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Forest Green preview: hope springs eternal

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Ninety days after the final game of the 2022/23 League One season, Forest Green are back in action at home to Salford City on Saturday afternoon.

Relegated in their debut season in the third tier after just six wins from 46 games, the Nailsworth side will be back in League Two, the division they had won on the final day of the 2021/22 season. 

A new season will see a new manager lead the side in his first professional top job, with Forest Green appointing ex-Southampton B coach David Horseman on 17 July. Former boss Duncan Ferguson was in charge for just 18 games, with the final eight league matches yielding just one point before he was sacked six days after the players returned from pre-season training.

There was a much-dissected interim spell for academy manager Hannah Dingley, becoming the first woman to lead a men’s senior English professional football team as she led through the pre-season trip to Ireland and friendlies against Coventry City and Everton Under 21s, but 39-year-old Horseman has been given 19 days to sort his side out for the opening match of the 2023/24 season.

It will be a much-changed side on the weekend to the team that lost 2-0 at Cambridge United on the final day of last season, with 14 players leaving in the summer including Luke McGee, Ross Doohan, Dylan McGeouch and Corey O’Keefe. 

The squad has been bolstered with some experienced heads as 35-year-old goalkeeper Luke Daniels has joined form Middlesbrough and striker Matty Taylor, who is two years Daniels’ junior, making the switch from Oxford City.  Charlton centre-back Ryan Inniss has also made the move to the New Lawn along with another keeper in Barnsley’s Jamie Searle. 

Matty Stevens will hoping to replicate his form from the 2021/22 season, where he bagged 27 goals, the most by an FGR player in a single EFL season, helping Forest Green to go up as champions under Rob Edwards, who now manages Luton Town in the Premier League. The 25-year-old had an underwhelming spell on loan at Walsall last term, so regaining his form will be key to Rovers’ chances back in League Two.

There is also cause for optimism from the breadth of young talent at Horseman’s disposal, with 21-year-old Charlie McCann likely to see more first team exposure after making just three appearances under Ferguson since signing from Rangers in the January window. Fellow young midfielders Teddy Jenks and Callum Jones have also made permanent moves from Brighton and Hull City, respectively. 

At 5 foot 8, McCann relies on his technical prowess in the centre of midfield and Jenks is a similar player, with Horseman’s use of the two sure to be a key indicator of the brand of football the club hopes to play.

Forest Green will have their work cut out if they’re to stand a chance of jumping straight back up to League One as a formidable division awaits them. Hollywood high-flyers Wrexham and Notts County were both promoted from the National League and are expected to be strong once again, and there will be teams such as Stockport County, Bradford City and Grimsby Town bringing upwards of 6,000 supporters to Gloucestershire.

This may be the hardest League Two to predict in recent memory and Rovers will have their work cut out to make an instant impact on the league, but in Horseman and his new team there will be cause for optimism when Salford come to town on Saturday.

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