Morecambe are top of League Two.
You heard us, the perennial relegation favourites have won four of their opening five league games to establish themselves among the early pace-setters.
And yet, the Shrimps have also lost 5-0 at home to Cambridge – as well as 7-0 to Newcastle in the EFL Cup – and, oddly, sit on their perch with a -1 goal difference.
So what are the reasons behind their strong start – and can they keep it up?
EFL pundit Gabriel Sutton discusses...
1) Changed the mentality
Jim Bentley is a Morecambe legend.
The Evertonian worked wonders to keep the club in League One for eight years on the division’s lowest budget and he will always have his place in Shrimps folklore.
A big part of Bentley’s way of working was creating a Dunkirk spirit in which everyone was very friendly with one another, which was certainly successful up to a point.
The culture he created, though, had a jocular element that maybe came at the cost of an extra bit of laser focus.
What has become clear in Derek Adams’ first 11 months in charge is that he has little interest in making friends.
Stony, business-like and at times fiery, the Scot puts little external weight on the size of club at this level; he is treating this job with the same attitude with which he approached his work at Plymouth Argyle - a much bigger club at this level – with a fierce determination to succeed.
His ruthless methods have rubbed one or two legendary figures up the wrong way, but things had been going stale so Adams was well within his rights to shake things up.
Derek Adams' Morecambe have enjoyed a superb start to the season
Morecambe were outplayed for half an hour at Cheltenham on day one and, after falling behind, could have been forgiven for fearing a long afternoon – but they responded with outstanding defiance and won 2-1 through goals from Adam Phillips and Carlos Mendes Gomes.
Then, after a disastrous week in which the Lancashire outfit lost 5-0 and 7-0, they fell behind within two minutes of kick-off at Southend – but again came back, through Aaron Wildig and Phillips strikes, deservedly winning 2-1.
Contrast that with 2018-19’s opening day 6-0 loss at Crewe, which Bentley described as his worst day in football, it subsequently took Morecambe eight games to find form that season – it typically takes a long time to rebuild confidence after such a hammering.
This Morecambe side, though, have gone from two huge defeats to three straight wins, with no such recovery process required.
Of course, losing 5-0 and 7-0 is not something to aspire to – but perversely, the ability to respond to those results with even greater resolve highlights a fantastic mentality.
@ShrimpsOfficial are trending. Jesus Christ what is this world we live in. COME ON YOU LOVELY LOVELY REDS— Richard Allan (@richardfallan) October 10, 2020
3) Fitness first
Morecambe have scored one goal in the first halves of their league games so far this season and seven in the second halves – more than any other side.
Adams has clearly used the lockdown period as an opportunity to home in on fitness, with every player working on rigorous individual regimes.
The idea has been to contain their opponents in the first half of games, then commit strongly to counter-attacks in the second halves with lots of players breaking into the box.
Opposing teams tend to be tightly-drilled in the first half of games and hard to open up, so Morecambe are happy to keep their shape before the interval.
In second halves, though, mistakes can creep in and that’s where having stronger legs can be a massive advantage because, when the game opens up, it’s very important to have the physical wherewithal to get up and down the pitch.
In fairness to the players, they have shown the composure and quality of decision making to make the most of the counter-attacks – but Adams has found a great way of being competitive.
4) Good recruitment
Adams is fortunate to have been backed well by Graham Howse and Rod Taylor in his time to date, especially considering the current climate.
Equally, he appears to have a greater sway in the transfer market than perhaps his predecessor had and has been willing to cast his net further afield after a Merseyside-heavy recruitment policy under the previous regime.
Harry Davis has 240 EFL appearances and is therefore streetwise at this level, but at 29 the centre-back still has plenty of mobility and ball-playing ability left; the former Grimsby defender looks an astute buy.
Liam Gibson, who simply loves defending, has been an inspired addition at left-back from Newcastle, from whom Jake Turner is on loan after winning awards for his goalkeeping at Under-23s level.
Technical right-back Ryan Cooney and versatile midfielder Adam Phillips, meanwhile, did very well on loan from Burnley last season and had theoretically done enough for a bigger move – either would improve a bottom half League One squad – yet both chose to continue their work at the Globe Arena, a sign that Adams can attract.
I went to watch @ShrimpsOfficial in their play-off final at Wembley in 2007. They won and were promoted to the Football League. EVERY year since, they’ve been odds on favourites for relegation. 13 years later and they’re still defying the odds. Go on Morecambe! 👏🏻— Ryan (@RCorless33) October 10, 2020
5) Unexpected resurgences
It appeared as though Adams was seeking to purge the Shrimps squad of Merseyside cliques – Tom Brewitt, Adam Buxton, Andrew Tutte and most notably Kevin Ellison all left this summer - so the omens looked worrying for anchor man Alex Kenyon and hold-up front-man Cole Stockton.
Kenyon though enjoyed something of a renaissance in 2019-20 and displayed excellent physical attributes to break up play at the base of the midfield in a way Adams liked.
Stockton, meanwhile, has struggled to be as clinical as would be ideal – though he bagged his first goal of 2020-21 in the 3-2 win at Oldham last time out - but he has offered enough for the team collectively as a focal point to keep his place; those two players have started seven out of a possible 10 league games.
Prospects also looked bleak for another stalwart in Aaron Wildig, but the box-to-box man has been in fine form this term with three goals in six in all competitions, while John O’Sullivan is a clear threat.
The right winger might not have grabbed himself a goal yet, but he has the pace and confidence to run with the ball that can force opponents back, giving more space for Cooney to swing in a cross from deep – as we saw for Wildig’s opener in the 3-2 win at Oldham.
6) Lavelle leads
Morecambe’s modest size at this level is often a disadvantage, in terms of retaining key players, but sometimes it can work in their favour.
Sam Lavelle has been fantastic at centre-back for three seasons now, he has been entrusted with captaincy and, at 24, the maturing young leader still has huge growth potential.
Were Lavelle playing for a more fashionable club at this level, he would have been snapped up.
It is possible, though, that there is a certain element of snobbishness higher up the pyramid which puts clubs off from signing players from Morecambe, who are so often among the relegation candidates at this level.
Lavelle has benefited from that in some respects, because his experience at the Globe Arena as a central figure in this defence – having learnt off Steven Old last season – should equip him well for a good career higher up the pyramid.
If the former Bolton defender can inspire the coastal club to an unlikely promotion push this term, he will become harder to ignore.
Can they keep it up?
While the 2020-21 season remains in its infancy, it seems foolish to make too many assumptions about League Two.
After all, while Morecambe are top of the division with a negative goal difference, Oldham are bottom with the joint-top scorer in Conor McAleny – neither of those trends will stay the same.
Plus, the Shrimps started 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 campaigns in similar fashion and finished 11th, 21st and 18th respectively.
The difference, this year, though is depth in reserve: right-back Kelvin Mellor, centre-back Nat Knight-Percival, left-back Stephen Hendrie, utility man Yann Songo’o, deep-lying playmaker Toumani Diagouraga, delivery expert Ben Pringle plus forwards Liam McAlinden, Jordan Slew and AJ Leitch-Smith have all played at a higher level, yet started fewer than three league games so far.
Mellor, Hendrie, Knight-Percival and Slew may be yet to prove their worth, but Diagouraga was fantastic after joining in January last season, Songo’o has won promotion under Adams before and looks an excellent rotation option for Kenyon, while McAlinden has often made an impact from the bench – the victory at Cheltenham being the classic example.
With Leitch-Smith coming back from injury as well as Pringle – a League One promotion winner with Rotherham – Morecambe have more depth to their squad than we have seen in previous seasons and they look well-placed to manage the high volume of games coming up between now and New Year.
While it would be premature to say that Morecambe’s early results are a clear sign they can challenge for promotion, they represent a great start towards the 50 points they need to avoid a relegation battle.
Another 38 and perhaps Adams’ troops can dare to dream.