way for a younger group to come through and the rebuilding process to move on?
Watford v Wanderers
August 9, 2014
Likely line-up: Bogdan; McNaughton, Mills, Ream, Moxey; Spearing, Medo; Hall, Mark Davies, Danns; Beckford.
Average age: 26.
Burnley v Wanderers
August 3, 2013
Bogdan; Baptiste, Knight, Wheater, Tierney; Medo, Andrews; Eagles, Pratley, Chung-Yong; Beckford.
Average age: 27.6
Players still with club (excludes out on loan): 7/11.
Burnley v Wanderers
August 18, 2012
Bogdan; Mears, Knight, Ream, Ricketts; Chung-Yong, Mark Davies, Andrews, Petrov; Kevin Davies, Sordell.
Average age: 27.9
Players still with club (excludes out on loan): 4/11.