One of the shocks of the season so far this campaign in League One has been the re-emergence of former Newcastle United, Swindon Town and Blackpool forward Nile Ranger. Signed on a short term deal during the summer after over a year out of the game having gone missing and been sacked by Blackpool, the striker was a revelation for Phil Brown’s team with three goals and an assist in 15 games.
Now though, his career looks set to go off the rails once again. First pleading guilty to fraud charges, the club stood by him. Then only days later, he was on the receiving end of an FA suspension in mysterious circumstances. With no indication of if he will ever make a return, a negative outcome could lead to his sacking and a positive one will still see him suspended from all football activities for at least the next fortnight.
That gives Phil Brown a major dilemma. With ex-West Brom duo Marc-Antoine Fortune and Simon Cox up-front, the Shrimpers haven’t been in short supply of goals lately, with Cox in particular in superb form with nine goals and seven assists. However, both Cox and Fortune, at 29-years-old and 35-years-old, have been caught flagging late on in games in recent weeks. With youngster Jason Williams shipped out on loan, that leaves only Jermain McGlashan and Zavon Hines as makeshift forwards with David Mooney sidelined by injury and young prospect Jack Bridge yet to be given a major role.
Now, the Essex Echo claim that the former Hull boss has drawn up a three name shortlist to fill the void. One of those is free agent Frank Nouble, who scored once in 12 games for Gillingham earlier this season after scoring six in 31 for Coventry last season. He seems to be the back-up option of the three, with a far from prolific scoring record compensated for by the fact that he is available for no transfer fee and would undoubtedly require a lower wage than the other two candidates. If Brown is merely looking for a stop gap until the end of the season, then the strong and pacey forward could do the job for the Blues, but with the club knocking on the door of the play-offs that may disappoint fans.
The other two candidates are Fulham duo Matt Smith and Cauley Woodrow, with both more likely to be available on loan moves. Smith has experience of such a deal, having spent time on loan at Bristol City as they romped to the League One title with ease in 2015. Scoring 13 times and getting two assists in 20 games on that occasion, the last time that he played in the third tier was a remarkable record. Smith too would be the perfect fit for the Blues. In Ranger, Brown had found the kind of target man that had been missing since Barry Corr left the club after promotion from League Two, and Smith’s strength and aerial prowess would represent a like for like replacement. The 27-year-old has started just one game since September so a deal could be viable, and he must be first choice for the club given his track record and quality at this level.
Woodrow is no stranger to the club, having spent time on loan at Roots Hall in 2013 before being called back by the London club as he struggled to warrant game time. The England under 21 international managed just four goals in 21 games that time around, starting only half of those matches, but went on to break into the first team at Craven Cottage on his return as the club were relegated from the Premier League. Since then, he has fallen out of favour and has not even made the bench for Fulham since September, instead being banished to the reserves. A move for Woodrow seems possible given the circumstances, but given his struggles to thrive in Brown’s system previously, he may be reluctant to make the move. Woodrow has certainly come on since then, and Southend’s style has adapted to become less direct, but it is hard to see how he would be a direct replacement for Ranger nor an alternative to Smith in terms of the kind of target that Brown is after.
What is clear is that the Blues must act quickly if they are to continue their play-off push. In the middle of a tough run of fixtures, facing five of the top six in just three weeks in January, Phil Brown must move quickly in the transfer market. Fortune and Cox are doing a good job of holding the fort but the lack of depth would prove costly should either pick up an injury and is leaving the team with few options late on in games from the bench. With money expected to be coming in soon with a tribunal set to decide the fee that Brentford must pay for goalkeeper Dan Bentley, it could be the time for chairman Ron Martin to fund a big deal to give his club a shot at promotion through the play-offs after a magnificent turn-around from relegation favourites to play-off hopefuls which draws similarities to that of Barnsley last season, with the Tykes winning promotion at Wembley. It would be ambitious to claim that signing a player like Matt Smith would be enough to repeat that achievement at Roots Hall, but it would certainly go some way to make it a possibility.
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